Prince Rupert in the Atlantic, 1651-2

By early June 1651, Prince Rupert's squadron had left the Mediterranean and begun operating off the coast of south-western Spain and Portugal. The squadron now comprised five vessels: the Constant Reformation (52 guns), the Swallow (40), the Revenge of Whitehall (42), the Honest Seaman and the Loyal Subject. After capturing a Genoese ship and a Spanish ship returning from the West Indies, the squadron sailed to Madeira where the cargoes and the Spanish ship were sold. The Genoese ship, St Michael the Archangel, was incorporated into the Royalist squadron under the command of Captain Goulding.

Prince Rupert in the AtlanticPrince Rupert in the Atlantic, 1651-2

Prince Rupert wanted to sail from Madeira to the Cape Verde Islands and from there to cross the Atlantic to the Royalist enclave of Barbados in the Caribbean. However, the majority of his captains were against the idea, preferring to operate from the Azores in the western Atlantic. When Rupert's flag-captain Fearnes pointed out that the Constant Reformation was leaking and in no condition to cross the Atlantic, Rupert agreed to go along with the majority. On 25 July, the Royalist squadron arrived off San Miguel in the Azores, where Rupert and Maurice were warmly greeted by the Portuguese governor.

The Royalists spent several weeks in the Azores archipelago. Another Spanish prize was taken, but Captain Goulding in the St Michael the Archangel deserted the squadron and sailed for England. On 13 September, Prince Rupert again consulted his officers regarding the squadron's future deployment. Apart from Captain Chester of the Swallow, who wanted to return to the English Channel, all the captains were now in favour of a move to the Caribbean. Just two weeks later, however, disaster struck the Royalist squadron when it was caught in a violent storm off the island of Terceira.

The tempest struck on 26 September 1651. The Royalist ships were blown out into the Atlantic and had to run before the wind for three days as the ferocity of the storm increased and the waves rose higher. The Constant Reformation's leaks grew steadily worse. The crew worked doggedly at the pumps but during the early morning of 30 September several planks were torn away by the force of the waves and the water poured in. Although the guns were pitched overboard to lighten the ship, it was apparent by midday that she was sinking. At great risk to his own ship, Captain Marshall brought the Honest Seaman alongside in an attempt to rescue some of the crew but none would leave, preferring to live and die together. Prince Maurice wanted to bring the Swallow alongside but Captain Chester refused to risk his ship. Meanwhile, aboard the Constant Reformation, the officers tried to convince Prince Rupert that it was his duty to transfer his flag to another vessel if possible. Finally he was persuaded, or forced, to get aboard the ship's boat and, with seven others, succeeded in getting across to the Honest Seaman. The boat made one return trip to rescue another small party before it sank. All further rescue attempts were thwarted by the heavy seas. At about 9.00 p.m., the Constant Reformation sank with the loss of around three hundred men.

When the storm finally abated, the Swallow and Honest Seaman had been blown more than two hundred miles out into the Atlantic. It was not until 19 October that they made their way back to the Azores to seek the rest of the squadron. Rupert found the Revenge of Whitehall at Fayal where he also learned that the Loyal Subject had been wrecked during the storm, though with little loss of life. During the following weeks, the much-reduced squadron took a few Spanish and English prizes but all the captains except Edward Chester of the Swallow now favoured going to the West Indies. Chester left the squadron towards the end of November. Robert Fearnes replaced him as captain of the Swallow, which had become Prince Rupert's flagship after the loss of the Constant Reformation.

Before attempting to cross the Atlantic, it was essential that the three remaining ships should first be careened. On 7 December, the squadron sailed from the Azores for Cape Blanco in west Africa, where a suitable natural harbour was known to exist. The squadron arrived on 30 December. With the help of a nearby Dutch settlement that supplied timber, the Royalists beached the ships to clean and repair their hulls. Rupert transferred the cargo taken from his latest prizes to a Dutch vessel with instructions that they were to be delivered to King Charles in France. He also sent letters to the King and Sir Edward Hyde describing recent events and requesting that the proceeds from the prize cargo should be used to pay the debts incurred at Toulon during the winter of 1650-1.

On 26 January 1652, the squadron sailed from Cape Blanco for the Cape Verde Islands with the intention of setting out for the West Indies. When the Portuguese governor of the island of Santiago told Rupert that English ships were trading from the mouth of the River Gambia, however, the Royalist squadron returned to the African coast in search of prizes. Around 21 February, contact was established with a fort and colony of the Duchy of Courland. The Courlanders helped the Royalists to locate and capture a small English vessel, the John, which was incorporated into the squadron under the command of Captain Holmes. During the next few days, a Spanish ship, and two English ships were taken. The English ships, the Supply and the 29-gun Friendship, were added to the squadron. The Spanish ship was given to the Courlanders as a reward for their help. Prince Maurice and Captain Price moved to the Friendship, which was renamed the Defiance. Captain Marshall took command of the Revenge.

The Royalists left the River Gambia around the middle of March 1652 and sailed north along the African coast to Cape Verde. The squadron anchored off a native village near the present-day port of Dakar to prepare for the voyage back to the Cape Verde Islands. A sailor from the squadron who had formerly lived in the village went ashore, but was prevented from returning to his ship. Attempts to negotiate for the man's release escalated into violence. An African was shot dead during the confrontation, and Prince Rupert was wounded by an arrow, which he cut out himself with a knife. Although the sailor finally got away from the village, members of the crew of the Supply seized the ship back from the Royalists during the confusion and sailed away with it.

The Royalists arrived back at the Cape Verde Islands during the first week of April. Several more prizes were taken during the next month, including the Sarah (18 guns) which was incorporated into the squadron. However, the Revenge of Whitehall was lost when prisoners overpowered the crew and sailed for England, taking Captain Marshall with them. On 9 May 1652, the squadron finally set sail for the West Indies.


S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vols. i & ii (London 1903)

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

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


Royalist vessels of the English Civil Wars and Commonwealth 3decks naval warfare wiki