Ship of the line

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HMS Victory in 1884, the only surviving example of a ship-of-the-line

A ship-of-the-line was a type of naval warship constructed from the 17th century through the mid-19th century, to take part in the naval tactic known as the line of battle, in which two columns of opposing warships would manoeuvre to bring the greatest weight of broadside guns to bear. Since these engagements were almost invariably won by the heaviest ships carrying the most powerful guns, the natural progression was to build sailing vessels that were the largest and most powerful of their time.

From the end of the 1840s, the introduction of steam power brought less dependence on the wind in battle and led to the construction of screw-driven but wooden-hulled ships-of-the-line; a number of pure sail-driven ships were converted to this propulsion mechanism. However, the introduction of the ironclad frigate in about 1859 led swiftly to the decline of the steam-assisted ships-of-the-line, though the ironclad warship became the ancestor of the twentieth-century battleship, whose very designation is itself a contraction of the phrase "line-of-battle ship."



HMS Victory at drydock in Portsmouth Harbour, 2007
Sovereign of the Seas, a contemporaneous engraving by J.Payne

The origin of the ship-of-the-line can be found in the great ships built by the English in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Nau built by the Portuguese and the similar large carracks built by other European nations at the same time. These vessels, developed from the cogs, which traded in the North Sea and the Baltic, had an advantage over galleys because they had raised platforms called "castles" at bow and stern which could be occupied by archers, who fired down on enemy ships. Over time these castles became higher and larger, and eventually started to be built into the structure of the ship, increasing overall strength.

Mary Rose was an English carrack, being well equipped with 78 guns (91 after an upgrade in the 1530s). Built in Portsmouth, England 1510-12, she was one of the earliest purpose-built warships to serve in the English Navy; it is thought that she never served as a merchant ship. She was over 500 tons burthen with a keel of over 32 m (106 ft) and a crew that consisted of 200 sailors, 185 soldiers, and 30 gunners. Although she was the pride of the English fleet she accidentally sank during the battle of the Solent against French forces on 19 July 1545.

Henri Grâce à Dieu (French, "Henry Grace of God"), nicknamed "Great Harry", was an English great ship of the 16th century. Contemporary with Mary Rose, Henri Grâce à Dieu was 165 feet (50 m) long, weighing 1,000–1,500 tons and having a complement of 700–1,000. It is said that she was ordered by Henry VIII in response to the Scottish ship Michael, launched in 1511. She was originally built at Woolwich Dockyard from 1512 to 1514 and was one of the first vessels to feature gunports and had twenty of the new heavy bronze cannon, allowing for a broadside. In all she mounted 43 heavy guns and 141 light guns. She was the first English two-decker, and when launched she was the largest and most powerful warship in Europe, but she saw little action. She was present at the Battle of the Solent against Francis I of France in 1545 (in which Mary Rose sank) but appears to have been more of a diplomatic vessel, sailing on occasion with sails of gold cloth. Indeed, the great ships were almost as well known for their ornamental design (some ships, like the Vasa, were gilded on their stern scrollwork) as they were for the power they possessed.

These ships were the first used in experiments with carrying large-calibre guns aboard. Because of its higher freeboard and greater load-bearing ability, this type of vessel was better suited to gunpowder weapons than the galley. Because of their development from Atlantic seagoing vessels, the great ships were more weatherly than galleys and better suited to open waters. The lack of oars meant that large crews were unnecessary, making long journeys more feasible. Their disadvantage was that they were entirely reliant on the wind for mobility. Galleys could still overwhelm great ships, especially when there was little wind and they had a numerical advantage, but as great ships increased in size, galleys became less and less useful.

Another detriment was the high forecastle, which interfered with the sailing qualities of the ship; the bow would be forced low into the water while sailing before the wind. But as guns were introduced and gunfire replaced boarding as the primary means of naval combat during the 16th century, the mediaeval forecastle was no longer needed, and later ships such as the galleon had only a low, one-deck-high forecastle. By the time of the 1637 launching of Britain's powerful Sovereign of the Seas, the high forecastle was gone altogether.

From the 16th to 18th century, the great ship and carrack evolved into the galleon, a longer, more manoeuvrable type of ship, with all the advantages of the great ship. The opposing British and Spanish fleets of the 1588 Spanish Armada were both largely composed of galleons. By the 1710s every major European naval power was building ships like these.

With the growing importance of colonies and exploration and the need to maintain trade routes across stormy oceans, galleys and galleasses (a larger, higher type of galley with side-mounted guns, but lower than a galleon) were used less and less, and by about 1750 had little impact upon naval battles.

Large sailing junks of the Chinese Empire, described by various travellers to the East such as Marco Polo and Niccolò Da Conti, and used during the travels of Admiral Zheng He in the early 15th century, were contemporaries of such European vessels. Chinese junks carried cannon as well as other weapons unfavoured in the West but because of their construction and wider beam ends, were not as vulnerable to being fired on at the bow and stern as European ships were, and as a result there was no impetus to develop similar tactics. By the time European powers were capable of sending ships to Chinese waters, Chinese isolationism had resulted in these developments being abandoned and forgotten, and construction halted on all but the smallest types of junks so that what they encountered were coastal defence ships comparable to European sloops and not the 137-metre-long (450 ft) and 55-metre-wide (180 ft) treasure ships Admiral Zheng He commanded.

Line-of-battle adoption

In the early to mid 17th century, new fighting techniques came to be used by several navies, in particular those of England and the Netherlands. Previously battles had usually been fought by great fleets of ships closing with each other and fighting it out in whatever arrangement they found themselves in, often using boarding. However, the further development of guns and the adoption of broadside arrangements of guns required a change of tactics. With the broadside the decisive weapon, tactics evolved to ensure as many ships could fire broadside as possible. The line-of-battle tactic required ships to form long single-file lines and close with the enemy fleet on the same tack, battering the other fleet until one side had had enough and retreated. Any manoeuvres would be carried out with the ships remaining in line for mutual protection.

"In order that this order of battle, this long thin line of guns, may not be injured or broken at some point weaker than the rest, there is at the same time felt the necessity of putting in it only ships which, if not of equal force, have at least equally strong sides. Logically it follows, at the same moment in which the line ahead became definitively the order for battle, there was established the distinction between the ships 'of the line', alone destined for a place therein, and the lighter ships meant for other uses."[1] Examples of the latter include acting as scouts and relaying signals between the flagship and the rest of the fleet since, from the flagship, only a small part of the line would be in clear sight.

The adoption of line-of battle-tactics had consequences for ship design. The height advantage given by the castles fore and aft was reduced, now that hand-to-hand combat was less essential. The need to manoeuvre in battle made the top-weight of the castles more of a disadvantage. So they shrank, making the ship-of-the-line lighter and more manoeuvrable than its forebears for the same combat power. As an added consequence, the hull itself grew larger, allowing the size and number of guns to increase as well.

Evolution of design

In the 17th century fleets could consist of almost a hundred ships of various sizes, but by the middle of the 18th century, ship-of-the-line design had settled on a few standard types: older two-deckers (i.e., with two complete decks of guns firing through side ports) of 50 guns (which were too weak for the battle-line but could be used to escort convoys), two-deckers of between 64 and 90 guns which formed the main part of the fleet, and larger three- or even four-deckers with 98 to 140 guns which were used as admirals' command ships. Fleets consisting of perhaps 10 to 25 of these ships, with their attendant supply ships and scouting and messenger frigates, kept control of the sea-lanes for major European naval powers whilst restricting sea-borne trade of enemies.

The most common size of sail ship of the line was the "74" (named for its 74 guns), originally developed by France in the 1730s, and later adopted by all battleship navies. Until this time the British had 6 sizes of ship of the line, and they found that their smaller 50- and 60-gun ships were becoming too small for the battle-line, while their 80s and over were 3-deckers and therefore unwieldy and unstable in heavy seas. Their best were 70-gun 2-deckers of about 46 metres (150 ft) long on the gundeck, while the new French 74s were around 52 metres (170 ft). In 1747 the British captured a few of these French ships during the War of Austrian Succession. In the next decade Thomas Slade (Surveyor of the Navy from 1755, along with co-Surveyor William Bately) broke away from the past and designed several new classes of 51- to 52-metre 74s to compete with these French designs, starting with the Dublin and Bellona classes. Their successors gradually improved handling and size through the 1780s.[2] Other navies ended up building 74s also as they had the right balance between offensive power, cost, and manoeuvrability. Eventually around half of Britain's ships of the line were 74s. Larger vessels were still built, as command ships, but they were more useful only if they could definitely get close to an enemy, rather than in a battle involving chasing or manoeuvring. The 74 remained the favoured ship until 1811, when Seppings's method of construction enabled bigger ships to be built with more stability.

In a few ships the design was altered long after the ship was launched and in service. In the Royal Navy, smaller two-deck 74- or 64-gun ships-of-the-line which could not be used safely in fleet actions had their upper decks removed (or razeed), resulting in a very stout, single gun-deck warship which was called a razee. The resulting razeed ship could be classed as a frigate and was still much stronger. The most successful razeed ship in the Royal Navy was HMS Indefatigable, which was commanded by Sir Edward Pellew.

File:Weight Growth of RN First Rate Line-of-Battle Ships 1630-1875.svg
Weight growth of RN first rate ships of the line 1630-1861, including for comparison the large early ironclads. Note the way steam allowed an increase in the rate of growth

Mahmudiye (1829), ordered by the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II and built by the Imperial Naval Arsenal on the Golden Horn in Istanbul, was for many years the largest warship in the world. The 62x17x7-metre ship-of-the-line was armed with 128 cannons on 3 decks. She participated in many important naval battles, including the Siege of Sevastopol (1854-1855) during the Crimean War (1854-1856). She was decommissioned in 1875.

The largest sailing three-decker ship of the line ever built was the French Valmy, launched in 1847. She had right sides, which increased significantly the space available for upper batteries, but reduced the stability of the ship; wooden stabilizers were added under the waterline to address the issue. Valmy was thought to be the largest sort of sailing ship possible, as larger dimensions made the manoeuvre of riggings impractical with mere manpower. She participated in the Crimean War, and after her return to France later housed the French Naval Academy under the name Borda from 1864 to 1890.

Steam power

The first major change to the ship-of-the-line concept was the introduction of steam power as an auxiliary propulsion system. The first military uses of steamships came in the 1810s, and in the 1820s a number of navies experimented with paddle steamer warships. Their use spread in the 1830s, with paddle-steamer warships participating in conflicts like the First Opium War alongside ships-of-the-line and frigates.[3]

Paddle steamers, however, had major disadvantages. The paddle-wheel above the waterline was exposed to enemy fire, while itself preventing the ship from firing broadsides effectively. During the 1840s, the screw propeller emerged as the most likely method of steam propulsion, with both Britain and the USA launching screw-propelled warships in 1843. Through the 1840s, the British and French navies launched ever larger and more powerful screw ships, alongside sail-powered ships of the line. In 1845, Viscount Palmerston gave an indication of the role of the new steamships in tense Anglo-French relations, describing the English Channel as a "steam bridge", rather than a barrier to French invasion. It was partly because of the fear of war with France that the Royal Navy converted several old 74-gun ships-of-the-line into 60-gun steam-powered blockships, starting in 1845.[3] The blockships were "originally conceived as steam batteries solely for harbour defence, but in September 1845 they were given a reduced [sailing] rig rather than none at all, to make them sea-going ships....The blockships were to be a cost-effective experiment of great value."[4] They subsequently gave good service in the Crimean War.

Le Napoléon (1850), the first steam battleship

The French Navy, however, developed the first purpose-built steam battleship with the 90-gun Le Napoléon in 1850.[5] She is also considered the first true steam battleship, and the first screw battleship ever.[6] Napoleon was armed as a conventional ship-of-the-line, but her steam engines could give her a speed of 12 knots (22 km/h), regardless of the wind conditions—a potentially decisive advantage in a naval engagement.

Eight sister-ships to Le Napoléon were built in France over a period of ten years, but the United Kingdom soon took the lead in production, in number of both purpose-built and converted units. Altogether, France built 10 new wooden steam battleships and converted 28 from older battleship units, while the United Kingdom built 18 and converted 41.[7]

In the end, France and Britain were the only two countries to develop fleets of wooden steam screw battleships, although several other navies made some use of a mixture of screw battleships and paddle-steamer frigates. These included Russia, Turkey, Sweden, Naples, Prussia, Denmark, and Austria.[3]


File:Turner, J. M. W. - The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken.jpg
HMS Temeraire, hero of Trafalgar, ignominiously towed to the breakers by a little steamship.

In the Crimean War, six line-of-battle ships and two frigates of the Russian Black Sea Fleet destroyed seven Turkish frigates and three corvettes with explosive shells at the Battle of Sinop in 1853.[8]

In the 1860s unarmoured steam line-of-battleships were replaced by ironclad warships. On March 8, 1862, during the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, two unarmoured wooden frigates were sunk and destroyed by the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia.

However, the power implied by the ship-of-the-line would find its way into the ironclad, which would develop during the next few decades into the concept of the battleship.


See also: Naval tactics in the Age of Sail

Although Spain, the Netherlands, and France built huge fleets, and in France's case even with better ships, they were rarely able to match the skill of British naval crews.[citation needed] British crews excelled, in part, because they spent much more time at sea, were generally better fed, were well trained in gunnery (allowing a faster rate of fire), and were generally more competent, as the Royal Navy based promotion much more on merit rather than purchase. The British Army, has usually been smaller than the armies of comparably prominent continental countries, while the navy tended to be larger than the individual navies of each continental power.[citation needed]

In the North Sea and North Atlantic Ocean, the fleets of Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Spain fought numerous battles in support of their land armies and to deny the enemy access to trade routes. In the Baltic Sea, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Russia did likewise, while in the Mediterranean Sea, Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Venice, Portugal, Britain, and France battled for control.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain defeated Europe's major naval powers at battles such as at Copenhagen, Cape St Vincent, Aboukir ("The Nile"), and Trafalgar, allowing the Royal Navy to establish itself as the world's primary naval power. Spain, Denmark, and Portugal largely stopped building ships of the line during this time under duress from the British. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 with the largest and most professional navy in the world, composed of hundreds of wooden, sail-powered ships of all sizes and classes. The Royal Navy had complete naval supremacy across the world following the Napoleonic Wars, and it demonstrated this superiority during the Crimean War in the 1850s.

Nonetheless, the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the American War of 1812, had illustrated the shortcomings of ships-of-the-line when an enemy resorted to tactics including the large-scale use of privateers. Both the French and the Americans had demonstrated what a menace small, lightly-armed, but fast, nimble, and, most especially, numerous vessels like sloops and schooners could be when they spread across the wide oceans, operating singly or in small groups. They targeted the merchant shipping that was Britain's economic lifeblood, and ships-of-the-line were too few, too slow, and too clumsy to be employed against them.

Overwhelming firepower was of no use if it could not be brought to bear - the Royal Navy's initial response to Napoleon's privateers, which operated from French New World territories, was to buy Bermuda sloops. Similarly, the East India Company's merchant vessels became lightly armed and quite competent in combat during this period, operating a convoy system under an armed merchantman, instead of depending on small numbers of more heavily armed ships.

Restorations and replicas

The only original ship-of-the-line remaining today is HMS Victory, preserved as a museum just as she was while under Admiral Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar. Although Victory is in drydock, she is still a fully commissioned warship in the Royal Navy and has the honour of being the oldest commissioned warship in any navy worldwide.

The Regalskeppet Vasa sank in the Baltic in 1628 and was lost until 1956. She was then raised intact, in remarkably good condition, in 1961 and is presently on display at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. At the time she was the largest Swedish warship ever built. Today the Vasa Museum is the most visited museum in Sweden.

The remains of the Mary Rose were raised in 1982 and are on display in Portsmouth, England. Although Mary Rose consists of only half of a ship, it is a remarkable example of ship construction from Tudor England, and like Vasa, it contained a wealth of artefacts which tell of the daily lives of those on board.

Also on display in Portsmouth is a sail-and-steam-powered ship HMS Warrior, built in 1860. Warrior was the world’s first iron-hulled, armoured warship powered by steam as well as sail and constructed of wrought iron. The only surviving member of Queen Victoria's Black Battlefleet, Warrior was used for 50 years as an oil jetty at Milford Haven before being restored to her former glory.

In 1997 a project to rebuild a famous French frigate was able to lay the keel in a dry dock in Rochefort. The frigate Hermione was the ship that carried Lafayette to the US during the American revolutionary war. The original Hermione was sunk in 1793 off the French coast, and her wreck was rediscovered in 1992. Fortunately, the British had captured her sister ship in the Napoleonic wars and had recorded her construction in great detail, which documents were then available for the reconstruction. The replica is faithful in almost every way to the original. The ship is 56 metres long and carries 26 x 12-pounder armament. The project site contains many very interesting photos of her construction, a site for the book to accompany her build and launch (in English) gives some summary details.

See also

A contemporary diagram illustrating a first and a third-rate ship



  1. Mahan, A.T., The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, p. 116, quoting Chabaud-Arnault
  2. Angus Constam & Tony Bryan (2001). British Napoleonic Ship-Of-The-Line. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 184176308X.  as seen on British Napoleonic Ship-Of-The-Line - Google Book Search. Retrieved 2008-08-02. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Sondhaus, L. Naval Warfare, 1815-1914
  4. p30, Lambert, Andrew Battleships in Transition, the Creation of the Steam Battlefleet 1815-1860, published Conway Maritime Press, 1984. ISBN 0-85177-315-X
  5. "Napoleon (90 guns), the first purpose-designed screw line of battleships," Steam, Steel and Shellfire, Conway's History of the Ship, p. 39.
  6. "Hastened to completion Le Napoleon was launched on 16 May 1850, to become the world's first true steam battleship," Steam, Steel and Shellfire, Conway's History of the Ship, p. 39.
  7. Steam, Steel and Shellfire, Conway's History of the Ship, p. 41.
  8. Lambert, Andrew D, The Crimean War, British Grand Strategy Against Russia, 1853-56, pub Manchester University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-7190-3564-3, pages 60-61.


  • Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean, a Naval History of Britain 1649-1815, London (2004). ISBN 0-7139-9411-8
  • Bennett, G. The Battle of Trafalgar, Barnsley (2004). ISBN 1-84415-107-7
  • Military Heritage did a feature on frigates and included the British Rating System (John D. Gresham, Military Heritage, February 2002, Volume 3, No.4, pp. 12 to 17 and p. 87).
  • Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean, a Naval History of Britain 1649-1815, London (2004). ISBN 0-7139-9411-8
  • Lavery, Brian. The Ship of the Line, Volume 1: The Development of the Battlefleet, 1650–1850. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1983. ISBN 0-87021-631-7.
  • Lavery, Brian. The Ship of the Line, Volume 2: Design, Construction and Fittings. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1984. ISBN 0-87021-953-7.
  • Winfield, Rif. The 50-Gun Ship. London: Caxton Editions, 1997. ISBN 1-84067-365-6, ISBN 1-86176-025-6.
  • Mahan, A.T., The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, Cosimo, Inc., 2007
  • Constam, Angus & Bryan, Tony, British Napoleonic Ship-Of-The-Line, Osprey Publishing, 2001 184176308X
  • Sondhaus, L. Naval Warfare, 1815-1914
  • Lambert, Andrew Battleships in Transition, the Creation of the Steam Battlefleet 1815-1860, published Conway Maritime Press, 1984. ISBN 0-85177-315-X
  • Gardiner, Robert & Lambert, Andrew, (Editors), Steam, Steel and Shellfire: The Steam Warship, 1815-1905 (Conway's History of the Ship series), Book Sales, 2001

External links

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