War at Sea – Galley vs Sailing Ship

Featured Image By Hendrick Cornelisz Vroomhttp://www.rijksmuseum.nl : Home : Info : Pic; alternate version: Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, Link


Most of fantasy does not consider naval warfare, and those writers which do have varied performance in portraying it. In Lord of the Rings, dromund-style ships are described to be used. While Byzantine dromond would not have been appropriate for the geography of Middle-Earth – Bay of Belfalas is not a closed sea in the vein of Mediterranean – Middle-English “dromund” can denote any large medieval ship. It is made clear however that these ships are oared, which means that they are most likely similar to Viking longships (or else Irish galleys, themselves similar to longships). Fleet of Ar-Pharazon explicitly has enormous galleys, which would not have been capable of making a trip from Numenor, either to Middle-Earth mainland or to Valinor. However, in previous generations, Numenorean ships are described as “tall ships”, which are indeed suited for long-range voyages, and a “great galleon of Numenor” is mentioned in HoME. A Song of Ice and Fire has a pastiche of different ship types – longships, war dromonds, caravels, carracks – some of which are completely unsuited for the geographic and geopolitical circumstances of the setting.

Historical overview

After Roman hull-first construction techniques were abandoned and replaced with ribs-first construction, battering ram became useless as a weapon. As a result, naval action came to depend on missile exchange and boarding – only introduction of cannon saved galley as a ship of war in the Mediterranean. In Atlantic, many battles were fought exclusively on cogs (e.g. Battle of Sluys), although war galley survived for purposes of raiding, anti-piracy and coastal patrol. Navigation in Antiquity and Middle Ages was limited to shore, and utilization of landmarks. Only in early modernity did advances such as magnetic compass, astrolabe, navigational charts and better ships allow mariners to sail away from the shore.

Early on, most Atlantic shore nations did not use galleys for naval warfare. Regardless of a design, galley is not an effective seagoing weapon system (with exception of types such as Irish galley or Norman longship). Traditional Mediterranean galleys were too unseaworthy and logistically short-legged, being thus constrained to shore navigation. Northern Atlantic, with its rough weather, was too harsh – even the coastal seas – for galleys to be utilized properly. As a result, significant attention was given to design and construction of sailing vessels, navigation, seaworthiness and range. Roundship evolved quickly in Atlantic as a warfighting platform, and by 13th century was a dominant warship, almost completely replacing galleys by the 14th century. Purpose-designed sailing warships incorporated fore and aft castles. Oared warships continued to be used for scouting and amphibious operations, but were relegated to the status of secondary combatant. In 1417., about 90% of English navy’s tonnage was in sailing ships. This was not due to gunpowder weapons: they were still rare at the time, and until 16th century, naval battles continued to be dominated by boarding tactics.

Introduction of cannon did not promote sailing ships until a way was found to cast significant numbers of iron cannons inexpensively. In fact, early, expensive cannons prolonged the life of a galley as a fighting platform – being few in number, they were mounted in ship’s bow, ensuring superiority of a maneuverable galley. Only in the late 16th century did cheap iron cannons appear, allowing enough to be mounted on a ship to make broadside mountings viable, which eventually led to appearance and dominance of ships of the line.

In Middle Ages, naval establishments for the most part were not permanent. Only between 1500 and 1650 did permanent naval establishments become a general phenomenon, but even then they were at first very small. Sicily developed permanent war fleet in 13th century, Venice in 14th century and England in 15th century. Gunports on ships appear in 1500., marking a divide between medieval and early modern naval warfare. During Middle Ages, majority of warships were requisitioned merchant vessels, or else merchant vessels modified for war – even in the case of permanent establishments. Merchant vessels were easily transformed into warships by putting castle superstructure bow and aft and, later, by adding gun ports.


Galleys were most popular warships in both Atlantic and Mediterranean until 12th century, and remained significant until 14th century. Sailling vessels became more important for warfare from 12th century onwards thanks to more masts and sails, and introduction of rudder fitted to stern-post rising from the keel (as opposed to control oar). Oared warships dominated Baltic until 1210. when Lithuanian Brothers of the Sword switched to cogs.

Switch was done for tactical reasons. Before introduction of gunpowder, height was a crucial advantage: Aragon-Catalonia thus included galleys with very high forecastles. This meant that a high-sided hull of a large sailing ship provided significant advantage in an encounter with a galley. Raids carried out by cogs from Bayonne into Mediterranean in 1304. impressed Geonese, Venetians and Catalans enough that they began building cogs – coches – themselves. Sailing ships were equipped with superstructures (castles) fore and aft which allowed attacking the enemy. Due to importance of height advantage, these castles became higher and higher, rendering sailing ships into floating fortresses. As a result, it was impossible for a galley crew to successfully board and enter a sailing ship. In 1264., Geonese fleet of eighteen galleys attacked Venetian convoy of around 20 ships (single 750-ton round ship, twelve 150-ton single-decked sailing vessels and half-a-dozen smaller craft); despite being outnumbered, Venetian ships managed to resist for hours. Geonese proved completely incapable of successfully assaulting the round ship (Rocaforte) after Venetians had retreated to it. In 1453., 150 Turkish boats gathered around four sailing vessels in Bosphorus yet proved incapable of capturing them. By 1420., Genoese were building carracks of 600 to 900 tons of displacement, which were essentially immune to attacks by the galleys.

Revival of oared warship came with introduction of heavy cannon. Initial heavy cannons were bow-mounted, and maneuverable galley was able to inflict considerable damage to high hulls of sailing ships without the sailing ship – even if it mounted side-facing deck guns – being able to respond in kind. Due to oars, galleys could maneuver and fire with precision, and in line-abreast formation.

Introduction of cannon meant that between 1500 and 1580. galleys – up until then vulnerable to high sides and decks of sailing ships – became primary combatants, being able to stand off and sink sailing ships with impunity. In Mediterranean, such galleys dominated until 1630s. This also meant that galley warfare was exported to Northern sea between 1520. and 1580. France and England began to use galleys and galleasses in the Channel, and with Sweden following suit in 1540. and Denmark-Norway in 1565. French armada of 1545. contained galley force as well as 125 to 300 sailing ships. Cannon also meant that galleys – which could safely approach the shore – could disembark troops and artillery, or else serve as floating siege platforms near the walls.

Further development came with the introduction of galeass. Galeass had bow of the galley able to mount heavy guns, as well as a gun deck above oarsmen where broadside armament was located. To counter galley, galleon was developed by combining fore-part of the galley with an aft part of a sailing ship. Fact that galley was its most important enemy explained galleon’s focus on bow-mounted guns.

However, increase in artillery meant disproportionate increase in size and weight of galleys. Galleys went from 200 tons in 1550 to 300 tons in 1650. This 50% increase in displacement required 100% increase in oarsmen if speed was not to be compromised. As a result, slaves and convicts started being used alongside free rowers. But this meant that additional men were needed to fight and to guard the slaves. Galleys continued to be used until the end of the 17th century – Louis XIV built a fleet of 40 galleys at the end of the 17th century, the largest one in existence. Russians built more than 400 galleys during 18th century for warfare against Ottomans.

Advantage that galley gained with introduction of cannon was negated when sailing ships started regularly receiving gun ports near the water-line. This however required development of new tactics. When attacked by a galley fleet in a standard line-abreast formation, sailing ships – even when equipped with broadside artillery – could only use small anti-personnel guns. Initial response was to put heavy cannon in the aft of the sailing ship. But as size and number of cannon increased, hull had to be strenghtened to withstand ship’s own artillery as well as enemy projectiles.

End of galley as primary combatant in gunpowder era came when cast-iron cannons allowed unprecendented number of artillery to be placed aboard warships. Compared to bronze gun of same firepower, cast-iron guns were considerably heavier but cost quarter as much. As a result, 17th century sailing ship could mount a full cannon deck – or three, although one to two battery decks was the normal number.

Sailing ships also became faster and more maneuverable. In Portugal, caravel of 150 – 180 tons with two decks, four masts and a narrow hull was developed for naval purposes. In England in 1570s a “race-ship” was introduced, with reduced castles, sleeker lines and longer gun-deck. Developments in Flanders in 1600. led to development of the frigate, whose fine and shallow hull allowed it to combine speed, maneuverability and hitting power. Flemish frigate was adapted or imitated by the Dutch in 1620s, and England and France in 1660s. But well into 17th century, boarding remained important tactic, leading to continued importance of ships with fore- and after- -castle.

As a result of this development, sailing warship returned to Mediterranean as well. In 16th century, Venice had built no sailing warships. But in 1618., Venetians hired for the first time converted merchantment from the Dutch and the English. In 1667., Venetian arsenal built its first ship-of-the-line on English model, and constructed further 68 such ships in the next 50 years.

Up until the middle of 17th century, practice continued of using converted merchantment for war. Spain had to support large galley fleets to counter Ottomans, and so tried to incentivize merchants to use larger sailing ships by giving them loading preferences. However, merchant community continued to prefer smaller ships which handled better in shoal waters of Netherlands and the North Sea. After truce with the Porte in 1580. and disaster of the Armada in 1588., Spain revitalised the fleet which at beginning of 17th century consisted of huge galleons, and repelled Anglo-Dutch attack on Cadiz in 1625. But these ships continued to be built as multi-purpose vessels, sacrificing speed and agility.

Habsburg Netherlands also continued utilizing armed merchantmen for war. These ships were built sturdy so they could carry heavy artillery. Placing heavy artillery required modifications: gun ports, reinforced hulls and decks, reinforced masts with more sail, and by 1621. Dutch had developed specialist warship. In 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch merchant fleet was the largest in Europe and possibly the world, enabling significant overseas expansion even in the face of stronger powers such as England and France. In 1640s, Dutch Admiralty sold off many of dedicated frigate-style warships; England, Norway and Denmark likewise relied on armed merchantmen.

After 1650s however it became clear that armed merchant ships were no longer adequate to fight wars. In 1639., Dutch admiral Tromp led his squadron in a line-ahead formation, sinking 40 out of 53 Spanish ships – mostly galleons and converted merchantmen. English were the first to adopt the tactic systematically, and thus defeated the Dutch in First Anglo-Dutch war. Dutch responded by transitioning to purpose-built warships, and only during Second Anglo-Dutch war embraced line-ahead and three-squadron order.

Tactical comparison / conclusion


In Antiquity, galley held advantage over sailing ship due to technology and tactics of the time. Ships were weakly built, which meant that hulls could be penetrated with ramming attacks. This placed emphasis on ship’s speed and maneuverability, leading to appearance and dominance of trireme warship.

Once ship’s construction became sturdier, naval tactics switched to boarding and missile exchange. Here, galley was at disadvantage due to its much lower height.

Gunpowder era

After introduction of gunpowder, issue of dominance of galley or sailling ship hinges on one question: adoption and effectiveness of broadside armament. As long as armament is mounted only at bow, or possibly on bow and high on deck, galley – with its maneuverability and low freeboard – has massive advantage against sailing ship. It can position itself for the attack more effectively, and even if it wanders into sailling ship’s firing arcs, latter’s cannons are typically positioned too high up to seriously threaten the galley.

Once artillery becomes common enough, and mounted low in the hull – below the main deck, thanks to gun ports – sailing ship again has advantage over the galley.

Further reading

Click to access 15602743.pdf


  1. Thank you for this informative article. It put my mind at rest on several issues. I write epic fantasy and in my wip my protg spends time on a galley, then a sailing ship but since I know next to nothing about boating except what I read up on, I was uncomfortable about writing it. I’ve just one question which I haven’t yet found a precise answer. Did galleys conceivably have space below deck / cabin(s) and /or a hold where important guests and merchandise could be put while at sea?


    1. They did have such space, but it was rather limited. Exyctly how limited depended on design: war galleys usually had to be rather narrow, and as such had limited capacity. Merchant galleys could place cargo in between the rows of rowers (and may have had dedicated cargo hold), as well as on deck. They also did not need as many rowers as war galleys to begin with, so they gained space there as well.

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