Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Herbert, Arthur (1647-1716)

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HERBERT, ARTHUR, Earl of Torrington (1647–1716), admiral of the fleet, second son of Sir Edward Herbert (1591?-1657) [q. v.], and elder brother of Sir Edward Herbert, titular Lord Portland (d. 1698) [q. v.], entered the navy in 1663, and was in 1666 appointed lieutenant of the Defiance, with Captain (afterwards Sir John) Kempthorne [q. v.], in which he was present in the action against the Dutch on 25 July. On 8 Nov. following he was promoted to the command of the Pembroke of 32 guns, and, on a cruise to Gibraltar, fought in her a sharp but undecided action with a Dutch frigate. Coming home with the squadron under Kempthorne, the Pembroke, when off Portland, fell on board the Fairfax, and sank almost immediately. No blame seems to have been attached to Herbert, who was at once appointed to the Constant Warwick, from which in 1669 he was moved into the Dragon, one of the squadron sent into the Mediterranean, under Sir Thomas Allin [q.v.], to repress the Algerine corsairs. Towards the end of 1670 Allin returned to England, leaving the command with Sir Edward Spragge [q. v.], under whom Herbert, in the Dragon, took part in the destruction of the Algerine squadron in Bugia Bay on 8 May 1671. Peace having been concluded, the squadron came home in the spring of 1672, and Herbert was appointed to the Dreadnought, which he commanded in the battle of Solebay (28 May). He was immediately afterwards moved into the Cambridge, in the room of Sir Frescheville Holles [q. v.], slain in the fight, and in her took part in the action of 28 May 1673, when he was severely wounded, and the ship so damaged that she, had to be sent into the river. In the following year, still in the Cambridge, he went out to the Mediterranean with Sir John Narbrough [q. v.],but came home in the summer of 1675.

In 1678 he commissioned the Rupert, in which he again went to the Mediterranean, with local rank of vice-admiral under Narbrough. He had scarcely arrived on the station when, in company with Sir Roger Strickland in the Mary, he captured a large Algerine ship of 40 guns, after an obstinate action, the stress of which fell exclusively on the Rupert. On the Mary coming up the Algerine surrendered, having lost, it was said, about two hundred men. The Rupert had nineteen killed and thirty or forty wounded; Herbert lost one of his eyes by the accidental explosion of some cartridges. In May 1679 Narbrough returned to England, leaving the command with Herbert, who in July 1680 received a commission as admiral and commander-in-chief within the Straits. In December 1679 he had moved into the Bristol, and in the following spring, with the squadron under his orders, took an active part in the defence of Tangier, then besieged by the Moors. He was afterwards engaged in one of the continually recurring wars with Algiers, and brought it to a successful end in April 1682, when he concluded a treaty which proved somewhat more stable than any before it. He wrote home that these frequent wars were due in great part to the misbehaviour of the consuls, and suggested that it would be the truest economy to pay a liberal salary, perhaps 300l. or 400l. a year, 'to a man of known integrity, capacity, and courage' (Playfair, p. 137). After concluding the treaty he moved into the Tiger, and seems to have spent the greater part of the next year at Tangier, where he had a house on shore (Pepys, Life, Journal, and Correspondence, i. 401). On Lord Dartmouth's coming out in the summer of 1683, with orders for the dismantling and evacuation of the place, Herbert returned to England. In the following spring(3 Feb.1683-4) he was nominated rear-admiral of England; he was also appointed master of the robes, and in April 1685 was returned to parliament as member for Dover. Two years later (March 1686-7), on his refusal to vote for the repeal of the Test Act, as contrary to his honour and conscience, he was summarily dismissed from all his employments, of the value, it is said, of 4,000l. a year (Burnet).

The king, who had counted on his poverty and on the proved loyalty of his family, was much enraged, and caused his accounts as master of the robes to be severely scrutinised. It was more than a year before he was able to get them passed, and in July 1688 he went over to Holland and placed his services at the disposal of the Prince of Orange, who presently appointed him to the command of the fleet which was to convoy his expedition, hoping that Englishmen would be unwilling to fight against a countryman of their own. The English fleet, however, had been already won over; and when the Dutch under Herbert put to sea, Lord Dartmouth was unable to follow till it was too late, and even then with a private understanding among the several captains that if he attacked the Dutch they were to 'leave him and range themselves on the other side' (Memoirs relating to the Lord Torrington, Camden Society, pp. 26-9; cf. Legge, George, Earl of Dartmouth). The precautions taken, however, prevented all chance of collision. On 8 March 1688-9 Herbert was appointed first lord of the admiralty; he was also admiral and commander-in-chief of the fleet in the Channel and on the coast of Ireland. On 29 April he sighted the French fleet, and on the evening of the 30th again saw it standing into Bantry Bay. In the morning (1 May) he followed them in. The French admiral, M. de Château-Renault, met him with a greatly superior force; and after a trivial skirmish, Herbert bore up, hoping with more sea-room to be able to outmanoeuvre the enemy. Château-Renault, however, would not risk a close engagement, and towards evening hauled his wind back into the bay, where his transports landed a force of about five thousand men. A week later Château-Renault returned to Brest, and Herbert also went back to Portsmouth to refit. The disproportion of the two fleets made Herbert's success impossible: and as he had only just taken on himself the affairs of the admiralty, he could not be held responsible for the failure. There is, however, no apparent reason for the general satisfaction expressed at the result. The king himself visited the fleet at Portsmouth on 15 June, and soon after created Herbert Earl of Torrington, knighted Captains Ashby and Shovell, and ordered a gratuity to the seamen for their brave behaviour. The engagement must have been made a pretext for rewarding the services rendered to the revolution, and for conciliating the navy. In July the fleet put to sea in adequate force; but the opportunity for the year had passed, and after an uneventful cruise the ships were sent to their several ports for the winter.

Herbert, according to his own statement, which is at once probable and borne out by known facts, complained bitterly of the inefficiency of the fleet, and in conversation with Daniel Finch, second earl of Nottingham [q. v.], the principal secretary of state, urged the necessity of strengthening it. The only reply he could get was, 'You will be strong enough for the French.' He answered, 'I own I am afraid now in winter whilst the danger may be remedied, and you will be afraid in summer when it is past remedy' (Speech to the House of Commons in November 1690, p. 13). Finally, finding remonstrance useless, he obtained permission, as he states, to resign his seat at the board (ib. p. 12). It is certain that he left the admiralty in January 1689-90, and was succeeded by Thomas Herbert, eighth earl of Pembroke [q. v.]; that he remained in command of the fleet; that the fleet was not ready for sea till June; that it was deficient in numbers and badly manned; that the Dutch contingent, on which the Earl of Nottingham had apparently relied, was also much below its stipulated strength; that the government had no intelligence as to the force or movements of the French fleet; that the admiral had no cruisers to supply the want; and that the Dutch, who undertook the duty, did not do it.

The French were thus able to concentrate their whole force without disturbance at Brest, and on 22 June appeared off the Isle of Wight with upwards of one hundred sail, of which 'near if not quite eighty men-of-war were fit to lie in a line.' Herbert, with barely fifty capital ships, was then at St. Helens, and on the news of the French approach got under way, meaning to engage them as soon as possible. It was not till he saw Château-Renault's flag as well as Tourville's, and counted their numbers, that he realised that he had before him the whole force of the French navy, while of the English a large squadron under Admiral Henry Killigrew [q. v.] was at Cadiz, several ships at Plymouth, several to the eastward, and many of the Dutch ships still in their own ports. 'Their great strength and caution,' as he wrote on the 26th, made him anxious to avoid a battle, and his decision was unanimously approved by a council of war, which agreed that in order to do so it would be right to retire, even to the Gun-fleet. He accordingly drew back to the eastward, and was off Beachy Head when, on the evening of the 29th, he received orders from the queen by no means to retire to the Gun-fleet, but to engage the enemy 'upon any advantage of the wind.' The Earl of Nottingham further wrote, repeating the orders to engage, and adding that they had sure intelligence that the enemy had 'not above sixty ships that could stand in a line, and were very ill manned.' Torrington had the evidence of his senses that this was false; he knew that the orders sprang out of the personal jealonsy of Nottingham and of Russell, the latter of whom ought to have been with the fleet in command of the blue squadron, but was in London intriguing against his authority [see Russell, Edward, Earl of Orford]. Still, he felt bound to obey orders, or did not care to give an opportunity to his enemies. He called a council of war, which resolved that if they were to engage, they had better do so at once while they had the advantage of the wind, and accordingly the next morning, 30 June, the allied fleet ran down towards the French. Some scanty reinforcements had raised their numbers to fifty-six, as against the enemy's eighty, but the disparity was still excessive, and tactical science had as yet devised no way of cancelling it.

Torrington still desired to avoid a decisive action, and apparently intended to permit the rear, under Sir Ralph Delavall [q. v.], to engage the French rear on fairly equal terms, while the weaker van, consisting of the Dutch division, should stretch along to the head of the enemy's line, and engage at such a distance that they could not be doubled on, and he himself should guard the gap necessarily opened in his line. Unfortunately Evertsen, the Dutch commander, in mistaken jealousy of his country's honour, ran down and engaged the French at close quarters. The head of their line was consequently doubled on, was sadly maltreated, and was saved from destruction only by the turn of the tide, which swept the French ships away from the Dutch, who let go their anchors. And so the battle ended; one Dutch ship, which did not anchor, was taken by the French, and several others were seriously damaged, and were destroyed, to prevent their falling into the enemy's hands; one English ship only, the Anne, being dismasted, was run ashore near Winchelsea, and set on fire by her captain. Tourville neglected to follow up his advantage, and after following the allied fleet for four days in an orderly manner, and without pressing their retreat, gave up the pursuit and retired down Channel. As the combined fleet came to the Nore the alarm in the country was exceedingly great; the militia was called out, and so far as possible the coast was put in a state of defence. Torrington afterwards maintained before the House of Commons that he had never felt this alarm; that he had always said that while we had a fleet in being, the French would not dare to make an attempt; that, indeed, if he had fought otherwise 'our fleet had been totally lost, and the kingdom had lain open to an invasion;' but 'that if the management of the fleet had been left to the discretion of the council of war, there would have been no need of the excessive charge the kingdom was put to in keeping up the militia, nor would the French have gone off so much at their ease.'

As soon as it was known that the English-Dutch fleet had anchored at the Nore, the Earl of Pembroke and the other lords of the admiralty were sent down to inquire into the supposed mismanagement. They examined the vice- and rear-admirals, and most of the captains of the red division, and reported virtually that there was a primâ facie case against the commander-in-chief (The Lords Commissioners' Letter to the Queen's Majesty, 1691). The Dutch too were loud in their complaints; the king was naturally sympathetic, and the principal secretary of state was Torrington's personal enemy. He was therefore committed to the Tower, and afterwards, 8 Aug., by order in council, to the custody of the marshal of the admiralty. His gross misconduct was everywhere taken for granted, and the king, in his speech on the opening of parliament, 2 Oct., said: 'I cannot rest satisfied till an example has been made of such as shall be found faulty.'

An attempt was made to have him tried by impeachment before the House of Lords, but it was rightly determined that a court martial would be more proper. The curious question then arose as to how the court-martial could be ordered, it being pointed out that by the act of 13 Charles II the power was vested only in the lord high admiral, and therefore not in lords commissioners. To get over the difficulty a bill was rapidly run through parliament, though with a very close division in the House of Lords, and the protest of several who contended that it was unconstitutional to try a man for his life by a jurisdiction that did not exist at the time the alleged offence was committed, and that the act was unnecessary, as a lord high admiral might be at once appointed (Journals of the House of Lords, 21, 30 Oct.)

The court-martial was eventually held at Sheerness on 8-10 Dec., under the presidency of Sir Ralph Delavall, who had commanded the rear division in the action, and is said to have been no friend of Torrington's. The charge was a capital one, being, in legal form, that he had not engaged the enemy, whom it was his duty to engage, that he had kept back from the fight, and that he had not assisted a known friend in view. Torrington's defence appears to have mainly followed the lines of his speech to the House of Commons, dwelling upon the inferior strength of the English fleet, and the probability of a great disaster if it had imitated the recklessness of the Dutch. He said that he had served at sea for twenty-seven years, been in more battles and lost more blood than any gentleman in England. If these facts did not prove his courage, if his sacrifices on behalf of the revolution did not prove his integrity, no man's reputation could be safe.

The defence and the evidence adduced by Torrington were sufficient, and the court fairly and honestly, so far as we can judge, fully acquitted him on all the charges. He had, however, been previously deprived of the command, and he never applied for another. It is commonly said that the king still considered him guilty, and never forgave him. It is probable enough that William did not consider it advisable to employ him at sea, both on account of the strong feeling against him among the Dutch, and of the personal quarrel between him and Russell, whose interest was very great; but it appears from his private correspondence that the king down to his death continued on terms of friendly intimacy with him (Warner, Epistolary Curiosities, i. 159-61). Torrington was at this time living in the country, presumably at Weybridge, and playfully wrote of himself as ‘a poor country farmer,’ or ‘a country bumpkin,’ taking occasion, however, to express his hatred and contempt of ‘that miserable commission of the Admiralty,’ composed of ‘insipid ignorants,’ whom ‘he wishes with all his heart eternally confounded’ (ib. i. 157). This letter, not dated, seems to belong to 1696, and to refer specially to Russell, then earl of Orford. Notwithstanding his country life, Torrington was frequently in his place in the House of Lords, where he occasionally spoke on the affairs of the navy. He died in 1716. He was twice married ; the first time in November 1672, when he was described as a bachelor of Weybridge in Surrey, aged 25 (Chester, London Marriage Licenses, ed. Foster); he had no issue, and left his property to his friends the Earl of Lincoln and Admiral John Nevell [q. v.]

Burnet's most unfavourable description of Herbert has been very generally accepted as truth; he is represented as licentious, covetous, dishonest, envious, haughty, and dictatorial; it is even broadly hinted that he was a traitor and a coward. Pepys's description, so far as it goes, is to the same effect (Life, Journal, and Correspondence, i. 401, ii. 20). He may not have been more moral or more scrupulous than other public men of his time, but the allegations of his being a party to serving out poisonous provisions to the seamen would seem to be based on mere irresponsible gossip, and his refusal to assist James in his unconstitutional measures goes far to disprove the vague charges of dishonest greed. Bitter and jealous enemies he had, but he seems to have possessed a rare power of attaching his officers to himself; and those who served under him in the Mediterranean, more especially Shovell, Nevell, and Benbow, continued his followers to the end. The science of naval tactics was still in its infancy, and Beachy Head was the only action on a grand scale in which he commanded in chief, but, notwithstanding its ill success, his plan seems to have been ably devised, and to have been frustrated solely by the impetuosity or national jealousy of the Dutch. There is no question that his views on naval strategy were much in advance of his age, and, independently of his long and distinguished service, warrant our assigning him a high place in the list of English admirals.

[Charnock's Biog. Nav. i. 258; Campbell's Lives of the Admirals, ii. 332, 533; Collins's Peerage, ed. 1715; manuscript lists in the Public Record Office; Burchett's Transactions at Sea; Burnet's Hist. of his own Time; Dalrymple's Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland, iii. 17, 80-135; Macaulay's Hist. of England; An Impartial Account of some remarkable Passages in the Life of Arthur, Earl of Torrington, together with some Modest Remarks on his Tryal and Acquitment, 1691; Memoirs of George Byng, Lord Torrington (Camd. Soc.); A particular Relation of the late Success of his Majesiies Forces against the Moors, 1680; An Exact Journal of the Siege of Tangier, 1680; Playfair's Scorge of Christendom; The Account given by Sir John Ashby, vice-admiral, and Rear-admiral Rooke to the Lords Commissioners …, with a Journal of the Fleet since their Departure from St. Hellens …, 1691: this contains also The Lords Commissioners' Letter to the Queen's Majesty … and The Examinations of the Captains; The Earl of Torrington's Speech to the House of Commons …, 1710; cf. Parl. Hist. 12 Nov. 1690, v. 651. The minutes of the court-martial cannot now be found. See also Mémoires du Maréchal de Tourville, iii. 82; Mémoires du Comte de Forbin, i. 300; Eugène Sue's Histoire de la Marine Française, iv. 353; Troude's Batailles Navales de la France, i. 197.]

J. K. L.