It’s not unreasonable, considering the sheer number of battlefields doted around the UK, to assume the English Civil War was a purely land-based conflict.
And while men such as Raleigh and Nelson rightly hold their places within the pantheon of British naval heroes, Robert Blake’s endeavours at sea on behalf of the English Commonwealth seem cruelly underappreciated, considering that he did so much to ensure that British sea power was feared and respected across the world.
A merchant’s son from Bridgwater in Somerset, Oxford-educated Blake was already a strong republican by the time he became an MP in 1640. When the First Civil War broke out, he commanded a company at Bristol, which was besieged by Prince Rupert in July 1643. Despite the garrison’s commander, Colonel Fiennes, surrendering to the Prince, Blake continued defending his nearby fort for another day, claiming that he had not received orders to give up. It is claimed that Rupert wanted to hang Blake for breaking the terms of the surrender, but he was persuaded not to.
It was a decision that Rupert would come to regret.
Blake gradually became a hero for Parliament’s cause in the West Country: he held Lyme in Dorset with just 500 men against a siege by Rupert’s brother, Prince Maurice; he led a daring raid on Taunton, a vital Royalist communications post, and held it for a year, despite three sieges.
After the first civil war was won, he avoided becoming embroiled in the struggles between the New Model Army and Parliament, and the Independents and Presbyterians. He escaped Pride’s Purge of Parliament in 1648, and was not involved in the execution of King Charles.
However, when the Commonwealth of England created the office of Lord High Admiral, Blake’s record and loyalty saw him appointed as one of the navy commissioners, or “generals-at-sea”.
It was now that Rupert’s mercy would come back to bite him. Since the King’s capture, the Prince had operated a squadron of privateers out of southern Ireland. But in May 1649, Blake hunted him down and chased him all the way to Portugal before blockading him in Lisbon harbour for seven months.
He then seized the Portuguese Brazil fleet after the Portuguese King refused to expel Rupert, followed the Prince into the Mediterranean, destroyed or captured most of his ships and thereby forced Portugal and Spain to recognise the English Commonwealth. A year later, he captured the Royalist base on the Isles of Scilly, preventing more Royalist privateering, then besieged and captured Elizabeth Castle on Jersey.
The following year the first Anglo-Dutch War broke out, but before war had even been declared Blake attacked a Dutch fleet of 42 ships as they refused to courteously salute him. He beat them with just 12 ships after a five hour fight.
In September 1652, he destroyed a French supply convoy on its way to relieve the siege of Dunkirk, which meant the town surrendered to the Spanish, thereby forcing the French to officially recognise the Commonwealth. Later the same month, he defeated another Dutch fleet, then chased them for two days.
His only defeat at this time, to an 80-warship Dutch fleet off Dungeness in November 1652, was due to poor planning by the English government. Blake offered to resign but rather than blame a scapegoat, Parliament ordered a thorough review of naval tactics and administration, which led to the issuing of the first official Articles of War and Fighting Instructions to naval commanders. The diarist, Samuel Pepys, owes his living as an administrator to this effective reorganisation.
With his refitted fleet, Blake again smashed the Dutch in the three-day running battle at Portland, re-establishing English control of the Channel.
He moved into the Mediterranean in 1654, disrupting a French attack on Naples, forcing the disruptive North African corsair states to pay reparations, and bombarding the fort at Porto Farina in Tunisia when the Dey of Tunis refused to co-operate, before destroying the shore batteries and burning an Ottoman squadron in the harbour — the first time that naval gunnery had successfully destroyed shore-based defences.
When war with Spain broke out, he aided in the capture of a massive Spanish treasure fleet – worth over £2million – and, for the first time in naval history, kept the fleet at sea through an entire winter in order to maintain a blockade.
His greatest victory was in April 1657 when he attacked a Spanish treasure fleet in the strongly-defended Canary Island harbour of Santa Cruz. Sailing his fleet INTO THE HARBOUR ITSELF, his guns silenced the Spanish forts and then destroyed every one of the Spanish ships … all without the loss of a single English ship.
Blake and his men had made the English Protectorate the strongest naval power of the age, hurrying the decline of the Dutch and laying the organisational foundations that would give Britain primacy over the seas for centuries to come.
Sadly, he was in sight of Plymouth when poor health finally claimed him and he died on 7 August 1657 aboard his flagship The George. His hero’s welcome became a funeral procession and he was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey in a state funeral.
Although his body was removed after the Restoration, it was reburied in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, where a stained glass window depicting scenes from his life was unveiled in 1888.
Blake’s legacy is remarkable. He was one of the first English naval commanders to keep a fleet at sea through an entire winter to maintain a blockade, was amongst the first to develop the techniques of naval blockade and amphibious landing, was one of the few commanders of his age who could get his captains to do as they were told, and he earned the respect of his men without recourse to brutal punishments.
Such was Blake’s reputation and achievements that, commenting on his predecessor’s victory at Santa Cruz, Admiral Nelson himself said: “I shall never be the equal of Blake”.