Updated date:

Book Review: "French Warships in the Age of Sail 1626-1786"

Ryan loves learning about lesser-known aspects of history by reading and reviewing the literary works of historians.

"French Warships in the Age of Sail 1626-1786: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates" by Rif Winfield and Stephen S. Roberts

"French Warships in the Age of Sail 1626-1786: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates" by Rif Winfield and Stephen S. Roberts

It is a truly monumental piece of work to attempt to list all of the vessels which one of the world's largest—for years, certainly the world's most powerful—navies had for more than a century. Yet this is exactly what French Warships in the Age of Sail 1626-1786: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates by Rif Winfield and Stephen S. Roberts sets out to do, by looking at all of the vessels that the French navy possessed, built, and acquired—from its most powerful triple decker ships of the line to humble coastal patrol craft and galleys.

This momentous effort produces a book that is an invaluable reference source for the most dedicated researchers of the French navy. It is chock full of excellent depictions and information, but also by its very nature is largely superfluous to most who are only casually interested in the French royal navy.

How the Book Is Structured

The organization of the book is quite simple. The beginning prefaces and structure sections sum up some of the differences between French and British measurements and definitions, some of the key features of French ships—such as mixed caliber armaments, with cannons of different size on the same deck, or the "three decker" ships, which lacked a complete third upper batter, making them more in the way of two deckers in the English labeling system—and discussing technology and aspects of the ships. Administration, dock yards, manning, and privateering join this, before it moves onto a general history of the navy, starting from Cardinal Richelieu's naval construction, moving to Colbert, Louis XIV's wars, the long peace, and then the Franco-British wars of Louis XV and Louis XVI. A chronology of naval actions lists every battle the French navy was involved in, with orders of battle. A glossary is provided, then a description of the French navy under Colbert and Mazarin.

The main part of the book is a section-by-section description of the various classes of the navy, starting with the first rates, then second rates, third rates, fourth rates (increasingly frigates), fifth rates (medium frigates), then light frigates, bomb ships, fireships, storeships, transports, corvettes, minor warships in the Atlantic and minor warships in the Mediterranean, support vessels, and the galley corps. Each one lists classes of vessels, most pages include a diagram or description with attached text, and tend to be subdivided into the different eras of the vessels in service in 1661, acquired to 1689, acquired to 1715, and acquired after this point. Ending appendixes list French naval strength, funding, leadership, etc.

La Couronne, one of the first French ships of the line in the middle of the 17th century.

La Couronne, one of the first French ships of the line in the middle of the 17th century.

A Highly Specialized Book Perfect for Fanatics of French Naval History

French Warships in the Age of Sail 1626-1786: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates is a specialized book, not for neophytes or the casually interested. A history of the careers of every ship that served in the modern French navy before the Revolution makes for a thick work, and it is hard to deny the immense accomplishment of being able to collate such a massive amount of information. If you are looking for a work that lists all of the ships the French had, their characteristics, building yards, types, classifications—this is the one to go to. It certainly would be of great use for the professional historian.

The question, however, is whether the book is a worthy one if it is for somebody with less of a fanatical interest in the French navy's ships? Most of the book is something to be skimmed over, since it just lists vessels and their characteristics in sufficient, but hardly massive detail. But there are things which makes it more interesting. The depictions within are excellent, with various battles, ship drawings, and sketches of warships, and they are accompanied by excellent descriptions.

Furthermore, the book has a very good history section on the French navy's basic development and lines over time, which stretches from the time of Richelieu—unlike other works that prefer to glance over this, looking mostly at the time of Colbert. It also serves well in giving background by plentiful historical dictionaries, giving a lengthy terminology section that shows what the translations are for various naval terms in French—a specialized field of language which is not necessarily known even to those speaking French. Finally, the end of the book has a useful selection of budget indexes and strength tables, useful for knowing the general state of the navy over time.

One element that I feel could have been comfortably added and which would have done quite a lot to improve the readability of the book and its influence would have been the inclusion of greater descriptions of why certain classes were considered good, why others were considered bad, and why certain design choices were made. Various vessels are listed as being well regarded, but there isn't any description of why they were so, what truly set them apart, or why certain designs proved more successful than others. Other things could also merit some further detail, such as why cannons were arranged in what look like odd configurations on some vessels, such as on some early frigate designs, before the single deck frigate arrived, where the lower deck had a limited number of guns compared to the top deck—very strange looking, and which leaves the question of why and for what reason?

Certainly a highly specialized book, nevertheless for the purposes of providing a capstone and to tie together studies of the French navy, French Warships in the Age of Sail 1626-1786: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates is a very useful crowning addition to any naval history collection. The authors have managed to produce a book that gives an excellent overview of the ships of the French navy, married with plentiful details and historical context.