J D Davies

The Return of the Thirty Ships, Part 1

In the mid-1670s, [Samuel] Pepys and other members of the administration became increasingly alarmed at the navy’s numerical inferiority to the French and Dutch. In 1665, Charles II’s fleet had contained 102 major ships, compared to 81 Dutch and 36 French; ten years later, the picture had changed alarmingly…[Figures that Pepys presented to Parliament in April 1675 demonstrated that Britain now had 77 ships of 40 guns and upwards, compared with 85 French and 108 Dutch.]…At least twenty new ships of the first to third rates were required, and the number soon rose to thirty. 

At first, it proved impossible to convince Parliament of the extent of the problem and of the need to vote huge sums of money for the building programme necessary to remedy it. MPs were deeply suspicious of what they saw as a crypto-Catholic, Francophile court, and Pepys was shouted down in the parliamentary sessions of 1675. One backbencher protested that ‘ships must have been built of gold at these rates’, and like many critics of defence spending in later years, he grumbled that much of the naval budget was actually being spent on the salaries of bureaucrats. Another warned that they should ‘not provide here such a number of ships, as not to come here again’. However, the year 1676, when Parliament did not sit, saw a series of stunning French naval successes in the Mediterranean, which proved conclusively that Louis’ fleet was not the paper tiger that some MPs had complacently assumed it to be. When Parliament reconvened in February 1677, the mood was decisively different. ‘The king of France’s great fleet is not built to take Vienna’, one MP observed presciently, and on 5 March Parliament voted £600,000 to build one first rate of 1,400 tons, nine second rates of 1,100, and twenty thirds of 900.

That was how, in Pepys’s Navy, I described the genesis of the ‘thirty new ships’ building programme of the 1670s and 1680s. The ships that emerged were iconic in many ways. They included the first British warships to bear the names Britannia and Neptune. Some of them survived for many years: making allowance for the nature of the eighteenth century practice of ‘rebuilding’ ships, which often produced essentially new ships, the Neptune of 1683 was nominally the same ship as the Torbay that fought in Admiral Rodney’s fleet at the battle of the Saintes ninety-nine years later. Several of the ‘thirty ships’ were wrecked in dramatic circumstances, and their wrecks provide some of the most exciting and important dives around the British coast: the Coronation, wrecked off Plymouth in 1691, is the subject of ongoing study, while the Stirling Castle, Restoration and Northumberland, lost on the Goodwin Sands during the Great Storm of 1703, have produced a large number of fascinating artefacts that have enhanced our understanding of the seventeenth century navy.

However, my choice of theme for this blog was determined by the recent ‘reappearance’ of another of the thirty ships, the Anne, built at Chatham by Phineas Pett the younger and launched in 1678. She was a prestigious ship, and in 1687 she was the flagship of Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton, Vice-Admiral of England and an illegitimate son of King Charles II, during a cruise in the Mediterranean which included a visit to Malta; Grafton’s flag captain was Cloudesley Shovell, and also aboard the ship was Henry Fitzjames, illegitimate son of King James II and Arabella Churchill (the sister of the future Duke of Marlborough). I described this event in an essay for the Transactions of the Naval Dockyards Society, v (2009), a description which inspired Richard Endsor, the leading authority on the design and construction of late-17th century British warships, to paint the Anne lying in Malta’s Grand Harbour:

Grafton’s fleet, comprising the Anne, the brand new fourth rate Sedgemoor, and the ancient 32-gun fifth rate Pearl, had been substantially reinforced for the occasion. The ageing 48-gun fourth rate Hampshire, the Crown, and the Mermaid from the Sallee squadron had arrived in Malta a few days earlier, as had the Isabella Yacht, the duke’s personal despatch- and pleasure boat…Grafton’s arrival in the Grand Harbour was greeted by a salute of at least sixty-one guns, [and] the fleet proceeded to stay at Malta for ten days [which included an interview with the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta]…

On 30 June 1690 the Anne was part of the combined Anglo-Dutch fleet that fought the French in the Battle of Beachy Head, a controversial action during which the French gained the upper hand. The Anne, commanded by John Tyrrell, was driven ashore at Pett Level near Hastings and burned. However, the lower part of the hull survived in the sand, and parts of it are exposed from time to time. This year, the timbers of the Anne have reappeared for the first time in sixteen years, as this video demonstrates. As Richard Endsor has written,

This year the warship Anne near Pett Level is exposed to a greater extent than has ever been known in living memory. All the sand is removed from the beach leaving the remains some 70cm above clay ground level. At the time of sighting the tide was not particularly deep and the gully in which she lies did not have time to drain properly so that only about half the ship above ground level was visible…The Anne is very exposed and vulnerable and we can only expect her rapid deterioration. It is therefore essential on this once in a lifetime opportunity that the remains be accurately recorded as soon as possible before their destruction. The whole of the bottom of the Anne survives undamaged and because she is in her original, as built condition, probably represents the only [British] seventeenth century warship that can be recorded to demonstrate how they were built. 

Richard’s reconstruction drawing indicates the extent of the surviving remains in relation to the original appearance of the ship.

A team based at the Shipwreck Museum, Hastings, and led by Jacqui Stanford and Kimberley Monk, is working to record the wreck as thoroughly as possible; updates on progress will be posted in this blog and in my Twitter feed, and I hope to get down to Pett Level myself some time during the next few months to see the Anne for myself. However, a word of caution to anyone thinking of doing the same – the Anne is protected by law, and whilst visitors may view the ship, they may not touch or remove anything from it.


Next week I’ll be blogging about the exciting project to build a full-sized replica of the first of the ‘thirty ships’, the Lenox. That post, like this one, will have significant input from Richard Endsor – I’m very grateful to Richard for allowing me to quote him at length and to reproduce several of his stunning illustrations.