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16th Century Shipbuilding

Henry VIII in the early part of his reign was still under mediaeval influence. The fleet which he prepared in 1512 for his first war with France consisted entirely of carracks and other sailing vessels, and as yet the only sign of a change is one rather of retrogression than advance. During the progress of the war the whole energies of the dock-yards seem to have been devoted to turning out vessels with a tendency towards the galley type. In 1513 the 'Great Galley' appeared, which was of 700 tons, carried over 200 pieces of artillery great and small, rowed 120 oars, and could carry from 800 to 1,000 men. Besides this in the same year the 'Katherine Galley' of 70 tons took its place in the lists, and in the summer of the same year others were on the stocks at Woolwich. The Harry Grace a Dieu may be taken as typical of the war-ship of the first half of the sixteenth century. King Henry's other large ships were only copies of her on smaller lines. The Royal Navy at this time was roughly classified into "ships" and "galliasses" (huge galleys propelled by sweeps), and, for smaller craft, "roo-barges" and "pinnaces." Among general improvements introduced between Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth were the gradual lowering of the fore-castles, and the sheathing the keels of ships with lead, an idea adopted from the Spaniards. After being now tried, this experiment with lead was revived some eighty years later, in Pepys's time, with considerable success, for many ships continued to be so sheathed down to the introduction of copper.

Sir John Hawkins introduced new lines into the construction of the English ships. The high castles at poop and stem had been reduced, the length increased, the beam diminished. They could sail perhaps within five points of the wind. They showed powers, at any rate, entirely new to Recalde, for they seemed to be able to keep at any distance which they pleased from him. They did not try to break his line or capture detached vessels. With their heavy guns, which he found to his cost to be of weightier metal and to carry farther than his own, they poured their broadsides into him at their leisure, and he could make no tolerable reply. There was a distinct move forward in Elizabeth's time. If the limits for larger ships were kept within 1,000 tons these were built on longer keels, with lowered superstructures and finer lines than heretofore. This made them better sea boats than ships of the Harry Grace a Dieu type, swifter and capable of carrying more sail. Such improvements, though, were not made without opposition. "Old salts" used to the ships of King Henry's time scoffed and shook their heads, and foretold disaster. "The new ships would be too crank to carry sail, and only fit for smooth water, and would inevitably founder in the heavy seas of the Atlantic."

Raleigh took up the cudgels for the new school. " The high charging of ships," he says, " makes them extreme leeward, makes them sink deep into the water, and makes them overset. Men may not expect the ease of many cabins and safety at once in the Sea Service. Two decks and a half is sufficient to yield shelter and lodging for men and mariners and no more charging at all higher, but one low cabin for the master."

Raleigh's "Discourse of the First Invention of Ships and the several parts thereof" details the progress made. " It is not long since the striking of the topmast (a wonderful ease to great ships both at sea and in harbour) hath been devised, together with the chain pump, which takes up twice as much water as the ordinary did. We have lately added the Bonnet and the Drabler" - extra pieces laced to the foot of the courses, the " bonnet" first, and below it the "drabler." " To the course," continues Raleigh, "we have devised studding-sails, topgallant sails, spritsails, topsails." The weighing of anchors by the capstone is also new. We have fallen into the consideration of the length of cables, and by it we resist the malice of the greatest winds that blow. . . . We carry our ordnance better than we were wont, because our nether overloop [the after orlop or lowest deck] is raised commonly from the water, to wit, between the lower port and the sea. We have also raised our second decks, and given more vent thereby to our ordnance lying on our nether loop. We have added cross pillars in our royal ships to strengthen them, which be fastened from the keelson to the beam of the second deck. . . . We have given longer floors to our ships than in the elder times, and better bearing under water."

Sir John Hawkins's plan for sheathing ships against the teredo worm must be added - by nailing to the ship's planking, below water, boards coated on the inner side with "tarre, halffe a finger thicke, and upon the tarre another halffe thicke haire. . . . The worm passing the sheathing, and seeking a way through, the haire and tar so involve that hee is choked therewith." Outside, the sheathing was coated with tallow, soap, and brimstone, or train-oil, resin and brimstone boiled together, 'to preserve her caulking, and make her glib and slippery to passe the water." ' The large ships continued, as before, to be four-masted, with upright bowsprit and with circular ports. Top castles were still used for archers and arquebusiers to shoot down from.

The armament was the same as in Henry VIII's reign. "Great ordnance," cannon royal, 12 feet long, and of 8^- inch bore, with a point-blank range of 185 paces, and extreme range (" long random shooting "), about a mile, cannon-serpentine, -bastard, -petro, and demi-cannon ; culverins, basilisks, and demi and bastard culverins, sakcrs, minions, falcons, falconets, and rabonets. To work these the gunner had "ladles," a separate size for each kind of piece, to spoon the charges (ten per gun being the allowance) from the powder barrels into the guns. Also "priming horns," "irons" and "linstocks." " Sprights," or heavy arrows, as well as round shot, were fired from the smaller ordnance. The larger ships mounted from 40 to 60 "great ordnance," firing a broadside of some 400 pounds weight. For the small-arm men 200 arquebuses and 40 long-bows, with 80 sheaves of arrows per ship, were the usual equipment.

Tactics had now made a great advance. "Sea fights in these days," we are told," come seldom to boarding or to great execution of bows and arrows, small shot, and the sword, but are chiefly performed by the great artillery breaking down masts and yards, tearing, raking, and bilging the ships." The English crews sho faced the Spanish Armada were not composed of men who were in the permanent service of the Crown, but never in the history of the country were a body of sailors gathered together more experienced in sailing ships and fighting them. They were the rovers of the ocean. To navigate the wildest seas, to fight Spaniards wherever they could meet them, had for thirty years been their occupation and their glory.

The science of navigation, too, had made strides. In addition to a practicable compass in use before Henry VIII.'s reign, there were the "astrolabe" and the "cross" or "fore" staff. The astrolabe, for taking the altitude of the sun and stars, was a graduated circle with a movable diameter carrying light vanes, which was used suspended by a ring representing the zenith. The angle required was obtained by moving the diameter until directly in line with the sun and the observer's eye. The cross-staff was a square graduated rod with two wooden cross-pieces, or " transversaries," that slid on it. After taking the bearing of the sun with the compass, the end of the staff was held against the observer's eye while an assistant moved the transversary until one end centred the sun and the other coincided with the horizon. In Elizabeth's Navy an improved cross-staff, called the " back-staff," or " Davis's quadrant," from the name of its inventor, the navigator, John Davis, came into use, as did the log-line, invented about the middle of the century by one Humphrey Cole.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:26 ZULU