The Battle Of Beachy Head

There was little to record to the honour of the navy in the reign of

James II. As Duke of York he had held the office of Lord High-admiral

for years, and he doubtless knew as much about the navy as any man of

his time. This knowledge he is said to have employed as soon as he came

into power to bring the navy into a state of efficiency, and yet, when

in November 1688 the Prince of Orange sailed for England, he was able to

> effect his passage and land his army at Torbay without any opposition

from the fleet.

During the first year of the reign of William and Mary the navy did some

service in Ireland, Admiral Herbert engaging the French in Bantry Bay

without much success, and Commodore Rooke effecting the relief of

Londonderry. The former engagement was virtually a defeat for the

English, as the French effected their purpose by landing their supplies

and making good their retreat. William III., however, willing to put the

best possible construction upon the event, and desirous of conciliating

the navy, created Admiral Herbert Earl of Torrington, and knighted

Captains John Ashby and Cloudesley Shovel.

As to the remaining naval transactions of this year, they were neither

many nor great, but they included the taking of two celebrated

sea-officers of the French service, the Chevalier Fourbin and John du

Bart. These gentlemen commanded two small frigates, and had under their

convoy six rich merchantmen, homeward-bound. Near the Isle of Wight they

were chased by two of our fifty-gun ships, which they engaged very

bravely, though they saw that it was impossible for them to avoid being

taken. All they aimed at was to give their merchantmen time to escape,

and in this they succeeded; for, while they fought desperately, the

vessels under their convoy got safely into Rochelle. As for the

Chevalier Fourbin and Captain Bart, they were carried prisoners into

Plymouth, from whence not long after they found means to escape, and got

safely over to Calais. For this gallant and generous action the French

king rewarded each of them with the command of a man-of-war.

In 1690, however, the fleet was called upon to face a far more

formidable encounter. The French, who had for years been paying

increased attention to naval affairs, and who had made use of the recent

Dutch wars, first on one side and then on the other, to obtain knowledge

and experience of maritime affairs, now despatched their fleet with a

considerable body of troops to make a descent upon England in the

interests of James II., while the Jacobins in London made active

preparations for a simultaneous rising.

On June 12th the French fleet put to sea in three squadrons, each

squadron being divided into three divisions. Of these the white and blue

squadrons, commanded by Count d'Estrees, on board the Le Grand, a ship

of eighty-six guns, formed the vanguard, consisting of twenty-six

men-of-war. The main body was composed of the white squadron, which

consisted likewise of twenty-six sail, commanded by the Admiral Count

Tourville in the Royal Sun, a ship of one hundred guns; while the blue

squadron, commanded by M. d'Amfreville in the Magnificent, a ship of

eighty guns, comprised twenty-five sail and formed the rear-guard. In

all there were seventy-eight men-of-war and twenty-two fire-ships, and

the whole fleet carried upwards of four thousand seven hundred pieces of

cannon. On June the 13th they steered for the English coast, and on the

20th arrived off the Lizard. The next day the admiral took some English

fishing-boats; and, after having paid the people who were on board for

their fish, set them at liberty again. These men were the first to bring

the news of the arrival of the French fleet on our coast, while our own

fleet was lying idle in the Downs.

Under the arrangement of the conspirators the French fleet was to enter

the Thames, and the Jacobins in London were to rise, seize the queen and

her principal ministers, and proclaim James once more king, whereupon

James was to leave Ireland to the care of Lauzun and Tyrconnel, return

to England and take the head of the revolution, while the French landed

troops at Torbay and intercepted the return of William from Ireland.

The Earl of Torrington was at St. Helen's when he received the news of

the arrival of the French fleet, which must have surprised him very

much, since he was so far from expecting the French in that quarter that

he had no scouts to the westward. He put to sea, however, with such

ships as he had, and stood to the south-east, leaving orders that all

the English and Dutch ships which could have notice should follow him.

In the evening he was joined by several more ships, and the next morning

he found himself within sight of the enemy. The French landed and made

some prisoners on shore; and by them sent a letter from Sir William

Jennings, an officer in the navy, who had followed the fortunes of King

James and served now as third captain on board the admiral, promising

pardon to all such captains as would now adhere to that prince. The next

day Torrington received another reinforcement of seven Dutch men-of-war,

under the command of Admiral Evertzen, and for some time the English

fleet lay off Ventnor, while the French fleet stood off the Needles. It

is certain that the Earl of Torrington did not think himself strong

enough to venture on an engagement, and in all probability the rest of

the admirals agreed with him.

His whole strength consisted of about thirty-four men-of-war of several

sizes, and the three Dutch admirals had under their command twenty-two

large ships. Outnumbered by more than twenty sail it was perhaps but

natural that he should seek to avoid hostilities.

In London, where the Jacobin plot was known, the utmost excitement

prevailed. The rival fleets were known to be in sight of each other, and

it was clear that the English admiral was reluctant to engage. Under

these circumstances the queen, fearful of the consequences of continued

tension, by the advice of the privy council sent the earl orders to

fight at all costs and compel the French fleet to withdraw. In obedience

to this order, as soon as it was light, on June 30th, the admiral threw

out the signal for drawing into line and bore down upon the enemy, while

they were under sail, with their heads to the northward.

The signal for battle was made about eight, when the French braced their

head sails to their masts, in order to lie by. The action began about

nine, when the Dutch squadron, which made the van of the united fleets,

fell in with the van of the French, and put them into some disorder.

About half an hour after our blue squadron engaged their rear very

warmly; but the red, commanded by the Earl of Torrington in person,

which made the centre of our fleet, could not come up till about ten;

and this occasioned a great opening between them and the Dutch. The

French, making use of this advantage, weathered, and of course

surrounded the Dutch, who defended themselves very gallantly, though

they suffered extremely from so unequal a fight. The admiral, seeing

their distress, endeavoured to relieve them; and while they dropped

their anchors, the only method they had left to preserve themselves, he

drove with his own ship and several others between them and the enemy,

and in that situation anchored about five in the afternoon, when it grew

calm; but discerning how much the Dutch had suffered, and how little

probability there was of regaining anything by renewing the fight, he

weighed about nine at night, and retired eastward with the tide of


The next day it was resolved in a council of war, held in the afternoon,

to preserve the fleet by retreating, and rather to destroy the disabled

ships, if they should be pressed by the enemy, than to hazard another

engagement by endeavouring to protect them. This resolution was executed

with as much success as could be expected, which, however, was chiefly

owing to want of experience in the French admirals; for, by not

anchoring when the English did, they were driven to a great distance;

and, by continuing to chase in a line of battle, instead of leaving

every ship at liberty to do her utmost, they could never recover what

they lost by their first mistake. But, notwithstanding all this, they

pressed on their pursuit as far as Rye Bay; and forcing the Anne, of

seventy guns, which had lost all her masts, on shore near Winchelsea,

they sent in two ships to burn her, which the captain prevented by

setting fire to her himself. The body of the French fleet stood in and

out of the bays of Bourne and Pevensey, in Sussex, while about fourteen

of their ships anchored near the shore. Some of these attempted to burn

a Dutch ship of sixty-four guns, which at low water lay dry; but her

commander defended her so stoutly every high water, that they were at

length forced to desist, and the captain carried her safe into Holland.

Our loss in this unlucky affair, if we except reputation, was not so

great as might have been expected; not more than two ships, two sea

captains, two captains of marines, and three hundred and fifty private

men. The Dutch were much more unfortunate, because they were more

thoroughly engaged. Besides three ships sunk in the fight, they were

obliged to set fire to three more that were stranded on the coast of

Sussex, losing in all six ships of the line. They likewise lost many

gallant officers; particularly their rear-admirals, Dick and Brakel, and

Captain Nordel, with a great number of inferior officers and seamen.

After the engagement our fleet retreated towards the River Thames; and

the Earl of Torrington, going on shore, left the command to Sir John

Ashby. On July 8th the French fleet stood toward their own coast, but

were seen, upon the 27th, off the Berry Head, a little to the eastward

of Dartmouth, and then, the wind taking them short, they put into

Torbay. There they lay but a short time; for they were discovered on the

29th near Plymouth, at which place the necessary preparations were made

by platforms and other works to give them a warm reception. On August

5th they appeared again off the Rame Head, in number between sixty and

seventy, when, standing westward, they were no more seen in the Channel

during 1690.

The earl was tried by court martial on the charge of having from

treachery or cowardice misbehaved in his office, drawn dishonour on the

English nation and sacrificed our good allies the Dutch. He defended

himself with dignity and eloquence, affirming that he fought under

orders, against his own judgment and that of his staff, against superior

forces without any probability of success; that the Dutch suffered for

their own rashness, and that if he had sustained them in the manner they

expected, the whole fleet must have been surrounded and destroyed. In

the end the earl was acquitted, but the day after the trial he was