The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649

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W. W. Norton & Company, 1998 - History - 691 pages
Throughout the chronicle of Britain's history, one factor above all others has determined the fate of kings, the security of trade, and the integrity of the realm. Without its navy, Britain would have been a weakling among the nations of Europe, could never have built or maintained the empire, and in all likelihood would have been overrun by the armies of Napoleon and Hitler. Now, for the first time in nearly a century, a prominent naval historian has undertaken a comprehensive account of the history and traditions of this most essential institution. N. A. M. Rodger has produced a superb work, combining scholarship with narrative, that demonstrates how the political and social history of Britain has been inextricably intertwined with the strength-or weakness-of her seapower. From the early military campaigns against the Vikings to the defeat of the great Spanish Armada in the reign of Elizabeth I, this volume touches on some of the most colorful characters in British history. It also provides fascinating details on naval construction, logistics, health, diet, and weaponry. "A splendid book. It combines impressively detailed research with breadth of perception....[Rodger] has prepared an admirable historical record that will be read and reread in the years ahead." Times [London]"

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THE SAFEGUARD OF THE SEA: A Naval History of Britain: 660-1649

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A comprehensive thousand-year chronicle of naval history around the British Isles and of the vital importance of sea power in safeguarding a realm that provided an inviting target for marauders ... Read full review

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The focus of this book is just slightly narrower than the title would suggest. It does indeed cover a thousand years of history, but well over half the page count is devoted to the Tudor era and later, largely for the perfectly sensible reason that that's when we have the best written records. Similarly, while the title of this book says that this is a history of the British Isles as a whole, and while it does have something to say about the Scottish navy and about the role of sea power in Ireland and Wales, it is mostly focused on England. Not at the beginning of the book, it's true (England and Scotland didn't exist in the 7th century; the names on the earliest maps in this book are kingdoms like Dalriada, Strathclyde, Mercia, Cornwall, and Bernicia), but once there was such a thing as a unified kingdom of England, say by the 11th century, that's what's at the center of the book. Scotland, Wales, and Ireland certainly play a large role in this book, but they're usually discussed in comparison to England or in the context of English foreign policy. One of the themes of this book is the importance of institutional structures in support of naval warfare: finance, administration, construction, logistics, victualing (the population of a fleet could easily be larger than a kingdom's largest town), continuity of expertise. Warships are and were expensive high technology, and naval power strained the capabilities of medieval and early modern states. That fact goes a long way toward explaining the events in the climax of this book, 1588. Philip II's Spain was a far richer and more important country than Elizabeth I's England, but by almost all measures Philip had a weaker fleet. The invasion would probably have gone badly even with the best of plans, and in fact the Spanish plan, designed by Philip himself (partly because the Spanish empire had no administrative structures, other than the “bureaucrat king” himself, for large-scale coordination of activity), was astonishingly bad. In this part of the book, among others, it's hard not to see echoes of the present: Philip, the foolishly stubborn king who insisted on a foreign adventure that the military experts told him was likely to be disastrous, who insisted on plans that made it even worse than it had to be, and who “did not take kindly to unwelcome advice or disagreeable facts” even as the disaster was unfolding. There's an amazing quote from a Spanish officer: "It is well known that we fight in God's cause. So, when we meet the English, God will surely arrange matters so that we can grapple and board them, either by sending some strange freak of weather or, more likely, just by depriving the English of their wits. If we can come to close quarters, Spanish valour and Spanish steel (and the great masses of soldiers we shall have on board) will make our victory certain. But unless God helps us by a miracle the English, who have faster and handier ships than ours, and many more long-range guns, and who know their advantage just as well as we do, will never close with us at all, but stand aloof and knock us to pieces with their culverins, without our being able to do them any serious hurt. So we are sailing against England in the confident hope of a miracle." It's impossible to know the exact mixture of sincerity and irony in that quote, but there must be some of each. 


The Three Seas
The First English Empires
The Partition of Britain
The Fall of the House of Anjou
Ships of
The Northern Wars
Edward III at
Decline and Fall
The Undertakings of a Maiden Queen
No More Drakes
The Inward Cause of All Disorders
A Diamond in his Crown
One and
The Fall of Three Kingdoms

The Chief Support of the Kingdom
Captains and Admirals
Operations 14101455 Administration 14201455
Departed Dreams
The Spanish
The Advantage of Time and Place
The Method of Jason
Social History 12041455
Sailors for my Money
Medieval Fleets
Rates of Pay
Admirals and Officials

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About the author (1998)

N. A. M. Rodger is professor of naval history at Exeter University and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author of The Wooden World and the highly acclaimed volumes of his naval history of Britain, The Safeguard of the Sea and The Command of the Ocean. He lives in England.

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