Anatomy of the ship of the line
Evolution of the ship of the line
The Sovereign of the Seas
The Royal Galley of Don Juan de Austria (1568)
This impressive royal galley, built in Barcelona in 1568, could be considered without exaggeration as the most important galley ever built.
She was commanded, as flagship of the Holy League, by Don Juan de Austria during the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and in such encounter she
engaged and defeated the Ottoman royal galley Sultana, sealing so the outcome of one of the most decisive battles in History, in which Europe
had to defend its Christian culture once again from the recurrent Muslim invasion. There had been other galleys as large, and perhaps as
beautiful, but none of them had such a relevant history.
Nowadays we can see a replica of the emblematic galley in an indoor exhibition, in the same place where the original ship had been built 400
years before. This commemorative replica is one of real size and beautifully built, but it lacks any rigging part and a number of details.
Looking at the complex decoration, we could easily conclude that in that time she had been the most richly decorated ship ever built. However
this impression is perhaps exaggerated, for the ornamentation of the actual galley, made of wood, could have been rather less sophisticated
than that of the replica, attending to practical reasons of economy and time. It is notorious the inclusion of paintings in the decoration,
so unusual in the ornamentation of a ship.
Unlike the rest of the ship, the ornamentation was designed and built in Seville. The composition is strongly allegorical and it works like an
open book; in this regard we can see a similitude with the superb decoration of a very different ship: the Sovereign of the Seas. Like in the
legendary English warship, the decoration had a marked psychological aspect, but the purpose was well different. The name of Don Juan de
Austria, personality forever bound to the royal and victorious galley, became de facto the name of the very galley. But crossing his twenties, he was far
from being a veteran military and the enterprise assigned to him seemed a bit onerous for someone of his age. The ornamentation, which made
reference to various classical myths, had been conceived as an instrument to instill good judgement and the values of a soldier in the young
commander. Three lanterns crowned the richly decorated sterncastle to indicate the supreme rank of the ship; because of this royal galleys
have been referred as well as "lantern galleys".
The rest of the galley is far less romantic but not less interesting for the naval enthusiast, who however should not forget the terrible
perspective of being convicted in such a ship. Most of the following data was provided by the mastermind behind the replica and the rest is from my
The structure of the hull comprises 162 ribs and 160 beams. Each rib is composed of two pieces with an average section of 10 x 11 to 14
centimeters, whereas the section of the beams is 10 x 12. The ribs rest in the upper face of the keel and are bound between that one and the
lower face of the keelson. The keel and the keelson are secured to the beams by iron pins. The ballast comprised from fifteen to twenty tonnes
of stones and a thousand of artillery projectiles. The deck has a pronounced sheer of 1.82 meters and the midship beam has a curvature of 27.5
centimeters. Regarding the lining of the hull it is notorious the abrupt curvature of the strakes on the upper part of the stern; they were
bent by steam following the old methods.
The rudder tiller was controlled from a small space in the aftmost part of the ship, next to the Council Chamber in the sterncastle, the noblest
part of the galley. This space, occupied by the captain and other important people, was covered by an awning, and fitted with seats all
around, peepholes at the sides and decorative tiles in the floor. The deck on this area had a notorious sheer in comparison with the rest of
the ship. The decoration in the sterncastle was extraordinarily sumptuous because this place was occupied by the brother of the most powerful
king of that time, Phillip II.
The antechamber, enlivened with rich balustrades and a tiled floor, served as access point to the ship thanks to two
boarding ladders and it was one of the places where troops reunited. In this place there was a binnacle and a hatch granting access to the hold.
Beneath the deck on this area the space was used to stow the barrels containing potable water.
Roominess was not the strong point of a galley. The narrow space inside the hull was occupied by supplies and a bunch of privileged crew
members. In the aft end was accommodated the captain; his cabin included a bunk bed, a chest and weapons. The steward was
accommodated in the pantry, place for water and viands, while the notary had his place in the storeroom for bread and legumes.
Then followed the powder magazine and the storeroom for wine. The comitre and the sotacomitre occupied the
storerooms for sails and rigging, respectively. On the prow there was an infirmary and a room for the surgeon, and finally a storeroom for
coal and firewood. This distribution could vary slightly from one galley to another, and the Council Chamber could be either above or beneath
This royal galley was fitted with thirty pairs of rowing banks, being one of the larboard banks replaced by the stove. Each rowing bank had place
for up to seven rowers but they were usually five. The huge oars, generally made of beech, were secured by means of straps to the rowlocks on
the rowing beams. Since only a minor part of the oars was inside the galley they had to be counterbalanced with the necessary amount of lead.
The rowers grabbed the oars by the handles, with exception of the innermost rower, who used a centric grip on the end of the oar and kept the
The "corsia", corridor running along the centerline, was used by the comitre and his assistants, whereas the two outer corridors were occupied
by soldiers and a few swivel falconets. The corsia had one meter in width and 80 centimeters in height; its sides were formed by thick planks
forming a lattice. The corsia granted to the galley a great longitudinal resistance avoiding so the breaking of the hull, which otherwise
would happen easily due to the huge elongation which characterizes galley hulls. Inside the corsia were stored equipment and rigging elements,
and it served as powder magazine next to the main mast. The corsia was as well the place from which the sailors
effectuated their maneuvers. The outer corridors, of about half a meter in width, were fitted with a series of struts and railings on which planks could
be attached to form a protective bulwark. And during bad weather, the whole deck could be covered by an awning secured to the side struts.
The main artillery pieces comprised one 36-pounder flanked by two 8-pounders and two 6-pounders, all aimed forward inside the forecastle or
"rambade". They were loaded from the foremost deck and fired only in the last moment before the melee combat. In the upper deck of the
forecastle was reunited a group of troops to either assault or repel an assault, or to attack from distance with arquebuses or crossbows. The
galley carried four anchors of grapnel type, two in service and other two as replacement. The sides of the forecastle served as anchor deck
and also as latrines. Since no weighing device was present on these ships, the anchors had to be weighed by brute force or perhaps with helping
The galley carried at least one boat which could be towed or supported by a strong structure on the board, placed in such a way to hinder
rowing as less as possible. The two lateen sails had a combined area of 691 square meters (565 and 126 square meters respectively). If the wind was too
strong they could be reefed to reduce their exposed area. The masts had a height of 22 and 15 meters, respectively, and their lateen yards
were 50 and 26 meters long, also respectively. The main mast was topped by a small "crow nest".
Note: in the Spanish Navy, galleys remained in general service until the mid 18th century, but during the early
19th century still were in use those that served exclusively in the fight against the berber piracy.