Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rooke, George

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692028Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 49 — Rooke, George1897John Knox Laughton

ROOKE, Sir GEORGE (1650–1709), admiral of the fleet, born in 1650, was second son of Sir William Rooke (1624–1691) of St. Laurence, Canterbury, sheriff of Kent (1685–1688), and nephew of Lawrence Rooke [q. v.] He is said to have served as a volunteer through the second Dutch war. In 1672 he was lieutenant of the London, flagship of Sir Edward Spragge [q. v.], in the battle of Solebay. In 1673 he was again with Spragge, as lieutenant of the Royal Prince, in the action of 4 June. When the ship was disabled and Spragge shifted his flag to the St. George, Rooke was left in command, and—well supported by the gunner, Richard Leake [q. v.]—succeeded in repelling the attempt of the Dutch to set her on fire. In November following he was promoted to the command of the Holmes, from which he took post. During the following years he commanded the Nonsuch, the Hampshire, and the St. David in the Mediterranean, under Narbrough or Herbert [see Narbrough, Sir John; Herbert, Arthur, Earl of Torrington], and in 1688 was captain of the 50-gun ship Deptford. Though always accounted a tory, Rooke's political principles did not lead him, at this time, to run counter to the general feeling of the navy, which was in favour of the revolution. In May 1689, still in the Deptford, he took part in the battle of Bantry Bay, and was afterwards sent with a small squadron to the relief of Londonderry, then besieged by the forces of James II. It appears probable that there was some misunderstanding between Rooke and General Kirke as to the division of the work, and that Rooke believed his first care was the prevention of any assistance to the besiegers coming from the sea. It is certain that the squadron lay in Lough Foyle without attempting to succour the town, and that the boom was at last broken by the Dartmouth [see Leake, Sir John] rather with Rooke's permission than by his orders.

In December he was moved into the Eagle, and on 6 May 1690 was promoted to be rear-admiral of the red, in which capacity, with his flag in the Duchess of 90 guns, he took part in the battle of Beachy Head. His evidence at the subsequent court-martial is said to have been very much in Torrington's favour. On 20 Jan. 1691–2 he was promoted to be vice-admiral of the blue squadron, and in that capacity, with his flag in the Neptune, was present in the battle of Barfleur [see Russell, Edward, Earl of Orford]. During the greater part of the day the blue squadron was helplessly to leeward; but in the afternoon a shift of wind permitted it to fetch to windward of the French line, thus placing the enemy between two fires, from which a lucky fog permitted them to escape for the time. When a part of their fleet had taken refuge in the bay of La Hogue, Rooke was ordered to take command of the boats and burn the enemy's ships. He accordingly shifted his flag to the 70-gun ship Eagle, and, standing close in with a squadron of the smaller ships of the line, sent in the boats and set fire to the French ships of war and transports, 23–4 May. Never was an operation of war more complete, and Rooke rightly received much credit for the way in which it was carried out. It is said, on very doubtful evidence, that the king conferred on him a pension of 1,000l. a year (Charnock, i. 407); it is certain that in the following spring, the king, going to Portsmouth, dined on board Rooke's ship and knighted him.

In May 1693 Rooke was appointed to convoy the outward-bound Mediterranean trade, consisting of about four hundred merchant ships, English and Dutch. For this service he had a force of thirteen ships of from forty to sixty guns, six smaller vessels, and eight Dutch ships, under Vice-admiral Van der Goes. The exceptional value and importance of the convoy rendered necessary exceptional measures for its defence; and the grand fleet, under the command of the joint admirals, Delavall, Killigrew, and Shovell, sailed with it for its further protection. The latter assumed, however, that the French fleet must be in Brest; they did not take any measures to ascertain whether it was or was not; and when they had seen the convoy some fifty leagues to the south-west of Ushant, they parted company and returned to St. Helen's. Rooke, with the convoy, went on, fearing no further danger, for his squadron was of overpowering strength against any attack from the enemy's cruisers. But on rounding Cape St. Vincent he found himself unexpectedly in the presence of the whole navy of France, which had lain in Lagos Bay, as it were, in ambuscade. Against such a force Rooke's squadron could do nothing. Squadron and convoy dispersed and fled, but a very large number of the merchant ships were captured, 17–18 June 1693. Rooke made his way to Madeira, whence he returned to Cork on 3 Aug. Not the least curious part of the business is that no blame for this loss fell on him. The ministry and the joint admirals were sharply criticised for not having informed themselves of the whereabouts of the enemy's fleet; but everybody seems to have considered that Rooke was in no way bound to have look-out ships well ahead, which might have given timely warning of the danger.

In April 1694 he was appointed one of the lords commissioners of the admiralty and admiral of the blue squadron. In September 1695 he was appointed admiral of the white squadron and commander-in-chief of the fleet sent to the Mediterranean, whence he returned in the following April, and, after commanding in the Channel for some weeks, was summoned to London to attend to his duties at the admiralty. In 1697 he again commanded the fleet in the Channel, and, falling in with a fleet of Swedish merchantmen on the coast of France, sent them all in for adjudication. Out of this grew an angry controversy, but the ships were all condemned, being proved to be, as Rooke had suspected, really French, sailing under the Swedish flag (Campbell, iii. 396). In June 1700 Rooke was commander-in-chief of a powerful fleet, English and Dutch, sent to the Sound to support Charles XII of Sweden against the Danes. When joined by the Swedes, the allied fleet numbered fifty-two sail of the line. So formidable an armament brought the Danes to terms, and peace between Denmark and Sweden was signed on 18 Aug.

When war between England and France again broke out in 1702, Rooke, with the union flag at the main, was appointed commander-in-chief of an expedition against Cadiz, the Duke of Ormonde accompanying him in command of the troops. The force was very large, consisting of thirty English and twenty Dutch ships of the line, besides many smaller vessels and transports, making in all one hundred and sixty sail, with about fourteen thousand soldiers. Nothing, however, was effected. Rooke and Ormonde differed as to the plan of operations; they were uncertain whether the Spaniards were to be considered as friends to be conciliated or enemies to be constrained; and after various abortive attempts, Rooke decided to return. Fortunately for him and Ormonde, they received intelligence that a combined French-Spanish fleet, with the treasure ships from the West Indies, had put into Vigo [see Hardy, Sir Thomas]. Resolving to attack them, they arrived in the river on 11 Oct. 1702, and found the enemies' ships anchored, broadside on, behind a massive boom, the ends of which were protected by heavy batteries. On the early morning of the 12th Ormonde landed some three thousand soldiers and took the southern battery. The Torbay broke the boom [see Hopsonn, Sir Thomas] amid a tremendous fire, and the ships, as detailed, following through the passage, overwhelmed the enemy. Once through the boom, the fighting was at an end. The French and Spaniards set fire to their ships and escaped to the shore; but many were too late, and were blown up with the ships. ‘For some time there was nothing to be heard or seen but cannonading, burning, men and guns flying in the air, and altogether the most lively scene of horror and confusion that can be imagined’ (Life of Captain Stephen Martin, Navy Records Soc. p. 58). The conflagration continued through the greater part of the night. By the next morning all the ships, French and Spanish, were destroyed or taken. The government treasure had been landed previous to the attack. The amount remaining was never known. About 1,000,000l. fell to the victors, but it was long supposed that much more was sunk. Of this there was no proof; and the numerous attempts that have been made to search for and recover it have met with no success (see Wyon, Queen Anne, i. 118 sq.).

Rooke returned to England in November 1702, and, upon taking his seat in the House of Commons as member for Portsmouth (which he had represented since 1698), received the thanks of the house for the success at Vigo, and was nominated a member of the privy council. None the less (in consequence of Ormonde's angry complaints) a committee was appointed to inquire into the failure at Cadiz. Rooke, in his defence, showed that his instructions were contradictory, directing him to promise peace and protection to the Spaniards and at the same time authorising him to use hostilities against them; and that from first to last there was such a difference of opinion between him, the Duke of Ormonde, and the Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt, that the only measure they could agree on was to return home. On the report of the committee, Rooke's conduct was approved, and the following year he was again appointed commander-in-chief of the grand fleet, the sailing of which, however, was delayed by the non-arrival of the Dutch and by the orders of Prince George, till the season was so far advanced that nothing could be done. In October 1703 he was sent over to Holland with a small squadron to embark the Archduke Charles, now declared king of Spain; but, being delayed by contrary winds, was still on the coast on 26 Nov. when the ‘great storm’ shattered, stranded, or wrecked his ships (Boyer, p. 100; Burton, Hist. of Queen Anne, i. 104). Rooke himself was at The Hague at the time, but, hastening to the scene of the disaster, he made every effort to get the ships ready for sea. This, however, took three weeks, and it was 26 Dec. 1703 before he arrived at Spithead, with the king of Spain on board.

In February 1704, with only a detachment of the fleet—the rest being ordered to follow as soon as it could be got ready—he took the king to Lisbon, and after cruising for a month in hopes of meeting the Spanish fleet from the West Indies, he received orders from home to go up the Mediterranean and relieve Nice or Villafranca, then threatened by the French. On this it was suggested by the king's council that on the appearance of any force Barcelona was prepared to recognise King Charles, and with this object in view the Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt accompanied the fleet, which consisted of twenty-three ships of the line, besides frigates and smaller vessels. They arrived off Barcelona on 18 May, but only to find that measures had been taken to prevent any demonstration in favour of the archduke. The marines of the fleet were landed; but they did not number more than sixteen hundred, a force utterly inadequate to effect anything against the town without support from the inhabitants. They were therefore re-embarked, and Rooke, learning that the French fleet from Brest had come into the Mediterranean, and being unable to prevent it joining that at Toulon, judged it expedient to return to Lisbon to meet the reinforcement which he expected. He fell in with this, under Sir Clowdisley Shovell, off Cape St. Mary, on 17 June.

The fleet then consisted of fifty-nine sail of the line, English and Dutch, and in a council of war it was debated whether they should attempt Cadiz or Barcelona, or content themselves with waiting on the united French fleet under the command of the Count of Toulouse. Orders from home prohibited their undertaking anything on the coast without the approbation of their majesties of Spain and Portugal, and as these had no troops to spare for any joint enterprise, it was finally resolved to go into the Mediterranean, ‘and keep those at Toulon from going to sea or making any attempt upon the coast of Italy.’ On 7–10 July the fleet watered near Malaga, and a few days later Rooke had a request from the titular king to make an attempt on Cadiz. In a council of war held on 17 July it was resolved that this was impracticable without the co-operation of an army; but at the same time it was suggested that Gibraltar might be attacked with a fair prospect of success; and, Rooke approving of it, the determination was at once come to.

During the next few days the plan was agreed on and arrangements were made. On the 21st Rear-admiral George Byng was detached with twenty-two ships, but was followed in a few hours by Rooke with the rest of the fleet, which anchored on the 22nd in Gibraltar Bay, where Byng was already in line before the town. The Prince of Hesse, in command of all the marines, English and Dutch, landed on what is now known as the neutral ground, and early the next morning, on the governor's refusing to surrender the town, the attack began. Byng's detachment, which Rooke had strengthened with five more ships, was ranged from the New to the Old Mole, as close in shore as was possible; the Ranelagh, Byng's flagship, had not more than eighteen inches water under her keel. The heavy fire from the lower-deck guns silenced the battery on the New Mole, and the seamen, landing, succeeded—notwithstanding the explosion of a magazine—in gaining possession of a redoubt on the south of the town, where they hoisted the union jack. They thus cut the communication between the town and Europa Point, where—in the chapel of Our Lady of Europa—‘many of the most considerable women of the town’ had taken refuge. The anxiety to secure the safety of these weighed heavily on the governor, and he surrendered on the assurance of honourable terms, the garrison marching out the next morning with their arms and baggage, and the inhabitants being permitted to remain unmolested, on taking ‘an oath of fidelity to Charles III, their legitimate king and master.’ The marines then took possession of the town, and the same evening the seamen re-embarked.

Some six ships were then sent away to Lisbon and England, and Rooke, having watered at Ceuta, was intending to remain in the neighbourhood of Gibraltar till he knew whether Cadiz was yet to be attacked, when, on 9 Aug., the French fleet was sighted to the eastward. On the 10th about half the marines were brought off from Gibraltar, and during the 11th Rooke worked to the eastward in search of the French, who were no longer in sight. It was supposed that they had retired, and Rooke himself would seem to have taken this view, though he was fully alive to the danger of their slipping past him, and getting between him and Gibraltar. The enemy actually succeeded in performing this manœuvre on the night of the 11th, and on the forenoon of the 12th were sighted to the westward. Rooke at once determined to engage them before they could attempt anything against the half-armed fortress; and though, in consequence of the lightness of the breeze, he did not succeed in bringing them to an immediate action, the two fleets were still in sight of each other at daybreak on the 13th, the English being to windward, with a fresh easterly breeze. The numbers were practically equal; but the English ships wanted part of their marines and were short of ammunition, having furnished a magazine at Gibraltar. Rooke repeated the order which had come to him, through Russell, from the Duke of York [see Russell, Edward, Earl of Orford]: the fleet, being to windward of the enemy, was to range itself in a line parallel to theirs, and engage along the whole length, van to van, rear to rear. On this unsatisfactory plan the battle was fought from half-past ten in the forenoon till day closed. On both sides the loss of men was very great, and several of the ships were disabled; many of the English, having fired away all their ammunition, quitted the line; many of the French also quitted the line—beaten out of it, according to the English version; but no adequate result was to be expected from such tactics. So far as the fighting was concerned, the battle was drawn; but Toulouse, recognising that, in face of a fleet which he could not defeat, it was impossible to make any attempt on Gibraltar, drew back to Toulon. On the 16th the fleets lost sight of each other, and on the 19th the English anchored at Gibraltar, where they expended some of their remaining ammunition in salvoes and salutes in honour of their victory. After refitting the disabled ships and providing for the defence of Gibraltar, leaving there all the marines, to the number of two thousand, with guns, stores, and provisions, Rooke, with the main body of the fleet [see Leake, Sir John], sailed for England on the 25th, and arrived at St. Helen's on 24 Sept.

The country was just then enthusiastic over the news of Blenheim, for which the whigs took special credit to their party. The tories put forward Malaga as a victory gained at sea, and of as much importance as Blenheim. Rooke was exalted as the peer of Marlborough. But the friends of Marlborough were in power, and considered it within their right to shelve a man whom his partisans presumed to compare with the great duke. The result was that Rooke was superseded from the command, and was not employed again. He died on 24 Jan. 1708–9. He was three times married: first, to a daughter of Sir Thomas Howe of Cold Berwick in Wiltshire; secondly, to Mary, daughter of Colonel Francis Luttrell of Dunster Castle, Somerset; and, thirdly, to Catherine, daughter of Sir Thomas Knatchbull of Mersham Hatch, Kent. By the second wife alone he had issue one son, George, to whom Queen Anne and Prince George stood sponsors; the son died without issue in 1739.

There is a monument to Rooke's memory in Canterbury Cathedral; his portrait, by Michael Dahl, in the painted hall at Greenwich, has been engraved.

[Campbell's Lives of the British Admirals, iii. 385; Charnock's Biogr. Nav. i. 402; List books and other documents in the Public Record Office; Marshall's Genealogist, iv. 197–8; Burchett's Transactions at Sea; Lediard's Naval Hist.; Rooke's Journal, 1700–2 (Navy Records Soc.); Memoirs relating to the Lord Torrington (Camden Soc.); Parnell's War of the Succession in Spain, where Rooke's conduct is severely criticised on—in some cases—an incorrect statement of the facts; Boyer's Hist. of Queen Anne; Troude's Batailles navales de la France; Engl. Hist. Rev. Jan. 1892, pp. 111–14.]

J. K. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.239
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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206 ii 9 Rooke, Sir George: after Portsmouth insert (which he had represented since 1698)