The history of medieval naval warfare is the history of the galley.
Equipped with sails for distance and oars for maneuverability, the medieval galley was ideally suited for the purpose of war. Medieval variations on the classical galley were many. The
The last major naval battle in which galleys were employed was the Battle of Lepanto
A sixteenth century galley, forerunner of the galleon, in an engraving by Raphael.
Although the galley was the vessel of choice in the Mediterranean Sea for more than four millennia, it was a typically unstable ship, particularly in rough waters. Maneuverability during battle was provided by oars, rather than by the sails, which had to be lowered during battles to prevent the enemy from tearing or setting fire to them. Despite their shortcomings, however, various forms of galleys continued to be employed in the Mediterranean until 1717 and in the Baltic Sea until 1809. In an effort to produce a more seaworthy craft, medieval shipbuilders turned to other designs for seagoing vessels.
The principal purpose of the cog was for commerce, but when enemies or pirates threatened, the cog became a warship. In 1234 and again in 1239, the Baltic German city of Lübeck, a central member of the Hanseatic League, sent a fleet of cogs against the king of Denmark when he threatened to take over the city. After pirates invaded the Mediterranean in 1304, the Genoese and Venetians began to use cogs in their navies. A psalter dating to 1330 depicts two cogs in a battle, with the soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat across the decks of the ships.
An engraving of the Christian fleet’s defeat of the Muslim Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto, the last major naval battle in which galleys were employed.
In naval battles the primary goal was not the sinking of the enemy’s ship; in fact, it would have been considered foolish to sink a vessel that had been so expensive to construct. In 1340, during the Hundred Years’
By the fourteenth century cogs sailed the throughout the Mediterranean and the northern European seas. The cog was not without its shortcomings, among which were its inability to keep cargo dry and its insufficient leeway to allow navigation in shallow waters. As trade, exploration, and military challenges increased, so too did the need for more capable and seaworthy vessels.
Although primarily used in trade, the carrack was also employed in war. The English carrack HMS Mary
A galleon called a man-of-war, or combatant warship, from the sixteenth century.
Galleons differed from carracks in more than the absence of the high forecastle. On the aft was typically a quarterdeck instead of a deck-mounted aft castle. Gunports lined one or both of the main decks, and special, smaller decks served as fighting platforms. A galleon’s hull was longer, narrower, and sleeker than that of a carrack. The result was a ship designed for speed, maneuverability, seaworthiness, and, especially, warfare.
By the late sixteenth century, commercial and religious rivalry between Catholic Spain and Protestant England brought the two countries to the brink of war. Spain, confident of its maritime supremacy, made the first move. In May, 1588, the Spanish
After heading into the English Channel, the Spanish positioned their ships in a crescent formation, which the smaller English ships could not break. The English turned this to their advantage by attacking the larger Spanish ships individually at close firing range. When the Spanish fleet anchored at Calais on July 27 to wait for the prince of
The difference between the Spanish loss and the English victory lay in the strategy of each. The Spanish relied on the traditional warfare technique, used since ancient times, of coming alongside and boarding enemy ships to engage in hand-to-hand
Gardiner, Robert, ed. The Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels Since Pre-Classical Times. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1995. Guilmartin, John Francis, Jr. Galleons and Galleys. London: Cassell, 2002. _______. Gunpowder and Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century. Rev. ed. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2003. Hanson, Neil. The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True History of the Spanish Armada. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Keen, M., ed. Medieval Warfare: A History. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. Kirsch, P. The Galleon. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1991. Konstam, Angus. The Armada Campaign, 1588: The Great Enterprise Against England. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. _______. The Renaissance War Galley, 1470-1590. Illustrated by Tony Bryan. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2002. _______. Sovereigns of the Sea: The Quest to Build the Perfect Renaissance Battleship. Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley and Sons, 2008. _______. Spanish Galleon, 1530-1690. Illustrated by Tony Bryan. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2004. Lewis, A. R., and T. J. Runyan. European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1990. Unger, R. W., ed. Cogs, Caravels, and Galleons. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1994. Great Ships: The Sailing Collection. Documentary. History Channel, 1996.
Naval Development: The Age of Sail
Naval Development: The Age of Propulsion
Warships and Naval Warfare
Handarms to Firearms
Knights to Cavalry