It is a rare occurrence indeed to have the great pleasure of receiving quite such a magnificent large-format volume as this, Rif Winfield's First Rate, arriving on one's desk for review
The First Rate ships of the line were indeed, as the book's subtitle indicates, the greatest warships of the Age of Sail. They were the most powerful and the most impressive ships of war (or indeed ships of or for any other purpose) afloat for a period of some two-and-a-half centuries, as well as by far the most expensive vessels both to build and to maintain. Made and conceived to impress as well as to fight, the very size of a First Rate, together with the lavishness and detail of its decoration, was intended to strike awe into all who set eyes on it, whether at home or abroad, and to leave no doubt in the mind of any beholder concerning the might and prestige of the nation and monarch whose flag that ship bore. And, to quote the New York Times book reviewer Richard Snow writing nearly two decades ago now, whose words I can hardly better: "These sailing ships – today reduced to quaint and soothing images on wall calendars – were in their time the most complicated machines on earth, and the deadliest." Indeed, they were.
First Rates were comparatively few in number in any of the navies employing them, mainly due to their cost. Nearly two Third Rate 74s, the backbone of the fighting fleets throughout the period of the Great French Wars, could be built for the cost of a single three-decker First Rate, each of those Third Rates capable of deploying about threequarters of the firepower of a single First Rate. Then again, compared to smaller warships, at the time of the last Victory's construction in the mid-18th Century five or six far-reaching, useful, tactically effective and exploratory 32-gun Fifth Rate frigates could be turned out in private yards for the approximate cost of the building of just that single first-rate ship in the Royal Dockyard at Chatham. Clearly, on a cost-per-firepower basis, medium-sized ships of the line were much more effective in filling the fighting requirements of most of a seagoing fleet, but some of these magnificent First Rates were always needed – to serve as admirals' flagships in wartime, as a symbol of prestige and as powerful leaders of a battlefleet in action.
Being comparatively few, Rif Winfield has been able to cover here every First Rate which ever served in the English (subsequently British) Royal Navy. Starting at the time of the Jacobean navy with the Prince Royal of 1607 as the prototypal 17th Century First Rate – though the author has also delved right back into the 16th Century Elizabethan navy for 'Ship Royal' precursors of the First Rate, such as the White Bear, Victory and Ark Royal which had fought in the Armada battle in 1588 but survived into the reign of James I. He takes this coverage right through to the last of them, fitted with auxiliary steam in the Victorian navy of the 1850s.
The last design group covered comprised just two ships, the Victoria launched in 1859 and the shellfiring Howe,
pierced for 140 guns, in 1860 – the last threedeckers built for the Royal Navy and the only two First Rates ever designed expressly for steam propulsion. The revolutionary new iron-built and armored HMS Warrior was launched in December of that same year, exactly 150 years ago, the hoisting of her Red Ensign as this new 'black snake among rabbits' put to sea in the Channel Fleet in 1861 in effect signalling the end of the era of the wooden First Rate. A fascinating and very informative four-page color pull-out arrangement draft of the Victoria is featured, reproduced from the NMM original, with many features of her machinery traced in red and green/blue.
However, this is by no means just a 'list of ships' together with their details, dates and brief histories; those essential data can be found in Rif Winfield's earlier three-volume British Warships in the Age of Sail series. This offering is indeed arranged partly by historical period, from 'The Jacobean and Commonwealth First Rate' via 'The Pepysian Age', 'Anson's New Navy' and 'The French Revolutionary War and the Expansion of the First Rate' right through to 'The Caledonia's Descendants, 1812 to 1840' and subsequently to 'The Transition to Steam'. However, it also covers the progress of the First Rate ship of the line as a concept and type rather than ship by ship, also including sections on such aspects as 'The Changing Shape of the Bow' (and subsequently stern) and 'Arrangements and Fittings' – all illustrated throughout in glorious full color. See the few interior pictures from the book here illustrated, as just some indication of the treats to be found within the pages of this publication. A section on First Rate Prizes, also well-illustrated, forms the final chapter – such as the (French, since there was a subsequent British-built one too) Ville de Paris, the Spanish 112-gun Salvador del Mundo and San Josef (with a lovely two-page color draft of her 'as taken') and the 118-gun Commerce de Marseille.
As the most impressive ships of their times, such magnificent vessels have been profusely illustrated throughout this period, which fact has in no small way contributed to the visual offerings presented by this superb book. Seaforth have really excelled themselves here. In color throughout, this lovely volume includes reproductions of many Admiralty drafts of the vessels described as well as illustrations culled from the works of the major marine artists of the period, including their paintings, drawings, engravings and sketches. Most of these pictures and images are from the highly important collections of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London, in contrast with the illustrations included in the earlier books mentioned above, though some illustrations too are from other great model collections such as that of the US Naval Academy Museum and the Beverley R. Robinson Collection, in Annapolis, and the Kriegstein Collection. One particularly interesting factor is that many of the drafts of the ships illustrated are also reproduced in color from the original drawings, which fact allows us to see, usually for the first time, the notes, lines and additions incorporated in or added to those drafts by the original draftsmen in colors other than black – essential, if one is to be able fully to understand them. Some color draft reproductions, as well as some of the oil paintings, span two whole large pages and one pull-out draft, as noted, spans four sheets.
The striking and very informative front and back dust cover illustration, Section through a First Rate, 1701, also reproduced inside the book over two pages, is reproduced from an oil painting attributed to Thomas Phillips in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (ref. BHC0872).
I know I have said similar things before about Rif Winfield's other works published by Seaforth, but this new volume too is beautifully-produced, to a very high quality level, and copiously, even lavishly illustrated. In its 29cm x 31cm square format, it is an even larger and perhaps even more impressive volume than those reviewed in his British Warships in the Age of Sail series (though those in many ways serve a somewhat different purpose than this one and are certainly veritable mines of information and scholarship in their own right). First Rate too, however, constitutes an essential work of reference for any interested in the development of the greatest ships of the sailing
fleets of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, as well as being a source of great pleasure to read and a joy to handle.
Roger Marsh - March 2012
Description of: First Rate: The Greatest Warships of the Age of Sail
Author: Rif Winfield