Blake, Robert (DNB00)
BLAKE, ROBERT (1599–1657), admiral and general at sea, of a family formerly of Bishop's Lydiard, near Taunton, and afterwards merchants of Bridgwater, was born at Bridgwater in August 1599, the eldest of the twelve sons of Humphrey Blake and of Sarah, daughter and coheiress of Humphrey Williams of Plansfield. He received his early education at the grammar school of the town, and in 1615 was sent up to Oxford, where he matriculated as a member of St. Alban Hall, whence he removed shortly afterwards to Wadham College, then recently founded. Here he remained for nearly ten years, graduating in due course, and standing for a Fellowship at Merton, though without success. According to the tradition, the cause of his failure was his short, squat, ungainly figure, which offended the artistic sense of the warden. In 1625 he left Oxford. His father had died intestate and far from wealthy. When Plansfield had been sold, and all available property had been realised, there was little more than 200'll'. a year. Two of the elder brothers went to push their fortunes in London, the younger ones were still at school; Robert, with his second brother Humphrey, would seem to have continued the business, and not without success, for a few years later, and through the rest of his life he was in easy circumstances. It is perhaps probable that at this time he himself made voyages to distant seas; to do so was almost the common course for a pushing merchant. It is said that onw, when Humplu-ey, as churchwarden, was censured by the bishop for conniving at certain irregularities in the service of the church, Robert signed a remonstrance against the bishop’s conduct. The story is, however, vary vague and uncertain. He was returned as member for his native place in the short parliament of 1640, but in the election of the following autumn he was unsuccessful; he was not a member of the Long parliament till 1645, when, on the expulsion of Colonel Windham, he was again returned for Bridgwater. As a young man at Oxford he is said to have professed republican sentiments; he ‘undoubtedly held republican opinions in his later years. But these were, in the main, theoretical preferences, which do not seem to have dictated his course of action; that was ruled by his judgement of passing events, which as he interpretated them, gave him but the choice between submission to arbitrary tyranny and a manly resistance. Even before the appeal to arms his mind was fully made up, and amongst the very first he joined the army raised by Sir John Horner in 1642. In July 1643 he commanded an important post in Bristol when it was besieged by the royalists; the town, however, was surrendered by Colonel Fiennes, the governor, after a very feeble defence, and though Blake, unwilling to believe this, held his post for twenty-four hours after the capitulation, he was at last compelled to accede to its terms. It is said, but without probability, that Rupert was with difficulty persuaded not to hang him. Blake’s resolute conduct was warmly approved by the parliamentary leaders; he was named one of the Somerset committee of ways and means, and was appointed lieutenant-colonel of Popham's regiment, fifteen hundred strong, in which also his brother Samuel, bom 1608, had a company. With a detachment of this regiment he made a dash at Bridgwater, hoping to surprise the castle. He failed in doing so, and, being quite unprepared for a more formal attack, at once drew off. There had been no fighting in the town, but struggling down the river Samuel Blake was killed in an accidental skirmish. We are told that when the loss was reported to the colonel, be said calmly, ‘Sam had no business there;’ but presently, retiring to a private room, he wailed aloud in a transport of grief, crying ‘Died Abner as a fool dieth.' Samuel left a son Robert, whose fortunes were afterwards very closely linked with those of his uncle and godfather.
After the fall of Bristol the royalists swept the west of England, and there were but few places which still held out for the parliament, One of these was Lyme in Dorsetshire, little more than a fishing village; and though it was protected by a few earthworks hastily thrown up, Prinw Maurice had no expectation of resistance when, at the head of some five thousand men, he summoned it to surrender. It happened, however, that Blake had been stationed there with a detachment of about five hundred men, and had prepared himself as he best could to hold the post, had raised volunteers in the neighbourhood, and had strengthened the defences. The summons was rejected, and the assault which immediately followed was bloodily repulsed. Maurice found that the place could not be taken without attacking in form, and accordingly sat down before it; but the defences grew as the siege went on, and ‘after he had lain before it a month it was much more like to hold out than it was the first day he came before it’ (Clarendon); so that when, on 23 May 1644, the garrison was relieved by the fleet under Warwick, and Maurice had tidings of the near approach of the Earl of Essex, he hastily retired to Exeter, ‘with some loss of reputation for having lain so long, with such a strength, before so vile and untenable a place, without reducing it ’ (ibid.)
The stand at Lyme had been of very great service to the parliamentary cause, and had given time for Essex to come into that part of the country. But Essex, by marching into Cornwall, lost the opportunity, and committed a mistake which, ad it not been for Blake's prompt action, might have been fatal. Among the many places in Somersetshire held by the royalists Taunton was one ; it was quite unfortified, and thc garrison was small; but it was the point on which all the main roads of the county converged, it commanded the lines of communication, and had thus a peculiar strategic importance, which Blake alone seems to have understood. He had been promoted after his brilliant defence of Lyme, and had an inde endent command, with which, 8 July 1644, he suddenly threw himself on Taunton. It was held by only eighty men, who made no opposition, and in Blake's hands the lace ‘became asliarp thorn in the sides of all that populous country.' The position was one of extreme peril, for it was quite isolated; and when Essex’s army was overwhclrued in August no relief could be expected. Blake, however, determined to hold li); ground as long as possible ; the roads were barricaded, breastwork's thownup, guns planted, houses loopholed, and when the royalists advanced on the place, which they had judged it madness to defend, they received so rude a check that the contented themselves with investing it andy waiting for famine to do their work. From time to time more energetic attempts were made, but through all, against sword and iitmine and repeated bombardments, the place was held for nearly a year, till after the battle of Naseby, 14 June, 1645, had left the parliament free to undertake the suhjugution of the west. When the siege was finally raised, Blake continued to act as governor of Taunton. The town was little more than a heap of rubbish, the land round about was desolate, the people were impoverished. Money was granted by the parliament to meet the immediate necessities, and public collections were made for rebuilding the ruined houses; but through the autumn and winter Blake was fully occupied with the task of administering relief an restoring order, and though returned to parliament he did not at that time take any part in the parliamentary proceedings. His reputationin Somerset stgod exetremely high, and has been supposed to have excited the jealousy of Cromwell himself Of this there is no evidence ; but it appears certain that Blake was not of Cromwell s party, and, unlike a large majority of the loremost men of the time, he was neither relation nor connection of Cromwell. lt is said that he openly declared that ‘he would as freely venture his life to save the king as ever he had done it to serve the parliament' (History and Life, 28). This is utter nonsense, and would, had he said it, have been a strong condemnation of Blake, a dark stain on his character; for it is perfectly certain tbat he took no active measures, either in word or deed, to stay the kings execution. It is probable enough that e considered it as a blunder; but his appointment 27 Feb. 1648-9, a very few days after the king’s death, to share in the chief command of the fleet, is a proof that the dominant faction had neither doubt of his goodwill nor jealousy of his reputation. The events of 1648 had indeed shown that it was necessary to have in command of the fleet a man whom the council of state could trust [see Batten, Sir William ; and it is very probuble that some familiarity with ships an maritime affairs, gained as a merchant of Bridgwater, may have directed the appointment of Blake, as one of the admirals und generals at sea, to command the fleet during the summer of 1649. The duty immediately before them was to suppress Prince Rupert, who, with the revolted ships and some others, had begun a naval war against the parliament on a system scarcely, if at all, distinguishable from priacy (Warburton, Prince Rupert, iii. 275 n.), and had meantime established his headquarters at Kinsale. Here Blake blockaded him, and the summer of 1619 slipped away without his being able to stir out of the port; but so far was Cromwell from the jealousy with which he is commonly credited, that he suggested and procured for Blake the offer of a command with himself in the army in Ireland as major-general of foot. The choice was left with Blake (Calendar S. P., Dom. 2 Oct. 1649), was preferred the more adventurous service, and continued in command of the fleet.
Towards the end of October a gale of wind blew Blake’s squadron off shore, and Prince Russert, taking hasty advantage of the chance, made good his escape to the coast of Portugal and the straits of Gibraltar, where he was on the main line of all foreign trade, and his piracies rapidly filled his treasury. A winter fleet was at once ordered to be got ready, and, Deane being sick, the sole command was, in the first instance, given to Blake (ibid. 4 Dec.), who was ordered to reside at Plymouth to expedite matters, and to get to sea as soon as possible ; while Popham, the third of the generals, was to follow with reinforcements. He was directed to himt down the princes as public enemies, to seize or destroy them wherever he should come up with them, and to treat as enemies any foreign powers who might support them (17 Jan. 1649-50; Thurloe, State Papers, i. 136). It was not till the beginning of March that Blake got to sea, and when he arrived at the mouth of the Tagus he found that the princes were in the river, and had obtained a promise of support from the king of Portugal. The English resident in vain urged that these were pirates, in vain demanded satisfaction for the insults they received from the princes, whose men fought with, and even killed, the English sailors on shore ; whilst Rupert, always distinguished for his mechanical genius, attempted to shorten matters by sending, 23 April, a species of torpedo-not very dissimilar from those of our own time-on board the vice-admiral, in hopes to set tire to his ship (Warburton, iii. 305; Thurloe, i. 146). Suspicion was excited, and the thing was not received on board ; but though the attempt was patent enopégh, and though the murder of some of the English seamen was publicly known, the king refused to give the English any satisfaction. The case was provided for in Blake's instructions, and was rendered more pressing by the belief that it French squadron was expected, which was to act in concert with the princes. Accordingly, on 21 May, he seized nine ships ing out of the river, bound for the Brazils with rich cargoes.
tuguese; and Blake, taking out their officers and strengthening their crews, converted them into men-of-war. Five days later his fleet was reinforced by Popham with several large ships, and definite instructions to seize or do stroy any ships or goods belonging the king of Portugal or his subjects. The king, on the other hand, was enraged at the injury which had been done him, and still more when the homeward-bound Brazil fleet ran ignorantly in amongst the blockading squadron, and was captured; he went on boar Prince Rupert's ship, and besought him to go out at once, his own squadron and all the Portuguese fleet, and drive away the English. Rupert was nothing! loth to attempt this; but a foul wind in the first place, and afterwards a want of cooperation on the part of the Portuguese, prevented his gaining any distinct success, though Blake had with him but a very small force, his ships being apparently distributed at Cadiz and along the coast (Warburton, iii. 313; Thurloe, i. 157). All the same, the blockade was raised ; and the Portuguese, determined to make make with the parliamentary government, desired the princes to leave the Talgus. The latter accordingly set sail from Lisbon on 29 Sept. 1660, an ran through the straim into the Mediterranean, plundering as they went. They had already made severa captures when, in the early days of November, Blake came up with the greater part of their squadron, which had been separated from the ships in which the rinoes sailed in a storm off Cape Gata. Blake chased the detached ships into Cartagena, and, without standing on any close observance of the rights of a neutral port, followed them in, drove them ashore, and set fire to them (Warburton, iii. 317 ; Heath, 275). The princes, with three ships only, got to Toulon, and thither Blake followed them ; he at once sent in a protest against their being allowed the succour of a French port, and when this produced no eilect he ordered reprisals against French ships. These measures of retaliation cooled the warmth ofthe French welcome, and the princes thought it best to quit the port, and to make what haste they could out of the Mediterranean. They did, in fact, sail to the VVest Indies, where, some eighteen months later, Maurice was lost in a hurricane (Warburton, iii. 324, 382). And meantime Blake, having instructions that Penn was on his way to relieve him [see Penn, Sir William], returned to England, where he arrived towards the middle of February 1650-1. On his passage down the Mediterranean he met, it is said, a rench ship of war, mounting forty guns, ‘whose captain he commanded on board, and asked him if he was willing to lay down his sword. The captain answered No! Then Blake bade him return to his ship and fight it out as long as he was able, which he did; and after two hours' fight he came in and submitted, and kissing his sword delivered it to Blake, who sent him and his ship with the rest into England ’ (Whitelock's Memorials, 16 Jan. 1650-1). The story is so evidently absurd in every particular that it would not be worth repeating were it not that it is strictly contemporary, and, though resting on no authority yond more gossip, is, so far, evidence of the peculiarly chivalrous character which popular opinion attributed to Blake. The oilicial approval is better attested: the thanks of parliament were given him ‘for his great and faithful service,’ and a sum of 1,000l. as a mark of the parliamentls favour (Calendar, 13 Feb. 1651). He was shortly afterwards (15 March) a pointed to command the squadron designed’ or the Irish seas and the Isle of Man, and on news of a powerful Dutch fleet, commanded by Tromp, being in the neighbourhood of the Scilly islands, he was ordered (1 April) to proceed thither, with all his force, to dlemand of Tromp for what purpose he had come, and with what intentions; and if the explanation should not be satisfactory, then to require him to desist, and, if necessary, ‘to use the best ways and means to enforce him, and in all things to preserve the honour and interest of this nation.' The threatened collision with the Dutch passed over for the time, but the alarm was su client to point out to the parliament the necessity oi' subiugating the Scilly islands, which were held as strongholds of the royalist privateers. Blake was accordingly ordered to reduce them no easy task, for the navigation was difficult, the fortifications strong, and the garrison numerous. Negotiations proved unavailing; but Blake, by seizing on Tresco, succeeded in establishing a strict blockade of St. Mary’s, and having brought some of his smaller ships in front of the castle he etfectcd a practicable breach, and compelled the governor to surrender on easy terms (Calendar, 23 May, 6 June). There were indeed murrmurings at the leniency shown to these very stiff-necked malignants; but the council of state was quite well aware of the importance ofthe capture, and approved of the whole business (28 June).
Blake continued in the west, taking measures for the security of the Scilly islands and refitting his ships. In August he received a commission ‘to command in chief, in the absence of Major-general Disbrowe, all forces in the counties of girnwall, Devon, somerset, and Dorset ’ (19 Aug.), a commission which was cancelled only three days later ; for Popham had just died, Deane was with the army, and Blake received pressing orders ‘forthwith to go to sea in person, to keep those affairs in good order, an prevent any impremions that may be made on the seamen by misrepresentation of ail`airs,’ and also ‘ to prevent any supplies being sent from foreign parts to the king of Scotland ’ (22 Aug.) Accordingly, with his Hag in the Victory, he took his station in the Downs, whence he effectually prevented any foreign assistance being sent to the king, or to any of the king’s supporters. The hopes of the king were crushed at Worcester on 3 Sept. ; but all through the autumn attempts were made to cnrrjv arms and stores to his partisans in Ireland, and the watch from the Downs was continued till well into the winter. In September Colonel Heane was ordered to reduce Jersey, held, as the Scilly islands had been, by an enterprising and piratics] body of csvaliers. Blake was ordered to accompany him ‘with such ships as he thought fit, and to give his best advice and assistance for its reduction’ (20 Sept.) Against an attack in force, Jersey, now completely isolated, could do very little, and before October was out this last of the royalist strongholds had surrendered to the parliamentary army.
On 1 Dec. 1651 the council of state for the year began its sittings. Blakewas for the first time a member, and during the next months attended with some regularity (Calender, 1651-2, Introd., p. xlvii), which was brought abruptly to an end by the imminence of war with Holland. On 10 March 1651-2 he attended the council for the last time ; only eleven members were present, when, probably at his own suggestion, he was ordered to repair to Deptford, Woolwich, and Chatham, to hasten forth the summer Heet, ‘for which there is extraordinary occasion' (11 March). The war broke out in May, and though there had been an accidental collision off the Start some days earlier,the first brunt of it fell on the fleet which had been got together in the Downs. Blake, with the bulk of his force, had gone along the coast to Rye, leaving Bourne, his rear-admiral, with only nine ships in the Downs, when, on 18 May, Tromp, with a large fleet, appeared outside, blown over, as he said, by stress of weather, from Dunkirk. His professions were amicable, but his bearing was most insolent ; he anchored off Dover, did not salute the castle, and during the rest of the day exercised his men with small arms, firing repeated volleys. The next day about noon Blake was seen approaching from the westward; but the wind was foul, and his progress slow. Tromp weighed and stood over towards the French const, but afterwards, on getting news of the encounter off the Start, he bore up and ran down towards the English, his fleet following without further signal. Blake, observing this sudden alteration of course, at once understood that Tramp meant to attack him, and prepared for battle. As the Dutchman drew near and came within musket-shot, without striking flag or lowering topsails, he orderer a gun to he fired as a signal to engage. The Dutch fleet consisted of between forty and fifty ships. Blake had with him only fifteen; but these were, as a rule, larger and more powerful than the Dutch. On either side there was no attempt at formation; Tromp’s fleet had come on in a straggling line, which would have closed round Blake's squadron had not Bourne with his division arrived in the nick of time, and fallen heavily on the Dutch rear. Thus reinforced the English fully held their own. The battle raged for four hours, and ended may with the day, when Tromp, having lost two ships, drew off; and the English anchored off Hythe. The next day the Dutch were seen steering towards the coast of France, and Blake, having collected his fleet at Dover, went into the Downs. The exact history of this battle and the transactions which preceded it is to be found in an official pamphlet, entitled ‘The Answer of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of England to three papers delivered in to the Council of State by the Lords Ambassadors Extraordinary of the States General of the United Provinces.' It contains the letters of Blake, Bourne, and Tromp, as well as a number of depositions and other papers. The popular story, which has been repeated by Mr. Dixon, is absurdly incorrect. It is unnecessary to examine it in detail, but it may be well to point out that Tromp's attack was certainly not a surprise to Blake; that as his ship, the James, was lying to, whilst Tromp’s, the Broderode, was coming down before the wind, the first broadside oould not have been fired into the James‘s stem ; that as the James was cleared for action she had, for the time, neither cabin nor cabin windows; that it is in the highest degree improbable that Blake, whilst ordering shotted guns to be fired on an insulting enemy, was below, either reading or drinking; and lastly, that as, according to every picture, tradition, and the custom of the age, he had a smooth, clean-shaven face, it is quite impossible that he could curl his whiskers in his anger.
On the news of this battle the parliament took immediate measures for strengthening the fleet; but during the summer of 1652 Blake was alone in his office of general at sea, Sir George Ayscue being subordinate to him, although employed in a distinct command. In the North Sea nothing of importance occurred, and after the check which Ayscue sustained from De Ruyter, 16 Aug., Blake, with the main fleet, cruised in the Channel, hoping to intercept De Ruyter on his home ward voyage. Bad weather and fog, however, enabled the Dutch fleet to escape without any serious diiiiculty, and De Ruyter joined De With off Dunkirk on 22 Sept. He was closely followed by Blake, and the two fleets, each numbering about sixty-five ships, mot off the mouth of the Thames on 28 Sept. ‘The battle began about four o’clock in the afternoon, and raged with great fury where De With, De Ruyter, or Evertsen was actually present ; but political intrigue had, for the moment, destroyed the usual spirit of the Dutch officers, and the approach of evening permitted them to draw off. No decisive advantage was gained, but the next morning the Dutch were at some distance and would not renew the battle; in the afternoon the wind was favourable, but on the English standing towards them they turned and fled. The victory was undoubted, but it was misunderstood ; even Blake a pears to have supposed that the battle had been fought out, and to have been led into something very like contempt for the enemy. The batteries which had been constructed to protect the anchorage in the Downs were dismantled and the Beet dispersed, either on different, detached services or to refit ; Blake was left with not more than thirty-seven ships for the guard ofthe Channel. In Holland, meanwhile, great exertions had been made. It was necessary for the life of the country that the trade which had been stopped for several months by the English fleet should be liberated, and towards the end of November Tromp, again in command, out to sea with some eighty ships of war and a convoy of about three hundred merchantmen. This last he left astern till he had cleared the way, and on the morning of 29 Nov. appeared with his fleet at the back of the Goodwin, standing towards the southward. Blake, who was then lying in the Downs, held a hasty council of war, weighed, and stood out to meet him. It is impossible now to say what induced the council to recommend, or Blake to adopt, this extraordinary step, which, to us, seems rash to the verge of madness. All that can be said with certainty is that the commonly received story is incorrect, and that he was not iniluenced by any idea of covering the approach to London, which indeed he left exposed, if Tromp had had any design against it. It is perhaps most probable that he had not full; recognised the enemy’s great superiority until he was well under way; for the wind, which had been at south-west, veered almost suddenly, and blew very hard from the north-west. The Dutch were swept down to the southward, the English avoi ed being carried in amongst them only by hugging the shore, slipping close round the Foreland, and anchoring off Dover; whilst Trump, unable to withstand the force of the gale, anchored a couple of leagues dead to leeward. The next morning, 30 Nov., the two Heats weighed nearly together, and with a fresh wind at from N. to N.N.W. stood to the westward along the coast, Tromp unable, Blake, it may be, unwilling, to attack. But as thely came near Dungeness the English were orced to the southward by the trend of the coast ; with or without their will they were obliged to close, and their leading ships were thus brought, to action. Amongst the Hrst the Triumph, carrying Blake's flag, supported by Lane in the Victory, and Mildmay in the Vanguard, was closely engaged by De Ruyter and Evertsen. The Garland and Bonaventure attacked Tromp himself in the Brederode; but other ships came up to their admiral’s support, and the English ships were overpowered and taken after a gallant resistance, in which both their captains were slain. By those ships that did engage, the fight was stoutly maintained, though against tremendous odds ; but a great many, whether fearing the superiority of the enemy, or corrupted, as it was thought, by the emissaries of the king in Holland, persistently remained to windward ; whilst fortunately, on the side of the Dutch, several which had fallen too far to leeward were unable to get into the action. Towards evening the English had lost, besides the Garland and Bonaventure, one ship burnt. and three blown up; the Triumph had lost her foremast, and was unmanageable; the other ships that had engaged had sufibred severely, and those that had not engaged still kept aloof YVith a sorrowful heart Blake drew back, and under cover of the darkness anchored off Dover; the next day he went into the Downs. Tromp, unable by the force and direction of the wind to follow him in, crossed over to the French coast, and anchored off Boulogne, whence he sent word to the convoy to pass on. For the next three weeks the Channel was alive with Dutch ships, and Tromp, having remained at Boulogne till the trade had all passed, proceeded to the rendezvous in the Basque roads. It was at this time that, according to the popular story, he wore the broom at the masthead, as signifying that he had swept, or was going to sweep, the English from the seas. There is no reason to believe that he ever did anything of the sort; the statement is entirely unsupported by contemporary evidence; not one writer of any credit, English or Dutch, mentions it even as a rumour; but months afterwards an anonymous and unauthenticated writer in a newspaper wrote: 'Mr. Trump, when he was in France, we understand, wore a flag of broom' (Daily Intelligencer, No. 1l3, 9 March 1652-3). The story was probably invented as a joke in the fleet, without a shadow of foundation.
Blake had meantime written to the council of state a narrative of his defeat, complaining that 'there was much baseness of spirit, not among the merchant men only, but many of the state's ships.' He was sick at heart, and prayed that he might be discharged from his employment, but before everything he made it his earnest request that commissioners might be sent down to take an impartial and strict examination of the department of several commanders.' The council, however, refused to supersede him, although they associated two others with him as generals of the fleet, his old colleague, Deane, and Monck, now for the first time appointed to a naval command. Blake they thanked for his conduct, and instituted the commission he had desired, to investigate both the conduct of the officers and the internal economy of the fleet. Many improvements were ordered, and the organisation of the navy began to approach more nearly to that which afterwards prevailed; but most of all were efforts made to increase the number and effective force of the ships. It was determined that Tromp should not return through the Channel unchallenged, and every nerve was strained to get together a fleet equal to the work before it. By the middle of February 1652-3 a fleet of between seventy and eighty ships was assembled at Portsmouth, and sailed to cruise to the westward; it was known that Tromp was approaching with a fleet about equal in point of numbers, and a convoy of some 200 merchant ships. On the morning of the 18th they were sighted coming up Channel with a leading wind. Blake was then off Portland and standing to the south; his fleet in no formation, but gathered in squadrons according to the several flag-officers. Penn, with the blue squadron, was well to the southward; Monck, with the white squadron, was a long way to leeward; neither of them was in a position to help the red squadron, commanded by Blake and Deane together on board the Triumph. Tromp was not slow to understand this, though it seems altogether to have escaped Blake; he saw that it was impossible for him to pass without doing battle or endangering his convoy, and, at once taking advantage of Blake's gross tactical blunder, threw himself in force on the red squadron. The Triumph was the very centre of the attack, and round her the battle raged fiercely. Blake was severely wounded; Ball, her captain, was killed; so also was Sparrow, the admiral's secretary, and very many other brave men. The fight seemed likely to prove disastrous to the English, when Penn with the whole blue squadron, and Lawson with the van of the red, who had struggled to windward and tacked, bore in amongst the Dutch. Later on, too, Monck with the white squadron came up, and the battle continued on equal terms till nightfall, when Tromp, seeing some of the English threatening his convoy, drew off to its support. Neither side could as yet claim the victory, and the loss of both, though very great, was fairly equal. During the night Tromp passed with his whole convoy; when morning dawned they were off St. Catharine's, and running freely up Channel. The English followed; but Trump ranged his fleet astern of the merchant ships, so that they could not be got at but by passing through the ships of war; and though many severe partial actions occurred, nothing very decisive was done. The chase continued during that day and the next; five Dutch ships of war were sunk, four were captured, and some thirty or forty merchant ships; but Tromp kept up a semblance of order and protection to the last, and got the remainder away safely. The advantage was very markedly with the English; but the Dutch, though worsted, were not dismayed, and immediately began preparing for a further struggle.
Blake's wound proved more serious than was at first expected. He was put on shore at Portsmouth, but his recovery was slow, and a month afterwards his surgeon, Dr. Whistler, wrote: 'General Blake, I hope, mends, but my hopes are checked by the maxim "De senibus non temere sperandum." I trust the Great Physician's protection may be on him and on all public instruments of our safety' (21 March). A few weeks later he went to London, where he attended to admiralty business (Cal. 12 May); but it was only the news of the Dutch fleet being again at sea that impelled him, weak as he was, to resume the command. He hoisted his flag on board the Essex, then in the river (Cal. 2 June), but before he could get to the fleet the great battle of 3 June 1653 had been fought. He, with his squadron, did not arrive till late in the afternoon, and, coming fresh on the field, contributed largely to render the victory more complete. Deane had been slain in the battle, and for the next few weeks Blake shared the command with Monck ; but his health gave way under the strain, and he was compelled to go on shore at Southwold. ‘We found him,’ wrote the secretary of the admiralty, who had visited him, ‘in a very weak condition, full of pain both in his heaxl and left side, which had put him into a fever, besides the anguish he endures by the gravel, insomuch that he has no rest night or day, but continues groaning very sadly. This place affords no accommodation at all for one in his condition, there being no physician to be had hereabouts, nor any to attend him with necessary applications (6 July). He had thus no share in the final victory of the war, 31 July, but equally with Monck was presented with a gold chain worth 300l. ‘as a mark of favour for his services against the Dutch ’ (6 Aug.) ; Penn and Lawson were also at the same time presented each with a chain of 100l. value ; and all four with a large gold medal (Van Loon, Hist. Met. ii. 307). One of these medals, believed to he B1ake’s, was bought for William IV in 1832 (Gent. Mag. cii. i. 352), and is now kept at Windsor. The junior flag officers received chains of value 40l., and smaller medals, one of which is now in the British Museum.
A few weeks' rest happily restored Blake’s health so far as to permit him to return to the fleet (Cal. 20 Sept.) ; but the press of work was over, and durin the winter his time was divided between admiralty business in London and his executive duties at Portsmouth (Cal. 19 Nov. ; 2, 31 Dec; 4, 25 Feb., &c.) After the peace with Holland in April 1654, he still continued the senior commissioner of the admiralty, and in July was appointed to command the tleet, which sailed on 29 Sept, for the Mediterranean, where, during the war, English interests had been very inadequately represented. His instructions seem to have been to carry on reprisals against the French, to repress the African pirates, to demand redress for injuries done to English ships, and, in general terms, to visit the different ports of the Mediterranean, in order-as it is now called to show the flag. In this way he visited Cadiz, Gibraltar, Alicant, Naples, and Leghorn (14 March 1654-5, Add. MS. 9304) ; but his earlier letters have unfortunately not been preserved, and there is no authentic account of his proceedin at this time. It is said that he also visited Malaga, and that whilst there he compelled the governor to make reparation for an outrage inflicted on an English seamen. The man had committed a gross offence: he had insulted the procession of the host. If complaint had been made, he should have been punished; ‘ but,’ said Blake, ‘I will have you know, and the whole world know, that none but an Englishman shall chastise an Englishman.’ The story is extremely doubtful. It rests only on the evidence of Bishop Burnet (Hist. of Own Times (Oxford edit), i. 137), whose testimony is by no means unimpeachable ; it is told in a very hearsay sort of manner, without. any date; and it is difficult to believe that had any such thing occurred, it would not be referred to in some of the existing official correspondence. lt is, however, a story which has been very generally accepted, and, together with that of his capture of the French frigate already referred to, has perhaps done more than the whole of his historical career to tix the popular idea of Blake’s character. At Leghorn he is said (Ludlow's Memoirs, ii. 507) to have demanded and obtained from the Grand Duke of Tuscany and from the pope reparation for the countenance shown to Prince Rupert, and for the loss sustained at the hands of VanGalen (see Appleton, Henry; Badiley, Richard); and 60,000l. is said to have been actually paid (Campbell, ii. 43). The statement is, however, entirely unsupported by exact evidence, and is virtually contradicted by Blake's silence in his extant letters from Leghorn, and his reference to others from the same place, as of little importance (12 Jan. 1654-5, Add. MS. 9304).
From Leghorn he went on to Tunis, where, according to his instructions, he demanded restitution or satisfaction for piracies committed on English subiects. This was positively refused, and finding negotiations vain and the Turks insolent, Blake finally resolved to reduce them by force to terms of civility. On the morning of 4 April 1655, his fleet sailed into Porto Farina, and anchored under the castles. As the fight began, a light wind off the sea blew the smoke over the town and shielded the English, so that after some hours’ cannonade, having set on fire all the ships, to the number of nine, they retreated into the roadstead with no greater loss than twenty-five killed and about forty wounded. Blake was doubtful whether, in thus attacking the Tunis pirates in their stronghold, he had not exceeded his instructions, and in his official report expressed a hope that ‘his highness will not be offended at it, nor any who regard duly the honour of our nation (18 April, Thurloe, iii. 232). Cromwe11’s reply was most gracious (13 June ; ibid. iii. 547) ; at the same time he sent orders to proceed off Cadiz, and carry on hostilities against Spain, with an especial view to intercept the the ships, or to pgrevent reinforcements being sent to the West Indies. In May Blake had visited Algiers, where the
dey, convinced by the arguments put in force at Tunis, entered into a friendly agreement; and, in anticipation of his later instructions, he was, by the beginning of June, at Cadiz, off which he cruised during the rest of the summer. The strain on his ships and the health of his ships' companies was very great; and as winter approached he determined, in accordance with the discretion entrusted to him (Thurloe, i. 724) to return to England, where he arrived on 9 Oct.
In the following spring, as soon as the season permitted, he returned to the same cruising ground in company with Colonel Edward Mountagu, appointed also general at sea. Mountagu remained during the summer, and with Blake and the bulk of the fleet had gone to Aveiro in September, when Stayner [see Stayner, Sir Richard], in command of the light squadron, fell in with, captured, and destroyed the Plate fleet (8 Sept.), with a loss to Spain estimated at nearly two millions sterling in treasure alone, exclusive of the ships and cargoes (Narrative of the late Success, &c., published by order of parliament, 4 Oct. 1656). After this severe blow to the enemy, several of the larger ships, with Stayner and Mountagu, went home for the winter. Blake continued on the station, and early in April 1657 he had news that a large fleet from America had arrived at Santa Cruz of Teneriffe. In a council of war he announced his resolution of going thither and attacking it. They sailed on the 13th, made the land on the 18th, and on the morning of the 20th by daybreak were off Santa Cruz. By signal from a frigate ahead they learned that the West India fleet was still in the bay. ‘Whereupon,’ says the official report, ‘after a short conference how to order the attempt and earnest seeking to the Lord for his presence, we fell in amongst them, and by eight of the clock were all at an anchor, some under the castle and forts, and others by the ships' sides, as we could berth ourselves to keep clear one of another and best annoy the enemy. They had there five or six galeons and other considerable ships, making up the number of sixteen; most of them were furnished with brass ordnance, and had their full companies of seamen and soldiers, kept continually on board. They were moored close along the shore, which lies in a semicircle, commanded as far as the ships lay by the castle, and surrounded besides with six or seven forts, with almost a continued line for musketeers and great shot.’ This was the position which Blake, with a fleet barely superior in nominal force to that of the enemy, had attacked at the very closest quarters, with the result that before evening every Spanish ship was burnt, blown up, or sunk, and by seven o'clock the English ships had all drawn off; not one was lost. ‘We had not above fifty slain outright and 120 wounded, and the damage to our ships was such as in two days' time we indifferently well repaired for present security. Which we had no sooner done, but the wind veered to the south-west, which is rare among those islands, and lasted just to bring us to our former station near Cape Santa Maria, where we arrived 2 May following’ (Narrative, &c., by order of parliament, 28 May 1657). The news of this great victory, of the daring and success of this extraordinary attack, which compares with the most brilliant of naval achievements, excited the greatest enthusiasm in England. A public thanksgiving was ordered for 3 June, and the Protector wrote (10 June): ‘We cannot but take notice how eminently it hath pleased God to make use of you in this service, assisting you with wisdom in the conduct and courage in the execution; and have sent you a small jewel as a testimony of our own and the parliament's good acceptance of your carriage in this action’ (Thurloe, vi. 342). The jewel referred to was a portrait set in gold and diamonds, the cost of which amounted to 575l. (Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vi. 444). We may suppose that it reached Blake in safety, but nothing further is known of it. A story has been told and repeated that Blake's brother, Benjamin, commanded a ship at Santa Cruz, was there guilty of cowardice, was tried by court martial at Blake's order, was sentenced to death, with a recommendation to mercy, to which the general yielded, and sent the culprit home with an order ‘he shall never be employed more.’ The story is utterly false. Benjamin Blake went out to the West Indies with Penn, and was appointed by him vice-admiral of the fleet left there, under Goodsonn as commander-in-chief. Between these two a quarrel arose, apparently as to the right of command. The details are not known, but the result was that Goodsonn sent his second in command home (25 June 1656; Thurloe, v. 154). From beginning to end the general had nothing to do with the matter, except indeed that, out of respect to him, the case was not pressed as it otherwise might have been.
With the destruction of the Spanish fleet, Blake's work before Cadiz was finished. He was ordered to return to England. He did not live to reach it. His health had long been extremely feeble; and worn out by the fatigues and excitement of the campaign and by what the doctors called ‘a scorbutic fever,’ he died on board his ship, the George, at the very entrance of Plymouth Sound, 7 Aug. 1657. His body was embalmed; was carried round by sea to Greenwich, where it lay in state for some days; was taken in procession up the river on 4 Sept. and placed in a vault in Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey. Out of this royal burial-place it was removed after the Restoration, and, with a score of others, was cast into a pit dug on the north side of the abbey (Stanley, Historical Memorials of Westminster, 5th edit., 209).
The peculiar and especial distinction which attaches to the name of Blake is by no means due solely to the brilliance of his achievements in the command of fleets, nor yet to that exceeding care and forethought in their organisation and government to which his constant success must be mainly attributed, Where he led or ordered them his men were willing and able to go; the work was done heartily and well; but the tactics of a fleet were still in their infancy, and in this respect Blake was unquestionably inferior to his great Dutch rival, Martin Tromp. But more even than by his glory and by his success, the memory of Blake is dear to the English people by the traditions of his chivalrous character and of his unselfish patriotism. These cannot be proved by historical evidence, but all indications tend to the same purpose, and compel us to believe that his object was, before everything, to uphold the honour and the interests of England. It is said that when urged to declare against Cromwell's assumption of supreme power, he replied, 'It is not for us to mind state affairs, but to keep foreigners from fooling us.' The reply is traditional; but its sentiment agrees with what he wrote on hearing of the dissolution of parliament, 22 Jan. 1654-5 : 'I cannot but exceedingly wonder that there should yet remain so strong a spirit of prejudice and animosity in the minds of men who profess themselves most affectionate patriots as to postpose the necessary ways and means for the preservation of the Commonwealth' (Thurloe, iii. 232). It is in this spirit that he commanded our fleets even to the end. Except by tradition we know nothing of his political bias; but if in truth opposed to the government and the usurpation of Cromwell he never allowed his opposition to become manifest, and, irrespective of party, devoted his life to the service of his country.No undoubted portrait of Blake is known to exist. The portrait at Wadham College, and that formerly in the possession of Joseph Ames, are possibly originals; but the evidence is defective. The same must be said of the picture by Hanneman, which in 1866 was exhibited at South Kensington, lent by Mr. Fountaine of Narford Hall; it may be Blake, but proof is quite wanting. The picture in the Painted Hall at Greenwich is a work of modern imagination, based apparently on a memory of the Ames portrait.
[Calendars of State Papers, Domestic, 1649-1657; Granville Penn's Memorials of Sir William Penn; Thurloe's State Papers. There are many so-called lives of Blake: in Lives English and Foreign (1704), ii. 74—the author of which claims to have known some of the members of Blake's family; by Dr. Johnson—a paraphrase of the preceding; by Campbell, in Lives of the Admirals, ii. 62; History and Life, &c., by a Gentleman bred in his Family—an impudent and mendacious chap-book; and by Mr. Hepworth Dixon (1852). From the historian's point of view they are all utterly worthless. Mr. Dixon's notices of Blake's family, so far as they are drawn from parish and private records, may possibly be correct, but his account of Blake's public life is grossly inaccurate, and much of it is entirely false; he betrays throughout the most astonishing ignorance of naval matters, and a very curious incapability of appreciating or interpreting historical evidence.]