I have decided to create this article about the history of some of the most famous British Warships which can still be found at Portsmouth Dockyard. The three famous ships are Henry VIII’s flagship The Mary Rose, Nelson’s HMS Victory and The World’s first all Ironclad Warship, HMS Warrior.
The Mary Rose was built in Portsmouth in 1509. One of Henry VIII’s ‘great ships’, Mary Rose was named after the king’s favourite sister Mary and the Tudor emblem the Rose. Typical of the larger sailing ships of the fleet with high castles at the bow and stern, she was one of the first ships with gun ports cut out along the side of the hull for the firing of heavy guns.
Mary Rose had a long career and was frequently in battle against the French. On 10 August 1512 she was part of an English force that attacked the French fleet at Brest. Mary Rose crippled the enemy flagship, bringing down her mast and causing 300 casualties. This was possibly the first battle in the Channel when ships fired their heavy guns through gun ports.
The sinking of the Mary Rose is the event for which the ship is best known. On 19 July 1545 Mary Rose was part of an English fleet that sailed out of Portsmouth to engage the French. She fired a broadside at the enemy and was turning to fire the other broadside when water flooded into her open gun ports and the ship suddenly capsized in full view of Henry VIII watching from the shore. It is not certain what caused Mary Rose to capsize; she was overloaded with extra soldiers and may have been caught by a gust of wind, which made the ship heel over.
The wreck of the Mary Rose was rediscovered in 1968 and before her recovery divers carried out much preparation work. On 11 October 1982 the hull was lifted off the seabed and placed on a cradle before being raised by a giant floating crane. It was then towed back into Portsmouth harbour from where the ship had left on her last fateful journey 437 years before. Today the Mary Rose is preserved in No.3 dock in Portsmouth.
Ordered by the Navy Board on June 6, 1759, HMS Victory was designed by Surveyor of the Navy, Sir Thomas Slade. Building commenced the following month at Chatham Dockyard under the watchful eye of Master Shipwright John Lock. On October 30, 1760, the name Victory was chosen for the new ship, perhaps in honour of Britain’s “Annus Mirabilis” (Year of Victories) in 1759, during the Seven Years’ War. The work was completed in 1765, under the supervision of Master Shipwright Edward Allen. Launched on May 7 of that year, the finished 100-gun ship cost a total of £63,176.
After completing sea trials, Victory was placed in ordinary as the war had been concluded. It remained in this reserve role until May 1778, when it was first commissioned as the flagship of Admiral Augustus Keppel during the War of American Independence. Two months later, on July 27, Keppel’s fleet encountered a French fleet off Ushant and gave battle. Though the First Battle of Ushant was inconclusive, it was Victory’s baptism by fire. Two years later, in March 1780, the ship was placed in dry dock and its hull sheathed with copper to protect against shipworm.
Returning to sea, Victory served as Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt’s flagship during his triumph at the Second Battle of Ushant on December 12, 1781, and later took part in Admiral Richard Howe’s relief of Gibraltar in October 1782. With the war’s conclusion, Victory underwent a £15,372 refit and had its armament increased. With the beginning of the War of the First Coalition in 1793, Victory became the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet under Admiral Lord Samuel Hood. After participating in the capture (and loss) of Toulon and Corsica, Victory returned to Chatham for a brief overhaul in 1794.
Returning to the Mediterranean the following year, Victory remained in the area until the British fleet was forced to withdraw to Portugal. In December 1796, Admiral John Jervis made Victory his flagship when he took command of the Mediterranean fleet. Two months later, he led the fleet to victory over the Spanish at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. Growing old, Victory returned to Chatham that fall to be surveyed and have its fate decided. Ruled unfit for service on December 8, 1797, orders were issued to convert Victory into a hospital ship.
With the loss of the first-rate HMS Impregnable in October 1799, Victory’s conversion orders were countermanded and new ones issued to repair and restore the ship. Initially estimated at £23,500, the reconstruction project eventually cost £70,933 due to an ever increasingly list of defects in the hull. Completed in April 11, 1803, Victory sailed to rejoin the fleet. On May 16, 1803, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson hoisted his flag aboard Victory as the commander of the Mediterranean fleet. Serving as Nelson’s flagship, Victory patrolled off Toulon as part of the British blockade of that port.
In May 1805, the French fleet under Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve escaped from Toulon. After sailing east first, Nelson learned that the French were heading for the West Indies. Pursuing them across the Atlantic and back again, Nelson finally was able to bottle them up in the Spanish port of Cadiz. When Villeneuve departed Cadiz on October 19, Nelson was able to bring him to battle off Cape Trafalgar two days later. Splitting his force in two, Nelson drove his ships in two columns into the heart of the combined French-Spanish fleet.
Aggressively attacking, the British decimated Villeneuve’s fleet, winning one of the greatest naval victories in history. During the battle Victory engaged Villeneuve’s flagship, Bucentaure (80) and Redoutable (74). After inflicting heavy damage on Bucentaure, Victory duelled Redoutable with both ships suffering heavy casualties. During the fight, Nelson was shot through shoulder by a marine aboard Redoutable. Taken below, he died three hours later as his fleet was completing the victory. After the battle, the badly damaged Victory transported Nelson’s body back to England.
Repaired after Trafalgar, Victory saw service as a flagship in the Baltic and off the coast of Spain. On December 20, 1812, the 47-year old warship was paid off for the last time at Portsmouth. Though the ship was refitted a final time after the war, it remained in ordinary and became the flagship for the Port Admiral in 1824. In 1889, the ship was fitted out for use as the Naval School of Telegraphy and later the Signals School. These remained on board until 1904, when they were moved HMS Hercules and then to the Royal Naval Barracks.
By 1921, Victory was in poor condition and a campaign was started to raise money for the ship’s restoration. Moved to the oldest dry dock in the world, No. 2 Dock at Portsmouth, on January 12, 1922, Victory underwent a massive six-year restoration which returned the ship to its 1805 appearance. Victory saw its last wartime action in 1941, during World War II when it was hit by a Luftwaffe bomb which caused some hull damage. Under constant restoration, Victory is still in commission and is open to the public as a museum ship at Portsmouth.
Nation: Great Britain
Builder: Chatham Dockyard
Laid Down: July 23, 1759
Launched: May 7, 1765
Commissioned: May 1778
Decommissioned: November 7, 1812
Fate: Preserved as a museum ship at Portsmouth, England
Ship Type: Ship of the Line (First Rate)
Displacement: 3,500 tons
Length: 227 ft., 6 in.
Beam: 51 ft., 10 in.
Draft: 28 ft. 9 in.
Complement: approx. 850
Speed: 8-10 knots
Armament (at Trafalgar):
Gun Deck: 30 x long 32-pdrs
Middle Gun Deck: 28 × long 24-pdrs
Upper Gun Deck: 30 × short 12-pdrs
Quarterdeck: 12 × short 12-pdrs
Forecastle: 2 × medium 12-pdrs, 2 × 68 pdr carronades
During the early decades of the 19th century the Royal Navy began add steam power to many of its ships and was slowly introducing new innovations, such as iron hulls, into some of its smaller vessels. In 1858, the Admiralty was stunned to learn that the French had commenced construction of a Wood Mixed iron warship named La Gloire. It was the desire of Emperor Napoleon III to replace all of France’s warships with iron-hulled ironclads, however French industry lacked the capacity to produce the needed plate. As a result, La Gloire was initially built of wood then clad in iron armour.
Commissioned in August 1860, La Gloire became the world’s first ocean-going ironclad warship. Sensing that their naval dominance was being threatened, the Royal Navy immediately commenced construction on a vessel superior to La Gloire. Conceived by Admiral Sir Baldwin Wake-Walker and designed by Isaac Watts, HMS Warrior was laid down at Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding on May 29, 1859. Incorporating a variety of new technologies, Warrior was to be a composite sail/steam armoured frigate. Built with an iron hull – the world’s first fully iron built warship and Warrior’s steam engines turned a large propeller.
Central to the ship’s design was its armoured citadel. Built into the hull, the citadel contained Warrior’s broadside guns and possessed 4.5″ iron armour which was bolted onto 9″ of teak. During construction, the design of the citadel was tested against the most modern guns of the day and none were able to penetrate its armour For further protection, innovative watertight bulkheads were added to the vessel. Though Warrior was designed to carry fewer guns than many other ships in the fleet, it compensated by mounting heavier weapons.
These included 26 68-pdr guns and 10 110-pdr breech-loading Armstrong rifles. Warrior was launched at Blackwall on December 29, 1860. A particularly cold day, the ship froze to the ways and required six tugs to pull it into the water. Commissioned on August 1, 1861, Warrior cost the Admiralty £357,291. Joining the fleet, Warrior served primarily in home waters as the only dry dock large enough to take it was in Britain. Arguably the most powerful warship afloat when it was commissioned, Warrior quickly intimidated rival nations and launched the competition to build bigger and stronger iron/steel battleships.
Upon first seeing Warrior’s power the French naval attaché in London sent an urgent dispatch to his superiors in Paris stating, “Should this ship meet our fleet it will be as a black snake among rabbits!” Those in Britain were similarly impressed including Charles Dickens who wrote, “A black vicious ugly customer as ever I saw, whale-like in size, and with as terrible a row of incisor teeth as ever closed on a French frigate.” A year after Warrior was commissioned it was joined by its sister ship, HMS Black Prince. During the 1860s, Warrior saw peaceful service and had its gun battery upgraded between 1864 and 1867.
Warrior’s routine was interrupted in 1868, following a collision with HMS Royal Oak. The following year it made one of its few trips away from Europe when it towed a floating dry dock to Bermuda. After undergoing a refit in 1871-1875, Warrior was placed in reserve status. A ground breaking vessel, the naval arms race that it helped inspire had quickly led to it becoming obsolete. From 1875-1883, Warrior performed summer training cruises to the Mediterranean and Baltic for reservists. Laid up in 1883, the ship remained available for active duty until 1900.
In 1904, Warrior was taken to Portsmouth and renamed Vernon III as part of the Royal Navy’s torpedo training school. Providing steam and power for the neighbouring hulks that comprised the school, Warrior remained in this role until 1923. After attempts to sell the ship for scrap in the mid-1920s failed, it was converted for use a floating oil jetty at Pembroke, Wales. Designated Oil Hulk C77, Warrior humbly fulfilled this duty for half a century. In 1979, the ship was saved from the scrap yard by the Maritime Trust. Initially led by the Duke of Edinburgh, the Trust oversaw the eight-year restoration of the ship. Returned to its 1860s glory, Warrior entered its berth at Portsmouth on June 16, 1987, and began a new life as a museum ship.
Nation: Great Britain
Builder: Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding Co. Ltd.
Laid Down: May 25, 1859
Launched: December 29, 1860
Commissioned: August 1, 1861
Decommissioned: May 31, 1883
Fate: Museum ship at Portsmouth, England
Type: Armoured Frigate
Displacement: 9,210 tons
Length: 418 ft.
Beam: 58 ft.
Draft: 27 ft.
Power Plant: Penn Jet-Condensing, horizontal-trunk, single expansion steam engine
Speed: 13 knots (sail), 14.5 knots (steam), 17 knots (combined)
26 x 68-pdr. guns (muzzle-loading)
10 x 110-pdr. Armstrong guns (breech-loading)
4 x 40-pdr. Armstrong guns (breech-loading)
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