A Beautiful Beast – How the English Warship ‘Sovereign of the Seas’ Fused Form, Function & Murderous Firepower

The Dreadnaught of her age, England’s Sovereign of the Seas was the most fearsome vessel afloat in the 17th century and set a new standard for warship design. (image source: WikiCommons)

Sovereign’s fusion of practicality, lethality and beauty represented a far-sighted design that would gradually be modified to create ships like Nelson’s Victory.”

By John Danielski

SHE WAS CALLED Sovereign of the Seas. But within days of the vessel’s launch from the Woolwich Dockyards in 1637, the throngs of onlookers who gazed in awe at the sight of her ascribed a more apt nickname: “The Wonder.” Few had seen anything like her before.

Bristling with more than 100 guns, the three-deck monster packed the firepower of a small fleet. But at the same time, she was a stately, cutting edge confection of the ship builder’s craft, as well as a triumph of Baroque art.

After narrowly defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588, England was determined to achieve naval supremacy. Ships like Sovereign of the Seas would help ensure that. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Her design represented the oak incarnation of all of the hard lessons Englishmen had learned in combat from the time of the Spanish Armada onwards. Yet the elaborate, heavily gilded sculptures that dominated her stern and sides were artistic triumphs that would have delighted Bernini. Their creator, Thomas Heywood, was an indifferent actor and playwright, but a skilled set designer who translated his stage visions into a fantastic gold arabesque of heraldic symbols, mythical beasts, goddesses, and important men.

A reproduction of some of the intricate carvings that adorned Sovereign of the Seas. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Tudor rose, the Scottish thistle, Irish harp, and the French fleur-de-lis took their places alongside dragons, unicorns, serpents, and lions. Six full size statues of the gowned goddesses, Counsel, Carefulness, Industry, Strength, Virtue, and Victory, were meant to represent the qualities the ship would embody. Sovereign’s figurehead was no mere half body but a fully realized representation of an armored King Edgar the Peaceable on a horse.

She was the logical evolution of the race built galleons like the Triumph and Ark Royal; ships with low fore and aft castles and superior maneuverability that had brought the English victory in their 1588 fight against the Spanish.

Peter Pett was the shipbuilding genius behind Sovereign.
(Image source: WikiCommons)

A vessel fit for a king

Phineas Pett, her designer, came from a long line of distinguished shipwrights. Both a talented naval architect as well as a clever man, he well understood the tastes and fascinations of his king, the shy, stuttering Charles I. Years earlier, when England’s James I was reluctant to fund construction of the warship Prince Royal, Pett built a detailed model of the vessel and presented it to the ruler’s 10-year-old heir. The young Charles was so delighted with the toy, James ordered a full-sized version of the vessel built. Subsequently, Pett and the future king became life-long friends.

An army of labourers toiled for years to complete the ship.

It took 1,000 workmen more than two years to build Sovereign. She cost an unprecedented £65,000 pounds; £6,500 of that was spent on just the gilt adornment of her hull. The cost of the decorations alone would have been more than enough to build a frigate.

She was 126 feet at the keel, 160 feet overall and 45 feet in the beam. Her 1,500-ton burden accommodated 102 guns of a dizzying array of calibers. Artillery had not yet been standardized into common weights by that point. As such, Sovereign was armed with cannons, which threw 60-pound balls; 30-pound demi cannons; culverins, which fired 18-pound shot; nine-pound demi culverins. Rounding out the vessel’s arsenal were sakers, minions and falcons, which hurled ordnance in the five, four-and-a-half and two-and-a-half-pound range respectively. Taken together, a full broadside from Sovereign was equal to about 1,000 pounds of iron.

Sovereign of the Seas, England’s first true ship-of-the-line, was built to dwarf other fighting vessels of the era. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A new breed of warship

Sovereign was the first true ship-of- the line, the Dreadnought of her day. But despite her bulk, she was surprisingly fast and agile. Caravel built, with stout oak futtocks, she represented a final break from clinker built warships. These earlier designs used overlapping planking rather than interior ribs for hull strength. But that reliance on exterior strength limited the number of times a ship’s hull could be pierced for gun-ports. Sovereign’s gun ports were carefully placed and the weight of her cannons was distributed evenly. She had none of the top heaviness that caused many ships of the age to capsize in rough seas. Such was the fate of the Swedish warship Vasa, which sink on her maiden voyage in 1628. A sudden gust of wind caused the vessel to heel hard over. Water quickly flooded the lowest tier of her open gun ports and the Vasa foundered.

Sovereign’s fusion of practicality, lethality and beauty represented a far-sighted design that would gradually be modified to create ships like Nelson’s Victory. Sterncastles would diminish to poop decks, forecastles would shrink to only small elevations, beams would broaden, and lengths would increase but all of the basic elements of an 18th century battleship were embedded in Sovereign’s design. Indeed, while she would have light in terms of tonnage, she had the strength and fire power to have taken her place in the British line at Trafalgar, 168 years after her launch.

Charles I. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A royal pain

Charles I had commissioned her to proclaim his greatness and strength throughout Europe. She did exactly that and more, quickly becoming a nautical superstar. Yet the measures necessary to pay for her ultimately ruined Charles before she ever fired a shot in battle. It is no great stretch to say that the fight to pay for her sparked a civil war that ultimately cost the monarch his kingdom and his head.

Because of religious disputes with an increasingly Puritan Parliament, as well as his endorsement of “The Divine Right of Kings,” Charles had chosen to govern without a legislature. Unwilling to call Parliament into session and thus unable to secure new tax money, he funded his regime with a vigorous and sometimes creative enforcement of existing revenue raising measures.

Ship Money was a traditional tax levied for war time defense only on counties that directly abutted the sea. Charles employed it in peace time and expanded it to every county in his realm.

Financing warships like Sovereign placed huge strains on England’s treasury.
King Charles I hoped that new taxes would help alleviate the burden.
It was a move that put him on a collision course with Parliament and helped foment the English Civil War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The decision provoked widespread outrage. Many in the aristocracy simply refused to pay.  Desperate for revenue, Charles summoned Parliament. But opposition to Ship Money soon united a wide range of disparate factions into open rebellion. Nearly a decade of war followed.

By the time the fighting subsided, Oliver Cromwell had elevated himself to the status of a military dictator. What began as opposition to one particular tax gradually transmuted itself into a generalized anger towards the king and to the idea of monarchy in general.

The Battle of Beachy Head, 1690. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Battle honours

The vessel Charles commissioned would serve England well long into the Commonwealth period and Restoration era. During the former, she was known simply as “the Sovereign. After Charles II assumed the throne in 1660, she became “The Royal Sovereign.”

Despite her elegant appearance, Sovereign would earn an impressive combat record. She saw the first of her many ship actions at the Battle of Kentish Knock in 1652.

Sovereign’s first appearance naturally attracted attention. In fact, the Dutch admiral Maarten Tromp offered a huge bounty to any vessel during the action that could take her a prize. Twenty-two warships made the attempt. Sovereign fought them off handily, sinking one with a single broadside and inflicting grievous damage on the others. Her own hull sustained surprisingly little punishment in the action; a tribute to her stout construction. That battle earned her a grudging nickname from the Dutch that would follow her the rest of her days: “The Gilded Lion.”

Sovereign certainly lived up to her name. On whatever seas she fought, the ship dominated. She participated in many of the battles of the Anglo-Dutch naval wars, serving as the flagship of Prince Rupert at one point. In the wars against Louis XIV of France, she gave distinguished service at the battles of Beachy Head in 1689 and Barfleur in 1692.

Over her lifetime, Sovereign underwent three major refits. Each upgrade put her on the leading edge of warship technology of the time.

The Battle of Barfleur, one of Royal Sovereign‘s last major battles. The vessel was 55-years old when she took part in the engagement. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The end of Sovereign

Ironically, Sovereign gave up her rule of the seas without a fight. Rather than going down in some epic battle, she became a tragic victim of fate. While tied up in port in 1697, a drunken watchman accidentally knocked over a lantern whose contents quickly found a footing on her hull. By the time the alarm could be sounded, Sovereign was ablaze. By sunrise, she’d been burnt to the waterline.

Sovereign is mostly forgotten today, save by naval historians. That is a pity. It is impossible to think of any other ship that could claim to have revolutionized naval design in addition to sparking a civil war, all the while shining brightly as a triumph of Baroque art.


John Danielski is the author of the Pennywhistle Quartet, a series of novels set in the Napoleonic period.  These include: Active’s MeasureThe King’s Scarlet, Blue Water, Scarlet Tide, and Capital’s Punishment. Danielski has worked as a living history interpreter at Fort Snelling, a journalist and has taught history at both the secondary and university levels. Visit his website here

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