The domestic feature of the Anglo-Norman period cannot be better commenced, perhaps, than by a glance at the most important our shipping, which then first began to emerge from obscurity. The Saxon had nearly lost the naval arts which King Alfred had taken such pains to advance. The preparations for the Norman Invasion, that employed workmen of all classes in building (Fig. 795) and equipping ships, lasted, we are told, “from early spring all through the ummer months;” and when completed, the Normans, Flemings, Frenchmen, and Britaignes, who composed William’s host, were conveyed to the English shores in about three thousand vessels, of which six or seven hundred were of considerable size, and all the rest small craft or boats. We have an interesting description of the duke’s own bark, which led the van, and “sailed faster than all the rest.” It had been presented for the occasion by his wife Matilda, an instance of her affectionate zeal in a cause thought just and holy by great numbers, and sanctified by the Pope, whose consecrated banner floated from the vessel’s top, with a cross upon it, as a rallying-point for all the religious as well as martial enthusiasm of his forces. Matilda’s bark shone conspicuous by day for its splendid decorations, and in the darkness of the night for the brilliant light that burned at the mast-head. It was painted with the three lions of Normandy, its vanes were gilded, its sails of different bright colours, its figure-head—a child sculptured with a drawn bow, the arrow ready to fly against the hostile land. The duke’s first care, after disembarking his troops, was to erect defences for the protec­tion of his ships. But this armament was, as it were, got up for the occasion, and must have, in a great measure, disappeared with it,—the merchants no doubt requiring and obtaining the return of their vessels to the more legitimate demands of commerce. William did not live to possess a navy of his own, though he often felt the want of it, and took especial pains to obtain one. Among the wisest of his regulations for the defence of the kingdom, that he had mastered by his resistless energy, was the establishment of the Cinque Ports. Other towns on the coast were also bound to supply ships, and, on emergency, he and his successors scrupled not to seize the whole in the merchant service. The son of the Conqueror showed glimpses of the spirit that should animate a sovereign desiring naval success. On the occasion of news suddenly reach­ing him of an outbreak in Normandy, he hurried from the chace in the New Forest, and, deaf to the cautious remonstrances of his nobles, galloped to the nearest port, and embarked in the first vessel he found, although it was blowing a gale of wind, and the sailors entreated him to have patience till the storm should abate. “Weigh anchor, hoist sail, and begone!” cried Rufus, with all his great father’s scorn of danger; “did you ever hear of a king that was drowned?” The sailors made no answer, put to sea, and landed their royal passenger at Barfleur on the following day.

Most of the old historians are of opinion, that the drowning of the nephew of Rufus, Prince William, was a judgment for the pre­sumption of the uncle. Barfleur, where Rufus had landed, was the ill-omened place of Prince William’s embarkation, with his French bride, his sister and brother, and a host of gay young nobles. The melancholy shipwreck is well known, but we recur to it for a brief mention of the ill-fated ship and its captain, as characteristic of the manners and sea-life of the period. When all was ready for a short and pleasant expedition to England, which was to include the king, with his numerous retinue, Thomas FitzStephen, a mariner of some repute, presented himself to the king, and, tendering a golden mark, said, “Stephen, son of Evrard, my father, served yours all his life by sea, and he it was who steered the ship in which your father sailed for the conquest of England. Sire king, I beg you to grant me the same office in fief: I have a vessel called the Blanche-Nef, well equipped, and manned with fifty skilful ariners.” The king could not accept FitzStephen’s offer for himself, as he had selected his own vessel, but gave his permission that the “White Ship” and its gallant captain should take charge of the prince and his retinue, amounting, with the crew, to about three hundred persons. The captain had a sailor’s pride in the speed of his craft and the qualities of his crew, and though hours passed away before he left the shore, he promised to overtake every ship that had sailed before him. There was feasting and dancing and drinking on deck at the prince’s expense, and the men drank out their wits and reason” before the White Ship started from her moorings, which was not till night. But what cared those joyous young hearts beating with love, and happiness, and pride, with the bright moonlight above them, the wind fair and gentle, and FitzStephen, proud of his charge, at the helm, while every sail was set, and the sturdy mariners plied the oar with the utmost vigour, cheered on by the boyish princes and their companions?

The rest is well known. The fate of the fine-spirited captain is worthy of the deepest pity. Swimming among the dying and the dead, he approached two drowning sufferers, and anxiously said— “The king’s son, where is he?” “He is gone,” was the reply; “Neither he, nor his brother, nor his sister, nor any of his company, has appeared above water.” “Woe to me!” cried FitzStephen, and then plunged to the bottom. The honour of his art, so deeply concerned in the high trust that had been reposed in him, was more to him in that appalling moment than his own life. The loss of a depraved and heartless prince like William, who gave the worst possible promise for a future king, was of much less real conse­quence than that of a mariner like FitzStephen.

Henry II. paid great attention to maritime affairs. When he embarked for the conquest of Ireland, he had four hundred vessels with him; some that would be considered even now of large size, and one of the “chiefest and newest” capable of carrying four hundred persons. Some time before his death he began expressly to build vessels for the voyage to Palestine; and when his son, Richard I., succeeded, he found these preparations so far advanced, that he was soon able to launch or equip fifty galleys of three tiers of oars, and many other armed galleys, inferior in size to them, but superior to those generally in use. He had also selected transports from the shipping of all his ports; “and there is not much danger in assuming,” observes Southey, “that, in size and strength of ships, this was the most formidable naval armament that had as yet appeared in modern Europe.” Indeed, an English royal navy had begun at last decidedly to grow. Coeur-de-Lion drew up a singular scale of punishments for keeping order among his crews and forces: a murderer was to be lashed to the dead body of his victim, and thrown overboard; or if in port or on shore, buried alive with it. For lesser injuries the offender was to lose his hand, or if there was no bloodshed, suffer so many times ducking over head and ears. Bad language was fined; theft punished by tarring and feathering, of which species of punishment this is the earliest instance on record. When we next read of this custom in connexion with the outposts of civilization in the United States, it will be only just to remember where it originated. A severer punishment for theft, perhaps when the crime was of an aggra­vated kind, was to leave the offender on the first land the ship reached, and abandon him to his fate. Richard’s fleet sailed from Dartmouth, and being all constructed both to row and to sail, they must have made a gallant show, glittering in every part with the Crusaders’ arms, and covered with an endless variety of banners painted on silk. The general form of the galley, of course, must have varied a little through a period of a hundred and forty years. At first it seems to have been long, low, and slender, with two tiers of oars, and a spar or beam of wood, fortified with iron, projecting from the head, for piercing the sides of the enemy. The poop and prows are seen to be very high in Richard’s fleet. He had some galleys, shorter and lighter than the rest, for throwing Greek fire, then a favourite mode of destruction both on land and sea. No English or, we may add, European fleet, had ever accomplished so long and difficult a navigation as that attempted by Richard. But the mariners had good faith in St. Nicholas, the guardian of dis­tressed seamen, and it has been said that the beatified Becket also had received special directions to watch over these crusading barks. The first dawning of a stupendous power like that of the present British navy, must inspire deep interest, therefore we have particu­larly dwelt on such glimpses of its progress as the period affords. In the reign of John we find his forces embarked in five hundred vessels, and opposed to a French fleet of three times their number, at Damme, then the port of Bruges. This was a memorable encounter, as not only did the French then put forth their first great fleet, but the engagement was the first of all those sanguinary encounters which have since taken place between the two nations. And a melancholy beginning it was for the French. Their navy was annihilated. This victory transported the English with joy, and, of course, was proportionably felt with bitterness by their neigh­bours. Indeed, the enmity between the two nations scarcely slumbered or slept afterwards. It is said that John, in consequence, had the presumption to claim for England the sovereignty of the seas, and to declare that all who would not strike to the British flag were lawful spoil;—a pretty feature in the man who made the kingdom, as far as he could, a mere fief of Rome.

The original Greek fire was probably napalm, or crude oil mixed with resin; it may have been encountered by the English during the first Crusade in 1096, but that seems too late for the account of fire-ships given here to be very plausible. It had a very limited range, and required favourable weather conditions, but it probably had a demoralizing effect on its targets.