Magazine article The Spectator

Learning How to Rule the Waves

Magazine article The Spectator

Learning How to Rule the Waves

Article excerpt

Learning how to rule the waves


HarperCollins,L 25, pp. 691

For those who love the epic of British sea power, this is a literary golden age. There are the novels of Patrick O'Brian. There is Andrew Gordon and his Rules of the Game on Jutland and its historical hinterland. There is a steady stream of learned monographs from the Navy Records Society and elsewhere. And there is N. A. M. Rodger. His Wooden World on the 18th-century Royal Navy is already a classic. Thus when Stuart Profitt, a heroic publisher in this field as in many others, launched him on a multi-volume, comprehensive history of the British navy, there was great expectation. We now have the first volume, Safeguard of the Sea, which takes us from 660 to 1649; and those expectations have not been disappointed.

Rodger is a writer who does not lose the shape of the wood just because he knows each tree individually and has indeed planted a good many of them himself. The detail is formidable and the scholarship real.

There are no bricks here without straw. But almost to one's surprise, one finds a large and satisfying building emerging, with strong and original architectural shape, as brick goes on brick.

As one digests the details of the AngloSaxon scipfyrd in Edward the Confessor's day, one sees emerging a challenging thesis, not just on the disaster that the Normans inflicted on English sea power but on the consequences of that disaster right down to the present day. Before the Normans, Rodger shows us, Anglo-Saxon understanding of sea power, and the capacity of their social structure to sustain it, meant that an English hegemony was being established over the whole of the British Isles by means of alliances in each kingdom and in the Principality, a hegemony he compares to that established by the Royal Navy in the Pacific in the 19th century.

If that had continued, not only would England have been a great power far earlier, but the British Isles might have become a federated unity in a way which the Normans could never achieve, concerned as they were primarily with futile attempts to retain their French claims. They saw Scotland and Ireland and Wales mostly in terms of punitive raids. And the puny early Norman fleet, designed for cross-channel excursions only, was wholly inadequate for that, let alone for maintaining order in the Irish Sea so that it could become the highway to the unity of our islands that it might have been. …

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