On August 17, 1657, an English fleet tacked its way up the English Channel toward Plymouth, led by the Parliamentary ship Naseby. A hero’s welcome had been planned by a grateful nation for the commander. As it approached the Sound, however, the admiral released his hold on life in his very moment of triumph. Robert Blake would later be granted a state funeral, attended by Oliver Cromwell and all the ruling council.
Born in the late summer of 1599 in Bridgwater, Somerset, Robert Blake was the eldest of 15 children and was brought up a Puritan. His father had owned a little land near Taunton but sold it and moved to Bridgwater to become a trader, shipping goods to the Netherlands. As the business prospered, the family bought land in the neighboring countryside. At age 16, Blake was sent to school at St. Albans Hall, Oxford, but subsequently transferred to Wadham, a new college specifically founded for the sons of West Country gentlemen. There, he acquired a taste for academic life and stayed for 10 years, but he failed to become a fellow of the college; the master of Wadham wanted tall, impressive-looking fellows, and Blake was only 5 feet 6 inches.
At his father’s death in 1625, Blake returned to Bridgwater and took over the family business. Although recent European events had devastated trade and brought about a depression, in the course of the next 15 years Blake restored the family fortunes, saw his 11 surviving brothers and sisters well placed in the world, and gained such respect among his fellow citizens that they voted him their member of Parliament in 1640.
Blake hated the restrictive atmosphere of the House of Commons, and with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, he took up the new, active role of soldier. He was given command of a company in the Parliamentary forces defending Bristol, which was soon stormed by a Royalist army led by Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Even when the defenders surrendered, Blake held out in a small outlying fort on the edge of Bristol for a further day on the excuse he had not received official orders from his commanding officer, Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes. Rupert ordered Blake to be hanged, but was persuaded to rescind the instruction and allow him to go free—a decision he would later regret.
Blake was appointed governor of the small port of Lyme Regis in Dorset, which was held by Parliament. There, he again faced a besieging force led by Rupert’s brother, Prince Maurice, in April 1644. Given his force of 500 men and the ability to be supplied by sea, Blake withstood an assault and even a heavy cannon bombardment from the cliffs overlooking the town. On June 14, a relief force led by Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, compelled Maurice to withdraw.
In July Blake, learning that the communications center of Taunton was only weakly held by the Royalists, led his Lyme garrison on a quick march and took the town. In March 1645, a Cavalier contingent under Sir Ralph Hopton laid siege to Taunton, but Blake had had time to prepare. He built barricades in the streets and removed much of the thatch from the roofs to reduce the risk of fire and provide feed for his horses. In May Hopton had succeeded in forcing the Parliamentary troops into a small area centered on the church and castle when news came of a Parliamentary force marching from Blandford on the orders of Lord Thomas Fairfax. Hopton panicked and beat a hasty retreat. Blake was now a hero among his West Countrymen and was again returned to Parliament.
With his knowledge of maritime matters—albeit in the commercial sector— the 50-year-old Blake was appointed, along with two colleagues, Edward Popham and Richard Deane, to serve as commissioner to the navy. At that time, Prince Rupert was pestering Parliamentary shipping with a fleet of privateers. Up to that point, Parliament had neglected its small navy, and the men had become demoralized and mutinous. Blake outlawed flogging for all but the most serious offenses and quickly gained the sailors’ fidelity. Learning that Rupert was operating out of Kinsale, in Ireland, Blake stationed his ships outside the port. He rendered the prince helpless until a heavy winter storm forced the Parliamentary fleet to slacken its grip, allowing Rupert to sneak away to the protection of King John IV of Portugal.
Rupert wintered in Portugal and planned to raid English shipping in the Mediterranean in the spring. In May 1650, the prince sailed down the Tagus River, heading for the open sea—and straight into Blake’s waiting fleet. Rupert was hurled back and once again blockaded in port. The king of Portugal was furious and ordered his outward-bound Brazil fleet to sweep the troublemaking Englishman from the seas. Blake attacked the emerging ships, captured nine and drove the rest back into port. In July King John combined his fleet with Rupert’s, making a total of 44 ships. Blake had 10 ships, and they had been on station for almost a year, but as the combined fleet reached the sea, Blake hammered the head of the column and drove it back in disorder. The English admiral regarded the actions of the Portuguese as an act of war and spent the rest of the summer capturing and boarding coastal traffic.
In September 34 vessels ventured out to break the English blockade. By then, Blake was down to three ships, but as the enemy left the cover of the morning mist, he opened fire and wrecked the leading vessels before they had time to deploy. The rest fled.
The coming of autumn brought the arrival of a great treasure fleet from Brazil, consisting of 23 well-armed ships. Blake, reinforced by eight vessels, attacked the irresistible prize, sending one ship to the bottom, capturing seven and scattering the rest. That was the last straw for John IV; he ordered Rupert to leave Portugal. Blake allowed the fleet to sail, then followed it to the Mediterranean. Rupert made it to Formentera, off the coast of Spain, with three ships, while the bulk of his fleet sought asylum in Cartagena, Spain. After a short stay, they left Cartagena in an attempt to rejoin Rupert. Blake leaped on them like a tiger and drove the fleet to destruction on the rocks.
Rupert fled to Toulon, France, but again Blake showed the French that it was an ill-considered move to provide asylum to the Royalists, by attacking their shipping. Rupert soon left port and made for the Azore Islands. He eventually reached the West Indies, having lost his flagship and his brother, Maurice, who drowned on the way.
Upon Blake’s return to England, a new crisis was brewing. The Dutch, once allies of Queen Elizabeth I, had secured for themselves a virtual trade monopoly. England challenged that by passing the Navigation Act, which prohibited the carriage of goods to and from English ports by alien craft. The Netherlands supported the exiled Prince Charles Stuart, and the murder of the English ambassador to The Hague did not help the situation. Cromwell, reluctant to fall out with a fellow Protestant power, suggested negotiations. But when the Dutch sought to influence those talks by mobilizing a fleet of 150 ships, that action had the opposite effect.
Peace could have still been preserved except for the fact that the Dutch fleet was placed in the command of the fire-eating Admiral Marten Tromp, who took 42 ships and conducted fleet exercises off the Kent coast. Blake then came up the Channel at the head of 13 ships and requested the customary courtesy of a salute. Tromp replied with a broadside and hoisted his battle flag. Eight more ships joined Blake, but the fleets were forced to break off the action at nightfall.
Blake deployed part of his fleet in the Channel, cutting the Dutch trade routes, while he hurried north to the Shetland Isles. Every year a vast Dutch fleet of 2,000 small fishing boats invaded British waters, under the protection of an armed escort, to take herring. Blake dealt with the escort, forced the fishing craft to dump their catch and then sent them home. Tromp, whose fleet had followed Blake north but failed to stop him, was recalled to Holland and sacked. Tromp’s replacement, Witte de With, was a leader of equal valor and greater self-confidence but inferior skill. Blake engaged him off the mouth of the Thames and defeated him decisively on September 28, 1652.
Recalled to command, Tromp was sighted off Margate on November 29 with a fleet of 335 sail, 85 men-of-war and the rest armed merchantmen. Much of the English fleet was wintering in ports up along the south and east coasts, but Blake retained 42 ships. Off Dungeness on the 30th, he hit the lead ships of Tromp’s three-pronged Dutch attack. Although much of the English fleet fought bravely, many—mostly converted merchantmen—fled. Blake had experienced his first and only defeat. The arrogant Tromp is said to have nailed a broom to his masthead, boasting that he had swept the English from the seas.
Blake tendered his resignation, but the ruling council sensibly refused to accept it. The admiral then stated that he could not defend the country with converted merchantmen. When the late King Charles I had asked for money to build five warships, Parliament had defied him; when Blake demanded 200, he got them. But the admiral could not wait for the ships to be built. Setting sail, he intercepted Tromp as he passed Portland on February 18, 1653. The Dutchman had 100 warships, but he was hampered by the 200 merchantmen he escorted. Blake, with 80 sail, harried the Dutch on the way to the Straits of Dover, sinking between 40 and 60 ships. Toward the end of the third day, he had the Dutch trapped against the rocks at Griz Nez, but with nightfall Tromp managed to escape total destruction.
Blake was severely wounded during the battle and had to hand over command of the fleet to his understudy, General-at-Sea George Monck. The news of the admiral’s incapacity encouraged the Dutch, and on June 2, they ventured to the Suffolk coast to take on Monck off the Gabbard shoal. At first the Dutch held their own, until Blake, leading a refitted squadron of ships, emerged from the Thames to secure their defeat. A month later, during a relatively minor coastal engagement off Scheveningen on July 31, a random musket ball ended Tromp’s life— and the First Dutch War.
In spite of Blake’s failing health, 1655 found him in the Mediterranean, punishing Algerine pirates who had long been a menace to peaceful shipping. The destruction of the navy of Algiers earned Blake the thanks of many states besides England that sailed the inland sea.
By the time Blake returned home in October, Spain had declared war on England. On March 28, 1656, the admiral set sail from Portsmouth in his flagship Naseby with 48 ships. For a year he cruised off the Spanish coast, capturing merchantmen. Meanwhile, the enemy battle fleet dared not venture out of Cadiz Harbor. In April 1657, he received reports that the Spanish treasure fleet was at Santa Cruz in Tenerife. Blake turned south, and by the 18th, the English fleet was off Santa Cruz. He intended to sail into the harbor, but shore batteries ringed the port, and any wind that took him in would have made it difficult to sail out.
Blake split his fleet, giving command of 12 ships to Richard Stayner. These would enter the harbor, sailing between the two lines of moored Spanish vessels, while the rest of the fleet would take on the fortress guns. Fortunately for Blake, the Spanish had foolishly anchored some of their ships between their guns and the English line of approach, thus restricting the fortress guns’ field of fire. Stayner entered the harbor at 8 a.m. at the head of his line in Speaker while Blake hammered the shore batteries. At 11 a.m. Blake joined Stayner, and by midday all 16 Spanish ships were either sunk, ablaze or captured. It was impossible to leave with the prizes, however, so those too were fired. Throughout the afternoon, Blake’s fleet struggled to sail clear of the bay. Speaker lost most of its rigging and was taken in tow by Swiftsure, but had to cut free because of heavy shore fire. The English managed to reach open sea, and as evening fell the wind changed, and Speaker limped out to rejoin the fleet.
Blake had achieved total victory at a cost of 60 men dead and 140 wounded. On June 10, 1657, Cromwell wrote to Blake, “The mercy therein to us and this Commonwealth is very signal; both in the loss the enemy received, as also in the preservation of our own ships and men.” The Venetian ambassador wrote that it was “a signal victory, and which is here considered the greatest which they have had against the Spaniards since that of 1588 in the time of Queen Elizabeth.”
Blake’s victory at Tenerife gave him a place in the Royal Navy among its greatest admirals, surpassed only by another fearless Englishman of small stature, Horatio Nelson. Blake’s death from old wounds as he returned in triumph spared him the sight of the end of the Commonwealth. A lifetime republican, it is difficult to see how he would have reacted to his friend and colleague, General Monck, inviting the return of the monarchy. Monck was another soldier who ended up winning his greatest victories at sea— but that is another story.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.