Sunday, 30 September 2012

THE FEMINISED FLEET - Guest post by J.D. Davies

This week the Hoydens are thrilled to welcome J.D Davies as our guest blogger. David is a historian and author and a wonderful resource on matters nautical. Being landlubbers, the Hoydens are very excited to have David with us and to hear about our favourite period of history from a nautical perspective.

The recent publication of Merivel, the sequel to Rose Tremain’s brilliant novel Restoration, and the continuing interest in the women of Charles II’s court, proves – as if proof were needed – that interest in ‘the Merry Monarch’ and his mistresses is as strong as ever. At first sight, the frenzied sexual politics of the court would seem to be a different world from that which I’ve been writing about for the last twenty-odd years, firstly as an academic historian working on, and more recently as the author of fiction set in, the naval history of the age. After all, naval history – ships, battles, dead admirals and so forth – hasn’t traditionally been regarded as a field with many obvious feminine connections. In reality, though, there was an astonishingly deep and complex set of female influences at work in Charles II’s navy. Indeed, it might not be an exaggeration to say that until very nearly the present day, when women go to sea equally with men and command warships, the Restoration Navy witnessed one of the strongest feminine presences in naval history.

To begin by stating the obvious: King Charles II loved women. He loved a lot of women. But he also loved the navy, and almost from the beginning of his reign, he found ways of combining his loves. There was soon a fleet of royal yachts (a type of vessel that was new to England, ‘imported’ from the Netherlands at the Restoration), and these were effectively at the private disposal of the people after whom they were named: thus the Fubbs Yacht was named after his mistress, Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, ‘Fubbs’ being the king’s pet name for her chubby naked form. The poor hard-done-by Queen, Catherine of Braganza, had her own warship, the Saudadoes – a Portuguese bird, a name chosen by her – and selected its captain herself. Women also influenced the names of many of the greatest warships of Charles’s reign. Several were named after his female relations, such as Henrietta and Mary after his sisters, Anne after his sister-in-law; but it might be a significant comment on the king’s frosty relationship with his mother that he never named a warship Henrietta Maria after her. When the Lenox was launched in April 1678, Charles went down to Deptford by boat and performed the ceremony in the company of the Duchess of Portsmouth and their young son, the Duke of Richmond and Lennox, after whom the ship was named. (As far as the Royal Navy is concerned, the practice of having only women to launch warships only finally became de rigueur in the second half of the nineteenth century.)

Launch of the Lenox in April 1678, with Charles II and the Duchess of Portsmouth shown in the barge alongside the ship*.

The royal women also visited the fleet itself, even in wartime. When the fleet was preparing to sail into battle against the Dutch in May 1665, its preparations were interrupted by the arrival of the Duchess of York, the king’s sister-in-law, and her retinue, who stayed for a fortnight. It was said of this interlude that ‘countess, courtesan and country wench jostled one another both in cabin and in forecastle’; I used this event as the backdrop for a confrontation between two of my characters in The Blast That Tears The Skies, the third novel in my series, ‘the Journals of Matthew Quinton’. A rather more positive influence was that of Charles’s sister, Henrietta, who was married to King Louis XIV’s brother. When, in 1668-70, Charles moved towards a secret alliance with Louis, Henrietta served as the intermediary, and much of their correspondence focused on naval matters. Henrietta’s letters show that she possessed a keen grasp of strategic issues and had her own ideas about the implications of her brother-in-law’s huge programme of naval expansion for her brother’s own navy and for the prospects of an alliance.

Henrietta, Duchess of Orleans, sister of Charles II

Perhaps surprisingly, women sometimes played an important part in the logistical support for the fleet, and some even took a more direct role in naval warfare. Elspeth Browne was one of the owners of the Scottish privateer Margaret, while Anne and Mary Powlet received letters of marque and reprisal (authorising them to fit out a privateer) to avenge their dead husbands and reclaim some of the £21,000 of losses that the Dutch had allegedly cost them. Several other women had equally proactive roles in naval warfare. In 1653 Joan Chudleigh was running her late husband’s shipwright’s business at Kinsale, and giving the navy estimates for the repair of its warships; Mary Harrison was a ship painter at Portsmouth for over twenty years from 1676. Margaret Browne was the chief supplier of lead to the yard at Deptford in 1659, while in later years ‘widow Braman’ was the lockmaker at Deptford, and Martha Bradford and ‘Widow Evans’ were borne on the books of Chatham yard as, respectively, the keeper and water-carrier of the payhouse. Susanna Beckford was the supplier of ships’ iron work to both Deptford and Woolwich dockyards, having carried on her husband’s business after his death in 1675; her letters are very well written, suggesting that she was well educated. Anne Pearson had perhaps the least likely, and least ‘ladylike’, job of all – during the 1670s she had the official contract for poisoning the rats at Deptford and Woolwich dockyards!

Women were also present on board ships. It was accepted practice for them to be aboard during the early stages of a voyage, before the ship lost sight of land; the naval chaplain Henry Teonge, writing in the 1670s, noted how on ships in coastal waters it was common to find female legs dangling suggestively from hammocks! But this tradition led to tragedy in 1665 when the great man-of-war London mysteriously blew up in the Thames Estuary. Many women were killed in the blast, although Pepys recorded how twenty-four men and one woman miraculously survived when the part of the ship they were in was simply blown clear. Recent archaeological work on the wreck site has revealed the remains of several women, a subject that I discussed on BBC TV last year. Some women even went much further afield. Captains sometimes tried to take their wives on voyages, although this was officially frowned upon; Captain Sir William Jennens was dismissed the service in 1671 for taking his wife with him on a Mediterranean convoy. Even so, it gradually became accepted practice for admirals to have their wives aboard their flagships. The practice lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century. One of the last admirals to take advantage of it was Sir Edward Owen, commander-in-chief in the Mediterreanean from 1841-5; the presence of his wife aboard ship caused particular difficulties both because the Admiralty wanted to stamp out the practice and because Lady Owen was generally regarded as insane. The Restoration navy also provides an early example of the oft-quoted instances of women in disguise actually serving on warships or in army regiments. Anne Chamberlyne, the twenty-three year old daughter of a lawyer, served aboard the Griffin Fireship, commanded by her brother Clifford, during the Battle of Beachy Head in 1690; ‘a second Pallas, chaste and fearless’ was how her memorial inscription in All Saints Church, Chelsea, put it. A second-hand report of 1692, which might possibly have been a conflation of Anne Chamberlyne’s story, claimed that another gentlewoman had served in the fleet during the battle of Barfleur (1692).

Finally, Charles II also gave Britain, and the Royal Navy, one of its greatest icons – and a female one at that. In 1667 he was in pursuit of the exceptionally comely Frances Stuart, who modelled as Britannia for the king’s new coins; she has remained on British coinage ever since. In 1682, Charles bestowed the name Britannia on the last great First Rate ship-of-the-line built in his reign, the first time the name was ever used for a British warship. Although the last ship of the name, the Royal Yacht Britannia, was taken out of service in 1997 (and is now preserved as a museum at Leith), the principal training base for future officers of the navy remains the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and every year the audience at the Last Night of the Proms, one of Britain’s most famous cultural events, still belts out Thomas Arne’s rousing battle hymn, ‘Rule, Britannia! Britannia, Rule the Waves…’. So the influence of the women of Restoration naval history is still very much felt today!

J D Davies is the author of ‘the journals of Matthew Quinton’, a series of naval historical fiction set in the Restoration period. The first and second titles, Gentleman Captain and The Mountain of Gold, have been published in the UK and US, and the third, The Blast That Tears The Skies, in the UK; the fourth book, The Lion of Midnight, will be published in spring 2013. David is also a leading authority on the navy of the period: his non-fiction book Pepys’s Navy: Ships, Men and Warfare 1649-89 won the Samuel Pepys award for 2009, and his other books include Blood of Kings: the Stuarts, the Ruthvens and the Gowrie Conspiracy. He is the chairman of the Naval Dockyards Society and a former vice-president of the Navy Records Society. Visit his website at and his blog at   

*Attribution:  Reproduction of the Launch of the Lenox used with consent of Richard Endsor