Naval dominance of European waters was the largest, longest, most complex and expensive project ever undertaken by the British state and society.

— Nicholas Rodger

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Its subject is the slow and erratic process by which the peoples of the British Isles learnt - and then for long periods forgot - about the 'Safeguard of the Sea', as the 15th century phrase had it, meaning the use of the sea for national defence, and the defence of those who used the sea.

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The common sense of the word (navy) as we use it today refers to a permanent fighting service made up of ships designed for war, manned by professionals and supported by an adminsistrative and technical infrastructure. A navy in this sense is only one possible method of making war at sea, and by some way the most difficult and the most recent. There have in the past been, and to some extent still are, many other ways of generating sea power.

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The impossibility of keeping Englishmen sober ashore was a constant source of complaint, It was the great weakness of 16th century English infantrymen, whose performance when sober was admired even by the Spaniards. Already it was true, as it was to be for centuries, that many saw and despised the drunken sailor ashore, but few knew and admired him at his work afloat.

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It is well known that we fight in God's cause.

.. but unless God helps us by a miracle the English, who have faster and handier ships than ours, and many more long-range guns, and who know their advantage just as well as we do, will never close with us at all, but stand aloof and knock us to pieces with their culverins, without our being able to do them any serious hurt. So we are sailing against England in the confident hope of a miracle.

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Whether in peaceful trade or warlike attack, the sea unites more than it divides. Even if it were possible to treat England, or the British Isles, as a single, homogenous, united nation, it would still be impossible to write its naval history without reference to the histories of the other nations, near and far, with which the sea has connected it.

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