Cromwell, Charles II and the Naseby: Ship of State
The fortunes of Oliver Cromwell and Charles II and the regard in which their successive regimes came to be held were mirrored in the fate of one of their mightiest naval vessels, as Patrick Little explains.
In the middle of May 1660, as the Restoration of Charles II became inevitable, hasty changes were made to the British fleet lying off the coast of the Low Countries. Samuel Pepys, who witnessed it, described a frenzy of activity, as ‘this morning we began to pull down all the State’s arms in the fleet, having first sent to Dover for painters and others to come to set up the King’s’. While the carved arms on the sterns of the ships received the attention of the carpenters, on deck ...
... the tailors and painters were at work cutting out of some pieces of yellow cloth into the fashion of a crown and ‘C.R.’ [Carolus Rex], and put it upon a fine sheet, and that into the flag instead of the State’s arms.
Such swift alterations were vital as in a few days time these very ships would be bringing Charles II home in triumph. The royal party joined the fleet on May 22nd and was entertained on the flagship, the Naseby, named after Parliament’s great victory over Charles I in June 1645. The other ships in service bore similarly unhappy titles: the Worcester, the Marston Moor, the Dunbar, to name but three. Further changes would have to be made and, according to Pepys, this turned into something of a parlour game: ‘After dinner, the king and the duke [of York] altered the names of some of the ships, viz. the Naseby into Charles’. So it was that the new king was brought back to England, two days later, on the newly named Royal Charles.
What could not be erased in the days before the Restoration was the knowledge that the Naseby, the biggest and most powerful of the ships of the newly re-established Royal Navy, had in fact been built under the regime of Oliver Cromwell. Indeed, her provisional name, while still under construction at Woolwich in 1655, was the Great Oliver. Even enemies of the Cromwellian regime had been impressed by the strength of the Protector’s new ship. In April the same year the royalist John Evelyn went to see progress on ‘the great ship newly built, by the Usurper Oliver’ and was amazed to see that not only was this a powerful, first-rate battleship; she was also highly decorated:
In the prow was [an effigy of] Oliver on horseback trampling six nations under foot, a Scot, Irishman, Dutch, French, Spaniard and English, as was easily made out by their several habits. A [statue of] Fame held a laurel over his insulting head, and the word ‘God with Us’.
It was not only Evelyn who objected to this. A few weeks earlier, as reported in The Faithful Scout:
The statue and portraiture of his highness the Lord Protector … with sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, trampling the Scots under his feet, was in the night time exceedingly defaced, by having the nose of this rich and glorious picture cut off; which is now carved out, and very curiously prefixed on the face.
Estimates differed as to the scale of the new ship. Evelyn recorded that she was of 1,000 tons, with 96 guns; the newsbook, Mercurius Politicus, reported that she boasted 100 guns; while the Venetian ambassador described her variously as carrying 115 and 120 guns and as having been ‘built regardless of cost, of marvellously rich construction’. Modern historians tend to accept a slightly lower estimate of 80 or 86 guns, a crew of 500 men and a displacement of around 1,200 tons. Even the more sober accounts show her to have been an impressive ship, similar in size and opulence to the famous Vasa of Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus (which was launched and sank in 1628), but with superior firepower. Perhaps the more telling comparison is with Charles I’s great warship, the Sovereign of the Seas, launched in 1637. The Sovereign had borne the effigy of the Saxon king, Edgar, and the statue of Oliver on the new ship may have been modelled on this. The writer of Mercurius Politicus thought Oliver’s ship better than the king’s, ‘near the length of that great ship called the Sovereign, but built more fit for service’ and this was echoed by the Venetian ambassador, who said it was ‘undoubtedly larger than the Sovereign built for the late king’. When the new ship, eventually christened Naseby, was launched at Woolwich in the presence of Cromwell and his council on April 11th, 1655, her size caused a few problems. As one newsletter writer reported, ‘the Naseby was endeavoured to be launched, but could not for want of water’ and it was only the next day that the morning tide floated her off. When the fleet set sail in the spring of 1656 there were rumours that the Naseby was unseaworthy owing to her size and might have to be rebuilt, but these proved unfounded, with news soon arriving that she ‘sailed with the rest, is well ahead, and takes the wind better than the others’.
The Naseby was certainly the largest and most glamorous of the Cromwellian warships. It was ironic that, despite reports of her good sailing abilities, her size and splendour made her unsuitable for some of the more daring naval exploits of Admiral Robert Blake (1598-1657) and his subordinates in the war against Spain. Actions such as the capture of the Spanish plate fleet in 1656 and the astonishing victory at Santa Cruz in Tenerife in 1657 were won by the smaller, faster frigates rather than the capital ships. The Naseby did not lie idle, however, as she took part in the blockade of Cadiz in the summer of 1656, escorting the captured bullion back to England in September, playing an important role in the siege of Dunkirk in May and June 1658, when she headed the fleet assisting the Anglo-French forces investing the town by land. In July of that year she played her first diplomatic role, when the French first minister, Cardinal Mazarin, visited her and was ‘lavishly entertained’ in the state rooms by Admiral Edward Montagu (1625-72). In March 1659 Montagu took the Naseby north to the Sound, the narrow channel between Sweden and Denmark which guarded the entrance to the Baltic, where he engaged with mixed success in an attempt to bring the two warring powers to the negotiating table. Back in England in September the ship then underwent a refit over the winter, before returning to its role as Montagu’s flagship in the spring of 1660.
The Naseby played a pivotal role in the Restoration. It was on her quarterdeck that Charles II’s Declaration of Breda – outlining his intention to respect Parliament and the law, to allow religious liberty for ‘tender consciences’ and not to seek retribution against his former enemies – was publicly read out on May 3rd. And it was from the newly renamed Royal Charles that the king landed at Dover on May 25th, 1660. He was met at the quayside by General George Monck (1608-70), whose intervention in English politics at the start of the year had triggered the series of events that had led to the king’s return. Monck was greeted as a friend by the king and his brothers, who kissed and embraced him, and he joined their party in the royal coach as it made its way to London, where they were greeted by cheering crowds, ‘the ways strewed with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with tapestry, fountains running with wine’.
After the Restoration the Royal Charles became the flagship of the Royal Navy and she continued to play a symbolic role, leading, for example, the squadron that went to Lisbon to collect Charles II’s bride, the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662. Although the ship’s name had changed and the royal arms erected at her stern in place of those of the Protectorate, it is curious to note, according to Pepys, that the decorated prow, with the effigy of ‘Great Oliver’, remained in place until December 1663, when it was pulled down and burned at the insistence of the Duke of York.
With the outbreak of the second Dutch war in March 1665 the Royal Charles again saw active service. She fought at the battle that took place off Lowestoft in 1665, when the Dutch fleet narrowly escaped defeat, and ran aground during another engagement the following year. Her last action was even more inglorious. On June 12th, 1667 the Dutch admiral, Michiel de Ruyter (1607-76), made a surprise attack up the Medway, breaking the chain across the river and overrunning the British fleet at anchor before Chatham. Amid the confusion that followed, three large warships (the Loyal London, the Royal James and the Royal Oak) were burned and the Royal Charles was captured and towed back to the Netherlands by the triumphant Dutch. It was a spectacular naval coup, celebrated in the Netherlands by paintings and poems. Rather than being refitted as a Dutch warship, the Royal Charles became a trophy, with the part of the stern displaying the royal arms still on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to this day.
In England the humiliating defeat and the capture of the Royal Charles led to an eruption of anger against Charles II and his government, a marked contrast to the celebrations that had greeted his restoration seven years before. The new house of the senior politician Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, was attacked, with a mob cutting down the trees before it and breaking the windows, then setting up a gibbet and decorating the walls with rude slogans. Pepys recorded the mood in London on June 14th:
People do cry out in the streets of their being bought and sold; and both they and everybody that come to me do tell me that people make nothing of talking treason in the streets openly, as that we are bought and sold and governed by papists and that we are betrayed by people about the king.
This popular unrest contributed to the ousting in the following August of Clarendon by others at court. The king was also criticised, with rumours circulating that he had spent the evening of the attack in his mistress’s lodgings, ‘mad in hunting of a poor moth’. According to one contemporary:
So our great prince, when the Dutch fleet arriv’d
Saw his ships burn’d, and as they burn’d, he swiv’d
There were now those prepared to make comments that would have been almost unthinkable a few months before. Pepys was shocked, but not surprised, by a conversation with a friend in August:
… he doth really declare that he expects that of necessity the kingdom will fall back again to a commonwealth; and that other wise men are of the same mind, this family doing all that silly men can do to make themselves unable to support their kingdom – minding their lust and their pleasure, and making their government so chargeable that people do well remember better things were done, and better managed and with less charge under a commonwealth than they have been by this king.
The outburst of discontent provoked by the capture of the Royal Charles did not lead to a new revolution, but it did encourage contemporaries to make comparisons with the rule of Oliver Cromwell, when affairs of state were ‘better managed’. The contrast could hardly be greater. When the Great Oliver was on the drawing board the Cromwellian navy had just won a famous victory in the first Dutch war (1652-54), leading the Venetian ambassador to describe Britain as ‘the third power of Europe’. Despite the disastrous ‘Western Design’ in the late spring of 1655 (when a British expeditionary force was routed by Spanish troops on the island of Hispaniola) later in the decade the Cromwellian state remained an important player on the world stage. Under Admiral Robert Blake the navy was respected and feared in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. France was eager to ally Britain and the treaty between the two countries, signed in the spring of 1657, was followed by military cooperation against Spain in the Low Countries and, after its capture in June 1658, the stronghold of Dunkirk became Britain’s first European outpost on the Continent since the loss of Calais a century before.
In the 1660s Charles II’s foreign policy was, on the other hand, marked by retreat and humiliation. There was the bitter irony that the second Dutch war was brought to an end by the 1667 Treaty of Breda, the very town where Charles II had issued his declaration that preceded the Restoration. The terms of the Treaty of Breda again raised awkward comparisons, as they included the loss of territories overseas, including Nova Scotia, which had been wrested from the French by Cromwell in 1654, and the East Indian island of Pulo Run, ceded to Britain under the terms of the peace treaty that followed the first Dutch War. The Treaty of Breda was only the latest in a series of humiliations for the new king. Peace with Spain in 1660 had proved unpopular, not least because it was feared that Charles would agree to sell back the island of Jamaica (taken by Cromwell in 1655) and the Flemish town of Dunkirk. As it turned out, in 1662 the impecunious king did sell Dunkirk, but to the French rather than the Spanish. There were what seemed to be hopeful developments. Charles’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza in the same year promised to put Tangier and Bombay under British control, but this did little to appease the king’s critics. Five years later Tangier was proving a massive drain on resources and the queen had still not produced an heir. During the Chatham crisis these grievances were united in a rhyme daubed on Clarendon’s front wall:
Three sights to be seen: Dunkirk, Tangier, and a
The differences between the reputations of the two regimes could not be ignored by contemporaries. In many cases these came down to matters of personality. Cromwell, for all his rough religious radicalism, was undoubtedly a more capable ruler and a better person than the king who (according to one popular complaint) ‘only hunts and lusts’. Something of their differing personalities is revealed in the naming of the ship. Eschewing Great Oliver, the Protector accepted instead Naseby, which reflected the glory of the state more than that of himself. By the time the next large ship was launched in May 1658 less modesty was shown and it was proudly named the Richard, after the Protector’s son and heir. Nevertheless, this reticence on Cromwell’s part is characteristic of a man who routinely played down his own role, whether on the battlefield or in the corridors of power, and ascribed instead his successes to God. This was restated firmly in the ship’s motto, ‘God with Us’. Charles II had no such scruples. This was his flagship, a reflection of his regal glory. His brother, James, Duke of York, was also celebrated in 1660 when the Richard was renamed the Royal James. Such hubris made the seizure of the Royal Charles and the burning of the Royal James by the Dutch all the more embarrassing.
As well as the obvious contrasts between Cromwellian success and Carolean failure on the foreign stage the story of the Naseby/Royal Charles also highlights some surprising similarities between the 1650s and the 1660s. The opulence of the ship was remarked upon by various observers. She was clearly built to impress, with elaborate carving and sophisticated iconography, including the imagery of Oliver trampling down his foes. The motto ‘God with Us’ reflected the godly foundations of the Cromwellian regime; but it may also have been a nod in the direction of the Swedish hero, Gustavus Adolphus, who had used the same battle cry at his great victories at Breitenfeld and Lützen during the Thirty Years’ War. This sophistication should not surprise us too much, as it fits nicely with recent research that has emphasised the richness of the Crom-wellian court. The royal palaces were re-occupied and refurbished in the mid-1650s and artworks from the former royal collection returned; the gardens were redesigned; music and literature were encouraged; and the courtiers – perhaps even Cromwell himself – dressed à la mode. This desire to display the very best did not just reflect the tastes of the Cromwellian circle, it also had a practical benefit when impressing foreign representatives.
In many ways, diplomacy was the primary role of the Naseby, as the visit of Mazarin in 1658 and intervention in the Baltic in 1659 show. Concern for display was obviously a key element of the regime of Charles II and the Royal Charles was employed in a similar way during the diplomacy surrounding the Restoration and the royal marriage. The fact that the ship could be rendered suitable for Charles II with only a few cosmetic changes in 1660 and that it performed a similar role under both regimes remind us that the Restoration did not mark a sharp dividing line between distinct historical periods.
Perhaps the greatest continuity was that of personnel. Edward Montagu moved as easily from Commonwealth to monarchy as his ship changed from Naseby to Royal Charles. He had been a loyal Cromwellian courtier but soon became Charles II’s Earl of Sandwich. He was not alone. Samuel Pepys famously made the transition without breaking step and only the accident of his decision to start his diary in January 1660 means that we view his amiability and worldliness as characteristic of London in the 1660s rather than the later 1650s. George Monck, the former Cromwellian general who greeted Charles II on his arrival at Dover in May 1660, soon became the Duke of Albemarle and served as admiral during the second Dutch war, just as he had fulfilled the same role (with greater success) in the first. The list could go on. Remarkably few Cromwellian soldiers or sailors were deemed unacceptable to the new regime. Only those who had signed the death warrant of Charles I in 1649 were considered completely beyond redemption. It was not surprising that those who had served both regimes were acutely aware of the shortcomings of the new king. In the spring of 1667 Pepys recorded an exchange in which his colleagues at the navy commission ‘talked much of Cromwell, all saying he was a brave fellow’ and added pointedly that he ‘did owe his crown he got to himself as much as any man that ever got one’. Those present included Sir William Batten and Sir William Penn, who, like Pepys, had been important members of Cromwell’s navy in the 1650s.
Until the Chatham crisis, such opinions were voiced privately by insiders. After the towing away of the Royal Charles criticism became public and widespread. The London riots and reports that some were ‘talking treason in the streets openly’ suggest that the lower orders were deeply angered by the humiliations of Chatham. These were the same people who had cheered Charles on his arrival in London in May 1660 and thrown flowers in the path of his carriage, yet now they were provoked to ask the question: had Great Oliver been better than Royal Charles after all? The final word surely belongs to Samuel Pepys, who recorded in his diary on July 12th, 1667, a month after the Chatham raid:
Everybody doth nowadays reflect upon Oliver and commend him, so brave things he did, and made all the neighbour princes fear him. While here a prince, come in with all the love and prayers and good liking of his people, and have given greater signs of loyalty and willingness to serve him with their estates than ever was done by any people, hath lost all so soon, that it is a miracle what way any man could devise to lose so much in so little time.
Patrick Little is a Senior Research Fellow of the History of Parliament Trust and Chairman of the Cromwell Association.
- Robert Latham, The Shorter Pepys (Longman, 1985)
- Bernard Capp, Cromwell’s Navy (Oxford University Press, 1989)
- Barry Coward, The Cromwellian Protectorate (Manchester University Press, 2002)
- Ronald Hutton, Charles II (Oxford University Press, 1991)
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