J D Davies

The Return of the Thirty Ships, Part 3

To finish off this ‘mini-series’ about the ‘thirty ships’ of Charles II’s reign, I thought I’d post a brief history of the Third Rate Hope that I wrote about twelve years ago as part of a leaving present for some friends (called, yes, Hope). This was based on manuscript sources at the National Archives, Kew, notably the ship’s log books and the records of the court-martial to enquire into her loss.


In the mid-1670s, concern about French expansionism was increasing in England, and Samuel Pepys, the secretary to the admiralty, produced figures before parliament which indicated that numerically, the English fleet had become inferior to the French. This prompted panic, and led parliament to agree to a building programme suggested by Pepys and King Charles II. Thirty new line-of-battle ships were to be built, one of the first rate, nine of the second, and twenty of the third: one of the latter would be named Hope. (I dealt with the genesis of her name in a previous post.) Launched at Castle’s yard in Deptford on 3 March 1679, she was of 1,052 tons, 152 feet long, and mounted seventy guns in wartime. She was intended to have a crew of 300 men in peacetime and 460 in war. Like the Elizabeth, but unlike all the other ships of the programme, the Hope had her thirteenth upper deck gunport squeezed in aft, rather than forward, making her easily recognisable in the drawings of Willem van de Velde the younger. Moreover, a superb dockyard model of either the Hope or the Elizabeth was made in 1684, and is still on display in the Vienna Museum of Technology. (I saw and photographed this during a visit to Vienna in 2004. The museum has some outstanding military and naval exhibits; inter alia, it displays the blood-stained uniform worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated in Sarajevo, together with the car in which he was travelling at the time, and the naval uniform worn by Captain von Trapp of Sound of Music fame.)

The model of the Hope (or Elizabeth), Vienna

For the historian of Charles II’s warships, the Hope and the other third rates of the programme ‘must rank among the best looking warships ever built’. Even so, the Hope saw no real naval service for over a decade; on completion, she was laid up ‘in ordinary’, with no masts or guns, and only a small maintenance crew. The outbreak of the war against France in 1689 led to her being fitted out for service at sea. Early in 1690 she was part of a squadron under Admiral Sir Ralph Delaval. On 25 June 1690 the Hope was in the main Anglo-Dutch fleet under the command of Arthur Herbert, earl of Torrington. On that day, the French fleet under the Comte de Tourville was sighted, advancing up the English Channel. The battle of Beachy Head that followed on 30 June 1690 was a controversial action in which the Dutch squadron took a hammering.  The Hope formed part of the rear-admiral’s division of the Red squadron. Her captain was George Byng, later first Viscount Torrington and victor of the Battle of Cape Passaro (1718). In the battle, the Hope had eight men killed and eight wounded. The ship provided one witness at the subsequent court-martial of Torrington, who was intended by the ministry as ‘a sacrifice to the allies’, but who was sensationally acquitted by a court composed largely of captains whom he had promoted – one of whom was George Byng of the Hope.

The stern of the model of the Hope

On 13 September 1690 Byng left the ship, and the command passed to Peter Pickard. She arrived at Cork on 21 September and was fired on by Irish Jacobite forces on the following day; she then took part in the attacks that led to the surrender of Cork on the twenty-eighth. The Hope rejoined the main fleet in the Downs on 8 October. After spending the winter at Chatham, she sailed with the fleet from the Nore on 26 April 1691. She spent May off Flanders as part of a squadron under George Churchill, brother of the future duke of Marlborough, before cruising with the Channel fleet. Between 2 and 4 August she was buffeted by a great storm which forced the fleet to run for Plymouth. The Hope made it safely into the Sound, unlike the second rate Coronation, which was wrecked. Captain Pickard left her on 28 August, to be replaced on 7 September by Henry Robinson. The Hope was docked at Portsmouth over the winter, sailing on 26 April 1692. She was part of the fleet that engaged the French off Barfleur on 19 May under the command of Edward Russell. The Hope was the third ship from the rear of the rear-admiral’s division of the Red squadron, between the Cornwall and the Kent. She engaged at 11 a.m. and fought until three, then again from seven until nine; the four hour pause was caused by the thickness of the fog and smoke. Although she pursued the French for the whole of the following day, she was not part of the force that destroyed the remaining French vessels off La Hogue on 22 May. The Hope returned to Spithead for repairs, but was cruising in the Channel again by September. In October she was part of a fleet of 33 ships that chased 22 French vessels out of Saint Malo, but missed them. After wintering at Chatham, she spent the summer of 1693 with the main fleet blockading Brest and the western approaches, before returning to the Medway for another winter.

The Hope sailed to rejoin the fleet on 26 March 1694. On 7 and 8 June 1694 she was part of the force that attempted to land an army at Camaret Bay, near Brest. The operation was a disaster; the French knew it was coming and had strengthened their fortifications, the landing faced heavy resistance, and the commanding general, Thomas Talmash, was killed. The Hope herself was under heavy French fire, and her first lieutenant and several men were killed. She was then in the Channel until October 1694 when she was ordered to Chatham to refit, a process that took until 3 February 1695. Throughout February and March she was made ready for further service at sea. The Hope was the main escort for a convoy to Cadiz when, on 16 April 1695, she fell in with five French warships commanded by the Marquis de Nesmond and Du Guay-Trouin, one of the most successful French admirals in history. The other warships in the convoy, Anglesey and Roebuck, managed to get clear, but the Hope was surrounded. Robinson was sick, his crew was new and untrained, and two of the three lieutenants had been left on shore. Nevertheless, the Hope fought for seven hours against impossible odds, but in the end, with the ship dismasted and seven feet of water in the hold, Robinson had no alternative other than surrender. He and his ship were taken to France, and although Robinson was soon exchanged for an officer of similar rank, the Hope remained a French prize. Commissioned as L’Esperance d’Angleterre, she served in the French navy until she was destroyed at the battle of Vigo, 12 October 1702.

The loss of a Royal Navy ship meant an obligatory court martial, and this was held aboard the Duke at Chatham on 18 October 1695. The president of the court was Admiral Lord Berkeley of Stratton; he was accompanied by two other flag officers, Sir Cloudesley Shovell – who would famously die in 1707 when his fleet mistook its longitude and struck the Scillies – and the Marquess of Carmarthen, son of the Duke of Leeds. Twenty captains made up the remainder of the court. The court-martial papers have been preserved, and are still voluminous – over sixty folios of depositions and exhibits. There was clearly no objection to the defence made by the crew of the Hope – indeed, Robinson was not only exonerated but quickly given command of her sister ship Hampton Court, and the sole lieutenant, Henry Foulis, was given his own command as a reward for his bravery. Instead, the court focused on the events two days before the loss of the Hope, when she and the other two warships had lost contact with their convoy. This was blamed on the negligence of the officer of the watch, Thompson, her senior mate, who had not signalled a course change and had not informed Robinson that they had lost contact with the convoy. When he found out, according to the court records, Robinson exclaimed that ‘if you were not so old a man, I would kick you off the quarter deck’. Thompson was sentenced

‘to be carried with a halter about his neck from ship to ship, to all the ships at Chatham and Gillingham, and his crime be read by beat of drum by each ship’s side; that all the pay due to him in his Majesty’s service be forfeited to the Chest at Chatham; and that he be rendered incapable for ever of serving his Majesty in any capacity for the future as an officer.’

He was then taken to his home town of Dublin and committed to prison there.


There won’t be a post next week, partly because of Easter, partly because 1 April is my birthday. And yes, that probably does explain a lot!