An Illustrated History of the Three-Decker, Line of Battle Ship, and FOUR we found!

Where have all the three-decker line-of-battleships gone? A visual history of these massive floating fortresses, and views of all remaining first rate ships of the line!

During the age of fighting sail in Europe (ca. 1550-1860), naval architects competed to design larger ships, that could carry many more cannon that could fire heavier shot. The ultimate expression of this became the warship with three complete decks of large cannon: the “three-decker.”* These were the behemoths of any fleet, and the largest of the line of battle ships (those warships with heavy enough armament to lie in the main battle-line that fleets conventionally arrayed themselves to prepare for a battle). Only a few wealthy nations could afford to build, arm, and equip such ships. Objects of national prestige, lavishly decorated in fashionable artistic styles, their principal role was as a gun platform, whose firepower would be a useful addition to any battle line.

During large naval battles of the 17th to early 19th centuries, three-deckers found themselves in direct confrontation with each other only on a few occasions.The climax of the April 1782 Battle of the Saints, the last naval action of the American Revolutionary War, was when HMS Barfleur (98 guns) flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood (Second-in-Command under Admiral Sir George Rodney), forced the surrender of the French 110-gun Ville de Paris, the flagship of Vice-Admiral the Comte de Grasse. The Battle of the Saints, 12 April 1782: surrender of the ‘Ville de Paris’ by Thomas Whitcombe, ca. 1783 [Detail of].

They had flagship accommodations for an admiral and their staff, and were floating headquarters to direct a squadron, a large fleet, the forces in a given area, a campaign, or an entire theatre of operations . During routine operations, or in the thick of battle, the officers of other ships would keep a weather eye out for signal flags from the flagship, and the massive size and height of their masts helped other ships see important signal flag hoists in the thick of battle, where cannon-smoke frequently could obscure whole sections of the engaged fleets.

These ships could bombard shore positions and fortresses, or serve for lengthy periods on blockade duty either close to enemy ports, or in a more distant, reserve position. As part of their enormous complement of up to 1,000, they usually had a contingent of marines or soldiers, who could conduct amphibious landings ashore. These soldiers-at-sea also formed a disciplined group during sea battles, with sharp shooters assigned to sweep the enemy decks with musket fire. When enemy ships came alongside, soldiers or marines helped resist enemy boarding parties, and carry the fight to the enemy’s decks. 

The first of such ships is usually attributed to the English Navy.** Prince Royal (1610) began her career as a large ship with about 50-60 cannon, dispersed mostly over 2 decks. In those early days, she had a waist deck that was free of cannon. A later refit, in the 1620s connected the forecastle and quarterdeck batteries of guns. Through her lengthy career she was radically rebuilt several times, eventually being upgraded to a 92-gun three-decker. The structural changes of the rigging, gundecks, ornamentation, and gunports suggest she was virtually a new vessel.

The capture of HMS Prince Royal by the Dutch, 13 June 1666, during the Four Day Battle, of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. This shows the ship as rebuilt with three complete decks of cannon and about 90 guns. Willem Van de Velde the Younger [Detail of] ca. 1670.  Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Inventory number SK-A-439 via wikipedia.

For the remainder of the age of fighting sail, the size and firepower of the ships increased. The next English three-decker, and the first built as such, was the enormous and astronomically expensive Sovereign of the Seas of 1637. This ship boasted 102 brass cannon, and a ludicrously ostentatious decorative program that covered most of the vessel’s upper works with lavishly carved statuary and crests, the whole dripping with gold leaf paint. The absurd cost of this vessel, and the revenue required in “ship money” taxes to the government of King Charles I to complete it, were contributing factors to the outbreak of the English Civil War.

Sovereign of the Seas Morgan-Drawing
A highly detailed sketch of the hull of 102-gunned Sovereign of the Seas of 1637, showing the elaborate decorative program. The ship had as many as eight bow-chaser guns (pointing forward over the beakhead), and ten stern-chasers, as well as cannon pointing down into the waist…for some reason. The ship had a long career, and was dubbed the “Golden Devil” by her Dutch adversaries, who, because of the shallow depth of their ports and channels, could not build deep enough ships to house three decks of cannon. Credit: Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611-1693), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Northern states also built three-deckers for service in their interminable wars. Both Sweden and the joint kingdom of Denmark and Norway produced some of the largest warships in the World in the late 17th Century. One Dano-Norwegian ship, the Sophia Amalia, was built during the 1640s to be larger, with more cannon, that the Sovereign of the Seas. The Swedish Kronan of 1672, with at least 110 guns, is also notable. After only a few years of service, it exploded at the Battle of Öland, 1 June 1676.

A model of the Swedish 110-gun Kronan, on display at the Landesmuseum Kalmar (Schweden). Credit: Alex vogel, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The French commenced building three-deckers in 1668, ranked according to their wonderfully descriptive title of “Vaisseaux de Premier Rang Extraordinaire.” Naval architects during the reign of Bourbon King Louis XIV quickly moved to larger ships, with 110 or more cannon, and French ships were noted for their beautiful lines and ornamentation.

A fine study of Royal Louis (1669), 104-guns, one of the first of the French three-deckers. Credit: Pierre Puget, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Spain’s path to building the type started with the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción y de las Ánimas of 1687, a 94-gun three-decker. A contemporary plan of this ship can be seen at site. Beginning in earnest around 1750, the Spanish began launching some massive designs, of which the largest, the Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad of 1769, will be discussed below.

1803-dated plans of the Rayo (1751), which began life as one of a pair of excellent Havana-built 80-gun two-deckers. More than 50 years later Rayo was upgraded when the forecastle and quarterdeck were joined by a reinforced gundeck, to carry 100 cannon. The origins of the design can be seen in the two levels of decorated quarter-galleries, and the absence of a built-up forecastle supporting a few light guns. After long-service, Rayo was eventually captured by the crew of HMS Donegal a few days after the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 Oct. 1805, and then lost in the storm. Credit: Honorato Bouyon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the very first years of the 19th Century, the Russians and the Ottoman Empire (which included Egypt) also began building large examples. In North America, the War of 1812 initiated a naval race on the Great Lakes that produced the huge HMS St. Lawrence, an unusual 112-gun ship, built in the naval yard at Kingston, Ontario.** The Americans abandoned construction on their equivalent ship, at Sackets Harbor, New York, which would have been named New Orleans (this hulk sat on the stocks at from 1815-1883). The United States later commissioned USS Pennsylvania in 1837. 

USS Pennsylvania, lithograph by Charles Stewart Esq. Comr., ca. 1840. [Detail of] Credit: Popular Graphic Arts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. US Library of Congress catalog LC-DIG-pga-07334. 

The last of these ships were the largest, and most well-armed. They were built with strengthened interior bracing, that enabled ships to be built longer, with more guns. Some were fitted with newly-developed shell-firing cannon. They also had different styles of sterns and bows, which allowed for stronger hulls in these traditionally weak areas, with more cannon able to fire forward and aft.

The Ottoman ship of the line Mahmudiye (1829), of 128 guns, in Istanbul, undated. This shows the longer hulls and the built up, better protected bows of the late period. Mahmudiye had a long and varied career, and participated in the Crimean War. Credit: Historic image from the archives of the Turkish Navy., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The sheer became remarkably flat (so the decks, ship’s sides, and planking were almost without any curvature up towards the stern and bow), and even the tumblehome shape of the hulls were modified, with some designs having strait vertical sides. Ornamentation was kept to a minimum, and a stark chequerboard paint scheme of white strakes broken by black gun-ports became the norm. During the 1850s several ships were fitted with steam engines and screw propellers, and could sail or steam, depending on the conditions.

HMS Royal George of 1827, a 120-cannon ship converted to steam in 1853. This shows the straight, austere lines, and minimal decoration of the last generation of three-deckers. Charles Cooper Penrose Fitzgerald, ca. 1856. From ‘Memories of the Sea’, by rear admiral C. C. Penrose Fitzgerald, publisher Edward Arnold, London 1913. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The age of the three-decker, like that of all wooden fighting ships, ended during the 1860s when ocean-going iron-clad warships, firing shells from rifled guns, quickly made large wooden ships obsolete. Ships that had consumed vast amounts of raw materials (including by deforesting several regions), and required enormous investments to outfit with provisions, large crews, and so many cannon, now had little military value. A few three-deckers survived as accommodation hulks, specialized training ships, hospital ships, prison hulks, and cadet and school ships.

HMS Dreadnought of 1801 was a 98-gun Second Rate ship that, after service during the Napoleonic Wars (including at Trafalgar) was converted to a seamen’s hospital in 1831. When she was scrapped in the 1850s, a larger, later three-decker, HMS Caledonia, took her place.  Artist & engraver: Edward William Cooke, Public domain, in the collection of the Royal Museums, Greenwich via Wikimedia Commons

Now that we have said our piece about the development of three-deckers, the remainder of the post will briefly explore four spectacular fighting ships: One original line of battle ship from the 18th Century, and three replicas of similar ships. According to the Royal Navy’s rating system, as it evolved over the course of the 18th Century, these would have mostly been considered “first rate” three-decker line of battle ships, which usually were defined as having 100 or more cannon.*** Though some ships in the period 1640-1760 were fitted with the massive and unwieldy 42-pounder cannons on their gundeck, the first 3 ships in the below listing all appear to have been armed with the 32 or 36-pounders, then 24-pounders on the middle gundeck, and 12-pounders on the upper gundeck.

HMS Victory (1765) LOA 315′ taffrail to jibboom tip. Gundeck length: 186′. The real deal! This 104-gun ship was a queen of the battle. She was built 1756-1765. Royal Navy first-rate ships often had very long careers, with major rebuilds. She is most famous for service, 40 years after her launching, as Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 Oct. 1805, where she led a fleet of British ships to a decisive victory over a larger, combined fleet of French and Spanish warships. Her design, by naval architect and Surveyor of the Navy Sir Thomas Slade, was based on the earlier HMS Royal George. Slade’s designs helped rectify earlier problems, where three-deckers were found to be over-gunned for their size, with dangerously shallow hulls. A slight lengthening of the gundeck gave Victory space for one more cannon on the broadside on both lower and upper gundecks. Slade produced a balanced fighting platform with good sea-keeping qualities, that was widely emulated. Her lengthy service, included participating in battles during the American Revolutionary War and the French Revolutionary Wars. In the late 1790s she was found to be worn out, and was converted to a hospital ship. This type of laying-up and conversion would have spelled the end of most warships’ active service. Not so for Victory! The grounding and loss of HMS Impregnable (98 guns) in 1798 meant that the Royal Navy required another three-decker to join the fleet. A lengthy refit from 1800-1803 remedied all deficiencies, and upgraded Victory to 104 guns. The ship’s survival, particularly during long periods of neglect in the 115 years after Trafalgar, is nothing short of miraculous. She is currently undergoing a lengthy restoration, where her topmasts and jibboom have been stored away.

HMS Victory portsmouth 1945
HMS Victory, raising the yards in August 1945 © IWM (A 30810)

HMS Victory 1765 Portsmouth 2007

HMS Victory 1765 Portsmouth 2014
This more recent capture shows HMS Victory now having her upper masts and jib-boom removed, which seems to have been done to reduce the maintenance costs on the overall ship.


Nelson’s flagships at anchor [detail of] Nicholas Pocock. This lovely study of Victory, taken from a painting with views of Lord Horatio Nelson’s ships, shows a fictional appearance for HMS Victory. The pre-1803 stern, with two levels of open galleries, has been incorporated with the classic Trafalgar-era paint-scheme. During the lengthy refit process, the stern timbers were found to be deteriorated, and enclosing the stern may have been part of the solution to reinforcing the structure. The original is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum/Royal Museums, Greenwich. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad replica (ca. 2005). LOA 260′ taffrail to bowsprit cap (jibboom appears to be missing now). Original ship gundeck length: 201′. This replica, located at Alicante, Spain, is of the 1769 ship, the largest of its time, which fought at several battles, and was eventually captured at Trafalgar on 21 Oct. 1805, only to be scuttled the next day in the storm that wrecked many prizes of war. The ship was originally commissioned as a 112 gun three-decker, but after several refits wound up with as many as 140 cannon, and was often described as a 4-decker, which the red paint scheme emphasized.

Santisima Trinidade model at Museo_Naval_Madrid_Ni
Santisima Trinidad model on display at the Museo Naval de Madrid, España, ca. 2016. Credit: Nicolás Pérez, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


Santisima Trinidade replica Puerto_de_Alicante,_España,_2014-07-04,_DD_32
The replica of Santisima Trinidad, showing the red strakes of gunports and the large size of the ship at Alicante, Spain, ca. 2014 The hull is more or less flat, with the original tumblehome hull, curving inboard toward the upper decks, absent [detail of]. Credit: Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad replica Alicante 2014Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad replica Alicante 2018Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Trinidad replica Malaga 2007

Santisima Trinidad replica in Malaga, ca. 2010. This shows the slab-sided hull, the generally fine detail on the stern galleries and transom, the nice quarter-galleries, and the disappointing overall shape of the stern, with little of the curvilinear beauty of the original. The original ship was strongly influenced by British mid-18th Century British ships, and the stern resembled more that of HMS Victory. Credit: Bill Allan, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Santísima Trinidad, which some nicknamed “Ponderosa” due to her immense size, was technically a spar-deck three-decker, because the fourth deck was not a heavily built, continuous gundeck. Instead, a light spar-deck (or boat deck) linked the quarterdeck to the forecastle. Guns over the waist did create a continuous battery of cannon. The replica was built using the hull of a commercial vessel in around 2004, with metal girders creating a structure to hang the wooden timbers and decks off of. Reportedly, the restaurant/ship is now closed and in a state of disrepair, and images suggest the elaborate ship-rig and masts are collapsing. The replica, like the original, may be headed for destruction.

Blagodat (ca. 1990s?) LOA 325′ taffrail to jibboom tip. Original gundeck length: 198′. Another huge restaurant ship/replica of a three-decker. This is most likely a replica of the Blagodat of 1800, which served about 14 years and was Admiral Peter Khanykov’s flagship during the Anglo-Russian War. This ship was armed with as many as 130 cannon. Many features of this replica are nicely done, including the whole prospect from the bow and the tumblehome on the hull. The stern is a disappointment, and all the straight, simple lines do not appear credible for a ship launched in that era. Also, the general shape of the stern has meant the last few gunports of the lower deck near the stern quarter galleries have been omitted. Interestingly enough, the original Blagodat was reportedly based closely on the lines of a certain Spanish ship, the Santísima Trinidad! 

Blagodat Корвет_2011_-_panoramio
Blagodat, showing the decently-executed bow, beakhead detail, and the generally fine side and tumblehome of this massive replica . ca. 2011 [detail of] Credit: Валерий Дед, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Russian Ship Blagodat replica restaurant St.P 2020Russian Ship Blagodat replica restaurant St.P 2020-06

As idle as a painted ship. Upon a painted ocean.” (Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel T. Coleridge) The Blagodat replica, showing the enormous dimensions and the questionable stern ornamentation. Neva River, Saint Petersburg, ca. 2011 [Detail of] Credit: IKit, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Neptune “Galleon” replica 17th Century Spanish Galleon (1986), LOA 215′ TDISP 1,500 tons. Located at the marina in Genoa, Italy, this ship was originally built in Tunisia at Port El Kantaoui, for the 1986 Franco-Tunisian adventure-comedy film Pirates. She cost 7–8 million to build, and is steel-hulled below the waterline and powered by an auxiliary engine. The hull is pierced for more than 70 gunports over three decks. While, by later standards, this is a “small” three decker, the upper deck appears to be a structural deck, and there are additional quarterdeck guns above this. It seems to us this is not an exact replica of any specific ship, and appears a good deal larger than most galleons. As noted above, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción y de las Ánimas was the first Spanish three-decker. The Neptune’s general layout has some similarities to this ship. However, the different stern galleries, the more pronounced sheer, and the general appearance of a vessel from the first half of the 17th Century, make it unlikely that this is a replica. The design seems instead to have been inspired by the great Spanish treasure galleons, but with a massively enhanced armament.

Neptune during her early film career, 1985, in Tunisian waters. Credit: SoftwareSimian, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Neptune replica galleon Genoa 2015Neptune replica galleon Genoa 2014

*For our purposes, we have defined the three-decker as a warship whose principal armament of heavy batteries of cannon are arrayed on three structural decks, in a more-or-less continuous row. These ships often have additional partial batteries of cannon on the quarterdeck and forecastle deck and can also have a continuous deck of lighter cannon on a spar-deck which joins quarterdeck and forecastle batteries, but is not a structural deck over the waist of the ship. We have had many disagreements about what constitutes a three-decker, or what counts towards the total number of gundecks. There were very large ships before this period, and some had a hundred or more various cannon of various types, but none that meet the criteria of a three-decker. There were also merchant ships and other warships with three decks before and during this period, but these were not armed in the way we define above. Our definition is based on scholarly works, including Dr. Frank Howard’s detailed account of the evolution of fighting ships, Sailing Ships of War; 1400-1860 (Greenwich: Conway Maritime Press, 1979). Out of interest, we would note that there was at least one design for a true four decker first rate line of battle ship: the 170-gun juggernaut that would have been named HMS Duke of Kent. A model at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and, reportedly, a draft plan, are all that remains of this.

** Some reconstructions show the Scottish royal ship Great Michael (1512), an enormous carrack, as a three decker, with a mix of cannon on three gundecks, one of which was an open waist, and enormous fore and after castle structures.

***HMS St. Lawrence was a vessel adapted to service on the Great Lakes. It was longer and heavier than HMS Victory, with a few more cannon. It had three long structural gundecks, but nothing above those, and a simplified stern with a single level of stern and quarter lights (windows). This massive vessel’s commissioning during 1814 effectively ended the naval war on Lake Ontario.

****In the British classification system, which evolved over the 18th Century, warships were categorized by the number of cannon they were armed with. First-rate battleships would eventually be armed with 100 or more cannon; Second-rates, 90-98 cannon. Some smaller Third-rates, which were the usual ships of the battle fleet, also, up to about the mid-18th Century, could be three-deckers. Other states in Europe employed similar systems. Also, the rating system had kept pace with the increased size of warships. A hundred years before this, in 1650, ships with more than 50 cannon were considered some of the largest.

Author: Warsearcher

Ballistic Research Missile of Truthiness (BRMT)

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