Medieval Ships

by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March-June and August 2006, A.S. XXXIX & XL issues of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.


The topic of medieval ships is one of those vast nebulous subjects that can never be covered comprehensively. And I certainly will not try here. Instead I will endeavor to paint a broad outline of the development of the ship during the Middle Ages, highlighting the key advances, concentrating on ocean going vessels of European origin.

This is not to slight the importance of non-European vessels, or the barges that carried so much trade up and down the rivers. But these are separate lines of development and deserve a treatment of their own.

Also ignored in this paper is the multitudinous of names used throughout the period to describe ships. The technical differences between the various classes are all but impossible to conclusively discover. One study reports 43 different types operating in northern European waters around 1600. I will instead use rather broad classifications, leaving the precise nomenclature for a given ship to those scholars with more resources then I.

Northern Ships

Viking Longships

There was perhaps no more feared sight during the early Middle Ages then that of a Viking longship offshore. With these ships could raid anywhere along the European coast with virtual impunity. They also, with these ships, long ranging trade routes, and cross the perilous Atlantic. The longship would set the model for northern shipbuilding till the 16th century.

The longship is best known though the spectacular burial finds that occurred around the turn of the century. But other finds, illustrations, and the sagas make the longship the best documented vessel of the Middle Ages. Not until the shipwrights started writing down their knowledge at the end of the 16th century do we have a better understanding of the ships that sailed the European waters.

The Viking longship is simply the premier example of the northern European convention of shipbuilding. The earliest example of this style found dates to 100 AD. The most famous example found outside Scandinavia is the Sutton Hoo burial ship which dates to around 600.

It wasn't till the 8th century that these proto-longships acquired a mast and sail. The ships of the Anglo-Saxon migrations were rowed. This fact alters the imagery of this migration. To come directly across from the Danish peninsula would have taken nine days in good weather, which they were unlikely to get. They more likely coasted down to the Low Countries and hence to England. The introduction of sail remains a mystery, but had profound effects. The great Viking raids and voyages were not possible without it.

The longship was clinker or lapstrake built. That is to say that the planks (strakes) that made up her hull overlapped and tied or nailed together. The nails used were either iron or wood, with a preference of wood on the heavier and more critical joints. This was built on an oak keel, usually of one piece. After the strakes were in place, the ribs were added. The ribs were to hold the strakes together. Over the ribs, crossbeams were added to the increase the longitudinal, or lengthwise, strength of the ship by preventing the sides from bowing.

One amazing fact about the longship is that the primary tool of construction was the axe. No saws were used. Each piece of wood was carved to fit in its particular place. Each mortise cut to fit planks together, each cleat used to tie the ribs, was done with a simple axe under the eye of the shipwright, who was known as the stafnasmidir, or stemsmith. Working from plans that existed only in his mind, the Viking stemsmith built some of the finest ships ever found.

The principal method of propulsion for the longship was the oar. The oar ports were usually cut in the upper strake and had a cover to close it when not in use. There was one man to an oar, who used his own sea chest as a rowing bench. The longship was steered by a side rudder on the stern. The rudder was mounted on a pivot made of willow which allowed the rudder to be twisted from side to side to steer as well be pivoted up and down as the water depth required. The placement of the rudder on the right side of the ship, now known as starboard for that reason, is most likely because most steersmen were right-handed. At some point the other side became known as port, though the term larboard was also used (and often confused with starboard).

The longship was also fitted with a single mast supporting a square sail. On the merchantman version of the longship, known as a knorr, the mast was fixed while the ship was in use, while a warship would routinely raise and lower the mast as need dictated. To help hold the sail in place, particularly when heading into the wind, the Vikings used an auxiliary spar known as a betit-ass. It appears that sail material was inherently weak as surviving illustrations seem to show various forms of reinforcements.

Overall the longship was light and shallow draft, not only allowing her to be beached with no damage, but also allowed her to sail up the tricky European rivers. Thus allowing Viking raiders to roam far inland. As the longships became larger, partial decks covered the bow and stern for both protection from the weather on longer voyages and to be used as raised fighting platforms.

Most of these ships were between 40 to 60 feet in length, 10 to 15 feet in beam, with a draft of about 5 feet. Their cargo capacity was between 10 to 20 tuns. Not all ships had the fine lines of the classical raider. The knorrs tended to be more full in the bow and stern. How full can be judged by the fact that occasionally in the sagas, women would be described as knorr breasted.

The Vikings measured their ships in rums, or rooms, roughly equivalent to a pair of rowers, one to a side. The longest known longship was the Ormen Lange, or Long Serpent at 34 rums, estimated to be 140 feet in length overall. King Chanute reportedly had a 60 rums vessel, but that is hard to credit.

The longship was often heavily decorated with elaborate carvings on the stem and stern, as well as the legendary dragonheads on the prow. On occasion, the hull would be painted as well. And the sail would be marked in various patterns. The line of shields along the top strake, however, was purely a "parade" decoration. When emplaced they block the oar ports, and were vulnerable to being washed away when under sail.

The Viking longship dominated the northern waters for several centuries after the end of the Viking raids. The Anglo-Saxon fleets, built to fend off the Vikings, followed the longship model. The Bayeux tapestry shows the Norman invasion fleet as composed of longships. But changes in need cause changes in form, and the longship slowly metamorphosed into the cog.


As the Viking raids began to taper off, and general trade built back up, the ships plying the northern seas underwent an evolution. Starting with the knorr, they expanded in size. Above the bow and stern rose castle-like structures. The mast became permanently fixed, and the oars disappeared. A single deck gradually covered the open hull.

The ships of the 12th and 13th century are mostly known from town seals and the occasional miniature in a manuscript. Since these depictions are highly stylized the size and proportion of these ships is speculative. The only archeological find is a wreak in the river Weser in Bremer, found in 1962. Dating to about 1380, it appears to be an almost completed ship that was washed away in some storm. As a late period vessel she has some transitional features associated with later ships.

Two key innovations make their appearance during this time: the stern-rudder, and sail reefing. Sail reefs are a series of ropes imbedded into the sail, in one to four rows. These reefs allow the sail to be shorten in a hard wind least the mast and rigging are over stressed. It is possible that the Vikings used them, but the first mention of them was by Robert Wace around 1150. Pictorial evidence does not appear till over a century later. Unlike later reefs which tied the sail to the yard, these early reefs gathered the sail at the bottom. A competing method to achieve the same end was the use of bonnets which were strips of sail that were laced along the bottom of the sail. To reduce sail area simply required the bottom most bonnet to be unlaced.

The advent of the stern-rudder is even murkier. There are a couple of disputed pictures of one from around 1200. The earliest undisputed picture is from the Elbing seal of 1242. Shortly thereafter, a number of towns around the Baltic coast show this innovation. Oddly enough, it appears that the Spanish shipwrights adopted the stern-rudder before the English did, and so for many years this configuration was known as the "Bayonnaise tiller".

At first the stern-rudder was controlled by a tiller that curved around the sternpost. But very quickly the sternpost was lowered to allow the tiller to come directly across it. The side rudder was still used to around 1350 in northern waters. The stern-rudder was introduced to the Mediterranean around 1300, but did not total supplant the side-rudder till after 1500.

The addition of the stern-rudder changed the water flow around the ship. To compensate, the stern was flatted and stretched out. The sternpost became straight as well as the stempost on some ships, particularly those built in northern Germany. The result was a distinctively new vessel known as the cog.

The cog showed it's Viking heritage with its clinker built hull and deck though beams. The fore and aft castles, which first appeared on late model longships, were slowly integrated into the hull. The forecastle also became lower and smaller to allow the steersman on the aft deck to see forward. On top of the mast, appearing with increasing frequency, were built platforms, sometimes boxed, but usually round, generically known as tops. Around 1400 ratlines began appearing in the shrouds. These horizontal pieces of rope thus formed ladders to the top of the mast. Around this time hemp was substituted for hide in the making of rope.

A bowsprit (sprit is the middle English word for spar) now jutted out in front. This was to offset the increasing breath in comparison to the length of the ship. The increased bulk called for larger sails which in turn required the bowlines to move farther out to maintain effectiveness. The bow lines eased the handling of the ship while sailing into the wind.

The cog was a much larger ship then the longship it replaced. While her length and beam were roughly comparable, being about 80 feet by 25 feet, she was a much deeper vessel with a depth of keel to gunwale of about 10 feet. Carrying capacity had increased to around 100 to 200 tons.

The cog dominated the northern waters. The German trading league, The Hanse, was built on this ship. It was also the last purely northern design. The next advances in the evolution of the ship were the result of ideas that came out of the Mediterranean.

Mediterranean ships

From the fall of the western Roman Empire till the crusades there is little known about Mediterranean shipping. Sea borne trade did not stop, as the Byzantine Empire continuously maintained a fleet, as well as their antagonist, the Arabs, after 650. But virtually no descriptions of these ships survived. Presumably, they were variants of old Roman ships, but as of today they are a mystery.

The first glimpse we have of a post-Roman ship shows a radical change. Roman ships uniformly used a squire sail. These new ships used what is now known as the lateen sail. While there is some evidence that the Romans had known of, and perhaps used on small boats, the lateen sail; there is no evidence till the first half the sixth century of its use on large merchantman. The first pictorial evidence c.880 in a Greek manuscript.

Because of its predominance in the Moslem world, it is usually assumed to be of Arabic invention in the waters of the Arabic Sea, and diffused into the Mediterranean. Yet there is evidence that it did not appear in the Arabic Sea till after 1500 shortly after the Portuguese caravels started rounding the Cape of Good Hope. The explanation given for this delay is that since there is almost no wood in the Arabic Peninsula, most Arabic ships were built in India. Since, in one of those little ironies of life, shipwrights usually don't travel, Indian shipwrights remained unexposed to the lateen sail till the coming of the Portuguese. Farther on east the basic idea of the lateen sail was independently discovered.

The name lateen is usually derived from Latin as it was in the Latin countries that the northern Europeans first saw it. The possibility of Graco-Roman invention allows for a different derivation. In early Latin, the adjective latinus meant easy, handy, or convenient. While in literary usage, the word came to mean the language itself, vulgar usage retained the older meaning as evidence by North-Italian dialects.

The lateen sail had the advantage of being able to sail more directly into the wind then the square sail. Thus more direct courses could be sailed, cutting down the time at sea. Also by the great weight of the yard allowed the lateen to be quickly dropped if foul weather quickly arose, as it is wont to do in the Mediterranean. The lateen, however, is not an easy rig to handle. To change tack, or sailing direction, required that the yard be released from the mast, physically hauled to the other side, and rehoisted. Not only did this require a fair number of men, but also could be very dangerous in rough water.

Starting in the 12th century, many features became known through contracts between the Crusaders and the cities of Pisa, Genoa, and Venice. The typical Mediterranean merchantman differed in a number of respects from its northern water cousin. Not only did it have different form of sail, but it also usually carried two masts. The more forward of the two tended to be larger and had a pronounced forward tilt. An unusual feature is the two "wings" projecting out from the stern. These were supports for the yard when it was lowered. A somewhat necessary addition, as the yard was often longer then the ship itself.

She was also more broad-beamed and rounder than her northern counterpart. The stern-rudder was introduced from the North sometime after 1300 and was only slowly adopted. Instead steering was accomplished by two side rudders, one on each side. To protect these rudders in port, the upper bulwark would detach from the hull and enclose the rudder stock. They had fore and aft castles, though the forecastle was often likely to be missing. Whether this is another idea import from the North or an outgrowth of the cabins on the Roman merchantman is hard to tell.

Her construction had one notable difference. While northern ships were built clinker style, the Mediterranean ships were built in what is now known as caravel style. That is the planking on the hull was butted edge to edge. The sequence remained the same, that is, the outer planks were joined together first with the ribs added later.

The lateen sailed merchantman would dominate Mediterranean trade till the 15th century, transporting crusaders east to the Holy Lands; silk and spices west to Europe. It was with these ships that the great trading empires of Venice and Genoa were built. It was supplanted in the revolution inspired by the advent of the northern cogs.


Till the end of the 13th century, Europe existed as two trade zones, one centered on the North Sea and the other around the Mediterranean. They were connected by several arduous land routes, the busiest of which went over the Alps and terminated at the great fairs of Champagne. Starting in 1278 Genoean galleys began regular voyages around the Iberian peninsula to Flanders. And shortly after 1300, northern cogs began to make the same trip to the Italian merchant centers. These trips catalyzed, in short order, a series of changes and innovations as these two shipbuilding traditions merged to form the first true ocean-going vessels. Vessels that allowed the Europeans to explore the world and change all of history.


The caravel, as most new ship designs probably did, started as a small fishing boat off the coasts of Portugal. The name caravel is of Portuguese origin. By the start of the 15th century, the caravel had evolved into a fair sized ship sporting two or three lateen sails. She had no forecastle and the aftcastle had merged into the hull to form a quarter-deck. And she incorporated the northern stern-rudder.

The key improvement of the caravel was the shape of the hull. Until this time, ships were usually blunt nosed and broad beamed. While this maximized the internal volume and thus the amount of cargo that could be carried, this also caused the ship to be slow and a poor sailer against the wind. The caravel's bow was concave allowing her to cut rather then plow her way though the water. Her finer lines made her a faster and better sailer. Her stern was cut off square to accommodate the rudder.

With these ships the Portuguese began their voyages of discovery down the coast of Africa. These voyages were not possible before the advent of the caravel. This was a result of the geography of the coast of Africa. As ships would approach Cape Bojador, a point on the African coast just east of the Canary Islands, the winds would primarily come out of the North. Thus in ships which could not sail against the wind, Cape Bojador was the point of no return. But as Portuguese sailors became confident in their ability to sail against the wind in the caravel, they were able to push past Cape Bojador

As these voyages became longer and went farther out into the ocean, the standard caravel exhibited several deficiencies. Firstly were the handling difficulties previously mentioned. Secondly, the lateen rig was inefficient when roughly sailing with the wind. This last point is a major reason why the square-rigged ship so dominated ocean trade. Unlike around the coastline, winds upon the open sea were consistent in both their presence and direction. Thus the standard procedure during the age of sail was to sail to a belt of winds blowing in the direction one wanted to go and cross with the wind astern. While this usually resulted in traveling distances much greater then a direct route, it was on the average faster.

Thus many caravels had their rig modified if they were about to embark on an ocean voyage. The mast behind the main mast was moved forward into the bow where it was rigged with a square sail. A bowsprit was mounted to give support to the foremast. Then the main mast was refitted with a square sail. She was now a caravela redonda, while the older version was now called a caravela latina.

The caravel lasted as recognizable style of ship till the 17th century to be superseded by the galleon. Towards the end the caravel acquired a number of features of her contemporary, the carrack. The difference, in the end, was that the caravel was the lighter and more shallow drafted then the carrack.


The carrack, sometimes known as a nao, particularly in Spain, is most likely a direct response to the northern cog. The ship first appears sometime during the middle of the 14th century. The carrack was the first Mediterranean vessel to feature square sails and a stern-rudder. While the Romans used the square sail, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the square sail disappeared from view. It is not known whether the idea of the square sail had to be reintroduced to the Mediterranean by the North, or its reuse stimulated by the presence of the cog.

While overall look of the carrack are very much like that of the cog, there were a number of distinctive Mediterranean features. First the carrack sported two masts, and within a century had three. The aft mast carried a lateen sail, while the others were squared rigged. She was caravel built, with the fore and aft castles a structural part of the hull.

The number of masts increased in direct response to the increase in the size of ships. The bigger the ship, the more sail needed to propel it. Excessively large sails, however, are unwieldy to handle. Using a number of smaller sails also introduces aerodynamic enhancements from the interactions between sails, as well as adding flexibility in handling the ship. Three masts were quickly favored, as a two masted ship becomes difficult to steer with a wind blowing across the ship. The word mizzen, used to describe the aft mast, comes from the Arabic mizan, meaning balance or adjustment.

Other numerous innovations were also introduced by the carrack. The most important of these was frame construction. Until this time, ships were built from the outside in. That is to say the hull planking was but together first, and then the ribs, deck beams and other support structure were added. This technique of shipbuilding presumable arose from the adding of planks to a dugout canoe back in the days of prehistory, and carried on by tradition.

But this put a severe limit on the size of the ship that could be built. As the amount of sea-borne trade increase, there was pressure to build ever larger ships. The answer was to be found on the Atlantic coast of France and the Iberian peninsula, which was simple reverse the order of construction. This method had been since at least the time of the Roman invasions. It was only now coming onto its own because it held no advantages over the older shell method in the smaller sized ships, and had the disadvantage of being more complex. Frame construction got around this size limit, and soon ships in the 500 to 600 tons range were being built. By the 16th century, ships twice this size was routine. While the Mediterranean shipwrights put this into practice sometime after 1300, it was another 150 years before the northern shipwrights adopted it. Clinker built ships did not disappear altogether, but was increasingly relegated to minor ships.

Other innovations first seen on the carrack was the use channels to attach the shrouds holding the mast, giving them additional leverage to act with. Topping lifts to help raise and lower the sail yard are seen for the first time. This was another Roman invention that had been resurrected after a thousand years. A top sail is now occasionally added to the main mast, as well as a spirtsail on the bowsprit. The carrack is the first vessel to routinely carry cannon onboard.

Throughout the 15th century, the carrack continued to evolved. The fore and aft castles lengthen till only a small space around the main mast remained of the original clear main deck. They also began to acquire a second deck. This was the beginning of decks characteristic of the 16th century ships.

Galleys and Galeasses

Before we can continue on with the evolution of the ship to the galleon, we must first take a step back to classical Rome. The Mediterranean is a most unusual body of water. Among its unusual features is that the winds encountered are very often light and variable. Thus sailing ships are frequently are at a disadvantage when maneuvering and are subjected to being becalmed. Thus the oared ship, or one that has provisions for oars were favored, particularly for warships.

The Roman premier warship was the trireme, a long slender ship powered by three banks of oars, and fitted with an auxiliary square sail. Standard fighting tactics was to fire several disabling shots from the bow catapult, ram the enemy ship, and board with a troop of legionaries. It was the pinnacle of ancient naval technology.

The Mediterranean warship during the early Middle Ages is even less documented then that of the merchantman. All that is really known is that the Byzantine warship that succeeded the trireme was known as a dromon, a Greek word meaning runner. Some illustrations dating around 1200 imply a ship powered by two banks of oars. The ram is now positioned much above the waterline and is probably just permanent boarding ramp. What sort of sailing rig, if any, this ship carried is pure speculation.

The typical size of a dromon in not known, but the relative size of one to a longship can be seen in an incident that occurred in 1180. A Viking named Rognvald was raiding the Mediterranean when he came across two Saracen dromon. Attacking one, he came alongside to board. The usual defense tactic was to toss brimstone and pitch on the attacks. But in this case, the sides of the ship overhung so far, to support the oars, that the attacking longships could hide under them, and the incendiaries fell outside them into the sea.

By the end of the 14th century, the warship begins emerge back into the light, and what is seen is a much changed ship from the Roman trireme. The oars are positioned in a single bank, but grouped in pairs and triples. Except for the bulbous stern, which had a stern-rudder, the hull was much like that of the caravel. And she had one to four lateen sails for auxiliary propulsion.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the oar arrangement was changed again. The number was reduced, and each oar was made longer and rested on a raised beam. The number of men on each oar increased from one to as many as five, who no longer sat to work the oar, but raised and lowered their whole bodies. The main armament of the galley was a set of cannon set in the forecastle. To aim them required that the entire ship be turned. As ships became larger and stronger, and more heavily armed, the galley became less and less effective. The response to this was the galleass.

The size of the ship was increased, and a deck was built over the rowers. On this deck was place approximately twenty cannon. The sailing rig consisted of three lateen sails plus an occasional square sail on a bowsprit. It was a rowed ship built much like a sailing ship. It should be noted that the few northern galleasses that were built were more like sailing ships with oars. In either case, the galleass was not a very successful ship. She was too slow and awkward when rowed, and indifferent sailer, and thoroughly outgunned by newer sailing ships.

Galleys and galleasses were made obsolete by both a change in venue of naval action, and the introduction of long range cannon. In the calm waters of the Mediterranean, the galley was a formidable ship able to attack at will. In the open waters of northern Europe, the galley was almost useless since the least bit rough waters made her unmanageable.

The long range cannon was the death knoll for these ships. The galley could only mount a few forward firing cannons, while the galleass could only mount a fraction that a galleon could boast. The result was that in a good breeze the galleon could attack at will the galley. Even in a calm, a galleon could hold off a number of galleys with her long range cannon. In an incident in 1684, a single ship was able to chase off 36 galleys, sinking several. The galleass remained in Mediterranean navies though the 17th century solely on the conservatism of naval authorities


The galleon is another one of those ships whose antecedents are lost in the murky past. Circumstantial evidence points to the galleon as an all sail variant of the galleass. Her length to beam ratio of 4:1 was more in line with that of the galley then the carrack's 3:1. And like the galleass, the forecastle was an upward extension of the hull, and did not project forward out over the bow. Adding to the impression to the galley derivation is the projecting beak-head off the bow, reminiscent of the ram. Who originated the galleon is open to dispute because by the time we first note them in the middle of the 16th century, every major naval power had them. The galleon was so superior to the carrack, that it had displaced it in a couple of decades.

The typical galleon was a three or four masted ship. The fore and main mast were square-rigged with two or three sails. The mizzen and bonaventure mizzen masts carried lateen sails, with the mizzen mast occasionally carrying a second sail. The fore and aft castles could have as many as four decks stacked on top of each other. Such a profile was known as high-charged. The high forecastle had a tendency to push the bow to the lee-side when not sailing with the wind. This made it difficult for the helmsman to hold course. Sir John Hawkins solved this problem. The forecastle was cut down and moved further aft. Her aft decks were also lowered slightly. A cutwater was added to support the beak-head, and the hull was made longer and slimmer. This low-charged design was a major success, and would be the basic model for all ships for the next century.

Another key innovation found on the galleon was the whipstaff. As the aft castles built up, the helmsman found himself buried deep within the ship following indirect commands from above. The larger size of the ship also made working the tiller that much harder. The whipstaff was a vertical piece of wood hinged on a deck beam with one end joined to the tiller. This put the helmsman higher up and gives additional leverage on the tiller. The disadvantage of the arrangement was the limited rudder movement that could be effected.

The size of a galleon ranged wildly, from 100 to 1200 tons displacement, from 70 to 130 feet in length. The larger ones tended to be royal warships, while the smaller ones served as general purpose vessels. Most of the famous ships of the Age of Discovery were the latter, such as the Golden Hind and Mayflower. While it was the larger galleons that dominated the naval battles of the 16th and 17th centuries, the average trading vessel was around 200 tons.

Hawkins' low-charge design marks the first time that distinctive national naval styles appeared. Until now ship design was fairly uniform throughout Europe, and there was little to distinguish a ship's origin. But hereafter, each nation had its' own method of designing its' ships, enforced by the Admiralty boards that were being setup to oversee shipbuilding. For example, Dutch ships were flat bottomed, to allow them to sail the shallow waters of the Zuyder Zee, and river estuaries which were their homelands. The knowledgeable sailor could tell much about a ship by noting her lines.

The Ship as War-Vessel

The ship has been used as a vessel of war since the dawn of history. It was no different during the Middle Ages. Which had its' own effect on the evolution of the ship. The fore and aft castles, so evident on the ships of the last half of the Middles Ages, started as and continued to be fighting platforms. And no doubt so did the tops on the mast. Until the advent of cannon, naval tactics in both northern and Mediterranean waters, remained unchanged from ancient times. Opposing ships, if so equipped, would try to ram each other. Once grappled, opposing crews would take up sword and ax and start hacking each other. Sea battles were not much more than land battles on floating platforms.

During this period there were only two notable sea battles in the North, action was more common in the Mediterranean. The two northern battles were Svoldr and Sluys. Svoldr, fought in 1000, was a battle between two Viking fleets involving nearly two hundred ships. While the outcome of this battle had arguable effects on history, it represents the largest fleet action in northern waters till Sluys. Sluys, fought in 1340, was an even larger battle, involving over 200 ships on the French side alone. Here victory meant that Edward II of England was free to pursue the throne of France, the opening moves of the Hundred Years War.

In the Mediterranean, naval action usually involved small units of ships, though many of the major sieges of Constantinople were prefaced by major fleet battles. Many of these actions were between the Byzantines and the Saracens as they contested for the domination of the Mediterranean. The Byzantines added another element to sea warfare with the use of the inflammatory Greek Fire. In addition, were the various engagements between the Italian trading cities as they wrestled for market share.

Outside of the Mediterranean, specialized warships did not exist for most of the Middle Ages. When the need for naval action arose, most rulers hired or seized available merchantman. The Cinque Ports of England was an arrangement designed to assure the availability of such ships by the king. The nature of galley fighting, insured existence of the warship as a separate class in the Mediterranean. The speed and maneuverability needed in a battle were incompatible with cargo capacity.

The founding of The Arsenal by Venice in the 12th century is the first attempt to systemize shipbuilding, particularly warships. In the North, Henry V of England was the first to start building ships specifically for war. While the royal fleet did not last pass his death, his initiative was soon imitated throughout Europe.

Cannon appeared on ships soon after it made landward debut. At first these ad hoc additions to be placed anywhere along the bulwarks were there was space. The number that sprouted on 15th century carracks sound impressive, till a closer look reveals that most of them were not much more than oversized handguns.

The use of larger cannon was discouraged by the fact that the extra weight on the high castles of these ships made them more susceptible to capsizing. Descharges of Brest around 1500 solved the problem by cutting gunports in the side of the hull and fitting them with tight fitting shutters, thus allowing heavier cannon to be placed low on the ship. Cutting a hole in the side of the ship was not strictly a new idea. The Mediterranean shipwrights had cargo ports in the sides of their ships for several centuries prior. But these were always closed and caulked before going to sea. The innovation was the ability to open the gunports at sea to run out the cannon, or close them to keep out the water at will. Henry VIII of England further aided the transition by reorganizing and standardizing the size of cannon, reducing the myriad of types, as well showing preference for heavier pieces.

The English appreciation of the effectiveness of long range cannon, allowed Sir John Hawkins to cut down the castles on English ships to make them better sailers. High castles being useful only in close-in boarding action. This more than anything else allowed them to frustrate the Spanish Armada. This result directly leads to the 17th century ships-of-the-line.


Until the 16th century, the problem of navigation consisted mostly of memorizing the coastal headlands, as most ships did not venture much out of sight of land. The notable except were, of course, the Vikings. And even they took the simple approach of sailing headings of constant latitude.

Throughout the period, navigation equipment remained primitive. The most basic of instruments, the compass, appeared in Europe towards the end of the 12th century. Prior to that early navigators had merely the leadline to measure the depths, and their eyes to note the landmarks. Since the average sailor had no formal education, compass headings were not divided into degrees, but into points. Early compasses were divided into 32 points, but by the 13th century, an additional 32 half points were added. This form of the mariner's compass lasted into modern times, and also appears as the wind rose on older style maps. Gimbals to isolate the compass from the ship's motion was introduced in the 16th century.

Instruments that could be used to navigate via the stars did not come into use till the end of the 15th century. The first of these were adaptations of the astronomic astrolabe. A similar instrument was the quadrant. Both were used in the same manner with a heavy weight (the instrument itself in the case of the astrolabe, a plumb line for the quadrant) to find the vertical, and metal bar to sight along. Elevation would be read off a scale engraved along the rim. Often the scale would not be in degrees, but names of landmarks of known latitude. These were relatively inaccurate due to lack of precision in engraving. They were also difficult to use on a swaying ship, and were supplanted in the 17th century by improved models of the contemporary Jacob's staff.

The Jacob's staff, also known as the cross staff was a length of wood marked with a scale with a movable cross piece. It was used by moving the cross piece was such that the lower end touched the horizon and the upper end was on the star. The elevation could be read off the scale on the main staff. Cross pieces of various lengths allowed for a wide variation of the angles that could be measured. At the end of the 16th century John Davis introduced a number of improvements making the cross staff easier and more accurate, which became known as the Davis staff.

Celestial navigation was confined to knowing latitude. Longitude would remain a problem till the 19th century. Latitude could be found simply by measuring the altitude of a star or the sun at a specified time of day. To simplify matters for mariners who were often barely educated, tables of the positions of the stars or the sun were published. The most famous of these were the Alfonsine Tables published in 1483, so called for Alfonso X of Castille who sponsored them.

One of the earliest navigation guides is the portolano, Italian for harbor guide, also known in different languages as a leescaert, routier, or rutter. Known, at least, since the days of the ancient Greeks, the portolano was in essence a list of landmarks and the details about them such as sea depth, nature of the bottom and tides, and special dangers. Also given would be the bearings and distances between landmarks.

Maps of the shape of the coast began appearing around 1270. At first, these were no more the graphical representations of the earlier portolanos, with which they shared their name. It was under Prince Henry the Navigator in the first half of the 15th century that map making improved. Under his patronage, astronomers, mathematicians, and geographers steadily improved the astronomic tables used to calculate latitude, which in turn improved the accuracy of maps. A major step in visualizing the word was the use of globes, first constructed by Martin Behaim of Nuremberg around 1492.

As the voyages of discovery expanded the European view, interest in accurately mapping the world increased, particularly on the problem of projecting a round globe on a flat piece of paper. While on small maps, projection errors could be ignored, on the larger maps, the errors could be substantial. The distance scale changed with latitude, and bearings could not be found using straight lines. Many efforts focused on these problems and culminated in the Mercator map of 1554.

To the Golden Age

The close of the 16th century brought to an end the rapid evolution of the ship. While ships would get bigger, and sails and rigging would become more sophisticated, the basic layout of the ship remained the same. Not until the introduction of steam in the middle of the 19th century would the way that men sailed the seas be altered.

Shipbuilding slowly became a science then an art as such men as Matthew Baker began writing down methods of designing and building ships. During the latter half of the 17th century, various amateur scientists picked up the problem of mathematically describing a ship and its' motions, the first step of systematically designing a ship.

The great trade routes that were to fuel the European economy for the next two and a half centuries were establish during the early 17th century. And throughout that century numerous sea battles were fought over the control of those routes. The losers to fade into minor roles in history. In the words of Sir Walter Raleigh, "Who so commands the seas commands the trade of the world; who so commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world." Sea-borne prowess had become the arbitrator of history.


One of the standard measures of the size of a ship is its displacement measured in tons. The term derives from the French word for thunder: tonnerre, a descriptive name for the large barrels used to transport wine. Shorten to tun, it described the sound the barrel made when rolled. When a ship was described as being so many tons, it originally meant it could carry that barrels of wine. This was mainly true for the English and French ships, as the wine trade between Bordeaux and England constituted their principal cargo. Other countries used slightly different definitions, resulting in the usual welter of sizes for similar ships. This is the origin of the English freight ton of forty cubic feet. At some point, weight was substituted for volume, a ton of wine weighting roughly 2200 pounds. In 1582, the English shipwright Matthew Baker made the first calculations related the displacement of a vessel with tonnage. This led, in the seventeenth century, to various formulas relating various ship measurements, usually a combination of its beam and length, to its tonnage. Giving a fairly accurate comparison between ships.



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