Video: As RAF Marham gets set to welcome Lightning-II strike aircraft in 2018 we look back at Norfolk’s military history

Battle of Sluys, 1340. Great Yarmouth sent more ships for King Edward's fleet against the Dutch than London did. Battle of Sluys, 1340. Great Yarmouth sent more ships for King Edward's fleet against the Dutch than London did.

Monday, January 13, 2014
2:38 PM

Norfolk’s long and distinguished naval and air force history is destined to come together in the new RAF Marham-based Lightning II strike aircraft, which will operate from land bases and aircraft carriers. Set to be deployed in the county from 2018, preparations re already under way at Marham to receive the new warplane. As the base gears up for the next generation of military strike aircraft, MarK NICHOLLS focuses on the county’s illustrious past as a naval and air power in a six-part series specially-commissioned for the Eastern Daily Press.

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Sir Cloudsley Shovel (1650-1707) from Cockthorpe.Sir Cloudsley Shovel (1650-1707) from Cockthorpe.

As the shadow of battle loomed over the realms of Anglo-Saxon England in the early weeks of 1066, a formidable fleet gathered off the coast of North Norfolk.

With the timid Edward the Confessor dead within days of the New Year, Harold Godwinson became king of an England that faced an uncertain future with threats to his throne from Scandinavia and Normandy.

As history records, he ultimately failed to defend England from invasion and conquest, defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings of October 14, 1066. It was, however, the last time this country was invaded by an enemy; in later generations Lord Nelson and the army, navy and air force in WWII ensured it never happened again.

Yet in the dark days of 1066, 
those observing Norfolk’s coastal inlets would have been aware of another invader’s fleet seeking shelter ahead of battle, underlining the importance of Norfolk’s 
ports to seafarers from the earliest periods.

Sir Christopher Myngs (1625-66) who was from Salthouse.Sir Christopher Myngs (1625-66) who was from Salthouse.

Burnham Overy was a port of some importance as early as the 10th and 11th centuries when Norfolk was prosperous and had a comparatively high population compared to other parts of England at the time.

With its name deriving from ‘ofer’ – or ‘over the river’ - because it was the first port on the River Burn for hundreds of years long before Burnham Overy Staithe became noteworthy, it played a part in the build-up to the Battle of Hastings of 1066.

King Harold’s outlawed brother Tostig and the Norwegian King Harald III Hardrada had made an alliance against Harold Godwin and planned to head north and take Northumbria. They were eventually defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge of September 25, 1066, but in preparation they had mustered their 60 ships at Burnham Overy and would have inevitably staged raids ashore.

It is the first known reference of significant naval gatherings off Norfolk but over the next few hundred years – long before Nelson became the Norfolk Hero - the county began to play a role in the country’s maritime history.

During the medieval period, Great Yarmouth emerged as a strategic naval port. In the reigns of Edward II and Edward III, vessels and sailors from Yarmouth were involved in a number of naval operations. John Perbrowne, who was the Member of Parliament, was given charge of the northern fleet at periods between 1317 and 1333 and was also one of Edward III’s admirals in operations against Scotland.

In 1340, Yarmouth gained renown when for the Battle of Sluys it provided more ships for King Edward’s fleet to fight against the Dutch than London did, with Perbrowne taking command at the battle.

Leading East Anglian maritime expert Robert Malster reflects how in 1347, there 43 Yarmouth ships and 1,075 mariners serving at the siege of Calais, a commitment that today remains honoured in the town’s coat of arms.

“Edward III was so pleased with their services that he permitted the royal arms to be joined with the arms of the town; one side of the town’s arms now shows the three lions of England on a red ground and the other has silver herrings on a blue ground,” he said.

However, Yarmouth’s position and naval importance also left it vulnerable as a target for marauding French vessels. 
The so-called Dunkirkers struck fear into the people of the port because of the level of threat they posed and the frequency of the attacks.

Yet Yarmouth survived and flourished as a naval port as Britain’s dominance of the waves grew. With more naval vessels based at Yarmouth, or calling in to the port, its victualler role evolved as crews needed food, water and supplies as well as maintenance for the ships. In addition, a naval hospital was also established and when he returned after various campaigns, via Yarmouth, Lord Nelson would often take time to visit wounded sailors who were undergoing treatment and rehabilitation.

Malster, whose two recent books Maritime Norfolk Parts I and II offer a definitive seagoing history of the region, added: “The importance of Yarmouth as a base for operations in the northern part of the North Sea was such that at the beginning of the nineteenth century the Admiralty gave consideration to the establishment of a telegraph line between London and the port.”

The first operational signal – “Calpyso is ready for sea” was sent from the Port Admiral on August 24, 1808.

Norfolk had maritime heroes long before Nelson ruled the waves. Three in particular were noteworthy and all came from a small area of North Norfolk; Sir Christopher Myngs (1625-66) was from Salthouse and Sir John Narborough (1640-1688) and Sir Cloudesley Shovell (1650-1707) came from the hamlet of Cockthorpe.

Myngs was a swashbuckling privateer who served his own ends as much as he did the military and political needs of his country but at the time of his death in an epic sea battle off the coast of Lowestoft, he was a national hero. Diarist Samuel Pepys even wrote about him. However, he is barely remembered in Norfolk; even the street that bore his name in his home village of Salthouse – a makeshift row of houses named Myngs Terrace that were erected as temporary accommodation in the aftermath of the dreadful 1953 floods - was removed in the 1990s.

Myngs was the first of this great triumvirate of North Norfolk admirals who all learned their trade, profession and leadership from one another. Narborough followed Myngs and was in turn followed by Shovell, who rose to become the second highest-ranking naval officer in the land and is widely regarded as the finest seaman of Queen Anne’s age.

Tragically, Shovell met an unfortunate death, caused by a navigational error off the Isles of Scilly on a bleak October night in 1707. Five ships were lost, along with the lives of 2000 British mariners after HMS Association misjudged its position and hit Gilstone Rock. The inadequacies of measuring longitude lay at the root of the error and spurred Parliament to stage a competition to solve the navigational riddle. The Longitude Act of 1714 was drawn up to offer a large monetary prize to anyone who could devise a method for determining longitude accurately at sea; a puzzle finally solved by 18th century engineer John Harrison with his H4 marine chronometer clock, which dramatically improved navigation and saved countless lives at sea.

Of the three, Shovell was the most influential and left a legacy that led to the resolution of one of the great navigational challenges for seafarers.

Yet it is the story of Myngs’ demise that has a most uncanny resonance to it. He and Lord Nelson share somewhat bizarre similarities in the hour of their deaths.

For Myngs, his final breath came during the Second Dutch War (1664-67), at the height of the Four Days Battle of June 1-4, 1666. Myngs was in command aboard his flagship, also the Victory, when he was struck in the neck by a shot fired by a sniper from the rigging of an enemy vessel. Mortally wounded, he was carried below decks and later died from his wounds. It all sounds very familiar. Yet this happened to Myngs 139 years before Nelson suffered a similar fate at the Battle of Trafalgar of October 21, 1805.

Maritime Norfolk Part I and Maritime Norfolk Part II are a comprehensive analysis of Norfolk’s maritime history by Robert Malster. Published by Poppyland Publishing, they are available from bookshops and museum shops across the county and online from at £19.95 each.

n Tomorrow: Lord Nelson and his seafaring legacy.