Napoleon, Trafalgar and the United States . . .

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The War of 1812 with the United States (who declared war on Britain and invaded Canada) provoked continuing alarm in Britain over a critical 25 year period. The most famous vessel, Victory, had been built in 1765 – years before the other vessels in this series. It had been Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where the imminent threat of invasion from France was eliminated following the defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleets. The French Grande Armée and navy were subsequently confined to the continental land mass and its coastal waters.

The continuing reaction in Britain to events across the Channel and across the Atlantic meant that by 1812 the Royal Navy had 145,000 seamen (out of a national population of about eleven million) manning 130 ships of the line and some 600 smaller frigates and other vessels and dockyard support. Royal Naval ships were rated according to guns: Three-deckers with 100 guns or more were First Rates and with 80-98 guns, Second Rates. Two-deckers  with 64-80 guns were Third Rates and those with 50-60 guns were Fourth Rates. All of these were Ships of the Line, so called as they were equipped to stand in line of battle. Fifth Rates and Sixth Rates were frigates or “post” ships with 20 to 28 guns.

Although French and Spanish ships were better built and designed than those built in Britain, the Royal Navy achieved its supremacy through better leadership and seamanship. Le Terreur in France in 1793-94 during the French Revolution, decimated the upper ranks of the French Navy with disastrous consequences as over 16,000 people – mainly the nobility and upper echelons of society – were routinely guillotined. By the turn of the century Britain, with Nelson, Collingwood, Jervis, Cornwallis, Hood, and Duncan possessed a backbone of officers of the highest quality.

By 1852 the second HMS Agamemnon was the first battleship designed for steam. This sounded the death-knell for sail despite the great reluctance of the British Admiralty to recognise the need for modernisation throughout most of the 19th Century. It was not until the Naval Defence Act 1889 was passed and a new generation of steam ships were constructed that the Royal Navy regained its absolute maritime supremacy.

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