Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, England did not possess a navy that was operable during both war and peacetime. Although several specialized warships were built during and after the reign of Henry VIII, financial constraints and major competition from well-established naval powers slowed the growth of the English navy except in times of war or threatened invasion, as in the case of the encroaching Spanish Armada in 1588.
At the end of the English Civil War, Parliament passed the Navigation Acts and devoted considerable resources to establishing a large standing navy for the protection and enlargement of the nation’s maritime trade. Aimed primarily at the Dutch, the premier naval power in Europe, these measures led to three wars between the two countries in the seventeenth century. England fared well in the first (1652–1654), and although the navy enjoyed only a few successes in the second (1665–1667) and the third (1672–1674), the conflicts served to reduce the Dutch to a secondary naval power. Apart from sending a force to capture New Netherland (renamed New York) in 1664, the navy fought its campaigns mainly in domestic waters.
Following the Dutch wars, France became England’s principal maritime rival. English naval dockyards and the victualing (provisioning) of ships were substantially improved, allowing the navy to cruise in distant waters. A struggle in parliament soon ensued over the projected role of the navy. The Whig government believed it was unnecessary for the navy to have a formal presence in North America, as England’s colonies experienced only sporadic threats. The navy’s chief concern there was the protection and administration of the Newfoundland fisheries. The navy’s main squadrons were stationed in the Mediterranean, on the French Atlantic coast, and in the English Channel to support land-based campaigns on the Continent, blockade French ports, and defend England from possible invasion. The ascendancy of the British navy was sealed in 1692, with its destruction of the core French fleet in the Battle of Barfleur in 1692. At century’s end, the British navy consisted of 170 ships, compared to just 40 in 1600.