Robert Blake’s flagship George at the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1657.
Admiral Robert Blake led the attack at Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Stayner’s lucky success helped to confirm Cromwell in the idea that the naval war could still be made to pay. Unaware how difficult it is to intercept anything in the vastness of the sea; unaware that most of Spain’s foreign trade was now in foreign ships, which ‘we cannot hinder unless we should fight with all the world’, as Mountague warned; still dreaming of Gibraltar as a base from which to prey on Spanish wealth, Cromwell determined that Blake should keep up his blockade. As usual he was expected to do it with completely inadequate support. On 11 March 1657, after a storm off Cadiz, he set out his situation:
some of the ships having lost their masts, boltsprits, and others are so broken and shattered in their works within, that they have spoiled a great quantity of their bread and powder, and are forced to keep their pumps continually going: And the frigates that came out last are so ill provided in twine, canvas and such like necessaries, that presently after their arrival they resorted to us for supplies, which we must buy at Lisbon or elsewhere as we can… I have acquainted you often with my thoughts of keeping out these ships so long, whereby they are not only rendered in a great measure unserviceable but withal exposed to desperate hazards, wherein though the Lord hath most wonderfully and mercifully preserved us hitherto, I know no rule to tempt Him…
‘We are all together and behold one another’s face with comfort,’ he assured Mountague, but in truth his situation was precarious, and he himself was dying.
Nine days after writing those words, Blake met the merchantman Catherine of London whose master, David Young, had lost a hand fighting as a lieutenant in the Navy during the Dutch War. Young had left his voyage to bring Blake news of a Spanish convoy he had sighted in the Atlantic. Blake’s captains wanted to send some frigates to intercept it, but there were no victuals for a cruise, and he refused to divide the force in case the main Spanish fleet should come out of Cadiz. Then in early April supplies at last arrived from England, and at the same time they received intelligence that the Spanish fleet was disabled. On 12 April Blake sailed with his whole squadron of twenty-three ships for Santa Cruz in the Canaries, where the Spanish ships had taken refuge. By now he was exhausted and in constant pain. His relations with his captains, whose desire for prize money he continually thwarted, were difficult, and they had trouble persuading him to allow them to attack. The seventeen Spanish ships (all but two armed merchantmen) were moored close inshore under the guns of the shore defences. On the morning of 20 April, Stayner led the attack with twelve ships, while Blake with the remainder provided covering fire. Afterwards Stayner reported:
I knowing it not a time to neglect the business, I only gave them this verbal order, to follow me in a line… I stood upon the forecastle of our ship to seek a good berth for the better doing of our work. I perceived I might get in between the admiral and vice-admiral to our great advantage, which I did…
By coming close enough to the Spanish ships to shield them from the fortifications Stayner’s squadron was helped to a complete victory: twelve ships burned and five towed off as prizes, which Blake with difficulty forced their captors to destroy. Stayner was the last away, and the Speaker suffered badly in her retreat:
We had holes between wind and water four or five foot long and three or five foot broad, that we had no shift to keep her from sinking but by nailing hides over the holes, and nail butt staves along the sides of the hides, for we had eight or nine foot water in the ship that our pumps and bailing would hardly keep her free.
They had barely got out of range at dusk when all her masts fell overboard.
Blake returned to blockade duty off Cadiz, until at the end of June 1657 he received orders to bring the bulk of the fleet home. On 7 August he died as his flagship entered Plymouth Sound. He was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, and left a reputation as high among his enemies as his friends. ‘He was the first man who brought the ships to contemn castles on shore’, wrote the Royalist Earl of Clarendon,
which had been thought ever very formidable, and were discovered by him only to make a noise and to fright those who could rarely be hurt by them. He was the first that infused that proportion of courage into the seamen, by making them see by experience what mighty things they could do if they were resolved, and taught them to fight in fire as well as upon water; and though he hath been very well imitated and followed, he was the first that drew the copy of naval courage and bold and resolute achievement.
Much of this is true. Blake was the first modern English commander to lead his fleet in a series of dose-fought and bloody battles. His courage, endurance and self-sacrifice inspired his own men and were remembered by later generations. Even Nelson reckoned himself inferior to Blake, but this is hardly sustainable. Blake never learned much about naval tactics, during the Dutch War he was repeatedly surprised with his fleet divided, and his strategic judgement was fallible. His loyalty to the military regime of which he was a representative (or at least his silence in the face of its abuses) is perhaps admirable, though it betrayed all the ideals for which he had fought in the first Civil War – but the conduct of Lawson, who stood up to Cromwell on his men’s behalf and refused to serve against his conscience, offers an alternative concept of devotion to duty.
The victory of Santa Cruz was not as unlucky for English interests as Porto Farina had been, but its value was political rather than strategic. No money had been gained for the English war-effort, and the Spanish crown directly profited, as the bullion landed before the battle included the large proportion customarily shipped in secret to avoid paying duty.’ By the summer of 1657 Cromwell’s war strategy against Spain was financially and politically bankrupt. The generals had assumed that Spain was vulnerable and incapable of striking back, and they discovered that the truth was almost the opposite. Though there was little the regular Spanish navy could do, the ports of Spanish Flanders – above all, Dunkirk and Ostend – had a long tradition of expertise in private warfare. Their privateers inflicted heavy losses on English merchant shipping. Having gained 1,200 to 1,700 prizes from the Dutch during the previous war, the English merchant fleet now lost 1,500 to 2,000 ships to Spain (mainly Flanders), many of which were sold straight back to the Dutch. Spanish trade was kept up in Dutch ships, and Cromwell could do nothing about it, for he needed Dutch friendship, and indeed Dutch shipping. He was now in a situation not dissimilar to Charles I’s in the 1630s: he had built a large and expensive fleet to deter foreign powers, but in its absence English trade was exposed to heavy losses, which further weakened his political support.
In strategic terms, a largely unsuccessful Spanish war pushed Cromwell towards France, whose long-term campaign against Spain he was in effect supporting. An alliance in March 1657 committed them to joint action in Flanders. English troops fought alongside the French against the Spanish army at the battle of the Dunes on 4 June 1658 (going some way to redeem the reputation they had lost at Santo Domingo), after which Spain surrendered Dunkirk to the allies. This was the English share of the spoils, while the French helped themselves to the whole of Artois. England eliminated the greatest Spanish privateering base, but most of the ships moved down the coast to Ostend. France was clearly the main gainer from the joint enterprise. The English occupation of Dunkirk lasted three years; the French are in Artois yet.
While the Spanish war continued, Cromwell’s government slid into ever deeper financial and political trouble. In May 1657 his supporters (Mountague prominent among them), hoping it would open the way to a stable regime, strongly pressed him to accept the crown in name as well as in fact. The political Cromwell could see the force of their argument, but the religious Cromwell was obsessed with the Hispaniola disaster as a judgement of God on his iniquity, and dared not risk further wrath. A large part of the army, moreover, including many of his closest colleagues, were already disgusted by the conservative policy of the Protectorate, and threatened open revolt against King Oliver. At the last moment Cromwell drew back, and when he died on 3 September 1658 the future of the regime was as unsettled as ever. His son Richard, an inoffensive man with none of his father’s personal authority, succeeded as Lord Protector. Mountague was one of his strongest supporters, but the army held aloof from the new government. Once again the two services were politically at odds.
Meanwhile England had become embroiled in the war between Sweden and Denmark. It was not in English interests that either should control the Baltic completely, as the Dutch-Danish alliance had done during the Dutch War, and there was satisfaction when Charles X (Karl Gustav) of Sweden invaded Denmark from Germany, marched his army across the frozen Great Belt to Zealand in February 1658, and imposed a peace (the Treaty of Roskilde) by which he gained the province of Scania. This was acceptable to both Dutch and English, for with the north shore of the Sound (the main channel into the Baltic) transferred to Swedish hands, it would be difficult for either Sweden or Denmark to shut foreigners out of the Baltic. Charles X did not stop there, however. By October 1658 his army was besieging Copenhagen and within reach of extinguishing Danish independence, when the Dutch sent a fleet to succour their ally. The Dutch-Danish fleet now cut off Charles X from Sweden, and threatened to transform his triumph into disaster. To balance the scales, an English squadron was sent into the Skagerrak under Vice-Admiral William Goodson, which was very soon driven home by December weather, while Sir George Ayscue (unemployed since 1652) was lent to the Swedish navy. In April 1659 Mountague and the main English fleet arrived in the Sound, where he faced a delicate situation with a high risk of open war against the Dutch-Danish fleet. This was not his only problem: he had barely arrived when he learned that the army had taken advantage of the Navy’s absence to overthrow the Protectorate.
The political clock was now turned back to 1649, with the Rump Parliament recalled, the English Republic re-established, militants and sectaries once more advancing the ‘Good Old Cause’. The new government appointed its friend Lawson to command the fleet at home, and sent Republican commissioners to Denmark in an attempt to keep control over their Cromwellian admiral. Mountague’s diplomatic task was somewhat eased by an agreement between the Dutch and English governments to impose joint mediation on the warring powers (on the basis of the Treaty of Roskilde), which lessened the tension between the fleets on the spot. Politically, he maintained a studied loyalty to the Republican regime, and civil relations with its commissioners, though neither side trusted the other in the slightest, and he was already in secret contact with the exiled Royalists. In July there was a Royalist rising in England, but Mountague took no apparent notice and it was soon suppressed. In September he returned to England with his whole fleet, ostensibly because his victuals had almost run out. This was manifestly true, and the government was unable to back its acute suspicion of his political motives, but it was very happy to allow him to retire to the country, leaving the reliable Republican Lawson in command.
The internal manoeuvres of 1659 did nothing to resolve England’s profound political and financial crisis. One month after Mountague’s return the army staged another coup d’etat, expelling the Rump Parliament and installing a Committee of Safety of army officers (also diverting the Navy’s inadequate income to pay their troops). This was too much for most adherents of the old Parliamentary cause. However little support the revived Rump retained among the political nation at large, it was at least the fragment of a freely elected Parliament and the last symbol of the legitimate grievances which had fuelled the first Civil War. Naked military rule was unacceptable. Both General Monck commanding the army in Scotland, and Lawson commanding the fleet, declared in favour of the Rump. So did the garrison of Portsmouth, which gave Lawson a secure base. For the moment Monck was too far away to do anything, but on 13 December Lawson entered the Thames with twenty-two ships, imposing a blockade on London. With the Navy’s hand on its throat, the military regime collapsed, and on 26 December the Rump was restored. England was now ruled by a naval rather than a military republic, with Lawson as its Cromwell, but the country was deeply weary of all forms of Republicanism, extremism and arbitrary power.
On 1 January 1660 General Monck with his army crossed the Tweed into England and began to march south. Facing him, the troops of General Lambert, leader of the recent military regime, dispersed rather than fight their old comrades. When Monck reached London in early February his political intentions were still cloaked, and Lawson was shocked when he declared for the return of the ‘Excluded Members’ – meaning all the survivors of the original 1640 Long Parliament who had been expelled because they would not consent to Republican or military rule. This restored Parliament appointed Mountague as General of the fleet, over Lawson’s head. The moment was highly delicate. It was becoming gradually clear that Monck, Mountague and the Parliament were sliding towards restoring the monarchy as the only possible form of legitimate and stable government. Lawson was a convinced Republican and the officers of the fleet were as loyal to Republican and military rule as repeated purges could make them. The chances of avoiding civil war between army and Navy turned largely on Lawson’s attitude. On 16 March the Long Parliament dissolved itself and issued writs for a new Parliament, freely elected. Perhaps it was at this moment that Lawson realized that the Republican cause was lost, and that futile struggle and bloodshed to restore it could not be justified. He had always been liked even amongst his opponents as a good-natured man and a plain dealer; now he reluctantly concluded that his duty (and also his own interest) was to work for stable government under the new order. The Navy was bankrupt, the men unpaid and almost starving; only a government enjoying popular support could hope to repair the situation. With great tact, Mountague enlisted Lawson’s co-operation in yet another purge, discreetly removing the more extreme captains – meaning those with views close to Lawson’s own. When the fleet sailed in May to bring Charles II from Holland, hastily cutting out the Republican harp from their jacks and replacing the State’s arms on the sterns with the king’s, the officers accepted the monarchy, and the men welcomed it with enthusiasm. Nine years before Charles had escaped across the Channel in disguise aboard the smack Surprise of Shoreham, to apparently hopeless exile. Now he returned in triumph aboard the Naseby (hastily renamed the Royal Charles) at the head of a great fleet, to ride in triumph through the streets of London to the cheers of his reclaimed subjects.
In eleven years of violence and instability, the Commonwealth and Protectorate had never discovered a system of government, or taxation, which was acceptable to the political nation. In political terms the Republican experiment was an unqualified failure. But this political disaster was also the origin of England’s naval greatness. These were the regimes which built the same tonnage of warships in four years (1651–5) as the monarchy had built in over half a century between 1588 and 1642. It was the fear and insecurity of a military dictatorship surrounded by enemies real and imagined which made England a first-class naval power. The soldiers could not do without the Navy, and yet they could not do with it. Repeatedly the fleet opposed the army in politics. Twice, in 1648 and 1659, it was instrumental in blocking the army’s ambitions. Finally in 1660 its refusal to fight for the Republic opened the way for Charles II’s restoration. It was a highly political and politicized service, sharing to the full the divisions of the age, often purged but never trusted by its military masters. Yet it was the Navy, not the army, which made Cromwell feared throughout Europe. ‘His greatness at home,’ wrote the Royalist Clarendon,
was but a shadow of the glory he had abroad. It was hard to discover which feared him most, France, Spain, or the Low Countries, where his friendship was current at the value he put upon it. And as they did all sacrifice their honour and interest to his pleasure, so there is nothing he could have demanded that either of them would have denied him.
All this naval power was exercised to defend the regime, meaning the army. It was not applied on behalf of the people of England, Scotland and Ireland, crushed beneath Cromwell’s hooves on the figurehead of the Naseby, and crushed by the taxes which paid for her. It was not applied on behalf of merchants and shipowners, whose trade was ravaged by Flemish privateers while the fleet was far away. In the eyes of its masters (or at least of some of them, some of the time), it was not applied for any worldly end, but for the building of the New Jerusalem and ‘the ruining and the utter fall of Romish Babylon’. All the purposes for which the new Navy had been created were hateful to the restored Stuarts who inherited it, and to most of their people. But the lesson they drew from the naval record of the Commonwealth and Protectorate was its right effect, not its wrong purpose. More than 200 years after the collapse of England’s last empire – 200 years of precarious survival on the margins of Europe, 200 years of humiliation at the hands of the new great powers – the Navy had made England feared once more. This lesson the English did not forget.