A Victory and 1.2 Million Oak Trees

Britain is a nation that has a strong maritime history and intertwined with oak trees. From the ancient boats of Alfred the Great to the brutal sea battles of the 1800s, it is a nation has always had a close association with the sea.

Britain has boasted large numbers of ships and huge naval fleets, however the construction of these vessels required vast swathes of woodlands to be destroyed. 

Oak was a particularly sought after material for ship construction and thousands of oak trees were felled to make ships such as the famous HMS Victory that was the flagship vessel in the Battle of Trafalgar.


There have been strong stances made that the deforestation driven by the ship building trade permanently impacted the forests of Britain, and alternate points of view that the trade actually helped to protect ancient forests. However there is no doubt that ship building left a permanent mark on the landscape of Britain. 

The Beginnings of a Seafaring Nation

Since ancient times Britain has somewhat dabbled in the art of ship building, and has certainly been influenced by people from across the seas.

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The Romans invaded Britain with an impressive fleet of ships and continued to navigate the seas to facilitate trade and transportation to and from the British Isles. 

Construction of the 35 m long Skeid longship Draken Harald Hårfagre
Construction of the 35 m long Skeid longship Draken Harald Hårfagre

The Vikings, famously fearsome sea warriors, arrived by boat from distant shores and even the famous Saxon King Alfred the Great saw the value in having well designed ships at his disposal.

In fact, the Anglo-Saxon chronicles even tell the tale of how Alfred ordered the construction of vessels based on Danish designs, and even supposedly modified these designs himself in an effort to create ships that could effectively fight the Scandinavian invaders that were a constant threat to his kingdom.

There was even a significant maritime battle recorded in 897 AD between Alfred’s fleet and a fleet of Danish vessels, in which Alfred emerged victorious. 

Read More: Kett’s Rebellion & The Hangman’s Oak

However, while Britain’s relationship with vessels to conquer the seas is an old one, it wasn’t until Tudor times that the Royal Navy was officially created. In the year 1546, the English Royal Navy was formally established by the infamous Tudor king, Henry VIII.

Prior to this time there were maritime vessels used in a military capacity, however these were generally somewhat unorganised in structure, dispersed after a battle, and more often than not, were simply merchant ships called in for military use.

There were some attempts by rulers prior to the Tudor period to create a more organised naval force, but the success of these attempts seemed to be short lived. In the mid-1500s Henry would create England’s first organised and lasting standing fleet. This concept would form the foundation of the British Royal Navy that still operates today.  

Once established, the navy grew with relative pace, and when King Charles II took the throne close to a hundred years later, the navy had grown to hold a fleet of 154 vessels. 

A Forest to Make a Ship

The wood required for building all these vessels had to come from somewhere. The amount of timber required to make the ships of yesteryear was truly astronomical. 

The remains of the Mary Rose's hull. All deck levels can be made out clearly, including the minor remnants of the sterncastle deck.
The remains of the Mary Rose’s hull. All deck levels can be made out clearly, including the minor remnants of the sterncastle deck.

The construction of the Mary Rose commenced on January 29, 1510, in Portsmouth, with its launch taking place in July 1511. Building a warship of the Mary Rose’s size was a monumental endeavor, requiring substantial quantities of high-quality materials, primarily oak.

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Determining the exact amount of timber needed is challenging since only about one-third of the ship remains today. Estimates suggest it required approximately 600 mostly large oak trees, equivalent to around 16 hectares (40 acres) of woodland.

During the 16th century, the massive trees that had once been abundant in Europe and the British Isles had become quite rare.

Consequently, timbers were sourced from various regions in southern England. The largest timbers utilized in the construction were comparable in size to those employed in the roofs of the grandest cathedrals during the High Middle Ages.

An unprocessed hull plank, for instance, weighed over 300 kg (660 lb), while one of the main deck beams approached three-quarters of a tonne in weight.

6000 Trees

By the late eighteenth century, major vessels could require as many as 6,000 trees to be felled for construction proposes. In most cases 2000 of these trees were oak.

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Oak was the favoured wood for ship building as its unique qualities made it highly durable and considerably strong. For ships sailing on the open ocean, particularly in a time when ocean crossings were incredible dangerous, both of these qualities made oak a desirable wood for ship construction.

HMS Conway was a naval training school or "school ship", founded in 1859 and housed for most of her life aboard a 19th-century wooden ship of the line.
HMS Conway was a naval training school or “school ship”, founded in 1859 and housed for most of her life aboard a 19th-century wooden ship of the line.

This was even more important in the case of ships constructed for military use, as vessels had to be sturdy and strong to better withstand damage when engaging in maritime battles. 

Hundreds of Years

While oak was a good material for ship building, it is a slow growing and long lived tree. It takes an English oak around four decades to start producing acorns. These trees also live for hundreds of years, meaning that the demand for building new ships was felling ancient trees that would take at least decades to regenerate.

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It was no small amount of trees that were being felled either. The construction on a 110 gun ship in the 1700s required the felling of an average of 4,000 oak trees; to put this number into perspective, that number equates to roughly 30-40 hectares (74-98 acres)of woodland.

Each of these vessels would sail the seas for, on average, just twelve years. As Britain continued to grow its maritime might, huge amounts of wood were required. By the late 1700s, estimates state that the navy needed 50,000 loads of oak every year to keep up with the demand for ship construction. 

The Carbon Footprint of Henry VIII 

We may not commonly associate carbon footprints with people living in the Tudor period, and to be fair, most inhabitants in Tudor times had a low to non-existent carbon footprint.

However, recent calculations have found Henry VIII to be a notable exception to this rule, and this is largely down to the deforestation and tree felling ordered by this historic king.

tall oak tree

Over four thousand metric tons of CO2 are estimated to have been released in Henry’s deforestation activities, which were largely driven to support the construction of his maritime fleets. 

Read More: The Impact of the Loss of Our Ancient Woodlands

However, Henry VIII’s reign wasn’t all bad for the environment. In the mid-1500s Henry created the Act for the Preservation of Woods, which did create some limitations on the levels of wood that could be felled and the activities people could engage in in woodland environments. 

A Victory and 1.2 Million Oak Trees Trees 

By the end of the 1700s, the Royal Navy had swelled to boast a fleet of three hundred ships. These ships, however, came with no small environmental toll.

The construction of this number of ships would have taken as an estimated 1.2 million oak trees. Many of these trees had likely been sourced from the woodlands of Europe and the woodlands at home in Britain.

Divers from the team that brought HMS Victory into drydock no. 2 in 1925.
Divers from the team that brought HMS Victory into drydock no. 2 in 1925.

When it came to the construction of the famous warship, the HMS Victory, launched in 1765, a huge number of trees were felled. The 104 gun ship was famously the flagship in the Battle of Trafalgar, the Battle of Cape Spartel in 1782, and the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797. 

The construction of the Victory cost the equivalent of millions of pounds in today’s currency and required the labour of hundreds of workers to complete.

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Ninety percent of the wood used for construction of the Victory was oak, with the other ten percent being composed of lignum vitae, elm, pine, and fir. Measuring just over sixty-nine metres in length, this huge vessel required a total of some 6,000 trees for construction.

Repairs of the Victory

It is thought that some of the trees used to build the HMS Victory were over 400 years old. As the Victory was used in brutal ocean battles, it is not surprising that it sustained damage throughout its time on the seas. Repairs of the Victory required even more wood to be felled and supplied to keep the ship in good condition. 

Today the HMS Victory boasts the title of ‘the world’s oldest naval vessel still in commission,’ with a history reaching back over 240 years. However, considering the age of some of the ancient oaks that the ship is built from, it could be argued that that real age of the HMS Victory is much, much older. 

Pit Saws and Oak Trees

In the mid-1700s, the Royal Dockyards of Britain adopted saw pits as a new method of timber cutting. Prior to their introduction, log support was provided by trestles, and a frame saw was used for cutting.

a pit saw
Saw pits were introduced into the Royal Dockyards of Britain in the mid 1700s

Within the Royal Dockyards’ saw pits, there were two key roles: the ‘Topman’ and the ‘Underman.’ The Topman was responsible for following the marked line to create a straight plank, while the Underman assisted by pushing the rib, pit, or whip saw.

Well Managed Woodlands and Wood from Afar 

The stance has been taken that the construction of ships, particularly for a naval capacity, has been highly detrimental to the environment.

Read More: Uses for Oak, Ash, Beech, Elm and Birch

There is no doubt that the construction of ships required huge amounts of wood and vast swathes of woodland to be cleared. Considering the need for oak and the slow growth and reproduction of oak species, there is also no doubt that the deforestation driven by ship building had a lasting impact. 

This impact was not just felt in Britain either. It was not uncommon for trees to be felled in colonies such as North America to fuel British ship building.

Even though the Great Eastern hull was an all-iron construction, it’s decks consumed vast amounts of timber

In fact, the value of quality trees is exemplified by the Mast Preservation Clause in the 1691 Massachusetts Bay Charter. This clause made trees that fit within certain parameters deemed appropriate for the construction of warships the property of the crown. 

However, while the argument has been made that ship building was bad for the forest, there is also the stance that it actually had some benefits for the environment.

As quality wood was such a valuable commodity for ship building, there were certain protections put in place to safeguard it it. It also has been argued that measures of forest management would not have been passed if trees, including oaks, were not so sought after for ship construction. 

Oak Trees that Built a Nation 

Ship building has always had a strong reliance on natural resources and Britain would not have been able to conquer the seas without the abundance of wood that was available to construct its mighty vessels.

With oak particularly in demand, the slow growth of oak as a species created a significant factor in the impact that ship building had on the ancient forests of Britain. While there is no doubt that ship building was a factor in deforestation, the overall decline of oak species and woodland coverage in Britain is a more complicated issue with a wide variety of contributing influences. 

Overall, Britain built its place in the world through the power of its maritime endeavours, and in this way, the forests of Britain helped to build the nation that it became.