Maritime Art

The Royal Sovereign, 100 Guns

By E. Kirkall after W. Van De Velde. C. 1720

The engraving was made by Elisha Kirkall (1682-1742), a prolific engraver and innovative printmaker. It is an engraving of a magnificent oil painting by Willem Van de Velde the Younger of the Royal Sovereign of 1701, one of the most important ships in the history of the Royal Navy.

A replacement for a ship of the same name, burned by accident in 1697, this new Royal Sovereign was a key feature in the Royal Navy for almost seventy years, acting as Sir George Rooke’s flagship in the war of the Spanish Succession and subsequently as flagship of Admiral Clowdisley Shovell.

She became the flagship of the Channel Fleet during the Seven Year’s War and is famous for being the location where Admiral Edward Boscawen authorised the death penalty of Admiral John Byng for failing to do his duty at the battle of Minorca in 1756. The ship was so lavishly decorated that, subsequent to her launch, the Admiralty restricted the decoration allowed on ships to reduce the extravagant costs of seapower in this style.

She is shown firing a salute to starboard. In the foreground to the right is a fishing pink with its sail lowered. On the left is a ketch-rigged royal yacht. A ship’s boat is pulling away from the yacht towards the Royal Sovereign.

It has been suggested that this scene depicts a specific moment: 4 June 1702 in Spithead when Prince George of Denmark dined on board with the Duke of Ormonde.

The Society has published a number of articles relevant to this period and topic.

Some Notes on Warship Building by Contract in the Eighteenth Century explores the state of shipbuilding at the outbreak of the war of Spanish Succession in 1701, when the Royal Navy was well supplied with ships in reserve built after the last peace with France in 1697. At the start of the war of Austrian Succession in 1739 there had been no new construction and the existing fleet was decaying. Thus began a period of construction using private yards under contract, firstly on the Thames and then using ‘country’ yards in the face of high prices on the Thames. Commercial yards took the risk under contracts and some faced bankruptcy, but the Admiralty showed flexibility over penalties to encourage the yards. With peace no new ships were started and when the Seven Years War began in 1754 urgent construction was called for. The number of ships placed out to contract exceeded those with the royal yards. Difficulties with getting seasoned oak and with hasty construction caused problems with the state of the fleet when the War of American Independence began in 1775. Lord Sandwich has been unfairly criticised over the state of the fleet. Due to the efforts of Sir Charles Middleton the fleet was in good shape when war came with revolutionary France in 1793.

The Identification of Models of Men of War Part VIII concerns the identity of a model of an English ship of more than 100 guns discovered in the Naval Museum at St Petersburg. As the model is dated by the presence of the Royal Arms of William and Mary on the figurehead, there are only five ships which the model could represent. Detailed measurements of dimensions from Admiralty records and comparison with prints confirms that the model must be of the Royal Sovereign of 1701.

Anglo-Spanish Naval Relations in the Eighteenth Century argues that, by concentrating on relations with France, British historians have tended not to devote sufficient attention to the Spanish dimension of eighteenth century diplomacy and warfare. Contemporaries however were aware that the Spanish navy was a real force. A key to British success in the conflicts of the period was its ability to isolate that navy, either by keeping it neutral in war with France or by keeping France neutral while fighting Spain. Throughout the eighteenth century Britain had a superior number of warships to either France or Spain, but if France had become allied to Spain then Britain would have been at considerable disadvantage. In reality, for all sides, in adverse circumstances through crew’s sickness or ships in need of refits, naval strength was even more problematic. During the War of Spanish Succession, 1701-1714, Spanish naval strength had collapsed but, with French support, had rapidly revived after the conflict. Although Spain continued to enlarge her fleet she could not compete in numbers with Britain or France and her fleet had severe weaknesses. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, although she had insufficient numbers of three deckers her navy was still considered an important naval power.

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