HMS Queen Charlotte, named in honour of George III's wife and consort, was one of the three 'Umpire' class first rates designed by Edward Hunt in 1772 although not begun until well over a decade later. Ordered in December 1782 but not actually laid down at Chatham until September 1785, Queen Charlotte was measured at 2,278 tons and was 190 feet in length with a 52 foot beam. Mounting 100 guns, including a main armament of 30-32pdrs., she was launched on 15th April 1790 and entered service later the same year as flagship to Admiral Lord Howe. As commander of the Channel Fleet when war with Revolutionary France was declared in 1793, Howe's responsibilities increased hugely and when the Admiralty received news that a valuable grain convoy was approaching France from the United States, Howe was ordered to take immediate action. Thus it was that the fleet put to sea from Portsmouth early in May 1794 for the brief operation which was to end, a month later, in a notable British victory.
Fought on 1st June , the opening battle of the War was also its first fleet action and was the result of Howe's encounter with a French fleet, under Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse, which itself had been sent out to escort the grain convoy safely into port. Howe had already spent several fruitless weeks at sea searching for both the convoy and its escort when he finally sighted both on 28th May. A running fight lasting three days ensued, with the French having the advantage of heavy weather. Early on 1st June, with the weather much improved and the two fleets about four miles apart, Lord Howe seized the weather gage and attacked. His strategy was not entirely successful but, nevertheless, six French ships-of-the-line were taken as prizes and a seventh, Le Vengeur du Peuple, was sunk after a tremendous duel with HMS Brunswick. The French flagship Montagne was severely damaged, suffering 300 men killed and yet, despite these losses, the convoy of merchantmen escaped Howe's clutches whilst the fleets were engaged and managed to reach the French coast safely.
This atmospheric view shows the moment at which Lord Howe's flagship Queen Charlotte 'breaks the enemy line' on the morning of 1st June. All the ships depicted can be seen with their sails peppered with shot holes from the intermittent action over the previous three days although none had suffered major damage. As Howe broke through, he poured his first starboard broadside into the French 120-gun flagship Montagne whilst at the same time raking the bows of the 80-gun Jacobin fast approaching from his leeward side. It was a tricky manoeuvre to squeeze through such a narrow gap, but Howe timed it perfectly much to the admiration of his senior officers. In fact, so preoccupied were those officers that no-one remembered to give the order to open fire and it was left to the young Lieutenant Codrington (later Admiral Sir Edward, G.C.B., of Navarino fame) to do so on his own initiative just at the moment to do the maximum damage to the enemy.