So far as the warships were concerned, there was very little technical difference between the various states. The overall dimensions of ships and particularly their drafts varied, but the battles of 1664-78 had convinced almost everyone that in a clash of battlefleets, firepower and particularly the number of cannons was crucial. The question was how was maximum firepower to be married to the other requirements of a ship-speed, manoeuvrability, seaworthiness, endurance and cost. The preferred option was the development of the three-decked warship. Colbert had been particularly concerned with the quality of French warships. In 1673 he established Councils of Construction in each naval port to advise on the theoretical proportions of the perfect warship. In 1677 a survey of the French warships had revealed that few came close to an ideal vessel. When his son, Seignelay, succeeded him in 1683, he was probably one of the most well-informed Ministers of Marine France ever possessed. He had seen at first hand the strength of English warships and their heavier guns. In 1684 he established an Inspector of the King’s Ships whose task it was to explain to shipwrights how to prepare and work to plans. The Ordonnance of 1689 specified that first- and second-rate ships (120 to 70 guns) should be three-deckers and their main gundeck armament should be uprated from 24lb to 36lb on the first rates and from 18lb to 24lb on the second rates. The ships were built with closer framing which made them more resistant to cannon shot, but their sailing qualities might not have been good. The Dutch also built 15 three-deckers of about 90 guns between 1683 and 1695. The English continued the practice, even converting some of their 80-gun two-deckers into three-deckers. The result was not good and real problems occurred in later years when England still had these ships while her rivals were building a new generation of well-designed two-deck warships. Some technical changes did occur. The steering wheel replaced the tiller on most English ships after 1700, giving greater control over ships. The invention was not followed by France until the 1720s. Greater manoeuvrability was also provided by the development of the sail plan. Mizzen topgallants, staysails and a jib-boom gave ships better control in turning and close order manoeuvre, but they hardly provided a decisive advantage to one side or the other. The other main vessel in the fleet was the frigate. Once again, French design was to lead. At the end of the century any ship up to 50 cannon might be called a frigate, but the French decision to concentrate on commerce-raiding led to the building of two ranks of two-deck frigates mounting 6lb to 12lb cannons, which performed extremely well and to which the English responded with their own “40s” in the 1700s. Bomb ships, sloops and small vessels were gradually added to the states’ fleets during the course of the wars, but no decisive advantage was obtained by any power.
The Royal Navy Breakthrough – Mid-Century
For Britain, the war of 1739-48 had caused profound disappointment. The discipline and professionalism of the officer corps and the naval administrators had been questioned throughout the war. Had things remained unchanged, there may have been good grounds for the Bourbons to assume that their growing numbers of large, fast battleships and well-armed frigates would be enough to sustain operations in colonial waters. However, significant modifications were being undertaken, under the direction of Admiral Lord George Anson, the First Lord of the Admiralty. The precise role Anson played in the changes is very difficult to establish, given the absence of personal papers that could have shed light upon his thinking and influence. However, there is a lot of indirect evidence to suggest that his influence was crucial. His personal achievements in the war, his patronage of officers who had performed well with him, his distaste for officers that did not perform adequately, his training and discipline at sea and his work with Sandwich on the Admiralty Board indicate that he established for himself a central role in the decision-making of the navy. During 1755 Anson was instrumental in the establishment of a new Navy Board that would support reform. Thomas Slade and William Bately were appointed joint Surveyors of the Navy. Slade’s innovative approach to design and his constant desire to improve had a major impact on the fleet. His work on large three deckers, the 74-gun battleship and the new, large single-deck 32-gun frigate established new classes of warship for the navy. By 1757, the Bellona class of “74s” had perfected a new, large, two-deck battleship that matched the French for durability and seaworthiness. By 1759, 14 “74s” were in service and more were laid down until 1762, to provide the backbone of the British battleline in the last half of the century. His “90s”, Sandwich, London and Barfleur and his famous “100”, the Victory, combined improved seakeeping with more powerful broadsides and began the re-emergence of the three-decker as the most powerful battleship in Europe’s navies. Slade’s Southampton and Alarm classes of 32- gun frigate, carrying 12lb cannons, rather than 9lb guns, were based upon French models, but also showed that he was aware that French policy had shifted towards larger, more heavily gunned frigates which Britain had to match. In 1757 substantial building began, so that by 1759 Britain could put to sea ships that were individually as good as her enemies’.9 Furthermore, although Britain had laid up most of her battleships during the peace, she had maintained her small ships and cruisers. These smaller vessels were to play an important role in the coming conflict.
By 1754, the British ministry, including Anson, was seriously concerned by French naval expansion and activity in Canada. Spain showed no sign of joining France which meant that, unlike 1739, Britain could rely upon a substantial numerical advantage. British battleships outnumbered the French by 2 to 1, cruisers by 2.4 to 1 and smaller ships by 2.5 to 1.10 However, mobilizing these ships would take time and the British had no distinct advantage in speed at the beginning of a war. British ships were scattered across the seas from the East Indies to the Mediterranean and the West Indies. There was no certainty that they would be able to stop the powerful little squadrons sailing from France at will.