Admirals in the Royal Navy used to follow the coloured-squadron system. If I have understood correctly, when this practice first arose in the seventeenth century, there really were precisely nine admirals in the entire navy (excluding the Lord High Admiral). However, by the time of Nelson, there were many more: In 1803 there were 45 admirals, 36 vice admirals and 51 rear admirals (see page 24 of The Royal Navy 1793–1815 by Gregory Fremont-Barnes, Osprey Publishing, 2007).

  1. At what point did the Royal Navy start to fill a given rank of admiral with more than one officer, for instance two officers simulaneously holding the rank of Rear Admiral of the Blue?

  2. How were numbers of admirals kept in check? Or were they not? For instance, if a Vice Admiral of the White retired or died, would the most senior Vice Admiral of the Blue automatically be promoted to Vice Admiral of the White, or might the Admiralty decide that there were currently a sufficient number of Vice Admirals of the White (even after said retirement/death) and thus decide not to promote the most senior Vice Admiral of the Blue? Or, on the other hand, might the Admiralty proactively decide that there were currently too few Vice Admirals of the White and promote the most senior Vice Admiral of the Blue without waiting for a Vice Admiral of the White to retire or die?

  • Much of the history of the British military is their inability to control the size of their officer corps. The US Revolution was driven in part by the need to retire half pay officers on colonial ground. This was merely part of the larger problem What to do about Noodle? - the notion that officer's posts or government posts were an entitlement rather than a billet.
    – MCW
    Feb 28, 2022 at 20:30
  • 1
    You may be right about there only being one person of each rank, but I'm not seeing the WP page you linked saying that. It does say there could only be one of the top rank (which makes sense for a supreme commander). The other thing I'm noticing in there is that it was constantly changing, presumably to grow as the size of the navy itself grew. Also, it seems to make it pretty clear that the system was completely changed in 1864.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 28, 2022 at 20:51

2 Answers 2


According to N.A.M Rodger the transition to multiple officers in the same post was (officially) in 1743,

There were eight flag officers' ranks: Admirals of the White and Blue, Vice-Admirals and Rear-Admirals of the Red, White and Blue. Until 1743 there was in principle only one officer of each of these ranks. By that time the Navy was acutely short of admirals, and as soon as George II was persuaded to allow a multiplication of flag officers, their numbers increased rapidly.

Commissioned officers' careers in the Royal Navy, 1690-1815, JMR, 3:1, p87

There were no automatic appointments or promotions in the Royal Navy. Officers would only be appointed (commissioned) by order of the Admiralty. However, the Admiralty generally worked on the principle of promotion based on seniority. So when a post at flag rank became available (due to the death or incapacity of its previous holder), the most senior officer (at the rank below) on the seniority list usually got the job.

Seniority was based on the date that the officer obtained the rank of Post Captain. So it was advantageous, if your goal was to become an admiral, to become a post captain as young as possible. This resulted in many abuses that had children "serving" on a ship's books (while safely ashore) to gain the sea service required to pass the Lieutenant's exam, which was the only real hurdle to become a Post Captain, as young as possible.

One of the other problems with the seniority system was that, potentially, the most senior captain on the list might be too old to do the job and, consequently, there was a system of "superannuation" that effectively granted them the rank but kept them off the active list.

For example, in 1769 there were almost as many superannuated admirals as there were active ones.

Flag-ranks in 1769
The honorary rank of ‘Vice-admiral of Great Britain’ was held by Admiral of the Fleet Edward Hawke, 1st Baron Hawke (1705-1781), who was appointed in 1765.

1 Admiral of the Fleet: Edward Hawke, 1st Baron Hawke (1705-1781) 15 January 1768

Admirals (7)

3 Admirals of the White;
4 Admirals of the Blue

Vice-admirals (10)

3 Vice-admirals of the Red; 3 Vice-admirals of the White; 4 Vice-admirals of the Blue

Rear-admirals (11)

4 Rear-admirals of the Red;
4 Rear-admirals of the White;
5 Rear-admirals of the Blue

In 1769, there were also 22 rear-admirals who were considered ‘superannuated’ (incapacitated or disqualified for active duty by advanced age)

Promotion in the Flag Ranks in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Stephen Millar

However, the Admiralty could be pragmatic when circumstances required...

The system was extremely inflexible in that it was impossible to overtake those above you on the list; but this did not stop the Admiralty appointing a man from well down the list to command a squadron or a fleet if he was felt to be ‘the best man for the job’. However, no flag officer could be placed under the orders of someone blow him on the list. The longer one had one’s commission, the higher one was up the list.

Promotion in the Flag Ranks in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Stephen Millar

Some caution should be taken when looking at "snapshots" of the numbers of officers serving at any given point, based purely on the Admiralty lists.

These fragmentary figures raise more questions than they answer, and they conceal a critical problem. All of them are cast in terms of the total number of officers of a given rank at a given date, and the unwary reader might naturally assume that these were officers 'on the Active List', in modern parlance; available to serve. Unfortunately for the historian, there is no doubt that some officers remained on the official lists even though they were no longer fit to serve. An unknown, and probably variable proportion of the officers listed in the tables above, and in all other figures deriveable [sic] from the Admiralty's official lists, were not in practice available for service.

Commissioned officers' careers in the Royal Navy, 1690-1815, JMR, 3:1, p87

Professor N.A.M. Rodger (2001): Commissioned officers' careers in the Royal Navy, 1690-1815,
Journal for Maritime Research, 3:1, 85-129

Promotion in the Flag Ranks in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Stephen Millar

  • 1
    +1, though I would not agree that passing for Lieutenant was "the only real hurdle to become a Post Captain". Quite the contrary: Anyone with the requisite number of years as a midshipman could sit the Lieutenant examination, but to be posted captain usually required an act of gallantry (e.g., being First Lieutenant during a successful action), and/or a lot of patronage ("interest"). Many officers ended their career as Lieutenants, who were not even eligible for half-pay when on shore. Mar 1, 2022 at 8:40
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    @StephanKolassa Yes, you're right, a key part of becoming a Post Captain was getting noticed for a commission—whether that was by heroic means, "interest" or plain old nepotism. My mention of the exam was to highlight the only professional qualification on the way to post and flag rank. No amount of help from above would get you promoted if you couldn't pass the Lieutenant's exam.
    – Steve Bird
    Mar 1, 2022 at 10:34

Oftentimes a first lieutenant can move up in rank if his captain above him was to move on to a higher rank. Or jf for example an enemy vessel was taken as a prize,(condemned and sold into the service, and the vessel had the requisite 20 guns(6th rate) or more to be rated a post ship the captain would often give a recommendation concerning his 1st and other officers who may be given commissions with the remain with the vessel if he were assigned to another command. This would also happen if an officer were promoted to another vessel or if a captain made flag-rank he would take a few favorites with him, moving his officers into position for post rank in future. And only if 16? Or older with 6? years experience or more as a midshipman or equivelent(masters mate)

  • 1
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