Britannia ruled the waves when Queen Victoria came to the throne. Wooden sailing ships were on the decline, making way for new maritime innovations like the paddle steamer, Great Western and the iron-hulled, screw driven SS Great Britain.
The Admiralty had, however, grown complacent about Britain's command of the seas.
Steam engines had been installed in some wooden ships of the line, and smaller vessels had been constructed with the new types of propulsion or iron hulls, but it was a shock when in 1858 the French started building La Gloire, the first armoured wooden-hulled ship. La Gloire was launched in 1859.
The original intention of the French was to replace their whole fleet with iron hulls, but French industrial capacity proved incapable of delivering enough iron.
Instead, almost all ships had wooden hulls clad with iron up to 5 inches thick above the waterline. Emperor Napoleon lll was certain his projected new-look Navy could out-manoeuvre and out gun the British.
News of the construction of La Gloire and naval expansion across the Channel caused an explosion of anti-French feeling in Britain. The Press stirred fears of an invasion.
With the defeat of the French Fleet at Trafalgar, the RN had smashed its most powerful opponent at sea, but it would take another 10 years for Napoleon to finally be defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, in June of 1815.
After 1815 the Royal Navy took on the role of the World's policeman - suppressing the slave trade, attacking piracy and helping to maintain the diplomatic balance in Europe. From the Bombardment of Algiers in 1816, the Navy flexed its muscles and the fleet was involved in innumerable actions over the next 4 decades.
Ship design was also changing - on the declaration of peace in 1815 the largest of the Navy's sailing ships had been almost 50% larger than HMS Victory, thanks to advances in building techniques. Steam was introduced into the Royal Navy in 1821, and through the 1830's and 1840's the Navy gradually incorporated the new technology, initially with the paddle-wheel and by the 1840's with the propeller.
France, constantly looking for any advantage, quickly embraced the steam engine and there were worries in Parliament that "Steam has bridged the Channel". The Royal Navy responded and by the early 1850's the Battlefleet had auxiliary steam and propellers.
The origins of the Crimean War lay in disagreements between Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire as to who was the protector of the Christian Faith in the Holy Land. Britain, concerned that Russia would become too powerful, watched closely.
In November 1853 a Russian fleet armed with shell - firing guns destroyed a squadron of Ottoman ships at the Battle of Sinope. This provided Britain and France with a reason to declare war against Russia on the side of the Ottoman Empire.
The Battle of Sinope demonstrated how vulnerable wooden ships were to shell-firing guns. The French set about designing floating batteries that were to be protected by iron-boxes filled with cannonballs. The Admiralty's Chief Engineer - Thomas Lloyd, saw this design and realised that as soon as a cannonball hit the box it would break open, the cannonballs would roll out, and the protection would be useless. He suggested to the French that they use 4.5" iron plate as protection, and the armoured floating battery was born.
Britain was unable to complete any armoured-batteries before peace was declared, but the French batteries saw action at the Bombardment of Kinburn in October 1855 where they helped to destroy Russian Forts, proving the importance of armour protection.
On January 1st 1857 Henri Dupuy de Lôme was appointed Directeur du Matériel of the French Navy. Having observed the successes of the floating batteries at Kinburn, and a keen proponent of the use of iron in shipbuilding, de Lôme quickly set about designs for an armoured sea-going ship - La Gloire.
La Gloire was launched November 1859. The class were poor seaboats, suffered from unsound timber and generally failed to meet expectations. They were broken up in the 1860's.
One of the greatest naval architects of his generation, de Lôme was hindered only by France's lack of industrial capacity - with French foundries incapable of producing enough iron, La Gloire was designed as a wooden ship, clad in iron 12cm (4.5 inches) thick. At 77.8m (255 feet) in length, and displacing 5,630 tons, La Gloire was 40% smaller than Warrior.
La Gloire made an enormous impact on the world stage when commissioned in August 1860. With a crew of 570 men and some 36 muzzle - loading guns she was quickly hailed as a success, however there were some problems: The guns were close together, and the gun-ports were too close to the waterline - making them very difficult to fight in anything other than a calm sea. In addition, the timberused was of poor quality - unable to dry out because of the iron armour, the hull rotted quickly and she was scrapped in 1883.