In the century that followed the British Civil Wars (1642-51), the navy underwent a major transformation. Under the early Stuart kings, several impressive warships were built but progress was dogged by weak leadership and problems in recruiting crews. The fleet’s operational record under James I and Charles I was undistinguished. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, barely a half-century earlier, was a distant memory. With fewer than forty ships in the 1640s, this was the navy of a medium-sized regional power.
Yet by the mid 18th century, Britain possessed a navy capable of policing a global empire. In 1750, the fleet consisted of more than 200 vessels. Britain’s naval building far outpaced that of its historic rivals, France, Spain, and Holland. It had evolved more effective tactics and was staffed by an increasingly professional body of officers and sailors. The navy had become firmly established in the public consciousness as the guardian of national security and the principal means of projecting power abroad. There were some significant setbacks. Nevertheless, on the eve of the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63, in which it would engage France in a contest for global dominance, Britain was unquestionably the world’s leading maritime power.
In this occasional mini-series, we analyse three key figures who, in their different ways, helped to lay the foundations of British naval mastery. Our first subject is the often-overlooked Robert Blake, Oliver Cromwell’s ‘general at sea’, whose successes against a range of opponents made the navy once again a decisive national force. Later, we will chart the colourful career of Admiral Edward Vernon, whose capture of Porto Bello in the Caribbean triumphantly raised the public profile of the navy in Georgian Britain. We will conclude with Admiral George Anson, known for his circumnavigation of the globe, who became an innovative naval administrator in the second half of his career. He implemented a range of reforms, creating the navy that would be used to great effect by Horatio Nelson a generation later.
No less a figure than Horatio Nelson regarded Robert Blake as a naval commander whose achievements he could not hope to equal. Yet today, the man who headed the English fleet in the age of Oliver Cromwell is largely forgotten by all but naval history specialists. In part, this is due to the relative shortness of Blake’s career at sea. Appointed to his first command in 1649, shortly after Charles I’s execution, he died just eight years later.
Blake’s obscurity also owes something to the fact that he served his country’s only republican regime. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, his body was exhumed from its place of honour in Westminster Abbey and reburied in an unmarked grave. It was to be more than 200 years before an official memorial was unveiled.
Blake was not a tactical innovator when it came to set-piece fleet battles. The broadside – the standard method of maximising the firepower of wooden sailing ships – was established before he arrived on the scene. Nor did he invent the practice of fighting in line formation, with each ship following in the wake of the ship ahead of it. Yet Blake made a substantial contribution to naval warfare. He evolved methods of blockade that remained valid throughout the era of the sailing navy. He was proficient in organising amphibious landings. Above all, through his strength of character, Blake built a loyal and cohesive team of captains, instilling a sense of professionalism that was rare in his time, and which survived the return of monarchy. He won victories that made his country respected around the world.
From land to sea command
Blake had no direct experience of the sea before he was chosen in March 1649, aged 51, as one of three ‘generals at sea’ with authority over the navy. A member of a prosperous family in the Somerset town of Bridgwater, he may have worked as a young man as a merchant on the continent. The evidence for this is inconclusive and rests largely on a later episode, when he told a Dutch fishing-boat skipper that he knew his home town of Schiedam.
Blake served briefly as an MP before fighting on the Parliamentarian side in the Civil War. At the siege of Bristol in July 1643, he held out stubbornly after the rest of the garrison had surrendered. He conducted the defence of Lyme Regis in Dorset against a much larger Royalist force, and held Taunton against three successive sieges.
Impressive as this was for someone with no formal military training, it did not seem a natural preparation for maritime command. But Blake met the two main criteria that mattered to the new republican government in making its appointments. Competence as a commander on land was viewed as evidence of skills that could be transferred to the maritime theatre. His role was to provide leadership; qualified subordinates would supply specialist knowledge of seamanship. Secondly, Blake was an ardent republican who had long believed in the Puritan ideology that drove Parliament’s rebellion against the Crown. His fellow generals at sea, Richard Deane and Edward Popham, were also former army officers with a strong commitment to the ‘good old cause’.
Although the navy broadly supported Parliament in the Civil War, its adherence to the infant republic could not be taken for granted. The first requirement was for Blake and his colleagues to impose discipline on the fleet. This was vital if it was to suppress Royalist resistance, which continued to surface in Ireland, Scotland, and outlying parts of the British Isles. Moreover, the execution of the king was a radical step that had alienated England’s continental neighbours. The Commonwealth was an insecure regime, which looked to the navy to help ensure its survival.
To this task Blake brought a personality strengthened by his core beliefs and by the experience of civil conflict. He and his fellow generals at sea applied themselves to the practical needs of their ships’ crews, earning their loyalty by improving pay and conditions and funding pensions for the wounded and dependents of those who died in service.
Beyond this, Blake had a gift for communicating his inner certainty to those below him. He did not question the authority of the civil power above him, nor would he tolerate dissent from those under his command. A driven, self-sufficient man who neither married nor sought personal gain, he was totally committed to the task entrusted to him.
Defeating the royalists at sea
Blake was required to deal almost at once with the threat from the Royalist fleet, which remained at large under the executed king’s nephew, Prince Rupert. Based in Holland, it posed a continuing threat to merchant shipping, with the added possibility that it might disrupt Cromwell’s campaign to subjugate Ireland. Blake pursued Rupert to the Irish port of Kinsale, where he mounted a blockade throughout the summer of 1649.
When a storm allowed the prince to escape to safe harbour in Lisbon, Blake followed him. He organised a blockade of remarkable length – from March to September 1650 – in face of opposition from the Portuguese king. This resistance was broken only when Blake seized a convoy from Brazil with its vital cargo of treasure, threatening Portugal’s government with bankruptcy. Rupert escaped into the Mediterranean with six ships. Blake captured one vessel and drove another ashore at Cartagena, where it was burnt, while the others were wrecked as they tried to flee. Blake’s actions obliged Portugal and Spain to recognise the Commonwealth.
The following year, Blake mopped up the remaining enemy outposts. From his base on the Isles of Scilly, Royalist governor Sir John Grenville had been running a privateering campaign against shipping in the south-west. The Commonwealth’s ruling council sent Blake to the islands to forestall intervention by the Dutch, whose traders had also suffered from the Royalists’ activities. After one abortive attempt at landing, Blake brought off a successful amphibious operation, putting men ashore on outlying Tresco so that the defenders of the main island, St Mary’s, were soon obliged to surrender.
Blake then turned his attention to the Channel Islands. The garrison on Jersey surrendered after a siege of 50 days. Blake showed extraordinary determination throughout these offshore operations. Perhaps it was from his experience of defending towns in the Civil War that he drew his combination of sheer aggression and dogged resilience.
Taking the fight to the enemy
The elimination of the Royalist threat was a first priority for the fledgling republican state. This soon broadened out into a series of offensive campaigns designed to assert national power and prestige and to protect and expand British overseas trade. The first country with which the Commonwealth went to war was its greatest commercial rival. In the Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-54, the Commonwealth challenged Holland’s claims to convoy merchant shipping through the Channel. Hostilities opened with a clash off Dover, when the Dutch Admiral Tromp refused to give the expected salute to Blake’s squadron. After a five-hour slogging match, the Dutch withdrew.
In taking the fight to the Dutch, Blake benefited from an expansion of the navy under the Commonwealth. At the start of the war, he had 86 warships at his disposal, the largest fleet his country had fielded. In most battles, however, he was outnumbered as the Dutch were able to supplement their fleet with more armed merchantmen. The two countries differed in the type of ships that they built. English shipyards concentrated on the construction of large men-of-war, equipped with heavy guns. They lacked the agility of the smaller, more manoeuvrable Dutch vessels, whose captains favoured close-range encounters with a view to boarding. By contrast, the English, deployed in closely ordered lines, were able to bring immense firepower to bear.
These advantages were on display in September 1652, when Blake defeated the Dutch off the Kentish Knock. The Dutch performed best when their ships were close together – but the wind was against them and the English were able to wreak destruction on their dispersed opponents. Low morale on the Dutch side also played a part. Their sailors were unpaid and disliked their commander, de With, who had temporarily replaced Tromp. Faced with superior English gunnery, many of the captains refused to fight on. As they broke and fled, Blake pursued them for two days.
Blake did not have things entirely his own way. Two months later he suffered defeat at the hands of a larger Dutch force off Dungeness. He offered his resignation but the council would not part with its best commander, instead taking up his proposal for a review of naval tactics and management. Blake’s authority over the fleet was increased and the government committed to increase its funding. New instructions required captains to keep in line and focus on destroying enemy ships rather than being distracted, as had often been the case in the past, by the seizure of prizes.
In February 1653, Blake won a decisive victory in the three-day Battle of Portland, which gave the English control of the Channel once again. This was followed in June by the Battle of the Gabbard, off the Suffolk coast. Here the strength of the English line enabled a steady series of broadsides to pummel the Dutch ships, preventing them from getting close enough to board. Blake was not present at the last major engagement of the war, at Scheveningen in July 1653, having been forced by a wound and ill health to take leave. But his organisational gifts, and his insistence on a method of fighting that was both disciplined and ruthless, had made a vital contribution to the outcome.
Barbary corsairs and Spanish treasure
At the end of 1653, the Commonwealth was transformed into the Cromwellian Protectorate. The Lord Protector’s overseas strategy aimed at an alliance with France against Spain, which he viewed as the greater threat. He sought to capture Spanish treasure ships and territory in the Americas, laying the foundations of a new empire based on trade and naval power.
Blake’s health was sufficiently recovered to enable him to act as the instrument of his political master’s seaborne ambitions. In October 1654, he took a fleet of 20 ships into the Mediterranean to disrupt a planned French attack on Naples and make them accept an alliance on English terms. His second task was to confront the Barbary corsairs, based on the North African coast, who had raided southern England in the recent past to enslave local people. His aim was to secure the return of captured ships and slaves, and to exact compensation.
After negotiations with the local ruler, the Dey of Tunis, failed to produce any results, Blake decided in April 1655 to use force. He bombarded the defences guarding the bay of Porto Farina, near Tunis, and sailed in to destroy nine ships as they lay at anchor. This entailed sailing within 100 yards of the Tunisian forts and sending in boarding parties to set the vessels on fire. The manoeuvre could have ended in disaster if Blake’s force had been trapped in the small harbour, under heavy fire from the shore batteries. Unencumbered by captured prizes, however, they escaped with the loss of just 25 men. Blake had exceeded his instructions but was commended nonetheless by an admiring Lord Protector. It is generally regarded as the first successful attack from the sea on shore-based defences.
This was a preliminary to the much greater task of prosecuting war with Spain. Blake was continuously at sea for a year from March 1656, cruising in the eastern Atlantic. It was a period largely of frustration, entailing a blockade of Cadiz that continued through an entire winter. His ships intercepted a homeward bound Spanish silver fleet but the gains proved less than expected.
Finally, in April 1657, came news that the Spanish had anchored at Santa Cruz on Tenerife. Blake decided to repeat his achievement at Porto Farina. The 16 Spanish ships were anchored in a heavily defended harbour, the galleons’ broadsides facing out to sea. Unpredictable winds around the mountains behind the town made the assault all the more challenging. The English did, however, enjoy some advantages. As they forced their way into the harbour, the Spanish ships blocked the aim of the shore fort gunners. After they had begun to fire, Blake followed with the heavier vessels to bombard the forts. Once again, Blake insisted on not taking prizes, overriding three captains who sought to defy him; the aim was to burn ships, not steal bullion.
All the Spanish ships were destroyed for no English losses, although Speaker, the first to enter the fray, was badly damaged and had to be towed away. According to the Royalist commentator Lord Clarendon, ‘the Spaniards comforted themselves with the belief that they were devils, and not men, who had destroyed them in such manner’. They had in fact moved their treasure from the ships before Blake arrived, but the raid left them unable to transport it to Spain. Without the means to pay their army, they were forced to seek peace with France two years later. Blake’s achievement was justifiably acclaimed across Europe.
Santa Cruz was Blake’s greatest victory and also his last. He had been seriously ill for some time and had never made a full recovery from earlier wounds. Returning to England, he died in August 1657 aboard his flagship, the George, as the fleet approached Plymouth. The ceremonial funeral accorded him by a grateful government was ironic for someone of his austere republican beliefs.
In less than a decade, Blake had overcome a variety of enemies. Although he lacked a capacity for brilliant manoeuvre, he won victories through a sound grasp of the realities of sea warfare. His ability to exert his will on others and to build a disciplined, committed fighting force were the keys to his success. He had helped to create a navy that would, over the coming century, underpin his country’s growing commercial and colonial power.
Blake’s battle fleet
The Commonwealth’s preference for building large ships continued the practice of the early Stuart monarchs. The Sovereign, a prestige project undertaken for Charles I, mounted 100 guns – almost double the armament of the largest Dutch ship. At the start of the first Anglo-Dutch War, Britain possessed seven ships carrying between 51 and 62 guns and a further ten between 41 and 50. The standard English weapons were iron guns of different sizes, capable of firing solid shot weighing between 17.5 and 60 pounds, whereas the heaviest Dutch gun was a 24-pounder. A crucial innovation, not yet adopted by rival navies, was the truck carriage. English guns were attached by ropes to the side of the ship so that they ran back after being fired, enabling the crew to reload inboard where they were less exposed to enemy counter-fire.
Find out more The standard biography is Michael Baumber’s General-At-Sea: Robert Blake and the seventeenth-century revolution in naval warfare (John Murray, 1989). Blake’s former home in Bridgwater, Somerset, now hosts a museum with a permanent exhibition about his life: www.bridgwatermuseum.org.uk All Images: Wikimedia Commons