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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: September 2013

1 - The English Maritime Community, 1500–1650


The maritime community lacked clarity of definition. In one sense it embraced all those merchants who sent a proportion of their goods by sea, either abroad or coastwise, and in another sense all the bargemen and wherrymen who transported commodities inland along the river systems. When we consider that boats of up to fifteen tons burthen (in other words large enough to go to sea) could penetrate inland as far as Bedford, and that something like ten counties were served by the Great Ouse and its tributaries, we realize how flexible the concept of a maritime community could be. Kings Lynn has been described as the ‘gateway to a fifth of England’. After 1536 every county with a seacoast was for certain purposes subject to the jurisdiction of a Vice-Admiral, whose job it was to catch pirates, adjudicate seafarers disputes and administer prize law, using delegated authority from the Court of the High Admiral. Justices of the Peace in such counties would have been accustomed to refer a proportion of the cases which came before them to that jurisdiction. However, the Vice-Admirals powers were defined functionally rather than territorially, and it would be unreasonable to think of the whole of Hampshire or Norfolk, often far from the rivers, as belonging to the maritime community. More realistically, it consisted of those who earned their living from the sea, but even such a definition is imprecise. Any merchant who shipped even part of a cargo, or who had a share in the ownership of a vessel, would belong, as would any family whose runaway son went to sea.