HMS Victory
HMS Victory

Anatomy of the ship of the line
Anatomy of the ship of the line

Spanish ships of the line
Spanish ships of the line

The art of transom
The art of transom

Sovereign of the Seas
Sovereign of the Seas

The Wasa
The Wasa


The transition from the gallion to the ship of the line (also known as "man-of-war") was smooth and it would be difficult to trace a clear line dividing both types. It just appears that from the beginning of the 17th century warships gradually increased the number of artillery pieces onboard, until having - for the first time - three whole decks crowded with artillery pieces.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the traditional Spanish gallion, which was famous for its role in the conquest of America and also for the disaster of the Spanish Armada in 1588, started to lose its characteristic shape to adequate itself to the new construction concepts, which demanded an increase in size (reaching 1600 tonnes) and armament (reaching 80 cannons). The characteristic prominence of the stern part and the pronounced sheer of the decks were reduced.

Ironically, it was Spain the country which worst adapted to the evolution of the gallion as warship. During the 17th century, Spanish vessels generally had good sailing qualities, but with an average of 60 cannons, they were less armed than the warships built by other nations, armed with 80-100 cannons. This brought negative consequences to the effort for the supremacy in the seas, and plunged the Spanish Navy into a long decadency which would last until the 1730s.

Since I have dedicated a whole article to the ships of the line operated by the Spanish Navy, I will not further mention them in these pages. It will suffice to study the models built by the other prime naval powers of that time: England, France and Netherlands. Until the 1730s these countries built better warships and from that date the Spanish models reached and sometimes surpassed the level of the foreign counterparts, but they were essentially similar, for in that time naval construction was already very standardized and the different countries were exchanging their knowledge with each other. Very famous ships such as the HMS Sovereign of the Seas and HMS Victory are presented in specific separate articles as well.

The Prince Royal, 1610

The Prince Royal, a very evolved form of gallion and a predecessor of the future ship of the line, was an early design by famous naval architect Phineas Pett, mostly known by the magnificent and somehow infamous Sovereign of the Seas built in 1637. The Prince Royal still featured the fourth mast which had become common among the largest warships of the late 16th century, but this trait was already in process of being abandoned when she was built in 1610. This ship was originally built with three gun decks but she mounted only 56 cannons; later she suffered two reconstructions and finally she was armed with 90 cannons, to match the firepower of the newer models.

When she was built, the Royal Prince was most probably the most decorated ship in the world, in similarity to what the Sovereign of the Seas would be. Gallions were characteristic by a decorative style based in abstract motifs and polychromy, but the Royal Prince displayed elaborated bass-reliefs depicting not only symbols but a great diversity of animals, plants, fantastic creatures and objects, covering not only the transom and quarter galleries, but also the entire upper section of the hull, as it was common in other ships featuring a less expensive ornamentation.

The following illustration was originally a monochromatic one and I added a golden color on the ornamented part to enhance it. However this does not represent the actual appearance of the ship. The ornaments were gilded over green background and some details, particularly the three feathers representative of the Prince of Wales, were painted in white. Quite surprisingly, the information source states that the gilding and painting costed almost twice than the sculptures, so these were probably not very polished.

HMS Prince Royal gallion/ship of the line, 1610

Swedish warships on the early 17th century

The illustration below was made after an antique ship model preserved in a museum in Stockholm, which features a rather small but very beautifully ornamented vessel. It was thought during many time that the model had been built in another country, excluding the idea of such a richly decorated ship having existed in Sweden. But when the flotsam of the unfortunate Wasa was refloated, it was clear that in this country had been built an even more sumptuous ship.

Swedish gallion/ship of the line of the early 17th century
The Wasa had been designed by Hendrick Hybertsson, an expert naval architect brought from Netherlands. However, this did not prevent the ill fate of the vessel, which had to be the pride of the on the other hand not very succesful Nordic country. In the very day of her maiden voyage in 1628, the defective design of the ship caused serious stability problems: she heeled over two times and finally the water entered the hull through the lower gun ports, flooding the ship in no time. The Wasa resulted sunk because her hull was excessively narrow (less than twelve meters in beam) and because her upper gun deck mounted the same 24-pound cannons installed in her lower gun deck. This led to a great instability and an excessive draught which caused the lower gun ports to be too close to the waterline.

The Saint Louis, 1626

It could be said that Cardinal Richelieu was the creator of the French Navy. When he rose to power in 1624, the country had not a single warship able to contend against the English and Dutch counterparts, and the national naval builders lacked the experience and resources required to form a new fleet. With the purpose of acquiring new vessels as soon as possible, to serve as model for the French shipyards which meanwhile were being prepared for the future naval program, Richelieu ordered the construction of five large warships and some minor units in the Netherlands. These were delivered in 1626 and the contemporary Dutch engraver Hendrik Hondius depicted one of them, probably the Saint Louis.

This ship was a two-decker armed with about 60 cannons. Boarding nets were not necessary in that time because boarding had ceased to be the common tactic and naval combats were already artillery duels. As in the Prince Royal, those nets had been replaced by a large grating covering the entire extension of the waist deck, to provide protection against elements of the rigging which could fall during combat. And to quickly disperse the smoke from the gun decks, in the forecastle and quarterdeck large gratings replaced the normal wooden planks.

The rigging had the latest features of that time, with a topsail in the bowsprit and mizzen mast, and it is noticeable that the topping lifts of the yards of the fore and main topsails served as well as sheets for the respective topgallant sails. The lower sails were hoisted by means of "spider" leechlines, buntlines and clewlines. The topsails did not have buntlines and they were hoisted by means of simple leechlines and clewlines. As in the Prince Royal, the tacks passed through holes in the cutwater, beneath the beakhead. Unlike the Prince Royal, the Saint Louis did not show catheads.

Saint Louis ship of the line

French naval construction (I)

The French quickly gave a response to the English 100-gun three-decker Sovereign of the Seas, building in 1638 a ship of almost the same size, but with only two gun decks and 72 cannons, the Couronne, of better sailing qualities and which with intense wind could probably deal barrages as deadly as those of the Sovereign of the Seas, heavier and of greater draught. But Richelieu died in 1642 and to his death followed a period of turmoil which caused the French Navy to rot in the docks.

When Colbert rose to power nineteen years later he had to start from scratch, as Richelieu had done. While in France the shipyards were again being prepared, Colbert ordered vessels from Netherlands and other countries, and during his life he could witness how the French naval construction reached the first position on the world. Samuel Pepys, then secretary of the English Admiralty, wrote in his diary that a two-decker of 70 guns, built in France in 1663, had her lower gun deck at roughly 1.20 meters above the waterline, whereas in the English warships, of lesser beam and greater draught, this distance was barely 90 centimeters. As a result the French warships were better artillery platforms and sailing ships.

During a visit at Spithead in 1672, the French 74-gun ship of the line Superb raised much interest. She had 12.20 meters in beam and her lower gun deck emerged from the water much more than in the English counterparts. Because of this Sir Anthony Deane, chief of naval projects, ordered to build a copycat of the French ship. The result was the 70-gun Harwich, so successful that other new ships were ordered. Samuel Pepys annotated that the English builders had not observed that only the warships with enough beam were robust enough. Later, when the English were in war with France, they tried to copy the best warships captured. And when in turn the French captured English vessels and included them in their fleet, always reduced their number of cannons.

In the so called "Atlas of Colbert" of 1664-1669, among many other illustrations there are designs of a 84-gun two-decker, depicted in the two pictures below. She had not raised forecastle and the quarterdeck started from the mizzen mast. Her overall length has been calculated in about 55 meters, the length of the keel in 39 meters, the beam in 13 meters and the draught in 5.94 meters. The English 100-gun three-decker Prince of 1670 had the same proportions, except in the draught, which was 6.25 meters. The French warships were built as well thinking in a war against galleys in the Meditarranean, where the wind is scarce, and because of this they were more heavily armed astern and afore. To have a better firing arc, the beakhead and the bulwarks were lower and with a more pronounced curvature than in other contemporary vessels.

French ship of the line transom
French ship of the line cross section

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