Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai, 1520

According to Portuguese sources, the largest ship depicted in a painting from circa 1520, exhibited in the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich, represents the Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai, surely one of the largest warships of her time. The painting is a very detailed one and since it includes another five ships, all of which seem to be exact reductions of the largest one, it was posible to make a much more thorough reconstruction than what previously was possible. The ship had at least six decks and more than 140 cannons, but probably the largest part of the pieces were falconets like that one shown on the illustration, of breech-loading type and mounted on a fork.

Other paintings of Portuguese ships of this same period show all the same huge main sail. The fore topsail is a novelty and the main topsail has increased its foot more than the other sails. There are twin leechlines in the main sail and the sheets of the main and fore topsails descend to the poop deck and forecastle directly from the yardarms. There is also a system of sheets to regulate the feet of the main sail ("feet" because the sail has two bonnets).

A curious particularity of the rigging, because of its unusualness, is the rigging fitted with violin-type pulley blocks which descends diagonally from the center of the main and fore yards to the deck; the system seems to be related with the parrels which link the yards with the masts. Running along with the shrouds, from the channels to the tops, there are tackles used to hoist boats, cannons, spare anchors or other elements.

Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai carrack

The art of naval construction, 1400-1514

In a matter of one century the sailing ship experienced a greater progress than in the former 5500 years, but an even greater progress would come in the following 400 years. The ship which had a single mast in the early 15th century went on to have two and three masts, with top sail and bowsprit sail, then a fourth mast and finally topgallant sails as well. Naval construction was still not a science; perhaps it has never been pure science. Construction was based in experience and in certain methods which were preserved in secrecy within generations of builders.

These also tried to copy the vessels which had demonstrated to be good sailing ships, and there was a certain understanding about the importance of the shape and dimensions of the hull, regarding sailing qualities. But the many disasters happened, in ships which were exceptional in that time, indicate that very serious mistakes were made, then and later. Ships were not built by following plans, but according to certain dimensions and fundamental rules when assembling the keel and the ribs. Some builders, better prepared in the subject matter, exposed the rules and methods in manuals illustrated with explanatory drawings.

Henry Grace Dieu, 1545

Topgallant sails were not a novelty in 1545, even if they had not been seen before. Contemporary manuscripts indicate that the English ship Regent, from 1509, wore topgallant sail in the main mast and top sails in the other two masts, in similarity with a French gallion depicted in a map of Normandy from 1545. And the large and well known carrack Henry Grace Dieu, generally known as Great Harry, already when built in 1514 was fitted with top masts in the four masts and topgallant masts in the three foremost masts.

The armament in that time comprised 184 cannons, most probably light ones. The Henry Grace Dieu was the first ship fitted with gun ports, which allowed to carry artillery on decks beneath the main deck and hence that huge amount of artillery pieces. With a tonnage over 1000 tonnes, she was the largest warship built until then. Unfortunately no contemporary representation was preserved of this ship in her initial conditions.

The Henry Grace Dieu was almost entirely rebuilt between 1536 and 1539, and in 1545 the ship was featured in a painting with her new appearance. She had square stern in similarity to caravels and gallions, but the huge forecastle protruded beyond the stem as in the large carracks. The artist included a topgallant lateen sail in the bonaventure mizzen mast, but it is uncertain the veracity of this detail and because of this it was not included in the reconstruction below. Another curious detail are the twin hooks in the yardarms of the main and fore yards. A grappling hangs from the end of the bowsprit, a detail already seen in the carrack from 1470 depicted by Flemish painter W.A. In another contemporary painting the ship was depicted with yellow sails imitating golden fabric.

Henry Grace  Dieu carrack
After the reconstruction the Henry Grace Dieu had 21 heavy bronze cannons, 130 iron cannons and 100 falconets. The heaviest cannons were installed in full-length decks. The reconstruction estimates six decks abaft the main mast, as seen in the illustration below. The lowest deck was the hold. Then followed the two gun decks on which the heaviest cannons were installed. The lighter cannons and the falconets were in the quarterdeck and the deck above it. The soldiers armed with portable firearms were in the weather deck, protected by a mesh against boardings. Originally the ship also transported archers, with a reserve of 1200 bow strings and 750 quivers.

Henry Grace  Dieu carrack

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