La Renommée resulted from the clashes of kings over political and commercial aspirations. The wars in the 1700s affected millions of people worldwide, from India, to Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Britain, France, and Spain, the major sea players in the drama, crowded one another grasping for the wealthy cornucopia of distant colonies; Spain, the ebbing sea power; France, the stagnant sea power; and Great Britain, the rising sea power.
Wartime stresses forced each to create new weaponry like bayonets, infantry flintlock muskets, and ship mortars; and refinements to old weapons; cannon trunnions, standardized cannons, and better rockets and grenades. On the deep blue, the advancements took place with better rigging arrangements, carronades, copper sheathing, reliable navigation clocks, and very important, faster ships. France’s break from traditions, unlike Britain’s outdated Establishment, set the pace for hydrodynamic excellence in ship design. The “modern” light frigate was born, and within a few short years, la Renommée was launched at Brest.
The fast French frigate was a trend that had begun in 1741 by the famous constructor Blaise Ollivier. He had studied shipbuilding his entire life and in 1727 wrote a treatise on the weaknesses of French nautical architecture and how to improve them. Ten years later Versailles sent him to Holland and England to study their methods of ship construction. Upon returning he again wrote a detailed memoir on the Dutch and English methods and their arsenals in comparison to the French established practices. His keen insights thrust him to the peak of authority, making ships designed on scientific principles wholly French.
Ollivier produced the first true light frigate in 1741, la Medée, a marked difference from the traditional frigate designs. La Medée had two decks as previous frigates, but the top deck carried the guns. Ollivier built strong supports for the top deck to take the ordnance weight while reducing the ship’s overall tonnage to increase its speed. The ceiling planking, or inner side planking below deck, was attached diagonally to replace hull supports and provide shear strength. The lower (gun) deck that used to carry the guns was now no more than sleeping quarters for the crew with a scant 4-foot headroom. Keeping the deck low enabled the topside and upper deck to be closer to the water which reduced wind resistance and the tendency of ships to heel leeward. Even-keeled to reduce the elevation and center of gravity also increased her speed. Once la Medée put to sea, his improvements immediately became the required standard for all future frigates.
To merge the industry standards, the School of Construction was established in 1741 at the Academy of Sciences in Paris that emphasized teaching a unified approach to the new theories, mathematics, and physics of ship design. This soon replaced the varied training and localized practices at the many shipyards whose shipwrights had no practical knowledge of nautical architecture or principles but only built as they had been taught.
One of the young student designers at the school, François Clairin-Deslauriers, drew upon la Médée’s new characteristics in preparing plans for a frigate that advanced ship construction even further. His designs sharply increased the angle of the tumblehome, or inward slant of the frigate’s sides, and lowered the upper deck even closer to the waterline. In addition to a long, narrow hull, he placed the foremast further to the bow to catch more wind. He also changed the dimensions of the masts and used iron braces to replace the heavy wooden hanging knee braces that supported the decks. These radical changes made the frigate much lighter and faster. They also, however, would make her harder to handle and by-the-head, or tending to plow the waves instead of riding over them. Yet, the speed gained outweighed the negatives.
Ships at that time were not complete without the elaborate sculptures that decorated the prow, stern, and quarter gallery. Those on la Renommée were drawn up by Charles-Philippe Caffieri, the Master Sculptor at the Brest shipyard of the Caffieri artists family who had designed the decor for many ships. Unlike the entwined curving motif of the earlier rococo period, Caffieri adopted the newer restraints toward classicism in French art. The original sketches for the ship were completed on the 2nd of July, 1744 and are kept at the Maritime Historical Service at Chateau de Vincennes.
By January of 1744, Ollivier approved the design and la Renommée’s keel was laid down in May at the Brest shipyard on the Brittany coast. And on December 19th of the same year, the navy launched her as a 5th Rank-3rd Order frigate. Once she put to sea her speed was stunning. With a stern gale wind two points off her beam, she made 15 knots even without stunsails or topgallants, becoming the fastest frigate afloat.
The frigate was armed with twenty-six 8-pound guns on the upper deck and four 4-pound guns on her quarterdeck likely forged at Foundry Lane in Touvre in southwestern France or one of the nearby foundries.
Immediately after la Renommée’s capture in September of 1747, she was taken to Plymouth, surveyed, and refitted at a cost of £5,103.16s.7d and commissioned a Sixth Rate renamed Renown. In 1751 the frigate was found worthy enough to undergo a Great Repair for £10,754.14s.3d that changed her sailing characteristics, slowing her. The royal navy placed twenty-four 9 pounders on her main deck, two 4 pounders on her forecastle, and four 4 pounders on her quarterdeck and reclassified her as a fifth rate. Then beginning on August 27, 1764, the navy surveyed her again and did a Small Repair costing £1,808.14s.0d between September of 1764 and May of 1765.
Her exact specifications vary depending upon the source of research, national standards of measurement, and year of measurements (ie. before or after capture and the British rebuild). The following are assumed to be close to the actual dimensions when captured based upon the Plymouth survey, taken from Jean Boudroit’s La Renommée, Frégate de VIII.
Length: 124’ 6”
Keel Length: 100’
Breadth: 31’ 8”
Hold depth: 16’
Burthen: 500 tons
Displacement: 931.06 tons
Draft Fore: 13’ 6”
Draft Aft: 14’ 2”
Midship Ports (above water): 6’ 4”
Guns (French): 26 x 8 pounders (Upper Deck), 4 x 4 pounders (Quarterdeck)
Guns (British): 24 x 9 pounders (Upper Deck), 6 x 4 pounders (4 on Quarterdeck & 2 on Forecastle)
Broadside Weight: 120.9 lbs. (54.8 kg)
Top Speed: 15 knots
Stored for Service: 3 months
Crew: 224 (British)/206 (French)
Officers: 4 (British)/ 10 (French)
Men: 220 (British)/196 (French)
The most recognizable characteristic of la Renommée is the acute inward slanting tumblehome. As mentioned above, it reduced wind resistance and no doubt provided for protection by deflecting cannonballs better. Another easily seen addition to the ship was the two false chase-gun ports on the stern below the gallery. Besides giving pause to an attacking ship at the stern, it likely served as ventilation for the crew’s sleeping quarters on the gun deck that now had no ports on the hull.
In good weather, la Renommée sailed well on smooth seas and strong winds. She was maneuverable, albeit slow in tacking and wearing. However, in rough weather, she pitched greatly and rolled. She was a wet sailor in a blow, burying her bow into waves when close hauled, largely due to the fore placed mast and even keel. Stiff and wet, she needed much trimming. And on long voyages, the change in displacement from consuming provisions forced adjustments to her loading and handling. With the wind 2 points abaft the beam and doubled reefed topgallants and foresail, her speed was best.
French nautical construction and design had been at odds with the British Admiralty Establishment methods for many decades. To the British, French ships were simply built too flimsy. The French spaced their thinner frames, or ship ribs, too far apart and other scantlings, the timbers and beams, were also lighter. Often the futtock timbers were joined with butt-joints instead of the stronger scarf-joints. They used lighter cannons to lighten the deck loads, allowing them to use more iron supports in their constructions to avoid the heavy wood braces, or knees, than the British. Instead of sturdy oak treenails, they used pine or other lighter softwoods. French vessels also had more iron bolts in use. This introduced “nail-sickness,” with the iron rusting away and rotting the surrounding wood. All of these practices increased maintenance and produced faster hogging and warping in ships along the horizontal plane, decreasing the ship’s seaworthiness and maneuverability. This conservative and evidence-based attitude prevailed in the British Admiralty nearly unchanged regardless of the pleas of their captains for revisions to the Establishment methods to increase ship speed.
These very conventions in French shipbuilding, however, allowed their ships to be swift, something the British commanders envied greatly. With so many French frigates outperforming British frigates, the Admiralty eventually gave in to the fact that French designs should be considered. The Renown was a favorite among the commissioned captured frigates that changed the outlook of the British Admiralty. La Renommée’s survey after capture in Plymouth, unlike many of her sisters, found her to be outstanding in comparison. By the late 1740s, the new French designs and resulting sailing characteristics of the light frigates influenced the British to change their haughty design requirements.