Vaisseaux du premier rang

An oil painting by Thomas Whitcombe of the Battle of the Saintes, 12 April 1782, with Comte de Grasse’s flagship the 104-gun Ville de Paris in the foreground, in close action with Barfleur, 98 guns, flying the flag of Sir Samuel Hood. Although captured during the battle, the French flagship was wrecked before she could reach a British port, so it is unclear what reference Whitcombe used for the appearance of the Ville de Paris. She had originally been built as a 90-gun ship at Rochefort between August 1757 and May 1764, but during repairs at Brest in 1778-79, the waist was filled in to create a continuous third deck, with a new quarterdeck and forecastle constructed above and fourteen 12pdrs and 6pdrs added to her ordnance.

The First Rank Warships with 80 or more guns after 1715.

The first classification of the vessels of the French Navy into four Ranks (or (with a fifth Rank added) in July 1670. The 1st Rank Rangs) took effect in 1669, but was swiftly altered classification covered the most prestigious ships in the French Navy, embellished with ornate carvings and decoration. They were intended to be employed as as fleet flagships, as strong points in the fleet’s formation, and as symbols of Louis XIV’s magnificence displaying France’s maritime strength. Because of their large crews and requirements for stores they were also very expensive to operate and except during wartime were used sparingly.

The only `three-decker’ of over 60 guns built for the French before 1661 had been the Vendome of 1651. The somewhat smaller Saint Philippe which entered service in 1664, and subsequent ships built to the same concept, were officially classed by the French as three-deckers without a forecastle and with a rudimentary quarterdeck (really a poop); they carried no guns or gunports amidships on the third deck, and usually there was a physical break in the deck level (forming a `waist’), so that the portions of the third deck forward and aft of this interruption served in effect as forecastle and quarterdeck. In a few cases this unarmed portion of the third deck was physically present, complete with deck beams below it, so that the absence of guns and gunports (and sometimes the absence of any bulwarks along each side) left a complete structural level, thus improving the structural integrity of the ship; but in most cases there was a physical gap with the middle portion of this deck not constructed, so that the type was what the English defined as a two-decker.

Most of such `semi-three-deckers’ were eventually re-classed as 2nd Rank, but this applies solely to vessels built before 1689 – after 1689 only three-deckers built with a complete third tier of guns were classed as 1st Rank, until the appearance of 80-gun two-deckers of the 1st Rank in the 1740s.

The last 1st Rank three-decker of this broken-deck type was the Paris of 1669, while the last such 2nd Rank vessel was the Fier of 1682. It should be noted that the three-deckers with interrupted third tiers of guns retained the two levels of accommodations in the stern typical of three-deckers (the captain’s cabin and stateroom on top of the wardroom) while two-deckers had only a single level combining the captain’s cabin and the wardroom. Thus while the small three-deckers looked like two-deckers and are perhaps best understood as such, they had some structural features found only in three-deckers.

The first extra-large French three-decker with 100 guns or more (rated as a vaisseau du premier rang extraordinaire) was the Royal Louis, completed in 1669. Prior to 1689, these flagships, generally pierced with fifteen pairs of gunports on the lower deck (excluding the foremost pair or chase ports) were the only vessels fitted with the rare 36pdr bronze guns. Until 1690, these guns were in limited supply – iron 36pdrs did not appear until 1691 – and up to this date, vaisseaux du premier rang extraordinaire generally carried a mixture of sixteen 36pdrs and fourteen 24pdrs on the lower deck (all guns in these ships were of bronze). The vaisseaux du premier rang extraordinaires were also the only French three-deckers allowed by regulation to have a forecastle as well as a quarterdeck following the unhappy experience of the Monarque in 1669.

From 1690, these ships generally carried a uniform battery of 36pdrs (usually fourteen pairs) on the lower deck; initially there were two exceptions – the Soleil Royal (after her rebuilding in 1689) carried a mixture of 48pdrs and 36pdrs, while the new Royal Louis in 1692 received a complete battery of thirty 48pdrs. The huge 10ft bronze 48pdrs proved too cumbersome to handle, and the ships’ commanders (Tourville on the Soleil Royal and d’Estrées on the Royal Louis) soon arranged for these to be replaced by 36pdrs. The 48pdrs were also briefly carried in Monarque (1690) and Admirable (1692).

The flagships (navires amiraux) of the two fleets were always drawn from the premier rang extraordinaire. For the Mediterranean Fleet (Flotte du Levant), the flagship was always the most powerful ship based in Toulon: the Royal Louis of 1667, its namesake (and replacement) of 1692, until that ship was disarmed in 1716 and taken to pieces in 1727; from 1780 the new Majestueux became the navire amiral of this fleet, to be superseded by the Commerce de Marseille in 1788. For the Atlantic Fleet (Flotte du Ponant), the Soleil Royal served the same role from 1669, as did its namesake in 1692; the Foudroyant of 1724 then held the same responsibility, as did the new Soleil Royal in 1749, followed by the Royal Louis of 1759; the Bretagne of 1766 then fulfilled the role until the 1790s.

The smaller of the 1st Rank ships (those with fewer than 100 guns – in general 84 guns was the maximum) were pierced with thirteen pairs of gunports on the lower deck (again not counting the foremost pair or chase ports). Until 1689, those of 80 guns generally carried a mixture of twelve 24pdrs (bronze) and fourteen 18pdrs (iron) on this deck, and fourteen 18pdrs (bronze) and twelve 12pdrs (iron) on the deck above, with twenty-two 8pdrs (all bronze) on the upper deck, separated into those forward and aft of the unarmed waist, and with six 4pdrs (bronze) on the quarterdeck, the latter effectively being a poop deck; these ships as indicated above had no forecastle. The 84-gun variant had no gap on the upper deck, thus mounting twenty-six 8pdrs there (of which one pair were iron guns). After 1689, a standard armament of 36pdrs was adopted for these ships also, with new 1st Rank ships carrying a similar battery to the largest ships. By 1692, the foremost pair of ports (or chase ports) were no longer cut through on 1st Rank ships, in order to strengthen the head.

Altogether twelve three-decker 1st Ranks were begun during the 1660s. Colbert produced the first French system of rating with his Reglement of 4 July 1670, dividing the fleet into `Rangs’ (i. e. Ranks, analogous to the English system of Rates), the first of which comprised the three-deckers with more than 70 guns, while the second included the smaller three-deckers (as well as a few large two-deckers). By 1672, several of the smaller 1st Ranks (those with fewer than 80 guns) had been re-classified to the 2nd Rank. More important than actual numbers of guns, all 1st Ranks built after 1689 – see Section (C) – carried a principal (LD) battery of 36pdrs, while the main battery on the 2nd Ranks were generally 24pdrs (although some of this type carried a mix of 36pdrs and 24pdrs on their LD).

In 1680 or early 1681 an `establishment level’ of twelve 1st Rank ships was set, and retained well past the end of Louis XIV’s reign. This was the actual number of such ships on the List in January 1681 – five in the Brest Department, one at Rochefort (the never-completed Victorieux), and six at Toulon. This number was roughly adhered to until 1690, when the massive building program of twenty-five 1st Ranks made it irrelevant, but after 1712 the number shrank back and by 1717 most of the remainder had been taken to pieces without replacement.

By the close of the seventeenth century, all 1st Rank ships were three-deckers with three complete gun decks, and this continued well into the eighteenth century. At the same time forecastles were reintroduced in all 1st Rank ships. The relatively few three-deckers built after 1715. From 1740 onwards a new series of two-deckers armed with 80 guns was introduced; these fulfilled the role of capital ships (and usually the flagships) for the battlefleet.

Three-decked vessels acquired from 1 September 1715

Following the close of the war and the death of Louis XIV, the battlefleet was rapidly run down, with many of the remaining three-deckers being disposed of by 1715. Following the dismissal of Jérome de Pontchartrain as Secretary of State for the Navy on 1 October 1715, a Conseil de marine was set up by the Amiral de France (Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon, Comte de Toulouse), directed by his two Vice-amiraux (Victor Marie, Maréchal and Duc d’Estrées and Alain Emmanuel, Comte de Coetlogon, for the Ponant and Levant Fleets respectively), which ran the Navy for the next three years.

Nevertheless, there nominally remained eleven 1st Rank ships at the end of 1715, survivors of the 1689-94 building spree. All of these were three-deckers, almost all with a principal battery of 36pdrs (the sole exception was the Monarque which from 1704 had only 24pdrs on its LD) and all had a second battery of 18pdrs. The Royal Louis, Triomphant, Vanqueur, Monarque and Intrépide were all noted as in need of rebuilding, while the Magnifique was already condemned (since March 1713) and the Orgueilleux and Admirable had been ordered (on 1 December 1715) to be broken up.

A year later the number was officially down to five – Royal Louis, Sceptre, and the soon-to-be-dismantled Magnifique, Orgueilleux and Admirable – and by the end of 1717 there were just four (the Sceptre had been condemned on 18 December, and would be ordered to be taken to pieces in January 1718). The Royal Louis (disarmed since 1716) lasted until condemned in 1723 and was broken up in 1727; no further threedeckers were attempted until 1723, and even then results were deplorable, no successful ship being achieved until the 1760s. After two short-term Secretaries in the five years from 1718, the appointment of Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, Comte de Maurepas (and son of Jérome de Pontchartrain), began a term of office which lasted to his dismissal in 1749.

80-gun two-decked vessels (Vaisseaux de 80) acquired from 1740

All 80-gun ships prior to 1700 had been three-deckers, and none were built in the first four decades of the new century, but in 1740 the first of a series of two-decker 80s was begun. At the start of hostilities against Britain in 1744, this ship (Tonnant) was the only French warship with more than 74 guns, but more were begun from 1748 onwards. All had thirty 36pdr guns on the lower deck, and thirty-two guns (18pdrs or 24pdrs) on the upper deck, while eighteen guns (mostly 8pdrs) were fitted on the gaillards. Thirteen ships were built in the period to 1785 (one of which was rebuilt after a fire).

These ships were ambiguously classed in French official records, being usually defined as `premier rang’ but in 1766 the earlier Tonnant, Duc de Bourgogne, and Orient (all with 18pdrs on the UD) were classed as `second rang, premier ordre’ while the later Languedoc, Saint Esprit, and Couronne were `premier rang, second ordre’. We chose to class all of them here with the 1st Rank ships, as France built virtually no three-deckers for most of the eighteenth century, and in lieu of these deployed the 80-gun two-deckers as their principal capital ships. The original type with 18pdrs on the UD mustered a broadside of 900 livres, while the later substitution of 24pdrs on the UD raised this to 996 livres (or 1,075 English pounds), significantly greater than the standard French 74-gun ship’s 838 livres (904 pounds), which was in turn greater than the 818-pound broadside of the British three-decked Second Rates of 90 guns, and not incomparable with the 1,140-pound broadside of the largest British three-decked First Rates of 100 guns.


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