12.10.21, Cushway, Edward III and the War at Sea

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Stephen Morillo

The Medieval Review 12.10.21

Cushway, Graham. Edward III and the War at Sea: The English Navy, 1327-1377. Warfare in History. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2011. Pp. xii, 288. ISBN: 978-1-84383-621-6.

Reviewed by:
Stephen Morillo
Wabash College

Graham Cushway has written a valuable but difficult book about the operations of English naval forces under Edward III. The valuable aspect of the book is the massive amount of research Cushway has done into all the aspects of the raising, maintenance, and use of naval forces during this period. Chapters cover such topics as the logistics of ship building and repair, the connection between England's merchant marine and its ability to deploy naval force in an age when specialized warships were few and far between and many ships in a royal fleet consisted of converted merchant ships, the mechanisms of impressment by which such composite fleets were raised, the types of ships upon which the king could call, and the administrative structures that activated all these mechanisms. These chapters, drawn from Cushway's doctoral dissertation, constitute a sort of naval corollary to H.J. Hewitt's classic study of Edward's armies, The Organization of War under Edward III (1966). Further thematic chapters detail the political context in which the raising of naval forces took place, including resistance that was at times significant which helps explain the decline of the fleet in the last years of Edward's reign. Reflecting the rehabilitation of campaign-and-battle oriented military history in the decades since Hewitt wrote, Cushway analyzes the strategic and tactical patterns of 14th century naval warfare thematically as well.

The lessons of these chapters reinforce and extend the main themes of the administrative and military history of Edward III's reign. Institutional growth and development was a matter of ad hoc personal relationships becoming routine, with the consequence that particular persons become gradually less important to the operation of many aspects of government. Cushway shows that the same process extended to the maintenance of naval forces. But the fact that ships, captains, and merchants were somewhat less organically connected to a social power structure grounded in landed property than were armies (and certainly less than the people who served in local governance, courts, and Parliament) meant that the fortunes and developmental trajectories of nascent naval institutions were more fragile and subject to decline than some other aspects of governance. This dynamic also contributed to the decline of English naval forces at the end of Edward's reign and made that decline deeper and more disruptive than that which affected English armies.

Cushway thus contributes to the debate about the origins and development of "The English Navy" by exposing the problem of continuity (or lack thereof) that hangs over the question of whether Edward III's naval forces can really claim to be The English Navy. Earlier naval forces going back to Anglo-Saxon times have also been cited as foundational to the history of the English navy, but their institutional connection to Edward's naval forces is tenuous at best-- Edward's mechanisms for raising ships owed nothing to the Anglo-Saxon ship fyrd, for instance. And whether Edward's mechanisms survived and developed in any continuous, "institutional" way into later centuries is equally open to question. Cushway's detailed account of the constantly improvised, ad hoc nature of naval administration brings greater clarity to this whole set of issues. On the other hand, Cushway does not clearly assert his own position on this ultimate question.

Furthermore, in terms of the value of the book, this detailed, well- researched and extensively documented account (Boydell & Brewer are to be commended for using footnotes instead of endnotes) is supported by a terrific illustration program. An extensive set of color plates complement the descriptions of ship types and the dangers of naval combat. The book is generally well produced, though the type face is somewhat smaller than is ideal, presumably in order to keep the page count down.

For this is a long book. This is, in itself, not one of the difficult aspects of the book, but is a direct result of the central difficulty which is that Cushway has tried to write two books at once. The two books sit uncomfortably between one set of covers.

The thematic chapters on which this review has so far focused make up only a portion of book. Cushway recognized that for readers other than specialists in English naval history (and perhaps medieval maritime history more generally), the thematic chapters, which he drew directly from his doctoral dissertation, threatened to be somewhat dry, technical, and unexciting. They were fascinating to this reviewer, but Cushway was probably not wrong in this assessment. His solution was to interleave among the thematic chapters more traditional narrative chapters that trace the course of the first half of the Hundred Years War from a naval perspective. These are indeed a livelier read, but their scholarly value is less clear than the thematic chapters. For one thing, the story is already fairly well known (unlike the story of administrative improvisation and development told in the other chapters), having been narrated dramatically in the 14th century itself by Jean Froissart, whose accounts of the battles of Sluys and Winchelsea and other naval activity remain fundamental to what we know, down through an authoritative study by N.A.M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea (1997), with the maritime aspects of land campaigns covered at least tangentially in other military histories of the war. Unlike in the thematic chapters, where Cushway has unearthed and analyzed a treasure trove of new archival evidence, his narrative chapters rely on these earlier and well known primary and secondary sources. They are therefore both less original and less copiously grounded in good evidence.

In theory, the two sets of chapters complement each other, with the thematic chapters filling in the background, so to speak, of the narrative. But the two sorts of chapters are not as well integrated as they could be, and one ends up feeling that one has read an interrupted narrative and a scattered thematic analysis; neither set of chapters ever develops real momentum. Furthermore, the weaving together of two sorts of chapters leaves the intended readership of the book somewhat unclear. Specialists may well focus on the thematic chapters and only skim the narrative, while potential general readers will either do the reverse, or be put off entirely by the first thematic chapter they encounter. Neither outcome is ideal.

Ultimately, for this reviewer, the valuable contributions Cushway makes to the scholarship on English naval forces in the 14th century outweigh the problematic nature of the book. But the difficulty of the book's structure makes it a work to be recommended only to specialists, despite the author's valiant attempt to give it story- telling pizazz.

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Author Biography

Stephen Morillo

Wabash College