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Henry VIII: The Nautical King

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

Between courting wives, splitting from the Roman Catholic Church, and divesting monasteries, Henry VIII conceived of and built the first truly effective English navy.

The royal dockyards at Deptford

by Anjuli McDonald of Clanranald

In the early years of Henry’s reign, he came to believe a superior fleet was critical to his military success, a natural conclusion for the monarch of an island nation, but one which his predecessors had largely failed to grasp. His father had left him only a couple of great ships, seven warships, and a dry dock at Portsmouth, so Henry set about building himself a navy that could take part in his re-conquest of France and become the cornerstone of a military arsenal.

Henry VIII’s Legendary Ships

Most notable within this fleet was his flagship the Henry Grace à Dieu (shown here), also called the Great Harry. Built to replace the Regent, which had been destroyed in battle in 1512, the Harry proved a rather expensive failure.

Launched in 1514, she was a carrack carrying 700 men and 72 guns, among them Thomas Wolsey’s munitions triumph: a set of a dozen canon known as the Twelve Apostles, each with the figure of one Apostle cast on its barrel.

The Harry was designed for the more modern methods of disabling and sinking an enemy with gunfire rather than the old grapple-and-swarm tactics that had sent fighting men into hand-to-hand combat and rendered big guns useless at close range. But the Harry proved unseaworthy, rendering it relatively useless in combat. A more successful venture, the galley Virgin Mary, was launched in 1515 with 1,000 on board and armed with 70 copper and 137 iron small guns.

But arguably the most legendary ship in Henry’s fleet, the Mary Rose.

During the French invasion in 1545, the Mary Rose, having fired all her cannon on one side, came about to fire from the other. But the gun portholes had been left open after the volley and she keeled over to that side, taking on water so swiftly that she sank, drowning all but 20 of her 500 sailors, including her captain. During efforts to raise her with chains and rescue her ordnance, the ship’s mainmast broke, and she sank back to the bottom.

The legendary Mary Rose

Modernizing the Navy

Throughout Henry’s reign the shipbuilding continued. The Catherine, one of Henry’s earliest ships, bore the name of his new young wife, Catherine of Aragon, whose father was expected to be Henry’s ally in the Papal League against France in 1511. Henry also named a ship after his second wife, the Anne Boleyn. One small boat was even christened for the Humanist scholar Erasmus, an interesting irony, as Erasmus condemned the king’s war mongering.

Henry also sought to modernize the accommodations for his fleet. Portsmouth was the renowned seat of shipbuilding and harboring in England, but it was vulnerable to attack. So in 1515, Henry moved up the Thames and built dockyards at Woolwich and at Deptford.

The Woolwich dockyards

England, as an island nation, was so susceptible to naval attack that Henry spent a great deal of the money to fortify his coast with walls, towers, armories, and other barriers to invasion. He drafted a network of men whose job it was to light bonfires along the coast at the first sign of invasion. He studied navigation and bought the latest navigational tools for his fleet and even conceived of a guild of pilots in 1514, whose mission was to improve navigation in the Thames estuary. Thirty years later, this guild became the Corporation of Trinity House and is still responsible today for the lighthouses, buoys, and other navigational aids in the British Isles.

Henry’s fleet met its biggest challenge in 1545 when France attempted to invade the southern coast of England.

The French Attack

While besieging Boulogne, Frances I concocted a plan whereby his 150 ships assembled at Le Havre would attack Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, and then invade England. Henry’s navy was the greatest oceanic force England had ever mustered, but the fortresses and towers constructed along the coast to meet just such an attack were poorly armed and would be no match for the French if they managed to land. England still relied on the longbow for firepower, which was largely ineffectual against the French cannons and musket men.

The French fleet appeared off Portsmouth in July as Henry was dining on his flagship. Henry left the battle to his more experienced captains, going ashore to watch the action from a safe distance.

The wind was against the English, and the large sailing ships could make no headway, so the burden of the battle initially fell on the smaller, oar-driven galleasses. These managed to confront the French alone until a brisk wind began in the late afternoon, allowing the larger warships to come into play. It was at this point that the great tragedy befell the Mary Rose and she sank.

Despite this lucky chance, the French Admiral D’Annebault (shown here) was concerned. The harbor had too many hidden channels for safe navigation and a southwesterly gale threatened. So the Admiral sent the French fleet up the Channel where there was more room to maneuver.

But by the middle of August, French provisions were nearly gone and many of the sailors were becoming ill. After a brief but fierce exchange with the English off the coast of Shoreham, the French fled, slipping away in the night while the English fleet lay at anchor. Thus, the French invasion was forestalled, though they continued to threaten from the north, where the “Auld Alliance” with Scotland remained to threaten Henry’s fleet.

Setting the Course for the Future

More than simply adding ships and updating navigation in his navy, Henry VIII revolutionized the strategic use of the fleet in warfare and in protection. For the first time in England, the navy was seen as an indispensable part of the nation’s military, not simply a method of transportation for infantry and ordnance. The navy became a formidable military force, a protector of commerce and a guardian of the national borders.

Henry unfortunately did not grasp the significance of the New World, and he never used his ships for the conquest of new territory or for exploration as his daughter Elizabeth would do towards the end of the century. But in his hands, the English Navy became a cohesive, organized entity with a strategic and diplomatic purpose. Henry even began a Naval Board for the fleet’s oversight.

Under Henry VIII, the English Navy set the course for what it would eventually become under Queen Victoria in the 19th century: the symbol of an historic empire and the bulwark past which all invaders must fight.


Anjuli McDonald of Clanranald (Ellen McDaniel-Weissler) is a writer, actress, singer, teacher, and activist who lives on a mountainside with her husband, their two sons, and their dopey dog Bella. (Actually, the sons are dopey, too.) The family enjoys medieval re-enactment with the Society for Creative Anachronism. This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine, and was reworked for Mystorical.


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