UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


17th Century Shipbuilding

Under King James I a step forward in naval construction was made by the building of a larger ship-of-war than any since the Harry Grace a Dieu. The Petts were a distinguished family of naval architects and shipwrights who first came into notice in Queen Elizabeth's time. Phineas Pett and his son Peter Pett the elder, in particular, who built all our men-of-war of note during the first half of the seventeenth century, were men of the highest repute for skill and attainments.

The Prince, or Prince Royal, designed by Phineas Pett, was a two-decker of 64 guns, i,200 tons burden, keel 114 feet, and 44 feet beam. She was four-masted, with the usual upright bowsprit mast. According to the official list of 1612 the Royal Navy at this time was classified under " shipps Royall" and "great shipps," ranging from i,200 to 800 tons; "middling shipps," ranging between 800 and 600 tons ; " small shipps," ranging between 600 and 300 tons ; and "pinnaces" below 300 tons. King James's Prince was ere long, however, outdone by King Charles's Sovereign of the Seas, the first English three-decker, "built to the great glory of the English nation, and not to be paralleled in the whole Christian world."

The ordinary " capital" ships of King Charles's Navy as a rule mounted from 70 to 36 guns, and were of more manageable size; under 800 tons. Thus, in the list of 1642, the James is set down as of 875 tons and 50 guns; the Victory of 793 and 46 guns; the Vanguard of 751 and 42 guns; the Reformation of 731 and 42 guns; the Rainbow of 721 and 42 guns. All were well built, embodying every improvement up to date.

The old system of classifying ships by their size, as " great," " middling," " less " ships, was now altered in favour of regular " rates," which were at first classified according to the numbers of crew assigned to each. Somewhat later, in Cromwell's time, the rating of ships according to the number of guns carried became the regulation, a system rendered feasible by Pett's shipbuilding designs, which enabled ships to bring half their entire armament into action on one broadside.

Other notable reforms initiated under Cromwell were the reduction of masts to three, fore, main, and mizen, abolishing the "bonaventure" mast, the weeding out of the confused assortment of "cannons-royal," "culverins," "sakers," "demi," and "bastard" pieces, and so forth, hitherto used, in favour of pieces of not more than three or four distinct types. This last change, however, was only effected gradually.

As to what the men-of-war of the time were like. The stern towered up, broad at the water-line and narrow above, with right aft a narrow strip of deck from side to side. Below this another deck with a slight downward slope ran forward and ended at the mizen-the poop. The deck below the poop ended at the mainmast-the quarter-deck. Below the quarter-deck was the upper deck, "so called because it is the highest of all which runs the whole length of the vessel." Below this was the maindeck, where the heaviest guns were carried. The fore-castle was what its name implies-" a solid square fort rising from the level of the upper deck, rather higher than the poop, carrying guns, and capable of being held even if the rest of the ship is in the enemy's power." Above the fore-castle, by the knightheads, was sometimes erected a light deck, the topgallant fore-castle. The sails on the fore and mainmasts were courses, topsails and topgallant sails, with a lateen on the mizen. The bowsprit rose steeply from the square fore-castle and carried at the outer end a small mast with its "sprit topsail." As before, our men-of-war continued to be elaborately decorated with much extravagant carving and gilding over all.

Besides the broadside ordnance, swivel guns (patararocs) were mounted on quarter-deck and poop. In action there was still much reckless use of" fireworks"- " arrows trimmed with wildfire to stick in the sails or ships' sides, hot and burning pikes of wildfire to strike burning into a ship's side to fire her," also "granadoes of divers kinds-hollow brass balls and earthen pots covered with quarter bullets stuck in pitch, and filled with good powder which, in a crowd of people, will make an incredible slaughter," "crossbar," " langrel," and "chain" shot. Old ships of smaller classes were made use of for fire-ships, now a tactical unit in all fleets, "besmeared with wildfire, brimstone, pitch, and resin, and all their ordnance charged with bullets and stones."

From Henry VIII's time onwards it was usual to attach ships of a small class and light build to each fleet as look-out ships or cruisers for scouting duty. They were called "pinnaces" and "fly-boats," and were vessels of about fifty tons burthen. From their small size, however, they were seldom used for independent cruising, their services being confined, as a rule, to attendance on fleets when at sea. For a hundred years and more, in fact, until Charles I.'s time, such small craft answered needs, until the yearly depredations of the Dunkirk and Moorish pirates in the Channel began to come prominently under public notice, about the year 1625. The master-shipwrights of the dockyards were now called on for designs of ships specially adapted for chasing privateers. They first proposed a cruiser whose length was to be nearly four-and-a-half times her beam. This was not accepted, however, and they next came forward with " a nimble and forcible ship of 339 tons." But the Treasury could not stand the cost even of this, and finally a class of smaller craft, each of 185 tons, was decided on. They were called " whelps," and were vessels built for sweeps as well as sails, three- masted and square-rigged, carrying 10 guns (four culverins, four demi-culverins, and two sakers) on two decks.

For some twenty years the whelp class served all the purposes of the Navy, and then we hear of a decided step forward, which introduced a type of vessel that still more nearly approximates to the frigate classes of modern times. The idea originated with one of the Petts, whose Constant Wanvick, built in 1649, on the lines of a French man-of-war that visited the Thames, as a privateer for the Earl of Warwick, was sold to the government when the Dutch war broke out. The Warwick, says Evelyn, was built "for a trial of making a vessel that would sail swiftly. She was built with low decks, the guns lying neare the water, and was so light and swift of sailing that she had ere the Dutch war was ended taken as much money from privateers as would have laden her ; more such being built in a yearc or two did scour the Channel from those of Dunkirk and others which had exceedingly infested it." Upwards of sixty cruisers, in fact, were built on the lines of the Warwick after she proved such " an incomparable sayler." If the type of ship was new, however, the name " frigate" was not.

This term was originally used to denote a class of sailing galley used in the Mediterranean, and had also been the term for English merchant-ships for a century before the Warwick was thought of. Among the merchant-men serving against the Armada in Drake's squadron was a frigate Elizabeth Fownes, and before that Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed to his doom in the little frigate, the Squirrel, of ten tons. King Charles, too, had a Swau frigate and a Nicodemns frigate, Admiralty yachts designed to attend the king on occasions of State.

The largest Commonwealth man-of-war was theNaseby, of 1556 ; of 96 brass guns and 1,000 tons, a ship the size of the Sovereign of the Seas cut down. Re-named Royal Charles at the Restoration," she was the ship the Dutch captured in the Medway and carried off. The Royal Charles of 1668 that replaced her was still larger, and carried no brass guns. Next came the Royal James of 1675, constructed by Sir Anthony Deane, and embodying new ideas suggested by a French ship Sir Anthony inspected at Spithead. A still larger ship was built in 1682, the Britannia'' of 1,703 tons, 146 feet in length, with 47 - feet beam and 22 feet draught. Unfortunately the. prevailing tendency to "over-gun" our ships seriously affected their efficiency : "they sailed and worked heavily, while in rough or blowing weather the lower batteries could not often be used."

The Navy prospered under James II, and in 1688 the English position at sea was decidedly strong. Taking the Britannia of 1682 as the type of first-rate of the period, the armament of this class consisted of twenty-eight 78- pounders, twenty-six jl-pounders, twenty-eight 38- pounders, fourteen 9-poundcrs, and four 6-pounders, a total of 100 guns. The Britannia cost, with rigging and equipment, 33,390. Second-rates were of 1,460 tons with a length of 124 feet, 40 feet beam and 18 feet draught, mounting twenty-six 63-pounders, twenty-six 41-pounders, twenty-six 2o-poundcrs, ten 9-pounders, and cost 25,000. Third-rates were 120 feet long with 36 feet beam, of 1,000 tons, and cost 15,000. Fourth- rates, 105 feet long by 32 feet beam, of 532 tons, costing 9,000. The first and second-rates were three-deckers; third and fourth-rates, two-deckers; fifth-rates had all their guns on one whole deck and the quarter-deck; sixth- rates on one deck only. In fleets, together with fire-ships, bomb-vessels were employed, these carrying one or two heavy mortars with a few light guns for self-defence.

The square sails were courses, topsails, and topgallant sails, with steering sails on the fore and mainmasts, spritsail and sprit topsail on the spritmast stepped on the bowsprit cap. Staysails and topmast staysails were in use, but jibs were not yet known. Cables were 100 fathoms long, of 21-inch hemp, anchors being for first-rates, 430, 150, and 74 pounds weight; for second-rates, 315, no, and 72 pounds; for third-rates, 173, 96, and 68 pounds. Besides the great guns, there were for the small-arm men muskets with match and snaphaunces, musketoons, blunderbusses, pistols, pikes, halberts, hatchets, swords, and hangers.

The old system of guessing the tonnage of ships by rough comparison with cargo-ships of like size gave way to a more scientific method of arriving at the result by multiplying the length of the keel by the extreme breadth and the depth of the hold, dividing the sum by 100. An ever-vexed question was the best method of sheathing, and all sorts of experiments, with lead and lacquer in particular, were tried, the authorities at length adopting a system, which lasted over a century, of studding or "filling'' ships' bottoms with broad-headed nails hammered in close together, on which was paid a compost of tallow and resin.

The ornamentation of ships now reached its extreme pitch-the most elaborate carving and gilding being bestowed everywhere within and without, in the form of the arms and emblems of royalty, badges, wreaths, caryatides, tritons, dolphins, grotesque monsters, and so forth.

It was during the Restoration period that the hitherto closed-in sterns began to be built more open, with double or treble tiers of ornate stern walk balconies, magnificently carved and gilded, thrown out from the light glass windows that filled up the entire afterpart of the ship. The prominent overhanging beak-an adaptation of the mediaeval form of galley prow-so noticeable a feature in all men-of-war, from the Great Harry to the Sovereign of the Seas, and Royal Charles, now too disappeared, leaving nothing before the cutwater or stem. On this stem the figure-head was set as we still have it in sailing ships. It was, in first-rates, generally a carved wood equestrian statue of the ruling monarch, elaborately wrought with trophies and allegorical devices and emblems. For other rates, a lion rampant with open jaws and threatening aspect was the favourite cognizance, a type of figure-head which remained the special badge for British war-ships for over a century.

Inboard, the ship and her fittings were painted a dull red, in order, the tradition goes, to prevent blood-stains being too much en evidence in battle. It was also at the Restoration epoch that the regular wooden ship-gun carriage (painted red like the rest of the ship), with its four trucks, came into use.1 The old style of circular port had for some time gone out of use in favour of the square port, except on the upper and quarter-decks, where the circular ports, each surrounded by a gilt wreath, continued customary to the end of Queen Anne's time. The abolition of the circular ports throughout the ship for all decks was only recent though, as may be seen from a medal struck to commemorate James, Duke of York's victory over the Dutch on June 3rd, 1665, where the ships shown on the reverse one and all have round ports. The exterior painting of the hulls of ships- of-war of the period was-for the upper works, above the line of the upper decks-dark blue encrusted with gilt ornamentation work; for the ship's side below this, down to the lower deck ports, yellow, with a broad band of black extending fore and aft at the water-line. Ships' bottoms were white, the color of the "graving" mixture used.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:27 ZULU