Anatomy of the ship of the line
Spanish ships of the line
The art of transom
The Sovereign of the Seas
Dutch warships around 1670
While England and France built many three-deck warships in the 17th century, the Dutch were content with a few. The most common Dutch warship
had two gun decks, probably because they preferred ships of lower draught. These were also of lighter construction than the British counterparts,
and even if they were faster and more maneuverable, this greater lightness resulted disastrous in many artillery duels. However, Dutch naval
construction was influential in foreign countries. Peter the Great personally studied naval construction in Zaandam, Holland, in 1667 and already before
the French, Swedish, Danish and Germans had benefited from the Dutch expertise.
In their external appearance, Dutch warships only differed from the English and French counterparts in the modesty of their decoration, for their
sides were completely flat. The lining of the quarter galleries, which housed the toilets of the officers, as well as that of the sterncastle
and quarterdeck bulwarks was of clinker type to combine lightness with robustness. The transom was decorated by a coat of arms framed by diverse
decorations of the Dutch baroque, with lions, soldiers, cupids and caryatids with friezes, voluts and other ornaments. In the early century the
transom was crowned by a single and huge lantern, but later they were three or five.
During the 17th century the beakhead was gradually curved upwards, mainly because a low beakhead, specially in small
ships, was too wet, but probably also to give more graceful lines to the forecastle. The cutwater, support of the beakhead, and generally holed
on its upper part like a coiled vine, was in turn attached to the sides of the hull by the robust curves of the beakhead. The bulwarks of this
one began on the front of the forecastle, often with an ornament in the shape of a helmeted head, then performing a graceful curve towards the prow,
to end in a volute in the meeting point above the red lion which Dutch ships always wore as figurehead. Depending on the size of the ship, there
were four bands on each side linked to the core of the beakhead. This one served traditionally as the toilet of the crew. A part of the deck
protruded before the forecastle and from this one emerged the catheads, which rested through a block on the upper band of the beakhead.
The wide gratings which protected the waist deck in former times had disappeared, but the gun decks beneath were ventilated through gratings
installed on the access hatches. During bad weather, the gratings would be covered with waxed fabrics. The bulwarks on the waist were heightened by a
parapet with holes for the rifles of the soldiers. In many ships the tiller of the rudder was passed through the quarterdeck so the pilot could
be outdoor. In the illustration above, the tiller and the binnacle can be seen behind the mizzen mast. In the forecastle, waist and quarterdeck there are
large V-shaped cleats on the inner side of the bulwarks to tie up the tacks. At the base of the main and fore masts there are fife rails with belaying
pins and other pins are on the railings of the forecastle, quarterdeck and poop deck to secure halyards, tacks, sheets and other rigging maneuvers.
The cannons were built in bronze, which is lighter than iron and resistant to corrosion, but more expensive and less resistant to the pressure of the gases.
For some unknown reason, reef points fell in disuse in the large ships during more than one century. They were seen in stamps from the early 15th
century and continued in use until the beginning of the following century, but then they disappear, to be seen again around 1660 in the large topsails.
To reef these very trapezoidal sails the yards had to be enlarged. The topping lifts of the main and top yards passed through
violin-shaped blocks, which have two sheaves in a same plane, and the sheets of the topsails passed through the same blocks and from there, through
a block attached to the yard, next to the mast, descended to the deck.
The following illustration, on which we can see the aforementioned rigging elements, represents the 72-gun ship of the line Gouda, built in 1665. Note
the elegant and characteristic shape of the transom crowned by five lanterns, the four red lions and the rich decoration.
And this is yet another depiction of a Dutch warship of the same period. For some reason the artist ommitted the topgallant masts.
The Prince, 1670
In England, around 1660, it was customary to make models of the largest vessels that were designed, submitting them to the King and the Admiralty for
their approval before being built. One of the oldest models of the Admiralty, preserved in the South Kensington Science Museum, is that of the 100-gun
ship of the line Prince, from 1670. English warships were built to grant stable platforms for the heaviest artillery and because of this they
were heavy and of great draught. In this excellent depiction of the model the richly decorated beakhead is not visible but we can see how the
cathead and the gunports are decorated. Almost all of the ornamention is gilded over black background, as in the Sovereign of the Seas, but to the gilded
parts of the model actually corresponded yellow paint, and only the royal arms, always represented in the stern in the English vessels, were
The maturity of the ship of the line
Until the mid 17th century, all the warships of different size and armament which constituted a fleet took part in naval actions without
following any particular order. But in 1653 the English Admiralty ordered that the warships should fight arranged on a line to improve the
effectiveness of the barrages. Apart from the good training and discipline of their crews, the different vessels should be in conditions of
sailing at the same speed and be armed on a roughly similar way, for otherwise a less armed vessel in the line could be forced to fight a
As a result warships were classified in six rates according to their armament. A first-rate warship had more than 90 guns; a second-rate
ship had more than 80 guns; a third-rate ship had more than 50 guns; a fourth-rate ship had more than 38 guns; a fifth-rate ship had more than
18 guns; and a sixth-rate ship had more than six guns. Those of first rate were considered powerful enough to fight in a line and because of
that they were called ships of the line. The salaries of the officers were proportional to the rate of their ships.
The thresholds within rates would suffer variations over time as warships were gradually built with heavier armament, but in general they
became a standard in the classification of warships, even in foreign nations.
The following longitudinal cross section, based on a contemporary engraving, shows the inner mysteries and charms of an English first-rate ship of
the line from the late 17th century. The cannons have not been included for reasons of clarity, but every other minimally important detail
has been included.
Innovations on the rigging: staysails and studdingsails
When reefing was introduced on the main sail, it was common to rig even the largest ships of the line without topgallant masts, and this simplification
was common even for the lesser units, such as the fourth-rate ship of the line shown in the illustration below. It is uncertain when the utilization
of studdingsails became generalized, but they were mentioned already in 1549, in relation with a Scottish galleass. Staysails, used
in lesser ships from the 15th century, seem to have been introduced on the large ships around 1660, time on which are mentioned as well the footropes which
run below the yards to support those who work on the sails. Also from the mid century spiderlines were reeved from the fore face of the tops, now
wider, to the stays beneath them, to protect the topsails from the friction against them.