Medieval Ships

Ship Lists

It is from the ship lists ordered by King Charles I between 1625 and 1629 that we have learned about English ships during that period for this article. King Charles was at war with the Spanish and French. He wanted to know how many ships England owned, and how well armed they were in case he wanted to press them into service to fight his wars.

Sometimes inventories of ships were drafted during peace time to inform merchants how much merchandise each ship could carry from port to port, and how well armed each ship was so that it could protect the merchant’s cargo against piracy.

Ship records during the 1500s and 1600s listed:

  1. the name of the ship and her home port
  2. who owned her
  3. how many guns she carried and which guns she carried
  4. her tons(1) burden [i.e. how much she could carry].

Ship records did not include the ship’s length, as we refer to ships today. Ship merchants and kings did not care how many feet long a ship was. Historians have deduced these measurements by comparing old drawings with the length of medieval ships that have survived to date.

The size of a ship was recorded in tons/tuns burden. The wording ’70 tons burden’ did not mean that the ship, if she were somehow placed on a scale, weighed 70 tons. ‘Of 70 tons burden’ meant that the ship displaced 70 tons of water when she was fully laden [filled with cargo].

Ships for Exploration

In Crossing the Ocean Sea, we introduced the two ships that enabled the Portuguese and the Spanish to reach the Far East: the caravel and the carrack. Agile and swift caravels made it possible for Portuguese explorers to maneuver the winds and currents of the Atlantic known as the Volta do Mar [Twist of the Sea]. The larger and sturdy carracks held the provisions necessary for extensive expeditions, such as Vasco da Gama’s 27,000-mile voyage to India in 1498.


At first, English ship design lagged behind the Spanish and Portuguese. During the early 1500s, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) was so distracted searching for a wife who could bear him a son that he did not concentrate on exploration. Meanwhile, the Spanish and Portuguese developed the next generation of ocean-going vessels known as galleons. Galleons were the first boats built with hulls strong enough to withstand the firing of large guns from on deck.

Galleons ranged in size between 180 tons burden to 700 tons burden. Translating that into today’s language, historians have deduced that an average galleon measured 140 feet long, nearly half the length of a football field. It took a crew of 300 men to sail her.

By the second half of the 1500s, England was also building galleons. The largest English galleon built during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (r.1558-1603) was the Triumph, built in 1562, at 1100 tons burden. The largest galleon in Spain’s armada [fleet] in 1588 was the San Juan. She carried slightly less than 1050 tons and needed a crew of 500 mariners. But the Triumph looked smaller than the San Juan because the Spanish built higher superstructures [castles]. The Triumph carried sixty guns and served as the flagship for Vice-Admiral Martin Frobisher during the battle between the English and the Spanish [more about Frobisher to come]. She sailed for forty-six years before she was condemned and broken up in 1618, right before the Mayflower set sail for the New World in 1620.


Henry the Navigator and his father King João of Portugal sailed in a pinnace when they led their fleet of naus, barks, and galleys to attack Ceuta in the year 1415. Pinnaces were smaller ships, averaging from twenty to forty feet in length and designed for carrying cargo, not for sea battles. Henry the Navigator’s pinnace allowed him to weave in between his larger war ships to communicate with their captains. Pinnaces had two masts, occasionally three. Their fore-and aft-castles were either low or non-existent.

Pinnaces were still popular two hundred years later. The first ship the English built in New England was a thirty-foot pinnace. The Popham colonists who built her in 1607 named her the Virginia [story coming up].

Sometimes pinnaces were referred to as fly-boats, as was the Discovery, the smallest of the three ships that carried the planters who founded Jamestowne in 1607 [the same year the Popham colonists built the Virginia in Maine]. The Discovery held 20 tons and was thirty-eight feet long. It took her and her convoy nearly five months to cross the Atlantic, including a stop at the Canary Islands for wood and water. We will hear about the Discovery again in 1610 when Henry Hudson sails her to the bay named after him. That expedition does not have a happy ending.


A common river boat, also used for fishing during the Pilgrims’ and Puritan’s day, was the shallop. Shallops had shallower drafts than pinnaces. They were as long as twenty feet and carried from five to twenty people. We will sometimes hear them referred to as long boats. They had been ferrying passengers up and down the River Thames for centuries.

Shallops were open boats with no cabins. They usually sported one mast with two sails – one oddly-shaped rectangular sail called a gaff sail, and another triangular sail similar to a jib. Their flat bottoms made them good for shuttling passengers from ship to shore, for weaving in and out of rivers and islands, and for investigating shallow coves.

Many shallops were constructed as two matching halves that could be sailed separately as smaller boats, with the obvious name half-shallops. Each half had one pointed end and one flat end. When connected at the flat ends, the two small boats formed one longer boat with two pointed ends. Both halves could be fitted with sails. This type of construction made shallops easier to pack and transport on larger ships. The drawing below, a conjectured cross section of the Mayflower, illustrates how the two halves of the shallop were stacked in the hold. Note the ship’s skiff [rowboat or shoreboat] tied to the upper deck.


A later ship design that was a favorite of Mediterranean pirates during the 17th century was the two-masted brigantine.(2) Many brigantines could be rowed as well as sailed. The second largest of the three ships that sailed to Jamestowne in 1607 was a brigantine called the Godspeed. She carried thirty-nine passengers, including Governor Bartolomeu Gosnold, and thirteen sailors, and was rated at 40 tons. Historians estimate she was about sixty-eight feet long [about the size of John Cabot’s carrack, the Matthew].

England’s Navy

The Royal Plantagenet Rose embossed on a gun salvaged from Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose.

England’s King Henry VIII succeeded his father Henry VII in 1509, seven years after Christopher Columbus’ final voyage to Central America. We met Henry VII in Crossing the Ocean Sea when he sponsored John Cabot in 1497 and William Weston in 1499 to survey what he thought was the east coast of Asia, but was really North America.

In 1509, England did not yet have a navy. Henry VIII’s empire stretched from France to Scotland. He needed to protect both ends north to south from the powerful Spanish. [The Portuguese were his allies.] But Henry was afraid that if he sent part of his army south to govern France and part of his army north to govern Scotland, the division would weaken his forces. Reasoning that it would be easier to govern both countries with a navy that could travel back and forth, he began building great ships in the southern harbor of Portsmouth.

Portsmouth was the perfect headquarters for Henry’s navy. A large island named the Isle of Wight protected the port’s location on the southern edge of England’s coast. Ships that wanted to reach Portsmouth needed to travel through a narrow channel between the Isle of Wight and the port. The channel, called the Solent, was easy to defend. Large guns [cannon were just one class of large guns] guarded the Solent from a fort on the Portsmouth side. More guns guarded the Solent from a fort on the Isle of Wight. Approaching ships had to travel between the two lines of guns.

Sheltered just beyond Portsmouth along that same channel lay an even larger inlet that created a safe harbor for thousands more ships. Southampton Harbour was/is situated at the confluence [joining] of three rivers. The Mayflower and John Winthrop’s Arabella set sail for America from Southampton Harbour.

Henry VIII’s pride and joy was his flagship the Mary Rose, a carrack. His ship carpenters built her in 1510. One of Henry’s shipwrights, James Baker, figured out how to mount large guns in the ship’s lower deck rather than on her top deck. [But Henry took credit for the innovation.]

Conjectured model of the Mary Rose on display in the Mary Rose Museum, Plymouth.

In 1545, after thirty-four years of service, the Mary Rose was retrofitted. She originally held 500 tons. After the retrofit she rated at 700 tons burden. Carpenters enlarged her castles. But as a result, she became top heavy. During a fight with the French in the Solent offshore from Portsmouth, when she was overloaded with some 700 soldiers, the Mary Rose toppled sideways and sank. The soldiers, trapped on deck by an anti-arrow net tied over their heads, perished with her.

The Encampment of the English Forces in the Solent near Plymouth, on display in the Mary Rose Museum, Plymouth.

When the Mary Rose settled on the muddy bottom of the channel floor, she remained tipped. Over a relatively short period of time, water currents moved the mud around her and covered one side of her hull. For centuries, the mud acted as a preservative. The top part of the ship, which remained exposed to water and organisms, rotted away. 436 years later, in 1971, English divers found the Mary Rose’s remains under the mud. In 1982 [while Prince Charles of England stood watching] salvagers carefully uncovered what was left of the ship including her guns, the soldiers’ armor, tools, furniture, and supplies left on board. They lifted her out of the water in a giant steel cradle and housed her in the Mary Rose Museum built in Portsmouth near where she sank. You can view her there today.

From the remaining skeleton and the 400-year-old records kept by King Henry’s ship carpenters, we know the Mary Rose measured 128 feet long.

Model in the Mary Rose Museum showing how much of the ships was preserved under the mud.

Photo on display in the Mary Rose Museum showing the cradle lifting the hull from the Solent in 1982.

The English Galleon

Shipbuilding was as secretly guarded an enterprise as stone masonry. One of Queen Elizabeth’s master shipwrights, Matthew Baker (1530-1613), wrote that by “keeping his ideas within his head he kept the same from filching foes” [filching meant stealing]. Even so, Baker left invaluable draughts that show elevations, cross-sections, and sail plans that today allow us to see how English ships were built in the 1580s.

Matthew Baker was the son of James Baker, who designed ships for Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. Matthew rivaled Peter Pett who came from another dynasty of shipbuilders, and in whose household Baker probably grew up and apprenticed. The Petts worked in the dockyards of Dover. Both Matthew Baker and the Pett family improved the English galleon. But the man responsible for making the warships superior to the Spanish galleons was John Hawkins, one of Queen Elizabeth’s privateers.

During the late 1560s, John Hawkins and his “cousin” Francis Drake (neither were yet knighted) sailed some of England’s finest ships to the Spanish-dominated Caribbean. One was the massive galleon Jesús de Lübeck. The Jesús was as grand as most of the Spanish galleons. But during an important battle in New Spain [which we describe in Section 2], Hawkins and Drake noticed how hard it was to maneuver the cumbersome vessel. Her tall superstructures helped ward off attackers from other ships, but – like on the Mary Rose – made her top-heavy. The Jesús’ wide berth [the width of the ship] made her difficult to turn, giving the smaller caravels and carracks an advantage.

After Hawkins returned home from the battle, he was promoted to the two most powerful positions on the naval board: Treasurer and Comptroller. Between 1568 and 1570, he encouraged English ship builders to design smaller, more maneuverable vessels. Castles on English galleons were razed [lowered] and hulls were narrowed to give the ships a sleeker design and allow for greater mobility.

In 1577, John Hawkins, who became known as the architect of the Elizabethan navy, launched a masterpiece of naval construction christened the Revenge. The Revenge departed from any ship designed before her. She was heavily armed, easy to maneuver, and able to stay at sea for long periods of time. As the first Ship of the Line, or fighting ship, she proved her ability against the Spanish during the 1588 battle serving as Sir Francis Drake’s flagship. [Drake had been knighted by then for circumnavigating the world in 1580]. Queen Elizabeth’s fleet had become so swift it was said the English “could sail two feet for the Spanish one.”

England had also developed superior guns. They were more powerful and had a longer range than Spanish guns, which enabled them to blast and sink enemy ships from afar. That deleted the need for a ship to close in on an enemy ship to allow her soldiers to board. During the battle against the Armada, Sir Drake instructed his captains to avoid close contact with the Spanish and rely on their guns instead. The English trounced the Spanish. The nature of sea battle changed forever. And from then on it was the Spanish who copied English ship design, not the other way around. The Revenge went on to greater glories, as you shall hear.

The Vasa

In 1628, two years before John Winthrop’s fleet sailed to America, and when James I was King of England, the King of Sweden Gustavus Adolphus launched a brand new royal galleon he christened the Vasa(2). A valiant ship of war, she was meant to be Sweden’s pride and joy. The Vasa was built to rival King James’ Prince Royal built in 1610, which was even grander than Queen Elizabeth’s Triumph. The Vasa carried sixty-four bronze guns that she could fire broadside [from the side of the ship]. Her hull length, including her beakhead, measured 203 feet. She displaced 1210 tonnes. Her crew consisted of 145 sailors and 300 soldiers, totaling 445 men.

But the Vasa’s architect – a Dutchman who worked in Stockholm – built her fore- and sterncastles too large and heavy compared to the ballast she could carry in her lower decks. You guessed it, as the Vasa sailed away from the quay, the first large wave and gusty wind she encountered knocked her over on her side. Water poured in and sent her plunging to the ocean floor. Fortunately, the solders were not on board when she sank. And only 30 of the 150 passengers on board died. The rest were rescued.

Scientists salvaged the Vasa’s remains 333 years later in 1961. She is now on display in a Swedish museum where millions of visitors view her every year.

The Vasa. Image ©Vasa Museet.(3)

English Ships by 1600

Most of the passenger ships employed during the 1620-1640 Great Migration, including John Winthrop’s flagship, the Arabella, were built using the English galleon design. They ranged in length from 100 to 150 feet and displaced between 150 and 350 tons of water. They sported three masts: a foremast, a main mast, and a mizzen mast at the stern. Some ships were built with four masts, but this was found to be less efficient. In the next article, you can take a tour of the Talbot, one of Winthrop’s ships.

The Mayflower was an older merchant ship, perhaps a carrack or bark, transformed to serve as a passenger ship. William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote that she displaced 180 tons. Historians estimate she was about 104 feet long [24 feet shorter than the Mary Rose]. She carried 102 passengers and as many as twenty-five crew members.

It awes many people in the twenty-first century that passengers put up with the cramped quarters and difficult living conditions during the two to five months it took to sail from England to America in the 1600s. But it must be remembered that none of the Puritans or Pilgrims had ever seen a Princess Cruise Ship, or even a steam ship. English galleons were considered large, modern ships for their day. Using the navigation tools available to him, Captain Jones of the Mayflower could find his position on the open sea within a mile. Also remember that English homes were equally small and housed an equally large amount of people.

In 1607, Governor Bartholomew Gosnold of Virginia wrote in his diary about the Godspeed mentioned above: “She is thy ruler of the seas, with her mightyful velocity more veloce [fast] than the wind, and mightier than the rock, she is, my Dear Godspeed.” Gosnold thought [what we consider] his tiny ship to be a palace.

Next article A Tour of an English Galleon in 1630


  1. Sometimes spelled tones or tonnes.
  2. A full-sized replica of the Godspeed is on display at the Jamestowne Settlement Museum in Virginia, along with replicas of her companions the Discovery and the Susan Constant [a galleon].
  3. Image © Vasa Museet