The second part of my series of posts from November 2011, now updated and reblogged ahead of my talk at Weymouth Leviathan, the UK’s first maritime literary festival, on 13 March.
And if the thing were true, yet paint it not,
How Berkeley (as he long deserved) was shot,
Though others that survey’d the corpse so clear
Say he was only petrified with fear.
Sir William Jennens is perhaps less a model for Matthew Quinton than for his rollicking friend Beau Harris, who revels in his ignorance of the sea and his antipathy toward Samuel Pepys. Born in 1634, William was the youngest son of Sir John Jennens, MP for St Albans, and was thus an uncle of the future Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. His wife Diana was implicated in the ‘Hampton Court plot’ to assassinate Oliver Cromwell. We know little about Jennens’s life before the Restoration, but he was lieutenant of the Newcastle in 1660 and served in three other ships in 1661-4. The Second Anglo-Dutch War brought him his first command, the Fourth Rate Ruby, in which he fought at the battle of Lowestoft (3 June 1665) and the Four Days’ Fight (1–4 June 1666), in which he was wounded. His bravery in the latter engagement, along with the patronage of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, brought him a knighthood and the command of the Third Rate Lion, in which he served at the St James’s day fight on 25 July 1666. He was Sir Robert Holmes’s second-in-command for the raid on Dutch shipping at Terschelling in August – the controversial incident which also involved the destruction of a pacifist Mennonite community. This became known as ‘Holmes’s bonfire’, and is a significant element in the plot of Death’s Bright Angel, due for publication in August 2016 – although ‘dramatic licence’ means that I’ve omitted Jennens from the story entirely so that Matthew can be the second-in-command of the attack.
From this point on, Jennens’s promising naval career went rapidly downhill, thanks chiefly to an abrasive and arrogant personality which led to Pepys describing him as ‘a proud, idle fellow’. He was accused of cowardice during the Dutch raid on the Medway and of administrative irregularities during a subsequent Mediterranean cruise. His command of the Princess in the Mediterranean in 1670–71 led to his dismissal from the service for keeping his wife aboard during the voyage, and he was also sentenced to a year and a day in the Marshalsea prison. The Third Anglo-Dutch War saw a rehabilitation. He commanded the Second Rate Victory in 1673 and was wounded at the battle of the Texel on 11 August; he subsequently commanded the guardship Royal James at Portsmouth in 1678–9. This commission again led him into a series of clashes with Pepys. Jennens was reprimanded for keeping women aboard and for plundering wine from Dutch vessels wrecked on the Isle of Wight. From 1678 onwards he was involved in developing the patent for the first Turkish baths or ‘bagnios’ in London, although this only led him into a series of protracted lawsuits with his erstwhile partners. He was a prosecution witness in the ‘show trial’ for treason of ‘the Protestant Joiner’ Stephen Colledge, a poet who wrote verses against Charles II during the Popish Plot. In 1686 Jennens took command of the guardship Jersey at Portsmouth, but was severely reprimanded and fined by a court martial in 1688 for a drunken brawl at a dinner with a fellow captain. During the crisis later that year which culminated in the ‘Glorious Revolution’, he commanded the Rupert and was the leading critic of the fleet’s strategy of not actively seeking to intercept the invasion force of William of Orange (a strategy at least partly the consequence of a conspiracy by younger, Orangist captains).
A further series of clashes with Pepys and other authorities led to Jennens following James II into exile, despite the fact that he remained a firm Protestant – indeed, he became one of the few Protestants present at the exiled court at St Germain. In 1690 and 1691 he served aboard the French flagship, interrogating British prisoners and sending Jacobite propaganda ashore, and took part in the planning of the projected Franco-Jacobite invasion of 1692. In 1698 he returned to England in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to obtain a pardon; the government quickly deported him, perhaps fortunately for Jennens as his creditors had been alerted to his return, and this attempt to betray the Jacobites as well ruled out any return to France. He turned up at Lisbon in 1699 and offered his services to the Portuguese crown; it is probable that he died there in 1704, the year in which his niece’s husband won his great victory at the Battle of Blenheim. Eccentric, often unpleasant, but always somewhat larger than life, Sir William Jennens was one of the most colourful of the ‘gentlemen captains’.