Last week saw the official publication of my new non-fiction book, Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy, from the wonderful people at Seaforth Publishing. By my reckoning, this is my thirteenth complete book, and my fifth non-fiction title, to add to eight novels to date. But even I’m losing track of the total number, mainly because there are distinct grey areas. For example, there’s the Quinton prequel Ensign Royal…but that’s only a novella, and only available in e-format, so does that count? OK, maybe I should count that as half a book, which takes me to thirteen and a half. Then there’s the cult bestseller 20th Century Naval Dockyards: Devonport and Portsmouth Characterisation Report, where I’m credited as a co-author. So if I count that as a quarter, I get up to thirteen and three-quarters, and can thus legitimately claim to be the Adrian Mole of authors!
Of course, I’ve got a long way to go to catch up with the phenomenal Professor Jeremy Black, author of well over one hundred full length, fully referenced historical works (and counting) – so many, indeed, that even he seems to have lost track of his publications since 2015. Sometimes, especially after about the third glass, I’ve speculated that Jeremy must be definitive proof that human cloning is already happening, because surely nothing else can explain his prolific rate of publication.
Seriously, though, I’m delighted to see Kings of the Sea in print. For me, it marks the culmination of 35 years of work on the naval history of the Restoration age: and to both further explain the rationale behind it, and to provide a little ‘teaser trailer’ for it, here’s the first part of my preface, followed by the first part of the introduction.
Warning: these are among the least controversial sections of the book.
To the best of my recollection, I first conceived the idea of writing a book rather like this one over thirty years ago, when I was locked in Samuel Pepys’s library.
This was not quite the dire emergency, nor the unexpected proof of the feasibility of time travel, that it might sound. Pepys’s glorious bequest to his old Cambridge college, Magdalene, stands four square alongside the River Cam, and contains many of the great man’s papers, contained within exactly 3,000 of his books, no more, no less – arranged, uniquely, in order of size, from the smallest to the largest. When I was working there extensively in the 1980s, the library opened to the public for an hour in the morning, from 11.30 to 12.30, and another in the afternoon, from 2.30 to 3.30; but by prior arrangement, researchers could continue to work through the two hours in between, when the doors of the library were firmly bolted. This necessitated either a very early lunch or a very late one, not to mention unwavering faith in the fire prevention facilities of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and it is hardly surprising that this delightful laissez faire policy eventually fell foul of the relentless advance of ‘elf ‘n’ safety’. But the two hour lock-in, alone with Samuel Pepys’s books, many of them full of the letters written by him to, or send it to him from, the likes of King Charles II and King James II, gave ample time for one’s thoughts to wander in all kinds of directions. One of them involved contemplation of a paradox. In many periods of history, and in many topics of historical study, the role of monarchs has probably been studied more exhaustively than their actual importance often merits, contributing to an overwhelmingly ‘top down’ view of history (and, yes, an often overwhelmingly male one too, for that is what monarchs usually were). The naval history of late seventeenth century Britain is a marked exception. There, if anything, the monarchs have been placed in the background, and in some books, their contributions appear nearly invisible, overshadowed by an even more dominant figure. That person is regarded almost universally as the driving force behind all that happened in the navy of his day, the individual responsible for all that was good and important, the unimpeachable authority for all that took place in naval affairs. I got to know this person very well: after all, I was often locked in his library.
The feeling that Samuel Pepys was, perhaps, not quite as responsible for all that happened in the navy of the Restoration era as posterity believes (essentially because Pepys told posterity what to believe, and posterity duly complied), and that the contributions to naval history of the Stuart brothers, Charles and James, have been somewhat neglected, stayed with me in the years that followed. Indeed, several of the themes and ideas explored in this book first saw the light of day in a number of essays and articles, most of them published in obscure academic journals and collections of essays: which is a polite way of saying ‘nobody read them’. But during the years that followed, other priorities always intervened to take me away from this book.
Now, though, it’s time to set the record straight…
And from the introduction (with the references deleted) –
At some point during the afternoon of 30 June 1675, the King of England disappeared.
In many European states of the period, this would have triggered immediate panic. Kings were still regarded by many as little gods upon Earth; the entire political and social order was based, to some extent, on knowing where they were. Both before and since the seventeenth century, there have been countless instances where the sudden disappearance of a head of state has triggered anything from bouts of religious hysteria, to rioting in the streets, to full scale revolutions. But for at least some of those who knew about it, King Charles II’s disappearance on 30 June probably caused little more than a mild frisson of concern, perhaps no more than a few disapproving shakes of the head.
Because the king had gone sailing.
The royal cruise of 1675 involved seven royal yachts and three small frigates. This flotilla set off from Gravesend on 26 June, with the king aboard the Sixth Rate man-of-war Greyhound. A further eight warships, including the Third Rate Harwich and two fireships, joined them in the Downs. Bad weather delayed progress, causing the ‘disappearance’ of the flotilla not once, but several times; the Katherine Yacht lost touch entirely, and was believed to have been lost, while the yacht carrying the Speaker of the House of Commons had to turn back from the Downs. Progress was so slow that the royal party missed the principal object of the voyage, namely attending the launch of the great new First Rate man-of-war Royal James at Portsmouth Dockyard on 29 June. As it was, the other ships in the royal flotilla lost sight of the Greyhound during the ‘very stormy and dark weather’ on the night of 29-30 June, when they were on the west side of the Isle of Wight – a coast notorious for shipwrecks. The vessels sighted each other again in the morning, and the yachts carrying the king’s brother and heir, the Duke of York, and Charles II’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, went into Portsmouth. But once again, there was no sign of the Greyhound, which the others expected to make for the Isle of Wight. By early evening, none of the fires which would have signalled a sighting of the ship flying the royal standard could be seen anywhere on the island. At eight the next morning, both James and Monmouth set sail to see if they could find the king. Whether either, or both, wondered for even the most fleeting moment whether Charles had drowned in a catastrophic shipwreck, which would have meant that James was already King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, will never be known. In fact, the Greyhound had lain to ‘in very rough weather’ off Dunnose Head until the morning of 1 July, when Charles got ashore in a shallop. He was met by the governor of the island, the outspoken, buccaneering old admiral Sir Robert Holmes, who took him off to a ‘good dinner’ at Yarmouth, where the Duke of York eventually caught up with him. Charles finally came into Portsmouth harbour at one in the morning on 2 July. The Venetian ambassador said of the king’s disappearance that ‘anxiety was universal’, and that his reappearance was greeted by ‘unspeakable relief’. Despite the alarm that had been caused, one courtier reported that ‘this stormy voyage has not at all discouraged his Majesty from the sea, and all he can be persuaded to is only to change his ship and return in the Harwich, a good Third Rate frigate, but he will by no means hearken to any proposition of returning by land, notwithstanding all manner of conveniences and supplications have been proposed to him’.
This dramatic voyage was by no means the only, nor the most ambitious, royal voyage of the reign. In July 1671, the king and Duke of York went overland to Portsmouth, where they viewed the new warships St Michael, Royal James and Edgar. They and their retinues then embarked in seven yachts, which, with six escorting warships, sailed for Plymouth, where they arrived on the seventeenth; the extended voyage also saw the royal flotilla call at Dartmouth. The king’s informality during this expedition startled many, and still ‘shocks historians accustomed to the near scripted progress of most baroque monarchs’; he arrived at Portsmouth unexpectedly early, and left Plymouth so abruptly that the mayor and corporation had to pursue him to Mount Edgecumbe in their own boat in order to take formal leave. Describing this voyage, the chief minister, the Earl of Arlington, said of his king (revealing a little of his nervousness in the process), ‘twenty leagues [by sea] are more pleasing to him than two by land. It is a new exploit for kings, but I hope God will bless him in it…’ 1677 saw another expedition to Plymouth. The royal party arrived at Portsmouth on 10 August, where the king and Duke of York inspected the new fortifications and the ships under construction in the dockyard, before sailing on to Plymouth, where they arrived on the sixteenth. The king inspected the Royal Citadel and dined at Mount Edgecumbe house before sailing for home on the eighteenth. So impressed was he by the experience that he vowed to repeat the trip every other year, and it has been suggested that only the subsequent political crisis of several years’ duration prevented him doing so.
As well as these substantial voyages, the king and his brother regularly sailed down the Thames to Sheerness or the Nore and back, outings so frequent that they rarely attracted any comment or attention at all. Moreover, these were not decadent pleasure cruises where downtrodden mariners worked the yacht while the king dallied with his latest mistress in the stern cabin. Charles and James often took the helms themselves, taking great delight in racing each other. On 1 October 1661, the diarist John Evelyn witnessed a race between the royal siblings:
I sailed this morning with His Majesty in one of his yachts (or pleasure boats), vessels not known among us till the Dutch East India Company [sic] presented that curious piece to the King, being very excellent sailing vessels. It was on a wager between his other new pleasure boat, built frigate-like, and one of the Duke of York’s, the wager £100; the race from Greenwich to Gravesend and back. The King lost it going, the wind being contrary, but saved stakes in returning. There were divers noble persons and lords on board, his Majesty sometimes steering himself. His barge and kitchen boat attended. I brake fast this morning with the King at return in his smaller vessel [the Bezan], he being pleased to take me and only four more, who were noblemen, with him, but dined in his yacht, where we all eat together with His Majesty.
‘Messing about on boats’ was an integral part of the macho, competitive culture of the Restoration court, along with the similarly energetic male pursuits of hunting, horse racing, and fornicating. So when one poet described King Charles in distinctly North Korean terms as Britain’s ‘great pilot’, he was using the term both literally and metaphorically.
Even so, the potentially history-changing implications of the royal passion for the sea were very real, even on the jaunts downriver. In July 1662, the king was caught
in a furious gale at the mouth of the Thames…the mast was broken, the sails torn, the sailors dismayed, and all in disorder he was thrown on the banks of Lie [sic; presumably Leigh-on-Sea in Essex]…and was obliged to stay there for several hours exposed to the fury of the waves, until the tide fell and the wind dropping, he could reach a safer place.
The dangers were illustrated even more dramatically by the loss of the Gloucester, on 6 May 1682. This was not some tiny, fragile royal yacht, but a powerful sixty-gun Third Rate man-of-war. She was carrying the Duke of York and a large party of courtiers back to Leith, where James was to retrieve his wife, left behind when their previous sojourn at Holyrood ended unexpectedly with his summons back to London. The voyage should have been routine, through one of the best known and most frequented seaways in British waters. But somehow, a catastrophic navigational error was made, and the ship struck the Lemon and Oare sandbank off Great Yarmouth. The mistake was largely James’ own fault: he seems to have taken command himself, having lost confidence in the Gloucester’s highly experienced pilot James Aires, and ordered a course change that proved fatal. About 130 passengers and crew were killed, including the Earl of Roxburgh, Lord Hopetoun, and James’ brother-in-law, James Hyde. Those who escaped included the Marquis of Montrose, Samuel Pepys (who was sailing in the escorting Katherine Yacht, not the Gloucester), and John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough. Above all, James, Duke of York, survived the shipwreck, albeit only just. He stayed aboard the ship until very nearly too late, and then had to climb out of one of the stern windows, with Churchill having at swordpoint to hold off the press of men trying to clamber into the duke’s boat. The conclusion to be drawn from all this is inescapable: the lives of Charles and James Stuart were threatened more immediately, and much more often, by the vagaries of the sea, than by the bullets and daggers of potential assassins.
Want to read the rest? Then get the book now, and don’t wait for the dodgy illegal Russian ‘free’ PDF that puts a virus on your laptop and destroys your hard drive!