The Spanish blockade

Negotiations between England and Spain continued while the Western Design expedition was under way. Since 1654, Cromwell had insisted that Spain should grant religious liberty to English Protestants in Spanish territory and that English merchants should be allowed to trade freely in the West Indies. Supported by the Inquisition and the Vatican, however, King Philip IV of Spain would not concede religious freedom to Protestants and asserted that England had no right to trade in the Americas, which were claimed as Spanish sovereign territory.

In May 1655, after Spain's special ambassador the Marquis de Lede confirmed to Cromwell that there would be no concession, secret instructions were sent to General-at-Sea Robert Blake to intercept supplies or reinforcements sent from Spain to the West Indies and to prepare to capture the homeward-bound Spanish plate fleet. However, Blake's orders were ambiguous and he hesitated to provoke a confrontation with a Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent in August 1655. By the time he returned to England in October to refit his ships, news of the attacks on Hispaniola and Jamaica was out and it was clear that Cromwell was intent on war. Despite the protests of English merchants over the loss of Spanish trade, the Council of State supported Cromwell. War with Spain was declared in October 1655. Cromwell issued a manifesto on 26 October claiming that the war was justified because of past Spanish aggression against English colonies in the West Indies.

Cadiz, 1656

Blake returned to the Atlantic coast of Spain in April 1656 with a fleet of around forty warships, fireships and supply vessels. Blake was in poor health and shared command with the newly-appointed general-at-sea Edward Montagu who had been promoted over the head of the politically-suspect Vice-Admiral John Lawson. The fleet was divided into three squadrons which were commanded by Blake and Montagu in the new first-rate Naseby (80 guns), Vice-Admiral Richard Badiley in the Resolution (80) and Rear-Admiral John Bourne in the Swiftsure (56).

When the fleet arrived off the Spanish coast, the blockade of Cadiz was resumed. One of the regular plate fleets from America had docked at Cadiz during Blake's absence and it was apparent that the port was too well-defended to attack. Leaving Bourne's squadron to maintain the blockade, the generals sailed to Tangier to take on water and supplies. Montagu detached two frigates to investigate the possibility of seizing Gibraltar from Spain but, after a careful reconnaissance, he reported to Cromwell that a force of four or five thousand infantrymen would be needed for a successful attack. Cromwell's negotiations with France were moving towards an Anglo-French military alliance in the Spanish Netherlands. Under these circumstances, no troops could be spared for a campaign against Gibraltar so the project was abandoned.

Towards the end of May 1656, Blake and Montagu sailed to Lisbon with the most powerful ships in the fleet to support the English ambassador Philip Meadowe in his efforts to persuade King John IV of Portugal to ratify a contentious treaty with England. With the arrival of the fleet, the negotiations were quickly concluded. King John also agreed to pay £50,000 compensation for losses to English trade incurred during 1649-50 when Prince Rupert had sheltered at Lisbon and raided Commonwealth shipping. In return, Cromwell was prepared to support Portugal's fight for freedom from Spain, which had started in 1640. After King John had agreed to England's demands, the full blockade of Cadiz was resumed.

Cadiz and Santa CruzBlake at Cadiz and Santa Cruz, 1656-7

The blockade continued throughout the summer of 1656. The Spanish remained on the defensive and took no aggressive action against the English fleet. In mid-June, Captain Edward Blagg sailed with the Fairfax (56) and seven other ships to raid ports in northern Spain. On 24 June, Blagg raided Vigo, where a number of ships in the harbour were destroyed. In early July, ten ships from Blake's fleet were sent back to England to reinforce the Channel fleet while Blake and Montagu sailed for the Barbary Coast of North Africa, leaving Captain Richard Stayner with twelve ships to maintain the blockade of Cadiz. Blake intended to continue the subjugation of the Barbary corsairs, begun the previous year at Porto Farina. However, adverse weather forced him to abandon an attack on Tripoli. While Blake replenished his water supplies on the African coast, a detachment of five frigates under Captain Smith raided Malaga in southern Spain on 19 July. Smith sank nine Spanish ships, spiked the harbour guns and bombarded the town. A similar raid on Alicante was unsuccessful, but the threat of attack disrupted trade all along the coasts of Spain. When Smith's frigates rejoined the main fleet, Blake sailed for Salé in Morocco, but he was unable to secure the release of English slaves held there.

Blake and Montagu returned to the blockade of Cadiz on 20 August. At the beginning of September, the generals sailed to Lisbon to reprovision the fleet, leaving Captain Stayner with a squadron of eight ships at Cadiz. A week later, Stayner's squadron was forced out of Cadiz Bay by a westerly gale. On the evening of 8 September, the English squadron sighted one of the two annual plate fleets from America. It was known as the flota of the Tierra Firme, or the Spanish Main. Greatly reduced from its former glory, the flota consisted of two galleons, three private merchantmen, two armed cargo ships or urcas and a captured Portuguese vessel. The fleet had sheltered at Havana in Cuba for two months waiting for an escort of warships from Spain but Blake's blockade had prevented any from sailing. Finally, the flota had sailed without an escort, narrowly avoiding interception by Vice-Admiral Goodsonn's squadron in the West Indies. After a voyage of fifty-eight days, the flota sighted the coast of Spain.

In the gathering darkness, the Spaniards mistook the ships of Captain Stayner's squadron for fishing vessels and took no evasive action during the night. At dawn on 9 September, three of the English ships moved in to attack, the rest of the squadron being too far to leeward. Stayner in the Speaker (64 guns) attacked and captured the galleon of the Spanish rear-admiral, Don Juan de Hoyos, which was carrying a cargo of forty-five tons of silver, 700 chests of indigo and 700 chests of sugar. Captain Anthony Earning of the Bridgwater (52) closed with the second galleon, which was commanded by the Spanish vice admiral. After a fight that lasted six hours, the galleon was set ablaze by her own crew as they took to their boats. Only about ninety crewmen survived. Among those killed were the Marquis de Baydes, governor of Peru, and his wife and daughter, who were returning to Spain. The Marquis's two young sons were taken prisoner by the English. The Bridgwater herself was almost caught up in the inferno. The Plymouth (52) engaged one of the Spanish merchantmen, which also caught fire and sank with a cargo said to be worth 60,000 pieces of eight. Captain John Harman of the Tredagh (52) captured one of the other richly-laden merchantman intact. The Spanish admiral, Don Marcus del Porto, had transferred his flag to one of the three smaller vessels of the flota, all of which succeeded in escaping into Cadiz. However, the loss of the cargoes of the ships captured or sunk by the English was a serious blow to the economy of Spain.

News of Stayner's victory reached England at the beginning of October, just as the Second Protectorate Parliament began debating the war against Spain. The treasure from the captured ships was estimated to include silver worth a quarter of a million pounds and other goods totaling almost a million. MPs voted their approval of the war and hoped to finance it entirely from captured Spanish treasure.

In October, Blake transferred his flag from the Naseby to the Swiftsure. Although he was in poor health, Blake remained off Cadiz with twenty ships while Montagu returned to England with the Spanish treasure. However, its value proved much smaller than expected. At least half of it was plundered or embezzled by its captors.

Richard Badiley, who had also fallen sick, returned to England with Montagu. John Bourne replaced him as vice-admiral while Richard Stayner stepped up as rear-admiral of the fleet that remained off Cadiz.

Santa Cruz, 1657

For the first time in naval history, Blake kept the fleet at sea throughout an entire winter in order to maintain the blockade against Spain. A further six ships were sent from England as reinforcements towards the end of 1656, including the George (60 guns), which became Blake's flagship. In February 1657, Blake received intelligence that the plate fleet from Mexico was on its way across the Atlantic. Although his captains wanted to search for the Spanish galleons immediately, Blake refused to divide his forces and waited until victualling ships from England arrived to re-provision his fleet at the end of March. Leaving two ships to watch Cadiz, Blake sailed from Cadiz Bay on 13 April 1657 to attack the plate fleet, which had docked at Santa Cruz on Tenerife in the Canary Islands to await an escort to Spain.

Blake's fleet arrived off Santa Cruz on 19 April. The harbour was defended by a castle armed with forty guns and a number of smaller forts connected by a triple line of breastworks to shelter musketeers. Seventeen Spanish ships were moored in a semi-circle in the harbour under cover of the shore batteries, including seven great galleons of the plate fleet. In an operation similar to the raid on the Barbary pirates of Porto Farina in Tunisia in 1655, Blake planned to send twelve frigates under the command of Rear-Admiral Stayner in the Speaker into the harbour to attack the galleons while he followed in the George with the rest of the fleet to bombard the shore batteries.

The attack began at 9 o'clock in the morning of 20 April. Stayner's division manoeuvred alongside the Spanish ships, which protected the English ships to some extent from the guns of the castle and forts. No shot was fired from the English ships until they had moved into position and dropped anchor. While the frigates attacked the galleons, Blake's heavier warships sailed into the harbour to bombard the shore defences. Blake ordered that no prizes were to be taken; the Spanish fleet was to be utterly destroyed. The superior gunnery of the English ships in Stayner's division quickly silenced the smaller Spanish vessels until only the great galleons continued to resist. Blake's division cleared the breastworks and smaller forts; smoke from the gunfire and burning ships worked to the advantage of the English by obscuring their ships from the Spanish batteries. Around noon, the flagship of the Spanish admiral Don Diego de Egues caught fire; shortly afterwards it was destroyed when the powder magazine exploded. English sailors took to boats to board Spanish ships and set them on fire. By 3 o'clock in the afternoon, all seventeen Spanish ships in the harbour were sunk, surrendered or ablaze. Contrary to orders, the Swiftsure and four other frigates each took a surrendered ship as a prize and attempted to tow it out of the harbour. Blake sent peremptory orders that the prizes were to be burnt. He had to repeat his order three times before the reluctant captains obeyed.

Having achieved its objective of destroying the Spanish galleons, the English fleet was faced with the hazardous task of withdrawing from Santa Cruz harbour under continuing fire from the forts. According to legend, the wind miraculously shifted from the north-east to the south-west at exactly the right moment to carry Blake's ships out of the harbour. However, this story is probably based upon a misunderstanding of a report pertaining to general weather conditions on the voyage as a whole. The English fleet worked its way back out to the open sea by warping out, or hauling on anchor ropes, a tactic Blake had introduced during the raid on Porto Farina. The Speaker, which was the first ship to enter the harbour and last to leave, had been badly damaged, but no English ships were lost in the battle. Casualties were relatively light, with fifty men killed and about 120 injured.

The Spanish treasure from Mexico had been unloaded and secured ashore. Blake was unable to seize it, but it was also unavailable to the government in Madrid. The long-term effect of Blake's blockade of Spain and his victory at Santa Cruz was the disruption of the Spanish economy, which depended upon silver and gold from the Americas. Without money to pay his troops, King Philip's military campaigns in Flanders and Portugal faltered. Blake's victory also established England's reputation as a leading European naval power.

News of the victory reached England the following month. On 28 May, Parliament voted to reward Blake with a jewel worth £500, which was equivalent to the reward voted to General Fairfax for his victory at the battle of Naseby in 1645. Richard Stayner was knighted by Cromwell. Blake received orders to return home in June. He made one further voyage to Salé in Morocco, where he succeeded in concluding a treaty to secure the release of English slaves. He returned to Cadiz in mid-July and handed command of the fleet to his flag captain, John Stoakes. Leaving nineteen ships to maintain the blockade, Blake sailed for England with eleven ships most in need of repair. However, Blake's health was in terminal decline. Worn out by his years of campaigning, he died aboard his flagship the George on 7 August 1657 as his fleet approached Plymouth Sound.


John Barratt, Cromwell's Wars at Sea (Barnsley 2006)

Bernard Capp, Cromwell's Navy: the fleet and the English revolution (Oxford 1989)

Sir William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: a history from the earliest times to the present vol.ii (London 1898)

Sir Julian Stafford Corbett, England in the Mediterranean 1603-1713 vol.i (London 1904)

C.H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate, vol. i (London 1909)

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, vol. iv (London 1903)

Lt. T.M. Napier, Robert Blake, in The Naval Review vol.xiii, no.3 (The Naval Society 1925)


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