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In the rating system of the British Royal Navy used to categorise sailing warships, a first rate was the designation for the largest ships of the line. Originating in the Jacobean era with the designation of Ships Royal capable of carrying at least 400 men, the size and establishment of first-rates evolved over the following 250 years to eventually denote ships of the line carrying at least 80 guns across three gundecks.By the end of the eighteenth century, a first-rate carried no fewer than 100 guns and more than 850 crew, and had a measurement (burthen) tonnage of some 2,000 tons.
The concept of a rating system for British naval vessels dates to the accession of James I of England, following which the fleet was formally divided into "great", "middling" and "lesser" craft. A 1618 commission of enquiry added a further designation of "Ships Royal" for the largest and most prestigious vessels in the fleet, each capable of carrying at least 400 men.
The first Ships Royal – Elizabeth Jonas, Triumph, White Bear, Merhonour, Ark Royal and Victory – were all converted galleons and included three very old vessels that had fought against the Spanish Armada in 1588. Their condition was generally poor, with Elizabeth Jonas and Triumph already completely unserviceable and White Bear so unseaworthy that she was sold for scrap in 1627.
The Navy's rating system was later modified to differentiate ships considered suitable for various functions within the naval tactics of the age of sail. Lower numbers indicated larger and more capable ships. By the mid-18th century ships suitable for the line of battle were first-rate ships carrying at least 100 guns, second-rate ships carrying 84 to 98 guns, and larger third-rate ships carrying 70 to 80 guns. Smaller third-rate ships carrying about 60–64 guns, and fourth-rate ships of around 50 guns, had earlier been considered suitable, but were being phased out. Fifth-rate and sixth-rate ships were frigates usually maneuvering independently of the line of battle.
Early first rates had as few as 60 guns, but by the mid-1660s they generally carried between 90 and 100 guns. By the early years of the 18th century, it had become accepted that 100 guns was the standard criterion for a first rate in wartime (while 90 guns, later 98 guns, became the standard wartime ordnance for a second rate). (In peacetime, all ships of the line carried a reduced complement of guns.) Towards the close of the century, ships were built with more than 100 guns, and they too were classed as first rates.
In addition to the rated number of carriage-mounted guns (which included the heaviest calibre available mounted on their lower decks, with smaller guns on the decks above), first rates also carried a number of anti-personnel guns, initially swivel-mounted weapons. From the invention of the slide-mounted carronade in the later 1770s, first rates (like other warships), could mount a number of these weapons on their quarterdecks and forecastles to augment their short-range firepower, but they were not included in the ship's rating until 1817 except where they replaced carriage-mounted guns.
Although very powerful, the Navy's first-rates were of limited utility at sea. For stability their lowest gundeck had to be very close to the waterline and its gunports could not be opened in anything but the calmest of seas. To do otherwise was to risk swamping the entire vessel, as occurred in 1781 when the first-rate Royal George sank at anchor at Spithead after the lower gunports were opened to air the ship.Early first-rates had little storage space to stow provisions for their large crews on long voyages, and the ships themselves routinely proved unseaworthy in winter weather; as a consequence the first-rates were restricted to summer cruising, and then only in the English Channel and nearby waters. By the mid-1700s, however, improved design had removed these limitations.
Ships of this size were extremely expensive to operate. As a result, the few first rates (the Royal Navy had only five completed in 1794) were typically reserved as commanding admirals' flagships. First rates were typically kept out of commission ("in Ordinary") during peacetime and only activated ("commissioned") during times of conflict. This had the added advantage of preserving them from the wear and tear that smaller ships experienced in spending long periods at sea. Spending time in Ordinary could considerably extend a first rate's lifespan; for instance, by the time she fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory had been in service for 40 years, although a portion of this time was spent in Ordinary.
With first rates being the most powerful ships of the navy, it was common to compare them with the navies of other nations; frequently one sees the largest ships of those navies being referred to as first rates. Other nations had their own rating systems, notably the French Navy with its system of five formal rates or rangs.
Due to their cost of construction and maintenance, only a small number of first rates could be built and maintained at any one time. [ page needed ] Thus over the 250 years (approximately) that the rating system of the Royal Navy was used, only a relatively small number of these ships saw service.
Only one first rate has survived to the present. HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, is preserved at HMNB Portsmouth and is in commission. The hull of the 112-gun HMS St Lawrence, which was built and operated entirely in fresh water during the War of 1812, survives intact in shallow water near shore in Kingston, Ontario, and is a popular diving attraction. Two other noted first rates were HMS Royal Sovereign, which was broken up in 1841, and HMS Britannia, which was broken up in 1825. Both these ships had 100 guns. Later first rates such as HMS Caledonia and its several sisters had 120 guns. Other navies, notably those of France and Spain, also had similar ships with more than 100 guns, the most heavily armed being the Santísima Trinidad which, following a rebuilding in 1802, carried 140 guns.
The Royal Navy's use of the term "first-rate" to describe its largest and most powerful vessels is the origin of the modern English-language meaning of "exceptionally good" or "of the highest quality."
In the rating system of the Royal Navy used to categorise sailing warships, a second-rate was a ship of the line which by the start of the 18th century mounted 90 to 98 guns on three gun decks; earlier 17th-century second rates had fewer guns and were originally two-deckers or had only partially armed third gun decks.
In the rating system of the Royal Navy used to categorise sailing warships, a sixth-rate was the designation for small warships mounting between 20 and 28 carriage-mounted guns on a single deck, sometimes with smaller guns on the upper works and sometimes without. It thus encompassed ships with up to 30 guns in all. In the first half of the 18th century the main battery guns were 6-pounders, but by mid-century these were supplanted by 9-pounders. 28-gun sixth rates were classed as frigates, those smaller as 'post ships', indicating that they were still commanded by a full ('post') captain, as opposed to sloops of 18 guns and less under commanders.
Invincible was originally a 74-gun ship of the line of the French Navy launched in October 1744. Captured on 14 May 1747, she was taken into Royal Navy service as the third rate HMS Invincible. She was wrecked in 1758 after hitting a sandbank. The wreck is a Protected Wreck managed by Historic England.
The rating system of the Royal Navy and its predecessors was used by the Royal Navy between the beginning of the 17th century and the middle of the 19th century to categorise sailing warships, initially classing them according to their assigned complement of men, and later according to the number of their carriage-mounted guns. The rating system of the Royal Navy formally came to an end in the late 19th century by declaration of the Admiralty. The main cause behind this declaration focused on new types of gun, the introduction of steam propulsion and the use of iron and steel armour which made rating ships by the number of guns obsolete.
HMS Cornwall was an 80-gun, third rate, ship of the line built for the Royal Navy in the 1690s. She served in the War of the Grand Alliance, and in her first year took part in the Battle of Barfleur and the action at La Hougue.
HMS Cornwall was a 74-gun third-rate Vengeur-class ship of the line built for the Royal Navy in the 1810s. She spent most of her service in reserve and was converted into a reformatory and a school ship in her later years. The ship was broken up in 1875.
HMS Gloucester was a 74-gun, third rate Vengeur-class ship of the line built for the Royal Navy in the 1810s. She played a minor role in the Napoleonic Wars and was cut down into a 50-gun fourth rate frigate in 1831–32. The ship was converted into a receiving ship and broken up in 1884.
HMS Lion was a 80-gun second rate Vanguard-class ship of the line built for the Royal Navy in the 1840s. She was fitted with steam propulsion in 1858–1859. In 1871 Lion was converted into a training ship at HM Dockyard, Devonport. The ship was sold for scrap in 1905.
HMS Colossus was a 80-gun second rate Vanguard-class ship of the line built for the Royal Navy in the 1840s. The ship was fitted with steam propulsion in 1854–1855, and was sold for scrap in 1867.
HMS Falmouth was a 50-gun fourth-rate ship of the line built for the Royal Navy in the first decade of the 18th century. The ship participated in several battles during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–15) and the War of Jenkins' Ear (1739–48).
HMS Gloucester was a 50-gun fourth-rate ship of the line built for the Royal Navy in the 1710s. She participated in the 1701–15 War of the Spanish Succession. The ship was burned to prevent capture after she was damaged in a storm during Commodore George Anson's voyage around the world in 1742.
HMS Falmouth was a 50-gun fourth rate ship of the line built for the Royal Navy during the 1750s. She participated in the Seven Years' War and was badly damaged during the Battle of Manila in 1762 and was abandoned as unseaworthy in the East Indies in 1765.
HMS Magicienne was the lead ship of her class of two 16-gun, steam-powered second-class paddle frigates built for the Royal Navy in the 1850s. Commissioned in 1853 she played a small role in the Crimean War of 1854–1855 and was sold for scrap in 1866.
The Albacore-class gunboat, also known as "Crimean gunboat", was a class of 98 gunboats built for the Royal Navy in 1855 and 1856 for use in the 1853-1856 Crimean War. The design of the class, by W. H. Walker, was approved on 18 April 1855. The first vessels were ordered the same day, and 48 were on order by July; a second batch, which included Surly, were ordered in early October.
HMS Myrmidon was a 20-gun Hermes-class sixth-rate post ship built for the Royal Navy during the 1810s. She was commissioned in 1813 and was in the Mediterranean four years later. The ship was on the Africa Station in 1819 and was paid off three years later. Myrmidon was broken up in 1823.
HMS Ariadne was a 20-gun Hermes-class sixth-rate post ship built for the Royal Navy during the 1810s. The vessel was completed in 1816, modified in the early 1820s and only entered service in 1823. Ariadne was assigned to the Cape of Good Hope Station, followed by a stint in the Mediterranean Sea. The post ship was taken out of service in 1828, turned into a coal hulk and sold for scrap in 1841.
HMS Valorous was a 20-gun Hermes-class post ship sixth-rate post ship built for the Royal Navy during the 1810s. She was placed in commission in 1821 for service abroad in the Caribbean and Newfoundland. Two of her captains were forced to resign their commands during this time and the ship was placed in reserve in 1826 until she was broken up in 1829.
HMS Thetis was a 46-gun Leda-class fifth-rate frigate built for the Royal Navy during the 1810s. She was first commissioned in 1823 and was assigned to the South America Station three years later. The ship was wrecked in 1830 off Cape Frio, Brazil, with the loss of 22 crewmen; most of her cargo of bullion was successfully salvaged.
HMS Arethusa was a 46-gun Leda-class fifth-rate frigate built for the Royal Navy during the 1810s. The ship was never commissioned and was converted into a lazarette in 1836. She was renamed HMS Bacchus in 1844 and was further converted into a coal hulk in 1851–52. The ship was sold for scrap in 1883.
HMS Nightingale was a 24-gun sixth-rate ship of the Royal Navy, purchased in 1706 and in service in North America and English waters until 1716.