Galleys to Galleons Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The history of medieval naval warfare is the history of the galley.

The Medieval Galley

The Galleyshistory of medieval naval warfare is the history of the galley. Since ancient times, battles at sea have taken place largely on the decks of ships and were fought much like land battles, with hand-to-hand combat. Medieval naval battles usually followed a similar pattern. First, smaller, more maneuverable ships would pin down the enemy fleet. Then the larger, more heavily armed galleys would attack, initially firing missiles and then ramming or Grappling hooksgrappling the enemy vessel in order to board it. Blasts of lime were often fired to blind the enemy and were then followed by volleys of stones. One of the most dreaded tactics was to fling onto the enemy ship what was known as Greek Greek firefire, a substance that, once ignited, was inextinguishable in water. Crossbows, lances, bows and arrows, and, by the late Middle Ages, guns and cannons served as well at sea as on land. However, the ship itself was the most powerful weapon, often determining the outcome of a naval battle. The warship at sea was likened to the warhorse on land and, like the warhorse, the warship was bred for fighting.Naval warfare;galleysShips and shipbuilding;galleysWarships;galleysNaval warfare;galleysShips and shipbuilding;galleysWarships;galleys

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 Dromon (ship)dromon, developed by the Byzantines, was a large galley that utilized one or two tiers of oars, a square sail set on a single mast, and a stern-hung rudder. In times of war, the dromon could carry troops, weapons, supplies, and cavalry horses, as well as engage in sea battles when necessary. The beam of the dromon permitted mounted cannons in the bow of the ship, which could be fired directly ahead of the vessel. A variation on the dromon was the Italian galley, which had one level of oars with two or three oarsmen to each rowing bench, a total of approximately 120 oarsmen. The Italian galley was manned by about fifty soldiers and typically had a large catapult mounted on a platform on the front deck.

The Galleassgalleas was another variation on the galley. Developed by the Venetians, the galleas had a gun deck, oars, and two to three masts. The triangular lateen sails, adopted from those of the Arab dhows, permitted the galleas to sail nearly straight into the wind, impossible with square sails. Sailors armed with crossbows and lances could fight on the ships’ decks.

The last major naval battle in which galleys were employed was the Battle of Lepanto Lepanto, Battle of (1571)II, fought off the coast of southwestern Greece on October 7, 1571, between the Ottoman Turks, under the command of Ali Ali PaşaAli PaşaPaşa (died 1616), and the Christian forces, under the command of Don Juan de Juan de Austria, DonJuan de Austria, DonAustria (1547-1578), half brother of King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). The Turks’ 273 ships (210 were galleys) and the Christians’ 276 ships (208 were galleys) faced off in long lines across from one another, with the Christian forces hemming in the Muslim forces. Don Juan skillfully placed his most heavily armed galleys in the center of the line and his smaller, more maneuverable galleys on the outside, where they could dominate the flanks. The massive and heavily armed Christian galleys eventually triumphed over the lighter and less armed Arabs;naval powerArab ships, giving naval supremacy to the Christian forces in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Battle of Lepanto was the last major naval battle in which galleys were employed, and it was the first major naval battle in which Guns;on ships[ships]guns and gunpowder played the decisive role. From this point on, guns and Cannons;on ships[ships]cannons would be increasingly important in naval warfare.

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

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

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 Cog

Developed Cogsin Northern Europe as a trading vessel, the cog was one step closer to the first true full-rigged ships, which relied on sails, rather than oars, for both distance and maneuverability. The cog was Clinker-built ships[Clinker built ships]clinker-built, of overlapping planks. It had a broad beam, a rounded bow and stern, fore- and aft castles, and a single square sail hoisted on a yard. The castles were constructed primarily as high platforms for lookouts and archers and were useful in sea battles. Lower, oar-driven ships found it nearly impossible to conquer a taller ship due to its sheer height and to the superior positioning of its archers and fighting men. The cog was maneuvered by a rudder, attached like a hinge at the center stern and manipulated by a tiller. This steering system was a great technological advance, and it remains the basic means of control on ships.

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.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

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’ Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)War, King Edward Edward IIIEdward III (king of England)[Edward 03]III of England (1312-1377) sailed in a cog to lead an English fleet of 250 vessels into battle against the French fleet anchored at Sluys, Battle of (1340)Sluys, off the coast of Flanders. Although outnumbered, Edward was able to defeat the French fleet and capture 190 French ships. His chronicler estimated that Edward saved 200,000 florins in shipbuilders’ wages.

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.

The Carrack

From Carracksthe fourteenth to the seventeenth century, a larger vessel called the carrack was the predominant trading vessel in Europe. The carrack combined the square sails of the northern ships with the lateen sails of the Mediterranean ships, along with three masts, a stern rudder, and very high fore- and aft castles, producing a vessel noted for its large cargo capacity and its ability to traverse great distances. Improvements in maps and charts greatly improved navigation, especially in the Mediterranean. Written sailing instructions called portolan charts described coastlines, ports, and dangerous sailing areas, and also provided information regarding the availability of supplies for seafarers. These charts aided sailors by mapping coastlines, marking locations of cities, and stating sailing distances.

Although primarily used in trade, the carrack was also employed in war. The English carrack HMS Mary Rose Mary, HMS Rose was built in 1510 as a ship of war. Like other warships of its day, the Mary Rose had gunports with large guns mounted in its hull. Although the date of the first ship gunport is debated, it was most likely first developed by a Brest shipbuilder named Descharges in about 1501. The Mary Rose may have been the first of King Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) ships to be equipped with gunports, perhaps installed when the Mary Rose was renovated in 1536. The guns on board the Mary Rose were cast of iron and bronze, with the heaviest guns mounted on the lowest deck in order to stabilize the ship’s center of gravity. The Mary Rose carried a variety of guns, from Smoothbore weapons smoothbore barrel guns to oddly bored scatter guns. The low placement of the gunports, however, combined with the sheer weight of its eighty guns, led to the sinking of the Mary Rose when it was sent against the French on July 19, 1545, in a battle off Spithead, taking its crew and its captain, Roger Grenville, as well as the vice admiral, Sir George Carew, down with her.

The Galleon

The Galleonsdevelopment of the galleon marked the turn from medieval to modern naval warfare. Designed in the sixteenth century by the admiral in charge of the Elizabethan navy, Sir John Hawkins, JohnHawkins, JohnHawkins (1532-1595), the galleon surpassed all previous ships. It was an adaptation of the carrack, eliminating the high forecastle to produce a ship with a lower profile and therefore with far better performance, particularly when sailing into the wind. This improved carrack design reached Spain about seventeen years after its introduction in England, and the result was the development of the Spanish war Spanish war galleongalleon. Within forty years, the galleon replaced the carrack as both the primary trading vessel and warship. For three centuries, the galleon ruled the world’s seas.

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

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

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 Spanish Armada (1588)Armada, assembled by King Philip Philip IIPhilip II (king of Spain)[Philip 02 king of Spain]II of Spain and under the command of the duke of Medina-Sidonia, Alonso Pérez de Pérez de Guzmán, AlonsoPérez de Guzmán, Alonso[Perez de Guzman]Guzmán (c. 1550-1619), sailed out of Lisbon harbor en route to the Low Countries to pick up the prince of Parma and his forces. Their goal was to invade England. The Spanish fleet consisted of 130 ships of varying sizes and types, the majority of which were galleons. Meanwhile, the English prepared for the Spanish invasion by dividing the English navy between Plymouth, with 94 ships under Charles Howard, CharlesHoward, Charles (Effingham)Howard of Effingham (1536-1624), and Dover, with 35 ships under Lord Henry Seymour, HenrySeymour, HenrySeymour.

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 Parma, Prince ofParma, Prince ofParma and his forces, the English sent in small fireships to attack the anchored Spanish vessels. The Spanish were forced to cut their lines and sail out into the bay, where they were met by the combined forces of Howard and Seymour. The Spanish Armada retreated to Spain with only 67 of its original 130 ships.

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 Hand-to-hand combat[hand to hand combat];naval warfarecombat. The English, however, did not attempt to board the enemy ships, but rather attacked them downwind at close range, disabling as many as possible. This was an important turning point in naval history. The naval tactics that were first employed by the English against the Spanish Armada continued in use in naval warfare from that point forward.Naval warfare;galleysShips and shipbuilding;galleysWarships;galleys

Books and Articles
  • 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.
Films and Other Media
  • Great Ships: The Sailing Collection. Documentary. History Channel, 1996.

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