Deadliest Blogger continues its presentation of the great warships of history with a look as the main battleships of the Age of Sail: the Ship of the Line!

In the first half of the 16th century, the northern European maritime nations began developing purpose-built men-of-war, designed specifically to be warships, in place of outfitting a merchant Cog for combat in time of war. Though still used to carry cargo and conduct trade, these ocean-going ships were advanced platforms for naval gunnery. Developed from the cog these ships (beginning with the carracks) were ocean-going gun platform; and allowed first the Spanish and Portuguese, and later the English, Dutch and French to create great trading and colonial empires that spanned the globe.

The Galleon developed out of the carrack, becoming the main warship of European navies in the 16th century. The English development of a faster, sleeker version, the Race-Built Galleon; which helped them to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588 and to begin their rise to the premiere naval power in the world.

As the European powers spread their trade networks across the globe in the 17th century, the need to protect their merchant ships and far-flung colonies led to the growth of professional navies; as all-too frequent wars and age-old rivalries now spread onto the world’s oceans. The galleons, with high bow and stern castles, evolved throughout the 17th century into powerful, seaworthy warships, festooned with a variety of guns. In 1610, the English launched the world’s first triple-deck ship of the line, the Prince Royal. With a third gun deck added, she carried 55 guns (later increased to 70). Her fore and aft castles were cut down to further reduce wind sheer, making her both handier in strong winds and a more stable gun platform. In 1637, on the orders of King Charles I to build a Great Ship, the English launched the 102-gun Sovereign of the Seas (later renamed Sovereign, and then Royal Sovereign). These were true “ships of the line”, meant to take their place in a line of battle, exchanging broadsides with other such ships.

1512026.jpg HMS Prince Royal (following its 1663 rebuild; into a 90-gun “first rate”) 1512028.jpg The HMS Sovereign of the Seas/Sovereign going into battle.

As so often happened in world history, an arms race began; as every great nation of Europe built fleets of ships of the line of various size and armament. A rating system developed, based originally on the size of the ship’s crew. This soon evolving to one based instead upon the number of guns the ship carried. A “first rate” ship of the line was ones sporting 98 or more guns, and tended to be used as flagships. “Second rate” ships of the line were armed with 98 guns down to 75. “Third rate” ships carried from 74 to 60 guns. There were even smaller “fourth rates”, of about 50 or 60 guns on two decks; though by the middle of the 18th century such ships were considered too small for pitched battles. The larger fourth rates, between 60 and 64 guns, were reclassified in the last quarter of the 18th century as third rates. The largest ships of the line were the Spanish Santísima Trinidad , which in 1804 sported 140 guns; an the USS Pennsylvania, a mammoth four-decked 140-gun ship of the line of the United States Navy, launched in 1837.

Fleets of such ships, dominating the seas and coastal waters, provided a tool of “power-projection” like none previously known. It should be borne in mind that a single ship of the line sported more and far bigger guns than Napoleon’s entire Grande Battery at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815! These were ships designed to pound coastal defenses into rubble, as well as opposing fleets into splinters.

In the wars of the 17th and 18th century, Britain slowly gained dominance, defeating first the Dutch and later the Spanish and French in various engagements and wars. By the Napoleonic Era, Britain was able to defeat both the Spanish and French combined fleets in battle at Trafalgar in 1805; becoming the dominant world naval power till World War Two (when supplanted by the United States). Throughout here period of dominance it was British policy to maintain more ships than all their European rivals combined.

1512044.jpg Battle of Trafalgar, 1805 1512048.jpgHMS Victory, 104-gun ship of the line. Flagship of Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, it is the only first-rate still in existence 1512046.jpgIn the 17th century European naval strategists developed codified “fighting instructions”, that specified that admirals handle their fleets in line of battle. As naval gunnery came to replace boarding as the main tactic, this tactic allowed a fleet to bring all of its guns (on one or both sides of each ship) to bear, as they engaged enemy fleets in line of battle. These fighting instructions were rigid, and meant to prevent commanders from risking ships.  Ship’s captains and fleet commanders risked their careers if they violated these fighting instructions. But these restrictions prevented fleet actions from reaching a decisive conclusion; and by the end of the 18th century European naval tactics had become moribund.

Horatio Nelson won everlasting fame by throwing away the “fighting instructions” and driving into and through the enemy’s line of battle; bringing more guns to bear and gaining victory in close-quarters actions. In place of rigid instructions, Nelson merely suggested “no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy”; allowing the superior gunnery skills of the English seamen to win the day. Aboard his flagship, the 104 gun HMS Victory, Nelson defeated the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar; but was himself killed in the action.

With fleets of ships-of-the-line , supported by faster, lighter frigates and sloops, the European powers were able to dominate the globe in the 18th and 19th century; and Britain to “rule the seas”, creating an empire upon which the sun never set.

1512059.jpgGun deck, HMS Victory

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  1. ritaroberts says:

    OMG !! what beautiful pictures of these magnificent ships. I love the Galleon’s and of course the H.M.S. Victory is a well known vessel. John my partner of 25yrs was in the Royal Navy so I hear quite a bit from him and always interesting. Thanks Barry.

  2. Tichy says:

    One could argue about the Nelson and the fighting instructions. There is a far more to it than simply throwing the fighting instructions out of the window. If you look back in earlier engagements, you can see that confusion and disruption of command was the key factor in defeat. Fighting instructions attempted, in fact, quite successfully root out that problem. Franco-Spanish Combined Fleet was a textbook example of confusion. In simple terms, battle was lost before it even begun. Local concentration of force and so on…

    On the other side of the bond, Admiral Sir George Rodney did beat Comte de Grasse decisively already in 12 April 1782 would make the stagnation, or decisive victory argument moot. There were others as well. I would hesitate to call Nelson great innovator. He might have been very enterprising, charismatic and well esteemed officer and certainly he was able to see precisely how much trust can be bestowed upon his subordinates. Something Graves failed to do in Chesapeake Bay.

    Nevertheless, two main innovations changed the way war was waged. Coppering, and Carronade – neither which French, or Spanish were in any hurry to adopt and both, given right tactics would give unparalleled advantage. It is much harder to sink 74 gun ship with another 74 gun ship than one could imagine. Given that the morale holds up, and ruling out complete disasters, such as powder mismanagement and fire, it may take longer task to complete than there is daylight left to do it.

    That said, it is interesting topic.

  3. John Smith says:

    You wrote that “In the wars of the 17th and 18th century, Britain slowly gained dominance, defeating first the Dutch and later the Spanish and French in various engagements and wars”.

    If I am not mistaken, the Dutch defeated the English in every war until 1674.
    Then, in 1688, William of Orange transferred himself from being Dutch to being the King of England and proceeded to impoverish the Dutch while building up the British.
    It is therefore more accurate to say that Britain did not defeat the Dutch, rather the Dutch leadership betrayed its people.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      The First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–54) was resulted in the English Navy gaining control of the seas around England, and forced the Dutch to accept an English monopoly on trade with England and her colonies. The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665 – 1667) was fought for control of trade routes, England disputing Dutch domination of world trade. That war ended in a Dutch victory, despite initial English successes at sea. The Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674) was inconclusive. After that the Netherlands declined as a naval power. So, yes, it is inaccurate to say the English defeated the Dutch. A more precise wording would be that they overtime surpassed the Dutch at sea.

  4. Pingback: GREAT WARSHIPS OF HISTORY: THE BISMARCK | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

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