J D Davies

Captains and Kings

First, apologies for not posting last week. As I mentioned on Twitter, I paid the price for getting too carried away on ‘Quinton 4’, The Lion of Midnight, and typing over 8,000 words in two days with little regard for ‘elf ‘n’ safety’. The result was that I woke up the next morning with a hand resembling a red balloon, and it stayed that way for the best part of a fortnight. Unsurprisingly the doctor diagnosed RSI and advised me to stop typing for a while. (The hand is much improved– thanks to all those who expressed concern!) So this blog is now brought to you via voice recognition software, and I just hope the neighbours don’t get too annoyed as I dictate emails, tweets, blogs and large chunks of books at strange hours of the day and night.

From next week, I’ll be building up to the UK publication of The Blast That Tears the Skies with a series of posts examining the various contexts of the book: the second Anglo-Dutch war, the years 1665, and the battle of Lowestoft (3 June 1665) which forms the climax of the story.


In my last post, I looked at the ways in which Samuel Pepys was often presented in an exaggerated way as ‘the founder of the modern Royal Navy’/’the saviour of the Navy’/etc. It’s always seemed to me that Pepys’s principal importance was as a creator of systems and an implementer of policy; when it comes to devising policy,  though, we have to remember that late 17th-century England was still overwhelmingly dominated by royal power, and this was especially true of the Navy. Charles II and his brother James, who served as Lord High Admiral from 1660-67, were genuinely and passionately interested in the Navy, and were largely responsible for a number of the initiatives that have often been attributed to Pepys. I wrote about Charles’s role in detail some 20 years ago in a paper published by the Royal Stuart Society. Here are some of the points I made then, which still seem to me to have stood the test of time:

An Admiralty commission came into being [in 1673], but most of the truly important powers of the Admiralty – notably the power to appoint commissioned officers – were reserved to Charles…there was no revolution in naval administration in 1673. It is even possible to take the view that Charles and James simply swapped jobs, with the duke now playing the part of the informal advisor to the lord admiral [the King]. The key change was the appointment of Pepys, who acted far more as a permanent naval secretary to the King than as secretary to the comparatively insignificant Admiralty commission [of 1673-9]. Although this body met regularly, it served largely…as a vehicle for debate, not as an executive council. Discussions sometimes had to be deferred until the King was present, while the absence of the court or meetings of parliament led to long intervals between meetings of the board. As a result, the daily executive direction of naval affairs rested with Charles, who relied heavily on the advice of James and Pepys.  

The main administrative task was the appointment of officers. Pepys presented to the King shortlists which specified the candidates’ experience and recommendations, and Charles then picked the successful candidate. It might be easy for Pepys’s admirers to create a picture of the Admiralty secretary doing all the work and using the King merely as a rubber stamp, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Charles prided himself on his personal knowledge of his sea-officers; indeed, one of the by-products of this, of the King’s interest in the navy, and of the easy informality of the court, was the ease with which naval officers could gain access to him. Thus for Charles, appointing an officer was not a case of sticking pins in shortlists or pulling names out of hats… [Charles also decided on ships’ names, and this was a matter of much greater political significance than one might assume – I’ll return to this issue in a future post.]

The weight of business which fell on the king during this period ensured that, even though he might be able to escape from most other aspects of government when he went to Newmarket, he could not escape from the navy; indeed, for most of the time this seems to have been perhaps the only kind of formal work which he actually did when he went there. In addition to meeting the Admiralty board there on occasions, he regularly signed commissions and warrants there, and his presence ensured that Pepys often had to go to Newmarket himself to carry on the work of the navy…

In addition to being largely responsible for the ‘thirty ships’ programme [of 1677, Charles] initiated several reforms (such as the extension of the principle of ‘half pay’ to officers not on active service) and gave his backing to others, such as the introduction in 1677 of Pepys’s scheme to examine the competence of candidates for lieutenancies. Above all, the King decided on the deployment of warships… [he] personally selected the ships to be employed, sometimes rejecting advice from the Admiralty or Navy Board because of his differing opinion about the relative merits of individual vessels. He took a particular interest in the more unusual and ambitious voyages. When Captain John Narbrough sailed to the South Seas in 1669, he saw the King and Duke of York several times before his departure, and on his return in 1671 the King ordered him to Whitehall on the very day that Narbrough arrived in the Thames, subsequently spending several hours discussing the captain’s voyage with him. In 1677, Narbrough was preparing to go out as admiral to the Mediterranean…between 6 June and 13 July, when he left London for his flagship at Portsmouth, Narbrough met the King alone on three occasions, the Duke of York alone on one, and the royal brothers together once…During the same period, the Admiralty commission met eleven times, chiefly to discuss Narbrough’s instructions for prosecuting the war against Algiers, and Charles attended all but one of these meetings – an attendance record not atypical of the entire period [1673-9].

[Charles continued take an active role in naval affairs even in the year 1679-84, when the powers of the Admiralty were in theory out of his hands and held instead by a commission of opposition parliamentarians – on more than one occasion he even ordered entire squadrons to sea without the Admiralty’s knowledge.]

So what I hope all this demonstrates is that the naval history of the Restoration period wasn’t just ‘the Samuel Pepys show’: it was very much a collaboration between Pepys and the royal brothers, with the latter often playing the principal role because of both their status and their personal enthusiasm for the service. Looking at the naval evidence also gives one a very different picture of King Charles II to that of the lazy, womanising rake that still sometimes appears in romantic fiction and even on children’s TV!