Naval warfare in Europe, c.1330 – c.1680

Naval warfare in Europe, c.1330 – c.1680

Louis Sicking

European Warfare, 1350–1750, Cambridge University Press, (2010)


This chapter considers the question of how war at sea changed during the late-medieval and early-modern periods, and whether these changes constitute a ‘naval revolution’. It is now recognised by historians such as Carlo M. Cipolla, Jan Glete , John F. Guilmartin, and Geoffrey Parker that, during the period roughly between 1500 and 1650, war at sea underwent a fundamental technological transformation. This transformation was of great importance both for warfare at sea and for its organisation. Thanks to the fiscal means of the modern state, permanent, professional, and complex naval organisations became a general phenomenon in Europe. However, at the beg inning of the early-modern period, permanent war fleets in most cases did not yet represent anything more than a small core of ships, in itself of limited military importance.

All the same, many of the characteristic features of naval organisation, such as arsenals, admiralties, and standing navies , had come into existence in the Middle Ages. Both the arsenals of Venice and Aragon–Catalonia dated from the beginning of the thirteenth century. Admiralties appeared as institutions around the office of admiral, which originated in Sicily in the twelfth century and became permanent there in 1239. In the fifteenth century Admiralty Courts appeared in Brittany , Normandy , and Guyenne , to mention but a few. Sicily possessed a permanent war fleet in the thir teenth centur y; Venice established one in 1301. England may have had a permanent squadron during the reign of Richard I, ‘the Lionheart’ (1189–99) but it was Henry V (1413 –22) who actually developed something like a royal navy in the modern sense. The question is, then, to what extent a divide exists between medieval and early-modern European naval warfare.

Because most of the typical institutions of naval warfare, or naval org anisation, orig inated in the Middle Ages, it seems appropriate to look at how technological change influenced the conduct of naval warfare. As the introduction of heavy guns at sea or, more specifically, the introduction of gun-ports happens to have taken place around the year 1500, it will be possible to examine whether a divide exists between ‘medieval’ and ‘early-modern’ naval warfare. This is not to imply that naval institutions like arsenals, admiralties, or standing navies were immune to change, or that they would not influence the conduct of warfare. It seems however that the influence of technological change on naval warfare is more visible and perhaps more relevant to the question as to whether a divide exists between medieval and early-modern naval warfare than the influence of organisational change.

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