Highways and Byways of the 17th Century: the Naval Engagement at Swansea, 1660- The Last Shots of the British Civil Wars?
This week, I’m cross-posting a blog that I first published earlier in the week on my Welsh naval history site, britanniasdragon.com.
The restoration of the monarch in 1660 was an astonishingly rapid development, one which could hardly have been foreseen at all until just before it actually took place. Inevitably, this led to much confusion, perhaps especially in outlying parts of the country, and created opportunities for the unscrupulous to try and take advantage of the situation before certainty returned. A particularly interesting example of this took place at Swansea in May 1660, in an incident that has only recently come to light. This may well have a claim to be the last engagement – and certainly the last naval engagement – of the British civil wars.
On 9 March 1660, a thirty ton vessel came to an anchor in Mumbles Road. She was the Royalist privateer Henrietta Maria, commanded by Captain George Dowdall, sailing under a commission that had been issued by James, Duke of York (the future King James II) at Brussels in the previous July. Dowdall was unaware that King Charles II had been proclaimed in London on the previous day, and proceeded to capture several ships within Swansea Bay. Complainants hastened to Cardiff to demand action from Colonel Edward Freeman, governor of the castle and one of the commissioners of militia for Glamorgan. Freeman immediately despatched soldiers to the Mumbles, and went down himself on the following day. He informed Dowdall of the astonishing developments in London, ‘telling him he daily expecteth his Majesty’s arrival, at which the said captain was very glad’; Dowdall immediately agreed to restore the prizes he had recently taken, and not to attack any more shipping. Freeman then proclaimed the King aboard the Henrietta Maria, at which ‘Captain Dowdall caused divers guns to be fired and he and all his soldiers [sic] uttered many expressions of joy’. Dowdall and his crew then forebore from attacking any other potential prizes in Swansea Bay.
There matters rested until about the fifteenth, when the frigate Lichfield sailed into Mumbles Road. She was an altogether different proposition to the relatively small Henrietta Maria – a Fifth Rate frigate of 24 guns, although ironically, she, too, had been a Royalist ship, captured by the Commonwealth navy in 1658. Her captain, William Barker, gave the order to open fire, and the Henrietta Maria cut her anchor cable and sailed for the mouth of the River Tawe. The Lichfield pursued her, firing all the time. The Henrietta Maria anchored at Swansea Quay, but still the Lichfield followed. The Royalist ship now cut her other anchor cable and sailed even further upstream, where the larger Lichfield could not follow. The Henrietta Maria sailed ‘above the town’, but then ‘stuck at the Point’ and could go no further. Barker sent some forty to sixty men ashore, heavily armed with cutlasses and muskets. They boarded the ship, stripped the crew (beating some of them in the process), broke open chests and boxes, and pillaged the money on board, most of it takings from the prizes the Royalists had taken – perhaps £500, according to one source, £300 of which (another source says £360, yet another £380) was in Dowdall’s sea chest, together with some £80 worth of other goods plundered from prizes, including canvas, fine linen, tobacco, clothes, arms and ammunition.
Meanwhile, Dowdall and Barker were having a frosty encounter at the nearly adjacent house of William Jones, the mayor of Swansea. Dowdall stated that he sailed with the Duke of York’s commission, and ‘hoped that he [Barker] was not an enemy, saying he was a servant of His Majesty’s’. Barker replied stiffly ‘that the King had no need of such servants’, and told Dowdall that he was sending the Henrietta Maria to Plymouth as a prize, which is what he duly did.
The affair at Swansea was one of the first things that crossed the Duke of York’s desk during his earliest days in office as Lord High Admiral, following his entry into London with his brother on 29 May; a week later, on 5 June, James ordered Barker to ensure that the contents of the Henrietta Maria were not embezzled (wishful thinking, as the ship had obviously been cleared out at Swansea) and that it should be placed in safe custody. What ultimately happened to the ship and the money she had been carrying would require further work in the papers of the High Court of Admiralty, but William Barker certainly never held a command in the Restoration navy. There is no further record of Dowdall, either; he was probably an Irishman (a George Dowdall had been Archbishop of Armagh in the sixteenth century), and one of those serving on his ship as a volunteer was ‘Captain Owen Sullivan’ of Munster, ‘gentleman’.
As for the engagement between the Lichfield and the Henrietta Maria in Swansea Bay, it may well have a claim to be the last ‘battle’ of the British Civil Wars, and certainly deserves a footnote in the naval history of Wales.
- National Archives, Kew, High Court of Admiralty papers 13/73 folios 520-1, transcribed byMarine Lives
- National Archives, Admiralty papers, 2/1732, folio 1