J D Davies

The Real Gentlemen Captains, Redux, Part 3

The third and final of my posts from November 2011, now updated and reblogged ahead of my appearance at Weymouth Leviathan, the UK’s first Maritime Literary festival, on 13 March.

George Legge, first Baron Dartmouth – Legge was an important model for my fictional hero, Matthew Quinton. The son of Colonel William Legge, later Master of the Ordnance, Legge was well educated (Westminster and Cambridge) but had spent only one summer at sea before he was granted command of the fifth rate Pembroke at the age of twenty. The Duke of York, Lord High Admiral, told Pepys he had no idea of how Legge was made a captain; in fact, he was commissioned directly by his early patron Rear-Admiral John Kempthorne, commanding the squadron in the Channel. After just five weeks in the post, the ship was wrecked in Torbay in May 1667; Legge himself later regretted the fact that he had not gained more experience before he was promoted, and became a staunch advocate of better training for young ‘gentleman captains’. He then held a number of appointments ashore before returning to sea during the third Anglo-Dutch war (1672-4), distinguishing himself in command of the Royal Katherine during the battle of the Texel / Kijkduin, 11 August 1673. During the subsequent peace he garnered a succession of important positions, including master of the horse to the Duke of York, governor of Portsmouth, lieutenant-general of the ordnance and MP for Ludgershall. In 1682 he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Dartmouth, at least partly because of his outspoken loyalty to the crown during the ‘Popish plot’ and exclusion crisis, and in 1683 he took command of the fleet assigned to evacuate and demolish the expensive colony of Tangier. Samuel Pepys went with him as his secretary, and in what some have called his ‘second diary’ – the Tangier papers – he chronicled Dartmouth’s anxieties, strengths and weaknesses in the period leading up to the final destruction of the British fortifications in 1684.

On James II’s accession, Dartmouth became master of the horse and constable of the Tower of London, and was generally regarded as one of the king’s leading Anglican advisers. On 24 September 1688 Dartmouth was appointed to command the fleet which had been mobilized to defend against William of Orange’s expected invasion. In mid-October the fleet moved to the Gunfleet anchorage off Harwich where Dartmouth struggled to deal with the widespread Williamite conspiracy in the fleet. At councils of war on 26 and 28 October the captains of the fleet decided not to cross to the Dutch coast to try and intercept William’s fleet as it sailed. The British fleet’s attempt to sail on the 30th was thwarted by the wind, and when the Dutch left Hellevoetsluis on 1 November, the stiff north-easterly ‘Protestant wind’ that favoured them kept Dartmouth’s fleet behind the sandbanks. It finally got out on 3 November, too late to prevent William’s landing at Torbay, and another council of war, on 5 November off Beachy Head, resolved not to attack what was believed (wrongly) to be a much larger Dutch fleet. Dartmouth returned to the Downs, attempted to sail west again on 16 November, but was driven by storms into Spithead. I chronicled these events, and explored the extent of the conspiracy in the fleet, in both my first book, Gentlemen and Tarpaulins, and in an essay in the 1989 volume By Force or By Default?

From then on, Dartmouth’s staunch loyalty to James gave way to a more pragmatic approach. He opposed the king’s plan to send the infant prince of Wales to France from Portsmouth, arguing that such an act would make him guilty of treason and would inevitably lead to war with France. One of his captains smuggled a letter from William of Orange into Dartmouth’s toilet, where he found it on 12 December. Dartmouth responded by effectively surrendering the fleet to William’s control on the following day. However, it is impossible to reconstruct completely his motives and actions at this time: two pages of his letter-book, covering the crucial period from 7 to 10 December, were cut out and destroyed by his wife, presumably because they contained some now unknowable evidence which incriminated her husband. Dartmouth swore allegiance to the new regime of William and Mary but was too closely associated with the exiled James to retain his offices. Early in 1691 he was accused of sending intelligence to the Jacobites and of being the likely commander of a Jacobite fleet. He was arrested and committed to the Tower, dying there of natural causes on 25 October 1691. Many sources refer to George Legge as the Earl of Dartmouth, but his son was the first holder of that title. Legge’s surviving papers, partly at the National Maritime Museum and partly at Staffordshire Record Office, are a major source for the history of the Restoration navy.

As I wrote in my entry on Dartmouth in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 

his command of the fleet that failed to prevent William of Orange’s invasion, and thereby the ‘glorious revolution’, has guaranteed his place in history, if only as one of history’s losers. [He was arguably unsuited to] command in 1688, when strength of character and decisiveness were required. Dartmouth was comparatively inexperienced at sea, having spent twenty-three months there in the preceding twenty-two years, and certainly wholly inexperienced in command of a fleet at war; he was naturally indecisive, alternated between self-doubt and exaggerated self-belief, and was unable to impose himself on a divided, factious fleet.

Nevertheless, it could be argued that the adverse strategic and climatic conditions of October-November 1688, together with the extent of disaffection among the officers and men of the fleet, would probably have confounded a far more capable admiral than Dartmouth.