IT can fairly be claimed that St. Paul was the first chaplain at sea of whom there is any authentic record. It is true that he made that memorable voyage in ‘a ship of Alexandria sailing into Italy’ as a closely-guarded prisoner who had ‘appealed unto Caesar’. But, as is told in the 27th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, he proved himself a good seaman and a wise and courageous counsellor and spiritual adviser when the crowded ship got into sore trouble after sailing ‘close by Crete’ and was wrecked on the coast of Malta. St. Paul can well be regarded as the patron saint of naval chaplains.
There were chaplains in the King's Ships, certainly as early as Edward I's time (1272–1307). There was then no Navy in the modern sense, so that the chaplain's position was ill-defined. None of the early writers seems to have included him in his ‘list of officers’. We know that Drake took one with him in the Golden Hind on his famous voyage of 1577–80, for it is to Master Francis Fletcher, ‘preacher in this imployment’, that we are indebted for that excellent narrative The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake.
In those times, the position of the chaplain was a remarkably humble one. But, chaplain or no chaplain, the regulations insisted strongly on the conduct of religious services afloat. For instance, the instructions to the captains of ships taking part in the expedition to Cadiz in 1596 directed that ‘God is to be served by the use of prayers twice daily’—before dinner and after the singing of the psalm at the setting of the evening watch; any man absenting himself was liable to twenty-four hours in irons.
For a long period there was seldom more than one chaplain to a fleet or squadron. Although Buckingham announced in 1626 that the King had ‘given orders for preachers to goe in every of his ships at sea’, the order seems to have been largely a dead letter. From the chaplains' own memorandum to the Admiralty in 1628 we learn that ‘where there is one ship that hath a minister in it, there are ten that have none: all which pay their monthly groat.’page 142
During the greater part of the seventeenth century the chaplain was ‘rated’ officially, and for purposes of pay, along with the ‘ordinary seamen’, whose wages were taxed to augment the parson's poor pay. In the time of James I, the pay of the seaman rose from ten shillings to fifteen shillings a lunar month, subject to deductions which included fourpence for the chaplain and twopence for the surgeon. The chaplain's pay was at the same rate as the seaman's, plus the monthly groats. In 1629 the wage for seamen and chaplains was raised to nineteen shillings a month. There is much evidence, however, that for a very long time there was many a slip ‘twixt the chaplain and his groats. Someone was making a good thing out of those fourpences, cheating chaplain and seaman alike.
As the century progressed, the lot of the chaplain improved somewhat. It was Samuel Pepys, as Secretary of the Navy, who took the first steps in regularising the parson's position. He deplored ‘how few commanders take any [chaplains] and the ill-choice generally made of those that are entertained, both for ignorance and debauching, to the great dishonouring of God and the Government.’ Pepys had it laid down that the chaplain should be appointed by warrant from the Admiralty, so that he became officially a ‘warrant officer’, though he did not receive any increase in pay.
An interesting account of the life of a naval chaplain in the seventeenth century is given in the diary of Henry Teonge, a poverty-stricken clergyman of Warwickshire, who went to sea to escape his creditors. He served in His Majesty's Ships Assistance, Bristol, and Royal Oak during the sixteen-seventies. The diary, which is a faithful and detailed account of life at sea in those days, throws a ghastly light upon the insanitary and generally squalid conditions in the ships. Teonge officiated at twenty-one burials at sea in three months.
His monthly income from the seamen's fourpences in the two first-mentioned ships was about sixty-six shillings, and in the Royal Oak, manned by 390 seamen, about £6 10s, in addition to which he received the ordinary seaman's rate of pay of nineteen shillings a lunar month. Thus, his whole income for a year of thirteen months was about £55 in the two smaller ships and about page 143 £97 in the larger vessel; and, as he was victualled and free from the attention of his creditors, his post as a naval chaplain had a great attraction for a poor country parson.
A notable career as a naval chaplain was that of the Rev. Alexander John Scott, who sailed with Nelson in the Victory for more than two years and was with him at his death at Trafalgar. Scott first attracted Nelson's attention as the chaplain of a 74-gun ship in Lord Howe's fleet at Toulon in 1793 and afterwards as Sir Hyde Parker's ‘parson-secretary’. He had a well-deserved reputation for his proficiency in foreign languages, and acted as interpreter for Nelson when the latter landed to negotiate the armistice with the Danes a week after the Battle of Copenhagen (April 1801). Two years later, Scott sailed with Nelson in the Amphion and changed with him into the Victory off Toulon. As Admiral's interpreter Scott received £100 a year in addition to his pay as chaplain of the Victory, but he was often employed also as an intelligence officer and on confidential diplomatic missions. ‘Absolutely too much learning has turned his head’, said Nelson in explanation of his chaplain's frequent eccentricities.
Scott left the service after Trafalgar and became vicar of Catterick. On his death at the age of 72, books in forty languages were found in his library, though he modestly had claimed mastery of no more than eight. In his Recollections of Life in the Victory, Scott says that Lord Nelson was ‘a thorough clergyman's son. I should think he never went to bed nor got up without saying his prayers.’ Every Sunday it was the Admiral's custom either to congratulate his chaplain on the sermon or suggest that it was not as well adapted as usual to the needs of the congregation; Scott often preached from a text suggested by and discussed with the Admiral.
The Orders in Council of 1812 are the naval chaplain's charter, for it was then that his old remuneration was abolished and he was granted a regular salary of £150 a year. A cabin was officially allotted to him ‘in wardroom or gunroom’, where he was to ‘mess with the lieutenants and be rated for victuals’. If he was willing to act as schoolmaster, he was to be entitled to additional pay and allowances. Another important reform came in 1843, when chaplains, together with masters, paymasters, surgeons, and instructors page 144 were raised from warrant to commissioned status. The naval chaplain had no direct link with the Church ashore until, by an Order in Council of 1902, the chaplain of the Fleet was instituted by the Archbishop of Canterbury as Archdeacon for the Royal Navy.
Unlike all other officers of the Service, the naval chaplain has not been granted a rank; and since his parishioners may range from an Admiral of the Fleet down to Boy, Second Class, that is surely a wise provision. His pay, however, is rated according to seniority; his dress is optional. It is laid down in the regulations that a chaplain shall wear a clerical collar and stock and ‘shall be dressed in other respects in such a manner as shall clearly indicate his profession’. He may wear either ordinary clerical dress or a ‘blue reefer jacket, not having ranking stripes, but with officers' gilt buttons….’ The authorised naval chaplain's cap and badge are worn only with the reefer jacket. With ordinary clerical dress, chaplains wear a black clerical felt hat or college cap.