PREVIOUSLY to our entering upon the main subject of these pages, an inquiry into the origin and early progress of the British navy, particularly as respects the constructing, arming, and classing of the ships, cannot fail to be useful, and will not, it is hoped, prove uninteresting. The Great-Harry, built in the third year of the rein of Henry VII. (1488), was, properly speaking, the first ship of the royal navy. The Great-Harry had three masts, and, as late as the year 1545, was the only ship of that description in the British fleet. She is represented to have been accidentally burnt at Woolwich in 1553. If so, she had run 65 years; which, according to the mean of modern terms of duration, was a very long period.
It is probable that the Great-Harry was the first ship belonging to the nation; but there is reason to believe that Richard III owned a few of the ships which he employed. The remainder, as it appears, were either hired of the merchants, or supplied, under a law of the state, by the Cinque Ports. Whatever may be the doubts on these points, historians agree, that to Henry VIII is due the honour of having, by his own prerogative, and at his sole expense, settled the constitution of the present royal navy. He instituted an admiralty and a navy-office, appointed commissioners, and fixed regular salaries, as well for them as for his admirals, officers, and sailors ; and the sea-service, thenceforward, became a distinct profession.*
Cannons, or great guns, were used as early as the thirteenth century, in a naval engagement between the King of Tunis and the Moorish King of Seville. † They were also used by the English on land at the battle of Cressy, fought in 1346 ; and by the Venetians at sea, in or about the year 1380. ‡ According to some printed representations still extant, the English used them on board their ships in the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII. The guns were not then, as now, pointed through embrasures, or portholes, but mounted en barbette, or so as to fire over the top
* Archæologia, vol. vi., p. 202, and vol. xi., p. 158.
† James's Military Dictionary, tit. Cannon.
‡ Archæologia, vol. vi., p. 205.^ back to top ^