Admiral Robert Blake 1598/9-1657, father of the British Navy
Valerie Wilson has lived, studied and worked in Scotland, Germany and Italy; mainly employed in multi-national companies in shipping field.Admiral Robert Blake 1598/9-1657, father of the British Navy
Admiral Robert Blake’s actual title was General Robert Blake. During the republican period of Oliver Cromwell, Admirals bore the title of General-at-Sea.
The Commonwealth (roughly, the period between the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660) was the only period in which the United Kingdom has been a Republic. After Oliver Cromwell’s death, there was no man strong enough to hold together a warring country. Charles I’s two sons were brought back to England from their exile in Holland and monarchy was restored under King Charles II.
Few important people from this period left behind good memories. One who gained his place in history with honour was Robert Blake. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that hewas a known republican since university days, he supported the republicans as soon as King Charles I kicked out the Short Parliament, and he remained with Cromwell until the end. Others, who lived long enough to see the restoration of the monarchy, were adept at changing allegiance, something that popular history doesn’t view too highly
Robert Blake’s Early Years
His birth year is given as 1598 or 1599 in different sources. The exact date is not known.
Altough Blake became famous as an Admiral, his early career was anything but naval. He was the eldest of many children of a prosperous merchant from Bridgwater who traded with Spain. At sixteen he left the Bridgwater Grammar School for Oxford, where was interested in literary studies and took a Master of Arts. As his father’s later commercial ventures had gone badly, he hoped to obtain a fellowship which would have given him a modest academic salary. He was rejected for the fellowship, some said because of his short stature, others, more likely, because he was already making no secret of his republican views, turning his satirical vein against the Court and the Episcopalian Church. He returned to Bridgwater shortly before his father’s death in 1625, to take over the family’s finances and arrange for the future of his mother and his surviving younger brothers and sisters.
Bridgwater is a small town in West Somerset. It was an inland port on the River Parrett and local merchants enjoyed trade with France, Spain and Ireland, although it’s importance was overshadowed by near-by Bristol. Far from London and Court matters, these West Country people were mainly hard-working and independent. The arrival of the hated Archbishop Laud to Bath and Wells in 1628 only strengthened the resolve of the Presbyterian and Calvinistic opponents to the King and the Church of England, and Robert Blake was one of those who sounded out feelings among his countrymen, and gained the trust and respect of many like-minded men.
He was making a name for himself as an outspoken and honest politician, and in the spring of 1640 he was returned to the Short Parliament as MP for Bridgwater.
The Short Parliament , so called-because it lasted only from April 13th till May 5th 1640, was the first Parliament summoned by King Charles I since 1629. Charles I obviously felt little need to have a parliament cramping his style, but he needed Parliament to raise money for his fruitless attempt to impose Anglican liturgy on the Scots.
The Scottish Presbyterians had no wish to have Anglican or Episcopalian liturgy imposed on them, and reading from the new Prayer book had met with protests inside the kirks, most famously, that of Jenny Geddes, an Edinburgh woman said to have hurled her stool at the minister’s head in St Giles Cathedral in 1637.
Charles, then, since his first attempt to send an army north had failed, quickly dissolved the Short Parliament on May 5th. He could not raise the money he needed, to buy off the Scots army which had occupied the northern part of England, without a Parliament, so in November 1640, he had to summon the so-called Long Parliament. Blake was not returned immediately to the Long Parliament, but he then entered as MP for Taunton, a town which he later defended against all odds for about a year (1644-5).
When Civil War broke out in 1642, the people of Bridgwater were staunchly republican. Blake was appointed to command a company under Colonel Fiennes, who was holding Bristol against the Royalist Prince Rupert, talented nephew of Charles I. After Fiennes surrendered Bristol, Blake held on to the nearby Prior’s Hill Fort for a full day, claiming he had not received orders from Fiennes to surrender. Fiennes wanted to have Blake hanged for breaking the terms of the surrender, but the matter was dropped, since Fiennes himself was accused in some quarters of having surrendered too easily.
Blake was then appointed Lt.Col. in Colonel Popham’s regiment, and tried to free Bridgwater, which had meantime fallen to the Royalists, in a surprise attack which failed and cost the life of his brother Samuel.
At this stage, Blake was fighting around his home territory: Lyme, Taunton, Dunster Castle , which surely added strength to his campaigns. He was a popular figure, perceived to be fair and honest, and he managed to keep himself away from miry ground such as the contest between Presbyterians and Independents, the second Civil War, and the trial and execution of the King.
Nomination as Commissioner of the Navy
The Council of State of the Commonwealth had commissioned the office of Lord High Admiral, and Blake was appointed commissioner of the navy, along with Popham and Richard Deane. His marine experience derived only from some experience of Maritime commerce, but it was not unusual for someone of proven military value and undoubted loyalty to be nominated to such a position.
Blake soon proved himself up to the task.
Prince Rupert, after the defeat of the Royalist forces at Naseby in 1645, had escaped to Holland
and, surrounding himself with English and Scottish exiles, he preyed upon Commonwealth ships in the English Channel until Blake chased him from Kinsale in the south of Ireland to Portugal where he took refuge in Lisbon harbour. Blake blockaded him for six months, at the same time capturing a number of Portuguese ships laden with riches from Brazil. Rupert finally escaped from Lisbon into the Mediterranean and Blake chased him round there, sinking or capturing his ships. In November 1650, he destroyed most of the royalist fleet near Cartagena, Spain. His activities induced Spain and Portugal to recognize the Commonwealth. He then re-captured the Scilly Islands from the Royalists, but was wounded on the Isle of Tresco when one of his own cannons exploded.
In 1652, the first Anglo-Dutch war broke out for ostensibly futile reasons. In reality the two forces were ready to fight for supremacy at sea and in the colonies. A further cause of enmity was the support given by the House of Orange to the exiled Stuarts. After offering the United Provinces of the Netherlands the chance to join the Commonwealth, piqued at their refusal, Cromwell had declared that Dutch ships in the Channel must lower their flag to salute the English.
The magnificent 100-gun flagship built with Charles I’s unpopular ship-money tax, the Sovereign of the Seas, was just fresh from a refit, and had been renamed first Commonwealth and finally Sovereign. Blake on such a ship must have felt entitled to this Dutch salute.
The Dutch commander Maarten Tromp refused, and a fight followed. Blake engaged the Dutch fleet off Dover with only twelve ships. These were strange battles between fellow Protestant countries with a lot in common, between some of the greatest admirals in history, who had great respect for each other. Blake was victorious in a number of these naval skirmishes, but met defeat in November 1652 off Dungeness, when he had only forty warships against Tromp’s fleet of eighty.
Blake’s Naval Articles of War and Fighting Instructions
General at Sea Robert Blake tendered his resignation after this defeat. However, his reputation was so high that his resignation was rejected.
The English fleet had to be refitted, and there was much complaint about the poor conditions on board. While the refit was carried out, Blake together with the other two Commissioners of the Admiralty, General Richard Deane and General George Monck, issued the Naval Articles of War and Fighting Instructions, which were to be displayed prominently on board every naval ship, together with information about punishments and about laws not only on board but in the country and locally. This was tantamount to a reorganization of the Navy.
Although Blake is famous for his part in producing these fighting instructions for the English Navy, written instructions did exist before his time. In 1625, Edward Cecil, Viscount Wimbledon, had issued some guidelines, but his attack on the Spanish fleet at Cadiz ended in defeat and disgrace. This happened partly due to ill-equipped ships delayed by storms, which meant they completely missed the Spanish treasure ships arriving from South America. There was a lot of bad planning. The bullion on board those treasure ships was to pay for the expedition! A large number of Wimbledon’s sailors were allowed on shore, hungry and thirsty, and ended up helplessly drunk in the hands of the Spanish. This kind of thing never happened under Blake’s command.
Blake’s Naval Articles of War included the first written instructions for ships to fight in a straight line of battle, which meant that all could fire broadsides without the risk of damaging their own ships. Other instructions regarded the taking of enemy ships in battle, specifying if possible to save the men and then either sink or burn the ships, instead of boarding them and trying to sail them away, which divided up the manforce available.
Blake also was one of the first naval commanders to attack (and take) castles and forts on land. During his cruising in the Mediterranean, he attacked the fort at Porto Farina in Tunis, from where the Bey gave refuge to the Barbary pirates, destroying the defences on shore.
The Anglo-Spanish war kept him around the coast of Spain , leading up to his victory at Santa Cruz de Tenerife in April 1657. The English navy was a force to be reckoned with.
But Blake himself had ruined his health with unsparing activity on board, carrying out blockades which gave few opportunities for taking on fresh supplies. He had fever, scurvy and dropsy, and his flagship the George was carrying him back to England. He died on 7th August, when the ship was already in sight of Plymouth, where crowds were waiting to welcome the hero home.
His embalmed body was taken to Greenwich and he lay in state in the Great Hall of Queen’s house, until his public funeral attended by Cromwell and all the Council of State. He was buried in Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, where he lay until after the Restoration.
Charles II’s Revenge
The restored King, son of the beheaded Charles I, when unable to exact revenge from those of his father’s enemies no longer living, took it out on their corpses. Cromwell and others who had signed the execution warranty were disinterred and their corpses beheaded, mutilated and exposed to public contempt (he thought). Blake had not signed the execution warranty and his body fared better no beheading. His remains were removed from Westminster Abbey in 1661, along with many others, and they were summarily put into a pit in the nearby St. Margarets Chapel.
A stained glass window in St. Margaret’s Chapel commemorates his life, and the two victories chosen are Taunton and Vera Cruz – the first and last exploits, one on land and one at sea, for which he is famous.
In 1945 a plaque in his honour was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, describing him as one who desired no greater worldly happiness than to be accounted honest and faithful in his employment.
Robert Blake: Admiral and General at Sea. By Hepworth Dixon. London: Chapman and Hall. 1852 as reviewed by the Edinburgh Review