Robert Blake, (1599-1657)

(c) Blake Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

English admiral and general. A leading Parliamentary soldier and loyal supporter of Oliver Cromwell during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651), Blake was a talented tactician and excellent regimental leader. He won several early defensive battles against superior Royalist forces after first losing at Bristol (1643). He did better at Lyme Regis (1644) and Taunton (1644). In 1649 Parliament appointed Blake General at Sea. He subsequently proved as adept in naval warfare against Prince Rupert and the Royalist navy as he had shown himself to be in land battle against Cavaliers. He chased Rupert to the Tagus in Portugal in early 1649, then cruised successfully off Brazil. Blake escorted Cromwell’s army to Ireland in 1649. He engaged the Royalist fleet off Cartagena and destroyed a privateer base on the Scilly Iles in a series of landings carried out during 1650 and 1651. He found his true sea legs during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654) against the United Provinces, a conflict he helped provoke by insisting on Dutch acknowledgment of the English claim of sovereignty of the sea. This led to the so-called “Battle of Dover,” a minor scuffle off Folkestone on May 19/29, 1652, which nevertheless provided the pretext for the first of three major naval wars with the Dutch. He fought Maarten van Tromp at Kentish Knock (September 28/October 8, 1652). He fought Tromp again at Dungeness (November 30/December 10, 1652), losing and retreating up the Thames. He was severely wounded off Beachy Head during the last day of the “Three Days’ Battle,” or Portland (February 18-20/February 28-March 2, 1653). He spent the first day of the fight at Gabbard Shoal (June 2-3/June 12-13, 1653) sick on shore, but joined the action on the second day, intervening decisively with his squadron.

He was dispatched to the Mediterranean by Cromwell, in charge of a squadron of 20 sail. He fought a series of small actions against ships of the Barbary corsairs. He assaulted Tunis in 1655, destroying nine small ships he mistakenly believed belonged to the Dey of Tunis, but which were actually in service to the Ottoman sultan, with whom the English Levant Company did much business. He ransomed a few English captives from Algiers, but otherwise accomplished no good for English interests, having done considerable harm by attacking the sultan’s interests. He then missed an opportunity to attack a Spanish fleet on his voyage home. In April 1657, late in the Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659), Blake caught the annual Spanish silver fleet sheltering in Tenerife. Sailing his ships in with the tide and with all guns blazing, he destroyed every ship in Santa Cruz harbor, inflicting a terrible blow against Spain’s effort to finance the war. He grew ill on the return journey and died before touching English soil. During his career Blake was a major influence on sound development of the States’ Navy (renamed the Royal Navy during the Restoration). During his time as one of the top naval administrators and as a member of the Council of State for the Commonwealth, he oversaw a naval building program that laid down many new hulls, improved warship designs, and issued the first fighting instructions. Blake was the first English naval commander to lead fleets of warships in several bloody battles. Although he was actually a poor tactician, and arguably a worse representative of betrayed duty and sold-out idealism, his courage in battle meant that his name became synonymous with evolving English naval traditions.

Fighting Instructions

Naval tactics evolved sharply after the desultory English tactical victory at Portland (1653), where a strategic victory slipped away. In response, a new “fighting instruction” was developed that for the first time asked each division in a battlefleet to hold the line set by their leader, and each ship to maintain its place in line within its division. This formal order, or “Instructions for the better ordering of the Fleet in Fighting,” was issued on March 29, 1653. Its guiding influences were Robert Blake and especially George Monk. For the first time, the vice-admiral of the States’ Navy (renamed the Royal Navy upon the Restoration in 1660) was placed in command of the “right wing” of the fleet, and the rear-admiral was put in charge of the “left wing.” Most importantly, each division was ordered to “keep in a line” with the fleet commander in the flagship. This tactic was intended to take full advantage of clear English superiority over the Dutch in broadside gunnery, both ship-to-ship (in most cases), and certainly fleet-to-fleet. The English used their new line tactics to good effect in fights at Gabbard Shoal (1653) and the Texel (1653). A revised and more famous set of the “Duke of York’s Sailing and Fighting Instructions” issued later was not, in fact, penned by the Duke of York (later crowned as James II). It was actually written by Admiral William Penn (1621-1670).

The French Navy also developed fighting instructions. The leading figure in this effort was Admiral Tourville. He likely was the first commander to issues books of detailed sailing and fighting instructions for a large fleet, as opposed to a squadron. He even kept a printing press on board his flagship to crank out copies of signal books and fighting instructions that were signed and issued over his name and circulated to the other admirals of the fleet, and to individual captains, by ships’ boats. From the mid-1690s, French instructions were markedly defensive in intent and outcome, as befitted a de-emphasis on guerre d’escadre. A breakthrough compilation by the mathematician Paul Hoste, who enjoyed Tourville’s patronage, was published in 1697 under the title L’Art des Armées Navales.