THE EVOLUTION OF ENGLISH SHIPBUILDING 1500-159'.

by

Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt

 

"After many enterchanged voleies of great ordinance and small shot, the Spaniards deliberated to enter the Revenge, and made divers attempts, hoping to force her by the multitudes of their armed soldiers and Musketiers, but were still repulsed againe and againe, and at all times beaten backe, into their owne shippes, or into the seas. "

--- Sir Walter Ralegh, 1591

1. The Death of the Revenge (1591)

It was a warm September day in 1591. The English squadron was at anchor at the island of Flores in the Azores while many of the men were ashore filling water casks. Others were conducting some well-needed repairs on the ships. Still others were recuperating from the sickness that had laid low almost half of the crew. The squadron, included several of the new "race-built" galleons (the Defiance, Bonaventure, and the 500-ton Revenge) and eleven or twelve other vessels, and was awaiting the opportunity to ambush the Spanish flota returning from the New World laden with gold, silver and goods.1

Warning arrived that the treasure fleet now consisted of some 53 to 55 sail, of which thirty were galleons including six of the new "Apostle"-class. The Apostles were tremendous in size, averaging 1500 tons and carrying as many as 50 guns. The Spanish fleet had a crew and soldier contingent of about 7,000 men. The commander of the expedition, Sir Thomas Howard, got the crews back on their ships and took flight. All of the ships save one--the Revenge. While Howard's ships eluded the main Spanish force after a brief exchange of broadsides, the Revenge sailed straight into the midst of the enemy force.

The Revenge was the first of a class of ships that became known as the "'race-built" or "low-charged" galleon. She was laid down in 1575 and was the prototype for the fast and heavily armed ocean-going galleon. Her actual weight was 441 tons though she was often rated at 500. The Revenge was 92 feet in length, 32 in beam and 15 in depth. She had been altered in 1583 in preparation for the oncoming war with Spain, served with Hawkins in 1586, been Drake's flagship in 1588 and with Frobisher off the Azores in 1590.

Her present commander, Sir Richard Grenville, was a cousin of Sir Walter Raleigh and came from a family that, we shall see, had more than a passing acquaintance with English naval developments and some of the disasters that occurred along the way. He nursed an incredible hatred of the Spanish and refused to fly before them. Instead, he chose to engage them head-on in attempt to buy time for Howard's ships and glory for himself and the Revenge. Only one English ship attempted to come to her aid during the battle. The 150-ton armed merchant, the George Noble, slashed courageously into the fight and put herself at Grenville's disposal. He ordered her to withdraw before she was destroyed.2

The "Apostle" San Felipe, three times the size of the Revenge, closed with the English ship and attempted to grapple to her side. She was driven off. The San Barnabe successfully attached herself to the other side of the English ship. The Revenge unleashed continual broadsides into both ships forcing the San Felipe to withdraw with heavy damage and repulsing boarding parties from both ships. The galleon Ascension, the San Andrea and other Spanish ships closed to attempt to board the Revenge. Each sent boarding parties onto the Revenge. One reached the reached the mainmast and captured the ships ensign but all were eventually driven back.

The battle raged for fifteen hours. Before it was done the Ascension and another major warship were sent to the bottom. Two more galleons were fatally damaged and sank a few hours later. Nearly 400 Spaniards had died, including two captains. In the fight, the Spaniards had fired nearly 800 rounds of cannon and culverin shot.3

Finally, with her upper works shot completely away, 40% of her fighting contingent dead and much of the rest wounded, the Revenge surrendered.4 Grenville, who had threatened to blow up the Revenge rather than surrender her to the Spaniards and who was mortally wounded, was carried to one of the Spanish ships where he was treated with the utmost chivalry. The Revenge was taken in tow and became the only major warship captured by the Spanish during their war with England. Grenville died two days later.

The Revenge was never to serve under the flag of Spain. Five days after the spectacular battle in the Azores, a storm sent the Revenge to the bottom. Along with her went some twenty Spanish ships. Her dramatic fifteen-hour fight with the Spanish fleet had shown just how well her designers had done their job and how the future of naval warfare would be determined by the innovative English and not the tradition bound Spaniards.5

II. The Great Ships of Henry VIII

Henry VIII took the first steps in the creation of the race-built galleon. The King took a keen interest in naval affairs and, in many ways, was the driving force behind the development of the Tudor navy. Some even credit him with being the father of the British navy. His major contributions to the Tudor navy were: the addition of gunports and heavy cannons to English fighting ships and the creation of the Great Ships. He also created the English "galleasses" which were the ancestors of the race-built galleons.

The gunport itself was reputedly invented by a Frenchman named Descharges in around 1500.6 Henry realized that the gunport, when coupled with heavy ship-killing artillery, would enable a vessel to stand off out of boarding range and pound its adversary into submission. Thus was born the idea of the broadside.

Ship to ship warfare had hitherto been a fight between floating fortresses. Ships sought to close with each other so that boarding parties of soldiers could fight it out on the deck for control of the ship. Each ship had high castles built fore and aft so that bowmen and musketeers could fire down onto the enemy ship. Although he did not fully realize it, Henry's innovation would bring this type of naval battle to an end. But to successfully use the gunport, Henry's shipwrights would have to change the design of English ships.

The ships of the Tudor navy early in Henry's reign were based on the clinker-built northern carrack.7 Even Henry's new Great Ships retained the carrack design as their basis. But they abandoned the clinker-type of construction in favor of having the planking laid flush in the carvel style of construction. This allowed the gunport to be used in conjunction with a hinged door to keep out the sea during storms.

There is some conjecture as to which of Henry's ships was the first to have gunports. The Mary Rose, built in 1509 had them. But it is uncertain as to whether the ports were constructed in 1509 or if they were a part of the ship's reconstruction of 1536. The Henri Grace a Dieu, popularly known as the Great Harry, was launched in 1514 and it had gunports also.8

Both ships were large by the standard of the day. The Mary Rose was recorded at 700 tons while the Great Harry, with a crew of 400 sailors and a complement of 260 soldiers and 40 gunners, was a giant of 1000 tons. Both retained the high fore and aft castles of the carrack, making them handle poorly. They can be considered the first step towards modern battleships.9

In 1545 Henry launched two new ships that were of even more revolutionary design than the Mary Rose or the Great Harry. These were the 450 ton Grand Mistress and Anne Gallant. Both ships are listed as galleases. By convention a galleas is half galleon and half-oared galley, a kind of compromise between the two designs. These types of ships were meant to have the sailing ability of a galleon and the capability to move without wind that galleys had.

The use of the terms galleon, galley and galleass by 16th century writers and shipwrights was terribly imprecise. While the Grand Mistress and Anne Gallant are called galleasses, they are portrayed in the Anthony Anthony Rolls as sailing ships lacking oar ports and, for that matter, oars. They are shown as sleek, low built and weatherly galleons.10 Even if these two ships were true galleasses, most writers agree that the hull design of the Elizabethan race-built galleon is as more a descendant of them than of Henry's Great Ships.11 Why, then, did not Henry, Edward and Mary not continue Henry's program of ship development? The answer lies in the events surrounding the French invasion of 1545.

III. The Death of the Mary Rose (1545)

In July of 1545 the French launched an invasion fleet into the English Channel. It numbered some 235 ships, being over a hundred ships larger than the Armada of 1588.12 The English fleet numbered about 100, including the Mary Rose, Great Harry, Great Mistress and Anne Gallant. The fleets met first at Spithead on July 20 and then again at Shoreham on August 15. Both battles were inconclusive, but certain events that took place during the fights were to have tremendous consequences for English ship development over the next twenty years.

The weather on July 20, 1545 was calm. The English occupied a sheltered position from which they were not going to move and the French were reluctant to force their way into the restricted space under the guns of the fort at Southsea. A light breeze came up and Henry's two Great Ships, the Mary Rose and the Great Harry turned to take advantage of it and began to unfurl their sails.

It was apparent from the beginning that the Mary Rose was having problems. The Great Harry, carrying the Admiral of the Fleet, sailed alongside to ask what the problem was. The Vice Admiral replied "I have the sort of knaves I cannot rule". In a matter of minutes the Mary Rose listed to one side allowing the water to pour into her open gunports which were just 16 inches above the waterline. The Mary Rose was also overloaded with troops and guns, adding to her top heavy condition. Of her crew of six hundred, including her captain Roger Grenville, only 45 survived. The father of Sir Richard Grenville was not one of these. The King, watching from the shore, could only have been shocked and dismayed. In the end it was the English light forces that came forward and drove the French fleet back.

The fleets met three weeks later at Shoreham in light winds and calm seas. The Grand Mistress and Anne Gallant were present and were placed with the English galley forces. They moved forward and, aided by a sudden increase in wind, outpaced the galleys and closed with the French fleet. They made effective use of their guns and were instrumental in this key, if unnoticed victory.

The battle of Shoreham passed unnoticed because the King was not present to see the success of his latest creations. Instead, he bore for the remaining two years of his life the memory of the sinking Mary Rose. This memory convinced him that his experiment with the gunport, the great ship and lowcharged ships had been a failure. Neither he nor his son nor first daughter ever built another major low-charged vessel. The Grand Mistress and Anne Gallant, along with the rest of the fleet, were allowed to moulder in port. The Great Harry was burnt in 1545.13

IV. The Race-Built Galleons of Elizabeth I

In 1569 a "trading" mission to the Caribbean, commanded by John Hawkins, was ambushed at San Juan de Ulloa near Vera Cruz Mexico. Hawkins' flagship was the venerable highcharged galleon Jesus of Lubeck, purchased by Henry VIII from the Hanseatic League in 1544. The ship, like all highcharged ships, handled poorly except when sailing almost directly with the wind. During the fight with several large Spanish ships of the plate fleet the Jesus of Lubeck, in part due to her own awkwardness and poor state of repair, was severely damaged. Hawkins abandoned her. Hawkins and a small part of his crew escaped in the Judith and Minion, two 50-ton barques. After several weeks of desperate sailing, Hawkins returned to England. He had gained two things from this experience: a distaste for the Spanish and a dislike of highcharged ships.14

Hawkins had definite ideas about how to improve the design of Her Majesties ships. He, and other like-minded sailors, were to fight an uphill battle against the more traditionally-minded captains when they tried to introduce the concept of the low-charged galleons. The ships, lacking the high fore and aft castles of the conventional galleon, would be vulnerable to enemy action when ships closed for boarding actions. The enemy would be able to fire down onto the Queen's ships from their castles while the English ships would be unable to retaliate. Enemy boarding parties would be able to swing down onto the English decks from positions high atop their own fore and aft castles.

Hawkins agreed with the captains on this point but stressed that the new ships were not meant to close to boarding range with the enemy but, instead, use their shipkilling guns to destroy the enemy's rigging and to hole his ships at long range. If the enemy tried to close, the lowcharged galleon's nimbleness would enable it to escape. He also reasoned that the removal of the high forecastle and aft castle would do away with areas that, when caught by the wind, forced the ship's bow down to leeward.15

The first Elizabethan experiment with the low-charged galleon was the 300-ton Foresight, built in 1570. The Bull and the Tiger, both 200-ton ships, were also reconstructed in 1570 along race-built lines. It seemed reasonable to try the new approach on smaller ships before experimenting with larger ones. These three ships were found to be faster and handier in most weather conditions than any other design then in existence.

Hawkins became treasurer of the fleet in 1577 and from this post he was able to make his ideas directly felt. One result of this was the creation of a new class of ships, the Revenge-class race-built galleon. The flagship of this class of vessels was the Revenge, launched in 1577. She, and those ships like her that followed, were far more maneuverable than her Spanish, Portuguese and French counterparts. The Revenge had a ratio in length to beam of about 3:1. Most ships of the time were rounder, having a ration of about 2:1 at best. She wag, by the measurements of the time, considered a mid-sized galleon. Other ships of similar type followed, to include the 600-ton Elizabeth Bonaventure in 1581 and 500-ton Ark Royal.

The "average" armament of a Revenge-class galleon consisted of about 20 muzzle-loading culverins on the upper deck and a further fifteen or so smaller guns in the lower decks. These smaller guns were a mixed collection of demicannon, cannon-perier, whole-culverin, demi-culverin, falcon, minion and saker. Some of the ships even retained the lighter pivot guns. The Revenge carried 46 guns.16

The average Revenge-class galleon carried a contingent of some one hundred and fifty sailors, seventy soldiers and thirty gunners. In the English fleet each group was crosstrained, to some extent, to do some of the work of the others. Both soldiers and sailors could work the guns as well as perform their normal duties. In the Spanish fleet this was not the case.17

As the handiness of the race-built galleon became apparent, many of the Queen's ships were rebuilt along similar lines, to include the Nonpareil and Bonaventure. Many of the ships built after 1577, including the Ark Royal, were built along the race-built lines.

The Revenge's first action took place on September 27, 1579. It, along with the Swiftsure, Aid, Merlin, Tiger and Achates had sailed to, Ireland to assist in the suppression of a small revolt being supported by hundreds of Spanish troops. Upon arriving the squadron, under the command of Sir William Wynter, found that many of the rebels and most of the Spaniards had built a fortress on a jut of land extending into the bay. Wynter devised a tactic that allowed him to effectively use most of his guns. The Revenge, Swiftsure and Aid, drawing too much water to safely approach the fortress, were anchored some distance off and pounded the fortress at long range.

The other ships moved forward in single file and, once in range moved in a circle. This maneuver allowed each ship to fire its bow guns on approach, turn to fire its broadside guns and then fire its stern guns as it departed. Movement in circle allowed Wynter to maintain constant fire. This new "line-ahead formation" was to be used against the Armada nine years later.18

After much building, Hawkins was ready to take the new English fleet out for a test cruise. The ships departed Chatham Yard in September of 1586. They were the 500-ton, 44 gun Nonpareil, the 54 gun Golden Lion, the 600-ton Hope, the Revenge and the 150-ton Tremonata. Other than testing the ships, the squadron had the mission of taking the Spanish treasure fleet. It failed in this but did capture some secondary shipping. Hawkins showed the Spanish captains around the fleet so that they would know the caliber of opponent that they were facing.19

The test came in 1588 with the battles in the English Channel against the Armada. The English found that it was difficult to damage the Spanish ships from distances out of range of the shorter-ranged Spanish guns. To do damage, the English were forced to close within range of Spanish guns. At times they closed to within boarding distance. But the design of the race-built galleons was to some extent vindicated by the fact that the English suffered no ship loss due to Spanish action. This was also due, in part, to the poor manufacture of Spanish shot.

The English were able to gain the weather gauge early in the fight, in part due to the better handling of the Revenge class ship. The high point of the fight with the Armada came at the Battle of Gravelines in which the Revenge led a line of ships in an attack against the San Martin, flagship of the Armada. Using the tactics devised by Wynter, they inflicted tremendous punishment upon the San Martin while escaping relatively unscathed.20

But the best testament to the solidness of the racebuilt design remains the Revenge's fifteen-hour duel to the death with an entire Spanish fleet. What other type of ship of its time could have fought for so long and so well? None. This is the legacy of Hawkins and Sir Richard Grenville, Henry VIII and Roger Grenville, the Mary Rose and the Grand Mistress,

NOTES

1Sir Walter Ralegh, A Report of the Truth about the fight about the Iles of Azores last Sommer. Betwixt the Revenge, one of her Majesties Shippes, And an Armada of the Xing of Spaine, William Ponsonbie, London, England, 1591, p. B.

2Ralegh, ibid, p. B2.

3Winston Graham, The Spanish Armada, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972, p. 198.

4Bryce Walker, The Armada, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1981, p. 162 and Ralegh, op.cit., p. B3.

5Robert G. Albion, Five Centuries of Famous Ships, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York City, New York, 1978, pp 31-33, Graham, ibid, pp 194-199, Walker, ibid, p. 162, Ralegh, ibid, pp B-C3 and Rowse, Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge, Jonathan Cape, London, England, 1963, pp 300-320.

6Peter Kemp, The History of Ships, Orbis Publishing Company, London, England, 1978, p. 72 and R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, Harper and Row, Publishers, New York City, New York, 1976, p. 462. It is likely that the invention of the covered gunport took place a little before 1500 since there are indications of ships equipped with them in the very late 15th century in the Mediterranean.

7E.H.H. Archibald, The Wooden Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy A.D. 897-1860, Arco Publishing Company, Inc., New York City, New York, 1976, p. 10, and The Illustrated History of Ships, Crescent Books, New York City, New York, 1979, p. 112. At least one author believes that the basis for Henry VIII's Great Ships was provided by the medieval cog rather than the carrack. Kemp states that the English increased the size and the number of masts of the cog and that the carrack was a southern European ship design not adopted in northern Europe. Kemp, ibid, p. 89. Bradford quotes an old Marine dictionary in describing clinker construction as "the disposition of the planks in the side of any boat or vessel, when the lower edge of every plank overlays the next under it, like slates on the top of a house". Ernle Bradford, The Story of the Mary Rose, W.W. Norton, New York City, New York, 1982, p. 23.

8Albion, op.cit., pp 13-14

9Albion, ibid, pp 13-14 and Bradford, op.cit., pp 19-23.