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To the 1st century BC
To the 15th century AD
     Rowing into battle
     Greek fire
     Sterncastle and forecastle

16th - 18th century
19th century
To be completed

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Rowing into battle: for 2000 years

The main ingredients of naval warfare remain essentially the same throughout the classical and medieval centuries. Long, narrow ships, powered by banks of oarsmen, circle each other attempting either to ram the enemy or to grapple a ship so that marines can board it and slaughter the crew. Such encounters continue until 1571, when the battle of Lepanto is the last great engagement between warships propelled by oars.

The only refinement in these centuries is a famous Byzantine invention. It proves so devastating that it has retained, even today, the status of a terrifying mystery. It is Greek fire, first used in the 7th century.


Greek fire: 674

In674 a Muslim fleet enters the Bosphorus to attack Constantinople. It is greeted, and greatly deterred, by a new weapon which can be seen as the precursor of the modern flamethrower. It has never been discovered precisely how the Byzantine chemists achieve the jet of flame for their 'Greek fire'. The secret of such a lethal advantage is jealously guarded.

Contemporary accounts imply that the inflammable substance is petroleum-based, floats on water, and is almost impossible to extinguish. It can be lobbed in a canister. But in its most devastating form it is projected, as a stream of liquid fire, from a tube mounted in the prow of a ship. Sprayed among a wooden fleet, its destructive potential is obvious.


Sterncastle and forecastle: 11th - 16th century

The Norman longships, invading England in 1066, are shown in the Bayeux tapestry with fortified platforms for archers at each end. They resemble small castles, and the notion of a castle from which to fight on shipboard becomes enshrined in naval terminology. Raised areas at the stern and bow are known as the sterncastle and the forecastle (often reduced to fo'c'sle).

From the 14th century these castles begin to be occupied by fighting men of a different kind. The earliest reference to artillery on a ship is on a vessel attacking Antwerp in 1336.


Any gun on board ship at this period is relatively small. But as cannon increase in size, during the 15th century, a raised position in the sterncastle or forecastle tends to destabilize the vessel.

The solution, pioneered in France in about 1500, is for cannon to be ranged on decks in the belly of the ship. Their muzzles, when in action, project through square holes in the side of the hull (the gunports), which are closed and made relatively watertight at other times by a hinged flap.


The cannon are mounted on wheeled guncarriages to allow for the recoil. The heaviest guns, on the deck nearest to the waterline, require the longest recoil and therefore the greatest amount of deck. Lighter guns, on successive decks above, need less space.

Thus there evolves the characteristic shape of the man-of-war, with the hull curving inwards from the waterline to a top deck which is narrower than those below. The raised forecastle is no longer required (and is proved by Hawkins to be a hindrance to good sailing). The sterncastle develops into spacious quarters for the captain, becoming known as the poop - from the Latin puppis, meaning 'stern'.


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