The Naval Revolt, 1648

The navy had remained loyal to Parliament throughout the First Civil War under the overall command of the Earl of Warwick as lord-admiral and William Batten as vice-admiral, both of whom were Presbyterian in outlook. In 1645, Warwick was obliged to resign his office when the self-denying ordinance was extended to include naval officers. Although Batten stayed on as vice-admiral, he became increasingly alienated from the Parliamentarian cause as the Independent faction gained political ascendancy.

From 1646, Batten was in secret communication with Scottish Presbyterians working for a settlement with King Charles. In August 1647, six of the Presbyterian Eleven Members fled abroad after being ousted from Parliament by the New Model Army. When they were intercepted by Parliamentarian warships, Batten allowed them to continue their journey to the Netherlands. As a result, he was forced to resign as vice-admiral in September 1647.

The appointment of Colonel Rainsborough to replace Batten as vice-admiral was widely resented. Although he was an experienced seaman, Rainsborough's radical views and Leveller sympathies were mistrusted in the fleet, where Warwick and Batten had encouraged Presbyterian officers. It was suspected that the Independents in Parliament were planning to appoint New Model Army officers to naval commands in an attempt to gain control of the Navy.

The Downs Mutiny, May 1648

During the spring of 1648, with King Charles a prisoner on the Isle of Wight, a number of rebellions against Parliament broke out around the country. Disturbances in Kent erupted after the county committee tried to suppress a petition calling for the return of the King and the disbandment of the New Model Army. Insurgents gained control of the towns of Rochester, Sittingbourne, Faversham and Sandwich. Several officials and naval officers openly supported the petition and the base at Chatham on the River Medway came under threat from the insurgents. A letter was circulated among ships stationed in the Downs anchorage calling upon officers and men to join the revolt. On 27 May, the crew of Rainsborough's flagship the Constant Reformation mutinied and put him ashore, refusing to allow him back on board and demanding the return of the Earl of Warwick. The crews of the Roebuck, Hind, Swallow, Pelican and Satisfaction joined the revolt and were joined within a few days by the Convertine, Antelope and Crescent from the North Sea squadron. With naval support, the Kent insurgents secured the artillery forts that guarded the Downs anchorage, then laid siege to Dover Castle. The mutineers sent a declaration to the Admiralty commissioners in London justifying their actions and calling for Parliament to make a personal treaty with the King, disband the Army and return to traditional forms of government.

Rainsborough was dismissed from his naval command and the Earl of Warwick was re-appointed Lord High Admiral in the hope of securing the loyalty of Parliament's remaining ships. Warwick sailed to the Downs but was unable to persuade the mutineers to submit. Early in June 1648, Warwick went to Portsmouth. The ships stationed there appeared to be loyal, though the situation remained volatile. General Fairfax's military success against the Kent insurgents left the naval mutineers isolated, but rather than submit to Parliament, they resolved to declare for the King and to put their nine warships at the disposal of the Prince of Wales. In mid-June, the mutineers set sail for Helvoetsluys in the Netherlands.

The Prince's Fleet, July-August 1648

Sensing an opportunity to rekindle the civil war, Prince Charles left his court-in-exile at St Germain near Paris early in July 1648 and hurried to Helvoetsluys to take personal command of the ships that had defected to the King's cause. He was accompanied by his brother James, Duke of York, Prince Rupert and other senior Royalists. The Prince sent out a summons to all exiled Privy Councillors to join him in the Netherlands. Lord Willoughby of Parham was appointed vice-admiral of the new fleet. Willoughby had no naval experience but the appointment was acceptable to the Presbyterians and the Scottish Engagers, whose support Charles was anxious to maintain.

The Naval Revolt 1648
The naval revolt, 1648

With supplies provided by Prince William of Orange, the Royalist fleet sailed from the Netherlands on 17 July and arrived off Yarmouth in Norfolk on 22 July. Prince Charles hoped to incite a Royalist insurrection in East Anglia, but found the region to be firmly under Parliamentarian control. The following day, he sailed for the Downs anchorage in Kent from where he issued a proclamation calling upon the rest of the navy to declare for the King. The Prince's ships began seizing merchant shipping in the Channel, a move calculated to force London shipowners to increase the pressure on Parliament to reach a settlement with the King. On 10 August, the Prince was joined by Parliament's former vice-admiral William Batten, who now openly defected to the Royalists with the Constant Warwick, a privateer he part-owned. The crews of the Prince's fleet welcomed Batten as a known and trusted officer. Charles appointed him rear-admiral and knighted him. The Prince was also joined by the Earl of Lauderdale, who persuaded him to accept Presbyterianism in order to secure a Scottish alliance and suggested that he join forces with the Duke of Hamilton's Engager army as its titular leader.

After its exhilarating start, the Prince's naval campaign met with little success. On 14 August, a landing party from the fleet attempted to lift the siege of Deal Castle but was driven back by Colonel Rich with heavy losses, including the capture of Thomas Lendall, who had led the mutiny against Parliament. There were divisions amongst the commanders that led to uncertainty over strategy. Prince Rupert and his followers mistrusted the Presbyterians Willoughby and Batten and opposed the alliance with the Scots. The Royalists feared that the crews could easily turn against their new officers and the sailors were aware of their power, threatening to throw Lauderdale and Lord Culpeper overboard if they persisted in their plan to sail to Scotland. Batten lost the confidence of the crews when it was suspected that he was profiteering from the seizure of merchant vessels. Furthermore, Batten's assertion that his friends among the London shipowners would supply the Royalist fleet proved unfounded. The fleet relied upon irregular supplies from the Netherlands.

Parliament was slow to respond to the appearance of the Prince's fleet because many shipowners and dockyard officials were reluctant to help in fitting out an expedition to sail against it. The powerful corporation of Trinity House declared that a personal treaty between the King and Parliament was a better solution to the crisis. Parliament's Lord-Admiral the Earl of Warwick could not find enough recruits so he resorted to press gangs to man his ships. It was not until the end of August 1648 that Warwick had eleven ships ready to sail from London. He sent orders to the six ships of the Portsmouth squadron to join him in the Thames.

The Prince's fleet remained in the Downs but morale was low. When news arrived of the defeat of the Engagers at the battle of Preston and the surrender of the Royalist garrisons at Deal and Colchester, Charles and his council decided to return to the Netherlands. The crews protested, insisting that they should sail into the Thames and either fight Warwick's fleet or persuade it to defect. On 29 August, Prince Charles' flagship the Constant Reformation set a course for the Netherlands, but crews of several of the other ships defied their officers and sailed for the Thames estuary. The Prince had no choice but to follow, despite the unease of the Royalist leaders. As the fleet sailed into the Thames, Warwick's ships were sighted sailing downriver. The two fleets anchored for the night about a league apart. On 30 August, manoeuvres were prevented by bad weather; on 31 August, the Royalists made their way downriver with Warwick following at a safe distance, showing no inclination to fight. The Prince's fleet continued sailing towards the Netherlands and during the night passed close by the Portsmouth squadron making its way to join forces with Warwick.

Helvoetsluys, September-November 1648

On 3 September 1648, Prince Charles' fleet anchored in the neutral harbour of Helvoetsluys in the Netherlands. While the Royalist commanders hurled accusations of cowardice and incompetence at one another over the failure of the expedition, Prince Charles left for The Hague. Meanwhile, the Earl of Warwick gathered his forces at the Downs then sailed for Helvoetsluys with about twenty ships, arriving on 19 September. The Dutch authorities ordered the two fleets not to fight in neutral waters and stationed a powerful squadron to keep them apart.

Warwick was content to blockade the Royalists in Helvoetsluys. The crews had grown discontented and mutinous; Warwick's agents worked to persuade them to desert and return to Parliament. At the end of October 1648, Prince Rupert was appointed vice-admiral in place of the ineffective Lord Willoughby. The appointment was unpopular and the rate of desertion increased despite Rupert's vigorous attempts to assert his authority — he quelled a mutiny by picking up one of the ringleaders bodily and suspending him over the side of the ship until he submitted. Rear-Admiral Batten was convinced that Rupert had undermined his own authority with the seamen and left Helvoetsluys for Rotterdam. On 5 November, Batten's ship the Constant Warwick slipped away and joined the Parliamentarian fleet. After the Dutch squadron retired to winter quarters, Warwick moved in closer, encouraged by reports that other ships were ready to desert. After the Hind defected on 8 November, Rupert defied the Dutch authorities and moved his remaining ships into the inner harbour, laying the 40-gun Convertine across the entrance and raising earthworks and gun emplacements on the shore to protect them. However, during the operation the Satisfaction ran aground and surrendered to Warwick and two merchant prizes were recaptured.

With the Royalist fleet inaccessible in the inner harbour and winter setting in, the Earl of Warwick lifted the blockade of Helvoetsluys and sailed for England on 21 November, leaving Rupert free to use the port as he wished. Within weeks, the Royalist fleet was raiding merchant shipping in the Channel and North Sea. On 21 January 1649, Rupert set sail for Kinsale in southern Ireland, where he established a privateering base early in February 1649. In co-operation with Irish privateers, the Royalist squadron was poised to strike at the trade routes of the newly-declared English Commonwealth.


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

Bernard Capp, Cromwell's Navy, (Oxford 1989)

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. iv (London 1894)

Ronald Hutton, Charles II, King of England, Scotland & Ireland (Oxford1989)

Frank Kitson, Prince Rupert, admiral and general-at-sea (London 1998)

Eliot Warburton, Memoirs of Prince Rupert and the Cavaliers vol iii (London 1849)