Such ships were the mainstay of maritime commerce into the early 19th century, and were often drafted into use as auxiliary naval war vessels—indeed, were the mainstay of contending fleets through most of the 150 years of the
Age of Exploration—before the Anglo-Dutch wars brought purpose-built
ships of the line, that thereafter dominated war at sea during the remainder of the
age of sail.
The word galleon, "large ship", comes from
Spanishgaleón, "galleon", "armed merchant ship" or from
Old Frenchgalion, "armed ship of burden" from
Medieval Greekgalea, "
galley", to which the French or Spanish augmentative suffix -on is added. Another possible origin is the Old French word galie, "galley"; also from Medieval Greek galea. The galea was a warship of the
Byzantine navy, and its name may be related to the Greek word galeos, "
dogfish shark". The term was originally given to certain types of war
galleys in the
The Annali Genovesi mention galleons of 60, 64 and 80 oars, used for battle and on missions of exploration, in the 12th and 13th centuries. It is very likely that the galleons and galliots mentioned in the accounts of the crusades were the same vessels. In the early 16th century, the Venetian galleoni were a new class of galley used to hunt down pirates in the
Later, when the term started to be applied to sail-only vessels, it meant, like the English term "man-of-war", any large warship that was otherwise no different from the other sailing ships of the time.
In the beginning of the 16th century, a lowering of the
forecastle and elongation of the
hull gave the ocean-going galleons an unprecedented level of stability in the water, and reduced
wind resistance at the front, leading to a faster, more maneuverable vessel. The galleon differed from the older types primarily by being longer, lower and narrower, with a square tuck
stern instead of a round tuck, and by having a snout or head projecting forward from the bows below the level of the forecastle. In
Portugal at least, Portuguese carracks were usually very large ships for their time (often over 1,000
tons), while galleons were mostly under 500 tons, although the
Manila galleons were to reach up to 2,000 tons. With the introduction of the galleon in
Portuguese India Armadas during the first quarter of the 16th century, carracks' armament was reduced as they became almost exclusively cargo ships (which is why the Portuguese carracks were pushed to such large sizes), leaving any fighting to be done to the galleons. One of the largest and most famous of Portuguese galleons was the São João Baptista (nicknamed Botafogo, "Spitfire"), a 1,000-ton galleon built in 1534, said to have carried 366 guns.
Carracks also tended to be lightly armed and used for transporting cargo in all the fleets of other Western European states, while galleons were purpose-built warships, and were stronger, more heavily armed, and also cheaper to build (five galleons could cost around the same as three carracks) and were therefore a much better
investment for use as warships or transports. There are disputes about its origins and development but each
Atlantic sea power built types suited to its needs, while constantly learning from their rivals. It was the captains of the Spanish navy,
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and
Álvaro de Bazán, who designed the definitive long and relatively narrow hulled galleon for Spain in the 1550s.
The galleon was powered entirely by wind, using
sails carried on three or four
masts, with a
lateen sail continuing to be used on the last (usually third and fourth) masts. They were used in both military and trade applications, most famously in the
Spanish treasure fleet, and the Manila galleons. While carracks played the leading role in early global explorations, galleons also played a part in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact, galleons were so versatile that a single vessel might be refitted for wartime and peacetime roles several times during its lifespan. The galleon was the prototype of all square-rigged ships with three or more masts for over two and a half centuries, including the later
The principal warships of the opposing
Spanish fleets in the 1588 confrontation of the
Spanish Armada and in the 1589 confrontation of the
English Armada were galleons, with the modified English
race-built galleons developed by
John Hawkins proving their great utility in combat, while the capacious Spanish galleons, designed primarily as transports, showed great endurance in the battles.
Galleons were constructed from
oak (for the
pine (for the masts) and various
decking. Hulls were usually
carvel-built. The expenses involved in galleon construction were enormous. Hundreds of expert tradesmen (including
shipwrights, etc.) worked for months before a galleon was seaworthy. To cover the expense, galleons were often funded by groups of wealthy businessmen who pooled resources for a new ship. Therefore, most galleons were originally consigned for trade, although those captured by rival states were usually put into military service.
Because of the long periods often spent at sea and poor conditions on board, many of the crew often perished during the voyage; therefore advanced
rigging systems were developed so that the vessel could be sailed home by an active
sailing crew a fraction of the size aboard at departure.
The oldest known scale drawings in
England are in a manuscript called "Fragments of Ancient Shipwrightry" made in about 1586 by
Mathew Baker, a
master shipwright. This manuscript, held at the Pepysian Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge, provides an authentic reference for the size and shape of typical English galleons built during this period. Based on these plans, the Science Museum, London has built a 1:48 scale model ship that is an exemplar of galleons of this era.
San Pelayo, the large 906-ton galleon, which served as the flagship of
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés during his expedition to establish
St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. The vessel was so large it could not enter St. Augustine's harbor, so Menendez ordered it offloaded and sent it back to Hispaniola. At a later date her crew mutinied and sailed to Europe where the ship wrecked off the coast of Denmark.
Dainty, ship with which Sir
Richard Hawkins sought to emulate the circumnavigation voyage of his cousin Francis Drake. She was captured by the Spanish in the
action of Atacames Bay in 1594 and served in the Spanish Navy in the South American Pacific for several years.
Ark Raleigh was designed and built by Sir
Walter Raleigh. She was later chosen by Lord Howard, admiral of the fleet to be the flagship of the English fleet in the fight against the
Spanish Armada in 1588 and was summarily renamed Ark Royal.
Revenge, a galleon built in 1577, the flagship of Sir Francis Drake in the Battle of the Spanish Armada in 1588, was captured by a Spanish fleet off Flores in the Azores in 1591 and sank while being sailed back to Spain.
Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, a Spanish galleon, known to her crew as Cacafuego for her strong cannon. She was captured by Sir Francis Drake in 1578 and all her treasures were brought to England. She was holding treasures mined in one year by the Spanish in the Americas.
Padre Eterno, a Portuguese galleon launched in 1663. She was considered to be the biggest ship of her time, carrying 144 pieces of artillery with a displacement up to 2,000 tons.
Vasa, the only original galleon to be preserved. She sank in 1628 and was raised in 1961 for preservation as a
Santa Luzia, a Portuguese galleon known for defeating a Dutch
squadron single-handedly twice in 1650.
^ Galeão – Navegações Portuguesas by Francisco Contente Domingues (in Portuguese)
^Despite this kind of ship (or only a close model of art) was already depicted in the heraldry of the Foral of Lisbon (of D. Manuel I) in 1502, it is in 1510 (as also in some of the following years after 1510) the appearance of the Portuguese oceanic galleon in the records. It is however from 1519 that their number increases substantially, but gradually. It was an evolution and a gradual improvement in the design made during the first quarter of the century – technical improvement which continued until the second half of the century. The Portuguese galleon evolved from the
square rigged caravel and was a compromise between the great carrack or nau and the aforementioned square rigged caravel or war caravel (also called caravela de armada or Portuguese man of war) that evolved into a new design of ship, but keeping its hull design similar to the galley. It was also more maneuverable, more robust and heavily armed.
^Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas 1500–1750. M. E. Sharpe, 1998.
^"The galleon evolved in response to Spain's need for an ocean-crossing cargo ship that could beat off corsairs. Pedro de Menéndez, along with Álvaro de Bazán (hero of Lepanto), is credited with developing the prototypes which had the long hull—and sometimes the oars—of a galley married to the poop and prow of a Portuguese nau or merchantman. Galeones were classed as 1-, 2- or 3-deckers, and stepped two or more masts rigged with square sails and topsails (except for a lateen sail on the mizzenmast). Capacity ranged up to 900 tons or more. Menéndez's San Pelayo of 1565 was a 900-ton galleon which was also called a nau and galeaza. She carried 77 crewmen, 18 gunners, transported 317 soldiers and 26 families, as well as provisions and cargo. Her armament was iron."—p.100 Menéndez: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Captain General of the Ocean Sea Albert C. Manucy, published 1992 by Pineapple Press, Inc
^Walton, Timothy R. (2002).The Spanish Treasure Fleets. Pineapple Press Inc, p. 57.
^Little, Benerson (2010). "Spanish Galleons and Portuguese Carracks". Pirate Hunting: The Fight Against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders from Antiquity to the Present. Washington, DC: Potomac. p. 145.
ISBN978-1-59797-291-8. Called by her crew Cacafuego ... fire shitter
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