The French Navy in 1700

Louis XIV rebuilds the French Navy 1661-1672

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 and the civil wars 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.

All this changed when Colbert 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.

The French Navy engages 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.

The French navy in the Nine years war

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.

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 (1690)

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.