1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Blake, Robert

BLAKE, ROBERT (1599–1657), English parliamentarian and admiral, was born at Bridgwater in Somersetshire. The day of his birth is not known, but he was baptized on the 27th of September 1599. Blake was the eldest son of a well-to-do merchant, and received his early education at the grammar school of Bridgwater. In 1615 he was sent to Oxford, entering at first St Alban’s Hall, but removing afterwards to Wadham College, then recently founded. He remained at the university till 1625, but failed to obtain any college preferment. Nothing is known of his life with certainty for the next fifteen years. An anonymous Dutch writer, in the Hollandische Mercurius (1652), represents him as saying that he had lived in Schiedam “for five or six years” in his youth. He doubtless engaged in trade, and apparently with success. When, after eleven years of kingship without parliaments, a parliament was summoned to meet in April 1640, Blake was elected to represent his native borough. This parliament, named “the Short,” was dissolved in three weeks, and the career of Blake as a politician was suspended. Two years later the inevitable conflict began. Blake declared for the Parliament, and served under Sir John Horner. In 1643 he was entrusted with the command of one of the forts of Bristol. This he stoutly held during the siege of the town by Prince Rupert, and earned the approval of parliament by refusing to surrender his post till duly informed of the capitulation. In 1644 he gained high distinction by the resolute defence of Lyme in Dorsetshire. The siege was raised on the 23rd of May, and on the 8th of July Blake took Taunton by surprise, and notwithstanding its imperfect defences and inadequate supplies, held the town for the Parliament against two sieges by the Royalists until July 1645, when it was relieved by Fairfax. In 1645 he re-entered parliament as member for Taunton, when the Royalist Colonel Windham was expelled.

He adhered to the Parliamentary party after the king’s death, and within a month (February 1649) was appointed, with Colonels Dean and Popham, to the command of the fleet, under the title of General of the Sea. In April he was sent in pursuit of Prince Rupert, who with the Royalist fleet had entered the harbour of Kinsale in Ireland. There he blockaded the prince for six months; and when the latter, in want of provisions, and hopeless of relief, succeeded in making his escape with the fleet and in reaching the Tagus, Blake followed him thither, and again blockaded him for some months. The king of Portugal refusing permission for Blake to attack his enemy, the latter made reprisals by falling on the Portuguese fleet, richly laden, returning from Brazil. He captured seventeen ships and burnt three, bringing his prizes home without molestation. After revictualling his fleet, he sailed again, captured a French man-of-war, and then pursued Prince Rupert, who had been asked to go away by the Portuguese and had entered the Mediterranean. In November 1650 Blake destroyed the bulk of the Royalist squadron near Cartagena. The thanks of parliament were voted to Blake, and he received a grant of £1000. He was continued in his office of admiral and general of the sea; and in May following he took, in conjunction with Ayscue, the Scilly Islands. For this service the thanks of parliament were again awarded him, and he was soon after made a member of the council of state.

In 1652 war broke out with the Dutch, who had made great preparations for the conflict. In March the command of the fleet was given to Blake for nine months; and in the middle of May the Dutch fleet of forty-five ships, led by their great admiral Tromp, appeared in the Downs. Blake, who had only twenty ships, sailed to meet them, and the battle took place off Dover on the 19th of May. The Dutch were defeated in an engagement of four or five hours, lost two ships, and withdrew under cover of darkness. Attempts at accommodation were made by the states, but they failed. Early in July war was formally declared, and in the same month Blake captured a large part of the Dutch fishery-fleet and the twelve men-of-war that formed their convoy. On the 28th of September Blake and Penn again encountered the Dutch fleet, now commanded by De Ruyter and De Witt, off the Kentish Knock, defeated it, and chased it for two days. The Dutch took refuge in Goree. A third battle was fought near the end of November. By this time the ships under Blake’s command had been reduced in number to forty, and nearly the half of these were useless for want of seamen. Tromp, who had been reinstated in command, appeared in the Downs, with a fleet of eighty ships besides ten fireships. Blake, nevertheless, risked a battle off Dungeness, but was defeated, and withdrew into the Thames. The English fleet having been refitted, put to sea again in February 1653; and on the 18th Blake, at the head of eighty ships, encountered Tromp in the Channel. The Dutch force, according to Clarendon, numbered 100 ships of war, but according to the official reports of the Dutch, only seventy. The battle was severe, and continued through three days, the Dutch, however, retreating, and taking refuge in the shallow waters off the French coast. In this action Blake was severely wounded. The three English admirals put to sea again in May; and on the 3rd and 4th of June another battle was fought near the North Foreland. On the first day Dean and Monk were repulsed by Tromp; but on the second day the scales were turned by the arrival of Blake, and the Dutch retreated to the Texel.

Ill-health now compelled Blake to retire from the service for a time, and he did not appear again on the seas for about eighteen months; meanwhile he sat as a member of the Little Parliament (Barebones’s). In November 1654 he was selected by Cromwell to conduct a fleet to the Mediterranean to exact compensation from the duke of Tuscany, the knights of Malta, and the piratical states of North Africa, for wrongs done to English merchants. This mission he executed with his accustomed spirit and with complete success. Tunis alone dared to resist his demands, and Tunis paid the penalty of the destruction of its two fortresses by English guns. In the winter of 1655–1656, war being declared against Spain, Blake was sent to cruise off Cadiz and the neighbouring coasts, to intercept the Spanish shipping. One of his captains captured a part of the Plate fleet in September 1656. In April 1657 Blake, then in very ill health, suffering from dropsy and scurvy, and anxious to have assistance in his arduous duties, heard that the Plate fleet lay at anchor in the bay of Santa Cruz, in the island of Teneriffe. The position was a very strong one, defended by a castle and several forts with guns. Under the shelter of these lay a fleet of sixteen ships drawn up in crescent order. Captain Stayner was ordered to enter the bay and fall on the fleet. This he did. Blake followed him. Broadsides were poured into the castle and the forts at the same time; and soon nothing was left but ruined walls and charred fragments of burnt ships. The wind was blowing hard into the bay; but suddenly, and fortunately for the heroic Blake, it shifted, and carried him safely out to sea. “The whole action,” says Clarendon, “was so incredible that all men who knew the place wondered that any sober man, with what courage soever endowed, would ever have undertaken it; and they could hardly persuade themselves to believe what they had done; while the Spaniards comforted themselves with the belief that they were devils and not men who had destroyed them in such a manner.” The English lost one ship and 200 men killed and wounded. The thanks of parliament were voted to officers and men; and a very costly jewel (diamond ring) was presented to Blake, “as a testimony,” says Cromwell in his letter of 10th June, “of our own and the parliament’s good acceptance of your carriage in this action.” “This was the last action of the brave Blake.”

After again cruising for a time off Cadiz, his health failing more and more, he was compelled to make homewards before the summer was over. He died at sea, but within sight of Plymouth, on the 17th of August 1657. His body was brought to London and embalmed, and after lying in state at Greenwich House was interred with great pomp and solemnity in Westminster Abbey. In 1661 Charles II. ordered the exhumation of Blake’s body, with those of the mother and daughter of Cromwell and several others. They were cast out of the abbey, and were reburied in the churchyard of St Margaret’s. “But that regard,” says Johnson, “which was denied his body has been paid to his better remains, his name and his memory. Nor has any writer dared to deny him the praise of intrepidity, honesty, contempt of wealth, and love of his country.” Clarendon bears the following testimony to his excellence as a commander:—“He was the first man that declined the old track, and made it apparent that the science might be attained in less time than was imagined. He was the first man that brought ships to contemn castles on the shore, which had ever been thought very formidable, but were discovered by him to make a noise only, and to fright those who could be rarely hurt by them.”

A life of Blake is included in the work entitled Lives, English and Foreign. Dr Johnson wrote a short life of him, and in 1852 appeared Hepworth Dixon’s fuller narrative, Robert Blake, Admiral and General at Sea. Much new matter for the biography of Blake will be found in the Letters and Papers Relating to the First Dutch War, edited by S. R. Gardiner for the Navy Records Society (1898–1899.)