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Book Review, NRJ 66.1

February 23, 2021 8:53 AM | David Eddy

Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age: Senior Service, 1800-1815

Mark Jessop

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Britain’s Royal Navy achieved an apogee of effectiveness rarely achieved by any national military. It mastered the technology of its tools, the sailing warship and smoothbore artillery which was two centuries old by that point. It also mastered the soft skills—administrative, logistical, and operational - needed for the best use of its hardware. It had mastered both in a manner that left most of its rivals far behind. This created a fascination with Britain’s senior service of that era which endures to this day.

The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age: Senior Service 1800-1815, by Mark Jessop, is a product of that fascination. In it Jessop examines the Royal Navy at its apogee.

The book looks at the period from 1800 to 1815. It starts with the end of the French Wars of Revolution which ran from 1793 through the Peace of Amiens in 1801. It ends with the Hundred Days campaign of 1815, covering the Napoleonic Wars and War of 1812. The book opens with the Battle of Copenhagen and effectively ends with Napoleon boarding HMS Bellerophon in the aftermath of Waterloo.

Jessop strove to immerse readers in the period. Much of the book is presented in fictionalized vignettes, describing major battles or important aspects of life in the Royal Navy circa 1800-1815. These frequently cover topics that are important, but often overlooked. Examples include a description of the Battle of Trafalgar related by three petty officers to the sister of a deceased comrade, dockyard workers’ view of their work, and a diary account of an encounter with an early steamboat.

Jessop does an outstanding job of using period sources for this book. A good third of his sources are contemporaneous with the period, and significant fraction of the remainder represents postwar accounts by those who lived through the period. The rest date primarily from the late nineteenth century, a period in which naval history could charitably called more romantic than necessarily accurate.

Additionally, the bibliography lacks late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century sources (such as the work of N. A. M. Rogers or his students, such as J. Ross Dancy) which reexamined primary sources and corrected the misconceptions created by late nineteenth century historians. The result is a skewed view of the Royal Navy, one which exaggerates its ills and focuses on the romance of the sailing era.

Jessop’s coverage is too cursory for those familiar with the period to benefit from it. Similarly model makers or wargamers will find too little detail in The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age for their interests, but might read it for color.

However, The Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Age serves as a good introduction to the period for readers unfamiliar with the period. Jessop covers the key aspects of naval history during the period, introducing technical aspects in in a manner accessible to those unfamiliar with them. For those bored by academic histories, this book will be engaging.

  • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2019
  • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xi + 180 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95
  • ISBN: 9781526720375

Reviewed by Mark Lardas, League City, Texas

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