Sir Richard Grenville

(1542—1591) naval commander

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English landowner whose name will always be associated with the last fight of the Revenge. He was born at Buckland Abbey, Devon, and was Sir Walter Raleigh's cousin. Little is known of his early life except that he killed a man in a duel, was admitted a student of the Inner Temple in 1559, was elected a Member of Parliament in 1563, and took part in the Emperor Maximilian II's campaign against the Turks in 1567. In 1576 he was made sheriff of Cornwall and knighted, and in 1585 he made the first of two voyages to Virginia to further development of a colony there. By now a wealthy shipowner, he contributed three ships to the fleet being assembled at Plymouth in 1588 to resist the Spanish Armada and, after the enemy had been routed in the North Sea, he commanded a small naval force in Irish waters to try and pick up some Spanish ships as prizes.

These were the years when the lure of Spanish gold was an irresistible urge to Englishmen to take to the seas, and in 1591, Grenville got himself appointed as vice admiral and second in command of a naval force which was dispatched to the Azores to lie in wait for a homeward-bound Spanish flota of treasure ships. While awaiting its arrival, the ships' companies became seriously depleted through sickness, Grenville's flagship the Revenge being obliged to land over half her crew of 250.

Unknown to the English, a strong Spanish fleet had been sent out to escort the flota, and by the time it was reported in the offing on 30 August the English ships were much too weak to give battle, and they only just managed to embark the sick and escape from the clutches of a greatly superior force. However, the Revenge, having most men ashore, was the last to leave and she was cut off and surrounded. For fifteen hours she fought the Spaniards, but Grenville's knowledge of warfare at sea seems to have been limited for he fought in the old-fashioned manner, at close quarters. However, he did sink one ship and heavily damaged another, but the odds against the Revenge were too great and eventually she was forced to strike her colours to prevent further slaughter. Grenville, mortally wounded, was taken on board the Spanish flagship, San Pablo, and died three days later; the Revenge, shattered in the fight, sank in a gale before she could be taken as a prize to Spain.

The action is immortalized in Tennyson's ‘The Last Fight of the Revenge’, first published in his Ballads and Other Poems (1880).

Subjects: Maritime History.

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