I blogged about some of the idiosyncracies of naval history conferences a few months ago. Last week, I was able to attend a particularly important example of the genre, a conference held at All Souls College, Oxford, to honour Professor John Hattendorf of the US Naval War College. The original raison d’etre, namely to mark his retirement from that institution, was overtaken by events: as Nicholas Rodger remarked at the conference dinner, the US Navy might be willing to phase out battleships and decommission a few aircraft carriers, but it’s realised that it can’t do without John Hattendorf, who duly remains in post. I was delighted to be there; I’ve known John for over 25 years, partly because his original area of interest (the War of the Spanish Succession) intersected with my own, partly because I’ve worked under his editorship on several projects, notably the centenary volume of the Navy Records Society and the Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History. A quiet, modest man, John is one of the most perceptive historians I’ve known, as well as being unstintingly generous with his advice and support for younger scholars.

The conference was particularly impressive for all sorts of reasons. First of all, its venue, All Souls College, is one of the most exclusive academic institutions in the world. It contains only Fellows, with no undergraduate members at all, and the former are admitted principally by means of a fiendishly difficult examination. As befits its exclusivity, All Souls is, shall we say, a trifle eccentric: once, and only once, a century (yes, century - like the Vatican, Oxford works in the long term), the distinguished fellows parade round the medieval quadrangles by the light of flaming torches, singing a song as they go, in pursuit of a mythical mallard. The last such occasion occurred in 2001, so at a push, there might just be a screaming infant or two somewhere in the world at this very moment who will be eligible to take part in the next mallard hunt in 2101. But even without any sightings of the mallard, the chance to explore the splendours of All Souls was a rare opportunity indeed: the Tudor Old Library, where the conference sessions were held; the Codrington Library, a stunning eighteenth century space (I was fortunate enough to be able to work there, many years ago); the college chapel with its magnificent medieval reredos; and the neo-classical hall.

In sharp contrast to the surroundings, the organisation of the conference was at the cutting edge of modernity. Indeed, it’s the first conference I’ve ever been to that had its own app, a nice touch provided by the three organisers, Benjamin Darnell, Jeremiah Dancy and Evan Wilson, who also formed the first panel and delivered thought-provoking papers on aspects of eighteenth century naval history (notably Jeremiah’s now relatively well known but still highly controversial thesis that during the war of 1793-1801, only 16% of British naval seamen were pressed, thus turning the established orthodoxy on its head). Indeed, the quality of the papers throughout the conference was uniformly excellent. Naturally, I was particularly interested in the papers that were closest to my own work and interests, such as Jaap Bruijn’s talk on the deployment and decline of the Dutch navy and the fascinating paper by Jakop Seerup of the Royal Danish Naval Museum on Anglo-Danish and Anglo-Swedish disputes over the ‘salute to the flag’ in the 1690s and 1700s, disputes which led to several full-scale battles between navies that were nominally at peace with each other. But it’s also good to be taken out of one’s comfort zone, and several of the talks did that – perhaps most memorably, that by Captain Keizo Kitagawa of the Imperial Japanese Navy  sorry, the ‘Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force’, the defence attache at the London embassy.

The three keynotes were very different to each other, but all were remarkable in one way or another. Nicholas Rodger reviewed the historiography of naval warfare in the First and Second World wars and concluded that much of it is simply wrong – hampered by national bias and flawed preconceptions, ignorance of foreign source material, and a lack of awareness of the actual capabilities of the technology. The third volume of his history of the Royal Navy should certainly ruffle a few feathers when it comes out! Paul Kennedy provided a magisterial comparison of strategy in the great global wars of 1793-1815, 1914-18 and 1939-45; it’s difficult to see how any historian could work on a broader canvas. Finally, Admiral James Goldrick of the Royal Australian Navy and Professor Geoffrey Till had a lively discourse on the relationship between navies and naval historians. The former made a number of provocative but important points, suggesting for example that all those who write about maritime matters should make every effort to get to sea as much as they can (as he said, even a North Sea ferry crossing can give one a better understanding of the realities of naval warfare in World War I) while also pointing out that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for future historians to reconstruct the naval history of the last 15 years or so onwards, given how much shipboard and ship-to-shore communication is now undertaken through such ephemeral channels as chatrooms and messaging services.

So all in all, it was an excellent and highly enjoyable conference, especially as it amply fulfilled the principal criterion for going to such events – namely, to provide an opportunity to meet up with old friends and chew the fat!


There’ll be no post next week as it’ll be Easter Monday. Back in a fortnight!

Guest blogger Frank Fox presents the second half of his important new assessment of the fleets that fought in the Battle of Beachy Head. Next week, I’ll be reporting on the Oxford Naval Conference in honour of John Hattendorf, which I’m attending.


The Dutch squadron, commanded by Cornelis Evertsen, Lieutenant-Admiral of Holland and Westfriesland, formed the van of the allied fleet.  The twenty-two ships, commanders, and their armament are given in Evertsen’s letters written after the battle and published in Hollandsche Mercurius, pp. 202-208.  The manning figures are intended complements and not the actual numbers aboard.  Most are from a list in J C M Warnsinck, De Vloot van den Koning-Stadhouder 1689-1690 (1934), p. 82; and from the appendices in J C De Jonge, Geschiedenis van het Nederlandsche Zeewezen, v. 3 (1869), pp. 730-739.  The letters in the ADM column indicate the admiralties to which the ships belonged; ‘A’ is Amsterdam, ‘M’ is the Maas (Rotterdam), ‘N’ is the Noorderkwartier (North Quarter), and ‘Z’ is Zeeland.  The Dutch squadron was in three divisions, with the flagships and division commanders shown below in bold type.  The ships of the van division flew a pendant at the fore, those of the centre division a pendant the main, and those of the rear division a pendant at the mizzen.  Dutch flag-officers all flew the national tricolour as command flags.  These were at the main for lieutenant-admirals, at the fore for vice-admirals, and at the mizzen for schout-bij-nachts (rear-admirals).  In previous Dutch sea-battles, the ships had worn various combinations of several flags as ensigns and jacks to signify their admiralty affiliations, but whether this applied in 1690 is not clear.

The sources for the Dutch squadron note that there were four fireships, but do not identify them other than giving the names of three of the commanders.  Dutch researcher Carl Stapel found the fourth commander and two of the fireship names (matched to commanders) in admiralty reports from April 1690, and a third fireship  and commander (Van Brakel’s Suikermolen) turned up in the vast data compiled by James Bender for his soon-to-be-published Dutch Warships in the Age of Sail 1600-1714, which he graciously made available.  The remaining fireship, expended in action under Commandeur Thameszoon of Amsterdam, I have tentatively identified as the Kroonvogel; she was the only Amsterdam fireship in 1690 aside from the Suikermolen which does not appear in later Dutch fleet lists.  Perhaps uniquely for a Dutch fleet in battle in the seventeenth century, there were no light frigates present, as noted in one of Evertsen’s letters appearing in Hollandsche Mercurius, 1690, p. 206.

The published lists of the Dutch squadrons do not give the forenames of the commanders.  I have filled in most of these from Mr Bender’s data; by chance, two that he could not supply appear in English warrants for travel to the Netherlands for officers of ships that were lost on the English coast after the battle – Jan van der Poel and Cornelis Calis (NA, ADM 44/339, pp. 307 and 314).  Only two of the flag-captains (noted below) have so far been identified.

ADM       SHIP                            GUNS       MEN             COMMANDER

Van Division                                                                                    

A         Wapen van Utrecht           64           315             Pieter Claassen Decker

N         Alkmaar                           50           200             Jan Kalff

Z          Tholen                             60           330             Cornelis Calis

N         Westfriesland                 82           450             Vice-Adm. Gerard Callenburgh

A         Prinses Maria                    92           500             S.b.N. Gilles Schey

A         Castricum                          52           240             Ferdinand Joan Kuyper

A         Agatha                               50           210             Willem van der Zaan


Centre Division

A         Stad en Lande                    52           210             Abraham Taalman

N         Maagd van Enkhuizen        72           370             Jan van der Poel

A         Noord Holland                      44           190             Rudolf Swaan

M        Maagd van Dordrecht          60           300             Anthonij Pieterson

A         Hollandia                           70           360             Lt-Adm. Cornelis Evertsen /

Capt. Hendrik van Toll

M        Veluwe                                 60           375             S.b.N. Jan van Brakel /

Capt. Matthias De la Cave

M        Provincie van Utrecht          50           210             Jan van Convent

M        Maas                                   64           340             Jan Snellen


Rear Division

A         Friesland                               68           350             Philips van der Goes

A         Elswout                                 50           210             Adriaan Noortheij

A         Reigersbergen                       74           360             Abraham Ferdinand van Zijll

Z          Gekroonde Burg                62           350             Vice-Adm. Karel van de Putte

N         Noord Holland                       72           320             S.b.N. Jan Dick

Z          Veere                                    60           325             Cornelis Jansz. Mosselman

Z          Kortgene                              50           240             Andries de Boer



Fireships (not in line)

    A             Suikermolen                       4              25             Abraham van Brakel

A             Kroonvogel?                           6              22             Thameszoon

N             Maagd van Enkhuizen            6              22             Muijsevanger

Z              Burg Etna                              4              25             Cornelis Antheuniszoon

The aftermath of the battle: Richard Endsor's painting of the burning of the third rate Anne at Pett level, where her remains can still be seen (see previous posts on this blog)

The aftermath of the battle: Richard Endsor’s painting of the burning of the third rate Anne at Pett level, where her remains can still be seen (see previous posts on this blog; thanks to Richard for giving permission for the use of his work)

The English fleet was under Admiral Arthur Herbert, Earl of Torrington (1648-1716), who was the overall allied commander.  The usual source for the English order of battle is Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy . . . , v. 2, p. 335.  But this is incomplete in omitting light frigates and the stations of the fireships.  A lesser known alternative that does give the approximate stations of the fireships is Memoirs Relating to the Lord Torrington, ed. J K Laughton, (Camden Society, 1889), p. 50.  The Torrington referred to in this work is not Arthur Herbert, but George Byng, Viscount Torrington from 1721 and captain of the third-rate Hope in 1690.  These sources disagree slightly in that Clowes states that the fourth-rate Constant Warwick was not in the line, while Byng assigns her a station (as shown below).

The light frigates and small warships omitted by the published sources are identified in the Admiralty’s monthly fleet distribution lists (NA, ADM 8/2).  The presence of several not mentioned in accounts of the battle were verified from their logs, preserved in NA, ADM 52/87 (Portsmouth), ADM 51/384 (Garland), ADM 52/69 (Milford), ADM 51/3963 (Salamander), and ADM 51/214 (Concord).  I have taken the minutely detailed data in ADM 8/2 as the most reliable authority for captains, guns, and complements of all ships.

The English had an overall strength of thirty-five men-of-war of the fourth rate or larger, seven light frigates and small warships, sixteen fireships, and one hospital ship.  In addition, the fleet was accompanied by a swarm of small ketches and smacks which had been hired as tenders and utility craft for the men-of-war.  They are not listed here because those actually present seem unrecorded.  But these vessels, their masters, and the ships to which they were assigned can be found in NA, ADM 1/3560, fo. 805; and ADM 49/29, fos 39v-52r and 61v-62r.

The English formed the centre and rear squadrons of the allied fleet, with the flagships indicated below in bold type.  The centre, designated the Red Squadron, was in three divisions; while the rear, designated the Blue Squadron, was undivided (two expected flag-officers were missing; Sir Clowdesley Shovell had not returned from escorting King William III to Ireland, and Henry Killigrew’s squadron was delayed in coming home from the Mediterranean).  In the Red Squadron, Torrington flew a Union flag at the main, his vice-admiral in the van division a red flag at the fore, and the rear-admiral a red flag at the mizzen.  The ships of this squadron displayed a red pendant at the main and wore the red ensign.  In the Blue Squadron, the only flag-officer, Rear- Admiral Delavall, flew a blue flag at the mizzen.  All of his ships had a blue pendant at the main and wore the blue ensign.  As usual, all the English ships wore a small Union flag as the jack.

Several vessels just missed inclusion in this list.  The fourth-rates Assurance, Phoenix, and Mary Galley, along with the fifth-rate Play Prize (plus an unidentified Dutch man-of-war) came to the fleet the day after the battle; the sixth-rate Julian Prize was two days late (NA, ADM 52/110, Suffolk master’s log; NA, ADM 52/66, Mary Galley master’s log; and NA, ADM 51/494, Julian Prize captain’s log).

RATE       SHIP                              GUNS        MEN             COMMANDER

Red Squadron (centre) – three divisions

Van Division

    3          Plymouth                             60           340             Richard Carter

4          Deptford                                   50           280             William Kerr

3          Elizabeth                                  70           460             David Mitchell

2          Sandwich                              90           660          Vice-Adm. Sir John Ashby /Capt.William Bridges

fs              Wolf                                        8              45             Thomas Urry

fs              Vulture                                  8              45             James Moody

3          Expedition                                70           460             John Clements

3          Warspite                                   70           420             Stafford Fairborne

4          Woolwich                                 54           280             James Gother

3          Lion                                          60           340             John Topley


Centre Division

4          Constant Warwick                   42           180             John Beverly

3          Rupert                                      66           400             George Pomeroy

2          Albemarle                                 90           660             Sir Francis Wheeler

3          Grafton                                     70           460             Henry, Duke of Grafton

fs              Roebuck                                 8              45             Isaac Townsend

1          Royal Sovereign                 100            815        Adm. Earl of Torrington /Capt. John Neville

fs              Dolphin                                   8              45             William Vickers

fs              Owner’s Love                      10             40             Thomas Heath

2          Windsor Castle                         90           660             George Churchill

fs              Speedwell                             8              45             John Mason

3          Lenox                                       70           460             John Granville

3          Stirling Castle                          70           460             Anthony Hastings


Rear Division

3          York                                           60           340             Thomas Hopson

3          Suffolk                                       70           460             Wolfran Cornwall

3          Hampton Court                         70           460             John Layton

2          Duchess                                    90           660         Rear-Adm. George Rooke /Capt. Thomas Gillam

fs              Hound                                     8              45             Thomas Fowlis

fs              Spy                                         8              45             Frederick Weighman

3          Hope                                          70           460             George Byng

3          Restoration                              70           460             William Botham


Blue Squadron (rear) – undivided

3          Anne                                           70           460             John Tyrrell

fs              Fox                                           8              45             William Stone

fs              Thomas & Elizabeth                10             40             Thomas Marshall

4          Bonaventure                               48           230             John Hubbard

3          Edgar                                          72           445             John Jennifer

3          Exeter                                         70           460             George Meese

3          Breda                                          70           460             Matthew Tennant

1          St. Andrew                                  96           730             Robert Dorrell

fs              Charles                                    6              25             Anthony Roope

1          Coronation                              90           660             Rear-Adm. Sir Ralph Delavall /

Capt. John Munden

fs              Griffin                                      8              45             Peregrine Clifford Chamberlain

fs              Hawk                                       8              45             William Harman

2          Royal Katherine                         84           540             Matthew Aylmer

fs              Cygnet                                   10             40             Robert Wilmot

3          Cambridge                                  70           420             Simon Foulks

3          Berwick                                      70           460             Henry Martin

4          Swallow                                     48           230             Benjamin Walters

3          Defiance                                     64           400             John Graydon

fs              Hunter                                     8              45             Thomas Kercher

fs              Cadiz Merchant                     12             45             David Greenhill

3          Captain                                      70           460             Daniel Jones



Light Frigates – not in line, stations unknown

5               Portsmouth                         32           135             Francis Wyvell

5               Milford                                  32           135             Charles Hawkins

5               Garland                                 30           130             Thomas Robinson

6               Sally Rose                             22             80             Thomas Gardner

6               Saudadoes                           16             75             Roger Newton

6               Fubbs yacht                         12             40             John Guy

6               Salamander bomb               10             35             William Martin


Hospital Ship

5               Concord                                  –               –             Ralph Crow



 I wish to thank James Bender and Carl Stapel for helping to fill out details of the Dutch squadron, and Richard Endsor for photographing numerous documents in the National Archives and for his painting that accompanies the blog.  Dr Peter Le Fevre kindly supplied other useful documents.







I’m delighted to welcome Frank Fox as my guest blogger, both this week and next!

Frank’s name will be well known to many students and readers of naval history. A former Supply Officer in the US Navy, he is the author of two of the most important books about late 17th century naval history, Great Ships: The Battlefleet of King Charles II (1980) and The Four Days Battle of 1666 (2009, originally published as A Distant Storm in 1996). The latter describes the subject of the forthcoming Quinton novel, The Battle of All The Ages, and was one of my principal research sources for it. Frank is currently working on aspects of the Battle of Beachy Head, one of the most controversial engagements of the age of sail, and this week, he presents important new evidence about the French fleet at the battle. The revised listings of the Anglo-Dutch fleet will follow next week. So over to Frank!


Many thanks to J D Davies for making his site available.  The Battle of Beachy Head, fought on 30 June 1690 by the English calendar, was a victory achieved by a great French fleet over a rather smaller combined English and Dutch fleet.  While studying this engagement for its possible archaeological relevance for a shipwreck site on the British coast (for which more will soon be forthcoming here), I found that the published fleet lists for the battle are not fully satisfactory.  Whether from French, Dutch, or British sources, all are incomplete and some contain demonstrable mistakes.  The lists offered here present more detailed information, though unknowns still remain.

Contemporary illustration of the Battle of Beachy Head, 30 June 1690 (known to the French as Beveziers)

Contemporary illustration of the Battle of Beachy Head, 30 June 1690 (known to the French as Beveziers)

The French fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Anne Hilarion de Cotentin, Comte de Tourville, has been best known from a list in Léon Guérin, Histoire Maritime de France (1851), v. 3, pp. 449-453.  This was accepted by the most frequently cited British authority, William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy, A History from the Earliest Times to the Present (1898), v. 2, p. 335.  Regrettably, Guérin and Clowes omit two ships, reverse the stations of two others as compared with other lists, give improbable numbers of guns for two vessels, and do not indicate the stations of fireships and light frigates.  A less known list in Eugène Sue, Histoire de la Marine Française (1856), v. 4, pp. 557-558, shows the complete order of battle including stations of the fireships and light frigates.  Sue does not give men and guns, but these appear in other sources.  First, there is a list in the Dutch newspaper Hollandsche Mercurius from July 1690, pp. 195-197.  It was drawn up a little before the final order of battle was adopted, and thus gives a different order of fighting and includes several vessels which were eventually left behind with a squadron of galleys.  It does, however, offer plausible armament figures.  Second, a panoramic drawing of the battle in the French archives is reproduced in Charles De La Roncière, Histoire de la Marine Française (1900), v. 6, following p. 72.  It marks each ship with a number corresponding to a keyed handwritten fleet list including men and guns.  Unlike other sources, this one gives what appear in many cases to be actual numbers of men aboard instead of merely rounded complements.  For better or worse, they are accordingly used in the list below.  A few are hard to read due to unlucky ink blots, hence the occasional question mark.  Guérin allots all fireships 30 men, which uniformity seems unlikely, but there is no other source.

Many authorities have remarked on the baffling inconsistencies in numbers of guns listed for the French ships in the various sources for this battle.  As these appear unresolvable, I have given the highest and lowest numbers of guns for each vessel as they appear in Hollandsche Mercurius, Guérin, and the drawing in La Roncière.  Wildly inaccurate figures for two ships reported by Guérin (80 guns for the third-rate Le Marquis and only 58 for the first-rate La Couronne) have been disregarded, as have two clear mistakes in Hollandsche Mercurius (only 46 guns for the second-rate Le Pompeux and 80 guns for the third-rate Le Hardy).  The results agree well with the armament ranges in Pierre Le Conte, Lists of Men-of-War 1650-1700, Part II, French Ships, 1648-1700 (Society for Nautical Research Occasional Publication no. 5, 1935).  The only vessel for which the variation still seemed excessive is Château-Renault’s flagship Le Dauphin-Royal, for which the armament in the three sources is given as 90, 100, and 110 guns.  The largest figure (from Guérin) is questionable in that Tourville insisted on mounting rather fewer than the specified 110 guns in his own Le Soleil-Royal, which was considerably larger and vastly more strongly manned than Château-Renault’s ship.  And, a report printed in Guérin, v. 3, pp. 313-316, written from the fleet five days after the battle by Cartigny, Commissionaire and Inspecteur Général de la Marine, gives the armament of Le Dauphin-Royal as 100 guns.  For the present, it must be left for French researchers to settle this matter.

The line included seventy ships.  Excluded from the line were five light frigates and eighteen fireships. The fleet was organized into three squadrons of three divisions each, but the available sources do not show the boundaries between divisions.  The French flags are recorded in an English source:  a meticulous listing in the log of Captain Sir Francis Wheeler of the English ship Albemarle (The National Archives of Great Britain [NA], ADM 51/55).  Each squadron commander, in the centre division, flew a rectangular flag at the fore (including Tourville).  The second-in-command of each squadron (the functional vice-admiral regardless of titular rank) flew a rectangular flag at the mizzen, and the third-in-command (the functional contre-admiral or rear-admiral) flew a swallow-tailed ‘cornette’ at the mizzen.  The command flags in the Avant-garde (Van Squadron) were blue, those in the Corps de Bataille (Centre Squadron) were white, and those in the Arrière-garde (Rear Squadron) were bicolour white over blue.  In addition to the nine division commanders, the French placed a junior flag officer (chef d’escadre – abbreviated ‘CdE’ below) at the very head and tail of the line.  These flew special pendants at the mizzen peak (the tip of the diagonal mizzen yard), the only ships in the fleet with pendants (though Tourville’s ‘seconds’ stationed immediately before and abaft him were also chefs d’escadre).  In all ships, jacks and ensigns were white.  The flag arrangements were rather different from those specified by the current Ordonnance, which apparently had not anticipated fleets of such great size.

In the list below, the division commanders and their flagships are in bold type.  In the RATE column, the five fourth-rate light frigates not in the line are identified as ‘4F’.  Their names are indented showing their approximate stations on the unengaged side of the fleet.  Fireships are designated by ‘fs’ in the RATE column and their names are double-indented.  All the flag-officers including the junior chefs d’escadre each evidently had at least one fireship under his control.  The eight ships indicated as ‘Répétiteurs’ were designated signal repeaters.  There is some controversy about this, since the Chevalier de Forbin-Gardane claimed later in his Memoirs of the Count de Forbin (London, 1731), p. 277, to have been among the répétiteurs, but Sue’s list allots this honour to Forbin’s next-ahead, the Chevalier de la Rongère.

The rates for ships in the French navy of the 1690s did not correspond to English rates.  The three-decked French first-rates included all of what the English would have counted as first- and second-rates.  French second-rates roughly equated to large English third-rates, and French third-rates were about the same size and force as the small English third-rates and large fourth-rates.

Some details in the list below still remain wanting.  I was unable to find the forenames of most of the captains, and have accordingly omitted them all.  I was able to identify only three flag-captains, as shown below.  Finally, French proper names in the seventeenth century were often rendered in a variety of phonetic spellings.  To those who disapprove of the versions adopted here, I cheerfully apologize.

RATE       SHIP                       GUNS        MEN             COMMANDER

Avant-garde (Van Squadron)

2          Le Fier                          68-72         515             CdE De Relingues

fs                   L’Hameçon                6            30            Deslauriers

3          Le Fort                          52-60         365            De Lartelloire

4          Le Maure                       52-54         282            Chev. La Galissonnière

2          L’Éclantant                     64-68         441            De Septesmes

1          Le Conquérant             70-74         588           Lt-Gén. Marq. de Villette-Mursay / Capt. de La Roche-Allard

fs                   Le Fanfaron              10           30             La Serre

2          Le Courtisan                  62-66         400             De Pointis

4          L’Indien                        44-50         250             De Roussel

4F             Le Solide                  42-48         250             De Ferville

4          Le Trident                     46-52         282             De Riberet

3          Le Hardy (Répétiteur)     56-58         350             Comte des Gouttes

3          Le Saint-Louis                56-58         362             La Roque-Percin

3          L’Excellent                     56-60         351             Chev. de Montbron

2          Le Pompeux                   72-74         460             D’Aligre

fs              La Branche d’Olivier        6            30             Moreau

1          Le Dauphin-Royal       90-110          705       Lt-Gén. Château-Renault / Capt. Delcampe

fs                   L’Impudent               10           30             Origène Marchand

fs                   Le Déguisé                4            30             De Lalande

3          L’Ardent                        62-66          364             D’Infreville

3          Le Bon                          52-56         315?           Chev. de Digoine du Palais

3          Le Précieux                        54         330             De Périnet

3          L’Aquilon (Répétiteur)     52-54         350?           De Beaugeais

4F             L’Alcion                     40-44         150             Jean-Bart

3          Le Fendant                     52-58         340?           La Vigerie

3          Le Courageux                     60         365             De Sévigny

1          La Couronne                72-78         517         CdE Marquis de Langeron

fs                   Le Dur                      10           30             De Longchamps

3          Le Ferme                       54-60         358             De Vandricourt

3          Le Téméraire                 52-58         343             De Rivault-Huet

4F             L’Éole                       46-50         250             Du Tast



Corps de Bataille (Centre Squadron)

3          Le Brusque (Répétiteur)  50-56         314             De Ricours

3          L’Arrogant                      54-60         362             Chev. des Adrets

4          L’Arc-en-Ciel                   44-46         272             Chev. de Sainte-Maure

2          L’Henri                           62-66         390             D’Amblimont

1          Le Souverain                80-84         588          CdE De Nesmond / Capt. d’Aire

fs                   Le Périlleux               10           30             Monnier

3          Le Brillant                      58-66         480             De Beaujeu

4          Le Neptune                         46         240             De Forbin

3          Le Sans-Pareil (Répétiteur)58-60       385             Chev. de La Rongère

3          Le Fidèle                         46-56        242             Chev. de Forbin-Gardane

3          Le Diamant                     54-56         355             De Serquigney

2          Le Sérieux                      56-64         324             Chev. de Bellefontaine

2          Le Tonnant                     70-72         515             CdE Marquis de La Porte

fs                   L’Espion                    10           30             Drognon-Terras

1          Le Soleil-Royal           98-104          904        Vice-Adm. Comte de Tourville

fs                   L’Insensé                  10           30             Cadeneau

4F             Le Faucon                      44             –             De Montbault

1          Le Saint-Philippe                  80         525             CdE Chev. de Coëtlogon

fs                   La Jolie                     10           30             Naudy

3          Le Marquis                      58-60         343        Chev. de Château-Morand

3          Le Furieux                       58-60         365             Desnots

3          La Fortuné (Répétiteur)    58-60         368             Pallas

3          L’Apollon                         56-58         365             Bidault

3          Le Saint-Michel                54-58         348             De Villars

3          L’Entreprenant                 56-60         365             De Sébeville

1          Le Magnifique               76-80         590        Lt-Gén. Marquis d’Amfreville

fs                   La Bouffonne             10           30             Descourtis

fs                   Le Fâcheux                10           30             Verguin

2          Le Content                      56-60         390             Comte de Saint-Pierre

3          Le Vermandois                58-60         262             Du Challard

4          Le Cheval-Marin              40-46         252             Chev. d’Amfreville

3          Le Fougueux (Répétiteur)     58         368             De Saint-Marc



Arrière-garde (Rear Squadron)

4          Le Comte                       40-44         250         Marq. La Roche-Courbon-Blénac

3          Le Vigilant                      52-56         315             Chev. de Chalais

2          Le Parfait                       60-62         350             Machault

2          Le Triomphant             70-72         515             CdE Chev. de Flacourt

    fs                   L’Impertinent        6            30             Fremicourt

2          Le Bourbon                   58-62         350             D’Hervault

3          Le Duc                          48-52         305             Pallière

3          Le Vaillant                     48-54         350             Feuquières

3          Le Capable (Répétiteur)  50-54         250             La Boissière

3          Le Brave                       50-58         385             De Champigny

3          Le François                    44-46         262             Chev. d’Hailly

3          L’Agréable                     58-60         360             Le Motte

2          Le Florissant                  72-80         500             De Cogolin

fs                   La Diligente          6-10            30             Rolland

1          Le Grand                     80-86         660         Vice-Adm. Comte d’Estrées

fs                   Le Bout-de-Feu         6            30             Jean-Étienne

2          Le Belliqueux                72-74         515             Des Francs

fs                   Le Royal-Jacques 6-10            30             Perron

4F             Le Léger                       44         200             Du Rouvroy

3          Le Prince                      56-58         365             Baron des Adrets

3          Le Prudent                    52-58         234             Des Herbiers

3          Le Modéré (Répétiteur)       50         315             Des Augiers

3          Le Fleuron                    54-58         339             De Chabert

2          L’Aimable                     66-70         450             Du Magnon

1          L’Intrépide                 80-84         600             Lt-Gén. Gabaret

fs                   La Maligny          6-10            30             De Reussy

2          Le Glorieux                  60-62         392             Belle-Isle Érard

2          L’Illustre                      66-70         472             Chev. de Rosmadec

2          Le Terrible                   72-74         515             CdE Pannetié

fs                   L’Extravagant         10           30             Longchamps-Montendre







(Please scroll down to the very bottom for a very important announcement about forthcoming posts! Meanwhile…)

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Britain seems to have gone overboard for the World War One centenary, several months before the actual anniversaries begin. There have already been TV programmes and new projects galore, with many of the latter focusing on telling the untold stories of those who served. I have to confess that I have a few qualms about all of this. Will this very early start lead to ‘compassion fatigue’ or boredom well before 11 November 2018? Will the relentless, in-depth focus on World War I squeeze out the many other anniversaries on the horizon (such as the 75th anniversaries of World War Two, the 200th of Waterloo, the 600th of Agincourt, and the ones in which I take a particular interest, the 350th anniversaries of the second Anglo-Dutch war, the backdrop for the ‘Quinton Journals’)? On the other hand, the historian and ex-teacher in me can only applaud the principle of bringing previously unknown stories and sources into the light. So in that spirit, I’ll add one more previously untold story of World War One to our pooled body of knowledge: the story of my great-uncle, David Richard Jones.

Uncle Dai, as the family always called him, was born in 1887 in Lakefield Road, Llanelli (in the house where I spent the first three years of my life). He was the fifth of the seven children of my great-grandparents, David Jones and Elizabeth, née Lewis. My grandmother was the next child, less than two years younger, and the two of them were always close. By the time he was fourteen, Dai was apprenticed to a Llanelli ironmonger, but by 1907 he had moved to Aberavon, some twenty miles east, where he found work as the assistant to another ironmonger. Dai was apparently a quiet, religious man, always willing to help people, who loved the children in the wider family and was loved by them in return. On 5 September 1915, at Ebenezer Baptist Chapel, Aberavon, he married Emily Griffiths, a twenty-six year old local girl. Everything seemed set fair for them to have a happy family life together.

But in the summer of 1916, tragedy struck: after barely ten months of marriage, Emily died of tuberculosis. Less than a month later, on 23 August, and perhaps as a way of working through his grief, Dai enlisted in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He embarked at Folkestone on 23 March 1917, arriving at Boulogne on the following day. He was posted to the front as part of 284 Siege Battery, RGA, which took part in the notoriously bloody Battle of Passchendaele; the unit seems to have been equipped with 6-inch howitzers for much of 1917-18, so presumably Dai formed part of the crew manning one of those guns. (By coincidence, my grandmother was also making a contribution to the artillery war; she was one of the ‘Canaries’, the female workers drafted into the munitions factories, in her case the former Nobel works at Pembrey.)

Dai was home on leave from 8 to 22 July 1918. Just over a month after his return to the front line, on 29 August, his unit was camped at Froidmont, just outside Nesle, a village midway between Amiens and Saint-Quentin. That night, the Germans launched a sudden gas attack on the British positions. Dai was one of the casualties, although he did not die immediately. He was taken to 5 General Hospital at Rouen, one of the many British camps and hospitals in the city, and must have spent several days in agony. He eventually died on 3 September. Dai was buried in the huge military cemetery of Saint Sever, Rouen, where over 8,500 of his comrades-in-arms are commemorated in what is the second biggest British war cemetery after Tynecot at Ypres, covering some 49,885 square metres.


Uncle Dai's grave

Uncle Dai’s grave

I was always aware of the story of Uncle Dai; indeed, he was one of the reasons why I was named David. My grandmother lived with us until her death when I was fourteen, and she talked about him quite a lot. Thanks to her, too, various items relating to him have come down to me, including the letter sent to my great-grandmother by Dai’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Posgate, which fulsomely praised his qualities as a soldier. We also had the original documentation showing the location of the grave at Saint Sever. My grandmother always wanted to go to visit it, but never managed to do so. In 1995, though, I arranged to take my parents across for a few days in the area – the first time they had ever been abroad, although they were both around seventy at the time! Tracking down the cemetery using the 1920s map provided by the War Graves Commission proved an interesting exercise, given how much the road layout in Rouen had altered; we ended up driving round the city’s football stadium several times before finally finding the right place.

Like all of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites, Saint Sever is an immaculately maintained oasis of tranquility, although perhaps it lacks some of the poignancy of the cemeteries on the Western Front itself, surrounded entirely as it is by the bustling modern suburbs of Rouen. Standing in front of Uncle Dai’s headstone was a very emotional moment for my mother and myself; it really did feel as though we were finally saying goodbye on my grandmother’s behalf. I’ve been back to Saint Sever on a couple of occasions since, and one date is already cast in stone in my diary for 2018: 3 September, when I fully intend to go back to Uncle Dai’s grave on the centenary of his death, to pay tribute to his sacrifice and that of all those who fell during the war.

Saint Sever cemetery, Rouen

Saint Sever cemetery, Rouen

I’m delighted to announce that the next two posts will be very special indeed: they mark the blogging debut of Frank Fox, one of the most eminent Seventeenth Century naval historians, author of the absolutely seminal works Great Ships: The Battlefleet of King Charles II and The Four Days Battle of 1666. Frank will be presenting fully revised fleet lists for the important and controversial Battle of Beachy Head (1690), based on extensive original research. These will be as definitive as it is currently possible to be, correcting many mistakes and misconceptions in previous works, so they will be absolutely essential for serious students of naval history and for those who are interested in the period. The lists will be split over two weeks, with the French fleet next week and the Anglo-Dutch fleet in a fortnight’s time.

‘Nothing!’ cries an enraged legion of museum curators, their spectacles quivering with righteous fury. ‘Nothing at all, you idle coffee-addicted scribblers of words that nobody wants to read! Adverbs, in particular.’

But hear me out.

In a way, we’re both in the same business. We’re both story tellers. We’re both trying to get ‘ordinary people’ (sic) interested in the lives and experiences of others, or in a particular culture or moment in time, or in a lost way of doing things, or in the history of a special place, or in a combination of all of those. If I’m right about this, then surely it means there should be a certain crossover in the way that we go about our business: in a nutshell, a good book and a good museum should have a great deal in common. But that’s plainly not always the case, and it certainly isn’t the case with the new Vikings exhibition at the British Museum, which we visited last Friday (its second day of public opening).


That single word tells us the British Museum should be onto a sure-fire winner, with an absolutely knockout story to tell. But it blows the opportunity spectacularly, principally because it ignores the basic rules that should underpin the telling of any story; basics which every writer worth his or her salt will, or should, take for granted in their own work, but which, for some reason, some museum curators seem to ignore entirely in theirs.

Politically incorrect

Politically incorrect

1/ Start with a bang. Or, to put it another way, ‘impact, impact, impact’. Every writer reading this blog will know the importance of a strong opening – a powerful first sentence, first paragraph, first page, first chapter – either because it’s something your creative writing tutor /agent/ editor/ publisher has drummed into you, or because it was an instinctive part of your writing to begin with. Grip your audience. Convince them from the very start that this is a fascinating story which they really want to follow. Note to the British Museum: Having the very first display case containing precisely one brooch is not ‘starting with a bang’. Recorded voices speaking in old Norse on a continuous loop do not constitute ‘impact’.

2/ Keep your audience’s attention and sympathy. Absolutely vital for all writers. You want your readers to find the story gripping, the characters sympathetic (or interesting, at the very least). You want them to decide that this is a journey they want to lap up every part of; that they want to keep going to the very end. Note to the British Museum: You do not get your audience’s sympathy by immediately funnelling everybody into a narrow, dark, dog-leg gallery, with effectively only one bank of exhibits. As a result, people’s first impressions of the exhibition are of a vast logjam, with a huge queue shuffling slowly forward, and with very little to look at for ages – partly because there’s relatively little in the first few display cases, partly because most of them contain beads. Nice beads, admittedly, but still beads. OK, yes, we know you’re on a mission to convince people that the Vikings were cuddly bunnies who liked trade and were skilled craftsmen, and not blood-crazed maniacs in horned helmets, but would it really have hurt to have just one sword near the beginning…just one helmet (even without horns)…just one atrocity story? And just a bit more space, perhaps, with a more flexible layout, so that everybody wouldn’t effectively need to stay in one stationary line, several deep?  As a result, several people in our hearing were asking the staff on duty about how they could complain formally when they were barely 10 feet into the exhibition space. Many others were bypassing the first half of the exhibition entirely, once word got out that there was more space – not to mention swords and helmets – later on.



3/ Drive the story forward. Keep the narrative moving. Build up to dramatic climaxes that leave the readers wanting to turn over to the next page, or move on to the next chapter. Note to the British Museum: Driving the story forward means you have a story to begin with. I know it’s very cutting-edge to reject narrative and go for a thematic approach instead; there’s nothing innately wrong with that, and, indeed, I’ve often done it myself in my non-fiction work. But leaving all of what I suspect most people will consider to be the best bits to the very end (see below) is neither cutting-edge nor clever – especially when that pesky queue still isn’t moving, people are still complaining, and absolutely nothing at all, least of all the audience, is being driven forward in any shape or form. 

4/ Raise your audience’s expectations, and then fulfil them. Your audience comes to your work with certain expectations. They know the genre. They have an idea of what to expect, perhaps from the cover blurb, perhaps from reading your previous work, perhaps because they want to discover something fresh and different. It’s vital that you fulfil your audience’s expectations, rather than creating something self-indulgent and overly introspective. Note to the British Museum: Swords. Helmets. Atrocities. OK, you might want to disprove that myth – but surely the best way of doing so is to confront the myth head on, at the beginning of the exhibition, and not ignore it entirely, relying instead on the smug assumption that you know much better than your audience? Of course, I’m just one lone voice, and can thus be easily disregarded. But I’ve spent the last 30+ years dispelling myths about 17th century naval history, so I think I’ve developed a reasonable idea of how to tackle that sort of mission effectively…and as for being a lone voice, I see that both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph are taking pretty much the same line as me. (‘Like watching The Killing in Stansted Airport’ – genius, Mark Hudson of the Telegraph, sheer genius.) And let’s face it, if those two are on the same side, things really must be pretty serious.  

No. Just no. (Horned helmets? Myth, not to mention a health and safety issue.)

No. Just no.
(Horned helmets? Myth, not to mention a health and safety issue.)

5/ Move from the general to the specific. This is one of the guiding principles of writing non-fiction, although it doesn’t necessarily hold true in every single case. Even so, the principle of setting the scene, giving the audience a clear sense of the context, and then moving into detail – say, into such themes as religion, warfare and home life (yes, even beads) – is a sound one, especially as it also applies in the profession that provided my ‘day job’ for thirty years, namely teaching. And if you don’t buy my comparison between writing and museum curating, I hope you’ll at least accept that the latter has a great deal in common with teaching, especially as museums are often major teaching resources in their own right. Note to the British Museum:  Starting with a few domestic items and some Old Norse voices certainly doesn’t constitute moving from the general to the specific. Yes, you have some pieces of explanatory text around, but these are ridiculously brief – and, worse, they tend to be either very high up on the walls or very low down, and thus often completely inaccessible because of the crush. This isn’t trendy minimalism; ignoring such a basic requirement as providing straightforward lines of sight to important information is simply crass, and something that the greenest student on his or her first teaching practice would be able to sort out much more competently. (Or are you assuming that everyone will have one of those neat little interactive handsets your staff are so keen to give out? The same handsets that contribute further to the logjam by ensuring that the people with them all stop dead in exactly the same places to listen to the commentary? Those handsets?)

Now that's what I call a Viking ship! (Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Shetland, January 2013)

Now that’s what I call a Viking ship!
(Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Shetland, January 2013)

6/ End with a bang. Self-explanatory, really, and the one and only point on which the Vikings exhibition scores. Finally, you emerge from the logjammed dog-leg into a huge hall containing swords and helmets galore, not to mention stunning religious artefacts and a few examples of some of my favourite artefacts of any sort, the delightful Lewis Chessmen. The centrepiece, though, is the enormous steel skeleton containing the surviving timbers of ‘Roskilde 6′, the biggest Viking ship ever discovered. Even this is not quite as impressive as the curators probably hoped, though: at the end of the day, there’s much more steel frame than there is timber. Dare one suggest that bringing in a rather smaller hull, but a more complete one, would actually have had a greater impact?

All in all, then, a missed opportunity by the British Museum, and arguably the latest in a series of seriously misconceived decisions at that institution (witness its cavalier treatment for a decade or more of what should be one of its greatest assets and attractions, the Round Reading Room). If its curatorial team want an example of how to stage an exhibition that at once challenges audience preconceptions, presents radical new revisionist interpretations of supposedly familiar subject matter, and yet succeeds triumphantly in fulfilling all six of the basics I’ve set out above, then perhaps they should catch one of the fast boats down to Greenwich and take a look at the new Nelson, Navy and Nation gallery at the National Maritime Museum. But somehow, I doubt if they will.

Battle for All 1I’m delighted to be able to headline this week’s post by revealing the cover of the new Quinton novel, The Battle of All The Ages, which is number five in the series and is due to be published in the UK in June. Thanks to my publishers, Old Street, for doing such a tremendous job, and to Conn Iggulden for providing such a generous blurb. Our original contact was entirely unsolicited, as it turns out he’s a big fan of the series!

The cover art is Abraham Storck’s painting of the Four Days Battle of 1666, which forms the centrepiece of the book. Storck’s painting is held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and full details of it can be found on the museum’s website. The section shown on the cover shows De Zeven Provincien, the flagship of the great Dutch admiral, Michiel Adrianszoon De Ruyter, and the Royal Prince, flagship of Admiral Sir George Ayscue. The latter is aground on the Galloper Sand and will soon surrender; Ayscue remains the only British flag-officer to surrender in battle, and the loss of the Prince caused a sense of national shock that has been compared to the loss of HMS Hood in 1941.

The Four Days Battle followed a controversial decision to divide the British fleet. As I wrote in Pepys’s Navy:

In January 1666 France…declared war to fulfil long-avoided treaty obligations to the Dutch. The command of the British fleet for the 1666 campaign was given jointly to Prince Rupert and George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, but at the end of May they divided their fleet, with Rupert sailing off to the west to intercept a French fleet that was believed to be approaching British waters. The intelligence proved false, and on 1 June Albemarle found himself with 56 ships, facing the Dutch fleet of 86 under the brilliant Michiel De Ruyter off the North Foreland. The ‘Four Days’ Battle’ that followed was one of the great epics of the age of sail. Rupert rejoined on the third day with 25 ships, but after another day of fighting, the British fleet was forced to retire, having lost three admirals captured or killed…several thousand men, and ten ships, including the great Royal Prince.

Matthew Quinton and his ship are at the heart of the action, and as well as dealing with a superior Dutch enemy, he has to contend with problems among his own crew – notably the tensions between the seamen and the newly created Marine Regiment (the precursors of the Royal Marines), and the presence of an eccentric and unpredictable character with a special connection to the King. During four days of ferocious fighting, Matthew and his friends – the likes of Lieutenant Kit Farrell, the Reverend Francis Gale and Phineas Musk – are tested to their utmost limits.

In the second part of the book, Matthew is sent by the King on a dangerous mission to discover the truth about why the fleet was divided; was it treachery, incompetence or simple bad luck? In doing so, he finds himself regarded as an enemy in his own land, in a place with strong residual loyalties to the fallen Commonwealth; is forced to denounce a friend; and battles a mysterious enemy, the so-called Hell Hound. All the while, his thoughts are torn between these immediate dangers and developments far away, notably his wife’s sickness and the frantic efforts to repair the fleet so it can sail out again to gain revenge on the Dutch. The book culminates in the second great sea-battle of the summer of 1666, the St James Day fight, before Matthew finally confronts the real and unsettling truths about the division of the fleet.

As usual, The Battle of All The Ages is based closely on real events, particularly during the battle scenes, and a host of real historical characters make an appearance. These include King Charles II, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, General George Monck, the famous Dutch admirals De Ruyter and Evertsen, their British counterparts Sir Christopher Myngs and Sir Robert Holmes, and the notorious Restoration rake, the Earl of Rochester. Action at sea, intrigue, Restoration poetry, and a foul-tempered monkey – what’s not to like? And if you fancy a sneak preview, the first chapter will be available on my website in the near future!

It’s nice to be back after a break of a few weeks, during which I’ve made great progress on ‘Quinton 6′ – nearly 30,000 words written already! It’s been quite an eventful time, too. I gave a talk at the Nelson Museum in Monmouth, which is a wonderful place and should be a ‘must’ for anybody interested in Nelson and/or naval history in general, and was interviewed about Britannia’s Dragon on BBC Radio Wales’s Roy Noble show, an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Anyway, back to business, and today (24 February) is the anniversary of the surrender of the French ‘Black Legion’ at Fishguard in 1797, marking the end of the last invasion of Britain. ‘Last invasions’ have been in the news recently, with Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court, no less, arguing that one of the reasons why Britain is so semi-detached from, and suspicious of, the European Union, is because there has been no ‘true invasion’ and foreign occupation since 1066. Now, I have no doubt that the noble m’lud is an exceptionally competent lawyer, but he really should leave the history to people who know what they’re talking about. As Nicholas Rodger notes in The Safeguard of the Sea, England has been invaded, and the government overthrown, on no fewer than seven (debatably eight) occasions since 1066. There are still plenty of people who see the expedition of William of Orange in 1688 as a just crusade organised from within England – hence the very notion of ‘the Glorious Revolution’. About twenty years ago, I gave a lecture to the Royal Stuart Society and suggested that 1688 was actually a Dutch invasion. I was berated afterwards by a lady who was most upset at any suggestion that it was anything other than a truly ‘glorious’ step on the inevitable path to parliamentary democracy (aka ‘the Whig interpretation of history’). Since then, though, mighty tomes by the likes of Lisa Jardine and Edward Vallance have presented a more detailed view of 1688 as a Dutch conquest, given a fig-leaf of legitimacy by the ‘letter of invitation’ from seven completely unrepresentative individuals acting unconstitutionally – in other words, arguably the same level of legitimacy one could accord to the ‘invitation’ to take over Kuwait issued to Saddam Hussein in 1991 by a small clique in that country. William came with 463 ships, including 49 warships, all of which were Dutch (albeit with an immoral, drunken Welsh admiral in nominal command) and 40,000 men, mostly Dutch but also including some English and Scots units, as well as Huguenots, Germans, Swiss, Swedes, and ‘even a unit of Laplanders’, as Rodger notes. Preserving Protestantism in Britain was relatively incidental to William’s main purpose, which was to secure its support (and, above all, its navy) for his forthcoming war with Louis XIV’s France; and, famously, he also had the overt support of the Pope. So all in all, if 1688 wasn’t an invasion, I don’t know what is; and with that, I rest my case, m’lud.

But back to Fishguard, which was most certainly an invasion, even though Colonel Tate’s ‘Black Legion’ found it difficult enough to conquer a few small Welsh farms, let alone the entire country. When I was working on Britannia’s Dragon, I came across the previously untold story of the naval side of the invasion, so to mark the anniversary, here’s the relevant extract from the book, with additional commentary in italics (anyone wanting to check my sources will need to buy the book!):

The story of the French landing at Fishguard in February 1797 is relatively well known, and needs no detailed repetition here. In December 1796, an expedition under General Lazare Hoche and the Irish nationalist leader Wolfe Tone arrived in Bantry Bay, but was unable to land due to atrocious weather. Hoche had also envisaged two supporting diversionary expeditions, one to the north-east of England and one to the south-west. The latter was to attack Bristol or else land on the west Welsh coast, disrupting commerce, diverting British forces, and, it was hoped, encouraging the local peasantry to rise enthusiastically in the cause of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Despite the failure of the Bantry invasion and the cancellation of the raid on the north-east due to bad weather, this one remaining French expedition went ahead. It was commanded by a wealthy Irish-American landowner, William Tate, a close friend of Wolfe Tone who had served as an officer in the Fifth South Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army during the American War of Independence. Tate’s force consisted of about 1,200 men, many of whom were former prisoners, with several Irishmen among the officers. The very dark brown die used for their uniforms gave them their nickname, La Legion Noir, the Black Legion. Transporting them into Welsh waters was a squadron of four ships under Commodore Jean-Joseph Castagnier. He had two large and new frigates, Le Vengeance and La Resistance, the latter being on her maiden voyage, together with the corvette La Constance and a lugger. Flying Russian colours, Castagnier’s squadron left Brest on 16 February 1797 and attempted to make for Bristol, but adverse winds forced the French to abandon their principal target and make instead for their secondary objective, Cardigan Bay.

Fishguard fort, completed in 1781 following the bombardment of the port by the US privateer Black Prince in 1779

Fishguard fort, completed in 1781 following the bombardment of the port by the US privateer Black Prince in 1779

At noon on Wednesday 22 February, the French rounded St David’s Head, now flying British colours. These did not fool the eagle-eyed Thomas Williams of Trelythin, a retired naval seaman who recognised the approaching ships for what they were and raised the alarm. At four that afternoon the French anchored off Carreg Wastad Point, three miles west of Fishguard, and began to disembark. The lugger sailed into Fishguard Bay to reconnoitre the town, but Fishguard Fort opened fire and the French vessel withdrew in alarm. However, the sloop Britannia strayed unwittingly into the middle of the invasion fleet and was captured. Meanwhile the local defence forces began to mobilise, first the Fishguard and Newport Volunteer Infantry, then the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry under Lord Cawdor, which fortuitously was mustered for a funeral that day (albeit at Castlemartin, some thirty miles away as the crow flies). Captain Edward Longcroft, the navy’s regulating officer at Haverfordwest, committed about 150 sailors drawn from his press gangs and the local revenue cutters, one of which, the Speedwell, had allegedly encountered the French squadron prior to the landing. Cannon were brought ashore from the revenue cutters to reinforce both the defences of Haverfordwest and Lord Cawdor’s little army. That force, reinforced by the local volunteers falling back in the face of the superior French numbers, totalled some six hundred men by the time it reached Fishguard in the evening of the twenty-third, but plans for an immediate attack had to be abandoned due to the difficulty of manoeuvring in the darkness. However, morale in the French ranks was crumbling rapidly, despite their great superiority in numbers, partly because of the departure of the reassuring presence of Castagnier’s ships, which sailed to harry trade off Dublin. According to one of the great Welsh legends, the French loss of nerve was abetted by the appearance of large numbers of local womenfolk wearing traditional dress of red shawls and black hats, which the jittery Black Legion spied from a distance and assumed to be the uniforms of a vastly superior regiment of the regular British army. The French asked for terms, but Cawdor would accept only unconditional surrender. Tate finally agreed to this in the afternoon of 24 February, and the last invaders of Britain surrendered ignominiously on the sands of Goodwick Bay.

The Royal Oak in Fishguard, where the surrender terms were signed

The Royal Oak in Fishguard, where the surrender terms were signed

[Recent research indicates that the legend of the Welsh women has a lot more substance than was once assumed. See the excellent article by Richard Rose in the Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmorodorion, which is fully and freely accessible online.]

One aspect of the Fishguard invasion that has been almost entirely neglected in previous accounts is the Royal Navy’s response, which can only be described as a catalogue of confusion. The French were able to land partly because of a disastrous intelligence failure at the Admiralty and in the government as a whole, which was convinced that any French assault would be directed either at Ireland once again or else at some place on the east coast of England. (The main body of the Pembrokeshire Militia was in Felixstowe, not Fishguard, as the former was felt to be a much more likely target of a French invasion.) In any case, February was hardly a likely time for any invasion to take place, and the navy had relatively few ships at sea. Consequently, the Admiralty’s first response to reports of the Fishguard landing was sceptical and tentative. On 24 February it sent sailing orders to its most famous and successful captain, Sir Edward Pellew of the powerful frigate Indefatigable, both still basking in the glory of their stunning victory off the Breton coast five weeks earlier when Indefatigable and another frigate had destroyed the French ship-of-the-line Droits de l’Homme. At first Pellew, with Indefatigable and two smaller frigates under his command, was directed into the Bristol Channel. On the twenty-fifth, though, with financial panic taking hold in the City of London, the Admiralty countermanded this and ordered Pellew to sail instead for Brest, changing its mind again on 2 March when it ordered him to cruise off Worm’s Head & thereabouts ‘for the protection of the trade and annoyance of the enemy, intelligence having been received that they have seven frigates on that part of the coast’; but if they had left, he was to proceed ‘and sweep round the coast of South Wales in quest of three French frigates which landed a body of troops at Fishguard the 22nd ulto.’ These orders must have caught up with Pellew when he was already at sea, for he had finally sailed from Plymouth on 2 March, almost a week after the French surrendered. On the sixth and seventh Indefatigable cruised off St Ann’s Head, and on the eighth she was four miles off Strumble Head, but it was clear that the emergency was long over. Pellew’s squadron rounded Lands End again on the tenth and anchored in Carrick Roads at Falmouth on the fourteenth.

Carregwastad Point, where the French landed

Carregwastad Point, where the French landed

However, Pellew’s cruise was not the sole naval response to the Fishguard invasion. On 22 February the navy’s regulating officer at Haverfordwest, Captain Edward Longcroft, placed an urgent letter aboard the Valiant lugger, addressed to Vice-Admiral Robert Kingsmill, commanding the Cork station and flying his flag in HMS Polyphemus (or, as the lower deck called her, the ‘Polly Infamous’). Longcroft announced the landing of the French and that every effort was being made to oppose them, despite the fact ‘we have not one man of war in the harbour’; in evident panic, he pleaded that ‘as the enemy are making a landing fifteen miles from this place, I request you must sail instantly’. Kingsmill, an elderly and hugely experienced officer, ordered the Valiant back to sea to reconnoitre, but at first he, too, was sceptical; fishing vessels were coming into Cork from the Welsh coast averring that they knew nothing of a French landing, and Kingsmill believed that any appearance by French ships had to be a feint to conceal an attack elsewhere. On 27 February Kingsmill received certain intelligence that there really were French ships in the Irish Sea and that they were now said to be near Wicklow Head. Although he was still convinced that Ireland must be their principal target, Kingsmill finally ordered to sea a powerful squadron commanded by Captain Michael de Courcey in the 44-gun frigate Magnanimous, accompanied by the Doris, Romney, Penguin and a cutter, but this was really a case of bolting stable doors, as de Courcey’s squadron failed completely to intercept Castagnier’s ships. However, the hasty naval response to the French invasion achieved a belated but spectacular success on 9 March when two of the ships that had landed the invading force at Fishguard, the frigate La Resistance and the corvette La Constance, were captured by HM ships Nymphe and San Fiorenzo. The French ships had spent too long on the Irish coast and had been damaged by bad weather, although Commodore Castagnier himself successfully made it back to Brest in his other frigate, La Vengeance. La Resistance was taken into the Royal Navy and renamed Fisgard, the archaic version of the name that the Admiralty preferred to Fishguard. She was put into commission under Captain Thomas Byam Martin, who as Sir Thomas and Comptroller of the Navy from 1816 to 1831 would later be one of the principal movers in the creation of Pembroke Dock, Wales’s only royal dockyard. The Fisgard swiftly distinguished itself, capturing the frigate Immortalité in 1798 and later taking part in actions at Corunna, Curaçao and Walcheren. The name Fisgard would remain on the Navy List until 1983.

The hulks forming the training establishment HMS Fisgard at Portsmouth, c.1890s/1900s

The hulks forming the training establishment HMS Fisgard at Portsmouth, c.1890s/1900s


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