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.
HMS Prince Royal (following its 1663 rebuild; into a 90-gun “first rate”) 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.
Battle of Trafalgar, 1805 HMS 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 In 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.
Gun deck, HMS Victory