The action at La Hogue in May 1692 formed a crucial scene in the wider context of the Battle of Barfleur. This was a naval battle of the War of the League of Augsburg, 1689-97, fought between an Anglo-Dutch and a French fleet. It was not finally brought to a conclusion until 24 May in the Bay of La Hogue, in the course of which the French flagship ‘Soleil Royal’ as well as the ‘Triomphant’ and the ‘Admirable’ were burned by the English. The centre of this dramatic scene is occupied by a group of six French ships burning. A seventh is shown burning on the shore. They have been attacked by the boats of the Anglo- Dutch fleet which are also attacking another group of ships further round the Bay of La Hogue, one to the left which is also burning. On the extreme left in the distance the Allied fleet can be seen at anchor. In the right background a third lot of shipping is burning near a town. An odd feature of the picture is that two of the ships in the nearest group wear white flags with a blue cross, a flag associated with 17th century French merchant ships. The painting is signed ‘Diest fe.’ Diest, Adriaen van Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
The Jacobites were now the ‘enemy within’, aided by William’s continued discrimination against Catholics. But it was the Jacobites in exile in the court of Louis XIV who would prove the most dangerous in the short term. When the French withdrew their force from Ireland, they took many Irish soldiers with them. They were known as the ‘Wild Geese’. Effete courtiers and battle-hardened veterans combined to convince the Sun King that he could rely on a powerful Jacobite fifth column in England. Louis began to gather another armada.
One of the most impressive veterans was the 31-year-old Patrick Sarsfield, the first Earl of Lucan, a popular Irish hero of the Williamite war and the head of an Anglo-Norman family long settled in Ireland. In his youth he challenged Lord Grey over a slur on the Irish people and he was run through the body in another duel. In May 1682 he helped his friend Captain Robert Clifford to abduct Ann Siderlin, a wealthy widow, and was lucky not to be prosecuted. Then he abducted Elizabeth Herbert, the widowed daughter of Lord Chandos, on his own account. Elizabeth refused to marry him, but agreed not to prosecute him in exchange for her freedom. During the last years of Charles II’s reign he saw service in the English regiments that were attached to the army of Louis XIV. The accession of James saw him return home.
He took part in the suppression of the Monmouth rebellion and in 1686 helped James reorganise the army to promote Catholics and purge Protestants. He went to Ireland under commander-in-chief Richard Talbot. He commanded a small Irish brigade after William had landed and saw action in the skirmishes at Wincanton and Reading. But it was back in Ireland that he found martial glory. He secured Connaught for the Jacobites. James, with some reluctance because he regarded him as brave but not that bright, made him major-general. After the defeat at the Boyne he led 500 men and blew up a convoy of English stores, delaying the siege of Limerick until the winter rains forced the English to pull back. The incident made him a hero and increased James’ affection for him. When both fled to France just before Christmas 1691, Sarsfield took his men with him in what became known as the Flight of the Wild Geese. According to the contemporary historian Gilbert Burnet, Sarsfield told English officers at Limerick: ‘As low as we are now, change but kings with us and we will fight it over again with you.’
In total around 14,000 Irish fighting men left Ireland with Sarsfield. They included the larger-than-life Michael ‘Galloping’ Hogan, a former landowner and brigand. Sarsfield had given Hogan the honour of lighting the fuse which destroyed the English siege train. Sarsfield was disillusioned with what he regarded as the indecisiveness, bordering on cowardice, of his king. But he was still his king and he drilled similar loyalty into the Wild Geese.
Louis knew that there were Catholics who would rise to support James, but doubted whether they would be enough, especially given the failures of recent expeditions. Talk of another rebellious faction in England gave him heart. A powerful anti-Dutch Protestant faction was conspiring to oust William and Mary and place James’s daughter Anne, Mary’s sister, on the throne. At the heart of this tangled web, it was thought, was John Churchill and his wife Sarah, a close confidante of both sisters. When William heard of the plot he stripped Churchill of all his offices. Louis saw the potential of a combination of true Jacobites, mainly Catholics, and Protestant ‘Anneites’. Anne could bring the Church of England on side, Churchill the army, and Admiral Edward Russell the navy. The scheme may have been fantastical, but Sarsfield and others convinced him it was a realistic scenario. He prepared for a full-scale invasion of England.
The mood at Louis’s glittering new court at Versailles was behind such a grand plan. It was known that William was preparing to raid the French coast. The minister of war, the marquis de Louvois, who strongly opposed an invasion of England, had died. Both his replacement and the navy minister were raring to go.
Louis assembled an army of 24,000 during 1692 on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. Most of the infantrymen were Wild Geese. They were to be embarked at La Hogue under the command of the Duke of Berwick, James II’s illegitimate son. The cavalry were to set off separately from Le Havre. The transport vessels were gathered. The Toulon fleet under Admiral d’Estrees was ordered from their Mediterranean station to join the main fleet under Admiral Tourville at Brest. Tourville would first take some transport ships to Torbay, both to make symbolic landfall at the port which he had raided before and to form a bridgehead. Tourville’s main fleet would then return to link up with the d’Estrees squadron. Together they would keep open a cross-Channel ferry route for the invading army. William’s English and Dutch fleets, it was assumed, were still languishing in their winter ports. Everything depended on secrecy to maintain the element of surprise; some hope in those cloak and dagger days.
William’s intelligence service knew of the invasion plans, including the intended landing points, by April 1692. He focused on getting his fleets out to sea as fast as possible. Coastal defences were strengthened. The planned raids on the French coast were dropped to switch manpower to defence. The militia were called out, while regular troops were placed in a string of camps between Portsmouth and Petersfield. Farmers were ordered to move their cattle 15 miles inland from any point the French were sighted, a measure designed to deny forage to the invaders. Rumours of disaster abounded. The diarist John Evelyn noted on 5 May: ‘The reports of an invasion, being now so hot, alerted the city, court and people exceedingly.’
The weather, however, was again in England’s favour. By the start of May d’Estrees’s squadron was still battling storms and had not joined Tourville at Brest. Tourville was unlucky enough to be under a royal chain of command: he was admiral of the fleet but strategic decisions were taken by kings Louis and James and their senior advisors. They both believed that the French victory at the Battle of Beachy Head two years earlier made them supreme at sea. The minister Compte de Pontchartrain sent Tourville orders to sail at the earliest possible moment and to give battle whatever the numbers the English could muster. Louis added a personal footnote in his own hand stressing that those orders must be obeyed unquestioningly. The invasion fleet’s fate was sealed by the scrawl of a royal pen. Tourville would have to sail without d’Estrees’ reinforcements. The Brest squadron was severely undermanned, forcing Tourville to leave 20 ships behind when he sailed on 29 April.
He began to advance up the Channel, linking up with Admiral Villette’s squadron out of Rochefort. Even then his forces were inferior to those ranged against him. He had command of 44 ships of the line, including 11 80-gunners, and almost as many fireships and auxiliary vessels. But by now the English and Dutch fleets had merged and outnumbered the French by two to one. Intelligence reached Versailles and the king countermanded his original order to fight whatever the odds, but by then it was too late as Tourville was at sea.
William’s naval commander Admiral Edward Russell coolly awaited the French advance off the Isle of Wight. At first light on 20 May the two fleets sighted each other 21 miles north of Cape Barfleur. Tourville saw the numbers ranged against him and realised that the invasion was a lost cause. At a hurried on-board conference his senior officers agreed. But he knew only of Louis’s initial instructions, and orders were orders. His only hope was that English captains and crews would desert, as forecast by Sarsfield and other Jacobites. He sailed his fleet straight at the 80 English men-of-war. Russell and other allied commanders watched in awe as Tourville breached the generally prudent rules of naval engagement. The fleets slowly closed, Russell from the north-east, and Tourville from the south, on a starboard tack to bring his line of battle into contact with Russell’s. Both fleets were in three squadrons, each split into three divisions and commanded by a flag officer. Favourable winds took the French in close but due to calm seas it was five hours after initial sighting before the two sides clashed. The result was an inferno in which the French sustained heavy casualties but did not lose a single ship.
Tourville had reinforced his centre, the White squadron under his own command, in order to engage Russell’s Red squadron with close to equal numbers. Elsewhere, he sought to minimise damage by extending those ships in the van, to avoid them being turned and overwhelmed, while the rear was held back. Russell countered by holding fire as long as possible, to allow the French to come close. For the next few hours, both fleets bombarded each other, causing considerable damage. The English Centurion was engaged by Ambitieux and severely damaged; Chester was outgunned by Glorieux and had to withdraw. Eagle was forced to pull out of the line, with 70 dead, to repair damage, but was able to re-join after emergency repairs. Grafton suffered 80 casualties, but was also able to continue.
Tourville’s flagship Soleil Royal was engaged by three English ships, Russell’s flagship Britannia, supported by London and St Andrew. She was severely damaged and forced at one point out of the line. Perle was shot through and through, and suffered one-third of her crew as casualties. Henri and Fort were both severely damaged trying to hold the line between two squadrons, to prevent a gap opening; Henri was battered until she could no longer fight and only escaped capture when boats were sent to tow her to safety; Fort had to be pulled out of the line.
At about 1300 the light breeze strengthened and shifted to the east. This gave the weather to the allies, who immediately took advantage of it. Rear Admiral of the Red Sir Cloudesley Shovell saw a gap in the French line ahead of him, and steered towards it; his Royal William broke through to engage the French from both sides. He was followed by the rest of his division, while Kent and St Albans pulled round to follow the William through the breach. This allowed the Dutch to start enveloping the French van. The wind enabled the Dutch commander Philips van Almonde to extend and cross the head of the French line. Shovell’s action brought Tourville’s ships under fire from both sides. By 1500 Prince was hotly engaged on both sides, with a third across her stern. In the centre, Coetlogon and Tourville were engaged on either side by Shovell and Russell. An hour later the wind had died, the sea becoming flat calm, and visibility was hampered by battle smoke. The continuous firing also tended to push the embattled ships apart, offering some respite, as both sides were exhausted.
By 1700 the centres were re-engaged as Russell had used his boats to tow his ships back into action. The fog had lifted. As the wind strengthened, Tourville headed north-west towards Carter, in order to fight his way out of the encirclement. Russell pursued, until the wind once again died away and the mist closed in once more. At 1800 Tourville was able to use the tide to gain a respite and at 2000 Shovell used the same tide for a fireship attack. That was dealt with by accurate French gunnery and at least one fireship exploded well out of harm’s way.
By 2200 the battle was almost over. The evening was foggy and the tide turned. Again, Tourville took advantage of that, cutting his cables to be carried down-channel on the ebb, away from the scene of battle. Russell also cut when he realised what had happened, to give chase into the night. By now it was clear to all that the invasion was a lost cause despite Tourville’s heroic action and superb seamanship. It was now that he would suffer his greatest losses as the English ruthlessly pursued crippled French ships. The winds and weather were against them and the French withdrawal was also hampered a lack of adequate anchors capable of withstanding the strong tidal races of the region, owing to cutbacks by the French Naval Ministry. For the same reason, there was also the lack of a fortified haven at Cherbourg.
First light saw the French fleet scattered into groups across a wide area. To the north four ships skirted the English coast and headed out into the Atlantic. They reached safety at Brest. To the south, six ships headed south-east towards the Normandy coast. Two of these would be beached at St Vaast la Hougue, while another two would later put into Le Havre, where L’Entendu was wrecked at the harbour entrance. The remaining two ships, Monarque and Aimable, passed through the Straits of Dover, went north around Britain and finally arrived safely at Brest.
Heading west was the main body in three groups: Villette leading with 15, followed by d’Amfreville with 12, and Tourville bringing up the rear with seven. During the day the French were able to close up, but Tourville was hampered by his efforts to save his flagship, Soleil Royal, which was in a pitiable condition. Later that day Tourville recognised this and transferred his flag to L’Ambitieux. In pursuit was Almonde and the Dutch fleet, with the various English divisions scattered behind. Many of these, particularly those of the English Red, were hampered by damage and lagged behind, leaving Almonde and Admiral of the Blue Sir John Ashby close to the French by the end of the day. Russell was forced to detach three ships to return to port for repairs.
The main French fleet anchored against the tide off Cap de la Hague. Thirteen ships with Tourville went to the east where the currents proved too powerful and several French ships dragged their anchors. Three of the most badly damaged were forced to beach at Cherbourg; the remaining 10 ships reached St Vaast la Hogue where they too were beached. Russell and the ships with him, together with some of Ashby’s Blue squadron, also cut to pursue him, while Ashby and Almonde continued to shadow Pannetier’s group. Admiral Pannetier made the hazardous passage through the treacherous, 15-mile Alderney Race, a task only achieved because he found among his crew an Alderney man, Hervel Riel, to act as pilot when his navigators baulked at the ordeal. Almonde and Ashby did not try to follow him and were criticised later by Russell for not doing so, although the only flag officer who knew the waters, Carter, had died of his wounds. Instead, Almonde attempted pursuit by taking his squadron west of Alderney, but the delay allowed Pannetier to pull too far ahead, and Almonde abandoned the chase. Pannetier later reached Saint Malo in safety, while Almonde and Ashby turned east to rejoin Russell at la Hogue.
Meanwhile, Russell chased Tourville eastward along the Cotentin coast. Without anchors Tourville was unable to do more than beach his ships, leaving three at Cherbourg and taking the remaining 12 to St Vaast la Hougue. The Soleil Royal, Admirable, and Triomphant were in such bad shape they had to be beached at Cherbourg. There they were destroyed by Vice-Admiral Delaval, attacking from long boats and with fireships.
Russell turned on the remaining ships which had sought refuge at La Hogue under the protection of the assembled land forces and a battery. The Dutch and English attacked with long boats. By now the French crews were exhausted and disheartened. The allies successfully deployed shore parties and fire ships, which burnt all 12 French ships. Just like the Spanish Armada, the journey home proved the deadliest part. Overall, including those that did limp home but were not repairable, Tourville lost 16 ships of the line and many smaller vessels, none of them in the set-piece battle.
Throughout England church bells tolled joyfully, preachers gave thanks, bonfires were lit, honours and rewards doled out and a Fleet Review aimed to show that England truly ruled the waves.