The Revenge

HMS Swiftsure was a 70-gun third-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, built by Sir Anthony Deane at Harwich, and launched in 1673. By 1685 she had been reduced to a 66-gun ship.

In 1692 she saw action at the Battles of Barfleur and La Hogue.

She was rebuilt by Snelgrove of Deptford in 1696 as a 66-gun third rate.[2] In 1707, she belonged to Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s fleet. She saw action during the unsuccessful Battle of Toulon and was present during the great naval disaster off the Isles of Scilly when Shovell and four of his ships (Association, Firebrand, Romney and Eagle) were lost, claiming the lives of nearly 2,000 sailors. Swiftsure suffered little to no damage and finally managed to reach Portsmouth. She underwent a second rebuild at Woolwich Dockyard, relaunching on 20 November 1718 as a 70-gun third rate of the 1706 Establishment. She was renamed HMS Revenge at this time. On 25 February 1740 Revenge was ordered to be taken to pieces at Deptford, and to be rebuilt as a 70-gun third rate to the 1733 proposals of the 1719 Establishment. She was relaunched on 23 May 1742.

Revenge was sold out of the navy in 1787.

Deptford, where Revenge was built, was frequented by Samuel Pepys and the fourth Revenge was a result of the considerable surge in shipbuilding that took place in the first decade of the eighteenth century.

A Third Rate was a two-decker ship, and one of the most common ships in the Navy. The most famous of these was the 74-gun Third Rate. Not a great deal had changed since the days of Elizabeth I, though the fourth Revenge had a less racy design than her successor. The fourth Revenge was effectively a frigate, comparatively light on the water, though heavier, due to the greater weight of guns, and not as manoeuvrable as her more famous ancestor. The guns were comparatively unchanged, including the short-barrelled, medium-range culverin.

With the arrival of William of Orange in England in 1688, Pepys’s star began to wane, having collaborated with George Legge, Lord Dartmouth’s unsuccessful attempt to intercept William’s fleet. Pepys, whose work for the Navy had contributed to the creation of a national naval force that would one day dominate the oceans of the world, allowed himself to be mixed up in a disastrous muddle that resulted in a change in the monarchy.

William’s accession meant a radical change in foreign policy and whereas the third Revenge appeared to be the agent of a Catholic revival, the fourth Revenge was once again the servant of Protestantism ranged against the French. War was declared on France on 5 May 1689 and negotiations for co-operation with the Dutch fleet were wrapped up, turning the naval arrangements of the previous few years completely on their head.

The fourth Revenge sailed almost immediately into the cauldron that was the War of the Spanish Succession. Carlos II having died heirless, the succession went to Philippe of Anjou which in turn precipitated French military advances in the Spanish Netherlands and Italy.

With the death of William, the war against France proceeded under Queen Anne and the major historical emphasis switched to the exploits of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, who proceeded to unravel French ambitions with the help of Prince Eugene of Savoy.

Sir George Rooke had unsuccessfully attacked Cadiz in order to repeat Drake’s singeing of the King of Spain’s beard, but the attempt was badly organized and failed to achieve the intended result.

Sir George Rooke (1650–1709) was born near Canterbury and entered the Navy as a volunteer. He commanded a squadron at the siege of London in 1689 and became a Rear Admiral in 1690, when he participated at the Battle of Beachy Head. He made his mark at the Battle of La Hogue, when he contrived to burn six enemy ships and was rewarded for his action with a knighthood. He served in various posts in the Channel and in the Mediterranean until 1702, when he led the expedition against Cadiz, followed by the conspicuously successful raid on the Spanish and French fleet at Vigo. He was accompanied by Sir Cloudesley Shovell on the attack on Gibraltar on 21 July 1704, which received popular acclaim and which proved to be a milestone in British maritime history. On 13 August he commanded the fleet in an attack on the French off Malaga. The battle was inconclusive, with neither side losing a ship, and Rooke was subject to criticism for the poor preparation of the English fleet at the battle – the ships’ hulls had not been careened and the guns were short of ammunition after the extensive barrage at Gibraltar. On this negative note, he retired from the Navy in 1705 and died in 1709.

After the failure at Cadiz, Rooke’s face was saved when he got wind of some Spanish treasure ships in Vigo Bay. At a council of war held on the Royal Sovereign on 17 October 1702 it was decided to sail to Vigo and ‘insult them immediately with our whole line, in case these be enough’.

On arrival at Vigo on 18 October, Rooke sent in two boats to scout which reported back that there were about twenty-two Spanish galleons and eighteen French men-of-war. The ships had unloaded some of their treasure and were secured in an inlet above Vigo, near Redondella, protected by a boom made up, according to Captain Nathaniel Uring, thus:

They having unrigged their ships, laid their Masts and Yards abreast each other, and lashed them securely together which spread the whole breadth of the Channel, with their cables stretched out a length upon them and well fasten’d; and their Top and other chains were stapled down to the Mast, to prevent them being out by our Men. They moored it without Side and within, with several anchors and cables; it was 8 or 10 foot broad, which altogether made it so strong, that they thought it impossible to be forced.

The Allied fleet anchored near the boom and another council of war was held in which it was decided that it was too risky to attempt to enter the enemy’s lair in full strength, due to the lack of sea space, and it was decided instead to send in a detachment of fifteen English and ten Dutch ships along with fireships, backed up by frigates and bomb vessels, with the major ships watching for any opportunities at the back.

The population of Vigo, having been visited upon years before by the legendary Drake, were understandably alarmed, as a French historian recounts:

L’inquietude puis la panique gagnerent toute la region; le vieux racontaient de terrible histoires du temps de leurs grandsparents; c’etait l’attaque de la ville en 1589 par Francis Drake qui brula les maisons, profana les eglises et laissa le pays ruine pour trent ans, c’etait la mise a sac de Cangas en 1617 par les pirates barbariques qui ne laisserent pierre sur pierre, qui massaeraient enfants et viellards et mutilaient les prisonniers a grand coups de cimeterre, qui couperent les seins de femmes don plusieurs nonnes.

On Monday, 22 October, having landed troops in a bay ‘about a league above Vigo’ [Rooke], Vice Admiral Topsonn in the Torbay was ordered to make an attempt on the boom, which he succeeded in making. The Swiftsure accompanied the Berwick and the Essex under Rear Admiral Fairborne. Meanwhile the Marines attacked and took the forts, putting them out of action while the Allied ships passed beneath them.

What ensued was effectively a turkey shoot, with every French and Spanish ship being either burnt (16), sunk (8) or captured (12). On the Allied side, the Torbay came off worst, having been attacked by a fireship which then blew up.

Carlos di Risio has little doubt about the reasons for the crushing victory: the English gunners were better trained and could fire faster than either the French or Spaniards, and these two fleets were in any case a shadow of their former selves. Just over a hundred years later, at Trafalgar, the English would once again defeat a Franco-Spanish fleet, with once again a bold strategy and superior gunnery.

Following this victory, England made an alliance with Portugal and some Portuguese soldiers were present in the attack that took place on Gibraltar on 24 July 1704. Joined by Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Rooke held a council of war on 16 June in which the best possible targets were debated, the onus being on them to make good use of the considerable naval resources at their disposal, including the Swiftsure, a 70-gun ship built in 1673 which would be renamed Revenge in 1716. At a second meeting, on 17 June, Gibraltar was finally settled upon as the best option, though it is unlikely that the strategic impact of that decision for the next two centuries would have crossed the minds of those in attendance. It seemed to them to be a useful place to hold for the purposes of the war and it was also relatively lightly defended in comparison with ports such as Cadiz, on which Rooke had already burnt his fingers.

On 21 July, the Anglo-Dutch fleet arrived in Gibraltar Bay and 1,800 English and Dutch marines landed under the command of the Prince of Hesse, cutting the town off from the mainland. They received a barrage of cannon fire the next day, after the governor refused to surrender, but the marines took the fortifications and the governor of the town eventually surrendered on the 24th.

Leaving the Prince of Hesse in charge, the fleet then withdrew and some days later, on 9 August, spotted a French fleet and gave chase. By the 14th, the French had formed for action off Málaga and consisted of fifty-two ships and twenty-four galleys. The Anglo-Dutch fleet was fifty-two ships. The ensuing action was sporadic, with the enemy disinclined to stand and fight, eventually disappearing into the mist.

The Swiftsure was part of a division commanded by Sir Cloudesley Shovell, which also included the Barfleur, Eagle, Orford, Assurance, Warspite, Nottingham, Tilbury and Lenox. The English lost 691 men, the Dutch 400 killed and wounded and the French 3,048 men, along with one rear admiral, five captains, six lieutenants and five ensigns. The French, however, contrived to portray the battle as a victory – an early example of propaganda.

The Swiftsure remained under her original name for another decade, during which the Duke of Marlborough and Eugene fought a series of victorious campaigns over the French, prefaced by the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, with Ramillies and Oudenarde following in 1706 and 1708 respectively. When the war eventually drew to a close, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713, which set the seal on Rooke’s capture of Gibraltar in perpetuity. This great lump of igneous rock was henceforth to be a lynchpin of British naval strategy in the Mediterranean and a stone in the shoe for Spain. Flying the Union Jack, it was emblematic of the rise in fortune of the British colonial empire and the relative decline of Spain and France.

In 1704, Revenge was involved in the vital duty of protecting trade in the Channel, particularly the Soundings, that area of sea roughly south of the Lizard in England and north of Forne Head in Britanny. Revenge was under the command of Commodore the Honourable William Kerr (1622–1722) who had the unenviable task of protecting British trade coming in from the Americas or Portugal from the depredations of French squadrons based at Brest and Dunkirk.

The Brest squadron was led by a privateer called Duguay-Trouin whose skill in hunting down straggling traders had been applauded and officially recognized by the French Government. His opposite number at Dunkirk was Saint-Pol-Hecourt.

Réné Duguay-Truin (1673–1736) led a career that was radically different to the one his family had intended for him. Having trained in a Jesuit College for Holy Orders, after which he entered the University of Caen, he decided to answer instead the call of the sea and became a corsair. Various successful actions led to his appointment as captain of a frigate in 1692, when he was eighteen, and later a larger ship.

Taking a leaf out of the book of the successful English Elizabethan privateers, the French Government decided to equip French corsairs with navy ships, thus granting a semi-official status to the swashbuckling escapades of the privateers and taking advantage of their natural talent and bravado for the benefit of the nation. One of the tactics practised by Duguay-Trouin and other corsairs was to fly the enemy flag before launching a surprise attack on an often unsuspecting enemy. At one point the British managed to capture Duguay-Trouin but their efforts to charge him with ungentlemanly deceit fell flat when he managed to escape from imprisonment.

His continued success led to an official invitation to join the French Navy, which he was delighted to accept, and by the age of twenty-four he had been appointed to the rank of captain. Realizing that his new formal status was constricting his debonair talent, it was decided on the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession that Duguay-Trouin should leave the Navy and return to privateering.

After his exploits in the Channel in 1704, often against the Revenge, he was honoured by the French Crown and, in 1704, when HMS Revenge was no longer cruising in that station, he captured twelve British merchantmen off the Lizard.

To begin with, the French had to contend with a larger British force under the command of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who had been appointed to deal with a bustle of activity round the French ports of Rochefort, Brest and Port Louis. If the French fleet were to set sail for the straits, then Shovell had orders to detach part of his force, up to twenty-two ships, to reinforce Admiral Rooke.

Shovell’s plan was to take his squadron from a rendezvous at Plymouth to the location of the cruisers on the Soundings, to ascertain at that point whether the French fleet, under the command of the Comte de Toulouse, had left Brest. If there was no sign of Toulouse, Shovell would gather the combined fleet, which included merchantmen bound for the West Indies, and bring them into the Soundings. If there were still no sign of the French, he would take his ships to a point 140–150 leagues west or west-south-west of the Scilly Isles. Again, if there were no sign of enemy, the ships for the West Indies would be allowed to set off, while store ships would be despatched to replenish Sir George Rooke’s fleet at Lisbon.

On 15 May, Shovell’s fleet was positioned between the Lizard and Forne Head, with Revenge in the squadron commanded by Rear Admiral of the Red George Byng. Having come to the conclusion that Toulouse was probably at sea, the fleet then moved into the Soundings.

By 28 May, when there was still no sign of the French fleet, Shovell detached the major part of the fleet and set sail for Lisbon. This left the Westward end of the Channel under the command of Sir Stafford Fairborne, based at Portsmouth. At least two thirds of the Channel fleet, consisting of thirty-five English ships of the line and eleven Dutch, were based in the North Sea, leaving Fairborne and Kerr with the difficult task of defending a considerable area with limited resources. It was all the more difficult, in this game, to be on the defensive rather than on the offensive.

The French, for their part, could call on two large ships and two or three smaller ones under the command of Duguay-Trouin, and three large ships and three or four smaller ones under Saint-Pol.

The English cruisers in the Soundings focused on the safe passage of the merchant ships returning across the Atlantic, from Portugal and the West Indies.

In early July, Duguay-Trouin sailed from Brest with two large ships, Le Jason (54 guns), L’Auguste (54) and the corvette La Mouche. He was later joined by La Valeur (28) and some St Malo privateers.

When Kerr spotted the French on 15 July, he was cruising alone in the Revenge some 50 miles west of Scilly. Revenge first of all engaged Le Jason, over which the Revenge, with its 70 guns, should have had the advantage. After a battle of nearly two hours, Kerr noticed L’Auguste and three other ships approaching, and decided to break off the action and return to Plymouth. Fortunately for Kerr, although heavier than the French ships, the Revenge proved to be faster and managed to get away without further incident.

Having had the opportunity to lick his wounds, Kerr came out of Portsmouth on 20 July accompanied by the Falmouth (54), Captain Thomas Kenny. Three days later he captured the corvette La Mouche and the following day chased and fired at La Valeur.

After this display of bravado, when Kerr sighted Duguay-Trouin 150 miles west of the Lizard on 27 July, he once again appears to have become more circumspect. According to Kerr, the French detachment appeared to consist of ‘six tall ships’ and his reason for declining the opportunity of a fight was that he felt it would distract him from his primary duty, which was to protect the Virginia fleet and incoming trade.

This raises an interesting point with regard to the tactics of the cruising squadrons. Should they, considering their small numbers, have engaged the enemy more closely, whatever the cost, or should they have continued to maintain themselves as a deterrent force, only taking their opportunities when the odds were obviously in their favour? After his somewhat inconclusive wrangle with Le Jason on 15 July, Kerr was clearly of the opinion that it was best not to throw caution to the winds. His case was not helped by the fact that the French force turned out to consist of only two armed ships, Le Jason and L’Auguste, as well as some prizes.

The French, for their part, were also probably aware of the limitations of their force and did not appear to want to commit to a battle either, so the two sides tracked each other warily over the next two days until the French broke away on the 29th. The wisdom of Kerr’s tactic may be seen by the fact that he was able to sail to the west to meet a fleet arriving from Virginia.

At eight o’clock on 2 August, Kerr sighted some ships about whose identity he was unsure. In squally weather, he set a cautious course to the north until one of the ships hoisted English colours. The ship turned out to be the Salisbury, but Kerr was not fooled. The Salisbury, now renamed Le Salisbury, had been captured and was now part of the Dunkirk squadron.

Two more ‘tall ships’ now appeared to windward,3 which turned out to be the Moderate and the Gloucester. By this time the enemy were upon the Falmouth and, despite Kerr’s efforts to come to her aid in the Revenge, she was soon taken by a boarding party from a fifty-gun ship. Revenge engaged Le Salisbury and Le Jersey. According to the French account, it was L’Amphitrite that attacked the Falmouth, aided by L’Heroine. Captain Kenny of the Falmouth was mortally wounded.

Despite being supported by Kerr on the Revenge, the Moderate and the Gloucester did not make an appearance at this engagement, Captains Lumley and Meads having had several discussions on 4 August as to what to make of the ships they had sighted, sometimes disguised by fog. On 5 August, the Moderate and Gloucester engaged L’Auguste and Le Jason respectively, the battle continuing until midday, when the French broke away. Both the English ships then headed for Portsmouth where they joined the Revenge and the Mouche.

The French had turned the tables on the English and had beaten them at their own game. Faced with the challenge of patrolling a wide area of sea, the English had broken their ships up into small detachments, and indeed Revenge was sometimes on her own. This did not give them sufficient firepower when it came to engaging with the enemy and driving them off, and it also resulted in some rather tentative behaviour by the English commanders. If Captains Kerr and Kenny had been able to work together with Meads and Lumley, they could have formed a much more potent force that would have been likely to see the French off with somewhat less risk to themselves.

Although to some extent slamming the door after the horse had bolted, the Admiralty did order Fairborne to gather reinforcements from Portsmouth, Chatham and the North Sea. Kerr, whose original orders were to wait for the reinforcements at Plymouth, was later despatched to escort ninety incoming merchantmen from Oporto and Vianna in Portugal. The traders put in at Plymouth on the 11th and sailed again on the 13th for the Thames, accompanied by the Revenge, Medway, Exeter and Mary. The Medway captured two French privateer frigates off the Lizard.

Having fulfilled their duties to the Portuguese traders and escorted their prize home, the English squadron did not see action again until 4 September, when Kerr in the Revenge sighted seven sail, probably under Saint-Pol, and gave chase. As there was a gale blowing from the west, the Medway sprung her mainmast while the Mary’s fore-yard was carried away. Having lost his quarry, Kerr returned to Plymouth on 6 September.

When Kerr sailed again on 21 September, it was with Fairborne in the Exeter, along with the Rochester and Deptford. Fairborne sent a disgruntled note to the Secretary of State informing them that his ships were foul. The fleet was forced to put into Torbay due to a gale.

On 28 September, the squadron was at sea again under Fairborne and on 30 September they met a convoy of ships returning from the East Indies, which were escorted up the Channel by 7 October. Fairborne had eight major warships cruising off the Lizard and he spread six of them, including the Revenge, in a long line southwards between 11 and 22 October. Fairborne eventually returned to Plymouth on 28 October and went on leave.

The efforts to protect the valuable trade returning from England, and the important part played in this by the Revenge, showed how the times had changed. In this game, it was the daring French privateers, Duguay Trouin and Saint-Pol, who took on the parts once played to such effect by Francis Drake, Raleigh and Frobisher. It was the French who had the initiative, lying in wait for the rich pickings of heavily laden transports shepherded by scanty escorts, and were able to choose their moment to run in and take their prey by surprise while the English Channel cruisers might be miles away, patrolling in the wrong spot, by guesstimate or intuition.

In February 1942, the British home fleet and coastal defences, with all the benefits of radar and aircraft reconnaissance, were to be caught napping by the German Kriegsmarine, which slipped the pocket battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst up the Channel to their ports at Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel. It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, the level of difficulty required in the eighteenth century to intercept raiders without such aids, who even when in sight were difficult to identify or who might be flying the wrong colours.

When the enemy was intercepted and correctly identified, there then arose the issue of whether the defending cruisers had the strength to engage them effectively, and all too often this proved to be seriously in doubt. The English tactics and organization proved to be at fault, for even when there were enough ships in the area to see the enemy off, complications in the chain of command and poor communications meant that the forces remained separated and weakened, as evinced by the fiasco on 2 August 1704.

In the context of this book, however, the conclusion is more heartening: Revenge was almost invariably on the scene, acting as a deterrent if not actually engaging the enemy. Like her first forebear, Revenge defended the English coast against all comers, not as part of a large fleet, but alone or in the company of two or three other ships. If the tactics were at fault, then at least there was some measure of success: most of the incoming trade reached home safely and the French were thwarted in their attempt to challenge the emerging maritime power of England.

As if to emphasize the point, on 21 September, Fairborne’s squadron had passed Sir George Rooke’s Grand Fleet which was returning from the successful action against Gibraltar. While Revenge had been defending home waters against the odds, a foundation stone had been laid for the extension of English naval power and maritime trade into the Mediterranean and beyond.