Sir Cloudesley Shovell shipwrecked

Shovell's flagship, the Association, struck the Outer Gilstone Rock and sank on October 22nd, 1707.

The splendidly named Cloudesley Shovell came from a prosperous Norwich family. Cloudesley was his maternal grandmother’s surname. His family had useful naval connections and he was already at sea as a cabin-boy in his early teens. At seventeen he became a midshipman on the Royal Prince, the flagship of the Duke of York, the future James II. Highly capable and well liked, he saw action from his teens on and his family cherished a story of him as a boy swimming under enemy fire carrying despatches in his mouth. William III was told that Shovell was ‘the best officer of his age’ in the service and by the 1690s, in his forties, he was a knight and an admiral. A writer who described him as ‘a very large, fat, fair Man’ said that ‘No man understands the Affairs of the Navy better, or is beloved of the Sailors so well.’

From 1702 Britain was involved in the War of the Spanish Succession. Shovell commanded the naval element in the expedition which took Barcelona in 1705. Two years later he commanded the British ships in the allied attempt to capture Toulon, which failed, though the French were forced to scuttle several of their warships to prevent the British burning them. 

The French Mediterranean fleet was effectively eliminated and Shovell sailed for England. Heading towards Plymouth, his ships were driven by ferocious westerly winds and a strong northern current and found themselves trapped at night among the rocks and reefs of the Scilly Isles. Shovell’s flagship, the Association, struck the Outer Gilstone Rock and sank with the loss of all hands. Two other ships, the Romney and the Eagle, also sank, with only one survivor between them. More than 1,300 men died.

Shovell was fifty-six. There’s a story that he was still alive when his body was washed up at Porth Hellick Cove on St Mary’s Island and that a woman of the island killed him for the emerald ring on his finger. Twenty years afterwards, she confessed on her deathbed and the local priest sent the ring to one of Shovell’s friends, the Earl of Berkeley.

The news of the shipwrecks and the admiral’s death provoked national mourning. The body was taken to Plymouth and embalmed before being moved to London by road. It lay in state in Shovell’s London home in Soho before being buried in Westminster Abbey.