The Story Of Sir George Rooke





Sir George Rooke was the son of Sir William Rooke, Knt., of an ancient

and honourable family in the county of Kent, where he was born in the

year 1650.

Originally intended for another profession, his passion for the sea was

not to be denied, and Sir William, after a fruitless struggle with his

son's bent for the navy, at last gave way and suffered him to go to sea.

His first station in the navy was that of a volunteer, then styled a

reformade, in which he distinguished himself by his courage and

application. This soon secured him the post of lieutenant, from which he

rose to that of captain before he was thirty; promotion then thought

very extraordinary. Admiral Herbert distinguished him early, by sending

him, in the year 1689, as commodore, with a squadron to the coast of

Ireland, where he concurred with Major-general Kirke in the relief of

Londonderry, assisting in person in taking the island in the Lake, which

opened a passage for the relief of the town. In the year 1690 he was

appointed rear-admiral of the red; and, in that station, served in the

fight off Beachy Head, where, notwithstanding the misfortune of our

arms, indisputably the greatest we ever met with at sea, Admiral Rooke

was allowed to have done his duty with much resolution. In the spring

of 1691 he was promoted to the rank of vice-admiral of the blue, in

which station he served in the famous battle of La Hogue, on May the

22nd, 1692, and contributed no small share to the victory. For this

service, an account of which will be found in the story of "The Victory

of La Hogue," he was knighted in the following year.

The direction of the fleet being now put in commission, Sir George Rooke

was entrusted with the command of the squadron appointed to escort the

Smyrna fleet, and the joint admirals received orders to accompany him as

far to sea as they thought proper; after which his instructions were to

take the best care of the fleet he could, and, in case of any

misfortune, to retire into some of the Spanish ports and put himself

under the protection of their guns.

The combined fleet had not proceeded far before the accompanying

admirals signified their intention to return, and Sir George Rooke, who

had good reason to believe that the French squadron had gone to Toulon

with a view to intercepting the ships under his convoy, had to content

himself with protesting against the withdrawal of the grand fleet so

early in the voyage, and proceeding upon the journey alone. On June the

15th, being about sixty leagues short of Cape St. Vincent, he ordered

the Lark to stretch ahead of his scouts into Lagos Bay; and on the

following day, having confirmed advice of danger, from the close

proximity of the enemy, proposed in a council of war to keep the wind or

lie by during the night, with a view to discovering the enemy's strength

in the morning. In this he was over-ruled, for it was urged that the

wind being fresh northerly, it gave the fleet a fair opportunity of

pushing for Cadiz; with which view he ran along the shore all night with

a pressed sail, forcing several of the enemy's ships to cut from their

anchors in Lagos Bay.

The next day, when off Villa Nova, it fell calm, and a little after

daybreak ten sail of the enemy's men-of-war and several small ships were

seen in the offing. The French no sooner discovered Sir George Rooke

than they stood away with their boats ahead, setting fire to some, and

sinking others of their small craft, to save them from falling into his

hands. The crew of a fire-ship which fell in with our fleet in the

night, being carried on board the flag ship and examined by the admiral,

told him that the French squadron consisted of only fifteen ships of the

line, notwithstanding there were three flags, and had with them

forty-six merchantmen and store-ships, bound either for Toulon or to

join M. d'Estrees. They said also that the squadron had been becalmed

off the Cape, and that, having watered in the bay, were bound directly

into the Straits, without any intention of following our fleet. This

story, consistent with the hasty retreat of their men-of-war in the

morning and their desertion and destruction of their small vessels,

completely deceived the admiral and the rest of the officers; though

afterwards it appeared that they made this retreat with a view to

drawing the English squadron more completely into their power. About

noon the sea breeze sprang up and the admiral bore away along shore upon

the enemy, discovering their real strength as he came nearer to them,

until at last he sighted about eighty sail.

About three in the afternoon the Dutch vice-admiral sent Sir George

Rooke word that, in his judgment, the best course would be to avoid

fighting. Sir George differed with him upon the point and had actually

made his arrangements for engaging the enemy; but reflecting that he

should take upon himself the whole blame of the consequences if he

fought contrary to the Dutch admiral's advice, he brought to and then

stood off with an easy sail, at the same time despatching the

Sheerness with orders to the small ships that were on the coast to

endeavour to get along shore in the night and save themselves in the

Spanish ports; this, happily, many of them succeeded in doing.

Sir George Rooke's whole squadron consisted of no more than twenty-three

ships of war; of these, thirteen only were English, eight Dutch, and two

Hamburgers. The fleet of merchantmen under his convoy numbered four

hundred sail of all nations, though the greater part of them were

English ships. The fleet under M. Tourville consisted of one hundred

and twenty sail, of which sixty-four were of the line, and eighteen

three-deck ships; yet Sir George Rooke saved all his men-of-war and no

less than sixty merchantmen, and was said by the Dutch gazettes to have

gained more reputation by his escape than the French had by their


Early in the year 1697 Sir George Rooke was appointed admiral and

commander-in-chief of the fleet, and put to sea towards the latter end

of June. As the French avoided fighting Sir George found it impossible

to do anything with them; but while cruising off the French coast he met

with a large fleet of Swedish merchantmen, and having obliged them to

bring to and submit to be searched, found just grounds for believing

that most of their cargoes belonged to French merchants: upon which he

sent them under the convoy of some frigates into Plymouth. This caused a

great deal of excitement, the Swedish minister interposing, and some of

our statesmen being inclined to disapprove the admiral's conduct.

Upon this Sir George insisted that the matter should be brought to trial

before the court of admiralty, where, upon the clearest evidence, it was

shown that these Swedish ships were freighted by French merchants,

partly with French goods, but chiefly with Indian merchandise, which had

been taken out of English and Dutch ships; and that the Swedes had no

further concern therein than receiving two per cent. for lending their

names, procuring passes, and taking other necessary precautions for

screening the effects of the French merchants; so that the whole of this

rich fleet was adjudged to be good prize, and the clamour that had been

raised against Sir George Rooke was converted into general applause!

The following year he was elected member of parliament for Portsmouth,

where, voting mostly with the Tories, the Whigs tried to ruin him in the

king's favour; but, to the honour of King William be it said, that when

pressed to remove Sir George Rooke from his seat at the Admiralty-board,

he answered plainly "Sir George Rooke has served me faithfully at sea,

and I will never displace him for acting as he thinks most for the

service of his country in the House of Commons."

Upon the accession of Queen Anne, in 1702, Sir George was constituted

vice-admiral and lieutenant of the Admiralty of England, as also

lieutenant of the fleets and seas of this kingdom; and, upon the

declaration of war with France, it was resolved that Sir George Rooke

should command the grand fleet sent against Cadiz, the Duke of Ormond

having the command-in-chief of the land forces.

When it was found impracticable for the land forces to make themselves

masters of Cadiz, Sir George Rooke proposed bombarding it, but this

suggestion meeting with opposition the admiral decided to return home.

On September 19th, 1702, the fleet sailed homeward bound, but on October

6th the admiral received information from Captain Hardy that a number of

galleons under the escort of a strong French squadron had entered the

harbour of Vigo; upon which Sir George called a council of war composed

of English and Dutch flag-officers, by whom it was resolved to sail to

Vigo as expeditiously as possible, and attack the enemy.

The passage into the harbour was not more than three-quarters of a mile

across, and was defended on the north side by a battery of eight brass

and twelve iron guns; and on the south by a platform of twenty brass and

twenty iron guns, also a stone fort, with a breast-work and deep trench

before it, mounting ten guns and manned by five hundred men. There was,

from one side of the harbour to the other, a strong boom composed of

ships-yards and top masts, fastened together with three-inch rope, and

underneath with hawsers and cables. The top-chain at each end was moored

to a seventy-gun ship; one the Hope, which had been taken from the

English, and the other the Bourbon. Within the boom were moored five

ships, of between sixty and seventy guns each, with their broadsides

fronting the entrance of the passage, so as to command any ship that

came near the boom, forts, and platform.

The admirals removed their flags from the great ships into third-rates,

the first- and second-rates being all too big to go in. Sir George Rooke

went out of the Royal Sovereign into the Somerset; Admiral Hopson

out of the Prince George into the Torbay; Admiral Fairbourne out of

the St. George into the Essex; and Admiral Graydon out of the

Triumph into the Northumberland. A detachment of fifteen English and

ten Dutch men-of-war, with all their fire-ships, frigates, and

bomb-vessels, was ordered to go upon the service.

The Duke of Ormond, to facilitate this attack, landed two thousand five

hundred men on the south side of the river, at a distance of about six

miles from Vigo; and Lord Shannon, at the head of five hundred men,

attacked the stone fort at the entrance of the harbour and made himself

master of the platform of forty pieces of cannon. The French governor,

M. Sozel, ordered the gates of the fort to be thrown open, resolving to

force his way through the English troops. But though there was great

bravery, there was but very little judgment in this action, for his

order was no sooner obeyed than the grenadiers stormed the place, sword

in hand, and forced the garrison, consisting of about three hundred and

fifty Frenchmen and Spaniards, to surrender as prisoners of war.

As soon as our flag was seen flying from the fort the ships advanced;

and Vice-admiral Hopson in the Torbay, crowding all the sail he could,

ran directly against the boom, and broke it; upon which the Kent, with

the rest of the squadron, English and Dutch, entered the harbour. The

enemy made a prodigious fire upon them, both from their ships and

batteries on shore, until the latter were captured by our grenadiers;

who, seeing the execution done by their guns on the fleet, stormed them

with incredible resolution. In the meantime, one of the enemy's

fire-ships had laid the Torbay on board and did her considerable

damage. Her foretop mast was shot by the board; most of the sails burnt

or scorched; the fore-yard consumed to a cinder; the larboard shrouds,

fore and aft, burnt to the dead eyes; several ports blown off the

hinges; her larboard side entirely scorched; one hundred and fifteen

men killed and drowned, of whom about sixty jumped overboard as soon as

they were grappled by the fire-ship.

In the meantime Captain William Bokenham, in the Association, a ship

of ninety guns, lay with her broadside to the battery, on the left of

the harbour, which was soon disabled; and Captain Francis Wyvill, in the

Barfleur, a ship of the same force, was sent to batter the fort on the

other side, which was a very dangerous and troublesome service, since

the enemy's shot pierced the ship through and through, and for some time

he durst not fire a gun because our troops were between him and the

fort; but they soon drove the enemy from their post, and then the

struggle was between the French firing their ships and the galleons and

our men endeavouring to save them. In this dispute the Association had

her main-mast shot, and two men killed; the Kent had her fore-mast

shot and the boatswain wounded; the Barfleur had her main-mast shot,

two men killed, and two wounded; the Mary had her bowsprit shot. Of

the troops there were only two lieutenants and thirty men killed, and

four superior officers wounded; a very inconsiderable loss, considering

that the enemy had fifteen French men-of-war, two frigates and a

fire-ship, burnt, sunk, or taken, besides seventeen galleons.

Six galleons were taken by the English and five by the Dutch, who sank

six. As to the wealth on board the galleons we have no exact account. Of

the silver fourteen millions of pieces were saved; of the goods about

five. Four millions of plate were destroyed with ten millions of

merchandise; and about two millions in silver and five in goods were

brought away by the English and Dutch.

Sir Cloudesley Shovel arriving on October 16th as the troops were

embarking, the admiral left him at Vigo with orders to see that the

French men-of-war and the galleons that we had taken, and that were in a

condition to be brought to England, were carefully rigged and properly

supplied with men. He was likewise directed to burn such as could not be

brought home, and to take the best care he could to prevent

embezzlements. After appointing a strong squadron for this service, the

admiral, with the rest of the fleet and one of the Spanish galleons,

sailed home, and arrived in the Downs on November 7th, 1702, whence the

great ships were sent round to Chatham.

The year 1703 was barren of naval achievements; but, if one year can be

said to make up for another, 1704 was equal to the occasion. On July

17th the fleet being in the road of Tetuan a council of war was called

at which Sir George Rooke proposed the attacking of Gibraltar, a

proposal which was immediately agreed to and speedily put into

execution, as will be seen by the admiral's own account as follows:--

"July 17th, the fleet being then about seven leagues to the eastward of

Tetuan, a council of war was held on board the Royal Catherine,

wherein it was resolved to make a sudden attempt upon Gibraltar.

Accordingly the fleet sailed thither, and on the 21st got into the bay.

At three o'clock in the afternoon the marines, English and Dutch, to the

number of one thousand eight hundred, with the Prince of Hesse at the

head of them, were put on shore on the neck of land to the northward of

the town to cut off all communication with the country. His Highness,

having posted his men there, sent a summons to the governor to surrender

the place, which he rejected with great obstinacy. The admiral, on the

22nd in the morning, gave orders that the ships which had been appointed

to cannonade the town under the command of Rear-admiral Byng and

Rear-admiral Vanderdussen, as also of those which were to batter the

south mole head, commanded by Captain Hicks of the Yarmouth, should

range themselves accordingly; but the wind blowing contrary they could

not possibly get into their places till the day was spent. In the

meantime, to amuse the enemy, Captain Whitaker was sent with some boats,

who burnt a French privateer of twelve guns at the mole. The 23rd, soon

after break of day, the ships being all placed, the admiral gave the

signal for beginning the cannonade, which was performed with very great

fury, above fifteen thousand shot being made in five or six hours' time

against the town, insomuch that the enemy were soon beat from their

guns, especially at the south mole head: whereupon the admiral,

considering that by gaining the fortification they should of consequence

reduce the town, ordered Captain Whitaker, with all the boats armed, to

endeavour to possess himself of it; which he performed with great

expedition. But Captain Hicks and Captain Jumper, who lay next the mole,

had pushed on shore with their pinnaces and some other boats before the

rest could come up; whereupon the enemy sprang a mine that blew up the

fortifications upon the mole, killed two lieutenants and forty men, and

wounded about sixty. However, our men kept possession of the great

platform which they had made themselves masters of, and Captain Whitaker

landed with the rest of the seamen which had been ordered upon this

service, who advanced and took a redoubt, or small bastion, halfway

between the mole and the town, and possessed themselves of many of the

enemy's cannon. The admiral then sent a letter to the governor, and at

the same time a message to the Prince of Hesse to send to him a

peremptory summons, which His Highness did accordingly; and on the 24th

in the morning, the governor, desiring to capitulate, hostages were

exchanged, and the capitulation being concluded the prince marched into

the town in the evening and took possession of the land and north-mole

gates and the out-work.

"The town is extremely strong, and had an hundred guns mounted, all

facing the sea and the two narrow passes to the land, and was well

supplied with ammunition. The officers, who have viewed the

fortifications, affirm there never was such an attack as the seamen

made; for that fifty men might have defended those works against


After this remarkable service the Dutch admiral thought of returning

home, and actually detached six men-of-war to Lisbon; so little

appearance was there of any further engagement. But on August the 9th

the French fleet, under the command of the Count de Toulouse, was seen

at sea, and appeared to be the strongest fleet that had been equipped

during the whole war; the English admiral, however, resolved to do all

in his power to force an engagement, which determination resulted in

the battle off Malaga, of which the following is Sir George Rooke's own

account, as published by authority. It was dated from on board the

Royal Catherine, off Cape St. Vincent, August 27th, 1704, and

addressed to his Royal Highness Prince George of Denmark.

"On the 9th instant, returning from watering our ships on the coast of

Barbary to Gibraltar, our scouts made the signals of seeing the enemy's

fleet; which, according to the account they gave, consisted of sixty-six

sail, and were about ten leagues to windward of us. A council of

flag-officers was called, wherein it was determined to lie to the

eastward of Gibraltar to receive and engage them. But perceiving that

night, by the report of their signal guns, that they wrought from us, we

followed them in the morning with all the sail we could make.

"On the 11th we forced one of the enemy's ships ashore near Fuengorolo;

the crew quitted her, set her on fire and she blew up immediately. We

continued still pursuing them, and the 12th, not hearing any of their

guns all night nor seeing any of their scouts in the morning, our

admiral had a jealousy they might make a double, and, by the help of

their galleys, slip between us and the shore to the westward: so that it

was resolved, that in case we did not see the enemy before night, we

should make the best of our way to Gibraltar; but standing in to the

shore about noon we discovered the enemy's fleet and galleys to the

westward, near Cape Malaga, going very large. We immediately made all

the sail we could and continued the chase all night.

"On Sunday the 13th, in the morning, we were within three leagues of the

enemy, who brought to with their heads to the southward, the wind being

easterly, formed their line and lay to to receive us. Their line

consisted of fifty-two ships and twenty-four galleys; they were very

strong in the centre and weaker in the van and rear, to supply which

most of the galleys were divided into those quarters. In the centre was

Monsieur de Toulouse with the white squadron; in the van the white and

blue, and in the rear the blue. Each admiral had his vice- and

rear-admirals. Our line consisted of fifty-three ships, the admiral, and

Rear-admirals Byng and Dilkes being in the centre; Sir Cloudesley Shovel

and Sir John Leake led the van, and the Dutch the rear.

"The admiral ordered the Swallow and Panther, with the Lark and

Newport and two fire-ships, to lie to the windward of us, that, in

case the enemy's van should push through our line with their galleys and

fire-ships, they might give them some diversion.

"We bore down upon the enemy in order of battle a little after ten

o'clock, when, being about half gun-shot from them, they set all their

sails at once and seemed to intend to stretch ahead and weather us; so

that our admiral, after firing a chase-gun at the French admiral to stay

for him, of which he took no notice, put the signal out and began the

battle, which fell very heavy on the Royal Catherine, St. George,

and the Shrewsbury. About two in the afternoon the enemy's van gave

way to ours, and the battle ended with the day, when the enemy went

away, by the help of their galleys, to the leeward. In the night the

wind shifted to the northward, and in the morning to the westward, which

gave the enemy the wind of us. We lay by all day, within three leagues

one of another; repairing our defects; and at night they filled and

stood to the northward.

"On the 15th, in the morning, the enemy was four or five leagues to the

westward of us; but a little before noon we had a breeze of wind

easterly, with which we bore down on them till four o'clock in the

afternoon: it being too late to engage, we brought to and lay by with

our heads to the northward all night.

"On the 16th, in the morning, the wind being still easterly, hazy

weather, and having no sight of the enemy or their scouts, we filled and

bore away to the westward, supposing they would have gone away for

Cadiz; but being advised from Gibraltar and the coast of Barbary that

they did not pass the Straits, we concluded they had been so severely

treated as to oblige them to return to Toulon.

"The admiral says he must do the officers the justice to say that every

man in the line did his duty, without giving the least umbrage for

censure or reflection, and that he never observed the true English

spirit so apparent and prevalent in our seamen as on this occasion.

"This battle is so much the more glorious to Her Majesty's arms because

the enemy had a superiority of six hundred great guns, and likewise the

advantage of cleaner ships, being lately come out of port, not to

mention the great use of their galleys in towing on or off their great

ships and in supplying them with fresh men as often as they had any

killed or disabled. But all these disadvantages were surmounted by the

bravery and good conduct of our officers and the undaunted courage of

our seamen."

In this fierce engagement neither side lost a ship, but the carnage was

very great, the English killed and wounded numbering three thousand and

the French nearly four thousand. The French claimed it as a victory but

showed no disposition to follow it up.

Upon his return to England Sir George found himself the subject of much

party strife, and, as perceiving that as he rose in credit with his

country he lost his interest in those at the helm, resolved to retire

from public service and prevent the affairs of the nation from receiving

any disturbance upon his account. Retiring to his seat in Kent he spent

the rest of his life in rest and peace, dying of the gout on January

24th, 1708-9 in the fifty-eighth year of his age.

A good husband and a kind master, he lived hospitably with his

neighbours and left behind him a moderate fortune. "I do not leave

much," said he, "but what I leave was honestly gotten; it never cost a

sailor a tear or the nation a farthing." After he was laid aside a privy

seal was offered him for passing his accounts; but he refused it, and

made them up in the ordinary way and with all the exactness


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