The Other Norfolk Admirals by Simon Harris

Author Rating:
4.5/5,
Rating:
5/5,
  • This is a triple biography of three of the Royal Navy's fighting admirals, all of whom came from a small area on the north Norfolk coast, Christopher Myngs (1625–1666), John Narbrough (c. 1640–1688), and Cloudesley Shovell (1650-1707). Myngs (who died of wounds after the Four Days Battle) and Narbrough may have been related; Narbrough served under Myngs and Shovell, who probably have served with them in a very junior capacity at the same time. Shovell went on to a lieutenancy under Narbrough and only separated from him when he was appointed to an independent command as a captain, and eventually married Narbrough's widow. Other Norfolk seamen appear in the narrative, including Myngs' son who became another protegé of Narbrough. This was a time when it was a social duty for those who were connected to help each other along. This is vividly illustrated when Shovell, invited to change ships, wants to take 150 of his men with him.

    The narrative first takes us through the three Dutch wars, in between which there are Spaniards to annoy in the Caribbean and elsewhere. After the Dutch are put finally back in their box Narbrough successfully takes on the even-for-the-times barbaric Barbary pirates, and Shovell begins to appear in the record as he also distinguishes himself in action. Through the careers of these officers we see how, nearly four centuries ago, the Royal Navy was a force with global reach and global responsibilities. We see the contrast between gentle-born officers with influence versus tarpaulins who have come aft through the hawsepipe. Gentleman amateurs are too often literally lording it over those who do know the business. 'Interest' is all. Narbrough and Pepys make inroads on this by establishing a requirement for professional qualification for a lieutenancy. Various more famous heroes - Blake, Monck, Rooke, Russell, Benbow and even a young Vernon - make as it were guest appearances. Herbert (Torrington) emerges as somewhat a villain.

    In 1688 the Glorious Revolution brings about an Orwellian shift of alliances as the Dutch become an ally and the French, briefly and uncharacteristically our allies against the Dutch, have started their century and a quarter career of providing live firing practice for the Royal Navy. The bowling opens with the War of the League of Augsburg 1688-97 which included the battles of Barfleur and La Hogue, continuing, after a breather, with the War of Spanish Succession in 1702 which brought us, in perpetuity, Gibraltar. These were Shovell's wars until (with Narborough's two sons) he met his end, drowned after his flagship grounded in the Scillies in 1707.

    The author is a consultant anaesthetist and sensibly avoids detail on bowlines and ratlines. His grasp of the politics and strategy of the age, and of the balance of ships and their armaments, is rock solid and he goes deep enough into detail to unpick some received wisdoms; he is very good on people and their character. Occasional quizzical vignettes enliven the serious narrative. There are however some curious infelicities of ordinary vocabulary, and quite a lot of repetition which might have benefited from tauter editing. The 270pp text is excellently supported by 32 colour illustrations, 14 in black and white, 24 good geographical maps if some unscaled (but no tactical diagrams), and six pages of references - the author has grubbed through 14 different repositories - and bibliography. Notes are served up as footnotes to the appropriate page which makes the book much easier to follow than when lengthy asides are remitted to the end.

    Besides an account of the lives of three loyal, skilled and brave servants of our country we have a useful primer on the Royal Navy's activities from Cromwell to Queen Anne I commend this book to anyone with an interest in the period or in the ascent of our power in the world.

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