Ship of the line

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For more information, see: warship (sail).

A ship of the line was a major warship of the Age of Sail, strong enough to fight as part of a line of warships in a naval formation, exchanging cannonballs. Since contemporary weapons are far longer ranged and more destructive, there is no modern equivalent to the type, although the now-obsolete battleship is often compared to ships of the line.

17th century

The "Royal Sovereign", launched in 1637, was probably the first three-decked English warship and she proved extremely serviceable. Its builder, Phineas Pett, described its armament in his journal:[1]

Her lower tyre [tier] hath thirty ports which are to be furnished with demicannon and whole cannon; her middle tyre hath also thirty ports for demiculverin and whole culverin; her third tyre hath twentie six ports for other ordnance; her forecastle hath twelve ports, and her half deck hath fourteen ports; she hath thirteen or fourteene ports more within board for murdering pieces, besides a great many loope-holes out of the cabins for musket shot. Shee carrieth moreover, ten pieces of chase ordnance in her right forward, and ten right aft, according to lande service in the front and reare.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, the leading naval historian of the 1890s, greatly exaggerated the prowess of 17th century ships, endowing them with firepower, seakeeping capability, and crusing endurance of ships built in 1800. However much more is now known; for example the guns of the Santíssimo Sacramento, a Portuguese galleon that sank in 1668 have been recovered and analyzed by naval archaeologists.[2] Mahan assumed they were equally capable of operating for extended periods at some distance from their home ports, but they were not, and thus the opportunities for a decisive fleet battle like Trafalgar were much less.

18th century

The first of 12 Spanish three-deck ships-of-the-line was the Real Felipe (1732-50), which displaced 1,965 tons, carried a crew of 1,250, and mounted 114 guns. Its most significant action occurred with the French against the English in the Battle of Toulon in February 1744.

After victory in the Seven Years War (1756-63), Britain allowed its great fleet to literally rot--66 ships sank because of rotting wood. Reform came during the War for American Independence, and in the critical year 1781 the French, Spanish and Dutch allies had about 168 major warships of 60 or more guns, versus 114 for the British (and none for the United States). The French defeated the British off Yorktown in 1781, forcing the surrender of the main British army in America. Finally in 1782 the British recovered, and sank the French fleet at the Battle of the Saintes in the West Indies to regain control of the seas. Following this, Britain built 43 new ships of the line and repaired 85 others.[3]

19th century

The most common 19th century "ship of the line" was a "third rate", built from 2,000 oak trees and carrying 74 or so guns, each effective out to 300 yards. Battles had to be fought close in, with marines essential as sharpshooters and boarding parties.


  1. Quoted in William Morgan and Augustin Creuze, eds., Papers on naval architecture, and other subjects (1832) v4 #13 p. 249
  2. John F. Guilmartin, Jr. "The Guns of the Santíssimo Sacramento," Technology and Culture, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Oct., 1983), pp. 559-601 in JSTOR
  3. Hilton, B. A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783—1846. Oxford University Press. 2006. p 88