The story of la Renommée begins with the War of Austrian Succession that sprang out of multiple conflicts over colonies and trade around 1740. France had allied itself with Prussia while Great Britain supported the Austrians. The confusing state of allegiances and colonial boundary disputes had, by 1743, brought France and Great Britain to war.
France needed faster warships for defense and to service its far-flung colonies. In response, the shipwrights in Brest, one of the major ship-building ports on the Atlantic coast, laid the keel of a frigate based on new specifications that made the vessel incredibly light and fast.
La Renommée’s construction began in early 1744 and was completed by December 19th of the same year. The courageous and illustrious Captain Guy-François de Coëtnempren de Kersaint took over as her first commander in January of 1745 and departed on a mission to Cape Breton in North America. He was to deliver communiques and assess the security of the great citadel of Louisbourg. France’s fortress there guarded the passages to Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, the St. Lawrence River, and the entrance to all of Canada. A squadron of warships from Brest was to meet with Kersaint later near the Grand Banks. This would form a well-armed deterrent against the anticipated British blockade of Louisbourg.
Upon arrival, ice hampered his approach to the port, and later he discovered New England colonial and British warships already blockading Louisbourg. After numerous engagements, the capture of a colonial snow and a merchant ship, and unable to enter the harbor or locate the French squadron, he departed for Brest to report his findings.
Captain Kersaint discovered in France that he was to return to Cape Breton to break the citadel’s blockade with a much larger fleet under the command of Admiral De Salvert. In July of 1745 he again set sail and along the way captured a colonial mast ship. From the captive lieutenant-governor of the New York colony, they learned Louisbourg had already fallen to the English, thereby scuttling the fleet’s mission. La Renommée again set sail for home.
Versailles decided to recapture Louisbourg, and an enormous fleet departed in June of 1746 under Admiral d’Anville (d’Enville). La Renommée was once again to be the scout ship, ahead of the fleet to assess the strength of the British defenses. However, terrible storms either delayed, scattered, or destroyed the ships in the armada and this third attempt to reach the citadel failed after disease struck the expedition along with the sudden death of Admiral d’Anville. The season now too late for an attack, the crippled fleet headed back to France. On route, Captain Kersaint was seriously wounded during a long-running battle with a squadron of enemy ships off the coast of France. This nearly destroyed la Renommée and Captain Kersaint considered surrendering, but Lieutenant la Motte-Picquet, taking command for Kersaint, finally put the frigate, greatly damaged and having lost many crewmen, into a safe harbor.
In 1747, Captain François Marie Aleno de Saint-Alouarn, Seigneur de Kersallic was in command of la Renommée, departing for Santo Domingo with their new governor. Encountering enemy warships along the French coast, the frigate was badly damaged in a fierce battle with the Amazon (the captured French Panthére, the la Renommée’s sister ship). The next day the Dover, a 44-gun commanded by Captain Washington Shirley, forced Saint-Alouarn to surrender the frigate after nearly sinking her. Taken to Plymouth, la Renommée was assessed, repaired, and commissioned into the British Royal Navy as a 6th Rate and renamed the Renown. The same Captain Shirley was the first to command the frigate now under the British flag in January of 1748, sailing for Port Royal, Jamaica in the West Indies.
The war ended and for three years the Renown patrolled the waters around Jamaica and the Caribbean for smugglers and pirates. For a few brief months, Cornelius Smelt captained the ship until the command was returned to Captain Shirley, who returned to England with her in 1751. At that time the frigate was surveyed and ordered to be broken up but favorable opinions prevailed and swayed the Admiralty to put the captured warship in ordinary.
In 1757 the Renown was partially rebuilt at Portsmouth, losing much of her famous speed, reclassified a 5th rate with heavier guns, and recommissioned under Captain George Mackenzie. With the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in America) underway, the frigate saw action along the French coast and in 1758 captured the 22-gun sloop, la Guirlande. After the battle, she received repairs and new masts at Portsmouth. At Plymouth again, new iron ballast and other ironmongery were supplied her. Alterations also were made to her masts and spars.
Later that year Captain Mackenzie joined the fleet of Admiral Boscawen and sailed again to Port Royal. In the West Indies, the Renown captured the Captain West, a French schooner, and in January of 1759 joined Commodore Moore’s expedition against Martinique and Guadeloupe Islands. Following an aborted attempt to take Fort Royal, the fleet proceeded to bombard Saint-Pierre on Martinique, destroying it, and then sailed on to Guadeloupe. There they bombarded Basse-Terre, landed troops, and captured the town.
The Renown then joined a smaller squadron to attack Fort Louis on Grand Terre, Guadeloupe and took the fortification. However, with the arrival of a French fleet, Commodore Moore’s ships relocated to Prince Rupert’s Bay in Dominica. In November of 1759, the Renown set sail for the Leeward Islands again. Throughout all of 1760, she was assigned to the Port Royal station on patrol duties with Captain Mackenzie.
In April of 1761, Captain Frederick L. Maitland took over command and remained on station in Jamaica where the Renown captured the French schooner la Neptune that month and a French schooner from Bordeaux in May. Later, she recaptured from the French the Black Jack from South Carolina. The Renown patrolled the West Indies until September and returned to England.
Throughout early 1762, the frigate cruised the coasts of England and France, capturing the 6-gun cutter, la Saujon out of Morleaux, and le Count d’Herouville of 12-guns from Dunkirk. In April the Renown escorted transports to Lisbon, Portugal and during the summer convoyed to Oporto, Portugal on numerous trips. By November of that year, the frigate was back in Port Royal, Jamaica with Captain Maitland still in command.
During 1763 and 1764, Renown’s tasks took her to the islands of Haiti and Tortuga, and Cartagena, Columbia, plus a number of trips to Savannah, Georgia; St. Augustine, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; and Pensacola, Florida. Maitland returned to England in August of 1764. The Renown was surveyed, the crew paid off, and the ship was put up at Woolwich for repairs.
Captain John MacBride took command in June of 1765 and in 1766 the ship sailed back to Woolwich, England. By 1767 the Renown was under Captain Richard Bickerton and returned to the Port Royal station in Jamaica.
Bickerton, in poor health, captained the Renown until 1768 when Captain George Murray took over patrolling the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico until March of 1770. Then Captain Thomas Fitzherbert commanded the ship, returning the old frigate to England in July. At Portsmouth, England in August, the crew was paid off and the ship was laid up to be surveyed.
The navy promoted Captain William Peere Williams-Freeman to Post Captain of the Renown in January of 1771, although he likely never boarded her. In April of 1771, she was determined by the Admiralty to be unfit for duty and was broken up in May at Woolwich, England, her timbers becoming parts of barns, piers, and roof beams.
The well-respected la Renommée far surpassed the average 10–15-year lifespan of most frigates, sailing for twenty-seven years. Although the frigate had a Great Repair that undoubtedly prolonged her length of service, it is important to note that the navy felt the ship was worth the large investment to do so. Many important naval leaders both in France and Great Britain desired to command the frigate for her speed and low profile. In a report, they stated that she was “well built,” unlike many other French captures, having “that appearance, and a very promising body for going, and common fame says she out-sailed everything…” At the time of her capture, she was considered the fastest frigate afloat and capable of doing 15 knots in the right winds. Her nautical architecture, along with other French captures, influenced the British Admiralty to later adopt the Unicorn and Lyme classes of frigate construction based upon those French ship designs.