The ‘Sea Dogs’ was the name given to a group of English privateers who were first issued licences in 1560, and who were used to try and give England a navy at a time when the Royasl Navy barely existed. For most of this period they carried out semi-independent raids into Spanish waters, although often with the approval of, and limited financial backing from Elizabeth I.
One somewhat surprising element of this story, especially for anyone less familiar with it, is that the sea dogs were often rather ineffective on their raids. For every triumph such as Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, there was a disaster – in Drake’s case most famously his final expedition, but this was by no means his only defeat. In general the Spanish were quite effective at defending their American Empire. However when one of the Sea Dogs did achieve something, it was normaly spectacular, and the wealth that could be won in a single battle was more than enough to encourage a wide range of men to try their luck against the Spanish.
Although Drake is the most famous of these men, the most significant was probably Sir John Hawkins, who played a major role in the development of the ‘race-built’ galleon, a type of warship without the bulky superstructures of most earlier galleons. This made the more suited to the English method of fighting, which relied more on long distance gunfire, and less on fighting boarding actions than their Spanish opponents.
We start with a brief background history, looking at early raids into the Spanish empire, before moving on to the origins of the Sea Dogs. The first half of the book then focuses on the most famous of the Sea Dogs – John Hawkins, Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish, and their best known exploits. This is followed by a chapter of potted biographies of the less famous Sea Dogs. The tone of the book then changes, as open war with Spain became inevitable, and the focus of the naval war moved into European waters. We get a good account of this war, and the Armada campaigns. Not all of the Sea Dogs emerge well from this – perhaps most famously Drake who got distracted by the chance of taking a valuable Spanish prize, but overall they proved their worth in the long running battle in the Channel that ended any Spanish chance of a succesful invasion.
Overall this is a succesful history of these men, acknowledging both their successes and their failures, most notably their involvement in the slave trade. Quite a few of them emerge as eccentric at best, and one or two come across as quite mad, something that doesn’t come across in more old fashioned books on this topic.
1 – Spain’s Early Raiders
2 – The Rise of the Sea Dogs
3 – John Hawkins
4 – The Captives
5 – Francis Drake
6 – Drake’s Circumnavigation (1): the Doughty Incident
7 – Drake’s Circumnavigation (2): Drake’s Fortune
8 – Drake’s Circumnavigation (3): The East Indies and Home
9 – Thomas Cavendish
10 – The Military Elizabethans
11 – The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots
12 – Cadiz
13 – The Spanish Armada
14 – Ireland and Scotland
15 – The Deaths of the Sea Dogs
16 – The Capture of Cadiz
17 – The End of an Era
Author: Brian Best