The Admiralty and Britain’s Maritime Affairs 1546–1964

The past as precedent?

Professor Andrew Lambert, makes the case for the Admiralty to be reinstated

At a time when the future shape and character of government departments is under review, it may be timely to reconsider the Admiralty, the high-profile department that shaped Britain’s dynamic outward-looking maritime agenda for three centuries. The Admiralty was far more than the headquarters of the most important national defence force: it was critical to the security of British commerce in peace and war, dealing with pirates, navigational hazards and hostile states; it supported the creation of the first global communications system, the submarine telegraph cable; it pioneered the use of wireless at sea; it sustained a massive industrial base; and it linked the seafaring population to the state. It was the most distinctively British of the departments of state, having a prestige and consequence above and beyond the naval ministries of other states. Its amalgamation into the Ministry of Defence in 1964 saw many of those roles downgraded and dropped, the Navy being trimmed to fit a defence structure focused on high-end conflict – the kind that would end in mutually assured destruction. After 300 years, Britain had shifted focus to the land and regional agendas, and was no longer committed to a global maritime vision that recognised the critical importance of the sea for Britain in peace and war.

But now, as Britain returns to a global maritime focus, it will need a powerful department that can speak for the maritime sector, from defence and border security to commerce, safety and fisheries.

The history

The Admiralty’s commanding presence at the centre of British government was manifested in appropriately imposing buildings.
The Admiralty’s commanding presence at the centre of British government was manifested in appropriately imposing buildings. The eighteenth century Old Admiralty Building combined official residences with administrative and control functions, to ensure key decision-makers were available at all hours. Photo: PD

Britain was consciously created as a seapower state, a political construct that emphasised maritime trade, naval defence and national engagement with the oceans. The sea has determined Britain’s security, prosperity and influence for 500 years. The Admiralty was created at the beginning of that process, when Henry VIII, turning away from Europe and the Roman Church, built a new national identity around naval power, establishing the office of Admiralty in 1546 to reflect the newfound ability of warships to defend the British Isles and project national identity. That this shift of focus occurred just as long-distance maritime trade took off was not accidental. Political and economic relations with the European hegemon having deteriorated, England needed to look elsewhere for trade and change its defence forces accordingly. The new synergy of naval power, trade and later empire came to dominate national culture. Although the Admiralty remained under royal direction until 1688, the commercial wishes of the City of London were rarely ignored. The City backed Parliament against the king in the Civil Wars, but when the army tried to run the country it swiftly changed sides. Charles II and James II were effective and engaged in directing the Admiralty, and linked to commercial expansion. Their maritime vision was widely shared, but James ignored the critical connection between maritime economic activity and inclusive politics. The City of London demanded a role in the direction of the Admiralty as the political price for taxation.

The Revolution Settlement of 1688 created a constitutional monarchy, with political power shared between the monarchy, the aristocracy and the mercantile elite. The new regime created the national debt and the Bank of England to raise funds for the fleet. Investing in the national debt committed many citizens to the new political order, while the Navy secured command of the sea at Barfleur/La Hogue in 1692. A decade later the City of London took control, the House of Commons insisting that a quarter of the Navy that it was funding should be deployed to protect the maritime trade it owned or insured – but it left the Admiralty to decide how to deploy the ships.

By 1700 a recognisable British approach to war had emerged, a limited maritime strategy built on naval power, subsidies and alliances to resist continental powers like Louis XIV’s France that sought to threaten Britain. Parliament subsidised allied armies rather than conscripting British men into a national army, even when Napoleon threatened to invade. The Royal Navy was the obvious symbol of a progressive society, a contrast to the military might of continental autocrats, reflecting the interests of merchants, shipowners, capitalists and industrialists. Sea power gave British diplomacy a cutting edge that was recognised across Europe and frequently used to signal intent. Naval deterrence long predates the ballistic missile era.

Political power

Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, in office 1911–1915 and 1939 –1940.
Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, in office 1911–1915 and 1939 –1940. Photo: PD

The Admiralty would retain a senior Cabinet level post for 250 years. The Minister, the First Lord of the Admiralty, usually an eminent and capable politician, occasionally a naval officer, was supported by senior officers, junior ministers and a dedicated team of career civil servants who were as committed to the cause as their uniformed colleagues. The Admiralty Board Room was the nerve centre of great campaigns.

The location of the Admiralty and the grandeur of its eighteenth-century buildings reflected its status and significance in national life. The Admiralty building exuded power and prestige, not least when Nelson lay in state on the night before his funeral. In the nineteenth century the creation of Trafalgar Square as the ceremonial centre of an expanding global maritime system linked the ultimate naval heroism with national identity, an agenda repeated at the opposite end of Whitehall, in the new Parliament building.

The Admiralty dedicated 60 years to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, before shifting the effort into the Indian Ocean for another 40 years. It also had critical roles in expanding maritime safety, the Hydrographic Branch charting the globe to support the expansion of British commerce and wage an occasional war, while the Admiralty sponsored major research projects on oceanography, meteorology and tidal theory from the Arctic to the Antarctic, enabling young scientists, including Charles Darwin and botanist Joseph Hooker, to visit distant locations. In the 1840s it even produced an official science textbook for naval officers, with a chapter by Darwin. The Admiralty ran the great voyages of science and discovery, including those of Cook, Scott and Shackleton, ensuring that the nation’s scientific, commercial and navigational interests were addressed by professional seafarers, scientists and artists. It was also heavily involved in the promotion of those expeditions, providing financial and technical support for official voyage narratives, including the best-selling Arctic texts of Franklin and Parry. These projects expanded Britain’s horizons, changed trade patterns, and transformed culture. At the same time the connection between British commerce and international relations was intimate. The Foreign Office relied on the Royal Navy as the ultimate instrument for opening new markets and securing them against pirates. The best trade partners were those that shared political and economic values; autocratic and totalitarian powers with state control of all aspects of business have always been unreliable. Anglo-Russian hostility in the nineteenth century was based on rival economic models: open access versus closed markets. When Russia attempted to secure the Turkish market in 1853, resulting in the Crimean War, it was a naval blockade that bankrupted Russia and restored peace, and retained British access to Turkish markets.

In the early 20th century the central role of maritime identity in national life would be challenged by those who preferred a continental role, conscript armies and defence forces entirely unrelated to national economic activity. However, in the Second World War it was the Admiralty that ensured the defence of the United Kingdom against invasion, secured the key oceanic sea lanes that sustained the country, linked it with key allies, won the Battle of the Atlantic, working closely with the commercial sector, and delivered the armies of Britain, Canada and the United States to the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.

Yet within two decades the Admiralty would be thrown onto the rubbish heap of history.

Change of direction

By the early 1960s the sea had begun to drift out of national consciousness, while the public were encouraged to view national security in ever narrower ways. The threat from strategic missiles continued, increasing dependency on the global maritime supply of food and raw materials. Without the Admiralty the experience of the previous 500 years was forgotten, a strategic and economic model was dismantled, the country became ‘sea-blind’, and we forgot the stories that had shaped our maritime identity.

The end of the Admiralty mattered because the Royal Navy has always been much more than an armed force: it shaped and reflected a distinctive British maritime identity and consciousness, one that explains why English is the global language, why so many of us have blood relatives on the other side of the world, and why those cultural ties are so diverse and so strong. Which other former imperial power has such a strong post-colonial Commonwealth based on shared political values, culture and interests? Those connections will remain important.

Going forward, Britain needs to deliver a maritime vision, a task best handled by a single all-embracing entity focused on the sea. A ministry that prioritises global engagement derived from trade and security would provide the context in which the Royal Navy would operate. The obvious name for such a department has pedigree – the origins of the word ‘Admiralty’ are Arabic: إمارة البحر.*

Andrew Lambert FKC is one of Britain’s leading naval historians. Since 2001 he has been the Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

* Amīr al-bahr, ‘Commander of the Sea’.