Though numerous books have been written about the battles, ships and heroes of the Royal Navy, surprisingly few have been written about the "naval history" of Britain - that is, the role that sea power has played in shaping its history. To rectify this, N.A.M. Rodger has written this book, the first of what is projected to be a three-volume history of Britain's sea power from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day.
Britain's beginnings as a naval power were hardly auspicious. For centuries, most English kings eschewed maintaining a standing naval force, preferring to rely instead on conscripting merchant ships in time of need. That this was possible was due in part to the nature of naval warfare during the Middle Ages, which was largely an extension of land warfare; battles consisted of the crews of opposing ships engaging in hand-to-hand combat, almost always in the shallows or just off the coast. Yet Rodger notes that naval power was invaluable in granting mobility to an attacking force, a fact that was lost on most medieval English kings. Of their ranks, Rodger sees only Richard I and Henry V as understanding the value of sea power, and he credits both the French and the Castilians for superior strategic thinking in naval warfare during this period.
Though Rodger notes that both naval technology and combat tactics began to change in the 15th century, it was the 16th century that saw the emergence of England as a sea power. This he credits to the creation of an administrative structure to support the navy, a development lacking during the medieval period. This provided support for a standing force that could quickly and effectively be mobilized to deal with naval threats, as it was in 1588 to face the Spanish Armada. Rodger devotes an entire chapter to the naval showdown of 1588, penetrating through the myths to provide a thorough analysis of the battle that reversed the expansion of Spanish power. Yet the Armada was just the first battle in a fifteen-year war that created both a long-range merchant fleet and a group of people who realized the fortunes that could be made at sea - essential prerequisites to England's emergence as a true maritime power.
England's development into the dominant naval power she would become was hardly a linear one, though; as the years after peace was signed with Spain saw her naval position deteriorate. Though corruption played a role in this, Rodger sees the medieval structure of government assuming the burdens of a modern state as the main problem. Nowhere was this better represented in the naval challenges facing Charles I, who faced increasing demands for a different kind of force, one capable of defending England's new merchant fleet. The civil war resolved the challenges created by this demand, as the conflict between the king and Parliament led to the creation of the means of financing a modern naval force. Rodger ends with England in possession of a fractured, demoralized navy, yet one poised to make the great strides in the decades to come that would establish Britain as a world power.
Rodger relates all of this in a narrative that is extremely engaging, one that is backed by impressive scholarship. Yet this book is not without its flaws. Rodger assumes a degree of knowledge about ships and naval terminology that may be lacking in his reader, a problem that could have been addressed with a better glossary. More glaring is his lack of perspective. In endeavoring to construct a naval history of Britain, Rodger tends to view every major development through this lens. As a result, occasionally he overrates the role sea power plays in British history, as when he argues that the failure to provide an adequate maritime defense was a significant factor in the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 - something that might have come as a surprise to its participants, who would have argued that it had more to do with the poll tax and the restrictions of serfdom than the inadequacies of naval policy.
These problems should not obscure the overall excellence of Rodger's work. This is an invaluable study of Britain's emergence as a naval power, one that is essential reading for any student of early Britain or fans of naval history. One can only hope that the other volumes in the trilogy can measure up to the high standards he set with this book.