Robert Blake

(1599—1657) naval and army officer

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British admiral and colonel, born at Bridgewater and educated at Wadham College, Oxford. Nothing is known about him until he distinguished himself as a soldier in the defence of Bristol and Lyme during the Civil War. In 1649 he was appointed as a ‘general-at-sea’ to chase Prince Rupert's squadron which had declared for the royalist cause, and in 1651 he captured the Scilly Islands which were still holding out for the royalists.

In 1652, at the start of the First Dutch War (1652–4), he commanded in the Channel, from which he evicted the forces of two Dutch admirals, Marten Tromp (1597–1653) and Michiel de Ruyter (1607–76). However, he was later defeated off Dungeness in an action from which the legend originated that Tromp lashed a broom to his masthead to indicate that he would sweep the English from the seas. He was also defeated by Tromp the next year off Portland; but at the subsequent battle of the Gabbard he forced Tromp to retreat to the Texel.

In 1655 he commanded a fleet of 24 ships in the Mediterranean to destroy the Barbary pirates of Algiers. On the outbreak of war with Spain in 1656 he was sent to operate off Cadiz, where one of his captains captured a fleet of treasure ships. In April 1657 Blake intercepted another treasure fleet at Santa Cruz, Tenerife, where, in spite of his wounds and the strong position of the enemy, he destroyed the escorting ships. Ill health compelled him to return home and he died entering Plymouth Sound on 7 August 1657. His body lay in state at Greenwich before being buried in Westminster Abbey, whence it was exhumed and thrown in the Thames after the restoration of King Charles II.

Blake laid the foundations of naval discipline and tactics in the British Navy by his introduction of the Articles of War and the Fighting Instructions. His short but brilliant career at sea fully entitled him to Lord Clarendon's tribute as ‘the copy of naval courage’.

Baumber, M., General at Sea: Robert Blake and the 17th-Century Revolution in Naval Warfare (1989).Powell, J., Robert Blake (1972).

Subjects: Maritime History.

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