Capture of HMS Ardent by the frigates Junon and Chantil.

Early on the 17th, when the French and Spanish ships were still off Plymouth, another alarm was sounded: ‘At four o’clock the alarm guns on the citadel were fired, on discovering a number of ships entering the Sound, which were at first taken for transports belonging to the enemy, but afterwards proved to be coasters brought in under convoy of the Ardent man of war, which immediately after seeing them safe into port, stood out to sea in order to join Sir Charles Hardy.’ After successfully escorting this convoy, the Ardent, a 64-gun battleship, left Plymouth and ran into what was presumed to be the Channel Fleet. Only when one ship opened fire was it realised that this was the invasion fleet. The resulting battle was heard at Plymouth:

Soon after nine a heavy firing began just in sight from the Maker tower, which continued incessantly till near one o’clock, during which time expresses were sent off every way, under a supposition that the fleets were engaged; but an account was brought in by the master of a Cawsand smuggler, at four o’clock, that being at some distance under land, he saw the Ardent make towards the enemy’s fleet … Several frigates and three deckers chased her near an hour, when a very smart firing began from two frigates … the fire became general from five sail which he could distinctly count, that had all opened upon the Ardent in very quick succession after the attack had been begun by the frigates. About 1 o’clock the firing ceased, when he supposed the Ardent had struck to the great superiority of the enemy.

The Ardent was captured in sight of the naval base of Plymouth, making this the first successful engagement for the would-be invaders. Everyone was waiting for the Channel Fleet to deal with the French and Spanish ships, and there was dismay when they remained unchallenged. John Carpenter was a steward of Sir Francis Henry Drake and wrote to him from near Tavistock, inland from Plymouth, about the turmoil:

We all consider ourselves deserted by Hardy’s fleet, as we can get no accounts with certainty where he now is, and all we with certainty do know is that he knows the French and Spaniards are braving Plymouth and the Cornwall coasts … Our Empire of the Sea is lost, it’s not extravagant to conclude we must be a lost people … since hereafter whatever we hold must be by the courtesy of France and Spain – a tenure till this fatal era unknown to Britons.

Drake, who was Eliott’s brother-in-law, was then at Winchester, and Carpenter related to him what was happening on the edge of Dartmoor:

All business is at a stand in this county [Devon]. Everybody attending to nothing but hiding, burying or removing what little property they possess, to save themselves from want. ’Tis really affecting to see, and to consider the consequences much more so. Shoals of people, women and children, daily coming through the town [Tavistock], looking like people bereft, and not knowing whither to retire for safety, and lamenting their friends left behind. As to myself, I have packed up my material papers, etc. and shall remove them with Mrs. Carpenter [his wife] and my daughter and father, as soon as I hear a landing is effected. Myself and my boys will join the troops and stand or fall with them.

The panic spread across southern England and was especially felt at Portsmouth, which was an even greater target than Plymouth. The Admiralty in London had by now been informed, but was unsure of Hardy’s location and whether or not he knew about the enemy fleet. On the assumption that the French and Spanish ships would sail eastwards with the prevailing winds, naval ships were ordered to be stationed in the Channel off the Kent coast, and Rear-Admiral Francis William Drake, commander-in-chief at the Downs, was instructed to take a squadron across to France to look for and destroy any transport ships that might be part of an invasion force. Troops were also mobilised in southern England.

One more day passed at Plymouth with the menacing presence of the invasion fleet off the coast, but then something strange happened. To their immense relief, the people of Plymouth woke up on the morning of 19 August to find it had disappeared. The Admiralty, though, was faced with two problems – not knowing where it had gone and not knowing the whereabouts of Hardy’s Channel Fleet, comprising thirty-eight battleships, three 50-gun ships and seventeen smaller warships. The battleships included three 100-gun vessels (Britannia, Victory and Royal George), several 98-gun vessels, like the London and Formidable, and more than twenty 74-gun vessels, such as the Invincible and Terrible. Lieutenant Wheate estimated that the combined invasion fleet had sixty-three warships, of which more than forty were large battleships.

Although Hardy was heavily outnumbered, his immediate problem was to get back into the English Channel. With contrary winds, it took another ten days before Land’s End, at the tip of Cornwall, was even in sight, but suddenly the combined fleet was spotted. Sir Richard Bickerton, captain of the Terrible, related that they immediately prepared for battle:

Sunday, 29th August, about four in the afternoon, a signal was made by the Cumberland for many ships in the S.E., the wind then being about E.S.E. Some ships soon afterwards let fly their topgallant sheets as a signal for a fleet. The Admiral in consequence thereof made a signal to call in his cruisers, and another for close order of sailing. About six o’clock the signal was made to tack; and soon after we had tacked, a signal for a line of battle ahead, which was cheerfully complied with, with a general cheer throughout the fleet, as we took them to be the enemy’s fleet.

At midnight the wind changed, forcing the Channel Fleet to alter its formation, but the next morning brought huge disappointment, because after all the tension of preparing for a major engagement there was no sign of the enemy ships. It was later realised that this was a convoy of French supply ships that was also looking for the combined fleet.

The next day, more ships were seen to the west. This time, they were positively identified as the invasion fleet, which had left Plymouth to look for the Channel Fleet. In the night both fleets had passed each other unnoticed, moving in opposite directions. Hardy’s much faster ships continued sailing eastwards, and the French and Spanish ships were soon out of sight. At the beginning of the year, a programme to cover the bottoms of all British warships with copper sheets had begun, in order to protect the wooden hulls from ‘shipworm’ (actually a mollusc, Teredo navalis), whose holes could rapidly destroy the bottom of a ship. The copper also prevented weed from attaching to a ship’s bottom, making vessels faster and more manoeuvrable. Francis Vernon on board the Terrible watched what happened after the invasion fleet was spotted:

We descried them from our mast heads early in the morning, and from their numbers resembled an approaching wood, consisting of near seventy sail of the line. Our fleet was scarcely more than half that number, and was fortunately between the enemy and our ports. Sir Charles clearing for action, and preparing for the worst, made a masterly disposition of his ships, and standing to the eastward, anchored off Plymouth, on the 1st of September.

They remained off Plymouth for a few hours, long enough for Hardy to write a dispatch to the Admiralty, in which he explained that his plan was to lure the enemy further up the Channel, where a battle would be more favourable. His strategy was sound, considering that his fleet was outnumbered. Towards Portsmouth, the English Channel was not so wide, which would give an advantage to the British ships, and, being in constant use by the Royal Navy, it was rightly assumed that the French would not have detailed knowledge of these waters. After leaving Plymouth, Hardy continued as far as Spithead and anchored off Portsmouth on 3 September to take on supplies, offload sick seamen and hopefully find reinforcements. As for fighting the much-anticipated battle with the French and Spanish ships, nothing happened. The invasion fleet was not seen again, leading to rumours that, rather than fight the enemy, Hardy had run away. It was even alleged that seamen on board the Royal George felt such shame that they covered the eyes of the figurehead:

A boatswain’s mate on board the Royal George stept over the ship’s bows, and lashed a double hammock fast round the figure-head of the King. ‘What are you doing there?’ says a lieutenant on the forecastle. ‘Only securing his peepers,’ replies Jack. ‘Peepers! What do you mean?’ exclaims the officer. ‘Why,’ replied the man, ‘we aren’t ordered to break the old boy’s heart, are we? I’m sure if the King once gets sight of this here day’s work, and knows that we have run away like cowardly lubbers, it will be the death of him, poor soul.’

The figurehead actually comprised two horses and their riders, with the monogram G.R., leading the seamen to believe they represented the king.

There was also concern that while the Channel Fleet was secure at Spithead, a huge enemy fleet with plans to invade the country was at liberty in the Channel. The king shared that concern and wrote to the Earl of Sandwich, who was First Lord of the Admiralty:

Our fine fleet being returned to Spithead for refreshments I do not object to, provided that is effected with the greatest expedition; but the times will not permit its waiting for every little convenience; therefore I trust on your not losing one moment in proceeding with the utmost dispatch to Portsmouth, and on your seeing that no time is lost in putting on board the several ships what may be absolutely necessary for enabling Sir Charles Hardy to go and meet the combined fleets of France and Spain now in the Channel.

Sandwich took the hint and immediately left for Portsmouth, but the king kept up the pressure, writing to him again before he had even reached the port: ‘We cannot be too expeditious, and show by actions not words that the putting the fleet in a state to pursue the enemy when thrashed, and to sweep up the Dons now before Gibraltar, make the present appearance of retreat not only wise but meritorious.’

At Portsmouth, Sandwich tried to find out what was happening and urged Hardy to set sail as quickly as possible, but events were moving rapidly. Intelligence was providing a clearer picture, and even before Sandwich left Portsmouth, news of the state of the French and Spanish ships started to arrive. One report came from an Irish crew member of a Portuguese vessel that had encountered the invasion fleet. The Irishman was held on board a French ship, but was released after a few days: ‘The informant says he was detained on board a 74-gun ship called the Palmier, and was told that they were sickly and in want of water and provisions and were going into Brest soon; that on a meat day, the allowance was only one ounce and a half of meat. The Ardent was with them, which ship they often showed him by way of mortification.’

It was obvious that the invasion fleet was not as strong as feared. Because of the initial delays and hurried departure, their supplies were running low, and the French victualling vessels encountered by Hardy’s fleet had failed to deliver their supplies, having been driven back to port by bad weather. More significantly, the invasion fleet was affected by disease, much more than the British, with countless seamen dying of various illnesses. Yet it was still at large somewhere in the Channel, and such a threat needed to be removed. A heavy defeat by Hardy would have destroyed the invasion plan and possibly lifted the siege of Gibraltar, but George III was now urging caution:

The Admiral will, I trust, in all his conduct be guided less by rumour than by what appears to him for the public good, and then I do not doubt he will give a good account of his opponents if he engages them. A victory over them will be a great advantage and glory to Great Britain; but I cannot desire to see him run headlong into a battle against a superior force, under circumstances of disadvantage, when we are upon the defensive, and when the season is so far advanced that the enemy’s project, if not carried into execution in three weeks or a month, must be given up without a battle.

As it was, the invasion fleet returned to the port of Brest in mid-September, beaten by disease, bad weather, shortage of supplies, lack of co-operation between the two allied fleets and poor planning. In the short term, the French and Spanish ships had lost so many men through disease that their fleets were crippled and would remain in port for months. The Scots Magazine described the true scale of the sickness, which had even taken the life of the son of Admiral d’Orvilliers:

On the 16th of September, twenty-five ships of the line, part French and part Spanish, and on the next day the remainder of the combined fleet, entered Brest roads … An epidemic sickness is said to have raged in the fleet … insomuch that they were obliged to disarm six sixty-four gun ships to man some of the others properly. 500 mattresses were burnt, being accounted contagious. The Count [Admiral] d’Orvilliers, being in a bad state of health, obtained leave to resign.

Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France and wife of Louis XVI, commented to her mother: ‘The public complains greatly that Monsieur d’Orvilliers, with forces far superior to those of the English, wasn’t able to engage them in battle, nor prevent any of their merchant ships from returning to port. This will have cost a great deal of money to do nothing, and I still don’t see any sign of peace being negotiated this year.’ A month later, in mid-October, she said: ‘Our fleet was not able to engage the English and has done nothing at all; it is a wasted campaign that has cost a lot of money. What is most distressing is that the sickness got into the ships and wreaked havoc.’

In Britain, inertia and inaction had preserved the precious ships and seamen, but not the reputation of Admiral Hardy. It had also highlighted the weakness of the Royal Navy. The French and Spanish plans might have failed on this occasion, but the British people still lived in fear of invasion and would continue to do so until the end of the war. In the short term, though, the threat was removed. With the invasion plan shelved, the Spanish fleet returned to Cadiz from Brest at the end of the year, causing the Annual Register to comment: ‘Thus ended the expectations of the enemy, and the apprehensions of Great Britain. Never had perhaps so great a naval force been assembled on the seas. Never any by which less was done, or, except by sickness, less suffered.’