Cloudesley Shovell

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Sir Cloudesley Shovell
Sir Cloudesley Shovell, 1650-1707.jpg
Sir Cloudesley Shovell, (1650–1707). Oil by Michael Dahl
Born November 1650
Died 22 October or 23 October 1707
Off the coast of Scilly
Buried at St Mary's, Isles of Scilly, later moved to Westminster Abbey
Allegiance  Kingdom of England
 Kingdom of Great Britain
Service/branch  Royal Navy (1664-1707)
 Royal Navy (1707)
Years of service 1664 - 1707
Rank Admiral of the Fleet
Commands held

HMS Sapphire
HMS Edgar
HMS Prince

Commander-in-Chief of the British fleets

Other work

MP for the city of Rochester

Commissioner of the Sewers

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cloudesley Shovell (c. November 1650 – 22 October or 23 October 1707), was an English naval officer. Rising through the ranks and fighting in many of the important battles of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, he became a popular British hero,[1] whose celebrated career, and life, was brought to an end in a disastrous shipwreck in the Isles of Scilly. He also served as MP for Rochester from 1695 to 1701 and from 1705 until his death.[2]

Origin and family[edit]

The unusual Christian name of Cloudesley was the surname of his maternal grandmother Lucy Cloudisley, who was the daughter of Thomas Cloudisley. His father, John Shovell, a gentleman, was descended from a family who had property and standing in Norwich and his mother was descended from local gentry. Although not poor, the Shovells were by no means wealthy.[3]

In 1653, when Cloudesley was three, his father died, leaving £100 to each of his three sons, Nathaniel, Thomas and Cloudesley. Cloudesley's widowed mother, Anne Jenkinson, remarried John Flaxman. In 1691 Cloudesley Shovell married Elizabeth, Lady Narborough (née Hill), the widow of his former commander, Rear Admiral Sir John Narborough.[4] Through her, he had two stepsons (Sir John Narborough, 1st Baronet, and James Narborough) who both entered naval careers and died aged 23 and 22, in the sinking of HMS Association in 1707.[5]

Shovell and his wife had two daughters: Elizabeth and Anne. Elizabeth married first the 1st Baron Romney whilst Anne married John Blackwood.[6] Elizabeth Shovell, the former Lady Narborough, is buried in St Paulinus Church, Crayford, where there is a memorial to her and her husband. Cloudesley Shovell is also mentioned on the memorial to his Narborough stepsons in Knowlton Church. Their memorial displays a rendition of the grounding of HMS Association.[4]

Spelling of his name[edit]

There are many different versions used for the spelling of both his Christian name and surname. He used the spelling Cloudesley Shovell in his will written on 20 April 1701 when he was fifty. Both his father and his widow also spelt their surname as Shovell in their wills. The Christian name Cloudesley was often indistinctly signed which may have given rise to variety of spellings used by subsequent biographers. Nonetheless, spellings such as Cloudisley and Shovel are occasionally seen in books and articles on him.

Life and career[edit]

Early life[edit]

Shovell was baptised at Cockthorpe, Norfolk, in 1650. He went to sea as a cabin boy under the care of a paternal relative, Admiral Sir Christopher Myngs. Through family connections he joined the Royal Navy as a cabin boy when he was 14.[4]

Service in the Royal Navy[edit]

Battle of Sole Bay, 28 May 1672.
Battle of Bantry Bay, 11 May 1689.
Battle of Beachy Head, 10 July 1690.

Early in his career he went on voyages to the West Indies and South America and on 22 January 1672 he became a midshipman in HMS Royal Prince and saw action at the Battle of Sole Bay off the Suffolk coast on 28 May when a combined British and French fleet was surprised and attacked by the Dutch, led by Admiral Michiel de Ruyter.

Later in 1672 Shovell was promoted to Master's Mate aboard HMS Fairfax, then later HMS Harwich and finally HMS Henrietta. On 21 August 1673, he again saw action, this time at the Battle of Texel. A combined British and French fleet attempting to land troops in the Netherlands was repelled by a smaller Dutch force, again led by Admiral de Ruyter.[4]

After Admiral Sir Christopher Myngs died from wounds received during the Second Dutch War, Shovell’s career continued through the influence of another distant relation, Sir John Narborough.[3] Shovell set himself to study navigation, and, owing to his able seamanship and brave and open-hearted disposition, became a general favourite and obtained quick promotion. On 25 September 1673 he was appointed as second lieutenant aboard the Henrietta and sailed to North Africa. In the Mediterranean he served under Narborough against the Barbary pirates. In 1675 he transferred to the Harwich and took part in a year-long action against the pirate stronghold at Tripoli.

On 14 January 1676, Shovell led a surprise attack on the pirates sinking a number of their ships. For this action he received the sum of £ 80 from his commanding officer Sir John Narborough. Two months later a second successful raid against the pirates was undertaken, for which Shovell was awarded a gold medal from King Charles II himself,[4] and in a letter from the Admiralty, Samuel Pepys recorded the king's satisfaction with Shovell’s actions.[3] This was the beginning of his rise to prominence. On 16 April 1677 Shovell was again appointed first lieutenant aboard HMS Plymouth and just six months later he received his first command as captain of HMS Sapphire. He spent the next nine years in command of various ships in the Mediterranean carrying out operations against the Barbary pirates.[4]

In May 1689 Shovell served in the Nine Years' War under Admiral Herbert. As captain of HMS Edgar he was present at the first fight of the Battle of Bantry Bay when a French fleet was landing troops against King William III. After the battle, Shovell and his fellow commander John Ashby were knighted by the king.[4] In October, he patrolled the area between Ireland and the Scilly Islands.[3] In 1690 Sir Cloudesley convoyed William III across St George's Channel to Ireland, was promoted rear admiral of the blue and fought in the Battle of Beachy Head. In 1691 he married Lady Elizabeth Narborough, the widow of his former commanding officer. In 1692 he was appointed rear admiral of the red and took part in the Battle of Cape Barfleur in May. He joined Admiral Russell under whom he greatly distinguished himself at La Hougue, by being the first to break through the enemy's line aboard HMS Prince. During this action at Barfleur, Shovell was injured in the thigh and suffered from blood poisoning but was able to recuperate back in England.[4] Not long after, when Admiral Russell was superseded, Shovell was put in joint command of the fleet with Admiral Killigrew[7] and Admiral Delaval. In 1693 and 1694 he was involved in further actions against the French in the English Channel. In 1696 he was promoted to admiral of the blue and in 1702 admiral of the white by Queen Anne. Sir Cloudesley was a particular favourite of the Queen.[4]

Politician and benefactor[edit]

In 1694 Shovell set up residence with his wife at May Place in Crayford, Kent, and in 1695 was elected Member of Parliament for Rochester.[8] In Crayford he was responsible for the restoration of the parish church, St. Paulinus.[6] Shovell served as MP for Rochester until his death, with an interval from 1701 to 1705.[2] During that time he was a great benefactor to the city, providing at his own expense the fine decorated plaster ceilings in the Guildhall and the market bell, clock and decorated brick facade for the Butchers' Market, (now the Corn Exchange).

All these gifts survive, except the clock which, by 1771, had deteriorated so badly that a replacement was installed by Rochester Corporation. Shovell was also Commissioner of the Sewers, responsible for the upkeep of the embankments of the Thames between Deptford and Gravesend.[6]

War of the Spanish Succession[edit]

In 1702 Shovell brought home the spoils of the French and Spanish fleets captured by Admiral Rooke in the Battle of Vigo, and in January 1704 he was named Rear-Admiral of England. Later that year he served under Admiral Rooke in the Mediterranean and cooperated in the taking of Gibraltar. On 13 January 1705 Shovell became admiral of the fleet and took over command of the Anglo-Dutch fleet from Rooke, who retired after his victory at Malaga. In conjunction with a landing force under the 3rd Earl of Peterborough his forces captured the Spanish port of Barcelona, enabling the Habsburg claimant to the throne to establish a regime on Spanish soil. In November 1706 his career reached its peak when he was appointed commander-in-chief of the British fleets whilst at Lisbon.[4]

In the summer of 1707 he commanded the naval element of a combined attack on Toulon, base of the main French fleet, in coordination with the Austrian army under Prince Eugene of Savoy. The allies failed to capture the city, but bombardment by Shovell's forces panicked the French into scuttling their own fleet. The British fleet was subsequently ordered to return home, and set sail from Gibraltar to Portsmouth in late October.

Death in the Scilly naval disaster[edit]

An 18th-century engraving of the disaster, with HMS Association in the centre
Memorial at Porthellick Cove where Shovell's body was washed ashore
Shovell's monument in Westminster Abbey by Grinling Gibbons

When returning with the fleet to England after the campaign to Toulon, Shovell's ship, HMS Association, at 8 pm on 22 October (November 2, by the modern calendar) 1707, struck on the rocks near the Isles of Scilly along with several other ships, and was seen by those on board HMS St George to go down in three or four minutes' time, with none of the 800 men that were on board saved. With four large ships (HMS Association, HMS Eagle, HMS Romney and HMS Firebrand) and nearly 2,000[9] sailors lost that night, the Scilly naval disaster was one of the greatest maritime disasters in British history.[10] The main cause of the disaster has often been represented as the navigators' inability accurately to calculate their longitude,[11] although no public discussion of the events specifically raising the question of longitude is known prior to a pamphlet published on the eve of Parliament's vote on the Longitude Act, seven years later.[12]

What exactly happened to Sir Cloudesley Shovell has never been discovered. Considering that his body and the bodies of both his stepsons were all found in the same cove, almost seven miles from where his ship was wrecked, the most likely scenario is that Shovell left his ship in one of its boats, along with his two Narborough stepsons, the captain of the Association, Edmund Loades, and a pet dog and that they were drowned while trying to get to shore.[3] Shovell's body, along with the bodies of his two stepsons and that of Captain Loades, washed up on Porthellick Cove on St Mary's the following day. A small memorial was later erected at this site.

Shovell's body was identified by the purser of HMS Arundel who knew the admiral well. It was identified by "a black mole under his left ear, also by the first joint of one of his forefingers being broken inwards. He had likewise a shot in his right arm, another in his left thigh".[4] The circumstances under which his remains were found gave rise to stories (see below). Shovell was temporarily buried on the beach at Porthellick Cove.[13]

By order of Queen Anne the body was later exhumed and brought back aboard HMS Salisbury to Plymouth, where it was embalmed by Dr James Yonge. It was later carried in state to London. During the journey from the West Country, large crowds turned out to pay their respects. On 22 December 1707 he was interred in Westminster Abbey.[4] His large marble monument in the south choir aisle was sculpted by Grinling Gibbons.[14] His two stepsons were buried in Old Town Church on St Mary’s.[3] The Council of the Isles of Scilly commemorated the tercentenary of the disaster in 2007.[15]

Legends of the disaster[edit]

It is said that Shovell was alive, at least barely, when he reached the shore of Scilly at Porthellick Cove, but was murdered by a woman for the sake of his priceless emerald ring which had been given to him by a close friend, Captain James Lord Dursley. At that time, the Scillies had a wild and lawless reputation.[4] According to a letter written in 1709 by Edmund Herbert, a young man sent to Scilly by Shovell's family to help locate and recover items belonging to the admiral, Sir Cloudesley's body was first found by two women "stript of his shirt" and "his ring was also lost off his hand, which however left ye impression on his finger". Shovell's widow Elizabeth had offered a large reward for the recovery of any family property.[4]

It is claimed that the murder came to light only some thirty years later when the woman, on her deathbed, confessed to a clergyman to having killed the admiral and produced the stolen ring,[11] which was sent back to the 3rd Earl of Berkeley,[3] although several historians doubt the murder story as there is no indication that the ring was recovered and the legend stems from a romantic and unverifiable deathbed confession.[16]

Another legend alleges that a common sailor on the flagship tried to warn Shovell that the fleet was off course but Shovell had him hanged at the yardarm for inciting mutiny. The story first appeared in the Scilly Isles in 1780 with the common sailor being a Scilly native who recognized the waters as being close to home but was punished for warning the admiral. It was claimed that grass will never grow on the grave where Shovell was first buried at Porthellick Cove because of his tyrannical act against an islander. The myth was embellished in the 19th century when the punishment became instant execution and the sailor's knowledge of the fleet's position was attributed to superior navigational skills instead of local knowledge.

While it is possible that a sailor may have debated the vessel's location and feared for its fate (such debates were common upon entering the English Channel as noted by Samuel Pepys in 1684), the story has been repeatedly discredited by naval scholars who noted the lack of any evidence in contemporary documents, its fanciful stock conventions and dubious origins.[17] However the myth was revived in 1997 when author Dava Sobel presented it as an unqualified truth in her book Longitude.[11]

In popular culture[edit]

Shovell was portrayed by English actor Jonathan Coy in the 2000 television movie Longitude. He is also referred to in Patrick O'Brian's novel Blue at the Mizzen in which Mr Woodbine recalls running for the Scillies under full topsails with the wind and hoping not to run onto the reef "like Sir Cloudesley Shovell".

In Robert Goddard's novel Name to a Face,[18] the recovery of the ring Shovell was wearing when the Association sank is central to the plot.

A Halifax tavern named for Shovell appears in Paul Marlowe's Knights of the Sea.

There is psychedelic heavy metal band called 'Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell' that takes its name from the historical figure.[19]

The leader of the moles in C. S. Lewis's Prince Caspian is named Clodsley Shovel.


  1. ^ Nicholls, Mark, Norfolk Maritime Heroes and Legends, Poppyland Publishing, Cromer 2008, p. 25-30, ISBN 978-0-946148-85-1
  2. ^ a b [1] History of Parliament Online article by Stuart Handley
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Biography: Cloudesley Shovell". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "The legacy of Sir Cloudsley Shovel". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  5. ^ Herbert, James (2005-05-17). "James Herbert Cooke, The Shipwreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell on the Scilly Islands in 1707, From Original and Contemporary Documents Hitherto Unpublished, Read at a Meeting of the Society of Antiquaries, London, Feb. 1, 1883". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  6. ^ a b c Thomas, E.O., Slade Green and the Crayford Marshes, Bexley Education and Leisure Services Directorate, 2001, ISBN 0-902541-55-2
  7. ^ ODNB identifies this Admiral as Henry Killigrew (c.1652–1712), not his brother Admiral James Killigrew (died 1695) in the article on Henry Killigrew by J. K. Laughton, revised J. D. Davies [2] accessed 14 May 2007.
  8. ^ Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs – Constituencies beginning with "R" (part 2)[self-published source][better source needed]
  9. ^ Sobel, Dava, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Fourth Estate Ltd., London 1998, p. 6, ISBN 1-85702-571-7
  10. ^ For more detail on the wreck and its salvage in the 20th century, see McBride, Peter and Larn, Richard (1999) Admiral Shovell's treasure; ISBN 0-9523971-3-7 (hardback) ISBN 0-9523971-2-9 (paperback). This includes much detailed information, such as a Shovell family tree.
  11. ^ a b c Sobel, Dava, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Fourth Estate Ltd., London 1998, p. 11-16, ISBN 1-85702-571-7
  12. ^ Richard Dunn (27 October 2014), The 1707 Isles of Scilly Disaster – Part 2, Board of Longitude Project, Royal Museums Greenwich
  13. ^ A photograph by Frank W.Gibson of Admiral Shovell's temporary grave in Porthellick Cove.
  14. ^ "Sir Clowdisley Shovell's tomb and memorial in Westminster Abbey". Retrieved 2010-01-29. 
  15. ^ "Council of the Isles of Scilly website". Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  16. ^ Powell, J. W. Damer, "The Wreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell", The Mariner's Mirror, Vol. 43 (1957): 333-336., J.G.Pickwell, "Improbable Legends surrounding Sir Clowdisley Shovell", The Mariner's Mirror, Vol 59, No. 2 (1973), 221-223
  17. ^ James Herbert Cooke, "The Shipwreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell on the Scilly Islands in 1707", Society of Antiquaries, London, 1 Feb. 1883; Powell, J. W. Damer, "The Wreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell", The Mariner's Mirror, Vol. 43 (1957): 333-336., J.G.Pickwell, "Improbable Legends surrounding Sir Clowdisley Shovell", The Mariner's Mirror, Vol 59, No. 2 (1973), 221-223
  18. ^ (2007) ISBN 978-0-593-05367-6
  19. ^

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Sir George Rooke
Admiral of the Fleet
Succeeded by
Sir Stafford Fairborne