As the once pre-eminent maritime nation, Britain has a Proud and Awesome maritime history!

But life at sea during the age of sail was filled with hardship.

Sailors had to accept cramped conditions, disease, poor food and pay, and bad weather.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) observed: “Being on a ship is being in jail with the chance of being drowned.” And although the British navy was probably one of the most formidable armed forces in the world in the time of Nelson, life aboard ship was, for many sailors, a miserable experience.  

Over a period of hundreds of years, seafarers from the time of the early explorers to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, shared many common experiences. Men working at sea had much to endure; cut off from normal life for months, even years, they had to accept cramped conditions, disease, poor food and pay.


The first vessels used by Britons are thought to have been rafts and dugout canoes, though the coracle, a small single passenger boat

is known to have been used at least since the time of the Roman conquest in AD 43.

Coracles are round or oval in shape, made of a wooden basket-like frame, with a hide stretched over it then tarred to provide waterproofing.

Being light, it could be carried on the back. Coracles are capable of operating in mere inches of water due to the keel-less hull. The early peoples are believed to have used these boats for fishing and travel.

After the Romans left Britain in the early 5th century, Saxon carpenters, called shipwrights, built sturdy ships, planked in wood and propelled by oars.

The Roman period in Britain is said to have ended in the year 410, when the Emperor Honorius supposedly told the Britons to look to their own defences because Rome itself was beleaguered by barbarian attacks.

The ensuing power vacuum was filled by incomers arriving from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia.

Today, we know these immigrants as the Anglo-Saxons, and they ruled England for much of the next 600 years.....

 To 1066 – when William of Normandy arrived.

The Normans were not French - but originally Vikings from Scandinavia.

Viking Longships were awesome.....and built to cross vast oceans.......

In the spring of 1066 northern Britain was attacked by the fearsome King Harald Hardraade of Norway

and the equally fearsome Tostig Godwinson,

in between three and five hundred Viking 'Dragon' ships.

In the mists
Of the moonless bay
Our dragon ships
Lurk at anchor
Awaiting the dawn
While on shore
In cozy homes
Wives in nightgowns
Croon love songs
By the firesides
To their husbands.

King Harold of England was victorious. King Harald of Norway was killed. King Harold, basking in the glow of victory, marched his army south to meet the challenge of William of Normandy. who had landed at Hastings, claiming the throne of England. Had Harold not been so confident after his victory over the Norwegian army he might not have marched his army without rest to Hastings.

He could have stopped in London and added ten thousand more to his army in a few days. He could have but he didn't and his army was defeated by the Normans. Harold himself was killed.

The Normans took over the country and imposed French as the language of the country. English was suppressed for three hundred years. All was calamity.....

William’s fleet transported his immense army, complete with knights and attendants, archers, foot soldiers, horses, ammunition, food and wine, from France to England after many long weeks spent on the shores of France waiting for “favorable winds.”

William himself crossed the Channel aboard the largest and fastest ship in the entire Norman invasion fleet.

This was the Morapresented to him by his Duchess, Matilda.

According to legend, the Mora had for its figurehead the image of a child, in gilt, pointing with its right hand towards England, and having in its mouth a trumpet of ivory.....

The Norman conquest of England, in the autumn of 1066, which occurred after a seaborne invasion at Hastings, was unopposed as the English fleet had returned to base. After this the Kings of England were also rulers of much of France so presumably there was much trade across the English Channel.

From the early 15th century, continuing into the 17th century, English ships travelled around the world searching for new trading partners and establishing new trading routes.

The first successful British colony in America was set up in 1607 at Jamestown. It languished until a new wave of colonists arrived in the late 17th century and set up commercial agriculture based on tobacco. The Mayflower sailed from Plymouth in 1620. The connection between the American colonies and Britain, with shipping as its cornerstone, would continue to grow unhindered for almost two hundred years.

Until the time of Henry VII, the kings of England commandeered and armed merchant ships when there was a need for a navy. Henry started a programme of building specialised warships.

During the Commonwealth of England, Oliver Cromwell improved the navy, which had been badly neglected by King Charles I.

The Admiralty was set up in March 1545 as the King's Council of the Marine.

During the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) the French fleet was initially stronger than that of the English, but the former was almost completely destroyed at the Battle of Sluys in 1340. Many other sea battles were fought in this period.

In 1588, the Spanish Armada was blown north up the east coast of England and attempted to return to Spain by sailing around Scotland but many ships were wrecked off Ireland. The Spanish sent a smaller fleet, of about 100 ships, the following year but this ran into stormy weather off Cornwall and was blown back to Spain.

The wars from 1552 - 1567, ended in victory for the Dutch, after which their Navy became the world's strongest, dominating world trade.

The imperial ambitions of the Dutch were bolstered by the strength of their shipping industry, as well as the key role they played in the expansion of maritime trade between Europe and the Orient.

In the 18th century, the Dutch colonial empire began to decline as a result of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War of 1780–1784, in which the Dutch lost a number of its colonial possessions and trade monopolies to the British Empire, along with the conquest of the Mughal Bengal at the Battle of Plassey by the East India Company.


Commodore Nelson boarding the San Joseph in the Battle of St Vincent, by George Jones,

with Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott, Via The National Maritime Museum Greenwich


Life onboard a Man o' War in Nelson's time was particularly hard and often fraught with danger....