Galleasses during the 17th century

In the 17th century, France became the leading power in Europe. In the early reign of Louis XIV the country barely had a Navy, but soon one would be built following the most modern methods, to compete with the English and Dutch navies. The most important group was that of pure sailing ships for the war in the English Channel, the Baltic and the Atlantic coasts. But France had as well coasts in the Mediterranean and here Louis XIV reinforced his Navy with a fleet composed of galleys and galleasses.

In the century that followed the Battle of Lepanto, the Mediterranean galleass had not suffered important changes. An Italian drawing from 1669 shows a galleass whose dimensions, according to estimations, were: 50 meters in length from stem to sternpost and 12.95 meters in beam. She was impulsed by 300 or 350 rowers in 50 oars. It is probable that she had the same rigging that the contemporary galleys, with three lateen masts and bowsprit with sail. The aft protrusion extending beyond the rudder could be found already one hundred years before. The aft face of the forecastle was closed with a rect bulwark and the ram disappeared, being replaced by a typical beakhead.

In comparison with the barrages that the large warships could fire, the armament of a galleass appears as very weak. In the aforementioned Italian design cannot be seen the possibility of disposing twenty cannons. Other contemporary depictions of galleasses show with certainty up to 50 cannons, but they are largely small pieces. The galley and the galleass were surpassed in the 16th century by pure sailing warships, and the reason to continue building them could have been the dogmatic belief that in the Mediterranean only rowing ships could fight.

Galleass from the 17th century

La Réale (1680)

The name "La Réale" meant that the galley belonged to the King, and from 1526 the flagship of the French galleys, which housed the banner of the King and the ensign of her captain, received such name. It is probable that in the beginning of the 17th century the galley reached its most evolved state, even if the Mediterranean shipwrights avoided any collaboration; they wanted to build according to secret rules, zealously kept inside the arsenal and the family of builders. French galleys on the 17th century were classified as ordinary and extraordinary ones, depending on whether they had 26 or up to 33 pairs of banks. Usually a galley had five oarsmen per bank, with a total of 260 rowers in an ordinary galley. But the largest ones, including the one presented here, could have seven oarsmen per bank, reaching so a total of 462 rowers.

French royal galley La Réale, 1680
That depicted in these illustrations is a royal galley from the late 17th century, decorated by the illustrious sculptor Pierre Puget. The reliefs which decorated the stern were preserved in the Musée de la Marine of Paris, and the reconstruction was made from contemporary drawings. She had 52 meters in length in the waterline, 6.40 meters in beam and 31 pairs of banks, for one of the larboard banks was occupied by the stove. With seven oarsmen per bank, the "rabble" (rowers of a galley comprising paid oarsmen, convicts and slaves) reached 427 rowers. Each oar had seven handles and the rowlocks were secured to two robust beams which ran from stern to prow. Along the inner side of these beams ran two narrow corridors on which the troops stayed. The forecastle, called "rambade", consisted of a combat platform at each side of the centerlined fore mast. The wide stern was traditionally covered by an awning, supported by two long poles secured to the rowing beams and a third pole crossed to the other two, as shown on the blueprints.

French royal galley La Réale, 1680
For sailing, La Réale had two lateen sails with a combined area of about 740 square meters. The cannons of larger caliber were placed on the forecastle and comprised five pieces made of bronze. The heavier cannon, of 36 pounds, was called "coursier" because it was mounted in the "corsia" ("coursie" in French), name given to the centerline. To change the horizontal aim it was necessary to maneuver the galley. At each side of the center cannon there were another two pieces of 24 pounds, called "bastards" ("bâtards"), and another two of 18 pounds, called "medium" ("moyennes"). Twelve swivel falconets were mounted in the railings of the side corridors. The central corridor ran between the rowing banks above the very cambial deck, and along it moved the comitre and two sotacomitres who with their whips lashed the rowers. Beneath the narrow rowing banks there was a wider bank where the rowers sat when the galley sailed, and where their water rations were stored.

French royal galley La Réale, 1680
From the stern, the distribution of the galley beneath the deck was: the chamber of the captain, a small chamber for the belongings of the chief officers and furnitures to be used in the aft deck when the galley was not in active service, a pantry for fresh victuals and another one for dry victuals. Amidships there was a room called "tavern" which, apart from storing the spare sails and a large awning which could cover the whole galley, was the storeroom for the wine that the comitre sold to the "rabble". A corridor communicated the tavern with the powder magazine, which was attended by the corporal of artillery. The foremost space was occupied by the anchor cables and other materials, and when necessary it was used as infirmary.

La Réale carried onboard two boats, the heaviest one called "caique", used among other things to transport the anchor, and a lighter one called "canot" (skiff). Each of them was moved by twelve voluntary rowers. Generally they were towed, but if necessary they could be hoisted and mounted on support chocks, above the rowers.

The hull of the galley was very low, so the waves could hit the deck even with a slight swell. When sailing with strong wind, the whole leeward side of the deck was flooded, and the rowers were often submerged up to the waist. Before combat, the sails were always furled and the long lateen yards were tied to the masts with chains to prevent them from falling to the deck because of a cannon shot. With good wind conditions, a galley was generally reluctant to engage in combat against a pure sailing warship. Because of their length galleys were very slow when steering and to improve their maneuverability it was tried, without much success, to place a third sail on a mizzen mast. With similar purpose, in the 18th century it was tested a second rudder on the prow.

Galleys could present effective combat to the strongly armed 17th-century warships by taking advantage of a calm on the wind, when they had a chance to get away from the enemy artillery and to seek their own tactical position. But, being relatively poorly armed, many of them were required to dominate a strongly armed ship of the line. Many experts advised Louis XIV to abandon the galley fleet, bringing to memory how the 26-gun frigate Lion Couronné had sustained during one hour an indecisive combat against eleven galleys, in June 1651, and how the ship of the line Le Bon had defeated thirty-five galleys in July 1684. The last naval combat in which galleys took active part was fought in Matapan, in 1717. Three years later was built the last French "Réale".

French royal galley La Réale, 1680

~ Galleys And Galleasses (II) ~

~ Return To Antique Ships ~