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The Story Of Admiral Blake


Robert Blake, who became the admiral of the Commonwealth, was the eldest
son of Mr. Humphrey Blake, a Spanish merchant who, having acquired a
considerable fortune for the times in which he lived, purchased a small
estate near Bridgewater, in which neighbourhood his family had been long

Robert was born in the month of August, 1598, and was educated at a free
school in Bridgewater. He afterwards removed to Oxford, where he was
first a member of St. Alban's Hall and next of Wadham College. Having
taken a degree and met with more than one disappointment in his
endeavours to obtain academical preferment, he left the university after
a stay of seven years.

During his residence in Oxford he displayed a temper usually grave, and
in appearance morose, but inclined at times and with particular friends
to be very cheerful, though still with a tincture of severity that
disposed him to bear hard upon the pride of courtiers and the powers of
churchmen; which rendered him very agreeable company to the good fellows
of those days. This is certain, that his reputation for probity and his
known aversion to persecution caused the Puritans to promote his
election as a burgess for Bridgewater in the parliament which sat in
April 1640.

This assembly was dissolved too early for Blake to make any discovery
therein of his talents as a senator; and in the long parliament, which
sat soon after, he lost his election. When the war broke out between
the king and the parliament he declared for the latter, and took arms
very early in their service; but where, and in what capacity, is not
very clear. However, he was very soon made a captain of dragoons, in
which position he showed himself as able and active an officer as any in
the service; and as such was constantly employed upon occasions when
boldness or dexterity were requisite.

In 1643 he was at Bristol, under the command of Colonel Fiennes, who
entrusted him with a little fort on the line, in which he first gave the
world a proof of his military prowess; for, on July 26th, when Prince
Rupert attacked that important place, and the governor had agreed to
surrender it upon articles, Blake still held out his fort and killed
several of the king's forces. This exasperated Prince Rupert to such a
degree that he talked of hanging him, and would probably have carried
out his threat had not some friends interposed and excused the young
officer on account of his want of experience in war, and then prevailed
upon him to give up the fort.

After this Blake served in Somersetshire under the command of Popham,
who was governor of Lyme, to whose regiment he was lieutenant-colonel.
While here, in conjunction with Sir Robert Pye, he surprised Taunton for
the parliament, capturing ten pieces of cannon and a great deal of
ammunition. In 1664 he was made governor of the town, an important
appointment, as Taunton contained the only garrison the parliament had
in the west. The works about it, however, were far from being strong,
and the garrison was by no means numerous; yet by keeping a strict
discipline, and treating the townsmen well, he made shift to keep it,
though no great care was taken to furnish him with supplies, and he was
often besieged and blocked up by the king's forces.

At length General Goring attacked Taunton with nearly ten thousand men,
carried all the outworks, and actually took a part of the town. Blake,
however, held the rest of it and the castle with wonderful obstinacy
till relief came; for which extraordinary service the parliament gave
the garrison a bounty of two thousand pounds, and honoured Colonel
Blake with a present of five hundred pounds. All who have preserved the
memory of the signal events in this unhappy war allow this to have been
a singularly gallant and soldier-like action.

In April, 1646, Colonel Blake marched with a detachment from his
garrison, and reduced Dunster Castle, a seat belonging to the ancient
family of Lutterel, the troops posted therein having given great
disturbance to the country. This was the last military achievement he
performed during the Civil War. On the 24th of December following, the
parliament ordered five hundred pounds to be paid to him for disbanding
some forces. When the parliament voted that no further addresses should
be made to the king, Blake, as Governor of Taunton, joined in an address
of thanks to the House of Commons for having taken this step.

It is not easy to guess what induced the parliament to make choice of
Blake, who had always served as a horse-officer, to take the supreme
command of the fleet, but on February 12th, 1648-9, he was appointed one
of the commissioners of the navy, and upon the 21st an Act was passed,
appointing him, in conjunction with Deane and Popham, to command the
fleet. His first service was driving Prince Rupert's fleet from the
Irish coast, and then following him into the Mediterranean. This gave
his masters high satisfaction, for it not only put an end to the
piratical war in which the prince was engaged, and which did so much
damage to trade, but also inspired respect among the powers of Europe
for the young Commonwealth of England.

In the month of February, 1651, Blake, on his return homewards, fell in
with a French man-of-war of forty guns; when a characteristic incident
occurred which certainly deserves to be particularly mentioned. The
admiral commanded the French captain on board him, and asked him if he
was willing to lay down his sword? He answered that he was not; upon
which, Blake generously bade him return to his ship and fight it out as
long as he was able. The captain took him at his word, fought him
bravely for about two hours, and then submitting, went again on board
Blake's ship, first kissed him and then presented his sword to him upon
his knees. This ship, with four more, the admiral sent into England; and
not long after arriving at Plymouth with his squadron, there received
the thanks of the parliament for his vigilance and valour, and was
constituted one of the lords-wardens of the Cinque Ports.

In the March following, Colonel Blake, Colonels Popham and Deane, or any
two of them, were again appointed by act of parliament to be admirals
and generals of the fleet for the year ensuing; in which year Blake
reduced the islands of Scilly, Guernsey, and Jersey to the obedience of
the parliament; and, as a new mark of honour, was, on November 25th,
elected one of the council of state. When the necessity of a Dutch war
became apparent, the parliament gave the highest testimony of their
sense of his merit and of their entire confidence in his conduct by
constituting him, in March 1652, sole general of the fleet.

The story of the Dutch war is told in a separate chapter, where justice
is done to Blake's prowess as admiral, and it is only necessary here to
give such incidents as bring out his qualities as a man.

Just before the first battle in the Downs, which took place on May 19th,
1652, Blake observed that Van Tromp, the Dutch admiral, bore nearer to
his fleet than he had any occasion to do, and so saluted him with two
guns without ball, to put him in mind of striking sail; upon which the
Dutchman, in contempt, fired on the contrary side. Blake then fired a
second and a third gun, which Van Tromp answered with a broadside, and
the English admiral perceiving his intention to fight, detached himself
from the rest of the fleet to treat with him upon the point of honour,
to prevent unnecessary effusion of blood and a national quarrel. As
Blake approached nearer to the Dutchman, Van Tromp, and the rest of his
fleet, contrary to the law of nations, fired on him with whole
broadsides. Blake was in his cabin drinking with some officers, little
expecting to be thus saluted, when the shot broke the windows of the
ship and shattered the stern; which put him into a vehement passion, so
that curling his whiskers, as he used to do whenever he was angry, he
commanded his men to answer the Dutch in their kind, saying, when his
heat was somewhat over, "he took it very ill of Van Tromp that he should
take his ship for a disorderly house, and break his windows." Blake
singly sustained the shock of the Dutch fleet for some time, till his
own ships and the squadron under Major Bourne joined him; and then the
engagement grew hot on both sides, and bloody on the side of the enemy,
till night put an end to it.

After this battle Blake lay in the Downs for a considerable time, which
he spent in repairing and augmenting his fleet, and in detaching small
squadrons to cruise against the enemy. About the beginning of June,
finding he had force enough to undertake any service, he caused a solemn
fast to be held on board his ships, to implore the blessing of God upon
their arms, and encouraged his seamen by the example of his zeal on this
occasion, as much as he had ever done by his personal bravery in a time
of action. In the course of this month he sent forty rich prizes into
the river, and so effectually ruined the Dutch trade, and broke the
spirits of such as were appointed to support it, that most of their
vessels declined coming through the Channel, even under convoy; choosing
rather to put into French ports, land their cargoes there, and
afterwards transport them to Holland, by land or water, as they could.

In the beginning of July, finding Sir George Ayscue returned from
Barbadoes, with a force sufficient to guard the Downs, he resolved to
sail northwards, to execute a design he had long meditated, of
destroying the herring-fishery; which he thought would have put an
immediate end to the war by convincing the Dutch of the folly of
disputing our sovereignty in our own seas. This appears to have been the
most judicious scheme laid down through the whole war; because it tended
to clear the ground of the quarrel and to show the Dutch their error in
disputing with a nation who had it in their power to distress them at
any time in the tenderest part--that which afforded a subsistence to
many and was the main source of wealth to all.

On July 2nd Blake bore away to the north, and quickly fell in with the
Dutch fishing vessels, which were there in great numbers under the
protection of twelve men-of-war. Blake attacked their convoy, and they,
knowing the importance of their charge, and having taken on board a
great supply of fresh men from the vessels under their care, fought
bravely and sold their freedom dearly; but at last were all taken, which
left the fishery entirely at the admiral's mercy, who upon this occasion
showed the rectitude of his heart and the solidity of his understanding;
for having first threatened these busses with utter destruction if ever
they were found there again without leave, he afterwards freely
permitted them to complete their ladings, on their paying the tenth
herring as tribute to the Commonwealth.

During all the changes that happened in the government, Blake impressed
his men with the conviction that it was his and their business to act
faithfully in their respective stations, and to do their duty to their
country, whatever irregularities there might be in the councils at home;
and would often say among his officers that state affairs were not their
province, but that they were bound to keep foreigners from fooling us.
These principles rendered him agreeable to all parties, and gained him
so generally the reputation of a patriot, that when Cromwell, in his new
model of a parliament, left the populous town of Bridgewater the choice
of one representative only, they elected Blake. He was also very
acceptable to Cromwell, who knew that Blake's concern for the glory of
England would influence him to do all, and even more than any other man
could be excited to do by views of interest and ambition.

In 1654 he sailed into the Mediterranean, and came in the month of
December into the road of Cadiz, where he was received with great
respect and civility by the Spaniards, and indeed by all nations as well
as the English, who were then in port. A Dutch admiral would not wear
his flag while the English admiral was in the harbour; one of the
victuallers attending his fleet, being separated from the rest, fell in
with the French admiral and seven men-of-war near the Straits mouth. The
captain of the victualling-sloop was ordered on board the admiral, who
inquired of him where Blake was, drank his health with five guns, and so
wished the captain a good voyage. The Algerines stood in such awe of him
that they were wont to stop the Sallee rovers; and, in case they had any
prisoners on board, took them out, and sent them to Blake, in hopes
thereby of obtaining his favour.

He next sailed from Cadiz to Malaga; and while he lay in that road some
of his seamen, going ashore, met the Host as it was being carried to
some sick person, and not only paid no respect to it, but laughed at
those who did. The priest who accompanied it highly resented this, and
stirred up the people to revenge the indignity; upon which they fell
upon the sailors and beat some of them very severely. When they returned
on board the men complained of their ill usage, and the admiral
instantly sent a trumpet to the viceroy, to demand the surrender of the
priest who was the author of the insult. The viceroy answered that he
had no authority over priests, and therefore could not send him. Upon
this Blake sent a second message to the effect that he would not enter
into the question as to who had power to send him, but that, if he was
not sent within three hours, he would burn the town about their ears.
The inhabitants, to save themselves, obliged the viceroy to send the
priest; who, when he came on board, excused himself to the admiral on
account of the behaviour of the sailors. Blake with much calmness and
composure told him that if he had complained to him of this outrage he
would have punished the men severely; for he would not suffer any of his
men to affront the established religion of any place that he might
visit; but he blamed him for setting on a mob of Spaniards to beat them,
adding, that "he would have him and the whole world know that none but
an Englishman should chastise an Englishman."

In 1655 Blake proceeded to Algiers, where he arrived on March 10th, and
anchored without the mole, sending an officer to the dey to demand
satisfaction for the piracies that had been formerly committed on the
English, and the immediate release of all captives belonging to his
nation. The dey answered very modestly, that as for the ships and slaves
they were now the property of private persons, from whom he could not
take them with safety to himself; but that he would make it his care
they should be speedily redeemed upon easy terms, and would make a
treaty with him to prevent any hostilities being committed on the
English for the future.

The admiral left the port upon this and sailed to Tunis, where he sent
the like message on shore; but received a very different answer, viz.,
"Here are our castles of Guletta and Porto Farino: you may do your
worst; we do not fear you." Blake entered the bay of Porto Farino, and
came within musket-shot of the castle and line, upon both which he
played so warmly that they were soon in a defenceless condition. There
were then nine ships in the road, which the admiral resolved to burn;
and with this view ordered every captain to man his long-boat with
choice men, and directed these to enter the harbour and fire the ships
of Tunis; while he and his fleet covered them from the castle by playing
continually on it with their cannon. The seamen in their boats boldly
assaulted the corsairs and burnt all their ships, with the loss of
twenty-five men killed and forty-eight wounded. This daring action
spread the terror of his name, which had long been formidable in Europe,
through Africa and Asia. From Tunis he sailed to Tripoly, and concluded
a peace with that government. Thence he returned to Tunis, and granted a
peace on terms honourable to himself and profitable to his country.

In 1655 the protector sent Mr. Montague with a small squadron of
men-of-war into the Mediterranean to join Blake and to carry him fresh
instructions; one of which was to block up the port of Cadiz, in which
there was a fleet of forty sail, intended to secure the flota expected
from the Indies, and, at the same time, to prevent the flota from coming
in without sharing in the riches that were on board. Blake and Montague
executed their orders with equal skill and industry, taking care to
obtain a supply of fresh provisions and water, as often as they had
occasion, from the coast of Portugal. Thither, for that purpose, they
had sailed with the greatest part of the fleet, when the squadron from
the Indies approached Cadiz. Rear-admiral Stayner, with seven frigates,
plied to and fro, till eight large ships came in view, which he
presently recognised as the flota for which he was looking out; whereas
the Spaniards took his vessels, because they lay very low in the water,
for fishermen. This gave him an opportunity of coming up with and
fighting them, though the weather hindered four of his frigates from
acting. Yet with the Speaker, the Bridgewater, and the Plymouth he
did his business; and, after an obstinate engagement, sunk two, ran two
more aground, and took two of the Spanish vessels; so that two only

In one of those that were destroyed was the Marquis of Badajoz, of the
family of Lopez, who had been Governor of Peru for the King of Spain,
who thus perished with the marchioness, his wife, and their daughter.
The eldest son and his brother were saved and brought safely to the
generals with the prize, wherein were two millions of pieces of eight.
Soon after, General Montague, with the young Marquis of Badajoz, and
part of the fleet to escort the silver, returned to England, delivered
the bullion into the mint, after which the young marquis was set at
liberty. For this success, a thanksgiving, with a narrative to be read
thereon, was appointed by the parliament, who issued their declaration
of war against Spain.

Admiral Blake continued to cruise before the haven of Cadiz and in the
Straits till the month of April, 1657; and having then information of
another Plate fleet, which had put into the haven of Santa-Cruz in the
island of Teneriffe, he immediately sailed thither, and arrived before
the town on April 20th. Here he found the flota, consisting of six
galleons very richly laden, and ten other vessels. The latter lay within
the port, with a strong barricade before them; the galleons without the
boom, because they drew too much water to lay within it. The port itself
was strongly fortified, having on the north a large castle well supplied
with artillery, and seven forts united by a line communication, well
lined with musketeers. The Spanish governor thought the place so secure,
and his own dispositions so well made, that when the master of a Dutch
ship desired leave to sail, because he apprehended Blake would presently
attack the ships in the harbour, the Spaniard answered tartly, "Get you
gone, if you will, and let Blake come, if he dares."

The admiral, after viewing the enemy's preparations, called a council of
war, wherein it was resolved to attempt destroying the enemy's ships;
for it was impossible to bring them off: and to this end he sent Captain
Stayner with a squadron to attack them. Stayner soon forced his passage
into the bay, while other frigates played on the forts and line, and
hindered them from giving the ships much disturbance. Stayner's squadron
was quickly supported by Blake with the whole fleet, who boarded the
Spanish galleons, and in a few hours made himself master of them all,
and then set them on fire; so that the whole Spanish fleet was burnt
down to the water's edge, except two ships which sank outright; and
then, the wind veering to south-west, he passed with his fleet safe out
of the port again, losing in this dangerous attempt no more than
forty-eight men killed, and having about one hundred and twenty wounded.
It was without question the boldest undertaking of its kind that had
ever been performed; and the Spaniards, who are romantic enough in their
own conduct, were so much astonished at his, that they quite lost their
spirits, and thenceforward never thought themselves safe either from
numbers or fortifications.

When the Protector received the news of this glorious success, he
immediately sent it by his secretary, Thurloe, to the parliament then
sitting; and they, on hearing the particulars, ordered a day to be set
apart for a thanksgiving; a ring of the value of five hundred pounds to
be given to the general as a testimony of his country's gratitude; a
present of one hundred to the captain who brought the news; and their
thanks to all the officers and soldiers concerned in the action.
Captain Richard Stayner, returning soon after, was knighted by the
Protector; nor was it long before Blake and the fleet returned, which
put an end to the Spanish war by sea; for the Protector had lately
entered into a closer conjunction with France; and, in consequence
thereof, sent over a body of land-forces into Flanders, where they
assisted in taking the fortress and port of Dunkirk, which was delivered
into the hands of the English, who kept it till after the Restoration.

Another characteristic incident, and one which shows the probity and
integrity of Blake, deserves mention. His brother, Captain Benjamin
Blake, for whom he had a very tender affection, having been guilty of
some misdemeanour or misbehaviour in the action at Santa-Cruz, was, by
sentence from Blake, removed from his ship, and the command of it given
to another. This was such an instance of disinterested discipline as
must have had a very strong effect on the minds of all who served under
him; and we need not wonder that such extraordinary things were
performed by men so perfectly disciplined.

In a short time after the destruction of the enemy's fleet at Teneriffe
we find Blake cruising again off the harbour of Cadiz; where, perceiving
his ships had become foul, and that his own health and spirits hourly
wore away, he resolved to sail for England. His distemper was a
complication of dropsy and scurvy, brought upon him by being for three
years together at sea, and wanting all that time the conveniences
requisite for the cure of his disease. In his passage home it increased
upon him, and he became so sensible of his approaching end, that he
frequently inquired for land; which, however, he did not live to see,
dying as his ship the St. George entered Plymouth Sound, on August
17th, 1657, at about fifty-nine years of age. His body was the next day
embalmed and wrapped in lead, and, by order of the Protector, conveyed
by water to Greenwich.

On September 4th, after the body had lain several days in state, it was
carried from Greenwich in a magnificent barge, covered with velvet,
adorned with escutcheons and pendants, and accompanied by his brothers,
remoter relations, and their servants, in mourning; by Oliver's privy
council, the commissioners of the admiralty and navy, the lord-mayor and
aldermen of London, the field-officers of the army, and many other
persons of honour and quality, in a great number of barges and wherries
covered with mourning, marshalled and ordered by the heralds-at-arms,
who directed and attended the solemnity. Thus they passed to Westminster
Bridge; and, at their landing, proceeded in the same manner, through a
guard of several regiments of foot, to the abbey. The funeral procession
over, the body was interred in a vault, built on purpose, in the chapel
of Henry VII.

Some time after the Restoration an order was sent to the dean and
chapter of Westminster, directing them to cause such bodies as had been
interred in that church during the troubles to be removed; and on
September 12th, 1661, the body of Blake was removed from the abbey and
buried in the churchyard.

Though Blake was upon principle a supporter of the Commonwealth, his
character was such that he won from the royalists some of the warmest
tributes he received.

Dr. Bates, in drawing his character, says, "He was a man deserving
praise, even from an enemy. Being advanced to a command at sea, he
subdued the Scilly Islands, near home; and having attained the office
and title of an admiral, performed things worthy of immortal memory
abroad. For he humbled the pride of France; reduced Portugal to reason;
broke the naval force of Holland, and drove them to the shelter of their
ports; suppressed the rovers of Barbary, and twice triumphed over Spain.
Alone blamable in this, that he complied with the parricides." In the
words of Anthony Wood, "He was a man wholly devoted to his country's
service; resolute in his undertakings, and most faithful in the
performance of them. With him, valour seldom missed its reward, nor
cowardice its punishment."

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