Prince Rupert Admiral and General-at-Sea: Revenge

There would not be another Revenge until the Newbury was renamed in 1660.

Like the stunned silence that follows the finale of a dramatic piece of music, or the last act of a great play, a pregnant pause hangs over the last act of the great Revenge tragedy and, as on those occasions when no one wants to be the first to break the silence, no order was given over the next fifty-nine years for a replacement to be constructed.

Perhaps what was also awaited was not only the time but the man, and the man who was to confer the famous name on another ship could overmatch Sir Richard Grenville in élan, dash and in lineage. He was, after all, the nephew of King Charles I.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, son of Frederick V, elector of Palatine and King of Bohemia, and of Elizabeth Stuart, is probably best remembered for his inspirational leadership of Royalist cavalry during the English Civil War, his precipitous charge at the Battle of Edgehill becoming a trademark for brilliance bordering on recklessness, his gleeful pursuit of the enemy leaving the Royalist centre dangerously exposed. After defeats at both Marston Moor and Naseby, the favourite was dismissed by his patron, Charles I, and, after the Royalist surrender, banished from England. The erstwhile cavalry commander now took on a different variety of steed and, as Admiral and General-at-Sea, he took command of the Royalist fleet in 1648.

After occasional skirmishes with the Commonwealth fleet round the British Isles, Rupert set sail across the Bay of Biscay to Lisbon, where he was welcomed by the newly crowned King John IV, who, while maintaining cordial relations with the English Commonwealth, was predisposed to support the English Royalist cause.

Rupert and the Royalist fleet proceeded to play a game of cat and mouse with the Commonwealth fleet under Bacon, sent to blockade Rupert. The Portuguese played a delicate game of attempting to aid Rupert without antagonizing the Commonwealth. After various brushes between the two fleets, and several unsuccessful attempts to get away, Rupert finally made his escape on 12 October 1650, much to the relief of the Portuguese.

After setting off into the Atlantic, Rupert sailed down the south coast of Spain, hunting English ships in ports such as Málaga and Motríl. Rupert in the Constant Reformation and his brother, Maurice, in the Swallow were not, however, to be found. At this point they were in pursuit of a merchantman, the Marmaduke, which was attempting to escape south towards the coast of Africa. This merchantman was, at 400 tons, well armed and full of fight. Rupert and Maurice caught up with her by nightfall and fierce hostilities flared in the morning. The battle raged until about midday when the Marmaduke finally surrendered due to the death of her captain.

The Marmaduke, now a prize, then accompanied Rupert and Maurice to Formentera. Not finding the other Royalist ships at the agreed rendezvous, the two princes and their prize sailed on towards Cagliari in Sardinia, whereupon the Constant Reformation became separated from the other ships in a storm. Maurice sailed to Toulon with the prize where he was eventually joined by Rupert, who had pulled in to Messina in Sicily to repair storm damage.

At Toulon, Rupert set about repairing and refitting the prize ship, which was renamed the Revenge of Whitehall. With this and four other ships, Rupert sailed on 7 May, deceiving the lurking Commonwealth fleet under the command of Penn by first sailing east and then doubling back close to the coast of Africa, before heading into the Atlantic.

Although there was some dispute among the captains as to their destination, they finally arrived at the Azores, an appropriate location for the second Revenge.

Rupert’s squadron landed at Sâo Miguel and he made this the base of his operations. Soon afterwards, however, one of his ships, the St Michael the Archangel, deserted and sailed off for England.

On 26 January, the squadron sailed for the Cape Verde islands, Prince Maurice having moved into the Revenge. After this, they sailed down to the Gambia where the Portuguese pilots managed to run both the Swallow and the Revenge aground. At this stage Marshall moved across to the Revenge.

At Mayo, in the Cape Verde islands, two English ships anchored near the Revenge, which promptly captured them and took their crews prisoner. This was to prove the undoing of the Revenge, for William Coxon, the mate of the Supply, one of the captured ships, organized the prisoners to take over the ship. Once this had been achieved, they sailed for England.

Thus ended the exploits of the second Revenge in the Azores, having revisited, like a ghost, the hunting ground of her illustrious namesake.

For Rupert, too, the time was approaching when he should return to northern waters. After a visit to the West Indies, Rupert’s squadron approached the Azores, only to be fired upon by the Portuguese authorities who had decided in favour of the English Commonwealth.

Rupert’s sally into the Mediterranean and the Atlantic was effectively a sideshow, with such little strategic interest as to be barely worth more than a few lines in a general history of the period. The interest it does have is mainly due to the sheer force of personality of Rupert and the passing presence of the ship named Revenge.

Rupert sailed to France and joined the court of the English King-in-waiting, Charles II. The captured Revenge was bought by the Admiralty in 1652 and renamed the Marmaduke. There would not be another Revenge until the Newbury was renamed in 1660.

While the Royalist fleet had been engaged on its somewhat fruitless diversions, significant developments were underway in the Commonwealth Navy, largely due to the skills and experience of two Generals-at-Sea, Robert Blake and George Monck.

Blake had led the hunt for Rupert in the Mediterranean and Rupert was fortunate to have escaped him, for Blake’s exceptional talents were to turn the English Navy into an elite fighting force and in the forthcoming First Dutch War he won three out of four engagements with the distinguished Admiral Tromp, between May 1652 and June 1653. George Monck, who had fought for Charles I and who was to be a lead player in the Restoration of his son, although primarily an expert on land warfare, employed his organizational and tactical skills to develop a formula for naval engagements, to be known as the ‘Fighting Instructions’.

A set of fighting instructions had been issued by Edward Cecil, Viscount Wimbledon (1572–1638) in 1625 for the expedition against Cadiz, and these contained one of the first references to fleet line ahead, though as has been noted above, a form of line ahead had been performed by Howard’s ships in their attack on the San Martín of the Spanish Armada. The realization of this tactical idea was to come in the first Dutch War, not only under the influence of Blake and Monck but of William Penn (1621–1670), whose formulation of fighting instructions was to be the basis of James Duke of York’s ‘Instruction for the better Ordering His Majesties Fleet in Sayling of 1673’.

To begin with, however, despite the previous attempts to formulate fighting instructions, the first engagements with the Dutch at sea, concerning disputes over the honour to the flag (as stipulated in the Navigation Act of 1651) were haphazard.