Sir Cloudesley Shovell (1650-1707)

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Sir Cloudesley Shovell (1650-1707)

English naval commander  Sir Cloudesley Shovell, (alternative spellings Clowdesley; Shovel, 1650-1707), born into a distinguished  Norwich family, took his unusual given name derives from his maternal grandmother, Lucy Cloudesley's family name.  He first went to sea as a cabin boy and servant with Sir Christopher Myngs. After Myngs's death in the Four Days' Battle (June 1666) he continued in the same capacity with Sir John Narbrough. He may have been with Narbrough on his voyage to the Pacific in 1670–71, but entered the official record as a midshipman on the Duke of York's flagship Royal Prince on 22 January 1672, seventeen days after Narbrough became the flagship's first lieutenant. 

From there he followed Narbrough through postings as master's mate and lieutenant. Lieutenant Shovell made his name in the naval campaign against Tripoli when he commanded the boats that burned shipping in Tripoli harbour on 14 January 1676. He was appointed first lieutenant aboard Narbrough's flagship, the Plymouth on 3 May 1677, and picked up his first command the 28-gun Sapphire after her commander Thomas Harman died of wounds received in action against the Turks in September 1677. 

Narbrough and his deputy, Arthur Herbert, shifted Shovell from one command to another through the rest of the long war with Algiers. After the war ended Shovell spent a year as commodore of the five-ship Mediterranean squadron, then returned to England in circumstances that generated some controversy over protocol. 

Escorting a convoy of English merchantmen in June 1683, Shovell was pressured by Spanish officials in Cadiz to salute the Spanish king without receiving a return salute Charles II. His decision outraged Admiral of the Fleet Lord Dartmouth and Samuel Pepys, and the friction continued when Dartmouth and Pepys arrived in the Mediterranean to dismantle the garrison at Tangier. Shovell and other senior officers were reluctant to sign the report justifying the destruction of the new breakwater there, but after the demolitions were complete, he remained in the Mediterranean commanding seven-ship squadron, returning to England at the end of 1686.

Shovell remained on active duty, carrying out significant political and diplomatic responsibilities and was a significant beneficiary of the turmoil surrounding the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when his vessel HMS Dover was assigned to take precautions against attempts to smuggle the infant prince of Wales (James Francis Edward Stuart, later father of 'Bonnie Prince Charlie') to France.

During the Nine Years' War, Shovell's 70-gun third rate Edgar was one of nineteen ships that engaged the French at Bantry Bay at the start of May 1689. The successful action resulted in a knighthood and saw Shovell marked for promotion to Rear Admiral though it took a year for the promotion to be confirmed. In the meantime, Shovell continued to distinguish himself in the turmoil following the accession of William III and Mary to the throne, and by July 1690 Queen Mary's advisers considered Shovell 'the best officer of his age'. 

Shovell commanded the rear division of the centre squadron at Barfleur on 19 May 1692, received a splinter wound in the thigh during the fleet action, but managed to command a group of ten ships pursuing the French fleet until a sudden and severe illness, probably blood poisoning, forced him to return to Portsmouth.

In January 1693, he was one of three flag officers briefly appointed to the joint command of the fleet before the disastrous attack on the Mediterranean-bound convoy by the combined French squadrons from Brest and Toulon at Lagos Bay on Portugal's south coast. Although the triumvirate escaped parliamentary censure, they were dismissed from their joint command.

Shovell returned to the sea as Vice-Admiral of the Red late in 1694, saw action in another string of engagements: an amphibious landing at Camaret Bay (18 June 1694), followed by attacks on  St Malo, Dunkirk and Calais (1695-6). After a deployment in the Bay of Biscay in July and August 1696, he moved on to command the Channel Fleet for the remainder of the Nine Years War. 

Shovell was appointed commander-in-chief in the Thames and Medway in August 1698, became the second member for Rochester at the parliamentary election of 1698 and in March 1699 became controller of victualling accounts, one of the principal offices of the Navy Board. He was back at sea commanding the Channel Fleet in 1701, took a squadron to the Mediterranean in 1703, and was on hand when Admiral Rooke captured Gibraltar in 1704.

He succeeded Rooke as Admiral of the Fleet in January 1705 before an appointment as joint commander of an expedition to the Mediterranean to seize Toulon in May. The fleet sailed on 23 May, reached Lisbon on 11 June, and then, when the Toulon operation was set aside at the express wish of the Austrian candidate for the Spanish throne, moved on to Barcelona, which capitulated after a three weeks siege, on 23 September. 

A return to the Mediterranean in 1707 saw the capture of Toulon back on the agenda, and although the port was besieged in July by the end of August the allied land forces had dispersed, and a profoundly disappointed Shovell was on his way back to Gibraltar. 

Continuing from there with twenty-one ships, on 29 September, constant squalls and gales accompanied the fleet across the Bay of Biscay on their way home, pushing the ships off their planned course. As night fell on 22 October 1707 (Old Style, 2 November on the modern calendar), the squadron was at the mouth of the English Channel although Shovell's sailing masters believed they were safely west of the island of Ushant off the coast of Brittany.  A combination of bad weather and an inability to accurately calculate their longitude meant the fleet was closing on the Scilly Isles. Three ships of the line (the 90-gun second-rate flagship HMS Association, the 70-gun third-rate HMS Eagle,

and the 50-gun fourth-rate HMS Romney) were lost with one survivor out of a complement numbering over 1300. A fourth vessel, the fireship HMS Firebrand, struck a rock, was lifted off by a wave and subsequently foundered losing more than half of her forty-man crew. 

Shovell's body came ashore some distance from the wreck site, along with the bodies of his two stepsons, a pet dog, and the flagship's captain, which suggests they may have been able to leave the wreck in a boat that subsequently foundered. 

According to local tradition, Shovell was alive when he reached the shore, but was murdered by a local woman who coveted his valuable emerald ring and confessed to the murder on her deathbed in the 1730s. Shovell's body was carried to Plymouth, embalmed at the Naval Hospital, and then taken by land to London where it lay in state at the queen's expense for two months before burial in Westminster Abbey. 


Sources: Brassey's Battles; Chambers Biographical Dictionary; John B. Hattendorf , Sir Cloudesley Shovell, (bap. 1650, d. 1707); The Oxford Companion to British History; Wikipedia

© Ian Hughes 2017