Monday, 8 October 2012

Robert Blake - Nelson's Hero

As you may be aware I live in Huntingdon Cambs: A thriving metropolis and hotbed of culture filled with beautiful people, is not how I would choose to describe the place. Nevertheless in addition to the accolade of making the front cover of the book ‘Crap Towns’ Huntingdon has produced no less than two great leaders of our country; Oliver Cromwell and John Major.

Sir John has yet to get his own museum but when future generations look back on his achievements I am sure they will one day erect one. The former school house in which young Oliver Cromwell received his early education however, has been turned into a very decent little museum dedicated to the great man’s life and times. Despite being a lover of history and living in Huntingdon for no less than twelve years, I had never visited it. I cannot really justify this oversight on any grounds but sheer idleness.

Last week I finally got around to checking it out. I was genuinely impressed by the quality and quantity of the artefacts that the museum possessed and how well put together it was and felt that it should be held up as an example of how to create a museum in a small space. I nevertheless found myself no more enamoured of warty, puritanical, Christmas-hating Cromwell than I was before.

Instead I was intrigued by a small display featuring a sword which had once been wielded by Robert Blake, and read with great interest of the career of this capable soldier and sailor who should definitely be better known in the pantheon of English military heroes.

Robert Blake was a well-to-do merchant and member of parliament from Somerset and an unlikely hero. During the English Civil War he rose to prominence as a capable and dogged commander. His defence of thrice besieged Taunton, during which he famously declared that he had four pairs of boots and would eat three of them before he surrendered gained him celebrity status.

It was following his appointment in 1650 as General at Sea however that Blake truly made his mark and he soon demonstrated a keen grasp of naval tactics. Rising tensions between Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the Dutch Republic led to the outbreak in 1652 of the First Anglo Dutch War. Hostilities commenced when a Dutch fleet refused to dip their ensign in respect when they encountered Blake’s squadron off  Dover. Incensed, Blake promptly opened fire and five hours later the superior Dutch force had been scattered in disarray.

In the first major clash of the war Blake inflicted a stinging defeat on the Dutch at Kentish Knock, (pictured) which resulted in Parliament deciding to dispatch a fleet to the Mediterranean; underestimating the strength of their enemies across the North Sea. Later that year Blake’s nemesis Admiral Maarten Tromp gave his depleted forces a bloody nose off  Dungeness.

Blake was at the heart of the fighting during the Battle of Portland which raged along the length of the English Channel for three days in the following January. Blake’s squadron was isolated and given a pounding by Tromp and Blake was wounded in the thigh during the engagement. Nevertheless the Commonwealth Fleet had by far the better of the battle and Blake led his battered forces in pursuit of the Dutch admiral who was driven to sailing dangerously close inshore in order to escape annihilation.

Blake’s wound, from which he never fully recovered, forced him to play a bit part in the Battle of the Gabbard and to miss the final decisive Battle of Scheveningen in which Tromp was killed. It was Blake nonetheless who was the architect of these victories and indeed of the naval tactics which were to become the hallmark of the great age of sail. His fighting instructions laid out for the first time the principles by which fleets were to engage the enemy fighting in line rather than ship to ship or in small squadrons.

Making a partial recovery, Blake set out to sea once more in 1654 where he continued to innovate. His action against Barbary Corsairs in Porto Farina was the first successful action by ships employing gunnery against shore batteries. Following the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish war in the following year, Blake blockaded Cadiz throughout the winter of 1656-57; another naval first. Later in 1657 Blake conducted a daring raid on the port of Tenerife; leading his fleet into the harbour, battering the shore defences into silence and destroying every ship in the port. It was this action which prompted Nelson to declare ‘I do not reckon myself the equal of Blake,’ when contemplating a similar attack on the same target.

Within a year of this triumph Blake was dead, succumbing to ill health stemming from that old leg wound. He was given a state funeral and laid to rest in Westminster Abbey only to be disinterred and reburied in a nearby churchyard after the Restoration. This was done in spite of Blake not having taken an active part in the trial and execution of Charles I, although he was a stalwart of the Parliamentarian cause. It was nevertheless a gross act of ingratitude to a man who laid the foundations of British naval dominance.


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