This section gives further information on some of the terms used in naval fiction books.
Today we are used to the White Ensign being flown by all ships of the Royal Navy. However in Nelson's Day a different system was in use.
The Navy was divided into three squadrons Red, White and Blue in order of seniority. Admirals were appointed to these squadrons and therefore their rank and squadron split the seniority into 9 bands with ‘Admiral of the Fleet' forming a tenth senior to all others.
When reading a novel about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era you will usually find a reference to the Articles of War. They were read at least once a month, usually when church was rigged on Sunday, and when punishment was inflicted.
The Articles were originally established in the 1650s, amended in 1749 (by an act of Parliament) and again in 1757. It is an amazing document to study, and to note the number and degree of offenses which were punishable by death.
Where books include a reference to an Article you can either read the full text or select an individual Article from the index below.
Letters of Marque – more properly called "Letters of Marque and Reprisal" originated in 1243 when King Henry III of England issued licenses to specific individuals to seize enemy cargoes at sea and split the proceeds from the sale of those cargoes with the Crown. Later, in1354, King Edward III broadened the scope of these licenses to authorize a subject to make reprisals against the citizens and possessions of a hostile nation for alleged injuries perpetrated against the king by that nation. While at the time the reprisal could take place on land or sea, early on the term came to apply only to measures taken at sea. Those in possession of a highly coveted letter of marque became known as privateers, and the practice was quickly adopted by most European maritime nations and became a mainstay of international law.
Perhaps unwittingly – although probably not – the Plantagenet king had opened wide a treasure trove of opportunity and profit for the private sector and for the Royal Exchequer. Throughout the Middle Ages enterprising English sea captains operated with the tacit understanding of their king if not his outright commission in harassing the maritime trade of offending nation-states. Things reached a fever pitch when privateers such as Sir Francis Drake seized Spanish ships laden with gold and silver on their return voyage from South America and the Spanish Main. Queen Elizabeth I was only too happy to accept this Midas touch and share in the bounty of the captured treasure and subsequent sale of the seized vessel, its value determined by newly developed Admiralty Courts (also known as "prize courts"). The privateer's captain and crew all received a share based on rank, so everyone was happy – except, of course, the captain and crew of the captured vessel and the Court of King Phillip II of Spain. His displeasure led ultimately to the defeat of the Spanish Armada, one of most colossal and humiliating defeats in military history.
In fiction books a seaman is often tasked with using the lead to check the depth of water.
To do so he is stationed in the chains and then swings the lead backwards and forwards to create momentum. During a forward swing he lets go so that the lead flies ahead of the ship giving it time to sink to the bottom. He then starts to haul in the line until the ship sails over it with the lead still on the sea bottom. As the line becomes vertical he looks down and reads off the depth just above the water.
The line is 25 fathoms long, 20 fathoms of which is marked by different shapes, numbers and colours of material tied at intervals along the line which he must memorise. The materials used were mainly leather, calico and serge. The lead itself was usually around 7lb.
Throughout historic naval fiction novels you will find that the officers are keen to either have their reports appear in the Naval Chronicle or to be named in others reports. Today, thanks to google and the Internet Archive, some of these publications can be read for free online. Links are provided below for those that are currently available.
The rating system applied to ships of the Royal Navy between the 1670's and the early 19th century but in fiction will often be used to refer to ships of all nations. Whilst ships had been grouped into classes previously, Samuel Pepys revised and formalised the system in 1677. There were 6 rates, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th, together with unrated vessels.
Theoretically it was based on the number of cannons aboard, however smaller guns such as swivels were excluded and, more importantly, carronades (sometimes referred to as 'smashers') were not counted. However there were exceptions to this, particularly for some experimental ships which were armed entirely with carronades, and after 1817 they were included.
On Royal Navy ships of the sailing era the ships bell was used to tell everyone on board what the time was. Usually a half hour sand glass was used and as the Midshipman of the Watch turned it over the bell was rung a number of times to let the crew know how long they had been on watch and when the relief was due to take over. To allow for any discrepancies in turning the glass the naval day started at noon when the noon sight (the Captain and senior officers establishing when the Sun reached it’s daily zenith) could be used to start the daily cycle.
Depending on the number of crew available and the number of trained watch keeping officers, the crew could be divided into two or three watches. Usually it was two, the starboard and larboard watches. The three watch system was more popular with crews as they got a full eight hours off but not as widely used.