Wednesday, June 10, 2015


One of the greatest admirals of the age. Sir Cloudesley Shovell (1659-1707), an outstanding seaman, had been raised in the service by fellow Norfolk-born officers. He proved himself at every level, including service against Algerine corsairs, as a junior admiral at Barfleur and Malaga, and as a fleet commander worked harmoniously with the army and his allies, notably at the capture of Barcelona. (Michael Dahl)

Returning late in the year Shovell's squadron misjudged their longitude. His flagship (HMS Association) with others) ran on to the Scilly Isles. This led the Government to offer a reward for a reliable method of determining longitude) resulting in John Harrison's chronometer.

 The Battle of Beachy Head (Fr. Battle of Bévéziers) was a naval engagement fought on 10 July 1690 during the Nine Years' War. The battle was the greatest French tactical naval victory over their English and Dutch opponents during the war. The English and Dutch lost some 11 ships in total (sources vary), whereas the French did not lose a single vessel; but although control of the English Channel temporarily fell into French hands, Admiral Tourville failed to pursue the Allied fleet with sufficient ardour, allowing it to escape to the river Thames.

Tourville was heavily criticised for not following up his victory and was relieved of his command. English admiral Torrington – who had advised against engaging the superior French fleet but had been overruled by Queen Mary and her ministers – was court-martialled for his performance during the battle. Although he was acquitted, King William dismissed him from the service.

Beachy Head had been a formative experience for the English. It reminded the political elite just how deeply they were committed to the 1688 Revolution. The threat of a Stuart restoration opened the national coffers, and Parliament agreed to rebuild the navy. Twenty-seven new battleships were laid down. In 1693--4 the ability of the English state to finance war was revolutionized by the creation of the English National Debt and the Bank of England. The National Debt transformed the old, short-term royal debt, which had been the Achilles' heel of the Royal Navy in the Second and Third Dutch wars, into a long-term investment in the State, while the Bank would organize and regulate the state's finances. The two measures provided the long-term financial strength that underpinned the rise of Britain from an offshore island to a global empire. Their impact was immediate: in its first year the Bank effectively paid for the navy, restoring its credit with merchants and creating the basis for long-term naval finance. These financial innovations also tied the political and commercial elite to the Revolution settlement; Admiral Russell, victor of Barfleur and a leading politician, was among the largest investors in the Bank, for example. Only a disaffected minority now stood to gain from the restoration of the Stuarts; the men of power and property were committed to the new regime. This process provided the funds for further naval construction, and the development of a new base at Plymouth to support an Atlantic war. Having secured command of the sea and imposed a blockade, William III recognized that he must avoid defeat on land if he was to wear down the French. To this end he shifted English and, especially, Dutch resources to the land war.

As the French had abandoned the contest for the Channel, William III widened his attack on the French economy by sending the allied fleet into the Mediterranean in 1694, where it supported the Spanish against the French, and kept it there over the winter. This distant service exposed the limitations of existing English battleships. Having been designed for short-range, high-tempo combat in the Channel, they were too small to carry the provisions, spare gear, stores and ammunition for long periods away from their bases. New and bigger ships were required to make seapower effective at a distance.

After 1694, the French guerre de course was essentially conducted by privateers and hired warships run for profit, and it imposed huge demands on the allies. They blockaded and bombarded the privateer bases at Dunkirk, St Malo and Calais, used convoys, and developed sophisticated insurance markets to spread the financial risk. The failure of the French to use their battle fleet after 1694 led the Admiralty to give convoy escorts and cruisers priority over the Grand Fleet. What little glory there was in this kind of petty war went to the privateers, among whom the Dunkirker Jean Bart, exemplar of an old local tradition, achieved mythic status. Privateering kept the French maritime sector involved in the war without costing the state any money. However, it failed to break the allied dominance of maritime trade, which funded their long war with France. Allied endurance negated French victories on land.

There was a brief truce after the Peace of Ryswick in 1697, only for the struggle to resume in 1702, for a bigger prize. In the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-14) England (later Britain, after the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland), Holland, and the Holy Roman Empire denied the throne of an undivided Spanish empire to Louis XIV's grandson. The war at sea was one-sided: France could not contest the English Channel with the allies, and after 1704 abandoned the Mediterranean. The destruction of a Franco-Spanish fleet at Vigo in 1702 prevented French access to the treasure of Spanish America. When an allied amphibious attack captured Gibraltar on 24 July 1704, the French committed their main fleet. The Comte de Toulouse, a 26-year-old royal bastard, took fifty-one ships to meet Admiral Rooke with a similar allied force. As the allies were short of ammunition and men, Rooke, despite having the weather gauge, had to fight a defensive battle. When the fleets met off Malaga on 24 August, Toulouse tried to break through the allied line to exploit his superior firepower. Skilful ship and squadron handling by the commander of the van squadron, Sir Cloudesley Shovell (1659-1707), thwarted his move, then relieved Rooke's hard-pressed centre division. At nightfall Toulouse broke off the action, unaware that the allies were almost out of ammunition. The strategic victory went to the allies. Thereafter English naval power dominated the Mediterranean.

Returning home late in the season Sir Cloudesley Shovell, the British Mediterranean commander, had the misfortune to run on to the Scilly Isles with part of his fleet. On 22 October 1707 his flagship, the three-decker Association, was wrecked. The admiral was murdered after he struggled ashore. (Some records assert that he was drowned.) This disaster, the result of navigational errors, prompted the search for a reliable method of determining longitude. In an age much given to public funerary monuments, Shovell was accorded a place of honour in the national pantheon, Westminster Abbey, his tomb crowned with a singularly inappropriate statue of a well-dressed grandee in a full wig. Born in north Norfolk, Shovell had risen through the ranks on ability, and the patronage of his relatives. He was the very archetype of the fighting sea officers who gave Britain the advantage at sea. Like their Dutch predecessors, these men were bred to the sea, combining good sense with personal ambition.

After 1704 French naval activity was dominated by increasingly ambitious attacks on trade. Powerful privateer squadrons commanded by Chevalier Forbin and Rene Duguay-Trouin attacked convoys. Backed by the personal investment of the king, Duguay hired a battle squadron in 1712, which he used to capture and ransom Rio de Janeiro. This profound change in French naval policy from fleet battle to oceanic warfare was reflected in a shift from three-decked battleships to big two-decked ships. France had abandoned her attempt to secure command of the sea. Aside from a few morale-boosting victories, the great battle fleet of Colbert had achieved surprisingly little. With the Dutch declining into a second-class navy configured to defend trade and colonies, Britain became dominant at sea. The Treaty of Utrecht confirmed her possession of Gibraltar and Minorca, the keys to the Mediterranean, and paved the way for further conflict in the Americas by securing Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

While England, Holland and France fought over the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, developments in the Baltic facilitated the expansion of oceanic naval power into the northern sea.

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