The Tudor Navy? Isn’t that the Mary Rose and the Spanish Armada? And Drake and Raleigh, or were they privateers? Oh, and Henry VIII built some sea forts. Well, it’s (as usual) a little more complicated than that. Award-winning historian and novelist David Davies tells Historia how he turned those complications into an asset when writing his new novel, Destiny’s Tide.
Is there any aspect of Tudor England that hasn’t been mined countless times by historical novelists? Every one of the six wives surely has an entire bookcase-full to herself (several entire libraries in the case of Wife Number Two), while every year and every event of Elizabeth’s reign seems to have been reimagined ad nauseam.
Of course, this abiding fascination with the 16th century extends to other media. Does any other period except the Second World War have more TV documentaries devoted to it? How many other periods of British history have a lavish current Netflix series set during them, as well as a major Hollywood film? The Tudor age won the Booker Prize twice over for Hilary Mantel, and who’s to say that the third instalment won’t make it a hat-trick? It’s also hard to imagine many 19th century German plays being staged at all in the West End these days, yet Schiller’s Mary Stuart has already had two outings in the last 15 years, playing to packed auditoria both times.
So the Tudors are sexy, and the Tudors sell; but there’s one very curious exception to this. Naval historical fiction is a long-established, respectable and popular sub-genre in its own right, with CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian the acknowledged titans in the field. But it remains the case that the great majority of books in this sub-genre are set, as Forester’s and O’Brian’s were, within roughly a 25-year period, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
I’d already encountered this when breaking away from the herd to write my series set in the 17th century, The Journals of Matthew Quinton, and it was gratifying to get a substantial amount of feedback from readers saying how enjoyable it was to encounter a different period, and to learn about historical events that they knew little or nothing about. Having said that, there’s a very obvious reason why British authors overwhelmingly write books set in what might be called ‘the Age of Nelson’: in a nutshell, the enemy is the French, and the Brits invariably win.
That certainly isn’t true of the 17th century, when the Dutch – hardly natural pantomime villains – are the enemy, and they win at least as often as the English do. It also isn’t true of the 16th century, when national boundaries and identities were much less clearly defined in any case.
When my agent, publisher and I agreed that I should write a trilogy of naval historical fiction set in the 16th century, I did my due diligence, assuming that many authors would have got there before me; after all, marrying such a popular period as the Tudor age with the also popular naval sub-genre is surely a case of ‘what’s not to like?’ But to my amazement, I found only a handful of modern titles, and perhaps inevitably, they tend to be centred on the Spanish Armada. The very few memorable books set at sea during Tudor times, like Rafael Sabatini’s The Sea Hawk, are from a much earlier age.
One consequence of this lack of a substantial corpus of work, and therefore of an ingrained popular perception of what the naval warfare of the age was like, might be the hilarious faux pas committed in some very well-known Tudor novels by bestselling authors (fear not, I won’t name and shame the guilty here), or on the small or large screens. Witness Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh channelling Tarzan and Rambo when attacking the Spanish Armada in the film Elizabeth: the Golden Age, or the glorious howler from a recent TV series set in the Tudor period (yes, another one): “Where’s the Spanish Armada? It should have been here on Tuesday.” Winds? Tides? What are these ‘winds and tides’ of which you speak?
As I researched my trilogy, I formed some theories about why there’s so little naval fiction set in the Tudor period. For one thing, there’s far less source material than there is for later periods, and much less evidence of how things were done aboard ship. For another, there’s much less scope for describing exotic locations and recounting major sea-battles, certainly in the period before about 1570; Henry VIII’s wars at sea, for example, were fought exclusively in the English Channel and the North Sea, and English mariners only began to sail to more distant seas on a regular basis from the 1550s and 1560s onwards.
Another complication is that the very concept of a navy was much less clear-cut. The monarch owned ships, and sometimes possessed a very substantial force of purpose-built warships, like the Mary Rose. But these were sometimes leased out to private interests, while large fleets, such as that which opposed the Armada in 1588, had to be made up of many vessels from other sources, such as the merchant communities of London and other ports of the realm, which were taken up for fixed and often short periods of time.
The heterodox nature of these forces, essentially a volunteer ‘navy’, gave me my ‘handle’ for the trilogy, and my central characters. Jack Stannard is certainly not a naval officer in the modern sense of the term, and he isn’t high born. He’s a merchant and shipmaster of Dunwich, ‘England’s Atlantis’, the once-great port in Suffolk that was (and still is) being slowly destroyed by the sea. In the first book, Destiny’s Tide, set against a backdrop of the years 1544-5, Jack’s ship is called up for service in King Henry VIII’s final war, fighting in the waters off Scotland and France before the story culminates with (spoiler alert) the sinking of the Mary Rose.
The trilogy will follow the fortunes of three generations of the Stannard family over 40 years – a period that saw bewildering religious changes, as well as what historians now call England’s ‘turn to the sea’, the process by which seafarers like John Hawkins, Francis Drake, and, yes, my fictitious Jack Stannard, began to look outward and to undertake ever more ambitious voyages (some of them, it must be said, voyages with purposes that are distinctly uncomfortable for modern audiences, and for authors writing about them).
All in all, I hope I’ve done justice to the seafarers of the age, and done something to rectify the strange omission of the sea from Tudor historical fiction.
Writing as J D Davies, David is the author of The Journals of Matthew Quinton, a naval historical fiction series set in the 17th century, and of a new trilogy set in the Tudor period, Jack Stannard of the Navy Royal.
He is also the award-winning author of naval history books including
Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy and Pepys’s Navy: Ships, Men and Warfare 1649-89.
The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover: via Wikimedia
The Mary Rose from the Anthony Roll: via Wikimedia
Photo of the Mary Rose, now on display in Portsmouth: author’s own
Map of Dunwich in the 1580s, showing the huge shingle bank that had sealed the once splendid natural harbour. By this time, over half of the medieval town, including five of its seven parish churches, had already been lost to the sea: photo and notes supplied by author