The French Navy 1688-1715

French Navy
Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, marquis de Seignelay (1676)
Jean-Baptiste Colbert, marquis de
Seignelay was Secretary of the
Navy 1683-1690
Painting by Claude Lefèbvre

1 Louis XIV rebuilds the French Navy 1661-1672

1.1 Decline during civil wars

The number of vessels in the French navy was recorded as 60 Ocean-going ships and 35 Galleys shortly before 16421. This number then decreased to 30 ships and 25 galleys in 1649. The civil war known as Fronde (1648-1653) and the Franco-Spanish_War, which lasted till 1659, then further decreased this number.

At the accession of Louis XIV in 1661 his minister Colbert found only 8 serviceable ships (3 third-rates, 4 fourth-rates and 1 fifth rate)2. For the 1664 expedition of Gigeri France was able to send 15 or 16 ships, but those had all been bought abroad or only assembled in France.

1.2 Rebuild by Seignelay

All this changed when Seignelay was charged with re-establishing the navy. He first gave attention to the construction of all parts that were needed to construct vessels, and soon France was able to build its own ships of the line. The French navy then made its first show of strength in 1667 when it assembled a fleet of 60 ships near Brest. In order to further the naval strength of France a kind of conscription was then instituted in the French coastal provinces and this helped in providing the manpower for the navy and ocean-going commerce. In order to construct and secure this navy the French established five principal arsenals at Brest, Rochefort, Toulon, Dunkerque and Le Havre.

2 The French Navy fights the Dutch

In 1672 it was time to deploy this new naval strength and a squadron of 30 ships of the line was joined to the English fleet which was tasked to destroy the Dutch. However, nothing decisive was achieved by this fleet and after the English deserted the French in 1674 it had to fend for itself. It then fought in some engagements against the Dutch near Sicily and in general it had the advantage. On the other hand the fact that the Dutch were challenging them in the Mediterranean was an ominous sign.

3 French navy Ships

3.1 First and second rates

French ships 3-deckers lost after Barfleur
Rate*name Guns men tons Built end note
1 Le Merveilleux94 650 1600 1692 Brest La Hogue 3-decks, 28*36pdr***
1 Le Foudroyant84 600 ? 1691 Brest La Hogue 3-decks, 26*36pdr
1 Le Soleil-Royal106900 2400 1669 Brest Cherbourg 3-decks, 28*36pdr
1 L'Admirable90 650 ? 1691 Lorient Cherbourg 3-decks, 6*48 18*36
2 L'Ambitieux96 550 1600 1691 Rochefort La Hogue 3-decks, 28*36pdr
2 Le Saint Philippe84550 1450 1665 Toulon La Hogue 3-decks, 24*36pdr
2 Le Magnifique76 550 1500 1685 Toulon La Hogue 3-decks, 26*36pdr***
2 Le Tonnant 76 490 1000 1681 Brest La Hogue 3-decks, 26*24pdr a small three-decker?
* Standardized Rate
French ships 3-deckers existing after Barfleur
Rate*name Guns men tons Built end note
1 Le Dauphin Royal100750 1670 Toulon 1700 3-decks, 26*36pdr,
1 Le Monarque90 650 1700 1669 Toulon 1697 ?, survived Barfleur
2 Le Grand 86 630 1500 1680 Rochefort 1717 2.5-decks, 26*36pdr, survived Barfleur**
2 L'Orgueilleux90 650 1600 1689 L'Orient 1715 3-decks, 28*36pdr, survived Barfleur**
2 Le Vainqueur84 500 1600 1692 Lorient 1721 3-decks, 26*36pdr
2 Le Conquérant84 550 1400 1688 Toulon 1707 3-decks, 16*36pdr & 10*24, survived Barfleur**
2 Le Souverain84 560 1600 1677 Brest 1706 3-decks, 26*36pdr, survived Barfleur**
2 La Couronne76 490 1300 1669 Brest 1712 3-decks, 10*36pdr & 14*24, survived Barfleur
2 L'Intrépide 84 530 1500 1690 Rochefort 1721 3-decks, 28*36pdr
Le Formidable 94 650 1800 1692 Brest 1713 3-decks, 28*36pdr**
2 Le Pompeux 74 450 1450 1671 Toulon 1709 3-decks, 26*24pdr a small three-decker
1 Le Victorieux 92 700 1691 Rochefort 1719 3-decks, 28*36pdr
2 Le Fulminant 96 550 1686 1692 Rochefort 1719 3-decks, 28*36pdr
* Standardized Rate
French ships 3-deckers, taken into service after Barfleur
Rate*name Guns men tons Built end note
1 Le Merveilleux 98 ? 2200 1693 1712 3-decks, 28*36pdr
1 Le Terrible 80 864 2200 1693 Brest 1714 3-decks, 28*36pdr
1 Le Foudroyant 104? 2200 1694 Brest 1713 3-decks, 28*36pdr
1 Le Tonnant 80 738 1700 1693 Toulon 1710 3-decks, 28*36pdr
1 Le Triomphant 92 1900 1693 Lorient 1726 3-decks, 28*36pdr
1 Le Fier 90 1750 1695 Rochefort 1713 3-decks, 26*36pdr
1 Soleil Royal 104967 ? 1693 Brest 1714 3-decks, 28*36pdr
1 L'Admirable 88 734 1900 1693 Lorient 1717 3-decks, 28*36pdr
1 L'Ambitieux 92 1600 1693 Rochefort 1713 3-decks, 28*36pdr
1 Le Saint Philippe90738 1700 1694 Toulon 1714 3-decks, 28*36pdr
1 Le Magnifique 88 609 1800 1693 Rochefort 1716 3-decks, 26*36pdr
* Standardized Rate

This list should give some idea of first and second rate French warships. The strange conclusion is that if one tries to compute back to a contemporary English rank, the French ships start to count as first rates.

3.2 Third rates

French ships 3rd rates
Rate*name Guns men tons Built end note
3 Le Fier 76 490 1100 1682 Brest La Hogue 2.5-decks 26*24
3 Le Belliqueux76 490 1200 1677 Brest 1708 2.5-decks 24*36**
3 Le Terrible 76 490 1200 1680 Brest La Hogue
3 Le Florissant 74 490 1400 1670 Toulon 1700 2.5-decks 10*36 16*24**
3 Le Triomphant 76 490 1350 1675 Brest Cherbourg 2.5-decks 26*24
3 Le Saint Esprit74 450 1691 Rochefort 1718 2.5-decks 26*24
3 L'Illustre 68 420 1200 1667 Amsterdam 2-decks 24*24, ex-Dutch
3 L'Aimable 68 420 1690 Rochefort 1714 2-decks 26*24
3 Le Lys 74 450 L'Isle de France bef. 1671
3 Le Fort 58 450
3 Le Superbe 68 425
3 Le Magnifique72 400 Le Courtisan bef. 1671, reported lost 1677
3 Le Sans Pareil64 400 Le Prince bef. 20 Jun 1671
3 Le Saint Michel60 400 previous Saint Michel
3 L'Eclatant 60 400
3 Le Bourbon 68 400 Toulon
3 Le Content 68 400 1686 Toulon
3 Le Saint Louis64 380 1692 Le Havre
3 Le Serieux 64 380 1686 Toulon
3 Le Brilliant62 380 1688 Le Havre
3 Le Henry 64 380 1687 Dunkerque
3 Le Glorieux64 380 1678 Brest
3 Le Laurier 64 380 1691 Bayonne
3 Le Courtisan64 380 1686 Rochefort
3 Le Saint Esprit64 380 1689 Brest
3 La Syrène 64 380
3 Le Parfait 60 350
3 L'Excellent60 350 1679 Rochefort
3 Le Saint Michel60 350 1686 Brest
3 Le Sans-Pareil62 350 1685 Brest
3 Le Courageux58 350 1679 Rochefort
3 Le Brave 58 350 1684 Le Havre
3
* Standardized Rate

3.3 Fourth rates

French ships 4th rates
Rate*name Guns men tons Built end note
4 Le Fort 54 350
4 Le Fortuné 56 350 1671 Toulon Prev. l'Emérillon
4 L'Heureux 50 350 900 1671 Toulon
4 Le Bourbon 50 350 1st Bourbon
4 Le Prince 54 350 1680 Brest Sailed well
4 L'Assuré 56/60 350 1666 Toulon Launched as Lys
4 Le Diamant 50 350 1687 Dunkerque
4 Le Gaillard52 350 1692 Bayonnne
4 Le Modéré 52 350 1687 Le Havre
4 Le Fleuron 56 350 1688 Toulon
4 Le Prudent 54 300 1666 Toulon Le Comte bef. 1671
4 L'Aquillon 50 300 Le Trident bef. 1671
4 Le Vermandois50 300 Le Dauphin bef. 1671
4 Le Maure 50 300 1688 Toulon
4 La Perle 52 300
4 Le Cheval Marin46 275
4 Le Cheval Marin44 250
4 Le Mignon 46 250 Le Provençal bef.
4 Le Brusque 46 250 1665 Toulon Le Dunkerquois bef.
4 La Syrène 46 250
4 Le Tigre 42 250
4 Le Bizarre 42 250 1671 Marseille
4 L'Arc en Ciel44 250 1676 Rochefort
4 Le Fidèle 48 250 1665 Toulon
4 Le Trident 38 200 1656 Toulon Le Mercoeur bef.
4 Le Hasardeux44 200 1674 Rochefort
4 L'Entendu 40 200 1684 Saint Malo
4 Le Hasardeux40 1674 Rochefort
* Standardized Rate

3.4 Fifth rates

French ships 5th rates and Fluyts
5 L'Hercule 30 1673 Brest
5 Le Marin 28 120 1679 Toulon
5 La Mutine 28 1676 Brest Sailed very well
5 La Fée 28 120 1676 Brest
5 La Tempète 28 120 1676 Rochefort
5 La Diligente26 120 1676 Rochefort
5 La Bien-Aimée24 120 300 1672 Toulon
5 L'Esveillée24 1672 Brest
B Le Brutal 6 30 1670 Aux Indes
La Belle 4 50 Prev La NS de Lorette
F Le Dromadaire18 1676 Rochefort a fluyt
F La Françoise8 26 300 1668 ex-Dutch a fluyt
* Standardized Rate

4 The French navy in the Nine years war

4.1 England becomes an enemy

Before the Glorious Revolution the French navy and commerce had little to fear in wartime because the Dutch were only aggressive when France chose to start a war and the English were allied most of the time. The events of 1688 changed that because they solidly allied the two sea powers against France. By themselves the perspectives for the French fleet were still quite good, but it could only face its now far more difficult tasks if Versailles drew the right conclusions from the new strategic landscape.

From 1688 onwards the role of the French navy had changed from supporting continental aggression against the Dutch to guarding French commerce against the aggression of the combined Anglo-Dutch fleets which were continually growing in numbers. This meant that in the long run France could only survive by concentrating on naval warfare or by decisively beating the Dutch on the continent. Both choices were valid courses of action, but sadly France had just before opted for aggression against Spain, Germany and Protestantism.

4.2 Battle of Bantry Bay

In actual fighting this at first did not seem to be such a big problem. The French navy started the war against this alliance with successful operations to land and supply the army of King James in Ireland. These were followed by the inconclusive Battle of Bantry Bay (1689)

4.3 The French navy in the Battle of Beachy head or Bevéziers

In 1690 France united its Mediterranean and Brest fleets, and in July 1690 gained a victory in the battle of Beachy head. This gave the French navy a brief spell of control over the Channel.

4.4 The French navy and the Battle of Barfleur

The Battle of Barfleur and the subsequent actions of La Hogue and Cherbourg are described on a separate page. The defeat of Barfleur meant that the French navy could not openly challenge the Anglo-Dutch in the Channel for a few years, but was not fatal to the operations of the French fleet. It could not sensibly decide to sail into the Channel, but it could perform other tasks. These were: to protect merchant shipping; regular operations to hinder alliance shipping and 'privateering'. The French fleet succeeded in one regular operation against enemy shipping by fighting the battle of Lagos (1693), after that it decided on small scale operations. France did try to reinforce its battle fleet by building new ships, but it did not build enough of them. Below is an incomplete table of new ships built 1692-1702.

4.5 New ships for the French Navy 1692-1702

Some New ships 1692-1702
Ship Built gunsmen remarks
Le Royal Louis b1692 Toulon 110
L'Ecueil b1692 Toulon 54
* Le Bourbon b1692 Toulon 66
* Le Merveilleux b1693 Toulon?
* Le Soleil Royal b1693 Brest 102 Not in service 1713
* Le Foudroyant b1693 Brest 104 Not in service 1713
* Le Terrible b1693 Brest 92 Could be rebuilt 1713
* Le Tonnant b1693 Toulon 90
* Saint Philippe b1693 Toulon 92 Not in service 1713
* Le Magnifique b1693 Rochefort 86 Not in service 1713
* Le Triomphant b1694 Port Louis 92 Could be rebuilt 1713
* L'Admirable b1694 Port Louis 92 Not in service 1713
* Le Fier b1694 Rochefort 88 Not in service 1713
Le Content b1695 Toulon 56 388 Barcelona 06
Le Trident b1695 Toulon 56 350 Barcelona 06; Could be rebuilt in 1713
Le Volontaire b1695 Toulon 44
Le Prudent b1697 Toulon 66
L'Assuré b1697 Toulon 66
Le Parfait b1700 Toulon 74 At sea in 1713
* Means re-use of the name of a ship sunk in the Battle of Barfleur

In the table are some new ships that were built for the French navy after the Battle of Barfleur. With about a dozen three-deckers this gives the impression that the French Navy was able to replace its losses after Barfleur. This is a false impression. First because with perhaps 18 three-deckers in service, France would have to build c. 6 to replace aging ships. Second because the alliance navies, and especially the English navy was expanding at an alarming rate, and therefore France had to build another number of ships only to keep up in the arms race.

4.6 The Guerre de Course during the Nine Years War

In 1693 the French navy needed more resources then ever before if it was to escort merchant shipping. At that moment Louis however decided to allot all resources to the army. If he wanted to continue the war this decision was correct3. The consequence was that the navy was starved of resources and was no longer able to operate all its ships. As an alternative policy the 'guerre de course' was developed. It meant that entrepreneurs who wanted to invest in attacks on allied shipping could hire the ships and sailors of the state.

In operations these ships were bundled in groups of up to about a dozen ships and motivated by prize money these indeed performed vigorous attacks. On the surface the results of the buccaneers looked impressive, but in fact French commerce died and in time most of the buccaneers ended up in prison. At the same time only very few new ships were built up to the peace of Rijswijk. All in all this could only spell doom for the French navy and commerce in a future conflict.

5 The French navy in the war of the Spanish Succession

Notwithstanding its adverse fortunes in the Nine Years War the French Navy had a reasonable number of good ships with professional crews at the start of the War of the Spanish Succession. Because Spain was an ally in this war its strategic position was changed because the coast was friendly from Dunkerque to Toulon and the Anglo-Dutch had no base of operations in the Mediterranean. While the Anglo-Dutch were trying to establish such a base the French navy suffered a serious defeat in the battle of Vigo (1702), but this did not have serious strategic consequences.

The strategic situation was changed when Portugal changed sides in 1703 and Gibraltar was lost in 1704. The effect was that the French fleet was 'locked up' in the Mediterranean where it had a great base at Toulon. This did not mean that the French navy was completely ineffective: At least during most of the conflict it successfully brought in the annual Spanish treasure fleet. The net result of the changed situation was however that the Anglo-Dutch fleets traded around the world, and even in the Mediterranean while French commerce was barred from trading.

6 French Naval strength during the War of the Spanish Succession

Below is a table with some of the ships I encountered in literature about the era. It's not finished, but does give an impression about the state of the French navy during the War of the Spanish Succession. It's a reflection of how the French Navy went from challenging command of the Ocean in the Nine Years War to trying to keep a hold on the Mediterranean in the War of the Spanish Succession. The attack on Toulon was the final blow for the French navy. A lot of capital ships were scuttled to prevent them from burning, but after the siege they could not be made servicable again. In combination with only a very limited number of new ships being built the French navy ended the war with a limited fleet which held a lot of ships that could not be brought to sea again4.

Provisional list of the French Navy on 1-1-1702 and till 1713
Ship Built-End gunsmen remarks after Cabritaend
Le Royal Louis b1692 Toulon 110 bu after missing Malaga
Le Foudroyant b1693 Brest 104 Malaga Not in service 1713
Le Soleil Royal b1693 Brest 102 Malaga Not in service 1713
Le Terrible b1693 Brest 92 Malaga Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Triomphant b1694 Port Louis92 Malaga Could be rebuilt 1713
L'Admirable b1694 Port Louis92 Not in service 1713
Le Fier b1694 Rochefort88 Malaga Not in service 1713
Saint Philippe b1693 Toulon 92 Malaga Not in service 1713
Le Monarque b1690 Brest 86 Roque; Malaga Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Sceptre b1690 Toulon 88 650 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Magnifique b1693 Rochefort86 Malaga Not in service 1713
L'Orgueilleux b1690 Port Louis86 Roque; Malaga Not in service 1713
L'Intrépide b1690 Rochefort84 600 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Vainqueur b1691 Rochefort88 600 Roque; Malaga P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Tonnant ?b1693 Toulon 90 Malaga Scuttled 1708
L'Amiral 92 Malaga
Le Lys ? 88 Malaga, CabritaN/aBurned 1705 Cabrita?
SECOND RANK
Le Conquérant b1688 rToulon 171274 In service in 1713
Le Parfait b1700 Toulon 74 600 Malaga P. Barcelona 06At sea 1713
Le Saint Esprit b1691 Rochefort74 400 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Henry b1687 Dunkirk 66 400 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
L'Invincible b1689 Toulon 70 450 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Bizarre b1691 rToulon 170470 380 P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
L'Eclatant b1688 Toulon 66 430 Malaga P. Barcelona 06At sea 1713
La Couronne b1681 Brest 76 490 Roque; Malaga Scuttled 1708
L'Heureux 70 450 St. Marta; MalagaP. Barcelona 06
Le Constant 70 Malaga
Le Neptune b1703 Toulon 76 600 P. Barcelona 06
L'Apollon (wi) 60 350 St. Marta
L'Ardent 66 Malaga; CabritaN/aTaken at Cabrita 1705
Le Magnamine ? 74 Malaga; CabritaN/aBurned 1705 Cabrita
Le Fort (em) 70 440 Vigo N/aBurnt at Vigo
Le Prompt (em) 64 420 Vigo N/aTaken at Vigo
L'Assuré (em) b1697 Toulon 66 380 Vigo N/aTaken at Vigo
L'Esperance (em) 68 420 Vigo N/aBurnt at Vigo
Le Bourbon (em) b1692? Toulon 66 410 Vigo N/aTaken at Vigo
Le Superb (em) 66 420 Vigo N/aTaken at Vigo
THIRD RANK
Le Sérieux b1686 Toulon 58 380 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Trident b1695 Toulon 56 Malaga Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Téméraire r1706 Toulon 60 At sea 1713
Le Fleuron b1688 Toulon 56 350 Malaga P. Barcelona 06At sea 1713
Le Furieux b1684 Brest 60 350 Malaga P. Barcelona 06At sea 1713
L'Entreprenant r1702 Toulon 60 350 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Diamant b1687 Dunkirk 58 350 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
Le Rubis bnnnn Port Louis56 330 Malaga P. Barcelona 06At sea 1713
Le Vermandois b1685 Brest 60 350 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Could be rebuilt 1713
L'Ecueil ?b1692 Toulon 54 380 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Scuttled 1708
'Eole ? 62 Roque; Malaga Scuttled 1708
L'Excellent b1679 Rochefort60 350 Malaga Scuttled 1708
Le Saint Louis 60 380 Malaga P. Barcelona 06
L'Oriflamme b1703 Toulon 62 Malaga
Le Sage 62 340 Malaga P. Barcelona 06Bur. Toulon 1707?
Le Mercure 50 350 Malaga P. Barcelona 06
Le Fortuné 58 Malaga
Le Fendant 58 350 Malaga P. Barcelona 06
La Zélande 60 Malaga
Le Gaillard 54 Malaga
Le Content 60 Malaga
Le Maure 52 Malaga
Le Toulouse b1703 Toulon 62 380 Malaga P. Barcelona 06
L'Agréable (wi) 50 St. Marta
Le Phénix (wi) 60 St. Marta
L'Arrogant 56 Malaga; CabritaN/aTaken at Cabrita 1705
Le Marquis 58 Malaga; CabritaN/aTaken at Cabrita 1705
La Sireine (em) 60 380 Vigo N/aBurnt at Vigo
Le Prudent (em) b1697 Toulon 60 380 Vigo N/aBurnt at Vigo
L'Oriflamme (em) 60 380 Vigo N/aBurnt at Vigo
Le Ferme (em) 60 320 Vigo N/aTaken at Vigo
Le Modéré (em) 54 320 Vigo N/aTaken at Vigo
Le Solide (em) 54 320 Vigo N/aBurnt at Vigo
FOURTH RANK
Le Cheval Marin b1664 Toulon r1688 Brest40 Malaga Could be rebuilt 1713
La Parfaite b1704 Toulon 40 At sea 1713
La Vestale b1705 Toulon 40 At sea 1713
Le Volontaire (em) b1695 Toulon 44 250 Vigo N/aTaken at Vigo
Le Dauphin (em) 40 200 Vigo N/aBurnt at Vigo
Le Triton (em) 40 Vigo N/aTaken at Vigo

7 Notes

1) Daniel page 678 declares this to be the number of ships before the death of Richelieu, but fumbles with the years. On the next page it becomes clear that the mentioned year 1656 in the margin was wrong.
2) Daniel page 1679.
3) The explanation why it was correct to put all cards on land warfare is on the page about the Battle of Barfleur
4) Guerres Maritimes de la France by V.F. Brun page 145 has a list of the state of the navy at Toulon in 1713.