Monday 29 September 2008

Admiral Blake in Bridgwater and Greenwich

On the wall of the old naval hospital (now the visitor centre) in Greenwich are reliefs of various naval heroes, including Admiral Blake. Seeing him made me feel at home, since I used to live in Bridgwater which has a full-size statue of the admiral in the centre of town (as well as Blake School, Blake Museum, the Admiral Blake Fish Bar...). So who was he?

Robert Blake was born in Bridgwater in 1598, and later went to Oxford University but didn't succeed at an academic career. He returned to the town, and became its MP for a few months in 1640 - but another election was called which he lost, cutting short his political career too. He may also have been working in the family business, but we're not sure - so the merchant life seemingly wasn't somewhere he made a mark either.

All these career worries came to an end with the English Civil War. In 1642 he joined the Parliamentary Army and became governor of Taunton. When the town was besieged by the royalists, he led its defence - the town was largely destroyed, the people were starving, but the castle had held out and Blake was hailed as a hero. He went on to capture Barnstaple and Dunster Castle. He also became MP for Bridgwater once more. So here he was in his mid-40s, now a man of status, but still not connected to the navy. How did he become a celebrated admiral?
The answer is, he was simply appointed to it, as one of three commanders of the English Navy. Only one of the others had any naval experience, but that was no disadvantage at the time. The navy was still partly loyal to the royalists and not fully trusted, so putting army officers in charge of it seemed a good idea. Luckily, Blake adapted quickly and well to naval life, blockading the Royalist fleet that winter and then leading expeditions against royalist privateers in the Scilly Isles and Channel Islands. He went on to fight the Dutch; after that war ended, he went to the Mediterranean. While he was there, he attacked the Turkish fleet in harbour to secure the release of English prisoners.

Blake returned to sea again to blockade several Spanish ports, followed by an attack on Spain's treasure ships at Santa Cruz. The result would be the admiral's final victory - his health was poor and he wished to reach England once more before he died. In July 1657 he headed for home, but died as the ship reached Plymouth Sound. His body lay in state at Greenwich before receiving a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. Among his bequests were £100 for the poor of Bridgwater.

Blake's military victories are not all that matters about his career. He was also responsible for significant improvements to the navy such as promotions on merit, better welfare for sailors, and developments in techniques such as naval blockades, and he won the admiration of those he commanded. So why is he almost forgotten today? That's largely due to the restoration of the monarchy shortly after his death. Charles II had Blake's body moved out of the Abbey to a common grave, and there was a deliberate attempt to forget his achievements. However, they are still remembered in Bridgwater where the Blake Museum (his former home) has displays about his life and career as well as many other aspects of local history.


. said...

Isn't he also to be seen on the old Deptford Town Hall building? Involved in the seizure of Jamaica from the Spanish, the long term consequences being that many Africans ended up there as slaves and their descendants ended up in South London in the area from which the colonial ships sailed.

CarolineLD said...

I've seen contradictory information on his involvement in seizing Jamaica, but at the least he helped by harassing the Spanish fleet elsewhere. Especially ironic as one of his best-known naval offensives involved rescuing European prisoners from slavery under the Turks. You're right about the Town Hall, of course - I'd forgotten that when I wrote this despite having read your great post on it.