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Naval Officers, origins of terminology

These notes are provided for general background, and are based on Royal Navy practice unless otherwise stated. Many navies – those of the British Dominions and Commonwealth and of the United States – were established on the same structure, but have varied slightly over the last several decades.


Baron Dartmouth
George Legge, 1647-1691, Baron of Dartmouth, first Admiral of the Fleet; from a painting by John Riley.

Admiral of the Fleet : the most senior flag rank; commander-in-chief. This rank derived from the function of the Lord High Admiral who, although technically in overall charge of the fleet, very rarely (or never) put to sea with the fleet and thus required another person to undertake the command of the fleet while at sea in his place. This post became known as the Admiral of the Fleet and the first incumbant to be so called was the Earl of Dartmouth, appointed by King James II in 1688[1]; however, Admiral Sir John Norris was appointed Admiral of the Fleet on 20 February 1734, the first to retain his title for life[2]. Between 1718 and 1739, it became customary to give the most senior Admiral this title even if there was no fleet for him to command. From the 1740s, there was only one person appointed to this rank, although after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 the new rank of Admiral of the Red (on a par with Admiral of the Fleet) was created as a reward for senior admirals, and as a tribute to the Royal Navy's successes. In 1863 it was decided to appoint more than one Admiral of the Fleet, since the army had six field marshals. In 1870, new regulations were introduced to ensure that Admirals of the Fleet retired at the age of 70, but also ensuring that there would always be three on the active list. The maximum number was three until 1898 when a fourth was appointed. In 1940, all retired rank-holders were replaced on the active list conforming to the army practice of field marshals who remained on the active list for life. In late 1995, the Royal Navy put the rank "in abeyance". It is now used as an honourary title [3].

Admiral of the Red, White, Blue : The three squadrons into which a British fleet was divided historically were distinguished by colour. The order of precedence, set in 1620, was red, white, and blue and the admirals commanding the squadrons flew corresponding coloured ensigns. The squadrons were also each subdivided into three subdivisions.

The senior (red) squadron was generally placed in the centre of the line of battle, and always led by the commander-in-chief, ranked Admiral of the Fleet. His van division was led by the Vice Admiral of the Red, his rear division by the Rear Admiral of the Red.

The white squadron, ranked second and generally placed in the van would be commanded by the Admiral of the White, and its subdivisions would be led by a Vice Admiral of the White, and a Rear Admiral of the White; the blue squadron, ranked third or junior and generally placed in the rear, was similarly commanded with an Admiral, Vice Admiral and Rear Admiral of the Blue, each flying a blue ensign.

On first achieving flag rank, an officer became a rear-admiral of the blue; his next step up was to rear-admiral of the white, then rear-admiral of the red; thereafter he became a vice-admiral of the blue, and so on up the colour divisions. Promotion was by seniority, and hence advancement was automatic as vacancies occurred.

Admiralty : the office responsible for the administration of the affairs of a navy, and in particular the Royal Navy. Originally headed by a Lord High Admiral whose duties were discharged by the Board of Admiralty, comprising civilian politicians, senior sea officers – the Lords of the Admiralty – and a secretariat. For the last two centuries, the First Lord of the Admiralty has been a politician, while the naval lords (Sea Lords after the reforms of 1904) all had naval experience, often but not necessarily at flag rank. From 1915 the First Sea Lord also served as Chief of the Naval Staff. In 1964, with the creation of the Ministry of Defence, a new Admiralty Board was created, with no representation by a parliamentay Minister, but still a mix of civilians and naval personel.


Boatswain (colloquially Bos'n) : a non-commissioned warrant officer in charge of the ship's rigging, cables, anchors, sails, boats and associated equipment. Often rising from the ranks of seamen, boatswains were appointed by the Admiralty and were responsible to the Navy Board. Regulations specified that he serve at least one year as a petty officer and while not eligible to command ships, they could stand watches. In the nineteenth century there were limited opportunities for boatswains to rise to commissioned officer status. He was also, under the captain and first lieutenant, responsible for discipline on board ship. The boatswain mate and the sailmaker were under the command of the boatswain. The boatswain was one of the standing officers.

Boatswain's Mate : a petty officer assisting the boatswain in matters relating to rigging and discipline. In flogging punishments he would deliver the lashes.


Captain : the form of address of the commanding officer of any armed ship or vessel. The title of Captain was universal to the most senior officer commanding a ship whatever his actual rank. On promotion from Lieutenant, officers were appointed to a small ship e.g. sloop, cutter etc. (equivalent to today’s rank of Commander) and after sufficient experience was given command of a rated ship (1st – 5th rate) as a post (equivalent to today’s rank of Captain). Duties on board ship were to prepare the ship for sailing, make inventories of stores and write reports for the Admiralty on work being done on the ship. He also had to recruit the ship’s complement and record details in the muster book. He was responsible for directing the ship’s activities in naval engagements, and at all times responsible for the ship and crew’s well being, including feeding, clothing, health and discipline, maintain the log of the ship, and delegate authority as necessary.

Captain of the Fleet : a captain or rear-admiral assisting the commander-in-chief.

Carpenter : responsible for the maintenance of the hull and masts of the ship (one of the four warrant officers serving as standing officers). The majority qualified as shipwrights, civilian employees of the Navy Board, in the dockyards before going to sea. In 1918, Carpenters were renamed Warrant Shipwrights when their work ceased to be solely timber.

Chaplain : examined by the Bishop of London and appointed by the Admiralty. In 1808 they were granted wardroom status until 1843 when they became a commissioned rank.

Civilian officer : the lowest level of warrant officers (the ‘inferior officers') comprised surgeon’s mate, armourer, sail maker, cook, master at arms, caulker and rope maker – named 'civilian' inasmuch as their profession could be that of a landsman.

Commander : (1) the commanding officer of any armed ship or vessel; (2) the captain; (3) an officer of the rank of master and commander (1674-1794); (4) the rank of Commander was formally instituted in 1794, obtainable only by being commissioned to command a vessel, smaller than post-ships but larger than vessels commanded by Lieutenants. After this date, post-Captains were appointed solely from the Commanders list. In 1827, the term became used for the Captain’s second-in-command. First Lieutenants in battleships were made Commanders, although this was an unpopular move with Lieutenants who were actually commanding smaller vessels. It then became the custom to refer to the second-in-command of a ship as the Commander; (5) the senior officer commanding a squadron of smaller ships.

Commander-in-Chief : a senior officer appointed to command a squadron or station. Today a formal designation of a senior officer over a large scale theatre force be it joint, combined or single service.

Commanding Officer : (1) the senior officer of a squadron of warship; (2) the officer commanding a ship in the absence of her captain.

Commissioned Officer : a sea officer apppointed by Admiralty commission: a captain, commander or lieutenant.

Commissioner : (1) a member of the Navy Board; (2) a member of the Victualling, Sick and Hurt or Transport Boards.

Commodore : The junior flag rank was that of Commodore. In 1690, the Admiralty gave the title of Commodore to the senior Captain of a small squadron, or a Commander in Chief of a small station, when no flag officer was present and therefore extra responsibilities were involved. It was considered as a temporary rank which once the circumstances had passed meant reversion to Captain and officers retained their seniority position in the Captain’s list; thus (1) a post-captain appointed commander-in-chief of a squadron or station, having the temporary rank of a rear-admiral. In 1747, the first list of “equivalent ranks” between army and navy were produced and the Admiralty proposed that Commodores should rank with Brigadiers. This was accepted although in reality the "rank" of Commodore did not exist. In 1805, this anomaly was redressed by creating Commodores First Class, ranked and paid as Rear Admiral if of sufficient importance to have a separate Captain under him, and Commodore Second Class if he commanded the ship himself and not ranked as Rear Admiral, thus (2) a senior post-captain ordered by the commander-in-chief to take command of a squadron or station. And (3) the senior master commanding a convoy of merchant ships, e.g. early East Indiamen, later WWII merchant convoys.

Complement : the total ship's company authorized for her size or Rate.

Cooper : (1) an artificer skilled in making and repairing casks; (2) a rating employed to assist the purser in dispensing beer, rum and other liquors to the ship's crew.

Coxwain (colloquially Cox'n) : a non-commissioned petty officer charged with piloting a small boat.

D – E – F

Flag Captain : the captain of a flagship, i.e. a ship with a Flag Officer aboard.

Flag Officer : an admiral, vice admiral or rear admiral, i.e. any senior officer entitled to denote his presence at sea by flying a flag – in distinction to a Commodore who flies a broad pennant.

Flag Rank : the rank of Admiral.

First (Second, Third etc.) Lieutenant : a lieutenant ranking first (second, third etc.) in seniority after the captain.

G – H

Gun Captain : a rating commanding a gun's crew.

Gunner : a non-commissioned warrant officer charged with the maintenance of the ship's armament, including the ammunition supply system, ensuring that powder in the magazines were kept dry (one of the four warrant officers and standing officers). They were examined and appointed by and were responsible to the Ordnance Board. Their warrant rank had limited opportunities for promotion to commissioned posts in the nineteenth century.

I – J – K

Idlers : men who did not stand watches, and, except in an emergency or in action, worked by day and slept by night. In the C18th the word 'idler' did not carry derogatory connotations. Warrant officers who were 'idlers' included: the surgeon, purser, chaplain, carpenter, sailmaker, armourer, master-at-arms, ropemaker, caulker and cook. Junior petty officers who were 'idlers' included: the carpenter's mate, gunner's mate, yeoman of the powder room, armourer's mate, ship's corporal, caulker's mate, trumpeter, carpenter's crew, gunsmith, clerk, and steward.


Landman (or Landsman): an unskilled member of a ship's company. Below an Ordinary Seaman and an Able Seaman.

Lieutenant : In 1850, after the restoration, Samuel Pepys introduced an examination to test the abilities of the rank and by doing so transformed their status from mere understudy to an actual job with particular duties attached. The senior lieutenant, known as the First Lieutenant, was responsible for the organisation of the ship and administration under the guidance of the Captain. (Note: this post eventually turned into the rank of Commander.) He was responsible for maintaining discipline and navigation and with the junior lieutenants responsible for ensuring the crew carried out their duties. He was in charge of watches. Lieutenants received their commissions for particular ships and the position within the officer ranks. An officer was required to have at least six years service at sea, including at least two as a midshipman, before passing the examination for promotion to Lieutenant. First (Second, Third, ...) Lieutenants were ranked by seniority below the captain. It was possible for the officer to pass many years at this rank until the eventual distinction between Lieutenants of eight years service and the eventual establishment of the rank of Lieutenant-Commander.

Lieutenant Commander : a lieutenant commanding small naval vessels, who might, in bigger ships, otherwise be known as Commander. In 1827 this changed when the rank of Commander came to be that of a Captain’s second-in-command. However, in recognition of their being senior lieutenants, they were given a distinction setting them apart from the junior lieutenants including a different uniform. Lieutenants of eight years service were usually given this distinction, forming in essence a new rank. In 1875, they were allowed to include a “half-stripe” to the two full stripes of Lieutenant. In March 1914, the substantive rank of Lieutenant-Commander was established with automatic promotion for Lieutenants of eight years service.


Master : (1) the commanding officer of a merchant ship; (2) the senior warrant rank of sea officers, well educated, equating to a “professional” seaman and specialist in navigation, rather than as a military commander responsible for the navigation and pilotage of a warship. Their rank approximated that of Lieutenant, and they were professionally examined by Trinity House and re-qualified if appointed to a larger rated ship. Masters were able to stand watches and command ships in non-combatant duties. In the mid-nineteenth century Masters attained full commissioned rank and titles were changed to assimilate them into the main commissioned structure. As part of his duties on board ship, the Master’s main duty was navigation, taking ship’s position daily and setting the sails as appropriate for the required course. He supervised Midshipmen and Mates in taking observations of the sun and maintained the ship’s compass. He was also responsible for ensuring the maintenance of the rope rigging and sails, security and the issue of drink on board. Other duties included the stowing of the hold, taking stores so that the ship was properly trimmed, inspecting provisions, and reporting defects to the Captain. He supervised entry of parts of the official log such as weather, position and expenditure.

Francis Holburne (1752-1820), Midshipman at the age of four, with his father Admiral Holburne; from a painting by Joshua Reynolds.

Master and Commander : a quasi-rank intermediate between lieutenant and post-captain (1674-1794).

Master's Mate : a petty officer assisting the master; most often a senior midshipman awaiting promotion to lieutenant.

Mate : (1) second officer of a merchant ship; (2) petty officer assisting a warrant officer or more senior petty officer (usually used in compound form, e.g. boatswain's mate, master's mate, quartermaster's mate).

Midshipman : a non-commissioned naval rank, a petty officer was often a young gentleman with aspirations to become a commissioned officer. The name originates from their being quartered midships, officers aft and seamen forward. The number of Midshipmen in a ship was fixed by the rating of the ship and it was at the discretion of the captain as to who was carried. At times when large numbers of men were wanting to become Midshipmen or get their service time in before the Lieutenant’s examination, various supernumerary posts, paid as able seamen were created. In the late C18th the minmum age for rating as a Midshipman was 15 years. These potential officers undertook instruction on a variety of subjects and had the important distinction of being permitted to walk the quarterdeck and wear a uniform unlike that of other Petty Officers.

N – O

Officer : a person having rank and authority in a disciplined service. Defined in 1815 as being of three classes: (1) Commission officers, who receive their appointments from the Lords of the Admiralty; (2) Warrant Officers who receive them from the Navy Board; and (3) Petty Officers who are appointed by the captains.


Petty Officer : a senior rating; received higher pay and a higher share of prize money, but did not hold a warrant. In the late C18th the word 'petty officer' referred to all those members of the crew of a warship who held ratings above that of able seamen or who were specialists. The word 'petty' derived from the French 'petit', meaning small. The terms First Class and Second Class Petty Officers were used until 1907, supplanted by Senior and Junior. Senior petty officers included: the quartermaster, quartermaster's mate, boatswain's mate, yeoman of the sheets, coxswain, quarter gunners. Junior petty officers included: captain of the forecastle, captain of the afterguard, captain of the foretop, captain of the maintop, captain of the waist, gun captain. Additional junior petty officers were known as 'idlers'.

The rank, or rating as it used to be known, of petty officer (literally: inferior officer) was established in the 18th century, and that of chief petty officer just over 100 years ago. It is of interest that there were petty officers first and second class in the Royal Navy from about 1830 until 1907.

Post-Captain : an officer of the rank of captain. In the Royal Navy any officer in command of a ship was accorded the honorific 'captain', but only a Post Captain could command a ship of one of the the six major Rates. His position differed from all other lower ranks in that his future was guaranteed by seniority. Promotion did not necessarily depend upon merit, but rather upon longevity. The highest rank in the Royal Navy below that of rear admiral, except that for a special duty a captain could be temporarily given the rank of commodore and would then rank above all other captains.

Powder Monkey : the member of a gun crew with responsibility for bringing powder cartridges up from the magazine.

Prize Agent : man of business taking charge of the captors' interest in a prize.

Prize Crew : the party sent aboard a prize vessel to sail her into port. A captured vessel was referred to as a 'prize' as she would normally be sold, allowing prize money to be distributed to the captors.

Purser : warranted by the Admiralty, did not require professional qualifications, but did require some kind of financial surety. The duties were to oversee supply and issue of victuals, slops (clothes) and other consumables, as well as keeping the ship's accounts. In the nineteenth century the rank was transferred to being a commissioned rank and another aspect of his duty appeared – it became customary to pay the crew at regular intervals which entailed carrying money which became the Purser’s responsibility. The Pursor became a standing officer, increasing their number from three to four.


Quartermaster : a petty officer assisting the master in steering the ship.


Rating : one of the 'common men' of a ship's company having no rank.

Rear Admiral : (1) a flag-officer of the rank of Rear-Admiral of the Red, White or Blue (C18th); (2) the starting rank of Flag Officers.

Ropemaker : one ropemaker was appointed by warrant to each ship – under the command of the boatswain. The ropemaker was to make rope with the help of any of the ship's company 'directed to assist him'. He had no regular mates.


Sailing Master : the noncommissioned senior warrant officer responsible for the ship's navigation.

Sailmaker : one sailmaker was appointed by warrant to each ship – under the command of the boatswain; he had a mate in each rated ship (chosen from among the crew) and other seamen could be drafted to help the sailmaker if needed.

Seaman : a rating – in descending order, an able (able-bodied) seaman, an ordinary seaman, and a landman (landsman).

Sea Officer : a commissioned or warrant officer of the Navy.

Shipmate : a fellow-member of a ship's company.

Shipwright : a carpenter employed in shipbuilding.

Snotty : a familiar term for a midshipman.

Standing Officer : one of the four (main) warrant officers: boatswain, gunner, carpenter and purser. They were warranted to the ship, thus when in reserve, they were borne on the Ordinary books of the dockyard.

Sub-Lieutenant : In principle, any person who satisfied the age and service conditions and passed the examination could be commissioned, it was usual for candidates for commissioned ranks to pass through a number of ratings including that of Master’s Mate. This was technically a senior petty officer rank. He learnt navigation from the Master and generally assisted him. This rank was more highly paid than any other rating and were the only ratings allowed to command any sort of vessel. They could pass examinations qualifying them to command prizes and tenders and act as Second Master of vessels too small to be allocated a warranted Master, thus by 1802, a midshipman or master's mate, passed for lieutenant but not commissioned, might act as watchkeeping officer of a small warship. In 1824, there was a split and potential Masters became Masters Assistants and potential lieutenants remained as Master’s Mates. In 1840, Mates were established as a rank below Lieutenants and in 1860, renamed as Sub-Lieutenants. It then became the most junior commissioned rank and the only route to promotion to Lieutenant.

Supercargo [also supracargo]: an abbreviation of cargo superintendent, the owner's representative on board a merchant vessel responsible for the commercial transactions of the voyage.

Supernumerary : a member of a ship's crew additional to her established complement.

Surgeons : medical practitioners warranted to ships by the Navy Board, having qualified after examination by various bodies including the Barber-Surgeons Company up to 1796, then until 1806 they were both examined and appointed by the Sick and Hurt Board, from 1806-1816 by the Transport Board, from 1817-1832 by the Vitualling Board, and thereafter the Admiralty became responsible for their qualifications. They had the right to walk the quarterdeck and became a fully commissioned rank later in the nineteenth century. They were the only medical officers on the ship and were assisted by one or more Surgeon’s Mates (inferior warrant officers). They were responsible for the sick and injured, performing surgical operations as necessary and dispensed medicine. They were required to keep a journal of treatment and advised the Captain on health matters.

T – U – V

Vice-Admiral : (1) a flag-officer of the rank of Vice-Admiral of the Red, White or Blue (C18th); (2) the flag rank above Rear Admiral.

Victualler : a victualling contractor or agent, responsible for the provisioning of a ship.

Volunteer : (1) a person volunteering to serve; (2) an unemployed officer serving unofficially in the hope of filling a vacancy (3) a pupil of the Royal Naval Academy, Portsmouth (1731-1812); (4) an officer cadet.

W – X

Warrant Officer : a seaman or subordinate officer appointed by warrant from the Navy Board, rather than the commission of the Board of Admiralty. Warrant officers were the heads of specialist technical branches of the ship’s company and reported directly to the Captain. For administration they reported to the different boards which governed naval affairs such as the Navy Board, Victualling Board and Ordnance Board. They were usually examined professionally by a body other than the Admiralty and had usually served an apprenticeship. They included all specialised officers, as well as men of lower status: master, surgeon, purser, chaplain, boatswain, carpenter, gunner. In the eighteenth century, there were two branches of Warrant Officer, those classed as sea officers, who had equal status as commissioned officers and could stand on the quarterdeck and those classed as inferior officers (keeping no accounts). Of the Warrant Officers, three (later four) were classed as standing officers, warranted to a ship for her lifetime whether in commission or not. When in reserve, they were borne on the Ordinary books of the dockyard and employed in maintenance of the ship. There was a change in the nineteenth century when some warrant ranks were transferred to commissioned rank and the branch of Engineers was introduced. It became necessary to distinguish between types of officers as to which ranks could command and those who could not – basically Military and Civil (equivalent to the modern Executive and Non-Executive officers). After 1847, only three warrant ranks remained.

Y – Z

Yellow Admiral : a captain retired with the rank of rear-admiral.


[ Back ] Footnote 1: This was one of the last appointments by James II (VII of Scotland) before the Glorious Revolution while Samual Pepys was Secretary of the Admiralty. Pepys knew George Legge, Baron of Dartmouth, extremely well, as he had accompanied him to Tangier to oversee the evacuation and destruction of the doomed English colony at Tangier.
[ Back ] Footnote 2: Heathcote, in his The British Admirals of the Fleet: 1734-1995 (note the starting date in the subtitle) suggests that Norris was chronologally the first, but writes [p. 197] that "Norris was appointed commander-in-chief and admiral of the fleet, a rank in abeyance since 1719."
[ Back ] Footnote 1: Those Admirals of the Fleet promoted prior to "abeyance" retained the rank in the Navy List e.g, Admiral of the Fleet, Sir David Benjamin Bathurst, G.C.B., promoted 10 July 1995 on his retirement. Since abeyance, only two promotions have been made - in 2012 the Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, and in 2014 Michael Cecil Boyce, Baron Boyce, now deceased, recognized for his services as Chief of Defence Staff.

Bibliography (partial):

Gardiner, Robert (ed) The Line of Battle: the sailing warship 1650-1840, London: Conway Maritime Press, 1992
Heathcote, A.T. The British Admirals of the Fleet : 1734 - 1995 : a biographical dictionary, London, Leo Cooper, 2002
Hill, John Richard, RAdm. The Prizes of War: the naval prize system in the Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815, Portsmouth : Sutton Publishing, 1998
Kemp, Peter (ed) The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Lavery, Brian Nelson's Navy: the Ships, Men and Organisation, 1793 -1815, London: Conway Maritime Press, 1989.
Lewis, Michael England's Sea-Officers : The Story of the Naval Profession, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1939 (2nd ed. 1948).
Lyon, David The Sailing Navy List: all the ships of the Royal Navy - built, purchased and captured 1688 - 1860, London: Conway Maritime Press, 1993.
Lyon, David and Winfield, Rif The Sail & Steam Navy List: all the ships of the Royal Navy 1815-1889, London: Chatham Publishing, 2004.
Padfield, Peter Maritime Power and the Struggle for Freedom 1788-1851, Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2003.
Rodger, Nicholas The Command of the Ocean: a naval history of Britain, 1649-1815, London: Allen Lane, 2004.
Stilwell, Alexander The Trafalgar companion, Oxford : Osprey Publishing, 2005
Tracey, Nicholas Navies, deterrence, and American independence : Britain and seapower in the 1760s and 1770s, Vancouver : University of British Columbia Press, 1988.

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