In 17th century Europe, the Power of Kings was at its zenith and conspicuous display was all the rage. Louis XIV of France built the largest palace in Europe at Versailles. In Russia, Peter the Great planned to go one better, and build a whole new city, modestly naming it St Petersburg, after the apostle rather than himself. Across Europe lesser monarchs ordered new buildings, commissioned artworks and lured the famous to their courts. But the ultimate status symbol for a king with a coast was to own a large, highly decorated warship.
There was a long tradition of building big ships to bolster national prestige, including several impractical ones. James IV of Scotland almost bankrupted his country to build the thousand ton Great Michael in 1511. After his death at the Battle of Flodden two years later, the ship was quietly sold to the French, much to the relief of Scottish taxpayers. The French King, responding to Henry VIII’s huge Henri Grace a Dieu, constructed an even larger ship, the Grande Francoise, only to find that it was so big it was unable to leave Le Havre harbour where it had been launched.
In 1606 Christian IV of Denmark came for a state visit to London, aboard his massive, beautifully decorated, Tre Kroner. King James responded by ordering his own version of this ship, the similarly large Prince Royal, which was launched in 1610. The Danes then built an even mightier ship, the 1,300 ton Store Sophia. Big ship fever gripped the courts of the maritime powers. Louis XIII insisted that France build her own super-ship, called La Couronne. In Sweden, King Gustav II Adolf demanded that the keel of his status ship, the Vasa, which was already under construction, should be lengthened to ensure it was longer than the Store Sophia. This work was carried out against the advice of his shipwrights, contributing to the Vasa sinking on her maiden voyage.
Charles I of England came to the throne in 1625, and was a man with a particularly exalted view of the status of kings. Planning began soon afterwards for a ship that would be larger than all of his rivals. Even the name chosen for it, Sovereign of the Seas seemed to be a direct challenge to the other maritime powers. When her plans were ready in 1634, it became clear that no port in the kingdom would be deep enough to float her, and extra dredging work had to be carried out to accommodate her 1,500 ton bulk. Her stern lantern was so huge that in 1661 Samuel Pepys, together with eight friends, could all squeeze in. She was originally designed to carry ninety guns on three gun decks, but this was increased at the insistence of the king. She was not just going to be the biggest ship, but also the first with over a hundred guns.
Her decoration was lavish beyond anything seen on a Royal Navy ship before or since. The designs were produced by Thomas Heywood on themes agreed with the king, and covered almost every inch of her upper works. They were made by the country’s foremost wood carvers, John and Mathias Christmas, at great expense. The ship’s hull was painted black, so that the gilded carvings would stand out all the more. When she was launched at Woolwich in 1637, all agreed that they had never seen so magnificent a ship.
The Sovereign of the Seas, along with all the other great status ships built at the time, were curiously ineffective as warships. Their size made them slow and difficult to manoeuvrable in battle. In the period before the development of line tactics, sea battles were swirling melees, in which these cumbersome giants were often impotent bystanders. As a result none of them had much impact when used in action. The Sovereign of the Seas was in commission for a period of almost sixty years, during which time she was involved in the English Civil War, repelling the attacks of Barbary pirates on the British coast, and was present during three battles against the Dutch. In all of those six decades her military contribution was negligible.
But criticising the fighting prowess of the Sovereign of the Sea’s is a bit like criticising Versailles for being too drafty. It misses the point. The ship, just like the palace, was never meant to be practical. It was designed to impress foreign dignitaries and overawe potential enemies. It sent out a clear diplomatic message about the monarch who owned such a ship – look what I can build. You mess with me at your peril.
It is telling that 18th century Britain never attempted to build anything like the Sovereign of the Seas. By then the concept of command of the sea was not a name you gave to a ship, but a matter of national survival. That control had to be won by brave men serving in a fleet of practical fighting ships. There was no place for a single monster vessel that could barely leave harbour. The Navy certainly built hundred gun first rates, but these were designed to be weatherly and efficient. By 1697, Charles I’s great ship was an anachronism, rotting at her moorings. When an accidental fire onboard destroyed her later that year, few naval officers mourned her passing.