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To the 1st century BC
To the 15th century AD
16th - 18th century
     Carracks, galleons and galleys
     Spanish Armada
     Ships of the line

19th century
To be completed

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Carracks, galleons and galleys: 16th century

The largest European sailing ship of the 15th century is the Spanish carrack, easily outdoing the caravel in tonnage (more than 1000 tons compared to an average of 250 for the caravel). The carrack becomes the standard vessel of Atlantic trade and adventure in the mid-16th century, until an important modification is made to its design.

The carrack has unusually high castles in bow and stern, but the English trader of slaves John Hawkins discovers in the 1560s that the forecastle seriously hampers sailing. The great bulk of it, catching the wind ahead of the mast, has the effect of pushing the bow to leeward - making it very difficult to sail close to the wind.


From 1570 Hawkins experiments with a design in which the high forecastle is eliminated. He proves that a ship with high stern and relatively low bow is faster and more manoeuvrable. With an official post on the Navy Board, he is able to improve the English fleet dramatically before the encounter with the Spanish Armada in 1588 - when the agility of the English vessels wins the day.

Hawkins' 'low-charged' design, which acquires the general name of galleon, becomes the standard form for all large ships, whether merchant vessels or men-of-war, and remains so until the late 18th century.


The development of the galleon, the warship of the future, overlaps with the final chapter in the story of the galley - a vessel with some 2500 years of service in naval engagements.

In 1571, while Hawkins is improving the design of the carrack, a fleet of Christian galleys engages with the Turks at Lepanto in the coastal waters of Greece. Using the ancient tactics of ramming and boarding, the Christians rout the Turks - sinking some 50 galleys and capturing another 117. It is the last and the largest encounter in which ships are rowed into battle. Some 15,000 enslaved Christians, rowing the Turkish galleys, win their freedom as a result of the victory.


Spanish Armada: 1588

The encounter between the Spanish Armada and the English fleet in the Channel in August 1588 is the first of a new kind of naval battle, and one in which the English tactics suggest the way forward.

The Spanish have been accustomed to fighting at sea with galleys, as at Lepanto only seventeen years previously. A galley imposes a certain pattern on a battle. Guns can only point forward from the bow, where the main weapon, the ram, is also located. Assault consists in rowing straight at the enemy. Once at close quarters the ideal is to sink the enemy ship, with the ram. Next best is to grapple it and swarm aboard for hand-to-hand combat - in a technique going back to the Roman navy and the 'raven'.


The Armada (or in full Flota Armada Invencible, Armed Invincible Fleet) is the first Spanish war fleet to consist of sailing vessels, but its composition implies the use of galley tactics. The Spanish galleons are heavy; their guns fire large cannon balls, devastating at close quarters but of limited range; and the sailors on board the warships are more than twice outnumbered by soldiers, valueless in a sea battle unless ships come alongside.

The English fleet, consisting of smaller and swifter vessels, is armed with cannon which fire a lighter ball over a greater range. And the ships are almost entirely manned by trained seamen, with only a handful of soldiers.


The English crews, with commanders such as Hawkins and Drake among them, have learnt their trade in piracy against fat Spanish vessels. Now as they manoeuvre around the Armada, bombarding it from a distance, they demonstrate that the armed man-of-war is no longer just a vessel carrying combatants. It is itself the unit with which sea battles are fought.

During the next two centuries ships become bigger, cannon power more equal, and tactics more rigid in the development of the 'line'. But the basic pattern of warfare at sea is now established until the introduction of metal-plated and steam-powered warships in the mid-19th century.


Ships of the line: 17th - 18th century

For nearly a century after the Armada, a naval battle consists of a general melee with ships from each side engaging in individual combat. But during the Anglo-Dutch wars discipline begins to be imposed on fleets, with the emergence of the line of battle.

Since a man-of-war can only fire its cannon in broadsides, at right angles to the direction in which it is sailing, it makes tactical sense for the fleet to form up in line ahead and to move past the enemy with all guns blazing. To maintain this formation an effective system of signalling is required.


The first attempt to achieve such a system appears in Instructions for the better ordering of the fleet in fighting, produced by the English admiral Robert Blake and others in 1653. It lists a limited range of messages which can be sent, depending on which of five flags is flying at which position on the masts.

Signalling by flags at sea will become much more sophisticated during the 18th century. Meanwhile the procedure for maintaining a line at sea is published in England in 1672 under the title Sailing and Fighting Instructions. It is first applied in the Anglo-Dutch war of 1672-4.


The line becomes the basis of all warfare between fleets, and the ships themselves are soon classified in relation to it - depending on their size and the number of guns they carry. From the 1750s the British navy lists its ships according to six 'rates', the first rate carrying more than 100 guns and the sixth rate less than thirty-two.

Only the first three rates are ships of the line, considered of a size to take their place in a full-scale battle. Victory in such a battle goes to the side whose ships are well enough sailed and trimmed to deliver a lethal blast of shot as rival ships slide past each other at a range of 100 yards or less.


The positioning of the line, in relation to the wind, is an important tactical decision for the admiral of the fleet in the run-up to a battle. The problem then is to hold the line. Control is facilitated from the 17th century by the division of the fleet into three squadrons flying different coloured flags. The flag of the admiral's squadron is red, the vice admiral's is white and the rear admiral's blue.

As fleets get larger, in the 18th century, command is subdivided between nine admirals, three in each squadron. The admiral of the White, for example, has a vice admiral of the White and a rear admiral of the White as his second and third in command.


Sections are as yet missing at this point.


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