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The galleon, that ship synonymous with perceptions of Spanish treasure fleets, the Spanish main and the Spanish Armada may have been an English innovation. Sir John Hawkins, after three round voyages to Africa and the Caribbean, realised that the high forecastle of the carracks of the day was an impediment to manoeuverability, and worked on a design to make a large ship, capable of fighting, and carrying some cargo, that was more weatherly, and more able to hold a course in changing conditions. The Spanish began making use of the design within a decade or two.

At about the same time the great trading states of the Mediterranean were looking into the problem that advances in gunnery were causing their battle fleets – at that time, large galleys. They had seen that the firepower of even the lumbering cargo-ship of the day could hold off any number of galleys, which needed to work at close quarters to be effective, but could be crippled by one well-placed shot from a large cannon. They needed a specialist fighting ship, and began adapting the carrack in much the same way as Hawkins – a slimmer, faster, but still large, ship with less unwieldy superstructure. Once again,the Spanish began making use of this design within a decade or two.

Like the carrack, the galleon was usually a three-master, square-rigged on the fore- and main-mast and with a lateen sail on the mizzen. This aft sail would be replaced by the gaff-rigged spanker during the eighteenth century - at about the same time as the high stern-castle was done away with.

The famous Spanish galleon began as a specialist warship whose only cargo was bullion; but thirty or so years later began taking the place of the carrack as a long-haul armed carrier for general freight. Its career in both was to last into the early 18th century, when its trading role began to be replaced by the smaller but faster and far more economical brigs of that time - and in war, it had morphed into the great ships of the line that would reach the height of their fame at Trafalgar and the other great naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars.

Terms in bold: see Sailing ship types: Glossary