Book Review – ‘The Social History of English Seamen 1485–1649’ by Cheryl Fury (ed.)

By Andrew Lambert, published October 2020


This important themed collection of ten chapters marks both the end of a pioneering era of research into the English seaman of Tudor and early Stuart era, and the baseline for the next phase of study. While each chapter has a single author they are not identified on the contents page, revealing something of the ambition and unity of the project. Editor Cheryl Fury provides the introduction, conclusion and four chapters, dealing with the work of Geoffrey Scammell who, like Kenneth Andrews, provided much of the impetus for work in this field, the Elizabethan maritime community, health and healthcare, and sailors’ wives and widows. David Loades’s overview sets the sailors in the national and international context, while Ann Stirland exploits the rich archaeological evidence from the Mary Rose wreck to discuss the characteristics of seamen’s bodies. The mechanics of their work, be they sailors or archers, can be seen in their bones, along with diseases, injuries and diet. James Alsop examines the lives and deaths of sailors in the small but significant English commerce with the Guinea coast of West Africa, one of the best documented of all contemporary trades. Vincent Patarino assesses the religious culture of shipboard life, Geoffrey Hudson takes a long view of the provision of health and social care before the establishment of the Greenwich Hospital, stressing the survival of older local systems and networks that functioned in counties like Devon, which were too far away from the London and Chatham focused national effort. Older accounts tend to work back from the centralized national systems of the 1690s, highlighted by the Greenwich Hospital, rather than forward from the seafaring communities. He concludes that these older systems were effective. John Appleby addresses the upsurge of English piracy that followed peace with Spain in 1604. Over the next 20 years one-time privateers and rovers found opportunities in a range of piratical activities, moving into oceanic crime, entering the Mediterranean, and moving into other piratical communities, Dutch, Hugenot French, and Muslim corsair states. As the Stuart state achieved greater political control over the marginal areas, like the South West Coast of Ireland, English piracy became less significant, replaced by new types of predator…

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Filed under: Early Modern
Subjects include: Manpower & Life at Sea

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