British First Rate Warships 1680 -1720

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The Royal William of 1719

By the end of the 1680s most of the surviving First Rates were ageing, only the Britannia and Royal Sovereign being fit for frontline service. Among the smaller ships, the Saint Michael, briefly ranked with the Firsts, was returned to the Second Rate in December 1689, and the Charles of 1668 – after being renamed Saint George in October 1687 – was similarly reduced in 1691-With the outbreak of war against France, a programme to modernise three of the surviving ships from the 1660s and early 1670s was put in hand.

The Second Rate Victory of 1666 was at first ordered to be rebuilt on 10 November 1690, but when her hull was inspected at Woolwich in early 1691, she was found to be too decayed to warrant the necessary expenditure, and she was broken up. In her place, it was decided to rebuild the First Rate Royal James of 1675-Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the accession of William and Mary as joint monarchs, the ship’s name was no longer acceptable, so on 3 March 1691 she was given the name Victory; the work was put in hand in February 1692 at Chatham.

Meanwhile two other First Rates had also commenced reconstruction. In March 1691 the Royal Charles of 1673 and the Royal Prince of 1670 were ordered to be repaired, although in both cases the amount of work involved virtual rebuilding. Clearly the former’s name was also inappropriate, so at her re-launch (or undocking) at Woolwich in January 1693 she was given the name Queen in honour of the reigning Mary. Just before her re-launch (or undocking) at Chatham in April 1692, the Royal Prince had already received the new name Royal William in honour of Mary’s co-ruler.

Both the Victory and Queen each retained a lower deck battery of 26 cannon-of-seven, with 28 ports for culverins on the middle deck and an equal number for demi-culverins on the upper deck, plus 18 sakers on the quarter-, forecastle and poop (roundhouse) decks. The Royal William had a fourteenth pair of cannon-of-seven on the lower deck, and instead omitted the two guns from the roundhouse.

All the other First Rates participated in the fleet actions of the early 1690s. While no three-deckers were present in Admiral Herbert’s fleet in the Battle of Bantry Bay in 1689, the Royal Sovereign was Lord Torrington’s flagship at the action off Beachy Head in mid-1690. The Britannia was Admiral Edward Russell’s flagship at the Battle of Barfleur in May 1692, while his Vice-Admiral, Sir Ralph Delavall, commanded the Rear division from the Royal Sovereign, and the 96-gun London and Saint Andrew also took part in the Rear Division. The newly-rebuilt Royal William emerged from fitting out just in time to lead the Van division of the English fleet, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell.

The most prestigious ship in the fleet, the old Royal Sovereign – originally built in 1637, and rebuilt in 1660 and 1685 – was largely destroyed in an accidental fire at Chatham in January 1696. Although nominally a ‘rebuilding’, her replacement was therefore effectively an entirely new ship, and the talented shipwright Fisher Harding was transferred deliberately to Woolwich and given virtually a free hand in creating what was to be a highly successful replacement. The proposed dimensions under Harding’s draught were: gundeck length 173ft keel, 49½ft breadth and 19ft depth in hold.

The new Royal Sovereign was commissioned in January 1702 and by First Rate standards the ship was to see a lot of service following the renewal of war later that year. Under her first captain, Thomas Ley, she served as the flagship of Admiral Sir George Rooke’s Anglo-Dutch fleet, which sailed from the Channel in July for an assault on Cadiz. The attack was not successful, and Captain Ley died on 19 September at Cadiz, the day when the fleet sailed for home. John Fletcher, the second captain took command temporarily, and the ship still flew the flag of Admiral Sir George Rooke at the Battle of Vigo Bay on 12 October 1702; in 1703 Captain James Wishart replaced Ley, while Rooke transferred his flag to the 80-gun Somerset. The Royal Sovereign paid off in October 1703.

Recommissioned in February 1705 under Captain John Hartnell, as flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir Stafford Fairbourne, the Royal Sovereign subsequently served with Shovell’s fleet in the Mediterranean, and was again paid off in October 1706. After a short commission in 1708, she was again fitted as a flagship (by Admiralty Order of 26 February 1709) for Admiral Sir John Leake, with Captain Stephen Martin as flag captain from January 1709 until paid off on 16 May 1709. Briefly laid up at Chatham, she was again fitted out by Admiralty Order of 1 January 1710 and flew the flag of Admiral Sir Matthew Aylmer until paid off into Ordinary in October 1710. She was not subsequently put back into service until after the ‘Great Repair’ of 1723–29.

In March 1702, two days prior to the death of William of Orange, the Saint Andrew and the London were ordered to be rebuilt. Both had originally been built by Christopher Pett from 1667 to 1670, and the London had already undergone a significant repair or rebuilding by Phineas Pett at Chatham in 1679, although this had not been extensive enough to change her dimensions. Neither of Christopher Pett’s ships were structurally suitable to be enlarged to the dimensions of the Royal Sovereign, but both were now specified as needing to be of 167ft length (137½ft on the keel), with a breadth of 47½ft and a depth in hold of 19ft for a tonnage of 1650, in order to carry virtually the same Establishment of Guns as the larger First Rates. In fact, they still had only thirteen pairs of lower deck gunports (excluding the hawse ports) and were actually established with a complement of 750 men, and carrying one fewer pair of demi-cannon on the lower deck, so that an extra pair of 6-pounders were allotted to the poop in order to make up the full 100 guns. This was the same arrangement as for the Queen and Victory.

The Saint Andrew was rebuilt at Woolwich by William Lee; while her rebuilding was taking place she was renamed Royal Anne (by Admiralty Order of 8 July 1703) in honour of the new queen and she was eventually launched in April 1704. She was commissioned in July 1705 under Captain Richard Hughes, as the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir John Jennings, and accompanied Vice-Admiral Sir George Byng’s squadron in the defence of the Channel against French privateers. In the following January, Sir George himself hoisted his flag aboard and, with William Passenger under him as the ship’s captain, sailed in March with a fourteen-ship squadron to escort a large convoy to Lisbon. After spending the following year in the Mediterranean, Byng’s flagship returned home, narrowly escaping the fate of her consort, the Second Rate Association, when the latter was lost with Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell aboard off the Isles of Scilly in October 1707.

James Moneypenny replaced Passenger as captain in 1708, and the Royal Anne hoisted the flag of the now Vice-Admiral Jennings. The ship was paid off at Chatham in August 1710, remaining laid up there until March 1727, when a further rebuilding was ordered. The Royal Anne was taken to pieces in May, but nearly thirty years were to pass before the rebuilding was completed.

The London’s rebuilding at Chatham was begun by Robert Shortiss, and completed by Benjamin Rosewall, who succeeded as Master Shipwright there following Shortiss’s death in 1705. She was not to experience any active career. The ship was briefly commissioned on 12 December 1706 under Captain William Clevland, but paid off on 23 June 1707 and was never recommissioned. She was docked at Chatham on 3 July 1718 for a Large Repair which apparently turned into another rebuilding.

As the War of Spanish Succession approached its end, the need for rebuilding some of the oldest ships of the line was apparent. While the 1706 Establishment provided a specification to which the 90-gun and lesser ships could be rebuilt, there was no equivalent for First Rates, which had always been accorded individual consideration. The first of these to be taken in hand was the Queen of 1693, which prior to launch was to be renamed after the new Hanoverian monarch. Emerging about 100 tons smaller than the Royal Sovereign of 1701, the Royal George was armed with only 32-pounders on her lower deck; eventually she was to be reduced to a 90-gun Second Rate in 1745, with two guns being removed from each deck, and her complement cut to 750; she exchanged names with the new Royal Anne in early 1756.

The even older Royal William and Britannia, of 1692 and 1682 respectively, were reconstructed by Russell’s Board of 1714 to a larger design (with 42-pounders) based on the successful Royal Sovereign; this was eventually to form the basis of the 1719 Establishment of Dimensions. The new Royal William was laid up from the time of her launch until 1756, when she was reduced to a 84-gun Second Rate with all the guns from her upperworks removed so that she carried just her three main batteries of twenty-eight guns each: 32-pounders on the lower deck, 18-pounders on the middle, and 9-pounders on the upper, plus a complement of 750. The 32-pounders were replaced by 24-pounders by 1782 and two extra 9-pounders were added on the forecastle.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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