Medieval Navy

The Navy and naval warfare was a vital part of the medieval military culture. The medieval period saw a rapid development of naval warfare and evolution of the naval ships.

Given the differing conditions of seas in different parts of Europe, different naval strategies developed and the change in circumstances also dictated the development of the naval vessels.

Notable players in medieval naval warfare were the Byzantine Empire who dominated the waters in Eastern Europe, the Vikings who helped make rowing ships a vital part of naval culture and the French and English navies in the north-western Europe who became the most important naval forces in late medieval period.

Byzantine Navy

During the early medieval period, the Byzantine navy was the most formidable naval power in Europe. The earliest legacy of the Byzantine navy came from its Roman roots but by the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire had to face the naval might of the Arab Muslims.

During the early medieval period, the Byzantine navy was the most formidable naval power in Europe. The earliest legacy of the Byzantine navy came from its Roman roots but by the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire had to face the naval might of the Arab Muslims. This resulted in rapid evolution of the Byzantine navy as it competed with the Muslim navies for the control of the Mediterranean Sea.

In the subsequent centuries, the Byzantine navy became the backbone of the Empire’s military strategy as the navy was highly effective in countering the rising threat of the Muslims. It was the Byzantine navy which proved critical in not only diminishing the Muslim influence in the Mediterranean but also in countering the repeated attacks and sieges of Constantinople.

  • The Byzantines invented underwater rams that were used to sink ships
  • The Byzantine navy used “Greek Fire” which was fired from a Siphon
  • Greek Fire was used to set alight enemies ships, targeting sails and hulls
  • A Siphon was a very advanced weapon that could set sails alight on impact
  • The Byzantines invented underwater rams that were used to sink ships

Viking Naval Power

Vikings began raiding European shores in the 8th century and their raids forced many north-western European kingdoms to build up their own navies.

Although the Vikings lacked a proper navy, they used their iconic longships to rapidly traverse long distances. The longships were typically long, slender, light-weight and an overall design which aided in achieving great speeds.

The standard longship was also effective in sailing in water one feet deep thereby helping Viking raiders to virtually take the longship to the shore.

The attacks of the Vikings propelled the development of many medieval European navies as a defence against their attacks. The longship also inspired more flexible and light-weight vessels which offered greater maneuverability on sea.

Arab Naval Power

With the rise of Muslim Arab and the Caliphate in the 7th century, the Arab navy began to be a dominant player in the Mediterranean Sea.

Together with reaching as far as Maghreb and Iberia, Arab navy was initially able to defeat the Byzantine might in many decisive encounters, gaining control of most of the Mediterranean Sea and reaching as far as Sicily and southern Italy.

The Arab naval power remained a decisive factor in these seas all the way until the 13th century although they had to face many significant defeats by the Byzantine Empire as they tried to take control of Constantinople. By the 13th century, Arab naval power had declined.

Genoese Navy

Genoa was one of the most powerful city-states in the High Middle Ages and by the late medieval period, it had become a pre-eminent Maritime Republic. It had a huge and powerful navy which not only helped Genoa maintain its extensive trade in the Mediterranean but also take part in many naval battles.

Being a republic which was primarily dependent on its maritime trade, the Genoese navy was frequently pitted against the navies of rival maritime republics such as those of Pisa and Venice. Consequently, in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Genoese navy fought many battles against the Pisan and Venetian navies.

Comprising of a huge fleet, the Genoese navy won most of these battles which secured its supremacy in the Mediterranean all the way until the end of the 14th century.

Venetian Navy

The Venetian navy was the navy of the maritime republic of Venice in the late medieval period. The Venetian navy came into being between the 8th and 11th centuries and reached the peak of its might from 12th to 15th centuries.

During the late medieval period, the Venetian navy rapidly expanded its fleet size and arsenal, effectively deploying the newly-invented gunpowder weapons. Although losing many battles to the Genoese navy, the Venetian navy remained very powerful and successfully warded off powerful foes such as the Ottoman naval power.

French Navy

Although the French navy developed significantly at the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the modern period, it played an important role in the Hundred Years’ War between the English and the French.

During this war, the key concern of the French navy was in the English Channel where it frequently faced off with the naval might of England.

Notable among these is the Battle of Sluys which was fought at sea in 1340 and marked the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War.

The French fleet suffered a humiliating defeat in this battle and although France would rebuild a formidable navy quickly, the waters of English Channel were to remain in the hands of the powerful English navy for the better part of the late medieval period.

The conflict with England greatly impacted the gradual evolution of the French navy and its ultimate excellence towards the pre-modern period.

English Navy

England, being situated in the sea-locked British Isles, had to frequently face maritime attacks and invasions. Most notable among these was the 6th century invasion by the Anglo-Saxons, the Viking invasions from 8th century onwards and the 11th century invasion by William the Conqueror.

Consequently, England began focusing on building a powerful navy as early as the 10th century. Although these efforts were halted following the Norman invasion in the 11th century, they were renewed in the 14th century with the onset of the Hundred Years’ War with France.

During this protracted conflict, England was able to maintain decisive supremacy in the English Channel and keep the conflict mostly on the French soil where most of the battles were fought. England’s reliance on maritime supremacy for trade with the rest of the Europe greatly enhanced the need for a naval fleet which culminated in the establishment of the Royal Navy in the 16th century.

Medieval Navy Interesting Facts:

  • A Carrack was a large Naval Ship of the late medieval times
  • The Carrack ship had three masts, a spritsail and a rear lateen sail
  • Carval – a late medieval method of building ships (caravels) ships
  • Clinker – method of building a ship from the Keel upwards
  • Most Medieval Naval battles took place in the Mediterranean and North Sea
  • Channel naval warfare was mostly related to trade routes and involved pirates
  • Naval Wars between Venice and Genoa were about trade routes to Asia and the Middle East
  • In 1347 Edward III led a fleet of 738 ships to Calais in France
  • Around 1420 the English navy had a fleet of around 13 ships with double masts
  • Early North Sea medieval naval warfare was dominated by the Vikings
  • An epic naval battle (Battle of Sluys) was won by the English in the 100 years war
  • Later in medieval times larger ships and better navigation made longer journeys possible
  • Early ships in Northern Europe were constructed from the Keel upwards
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