The Real Gentlemen Captains, Redux, Part I

In the lead-up to my appearance on 13 March at Weymouth Leviathan, Britain’s first maritime literary festival, I thought I’d reblog some of my very earliest posts on this site, from November 2011, about some of the characters who will be making appearances during my talk. Here’s the first of them!

People often ask me to what extent the characters in the Quinton Journals, especially Matthew himself, are based on real people. I thought I’d use my next few blog posts to introduce some of the real-life individuals whose careers in Charles II’s navy provided the inspiration for Matthew and some of his adventures; and yes, occasionally the lives of these officers provide a few clues to some of the story lines in future books of the series! In future blogs I’ll also go on to detail some of the ‘tarpaulin’ officers who provided the inspiration for the character and career of Kit Farrell.

Captain Francis Digby – Probably born in about 1645, he was the second son of George Digby, second Earl of Bristol, one of Charles I’s most important (if catastrophic) advisors during the Civil War. He went to sea just after the Restoration, aged about fifteen, and fought at the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665 as a volunteer with Sir John Lawson, vice-admiral of the Red Squadron. In March 1666 he became lieutenant of the flagship Royal Charles, and his good service in that role during the Four Days Battle at the beginning of June led to his promotion to captain of the Fourth Rate frigate Jersey. His bravery is indicated by the fact that when the Jersey went in for repair after the St James’s day fight, Digby asked permission to go back to sea on another ship as a volunteer (a request rejected by the admiral, the grumpy old Duke of Albemarle). In 1667 he commanded the frigate Greenwich, which seems to have been given to him by King Charles II principally as a means of trying to restore the Digby family fortune, which had been ruined by the civil war. In 1668-9 he commanded the Third Rate Mountague in the Mediterranean. Digby’s manuscript journal for these commands, preserved at the British Library, reveals that despite his aristocratic background, he gradually became a highly competent seaman; on one occasion only his quick thinking prevented the fleet being wrecked on the North African coast.

Digby spent March and April 1672 in France, ‘fine tuning’ the naval agreement by which a combined Anglo-French fleet would attack the Dutch to fulfil the terms of the secret Treaty of Dover (1670). Digby met Louis XIV at Versailles on 1 March and during the next few days had several meetings with the king’s chief minister, Colbert. Not surprisingly the French rejected out of hand Digby’s suggestion that their captains and ships should have English commissions and colours, on the grounds that ‘his Christian Majesty never could suffer his captains to take commissions but from himself’. Despite this and some other disagreements, Digby’s negotiations were complete by 12 March. After leaving Paris he undertook a tour of inspection to Brest and La Rochelle before returning to England to take command of the Second Rate Henry. Digby was apparently somewhat disappointed by this, believing that he was already qualified to be a flag officer; indeed, if he had lived there is little doubt that he would have been an admiral before the end of the third Anglo-Dutch war, as several men junior to him were promoted to such rank during it. But on 28 May 1672 the Dutch under Michiel De Ruyter launched a surprise pre-emptive attack on the Anglo-French fleet as it lay in Solebay. The Henry was in the admiral’s division of the Blue Squadron, which bore the brunt of the fighting; the flagship Royal James was burned by a fireship and her admiral, the Earl of Sandwich, killed. The Henry had the next highest number of casualties in the squadron, with 49 killed. Francis Digby was one of them. He was buried at Chenies in Buckinghamshire, the mausoleum of the Russell family, Earls and later Dukes of Bedford; his mother was a daughter of the fourth Earl.

Digby was one of the many suitors of Frances Stuart, the model for the original image of ‘Britannia’ and later the Duchess of Richmond. Digby’s pursuit of her, like King Charles’s own, proved to be hopeless. He was said to have been driven to distraction by her ‘cruelty’, and after his death at Solebay Dryden wrote ‘Farewell, Fair Armida’, a poignant epitaph to unrequited love:

Farewell, fair Armida, my joy and my grief!
In vain I have loved you, and hope no relief;
Undone by your virtue, too strict and severe,
Your eyes gave me love, and you gave me despair:
Now called by my honour, I seek with content
The fate which in pity you would not prevent:
To languish in love were to find, by delay,
A death that’s more welcome the speediest way.
On seas and in battles, in bullets and fire,
The danger is less than in hopeless desire;
My death’s wound you give me, though far off I bear
My fall from your sight—not to cost you a tear:
But if the kind flood on a wave should convey,
And under your window my body should lay,
The wound on my breast when you happen to see,
You’ll say with a sigh—it was given by me.

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