“At the second broadside some of our shot fell into her powder room and she blew up, not one escaping. Then we plied the Spanish admiral very close with our guns; at the third broadside, all his men leaped overboard, and instantly she blew up”.
The description was by Thomas Lurting, one of General at Sea Robert Blake’s men, who fought at the Battle of Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands in 1657.
Lurting captures the excitement of close-quarter naval engagements in the Cromwellian navy of the the mid 17th century. His commander, Robert Blake, dubbed ‘Father of the Royal Navy’, has suffered from the Stuart dynasty’s successful attempts to airbrush out his considerable achievements. Blake was a master tactician whose successes “have never been excelled” in the opinion of no less than Horatio Nelson.
When Charles II was restored to the throne, he had Robert Blakes’s body ‘ejected’ unceremoniously from Westminster Abbey and thrown into a common burial pit in St Margaret’s churchyard. Admittedly, Blake had supported Cromwell and the Parliamentarian cause but, conversely, Charles had inherited a fleet of no fewer than 154 vessels from the great seafarer and consequently a Royal Navy in far better condition to meet challenges to Britain’s maritime supremacy.
Born in Bridgwater, Somerset in 1599, one of thirteen children, Robert Blake was educated at Bridgwater Grammar School and Oxford’s Wadham College. Thwarted from pursuing an extended academic career, he stood as MP for the Short Parliament, but lost his seat when this body folded.
After enlisting in the New Model Army under Captain Popham, Blake made his name at the successive Sieges of Bristol (1643), Lyme Regis (1644), Taunton (1645) and Dunster (1645).
His threat to eat three pairs of his boots should he fail at Taunton was never put to the test.
With no naval experience whatsoever, Blake was appointed General at Sea in 1649, at the age of 50.
He produced the Laws of War and Ordinances of the Sea – the Royal Navy’s first written set of Rules and regulations – and, four years later, The Instructions of the Admirals and Generals of the Fleet for Councils of War. He promoted the single line ahead battle formation which was a revolution in naval practice.
Blake’s early campaign involved chasing the Royalist eight-vessel flotilla of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and blockading him at Kinsale. From here, Rupert escaped bound for Lisbon, and then on to Spain where he was engaged by Blake’s ships near Malaga. Blake achieved maritime mastery for the Parliamentarians when Rupert was driven ashore escaping from Cartagena. Having been awarded the enormous sum of £1,000 in 1651 by Parliament, in recognition of his achievements, Blake went on to capture the Scillies from the Royalists.
The First Anglo Dutch War in 1652 was sparked off by the Netherlands’ ambition to secure domination of the trade route through the English Channel. The Battle of the Kentish Knock on October 8th resulted in Blake’s defeat of de With using around sixty vessels. Blake had only 48 ships available when attacked by Tromp’s vastly superior Dutch force at Dungeness in December, which gave the Dutch temporary control of the Channel. An apocryphal story has it that, following the victory, Tromp attached a broom to his masthead as a sign he had swept the Channel clean of British ships, but his triumph was to be short-lived.
Blake was not blamed for the defeat at Dungeness, but he instituted changes in the command structure restricting individual captains’ scope for action without the admirals’ approval. The English fleet was re-provisioned, seamens’ pay raised and prize money increased.
Blake engaged the Dutch at Portland in early 1653, a sea battle lasting two days, which ended when Tromp escaped in darkness. Blake went on to help Deane and Monck to defeat them at the Battle of the Gabbard. With mastery of the North Sea achieved by the English Navy, Tromp was killed at Scheveningen, (although Blake was absent from the battle nursing injuries sustained previously).
With piracy rife in the Mediterranean, Blake was sent, in April 1655, to seek compensation from rulers of offending states. The obdurate attitude of the Bey of Tunis was met with Blake’s attack on Porto Farina, destroying shore emplacements and sinking nine Algerian ships.
Blake distinguished himself in the Anglo Spanish War, sparked by commercial rivalry between the two great maritime powers. Blake maintained a blockade of Cadiz throughout the winter of 1656 and his captain, Richard Stayner, decimated the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Cadiz with a treasure ship being captured. Blake went on to further success at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in April 1657 destroying an entire armed merchant convoy while under heavy attack from shore batteries.
Blake died on his return voyage, reputedly just as his vessel approached Plymouth Sound. His body was embalmed, and taken to Greenwich, and thence by barge to Westminster for a State funeral.