Close to Charing Cross station in London is the oddly named Ship and Shovell pub. Initially, this seems a strange combination, until you realise that the Shovell in question is not a misspelt digging implement but honours Sir Cloudesley Shovell (c.1650-1707), one of the most renowned admirals of the 17th century.
Shovell is but one of a trio of Norfolk admirals featured in this new book by Simon Harris, all of whom were significant figures during the 17th century, but whose reputations have been overshadowed by a much more famous Norfolk admiral from a century later: Nelson.
The first to appear was Christopher Myngs (1625-1666), who served his naval apprenticeship in the Parliamentary navy during the later years of the English Civil War. He came to prominence during the First Dutch War, when he fought in the Mediterranean and the North Sea.
Afterwards, he was sent to the West Indies, where he became a 17th-century version of an Elizabethan buccaneer, but seizing treasure meant for the state resulted in him being sent home in semi-disgrace – though such was his popularity, he avoided punishment.
He went on to serve in the Restoration navy, leading the van in the Four Days Battle of June 1666 during the Second Dutch War, where he was mortally wounded.
John Narbrough (c.1640-1688) was a renowned explorer of the South Atlantic and South Pacific, where he became the first Englishman to sail through the Straits of Magellan from west to east. He fought at the Battle of Sole Bay in 1672, and was greatly respected by Samuel Pepys.
An adventurer to the end, Narbrough led two expeditions to the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de la Concecion (a Spanish plate ship wrecked north of Hispaniola in 1641), in order to recover its cargo of silver, and it was on the second expedition in 1688 that Narbrough died from a febrile illness.
Shovell, the most famous of the three, fell out with Pepys and then deserted James II, but during the reigns of first William and Mary and then Queen Anne, Shovell became the leading fighting admiral of his age.
He fought at the Battles of Barfleur (a battle Winston Churchill described as the ‘Trafalgar of the 17th century’) and La Hogue, and later at Gibraltar and Malaga. Having narrowly avoided disaster among the rocks of the Isles of Scilly in May 1673, Shovell was drowned 34 years later when his flagship, the Association, was wrecked off those same islands. Simon Harris’s analysis of the disaster on the evening of 22 October 1707 is excellent.
The author successfully combines the biographies of these three admirals into a single compelling narrative, assisted by the fact that the careers of the three were intertwined: Narbrough served under Myngs, and Shovell served under Narbrough. Indeed, in 1665, on board the 44-gun Triumph, Christopher Myngs was vice-admiral, John Narbrough his lieutenant, and Cloudesley Shovell a captain’s servant.
But this book is much more than a biography of three admirals: given that at least one of the three was present at the majority of the British naval conflicts of the second half of the 17th century, it is a history of the Navy from the time of Cromwell to the reign of Queen Anne; from the wars with the Dutch to the Williamite Wars and, finally, the War of the Spanish Succession.
The author considers the failure of the Navy to halt William of Orange’s invasion of England in the autumn of 1688, asking whether it was because of treachery, the so-called ‘Protestant Wind’, incompetence, or just bad luck that the Dutch fleet was not stopped and the landing of William’s army prevented.
In addition to pure naval actions, the author also describes actions against various land targets, be these blockades, bombardments, or landings (including the largely ineffectual and pointless naval bombardment of French coastal towns in 1694-1697). These accounts highlight just how intrinsic sea-power was to any land campaign.
The sections on the sieges of Barcelona (1706) and Toulon (1707) are particularly interesting, and not only shed light on often overlooked theatres of the War of the Spanish Succession, but also show the difficulties of combined land and sea operations, and of coordination between allies who were pursing their own objectives.
The book is beautifully illustrated, and among the paintings reproduced are a number depicting naval actions, including the bombardment of Dunkirk, as well as views of both Barcelona and Toulon. In addition, the book contains 24 excellent maps produced by Derek Stone.
The author has an impressive naval pedigree, which alone would make him qualified to write on the history of the Royal Navy, but he also writes in a style that is both edifying and entertaining.
This weighty tome is the 18th in Helion’s excellent ‘The Century of the Soldier’ series, and is quite probably the best so far. Complementing several other titles in the series, this superb book sheds new light on an often overlooked era of British naval history, and, as the reader will quickly discover, the sheer breadth of British naval activity during the second half of the 17th century is quite astounding.