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HMS Bellerophon and Napoleon.jpg
Scene in Plymouth Sound in August 1815, by John James Chalon. Bellerophon is at the centre of the picture, surrounded by crowds of people in small boats who have come to see Napoleon
Career (UK) Royal Navy Ensign
Name: HMS Bellerophon
Ordered: 11 January 1782
Builder: Graves, Frindsbury
Laid down: May 1783
Launched: 6 October 1786
Commissioned: 19 July 1790
Decommissioned: 13 September 1815
Renamed: Captivity, 1824
Nickname: Billy Ruffian, Billy Ruff'n, Belly Rough One, Bellyruffron
Honours and

Participated in:

Fate: Broken up, 1836
Notes: Prison ship from 1815
General characteristics [1]
Class and type: Arrogant class ship of the line
Tons burthen: 1643 bm
Length: 168 ft (51 m)(gundeck)
Beam: 46 ft 9 in (14.25 m)
Depth of hold: 19 ft 9 in (6.02 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: Full rigged ship

74 guns:

  • Gundeck: 28 × 32 pdrs
  • Upper gundeck: 28 × 18 pdrs
  • Quarterdeck: 14 × 9 pdrs
  • Forecastle: 4 × 9 pdrs

The first HMS Bellerophon of the Royal Navy was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line launched on 6 October 1786 at Frindsbury on the River Medway, near Chatham. She was built at the shipyard of Edward Greaves to the specifications of the Arrogant, designed by Sir Thomas Slade in 1758, the lead ship in what eventually became the 12-ship Arrogant Class.[1][2] History has it that the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, had a penchant for Greek and Roman mythology and plucked the name from Lemprière's Classical Dictionary. He directed that the vessel be named for the Greek warrior Bellerophon who rode the winged horse Pegasus and slew the monster Chimera[3].


Early history

She fought at the battle of The Glorious First of June, under the command of Captain William Johnstone Hope, where she lost 4 killed and 27 wounded. In 1798 she fought at the Battle of the Nile under Captain Henry D'Esterre Darby, who was wounded early in the action; she lost 49 killed and 148 wounded. She also fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, becoming one of the most famous British ships of the Napoleonic Wars.

A letter to Henry D'Esterre Darby, her captain at the battle of the Nile, from Admiral Nelson, commander of the fleet at the battle, survives:

'My Dear Darby,
I grieve for your heavy loss of Brave fellows, but look at our glorious Victory. We will give you every assistance as soon as you join us, till then God Bless You.
Ever yours faithfully,
Horatio Nelson
Aug 3rd 1798
We shall both I trust soon get well.'

Her crew affectionately called the vessel the Billy Ruffian (or Billy Ruff'n). At Trafalgar she was the fifth in Admiral Collingwood's Southern division and thus was heavily engaged, battling the French L'Aigle to a bloody standstill at the cost of her captain John Cooke dead, 26 other crew killed and 123 wounded. Command was ably assumed by her first lieutenant William Pryce Cumby, who safely steered the battered ship back to Gibraltar. On board during the battle was future Arctic explorer John Franklin, serving as a young midshipman.

Napoleon's surrender

Napoleon Bonaparte on board the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound by Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, painted 1815.

She achieved further fame on 15 July 1815 when Napoleon Bonaparte surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland of the Bellerophon and was transported to Torbay where the ship anchored off Brixham on 24 July. There Maitland received orders from Admiral Lord Keith. He was '...most positively ordered to prevent every person whatever from coming on board the ship you command, except the officers and men who compose her crew.'[4]

In response to his orders, Captain Maitland refused to allow the usual visits of the boats full of traders with supplies of fresh food. John Michelmore, aboard one of the boats hoping to sell bread, saw a sailor in one of the lower gunports who signalled to them and then set adrift a small bottle containing a message that Bonaparte was aboard. He and the baker rowed ashore and the news quickly spread.[5] While Maitland still kept boats from actually coming alongside, there were no further attempts to conceal the Emperor's presence. After two days, Bellerophon received orders to proceed to Plymouth harbour where Lord Keith was anchored aboard his flagship HMS Ville de Paris. Napoleon remained on board Bellerophon and the ship was still kept isolated from the throngs of curious sightseers by two guardships anchored close at hand. On 4 August, Lord Keith ordered Bellerophon to go to sea and await the arrival of HMS Northumberland which had been designated to take Napoleon into exile on St Helena. On 7 August, Napoleon left the Bellerophon where he had spent over three weeks without ever landing in England and boarded Northumberland which then sailed for St Helena.

Eventual fate

From 1815, Bellerophon served as a prison ship at Sheerness. She was renamed Captivity in 1824, sold on 12 January 1836 and broken up.[1]

References in Literature

At the beginning of Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian's first book in the Aubrey-Maturin series of novels, the newly-promoted Jack Aubrey chances on a party of seamen when he is walking down to take command of his first ship:

'...some wearing broad striped trousers, some plain sailcloth; some had fine red waistcoats and some ordinary blue jackets; some wore tarpaulin hats, in spite of the heat, some broad straws, and some spotted handkerchiefs tied over their heads; but they all of them had long swinging pigtails and they all had the indefinable air of man-of-war's men. They were Bellerophons, and he looked at them hungrily as they padded by.'

References in Music

The 19th Century British folk song, "Boney was a Warrior" originally referred to the "Billy Ruffian."

Indie Folk Band Beirut have a song called 'Napoleon on the Bellerophon' on the Pompeii EP.


  1. ^ a b c Lavery, Ships of the Line, vol. 1, p. 180.
  2. ^ Cordingly, pages 7-8
  3. ^ Cordingly, page 18
  4. ^ Cordingly, page 259, from 'Letter from Admiral Keith to Captain Maitland, 23 July 1815'
  5. ^ Cordingly, page 260


  • Lavery, Brian (2003) The Ship of the Line - Volume 1: The development of the battlefleet 1650-1850. Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0-85177-252-8.
  • David Cordingly, The Billy Ruffian: The Bellerophon and the Downfall of Napoleon (Bloomsbury USA, 2003) ISBN 1-58234-468-X


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