Deadliest Blogger continues our series on famous warships or types of ships in history.
Beginning in 1570, English ship designers began building a sleeker, faster, more seaworthy type of galleon known as “race-built”. This name derived from their “raced” or razed (removed) fore-and aft-castles; relics of the Middle Ages when boarding was the primary tactic in naval warfare. While the galleons of their rivals, the Spanish and Portuguese, still had tall fore-and-aft-castles; these race-built galleons gave English captains tremendous advantage in maneuverability and handling.
Designed under the direction of Sir John Hawkins, these were a revolutionary design. Lower in the water, with greater length in relation to their beam (broadest right at the waterline, unlike earlier Galleons), it was more stable and “weatherly” (capable of sailing faster and closer to the wind) than any previous ship of the same size. It was armed with a larger and more homogenous compliment of guns than other contemporary Men-of-War; giving it superior firepower and a longer range capability than any ship it faced. (English naval gun carriages and recoil systems were superior to that of their contemporaries, as well.) This combination of speed with firepower would become a hallmark of English ships for centuries to come.
Perhaps the most famous of these race-built galleons was the Revenge. Built in 1577 by the renown Matthew Baker, it was the first of 13 Royal Navy ships to bear that name. It had a relatively short but illustrious history, and in its day was considered perhaps the most dangerous warship afloat.
Its most famous captain was Sir Francis Drake, the renown English “seahawk”. In 1587 the Revenge was Drake’s flagship when he led a small fleet of privateers in “singed the beard of the King of Spain”. Sailing boldly into the main Spanish port of Cadiz, the English engaged and bested six times their number in Spanish Galleons; presaging the Armada battles to come. Drake destroyed 37 naval and merchant ships here and at Corunna; delaying the Spanish invasion by a year.
The Revenge was Drake’s flagship during the Armada battles of 1588. Here Drake and the Revenge led the pursuit of the Spanish fleet. The Revenge’s superior speed, handling and gunnery allowed Drake to cut out and capture the Spanish galleon Rosario, along with Admiral Pedro de Valdés and all his crew. This Spanish ship carried a substantial treasury to pay the Duke of Parma’s Army in the Low Countries; and its loss was a double blow to the Spanish.
During these battles with the Armada leading to the Battle of Gravelines, the speed and superior handling of the Revenge and the other race-built English galleons thwarted the Spanish in their desire to close with and grapple the English ships; turning the fight into a boarding action that would favor their superior infantry and larger crews. Instead, the English kept their distance, and used their superior gunnery to good effect.
In 1590, Revenge was under the command of another notable English seaman of the period, Sir Martin Frobisher; coasting along the Spanish Main, seeking to intercept Spanish treasure fleets from the New World. The following year, under the command of Sir Richard Grenville (whose father died as captain on the ill-fated Mary Rose) the Revenge met its glorious end when surrounded by Spanish ships off the Azore Islands. Thought out-numbered 53 to 1, the more nimble Revenge outmaneuvered and out-fought the Spanish for fifteen hours; driving off repeated attempts to grapple and board her with withering and accurate gunnery. Finally, the Spanish Galleon San Cristóbal rammed and became entangled with the Revenge; bringing her dead in the water and allowing the Spanish to close and batter her with massed gunnery. After a night of fighting on at close quarters, morning found her masts shot away, six feet of water on the hold and only sixteen men left uninjured out of a crew of two hundred and fifty.
Her mortally wounded captain ordered the ship to be sunk rather than fall into Spanish hands: “Master Gunner: sink her, split her in twain! Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!” His remaining officers refused, and instead surrendered the ship on guarantee of the crew’s safety.
The Revenge would never live to serve the Spanish. While under tow days later, it was wrecked in storm along with a large number of escorting Spanish ships.
The race-built design revolutionized naval warfare, ushering an age of naval gunnery and maneuver. It also heralded the beginning of English naval superiority. Over the next two centuries, the Royal Navy would surpass Spanish, Dutch, and French rivals; till Britannia would truly “rule the waves”. That dominance began with ships like the Revenge.