Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ayscue, George

AYSCUE, Sir GEORGE (fl. 1646–1671), admiral, belonged to an old Lincolnshire family, many members of which took a prominent part in public affairs before and during the civil war. His father, William, was gentleman of the privy chamber to Charles I., by whom George was knighted, but for what reason or service no record remains. So far as we know, he held no command in the navy before 1646, when he was captain of the Expedition, one of the ships appointed for the winter guard. A few months later he was captain of the Antelope, and, in 1648, of the Lion (Life of Penn, i. 226, 236, 255), and throughout these services he appears to have ranked as one of the seniors in the fleet. During this time the navy had taken no distinct part in the struggle that was raging on shore, but had guarded England's coasts unaffected by party politics. In 1648, when the king was a prisoner and the Prince of Wales had fled the country, this neutrality could no longer be maintained, and in June a part of the fleet, under the command of Vice-Admiral William Batten, refusing obedience to the parliamentary authorities, weighed anchor from the Downs, and went over to Holland. That the whole or a still greater part did not go, was attributed mainly to the influence of Ayscue, whose service was rewarded by an appointment in the following year as admiral of the Irish seas. In this capacity, with his flag on board the St. Andrew, he was actively engaged in the operations on the coast of Ireland, and more especially in the relief of Dublin when besieged by the Marquis of Ormond, and for his conduct there he was officially thanked by order in parliament, dated 23 July 1649.

In April 1651, as second to Blake, he was engaged in the reduction of Scilly, then held for the Prince of Wales by Sir John Grenville, and was afterwards sent to the West Indies in command of a squadron, with which he reduced Barbadoes, after a stout defence on the part of Lord Willoughby, its royalist governor. Antigua, Nevis, St. Christopher's, as well as the settlements on the coast of Virginia, surrendered without further resistance, and Ayscue, finding his work in the West Indies finished, returned to England. He arrived at Plymouth in the end of May 1652, bringing in with him a number of Dutch merchant ships captured in accordance with the orders for reprisals which had been issued several months before the actual outbreak of the war. A few days later, having intelligence of a Dutch fleet sailing westward, he put to sea, and found it, on 12 June, a little to the west of the Lizard. It was, in fact, the outward-bound trade, under the convoy of a number of men-of-war, and, when attacked by Ayscue's squadron, stood stoutly on the defensive, and got away with the loss of some five ships. After this Sir George went round to the Downs, where he was left by Blake to command, and where, on 3 July, he was attacked by the Dutch with a much superior force. They were, however, unable to overcome the advantage of position, and were driven back; whilst Ayscue, following up his success, fell in with a number of Dutch merchant ships, of which he captured seven, and sank or ran ashore many more. Presently, however, the Dutch returned, mustering 102 men-of-war, besides ten fire-ships, against which Ayscue could oppose no more than sixteen vessels. Batteries for his support were erected on shore; but it might well have gone hard with him if a fortunate shift of wind had not driven the Dutch back (Calendar of State Papers, 11 July; Whitelocke, 13 July). Afterwards, having received large reinforcements, which raised his fleet to some fifty sail all told, he went round to Plymouth, and off that port, on 16 Aug., met the Dutch under De Ruyter, whose force, on a comparison of the many differing and opposing estimates, may be considered to have been equal to that with Ayscue. After a close and confused action, which lasted from two or three o'clock in the afternoon till nightfall, the fleets separated without any decided advantage on either side. During the next day they lay in sight of each other, neither of them wishing to begin or to appear to shun a renewal of the fight; but towards evening the Dutch pursued their way to the westward, and the English, too shattered to follow them, went into Plymouth. Both claimed and have continued to claim the victory, which, so far as the immediate contest was concerned, belonged to neither, though undoubtedly the advantage rested with De Ruyter, since he had protected his convoy and pursued his voyage. And this would seem to have been the opinion of the parliament; for with implied, if not expressed censure, they superseded Ayscue in his command, assigning him, however, a pension of 300l. a year. Either by inheritance, by commerce, or by prize-money, Sir George would seem by this time to have amassed a comfortable fortune. Whitelocke relates how, on 13 Aug. 1656, the ambassador of Sweden was elaborately entertained at Sir George Ayscue's house in Surrey (Ham-Haw in the parish of Chertsey). ‘The house,’ he writes, ‘stands environed with ponds, moats, and water, like a ship at sea: a fancy the fitter for the master's humour, who is himself so great a seaman. There, he said, he had cast anchor and intended to spend the rest of his life in a private retirement.’ Within two years, however, he was persuaded by Cromwell to go to Sweden and take the command of the Swedish fleet; and though no opportunity for active service occurred, he stayed in Sweden, presumably as adviser on naval affairs, until the Restoration, when he returned to England, and was appointed one of the commissioners of the navy. On the outbreak of the second Dutch war, in 1664, he was appointed rear-admiral of the blue, and served in that rank in the action of 3 June 1665, with his flag in the Henry. On the Duke of York's quitting the fleet he was made vice-admiral of the red, under Lord Sandwich. The following spring he was admiral of the blue, in the Royal Prince; but on 30 May, when Prince Rupert had taken part of the fleet away to the westward, and with him Sir Thomas Allin, the admiral of the white, Ayscue was appointed admiral of the white in the division of the fleet that remained with Monck; and it was as admiral of the white that he took part in the four days' engagement off the North Foreland (State Papers, Domestic, Charles II, vol. clvii. No. 57, Clarke to Williamson, 30 May, 1666). On the third day of this great battle, whilst endeavouring to join Prince Rupert's division, which had just come on the scene, the Royal Prince struck on the Galloper—a dangerous shoal on the Essex coast—was surrounded by the Dutch and captured. They were unable, however, to get the ship off, and eventually set her on fire; but they carried Sir George Ayscue a prisoner to Holland, and are said, by all our contemporary writers, to have shown a most ignoble exultation over their illustrious captive. That they paraded him through their towns, exhibiting him to the populace, seems to be well established, even if we are unwilling to believe that they first painted him and fastened a tail on him (Calendar, 10 July 1666). He was kept a prisoner till after the peace, in October 1667. He arrived in London in November, and on the 12th was presented to the king, by whom he was graciously received. It may be doubted whether he ever served again, though he is said on doubtful authority to have hoisted his flag in 1668 on board the Triumph, and again in 1671 on board the St. Andrew. In the third Dutch war, beginning in 1672, he held no command; and it would therefore appear probable that he died about that time; but no record of his death has been preserved. His portrait by Lely is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich.

Sir George Ayscue always wrote his name thus; but contemporary writers, with the carelessness of their age, misspelt it, among many other ways, Ayscough and Askew.

[Campbell's Lives of the Admirals; Charnock's Biog. Nav. i. 89; Calendars of State Papers, 1649–52, 1660–66; Pepys's Diary; Whitelocke's Memorials; Brandt's Vie de De Ruyter. A number of contemporary pamphlets, mostly bearing such titles as ‘A Bloudy Fight,’ or ‘Another Bloudy Fight at Sea’ (Brit. Mus. Catalogue, s.n. ‘Ayscue, George’), are mere crude, hasty, and exaggerated reports, without any authority.]

J. K. L.