Sovereign of the Seas: Dreadnought of the 17th Century
The British HMS Dreadnought of 1906 (closing the Ironclad epoch) is commonly accepted as inaugurating the age of the Big Battleship, predating the behemoths that were (wrongly) expected have decided the War at Sea in the 20th century, giving its name to a type of warship that epitomized the Naval super weapon. Much as Dreadnought was the breakthrough, or pioneer, warship of the 20th century, as was the 1861 British ironclad HMS Warrior that of the 19th, the HMS Sovereign of the Seas was the 17thcentury counterpart. It was the prototype for Nelson’s Victory of a century later, and not very different from Trafalgar’s ships-of-the-line. In short, it was designed as a “super-battleship” of its day, intended to overawe and possibly overwhelm any challengers. The operative word is “overawe” because King Charles first and foremost intended this vessel as a prestige item, its affect largely achieved through its impressive appearance. There is some evidence that the design team tried to discard some of the “showy” elements that hindered performance, but were largely cowed by their sovereign’s persistent insistence on visual glamour during the design and construction phases.
Quite simply, the Sovereign of the Seas was perhaps the most revolutionary man-o’-war ever built in England and was so innovative she set a basic pattern for the construction of large warships which endured for over 200years, until the end of the age of sail. She was the largest and most ornately decorated ship of her time and was the first-ever bona fide full three-decker. Her hull was tripleplanked for protection against the enemy’s broadsides. She was also the first ship to carry the additional level of royal sails on her fore and main masts (royal sails did not become a general feature of warships until 150-years later).
The current impression of SoS is dependant on a few 17th-century paintings and sketches, and a few narrative descriptions. In order to appreciate the visual impact of the ship in three dimensions, we have an abundance of ship models of varying exactitude, depending on the intended audience and the asking price. Augmenting the overabundance of often whimsical Santa Marias, Golden Hinds, Mayflowers, Cutty Sarks and Victories, it’s no wonder that the Sovereign is a favorite subject for model makes and purveyors of model kits and ready-built models.
For those who would adorn their homes with eyecatching maritime décor, SoS is an extremely striking ship. However, artists and model-builders, as is the case with the other favored topics (with the exception of Cutty Sark), mainly operate from conjecture. SoS was built before the inception of builder’s plans and the science of Naval architecture. So, modern paintings and drawings as well as models, vary. However, with the SoS, this is less so than with the others. For example, the Santa Maria (built circa 1475) too often is depicted as being identical with the Mayflower (built circa 1595) or even as a Spanish galleon, early 17th-century pattern, whereas it was probably closer in appearance to the famous San Mateo votive model (approximately 1470) now housed in Rotterdam.
Of course, the faithfulness of the SoS models depends on whether they were prepared for the mass market… so that folks wanting a nautical den or office theme could adorn their mantels, shelves or desktops… or by someone who wanted to replicate the original concept to every last bit of rigging and treenail. Fortunately for the purists, the distinction and renown of the vessel assured that posterity would have some more or less reliable guides to assist latter-day model makers and artists.
The nautical engineers, the father and son team of Phineas and Peter Pett, worked without benefit of blueprints, using their own rules of thumb and expert eyes in the planning, framing, planking and finishing phases of construction. So the appearance of this famous ship must be derived from near-contemporary eyewitness paintings and sketches as well as written records of her form and details. The senior Pett, Phineas, did make a model of the ship prior to setting her up on the ways so that the ship’s inspiration, Charles I, could give his approval. Alas, this model is lost to posterity. The following accounts, and the accompanying illustrations, are based upon the best records available, including paintings, woodcuts and especially trustworthy scale models. Use of some modem models, annotated as to likely accuracy, might help the reader to visualize this path-breaking and influential warship, which would, like the Dreadnought of some 270- years from that time, strongly influence warship design for many decades.
On 26 June 1634 (regrettably the chronicler was not, subsequently, similarly precise) Charles I went to the shipyard of Woolwich, near London, to inspect the ship Leopard, then being erected under the supervision of Phineas Pett. The Pett family was wellestablished in the fledgling field of ship design, at least since the time of Henry VIII a century earlier. It was during this visit to the shipyard that Sir Phineas’ demonstrated his expertise and perhaps some advanced technical data that the skilful designer pointed out to him, inspired Charles to direct Pett to design a powerful warship that would surpass those of the other aspiring Naval powers of the day – notably Spain, France and the upstart Dutch. Several days later, the King summoned Pett and ordered the construction of what was intended to be the most powerful and spectacular ship ever built.
During this dockyard inspection tour, the ill-fated monarch informed the great English shipbuilder of his “princely resolution for the building of a great new ship” as part of his overall effort to improve and expand England’s Navy, whose enemies and concerns included the Dutch – her most serious rival in overseas trade – France and Spain, and North African corsairs preying on vessels west of the English Channel.
Though critics warned that “the art or wit of man cannot build a ship fit for service with three tier of ordnance,” neither Charles nor Pett was to be dissuaded Built at a cost of £65,586 – about ten 40-gun ships could have been built for the same amount – Sovereign of the Seas was intended as an instrument of propaganda as well as war. The Royal Navy’s most lavishly ornamented vessel, her decorations were carved by the brothers John and Mathias Christmas and described in a booklet prepared by Thomas Heywood (a playwright also noted for designing theatrical stage sets), who also managed to include a description of the ship itself, to the inestimable benefit of modern day artists and model makers.
Sir Phineas, happy to be able to give free rein to his imagination (money was no object), started immediately to realize one of his dreams. The Royal Commission (Trinity House, at present the keeper of lighthouses, buoys and lightships) protested very strongly when the design of the King was brought to its attention. They were prominent among the noted critics who thought that a three-decker would be too unwieldy and liable to sink when the lowest gun ports were opened, given the unprecedented weight of the design. Further, they thought the ship was too large to be able to maneuver in the confined, shifting and shoaling waters of the Channel and the many river tributaries leading to it which was the likely theater of action against probably challengers. But their objections were of no avail.
Pett made a model of the ship and gave it the name of Sovereign of the Seas. The model was approved and the construction started. Unfortunately, the model, as rumor has it a masterpiece of technical construction, was lost. It is all the more regrettable that the model was not preserved because this was the period just before ship designers utilized plans – the Petts used rule of thumb. The model was not perfectly identical to the full-sized ship, but would have been an invaluable aid in envisioning this leviathan. The ingenuity and imagination shown in the model were applied diligently to the construction of the real ship.
The elaborate, ornate adornment mandated by the King required the services of many great artists in addition to the large body of shipwrights. Trinity House added to its reservations by claiming that the sheer weight of the gilded ornamentation, added to the heavy ordinance on three tiers, would render the ship top-heavy and subject to capsize. So massive was this 1500tonner, that two smaller vessels, the Greyhound of 120-tons and the Roebuck of 90-tons, were built of the chips or waste from her construction.
Technically, Sovereign was not the first three-decker. The late Elizabethan galleon that began the true fighting ship of the line reached its culmination in England’s Prince Royal of 1610, which was very likely the prototype design from which Sovereign would derive. Sovereign, then, marks the transition from the galleon to the ship of the line as exemplified by the celebrated HMS Victory of 1759. It would be well to take a look at this point at the evolution of the galleons of Drake and Raleigh’s day to appreciate this innovation.
At the beginning of the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1652, the English fleet had two types of ship, the “Great Ship” and the “Frigate.” The great ship had evolved in the early years of the century, out of the type of galleon which had fought against the Spanish Armada in 1588. It was given higher upper works, greater gun power, and a relatively low length/breadth ratio. According to the Commission of 1618, which did much to initiate this style of building, they “should have the length treble the breadth and the breadth near in like proportion answerable to the depth.” They were of 650- to 850tons, of “middling size,” and therefore “best for sailing, and will also bear a very good sail, and are likewise nimble and yare [quick] for steerage.” Such ships were suitable for the old style of turning and boarding tactics, where the ability to turn a ship was as important as any other quality. Initially they were not very heavily gunned for their size.
The St. George, built in 1622, had 42 guns, weighing a total of 48-tons and firing a broadside of 604-lbs, at her first commissioning. By the time of the First Anglo-Dutch War, she was carrying 52 guns with a broadside of 710-lbs and, by the 1670s, she was planned to have 70 guns, weighing 112-tons and firing 1250-lbs. The great ships had two complete flush decks and initially they had little armament on the upper works.
In the first half of the 17th century, progress in design came not through any real tactical developments but, as Charles’ “commission” for the Sovereign illustrates, because the insecure monarchies of the age needed large ships to reflect their prestige.
In England, the class of “ships royal” began as a natural extension of the great ship, and consisted of a few large Elizabethan galleons. However, the Prince Royal of 1610 was something different. She was conceived by James I and built by Phineas Pett, who to a certain extent stood outside the tradition of the craftsman-shipwright. She was almost, but not quite, a three-decker, though her upper deck did not yet carry a full tier of guns. She might be termed a two-and-a-half decker. Like most of her contemporaries, she was under-armed – she had only 55 guns in her early years, but had 100 by 1660.
The next logical stage came in the 1630s, when Charles I built the SoS, again employing the aforementioned invaluable skills of Phineas Pett. Sovereign of the Seas, launched in 1637, was indubitably a true threedecker. Like the Prince, it was built against the protests of expert opinion – Trinity House commented that: “A ship of this proportion cannot be of use, not fit for service in any part of the King’s dominions.” This time the King was determined to reach the magic number of 100 guns, and crammed them in to an unprecedented degree.
Probably this was the beginning of the British practice of overloading their hulls with ordinance. In contrast, the French equivalent of the Sovereign was the Couronne, which had ports for only 68 guns, on a hull which was not very different in size.
One effect of ships such as these was to transfer a much greater proportion of the gun-power to the broadside, at the expense of the fore and aft guns. Another was the reduction in maneuverability. Later reports mentioned that SoS was a “cranky” sailer, meaning she was rather unwieldy in fighting requiring rapid changes of direction to achieve certain angles of fire, etc. This doubtless was the grounds for her being cut down one level in her later career.
Sir Walter Raleigh expressed the opinion that “a fleet of 20 ships, all good sailers, and good ships, have the advantage, on the open sea, of 100 as good ships and of slower sailing.” According to another Naval commentator of the time, Nathaniel Boteler, a fleet of nimble sailers, having “bestowed one of their broadsides,” would be able to “speedily give the other,” while a fleet of heavier ships “can never use save one, the same beaten side.” Although not designed with the line of battle in mind, the ships of the early Stuarts were already highly suitable for it. The Sovereign set the pattern for the three-deckers of the second half of the century. She survived until 1697, and no English ship was significantly larger than her until 1701.
SoS was originally planned as a 90-gun ship but Charles modified this armament to 102 pieces when the King visited the ship on 7 December 1638. Most likely, the image-conscious monarch saw the magic figure of 100 as carrying some added prestige.
The armament, as precisely described in Heywood’s pamphlet was as follows:
Lower deck –
Broadside: 20 cannon drakes; Stern chasers: four demi-cannon drakes; Bow chasers: two demi-cannon; Luffs: two demi-cannon
Middle deck –
Broadside: 24 culverin drakes; Stern chasers: four culverins; Bow chasers: two culverins
Upper deck –
Broadside: 24 demi-culverins; Stern chasers: two demi-culverins; Bow chasers: two demi-culverins
Quarter deck –
six demi-culverin drakes
eight demi-culverin drakes
Poop deck –
two demi-culverin drakes
As can be seen, this was a wideranging mix of varying gun sizes and calibers. It was only at the end of the 17th century that the armament of the ships was made more uniform to facilitate the consistent manufacture and supply of shot and shell. The use of improved bronze (in contrast to the earlier iron) gun casting enabled the pieces to withstand doubleshotting on a much lighter frame, no doubt allowing Charles to contemplate his preferred crowded three deck armament.
It required a crew of 800 men to navigate and fight such a behemoth. Surely, should she have been utilized to hit the Dutch in the East Indies, then Sovereign would have required a number of provisioning ships to accompany her.
The initial design in the form of a model was submitted by Phineas Pett to the King at Hampton Court in December of 1634. It called for a three-decked ship of 124-ft length of keel, 46-ft beam, and 22-ft draught.
In discussions between Adm. Sir John Pennington, V/Adm. Sir Robert Mansell, the Storekeeper at Deptford John Wells, and Phineas Pett in April of 1635, the proposed design was revised and the new dimensions to be length of keel of 127-ft, beam 46-ft 2-in. Later that year, the design was again modified and the keel was shortened 1-ft and the beam was increased by 4-in. Finally, in December of 1635, the keel was laid at the Woolwich Dockyard – the Royal shipbuilders.
There is no reliable statement of overall length that is the length including the long protruding beak and bowsprit. This was not an important dimension worthy of record at that time. However reasonable estimates vary between 215- and 220-ft overall – a size rarely equaled until the first-raters of the latter half of the 18th century, epitomized again by the Victory. It can be readily seen that the ship itself exceeded the keel by some 40-45% – reflecting the extended prow/bowsprit and the overhanging stern that gave the ship her distinctive profile.
Her sculpted frieze work incorporated an elaborate program of carvings, mixing classical, heraldic, mythological and English historical themes, all of which served to emphasize, in keeping with her name, Charles’ sovereignty of the seas. From the royal arms on the taffrail to the figurehead depicting King Edgar trampling seven kings, her adornment declared that Charles was master of the world’s oceans.
Although, SoS would have doubtless been a great asset in challenging the increasingly overbearing Dutch in the spice trade of the Moluccas in the southwestern Pacific, the looming conflicts ensured that Sovereign would be destined to remain fairly close to home… not venturing beyond the North Sea.
On 25 September 1637, the first attempt to launch the ship failed but she was successfully launched at high tide on 14 October 1637 and, in July of 1638, weighed anchor from Greenhithe to conduct her sea trials.
In 1651, the superstructure was reduced in height and the top gallant poop was removed.
For her first 15 years, the King’s Navy had no worthy opponents so the mighty warship was content to be a showpiece. However, with the onset of the first of three wars against the Dutch, she was at last able to prove her mettle in the heat of battle. She was to take part thereafter in all three of these conflicts with the Dutch as well as the early part of the so-called Nine Years War against the French at the close of the 17th century.
On 28 September 1652 she participated in the Battle of Kentish Knock. It was in this battle that she sank a large Dutch warship with a single broadside – an awe-inspiring two tons of metal. From this time on, the startled Dutch dubbed the enemy vessel “The Golden Devil,” reflecting both her awesome firepower and her dazzling ornamentation. She was entirely black and gold, with no color at all – dissimilar to some models and paintings showing royal blue touches. Unfortunately, she was grounded at the end of the battle. She spent the rest of the First Dutch War in harbor. This incident almost certainly confirmed earlier qualms about excessive draught and sluggishness.
During 1659-1660, SoS was rebuilt at Chatham Dockyard by the Master Shipwright Capt. John Taylor and given a new head. In 1660, she was renamed Royal Sovereign at the time of the Restoration.
From 1-4 June of 1666, she participated in the Four Days’ Battle against a Dutch fleet and, on 25 July of that year, she participated in the Battle of St. James’s Day.
In 1672, she participated in the Battle of Texel agains a Dutch fleet and, on 11 August of the following year, was engaged at the Battle of Solebay, also against the Dutch Navy.
In 1685, SoS was rebuilt at Chatham Dockyard by the Master Shipwright John Lee. The keel was increased to 131-ft and the beam to 48-ft and the original equestrian figurehead was replaced with a lion.
Next, SoS confronted a new enemy – Louis XJVth’s France in the Nine Years’ War, also called the War of the League of Augsburg,
On 30 June 1690, she took part in the Battle of Beachy Head against a French fleet and two years later, on 19 May 1692, again took on a French flotilla at the Battle of Barfleur.
The finish of such a distinguished career was rather ignominious. On 27 January 1696, this famous warship was accidentally burned while laid up at Chatham, either from candles carelessly placed or a cooking fire.
The useable timbers of the Royal Sovereign were used to build the new 100-gun ship Royal Sovereign (1701-1706), notably the first English ship to surpass her size.
Some authorities mistakenly confuse the latter ship with the 1637 build, (similarly to how the American frigate Constellation of 1851 was in fact an entirely different ship from the more famous namesake – the sister to the Constitution of 1797) but the Sovereign of the Seas physically did not make it into the 18th century, though her example endured until the end of that epoch.
Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Apr 2006
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