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The Evolution of Hull Design in Sixteenth-Century English Ships of War

Mark Myers
Thesis: May 1987
Chair: van Doorninck
Nautical Archaeology Program

During the 16th century, English warships underwent design changes that were to have a major impact on the history of the world. Responding to pressures from the major European land powers, English monarchs were forced to realize that England's best defense, as an island nation, lay not in a large army but in a strong navy. With the reign of Henry VIII, English shipwrights began experimenting with various designs that would enable them to keep their country from being invaded. By the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, the English Navy was the most powerful afloat.

The nature of the evolution that transformed the bulky ships of the 15th century into the sleek men-of-war of the 17th can be traced by several means. First, it is necessary to understand all of the ships with which 16th-century English shipwrights were familiar. This gives us a technological "gene-pool" of characteristics from which the English had to draw. Second, we must study documentation and works of art from the period in question. Although the documentation is sparse, there is enough to show the different types of design that were being tried, and the kind of success that they enjoyed. Third, we must study the ships of England's enemies, particularly Spain, so that we can get an idea of the pressures that were put on English ships, and what strategies were employed to overcome them. Through this combination of research methods, it is possible to show that designs invented during the reign of Henry VII, with the aid of Italian shipwrights, eventually evolved into the famous 17th-century English ship of the line.

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