Wednesday, January 14, 2015

England’s First Fleet

by Helena P. Schrader

For much of Britain’s history, certainly since the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the reign of Elizabeth I through the Second World War, England was considered a naval power. The Royal Navy enjoyed the prestige of the “Senior Service” and Britain was proud to “rule the waves.” But the roots of British naval traditions are largely lost in time.

The Vikings, of course, ruled much of the north of England, and William of Normandy, the last man to launch a successful invasion of the British Isles, was dependent upon an amphibious landing entailing a substantial fleet. But the longships that went “Viking” from England’s shores were not exactly serving a central English government and even the Conqueror’s ships were more transports than navy. David Miller, a retired British Army officer and journalist, argues that England’s first fleet was the fleet Richard I assembled for the Third Crusade (“Richard the Lionheart: The Mighty Crusader).

Richard’s fleet was not only commissioned by an English king to serve English policy (as opposed to personal gain), it was also largely built in England and manned by Englishmen. It was deployed for transport, in amphibious operations, as logistical support and in naval engagements. It was composed of a variety of vessels from the large “dromons,” which set lateen sails on up to three masts and could carry a thousand men, to small open ships (enescas, or snakes), descendent from the Viking longship, with a crew of sixty to man the oars and a single square sail. In between were “busses” with a thirty oars and a single mast capable of carrying 40 knights and their horses and “galleys,” propelled by oars alone. Altogether, including the ships Richard hired in his French territories and was loaned by the King of Sicily, Richard deployed a fleet to the Holy Land that numbered 216 ships, of which 125 were English.

What makes this a “fleet” is the fact that for all its diversity, it was clearly under a unified command and deployed as a single instrument in support of the King of England.  Richard commissioned the fleet from a variety of ports across England in 1189, almost immediately after he came to the throne, and he set delivery dates and assembly points which were respected. Richard even issued a naval disciplinary code which included very explicit punishments for offenses (e.g. that a murderer be tied to the body of his victim and either buried with him or tossed overboard, depending on whether the crime was committed on land or sea).  The code was evidently necessary. When the English fleet put into Lisbon on their way to rendezvous with the English king, who was travelling overland to Marseilles, the English sailors behaved so injudiciously that 700 were arrested on a single night!

Richard’s fleet assembled from various points and in varying numbers in the ports of Sicily and wintered there, as the Mediterranean was treacherous was infamous for violent storms that destroyed ships from October to March.  (Remember the fleet returning from Troy was “scattered” and Ulysses took ten years to get home, while the Romans advised against sailing between November 10 and March 10 and considered their ocean unsafe for galleys from September 14 to May 26.)  

Richard set sail from Sicily for the Holy Land on April 4, 1191, with his fleet organized into a crude formation of eight lines of ship that were supposed to maintain visual contact with their neighbors.  The entire formation was led by three dromons, one of which carried Richard’s betrothed and sister, followed by lines 13, 14, 20, 40 and 60 across.  At the rear of the fleet was a line of 36 galleys, the fastest and most maneuverable ships in the fleet, with the clear task of “herding” the entire convoy like the destroyers and corvettes of the Royal Navy in WWII.  Richard was in that last line of galleys, ready to shoot forward to put himself between his ships and pirates or to round up stranglers.

 While his formation offered protection against pirates and enabled the best navigators to lead the less adept (or those less familiar with the Mediterranean), it was no protection against wind and weather and just three days after leaving Sicily, Richard’s fleet encountered a violent storm that scattered it an sank a score.  The three largest dromons, including the one with the Richard’s sisters and finance, had been swept all the way to Cyprus. Richard meanwhile reassembled the bulk of his fleet Crete and Rhodes and then continued on to Cyprus, arriving May 6.  On discovering that the crusaders and crews of two of his dromons had been captured, mishandled and/or enslaved by the tyrant of Cyprus, while his sister and fiancé had been afraid to leave their damaged ship for fear of being held to ransom, Richard resolved upon teaching Isaac Comnenos a lesson. He deployed his galleys for the first time as amphibious landing craft.

On the next leg of his voyage to the Holy Land, Richard personally commanded a naval engagement: the attack of a three-masted dromon carrying 1,000 men and well-armed with archers and Greek fire. Richard attacked with no less than 40 galleys that, however, found it almost impossible to come alongside and board due to the overwhelming superiority of fire-power on the dromon, and the fact that the freeboard of the large sailing ship was so much greater than that of the galleys. The dromon was crippled by English sailors swimming under the dromon and tying the rudder down causing the ship to sail in circles. Taking advantage of the confusion caused, some English sailors managed to scale up the side of the ship and attempt to seize control. The Saracens, however, had such an overwhelming superiority of fighting men, however, that the English were driven back.  At this point, Richard apparently ordered his galleys to line up and ram the disabled ship simultaneously. According to English accounts this tactic succeeded, but Saracen accounts the dromon was scuttled by her own crew after they realized the situation was hopeless.

In the next stage of the Third Crusade the fleet provided vital support and protection for the army as it marched south from Acre to retain the coastal cities of Jaffa and Ascalon. A portion of the fleet moved down the coast at the same pace as the army, while other ships served as dispatch, ambulance and supply vessels that could shuttle back and forth between the army’s position and the secure base at Acre. Because of the presence of the fleet, Richard’s right flank was protected throughout the advance and that meant that the most vulnerable elements could be positioned on his right and his infantry could provide protection to landward. Even more important, the fleet insured adequate supplies of food, fodder and water, relieving the troops of the necessity to carry these on their person or to drag them in cumbersome and notoriously slow wagons. It is by no means certain that Richard would have been able to defeat Saladin — again and again — if his army had been exhausted from carrying their own supplies or weakened by inadequate food, fodder or water. In short, Richard’s successes in the Third Crusader were in part a function of his intelligent use of the fleet.


Helena P. Schrader is the author of numerous works of history and historical fiction.  She holds a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg.  The first book of a three-part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187 and later took part in the Third Crusade, is now available for sale.  Read more at: or follow Helena’s blogs: Schrader’s Historical Fiction and Defending the Crusader Kingdoms.

A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin
Book I

A landless knight,
                A leper King
                                And the struggle for Jerusalem.

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!


  1. When I was a schoolboy we were always taught that the first fleet was the one assembled by Alfred the Great, though technically that was the Kingdom of Wessex and not England as such.

    1. Fair enough. I confess my grasp of pre-Conquest history is very weak. So, my mistake. Thanks for the correction.

  2. An excellent post, Helena, with much fresh and fascinating information. I tip my cap to Richard's fiancee and sisters, choosing to stay aboard their ship in a dangerous situation to avoid the potential of ransom demands...

    1. Yes, Joanna of Plantagenet is a woman I'd like to know more about. Great material for a novel!

  3. In the early 11th C., Aethelred the Unready gathered a fleet of ships off the coast of Sandwich in anticipation of fighting off the Vikings. But a few of his nobles took off with some of the ships and when the rest of the fleet went after them, a gale came up and destroyed many of the ships.

    1. Thank you. I'm weak in pre-conquest history and should have been more careful with the term "first." Thank you.

  4. Harold II did have a fleet. It chased Tostig in July 1066 when he was off the coast to the south. However he called his fleet back into London thinking he was safe and had got rid of Tostig. I do think his fleet was limited however and did not engage in sea battles as such.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.