Have you ever heard of Norfolk naval hero Sir Cloudesley Shovell?

Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Admiral of the White, who died in one of the Royal Navy's worst disasters.

Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Admiral of the White, who died in one of the Royal Navy's worst disasters. - Credit: Archant

All at sea: Lin Bensley tells the story of the Norfolk mariner Sir Cloudesley Shovell and his tragic demise.

The first resting place of the Admiral on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly. His body was later moved to We

The first resting place of the Admiral on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly. His body was later moved to Westminster Abbey. - Credit: Archant

Once a Norfolk naval hero good and true - and famed in verse and song - Sir Cloudesley Shovell has been largely forgotten, his life and calamitous death overshadowed by Norfolk's other heroic seaman – Horatio Nelson.

Cloudesley Shovell was born in November 1650 at Cockthorpe, an isolated hamlet of Binham which overlooks Stiffkey.

The name Shovell is most likely an Anglicised form of the Dutch or Flemish name Schouvel, his remarkable Christian name taken from the surname of his maternal great-grandfather Thomas Cloudesley, from Cley.

Shovell's middle-class parents had taken up farming and are thought to have resided at Cockthorpe Manor, though they also had connections with Cockthorpe Hall. John Narborough, ten years older than Shovell, also lived in the hamlet and was a close friend (and possible relative) of the family, and was to play an important part in his naval career. So too would another probable older relative, Sir Christopher Myngs, a privateer and later vice admiral, whose own family lived in the nearby coastal village of Salthouse.

A painting of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who drowned in the Scillies disaster of 1707.
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A painting of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who drowned in the Scillies disaster of 1707. . - Credit: Archant


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When Shovell was about 13, or more likely much younger, Myngs encouraged him to enlist as his officers' servant, thereby affording him better opportunity to rise through the ranks. In 1663 Shovell sailed to the West Indies under Myngs, where he first saw action when they engaged the Spanish and sacked the town of St Iago on Cuba, though it is unlikely he shared in any of the plunder.

Shovell continued his service under his patron Narborough, who joined the Assurance as captain. On July 25 1666 they decisvely beat the Dutch in the Thames estuary in what became known as the St James's Day Fight.

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The Third Dutch War began in 1672, when Charles II was secretly persuaded by Louis XIV to form an Anglo-French fleet for the purpose of annihilating the Dutch. Narborough had been made first lieutenant on the Royal Prince with Shovell joining him as midshipman. On May 28, about four miles off the coast of Southwold they clashed with the Dutch in the bloody but indecisive Battle of Sole Bay.

The following year they fought the Dutch once more, this time off the coast of Holland in the Battle of Texel, with Narborough as captain of the St Michael and Shovell as master mate. Again the fight was inconclusive, but Narborough was knighted for his outstanding conduct and Shovell was promoted to second lieutenant soon after.

In 1676, while serving under Narborough in the Mediterranean, Shovell was to perform an act of bravery that would bring him to the attention of the nation. While blockading Tripoli harbour he led an attack under cover of darkness and fired four men-of war and sank them beneath the castle walls. This action made Shovell famous and he was soon given a commission to command his own frigate ship, the 32-gun Sapphire.

In 1688 he was given command of the 48-gun Dover. In 1691 Shovell married Elizabeth, the widow of Narborough, who had died of fever in the West Indies three years earlier. By all accounts Shovell was a generous and loving husband who was a good father to his three stepchildren, and the couple's own two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne.

In 1695 Shovell was elected a member of parliament for Rochester, a seat he held until 1701. He was re-elected in 1705 and remained in office until his death. Shovell was regarded by many as an honest and straightforward man. As a naval officer he commanded exceptional respect from not only his peers and betters, but also from his crew, many of whom were willing to move with him from ship to ship. Shovell for his part always looked after the interests of those who served under him; a stickler for ensuring his men received their allotted pay in full. He would also endeavour to find alternative employment within the navy for those injured in previous conflicts, or assist the bereaved relatives of those killed in action with money from his own purse.

Under Rooke in 1704, Shovell played a minor role in the Siege of Gibraltar, but a vital role a few days later in the bloody but indecisive Battle of Malaga when an Anglo-Dutch force met the full might of the French fleet. Shovell's masterly seamanship almost certainly avoided defeat. During the heat of battle, Shovell realised that Rooke could not hold the line due to lack of ammunition, and consequently ordered part of his van to back astern (to sail backwards) to reinforce the centre. At the end of the year Shovell was promoted to Rear Admiral of England and at the beginning of the next was promoted to Commander-in-Chief and took charge of the 100-gun Britannia.

Two years later, an attempt to capture Toulon - in an effort to spearhead a southern invasion of France - was to prove an unmitigated failure. Despite Shovell's best efforts the campaign achieved little except to see the Toulon fleet scuttle itself.

The campaign had dragged on from June to the end of September; forcing Shovell to set sail for home unseasonably late. Then aboard the 90-gun Association, Shovell made a fateful navigational error that would cost him and his men dearly.

Believing the English Channel was dead ahead they continued sailing on into the night. Instead, they were sailing unaware towards the notorious Western Rocks, southwest of the Scilly Isles. Between 7pm and 8pm on the evening of October 22 the Association struck the Gilstone Rock.

The ship sank in a matter of minutes, but not before the crew had been able to fire several cannons to warn the rest of the fleet. Sadly, these warning shots came too late to save the Eagle, Romney or Firebrand. All four vessels sank with only one survivor, George Lawrence, who clung to an oar.

The body of Sir Cloudesley Shovell was washed ashore in Porthellick Cove, St Mary's island, eight miles from the Gilstone Rock. The bodies of Captain Edmund Loades, James Narborough (Shovell's stepson) and Shovell's pet greyhound were also washed up in the cove. This has led to some speculation that Shovell and his staff was able to launch a barge before the Association went down. It is not an entirely implausible theory; Shovell's chest, and the stern of the barge were also found floating in the sea close by, although some now believe it to be the coat of arms from the stern of the Association itself.

A legend has grown over the years that Sir Cloudesley Shovell was actually still alive when cast ashore, but upon being discovered by a woman beachcombing, was subsequently murdered for the sake of his emerald ring. The crime did not come to light until several decades later when the woman confessed upon her deathbed to the minister of the parish and supposedly produced the ring as proof. It reads like a fanciful tale, and yet Shovell's grandson, the second Lord Romney, always vouched that the story was true.

Whether true or not, it is known for certain Shovell was buried the next day, just above the sands where a stone cairn still marks the site. Three days later he was exhumed and taken to Westminster Abbey to be interred in a vault in the south choir aisle.

Between 1,800 and 2,000 men lost their lives that fateful night, including many sick and wounded soldiers from the Toulon campaign.

Navigation was still an inexact science at the beginning of the 18th century and the sailors were unable to calculate longitude, a factor that loomed prominently in the following inquest. The tragic events of October 22 1707 ultimately led to the government offering the vast sum of £20,000 as a public reward to anyone capable of finding a solution to the longitude problem – a problem that would not be satisfactorily resolved for another 52 years.

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