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The Fireship and Its Role in the Royal Navy

James Lowell Coggeshall
Thesis: August 1997
Chair: Hocker

Fireships are vessels intentionally set on fire and launched against an enemy ship in order to burn it. At their prime in the age of cannon-armed sailing warships, they were potentially the most powerful weapon in the hands of the English Admiralty and could wreak havoc like no other vessel. After their use helped the English defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588, fireships became an important element of the Royal Navy and other European fleets and remained so until the Battle of Navarino in 1827.

Incendiary vessels were not the most important vessels in the fleet, but they did have an important role to play. Modern fireships probably emerged in the Royal Navy during the 1630s; the first recorded example is Andrew and John, which sailed for the Earl of Warwick in 1643 during the English Civil War. Fireships grew in prominence quickly, and by the Anglo-Dutch wars, were common elements in all major European fleets. They would ebb and flow in importance for the next 150 years until Thais, the last English fireship to sail with the Royal navy, was converted to a ship sloop in 1808.

The story of fireships can be seen in an examination of how they were built, manned, used in times of war and peace, and what contemporaries thought of them. There are numerous contemporary records which discuss fireships including logs and journals of those who served in the Royal Navy, line drawings, ship models, and other written sources.

This thesis will discuss both the specific elements and a general history of modern fireships. Specific aspects consist of fireship construction and design, especially the method of placing incendiaries within the ship, and unique elements, which include devices to spread flames throughout the vessel as quickly as possible. The general history will discuss the size, history, and commanders of each of the over 300 fireships which sailed in the Royal Navy as well as an equivalent for the careers of the over 700 captains who sailed them.

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