French Naval Technology 1669-1716

The legendary Soleil Royal. Said to have been one of the most impressively decorated of all baroque ships, she led the French fleet at the Battle of Beachy Head before being destroyed by British and Dutch forces whilst undergoing repair in 1692.

The French Navy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries differed in some significant ways from its contemporaries across the Channel or in the Netherlands, whose vessels and naval structures have been described in other volumes in this series. Perhaps the most crucial differences between French and other navies’ ships – certainly in the period before 1689 – were in the structural levels of the various ships of the line of battle (vaisseaux in French), and in the mixed calibres of cannon which armed these decks.

The Small Three-decked Ship of the Line

While there were certainly small ships with three continuous gun decks in the other major navies (in this article we use the term `gun deck’ to identify all the continuous cannon-bearing decks running from stem to stern, rather than simply the British practice of reserving the term for the lowest of these decks), mid-seventeenth century French practice was more widespread in building three-decked warships with as few as fifty guns. We exclude from our definition the fore and aft superstructures above the upper continuous deck – the forecastle (where such existed), quarterdeck and poop as usually described. Note the French did not employ the translations of the terms `lower deck’, `middle deck’ and `upper deck’; instead they referred to these deck levels as the `first deck,’ `second deck,’ and `third deck’ for three-deckers; as English-speaking readers would not be familiar with this practice, we have retained the more easily understood terms in this book. But we must caution the reader that the French definition of a three-decked ship differed markedly from that employed by the English.

On most three-deckers (prior to 1689), the upper gun deck was not armed with a continuous battery of cannon, but was divided in the waist of the ship. In some ships there was physically a continuous deck at this level (to cover and protect the men on the middle deck below), with continuous bulwarks along the sides (but no gunports), and supported below by transverse deck beams across the full width of the ship to provide structural strength; these ships carried no guns at this level when built, but in 1690 surviving ships of this grade received extra guns to give them a full UD battery.

In other ships, there was a physical gap at the waist, so that the central portion of the middle deck was open to the elements; on a number of ships, this gap was filled by a residual structure (a centreline gangway termed a `flying bridge’) linking the fore and aft sections of this deck. This structure could be (and frequently was) removed in operational practice, turning the type into what would by comprehended by the English as a two-decker. Nevertheless, the French Navy categorised all these ships officially as `three-deckers’, and described their non-continuous upper decks as the `third deck’. This led to some confusion between the navies, as in 1672 when, during a period of Anglo-French alliance and co-operation, a small French squadron visited Portsmouth, consisting of the 70-gun ships Superbe, Royal Thérese (exParis) and Magnanime.

The main exceptions (prior to 1689) among 1st Rank ships were the massive vaisseaux du premier rang extraordinaire – those few vessels of 100 guns of more, which carried three full tiers of guns, plus smaller guns on their forecastles, quarterdecks, and in some cases poops.

These small three-deckers were eliminated in stages. On 22 March 1671, a Regulation was laid down decreeing that ships with fewer than 70 guns should in future by built as two-deckers. In 1689 a fresh decree extended the Regulation to cover all new ships with fewer than 80 guns. Obviously, these regulations applied to new construction rather than to existing ships. In some cases, it was possible to convert an existing three-decker into a two-decker by the simple process of dismantling a `flying bridge’. On other vessels, a more comprehensive restructuring was required, and clearly on many vessels no changes were carried out and vessels remained three-deckers until the end of their lives. After 1689 all new three-deckers carried three full decks of guns, and none carried fewer than 80 guns.

Mixed Calibres on Gun Decks

The other significant difference, not always clear from certain writings, is that the lower – and on three-deckers the middle – decks on almost all pre-1689 French warships carried a mixture of calibres. The practice was clearly defined in the appropriate regulations, and there seem to have been few exceptions. Thus, a typical three-decker might have had a combination of 24pdr and 18pdr guns on its lower deck, and a combination of 12pdr and 8pdr guns on its middle deck, with 6pdrs on the upper deck (and sometimes 4pdrs on the poop, as a 4th tier). At some date before 1689, single calibres on each deck were adopted, and these became general after 1689 for new construction (and for refitting some older ships), although some older vessels were never re-armed.

Changes in Ship Rankings, 1669-1716

A major complication in determining which chapter should record details of individual ships is that the French Ranks were subject to frequent alteration, with ships being moved from one Rank to another and often back again. This was primarily true with the seventeenth century Ranks, but re-classing also took place during the eighteenth century. This was also a factor with the British Navy, but its more extensive employment by the French may make it difficult to locate a particular ship. In general, it is preferable to describe a ship under the Rank it held when it first entered French naval service, but the position of a ship can be judged differently in Rank as it more helpful to record the development of a particular ship type. There can be no absolute rule adopted in this matter.

Appearance and Design

Further constructional factors contributed to differences between most French-built ships (we shall ignore here French-operated ships built abroad or captured from other countries) and those of other navies. French ships were generally larger, but more lightly built; among smaller ships, this is because they were not expected to remain at sea for such protracted periods as the ships of the maritime powers. It meant also that they tended on average to be faster.

The decoration of French ships, particularly the stern of major ships, was both more prolific and more formalised than in other navies. Under Louis XIV in particular, the carving and painting adorning their structures was designed to be more magnificent and more impressive than that of their likely opponents. The figureheads and sterns were distinct in their iconography and in the skills of their artwork. Many of the artists and sculptors who created the seventeenth century opulence of Versailles and Fontainebleau were equally employed in creating masterpieces afloat. Louis XIV and Colbert established sculpture academies in the three main dockyards, whose graduate craftsmen brought to life the designs of Pierre Puget and others.

The ostentatious decoration, particularly the most ornate sculpture which graced the bow and stern of each ship during much of the seventeenth century, was subject to radical pruning as the century neared its end. The decorators and sculptors, all gifted and often celebrated artists, outdid each other and indeed themselves to satisfy the vanity of their monarch; but the actual ship commanders, viewing the encumbrance and the fire danger of the ornamental work when at sea – particularly in action – strongly opposed the scale of the decoration, and often took steps to reduce it. The celebrated Pierre Puget, for example, would have been horrified to know that much of his careful artistic work was apt to be quietly jettisoned by a captain as soon as it was out of sight of the dockyard. Obviously this could not happen to the fleet flagships, which were likely to be visited by Louis and his senior ministers; but such carvings clearly suffered in action – witness the description of the ruined state of the magnificent stern sculptures of the Soleil Royal when she was grounded in Cherbourg after the Battle of Barfleur (where she would be burnt in a fireship attack a few days later).


The principal weapon carried by all naval ships during this period was the smooth-bore cannon of varying sizes and weights mounted on a truck (wheeled) carriage. All French guns were classified according to the weight of the spherical solid shot that they could fire, but they could also be separated into those manufactured from bronze (fonte verte) and those cast from iron. During the seventeenth century, the limitations of foundry technology means that the heavier pieces could only be manufactured in bronze, although this situation changed significantly, when iron 24pdrs and 36pdrs (the abbreviation `pdr’ signifying `- pounder’ is used throughout this article) began to be introduced in 1688 and 1691 respectively. Nevertheless, bronze guns remained the preference, and by 1689 it was decreed that the guns in ships of the 1st Rank should all be of bronze.

Colbert’s Navy inherited in 1661 a variety of cannon of at least seventeen different calibres, a confusing situation and one which greatly hampered maintenance and supply of ammunition. A start was made in 1661 by restricting the number of calibres to seven, although the changeover took time, and the last ‘non-standard’ calibre weapons did not disappear until about 1676.

It can be seen that the supply of cannon at this time was barely enough to arm more than a few ships. Colbert’s ambition to create within a few years a Navy of some 120 vessels (an aim which he achieved by 1671) required an equal effort in gun manufacture. Including the non-standard calibres the Navy’s inventory rose to a total of 5,090 guns in 1671. During the next quarter-century the inventory almost doubled, reaching its peak of 9,514 guns (including 631 interrompus, probably unfit for service) in 1696. The other main development during this period was the development of the ability to manufacture large calibre guns of iron (24pdrs in 1688 and 36pdrs in 1691), with the subsequent decline in the production of bronze guns and the near-disappearance in the inventory by 1696 of bronze guns smaller than 18pdrs. The following quantities of guns of the standard calibres were available in 1671 and 1696:

By the early 1690s the 36pdr had become the standard heavy weapon of the battlefleet. The Ordinance of 15 April 1689 specified a uniform armament of bronze 36pdrs on the LD of first rank ships of 1690, and increased production of these weapons was soon followed by the introduction of iron 36pdrs which gradually supplanted them.

Besides conventional cannon, two other items of ordnance deserve mention (other than small arms). The pierrier (anglicised to `perrier’ in British usage, although this was also called a `swivel’ by them; but the Ordnance Office generally called them `bases’ or `murderers’; the Spanish called them `pedreroes’, while the Dutch called them `kamerstukken’, or chamber guns) was – as its name implies – originally evolved to fire stone projectiles rather than metal ones. The term in English originally referred to weapons (of up to 24pdr calibre) firing stone shot. By the mid-seventeenth century the larger calibres had become obsolete, but the pierrier survived as a lightweight short-barrelled anti-personnel weapon, usually fitted into a metal stock (between the arms of which it could be elevated or depressed), in turn mounted on a swivelling base on an upright wooden post which was integral with a ship’s structure. By the 1660s they used shrapnel ammunition in removable chambers (usually 8 per gun), which were loaded in advance and could be removed and replaced in a few seconds, making quick-firing guns. The name pierrier was latterly employed by the French as a term by which to describe all their light swivel-mounted guns.

The other item of heavy ordnance was the sea mortar. This was adopted in the early 1680s as a shore bombardment weapon in vessels specially designed for the purpose. Clearly not applicable for ship-to-ship combat, the mortar-bearing vessel (usually constructed as a galiote) was the seventeenth/eighteenth century version of the twentieth century monitor. Whereas mortar vessels in the English Navy were built with mortars fitted along the centreline of the vessel, usually one ahead of and one aft of the mainmast, in French service the mortars were carried in pairs, mounted side by side before the vessel’s mainmast to fire forward over the bows. The weapons were fixed in place, and could not be trained to either side. Furthermore, there were initially cast with an integral base-plate from which they could not be moved, and fixed into the mortar vessel’s structure with a fixed elevation of 45 degrees. Consequently, they could not alter their elevation, and the sole means of changing their range was by varying the size of the powder charge used. Later in the eighteenth century mortars were fitted on mountings that could be trained and elevated.

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