Evolution of the Galleon Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The seafaring nations of Europe made significant improvements in their oceangoing vessels during the sixteenth century. The galleon evolved in response to the changing political and economic climate, using the best features of the galley, carrack, and caravel, and was suitable for commerce, exploration, and warfare.

Summary of Event

The great sailing ships of Europe transformed dramatically over the course of the sixteenth century, and many vessels of different designs were known as galleons during this period. Most relied solely on sails for power, though some used a combination of oars and sails reminiscent of galleys. Galleons were used as both warships and merchant ships, sometimes serving duty as both at once. It was not until the end of the century that the name “galleon” became associated with the large, multifunctional ships of popular imagery, but even then, the actual design varied between countries and even between shipyards. Galleon Baker, Matthew Hawkins, Sir John Philip II (1527-1598) Elizabeth I Baker, Matthew Philip II (king of Spain) Hawkins, Sir John Elizabeth I (queen of England)

A galleon called a man-of-war, or combatant warship, from the sixteenth century.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

A sixteenth century galley, forerunner of the galleon, in an engraving by Raphael.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, warships and merchant vessels were of two distinct types. Galleys were used primarily for warfare; these were oared vessels with a single mast that relied on speed to ram their opponents, after which sailors would switch to hand-to-hand combat as they boarded an enemy ship. Galleys were well suited for river, channel, and coastal battles, but they were vulnerable in the open sea, as the oars and rowers on the sides provided easy targets for enemy cannons. As the galleys grew bigger, the expense of food and fresh water for increasingly larger crews grew prohibitive, and the constant need for supplies meant they could not stay at sea for long periods of time.

For merchants, sailing ships were more useful than galleys. Replacing oars with sails meant smaller crews needing fewer supplies and more room for cargo and armament. Eliminating the oars also allowed for a rounded hull, which further increased cargo capacity. Most sailing ships at the beginning of the fifteenth century utilized a single mast. The northern European ships used a large square sail hung from a yardarm that crossed the masthead horizontally. The Mediterranean ships used triangular sails, which the northern sailors called “lateen-rigged,” because the “Latins” of southern Europe used them. By the middle of the century, changes in the rigging increased maneuverability under sail. Instead of a single mast with a square mainsail, these “full-rigged” ships had multiple masts using both square and lateen sails.

Between the galley and the galleon, there were several variations on the full-rigged sailing ship. Carracks had the ability to make the long ocean voyages required to reach the New World and carried enough cargo in their rounded hulls to make the trip worthwhile. These ships had raised superstructures at both bow and stern, from which the sailors could defend themselves if the ship was boarded. Because of their bulky design, however, carracks lacked speed and maneuverability. The caravel, which originated in Portugal, was smaller and faster than the carrack and was used to open new trade routes, but it could not carry enough cargo to make distant voyages to established ports profitable.

Shipbuilders realized they needed a vessel with the size and cargo capacity of a carrack but the speed and sailing characteristics of a caravel. Much of what is known about the construction of these sixteenth century vessels comes from Matthew Baker’s Fragments of Ancient Shipwrightry Fragments of Ancient Shipwrightry (Baker) (c. 1570’). Baker was a draftsman as well as a shipwright, and his drawings are the oldest known examples showing the internal construction of a galleon.

The first galleons were lower, slimmer ships than the bulky carracks, with the proportion of length to beam to freeboard (the area on the side above the waterline) being 4:3:1, as opposed to the carrack’s proportions of 3:2:1. These galleons had multiple masts: the bowsprit, the foremast, the mainmast, and one or more mizzenmasts at the rear of the ship. All but the mizzenmasts usually carried square sails, while the mizzenmasts carried lateen sails. Galleons were built to accommodate the heavy cannons that were becoming increasingly necessary. Their fore and aft superstructures were lowered, making them less unwieldy than carracks, and a beakhead similar to that of the old galleys projected from below the bowsprit or front sail.

These redesigned vessels also had more decks and more braces and supports than a carrack. This made them more difficult to load and unload but made for an ideal gun platform. Rows of cannons were mounted against the rigidly braced hull, for both offense and defense. Initially, cannons were mounted on the main deck and fired through openings in the railings, but as shipbuilders increased the number of cannons and moved them below decks in multiple levels, the ships became top-heavy and were in danger of capsizing. To prevent this, galleon hulls were redesigned to slope inward from the water line, placing the cannons on the upper levels closer to the centerline of the hull.

The word “galleon” is of Spanish origin, and Spain was one of the earliest innovators. Because of their conquests in the New World, the Spanish needed ships capable of transoceanic voyages with both a high capacity for cargo and the ability to defend themselves from pirates and enemy vessels. Spanish galleons combined the best of Mediterranean and European ideas into a single ship. The galleon was the backbone of the famous Spanish Armada, Armada, Spanish (1588) a massive fleet of warships launched against England by King Philip II of Spain in 1588.

England responded with the modified, or “race-built,” galleon. Under the leadership of Sir John Hawkins, the English utilized an early example of hydrodynamics: Ships were designed to maximize the flow of water around their hulls. These vessels were built as predators, and one of the early drawings from Matthew Baker’s manuscript shows a large fish superimposed on the design of a galleon. Even the rudder was streamlined. Fore and aft superstructures were reduced even further, making the ships more maneuverable and allowing for more weight in the form of cannons. A typical galleon carried 3 percent of its weight in armament, whereas a race-built galleon carried 8-11 percent.

The English vessels were true warships, built for battle and lacking the cargo space for transoceanic voyages. With their increased mobility and long-range cannons, England under Queen Elizabeth I was able to repel the ships of Philip II’s Spanish Armada, which still relied on boarding parties and melee battle tactics to capture enemy vessels.


The evolution of the great sailing ships had a tremendous impact on the European seafaring nations, both at home and as they attempted to colonize and exploit the newly discovered Americas. Although it is not known for certain, many historians believe that the Santa María, Christopher Columbus’s flagship, may have been a carrack, as it was slower than his other two ships, the Niña and the Pinta, which were caravels that had been converted to square sails for the long ocean voyage.

Throughout the next two centuries, galleons continued to evolve in response to increased cannon size. English ships in particular were modified and improved to carry heavier armament. Steering improvements followed in the eighteenth century, as the vertical lever for operating the rudder was replaced by a steering “wheel” mounted on the top deck, a design that is still in use today. Changes in the rigging were continuous, and some galleons became “prestige ships,” adding sculpture and ornate decorations to the more functional designs of the earlier centuries.

Because of its superior armament, every European navy used the galleon as a battle ship until the late eighteenth century, when they were gradually replaced by the “ship-of-the-line,” essentially a floating gun platform with three decks of cannons.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guilmartin, John F., Jr. Galleons and Galleys. London: Cassell, 2002. An in-depth analysis of the evolution of the galley and galleon from the mid-fourteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guilmartin, John F., Jr. Gunpowder and Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century. Rev. ed. Annapolis, Md.: United States Naval Institute Press, 2004. A comprehensive account of early sixteenth century naval warfare in the Mediterranean and Arabian peninsula regions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lane, Frederic Chapin. Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Reprint of 1934 reference book with a detailed history of the Venetian shipyards.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, Carla Rahn. Six Galleons for the King of Spain: Imperial Defense in the Early Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. A detailed history of Spanish shipbuilding, including the history of many of the ships that were built during that time period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wheatley, Joseph. Historic Sail: The Glory of the Sailing Ship from the Thirteenth to the Nineteenth Century. London: Greenhill Books, 2000. A lavishly illustrated book with full-color reproductions of drawings of specific ships built during this period.

1463-1479: Ottoman-Venetian War

Aug., 1487-Dec., 1488: Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope

1490’s: Decline of the Silk Road

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

Beginning c. 1500: Coffee, Cacao, Tobacco, and Sugar Are Sold Worldwide

1519-1522: Magellan Expedition Circumnavigates the Globe

Sept. 27-28, 1538: Battle of Préveza

July 31-Aug. 8, 1588: Defeat of the Spanish Armada

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company

Categories: History