The British Navy during the 17th Century

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The ship of the line was the last of the sailing wooden warships. A ship of the line is a ship that fit the standard of a ship deemed suitable to sail in the line of battle. It evolved during the 17th century, and significant advancements were made during the Anglo-Dutch wars. By 1700, the ship of the line reached the form it would retain until wooden sailing ships were done away with entirely in the 1830s. It was during this era that the English grew to become a great naval power through the use of the ship of the line.

Every aspect of a ship was debated by shipwrights, the men whose job it was to both design and build ships, in order to create the quickest and most maneuverable ship possible. One very important aspect to maneuverability was the keel to beam ratio. The keel of a ship is the longest plank running along the center of the ship’s underside from front to back. The frame of the ship was built upon the keel. This plank was typically made of elm because of its durability when immersed in salt water for extensive periods. The beam of a ship is the width of the ship, from port to starboard at the widest point. A ship with a high keel to beam ratio was very long and although it would be able to house more guns along its broadside, it would also be less maneuverable. It was determined that the arguably “best” keel to beam ratio wavered between 2.5:1 and 3:1. Depth was a second factor important to a ship’s design. If a ship was deeper, then there was more material above water for gun placement. If ships were shallow, it would be difficult to build the triple-decker ships that were popular later in the 17th century. This is why the Dutch did not build very many triple-decker ships; the coast off the Netherlands is very shallow. It was also during the 17th century that the steering wheel was invented, although it is difficult to credit a particular country because not many records of ships were kept. Before the steering wheel, ships were steered by a device called a tiller, a simple lever attached to the rudder. However, as ships got bigger, it was more difficult to reach the rudder. Poles were attached to the rudder and run through several decks of the ship, pivoting on the ship’s top deck. These poles were called “whip staffs.” This method of steering was not able to turn the rudder very far, and most of the steering was still done simply by trimming sails. When James I rose to the throne in 1603, the Royal Navy was not in a good position. The main problem was the navy’s availability. Ships were needed constantly during the struggles with the Spanish, but the navy naturally failed. Knowing his disadvantage, James quickly made peace with Spain in order to open up the European seas to England. It was more profitable for James to make peace rather than to build a reliable navy with which to wage war. In 1608, James I commissioned Phineas Pett to build the Prince Royal; the ship was launched in 1610. Pett was a descendant of a family of shipbuilders. He was an educated man, and was able to apply his knowledge of mathematics to the practical experiences of shipbuilding. Not much is known about the ship itself, because it was built before the practice of recording ships’ dimensions was common.

James I was so opposed to funding and providing for a navy that he abolished privateering, which was the act of leading a private ship or fleet to do what the navy would do otherwise. Privateers found their own work without being funded by the government. James said, “Privateering, like war, is wrong . . . It leads men into temptation: out of the narrow path of patriotism, into the broad highway of profit. . .” In the practice of privateering, ship captains had what were called “letters of marque.” These were essentially contracts from the leader of the country from which the ship hailed. When a ship was captured, the attackers would ask for the captain’s letter of marque, in order to return the captain for ransom. If...
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