In the 15th century, the English Royal Navy did not exist as a standing force. When needed, the Royal Navy was temporarily assembled using rented merchant ships. Henry VIII expanded England’s fleet from a handful of small converted merchant ships to a force of 30 purpose-built warships. He established government dockyards, the Admiralty, and the Navy Board. Starting in 1546, the Navy Board was a permanent part of the government.
Warships owned by the government had no other purpose and suddenly gave the government a new kind of asset to manage.
The English Parliament passed the first laws to conserve timber for naval use during the reign of Edward VI (1547-52). (Albion p. 122) Managing the national inventory of quality timber for naval construction and repair would be a major effort for the next 300 years. Part of this effort would lead the Royal Navy to develop maintenance and asset management programs at a national scale. The Royal Navy’s failure to fully address one well-known failure mechanism would threaten Admiral Horatio Nelson’s ability to even muster a fleet to fight at Trafalgar. Scientific research into failure mechanisms and their prevention would profoundly influence the development of electrochemistry, transform the British Empire’s prospects, and prepare the Royal Navy for the next technological leap: steam engines.
In 1588, England defeated the Spanish Armada. The mobilized English fleet was at the peak of readiness for action. This allowed England to conduct maritime expeditionary warfare against Spain. Within a few years, the ships fell into a state of decay. The head of the navy, the Lord High Admiral Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham, was concerned that external sales of Crown timber reserves were reducing the availability of repair materials. He wrote to Queen Elizabeth in 1592 that he was “grieved to think of the state [the Queen’s] woods were now in, and what want there is for building and repairing her ships which are the jewels of her kingdom.” (Albion p. 124, Calendar of State Papers 1591-1594 p. 289.)
In spite of his concern, Nottingham’s own mismanagement drove the Navy into further disrepair. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, there was no longer a direct threat of invasion. Over the next several years, there were small skirmishes with Spain that constituted an undeclared war. Queen Elizabeth needed a ready fighting force, but England’s standing navy was not large. She turned to private military contractors. “Letters of marque” licensed privately-owned and operated armed ships to raid Spanish shipping. (Letters of marque are still allowed by the US Constitution and were considered as a response to the Somali pirate problem depicted in the Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips.) Privateering became a profitable industry, making ship owners and captains rich and famous. Examples were Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake.
The Admiralty regulated privateering by charging license fees and administering the Admiralty Court. Nottingham was head of the navy and the maritime courts, and he made sure to benefit. There was little distinction between what was good for the navy and what was good for Nottingham’s income. The navy slowly morphed into a “structure of patronage offices” (Kenny p. 292) where people with means and connections bought appointments. The office-holders recouped their investment by misusing naval material supplies, soliciting bribes, and exploiting conflicts of interest between the navy’s ships, privateers, and their common suppliers. Privateering would erode the Admiralty’s ability to repair the navy’s assets.
Vice-Admiral Sir William Monson had a long history of privateering before his naval service, his election to Parliament, and his authorship of the first written early histories of the Royal Navy. Monson wrote that the pursuit of privateering was interfering with the actual working of the navy, but that no one wanted to stop it because Nottingham himself was involved. (Kenny p. 298)
In 1603, James VI of Scotland became king of England. James had no interest in continuing a conflict with Spain and did not approve of privateering. As part of making peace with Spain, he suspended letters of marque and reprisal, severely curtailing Nottingham’s income. Nottingham turned to illegal activities, and was implicated in receiving stolen Venetian silver coin in the Tompkins affair. (Kenny p. 267, also, Senior p. 52. Senior explored Nottingham’s relationship with piracy in detail.)
The “absence of any real distinction between public and private business” led to “progressive deterioration” of naval administration at every level. (Kenny p. 297) Bribery, graft, inflated pricing, and other unethical practices flourished. The abuses affected the dockyards, which resulted in inefficiency and a fleet in disrepair. Secretary of State Sir John Coke blamed the deteriorating situation on selecting men for their ability to steal money for their sponsors, instead of their qualifications to manage naval affairs. (Kenny p. 295) Monson accused Nottingham of starting the rot from the head in his Tracts. (Monson p. 371) Abuses of office had always existed, but they had been kept in check by the treasurer, Sir John Hawkins. After Hawkins died in 1595, there was little internal regulation (Kenny p. 294).
The pervasive corruption led to the appointment in 1608 of a commission to investigate. The commission was headed by one of Nottingham’s political rivals, the Earl of Northampton and included major court figures like Sir Francis Bacon. (Kenny p. 285, 302) The commission met 53 times and documented theft at every level of the navy. They concluded that building ships with low-quality construction material would triple the life-cycle maintenance requirements:
The commission knew to expect 20 years of service from a well-built ship, but the ships required docking for repairs in only 6 or 7 years if constructed with green timber. Later in the 1600s, Samuel Pepys would also write about 20-year service lives. The expectation of a 20-year service life recorded in the 17th century would inform life-cycle and repair analysis in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the 1770s, the Earl of Sandwich would use Pepys’ writing about the potential for 20-year service life as inspiration to improve construction methods. (NAM Rodger p. 143)
This 1608 paragraph about repair frequency also shows that senior navy administrators were aware that using green, unseasoned timber would cause early life failures. Over the next 250 years, the navy would repeatedly try to establish and execute policy to eliminate this defect. The problem was only really solved when iron became common in ship construction.
The 1608 investigation also targeted Phineas Pett, a shipbuilder favored by King James and Prince Henry. After a detailed technical investigation regarding the width of particular beams in the ship Prince Royal, Pett was absolved. Pett retained his position as a shipwright, allowing him to build the Sovereign of the Seas 20 years later. Pett’s future work would have a notable effect on England’s maritime position and fleet maintenance.
In spite of the commission’s findings, no major changes were made to the way the navy managed maintenance or bribery. No criminal charges were brought until 1613, no punishments were handed down, there was no reorganization, and Nottingham remained in his position at the head of the navy for another 10 years.
In 1618, another commission was appointed to investigate waste within the navy. Three of the new commissioners were veterans of the 1608 investigation. This commission resulted in real and lasting change.
The 1618 commission condemned a quarter of the fleet as unserviceable even after repairs, only fit for firewood. The navy had overpaid for what repairs they had made, draining finances. Money had been fraudulently paid to maintain ships that no longer existed. (Kenny p. 327) Timber from the royal forests had been shipped to the dockyards at ridiculous rates. The government had spent more on shipping than it would have cost to simply buy timber on the open market with delivery costs included.
The incumbent treasurer, Sir Howard Mansell, managed an immunity deal. The four-person board installed by Henry VIII was suspended, and a 12-person commission took over management of the navy and dockyards . The commission engineered the retirement of Nottingham from his lifetime appointment as Lord High Admiral. His replacement was George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.
The Duke of Buckingham was a royal favorite, so the Navy received extra attention from King James. This resulted in more stable budgets. Ten new ships were built. When Charles I took the throne in 1625, the Navy had 25 good capital ships. Buckingham spent most of his time keeping close to the king, so the new commission actually managed the process of reform. (Kenny 329) Reform under a commission, instead of a single person, would have a long-term impact on the navy’s capacity for self-management and administration.
Coincidentally, in 1625, William Beale was granted the first patent for anti-fouling paint. This shows there was a commercial interest in preventing the need for frequent scrubbing and scraping to keep a hull clean. A clean hull resulted in a fast ship.
In 1627, the Duke of Buckingham commanded an army and invaded the French island Île de Ré. Buckingham laid siege to the citadel of St. Martin’s, but was unprepared. A storm hit an English resupply fleet. Some of the ships started leaking, so they turned back. This denied reinforcements to the Duke of Buckingham’s army. Buckingham made a final assault, but was forced to withdraw. Buckingham insisted on an investigation into the leaks that caused his defeat.
Sheathing was a protective layer of thin wood nailed to a ship’s main hull. Under the sheathing was a layer of pitch, hair, or paper. The thin wood layer was sacrificial. Shipworms drilled through the sheathing, but stopped at the pitch, hair, or paper. Marine growth would break down the sheathing layer, but not the main hull. The sheathing fasteners would fall out or rust away. The sheathing system had to be replaced every few years. During periodic replacement of the sheathing, the main hull would be inspected and repaired.
One finding in Buckingham’s investigation was that the hull sheathing on Vanguard had not been replaced on a normal seven-year cycle. Because the sheathing had not been removed, no one noticed the defects in the main hull that caused the leaks. Deferral of a regular preventive maintenance action was one of the many causes of Buckingham’s defeat.
Buckingham’s decisions, not maintenance, were the primary cause of his defeats at Ile de Re and earlier in Cadiz. Under his command, casualty rates exceeded 75%. More than 10,000 Englishmen were lost. Buckingham became a symbol of corrupt incompetence. In 1628, he was murdered by one of his own officers, John Felton. Felton was hanged, but the act made him a popular hero. He was fictionalized in the Three Musketeers.
After Buckingham’s death, the King let the office of the Lord High Admiral remain vacant for the next decade. The Navy Commission was managing administration and reform, but now also acted as the executive head. The King remained involved, personally inspecting dockyards and ships to ensure the Commission’s managerial effectiveness. (Thrush p. 33-36)
The new role of a Commission with executive power and the absence of a single executive head was important. In his biography of Nottingham, historian Robert Kenny observed that after Nottingham’s time in office as Lord High Admiral,
Professional administration was an important prerequisite to being able to develop a maintenance management system. A centralized bureaucracy would attempt to apply management standards to ships and dockyards scattered across the country.
Albion, Robert Greenhalgh, 1896-1983. Forests And Sea Power. Cambridge: Harvard university press, 1926. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015058425045
Loades, D.M. Henry VIII: Court, Church, and Conflict, National Archives, 2009
Kenny, Robert W. Elizabeth’s Admiral, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1970
Nottingham receives stolen goods:
Senior, C. M. “An investigation of the activities and importance of English pirates, 1603-40” Doctoral thesis, University of Bristol, 1972
Problems with the Ship Money fleet, 1635-1636, identified by Monson and Earl of Northumberland:
Hodges, Harold Winter, and Edward Arthur Hughes. Select Naval Documents. Cambridge [Eng.]: University Press, 1922.
Gordon, M. D. “The Collection of Ship-Money in the Reign of Charles I.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 4, 1910, pp. 141–162. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3678388. Accessed 1 May 2021.
Monson’s Tracts, 1703 version: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.33433009405741
Monson’s Tracts, 1913 version: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101075683498
Rodger, N. A. M. The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich 1718-1792, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993
Thrush, A.D.; (1991) The Navy Under Charles I: 1625-40. Doctoral thesis, University of London.