Italian Submarines Operating Outside the Mediterranean

The Barbarigo, seen here in the Garonne estuary returning to Bordeaux after an Atlantic patrol, was the most successful submarine of the Marcello class, sinking seven ships totalling 39,300 grt. With LtCdr. Enzo Grossi in command, the Barbarigo attacked two groups of enemy warships, one off Brazil in May and one off Freetown in October 1942 respectively. Both attacks took place at night, and in each case one US battleship was reported as sunk, thus giving a big boost to Italian wartime propaganda. Actually, the ships attacked by the Barbarigo were much smaller and none was sunk. The two events won LtCdr. Grossi important decorations and awards, but he was stripped of them after the war, sparking numerous controversies which lasted for many years after the end of the Second World War. The Barbarigo was sunk by enemy aircraft in the Bay of Biscay, probably between 17 and 19 June 1943.

An armed guard of the Reggimento San Marco saluting the submarine Da Vinci entering the ‘Betasom’ lock on 31 October 1940, at the end of her first Atlantic mission.

Submarines in the Atlantic

The Comando Gruppo Sommergibili Atlantico (Atlantic Submarine Command) was established at Bordeaux, France on 1 September 1940. This was a direct consequence, following the treaty signed in Berlin by Italy and Germany on 22 May 1939, of the operational agreements between the Kriegsmarine and the Regia Marina to conduct a naval war against Great Britain that would include action against merchant shipping in the Atlantic.

The Regia Marina’s choice for an independent submarine base on the French Atlantic coast (excluding of course ports and bases already being used by the Germans), fell on the river port of Bordeaux, located on the Garonne, about 50 miles upstream from its mouth on the Bay of Biscay, originating from the confluence of the Garonne and Dordogne in the wide estuary of the Gironde. From the letter ‘B’ (Beta in the naval phonetic alphabet and also the initial letter of ‘Bordeaux’) the code name ‘Betasom’ – i.e. ‘Bordeaux – Comando sommergibili’ – was derived and it became both the official and the common term for the Italian Atlantic submarine base.

Repair, supply and command facilities were soon established on one of the tidal basins south of Bordeaux, as well as accommodation for the boats’ crews; the requisitioned French liner De Grasse (18,435 grt) and the German passenger ship Usaramo (7,775 grt) were berthed on the Garonne river near the lock, to be used as tenders and barracks ships, with medical facilities and an infirmary for 24 patients aboard the De Grasse. Two hundred and twenty-five men of the Battaglione San Marco provided security for the base, and there were also German army units stationed in the surrounding area.

Rear Admiral Angelo Parona was the first CinC of ‘Betasom’, with Capt. Aldo Cocchia as Chief of Staff; Cocchia was replaced in April 1941 by Capt. Romolo Polacchini who, at the end of 1941, relieved Adm. Parona as CinC; on 2 December 1942 – upon his promotion to Rear Admiral – Polacchini was relieved by Capt. Enzo Grossi, who held the post until 8 September 1943, later choosing to collaborate with the Germans.

The first boat to arrive at ‘Betasom’ was the Malaspina on 4 September 1940, at the end of her first Atlantic patrol just four days after the establishment of the base. A few days later the Barbarigo also arrived, and before the end of September four more boats (Dandolo, Marconi, Finzi and Bagnolini) followed. By the end of October, there were eighteen Italian submarines at Bordeaux as in the meanwhile twelve more boats (Emo, Tarantini, Torelli, Faà di Bruno, Otaria, Baracca, Giuliani, Glauco, Calvi, Tazzoli, Argo and Da Vinci) had arrived. Before the end of the year, nine further boats reached Bordeaux: four in November (Veniero, Nani, Cappellini and Morosini) and five (Marcello, Bianchi, Brin, Velella and Mocenigo) in December. Almost all of the boats based in Bordeaux up to the end of 1940 were originally part of the Gruppi sommergibili of La Spezia and Naples, and only four had come from Taranto.

In March 1941, the submarines Guglielmotti, Archimede, Ferraris and Perla, which had fled from Massawa in Italian East Africa after the evacuation of that base, arrived in Bordeaux; almost two years later on 20 February 1943 the Cagni also arrived in Bordeaux, after leaving La Maddalena on 6 October 1942 and thus having conducted an unbelievably long voyage (136 days) that brought her to patrol the western African coast before steaming northbound to Bordeaux.

Altogether, thirty-two Italian boats operated in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943, of which sixteen were lost as shown in the following list:

1940: Tarantini, Faà di Bruno and Nani.

1941: Marcello, Glauco, Bianchi, Baracca, Malaspina, Ferraris, Marconi.

1942: Calvi and Morosini.

1943: Archimede, Tazzoli, Da Vinci and Barbarigo.

Of the sixteen remaining boats, on 8 September 1943 the Cagni was in the southern Indian Ocean, and made for the Allied port of Durban, South Africa; prior to that, other submarines had returned to the Mediterranean and only seven boats were in Bordeaux as of mid-1943: Cappellini, Tazzoli, Giuliani, Barbarigo, Finzi, Bagnolini and Torelli. All were scheduled to be converted into transport submarines to ferry strategic materials to and from the Far East and, in fact, three one-way transport missions were carried out successfully. Tazzoli and Barbarigo were sunk on their first missions, while Cappellini, Giuliani and Torelli managed to reach Singapore between July and August 1943; after the Armistice they were seized by the Japanese, and later handed over to the Kriegsmarine. The Giuliani was lost in 1944, while the Cappellini and Torelli came under Japanese control after May 1945 and were scrapped after the war. The two last transport boats – Bagnolini and Finzi – were being overhauled at Bordeaux when the Armistice was proclaimed, and were thus seized by the Germans. Altogether, the thirty-two submarines of the Regia Marina operating in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943 sank 101 Allied merchant ships totalling 568,573 grt; an additional four freighters (35,765 grt) were damaged. The most successful submarine was the Da Vinci, with sixteen ships totalling over 120,000 grt, and other boats sank from one to seven ships each; only four submarines (Faà di Bruno, Glauco, Marcello and Velella) sank no ships at all.

The Red Sea

The Red Sea and the eastern Indian Ocean were the most important of the Regia Marina’s subsidiary theatres of operations in the Second World War, as the Italians had maintained a naval presence there since the end of the nineteenth century. On 10 June 1940 the first-line naval assets in the area consisted of six destroyers, eight submarines, four torpedo boats, the colonial sloop Eritrea, five MAS and other smaller vessels based at Massawa.

Three submarines (Macallé, Torricelli and Galvani) were lost and one captured (Galilei) by the end of June; some success was scored against British shipping in the Red Sea, but on 20 September 1940 the destroyer Nullo was lost in action with enemy ships. By early 1941 the British offensive against Italian Somaliland had begun, and Chisimaio was evacuated on 12 February; in early March, the four surviving submarines (Perla, Ferraris, Archimede and Guglielmotti) sailed for Bordeaux via the Cape of Good Hope and, between 1 and 4 April, the three Leone class destroyers, as well as the Manin and Battisti, were all lost. On 16 April 1941, the gun batteries on the Dahlahc Islands, off Massawa, surrendered and the Italian presence in East Africa swiftly came to an end: the Amba Alagi area fell on 27 May, Assab on 11 June and the last Italian stronghold, Gondar, fell on 27 November 1941.

Four ‘CB’ type midget submarines at Sevastopol in July 1942, moored at one of the quays of the large Soviet naval base there that was now under Axis control.

The Black Sea

Following the Axis offensive against the USSR, between late April and May 1942 the first MAS of the Regia Marina began to arrive at Foros in the Crimea, soon followed by some ‘CB’-type midget submarines and other surface assault craft. After the fall of Sevastopol, on 3 August 1942 MAS 568 torpedoed and seriously damaged the Soviet cruiser Molotov but, as the Axis situation on the Eastern Front deteriorated, all Italian naval activity came to an end in May 1943, and the remaining MAS and ‘CB’ were handed over to the Kriegsmarine. Finally, it should be remembered that four MAS (’526-’529) were transferred to the Baltic to operate on Lake Ladoga in support of the Axis forces engaged in the siege of Leningrad between April and November 1942.


The French Navy in the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697)

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 [Nine Years’ War], 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

Until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England installed William of Orange as King of England, the French Navy had few issues to plan for as the Dutch were only aggressive when France chose to start a war (mainly on land), while the English were allied with France for much of the time. The events of 1688 changed this, uniting the two maritime powers, and for the first time in decades threatening a challenge to the dominant French superpower. Forthwith the role of the French Navy altered from supporting the army in campaigns against the Dutch to safeguarding French commerce against the likely aggression of the combined Anglo-Dutch forces. A building race ensued, while at sea the Navy began its campaign by a successful operation to land and supply the army of King James in Ireland. This culminated in the inconclusive Battle of Bantry Bay in May 1689, an action which led to a formal declaration of war.

France rapidly consolidated its battlefleets, bring the Toulon-based Flotte du Levant around to the Atlantic coast and joining the existing Flotte du Ponant at Brest. By 1690 France was clearly on its way to equalling, if not overtaking, the combined strengths of the allied English and Dutch Navies in the Channel. William of Orange’s priority had been to land his ground forces at Carrickfergus in June 1690, leading to his success in defeating James at the Battle of the Boyne on 11 July. Meanwhile Louis ordered his Vice-Amiral du Ponant, Comte de Tourville, to enter the Channel with his 84 ships (and the 15 galleys under the Chevalier de Noailles).

His initial remit had been to attack the English at Plymouth, Torbay and Portland, and then to attack the enemy’s main base at Portsmouth before proceeding to the Straits of Dover. However, these instructions were later amended by Louis, instructing Tourville to seek out the enemy fleet and do battle wherever the opponents met. A major battle in the Channel (off Beachy Head – known to the French as Béveziers) on 10 July pitted 70 French vaisseaux (plus 5 frégates légeres and 18 fireships) against 34 English and 22 Dutch ships. The English lost only one ship (the 70-gun Anne) while the Dutch lost a total of 7 ships and 3 fireships. While most English ships were undamaged, the majority of the remaining 15 Dutch ships were severely damaged and required dockyard repairs before they could face the French again. The battle demonstrated the capabilities of the French fleet; its victory in that battle gave the French control of the waterway for almost two years.

Seignelay, Colbert’s son and successor, died in November 1690. His replacement, the Comte de Pontchartrain (Louis Phélypeaux), who was also the Controleur général des finances, began by continuing Colbert’s strategy, but lacked Seignelay’s prime interest in the Navy and long awareness of naval affairs. The French naval campaign of 1691 was dominated by the `Campagne du Large’; Pontchartrain’s instructions to Tourville, issued on 26 May 1691, instructed the latter to cruise for three months in the Western Approaches (the entrance to the Channel) and to try to capture the homebound merchant fleet en route from Smyrna (Izmir). The French fleet, comprising 73 ships (plus 21 fireships) sailed from Brest in June and returned in August from this `distant cruise’ without fighting a fleet action, but since 1690 the Allied strength had improved both in quantity (92 ships) and in quality. The French advantage was lost by 1691. In 1692, without waiting for the completion of the major battlefleet units under construction, Louis ordered the fleet’s commander, Comte de Tourville, to put to sea and challenge the Allies, even though the French at that time were numerically inferior to their opponents.

A realisation by Louis soon after of the tactical error came too late, as Tourville had followed his orders, and the countermanding message from Louis failed to arrive in time. The resulting contest off Barfleur resulted in a bruising defeat for the French, even if no ships were lost in the actual battle. The retreating French fleet was split up, with twenty ships making for the safety of Brest, while three heavily damaged ships, including Tourville’s flagship Soleil Royal, were stranded at Cherbourg, while another twelve sailed east and took refuge in the port of La Hougue. All fifteen were boarded and set on fire a few days later by the Allies.

The losses sustained to the battlefleet at Cherbourg and at La Hougue, while not in themselves catastrophic (French construction was able to fill the gaps with even more powerful 1st and 2nd Rank ships) had significant tactical and strategic consequences. The fact that the destruction at La Hougue had been carried out by ships’ boats rather than by fireships convinced the French that building new fireships was a waste of resources; those on order or projected were cancelled, and on the limited occasions France employed fireships thereafter, they were always converted purchases or prizes.

Notwithstanding the major efforts to achieve battlefleet superiority until 1692 (which ironically would have achieved success by 1694 if continued), Louis XIV was always more concerned with continental strategy than maritime dominance, and Pontchartrain’s views were closer to the King’s than Colbert’s and Seignelay’s commercial and naval strategy. During the financial crisis of 1693-94, Pontchartrain ceased ordering large battlefleet units, and in October 1693 wrote to the intendants at each major dockyard to tell them that no new battlefleet vessels were to be begun, although those already building could continue. The procurement strategy turned instead to vessels which – together with French privateers – could disrupt English and Dutch commerce. Indeed, as part of this strategy, a considerable number of battlefleet units were loaned out to partnerships put together for privateering on a strictly commercial basis. While causing concern in the allies’ mercantile interests, this was never enough to affect the outcome of the war.

Moreover, it was now realised that France’s strength in naval construction could be undone if their Ponant and Levant Fleets were kept separate. Initially, the allies maintained a posture of concentrating warships in the Channel, to ward off invasion attempts and control commerce, a strategy held since Elizabethan times; this left France, even with its (temporarily) reduced naval strength, in control of the Mediterranean. William III adopted a policy, against the urging of his Council and naval commanders, that would challenge France in Mediterranean waters and – more importantly – would deter any attempt to deploy the Levant Fleet northwards. He dispatched an Anglo-Dutch fleet (under Adm John Berkeley and Lt-Adm Philips van Almonde) into the Mediterranean in 1694, and ensured that it wintered there – in Cadiz Bay, where an English base was established to shelter and repair the fleet. As a consequence, the Levant Fleet was confined to port at Toulon, or at best able to operate in the Western Mediterranean only. And as a result, maintaining control of the Straits of Gibraltar became a permanent aim of the English.

Pontchartrain’s son, Jérome Phélypeaux, the new Comte de Pontchartrain, was awarded the survivance of his father’s office three years later. When Louis de Ponchartrain received the top-ranking position of chancelier de France (Minister of Justice), Jérome in September 1699 became Secretary of State for the Navy, but with only the mere addition of the portfolios of the Colonies, the Sea Fishing, the Maritime Trade and the Consulates: therefore, he was to become the politically weakest Secretary of State for the Navy of the reign.

Three Negapatam Naval Battles

Negapatam, Battle of June 25, 1746

Also known as the Battle of Fort St. David, this action A between French and English forces during the War of the AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION, 1739-48, took place between Negapatam and Fort St. David on the east coast of India. A small English squadron, commanded by Commodore Edward Peyton, was cruising off the Coromandel coast on June 25. It sighted a small enemy squadron commanded by Admiral the Comte Mahe de la Bourdonnais. The more powerful English force, which consisted of six ships, including the 60-gun Medway, seemed incapable of taking decisive action. The engagement, which began at 4 P. M. was constrained by a lack of wind, but the English commander proved ineffective. The French were able to withdraw from a potentially dangerous situation with less damage than their opponents. Peyton also withdrew from the area, and the French were able to capture the Indian city of Madras.

Line of Battle

Royal Navy

HMS Medway

HMS Preston

HMS Harwich

HMS Winchester

HMS Medway’s Prize

HMS Lively (1740)


Achille, 72 guns

Bourbon, 44 guns

Phénix, 44 guns

Lys, 40 guns

Neptune, 40 guns

Saint-Louis, 36 guns

Duc d’Orléans, 36 guns

Insullaire, 30 guns

Renommée, 30 guns

Bertrand Francois, Comte Mahe de La Bourdonnais, 1699-1753

French naval commander, born in St. Malo. Beginning J’ his career at sea in the service of the French East India Company, he distinguished himself at an early stage when, in 1723, he played a leading part in the capture of Mahe on the Malabar coast. After a brief period in Portuguese service, he was appointed governor of Madagascar and Mauritius in 1734. As the War of the AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION, 1740-48, began, La Bourdonnais returned to France and was given another sea command. His new fleet was ordered to India, where he scored several successes against the British. He prevented Mahe and Pondicherry from falling into enemy hands and, in 1746, blockaded and captured Madras. The English, anxious to recover the city, paid La Bourdonnais 9 million livres to relinquish control. His acceptance of this bribe led to a serious dispute with Joseph Dupleix, governor-general of the French Indies, with accusations and counteraccusations being made. On his return to Madagascar, he found that Dupleix had replaced him as governor. When he finally arrived in France, he was accused of failures in administration; after spending two years in prison awaiting trial, eventually he was acquitted.

HMS Yarmouth (70), Pocock’s command in 1758-9

Negapatam, Battle of August 3, 1758

Some three months after their engagement in the Indian Ocean at CUDDALORE, in April 1758, the English and French fleets met again off Negapatam on the east coast of India. This second battle, on August 3, 1758, was an inconclusive as the first and had little or no impact on the course of the SEVEN YEARS’ WAR, 1756-63. Vice Admiral Sir George Pocock, who had seven British ships of the line under his command, returned to the fight on July 27, appearing off Pondicherry, which was held by the enemy. A French squadron of nine ships of the line, under the command of Admiral the Comte d’Ache, left Pondicherry the following day and was pursued southward for a few days. Eventually the French were brought to battle off Negapatam on August 3, and in fierce fighting they sustained particularly heavy casualties. The Comte d’Ache’s tactics were wholly defensive, and the French squadron made good its escape to the north as soon as possible.

Anne Antoine, Comte d’Aché (23 January 1701, Marbeuf – 11 February 1780) was a French naval officer who rose to the rank of vice admiral. He is best known for his service off the coast of India during the Seven Years’ War, when he led the French fleet at the Battle of Cuddalore and Battle of Pondicherry. He also failed to provide adequate naval support to French troops attempting to capture Madras in 1759. After he received rumours of a British attack on the major Indian Ocean naval base Mauritius he did not go to the aid of the French forces in Pondicherry which was being besieged by the British. Pondicherry, the French capital in India, subsequently surrendered leaving Britain dominant in the continent. After the war he retired to Brest where he died in 1780.

Master of the Seas of the Two Indies: the Naval Career of Admiral Sir George Pocock

Negapatam, Battle of July 6, 1782

Following the Battles of SADRAS and PROVIDIEN, the naval engagement off Negapatam was the third battle between British and French naval forces in the Indian Ocean during the latter stages of the AMERICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE, 1775-83. After the Battle of PROVIDIEN, April 12, 1782, Admiral Sir Edward HUGHES and his squadron of 11 ships of the line had completed their voyage to Trincomalee in Ceylon, where he disembarked troop reinforcements. The French force, which also consisted of 11 ships of the line, commanded by Admiral Pierre de SUFFREN, had returned to the Coromandel coast near Madras. Suffren then landed troops at the coastal town of Cuddalore, with the objective of retaking Negapatam, some 60 miles away, which was held by the British. Hughes, who was aware of the enemy’s intentions, sailed for Negapatam. The two opposing squadrons clashed on July 6. Fighting was intense but, like the two earlier engagements, did not produce a clear outcome. However, the French were unable to land at Negapatam and Suffren was forced to withdraw to the north while the British entered the city.

Detail of a 1794 map of south India and Ceylon.

Anglo-French Rivalry in Indian Ocean, (1780–1783)

During the War of American Independence, the French attempted to overthrow British dominance in India. Command of the sea was a vital ingredient, but, in five bloody battles, attempts to seize control by Admiral Pierre André de Suffren were frustrated by the dogged defense put up by Sir Edward Hughes.

By 1760 the British had secured a dominant position in India. There was still the danger of an attack by France and dissident local princes. When the East India Company seized the remaining French bases on the outbreak of the American war, it provoked such action. In 1780 the nawab of Mysore, Haidar Ali, supported by French troops and ships from Mauritius, invaded southern India. Based on Madras, a small army under Sir Eyre Coote held the hordes of Haidar Ali at bay, while Sir Edward Hughes countered the efforts of the cautious French Admiral d’ Orves. By 1782 the British had been successful in defending their own bases while reducing those of the French, including Trincomalee in modern Sri Lanka.

Rear Admiral Suffren then arrived to take command. One of the French navy’s most original and aggressive tacticians, he immediately sailed in search of his enemy. The two squadrons first met at Sadras, near Madras, on 17 February 1782. Hughes, to leeward, formed his nine ships into a tight line of battle heading west. Suffren, sailing south with 11 ships, determined to destroy the British rear. While his own division engaged them from windward, he ordered Tromelin’s to “double” Hughes’s line and attack from behind. Owing to disaffection or incompetence, Tromelin disobeyed and remained effectively out of the action. After two hours, a furious Suffren abandoned the engagement.

On 12 April the two squadrons met again off Providien near Trincomalee. Hughes kept his 11 ships in a tight line of battle, while Suffren swept down from windward, attacking his center with 12 ships in crescent formation. There followed a hard-fought engagement that lasted until a change of wind enabled Hughes to retreat. The British completed repairs in Trincomalee, then took up position before Negapatam, anticipating a French attack. On 6 July Suffren appeared. Having the weather gauge, Hughes formed in line, prevented the French from maneuvering, and the battle became, once more, a bloody and indecisive duel.

The British were refitted in Madras but, hearing that Suffren was attacking Trincomalee, sailed—too late—to the rescue. Hughes appeared off the port with 12 ships on 3 September, and Suffren hurried out with 14 to meet him. The British withdrew seaward, the French following in ragged formation. Hughes then formed in line to receive them, but Suffren’s van overshot and reversed his numerical advantage. Lack of wind prevented the mistake from being corrected, and the result, once more, was a bloody but indecisive battle.

The next six months were dominated by action on land, which culminated in the siege of a French army in Cuddalore. Then Suffren and Hughes—the latter now numerically superior as a result of reinforcements from England—appeared to give support and, on 20 July 1783, the two exhausted and badly manned squadrons met for the last time. Although their fighting spirit remained undiminished, neither could achieve more than a sterile engagement in line. The arrival of news that the war had ended put a stop to further conflict. Suffren returned to France a hero, even though his failure to win command of the seas had doomed the attempt to overthrow British power in India.

Pierre Andre de Suffren de Saint Tropez, 1729-88

One of France’s greatest naval commanders, Admiral Suffren gained his formative experience during the War of the AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION, 1740-48, entering as a garde de la marine, or midshipman. After fighting off Toulon in 1744 and at Cape Breton in 1746, he was captured by British Admiral Edward HAWKE in 1747. Released at the end of the war, Suffren spent some time in the service of the Knights Hospitallers of Malta. He continued in membership of this order throughout his career and gradually progressed up its ranks. During the SEVEN YEARS’ WAR, 1756-63, Suffren was captured once more by the British when the Ocean, the ship in which he was serving, was seized off Lagos, Portugal, by Admiral Edward BOSCA WEN in 1759. During the AMERICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE, 1775-83, he first saw service in North America and the West Indies, where he commanded a French squadron that fought Admiral John BYRON at GRENADA in 1779.

In 1781 Suffren was dispatched to the Indian Ocean in command of a squadron of five ships that was to operate against the British fleet in the East Indies. En route he attacked a British squadron anchored off the Cape Verde Islands and thus neutralized a potential threat to the Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope. Suffren’s squadron was enlarged to 11 ships of the line when he arrived at Mauritius because of the death of Admiral d’Orves, who commanded a force of six ships also operating in the area. With a strengthened fleet Suffren began an epic 18-month struggle against larger forces under the command of Admiral Sir Edward HUGHES off the coast of India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). With great skill and determination, but with no permanent base, he engaged the British in five separate battles from SADRAS, February 17, 1782, to CUDDALORE, June 20, 1783. His greatest achievement was the capture of the British base of TRINCOMALEE, Ceylon, on August 22, 1782, with the loss of only one ship of the line throughout the entire campaign. Suffren returned home as a hero but died shortly afterward, possibly as the result of a duel.

Sir Edward Hughes, (1720–1794)

British admiral who achieved fame by resisting French attempts under Admiral Pierre André de Suffren de Saint-Tropez in 1782 to seize control of the Indian Ocean, and thus of the subcontinent itself. Born in Hertford, England, in 1720, Hughes joined the navy and saw action in many of the principal naval encounters of the period. He was at Vernon’s capture of Porto Bello (1739) and Cartagena (1741), the Battle of Toulon (1744), and the seizures of Louisbourg (1758) and Quebec (1759). He was a fine seaman with such a marked concerned for his crews that Suffren’s men mocked him with the nickname “Mère Hews.”

The climax of Hughes’ career came when, as a vice admiral, he commanded British naval forces in India during the War of American Independence. In 1780 the French and their local ally Haidar Ali made a determined attempt to overthrow British power in southern India. Small British and French armies became locked in a desperate struggle for the coastal bases that were vital to local control. Hughes played a key role in providing support and supply, in blockading the enemy, and in preventing any blockade by them. In January 1782 he captured the French base of Trincomalee.

Then in 1782 Hughes faced a dangerous opponent with the arrival of the new French commander in chief, Rear Admiral Pierre André Suffren. One of the French navy’s few aggressive tacticians, Suffren immediately went on the offensive, meeting dogged resistance from Hughes in five hard-fought battles off southern India of Sadras, Providien, Negapatam, Trincomalee, and Cuddalore before peace in 1783 put an end to the confrontation between the two exhausted and battered squadrons.

Hughes and Suffren were alike in both determination and girth, being short and fat with notorious appetites and substantial bellies. But there the resemblance ended. Suffren was an original thinker, who attempted to circumvent the prevailing doctrine that the line of battle was sacrosanct in ways that his subordinates either could not understand of were unwilling to follow. Hughes, by contrast, while he exploited the tactics of the line of battle with skill and gallantry, made no attempt to experiment and never would have considered doing so. He had been appointed to India because he was “safe,” and his record justified the choice. His stubborn, if unoriginal, tactics frustrated Suffren’s attempts to seize command of the seas and ensured the maintenance of British hegemony in India. Hughes returned to England in 1785 to receive the thanks of Parliament and to enjoy the £40,000 a year he is said to have amassed in India. He died as a full Admiral of the Blue at his estate in Luxborough, Essex, England, on 17 February 1794.

The Century of The Rise of Navies

The ‘Royal Prince’ and other Vessels at the Four Days Battle, 1–4 June 1666

The seventeenth was the century of the rise of navies.

At the start of the century the commercial exclusivity upon the great waters attempted by Portugal and Spain was already gone. The determining race for power and mastery upon the seas had begun, with the Iberians already seen as the weakening participants in the race against the swiftly rising powers of England, Holland and France. Navy had not yet resolved into any firm concept of permanent standing navies. War at sea depended upon any existing warships being hastily supported by armed merchantmen.

Sea fighting itself remained in its brawling infancy still heavily influenced by galley fighting. Nowhere had there yet arrived any firmly defined tactical rules for sea battle manoeuvre, or set rules governing use of sail and wind in battle. Much less were there sustained ideas embracing grand oceanic strategy. Ocean was still too large a vision for comfortably adjusted existence in most Western minds, which were yet too obsessed with the religious convulsions of Europe to be seriously distracted by a goal still too abstract. Terrestrial conflict was the principal menace. Military power, land fighting and armies, therefore naturally remained the predominant concern, diminishing the role of navies and their professional evolution. But since the struggles on land were seldom far removed from the Atlantic coasts or the Narrow Seas of north-western Europe, the Channel and the North Sea, it was in those confined waters that Western naval development had to find its evolution.

All of Europe was convulsed by the last great surge of religious and dynastic upheaval at the heart of which burned the bitter enmity between Bourbon France on the one hand and the alliance of the Hapsburgs of Austria and Spain on the other. Europe was plunged into crisis, and from crisis into prolonged war. The conflict that raged from 1618 to 1648 became known as the Thirty Years War, more cruel and savage than anything so far.

Out of that bloody upheaval would emerge a new Europe, and with it new and different concepts of naval strategy. The Thirty Years War might well be regarded as the signal period that delivered naval strategy to the Western mind, bringing with it the concept that the deployment of naval power could seriously hamper or affect the battle fortunes of the land, and with it the fate of nations and the destiny of empires. And it restored the Mediterranean to a central role in Western maritime history.

It was with France, however, under Louis XIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, that the strongest effort to restructure naval power was begun. He laid down a programme for a fleet of some forty major warships, half of them 34-to 40-gun ships. But Richelieu’s greatest contribution may have been his innovating establishment of the principle of a navy on two seas, with an Atlantic fleet at Brest and a Mediterranean force at the new naval base he established at Toulon. France’s own Mediterranean naval strategy was thereby set in motion, with dramatic impact when France finally entered the Thirty Years War in 1635.

Richelieu had seen his new base at Toulon as a key to defeat of the powerful Austro-Spanish armies that were fighting the Dutch in the Lowlands and the Germans east of the Rhine and would be fighting the French along their own German frontiers once France became fully involved. Richelieu’s surprising and original strategy centred upon Toulon as a means of cutting Spanish supply and reinforcement of its armies inside Europe. For Spain the shortest route for maintaining her armies inside the Continent was from Corunna up through the Narrow Seas to the Spanish enclave of Dunkirk and on to the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium). But that had become impracticable. The Dutch with their experienced and belligerent navy controlled the Narrow Seas.

Denied the direct supply route through the Narrow Seas Spain’s alternative route of reinforcement and supply had to lie through Genoa. From there they passed to Milan and thence through various Alpine passes to the valley of the Rhine. Toulon became Richelieu’s base for cutting communication between Spain and Genoa, thereby undermining the whole Spanish-Austrian campaign inside the Continent. That shift of the Brest fleet to Toulon initiated the great strategic deployment that would prevail in French naval policy in the future as it shifted fleets to match requirement: if not Brest to Toulon, then Toulon to Brest. Toulon became a name, a strategic determinant, to be coupled eventually with that of Gibraltar. The two were to become the opposing points of critical strategic command in the western basin of the Mediterranean. From the Straits to the Italian peninsula they would create a maritime reach of ‘transcendent importance’ where, in Mahan’s memorable words, preponderant naval power determined gigantic issues, swaying the course of history again and again in successive wars of that century and thereafter when ‘it was not chiefly in the clash of arms, but in the noiseless pressure by the navies, and largely in the Mediterranean, that the issues were decided’.

In the Thirty Years War the western Mediterranean thus assumed a new significance in the power struggles of Europe that it was never to lose.

In reply to the French example Charles I set out to match Richelieu’s naval construction programme, the controversial expense of which was to contribute to the circumstances that cost him his crown and his life. The British navy’s real future was moulded by his usurpers. For revolution, civil war and regicide in England were to deliver a wholly new concept of navy and naval administration. New ideas and new commitment were infused by the rigorous military minds that had come to control England’s reconstituted Commonwealth destiny.

For the British, Oliver Cromwell and his soldier-generals fathered the modern navy. Cromwell delivered to the quarterdecks of a new fleet of ships military commanders, colonels who were called generals-at-sea, some of whom were to establish themselves in the front rank of Britain’s greatest sailors. It was these soldiers who set the English navy on its evolutionary course towards its greatness in the century ahead, and who by deciding that universal supremacy at sea was the navy’s rightful goal helped to mould the particular prowess that went towards ensuring its achievement.

The unique distinction of Cromwell’s sailoring soldiers was that they were to combine pride of seamanship with drilled military efficiency and crisp tactical command, without imposing any distinction of land commanding sea, which remained the inclination of the French and the Spanish. With Cromwell there finally arrived the full commitment to a standing navy. The established tradition of composing a navy in an emergency by hurriedly arming merchantmen was abandoned. A standing navy meant ships built by the state and maintained by it only for naval purposes, the principal of which became defence of commerce. For Julian Corbett no change in English naval history was greater or more far-reaching than that. ‘It was no mere change of organisation; it was a revolution in the fundamental conception of naval defence. For the first time protection of the mercantile marine came to be regarded almost as the chief end for which the regular navy existed, and the whole of naval strategy underwent a profound modification in English thought…the main lines of commerce became also the main lines of naval strategy…what they were really aiming at was the command of the sea by the domination of the great trade routes and the acquisition of focal points as naval stations.’

The Dutch, with their command of Europe’s carrying trade and their expanding colonial empire across the world, had shown the way, notably with their seizure of the Cape of Good Hope. Their squadrons were protectively posted wherever their trade moved. And it moved everywhere, nourishing the wealth of their tiny state. The example was too powerful to be ignored.

A new class of warship had emerged, the frigate, small, fast-sailing, flush-decked ships that originated from the dockyards at Dunkirk where design was affected by the demands for the privateering vessels built and stationed there. Frigates were among the first ships ordered for the Commonwealth navy, whose reconstruction had passed from the hands of politicians to professionals. Aboard the new wooden walls pay and conditions for sailors were improved.

After the turmoil of the Thirty Years War the Dutch republic, the now wholly independent United Provinces, might have seemed to be the natural ally of the English military republic. But the mercantile strength and naval power of the Dutch had aroused both the ire and the envy of Cromwell’s Commonwealth.

Released from the burden of war, Holland was left free to concentrate upon the accumulation of wealth and power from its vast mercantile resources. Its merchant fleet totalled ten thousand vessels employing 168,000 seamen. England scarcely possessed a thousand merchantmen. The carrying trade of most of Europe, from the Baltic to the Levant, and including much of England’s, was with the Dutch. They now had the monopoly of the eastern trade, having seized many of Portugal’s Asian possessions. They held the monopoly of trade with Japan. Their colonial possessions in the East extended from India to include Ceylon and the whole of the Indonesian archipelago. They had colonies in West Africa, South America and, notably, held New Amsterdam in North America. In 1652 they seized the pivotal point of east–west trade, the Cape of Good Hope. Backing them was a strong navy led by experienced seamen.

All of this Cromwell was driven to challenge, despite a desire for a compact between the Protestant states as a caution against the rising power of France.

By 1653 England was at war with the Dutch, the first of three wars that would follow in quick succession before the end of the century. With Spanish sea power now in permanent decline, the English–Dutch wars represented the beginning of the final process of elimination between the three surviving naval powers, Holland, England and France, for command of the sea.

These Anglo-Dutch wars were radically different from any that preceded them, the real beginning of modern naval warfare. They changed the tactical and strategic character of naval war and rivalry, being sea war between equals, between sailors of the highest professional proficiency and commitment, and fought within a confined sea space that demanded exceptional tactical skill.

With these wars mercantilism had arrived in full, determining manifestation. It would be the motor of a new age of oceanic commercial rivalry dedicated to ruthless elimination of opponents. Mercantilism was the conviction that oceanic commerce compelled narrow self-interest, the need to overtake or drive out rivals in trade and colonial possession, and to deny access wherever profits were greatest, particularly in the East and the Caribbean. Mercantilism was the fever that had developed naturally and ever more rapaciously through the seventeenth century as sea power diversified and the Dutch, the English and the French as well as others began intruding upon Spain and Portugal’s attempts at global exclusivity. Elizabethan piracy and privateering had been mercantilism’s first offspring. Established naval power became the next.

This first of the Dutch wars was an uneven affair. It saw the rise of the foremost of the Dutch admirals, Tromp, de Ruyter and de Wit. They were opposed by the British commander in chief Robert Blake and a new general seconded to the navy, General George Monck. It was a war in which the English and the Dutch were evenly matched in strength and seamanship. But by concentrating on control of the vital approaches to the Dutch coast the English cut off Dutch trade and brought Holland near to ruin. It was left to Cromwell in 1654 to allow a generous peace, for fear of wholly ruining a potential Protestant ally against France.

The Western world had come to yet another point of pivotal change. Cromwell died in 1658. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the English throne. A wholly different Europe had arisen from the destruction of the Thirty Years War. The chaotic age of religious tumult and its savage wars was over. Spain, the source of so much of it, was in rapid and permanent decline. The power of the Austrian Empire too was crippled. Hapsburg Austria, humbled by the defeat of its overambitious lunge for Continental power, now found itself facing an ambitiously ascendant France to the west and to the east continuing assaults against its empire from the Ottoman Turks.

In France Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, set out to transform France’s naval power and character as profoundly as Cromwell had changed that of England. When Colbert took office in 1661 he visualized a huge navy of ships ranging from twenty-four to 120 guns. In 1664, as Colbert’s vast naval programme was being laid out, the Dutch and English were again at war. The English peremptorily seized New Amsterdam, or New York as we now know it. There was no quibbling about motive. General Monck laid it out bluntly: ‘What matters this or that reason? What we want is more of the trade which the Dutch now have.’ This short war stands as one of the most significant in naval history.

The circumstances were different from the last. The Commonwealth Navy was now Charles II’s ‘Royal Navy’, with his brother, the Duke of York, the future James II, as Lord High Admiral of England. Restoration had brought demoralizing factional tensions within the navy. But Monck, who had helped organize the king’s return from exile, was still afloat, commanding the larger division of the battle fleet, with Prince Rupert, the Duke of York’s cousin, the other division.

The war was fought in the Narrow Seas and essentially settled through three battles, which together defined basic naval tactics for the next hundred years. For it was this war that made visible, clearly and distinctly for the first time, that grand vision of two battle fleets passing parallel in strict line of battle while firing broadsides at one another: the Line. Naval warfare had so far lacked any clear directional control. In action the impulse was towards melee with the ships of the various squadrons breaking off into individual engagement. Clear, firm instructions covering the movements of a fleet in action were yet to emerge. But Cromwell’s soldier-admirals, with their rigorous military minds, had made the first serious effort to approach naval battle formation and tactical strategy as a matter of ordered, scientific procedure that required strict compliance. Their instructions were issued in 1653 during the first Dutch war. One of these was that ‘all the ships of every squadron shall endeavour to keep in line with the chief, unless the chief be…disabled…Then every ship of said squadron shall endeavour to keep in line with the admiral, or he that commands in chief next unto him…’ That battle code was amplified in 1666 by the Duke of York, who strengthened the instructions for keeping the line. But it was only towards the end of this second war that the line made its first full appearance before a surprised maritime world. It did so with one of the greatest battles in naval history: the Four Days Battle in the first week of June 1666.

Mahan described the battle as ‘the most remarkable, in some of its aspects, that has ever been fought upon the ocean’. Certainly nothing was ever to match it for horror and endurance: four days of near ceaseless fighting, seven thousand dead, nineteen ships lost. Only at Jutland in 1914 would Britain suffer as severely.

The fleets were huge, the English with some eighty ships, the Dutch with around one hundred. Fought in the Narrow Seas, in the waters bounded by Dover and North Foreland and Calais and Dunkirk, the action veered indecisively from one coast to the other over four days until it exhausted itself, with the Dutch admiral de Ruyter having the better of the English in the final action. The loss of the English over the four days was the greater of the two, with five thousand killed and three thousand taken prisoner. They lost seventeen ships. The Dutch lost two thousand men and two ships. The English had had the worst of it but it was de Ruyter who preferred to withdraw before carrying it into a fifth day.

The courage of the English was the more remarkable for the fact that the Royal Navy under Charles was in a poor state. There was no money. The sailors were hungry, rations were short. Pay was years in arrears. Maintenance aboard ship and on shore had been low. Those conditions had induced some three thousand English and Scottish sailors to sell their services to the Dutch. Shamelessly and derisively they had shouted their dollar price to their brothers from the decks of the Dutch ships.

What the battle would always stand for above everything else was its vivid display of the new tactic of line. General Monck had at the start signalled for ‘line of battalia’. The close-hauled ‘line’ thereafter was performed with a skill and perfection that hardly suggested its novelty. One French observer, the Comte de Guiche, marvelled at the admirable order of the English. Nothing equalled their order and discipline, ‘leading from the front like an army of the land’.

Line represented the final rejection of the lingering influences of galley fighting. Right into the Four Days Battle the Dutch, like all others, still preferred that for battle their ships should continue sailing in line abreast, as galleys did, with consequent melee. But with the English the primacy of the big gun had become established and they had come to put emphasis upon their broadsides, which for maximum effect meant that gunfire should be positioned directly opposite the enemy, a beam of it, that is, parallel to it, unloading shot at its rigging and into its sides.

Why would the seemingly obvious have taken so long to evolve? The idea of line was, nevertheless, old. The first suggestion of it had shown in fighting instructions prepared by Sir Edward Cecil, one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s commanders in the fleet Raleigh took to Guiana in 1617. Cecil suggested that in action the whole fleet should follow the leading ship ‘every ship in order, so that the headmost may be ready to renew the fight against such time as the sternmost hath made an end, by that means keeping the weather of the enemy, and in continual fight until they be sunk…’ But the concept received little favour. Fighting instructions for a fleet remained vague or absent. By 1618, however, it was plainly recognized that sea fighting had changed from all times before. A Commission of Reform had described the demise of galley traditions by reporting that ‘sea fights in these days come seldom to boarding, or to great execution of bows, arrows, small shot and the sword, but are chiefly performed by the great artillery breaking down masts, yards, tearing, raking, and bilging the ships, wherein the great advantage of His Majesty’s navy must carefully be maintained by appointing such a proportion of ordnance to each ship as the vessel will bear’.

There were sound reasons for line of battle by the time of the Dutch wars. The sizes of navies and of ships were both at a stage of rapid growth. Greater size of fleets brought forward the problem of battle confusion. The smoke and melee arising from a denser concentration of ships locked in battle than in former times made signals and instruction more difficult during action. Huge opposing fleets produced intensive close action on a scale never before experienced. This demanded order upon confusion.

The second Dutch war expired with a peace in which Britain acknowledged the supremacy of Holland in the East Indies but retained New York and New Jersey, thereby joining all her colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America. It was an outstanding prize for a war in which Britain could by no means claim to have been entirely victorious. The greatest gift of the war, however, was line, shared by all.

Although the rest of the seventeenth century was convulsed by the dynastic and military upheaval that accompanied the domineering ascent of Louis XIV, it offered nothing to naval development. France had now been raised to the height of the new power assembled for her by Colbert. Louis XIV wanted sea power, colonial empire and dominance of oceanic trade. France looked set for an eventual challenge to English ambition in all of that. But by focusing on the Continental domination Louis forfeited what Colbert was striving for on his behalf.

The final quarter of the sixteenth century saw Europe convulsed by its greatest sequence of dynastic wars, the last of which, the War of the Spanish Succession, changed the map of Europe and colonial possession.

The sickly Spanish king, Charles II, a Hapsburg, had died and in his will declared Louis XIV’s seventeen-year-old grandson Philip, the Duke of Anjou, to be his heir, possessing an undivided Spanish empire. Louis XIV began to rule Spain from Versailles on behalf of the adolescent Philip of Anjou, now Philip V of Spain. For England and Holland France’s command over all Spanish possessions became intolerable provocation. On 15 May 1702, England, Holland and Austria declared war on France. This war, like its immediate predecessor, was also to be a war of land battles, marked by an absence of notable naval action, except for a single battle at the very end.

The Duke of Marlborough, in charge of the combined English and Dutch forces, demanded a strong Mediterranean squadron to go out to seize Toulon. The response by Sir George Rooke, the admiral appointed to command the Mediterranean squadron, was obstructive. When early in 1704 Rooke unavoidably found himself in the Mediterranean his performance initially was dismal. He made no show at Toulon. The French fleet there under Admiral Comte de Toulouse had been reinforced by the fleet from Brest. Rooke felt that the combined fleet was too powerful for his squadron and retreated towards the Straits of Gibraltar where, peremptorily, as if to compensate for the lack of anything to show before he returned home, he seized Gibraltar, on 23 July 1704. That brought Toulouse with his Toulon fleet down in an effort to recapture the Rock. He met Rooke off Malaga. This, the only naval battle of the war, was hard but indecisive. The combatants drifted apart and made no further contact, which was just as well since Rooke had used up all his ammunition.

The Treaty of Utrecht concluded the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 and, in addition, gave England the island of Minorca where Port Mahon provided a key base from which to operate against Toulon. England’s Mediterranean situation gained further advantage under Utrecht as Spain lost Sicily and Naples to Austria, with Sardinia going to another ally, Savoy. This meant further strategic limitation upon France and its navy within the Mediterranean. Austria acquired the Spanish Netherlands, which for England removed the fear of France on the Scheldt and the North Sea coast. As icing upon the cake of prizes England had Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Hudson’s Bay ceded to her by France. The war had been as costly to Britain as to the others, yet she had emerged from it wealthier than before, her trade flourishing and her credit unsurpassed.

With France, however, the situation was bleak. Regardless of her immense domestic resources, she was in a state of ruinous depression. Reconstruction of the country’s naval and economic fortunes required a long peace. Holland was the worst off. Her naval strength and commerce had suffered badly from the war, the cost of which had drained her wealth. She would never recover the commercial supremacy of the past two centuries.

England had now become Great Britain: the union of England and Scotland in 1707 had made it so. Usage of ‘England’ would now begin to fall away in official though less so in common use. A new dynasty occupied the English throne. Queen Anne died in 1714 and was succeeded by the Hanoverian George I.

Britain could with much satisfaction review the evolution of her own maritime accomplishments after such a tumultuous century. A standing, professional navy was solidly established.

For all, a powerful new stream of history had begun to flow, and mingled with it a different sense of the underlying power and significance of naval strength.


The 10 Lion’s Whelps built by the 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1628 are exemplars of the ‘war’ pinnace, a war ship that was built for several European navies for more than two centuries (c.1550-c.1750). The Whelps had sweeps (propelling oars) as well as sails (G R Balleine, All for the King, The Life Story of Sir George Carteret, Societe Jersiase, 1976, p10). England, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland deployed the war pinnace on a regular basis. The largest war pinnaces, also known as frigates, approximated England’s fifth rate and sixth rate small warships. A few war pinnaces were built to fourth-rate hull dimensions. However, these war pinnaces carried fewer cannon and had smaller crews than English fourth, fifth, and sixth rates. Fast and maneuverable when compared to a typical ship of the line, when they were under the command of an experienced captain with a crew that retained discipline during battle, many war pinnaces compiled impressive fighting and espionage records.

Capture of Kent by Confiance. Painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray.

In international law, privateers are defined as “vessels belonging to private owners, and sailing under a commission of war empowering the person to whom it is granted to carry on all forms of hostility which are permissible at sea by the usages of war.” Privateers are usually required to post a bond to ensure their compliance with the government’s instructions, and their commissions are subject to inspection by public warships. In contrast, “piracy may be said to consist in acts of violence done upon the ocean or unappropriated lands, or within the territory of a state through descent from the sea, by a body of men acting independently of any politically organized society.”

Acts of piracy are distinguished from other acts of violence on or emanating from the high seas by the fact that the former “are done under conditions which render it impossible or unfair to hold any state responsible for their commission.” Though “the absence of competent authority is the test of piracy, its essence consists in the pursuit of private, as contrasted with public, ends.” Thus, the distinction between a privateer and a pirate is that the former acts under the authority of a state that accepts or is charged with responsibility for his acts, while the latter acts in his own interests and on his own authority. “Most acts of war which become piratical through being done without due authority are acts of war when done under the authority of a state.”

English privateering apparently began in the 1200s, when the king ordered vessels of the Cinque Ports (Hastings, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich, and Romney) to attack France. In 1243, Henry III issued the first privateer commissions, which provided that the king would receive half the proceeds. The English monarchy was also the first to issue a letter of marque, which was directed against Portugal, in 1295.

Initially there was a strong distinction between private reprisals and privateering. Letters of marque, which were issued in peacetime, allowed individuals to seek redress for depredations they suffered at the hands of foreigners on the high seas. For example, if an Englishman’s vessel were attacked by a Frenchman, a letter of marque would authorize the Englishman to seize something of equal value from any French vessel he encountered. This practice was an old one, dating back to well before the thirteenth century, and was based upon “the early theory that the group was responsible for the wrongs of each of its members.” It also reflected the absence of permanent embassies as a mechanism for resolving private international disputes on a regular basis.

Privateering, on the other hand, was a strictly wartime practice in which states authorized individuals to attack enemy commerce and to keep some portion of what they captured as their pay. Early on, however, the two practices became confused, apparently because “whenever a war broke out each party always claimed to be the party aggrieved, and when it justified its acts of hostility at all, it did so by connecting them in some way with the notion of reprisals.” Already boundaries between the legitimate and illegitimate were under practical challenge.

Adding a further complication to these practices was piracy. In 1413 England defined piracy as high treason. For over a century, the English king had turned a blind eye to the piracy of the Cinque Ports, probably because their piratical activities honed the skills sailors needed when serving as the king’s wartime privateers. As the Cinque Ports’ depredations escalated, however, the English passed an antipiracy statute. Nevertheless, because the ports were accustomed to engaging in piracy and because the well-born earned a good income by investing in piracy, English piracy was not suppressed.

In 1544 Henry VIII, in his war with France, gave blanket authorization for privateering and allowed the privateers to keep all the loot they seized. With the gradual crackdown on piracy and the requirement that privateers share their prizes with a host of public officials, the privateers’ contribution to British naval capacity had declined. Henry VIII’s action was designed to increase the incentives for privateering.

England gained naval superiority over Spain largely through the action of the Elizabethan Sea Dogs. These private adventurers, in collusion with the English Crown, engaged in all kinds of violent activities directed against Spain in the New World. Besides plundering Spanish ships and settlements, such Sea Dogs as Drake, Cavendish, Clifford (the third earl of Cumberland), and Raleigh engaged in what might be termed statesponsored terrorism. For example, Drake extorted large ransoms from two Spanish colonial cities by threatening to burn them to the ground. He actually destroyed three other cities. His sack of Peru netted him and his backers £2.5 million and repaid his backers, including Elizabeth, “47 for 1.” Cumberland, leading a purely private expedition, captured Puerto Rico in 1598.17 Other Sea Dogs behaved similarly, plundering, destroying, and extorting their way to fame and fortune in England and sharing their loot with the English Crown. Drake and Raleigh, of course, were knighted for their achievements.

The execution of Raleigh in 1618 marked the beginning of a temporary decline in English privateering. Though the Stuarts had made peace with Spain, Raleigh continued his depredations in Spanish America, assuming that the English monarchs “would secretly connive at violations of the treaty with Spain.” He was wrong.

A new English prize act, passed in 1708, produced the highest level of privateering activity to date. With this act, the privateer was allowed to retain all his prizes and was paid a bounty based on the number of prisoners he took. Moreover, in 1744 the king granted pardons to all criminals who would serve as privateers. By 1757, privateering had become something of a craze in England. During the eighteenth century, “political lobbies formed which defended and promoted the concerns of the `privateering interest.'” The year 1803 was the most violent and lawless period of maritime warfare in modern history, in part because England and France “were unable, even if willing, to control the hordes of desperate privateers and quasi-privateers who were nominally subject to them.”

French privateering differed from its British counterpart in two respects. First, while England allowed privateers to attack neutral commerce, France did not. Second, for England, privateers were auxiliaries to the navy; for France, they were the navy. France in 1400 required privateers to obtain prior consent and in 1398 and 1498 required them to post bond. Sixteenth-century French “privateers” were largely individuals acting on their own initiative. One French merchant, for example, sent seventeen ships to blockade a Portuguese port when one of his ships was seized by a Portuguese vessel. When Spaniards killed the leader of a French colonizing expedition in 1562, a French “gentleman” sent three vessels that made bloody reprisals against Spain.

Like their British counterparts, French privateers committed great depredations in the New World during the seventeenth century and were rewarded with letters of nobility. French filibustiers, under the direction of Santo Domingo’s governor, ransomed and pillaged Spanish towns. They also drove the English out of Hudson Bay.

The golden age of French privateering occurred after Colbert became secretary of state, despite France’s imposition in 1681 of onerous regulations on privateering. These included the requirement that a privateer post a fifteen-thousand livre bond and carry at least six guns, as well as a prohibition on ransoming prizes above a certain value. Apparently it was Colbert’s enthusiasm for expanding France’s commerce and building its navy that stimulated a heightened interest in maritime activities in general. At any rate, “the principal threat to British trade in the wars between 1689 and 1815 came from a large number of French privateers that put to sea from St. Malo, Dunkirk, and other ports along the French coast.” French privateering was greatly stimulated by the wars between 1689 and 1713, which disrupted the ports’ normally lucrative trade in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, leaving merchants with little other than privateering in which to invest.

The peak of French privateering occurred during the years 1689 to 1697. Both the number of French privateers and their success declined in subsequent wars. In the American War for Independence (1778-82), French privateers took about four prizes per vessel, while in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, they took only about one prize per vessel.

Privateers played a significant role in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13). British and American privateers seized more than 2,000 prizes, 30 with one New York group alone destroying fifty-four French and Spanish vessels. French privateers attacked Dutch, Venetian, and Portuguese ships and towns. In 1711, “a colossal [French] private expedition . . . defeated an entire Portuguese fleet and captured Rio de Janeiro.” In the mid-eighteenth century, French privateers nearly put an end to the slave trade between Africa and the British colonies in the Americas.

The War of the Austrian Succession (1739-48) saw another surge in privateering. Wishing to keep France out of the war, Britain initially discouraged privateering, which was always a potential threat to neutral commerce. 34 Between 1739 and 1741 only 30 prizes were taken by privateers. Once France entered the war, however, English privateering increased in importance. Between 1739 and 1748, New York privateers captured more than 240 prizes worth nearly £620,000. By the final years of the war, “French shipping had been largely driven from the sea lanes.” French and Spanish vulnerability to privateering attacks led them to ship their goods in Dutch vessels. The English Crown then turned privateers loose on the Dutch, who lost nearly £1.3 million in the course of the war. Besides attacking enemy shipping, English privateers “acted as auxiliary vessels, carrying troops, scouting, and on occasion even blockading enemy ports.” They also convoyed British merchant ships and served as a coast guard for the North American colonies. It is estimated that privateers took about 3,500 prizes during the war.

Privateering reached new heights in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), particularly after England announced its Rule of 1756. With this rule “neutrals were prohibited from carrying on any trade, directly or indirectly, with the French colonies, which trade was not guaranteed to them in time of peace.” This struck a “death-blow to the Dutch commerce, which had been growing rich on the French colonial trade for many years.” Though the rule brought French trade to a standstill, reprisals against England by other neutrals produced an alarming increase in insurance rates for English merchants, whose complaints led the Crown to tighten control over its privateers. Nevertheless, during the first four years of the war, it is estimated that English vessels took 1,000 French prizes. New York privateers were responsible for more than 300 of these, enjoying a profit of £1.5 million. Despite the English privateers’ success, French privateers took more than 300 English prizes. Nevertheless, the “Peace of Paris demonstrated forcibly how little influence privateering usually exercises on the result of a war; the losses of the English shipping were more than double those of the French, yet the treaty of peace was the most disgraceful, perhaps, that France ever signed.”

American privateers served both sides in the U. S. War for Independence. In the rebel cause, some 792 privateers captured or destroyed 600 British vessels worth an estimated $18 million. They took a total of 16,000 British prisoners. According to one report, insurance rates for convoyed vessels reached 30 percent and for unconvoyed, 50 percent. Losses to the West Indian trade are estimated at 66 percent. American privateers even operated in British waters so that Britain had to provide naval escort for shipping between Ireland and England. The Armed Neutrality of 1780 prevented any significant privateering activity against anyone but the belligerents. Evaluations of the effects of American privateering on the outcome of the war vary enormously. At one extreme is Maclay, who concludes that “it was this attack on England’s commerce that struck the mortal blows to British supremacy in America-not Saratoga nor Yorktown.” At the other is Sherry, who writes that

Yet as effective as the privateers may have been against commerce, they were all but useless against the Royal Navy. As a consequence, the British had no trouble controlling major colonial ports such as New York, Boston, and Charleston. Control of the ports by the Royal Navy meant that the British could move troops as they chose, could resupply easily, and could bring military pressure to bear where and when they chose. It was only when a French fleet blocked the British from relieving Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown that the Americans won their war for independence.

During the French Revolutionary wars, French privateers took 2,100 British vessels. In the War of 1812, 517 American privateers captured 1,300 prizes worth an estimated $39 million. They also took many of the 30,000 prisoners captured by American naval forces during the war. One American privateer ship, the Yankee, in six cruises captured 40 British vessels and captured or destroyed $5 million of British property.

Up through the first decade of the nineteenth century, privateering was a prominent feature of interstate conflict and war. It was effective as both a substitute and a foundation for state naval power. Privateering evolved into a weapon of the weak against the strong, as in the case of the United States and Britain during the War of 1812. However, it was invented and encouraged by the “strong” states of Europe, whose naval power was largely an outgrowth of privateering.

Post-Armada English Maritime Exploits I

Battle of Cadiz Bay by Aert Anthonisz

Insula Gaditana, vulgo isla de Cádiz. Mapa de la bahía de Cádiz, perteneciente al “Blaeus Grooten Atlas” de 1664.

After Sir Francis Drake died Sir Thomas Baskerville assumed command of the 1596 Panama expedition and decided to cut his losses. Scuttling two more ships to distribute their crews among the rest, the disease-ridden fleet sailed back to England, pausing to fight Avellaneda off the Isle of Pines. Avellaneda later captured the fleet’s reconnaissance caravel Help off the north coast of Cuba, a meagre return for the largest war fleet sent to the Indies during the reign of Philip II. On the other hand the galizabras had sailed back with the bullion from Begonia as soon as Drake departed San Juan, which was the greater victory for their cash-strapped monarch. It was not enough, however, and in 1596 he had to default on his debts, mainly to Genoese bankers, leading to a drying up of credit for the last two years of his reign.

The factor that precipitated Philip’s default was assembling in England even as the ships of the Caribbean expedition limped back. The returning fleet was kept away from Plymouth, where the largest of all the Elizabethan amphibious operations was about to set out under the joint command of Lord Admiral Howard and the manic-depressive Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the last and least worthy of Elizabeth’s favourites. He stepped into the void in her affections left by the death in September 1588 of his step-father Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The death of Sir Christopher Hatton in 1591 and the disgrace of Sir Walter Ralegh in 1592 (when his secret marriage became known) also cleared Essex’s path, to the point that for the first time Burghley found himself faced with a rival whose influence over the queen threatened his own.

The infatuation was not limited to the ageing queen. Leicester’s last service to Elizabeth had been the carefully choreographed apotheosis (‘I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too’) at Tilbury during the Armada scare. The aura did not survive her apparent indifference to her people’s welfare during the demobilization and the failure of the counter-armada. By the mid-1590s the populace was turning out to cheer Essex as a breath of fresh air. More ominously, he also gained a strong following among professional soldiers exasperated by the queen’s chronic dithering and perceived parsimony.

Hindsight supports the charge of indecisiveness, but from Hakluyt to the present day historians have given too much credence to the clamour of Elizabeth’s naval and military commanders for more of everything, without regard to her limited means. Yet honest dealing and cost-effectiveness were alien concepts to most royal officers – Christopher Carleill and Sir John Hawkins (in his capacity as Treasurer of the Royal Navy) being among the rare exceptions – and if there’s one constant in history it’s that military men invariably blame their failures on lack of resources.

Although devastating to Philip II’s prestige and precarious finances, the 1596 raid on Cadiz failed to bring home the one thing Elizabeth needed above all: the means to pay for the on-going war, which now extended to a rebellion in Ulster led by Hugh Roe O’Donnell, openly joined in 1595 by his father-in-law Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, with stronger Spanish encouragement than practical support. The Cadiz raid was mounted to disrupt the preparations for a new armada, this time aimed at Ireland, but failed to do so because the ships were concentrated in Lisbon and Vigo. However, it did succeed indirectly, because Philip’s finances could no longer stretch to opening a new front in the war. New orders were issued to sail instead to reinforce Águila in Brittany, but Jehovah flavit with a vengeance and the armada was shattered by a storm off Cape Finisterre in late October.

The 1596 armada was no small undertaking. At Lisbon there were 24 galleons and 53 hired Flemish and German merchant ships carrying nearly 11,000 men, joined by 30 shallow draft felibotes with 2,500 men from Seville. A further 41 ships with 6,000 men were assembled at Vigo. The storm sank 14 ships, including 2 pay ships carrying 30,000 ducats. Thirty more were unaccounted.

The Howard/Essex fleet, entirely paid for by the queen, was not much smaller. It consisted of her 13 most powerful galleons in four squadrons led by the Lord Admiral, Essex, Lord Thomas Howard and Sir Walter Ralegh. Distributed among them were a London contingent of 10 armed merchantmen, assorted royal and London pinnaces, and 64 store ships and troop transports carrying 14,000 men. It was joined by a Dutch contingent of three large and 15 smaller warships with six store ships.

Initially hesitant to risk the queen’s ships by sailing straight into the bay – as Drake had done in 1587 – the Lord Admiral first tried to land the troops on the western side of the peninsula. As a result he sacrificed the operational surprise he had achieved by a cloud of disinformation indicating that Lisbon was the target (he had only revealed the true objective to his captains once he was at sea). The Spanish were granted time to moor their warships in a line between the Puntal and Matagorda peninsulas, and to move the merchant ships of the outgoing Indies flota to the inner harbour.

The battle line included four of the Apostles, two large Portuguese galleons, three medium-sized galleons from the flota escort, three of the galizabras that had brought back the bullion from San Juan, and two large and heavily armed Ragusan carracks. Eighteen galleys were moored off the city with their heavy bow armament ready to hit the attackers in the flank.

The English should not have been able to break through such a line, but the crews of the Spanish warships were not the men of 1588. They let go their anchors and the biggest, the Apostles and the Ragusan carracks, promptly ran aground. Ralegh observed ‘tumbling into the sea heaps of soldiers so thick as if coals had been poured out of a sack, [from] many ports at once, some drowned, some sticking in the mud’. Some remained long enough to set fire to San Felipe, San Tomás and one of the Ragusan carracks, but San Mateo, San Andrés and the other Ragusan were captured intact by English boarding parties.

The way was clear to send the smaller ships into the inner harbour to capture the flota, but instead Essex charged ashore and the Lord Admiral, not greatly against his will, was compelled to support him. Cadiz fell surprisingly easily and the entire expedition devoted itself to looting the city. While they were thus occupied, the Duke of Medina Sidonia arrived and ordered the 42 large and uncounted smaller ships in the inner harbour burned. The loss was estimated at 12 million ducats, while Howard and Essex were demanding one percent (120,000 ducats) of that as a ransom for the hostages they had taken. When this was not forthcoming they set fire to the city and sailed away with the hostages.

Furthermore, with their auxiliaries (and not a few of the royal ships) anxious to get home with their loot, they made no effort to comply with the second part of their commission, which was to intercept the Portuguese East Indies carracks or the incoming Spanish flota that were due to arrive at the Azores. Instead of being rewarded with enough money to keep the war going indefinitely, the queen was reduced to trying to wring her share from the participants, from whom her commissioners managed to extract a mere £8,359 against her outlay of £50,000.

It almost defies belief that the queen was persuaded to give Essex another naval command, but to some extent circumstances forced her hand. In the investigation that followed the Cadiz raid it became clear that Essex, Ralegh and Lord Thomas Howard had consistently voted in favour of the more aggressive course of action in all the councils of war summoned by the Lord Admiral, and 1597 brought credible intelligence that the Spanish were assembling yet another armada at the arsenal port of Ferrol, located a few miles north-east of Coruña across a broad bay. (See Map, page 267.)

The entrance to the Ferrol estuary was through a narrow, twisting channel commanded by forts on either side, and whatever wind permitted a fleet to enter the harbour would keep it there. Even more than at Santander, the neutralization of the land defences was an absolute prerequisite for any naval attack on the port. Yet the original English plan provided only 5,000 troops, of which 1,000 were experienced soldiers drawn from the Netherlands and the rest untrained levies.

Even if supplied with siege artillery, which they were not, and if there had been a suitable place to land, which there was not, it would have required a landing force considerably larger even than the one sent to Cadiz in 1596 to take the forts and to hold both sides of the mouth of the Ferrol estuary against Spanish counter-attacks. The whole plan was based on a contemptuous under-estimation of the enemy, and magical thinking with regard to the wind and weather conditions required for the operation to have any chance at all of success.

Adverse winds delayed the departure of the expedition, and after it sortied on 10 July a violent storm drove much of it back to Plymouth with masts sprung and yards broken. It became apparent that standards in the royal shipyards had slipped since the death of Sir John Hawkins when ship after ship, including the brand new Warspite and Essex’s flagship Merhonour, developed serious leaks. As the end of the campaigning season drew nearer, the operation was scaled back to the bare core, a charge into the harbour led by the two huge captured Apostles, now known as Saint Andrew and Saint Matthew, counting on confusion among the gunners in the forts. They were to be followed by a flock of smaller vessels, some of which were to be expended as fireships while the rest would bring off the crews of the Apostles, which would also be burned.

When the expedition sailed again on 17 August, now with only a reduced number of the Netherlands veterans embarked, bad weather disabled the two Apostles and opened a dangerous leak on the newly built Due Repulse, Essex’s replacement flagship. His orders were to destroy the armada and only then to seek to pay for the expedition by trying to intercept the Indies fleets. The queen could not have been more categorical that under no circumstances should Essex leave the Channel unguarded if he could not first destroy the ships assembled in Ferrol.

So that is just what he did. The loss of the Apostles alone doomed the planned attack, and steady easterly winds – ideal for a Spanish sortie – made a blockade impractical. Instead of returning to England, Essex sailed to the Azores on the basis of the flimsiest intelligence. After dashing off madly in all directions and failing to achieve anything significant he finally set sail for England, came close to running the fleet onto the Isles of Scilly, and finally reached Plymouth on 26 October.

It would be a considerable understatement to say that he met with a frosty reception. In his absence the largest armada since 1588 – 136 ships, 60 of them warships – had sortied from Ferrol on 9 October towing 20 purpose-built landing craft with which to put ashore a well-equipped army of 8,600 troops. Their objective was to seize the great harbour at Falmouth, where the troopships would remain while the warships sailed offshore to intercept Essex’s fleet returning from the Azores. It was a realistic plan and required only for the Spanish to enjoy some long overdue good luck.

It was not forthcoming and the armada was hit by a storm out of the north when almost in sight of Falmouth. Although not as severe as in 1596, losses were disabling (all the landing craft were lost) and the ailing king had neither the will nor the means to try again. Queen Elizabeth had nothing to complain about God’s partiality, but she sensibly judged it best not to presume on divine providence any further and turned against any further grand expeditions to concentrate on matters nearer to hand.

A month before his death on 4 August 1598, Lord Burghley had the satisfaction of seeing the queen box Essex’s ears after one too many insolences. Shortly before his death on 13 September, Philip II had the slight consolation of learning that Tyrone and O’Donnell had inflicted a stinging defeat on the English at Yellow Ford a month earlier. The outcome of these events was that the queen granted Essex one more opportunity to redeem himself, in Ireland in 1599. As Tacitus once wrote of the Emperor Galba, so Wernham sums up the chasm between theory and practice in Essex’s military career: had he not held high command, everyone would have thought him well qualified for it.

After his failure in Ireland (reaching a truce with Tyrone rather than defeating him) and subsequent house arrest, there was no-one left at court to balance the influence of Burghley’s son Robert Cecil, Secretary of State since the death of Walsingham in 1590, who in alliance with Lord Admiral Howard dominated the Privy Council to a degree his father had never achieved. There remained only the tragi-comedy of Essex’s attempted coup d’état and execution in early 1601. The queen had successfully balanced factions throughout her long reign, but she was approaching 70 and in her last bravura speech to Parliament in 1601 spoke frankly: ‘To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it’.

In Spain, Philip III came to the throne determined to succeed where his father had failed. Elizabeth wanted peace but did not feel she could leave the Dutch unsupported, although she obtained a commitment that they should pay for the English forces still fighting alongside them and also begin to repay the large sums she had lent them over the preceding 13 years. They could afford to do so because throughout the war they had continued to trade very profitably with Spain.

Nobody ever accused the Spanish Hapsburgs of learning from their mistakes, thus one of Philip III’s first acts was to order all Dutch ships in Spanish ports seized and to ban trade between Spain and the Dutch Republic, a ban extended to trade with the Spanish Netherlands in January 1599. The Dutch responded with a ban of their own and, confident that they could succeed where the English had failed, sent a large fleet to raid both the Spanish ports and the Atlantic islands.

It was a complete fiasco but it did help England indirectly. Philip III had prepared an armada against England in 1599, which caused Elizabeth to order a full mobilization of the Royal Navy, but the Spanish fleet was sent instead to deal with the Dutch threat to the Atlantic islands. Oppressed by the heavy cost of maintaining 17,000 troops in Ireland, Elizabeth ordered the demobilization of the fleet as soon as she learned of this. But with attention fixed on the armada that never came, the Narrow Seas squadron left its station off Calais and failed to prevent six Spanish galleys from Santander and their attendant fragatas under 28 year-old Federico Spinola from running the Channel gauntlet past Dunkirk to Sluys, the Spanish-held port across the main channel of the Scheldt estuary from the English cautionary port of Flushing.

Federico was the younger brother of Ambrogio, who was to keep the Spanish cause in the Netherlands alive from 1602 to 1625. After the Dorias, the Spinolas were the second most powerful of the Genoese banking clans that provided the backbone of the Hapsburg Mediterranean galley fleet. They were also owed so much money by the Spanish crown, and had such extensive land holdings in Spanish Lombardy, Sicily and Spain itself, that their interests were inseparable.

Galleys had a wretched record in combat with galleons. In April 1590 a flotilla of Levant Company ships, including Alderman Boreman’s Salomon, John Watt’s Margaret and John and Thomas Cordell’s Centurion, all 1588 Armada veterans, beat off 12 large galleys under the command of Gian’Andrea Doria himself in the Straits of Gibraltar. Margaret and John had previously taken part in the July 1586 battle. In April 1591, again off Gibraltar, Centurion alone defeated five galleys even though they managed to grapple with her and board.

Federico, who had served in the Netherlands for many years under Farnese, was convinced that galleys would be able to regain control of the Flanders coast from Justin of Nassau’s cromsters, and had been petitioning Madrid since 1593 to be permitted to prove his theory. When Philip III became king he gave his assent to a complicated deal involving the Spinolas lending him 100,000 ducats interest free for a year, in return for which the king undertook to provide six galleys and a tercio of troops to man them, and to maintain the flotilla to the tune of 81,000 ducats every six months.

Upon the death of Philip II the Spanish Netherlands became a semi-autonomous principality under Cardinal Archduke Albert of Austria, previously the governor-general after the death of his older brother in 1595. Permitted to renounce the purple by Pope Clement VIII, he married Philip III’s sister in April 1599. Archduke Albert was a party to the agreement between the Spinolas and Philip III and undertook to provide quarters for Federico’s troops, also heavy guns and ammunition for the galleys. The aim was to regain the military initiative in the Netherlands and to force the Dutch and English to negotiate from a position of weakness.

Although Federico Spinola’s ambitions extended to seizing a beach-head in England, his first priority was to support Archduke’s Albert’s renewed offensive against the Dutch enclave around Ostend. In combination with the Dunkirk felibotes, and joined by two galleys built there by shipwrights sent from Genoa by his older brother, Federico did such damage to coastal traffic in 1599–1600 that Elizabeth ordered the construction of four 100-ton galleys (all given Anglo-Italian names – Advantagia, Superlativa, Gallarita and Volatillia) and even the Dutch, who had never before employed galleys, built three, including the 200-ton Black Galley of Zeeland.

Spinola’s activities suffered from lack of support from Archduke Albert, who suffered a humiliating defeat after trapping the hyper-cautious Maurice of Nassau at Nieuport in early July 1600. Further negotiations with Philip III in 1601 saw a revival of the English beach-head project with the promise of eight fully manned galleys to come from Genoa, supported on land by Ambrogio Spinola who would raise 6,000 troops in Italy at his own expense and march them to the Netherlands, where he would take over the active conduct of the war.

Post-Armada English Maritime Exploits II

Battle of Sesimbra Bay. Attack on Spanish Treasure Galleys, Portugal 1602.

Before that, in September 1601, the Spanish at last struck at what had always been England’s Achilles’ heel in Ireland. Juan del Águila landed with 3,000 troops at Kinsale and a smaller force under Alonso de Ocampo landed at Baltimore. They were about as far away as it was possible to get from rebel-held territory in the north and the idea seems to have been to turn the two ports, already notorious havens for pirates with no regard for English authority, into corsair ports preying on Dutch and English shipping, following the successful example of the felibotes operating out of Dunkirk.

Águila was promptly cut off by sea while Sir George Carew, Lord President of Munster, besieged Kinsale by land. When Tyrone and O’Donnell marched south their forces, joined by Ocampo, were defeated outside Kinsale on Christmas Eve by Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, Essex’s competent successor as Lord Deputy of Ireland. Mountjoy had already torn the heart out of the rebellion with an amphibious landing in the north and a scorched earth campaign on Tyrone’s lands.

Richard Leveson

The suppression of the rebellion was possible only because the Royal Navy established control of the waters around Ireland for the first time. The naval commander was Sir Richard Leveson, one of a new generation of naval commanders in their early 30s who also included Sir William Monson, author of the multi-volume and occasionally accurate Tracts that gave historian Michael Oppenheim the hook on which to hang the first detailed history of the 1585–1604 war.

Leveson and Monson came the closest of all Elizabeth’s admirals to capturing a silver flota off the Azores during the last fund-raising cruise of her reign, in the summer of 1602. It was supposed to be a combined operation with the Dutch but they were late to the rendezvous in Plymouth. Leveson sailed on ahead with five Royal Navy ships while Monson remained behind with four to wait for the Dutch. Within a few days Monson received an order from the queen to sail immediately, as word had reached London that the flota had reached the Azores.

It had, and sailed on to Lisbon past Leveson, who attacked one of them unsuccessfully. Monson, delayed by malfunctions on his ships, arrived just too late. They found a consolation prize at the Portuguese port of Sesimbra, south of Lisbon, where on 12 June they fought off eleven galleys to capture the large carrack São Valentinho. Her cargo was sold for £44,000, which barely covered the queen’s costs, rapidly rising amid the wholesale corruption and shoddy workmanship presided over by Lord Admiral Howard. ‘If the queen’s ships had been fitted out with care’, Monson wrote, ‘we had made her majesty mistress of more treasure than any of her progenitors ever enjoyed’.

Three of the galleys at Sesimbra had come from Lisbon under the command of Alonso de Bazán, but the other eight were Spinola’s Genoese galleys, which Federico had only just joined in Lisbon to lead on the last part of their voyage to the Netherlands. The galleys had massive 60-pounder cannon in their bows and formed a tight defensive screen in the shallows around São Valentinho.

Monson, who had spent a year as a slave on one Bazán’s galleys, anchored outside their effective range and bombarded them with the 16 culverins on Garland to force them to break formation. When Bazán’s galleys did, the shallow draft Dreadnought (360 tons to Garland’s 532) sailed into the gap and took them on at close range with her 11 demi-culverins and 10 sakers. After Bazán was badly wounded his battered galleys rowed away, but Spinola stayed and fought until he had lost two and the rest were in imminent danger of sharing their fate.

Spinola took his six remaining galleys back to Lisbon and with royal consent took oars and rowers from Bazán’s galleys. On 9 August the galleys departed, carrying 36 pay chests for the army in Flanders. At Santander he took on a further 400 troops to complete an on-board tercio of 1,600 men and reached Port-Blavet in Brittany by mid-September. This time there was no armada to distract attention: the English and Dutch were well informed of his movements and they were ready for him.

Off Dungeness during the night of 3–4 October Spinola ran into the 400-ton Hope, launched in 1559 and along with Victory the last unreconstructed carrack in the Royal Navy. She was the flagship of 29-year-old Sir Robert Mansell, one of the Lord Admiral’s placemen of whom Julian Corbett wrote the damning verdict that ‘it is the rise of this man that marks the commencement of a reign of selfishness and corruption that almost brought the navy to ruin in the next reign’. Mansell had little naval experience but his excellent flag captain anticipated that Spinola would try to repeat his 1599 tactic of sailing close to the English coast. The carrack savaged San Felipe before the other five galleys came up in support, and followed them until they rowed over the Goodwin Sands.

When they made a break for the Flemish coast the Dutch inshore squadron was waiting for them and sank San Felipe and Lucera by ramming. Padilla escaped to Calais, where the French interned her and used her as firewood. San Juan and Jacinto made it inside the Flanders Bank but were too badly damaged and their rowers too exhausted to do more than run aground near Nieuport. Only Spinola on San Luis, carrying the 36 pay chests, managed to row to safety in Dunkirk.

Queen Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603 and Federico Spinola survived her by barely two months. Having brought his Sluys squadron back up to its eight-galley strength, he sortied on 26 May to attack three Dutch oared ships, including Black Galley, which were accompanied by the 34-gun cromster Gouden Leeuw (Golden Lion). Spinola, standing on the forecastle as his galley led the charge against Black Galley, had an arm shot off and was hit in the stomach by swivel guns, after which his men lost heart and rowed back to Sluys.

Sir Walter Ralegh and George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, spanned the gap between the wholly royal and wholly private naval expeditions during the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign. As such they represent the (not very close) English equivalent to the Spinolas as men so indebted or devoted to their monarch that they spent their own fortunes in her service. Ralegh was a parvenu whose fortune came entirely from the favour Elizabeth had shown him. The Barons de Clifford were an old established northern borderer dynasty, but the earldom of Cumberland was created for Clifford’s grandfather by Henry VIII as a reward for the family’s dog-like loyalty to the Tudors.

Posterity exalted Ralegh, mainly because, thanks to his Roanoke venture, he was seen as the prophet of the British Empire, but also because his five-volume History of the World, written when imprisoned in the Tower under sentence of death, was an intellectual tour de force that put him on a par with Sir Francis Bacon as the most influential English author of the 17th century. I cannot improve on the conclusion of his Dictionary of National Biography entry:

Those who came after him, who never met him, have instinctively liked Ralegh, or their version of Ralegh. He was certainly a most astonishing and compelling man, in his writings as in the rest of his life touched by genius and greatness, the focus of legend. It should not be forgotten, however, that many of those who lived in the same small world of the Elizabethan court, after long association with Ralegh, either disliked him intensely or distrusted him profoundly.

Cumberland’s loyalty was sparingly rewarded and mercilessly exploited by Elizabeth. He began to lose his hair early and was not particularly good-looking, but the biggest obstacle between him and the royal favour that cascaded on prettier men may have been that he was too awkward to indulge convincingly in the artifices of courtly love. He was also an inveterate gambler, and although granted the ceremonial role of Queen’s Champion in 1590, Elizabeth never gave him a military command or admitted him to the Privy Council. His best-known portrait, a 1590 miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, shows a man dressed in extravagant jousting armour with the queen’s jewelled glove pinned to a feathered hat that makes the whole ensemble seem rather ridiculous.

Both men were among the foremost promoters of the corsair war, but neither was solely motivated by the prospect – in Cumberland’s case the urgent need – of profit. We have seen Ralegh’s attempt to set up an operational base in Virginia from which to interdict the Spanish flotas, and Cumberland adjusted his ventures to supplement the Royal Navy’s attempt to blockade the Spanish coast, thereby saving Lord Thomas Howard from disaster at Flores in 1591. Of course both hoped for wealth as well as glory, but they would probably have achieved more of the former if they had not also wished to perform some outstanding service in the hope of tangible recognition by the queen.

Both of them built giant galleons that could not possibly pay their way simply as corsairs and must have been intended to supplement the Royal Navy. Ralegh, as we have seen, was relieved of the expense of his Ark, which became Lord Admiral Howard’s flagship. In 1595 Cumberland built an even bigger (600 tons burden) ship named Malice Scourge at the queen’s suggestion. In it he led, brilliantly, the largest entirely private military-strategic operation of Elizabeth’s reign to take San Juan, Puerto Rico, three years after Drake had failed to do so during his last voyage.

It did nothing to change Elizabeth’s opinion of him and after 1598 he was compelled to sell off his fleet. Malice Scourge, renamed Red Dragon, became the flagship of the new East India Company in 1600. Rather pathetically Cumberland tried to console himself with the thought that ‘I have done unto her Majesty an excellent service and discharged that duty which I owe to my country so far as that, whensoever God shall call me out of this wretched world, I shall die with assurance I have discharged a good part I was born for’.

He spent less time at court, curtailed his gambling and devoted his last years to salvaging some of the lands he regretted having ‘cast into the sea’. He also made himself useful to James VI of Scotland and, despite having been among those who condemned James’s mother to death, was finally made a privy councillor when the king became James I of England. Cumberland died in 1605.

Ralegh’s meteoric career stalled after he got with child and secretly married Bess Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting. When the truth emerged in April 1592, after the birth of the child, the queen was incandescent. Husband and wife were put under separate house arrests, but after Ralegh grossly misjudged the situation and indulged in some insultingly theatrical expressions of contrition the queen had them both consigned to the Tower. He was let out a month later to salvage what he could of the queen’s share of the richest single prize taken during her reign.

This was the great Portuguese East Indies carrack Madre de Deus. According to the results of an ‘exquisite survey’ given in Hakluyt, she was about 1,450 tons burden and in excess of 2,000 tons fully laden. The model in the Lisbon Museu de Marinha confirms she had a two-storey forecastle and a staggered three-storey sterncastle. With 32 guns, 10 of them sakers or larger firing through main deck gunports, and a complement of 600–700 men, she was a formidable challenge.

How Madre de Deus was taken and what followed provides a suitable microcosm through which to explain the corrosive failure of public–private ventures in the English guerre de course. Three groups met by chance off Flores in the Azores. With the scandal of his secret marriage hanging over his head, Ralegh made a desperate effort to put together an expedition involving the ever-popular queen’s ship Foresight (295) under Robert Crosse. The private component was Ralegh’s own Roebuck (240) under Sir John Burgh, John Hawkins’s Dainty (200) under Thomas Thompson, Bark Bond (56) sent by John Bond and partners of Weymouth under Nicholas Ayers (the previous Bark Bond had been used as a fireship in 1588), and a number of pinnaces and frigates.

Ralegh tried to get away on 6 May but, blown back, he was superseded a week later at the queen’s command by Sir Martin Frobisher in Garland (532) and recalled to London. Frobisher may have been accompanied by some unnamed ships grudgingly sent by London merchants in response to the conditional release by the queen of £6,000 on the money due to them for prizes taken by the London squadron in 1591. This was something new: the queen was not only retaining the proceeds of her subjects’ ventures as a forced interest-free loan, but was also using it to tell them what to do.

The objective was to intercept five East Indies carracks expected at the Azores in July. Ralegh intended to lead the whole flotilla to the Azores, but Frobisher brought with him instructions for the main component to sail with him to Cape St Vincent while a smaller group under Burgh patrolled the Azores. Frobisher was not one to question orders, but Crosse on Foresight and Thompson on Dainty knew it was folly to divide the command and slipped away to join Burgh’s Roebuck.

Cumberland’s ships made up the second component, led by John Norton in Tiger (170), followed by Abraham Cocke in Sampson (260), Phoenix (60), the frigate Discovery (12) and two other small ships, Grace of Dover and Bark of Barnstaple. Gold Noble (200), owned by the London merchants John Bird and John Newton, was supposed to sail with them but became separated and sailed instead to the coast of Portugal, where it took a 900-ton (presumably ‘tons and tonnage’) prize.

The third component was two ships returning from an already highly successful West Indies voyage, in which they raided San José de Ocoa and captured Yaguana on Hispaniola, and then cut a prize out from under the guns of the fort at Trujillo and captured Puerto Caballos in Honduras. The syndicate that sent the expedition was headed by John More and included John Newton (again), Robert Cobb and Henry Cletherow, all of London. It was led by Christopher Newport in Golden Dragon (130) followed by Hugh Merrick in Prudence (70). Golden Dragon carried two demi-culverins, six sakers, seven minions and four falcons. She had a crew of 70–80 men with 31 muskets and three arquebuses.

Burgh arrived at Flores on 21 June to learn that he had missed the first of the East Indies carracks, which also slipped past Frobisher during the night of 7–8 July. Immediately afterwards Burgh sighted Santa Cruz, pursued by Cumberland’s ships. In a dead calm he rowed to examine the carrack, intending to board her next day, but during the night a storm came up and she ran herself aground, where her crew were seen frenziedly unloading the carrack before setting her on fire. Burgh and Norton sent a landing party that routed the Portuguese and captured some of the cargo, as well as the ship’s purser, who was coerced into admitting that three more carracks were 15 days behind. He did not know that two of them had already wrecked.

When Newport arrived he agreed to ‘consortship’ with Burgh, but Norton refused to acknowledge that Burgh’s commission from the queen had seniority over his own from Cumberland. Despite this, the two agreed to act in concert and stationed their ships in a screen west of Flores, each ship spaced about 6 miles/10 kilometres from the other on a south–north axis. From the southern (windward) flank the sequence was Dainty, Golden Dragon, Roebuck, Tiger, Sampson, Prudence and Foresight.

In the morning of 3 August Dainty sighted Madre de Deus and attacked her at about midday, followed at two-hour intervals by Golden Dragon and then Roebuck, joined by Foresight – which was either out of station or sailed past Cumberland’s ships and Prudence – at about 7pm. Dainty had her foremast shot away and lost contact for five days. Burgh and Crosse, desperate to prevent the carrack running herself aground, crashed Dainty and Foresight into her, under her main deck guns, and disabled her by cutting the bow rigging.

After that it was a pell-mell night assault with the crews of Golden Dragon, Sampson and Tiger pouring aboard alongside the men of Foresight and Dainty in a looting frenzy that nearly resulted in the loss of the ship and all aboard her, as recounted by Purchas: ‘The English now hunted after nothing but pillage, each man lighting a candle, the negligence of which fired a cabin in which were six hundred cartridges of powder’.

There never has been honour among thieves. When Thompson’s Dainty rejoined he asked Burgh for a share of the silks, jewels and coins that now filled the cabins of the other captains. Burgh gave him a seaman’s chest that had already been broken open. Norton, who had promised the Portuguese captain that his passengers would not be personally robbed, kept his word and gave them Grace of Dover to take them to Flores. But Nicholas Ayers on Bark Bond intercepted the pinnace and stripped them naked, collecting hundreds of diamonds, rubies and pearls sewn into their clothing.

The extent of the preliminary looting can be judged from the fact that Madre de Deus drew 31 feet when she left Cochin but only 26 when she sailed into Dartmouth harbour on 9 September. There, theft on an industrial scale began with two thousand buyers flocking to the port. When it became apparent that Sir Francis Drake, vice-admiral of Devon and Cornwall, and the other queen’s commissioners were taking a decidedly broad view of this, Burghley sent his son Robert Cecil to try to stop the carrack being emptied of all her contents. He reported from Exeter that everyone he met within 7 miles/11 kilometres of the city smelled strongly of pepper, cloves and other spices.

Finally the queen ordered the release of Ralegh from the Tower to recover whatever he could. He managed to have what was left of the bulkier goods to the value of £141,200 loaded on Garland and Roebuck for transport to London. Elizabeth, whose investment had been a mere £3,000, tried to claim all of it, ‘challenging the services of her subjects’ ships, which are bound to help her at sea’. The Lord Admiral, anxious to preserve the income from his tenth, persuaded her that ‘it were utterly to overthrow all service if due regard were not had of my Lord of Cumberland and Sir Walter Ralegh and the rest of the adventurers, who would never be induced further to venture’.

The point being that the looting had cost the ship owners, promoters and suppliers – who were entitled to two-thirds of the value of the prize – far more than it had diminished the Lord Admiral’s tenth and the twentieth due to the queen for customs duties. Nonetheless she took the lion’s share of the remainder, arguing that the sailors had already taken much more than they were entitled to and that the adventurers must recover what they could from their ships’ crews. Cumberland’s syndicate was allowed £37,000, with which he was deeply unhappy but which gave them all a reasonable return. Ralegh and his partners were allowed only £24,000, which was a stinging slap in the face. Against this he had earned the queen’s forgiveness, which he must have considered worth the price. But he was still banned from the court until 1597, and never recovered her favour.

The conclusion to be drawn from this episode is obvious. Elizabeth’s public–private ventures did severe damage to the subjects of King Philip II and on occasion caused the Spanish monarch acute financial embarrassment. However, she herself gained much less from those ventures than she might have done because she presided over a kleptocratic state and was herself guilty of dishonest dealing. Majesty is the first casualty when a monarch descends to squabbling with her subjects over the division of loot, and it’s perfectly clear that it was not just her increasing age that caused Elizabeth’s moral authority to drain away during the last decade of her reign.