A galleon was a large, multi-decked sailing ship used primarily by the nations of Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. Whether used for war or commerce, they were generally armed with demi-culverin.
Galleons were an evolution in the caravel and carrack (also a nao or nau: Spanish and Portuguese respectively for 'vessel'), for the new great ocean going voyages. A lowering of the forecastle and elongation of the hull gave an unprecedented level of stability in the water, and reduced wind resistance at the front, leading to a faster, more maneuverable vessel. The galleon differed from the older types primarily by being longer, lower and narrower, with a square tuck stern instead of a round tuck, and by having a snout or head projecting forward from the bows below the level of the forecastle. In Portugal at least, carracks were usually very large ships for their time (often over 1000 tons), while galleons were mostly under 500 tons, although the Manila galleons were to reach up to 2000 tons. Carracks tended to be lightly armed and used for transporting cargo, while galleons were purpose-built warships, and were stronger, more heavily armed, and also cheaper to build (5 galleons could cost around the same as 3 carracks) and were therefore a much better investment for use as warships. There are nationalistic disputes about the origin of the galleon, which are complicated by its evolutionary development, but each Atlantic sea-power developed types suited to their needs, while constantly learning from their rivals.
The galleon was powered entirely by sail, carried three to five masts, with a lateen sail continuing to be used on the last (usually third) mast. They were used in both military and trade applications, most famously in the Spanish treasure fleet, and the Manila Galleons. In fact, galleons were so versatile that a single vessel may have been refitted for wartime and peacetime roles several times during its lifespan. The galleon was the prototype of all three or more masted, square rigged ships, for over two and a half centuries, including the later full rigged ship.
The principal warships of the opposing English and Spanish fleets in the 1588 confrontation of the Spanish Armada were galleons, with the modified English 'race built' galleons developed by John Hawkins proving decisive, while the capacious Spanish galleons, designed primarily as transports for long ocean voyages, proved incredibly durable in the battles and in the great storm on the voyage home; most survived.
Galleons were constructed from oak (for the keel), pine (for the masts) and various hardwoods for hull and decking. Hulls were usually carvel-built. The expenses involved in galleon construction were enormous. Hundreds of expert tradesmen (including carpenters, pitch-melters, blacksmiths, coopers, shipwrights, etc.) worked day and night for months before a galleon was seaworthy. To cover the expense, galleons were often funded by groups of wealthy businessmen who pooled resources for a new ship. Therefore, most galleons were originally consigned for trade, although those captured by rival nations were usually put into military service.
Because of the long periods often spent at sea and poor conditions on board, much of the crew often perished during the voyage; therefore advanced rigging systems were developed so that the vessel could be sailed home by an active sailing crew a fraction of the size aboard at departure.
The most distinguishing features of the galleon include the long beak, the lateen-rigged mizzenmasts, and the square gallery at the stern off of the captain cabin. In larger galleons, a fourth mast was added, usually a lateen-rigged mizzen, called the bonaventure mizzen. At sea, during the battle of the Spanish Armada, for example, English ships were distinguished by the red St George's Cross flying on all masts, except the Tudor rose was flown on the main-mizzen mast.
With the evolution from the galleon to the ship of the line, the long straight beak-head became curved, shorter and more upright, jib sails were added, and eventually the lateen-rigged mizzenmast was replaced with square sails and a spanker sail. As the practice of boarding was reduced, the fore and aft castles became shorter to improve maneuverability.
The galleon continued to be used until the early 18th century, when better designed and purpose-built vessels such as the fluyt, brig and the ship of the line rendered it obsolete for trade and warfare respectively.
The oldest English drawings
The oldest known scale drawings in England are in a manuscript called 'Fragments of Ancient Shipwrightry' made in about 1586 by Mathew Baker, a master-shipwright. This manuscript, held at the Pepysian Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge, provides an authentic reference for the size and shape of typical English galleons built during this period. Based on these plans, the Science Museum, London has built a 1:48 scale model ship that is an exemplar of galleons of this era.
* São João Baptista nicknamed Botafogo, the most powerful warship when launched (1534) by the Portuguese; became famous during the conquest of Tunis, where it was commanded by Infante Luís, Duke of Beja.
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