A Philatelic History of the Royal Navy Pt 1 – 1485-1692

The Birth of English Naval Superiority

A navy can be summed up as a maritime force designed primarily to secure the advantages of free passage across the sea.
These advantages can include:

  1. Carrying commerce wherever ships can go
  2. The transport of military forces
  3. Savaging coasts and landing armies
  4. Preventing the enemy from doing the same thing.

Early navies were often the property of the monarch and were utilized for his benefit. They consisted of merchant vessels hired or requisitioned by the monarch for military purposes. The changes required for service were minimal with perhaps the building up of so-called “castles” on the vessels to provide archers height advantage over the enemy.

Ships from Northern countries were built for strength, due to the savagery of the elements, whereas ships from the Mediterranean, where tidal movements were small and there is relatively benign weather, were commonly fast, sleek, oared galleys built for maneuverability and ramming the enemy. However, these vessels were not suitable for navigating the sometimes rough and unpredictable seas found in ocean travel.

It was only in the 15th century that changing conditions compelled the English monarchs to establish a navy of permanently available vessels, called “Ships of the Line,” supported by shore-based facilities which led to the creation of a standing professional naval force and this was achieved using the sturdy northern sailing vessels as the basis for ocean-going naval vessel design.

In 1492 with the discovery of the new world, the Atlantic, which previously was of little interest for merchants and seamen, now became a highway to previously unimagined wealth and unlimited possibilities. As long-distance trade began to flourish, all kinds of marine industries were stimulated, such as finance, shipbuilding, ship design and insurance, to name some. The horizons of English merchants were now vastly expanded and they quickly built up a tradition of interloping on American and African monopolies claimed by Spain and Portugal. These changes had implications for military forces at sea.

Although the term Royal Navy is used here, references to Royal Navy were unknown before the latter part of the eighteenth century. What had been “The King’s Ships” in Henry VIII’s time had become “The Navy Royal” under Queen Elizabeth and this term lingered until the Commonwealth of England 1649-1660. With the Restoration in 1660, “His Majesty’s Navy” became the common expression, and was still to be found in the 19th century. One of the earliest uses of the term Royal Navy was in 1761, when the Lords of the Admiralty referred to “an Act for the Encouragement of Seamen employed by the Royal Navy.”

The first recorded use of His Majesty’s Ship, HMS, was in 1789 in respect of HMS Phoenix. However, it is common practice to use the term HMS for ships prior to this date.

1485 – 1546: The Emergence of the Royal Navy.

Henry VIII by the Circle of Hans Holbein, the Younger, ~1530
(Art Gallery of Ontario)
Henry VIII's "The Mary Rose"
The Mary Rose

Some historians contribute the early evolving naval power of England to Henry VII (1485-1509), who did start a shipbuilding program to strengthen the navy. However, it was with the accession to the throne of Henry VIII in 1509 that most histories of the Royal Navy commence. When Henry became king, he had only a handful of warships at his disposal and these were usually merchant ships fitted with guns. However, with threats from the Scots to the north and the French to the south, he knew he needed a standing navy. During his reign, the navy developed basic features which identified it for the next 300 years. The ultimate symbol of the Crown’s power at sea, the warship, emerged as a powerful and valued weapon and no ship other than the Mary Rose came to represent unabashed naval power.

Henry VIII's "The Mary Rose"
The Mary Rose

The Mary Rose was one of two of the most cherished warships, the other being Henry Grâce à Dieu, also known as “Great Harry”. At Henry VIII death, 80 vessels had been added to the navy. As evidenced by the Mary Rose, not only were vessels getting larger, but they carried larger cannons placed on carriages. Naval carriages are mobile frames on small wheels that allowed the cannon to recoil back, be re-loaded, and then moved forward into a firing position. This greatly increased the firepower of naval vessels.

Henry VIII's "The Mary Rose"
Henry VIII and the Mary Rose

The acceptance of military service afloat requiring a corpus of expertise laid the foundations for the development of the navy. From the first half of the 16th century the navy was established as a permanent organ of the state, which the army did not achieve until centuries later. This led to the Royal Navy being referred to as the “Senior Service.”

Henry VIII

The English crown had established a navy second to none in northern waters. A large part of this achievement can be attributed to the rapid expansion of maritime trade. As oceanic travel increased this led to significant improvements in ship design which greatly enhanced the fighting power of the English fleet. As the use of cannon replaced boarding as the major naval tactic so the role of foot soldier in the fleet diminished and the role of seaman trained in gunnery increased.

Henry VIII's "The Mary Rose"
The Mary Rose leaving Portsmouth harbour.

Two key roles of the Royal Navy are:

  • Maintaining English control of the high seas, coastal seas and deep-water oceans
  • Leading exploration to discover new lands far and wide.

Often these roles overlapped as naval vessels involved in explorations and discovery were not unknown to be involved in armed skirmishes.

Below are some important battles and ships that are portrayed in postage stamps for this period in history.

Battle of the Solent – 18th and 19th of July, 1545 / The Birth of English Naval Power.

Henry VIII's "The Mary Rose"
The Mary Rose
Henry VIII's "The Mary Rose"
The Mary Rose leaving Portsmouth

The French had gathered a powerful military and naval force in Le Havre with the objective of invading England, in retaliation for Henry’s invasion of France and capture of Boulogne in 1544. Henry assembled a large fleet to oppose the French, however, due to adverse weather conditions his fleet was driven back giving the French an advantage, which they took, to put to sea with the intent of capturing the Isle Wight and Portsmouth. Nevertheless, the French fleet was unwilling to pursue the English into the shoal waters off the English coast. The English maneuvered in an attempt to lure the French fleet close to the shallows and shore batteries but the French were too wary to be thus caught. There was little fighting between the fleets other than some sporadic but ineffective gunfire at long range and as the French failed to achieve any of their objectives it can be considered an English victory. 

This campaign had two important outcomes. First, it best marked the birth of English naval power and second it is remembered for the loss of the Mary Rose in the Solent where she suddenly heeled over and with water pouring through the gun-ports and heavy guns becoming free and slamming into the opposite side, she capsized and sank; much to the delight of the French. The Mary Rose was one of the largest warships in the English Navy and one of the earliest examples of a purpose-built warship. She was armed with a new type of heavy cannon that could fire through newly invented gun-ports.  There are many theories as to why the Mary Rose sank, among these is that a strong gust of wind hit the side of the ship whilst turning and she heeled over too far, which caused water to pour through the open gun-ports. There is also unsubstantiated evidence of insubordination and negligence from a drunken brawl that may have contributed to the disaster.

Battle of the Solent

French historians claim that the Mary Rose was sunk as a result of French gun-fire; however there is not a shadow of a doubt that she perished by capsizing before the battle began.

Two days later the French did manage to land some men on the Isle of Wight, but they were easily driven off.  

Sierra Leone Slave Trade – 1564

Queen Elizabeth I's ship "The Merlin"
The Merlin

In the mid 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I actively promoted the slave trade on the Sierra Leone coast; this greatly angered the Portuguese who had enjoyed exclusive access to this trade. In 1564 a slaving expedition was sent out by the Queen which included the John Baptist of London and Merlin of Bristol. However, this was a failure as an accidental explosion caused the Merlin to sink.

In the stamp image, Merlin is flying a Tudor period ensign.

Action at Juan de Ulùa (Ulloa) – 1568

Also called San Juan d’Ullua

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

This incident was the start of a century-long struggle with Spain for domination over the New World and it also heralded the beginnings of the modern British Navy. As a result of a Papal decree in 1493 dividing the unknown world between Spain and Portugal and Spain’s veto on trade by other countries with its colonies in the new world, the British entered the Atlantic and Pacific as Plunderers of Spanish wealth. One of the most accomplished plunderers was Francis Drake, a sea captain, privateer, navigator, slaver and politician, who came to symbolize the daring British sea captain that captured the imagination of the nation.

Captain John Hawkins (a cousin of Drake) had made several trips to Africa and the Caribbean for trade and slaves. He figured he could offer to Spanish settlers a greater quantity of slaves at a lesser price than they could get from their own merchants. With backing from Queen Elizabeth I, he set out on his first voyage to Hispaniola and returned triumphantly home laden with gold, silver and sugar.

However, this greatly upset the Spanish authorities whose monopoly had been broken and their laws flouted, as only Spanish ships were allowed to trade in gold and silver. Spain relied on a flow of bullion from the New World to finance its military activities in Europe and these British interlopers became more than just a nuisance causing a serious strain on Spain’s treasury.

In Hawkin’s third voyage, his ship Jesus of Lubeck and five other vessels were caught in a hurricane somewhere east of Cuba. After three days of constant battling to keep his now leaking flagship afloat, Hawkins made the decision to run with the wind back to the Gulf of Mexico, a necessary maneuver to save his ships. When the storm blew itself out, he found himself in a part of the Gulf that none of them had seen before. Information from two vessels they came across showed that they were four-days sail away from San Juan de Ulloa, Mexico, just south of the capital Vera Cruz.  

As Hawkins had no choice but to find a port to repair his ships, he set sail for the Mexican coast. As the Spanish garrison were expecting a fleet of Spanish treasure ships to sail into the harbour, they did not realize until it was too late that the vessels approaching the harbour were English and they greeted the approaching ships with a volley of gunfire fired as a salute. Once the Spanish realized their mistake it was too late and many men abandoned their posts with cries of “The Lutherans are here.” Hawkins made a deal with the garrison commander that he had only peaceful intentions to effect repairs to his ships and an agreement was signed with both sides pledging that there would be no quarrel started by either side. The agreement was broken by the Spanish who secretly prepared to attack the English. The resulting battle ended with the sinking of two Spanish flagships, and the loss of four of the six English ships. The remaining two English ships escaped, loaded with treasure.

Jesus of Lubeck was damaged, the second British ship, the Minion, was relatively undamaged, and was captained by Francis Drake in his first command. He secretly raised anchor and sailed off to England taking with him the bulk of the gold and silver transferred to his ship by Hawkins. And so, he revealed himself, as he would for the rest of his career, to be a ruthless, bold and smart leader.

Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake

Drake went on to replace Hawkins as the most feared figure in the New World: the dreaded El Draque. Although the Spanish treasure convoys were too powerful to be attacked directly, with Spain’s lack of a permanent naval presence in the New World, Drake could now pursue his targets and attack Spanish American ports at his will.

Unidentified Spanish Galleon

Originally there were two annual Spanish fleets from Spain to the new colonies and they did not sail close to the Virgin Islands. In the 17th century, European nations, often at war with Spain, began to establish settlements throughout the Caribbean which forced the Spanish to alter course and sail through these waters.  There were many Spanish and other nations’ vessels wrecked on and around the treacherous waters and reefs of the Virgin Islands. The image on this stamp is of an unnamed Spanish galleon wrecked on a Virgin Island reef. Many wrecks have been identified around the Virgin Islands and it is possible that this ship was one of two Spanish galleons that foundered in 1523.

The Golden Hind

The Golden Hind’s figurehead
The Golden Hind
The Golden Hind

In 1577, Queen Elizabeth I sponsored Sir Francis Drake as the leader of an expedition to pass through the Straits of Magellan and explore the coasts beyond. Drake also had official approval to cause maximum damage to the Spaniards, which culminated in the Anglo-Spanish war which lasted from 1585 to 1604.

Drake’s route around Cape Horn

The Golden Hind was launched in 1577. Originally named the Pelican, Drake changed the name to the Golden Hind the following year. In 1579 Drake, sailing in the Golden Hind accompanied by a number of smaller vessels, captured a Spanish treasure galleon off the coast of Ecuador and seized the largest treasure captured to date, equivalent to £480m in today’s currency. After Drake’s circumnavigation, the Golden Hind was maintained for public exhibition at Deptford until 1650 before she eventually rotted away and was broken up.

In recent years, a number of replicas have been built, the best known being the full-size vessel Golden Hinde, built in 1973 using traditional methods and which now rests in Bankside, London, where she is open to the public. When she was first launched, this replica vessel made a number of voyages around the world visiting places such as Japan, Vancouver, the east and west coasts of America, Caribbean islands, traversing the Panama Canal, before being berthed permanently in London.

The Golden Hind
The Golden Hind
The Replica Golden Hinde by the Thames River in London
The Golden Hind
The Golden Hind
The Golden Hind is flying the Tudor Naval Ensign

Attack on Cadiz – 1587

Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake

Despite having a long and distinguished tradition of naval warfare in the Mediterranean, Spain was slow to develop an effective Atlantic fleet.

The execution of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587, induced Phillip of Spain to make provisions to invade England.

Elizabeth Bonaventure
Elizabeth Bonaventure

The Elizabeth Bonaventure, launched in 1567, commanded by Francis Drake was sent by Queen Elizabeth I as the flagship of an English fleet to prevent and/or delay the Spanish armada.

Drake set sail from England and 14 days later arrived outside of Cadiz to discover that the harbour was full of Spanish ships. Drake decided on an immediate attack and sailed into the harbour firing cannons against lightly armoured Spanish Galleons. Four of his ships had more firepower than all of the Spanish galleons and in a short time Spanish resistance faded and Drake took control of the harbour.

Much of the Spanish fleet was subsequently destroyed and so was a large quantity of supplies. For the next three months, Drake sailed up and down the Spanish and Portuguese coasts raiding forts and capturing treasure ships. This delayed the Spanish plans for the invasion of England by a year but did not entirely dispel them.

The Defeat of the Spanish Armada – 1588

This campaign changed the course of European history and remains one of the most famous events in English history. Spain was at this time the most powerful country in the world. If the Spanish had managed to land 27,000 troops on the south coast of England, England most likely would have been defeated and have reverted back to the Catholic faith.

Background to the Invasion

1586 – In the struggle for power in western Europe, Spain laid plans to invade England. Philip was angered by the English assistance to the Dutch and Portuguese (Portugal had been annexed by Spain in 1580) and as a result by 1586 war had broken out between Spain and England.

The Spanish Armada at various locations during its voyage up the English Channel

A Spanish fleet was assembled but was beset with deficiencies. Many of the guns were old or unsuitable, most sailors were conscripted landsmen who had never been to sea and only 30 of the 130 ships assembled were properly equipped warships. There were also issues with provisions as no one in charge knew how long the expedition would take and so supply was a matter of guesswork. The plan was for the Armada to sail from Spain up the English Channel and rendezvous with the troop barges assembled in French ports.

Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada
Elizabeth I & the Spanish Armada

The first hitch in the Spanish plans came when the troop barges were not ready to depart when the Armada arrived so the Armada was forced to lay at anchor in an unprotected position for a week, exposed to weather and English attacks. The English fleet was under the command of Vice-Admiral Francis Drake, in the Elizabeth Bonaventure, a fleet which also included fire ships. After an attack by Drake which included using the fire ships, the Armada scattered along the Flanders Banks at the mercy of an onshore wind. Few ships were sunk as the attackers quickly ran out of powder and ammunition. Then the wind changed forcing the Spanish to draw their battered ships off to the north, intent only of getting home.

English Fire Ships attack the Armada
The weather changed and the Spanish ships are forced up to the North Sea

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was the first occasion on which naval activity had a major impact on both the defensive and offensive strategies of England. When the English fleet of 100 vessels left Plymouth to seek out the Spanish, this demonstrated a major change in the understanding and tactics of sea power. Superior gunnery by English sailors and poor quality of Spanish guns severely hindered the Spanish whose ships were scattered and with the wind blowing to the north were forced to take the hazardous passage around Scotland and Ireland; many of the ships and sailors never returned back to Spain.

There is a popular myth of Drake’s cavalier attitude to the Spanish fleet epitomized by the most famous (but probably apocryphal) anecdote when he was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe before the battle. On being warned of the approach of the Spanish fleet, he is said to have remarked that there was plenty of time to finish the game and defeat the Spaniards.

The Armada had not truly been defeated as two-thirds of the armada did eventually make it back to Spain. However, the failure of the Armada and the invasion of England shattered Spain’s imperial self-confidence. It had the opposite effect in England where this was heralded as a great victory, although in a strict sense, the English had accomplished very little. Bad planning, bad weather and bad luck had doomed the Spanish invasion from the beginning.

Admiral Blake – 1598 – 1657

Admiral Blake and the Triumph
Triumph – Launched in 1623, broken up in 1683. Designated as a “Great Ship”

Admiral Robert Blake is generally considered to be the forefather of Britain’s naval supremacy in the 17th century. He is often referred to as the “Father of the Royal Navy” for building the largest navy that Britain had ever known. His overhaul of Naval Tactics became the foundation of English naval tactics in the Age of Sail. Triumph was General at Sea Robert Blake’s flagship from 1649 to 1653.

Blake was appointed General at Sea in 1649. The term was used during this era in place of Admiral and it combined the role of Admiral and Commissioner of the Navy.

Royal Sovereign – 1637

Royal Sovereign was ordered as a 90-gun first-rate ship of the line, launched in 1637, burnt to the waterline in 1697.

The Royal Sovereign
Royal Sovereign

She was the most extravagantly decorated warship in the Royal Navy, adorned from stern to bow with gilded carvings. She was later adapted to carry 102 bronze cannons.

She became the flagship of the General at Sea Robert Blake.

She was involved in all of the great English naval conflicts fought against the United Provinces (Dutch Republic) and France. Although repeatedly occupied  by the Dutch in the fiercest of engagements, Sovereign was retaken every time and remained in service for nearly 60 years as the best ship in the English fleet.

HMS Jersey 1654-1691

HMS Jersey
HMS Jersey is flying an early 17th century Blue Ensign.

HMS Jersey was launched in 1654, captured by the French in 1691. She was a Fourth-Rate ship of the line, armed with 40 guns. She saw service in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and was a guard ship at Portsmouth. Santa Cruz and Galloper Sand are two important battles Jersey participated in.

The Battle of Santa Cruz – 1657

Admiral Blake had been blockading the Spanish port of Cadiz since 1655. In February of 1657, Blake received information about a Spanish convoy heading back to Spain from Mexico. In April, the convoy docked in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands and this is where Blake made his attack against this strongly defended port. He made a successful attack on the port and destroyed all of the Spanish vessels including two Great galleons, one of which caught fire and blew up. HMS Jersey was one of 23 English vessels involved in the attack.

The Battle of Galloper Sand – 1666

The Battle of Galloper Sand, also called the Four Days Battle, was part of the Anglo-Dutch Wars from 1665 – 1667. These wars were basically a contest between two rivals for a lion’s share of the world’s trade. In this engagement, HMS Jersey was commanded by James Carteret. The English fleet suffered a loss to the Dutch and withdrew with heavy losses. Honour was later regained in the Battle of Saint James’ Bay where a stinging defeat was inflicted on the Dutch fleet.

HMS Royal Katherine 1664-1760

She was an 84-gun second-rate ship of the line. Launched in 1664, wrecked in 1760.

She took part in the second (1666) and third (1667) Anglo-Dutch wars and the war of the Grand Alliance. She was renamed Ramillies during the war of the Spanish Succession.

HMS Royal Katherine
HMS Royal Katherine

She saw service during the Seven Year’s War and was the flagship of Admiral John Byng when he failed to relieve Port Mahon and so lost the Island of Minorca. He was later executed for this action.

She was wrecked near Hope Cove, on the Devon coast, when the ship’s master made a tragic error of navigation. She was blown against the cliffs beneath Bolt’s Trail and wrecked with only 27 survivors out of a crew of 850.

The Battle of Martinique – 1667

HMS Jersey also fought in the Battle of Martinique in 1667, a part of the Second Anglo-Dutch war and she was later captured in 1691 by two French warships off Guadeloupe.

HMS Jersey 1694-1698

HMS Jersey
HMS Jersey flying an early 17th century Red Ensign

Another HMS Jersey was a Sixth-Rate ship of the line launched in 1694. In 1696, she sailed to the West Indies with a convoy and in 1698 was renamed HMS Margate. In the first few years of the 1700, Margate saw service in America, the West Indies, and Ireland. She was wrecked of Cartagena in 1707.

HMS Resolution – 1667

Resolution was a 70-gun third-rate ship of the line, launched in 1667, wrecked in 1703.

HMS Resolution & Barbary Pirates
HMS Resolution

Resolution served as the flagship for an expedition against the Barbary Pirates in 1669 and she took part in an unsuccessful attack on the Dutch Smyrna convoy, which resulted in the Third Dutch War. Resolution was wrecked in the Great Storm of 1703 in Pevensey Bay, East Sussex. With the ship seriously flooded, her captain tried unsuccessfully to beach her but the crew had to abandon ship, they all made it safely ashore.

Sierra Leone Trade – 1682

The Morduant
The Morduant

The Morduant was built by Charles Morduant, 3rd Earl of Peterborough, as a merchantman with 48 guns. However rumors persisted that she was in fact built as a private warship. She was eventually seized by the Admiralty in 1682 and purchased from the owner. She was then fitted out as a ship of the line.

She was commissioned into active service in 1684 and spent time cruising along the coastline of West Africa protecting British merchant and slave trading interests.

She sank off Cuba in 1693 with all hands lost while escorting some merchantmen from Jamaica back to England.

The stamp shows the ship as “Interloper Mordauant” which is an incorrect spelling.

Battle of La Hogue – 1692

Cherbourg (Cotentin) Peninsula
Battle of La Hogue
French ships on fire


This was a battle off the coast of Normandy, near Saint-Vaast-la-Hogue, fought between the French and English fleets; this followed the battle of Barfleur that occurred a few days earlier. At the Battle of Barfleur, the French under the Compte de Tourville fought a naval battle against the English and Dutch fleets which was indecisive as very calm weather and sea fog hampered any decisive action. Tourville was preparing to transport an invading army of Franco-Irish troops to restore James II to the throne. No ships were lost on either side although there was some heavy damaged inflicted on ships from both sides. Tourville disengaged and slipped off into the fog and in the process of trying to escape superior forces the French fleet became scattered.

Battle of La Hogue
Battle of La Hogue by Peter Monamy

As the weather deteriorated, some ships reached Cherbourg where they were beached and attacked by English fire ships and burnt to the ground. Twelve ships headed to La Hogue where they sought protection from assembled land forces and batteries, their crews being exhausted and disheartened. The allies successfully deployed shore parties and fire ships and burnt all twelve ships of the line that had sought this shelter. This action was celebrated in England as the Battle of La Hogue.

The English viewed the two battles as one engagement over six days and regarded the battle as a victory. The French had a different view and regarded Barfleur as a victory whilst admitting that Cherbourg and La Hogue were defeats.

This action put an end to French invasion plans and the French abandoned the idea of seeking naval superiority and instead adopted a continental strategy on land and a war against trade at sea.

Naval Flags

Up to the 16th century, a number of different flags were flown on His Majesty’s Ships. These included the Tudor Ensign, which contained from 4 to 7 green stripes, the Stuart Royal Naval Ensign and a very early English White Ensign. The current White Ensign, flown by all Royal Naval ships, was introduced in 1801, after the Act of Union 1800. The only non-naval vessels that fly the White Ensign are members of the Royal Yacht Squadron or any ship carrying the Queen or escorting her, such as a coastguard vessel. 

The White Ensign is flown from the stern and the Union flag is flown from the Jack at the Bow, hence the name ‘Union Jack’ for the Flag of the United Kingdom. Although ‘Union Jack’ is common usage, it is incorrect, the flag should be called simply the ‘Union’ flag, unless flown from the Jack post.

Tudor Naval Flag
The Tudor Flag
A variation of the Tudor Flag
The Jacobean Flag
The White Ensign, flown from the stern
The Union Flag, flown from the Jack mast in the bow

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