The Sun King Sets Sail

By Martin, Marian | History Today, December 1997 | Go to article overview

The Sun King Sets Sail


Martin, Marian, History Today


A recent addition to the world wide web is dedicated to realising one of Louis XIV's unfulfilled projects.

The Sun King's expansionist policies required France to develop a naval force which could challenge the world -- particularly the fleets of England and Holland -- and, between 1660 and 1689, 250 battleships and frigates were built. Many of these ships were produced under the instructions of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, but the great 84-gun vessel whose plans were laid out in the `Album of Colbert' (now conserved in the Maritime Museum of Paris) was never actually constructed. Now L'Association Tourville in Dunkirk hopes to build this ship.

This ambitious project stems from research carried out by Christian Cardin, hydraulic engineer, expert diver and amateur historian of ancient sailing craft. In the early 1980s, while diving off Saint Vaast la Houge on the Cotentin coast, Cardin found the wrecks of six large warships, remnants of Admiral Tourville's fleet which had beaten an Anglo-Dutch force off the Isle of Wight in 1690, only to be decimated in a second engagement in 1692.

The first result of this discovery was the establishment of a museum of maritime history on the island of Tatihou but, once this had been established, Cardin wanted to do more to heighten public awareness of a period which has been called the `glorious era of France as a naval power'; an era of which little remains, other than these wrecks and a few documents and engravings. Cardin began to investigate the feasibility of creating Colbert's vessel which -- had it been built -- would have been the pride of the Sun King's fleet; a 57 metre, 1,500 ton three-deck warship. Obviously, constructing such a vessel would be an enormous financial undertaking. Early studies suggested that it might be difficult to recoup the required investment from income resulting solely from visits to the ship, so a revised project has been developed.

The new project aims to turn a piece of Dunkirk wasteland into a seventeenth-century quayside complete with sailmakers, carpentry workshops, houses and an auberge. One of the buildings will house an ultra modern virtual world, where visitors will be able to `share' the life of the port's famous corsaires and, in the auberge, folk singing and period gastronomy will recreate the ambience of the epoch. …

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