Towards the end of the 1780s, the talented French shipwright Jacques-Noël Sané was putting the finishing touches to his latest design. It was for a new class of warship with two gun decks, which he hoped would form the core of the French battle fleet through to the end of that century and beyond. What he proposed was to replace the 74, which was the most common ship of the line in most European navies, with 80 gun vessels.
What he envisaged were mighty ships, rather than stretched versions of existing two-deckers. They were built to a different scale altogether. With a hull length of almost two hundred feet, and a beam of fifty, their footprint was that of a three-decked first rate. This meant that they would be able to deliver a greater punch than any other two-decker afloat, with 24pdr cannon on their upper gun-deck in place of the 18pdrs of the traditional 74. They would also be tougher opponents, with much thicker sides than their smaller rivals. The first of these ships was launched in Toulon in 1789, and was appropriately named Tonnant, which means “Thunderer”.
A decade later, the Tonnant was part of the French fleet that fought Nelson at the Battle of the Nile. She was anchored in the line, just behind the colossal French flagship the 120 gun L’Orient (another wonderful Sané design). On a night of disaster for her nation, she fought heroically under Captain Du Petit Thouars. The Tonnant beat the British 74 Majestic into a wreck, killing her captain, and inflicting almost two hundred casualties. She was then forced to cut her anchor cables when the L’Orient caught fire, and was fortunate to be clear of the danger area when the flagship exploded. This was a narrow escape. Her sister ship, the Franklin, which remained at anchor ahead of the L’Orient, was so badly damaged that she took no further part in the battle. Adrift in the dark and badly damaged from her fight with Majestic, the Tonnant ran aground. She was eventually forced to surrender when another British 74, the Theseus, moored across her stern and threatened to repeatedly rake her. Captain Du Petit Thouars deserves particular mention for his extraordinary courage during the battle. He was badly wounded several times, but refused to leave his quarterdeck. He died of his wounds, still at his post, and encouraging his men to the end.
The Tonnant was much admired by her British captors, not least for the way that she had fought, and was repaired and commissioned into the Royal Navy. Her excellent design, and solid build made her a popular ship amongst her new owners. She served on various stations in Europe under several captains, including Sir Edward Pellew. In October 1805 she was to serve again in one of Nelson’s victories, this time at Trafalgar, fighting against the nation that had built her. She was the fourth ship in Collingwood’s Lee Column, and her main contribution was to defeat and capture the French 74 Algésiras.
The Tonnant was to play one more significant role in history, although this time it was a cultural one. In the war of 1812 against the United States, she was the flagship for Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane during his blockade of Baltimore. The day before he was going to launch a surprise bombardment of Baltimore’s defences, he was visited by two Americans, one of whom was Francis Scott Key. They had come to negotiate the release of an American officer, and were entertained to dinner by the admiral aboard the Tonnant. Because his two guests had witnessed the preparations for the British attack, the American sloop that had brought them out was not permitted to return until the morning after the fleet had carried out its attack. So it was that Key spent an anxious night, witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry from afar, and was relieved to see “by the dawn’s early light...that our flag was still there.” He was later inspired to write the poem that would go on to provide the lyrics for the American National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.
The last word should go to the Tonnant’s designer, Jacques-Noël Sané. Although he never lived to see it, after the Napoleonic wars the 80 gun two-decker did indeed become the standard ship of the line for most navies, until replaced by the steam powered ironclad.