French frigates: “confessedly weaker, are oftener in port…”

We often encounter references to the high esteem the British navy had for French men o’ war. In novels they are reputed to be faster and handier than their British counterparts and highly valued by the British navy and coveted commands.

Like most other stories, this can be traced with some certainty to John Masefield’s notoriously uninformed “Sea Life in Nelson’s Time.”

The French treated shipbuilding as an imaginative art. The very finest brains in the kingdom were exercised in the planning and creation of ships of beautiful model. Admirable workmen, and the best talents of France, produced, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a number of sailing men-of-war which were more beautifully proportioned, faster on every point of sailing, stronger, and with larger batteries, than the ships built in this country at that time. A French 80-gun ship at the close of the eighteenth century was bigger, more roomy, faster, and a finer ship in every way, than our 98-gun ships. Our own men-of-war were so badly designed and proportioned that they were said to have been built by the mile, and cut off as required. They were very cramped between-decks, yet they were nearly always pierced for more guns than they could conveniently fight. They were very crank ships, and so “weak“ that they could not fight their lower-deck guns in anything like weather. They were slow at all points of sailing, and slack in stays. In heavy weather they sometimes rolled their masts out, or sprung them by violent pitching.

As we have to ask ourselves with any other statement made by Masefield, is this true?

The correct answer would seem to be “not so much.”

I stumbled across this post at and it set me to searching. Eventually in Frigates of the Napoleonic Wars
By Robert Gardiner I found the same information.

Like any other bureaucracy, the Navy Board produced and kept tons of records. Some of the most important were the surveys of ships coming into one of the dockyards for a refit. These surveys were made variously at the end of a commission, after heavy damage, or when a prize was bought into the service. Not only were French built ships more expensive at overhaul, they were also more expensive to keep at sea under routine conditions.

From the aforementioned NavWeaps link:

Its also interesting to read the surveys of work needed during a Great Repair because they tell us much about how those ships were built. Surveys of French ships make continual reference to the ship’s frame hogging, sagging and racking. They refer to decks sagging. Frames were cracked and broken. It’s very rare to read this sort of structural damage on a British ship unless she’s being repaired after a severe action. Also interesting are the comments on structural practices. British ships had their joints grooved and rebated, secured by a peg and reinforced with a futtock. The French equivalent was to butt the two members together and nail them in place. The use of nails was extensive in French building and was a major cause of failure. There was a thing called nail sickness – a nail would rust in place with the rust seeping into the wood greatly weakening it. Stamp on a joint with nail sickness and the components would separate – not a good idea. Another very common reference is to the French using green timber rather than seasoned wood in the construction of their ships.

These reports also give us a new look at how the ships were armed. In every case, French ships were downgunned after capture. 24 pounders were replaced by 18s and 18s by 12 pounders (the French pound was larger than the British). Why? Because the structural components of the decks were incapable of taking the strain caused by the heavy armaments the French put on them. Once again, we have a direct reference to extensive structural weakness in French ships of the era and one that suggests inexperience (to put it politely) on behalf of their designers.


Those letters to the Admiralty make fascinating reading. A lot are personnel matters – complaining about specific issues or officers (and just as often praising their Captain and asking to serve with him again). What’s relevant here are the comments on the ships. Complaints about French prizes are extensive and far outweigh those about British ships. Main complaints are lack of headroom on the lower decks (the crew complaining in many cases that they can’t stand upright and/or have no room in which to hang their hammocks), pervasive leakage through decks and overheads (meaning that the crew’s possessions were never dry). They complain about poor ventilation (British ships had systems installed to ventilate the lower decks; French ships did not). They complain about the frightful smell of French ships (not helped by the French habit of burying their dead in the sand ballast). Most interesting of all they complain about the noise of French ships; the constant creaking and groaning of the structure. All this supports the evidence of severe structural weakness in French warships (leakage and noise are both evidence of the structure working). However, it doesn’t affect how the ships sailed. Lets look at some solid evidence there.

The light construction of French ships included framing timbers spaced much farther apart than the British custom which resulted in structural inferiority in battle. Part of the reason that French ships struck so readily may be directly related to the fact that a broadside into their hull, the preferred practice in the British navy, resulted in much greater damage than a comparable broadside fired into a British ship.

Admiralty reports from the era indicate French ships were very fast and handy under pleasant weather conditions, but in heavy weather they drifted leewards much more than British ships and they took on much more water. Even in realtively mild weather, the pumps on French ships were constantly in use.

All of this was critical to a British fleet attempting to bottle up the enemy in the face of the terrible storms and prolonged periods of gales which are common in the North Sea and the Bay of Biscay.

Admiral Bridport, commanding the Channel Fleet, quoting here from Gardiner’s Frigates of the Napoleonic Wars, complained to the First Lord of the Admiralty in the spring of 1798 that too many captured French frigates were being assigned to his command:

The Channel frigates should be strong and in perfect condition. What occasioned my desiring English build frigates arose from the consideration of the boisterous seas they had to encounter and knowing that I have six French build frigates already with me and that I find them oftener and longer in port at a time than our own build frigates.

…it is supposed that French frigates sail faster than English build ones. But they are confessedly weaker, are oftener in port and not able to keet the sea on long cruises as they stow little and, having no orlop deck, they must move their cables whenever they want to get at the water that is stowed under them, which is sometimes difficult at sea.

So, it is fair to relegate this meme to the dustbin of history, to coin a phrase. French naval architects and shipwrights did produce some beautiful frigates and frequently they represented the cutting edge of design. In general, however, French frigates were less seaworthy than British ships. They were less able to withstand storm or battle. And the cost of maintaining them over their life-cycle was much higher than that associated with British made frigates.


Filed under Age of Sail, Naval Architecture, The Rest of the Story

8 responses to “French frigates: “confessedly weaker, are oftener in port…”

  1. Jim

    I wonder if French ships would have been more stoutly built if they had been expected to blockade in all weathers, and generally stay at sea for as long as their British counterparts. I’d also be interested in learning more about the construction of British ships built on French lines; presumably British standards of building were used, but did they also allow for changes in deck layout and framing timbers?
    (Excellent site, thanks)

    • billcrews

      when the British constructed a ship using French lines they essentially copied the hull length, beam, draft and general shape of the hull. All construction was done to British Dockyard standards based on plans by Dockyard draftsmen. So where French frigates might lack an orlop deck, the English version would have one.

      I think the less substantial nature of French naval construction had more to do with the availability of building materials and a philosophy that recognized that quantity has a quality all its own. Though I’m certain that to a certain extent French construction was based on a strategy of defending home waters and escorting convoys rather than domination of the seas.

      Oddly enough, the British thought American frigates were “over built” though they thought American oak was an inferior building material. One would think that if naval design did follow naval strategy that American design would have been more similar to French construction than British given the mission for the American navy was similar to the French navy.

  2. richardspilman

    Masefield’s comments generally agree with quite a few other sources.

    In Landstrom’s “The Ship”, he notes on pg 178:

    “The greater part of the 18th century was a period of stagnation for English shipbuilders mainly because of a number of rigid regulations, which bound their hands. The result of this was that Spanish and Frecnh ships continued to be larger and better than Englishmen of the same class. ”

    The National Maritime Museum site says roughly the same thing:
    “The Establishment of 1745 allowed an even greater increase in the size of ships but those of 90 guns were still no larger than many French 74s.

    It soon became clear that the British vessels were poorly designed and inferior to those of France and Spain. ”

    Brian Lavery in his “Nelson’s Navy” makes similar comments:

    “The French navy built very fine ships, and many of these served as models for British construction after their capture. The French relied less than anyone else on outside influences for their design — they never copied captured ships, or employed emigré shipwrights. Instead they depended on scientific training for their builders, who were taught at a special school in Paris. Though the positive effects of this can easily be exaggerated, there is no doubt the French naval
    architects were highly competent.”

    There are other sources that tell roughly the same story. The French developed the designs of both the 74 and the frigate. The British may have built heavier more durable ships than the French, though there were many cases of poorly built British ships as well.

    • billcrews

      I think that two subjects are being conflated.
      Thanks for your note.

      Naturally, this argument can be framed in many ways depending upon when you are writing about. I don’t challenge the notion that France, and arguably Spain, were more innovative in ship design than were the British. I think it is widely accepted that the capture of Invincible (1747) served as huge boon to British ship design.

      On the other hand, this superiority of design in French ships was clearly past by the time of the First Coalition and the advances made by Britain in substituting iron for wood in many areas of frame construction was not copied as far as I can tell by the French.

      I believe the post gives credit to this also in quoting from the British dockyard reports which admit that in good weather French built ships were both faster possessed of better handling qualities.

      I am not a marine architect but from an operations research standpoint it would seem that adding 16 guns, or 50 tons, to a frame capable of carrying 74 is a positive rather than a negative so long as the frame doesn’t suffer from hogging and the decks can bear the weight. The objection to this seems to revolve around issues of crew comfort which may or may not matter depending on one’s philosophy.

      The question, in my view, is whether these ships were actually better warships, rather than better technical specimens. In that area I think, other than Masefield, sources agree that British ships were more sturdily constructed and better able to take the pounding of battle or prolonged sea deployments than those of the French.

      • richardspilman

        I think the problem with Masefield is that the first half of the quote he is relatively specific and his statement is probably close to the truth.

        “Admirable workmen, and the best talents of France, produced, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a number of sailing men-of-war which were more beautifully proportioned, faster on every point of sailing, stronger, and with larger batteries, than the ships built in this country at that time. A French 80-gun ship at the close of the eighteenth century was bigger, more roomy, faster, and a finer ship in every way, than our 98-gun ships.”

        Even this requires a qualification because the French 80 while a very impressive ship had hogging problems which were less of an issue with French ships that didn’t leave the harbor often.

        The second half of Masefield’s statement is a broad generalization which no doubt applies to some ships but hardly all.

        The early to middle of the eighteen century appears to be a period of great creativity and innovation for the French while the British were crippled by their own rigid ‘Establishments’ fixing ship size and layout. Lavery refers to it as the “dark ages of British shipbuilding”. Only after the old Naval board members died off and Anson could appoint Slade and Bately did the British start to make make real progress. In part due to the relative stagnation in British design, the copying of French lines became very popular in the last two decades of the eighteenth century.

        The problem with adding too many guns to a ship of a given length was that more crew had to added to fight them and the weight of the guns tended to reduce stability so the ships could become “crank.”

        The British-built ships did tend to be sturdier and more heavily built than the French, but even here it is hard to generalize. Because of the huge demand for ships, not all shipyards built to the same standards and the persistent shortage of seasoned wood resulted in some terribly built ships being delivered to the Royal Navy.

        Overall, the British tended always to have better warships than the French because of their crews and officers, even when the French ships themselves were better than the British ships.

  3. John Middleton


    I am trying to find a reference to a British Admiralty order of the late 18th century directing British shipyards to leave framed ships in the yard for a period of two years in order to season their timbers

    • Mike Osterhaut

      I know it’s been a few years since the original post, but something needs to be said. I understand it’s a good thing to debunk myths, but the OP has gone overboard in the other direction and offers myths of his own similarly lacking in factual bases.

      The genesis of perceived French superiority was in the period of Louis XV when they were, indeed, superior to their British contemporaries in almost all respects. Any competent Naval Architect can immediately understand why, given contemporary builder’s draughts. By 1790, British design had essentially caught-up, so the architectural differences weren’t that great.

      French frigates were ‘generally’ faster on several points of sail. They were never ‘handier’. The British length disparity was institutionalized simply because it resulted in a handier vessel. They made a tactical advantage out of what some consider a design ‘deficiency’.

      French frigates were ‘weak’ in comparison to contemporary British ships. But the word ‘weak’ does not imply 97lb weakling, matchstick, vessels. One needs to know what the term ‘weak’ meant in the period under discussion, and it didn’t mean thin sides so cannon balls could go through them. Thickness of a French hull, at the level of the battery deck, including frame, exterior and interior planking, was within one inch of an equivalent British frigate.

      And no, captured French frigates were not ALL down-gunned. In fact, almost ALL were up-gunned. A simple superficial glance at Gardiner, shows that every single one of 39 captured French frigates taken into the RN had identically the same armament on the battery deck and significantly more and larger guns on the galliards (quarter and foredecks) than they ever had in in French service.

      Please, if you wish to debunk a myth, don’t offer other myths in their place.

  4. I can note that the two French firgates captured and later that were engaged by American 44’s didn’t survive their battles while the British frigate did. As for American ships being overbuilt, I believe that was in reference to the USS Chesapeake which was a one off design. In this case the Chesapeake had been originally intended to be a 44 gun ship and was shortened by a Mr. Joisha Fox. He thought that the 44’s were a bad design choice and when pressured to complete the ship offered that if it could be shortened to a 38 gun frigate that it could be completed sooner and at less cost. It was overbuilt as it was designed to carry 22 24 lb guns to a side. She was less than a successful design not repeated.

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