In the sixteenth century there was no hard-and-fast distinction between naval and all other craft. The sovereign had his own fighting vessels; and in the course of the seventeenth century these gradually evolved into a Royal Navy maintained entirely by the country as a whole and devoted solely to the national defence. But in earlier days this modern system was difficult everywhere and impossible in England. The English monarch, for all his power, had no means of keeping up a great army and navy without the help of Parliament and the general consent of the people. The Crown had great estates and revenues; but nothing like enough to make war on a national scale. Consequently king and people went into partnership, sometimes in peace as well as war. When fighting stopped, and no danger seemed to threaten, the king would use his men-of-war in trade himself, or even hire them out to merchants. The merchants, for their part, furnished vessels to the king in time of war. Except as supply ships, however, these auxiliaries were never a great success. The privateers built expressly for fighting were the only ships that could approach the men-of-war.
Yet, strangely enough, King Henry's first modern men-of-war grew out of a merchant-ship model, and a foreign one at that. Throughout ancient and mediaeval times the 'long ship' was the man-of-war while the 'round ship' was the merchantman. But the long ship was always some sort of galley, which, as we have seen repeatedly, depended on its oars and used sails only occasionally, and then not in action, while the round ship was built to carry cargo and to go under sail. The Italian naval architects, then the most scientific in the world, were trying to evolve two types of vessel: one that could act as light cavalry on the wings of a galley fleet, the other that could carry big cargoes safely through the pirate-haunted seas. In both types sail power and fighting power were essential. Finally a compromise resulted and the galleasse appeared. The galleasse was a hybrid between the galley and the sailing vessel, between the 'long ship' that was several times as long as it was broad and the 'round ship' that was only two or three times as long as its beam. Then, as the oceanic routes gained on those of the inland seas, and as oceanic sea power gained in the same proportion, the galleon appeared. The galleon had no oars at all, as the hybrid galleasses had, and it gained more in sail power than it lost by dropping oars. It was, in fact, the direct progenitor of the old three-decker which some people still alive can well remember.
At the time the Cabots and Columbus were discovering America the Venetians had evolved the merchant-galleasse for their trade with London: they called it, indeed, the galleazza di Londra. Then, by the time Henry VIII was building his new modern navy, the real galleon had been evolved (out of the Italian new war- and older merchant-galleasses) by England, France, and Scotland; but by England best of all. In original ideas of naval architecture England was generally behind, as she continued to be till well within living memory. Nelson's captains competed eagerly for the command of French prizes, which were better built and from superior designs. The American frigates of 1812 were incomparably better than the corresponding classes in the British service were; and so on in many other instances. But, in spite of being rather slow, conservative, and rule-of-thumb, the English were already beginning to develop a national sea-sense far beyond that of any other people. They could not, indeed, do otherwise and live. Henry's policy, England's position, the dawn of oceanic strategy, and the discovery of America, all combined to make her navy by far the most important single factor in England's problems with the world at large. As with the British Empire now, so with England then: the choice lay between her being either first or nowhere.
Henry's reasoning and his people's instinct having led to the same resolve, everyone with any sea-sense, especially shipwrights like Fletcher of Rye, began working towards the best types then obtainable. There were mistakes in plenty. The theory of naval architecture in England was never both sound and strong enough to get its own way against all opposition. But with the issue of life and death always dependent on sea power, and with so many men of every class following the sea, there was at all events the biggest rough-and-tumble school of practical seamanship that any leading country ever had. The two essential steps were quickly taken: first, from oared galleys with very little sail power to the hybrid galleasse with much more sail and much less in the way of oars; secondly, from this to the purely sailing galleon.
With the galleon we enter the age of sailing tactics which decided the fate of the oversea world. This momentous age began with Drake and the English galleon. It ended with Nelson and the first-rate, three-decker, ship-of-the-line. But it was one throughout; for its beginning differed from its end no more than a father differs from his son.
One famous Tudor vessel deserves some special notice, not because of her excellence but because of her defects.
The Henry Grace a Dieu, or Great Harry as she was generally called, launched in 1514, was Henry's own flagship on his way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. She had a gala suit of sails and pennants, all made of damasked cloth of gold. Her quarters, sides, and tops were emblazoned with heraldic targets. Court artists painted her to show His Majesty on board wearing cloth of gold, edged with the royal ermine; as well as bright crimson jacket, sleeves, and breeches, with a long white feather in his cap. Doubtless, too, His Majesty of France paid her all the proper compliments; while every man who was then what reporters are to-day talked her up to the top of his bent. No single vessel ever had greater publicity till the famous first Dreadnought of our own day appeared in the British navy nearly four hundred years later.