The 26th June 1634, Charles I visited the shipyards at Woolwich during an official inspection of the third-rate ship of the line Leopard, then at half construction; being on the hold, the King talked privately to the chief builder Phineas Pett and ordered him to build the largest vessel in the world. It is probable that Pett and His Majesty had already discussed the dimensions of the ship, because few weeks later the Trinity House, representative of the Naval Authority, protested against the royal decision in a letter to the Secretary of State. It said that the ordered ship had a length of 37.79 meters in the keel, 14 meters in beam and 6.70 meters in draught, and that the Trinity House considered that such vessel would be hardly governable and could not be used in English waters.

But the King wanted his colossus at any price and actually she would be even larger than what the Trinity House imagined: 38.70 meters in keel, 14.63 meters in beam and 7.16 meters in draught. It might seem exaggerated to say that the Sovereign of the Seas costed the head to the King due to the discontent brought by the tributes imposed to fund his naval program. In the time in which a 40-gun warship costed about 6000 sterling pounds, the Sovereign of the Seas costed a total of 65586 pounds, 16 shillings and 9.5 pennies. The gilding of the decorations alone supposed roughly a tenth part of the budget.

The keel, laid down in the beginning of 1636, had 80 centimeters in thickness and required the strenght of thirty-two draft animals to be transported. The hull was built during one year and half and on an autumn midnight of 1637 the ship was launched. It is often said that she was the first three-deck warship and also the first one fitted with topgallant sails. But Phineas Pett had already built the three-decker Prince Royal in 1610 and a manuscript from 1625 states that this ship could deploy topgallant sails in the flag poles. But regarding size, the Sovereign of the Seas would be ahead for many years.

Since the early 16th century, the flat stern had been common in every European warship, but that of the Sovereign of the Seas was made round, becoming flat at about three meters above the waterline. Such stern was characteristic of British warships until the 19th century, whereas the French and Dutch kept their sterns fully flat. From the beginning, the Prince Royal carried 56 cannons, but the Sovereign of the Seas had 100, and she could have been worthy of being included as a ship of the line in the fleet of Nelson, 150 years forward. The armament comprised twenty-four 24-pound cannons in the lower gun deck, twenty 24-pound cannons in the middle gun deck, twenty-two 18-pound cannons in the upper gun deck and a good number of lighter cannons, between 9 and 12 pounds, in the forecastle, quarterdeck and sterncastle.

HMS Sovereign of the Seas ship of the line

The wondrous ornamentation

Being superior in size and armament to every previous vessel, the Sovereign of the Seas also surpassed all the following ones in another aspect: she was the most richly decorated ship in the world. Her ornamentation was attributed to the royal sculptor Gerard Christmas, his sons and assistants, following designs by Dutch painter Anthony van Dyck. In many combats and minor encounters, the Dutch praised their opponent and called her the "Golden Devil". Her gilded ornaments, highlighted against a black background, probably shone much more than what any painting can show.

The figurehead depicted Edgar the Peaceful overunning seven enemy kings with his horse. The bulwarks of the beakhead were decorated with the whippets of Henry VII and the dragon of Cadwallader, the lion and the unicorn, the roses of England, the thistle of Scotland, the fleur-de-lis of France and the harp of Ireland, with the royal acronyms and various heraldic animals. The cutwater was ornamented as well and there the tacks of the fore sail passed through curly serpents. The stem was topped by a Cupid riding a lion and two satyrs smiled beneath the catheads. The front face of the forecastle was decorated with six beautiful deities symbolizing Prudence, Caution, Diligence, Strength, Valor and Victory.

HMS Sovereign of the Seas ship of the line
The bulwarks in the sides of the hull were decorated with three friezes: the lower one, relatively simple, had only escutcheons and volutes; the middle one, interrupted by the gunports of the upper gun deck, had musical instruments, helmets, breastplates and various weapons; and the upper one, running along the sides of the forecastle and the quarterdeck, displayed the signs of the Zodiac alternating with Roman emperors. All throughout the ship the diverse motifs were separated by simple volutes or elaborated caryatids.

The stern galleries, enlivened with demi-cupolas and glass panels, were covered by mythological figures and scenes, escutcheons and royal acronyms. The high stern was dominated by the Victory surrounded by Neptune, Jupiter, Jason and Hercules, and crowned by a huge hexagonal lantern guarded by a lion and a unicorn. At the sides of the rudder, topped by a lion head, there was this inscription: "Qui mare, qui fluctus, ventos, navesque gubernat, Sospitec hanc arcem, Carole magne, tuam", whose meaning has been interpreted as: "He to Whom the sea, the tides, the winds and the ships obey, protect this one, oh great Charles, your ship, with divine substance."

HMS Sovereign of the Seas ship of the line transom
Indeed, the Sovereign of the Seas was protected for more time than her King, but she suffered so many remodelations that in her last times, baptized as Royal Sovereign, she looked very different to the Sovereign of the Seas launched in 1637. The rigging was reduced and it is debatable if she ever carried topgallant sails in occasions other than parades. A large part of the superstructure was cut down because a small list was enough to render unusable the lower gun deck at leeward side. Other than that, this ship took very honorable part in many combats and was never defeated, but a mere wax candle sealed her fate in 1696 with a fire that destroyed her.

Reenacting the Sovereign of the Seas

As the excellent pictures which accompany this article show, this one has been just a brief description and a picture is worth a thousand words. The first illustration is based on the so called "Morgan drawing" made by Dutch painter Willem van de Velde, and corresponds to the appearance of the ship just after her reconstruction of 1660, in which the decks were flattened, aspect which is noticeable because the gunports intersect the diverse belts and friezes of the hull instead of following their sheer. It is also noticeable how close are the lower gunports to the water, a typical defect of the English warships of that time.

We also know that the Sovereign of the Seas, closer to the gallion than to the more modern ship of the line, had a rather compromised stability thanks to her tall and overloaded sterncastle. Still, it is logical to think that the Pett, as other contemporary naval architects, took good note of the hard lesson learned with the Wasa, jewel of the Swedish Kingdom, few years ago. Maybe if this one had never been built, the Sovereign of the Seas would have suffered the same fate. This is why, in the end, many ornaments were removed and the sterncastle, topped with a topgallant deck and chamber, cut down. Leaving behind artistic aspects, the precious ship of the former and disgraced King had to be adapted for a more utilitary role.

As it had been customary in gallions, the hull had a rather pronounced sheer in the astern part, which granted it a very graceful shape, but also the diverse decks followed the same sheer. Since hulls were gradually built flatter to improve stability, and because of the discomfort caused by such excessive sheer in the decks, from the mid century the ships started to be built with flatter decks. From the 1660 reconstruction, the Sovereign of the Seas had her decks rather flattened, as we can see in the following picture. But the windows and balconies (these latter were probably fake) astern were not reallocated accordingly and from that moment they would have really awkward positions; this aspect was a botched job and it would be interesting to know how well the high staff of the ship received this.

HMS Sovereign of the Seas ship of the line cutaway
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The second illustration, featuring the transom, is based in the depiction of the Sovereign of the Seas which accompanies the portrait of Peter Pett. This painting is considered to be previous to 1660, but in any case the position of the gunports astern seems awkward if compared with the layout of the decks, and it seems to match better the layout adopted from 1660. Perhaps the painting is wrongfully dated, or the depiction inaccurately done. Due to the lack of data, the details of this mythical ship, full of secrets and diverse interpretations, remain obscure. We have external representations of the hull but the disposition of the inner elements is unknown, and the mystery extends to the weather decks. We can just try to recreate them by taking as example other contemporary warships.

The artillery onboard comprised bronze pieces which were, in general terms, as heavy as those mounted in warships of the Nelson era, but featuring a higher diversity of calibers. A notable characteristic is the large separation between gunports in comparison with warships of the subsequent century, which causes an inefficient accommodation of the artillery. In fact, only four fifths of the hundred pieces onboard was in broadside position, and some of the others were placed in awkward positions which seem hardly effective and particularly dangerous for the own rigging and crew. Another strange detail is the really short distance between the aftmost gunports in the lower gun deck and the stern; perhaps these gunports and those on the stern were shared by the same pieces which would be positioned on either gunport as convenient.

The rest of the details is highly hypothetical and the representation shown here is based on generic knowledge. The depth of the hold was roughly 5.80 meters but the internal distribution is unknown; the orlop deck could be a whole one (as shown here) or a partial one, as convenient. We can assume typical positions for every unknown element and therefore I have placed just before the main mast the main hatch, which passing through all the decks allows to transfer cargo to or from the hold. The basement of the main mast, enclosed within struts, was the cesspit's water box, from where the bilge pumps took the leaked water to be expelled out of the ship; it is uncertain whether the pumps were installed in the lower gun deck or above.

It is possible that a capstan existed in the fore part of the waist deck, but that is not a particularly good place for a capstan, for the waist deck is the place where the boats were stowed and a capstan requires free space to be operated, so I left only a generous grating surface on the waist deck. I considered very probable and more adequate a twin-drum capstan on the central part beneath the waist deck, capable of weighing the heavy anchors that such a large ship had to have. In front of the capstan can be seen a bitter (large warships often had two), strongly attached to the decks and struts, on which the anchor cables were fastened. The cables could communicate with the orlop deck, where they would be coiled, through the main hatch.

The external door giving direct access to the main gun deck was typical of English warships and still seen during the 19th century. A few reinforcing belts run externally along the hull, but vertical reinforcements are not present, which was usual in that period. An integral ladder going from the hold to the quarterdeck seems feasible. The position of the rudder tiller has to be very close to reality but it is uncertain how many decks were crossed by its lever; I considered more probable only one even if this prevented the helmsman from watching the sails. However in the "Morgan drawing" we can see a small hatch at the beginning of the poop deck which looks like that used by helmsmen. The stern housed a lower and an upper chamber, which had the benefit of galleries and perhaps balconies (the upper balcony looks particularly fake), and it seems that there was as well a topgallant chamber, which received less light.

In the following drawing we can see the rigging of the Sovereign of the Seas in 1637, according to the well known engraving by John Payne. We can see how the length of the top yard is roughly half that of the main yard, that of the topgallant yard is half that of the top yard and that of the royal yard is half that of the topgallant yard. Unlike other contemporary vessels, the Sovereign of the Seas had leechlines in the main topsail.

HMS Sovereign of the Seas ship of the line rigging
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