Robert Blake, 1599-1657
A hero of the Roundheads through his dogged defence of Lyme and Taunton, he became an admiral under the Commonwealth and is remembered as one of the greatest names in British naval history.
Robert Blake was born at Bridgwater in Somerset. He was the eldest of eight surviving children of Humphrey Blake, a West Country merchant, and his wife Sarah, daughter of Humphrey Williams of Plansfield in Somerset.
Blake attended the local free grammar school, then went to Wadham Hall, Oxford, in 1615 where he is said to have developed strong republican principles. Blake returned to Bridgwater when his father died intestate in 1625. Robert and his brother Humphrey took over their father's business. Although few details are known, it appears that Blake followed a successful mercantile career throughout the 1630s. Blake was elected to the Short Parliament in the spring of 1640 as MP for Bridgwater, but lost his seat in the elections for the Long Parliament the following autumn.
When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Blake declared for Parliament. He commanded a company under Colonel Fiennes at Bristol, which was besieged by Prince Rupert in July 1643. When Fiennes surrendered Bristol, Blake continued defending Prior's Hill Fort for another day, claiming that he had not received orders from Fiennes to surrender. Prince Rupert is said to have wanted Blake hanged for breaking the terms of the surrender, but he was persuaded to countermand the order.
Appointed lieutenant-colonel in Colonel Popham's regiment, Blake led an unsuccessful surprise attack on Bridgwater, during which his brother Samuel was killed.
In April 1644, Blake was stationed with five hundred men at the garrison of Lyme in Dorset, which was besieged by Rupert's brother Prince Maurice. The Royalists were powerless to prevent Parliament's navy from shipping in supplies and reinforcements, which enabled the Parliamentarians to defend the town for two months until it was finally relieved by the Earl of Essex on his ill-fated march into the West in June 1644.
Blake was promoted to colonel and undertook a daring march from Lyme to Taunton, an important centre of communications in the heart of the Royalist-held West Country. Blake's force captured Taunton and held the town for a year, surviving three sieges. Blake famously declared that he had four pairs of boots and would eat three pairs before he would surrender Taunton. The siege was finally lifted when Sir Thomas Fairfax sent a relief force in May 1645. Blake took command at the siege of Dunster Castle in Somerset, which surrendered to him in April 1646.
Blake's defence of Lyme and Taunton made him a popular hero in the west and he was elected MP for Bridgwater in the "recruiter" by-elections of 1646. He took no part in the political struggle between the New Model Army and Parliament in 1647 and did not take up arms in the Second Civil War. He also remained neutral in the contest between the Presbyterians and Independents. Although Blake's religion was Presbyterian, he was a staunch republican and opposed any compromise or attempt at reconciliation with the King. He remained a Member of Parliament after Pride's Purge in December 1648, but played no direct part in the King's trial and execution.
After the establishment of the Commonwealth, the Council of State put the office of lord high admiral into commission. With his background in maritime commerce, proven military record and loyalty to the "Good Old Cause", Blake was appointed one of the commissioners of the navy, or generals-at-sea, along with Edward Popham and Richard Deane.
Blake's first naval campaign was against his old adversary Prince Rupert, who had also become an admiral. He sailed against Rupert's squadron of privateers stationed at Kinsale in southern Ireland in May 1649, chasing Rupert to Portugal and blockading him in Lisbon harbour from March to September 1650. Blake seized the Portuguese Brazil fleet after King John IV of Portugal refused to expel Rupert or to acknowledge the Commonwealth of England. He continued his pursuit when Rupert escaped from Lisbon and sailed into the Mediterranean. Blake attacked a detachment of Rupert's squadron making for the neutral Spanish port of Cartagena where one was captured and the rest wrecked. Finally, with most of his ships destroyed or captured by Blake, Rupert sailed away into the Atlantic. Both Portugal and Spain were obliged to recognise the English Commonwealth as a result of Blake's activities.
Blake was back in British waters in 1651. With the assistance of Sir George Ayscue, he captured the Royalist base on the Isles of Scilly in May 1651, from where Sir John Grenville had been running an effective privateering campaign against Commonwealth shipping. In October, Blake attacked Sir George Carteret's stronghold at Elizabeth Castle on Jersey, which surrendered in December after a fifty-day siege.
The First Anglo-Dutch War
In 1652, the first Anglo-Dutch War broke out. Before war had officially been declared, a Dutch fleet of forty-two ships commanded by Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp appeared off the anchorage in the Downs. With only twelve ships, Blake engaged the Dutch near Dover after Tromp provocatively refused to make the conventional salute of lowering his flag to the English general-at-sea. The Dutch withdrew after a five-hour fight. In July 1652, Blake sailed into the North Sea to disperse the Dutch fishery fleet. Tromp was sent to oppose him, but the Dutch fleet was scattered in a violent storm.
As well as the Dutch war, the English Commonwealth was engaged in an undeclared war against France. Early in September 1652, Blake destroyed a French supply convoy on its way to relieve the siege of Dunkirk, which resulted in the surrender of Dunkirk to the Spanish. Blake's intervention forced France to officially recognise the Commonwealth by the end of the year.
On 28 September 1652, Blake defeated Vice-Admiral de With's fleet off the Kentish Knock, then chased the Dutch for two days before they took refuge in Goerée.
Blake suffered a setback at the end of November 1652 when Tromp appeared with eighty warships near the Downs anchorage, determined to keep the Channel open for Dutch trade. The Council of State had over-estimated the significance of the victory at Kentish Knock and dispersed the fleet, leaving Blake with only about forty ships to defend the Channel. Rather than risk becoming trapped in the Downs, Blake risked a battle with Tromp but was defeated off Dungeness. Disheartened by his defeat, Blake offered his resignation, which was refused. Instead, the government ordered a thorough review of naval tactics and administration which resulted in the issuing of the first official Articles of War and Fighting Instructions to naval commanders.
The fleet was refitted and put to sea again in February 1653 when Blake clashed with Tromp in the three-day running battle of Portland. Blake suffered a leg wound during the battle from which he never fully recovered but his victory over the Dutch re-established English control of the Channel. In June 1653, Monck and Deane engaged with Tromp at the Gabbard. Deane was killed in the early stages of the battle but the timely arrival of Blake's squadron ensured an English victory. Ill-health compelled Blake to return to England before the final battle of the First Anglo-Dutch War at Scheveningen in July 1653, during which Tromp was killed.
War Against Spain
After a period of retirement and recuperation, Blake sailed for the Mediterranean in October 1654 on an expedition intended to bolster the prestige of Cromwell's Protectorate with a display of naval strength. Blake disrupted a French attack on the Spanish province of Naples then went to extract compensation from the corsair states that raided European nations for plunder and slaves. When the Dey of Tunis refused to co-operate, Blake's ships bombarded the fort at Porto Farina in Tunisia, destroying the shore batteries and burning an Ottoman squadron in the harbour—the first time that naval gunnery had successfully destroyed shore-based defences.
By the time Blake returned to England in October 1655, the Anglo-Spanish war had broken out. Blake sailed from Portsmouth against the Spaniards in March 1656 with a fleet of forty-eight ships. He spent a year cruising off the coast of Spain and the eastern Atlantic. Blake's blockade of the port of Cadiz allowed Captain Richard Stayner to capture part of the homeward-bound Spanish plate fleet from the West Indies—said to be worth nearly two million pounds. For the first time in naval history, Blake kept the fleet at sea throughout an entire winter in order to maintain the blockade.
Blake won his greatest victory in April 1657 when he attacked another Spanish treasure fleet which had docked in the strongly-defended harbour of Santa Cruz on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. In a similar manoeuvre to the attack on Porto Farina in 1655, Blake braved the shore batteries and sailed his fleet into Santa Cruz harbour. The guns of the Spanish forts were silenced with a naval bombardment, and every one of the Spanish ships in the harbour was destroyed without the loss of a single English ship. Blake's victory resounded around Europe, making the Protectorate navy feared and respected everywhere.
Obliged by his failing health to return to England, Blake's squadron was within sight of Plymouth, where a hero's welcome was planned for him, when he died on 7 August 1657 aboard his flagship the George. He was buried at Westminster Abbey after a state funeral attended by Protector Cromwell and the whole Council of State. After the Restoration, Charles II ordered Blake's body to be removed from the Abbey along with other prominent Parliamentarians and reburied in the churchyard of St Margaret's. A stained glass window depicting scenes from Blake's life was unveiled in St Margaret's in 1888, and a stone memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1945.
Maurice Ashley, Cromwell's Generals (London 1954)
John Barratt, Cromwell's Wars at Sea, (Barnsley 2006)
Michael Baumber, Robert Blake, Oxford DNB, 2004
Bernard Capp, Cromwell's Navy, the fleet and the English revolution (Oxford 1989)
J. K. Laughton, Robert Blake, admiral and general-at-sea, DNB, 1885
The Blake Museum Bridgwater, Somerset
Blake memorial Westminster Abbey