The Organization of New France

The French And British Navies

Although concerned above all with its eastern borders, France needed to defend its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts as well. Warships were required to ensure the safety of its trade and fisheries. During the 1620s and 1630s, Cardinal Richelieu developed a powerful fleet under Louis XIII. However, the fleet was neglected and it numbered only a few ships when Louis XIV assumed power. A vast program was undertaken under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Colbert to build more than 100 warships and about 60 frigates and fire-ships. The powerful French navy could then claim to rule the seas.

Great Britain was also a leading naval power at the time. As an island, it was safe from invasion so long as its navy was powerful enough to repulse any attempted landing. This was the fundamental principle on which all British military planning was based. Very few fortifications were ever built in England, and the army was only modest in size. The lion's share of military spending was devoted to the Royal Navy, for the English were well aware that their security depended on having the most powerful navy in the world. During the 1660s, concern arose about the threat posed by Louis XIV's new fleet. It fell to Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, to strengthen and modernize the Royal Navy in order to guarantee British naval supremacy. This he did during the 1670s and 1680s.

The great confrontation between the British and French fleets arose during the war of the League of Augsburg (1689-97). In 1690, the French Navy succeeded temporarily in seizing control of the English Channel and dominating the coasts of England. Two years later, however, the French fleet was defeated at La Hougue, and never fully recovered from this disaster.

Nevertheless, the French Navy remained a formidable force for the rest of Louis XIV's reign, preventing the English from taking total control of the seas. Under Louis XV, however, the decline of the French Navy continued, while the Royal Navy grew ever more powerful. The British took draconian measures to augment the size of the fleet, improve the quality of the crews, and improve discipline. By 1755, the Royal Navy numbered 140 ships of the line. Meanwhile, the French Navy was starved for money. It managed to remain a leader in naval sciences, but its crews were poorly trained and it had only 60 ships of the line at the outbreak of the Seven Years' War.