Military History British Navy
Eric Grove
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0081


The term “British navy” is not often used; “Royal Navy” is usually the preferred title, although, ironically, the creation of a permanent, national British maritime fighting force was an achievement of the Parliamentary Interregnum. In earlier times, force at and from the seas was applied by inhabitants of the British Isles in a number of political frameworks. Political leaders, monarchs, and aristocrats had fleets of their own that could be fleshed out by fleets owned by merchants whose ships had to be strong enough to survive in disordered seas. What by modern standards would be piracy was normal maritime activity. As late as the 16th century, English royal authorities had to connive with a pirate mafia to create navies for purposes of state. This ended in the 17th century with the creation of recognizable modern military navies under state control, not least in England. The new model navy reverted to the crown and became “Royal” in 1660. After cutting its teeth against the Dutch, it began the first of five wars against Bourbon France in 1689 and became truly “British” in 1707 with the Union of the Parliaments. Asserting superiority in various ways, not least in administration, the British navy was able to assert overall maritime dominance. This was maintained and brought to a peak in the period 1793–1815, notably in Admiral Lord Nelson’s victories, ushering in a period when the Royal Navy dominated the world’s oceans, sustaining British political interests and economic leadership. The British were always at the forefront of technological progress at sea, and in the century after 1820, ships and weapons began a transformation of increasing speed that first greatly improved littoral capabilities and then restored oceanic warfare with the creation of the battleship. This was soon challenged by underwater weapons and later aircraft. This ongoing transformation provided one of the contexts of the two world wars and created difficult challenges for interwar decision makers. Post-1945, the Royal Navy had to accept subordination to the superpowers and the other services, although it was able to maintain, against considerable challenges, something of its former importance to Britain’s strategic posture. In 1982 it fought the greatest maritime shooting engagement of the late 20th century, and, to some extent, this success sustained the British navy into the 21st century, when new strategic distractions caused further problems.

General Overviews

There is only one worthwhile single-volume history of the British navy: Hill and Ranft 2002, which first appeared in 1995. This history brings together leading experts on the various periods, and although it is not fully annotated, it is the best starting point on the subject. Grove 1997 is a review of British naval battles from the earliest times. The standard, serious, comprehensive “naval history of Britain” is Nicholas Rodger’s magisterial three-volume work, two of which are currently available (Rodger 2004 and Rodger 2006); the third volume is in preparation. For the time being, the story between 1815 and the beginning of the 21st century can be brought up to date in Grove 2005. This was intended as a continuation of Harding 1995, with which it forms a shorter overall history. A good modern study of British naval leadership over the years is in Lambert 2008. Lewis 1948 is also still worthy of attention, not least for its analysis of the nature of a navy. The often-neglected Scottish dimension of the British Navy is covered in Lavery 2007. For a documentary overview, see Hattendorff, et al. 1993.

  • Grove, Eric, ed. Great Battles of the Royal Navy: As Commemorated in the Gunroom, Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.

    A new edition of a book that uses experts on the various periods to cover the battles from Alfred and the Danes up to Acre 1840 that were thought worthy of commemoration at Dartmouth; brought up to date to the Falklands War.

  • Grove, Eric J. The Royal Navy since 1815: A New Short History. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    Very much a synthesis of existing scholarship to make it easily accessible, and until the appearance of Vol. 3, a useful complement to the existing Rodger volumes. The book stops at the beginning of the 21st century. Even after the appearance of Rodger’s Vol. 3, it should continue to be useful as a short course text.

  • Harding, Richard. The Evolution of the Sailing Navy, 1509–1815. British History in Perspective. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995.

    A good, short textbook history of the earlier period, to make a pair with Grove 2005. It is expensive when purchased new but can be obtained cheaply second hand online.

  • Hattendorff, John B., R. J. B. Knight, Alan W. H. Pearsall, Nicholas A. M. Rodger, and Geoffrey Till, eds. British Naval Documents, 1204–1960. Publications of the Navy Records Society 131. Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1993.

    A useful compilation of relevant documents covering the broad sweep of British naval history, compiled by a most distinguished group of editors to mark the centenary of the Navy Records Society. An important documentary overview.

  • Hill, J. R., and Bryan Ranft, eds. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    First published in 1995, this book brought together in an illustrated and accessible form the work of the leading experts on each historical period, providing a remarkably even, coherent, and accurate account of the Royal Navy’s history to the end of the 20th century. It is unique in its quality, coverage, and comprehensiveness.

  • Lambert, Andrew. Admirals: The Naval Commanders Who Made Britain Great. London: Faber, 2008.

    A readable, well-informed, and original account of the careers and contributions of ten important admirals from the mid-16th century to the mid-20th.

  • Lavery, Brian. Shield of Empire: The Royal Navy and Scotland. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2007.

    The Scottish dimension of British naval history, including the period before the Union.

  • Lewis, Michael. The Navy of Britain, a Historical Portrait. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948.

    This is an old book, but it had considerable impact in providing the intellectual framework for the study of the British navy in the postwar period. Not least of its utilities is its definition of a “navy” as a “permanent, national, maritime fighting force.” Professor Lewis spent his career teaching naval officers, so his style is especially lucid and clear. Long out of print, the book can be obtained quite inexpensively via the Internet.

  • Rodger, Nicholas A. M. The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660–1649. London: Penguin, 2004.

    The first of a major three-volume ‘Naval History of Britain, a subtitle that reflected its purpose of covering the entire British Isles rather than just being a history of the English Royal Navy. Copious appendixes are provided, covering “Chronology,” “Ships,” “Medieval Fleets,” “Rates of Pay,” and “Admirals and Officials,” and there is a substantial bibliography. The coverage could not be bettered, and this substantial volume, almost seven hundred pages long, must be the starting point for any serious work on this early period. No work can be truly “definitive,” but this comes close to it.

  • Rodger, Nicholas A. M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815. London: Penguin, 2006.

    This takes the story forward to the end of the Napoleonic War, the period when the new institution asserted global sea command. The coverage is systematically structured like its predecessor (Rodger 2004) and is as substantial and original as the earlier volume. This is perhaps an even-greater achievement than its predecessor, given the larger amount of source material on this “classical” period of British naval history; again, a landmark work.

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