(For in-game characters who are in the Royal Navy, see Royal Navy)
The Royal Navy was established along its current lines in the 1660's, and certain principles were laid down: All officers had to be good seamen, able to handle a ship in any circumstances. To this end, all aspiring officers went to sea as young men – most round about the age of 12 or so. They would be entered onto the ship's books as 'captain's servants' or 'first class volunteers' in order to learn the basics of seamanship. Once a lad reach the age of 16 or 17, he could be rated midshipman. This was equivalent to a petty officer, but while the petty officers were tough older seamen at the top of their promotional ladder, a midshipman was an apprentice officer at the beginning of his career.
Naval officers were consummate professionals: They were responsible for the ship and her crew. They had to prove that they could be trusted with a vessel in any circumstances that they might find themselves in... and it was possible for men from 'before the mast' to work their way up to the rank of master's mates, equal to midshipmen, who could also sit the examination for Lieutenant. Both Captain Cook and Captain Bligh had been master's mates and came to hold a commission.
Marines - were recruited in exactly the same way as the army. They and the officers were the only ones who had an actual uniform (a uniform was not authorised for the sailors before the mid 19th century). Their rank structure was entirely separate from the rest of the ship, with their own NCOs (non-commissioned officers - corporals and sergeants) and officers who reported directly to the ship's captain. How many Marines a ship carried was entirely dependent on the size of the ship, from 12 Marines with a Corporal and a Sergeant in a 16-gun brig, up to 130 men, with NCOs, two lieutenants and a captain aboard a first rate ship-of-the-line such as HMS Victory.
Landsmen - men who had no seamanship skills. They often got the dirty jobs.
Ordinary seamen - those who had been at sea for a year or so and could 'hand, reef and steer' - perform basic seamanship tasks
Able Seamen - the skilled professionals who could turn their hand to any task aboard ship
Petty Officers - professional seamen responsible for a particular area aboard (captain of the foretop, yeoman of the powder room). These held their position by the captain's order and could be disrated - demoted back to seaman. (Able seaman, ordinary seaman and landsman were descriptions of skill, rather than being actual ranks)
Warrant officers - these were men who held a warrant from one Board or another. They included the bosun, the purser, the cook, the carpenter, the gunner. The captain had no power to disrate any of these. The most senior warrant officer aboard was the master, who was in charge of navigation. He was the only warrant officer entitled to live and dine with the commissioned officers in the gunroom of a frigate or the wardroom of a ship of the line
Midshipmen - officially ranked as petty officers, but were really officers in training. They started out as young boys of 11 or 12, going to sea as 'captain's servants' or, later 'volunteers first class', being rated as midshipmen after a year or two. When they were 21, they could be put forward for the examination for lieutenant. During their time at sea, they were expected to learn navigation as well as various seamanship skills and tasks, in preparation for the exam.
Examination for LieutenantEdit
When he reached the age of 21, a midshipman could be put forward for his examination for Lieutenant. This was a tough oral exam, in front of a panel of captains, and tested his seamanship, navigation and command skills. He would have to present his journals and certificates of service. Once he passed this examination, he was eligible to receive a commission to a ship as a Lieutenant.
If he failed, it was usually with a recommendation along the lines of 'six more months at sea' which meant that he had to serve a further six months as midshipman before he could sit his examination again. There was no limit to the number of times a midshipman could sit his exam, but if he did not pass by about the third attempt, he was unlikely to ever pass.
Passing the examination did not mean automatic promotion. This was dependant on being given a commission to a specific ship. The position of First Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant etc depended only on the date each of the lieutenants had passed their examination. A Naval officer could not purchase a commission or a promotion; these were dependent, firstly on his passing his exam and secondly upon gaining interest in order to be given a commission into a ship.
(It may be of interest to learn that even in the 21st Century the Royal Navy still expects its midshipmen to pass an oral exam before they can be considered for promotion.)
Getting a CommissionEdit
Gaining a berth as lieutenant depended very much on 'interest': whether the newly passed midshipman had a patron, an officer in a senior position who could either offer him a commission himself, or pull strings in order to get someone else to offer him a commission.
Commissioned officers did not hold a commission in the Royal Navy itself, despite holding rank. They were commissioned to a specific ship as Lieutenant, Commander or Captain, whichever the case may be.
The rank of 'master and commander' or later simply 'commander' was a bit of a strange one. It sits between Lieutenant and Captain, but is not a compulsory rank that every Captain had to hold. Commanders could only command vessels of a certain size: Brigs and sloops – two-masted vessels. Anything larger than this was a 'rated' vessel, and to be promoted to command a rated ship automatically meant that the officer concerned had 'been made post' – he was a full captain and only had to survive in order to, eventually, attain flag rank as an Admiral.
The man in charge of any Naval vessel, whatever its size, is addressed as 'Captain' although if he is not a post captain, this is only a courtesy title. When in council with other, senior, officers, he would be addressed by his actual rank.
Rates of ShipEdit
Sixth rates (frigates of 28 guns); Fifth rates (frigates of 32-40 guns, later up to 48 guns); Fourth rates (vessels of 60 to 70 guns, though these were hardly in use any more by 1805 as they were too slow to fight frigates and too small to be able to take part in fleet battles); Third rates of 74-80 guns, the backbone of the Navy – most of the ships at Trafalgar were 74s; Second rates of 84-98 guns (such as Temeraire); First rates of 100+ guns (such as Victory).
The bigger the ship, the higher an officer's pay – for example, the Captain of Victory of 100 guns would be paid more than the captain of the 32-gun frigate Terpsichore despite being nominally of the same rank. (This was not the case for petty officers, sailors or Marines, however, who received the same pay no matter the size of the ship they served in.)