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Robert Blake (admiral)

Robert Blake (1599August 17, 1657) was one the most important military commanders of the Commonwealth of England, and the most famous English Admiral until eclipsed by Horatio Nelson.

Blake was one of thirteen siblings born the son of a merchant in Bridgwater, Somerset, UK, where he attended grammar school. After attending Oxford University, he had hoped to follow an academic career, but failed to secure a fellowship to Merton College, probably because of his political and religious views. Having returned to Bridgwater, probably because of the death of his mother in 1638, he decided to stand for Parliament.


In politics

In 1640 Blake was elected as the Member of Parliament for Bridgwater in the Short Parliament. When the English Civil War broke out during the period of the Long Parliament, and having failed to be re-elected, Blake began his military career on the side of the parliamentarians despite having no substantial experience of military or naval matters.

He would later return to serve in the Barebones Parliament of 1653 for some months when recovering from an injury sustained in the Battle of Portland, before returning to sea.

On land

Blake's most famous exploits on land were at the Siege of Bristol (July 1643), Siege of Lyme (April 1644), Siege of Taunton (1645) and the Siege of Dunster (November 1645). At least at Dunster he was the besieger. At Taunton he famously declared that he had four pairs of boots and would eat three pairs before he would surrender.

At sea

Blake was appointed General at Sea (a rank corresponding to Admiral) in 1649. He's often referred to as the "Father of the British Navy". As well as being largely responsible for building the largest navy the country had then ever known, from a few tens of ships to well over a hundred, he was first to keep a fleet at sea over the winter. He developed new techniques to conduct blockades and landings; his "Sailing instructions" and "Fighting Instructions", major overhauls of naval tactics, written while recovering from injury in 1653 were the foundation of English naval tactics in the age of sail. He was also the first to repeatedly successfully attack despite fire from shore forts.

English Civil War

On January 11 1649 Prince Rupert of the Rhine lead 8 undermanned ships to Kinsale in Ireland in an attempt to prevent the Parliamentarians taking Ireland from the Royalists. Blake blockaded Rupert's fleet in Kinsale from May 22, allowing Oliver Cromwell to land at Dublin on August 15. Blake was driven off by a storm in October and Rupert escaped via Spain to Lisbon, where Rupert had expanded his fleet to 13 ships. Blake put to sea with 12 ships in February 1650 and dropped anchor off Lisbon in an attempt to persuade the Portuguese king to expel Rupert. After 2 months the king decided to back Rupert. Blake was joined by another 4 warships commanded by Popham, who brought authority to go to war with Portugal.

Rupert twice failed to break the blockade, which was finally raised after Blake sailed for Cádiz with 7 ships he captured as a result of a three-hour engagement with 23 ships of the Portuguese fleet, during which the Portuguese Vice-Admiral was also sunk. Blake re-engaged with Rupert, now with 6 ships, on November 3 near Málaga, capturing 1 ship. Two days later the other of Rupert's ships in the area were driven ashore attempting to escape from Cartagena, securing Parliamentarian supremacy at sea, and the recognition of the Parliamentary government by many European states. Parliament voted Blake 1000 pounds by way of thanks in February 1651. Later the same year Blake captured the Isles of Scilly, for which he again received Parliament's thanks. Soon after he was made a member of the Council of State .

Thanks to its command of the sea, the fleet was able to supply Cromwell's army with provisions as it successfully marched on Scotland. By the end of 1652 the various English colonies in the Americas had also been secured.

First Anglo-Dutch War

Blake's next adventures were during the First Anglo-Dutch War. The war started prematurely with a skirmish between the Dutch fleet of Maarten Tromp and Blake off Folkestone on 29 May 1652, the Battle of Goodwin Sands. The war proper started in June with an English campaign against the Dutch East Indies, Baltic and fishing trades by Blake, in command of around 60 ships. On 5 Octobre 1652 Dutch Vice-Admiral Witte Corneliszoon de With, underestimating the strength of the English, attempted to attack Blake, but due to the weather it was Blake who attacked on 8 October 1652 in Battle of the Kentish Knock sending de With back to the Netherlands in defeat. The English government seemed to think that the war was over and sent ships away to the Mediterranean. Blake had only 42 warships when he was attacked and decisively defeated by 88 Dutch ships under Tromp on 9 December 1652 in the Battle of Dungeness, losing control of the English Channel to the Dutch. Meanwhile the ships sent away had also been defeated in the Battle of Leghorn.

Following a major reorganisation of the navy, Blake sailed with around 75 ships to disrupt Channel shipping, engaging Tromp with a similar sized fleet in the Battle of Portland from 28 February to 2 March 1653 when Tromp escaped with his convoy under cover of darkness.

At the Battle of the Gabbard on 12 June and 13 June 1653, Blake reinforced the ships of Generals Richard Deane and George Monck and decisively defeated the Dutch fleet, sinking or capturing thirty ships without losing one. The Channel was at last returned to English control, and the Dutch fleet was blockaded in various ports until finally losing at the Battle of Scheveningen, where Tromp was killed.

Peace with the Dutch achieved, Blake sailed in October 1654 with 24 warships to the Mediterranean, successfully deterring the Duke of Guise from conquering Naples.

Bey of Tunis

In April 1655 Blake was sent to the Mediterranean again to extract compensation from the piratical states that had been attacking English shipping. The Bey of Tunis alone refused compensation, and with 15 ships Blake destroyed the his 2 shore batteries and 9 Algerian ships in Porto Farina, the first time shore batteries had been taken out without landing men ashore.

Anglo-Spanish War

In February 1656, commercial rivalry with Spain was soon turned to war. In the Anglo-Spanish War Blake blockaded Cádiz, during which one of his captains, Richard Stayner destroyed most of the Spanish Plate Fleet. A galleon of treasure was captured, and the overall loss to Spain was estimated at £2,000,000. Blake maintained the blockade throughout the winter, the first time the fleet had stayed at sea over winter.

In 1657, Blake won against the Spanish West Indian Fleet over the English seizure of Jamaica in the West Indies. On April 20 that year, Blake totally destroyed a Spanish silver fleet of 16 ships at Santa Cruz Bay, Tenerife for the loss of one ship, and despite being under fire from shore batteries and attacking and withdrawing on the tide, an action for which Blake was given an expensive diamond ring by Cromwell, and which would earn him respect 140 years later from Lord Nelson who lost his arm there in a failed attack.


After again cruising off Cadiz for a while, Blake turned for home but died of old wounds within sight of Portsmouth and, after lying in state, he was buried in Westminster Abbey in the presence of Oliver Cromwell and the members of the Council of State (although his internal organs had earlier been buried at St Andrew's Church, Plymouth). After the restoration of the Monarchy at the end of the English Civil War his body was exhumed and dumped in a common grave on the orders of the new king, Charles II.


Blake's brother Benjamin Blake (16141689) served under Robert, emigrated to Carolina in 1682, and was the father of Joseph Blake , governor of South Carolina in 1694 and from 1696 to 1700.

Blake's brother Samual Blake fought under Popham before being killed in a duel in 1645.


A series of ships in the Royal Navy have carried the name HMS Blake in honour of the Admiral. The bell of the last HMS Blake, scrapped in 1982, is on display in Saint Mary's Church, Bridgwater.

See also

External links

Preceded by:
Thomas Kelsey
Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports Followed by:
Heneage Finch, 3rd Earl of Winchelsea

Last updated: 11-11-2004 00:04:45