Anatomy of the ship of the line
Spanish ships of the line
The art of transom
The Sovereign of the Seas
The livery on the ship of the line
In the beginning of the 19th century the warships of the different navies started to be painted in a more uniform way. During the 18th century this
had been still something largely chosen by the commanders, and during the fight at Abukir in 1798 one of the vessels was painted in red with narrow
yellow strips, and another one in red with narrow black strips, whereas the majority of the British ships were painted in yellow with dark bands.
In Trafalgar, the Santísima Trinidad was painted in dark red with white bands and another Spanish ship was completely black. In that time the largest
part of British warships were painted in black and, following the will of Nelson, with yellow bands with the gun ports in black. Towards 1815 the
bands began to be generally white, and this fashion lasted while warships were propelled by sails, and much later the civilian merchant ships still were
painted following the "Nelson style".
In the following painting from 1809 we can see two contemporary ships of the line, one of first-rate, with three gun decks, and another one of
third-rate, with two gun decks. Third-rate ships, typically of 74 guns in this period, were the backbone of the combat formations, for they combined
a relatively strong firepower with superior speed.
The Royal Adelaide, 1828
Since the introduction of the gallion in the 16th century, the lining of the hull reaching the beakhead ended in a bulwark which was much weaker
than the sides of the hull. Being gradually raised the beakhead over time the bulwark reduced its height proportionally, but in the times of Trafalgar
the upper gun deck still ended in a bulwark. The stern, with galleries and windows on each gun deck, was even weaker than the prow, and the dream of every commander
was to sweep the enemy gun decks with a barrage from the stern.
The French and Venetians had built since the 18th century frigates whose lining surrounded the prow at the forecastle level, and after the Napoleonic Wars
even the largest ships of the line were built this way. The 104-gun ship of the line Royal Adelaide from 1828 had a prow of this type, as we can see in
the drawing below. This was an attempt to strengthen the prow, but the times were not mature enough for the commanders to renounce to their comfort and
large crystal windows and doors still left the gun decks exposed to devastating barrages. In sailing warships this defect would never be addressed.
The sunset of the ship of the line
The beakhead, like the ornamented stern and the balconies, was destined to persist until the end of the sailing warships. But the sides of the
beakhead changed their morphology and from a gently curved lattice they became rect bulwarks, as we can see in the prow depicted in the following
illustration, belonging to the French 118-gun ship of the line Ville de Paris from 1851. During the 19th century, the space between the gangways in the waist
was covered, so the forecastle and the quarterdeck became a flush deck; but in warships the old names were preserved: the area after the main mast was
called "quarterdeck" and the area around the fore mast was called "forecastle", while the areas corresponding to the former gangways were called
"gangways" as well.
From the prow to the stern ran uninterruptedly the bulwark which was again made in wood and not with candlesticks and a mesh; however it was hollow
so the crewmen could stow their hammocks on it as before. In the stern was kept a small sterncastle and poop deck of flat shape. The gun ports were sometimes
of a new type, with two leaves and a hole in the center, which allowed the cannons to rest on them when they were not in use. From this time fixed
davits were placed in the stern and rotatory davits on the sides of the hull, so the boats no longer were stowed in the deck, and
the anchor cables started to be replaced by iron chains. The square sails no longer were directly attached to the yard, but to a fixed rib on the
upper face of the yard, and the sails under the bowsprit and its boom disappeared forever.
The HMS Agamemnon, a 91-gun ship of the line completed in 1852, was the first British warship to be designed and built from scratch with installed
steam power, as a response to the French 90-gun Napoleon, which was the first warship of this type built in the world. Steam propulsion served as a complement
for the sail rig which was still the most reliable propulsion method. Due to the inefficiency of the steam engines
of that time, warships like the HMS Agamemnon would spend much of their time travelling under sail power and in such conditions the considerable weight
of the machinery would be a hindrance for speed.
At this point the evolution of the ship of the line had brought a substantial increase in weight, to which
the new propulsion system would contribute not little. With a displacement around 4600 tonnes, the 91-gun HMS Agamemnon was as heavy as the 140-gun
Santísima Trinidad had been, and about 1100 tonnes heavier than the 104-gun HMS Victory. Her overall length of about 70 meters was similar to that of the
The 121-gun HMS Victoria was the last wooden three-deck ship of the line built for the Royal Navy, in 1859. With a displacement close to 7000 tonnes and an
overall length of 79 meters she was as well the largest wooden warship which ever entered service. Her auxiliary steam engine developed 4400 horsepower,
almost twice than that installed in the HMS Agamemnon. The grandiosity of this vessel reflected as well on the heavy artillery carried, which will be later mentioned.
Hulls had greatly increased their robustness during the 19th century; to achieve this some pieces of the structure were made of iron from the 1830s,
but apart from this the hulls were still integrally built in wood. Despite being possibly the most powerful warship of her time, the HMS Victoria rapidly
became obsolete after the commissioning of the ironclad HMS Warrior in 1861; she had a short service life which practically ended in 1867.
Artillery in the ship of the line
The following diagram shows the disposition of traditional artillery pieces in a two-decker, including the diverse tackles used for managing them. The upper
right piece displays the tackle used to return it to its firing position after having recoiled. The lower left piece shows the tackle used for the opposite
operation, moving the piece backwards when necessary. The lower right piece shows the fixed rigging used to strongly secure it when it is not in use.
This other drawing accompanies the former one in the Falconer Naval Dictionary from 1769. It shows a 32-pound cannon and some of its accessories, including
the standard four-wheeled carriage built in wood. The ramrods and other pole tools were used to introduce gunpowder, wads and the diverse projectiles on the bore, and to clean
this one. Easily recognizable are also the dismasting projectiles linked by a chain or a solid bar and the antipersonnel projectile loaded with shrapnel.
The following illustration shows a 32-pounder installed in a sliding carriage. The elevation of the tube is still achieved by means of wedges and the gunsights are
Another type of artillery piece of more recent introduction was the carronade, a short-range cannon generally mounted in a sliding carriage and often
fitted with screw-driven elevation, as the one depicted below. We can see as well the thick cable used for holding the recoil energy and the tackle used
for repositioning the artillery piece. Carronades were introduced on the large warships during the late 18th century, in very small numbers because they
were still an experimental weapon; for example, the HMS Victory had only two 68-pound carronades in the forecastle. But advancing the 19th century, this changed:
the French frigate La Belle Poule, built in 1834, had twenty-six 30-pound carronades onboard.
During the 19th century the ship of the line was more heavily armed than ever. The lighter artillery pieces carried onboard the HMS Victoria, on the
upper gun deck and weather deck, were of 32 pounds, equivalent to those installed in the lower gun deck on the HMS Victory. On the lower and
middle gun decks the HMS Victoria had installed more modern pieces of 200 millimeters (8 inches), which were an innovation designed to fire the new
exploding spherical shells; however, they were still smooth-bore and muzzle-loading pieces. The HMS Agamemnon had a similar armament: 200-millimeter
cannons in the lower gun deck and 32-pound cannons in the upper gun deck and weather deck.