John Wassell's ego-trip Website

OF WASSELLS, WHELPS and KENNEDYS- Genealogy, naval history and assassination all in one website!




In the 1970's I wanted to build a model of an English 17th century warship other than the Sovereign of the Seas, the best known ship of the period. Originally this was to be a model of either the Constant Reformation or the Antelope, both of which were drawn by the Dutch artist Willem Van de Velde in 1648 in enough detail to allow accurate modelling as he made more than one drawing of them. They were both capital ships of the period and, with their armament carried on two gun decks, were more representative of the "Navy Royal" than the massive Sovereign.

As research progressed, I became interested in the Lions Whelps, ten small ships built in 1628, and began to research them to see if I could get enough data to plan a model. I ended up with a mass of information, mainly from original documents preserved in the Public Record Office in London and catalogued under the title "State Papers, Domestic". The Whelps had one gun deck, were equipped with "sweeps" (3-man oars like a galley) and were part of a line of auxilliary-oared warships running from Henry VIII's time to the "Galley Frigates" of Charles II's reign.



The following is based on a "note" published in the "Mariner's Mirror" Vol. 63 (1977) p.368 in response to an earlier "note" (p.128) concerning the name given to ten small English warships built in 1628 originally for the Duke of Buckingham. I have added transcripts of original documents (shown in yellow) and will add more as time permits.











George Villiers (1592-1628), created Duke of Buckingham by King James, had a precedent for naming the ten new ships lion's whelps. A ship called Lion's Whelp was owned by Charles, Earl of Nottingham who was Buckingham's predecessor as Lord Admiral of England. This ship was loaned to Sir Walter Raleigh for his 1595 expedition and was sold to the State in 1602 and repaired at Chatham by up-and -coming shipwright Phineas Pett.

Buckingham received her as a gift from King James just before James died in 1625. She was to be the Duke's contribution to an expedition under William Hawkridge to find a North-West passage4. As this gift was not ratified when James died, the whole procedure had to be repeated with Charles, the new King. I have not traced the fate of this ship.

Although masted and armed from Royal Navy stores, the 10 Whelps were built at the Duke's expense. As the Duke's private fleet, they were used to prey on French shipping (with the proceeds going to the Duke's war-chest) before joining the rest of the English fleet for the final attempt to relieve the siege of La Rochelle. They were taken into the Royal Navy after the Duke was assassinated and in 1632 the State reimbursed his estate with £4,500. The accounts of Captain Pennington (who supervised their construction) show that the Duke spent almost £7,000 on them. Had he lived he would probably have recouped his expenses by selling them to the State (following Nottingham's precedent) - at a better price than that paid to his estate!

The coat of arms of the Villiers family was a lion rampant- no doubt the Duke appreciated the allusion in the name!



1. This date is given in a report of the wreck in the State Papers, Domestic. The journal of Benjamin Lacloche (Societe Jersiase) gives it as the 3rd. The Jersey Maritime Museum searched for the wreck in the 1970's but found nothing. St. Aubins Bay is shallow and tidal and the bed is a quartz gravel which has severely eroded relatively modern wrecks. (letter to me from the curator: 19 March 1979)

2. Rawlinson MSS C.416 (Bodleian Library) entry dated 21 August 1645

3. Register of the Scots Privy Council, 21 March 1642. Newark Castle is on the south shore of the Forth of Clyde, near Greenock.

4. For a narrative of this unsuccessful cruise see "Mariner's Mirror" vol. 13, p 51.



Extract from a letter from one John Mason at Portsmouth to the Duke of Buckingham dated 3 January 1627 (1628):

And likewise undertake to build some small shipping upon reasonable composition for his Majestie after the mould of the French pinnaces that your grace took such liking of for their singular sailing.


To my very loving friends Captain John Pennington and Capt. Phineas Pett (SP16.94)

Whereas I am desirous to have some pynnaces built that may be of extraordinarie good saile ~ whereby to meet with the Dunkirkers and other shippes and vessells of the enemy, and that I rely verie much on your art, and indent for the building of such these are to pray, require and authorize you instantly to contract and bargaine with several of the ablest and most experte shipwrights for the instant building them in the River of Thames, att Ipswich, Shorum and elsewhere as you shall think best tenn good pynnaces of about one hundred and twentie tons a peece & with the most advantage as may be for sayling & rowing (the "& rowing" has been added in a different hand) according to such directions for that purpose as you shall give them. I would have you instantly to sett the pynnaces in hand and to charge the shipwrights you shall imploy to use their best arte and industry in ye building of them and to assure them from me that I shall be ready to perform such of them as shall excel in this service. Therein I pray fayle not to use all possible care and expedicion. For which this shall be your warrant, from Wallingford House 25 February 1627. (1628)



From "The autobiography of Phineas Pett" (W.G. Perrin, Navy Records Society, 1918) pp. 138 / 139 :

The 26th of February, attending the Officers of the navy at Sir Sackville Crowe's house by Charing Cross, Sir John Pennington came thither to acquaint them with a warrant from the Lord Duke, directed to him and myself, for present bargaining with the yard-keepers of the river for the building of 10 small vessels for the enterprise of Rochelle, of some 120 tons a-piece, with one deck and quarter only, to row as well as sail. The 28th day of the same month we concluded our bargains with the several yardkeepers and drew covenants between us, and delivered them imprests accordingly. In this business I was employed till the latter end of July, that the ships set sail to Portsmouth. My son John was placed Captain in the Sixth Whelp, built by my kinsman Peter Pett; having liberty from the Lord Duke to make choice for him amongst them all, I chose that pinnace before the rest, supposing she would have proved best, which fell out afterward clean contrary.


Minutes of a meeting of the Privy Council (SP16.94) -

at Whitehall the 27th February 1627


Lord Keeper (of the privy seal)- Lord Treasurer - Lord President (of the council) - Lord Admiral - Lord Steward - Earl of Suffolk - Earl of Dorset - Earl of Exeter - Earl of Morton - Earl of Kelley - Viscount Wimbledon - Viscount Grandison - Mr. Treasurer - Master of the Ward(robe) - Mr. Chanc(ellor) of the Exchequer - Mr Chanc. of the Duchy (of Lancaster)

Whereas it was this day moved by the Lord Admiral that for the preparing and setting out of 10 pinnaces of aboute 120 tonnes a peece to be built with the most advantage both to row and sail, as likewise for boats to be made for them order might be given for supply of oars, cables, anchors, sails, canvas and all other tackling and rigging necessary to be furnished out of his majesties stores. And that order might be likewise given, to the office of the ordnance for the furnishing out of hia Majesties stores of such ordnance and ammunition for the said shipps as should be requisite. Their Lordships well approving of the said motion did think fit and order the same accordingly.

Meautys (Sir Thomas Meautys, clerk of the Privy Council)


Buckingham's warrant to Pennington and Pett (SP16.95) -

To my very loving friends Capt. John Pennington and Capt. Phineas Pett

Whereas it will be very requisit that there be boats built and oars provided for ye 10 pinnaces, which I have given you order to build for his majesties present service to go with oars & sails, these are to pray, require and authorise you forthwith to set in hand the making & fitting of the many oars for the said pinnaces as cannot be furnished out of his majesties stores, and likewise the building of as many boats for them as shall be necessary in such manner as you shall think best for the service for which the said pinnaces are intended: You are also to appoint some able & experienced men to see the sails & other rigging & furniture for these pinnaces shall be fitted acording to such directions as you shall give them and to allow him for his pains & care therein such reasonable pay as you shall think fit out of the money assigned for this service, For which this shall be your warrant : From Wallingford House this third of March 1627 (1628)




In 1648 at Helvoetsluys, Dutch artist Willem Van de Velde drew some of the earliest accurate pictures of English warships during the confrontation between the Earl of Warwick's Parliamentarian fleet and Navy ships that had gone over to the Royalists under Prince Rupert. Unfortunately I have not been able to find one of the Tenth Whelp.

The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has a small (5" x 10") painting by Abraham de Verwer on copper dated about 1650 (Palmer Collection: negative number A4626) which shows two small warships of the period, one Dutch and one English.

The English ship corresponds to the general appearance of the Whelps in that she is a three-masted ship having one gun deck with a grating or flying deck over the waist, has eight broadside gun ports, appears to have the Royal Arms on her stern and the State ensign at the main with the English flag at the stern (the two ships are saluting each other). Another painting of a single-decker in the National Maritime Museum shows a similar ship with the English coat of arms at the stern. This picture (negative number A3627) used to hang in the Queen's House in the 1970's- artist unknown- to me anyway!

In his book "The Wooden Fighting Ship" E.H.H. Archibald drew a reconstruction of the whelps- it is generally similar to the ship in Verwer's picture. Both show the quarter-deck and foc'sle deck linked by a light deck or series of gratings where the sweeps would have been stowed. The main function of this deck was to cover the gun deck to prevent an enemy boarding or falling spars etc. causing damage.

The State Papers, Domestic contain the indentures (contracts) between Pennington & Phineas Pett and two of the builders- John Graves and Matthew Graves- for the construction of these ships. (SP16 94 .430 .431). They are both dated the last day of February 1628 (The year ran from 25 March to 24 March in those days, so a document dated 28 February 1627 is, in modern usage, 28 February 1628. This explains the erroneous dating of the Whelps to 1627 in some sources.

Pennington's accounts includes the following:

"PAID Mr. Maye, skrivener, for makinge y. contracts between y. shippwrights & our (selves) .........03 - 06 - 06 " (three pounds, six shillings and sixpence)...............................two of which survive:

TRANSCRIPT of indenture (contract) with Matthew Graves - I have used the modern spelling of words except for technical terms and have added punctuation to clarify the meaning. Passages in [ parentheses] appear only in the Matthew Graves Indenture- the John Graves Indenture being otherwise identical. The originals are each written in unbroken lines on one sheet of parchment- paragraphed by me:

THIS INDENTURE made the last day of February 1627 and in the third year of the reign of our sovereign lord Charles by the grace of god king of England, Scotland, France and Ireland defender of the faith. Between John Pennington of London, esquire and Phineas Pett esquire on the one part and Matthew Graves of Limehouse in the county of Middlesex shipwright on the other part.

WITNESSETH that the said Matthew Graves for the considerations herein after in this act expressed doth for him, his executors and administrators, covenant grant and agree to and with the said John Pennington and Phineas Pett, their executors and administrators by their part that the said Matthew Graves, his executors and administrators, workmen, servants and assigns or some of them shall and will at his or their own and proper cost and charges in good orderly substantial and workmanlike manner before the ninth day of May next coming after the date of this act make and new build at Limehouse aforesaid for the use of the said John Pennington and Phineas Pett, their executors and assigns, one good found strong and substantial vessel or pinnace of good sound well seasoned and substantial timber and plank of oak and elm without using any red or shaken (?) [timber or] plank in or about the same or any part thereof. And that the said vessel or pinnace shall be of such length breadth and size and the work in and about the said vessel or pinnace shall be done and performed in such manner as hereinafter is expressed. That is to say the said vessel or pinnace to be three score feet long by the keel and twenty five feet broad from outside to outside and to be eight feet deep in hold from the lower edge of the beam unto the upper edge of the seeling [and to draw but eight feet water] to have eighteen feet rake forward and three feet rake aft and twelve foot flat floor [or so much as the said Matthew Graves shall think convenient and to be fifteen feet in the transom] To have three bend of footwales of four inch plank and the risings to be of four inch plank and the middle band of three inch plank and all the rest of the footwalling downwards to be of three inch plank and to be seeled up to the middle band with inch board. The beams to be seven feet asunder with two knees at each end and sufficient carlings and ledges for the bearing of ordnance [and the orlop to be laid with two inch plank] and the beams to be of a proportionable scantling thereunto. The said vessel or pinnace to be planked from the lower edge of the port down to the keel with three inch plank and to have two bend of wales wrought six inches in and out and nine inches deep with good scarfe. To finish the upperworks with handsome railes and gunwales and to have a handsome piggs nose*. To make a quarter-deck with two ports right astern and two quarter ports with a convenient bulkhead and sight for steerage. To make eight ports on each side from the bulkhead of the steerage forward [and to fit places to row with two oars betwixt each port] and to be in length from the top of the side to the upper part of the keel fourteen feet. To fit the said vessel or pinnace with rudder, tiller and capstaine and to make all partitions in hold and to find all ironwork whatsoever and leade, and leade* nails necessary for the said vessel or pinnace. And also that the said Matthew Graves, his workmen, servants or assigns shall do, perform and finish all and singular the premises and business aforesaid and all and singular other the carpenter's work which is and shall be done and performed by carpenters in the building of the hull or body of such a vessel or pinnace off the stocks whether named or not named with such substantial timber and plank and other good materials as before is mentioned. And also at his and their own charges to cause the said ship to be launched within the time aforesaid.

IN consideration of all w(hi)ch work to be done performed and finished by the said Matthew Graves or his assigns in manner and form as is before agreed upon, the said John Pennington and Phineas Pett for them and either of them therein and either of their executors and administrators do covenant, grant and agree jointly and severally to and with the said Matthew Graves his executors and assigns by these acts that they the said John Pennington and Phineas Pett their executors or assigns or some of them shall and will well and truly pay or cause to be paid unto the said Matthew Graves his executors or assigns for every several tonne that the said vessel or pinnace shall be of burthen when she shall be built as aforesaid, to be estimated by such persons as by the Master and Wardens of the Company of Shipwrights shall be for that purpose appointed, the sum of three pounds and five shillings per ton in manner following: That is to say at the sealing of this act one hundred and twenty pounds thereof, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged accordingly and one hundred and twenty pounds more thereof at the laying of the beams of the said vessel or pinnace and the rest and residue of so much as the same shall amount unto after the said rate of three pounds and five shillings a ton at the finishing and launching of the said vessel or pinnace as aforesaid. IN WITNESS whereof the parties aforesaid to these indentures interchangeably have put their hands and ...... (?) sealed the day and year first above written.

The indentures are signed by John Greaves (sic) and Math. Graves respectively. John Graves bulit both the Eighth Whelp and the Ninth Whelp. Phineas Pett's certificates of works done survive for all of the Whelps except the Eighth. In each case oar ports are referred to, so, despite the omission of oar ports in John Graves' indenture, all the Whelps were built with them.

* "piggs nose" - this is quite clear in both indentures. I believe that it describes the decoration on the end of the beakhead which was called a "fiddlehead " in later years. A rather crude model of the period in the Bodleian Library has a beakhead finished in this fashion. Beakheads became more upright after the middle of the 17th century- being more seaworthy and allowing for upright figureheads.

* leade (lead) nails - probably an error for iron.

These contracts together with Pennington's detailed accounts give some idea of the appearance of these ships. All had nominal dimensions: Keel 62 feet, Beam 25 feet and "depth in hold" of 9 feet, with a nominal tonnage of 186. The actual hull would have been approx. 75 feet long as the curve of the stem and the rake of the sternpost are added to the keel. These dimensions gave the shipwright the basic measurements by which the ship was to be built. Each shipwright would then develope his hull design from these measurements. These measurements were also the means by which the nominal tonnage was calculated and the cost was calculated as £3.5.0. (Three pounds five shillings or £3.25 for those who do not remember £SD!) per ton. The rule was (Keel x Beam x Depth in hold) divided by 75. (62 x 25 x 9) / 75 = 186 tons. Phineas Pett's certificates for each ship show severall variations from these measurements, with corresponding changes to the sum payable to each shipwright. The final cost was in excess of the contracted rate which had been set too low and followed disputes over the calculation of the tonnage. Some of the shipwrights seem to have exceeded the contracted dimensions in order to get more money- the most blatant example being Peter Pett of the Sixth Whelp.

This Peter Pett was either Phineas Pett's elder half-brother Peter (d.1631) or, more likely, Peter (1592-1652) the son of said half brother. Phineas (1570-1649) being a son of the second marriage of Master Shipwright Peter Pett of Deptford (d. 1589). See the Pett family tree in the introduction to "The autobiography of Phineas Pett" (Navy Records Society, 1918)

Pennington's accounts also include the following payments:

TO Mr. Maylim for y. modell of a shipp of 900-tonnes with a decke under water and store roomes upon it ......6 - 10 - 00

TO Mr. Browne for a modell of y. pinnaces.......................................................................................................................3 - 06 - 00

These could be either 3-dimensional models or plans- unfortunately they have not survived. (at least not to my knowledge!)

Some shipwrights still used a divisor of 100 for tonnage calculation, giving 139.5 for the Whelps. This figure can be found in some records and helps to confuse us! The Duke ended up paying nearly £7,000 for the ten ships (which he originally wanted to be of 120 tons each!) as well as various related expenses and charges. In modern parlance, he was well and truly ripped off by his agents and the shipwrights.

The indentures contain the following clause, quoted here in full for it's descriptive value:

"To make a quarter-deck with two ports right astern and two quarter ports with a convenient bulkhead and sight for steerage. To make eight ports on each side from the bulkhead of the steerage forward and to fit places to row with two oars betwixt each port"

"Port" here means a gunport. It is unclear whether the "quarter-deck" ports are at gun deck level (ie. under the quarter-deck) or are for guns mounted ON the quarter-deck. Personally, I think that the guns are on the gun deck. Only two guns were fitted right aft due to lack of space, to be fired either astern or as part of the broadside. This gives a total of 20 gunports, but the practical maximum armament was 16 guns as a similar lack of space in the bows meant that only one gun on each side, the "bowchaser", could be fired either out of the foremost port or from the next port aft. The forward end of the gundeck had to accomodate the foremast, bowsprit, riding bitts and a galley chimney.

This description means that there was to be one gun deck fitted with 9 gunports each side, plus two sternchase gunports and separate small ports for "sweeps" (32 foot long oars each worked by 3 men). This galley-like feature can be traced back at least to Henry VIII's time and later frigates were to have oar ports well into the 18th Century. The Whelps were classed as ships "of the sixth rank" and were the direct predecessors of the "sixth rates" of the Nelson era.

The above dimensions show the Whelps to have been relatively broad in the beam. This was to allow them carry the proposed armament of 10 guns each. Each ship was to have 2 brass Sakers (6 lb shot) 4 demi-culverins (9 lb shot) and 4 culverins (18 lb shot). This was a remarkably heavy armament for ships of this size- the culverin being the standard lower gun deck armament of the biggest two-deckers of the time. This was achieved by using iron "drake" versions of demi-culverin and culverin. These were lighter than the standard cannon and used a smaller powder charge (an early equivalent of the Carronade). They also weighed less than the brass sakers, despite the heavier ball. In addition, 26 iron DEMI-CANNON drakes were added just before the departure of the fleet for La Rochelle! These guns, firing a 32 lb shot - of which three of the Whelps received four - apparently were left in the holds of most Whelps as the Captains considered the decks too weak to support them. Even without the demi-cannon the Whelps packed quite a punch for their size, especially at close range. If used, the demi-cannon would (I think) have been mounted aft to enable them to fire either out of the stern ports or the quarter-ports noted above. The brass sakers were probably mounted forward, to be used as bowchasers.

"If your Lordships be purposed to employ any of the Whelps upon these coasts, I have conferred divers of the skilfullest gunners here who are of opinion that it would be of special consequence that the demy-cannons in them might be converted into saker or minion for the demy-cannon was so heavy and the decks so weak that most of the demy-cannon were stowed in hould this voyage ...."

- from a letter to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty from Sir Guilford Slingsby, 23 September 1628.

The above armament was varied over the years, for example a list of the armament of several Royal ships at Portsmouth in August 1631 (SP 16. 198) lists 14 guns on both the Third and Fifth Whelps. The additional cannon were 2 iron saker drakes on the Third and 2 more iron demi-culverin drakes on the Fifth.


A document in the State Papers, Domestic written in 1627 (SP 16 .55) summarises the methods (my transcription of the original,)

"Measuring of ships- Mr. Wells note concerning measuring of shipps 1627"

There are 3 ways of measuring ships now in use.

The old way which was established in Q.Elizabeths time and never questioned all K. James his time is thus- The length of the keel leaving out the false post if there be any. Multiplied by the greatest breadth within the plank and that product by the depth taken from the breadth to the upper edge of the keel, produced a solid number which divided by 100 gives the content in tons, unto which add 1/3 part for tonnage so have gone (sic) the tons and tonnage. (margin note)- It is credibly averred by Sir A. M-- (name illegible) Sir H. Palmer that the old way of measuring was to take the breadth without the plank and the depth from from the breadth to the nether or lower edge of the keel, and this was Bakers way of measuring.

The 2nd way is assumed by the shipwrights of the river to be the old way, but it is not, which makes the ship to be 28 in the 100 greater than the former and is thus- The length by the keel taken as above or ought to be. the breadth from outside of plank to outside. the depth a draught in water from the breadth to the bottom of the keel all multiplied together as above and divided by 94, say they, give the content in tons. Unto which add the 1/3 part for tonnage viz.

(margin note)- If you divide this by 100 which is said to be here done by 94 it is the true old way called Bakers way.

The 3rd way was proposed by Mr. Gunter, Mr. Pett, Mr. Stevens, Mr. Lydiard and myself, who were required by warrant from my Lord Duke and the Commissioners of the Navy then being to measure the Adventure of Ipswich the greatest bilged ship in the river - and from her dimensions to frame a rule that in our best judgements might be indifferently applicable to all kind of forms. This we performed and yielded our reasons for it which to avoid the abuses of furred sides and deep keels with standing strakes which increase the burthen but not the hold was thus- The length of the keel as the first. The depth in hold from the breadth to the seeling. The mean breadth within the seeling at half the depth multiplied together and the product divided by 65 gives the tons- unto which add 1/3 part for tonnage, so have you the whole content. This increases 12 p. cent above the old rule.

There is a fourth way devised by the Shipwrights and Trinity Masters but exploded for the great excess which makes the ship to be 30 in the C (ie.100) greater than the first and it is thus- length by the keel as at first. Middle breadth between the greatest and the breadth at the rung-heads. Depth to the outside of the plank all multiplied together and divided by 70 gives the contents.

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