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Admiralty


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Until a permanent royal navy came into being, organization did not need to be elaborate. A commander was appointed for the campaign, after which most of the vessels, being converted merchantmen, returned to their home ports. The first admirals were appointed in the late 13th cent. Henry VIII made a considerable effort to strengthen naval power. In 1540 Lord Bedford was named lord admiral and in 1545 a Council for Marine Causes was established—the genesis of the Navy Board. Buckingham, Charles I's favourite, was made lord high admiral and after his murder in 1628 the office was put into commission. This arrangement, with a 1st lord of the Admiralty, became permanent after 1708. The growing importance of the navy in the 17th cent. was underlined by the fact that the lord high admiralship was taken at the highest level—by James, duke of York, 1660–73, and by Charles II himself 1673–84.

The Navy Board took responsibility for administration and implementation, the Admiralty Board for appointments and strategy. The fleet to which Charles I had devoted considerable care deserted him at the Civil War. The Commonwealth regime abolished both boards, but found it necessary to replace them with commissioners of the Admiralty and naval commissioners, under whom the navy, particularly with Blake's leadership, acquitted itself well. Charles II in 1660 restored the old order and was fortunate enough to find in Samuel Pepys a remarkably capable civil servant. The same efficiency was scarcely maintained in the 18th cent. and the great victories were won more by tactics, morale, and personnel than by administration. Since the 1st lord was always a politician, often with no experience of the sea, professional naval advice came from a 1st sea lord.

The dual system came to an end in 1832, partly as a measure of economy, when Sir James Graham brought the Navy Board into the Admiralty structure and redefined channels of responsibility.

In the 20th cent. the degree of autonomy built up by the Admiralty was weakened by a number of factors—spiralling cost, an acceleration of technological change, and, not least, after 1945, by the remarkable shrinking of the navy itself. In 1931, for the first time since 1709, the 1st lord was briefly not a member of the cabinet, and in 1964, after a great run‐down of the navy in the wake of the Second World War, the post of 1st lord was discontinued. In a unified Ministry of Defence the spokesman for the navy was the chief of naval staff and 1st sea lord.

Subjects: British History.


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