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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

“Sovereigns of the Sea: The Quest to Build the Perfect Renaissance Battleship”, by Angus Konstam

352 pages, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0470116678

Angus Konstam's book, Sovereigns of the Sea: The Quest to Build the Perfect Renaissance Battleship proves to be a great book on the evolution of warship building in northern Europe. Much of the book centered around the arms race between England, Netherlands and Spain during the 16th Century with France thrown in here and there. It is interesting to note how Europeans’ quest for larger, superior warships during the 16th century will remind some readers of the same mentality of the European powers prior to World War I. In today's world battleships consist of such gigantic craft as 30,000 ton aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, frigates, and patrol boats with diesel and gas turbine propulsion in CODOG, CODAG and COGAG configurations; with sprint speeds of over 40 knots. Warships with hulls made of welded steel and fiberglass, with sophisticated computer-operated weapons systems and helipads. What an extraordinary change from those wooden hulls, tallmasted, ornate seafaring battleships of the 14th through the 17th Centuries. And yet, Mr. Konstam writes, “they created and ruined empires, changed the map of the world, and led Europe out of the Renaissance into the modern age.”

When we think of the Renaissance, we tend to think of the intellectual and artistic rebirth – of Donatello, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Copernicus and Galileo In fact it was also a period of almost constant wars, plundering and blood-letting; piracy, legal and illegal. The concept that control of the seas is crucial to the survival of nations was formed during Renaissance. It directly led to a race to build the biggest, most powerful, most maneuverable battleships. However, one of the more interesting chapters turned out to be Scotland's King James IV's bid for naval supremacy when they built the Michael, the most powerful warship of her times when built. This impressive ship ate up over half of Scotland's budget when it was built and it barely saw combat. And she was surpassed quickly by ships from England and other nations. However, it was interesting to read that for a brief moment in the sun, Scotland was a naval power to be reckoned with even if it was just for show.

The book also traced how the flush built designs from the Mediterranean influence the ship building in northern Europe. How usage of gun powder and cannons made these ships a true instrument of war instead of just armed transports of the medieval period. Sovereigns of the Sea also goes into some details of famous ships like the Mary Rose and the Swedish Vasa, both ships that is currently on display in their respective nations today. The book ends when England built their Sovereign of the Sea, Europe's first true modern ship of the line during the reign of Charles I, a ship according to the author that was good enough to sail in the line of battle with Nelson at Trafalgar.

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