Alfred The Great and Charles II

There's the Royal Danish Navy, the Royal Norwegian Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy amongst others, but the original needs no qualification. Britannia (as far as identification is concerned), rules the waves. And it all started with Alfred.

'The Father of the Royal Navy'

Now it's interesting to note that of all our kings - some good, one bad (more of him later) and most more or less adequate - only one has been acclaimed as 'The Great'. Granted, Alfred TG wasn't actually king of England, but as ruler of Wessex he was a 9th century force to be reckoned with. He installed efficient government, fair taxation, the rule of law and encouraged education - as well as hammering the Norse invaders. The problem was, by the time Alfred, his Housecarls, archers and men at arms had engaged the enemy in battle, the Norsemen had already indulged in a fair bit of rape, pillage and murder.

Take the Fight to the Enemy

Fighting the raiders at sea - before they landed - seemed to be a good idea. This had been tried successfully in 851 by King Athelstan of Kent who captured nine Viking ships and put the rest to flight in what was the first real sea battle in English history. Convinced that sea power was the way forward, in 896 Alfred ordered the building of larger and better warships - the first 'King's Ships'.

First Line of Defence

Unfortunately, we don't know very much about the design of these crafts, other than that they used neither the Danish or Frisian methods of boat building. The important thing was they were swifter, steadier and with more freeboard than the enemy's ships, making them more suitable for fighting in inshore waters. In fact one aspect of Alfred's greatness was that he understood the importance of a strategic naval force as a first line of national defence. Unfortunately it was a concept that was overlooked by one of his descendants.

A Ship, a Ship - my Kingdom for a Ship (or better still, a fleet)

In the early autumn of 1066 Harold Godwinsson - the last Saxon king of England - was fighting the Norwegian Harald Hardraade in the North; well aware that William of Normandy was waiting to invade in the south. However, there was a Saxon fleet cruising around the Isle of Wight, ready to protect the south coast. Harold was also heartened by the fact that the weather would soon change, making an invasion almost impossible. So weeks later when supplies for the Saxon ships ran out, the sailors were sent home. Seizing his last chance, William invaded, unopposed at sea. Had the Saxon ships been on station, the history of England might have been very different. But without the Normans, we'd never have had King John.

'King John was not a Good Man, he had his little ways'

Often referred to as Bad King John, Henry II's youngest son combined cruelty, pettiness and incompetence in equal proportions. Hated by his subjects, he broke promises, quarrelled with the Church, was excommunicated by the pope, lost the Crown Jewels and was forced to sign Magna Carta. Even his demise had an element of the tragicomic about it - it's said he died of a surfeit of lampreys before his 50th birthday. But maybe he wasn't completely beyond redemption, because what is often forgotten was John's commitment to the Navy.

'Hearts of oak' from little Acorns Grow

John was the first English king to claim lordship of the sea. He ordered that vessels should strike or lower their sails whenever they encountered 'the lieutenant of the King or the admiral of the King or his lieutenant on any voyage ordained by Common Council of the realm'. To this day, merchantmen still dip their ensigns to a passing Queen's ship. In addition, John published the first primitive form of Navy List, awarded the first prize money (half of whatever was seized), and introduced a new method of impressment. He ordered the first enclosed dockyard (at Portsmouth) and laid down regulations for the assembly, organisation and dispatch of large fleets - which always sailed in convoy. Bad he may have been, but King John laid the foundations of what would eventually become the mightiest maritime fighting force the world had ever seen.

Jolly Good Boating Weather

Fast-forward four and a half centuries. Cromwell and his puritanical diktats had gone, the nation was in the mood to enjoy itself - and the king? Well, the king liked messing about in boats. Known as the 'Merry Monarch', Charles II inherited a kingdom that was already a major maritime power. And while Alfred (as far as we know) stayed on dry land, and John only travelled by sea as a last resort, Charles had a passion for ships and sailing. During the early part of his reign, two-thirds of all the money granted to him by parliament were spent on the Navy. What's more, he was one of the first 'persons of rank' to enjoy sailing for its own sake. Apparently, during his exile in Holland, Charles learned seamanship, navigation and generally got the sailing bug. Given a 'jacht' as a goodbye present by his Dutch hosts, Charles sailed home... and carried on sailing.

Today the Thames, Tomorrow the Fastnet

Working on the principle that you can't have too much of a good thing, the newly crowned king ordered another yacht (English spelling, design and construction) which he named 'Katherine'. She was soon joined by an almost identical vessel, 'Anne', commissioned by Charles's brother James, the Duke of York. And on 1st October, a race from Greenwich to Gravesend took place. The crew of the 'Anne' won the first leg but on the return journey with Charles at the helm, the 'Katherine' was quicker. The result was a satisfactory compromise between sibling rivalry and political nous, and marked the first authenticated yacht race in British waters.

If it's Good Enough for the King...

As a leader of fashion, Charles was good news for shipwrights. Commissions for pleasure craft started coming in from members of the aristocracy - who, believing 'if you've got it, flaunt it' - ordered yachts with the accent on luxury. Beautifully appointed, painted and gilded, their popularity saw a number of innovations in design and construction. An intriguing example was described by Samuel Pepys, who was employed at the Admiralty...

From Outrigger Canoes to The Royal Yacht Britannia

In December 1662 Pepys mentions attending the launching of a new ship with two bottoms. Other accounts refer to a ship with twin keels connected by a bridging structure. It's thought that Sir William Petty - the ship's designer - was inspired by stories of similar craft used by the islanders in the South Pacific. In other words, a catamaran - possibly the first in Europe. And although fast, manoeuvrable and drawing far less water than conventional yachts, the catamaran never really found favour with 17th century sailors. Had the king commissioned one, it might have been a different story. Instead Charles continued to sail conventional yachts, and by the end of his life had owned twenty-eight in total! He started a tradition of royal yachts that continued up until the decommissioning of Britannia. Who knows, this tradition may be revived in the future.