Prince Rupert: Service in the Royalist Navy

Rupert’s maritime campaign in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas, 1650–1653.

In 1648, the relatively brief Second English Civil War broke out, and Rupert informed the French King that he would be returning to King Charles’s service. The Parliamentary navy mutinied in favour of the King and sailed for Holland, providing the Royalists with a major fleet for the first time since the start of the civil conflict; Rupert joined the fleet under the command of the Duke of York, who assumed the rank of Lord High Admiral. Rupert argued that the fleet should be used to rescue the King, then being held prisoner on the Isle of Wight, while others advised sailing in support of the fighting in the north. The fleet itself rapidly lost discipline, with many vessels’ crews focussing on seizing local ships and cargoes. This underlined a major problem for the Royalists—the cost of maintaining the new fleet was well beyond their means. Discipline continued to deteriorate and Rupert had to intervene personally several times, including defusing one group of mutinous sailors by suddenly dangling the ringleader over the side of his vessel and threatening to drop him into the sea. Most of the fleet finally switched sides once more, returning to England in late 1648.

Then, following a degree of reconciliation with Charles, Rupert obtained command of the Royalist fleet himself. The intention was to restore Royalist finances by using the remaining vessels of the fleet to conduct a campaign of organised piracy against English shipping across the region. One of the obstacles that this plan faced was the growing strength of the Parliamentary fleet and the presence of Robert Blake, one of the finest admirals of the period, as Rupert’s opponent during the campaign.

Map of Kinsale Harbour in 1741 from the collection of Royal Museums Greenwich, London, England

Prince Rupert’s royalist navy blockaded at Kinsale

In 1648 a revolt broke out among the fleet stationed in the Downs and a number of ships defected to the royalists in Holland. Prince Rupert, the king’s nephew and an experienced soldier, took command of the ships. In January 1649 the prince led a flotilla of seven warships from Helvoetsluys to Kinsale. Following the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649, parliament began preparations for the reconquest of Ireland. In April they appointed Oliver Cromwell as commander-in-chief for the expedition. The most immediate threat to any invasion force came from the presence of the royalist fleet at Kinsale. To eliminate this danger, parliament selected three new naval commanders-Robert Blake, Richard Deane and Edward Popham, called the `generals-at-sea’-to organise the navy. In late May 1649 the generals arrived before Kinsale and proceeded to blockade the royalist fleet in the harbour. A shortage of money and mariners combined with the near-mutinous state of some of his men meant that Rupert could not risk taking his ships out to engage the parliamentarians. At the same time, shore-based fortifications and artillery prevented the generals from assaulting the royalist ships at anchor. Nevertheless, this effective blockade of the royalist squadron at Kinsale allowed the invasion army to cross the Irish Sea safely.

Rupert feared the loss of the royalist fleet if he remained there, and in late October he took advantage of a storm to escape with most of his ships to Portugal.

Rupert’s naval campaign

Rupert’s naval campaign formed two phases. The first involved the Royalist fleet sailing from Kinsale in Ireland to Lisbon in Portugal. He took three large ships, HMS Constant Reformation, the Convertine and the Swallow, accompanied by four smaller vessels. Rupert sailed to Lisbon taking several prizes en route, where he received a warm welcome from King John IV, the ruler of recently independent Portugal, who was a supporter of Charles II. Blake arrived shortly afterwards with a Parliamentary fleet, and an armed stand-off ensued. Tensions rose, skirmishes began to break out and King John became increasingly keen for his Royalist guests to leave. In October 1650, Rupert’s fleet, now comprising six vessels, broke out and headed into the Mediterranean. Still pursued by Blake, the Royalist fleet manoeuvred up the Spanish coast, steadily losing vessels to their pursuers.

The second phase of the campaign then began. Rupert crossed back into the Atlantic and, during 1651, cut west to the Azores, capturing vessels as he went. He intended to continue on to the West Indies, where there would be many rich targets. Instead he encountered a late summer storm, leading to the sinking of the Constant Reformation with the loss of 333 lives—almost including Rupert’s brother, Prince Maurice, who only just escaped—and a great deal of captured treasure. Turning back to regroup, repair and re-equip in early 1652, Rupert’s reduced force moored at Cape Blanc, an island near what is now Mauritania. Rupert took the opportunity to explore and acquired a Moorish servant boy, who remained in his service for many years. Rupert also explored 150 miles up the Gambia River, taking two Spanish vessels as prizes and contracting malaria in the process.

Rupert then finally made a successful crossing into the Caribbean, landing first at Saint Lucia, before continuing up the chain of the Antilles to the Virgin Islands. There the fleet was hit by a hurricane, which scattered the ships and sank the Defiance, this time with Prince Maurice on board. It was a while before Maurice’s death became certain, which came as a terrible blow to Rupert. He was forced to return to Europe, arriving in France in March 1653 with a fleet of five ships. It became clear, as the profits and losses of the piracy campaign were calculated, that the venture had not been as profitable as hoped. This complicated tensions in the Royalist court, and Charles II and Rupert eventually split the spoils, after which Rupert, tired and a little bitter, returned to France to recuperate from the long campaign.

In 1654, Rupert appears to have been involved in a plot to assassinate Oliver Cromwell, an event that would then have been followed by a coup, the landing of a small army in Sussex, and the restoration of Charles II. Charles himself is understood to have rejected the assassination proposal, but three conspirators—who implicated Rupert in the plan—were arrested and confessed in London. Rupert’s presence at the royal court continued to be problematic; as in 1643, he was regarded by Edward Hyde (later Earl of Clarendon) and others as a bellicose figure and an obstacle to peace negotiations; in 1655 Rupert left for Germany.