James Cornewall

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James Cornewall
James Cornewall from NPG.jpg
James Cornewall, by an unknown artist
Moccas, England
Died11 February 1744(1744-02-11) (aged 45)
off Toulon, France
Allegiance Kingdom of Great Britain
Service/branch Royal Navy
Years of service1691–1744
Commands heldHMS Sheerness
HMS Greyhound
HMS Deptford
HMS Greenwich
HMS St Albans
HMS Bedford
HMS Marlborough
Battles/warsWar of the Austrian Succession

Captain James Cornewall (1698 – 11 February 1744) was an officer in the British Royal Navy who became a national hero following his death at the Battle of Toulon in 1744. His monument in Westminster Abbey was the first ever to be erected by Parliament at public expense.

Early life and career[edit]

He was born in 1698, the youngest son of Henry Cornewall and his second wife Susanna, and was baptised at Moccas on 17 November 1698.[1]

His naval career began as a Volunteer-per-order, serving first upon HMS Chatham from March 1721 before transferring to HMS Torbay in December of the same year.[2] Three years later he was given his first independent command, being promoted to become captain of the Fifth-rate HMS Sheerness on 3 April 1724.[3] He spent four years aboard this ship, principally in the waters off Boston, protecting trade and suppressing piracy. John Knox Laughton compares this phase of his life to "the opening chapters of Fenimore Cooper's Water Witch and Red Rover."[4]

He returned to England in August 1728, and made an unsuccessful attempt to represent the seat of Weobley on 30 January 1730, losing to John Birch. When Birch was expelled from Parliament due to his involvement in the fraudulent sale of the Derwentwater estates,[5] Cornewall stood again and defeated him on 14 April 1732.[6] In December of that year he was back at sea, this time commanding HMS Greyhound,[1][7] which he sailed to the coast of Morocco establishing friendly relations with the Barbary pirates of Salé and the bashaw of Tétouan.[4]

In March 1734 he was back in England, where he unsuccessfully attempted to retain his seat in the General Election of that year, losing once again to John Birch.[6] In June he took command of HMS Deptford and served in the English Channel and was part of a fleet commanded by Sir John Norris sent to the Iberian Peninsula to protect Portugal from Spanish attack.[4][8] Cornewall had sought to overturn the result of the 1734 election on the basis that "the right of election [at Weobley] was in the occupiers or owners of certain 'ancient vote-houses' and not in the householders at large." By the time the House came to consider this petition, Birch was no longer alive to defend his side of the argument, resulting in Cornewall once more being appointed to the seat on 3 March 1737.[9]

He was not able to spend much time in the House, only recorded as voting twice and speaking once.[6] In early 1737 he was commander of HMS Greenwich, regulating the trade in slaves and other goods along the West African coast. He was rumoured to have carried a cargo of slaves to Barbados himself, but the Admiralty were unable to find any evidence to support this allegation.[4]

In 1739 he was given command of HMS St Albans and sent to cruise the waters off the Azores with HMS Weymouth and prey upon Spanish ships. A plan that would have seen him lead a small flotilla to the China Seas fell through, and instead he was given command of HMS Bedford in 1741 and sent to the Mediterranean the following year with Admiral Thomas Mathews.[4]

In 1743, still sailing in Mathews' Mediterranean fleet, he took up his final command: HMS Marlborough. On 11 February 1744 he was next astern of Mathews' flagship, HMS Namur, during the botched Battle of Toulon. Marlborough and Namur bore the brunt of the Spanish fire, with Marlborough losing 43 killed and 120 wounded from its crew of 750 men.[4] Amongst the killed was Cornewall, with both his legs carried away by a chain-shot early in the action, living only long enough "to express the agony he was in, by shaking his head at the surgeon."[10] Command passed to his cousin,[11] Frederick Cornewall, who was First Lieutenant aboard the Marlborough, but he too was severely wounded and lost his right arm. Captain Cornewall was buried at sea.

News of Cornewall's death was greeted by a public show of grief comparable with that following the loss of Nelson sixty years later,[1] though the man had led a solid but unspectacular naval career. As Horace Walpole later put it, "In the present dearth of glory [Cornewall] is canonized, though poor man! he had been tried twice the year before for cowardice."[12]


Cornewall never married, but he had an Illegitimate son by a Mrs Hannah Southwark of Boston named Thomas Cornewall (d. 1796), to whom he left £4000 in his will.[1] Thomas would follow his father into the Royal Navy and became a Captain himself in 1757.[13] The bulk of James Cornewall's estate was left to his Half-brother Henry Cornewall, with instructions that it should pass to their brother Velters on Henry's death.[1]


In 1747 a monument to Cornewall was commissioned to stand in Westminster Abbey. Designed by Sir Robert Taylor, it was unveiled in 1749 and was the first ever monument to be erected by Parliament at public expense,[14] as well as probably being the earliest representation of Britannia on a monument.[15] It stood at the West end of the nave near the entrance of St George's Chapel. In 1882 the monument was modified to make a doorway into the chapel, and in 1932 it was moved altogether when St George's was made a war memorial chapel. It now stands in the entrance archway to the Abbey's Cloister.[15] An earlier attempt to move the monument to make room for one to Lord Salisbury was dropped after navy objections.[1]

A ship named HMS Cornwall in honour of the Captain was launched in 1761. Frederick Cornewall was its first commander.[16]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Foljambe, Cecil George; Reade, Compton (1908). The House of Cornewall. Hereford: Jakeman and Carver. pp. 111–117.
  2. ^ "Cornewall, James". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/6329.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ Winfield, Rif (2009). British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1603–1714 : design, construction, careers and fates. Barnsley: Seaforth. ISBN 9781848320406.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Laughton, John Knox (1887). "Cornewall, James" . In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 12. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  5. ^ Sedgewick, Romney (1970). "Birch, John (c.1666–1735)". In Sedgwick, Romney (ed.). The House of Commons 1715-1754. The History of Parliament Trust.
  6. ^ a b c Newman, A. N. (1970). "Cornewall, James (1698–1744)". In Sedgwick, Romney (ed.). The House of Commons 1715-1754. The History of Parliament Trust.
  7. ^ Foljambe and Reade (1908) p.111 names this ship as HMS Success
  8. ^ Heathcote, Tony (2002). The British Admirals of the Fleet. Barnsley: Cooper. p. 197. ISBN 0850528356.
  9. ^ Lea, R. S. (1970). "Weobley". In Sedgwick, Romney (ed.). The House of Commons 1715-1754. The History of Parliament Trust.
  10. ^ Narrative of the Proceedings of his Majesty's Fleet in the Mediterranean (3rd ed.). London. 1744. p. 118.
  11. ^ Technically, his third cousin once removed
  12. ^ Wright, John; Agar-Ellis, George, eds. (1840). The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, Vol II: 1744–1753. London: Richard Bentley. p. 193.
  13. ^ Harrison, Simon. "Thomas Cornwall". Three Decks – Warships in the Age of Sail.
  14. ^ Coutu, Joan (2006). Persuasion and Propaganda: Monuments and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 160. ISBN 9780773531307.
  15. ^ a b "Henry and James Cornewall". Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  16. ^ Sylvanus, Urban, ed. (May 1761). "Historical Chronicle". Gentleman's Magazine. London. 31: 235–236.
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
John Birch
Uvedale Tomkins Price
Member of Parliament for Weobley
With: Uvedale Tomkins Price
Succeeded by
John Birch
Sir John Buckworth
Preceded by
John Birch
Sir John Buckworth
Member of Parliament for Weobley
With: Sir John Buckworth
Succeeded by
Lieutenant-Colonel The Lord Carpenter
The Viscount Palmerston