Edward Russell, Earl of Orford (1652–1727)

Edward Russell, Earl of Orford

Although he had been orphaned early, naval officer Edward Russell, Earl of Orford (1652–1727) worked his way up through the ranks through professional merit, though the patronage of the Duke of York (the future James II) helped, particularly when it came to securing peacetime commands. 

He had received his lieutenant's commission in 1671, was given his first command (the fifth-rate HMS Phoenix) in June 1672 and by 1680 was commanding the fifty-gun fourth-rate HMS Newcastle on the Tangier station, where, like his fellow commanders, he acquired a substantial fortune through illicit trading.

Samuel Pepys believed Russell's profits from those activities enabled him to resign his command after the Rye House plot to assassinate Charles II and the Duke of York in 1683. 

Russell's cousin William was one of a dozen plotters executed.  Russell's grandfather, Francis (c. 1587–1641) had been one of Charles I's leading opponents, and Russel found himself among the Whigs who now saw William of Orange as Britain's best, perhaps only chance to safeguard Protestant England from resurgent Catholicism. 

Russell collaborated with Dijkfelt, William's emissary in London over a year of intense but undocumented activity, crossed to the Netherlands between March and May 1687, then returned to England to become one of the seven signatories of the invitation to William of 30 June 1688. He was back in the Netherlands as William’s secretary during the lead-up to the Glorious Revolution in November 1688.

After the Revolution, the rewards were not long in coming. 1689 saw Russell elected as the Whig Member of Parliament for Launceston, appointed Treasurer of the Navy, and promoted to flag rank, taking command of the Channel fleet enforcing a blockade of France.

The task of escorting Maria Anna of Neuburg from Flushing to Corunna so she would become Charles II of Spain's new consort reputedly left him severely out of pocket, but the general election of March 1690 saw Russell elected as the member for Portsmouth. He joined the Board of Admiralty in June of that year, then, following the Battle of Beachy Head where the French defeated a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet in July 1690, became, in turn, Admiral of the Fleet, and the Navy's Commander-in-Chief. He was engaged in providing naval support for the Williamite War in Ireland until October 1691. His criticism of the Dutch for the failure to enforce the blockade of France forced him to stand down from the Admiralty board in January 1691, although he retained his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Anglo-Dutch fleet at the Battle of Barfleur in May 1692 and the Battle of La Hogue in June. 

Following a disagreement with the Secretary of State, Daniel Finch Earl of Nottingham, Russell resigned his command in December 1692 but was back in the post less than a year later. His successors were dismissed from their joint command after the disastrous attack on a convoy of four hundred merchantmen bound for the Mediterranean at the Battle of Lagos in June 1693. Russell resumed his sea command in November, and became First Lord of the Admiralty and Senior Naval Lord in May 1694. He then took a fleet of sixty-three ships into the Mediterranean in June  and, in an unprecedented operation, over the next year kept the French from attacking the coast of Catalonia, wintered at Cadiz, returned to a station off Barcelona and imposed an effective blockade off Toulon that kept the Mediterranean fleet out of action.

In the autumn of 1695, Russell returned from the sea for the last time, re-entered Parliament as the member for Cambridgeshire and was raised to the peerage as Baron Shingay, Viscount Barfleur and Earl of Orford in May 1697. He left office when the Whig government fell from power in May 1699. Allegations in 1698 that he had misappropriated funds allocated to maintain his fleet at Cadiz and redirected the money to massive expenditure on his estate near Cambridge led in 1701 to an impeachment process against him which, in the end, came to nothing after the upper and lower houses of Parliament fell out over the details

Changes of government at Westminster saw Russell return to office as First Lord (November 1709–October 1710)  with a third term between October 1714 and April 1717. In the meantime he had played a leading role in the negotiations for the union of England and Scotland,  He died in London on 26 November 1727.

© Ian Hughes 2017