Special Report

The Peak Strength of History's Most Powerful Navies

20. Royal Netherlands Navy
> Est. fleet size: 70
> Time of peak strength: 1689

The Royal Netherlands Navy was a formidable force in the 16th and 17th centuries. It grew in strength and size to protect the burgeoning Dutch trading interests all over the world. Mercantilism was the economic model for early European nation-states, so shielding commerce was of great national interest. The Dutch fought several wars with the United Kingdom in the 17th century as the two vied for oceanic supremacy. In 1667, Dutch mariners handed the Royal Navy one of its worst defeats ever in English waters, in the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

Source: vale_t / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

19. Royal French Navy
> Est. fleet size: More than 90
> Time of peak strength: 1630

Until the early 17th century, France used a system of regional admiralties that was similar to that of the Netherlands. That changed under French clergyman and statesman Cardinal Richelieu. He took over supervision of the French Royal Navy by consolidating command of the navy and eliminating the regional admiralties.

By 1630, France had built more than 90 ships and established naval ports at Le Havre, Brest, and Brouage. The navy would become a key part in France’s foreign policy and crucial to protecting French commerce.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

18. Spanish Armada
> Est. fleet size: 130
> Time of peak strength: 1588

The Spanish Armada, or the Invincible Armada, was considered to be the dominant maritime power by the end of the 16th century. Spanish King Philip II sent the naval force to try and restore the Catholic faith in England and to stop English pirates from plundering Spanish ships laden with possessions from Spain’s colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

The English ships were smaller, more maneuverable, and more heavily armed than the Spanish fleet, and they routed the armada. Tempests in the Atlantic Ocean destroyed or dispersed many of the surviving ships. The victory set England on a course of empire building.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

17. English Navy
> Est. fleet size: 200
> Time of peak strength: 1588

At the time of the Spanish Armada, the English Navy was commanded by Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham, and his second in command was the legendary Sir Francis Drake. Small English ships were fast and well armed for their size. The English relied on artillery and had many more guns, which were also heavier, than most of their foes. They also had an advantage in artillery range. They used these advantages to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

16. Holy League Fleet
> Est. fleet size: 213
> Time of peak strength: 1571

The Holy League Fleet was composed of vessels from Spain, Malta, Genoa, Savoy, and Venice when it met a similar sized Ottoman Empire force in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Holy League Fleet had six large galley-like ships bristling with 44 guns as well as 207 oar-powered galleys.

The Christian navy won the battle, its first major naval victory for a Christian naval force over a Turkish fleet, and it marked the last significant conflict involving oar-propelled ships.

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