First name

Text source

Francis Sheldon was almost certainly born in Chatham (although J. Glete indicates that he may have been born in Botholph) in 1612 and began his shipbuilding career as an apprentice under Phineas Pett in Chatham dockyard. He likely attained this through family connections with the Pett family as Sheldon’s father, also named Francis Sheldon (as confirmed by a marriage register in 1654), was a shipyard official. In 1633, Sheldon worked at Woolwich dockyard as Clerk of the Cheque (as confirmed by the Calendar of State Papers from the reign of Charles I). These State Papers, on 9 September 1635 reveal that Sheldon and Pett were in the midst of a disagreement about the administration of Chatham dockyard after Sheldon, but not Pett, had been informed about a royal survey of the dockyard and after the two had different ideas about how to remedy/approach this situation. [It must be noted that although it is extremely likely that the Sheldon recorded to have worked in the dockyards of Woolwich and Chatham in the 1630s is the Sheldon under consideration, some historians (including J. Glete) have recognised the possibility that this Sheldon could instead have been Sheldon’s father, on the basis that it might have been unlikely for somebody born in 1612 to have reached the position of Clerk of the Cheque by the age of 21.] Nevertheless, Sheldon later began working as a shipbuilder (although historians are unsure of the start-date) and was involved with the construction of Naseby at Woolwich in 1655 and with London at Chatham in 1656. 

Sheldon arrived in Sweden in April 1659 along with Robert Turner [SSNE 4203] and Thomas Day [SSNE 4192] and served as a master shipbuilder for an annual salary of 1500 riksdaler and the income from a small farmstead from 19 April. Historians are unsure as to exactly why Sheldon emigrated to Sweden, but numerous suggestions have been made. For instance, after the Swedish navy suffered defeat in 1658 and the English navy summarily arrived to protect English interests, Karl X Gustaf was so impressed by the quality of English ships (and to an equal extent fed-up of the Dutch shipbuilders that had built most of the Swedish fleet, including Vasa, in the seventeenth-century up to that point) that he asked Richard Cromwell (through Karl X Gustaf’s commissioner in London, Johan Barkman Leijonbergh) if England could send some English shipbuilders to Sweden. A letter from Samuel Pepys to Anthony Deane, as recorded within Pepys’ Naval Minutes, reveals that such correspondence took place and so this very easily have been the case. This recruitment drive (if this theory is correct) not only brought Sheldon to Sweden, but also brought Turner [SSNE 4203] and Day [SSNE 4192]. Conversely, it has also been suggested (by historians such as R.M. Nance who termed Sheldon a ‘royalist refugee’) that Sheldon (alongside his brothers Gilbert and Joseph who, respectively, later became the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Mayor of London) attempted to rescue Charles I from captivity and, failing, fled to Sweden to avoid Oliver Cromwell’s pursuit. Most regard this account as fanciful (primarily because this must have happened before (or at least close to) 1649 and Sheldon did not arrive in Sweden until 1659), but it isnonetheless regarded as possible (particularly amongst the historiography of the late- nineteenth and early-twentieth century) that Sheldon was at some point involved in a royalist plot and ultimately fled to Sweden for safety. 

Nevertheless, on 19 April 1659, Sheldon began work in Gothenburg. In 1661, he built the 158 foot and 84-gun Riksapplett (also referred to as Äpple and which was likely based upon the design of Naseby, a ship model of which he brought to Sweden), the 22-gun frigate Postiljon, and Jupiter. Some accounts, however, suggest that Riksapplett may instead have been constructed in 1663 and that Postiljon may instead have been constructed in 1664. Jupiter, though, was wrecked in 1666 after having already been declared unfit for active service and Riksapplett was wrecked at Dalarö in 1676 after taking part in two naval actions that year. Sheldon also built smaller vessels for private buyers and for himself, and carried out a profitable mast trade with England (primarily through and with Sir William Warren, a 
leading supplier of goods and materials to the English navy), whilst he was employed at Gothenburg and, accordingly, appeared on the Gothenburg shipping list in 1665, sending goods to London. Despite issues receiving payment for his work (likely caused by his unsanctioned private enterprises), Sheldon based himself in Stockholm from 1666 until 1672 
(although some accounts indicate that he could have moved to Stockholm as early as 1665) after the previous shipwright, the Dutchman Jacob Voss, died. In Stockholm, he built the 126 gun, three-decked, and 178-and-a-half-foot ship, Stora Kronan which also sank (she capsized and exploded in action in 1676), and spent some time teaching shipbuilding skills and techniques to a local shipbuilder by the name of Åche Rålamb. He also wrote to Jakob Momma Reenstierna in 1669 in connection with his business. He experienced chronic difficulties in getting the Swedish Crown to pay his salary and reimburse his expenses so, in 1672, he left Sweden with his wife and daughter and secretly travelled to England. Sheldon was ennobled in Sweden, though, but not introduced into the House of Nobility. Clearly, there existed animosity as, in 1685, he made a complaint to James II about not being paid for the period of his service and suffering imprisonment for allowing his son to leave the country. 

Not much is known of Sheldon’s time in England but it is clear that he struggled to find work that he deemed satisfactory and that, according to Samuel Pepys, he turned down an offer to enter service at the English naval base in Tangier. In June 1676, he petitioned for the repayment of £36 that he had been forced to pay to Ipswich Customs because of the Star’s (likely a Swedish ship trading in London) involvement with his mast trade. On 11 July 1676 (after asking Karl XI if he could return), Sheldon was permitted by the Crown to leave the British Isles and return to Sweden, where he was once again taken into service on 3 September 1677. 

Because Robert Turner [SSNE 4203] had taken over Sheldon’s old post of Chief Shipwright of the Stockholm shipyard, Admiral Hans Wachtmeister appointed Sheldon Chief Shipwright of the Riga shipyard on 17 April 1678, where he worked until 1683. Sheldon built three ships of between 50 and 56 guns: the Wachtmeister, Livland, and Estland and, in all likelihood, initiated the construction of Ösel. In Riga, though, Sheldon and his superiors (particularly Frans Lou) had persistent disagreements (due to Sheldon’s condescension, refusal to learn Swedish, bad temper, and because the admiralty were critical of Sheldon's work, feeling it was too expensive and that the ‘Dutch’ manner should be used rather than the ‘English’ manner when building ships) that resulted in Sheldon being held in, and restricted to, a small 
room in Kalmar Castle. From here, he was dismissed. In 1683, Sheldon left Sweden and returned to England (although J. Glete argues that Sheldon remained in Sweden after his dismissal until 1685). 

In 1685 (although some sources suggest 1686), Sheldon arrived in Copenhagen and was employed as the chief shipwright within the royal dockyard from 13 February 1686. In 1686 Sheldon argued that he should not be forced to provide the secrets of his trade, but ultimately accepted the employment terms and so subsequently received a salary of 1000 riksdaler and a 100 riksdaler allowance for a home and wood for fire. This was followed-up on 24 July by 
Christian V sending Sheldon seven instructions dictating how he was to perform his duties, much to Sheldon’s annoyance. Nevertheless, Sheldon dutifully built numerous vessels (3 ships-of-the-line and about ten smaller vessels) in Copenhagen, including Hekla (an 82 foot 6 inch long ship so well-built that she was not broken up until 1717), Elefant (a 24-gun 90 foot frigate) in 1687, Wechop (a 79-foot frigate galley completed in 1688), Tre Løver (70-guns in 1689), Kronen (a 104 foot yacht completed in 1690), Phoenix (a 100 foot frigate galley which completed its service 1699), and Oldenborg (a 151 foot and 52-gun ship completed in 1691). He then left Danish service, having requested to resign on 2 April 1690 (and with the permission of the King, took his draughts with him) and returned once again to England where he had been headhunted by the Earls of Nottingham and Dartmouth and by Sir William Dutton Colt. Seemingly, Sheldon had appeared on their radars because of his reputation for building ‘bomb vessels and ships for transporting horses’. The Principal Commissioners of Their Majesties’ Navies subsequently instructed Sheldon on 30 January 1690 (which, if this date is to be considered correct, means that Sheldon must have agreed to this before requesting to resign from service in Copenhagen) in a five-page document to work with E. Greene (a master shipbuilder) to proceed to Wexford, Ireland, for 12 months in order to create an inventory of the forest resources of Ireland, to purchase oak, and to then build a transport ship that would be capable of transporting this oak to England. It is possible that this document was instead dated to 13 September 1692 which, chronologically, is more likely. A Swedish account of Sheldon’s life (one that is validated by J. Glete) records that Sheldon died at Chatham in 1692. 

Sheldon's sons, Charles [SSNE 6650] and Frans Johan [SSNE 6651] also served as shipbuilders for Sweden (possibly directly against the wishes of their father), as did his youngest of nineteen children, Gilbert, and Gilbert’s son Francis. A nephew and great-nephew of this younger Francis also worked within Sweden’s shipbuilding 

Archival and Primary Sources 
Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the reign of Charles I, 1633-1634, ed. John Bruce (London, 1863). 

Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the reign of Charles I, 1635, ed. John Bruce (London, 1865). 

Danish Rigsarkivet, Copenhagen. ‘Letter from Francis Sheldon to James II and VII’, dated 19 December 1685, TKUA England AIII, Sjofartslager 

Sjöhistoriska museet, Stockholm, Sweden‘Modell Ö3’, c.1650, Fartygsmodell, Örlogsfartyg, O 00003. 

Swedish Riksarkiv, Handlingar angående örlogsflottan och armeens flotta, M-1754, letters from Sheldon to King Karl XI

Swedish Riksarkiv, Förteckning över Momma-Reenstierna Samlingen, part C: brev till Bröderna Momma-Reenstierna ingångna skrivelser, section 2, brev till Jacob Momma-Reenstierna - E2521, 53, 1669

Skokloster Castle, Stockholm, Sweden.Sheldon, F., ‘Model Drawing of Carl Gustaf Wrangel’s Hunt’, 1665, 7135,  

Secondary Sources 
Anderson, R.C., ‘Francis Sheldon and His Family’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 43:2 (1957), pp.101-105. 

Glete, J., ‘Swedish Biographical Lexicon’ (, accessed 16 November 2023. 

Glete, J., Swedish Naval Administration, 1521-1721: Resource Flows and Organisational (Leiden, 2010). 

Harris, D.G., ‘Charles Sheldon and the Baltic’s First Dry Dock’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 85:4 (1999), pp.396-404. 

Harris, D.G., ‘Francis Sheldon in Denmark, 1686-1690’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 83:3 (1997), pp.293-302. 

Harris, D.G., ‘Scandinavia’s Seventeenth Century English Shipbuilders’, in Nicholas Tracy and Martin Robson (eds.), The Age of Sail: The International Annual of the Historic Sailing Ship (London, 2003), pp.50-82. 

Nance, R.M, Classic Sailing-Ship Models in Photographs (New York, 2012 - but a reprint of London, 1924).

Schlegel B. and C. A. Klingspor, Den med skoldebref forlanade men ej a Riddarhuset introducerad Svenska Adelns Ättar-taflor (Stockholm, 1875), p.268

Wendt, E., Amiralitetskollegiets Historia part 1 1634-1695 (Stockholm, 1950), pp. 170, 213, 219, 230, 310

Zettersten, A., Svenska Flottans Historia Aren 1635-1680 (Norrtelje, 1903), p.625


This entry was kindly written by Edward Shattock.


Service record

Arrived 1659-04-19, as SHIPBUILDER
Departed 1665-12-31, as SHIPBUILDER
Capacity SHIPBUILDER, purpose NAVAL
Arrived 1666-01-01, as SHIPBUILDER
Departed 1672-12-31, as SHIPBUILDER
Capacity SHIPBUILDER, purpose NAVAL
Arrived 1677-09-03, as SHIPBUILDER
Departed 1678-12-31, as SHIPBUILDER
Capacity SHIPBUILDER, purpose NAVAL
Arrived 1679-01-01, as SHIPBUILDER
Departed 1680-12-31, as SHIPBUILDER
Capacity SHIPBUILDER, purpose NAVAL