MATHEWS, THOMAS (1676–1751), British admiral, son of Colonel Edward Mathews (d. 1700), and grandson on his mother’s side of Sir Thomas Armstrong (1624–1684), who was executed for the Rye House Plot, was born at Llandaff Court, Llandaff. He entered the navy and became lieutenant in 1699, being promoted captain in 1703. During the short war with Spain (1718–20) he commanded the “Kent” in the fleet of Sir George Byng (Lord Torrington), and from 1722 to 1724 he had the command of a small squadron sent to the East Indies to repress the pirates of the coast of Malabar. He saw no further service till March 1741, when he was appointed to the command in the Mediterranean, and plenipotentiary to the king of Sardinia and the other courts of Italy. It is impossible to understand upon what grounds he was selected. As an admiral he was not distinguished; he was quite destitute of the experience and the tact required for his diplomatic duties; and he was on the worst possible terms with his second in command, Richard Lestock (1679?–1746). Yet the purpose for which he was sent out in his double capacity was not altogether ill performed. In 1742 Mathews sent a small squadron to Naples to compel King Charles III., afterwards king of Spain, to remain neutral. It was commanded by commodore, afterwards admiral, William Martin (1696?–1756), who refused to enter into negotiations, and gave the king half an hour in which to return an answer. In June of the same year a squadron of Spanish galleys, which had taken refuge in the Bay of Saint Tropez, was burnt by the fireships of Mathews’ fleet. In the meantime a Spanish squadron of line-of-battleships had taken refuge in Toulon, and was watched by the British fleet from its anchorage at Hyères. In February 1744 the Spaniards put to sea in company with a French force. Mathews, who had now returned to his flagship, followed, and an engagement took place on the 11th of February. The battle was highly discreditable to the British fleet, and not very honourable to their opponents, but it is of the highest historical importance in the history of the navy. It marked the lowest pitch reached in discipline and fighting and efficiency by the fleet in the 18th century, and it had a very bad effect in confirming the pedantic system of tactics set up by the old Fighting Instructions. The British fleet followed the enemy in light winds on the 10th of February, and became scattered. Mathews hoisted the signal to form the line, and then when night fell, to lie to. At that moment Lestock, who commanded in the rear, was at a considerable distance from the body of the fleet, and he ought undoubtedly to have joined his admiral before lying to, but he obeyed the second order, with the result, which it is impossible not to feel that he foresaw and desired, that when morning came he was a long way off the flag of Mathews. The enemy were within striking distance of the van and centre of the British fleet, and Mathews attacked their rear. The battle was ill fought, as it had been ill prepared. Lestock never came into action at all. One Spanish line-of-battleship, the “Poder” (74), was taken, but afterwards burnt. Several of the British captains behaved very badly, and Mathews in a heat of confused anger bore down on the enemy out of his line, while the signal to keep the line was still flying at his mast head. The French and Spaniards got away, and were not pursued by Mathews, though they were of inferior strength.
Deep indignation was aroused at home by this naval miscarriage, and the battle led to more than twenty courts-martial and a parliamentary inquiry. The evils which had overrun the navy were clearly displayed, and in so far some good was done. It was shown for instance that one of the captains whose ship behaved worst was a man of extreme age who was nearly blind and deaf. One of the captains was so frightened at the prospect of a trial that he deserted on his way home and disappeared into Spain. Mathews resigned and returned home after the battle. In consequence of the parliamentary motion for inquiry, Lestock was brought to trial, and acquitted on the ground that he had obeyed orders. Then Mathews was tried in 1746, and was condemned to be dismissed the service on the ground that he had not only failed to pursue the enemy but had taken his fleet into action in a confused manner. He had in fact not waited till he had his fleet in a line with the enemy before bearing down on them, and he had disordered his own line. To the country at large it appeared strange that the admiral who had actually fought should be condemned, while the admiral who had kept at a distance was acquitted. Mathews looked upon his condemnation as the result of mere party spirit. Sheer pedantry on the part of the officers forming the court-martial affords a more satisfactory explanation. They judged that a naval officer was bound not to go beyond the Fighting Instructions as Mathews had undoubtedly done, and therefore condemned him. Their decision had a serious effect in fixing the rule that all battles, at any rate against enemies of equal or nearly equal numbers, were to be fought on one pattern. Mathews died on the 2nd of October 1751 in London. There is a portrait of him in the Painted Hall at Greenwich.
In Beatson’s Naval and Military Memoirs, vol. i., will be found a fair account of the battle of February 1744. It is fully dealt with by Montagu Burrows in his Life of Hawke. The French account may be found in Tronde’s Batailles Navales de la France. The Spanish view is in the Vida de Don Josef Navarro by Don Josef de Vargas. The battle led to a violent pamphlet controversy. The charges and findings at the courts-martial on both Lestock and Mathews were published at the time. The minor trials arising out of the action are collected in a folio under the title “Copies of all the Minutes and Proceedings taken at and upon the several Tryals of Captain George Burrish” (1746). A “Narrative” was published by, or for, Lestock in 1744, and answered by, or on behalf of, Mathews under the title “Ad——l M——w’s Conduct in the late Engagement Vindicated” in 1745. (D. H.)