The Fleets at the Battle of Beachy Head, 1690: Part 1

I’m delighted to welcome Frank Fox as my guest blogger, both this week and next!

Frank’s name will be well known to many students and readers of naval history. A former Supply Officer in the US Navy, he is the author of two of the most important books about late 17th century naval history, Great Ships: The Battlefleet of King Charles II (1980) and The Four Days Battle of 1666 (2009, originally published as A Distant Storm in 1996). The latter describes the subject of the forthcoming Quinton novel, The Battle of All The Ages, and was one of my principal research sources for it. Frank is currently working on aspects of the Battle of Beachy Head, one of the most controversial engagements of the age of sail, and this week, he presents important new evidence about the French fleet at the battle. The revised listings of the Anglo-Dutch fleet will follow next week. So over to Frank!


Many thanks to J D Davies for making his site available.  The Battle of Beachy Head, fought on 30 June 1690 by the English calendar, was a victory achieved by a great French fleet over a rather smaller combined English and Dutch fleet.  While studying this engagement for its possible archaeological relevance for a shipwreck site on the British coast (for which more will soon be forthcoming here), I found that the published fleet lists for the battle are not fully satisfactory.  Whether from French, Dutch, or British sources, all are incomplete and some contain demonstrable mistakes.  The lists offered here present more detailed information, though unknowns still remain.

Contemporary illustration of the Battle of Beachy Head, 30 June 1690 (known to the French as Beveziers)

Contemporary illustration of the Battle of Beachy Head, 30 June 1690 (known to the French as Beveziers)

The French fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Anne Hilarion de Cotentin, Comte de Tourville, has been best known from a list in Léon Guérin, Histoire Maritime de France (1851), v. 3, pp. 449-453.  This was accepted by the most frequently cited British authority, William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy, A History from the Earliest Times to the Present (1898), v. 2, p. 335.  Regrettably, Guérin and Clowes omit two ships, reverse the stations of two others as compared with other lists, give improbable numbers of guns for two vessels, and do not indicate the stations of fireships and light frigates.  A less known list in Eugène Sue, Histoire de la Marine Française (1856), v. 4, pp. 557-558, shows the complete order of battle including stations of the fireships and light frigates.  Sue does not give men and guns, but these appear in other sources.  First, there is a list in the Dutch newspaper Hollandsche Mercurius from July 1690, pp. 195-197.  It was drawn up a little before the final order of battle was adopted, and thus gives a different order of fighting and includes several vessels which were eventually left behind with a squadron of galleys.  It does, however, offer plausible armament figures.  Second, a panoramic drawing of the battle in the French archives is reproduced in Charles De La Roncière, Histoire de la Marine Française (1900), v. 6, following p. 72.  It marks each ship with a number corresponding to a keyed handwritten fleet list including men and guns.  Unlike other sources, this one gives what appear in many cases to be actual numbers of men aboard instead of merely rounded complements.  For better or worse, they are accordingly used in the list below.  A few are hard to read due to unlucky ink blots, hence the occasional question mark.  Guérin allots all fireships 30 men, which uniformity seems unlikely, but there is no other source.

Many authorities have remarked on the baffling inconsistencies in numbers of guns listed for the French ships in the various sources for this battle.  As these appear unresolvable, I have given the highest and lowest numbers of guns for each vessel as they appear in Hollandsche Mercurius, Guérin, and the drawing in La Roncière.  Wildly inaccurate figures for two ships reported by Guérin (80 guns for the third-rate Le Marquis and only 58 for the first-rate La Couronne) have been disregarded, as have two clear mistakes in Hollandsche Mercurius (only 46 guns for the second-rate Le Pompeux and 80 guns for the third-rate Le Hardy).  The results agree well with the armament ranges in Pierre Le Conte, Lists of Men-of-War 1650-1700, Part II, French Ships, 1648-1700 (Society for Nautical Research Occasional Publication no. 5, 1935).  The only vessel for which the variation still seemed excessive is Château-Renault’s flagship Le Dauphin-Royal, for which the armament in the three sources is given as 90, 100, and 110 guns.  The largest figure (from Guérin) is questionable in that Tourville insisted on mounting rather fewer than the specified 110 guns in his own Le Soleil-Royal, which was considerably larger and vastly more strongly manned than Château-Renault’s ship.  And, a report printed in Guérin, v. 3, pp. 313-316, written from the fleet five days after the battle by Cartigny, Commissionaire and Inspecteur Général de la Marine, gives the armament of Le Dauphin-Royal as 100 guns.  For the present, it must be left for French researchers to settle this matter.

The line included seventy ships.  Excluded from the line were five light frigates and eighteen fireships. The fleet was organized into three squadrons of three divisions each, but the available sources do not show the boundaries between divisions.  The French flags are recorded in an English source:  a meticulous listing in the log of Captain Sir Francis Wheeler of the English ship Albemarle (The National Archives of Great Britain [NA], ADM 51/55).  Each squadron commander, in the centre division, flew a rectangular flag at the fore (including Tourville).  The second-in-command of each squadron (the functional vice-admiral regardless of titular rank) flew a rectangular flag at the mizzen, and the third-in-command (the functional contre-admiral or rear-admiral) flew a swallow-tailed ‘cornette’ at the mizzen.  The command flags in the Avant-garde (Van Squadron) were blue, those in the Corps de Bataille (Centre Squadron) were white, and those in the Arrière-garde (Rear Squadron) were bicolour white over blue.  In addition to the nine division commanders, the French placed a junior flag officer (chef d’escadre – abbreviated ‘CdE’ below) at the very head and tail of the line.  These flew special pendants at the mizzen peak (the tip of the diagonal mizzen yard), the only ships in the fleet with pendants (though Tourville’s ‘seconds’ stationed immediately before and abaft him were also chefs d’escadre).  In all ships, jacks and ensigns were white.  The flag arrangements were rather different from those specified by the current Ordonnance, which apparently had not anticipated fleets of such great size.

In the list below, the division commanders and their flagships are in bold type.  In the RATE column, the five fourth-rate light frigates not in the line are identified as ‘4F’.  Their names are indented showing their approximate stations on the unengaged side of the fleet.  Fireships are designated by ‘fs’ in the RATE column and their names are double-indented.  All the flag-officers including the junior chefs d’escadre each evidently had at least one fireship under his control.  The eight ships indicated as ‘Répétiteurs’ were designated signal repeaters.  There is some controversy about this, since the Chevalier de Forbin-Gardane claimed later in his Memoirs of the Count de Forbin (London, 1731), p. 277, to have been among the répétiteurs, but Sue’s list allots this honour to Forbin’s next-ahead, the Chevalier de la Rongère.

The rates for ships in the French navy of the 1690s did not correspond to English rates.  The three-decked French first-rates included all of what the English would have counted as first- and second-rates.  French second-rates roughly equated to large English third-rates, and French third-rates were about the same size and force as the small English third-rates and large fourth-rates.

Some details in the list below still remain wanting.  I was unable to find the forenames of most of the captains, and have accordingly omitted them all.  I was able to identify only three flag-captains, as shown below.  Finally, French proper names in the seventeenth century were often rendered in a variety of phonetic spellings.  To those who disapprove of the versions adopted here, I cheerfully apologize.

RATE       SHIP                       GUNS        MEN             COMMANDER

Avant-garde (Van Squadron)

2          Le Fier                          68-72         515             CdE De Relingues

fs                   L’Hameçon                6            30            Deslauriers

3          Le Fort                          52-60         365            De Lartelloire

4          Le Maure                       52-54         282            Chev. La Galissonnière

2          L’Éclantant                     64-68         441            De Septesmes

1          Le Conquérant             70-74         588           Lt-Gén. Marq. de Villette-Mursay / Capt. de La Roche-Allard

fs                   Le Fanfaron              10           30             La Serre

2          Le Courtisan                  62-66         400             De Pointis

4          L’Indien                        44-50         250             De Roussel

4F             Le Solide                  42-48         250             De Ferville

4          Le Trident                     46-52         282             De Riberet

3          Le Hardy (Répétiteur)     56-58         350             Comte des Gouttes

3          Le Saint-Louis                56-58         362             La Roque-Percin

3          L’Excellent                     56-60         351             Chev. de Montbron

2          Le Pompeux                   72-74         460             D’Aligre

fs              La Branche d’Olivier        6            30             Moreau

1          Le Dauphin-Royal       90-110          705       Lt-Gén. Château-Renault / Capt. Delcampe

fs                   L’Impudent               10           30             Origène Marchand

fs                   Le Déguisé                4            30             De Lalande

3          L’Ardent                        62-66          364             D’Infreville

3          Le Bon                          52-56         315?           Chev. de Digoine du Palais

3          Le Précieux                        54         330             De Périnet

3          L’Aquilon (Répétiteur)     52-54         350?           De Beaugeais

4F             L’Alcion                     40-44         150             Jean-Bart

3          Le Fendant                     52-58         340?           La Vigerie

3          Le Courageux                     60         365             De Sévigny

1          La Couronne                72-78         517         CdE Marquis de Langeron

fs                   Le Dur                      10           30             De Longchamps

3          Le Ferme                       54-60         358             De Vandricourt

3          Le Téméraire                 52-58         343             De Rivault-Huet

4F             L’Éole                       46-50         250             Du Tast



Corps de Bataille (Centre Squadron)

3          Le Brusque (Répétiteur)  50-56         314             De Ricours

3          L’Arrogant                      54-60         362             Chev. des Adrets

4          L’Arc-en-Ciel                   44-46         272             Chev. de Sainte-Maure

2          L’Henri                           62-66         390             D’Amblimont

1          Le Souverain                80-84         588          CdE De Nesmond / Capt. d’Aire

fs                   Le Périlleux               10           30             Monnier

3          Le Brillant                      58-66         480             De Beaujeu

4          Le Neptune                         46         240             De Forbin

3          Le Sans-Pareil (Répétiteur)58-60       385             Chev. de La Rongère

3          Le Fidèle                         46-56        242             Chev. de Forbin-Gardane

3          Le Diamant                     54-56         355             De Serquigney

2          Le Sérieux                      56-64         324             Chev. de Bellefontaine

2          Le Tonnant                     70-72         515             CdE Marquis de La Porte

fs                   L’Espion                    10           30             Drognon-Terras

1          Le Soleil-Royal           98-104          904        Vice-Adm. Comte de Tourville

fs                   L’Insensé                  10           30             Cadeneau

4F             Le Faucon                      44             —             De Montbault

1          Le Saint-Philippe                  80         525             CdE Chev. de Coëtlogon

fs                   La Jolie                     10           30             Naudy

3          Le Marquis                      58-60         343        Chev. de Château-Morand

3          Le Furieux                       58-60         365             Desnots

3          La Fortuné (Répétiteur)    58-60         368             Pallas

3          L’Apollon                         56-58         365             Bidault

3          Le Saint-Michel                54-58         348             De Villars

3          L’Entreprenant                 56-60         365             De Sébeville

1          Le Magnifique               76-80         590        Lt-Gén. Marquis d’Amfreville

fs                   La Bouffonne             10           30             Descourtis

fs                   Le Fâcheux                10           30             Verguin

2          Le Content                      56-60         390             Comte de Saint-Pierre

3          Le Vermandois                58-60         262             Du Challard

4          Le Cheval-Marin              40-46         252             Chev. d’Amfreville

3          Le Fougueux (Répétiteur)     58         368             De Saint-Marc



Arrière-garde (Rear Squadron)

4          Le Comte                       40-44         250         Marq. La Roche-Courbon-Blénac

3          Le Vigilant                      52-56         315             Chev. de Chalais

2          Le Parfait                       60-62         350             Machault

2          Le Triomphant             70-72         515             CdE Chev. de Flacourt

    fs                   L’Impertinent        6            30             Fremicourt

2          Le Bourbon                   58-62         350             D’Hervault

3          Le Duc                          48-52         305             Pallière

3          Le Vaillant                     48-54         350             Feuquières

3          Le Capable (Répétiteur)  50-54         250             La Boissière

3          Le Brave                       50-58         385             De Champigny

3          Le François                    44-46         262             Chev. d’Hailly

3          L’Agréable                     58-60         360             Le Motte

2          Le Florissant                  72-80         500             De Cogolin

fs                   La Diligente          6-10            30             Rolland

1          Le Grand                     80-86         660         Vice-Adm. Comte d’Estrées

fs                   Le Boutefeu         6            30             Jean-Étienne

2          Le Belliqueux                72-74         515             Des Francs

fs                   Le Royal-Jacques 6-10            30             Perron

4F             Le Léger                       44         200             Du Rouvroy

3          Le Prince                      56-58         365             Baron des Adrets

3          Le Prudent                    52-58         234             Des Herbiers

3          Le Modéré (Répétiteur)       50         315             Des Augiers

3          Le Fleuron                    54-58         339             De Chabert

2          L’Aimable                     66-70         450             Du Magnon

1          L’Intrépide                 80-84         600             Lt-Gén. Gabaret

fs                   La Maligne          6-10            30             De Reussy

2          Le Glorieux                  60-62         392             Belle-Isle Érard

2          L’Illustre                      66-70         472             Chev. de Rosmadec

2          Le Terrible                   72-74         515             CdE Pannetié

fs                   L’Extravagant         10           30             Longchamps-Montendre







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