The Cambridge Modern History: Planned by the Late Lord Acton - Vol. 4

By A. W. Ward; G. W. Prothero et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVI.
THE NAVY OF THE COMMONWEALTH AND THE
FIRST DUTCH WAR.

To students of the seventeenth century it must always appear remarkable that the period of the Commonwealth should have witnessed, in a State already exhausted by civil war, a striking increase in naval power and a vast extension of the range of naval operations. The fundamental cause is to be found in that change in the political conditions of the time which substituted France and the United Provinces for the declining Power of Spain as England's real foes. This change carries us back to the beginning of the Stewart period, but the historian of the Commonwealth navy need not look so far behind him. On the side of ship-building, his investigations should begin with ship-money, for it was in the ship-money fleets that the foundations of success in the First Dutch War were laid. But for naval administration he need only go back to 1642, when the winnowing fan of revolution purged the floor; and the history of naval action does not seriously begin for him until 1648, with the partial revolt of the Parliamentary fleet.

Although the ship-money fleets achieved little in action, they mark an epoch of great importance in the development of the English navy. In the earlier expeditions of the century there had been a helpless dependence upon the mercantile marine; but the second and third ship-money fleets discarded merchantmen, and thus an important step was taken towards the establishment of a real professional navy. It is true that in the stress of the First Dutch War there was a reversion to armed merchantmen; but the Government now aimed at the permanent maintenance of a standing naval force. Charles I's revival of naval activity was fated to assist in working his political ruin; and this fact has invested ship-money with a sinister significance in the minds of constitutional historians, and has obscured its real importance in naval development. The ship-money fleets were, however, scarcely more than an experiment; the great development of the fighting strength of England at sea belongs to the period between 1649 and 1660. During the eleven years of the Commonwealth no less than 207 new ships were added to the royal navy--a vast increase upon the modest accessions of earlier times.

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