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The venerable HMS Eagle making ready to sail from her offshore anchorage, probably at the Nore. Whilst not a retrospective in the accepted sense, this work depicts an elderly 3rd rate, a vessel seemingly from an earlier age, past her prime and in her twilight years. The overly high stern, in conjunction with the elegant side windows of her stern galleries, are both features more typical of the ships-of-war dating to the reign of Charles II and the navy of Samuel Pepys during his hugely influential tenure as Chief Secretary to the Admiralty. Notwithstanding her outward appearance however, the vessel is clearly flying the new 'Red Ensign' introduced into the fleet after the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 and which alone confirms her longevity. Almost certainly one of Pepys's celebrated 'Thirty Ship Programme' of 1677, a surprisingly large number of those ships (built between 1678 and 1680) were still in service in 1707, although by then all of them would have been altered, repaired or, in some cases, completely rebuilt to reflect the continual ravages of the sea, battle damage or to incorporate periodic changes in armament. As the largest 'class' within the 1677 Programme, the twenty 3rd rates - of which Eagle was one - have since been described by some naval historians as "the best-looking sailing ships ever completed", but attempting to name a specific vessel within the twenty is complicated by the fact that "the individual ship design was in each case left to the builder."
It is usual to identify these majestic ships by a careful study of their highly ornate stern carvings which usually include either royal ciphers, regal initials, or other similarly characteristic details. Unfortunately, this handsome bow view robs us of those clues although the distinctive side panes of the stern gallery windows shown here are strikingly similar to those featured on the splendid but short-lived Coronation, a large 2nd rate launched at Portsmouth in 1685. It is interesting to speculate therefore that this vessel might also be a Portsmouth-built ship which narrows the field considerably and offers up two possibilities, namely the Eagle and the Expedition. Of the two, the more likely candidate is the Eagle which, having been repaired and reconditioned at Chatham in 1699-1700, then served with distinction during the War of the Spanish Succession, mostly in the Mediterranean, and was part of Sir George Rooke's fleet which famously took Gibraltar in 1704.
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The venerable HMS Eagle | Peter Monamy | 18th century
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