Origin of British Navy Upturned By Study
The British Royal Navy is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. If you’d looked at its website this morning, you would have read the widely-accepted origin story which claims that naval warships were first used by English kings from the early medieval period and that the first major maritime engagements were fought “in the Hundred Years' War against the Kingdom of France” from 1337 to 1453 AD. However, if you were to check that same website this afternoon you would find it has changed in response to the findings of two researchers who have provided irrefutable evidence of a British Navy before the accepted historical dates. Is the Royal Navy origin story really fake news?
The HMS King Alfred was a Drake-class armored cruiser built for the Royal Navy and named after Alfred the Great. (Public domain)
Flawed Facts: Twenty Years Means a Lot in History
The new research paper called Kingship and Maritime Power in 10th‐Century England, by authors Matthew Firth and Erin Sebo, from Flinders University's College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, has been published in the International Journal of Nautical Archeology. It explains that the currently accepted story which claims that Alfred the Great, who was King of the Anglo-Saxons from 886 to 899 AD, established England's first Royal Navy is “incorrect.” According to EurekAlert, the researchers provide new evidence that the first Anglo-Saxon naval victory occurred “20 years before Alfred was crowned King of Wessex and 24 years before his first recorded naval victory.”
It perhaps seems remarkable to some readers that the founding of such an important institution could base its history on flawed facts, but Firth says the idea that Alfred founded the navy is widespread and that the claim has been “uncritically reproduced” by reputable authorities like BBC History, the National Museum of the Royal Navy and the Encyclopædia Britannica, with the latter incorrectly stating that “organized sea power was first used in England by Alfred the Great of Wessex, who launched ships to repel a Viking invasion.”
According to the research paper, the legendary naval prowess associated with Alfred the Great, seen here in a 1790 portrait by Samuel Woodforde, has been exaggerated in popular historic memory. (Public domain)
Medieval Fake News: Blowing the Lid off Alfred’s Widely-Accepted Maritime Prowess
Sebo and Firth found the evidence which led them to question the wobbly status of Alfred the Great as founder of the Royal Navy within the pages of the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Their new research demonstrates that a naval engagement occurred in 851 AD when the ealdorman Elchere and King Æthelstan of Kent (839 – circa 853) “defeated a Viking force near Sandwich.” This is the first recorded instance of a navy victory for an English fleet that has been found. It shows that a defensive naval force existed from at least the reign of King Alfred's father, Æthelwulf of Wessex (839 – 858 AD).
It is one thing to withhold from Alfred the Great the honor of having created the British Navy, but the two researchers follow up with a literary killer right hook. EurekAlert explains that their new research reveals that the legendary naval prowess associated with Alfred the Great has “greatly elevated his capabilities and successes at sea.” According to the records, Alfred's ship designs were described as “impractical” and it appears that “his” navy actually lost its first naval battle against more experienced Viking sailors, claims Firth.
The research sheds fresh light on Viking ship burial traditions in both medieval Scandinavia and England. During Viking burials, the dead body was placed on his ship along with many prized possessions, before being set alight to symbolically sail off into the after-life. (Public domain)
Drawing Cultural Correlations From Naval Technology
Throughout the Viking Age chieftains and their relatives were commonly buried with their ships. Once the dead man's body was carefully prepared and dressed in his best clothes, it would be transported to the burial-place in a horse-drawn wagon where he was placed on his ship, along with many of his most prized possessions. As part of the ship burial, the chieftain's horses, hunting-dogs and occasionally slave girls were sacrificially murdered and buried with the deceased who would then symbolically sail to the after-life. The new research also sheds fresh light on these Viking ship burial traditions in both medieval Scandinavia and England, which stem back to at least the Nordic Iron Age.
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The researchers noted similarities in the burial configurations and ship designs across England and Scandinavia. These demonstrate ongoing cultural contact and the joint development of naval innovations. This opens up new possibilities for research into the rival nation’s shared cultural attitudes towards sea-power in the race to dominate England's green pastures.
Top image: Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex, has long been credited as the founder of the Royal Navy. Legend has it that he battled against the Vikings in the 880s and 890s, and even built his own longships to ensure victory against the Danes. In this engraving by Edmund Evans, he can be seen plotting the capture of the Danish fleet. Source: Public domain.
By Ashley Cowie