Royal Navy ranks

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The ranks of the Royal Navy have become the model for many navies. By the time of Jack Aubrey they were established and only minor changes have been made since. The following table lists the ranks in the early 19th century.


Flag Officers

Flag officers or admirals were the most senior commanders in the Royal Navy. An admiral commanded an number of ships in a squadron or fleet. There were nine ranks of admiral, each of the three levels was further subdivided into three colours of flag, Red, White and Blue, and promotion up the ranks was by seniority, not merit. In the early 19th century any post captain would become an admiral by seniority if he survived long enough, however, as described in The Yellow Admiral, this did not automatically lead to an active command.

Rank Description
Admiral of the Fleet The Admiral of the Fleet is the most senior Admiral in the Navy, the position was later known as First Sea Lord. During the period 1799-1811 the position was held by Sir Peter Parker and from 1811-1821 by the Duke of Clarence.
Admiral The highest flag officer rank, an Admiral flew his flag at the mainmast.
Vice Admiral The Vice Admiral was originally the commander of the leading ships or van in the line of battle. His flag was flown at the foremast.
Rear Admiral The Rear Admiral originally commanded the rear of the line of battle. His flag was flown at the mizzen.
Commodore A commodore in the early 19th century was a temporary rank given to a Post Captain commanding an independent squadron. There were two levels of Commodore, the first rank had a captain under him to command his flagship and wore a Rear Admiral's uniform. A Commodore of the second rank had to command the ship as well as the squadron. Commodores flew a broad pennant.

Commissioned officers

Rank Description
Post Captain The commander of a "post ship", this was at least a sixth rate, carrying between 20-28 guns.
Master and Commander A Master and Commander was the captain of an unrated ship, usually a sloop or brig of less than 20 guns. This rank was soon to be shortened to Commander. He would be known as captain when actually commanding a ship.
Lieutenant This was one of several commissioned officers under the captain. It was the lowest rank to have half-pay when not serving aboard ship.
Midshipman Technically not a commissioned officer, a midshipman was usually a young boy learning to become an officer. They could be promoted to Master's mate when qualified for a lieutenancy but not yet commissioned.

Wardroom Warrant officers

Apart from the master who was a highly skilled professional, these officers would be more likely to have some education and be considered suitable to pass socially in the officers' wardroom.

Rank Description
(Sailing) Master The master was a highly skilled seaman who was able to navigate and sail the ship. He advised the captain on navigation and sailing, but was not expected to be involved in military matters.
Surgeon The surgeon was licensed by the Sick and Hurt Board and was responsible for the health of the crew. He was not usually qualified as a physician.
Chaplain The chaplain would be a Church of England minister.
Purser The purser was responsible for the supplies aboard ship. He was often not popular as the crew suspected that he was adding to his profits by stinting on their rations.

Standing Warrant officers

The standing warrant officers were permanently assigned to the ship and would live aboard with their families when she was not in commission. Often their wives would be allowed to sail with them when she was in commission. These officers messed in the gunroom.

Rank Description
Boatswain The boatswain or bo'sun, was responsible for the ship's rigging, anchors and boats.
Carpenter The carpenter would be responsible for the wooden parts of the ship, the spars and hull.
Gunner The gunner was responsible for the ship's cannons and gunpowder and shot

Other Warrant officers

Rank Description
Master at Arms The Master at Arms was responsible for the hand weapons aboard, pistols, muskets, cutlasses and swords. He also was responsible for discipline aboard.
Sailmaker The sailmaker was responsible for the condition and repair of the sails aboard.
Armourer The armourer was responsible for the repair and maintenance of the ship's weapons and also acted as a blacksmith.

Petty officers

Rank Description
Coxswain The coxswain was responsible for comanding the crew of the Captain's barge. In small ships, he might also take on some of the duties of the Boatswain's Mate or Master at Arms in enforcing discipline. Unlike the depiction of Bonden in the 2003 film, the coxswain had no responsibility for steering the ship.
Quartermaster A quartermaster was responsible assisting the Master with navigation and usually with supervising the steering of the ship. He would normally assign the helmsmen to the wheel and monitor their performance to ensure they followed the assigned course.
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