The study of the sixteenth-century merchant fleet of England, Wales, and the Channel Islands is a neglected area of research in comparison to the volume of work undertaken into trade, the development of the Royal Navy, the age of exploration, privateering, great personalities, ship design, and naval warfare. The only major book-length study of English merchant shipping in this period – focusing upon the ships themselves rather than trade routes, commodities, and mercantile communities – is Dorothy Burwash's English Merchant Shipping, 1460-1540, which is now over seventy years old, and research into Welsh and Channel Islands shipping is similarly scant.2 This lack of research into the size and geographical distribution of the merchant fleet is unfortunate, because shipping was central to the economic lifeblood of the nation. Goods were imported and exported to and from Europe (and increasingly as the sixteenth century progressed from further afield), and whilst foreign shipping contributed to this overseas trade, by the sixteenth century at least it was indigenous shipping which bore the brunt of this mercantile activity in most ports. Merchant vessels were also essential to native trade, moving commodities coastwise and navigating the extensive Anglo-Welsh riverine networks to transport goods to and from hundreds of settlements both on the coast and much further inland. Fishing vessels, which were also employed as trading vessels on occasion, were also an essential part of the economy.
What is more, these vessels were of considerable political interest. The English Crown (which had suzerainty over Wales and the Channel Islands) had the prerogative right to tax overseas trade (imports and exports) on certain commodities carried in both native and foreign vessels, and the government thus had a vested financial interest in monitoring the activities of the merchant fleet. In short, an understanding of the merchant fleet of England, Wales, and the Channel Islands opens an important window into the country's economy. The Crown was also interested in the size and tonnage of the fleet because it was able to requisition or hire merchantmen for naval duties: knowing how many ships existed, how large they were, and where they were located (their home ports) was vital information.