Open main menu

Holmes, Robert (1622-1692) (DNB00)

HOLMES, Sir ROBERT (1622–1692), admiral, governor of the Isle of Wight, third son of Henry Holmes of Mallow, co. Cork, and brother of Sir John Holmes [q. v.], served during the civil war in the royalist army, and after the king's death in the semi-piratical squadron of Prince Rupert. According to his monument he afterwards distinguished himself in foreign service. He seems to have been especially attached to the Duke of York, and probably served with him in the French army under Turenne. At the Restoration, when the Duke of York became lord high admiral, Holmes was appointed to command the Bramble, from which he was shortly afterwards moved into the Henrietta. In October 1660 he was appointed also captain and governor of Sandown Castle in the Isle of Wight, and about the same time sailed to the Guinea coast for the protection of trade. On his return in the following summer he brought back with him ‘a great baboon,’ apparently a chimpanzee or gorilla (cf. Murray, Geographical Distribution of Mammals, p. 77), which Pepys thought must have had a human progenitor (Diary, 24 Aug. 1661). He was then appointed captain of the Royal Charles, but in November was superseded and sent up to town to answer a charge ‘of letting the Swedish ambassador go by him without striking his flag’ (ib. 12 Nov.; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 17 Nov. 1661). A few weeks later he was troubling Pepys's devotions by appearing at church ‘in his gold-laced suit’ (Diary, 22 Dec.), and in 1662 he was appointed to the Reserve, to which ship Pepys got his mathematical teacher, a man named Cooper, put in as master (ib. 7 Aug. 1662). Some months afterwards Holmes insisted on Cooper being removed from the ship, and, on Pepys supporting his protégé, a quarrel broke out which left Pepys in ‘a natural fear of being challenged’ by Holmes. Pepys got out of the difficulty by ‘finding Cooper a fuddling, troublesome fellow, and so being content to have him turned out of his place’ (ib. 22, 24 March 1662–3). The incident probably explains the very unfavourable opinion of Holmes which, after this date, the ‘Diary’ frequently expresses.

Towards the autumn of 1663 Holmes was appointed to the Jersey, and with a small squadron again sent out to the coast of Africa to support the Royal African Company against the encroachments of the Dutch. He sailed in October, and, coming to the river Gambia, found the English and Portuguese factors eloquent on the subject of Dutch usurpation, violence, rapine, and treachery. The Dutch, it was said, had seized English factories, driven English ships off the coast, claimed the monopoly of the trade, and stirred up the natives to wage war against the English. Holmes was instructed to avoid hostilities as far as possible; but, on endeavouring to open negotiations with the Dutch governors, his ships were fired at, his messengers beaten or killed, and all amicable proposals rejected. He was thus forced to take possession of the Dutch settlements one after the other, including Goree, Cape Coast, Aga, and Annamaboe. From the coast of Africa Holmes then stretched across the Atlantic, and in August 1664 ousted the Dutch from the possession of the New Netherlands and their settlement of New Amsterdam, which in English hands became New York. He then returned to England, where, in consequence of the representations of the Dutch, he was committed to the Tower pending an examination into the incidents of his voyage (ib. 9 Jan.; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 23 Jan., 14 Feb. 1664–5). Meantime the Dutch had sent Ruyter with a strong squadron to the coast of Africa, where he recaptured the forts taken by Holmes, and, crossing to the West Indies, made many prizes. Letters of reprisal were issued by both nations, and the examination of Holmes was naturally not very severe. He drew up a detailed narrative, supporting his principal statements by formal depositions, and showed that his instructions warranted his conduct. On 6 March 1664–5 he was released from arrest (ib.; Pepys, 14 March), and on 23 March he received ‘a general pardon and release for all felonies and offences in England or elsewhere.’ The blame of the war which followed is frequently laid on Holmes. If his narrative be true, he acted with judgment, prudence, skill, and courage. The facts, however, as described by Valkenburg, the Dutch governor of Elmina, on whom Holmes laid the chief blame, are scarcely to be recognised as the same (State Papers, Dom. Charles II, cxiv. 19, 20, 68; Brandt, Vie de Ruyter, p. 245). It can only be said that Holmes had not the temptation to attack the Dutch that Valkenburg had to attack the English, and his evidence is at least as trustworthy.

Holmes was now appointed captain of the Revenge, one of the white squadron, under Rupert, in the action off Lowestoft on 3 June 1665. On the strength of his reputation here acquired he requested to be promoted to the flag of rear-admiral of the white, vacant by the death of Sansum. The Duke of York refused, and gave the flag to Harman [see HARMAN, Sir JOHN], on which Holmes handed his commission to the duke, who tore it up. Prince Rupert, it is said, had, by the duke's desire, endeavoured to dissuade Holmes from this step; but he ‘would do it, like a rash, proud coxcomb. He is rich, and sought an occasion of leaving the service’ (PEPYS, 16 June; Coventry to Arlington, 13 June, Cal. State Papers, Dom.). Yet early in the following year the duke appointed Holmes to the Defiance, a ship still on the stocks, which was launched on 27 March. The king, with the duke and Prince Rupert, was present at the ceremony, and conferred on Holmes the honour of knighthood. When the fleet was remodelled on 30 May, Holmes was nominated rear-admiral of the red (State Papers, Dom. Charles II, clvii. 57), over the head of Harman, who remained rear-admiral of the white. In the great fight of four days (1–4 June) Holmes was said to have displayed the greatest gallantry, ‘to have done wonders’ (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 5, 7 June). Apparently the Defiance sustained such damage as to render it necessary for her to be sent in to refit, and Holmes hoisted his flag on board the Henry.

In the fight of St. James's day, 25 July, the Henry, having lost her top-masts, hauled to windward out of the line to repair damages; and meantime the red and white squadrons, having forced the opposing van and centre of the enemy to bear up, followed them to leeward in a running fight which lasted all through the next day. In the rear the battle was more obstinately contested, and Holmes, when again ready for action, took his place in the blue squadron. In the afternoon of the 26th the Dutch rear, being also put to the run, was chased towards the coast of Holland. As night closed in they had sighted the main body of the English fleet, and ought to have been driven into it; but the admiral of the blue squadron, Sir Jeremy Smyth [q. v.], on the advice of his pilot that they were getting into dangerous navigation, hauled to the wind and gave up the pursuit, thus permitting the flying enemy to escape from what seemed certain destruction (State Papers, Dom. Charles II, clxv. 1, 2). Holmes, still with the blue squadron, was indignant. It is said that he fired guns at Smyth's ship to compel him to renew the chase, and that he called Smyth a coward publicly in the presence of the generals (ib. 41). The matter was reported to the king, who ordered a court-martial to be held (5 Aug. 1666; ib. clxvi. 86). It seems to have referred the question back to the king, who acquitted Smyth of cowardice, but reprimanded him for having ‘too easily yielded to the single opinion of his pilot’ (ib. Entry Book, xxiii. 264). It was reported that Holmes and Smyth fought a duel, which was probably true, and that Holmes was killed, which was certainly false (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1 Nov.; Pepys, 31 Oct. 1666). According to Pepys the quarrel extended in the fleet; the Duke of Albemarle supported Smyth, while Rupert favoured Holmes, ‘an idle, proud, conceited, though stout, fellow;’ and officers and men ranged themselves on one side or the other, to the utter subversion of effective discipline (ib. 20, 29 Oct. 1666; 3 April 1668). It appears certain that the discipline of the fleet did at this time become very bad, and partly perhaps from this cause; but the non-payment of the seamen's wages was of more importance.

To follow up their victory on St. James's day, the generals detached Holmes with a small squadron and a landing party to destroy the shipping at the islands of Vlie and Schelling. On 8 Aug. he was off the harbour; two men-of-war that attempted its defence were driven ashore and burnt; the fireships did the rest; between 150 and 160 merchant ships, mostly of large size and richly laden, outward or homeward bound East Indiamen, were destroyed; and then landing, the stores, filled with East Indian merchandise, were also given to the flames. Comparatively little was brought away, but the material loss to the Dutch was enormous. The magnitude of the blow brought exaggerated credit to Holmes for inflicting it. One ballad of the time is happier than most— <poem> Whilst we were giving thanks to Heaven, we found Our former victory with a second crowned … Our streets were thick with bonefires large and tall, But Holmes one bonefire made was worth them all. (Sir Robert Holmes, his Bonefire; cf. Cal. State Papers, Dom. 7 Aug. 1666.) From the king Holmes received an honourable augmentation to his arms—the English lion in a canton; and as a crest, a naval crown, out of which an arm in armour, the hand holding a trident.

Early in 1667 he was named as admiral at Portsmouth (Pepys, 4 April), but does not seem to have been actually appointed till the following year, when he hoisted his flag on board the Defiance, from which he afterwards moved to the Cambridge. In the meantime he had taken a prominent part in the scandalous duel between the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Shrewsbury. Holmes was one of the duke's seconds, and opposed to Sir John Talbot, whom he wounded in the arm. After this he was in higher favour than ever, and some months later Pepys noted a report ‘that Holmes and Spragge now rule all with the Duke of Buckingham, as to sea business, and will be great men’ (ib. 3 Dec. 1668; 4 March 1668–9). In the following year Holmes was returned to parliament as member for Winchester. He was also appointed captain-general and governor of the Isle of Wight, where, at Yarmouth, he had built a large mansion (now the George Inn). Here, in 1671, 1675, and 1677, he entertained the king with regal magnificence, which would seem to confirm Pepys's statement as to his being rich.

In the beginning of 1672, when war with Holland was determined on, Holmes was ordered to take command of a squadron of ships of war, and intercept the Dutch Smyrna fleet as it came up the Channel. The preparations to carry out this measure were as inadequate as the conception of it was villainous. Holmes, with his flag in the St. Michael, was stationed, with five ships, to intercept a fleet of fifty-six merchant ships, convoyed by eleven men-of-war; these were of from 40 to 50 guns, and some twenty of the merchant ships were also heavily armed; so that when, on 12 March 1671–2, Holmes attacked them off the Isle of Wight, they defended themselves stoutly. After fighting all the afternoon and evening, the English ships were so disabled that they had to lie by to repair damages. Holmes shifted his flag to the Cambridge, and in the morning, having been joined by three other ships, again attacked the Dutch with somewhat better success. One of the Dutch ships was sunk, and five or six were captured; the rest escaped (Foreign Office Records, Holland, cclxv. 233, 234). Holmes, acting under immediate orders, had at least done well where the imbecility of the government had rendered success impossible. The blame cast upon him for obeying orders is equally unjust, especially as he could not possibly know their exceptional infamy. The St. Michael had been terribly mauled in this action, but was refitted in time to take part in the battle of Solebay, 28 May 1672, on which occasion she was one of the seconds of the commander-in-chief. When his own ship, the Prince, was disabled, and her captain, Sir John Cox, killed, the Duke of York hoisted the standard on board the St. Michael, and continued in her till, towards evening, she too was disabled, when he again shifted to the London (Henry Savile to Arlington, a printed relation in State Papers, Dom. Charles II, cccxxviii.) It would almost seem as if Holmes's career afloat was bound up in the Duke of York's tenure of office as lord high admiral; for, though no lists of the fleets of 1673 can be found, it does not appear that Holmes took part in that bloody campaign.

The rest of his life appears to have been passed in the duties of his office as governor of the Isle of Wight, and as member of parliament, in which he sat almost continuously for Winchester, Yarmouth, or Newport. He quietly accepted the revolution. In July 1690, after the battle of Beachy Head, we find him sending intelligence of the movements of the French fleet. His will, dated 28 Oct. 1692, describes him as then in perfect health; and thus, without any long illness, he died on 18 Nov. 1692 (monumental inscription). His will was proved on the next day, 19 Nov. He was buried in Yarmouth Church, where there is an ornate monument to his memory. This monument was seen in 1704 by the Rev. Thomas Pocock, who has given in his journal a correct description of it, and a copy of the inscription as it then was (Memoirs relating to the Lord Torrington, Camd. Soc. vol. xlvi. new ser. p. 180). He adds: ‘This marble was going to France, and the ship being cast away on the back of the isle, was made wreck, and belonged to this gentleman, who prepared all things for his funeral and this monument before his death.’ The inscription seen by Pocock was apparently not approved of, and the present one, giving a pretty full biographical sketch (Worsley, Hist. of the Isle of Wight, p. 266), was substituted for it not long after. No tradition of the change remains (information from the Rev. G. Quirk, rector of Yarmouth), nor is there any record of the earlier inscription, except that noted by Pocock. The account of the monument given by Pocock is contradicted by the present inscription, which ends: ‘Honoratissimo patruo infra sepulto hoc monumentum posuit Henricus Holmes.’ Neither account is strictly accurate. Holmes, by his will, left 300l. to erect the monument, which therefore was not, in the spirit of the words, erected by his nephew.

It does not appear that Holmes was ever married; he had no legitimate children; and by his will, after making an ample provision for an illegitimate daughter, Mary Holmes, he devised the bulk of his property to his nephew, Henry, son of his eldest brother, Thomas Holmes of Kilmallock, co. Limerick, subject to the condition that he married the illegitimate daughter within eighteen months. The marriage was duly carried out. The children of this union included Thomas, first lord Holmes of Kilmallock, and Admiral Charles Holmes [q. v.] Mary, Mrs. Holmes, was buried at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, on 7 March 1760, aged 82 (Yarmouth Register, communicated by the Rev. G. Quirk).

[The only memoir of Holmes is the very imperfect and inaccurate sketch given by Charnock in Biog. Nav. i. 15. Several of the incidents of his career are described in Campbell's Lives of the Admirals, vol. ii.; Lediard's Naval History; and Colliber's Columna Rostrata; or, from the opposite point of view, in Vie de l'Amiral de Ruyter, par G. Brandt; Vie de Corneille Tromp, 1694; and Basnage's Annales des Provinces Unies. But the only satisfactory account of his services is in the State Papers, Domestic or Foreign, many of which are not calendared. Of his private life the little that is known is to be gathered from Pepys's Diary, the inscription on the monument, and the will in Somerset House.]

J. K. L.