Admiral Robert Blake

Admiral Robert Blake (1599 - 1657) was one of Oliver Cromwell's most important commanders during the Commonwealth period of English history, and the most famous British Admiral until eclipsed by Horatio Nelson.

Born the son of a merchant in Bridgwater, Somerset, UK, he was a late starter, being elected to Parliament in 1640 and with no substantial experience of military or naval matters.

In Politics

In 1640 Blake was elected as the Member of Parliament for Bridgwater in the Short Parliament. When the English Civil War broke out during the period of the Long Parliament, Blake began his military career on the side of the parliamentarians.

He returned to serve in the Barebones Parliament 1653 for some months due to ill health, before returning to sea.

On Land

Blake's most famous explots on land were at the Siege of Bristol July 1643, Siege of Lyme April 1644, Siege of Taunton 1645 and the Siege of Dunster November 1645. At least at Dunster he was the besieger. At Taunton he famously declared that he had four pairs of boots and would eat three pairs before he would surrender.

At Sea

Blake was appointed Admiral in 1649 (strictly speaking General At Sea, which was then the name of the rank). He's often referred to as the "Father of the British Navy". As well as being largely responsible for building the largest navy the country had then ever known, from a few tens of ships to well over 100, he was first to keep a fleet at sea over the winter. He developed new techniques to conduct blockades and landings, writing 'Fighting Instructions', a major overhaul of naval tactics, while recovering from injury, in 1653. He was also the first to repeatedly successfully attack despite fire from shore forts.

English Civil War

On January 11 1649 Prince Rupert of the Rhine lead 8 undermanned ships to Kinsale in Ireland in an attempt to prevent the Parliamentarians taking Ireland from the Royalists. Blake blockaded Rupert's fleet in Kinsale from May 22, allowing Oliver Cromwell to land at Dublin on August 15. Blake was driven off by a storm in October and Rupert escaped via Spain to Lisbon, where Rupert had expanded his fleet to 13 ships. Blake put to sea with 12 ships in February 1650 and dropped anchor off Lisbon in an attempt to persuade the Portuguese king to expel Rupert. After 2 months the king decided to back Rupert. Blake was joined by another 4 warships commanded by Popham, who brought authority to go to war with Portugal.

Rupert twice failed to break the blockade, which was finally raised after Blake sailed for Cadiz with 7 ships he captured as a result of a three-hour engagement with 23 ships of the Portuguese fleet, during which the Portuguese Vice-Admiral was also sunk. Blake re-engaged with Rupert, now with 6 ships, on November 3 near Malaga, capturing 1 ship. Two days later the other of Rupert's ships in the area were driven ashore attempting to escape from Cartagena, securing Parliamentarian supremacy at sea, and the recognition of the Parliamentary government by many European states. Parliament voted Blake 1000 pounds by way of thanks in February 1651. Later the same year Blake captured the Isles of Scilly, for which he again received Parliament's thanks. Soon after he was made a member of the Council of State.

Thanks to its command of the sea, the fleet was able to supply Cromwell's army with provisions as it successfully marched on Scotland. By the end of 1652 the various English colonies in the Americas had also been secured.

First Anglo-Dutch War

Blake's next adventures were during the First Anglo-Dutch War. The war started prematurely with a skirmish between the Dutch fleet of Maarten Tromp and Blake off Folkestone on May 19 1652 - the Battle of Goodwin Sands. The war proper started in June with an English campaign against the Dutch East Indies, Baltic and fishing trades by Blake, in command of around 60 ships. On September 25 Dutch Vice-Admiral Witte de Witt, underestimating the strength of the English, attempted to attack Blake, but due to the weather it was Blake who attacked on the 28th - the Battle of the Kentish Knock - with de Witt retiring on the 30th. The English government seemed to think that the war was over, sending ships to the Mediterranean, and Blake had only 42 warships when he was attacked by 88 Dutch ships under Tromp on November 29, so losing the Battle of Dungeness and giving control of the English Channel, and later the Mediterranean to the Dutch.

Following a major reorganisation of the Navy, Blake sailed with around 75 ships to disrupt Channel shipping, engaging Tromp with a similar sized fleet in the Battle of Portland from February 18 to 20 when Tromp escaped with his convoy under cover of darkness.

At the Battle of Gabbard Shoal on June 2 to 3, 1653, Blake reinforced the ships of Generals Richard Deane and George Monck, where the Dutch fleet fled having lost 20 of 100 warships for no English losses - though Deane was killed. The Channel was at last returned to English control, and the Dutch fleet was blockaded in various ports until finally losing at the Battle of Scheveningen, where Tromp was killed.

Peace with the Dutch achieved, Blake sailed in October 1654 with 24 warships to the Mediterranean, successfully deterring the Duke of Guise from conquering Naples.

Bey of Tunis

In April 1655 Blake was sent to the Mediterranean again to extract compensation from the piratical states that had been attacking English shipping. The Bey of Tunis alone refused compensation, and with 15 ships Blake destroyed the his 2 shore batteries and 9 Algerian ships in Porto Farina, the first time shore batteries had been taken out without landing men ashore.

Anglo-Spanish War

In February 1656, commercial rivalry with Spain was soon turned to war. In the Anglo-Spanish War Blake blockaded Cadiz, during which one of his captains, Richard Stayner destroyed most of the Spanish Plate Fleet. A galleon of treasure was captured, and the overall loss to Spain was estimated at 2,000,000. Blake maintained the blockade throught the winter, the first time the fleet had stayed at sea over winter.

In 1657, Blake won against the Spanish West Indian Fleet over the English seizure of Jamaica in the West Indies. On April 20 that year, Blake totally destroyed a Spanish silver fleet of 16 ships at Santa Cruz Bay, Tenerife for the loss of one ship, and despite being under fire from shore batteries and attacking and withdrawing on the tide, an action for which Blake was given an expensive diamond ring by Cromwell.

Death

After again cruising off Cadiz for a while, Blake turned for home but died of old wounds within sight of Portsmouth and, after lying in state, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. After the restoration of the Monarchy at the end of the English Civil War his body was dumped in a common grave on the orders of the new king, Charles II.

Resources

Further details can be found at the Admiral Blake Museum, Bridgwater, (external Web link)

Ships

A series of ships in the Royal Navy have carried the name HMS Blake in honour of the Admiral.

See also


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