Empire Of The Sea Review: Making Waves

January 15, 2010 by  
Filed under - Home, Reviews


Having fallen asleep in every history lesson I was ever in, I know very little about Britain’s turbulent backstory.

So I was going in pretty much blind when I watched Empire Of The Sea, a look back at the beginnings of the British Navy and the role it played in shaping a blossoming empire.

The show goes into depth about famed British Admiral Francis Drake and the control the empire had on the newly discovered Americas. Unfortunately, being a money-minded man, presenter Dan Snow describes how Drake was also one of the first men to trade in slaves. You may also be surprised to learn exactly how it was that Drake incurred the wrath of Spain, which of course lead to the creation and subsequent destruction of the Spanish Armada.

Dan doesn’t go into the gory details of ship life but instead concentrates on the strategy and politics of the times and how the British fleet was impacting the world. I was interested to learn how involved Samuel Pepys was in the forming of a disciplined Navy and how wars at sea impacted Royalty but I wasn’t blown away.

New historical go-to guy Dan presents the story of Britain with genuine enthusiasm. His gusto comes in handy because the show lacks any kind of juicy recreations and there’s not one peg leg, pirate or parrot to be seen.

The show is very informative but lacks a fun, personal look that could have made it a touch more palatable, however, Dan Snow is a more than competent presenter who is a nice break from stuffy professor types lecturing us. I’ll definitely be tuning in for episode 2.

LynMarie says:

Having watched Dan Snow in Empire of the Sea I have to say that my first response was anger and disappointment as historical inaccuracy after another unfolded.

The series has much going for it, and learning how the naval colleges developed, the model of the ship that was amazing, and the rules that changed the navy from a semi-professional body to one that is the most disaplined in the world. The ups and downs of who finances the navy brought home some of the problems faced by our own armed forces struggling with poor equipment in Iraq and Afganestan. The desire to reform and to properly fund a great and efficient navy by Samuel Peyps fell foul of a King without the desire to carry through his own promise to protect the navy and to make it his own. And as a result the Royal Charles became a Dutch prize.

The myth of our sea power was clear from the outset and it is here that I must critise the historians and the series makers.

It would have been a good thing for the real Father of the Royal Navy to have gotten at least one mention. Henry VIII from the moment he came to the throne to the moment he died took a hands on interest in the sea and the building of ships and a professional naval force. He inherited 23 ships and built nearly 50 others. The Anthony Roll lists all 70 ships and can be seen today in the Brittish Library. The members of the Mary Rose Trust will no doubt agree with me that the force of the navy pre Elizabeth was a lot more than a small handful of small ships with a poorly clad handful of fishing boats. That is how Dan Snow described Henry’s Navy.

Henry did not only build ships some 30-70 years ahead of their time, he fitted them with the lattest guns and technichal advancements. His navy was well equipped and his naval personnel well trained.
It was Henry, not Elizabeth who put money, real money into our sea defences. It was Henry who built the ports and the shipyards at Detford and it was Henry who founded the first naval colleges. So a few moments mentioning these facts would have set the scene rather than the Queen celebrating some unknown commemmoration which was meant to represent the national relief after the Armada was defeated. I say relief as the Armada was actually almost a military disaster. It was more luck than skill that won the day, as well as the faster ships, fire ships and the storms that helped. More than one third of the ships the English had were privateers. Yes Hawkins designed the galleons and the new ships were built, all 20 of them! But here Dan Snow did not mention the fact that Hawkins did not design the ships from an original design.

Three proto types were made of Spanish ships in the reign of Mary Tudor and her husband Phillip II as our shipwrights had a good look at their ships during the three years he was here between 1553 and 1558. It was these proto types that Hawkins used for the new ships that fought the Armada. Phillip and Mary were not popular because of the ruthless attack on heretics under them, but their designs were still appreciated!

Yes, Henry did not leave the kingdom with much money and as a result the navy was neglected by his successors, but he is still the real Father of the Royal Navy, not Peypes or Charles 11 or William ofOrange.

Having said all of this, the struggle to reform the navy and the struggle to decide who controls it were highlighted, as were the highs and lows of the 17th century battles with France, Spain and Holland. If Charles 11 had have had less pride and gone to Parliament with a request for more money, perhaps the Royal Charles would not have been taken by his nephew. And how ept and ironic that it was that same nephew William of Orange who built many of the navel colleges and made the rules that shaped the service that is the envy of the world today.