THE 80-GUN SHIP

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This painting by Thomas Luny shows the final stage of the capture of the French 80-gun Guillaume Tell by HMS Foudroyant, also 80 guns, off Malta on 30 March 1800. The other British ships are the 64-gun Lion (to the right) and the frigate Penelope, whose skilful harassing attacks had delayed the big French two-decker long enough for the others to get into action.

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A draught proposed for building in his majesty’s yard at Plymouth, a ship to carry 80 guns. Navy office, 15th May 1788.

In the eighteenth century the two-decked 80-gun ship was a decidedly foreign type, the first to serve in the Royal Navy being the French Foudroyant, captured in 1758, followed by the ex-Spanish Gibraltar taken in 1780. Being longer, the 80 carried more guns per deck than the standard 74, and the upper deck calibre was usually heavier to boot; in fact, as pointed out above, the French 80 carried more broadside weight of metal than a British 98. Furthermore, their great waterline length tended to make them fast, and with only two gundecks they were noticeably more weatherly than towering Second Rates. Yet despite these obvious advantages only two British-built 80s saw service in the wars of 1793–1815.

Three reasons may be advanced for this apparently illogical state of affairs. The most important is the lack of a clear role – at least in the first decade of the war – for what were relatively expensive ships; they had neither the accommodation most admirals required in a flagship, nor did they have the presence of a three-decker in battle, so the British showed a decided preference for 98s. The second is more subtle, and largely invisible to historians like William James, who was an outspoken advocate of 80-gun two-deckers: the extreme length of these ships made them very vulnerable to hogging, the structural distortion caused by the less buoyant ends drooping in relation to the midships body. The British had first-hand experience of this, having tried to build two-decker 80s as early as the 1690s, but this very structural weakness caused them to be rapidly rebuilt with three decks; the resulting ‘three-decker 80s’ were probably the most heavily criticised warship class of their day, an unhappy experience that was seared into the corporate memory of the Navy’s administrators. Before the diagonal construction methods of Sir Robert Seppings were perfected in the post-war years, it was difficult to build a two-decked hull of more than about 180ft with sufficient girder strength for British requirements. In general, French and Spanish ships made relatively short sorties, but when 80s were exposed to the rigours of almost continuous sea-time in the Royal Navy they became time-consuming and costly to maintain. The final reason for so little shipbuilding effort being expended on the 80 must be the significant numbers taken from the enemy: all bar two of the ship were prizes.

With so few ships in service it is difficult to generalise about their employment, but like all first-class ships there was a tendency to allocate them to the Channel or Mediterranean Fleets, the majority being kept in home waters. Here some of the more active flag officers began to discover the advantages of the 80, particularly for winter cruising or inshore blockade duties. As a vice-admiral, Cornwallis had the 80-gun Caesar in the winter of 1794, before hoisting his flag in the First Rate Royal Sovereign, and in the following years Sans Pareil wore the flag of Rear-Admiral Seymour, despite the presence of a number of 98s acting as private ships. Foudroyant was chosen by Lord Keith as flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet after the Queen Charlotte was destroyed by fire in 1800, but the reverse of the medal was represented by the Gibraltar, which was under-armed, a very dull sailer, and consequently nobody’s favourite as a flagship.

However, in the 1790s while the French and Spanish still possessed significant fleets-in-being, there was a tendency to assign a three-decker to most detached squadrons – Cornwallis’s Retreat would have been unthinkable without the awesome bulk of the Royal Sovereign to deter the numerically superior French force. The close blockade instigated by St Vincent demanded the utmost in sailing qualities from the ships employed in the inshore squadrons, and so the habit arose of leading such detachments from 80s rather than leewardly three-deckers. Saumarez commanded such a squadron off Brest from the Caesar in the first half of 1801 and kept the same ship when transferred to the Cadiz station; thus she was his flagship and fought with distinction in the actions of Algesiras and the Gut of Gibraltar later in the year. As the strategy of blockade became effective, and especially after the heavy French and Spanish losses of 1805, enemy battlefleet activity was largely reduced to the escape of relatively small divisions. The subsequent British pursuit was usually entrusted to flying squadrons, but initially these were hampered by the lumbering 98s chosen as flagships – in January 1801, for example, Sir Robert Calder’s Prince of Wales, 98 led a select detachment of Channel Fleet two-deckers in search of Ganteaume’s squadron, which contained no three-deckers. There was always a problem with combining ships of substantially different sailing qualities, and Lieutenant Hoffman, when serving in the Minotaur found himself sandwiched between the laggardly Prince ahead and the Spartiate, a French prize which ‘sailed like a witch’, astern; Minotaur constantly threatened to collide with Prince while simultaneously threatened with being run down by Spartiate.

Only the second British-designed 80-gun two-decker (after Caesar of 1783), it is perhaps significant that Foudroyant was ordered almost simultaneously with the enlarged 98s of the Dreadnought class as if by way of comparison. Although popular in France and Spain, the 80 in Britain seems to have been regarded as a (perhaps inferior) rival to the Second Rate, and there was a clear reluctance to introduce them in numbers. There was little to choose between the two types in terms of tonnage, and with a 24pdr upper battery the 80 had some advantages in firepower but the small three-decker was regarded as a better proposition in battle. Foudroyant was Nelson’s flagship in 1799–1800, when she was involved in the capture of both Généreux and Guillaume Tell, the refugees from the battle of the Nile. (J2514)

By 1806, when Willaumez’s and Leissègues’s divisions slipped out of Brest, the pursuing forces of Sir John Borlase Warren and Sir Richard Strachan were both commanded from 80s (Foudroyant and Caesar respectively), although they still each had a 98 attached because one French squadron was known to include a three-decker. Ironically, Leissègues’s force – including the 120-gun Impérial – was tracked down and destroyed off San Domingo by Vice-Admiral Duckworth with a squadron that contained nothing larger than the 80-gun Canopus. There was less success against Willaumez, and both Warren and Strachan eventually abandoned their three-deckers. As William James dryly concluded, ‘It had by this time been found that a 98-gun ship was no acquisition to a flying squadron.’

Thereafter, detached squadrons were often commanded from 80-gun ships, particularly where fast-sailing might be a significant qualification. Sir Richard Strachan’s Caesar had led the force that rounded up the Trafalgar stragglers in 1805 and was later the flagship of Rear-Admiral Stopford’s division off Rochefort. Canopus was another popular ship, in succession flying the flags of Rear-Admirals Campbell, Louis and Martin between 1803 and 1809. Foudroyant, after a spell as Rear-Admiral Graves’ flagship in the Channel, led Rear-Admiral de Courcy’s South America squadron in 1809. The 80 was also employed on occasion as the flagship of a secondary station, like the Sans Pareil at Jamaica in 1801.

In this respect, the 80 finally developed a role, but it was not distinctive enough – large 74s often functioned as flagships on similar missions – to warrant large-scale construction. The first British-designed 80 since 1788 was ordered in 1809 (and that from a desire to test the hull form of the captured Danish Christian VII), but only one other was laid down before the end of the war, and neither saw service before 1815. Nevertheless, with the coming of Seppings’s diagonal construction system longer ships were suddenly feasible, and post-war two-deckers grew to 84 and even 90 guns.

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