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History of Warship Design

Great Ships And Their Origins

Great Ships

Much more information is available for ships built during the Elizabethan era, starting with the Elizabeth Jonas, which lasted into James I's reign, after being rebuilt late in the 16th Century. Arguably, the Triumph and White Bear, might have been equivalent to First Rates. The Triumph was the largest ship built during Elizabeth's reign. The White Bear, after being rebuilt, was classed as a Ship Royal during the early 17th Century. The Ark Royal, of 1587, fits very nicely into the Great Ship category, despite being classed as a Ship Royal, along with the Merhonour, circa 1618. They were very compact Ships Royal at a nominal 800 tons. They fit very nicely into the Great Ship category, given their dimensions.

James I's new Great Ships, such as the St. George and St. Andrew, became Second Rates, and battle fleet mainstays for most of the 17th Century, many taking part in all three Anglo-Dutch Wars, after they were rebuilt or "modernized". Many received new heads and quarter galleries, despite not being credited as having been rebuilt.

A major trend of the first half of the Seventeenth Century was the great reduction of rake, fore and aft, but especially forward. This is somewhat difficult to track as we lack information regarding length on the gun deck and length from stem to stern for most ships after the 1602 list until about 1650. From this point on, there is increasingly more information from which we can calculate rake. Then, the problem becomes the difficulty in getting accurate length of keel information. We find some lists using "tread length" and others using estimates based on the beam.

We will analyze the various ship's designs as they evolved from galleons to Great Ships, and then to Second Rates. Where information is lacking, we will hypothesize. In particular, we will rely on detailed design analysis, using displacement, know or likely weights, crew size and composition. We use computed mean draft, with plausible block coefficients, to estimate displacements. The mean draft is computed using known or plausibly estimated scantling data.

By the time of the War of the English Succession, the three-tiered, Second Rate crystallized as a type. The main evolution of the type for the rest of the age of fighting sail was to greatly increase the size, and to moderate the armament weight as a percentage of displacement.

The armament continued to be lighter than the First Rate, and with the great increase in size, the Second Rate became more seaworthy, and better able to operate in remote seas. The Seventeenth Century Second Rate was more suitable for operations in home waters, in better weather, since they were, as a class, heavily armed for their size. The main change, late in the Eighteenth Century, was the addition of eight more guns, to make the typical, British Second Rate, a 98-gun ship. That was the ultimate embodiment a type that grew out of the large, Elizabethan galleons, like the Triumph and White Bear, and could, arguably, be said to have had its origins with Henry VII's largest ships, three hundred years earlier (circa 1488).


The Great Ship had its origins in the Fifteenth Century. It is counter to popular expectations that large ships were in use at this early date. People are surprised when they find that not all Fifteenth Century ships were as small as the Spanish Santa Maria, which carried Christopher Columbus to the New World. More likely, what was the case was that the Spanish Crown did not wish to risk larger ships on as risky a venture as what Columbus proposed. Another likely factor was that the larger ships were not as seaworthy. At least in England, that was true.

The English Grace Dieu, in existence at the time of Henry VII's accession to the throne, was rebuilt in 1473 from the Grace Dieu of 1449. She was ship of about 600 tons. In all likelihood, this Grace Dieu was a carrack, with a round stern, and four masts. Those guns that were carried, would have been largely serpentines, mounted in the superstructure.

She had a relatively short life, after rebuilding, in that she was broken up in about 1487. Another Grace Dieu was built in her place, at Chatham. Almost immediately, she was renamed Regent. The Regent was also about 600 tons. She was lost in action against the French in 1512, off the Isle of Wight. Her French opponent caught fire and exploded, also destroying the Regent.

Henry VII's other large ship was the Sovereign. The Sovereign was an 800 ton ship, which ended up being rebuilt in 1510, after the relatively short period, by later standards, of 22 years. The rebuilt Sovereign only lasted about another 11 years.

The Sovereign, in particular, was built to what almost became a standard for two-tiered Second Rates in the first half of the Seventeenth Century, being of about 800 tons. As we shall see, even the length from stem-to-stern did not vary much from the mid-16th Century, up until the mid-Seventeenth Century. Looking at keel lengths, alone, this would not have been very obvious. One trend in the Seventeenth Century was the lengthening of the keel, particularly forward, to give better support, while the length on the gun deck, and particularly, the length from stem-to-stern varied much less.

One trend in the first half of the Sixteenth Century was the change in armament from a large number of small pieces, mounted in the superstructure, to an armament that included fewer guns, but of larger caliber, and mounted on what became the gun deck. Henry VIII's ship, the Mary Rose, was one of the first ships armed in this fashion. The new fashion consisted of mixed armaments, with a few very large guns, with a medium caliber armament on the lower deck, and with a mixture of smaller calibers on the upper deck and superstructure. It was only by the mid-Seventeenth Century that you would start to see uniform calibers mounted in each tier.

Henry VIII started, in earnest, to build or buy a fleet of what would later be considered to be Great Ships. While Henry built one "super ship", the Henry Grace A'Dieu, and had many smaller craft, his main fighting force, consisted of ships between 600 and 900 tons. The original Mary Rose of 1509 was as small as 500 tons. When the Mary Rose was rebuilt in 1536, she was rebuilt as a larger ships, being of 700 tons. The remains of that ship are now on display in England, the remaining material having been raised and preserved since the mid-1980's. Thanks to the Mary Rose having been preserved in mud, off the Isle of Wight, we now have concrete information about early 16th Century construction practices.

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