Am I alone in having only the vaguest possible understanding of European history in the ‘long’ eighteenth century (1688-1789)? It is said that children these days leap from the Tudors to the Nazis (a cynic would say same difference), but even in my youth we seemed to go from the Hanoverian succession to the French Revolution without pausing much in between.
This may be because Britain’s involvement in Europe in the eighteenth century was crucial but extremely complicated to teach – wars of various Successions and the odd Ear – especially when up to that point we had been exposed only to occasions when we biffed the French (Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt) or the Spanish (Armada). Notable occasions when we were thoroughly biffed by the Dutch (Dungeness, Leghorn, Four Days’ Battle, the Medway …) were simply ignored. And the reasons why Malborough biffed the French at Blenheim, Ramilies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet were as obscure to me as they were to Old Kaspar himself.
Given that the literary and cultural history of the eighteenth century continues to inform our own – world-changing discoveries in science and exploration, the Enlightenment followed by the dawn of Romanticism, the anti-slavery movement, the rise of the novel, classical music, painting, the English country house and its landscaped garden, etc. etc. – it’s odd how rarely the political context comes to the fore.
This was brought home to me by a lecture I attended recently, by Tim Knox, the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, on Admiral Russell’s frame. Edward Russell ought to be one of our most famous seamen – not quite up there with Nelson, but definitely in the league of Earl Howe, Lords Anson and Collingwood, Admiral Vernon and other later, better known naval heroes.
Russell’s long career was chequered, and as much political as naval. Born in 1652, he was one of the Russells, his uncle being the fifth earl, and later first duke, of Bedford; his first cousin and dear friend (whose sister he later married) was the earl’s heir William Russell, ‘the Patriot’, controversially executed for treason in 1683 after the Rye House Plot.
In 1666 Edward Russell entered St John’s College, Cambridge, as a fellow-commoner, but his education cannot have been protracted, since he joined the navy in the same year. Promoted lieutenant in 1671, he took part in the inconclusive battle of Solebay (1672) in the Third Anglo-Dutch War (duh?), and was subsequently given his first command, the Phoenix.
He was favoured by the Lord High Admiral, James, duke of York (eventually becoming a Groom of his Bedchamber), commanding the Reserve, the Defiance, the Swiftsure (there were ten ships of this name in the navy between 1573 and 1992) and the Newcastle – the latter on the Tangier station, where it was possible to enrich oneself hugely by illegal trading, though Russell was to plead (relative) poverty throughout his life.
He left the naval (i.e. royal, Stuart) service after the execution of his cousin, and five years later was one of the ‘Immortal Seven’ signatories on the famous letter inviting William of Orange to England. However, unhappy with what he perceived as ingratitude from William III, and wildly jealous of Arthur Herbert, his rival at sea (created earl of Torrington in 1689 by William), he may have retained contact with the exiled James II – but this did not prevent his active participation in the Nine Years’ War (or the War of the Grand Alliance, or the Williamite War, or the War of the League of Augsburg …), one aspect of which was Louis XIV’s attempt to restore James II to the British throne. (This lasted until 1697: after three years’ respite, off they all went again for the War of the Spanish Succession.)
Torrrington had fallen out of favour after the unfortunate battle of Beachy Head, and it was Russell, as commander-in-chief of the Anglo-Dutch navy, who on 19 May (O.S.) 1692 engaged a French fleet sailing up from Brest (and intended to support an invasion of England) about twenty miles north of Cape Barfleur (at the top of the Cotentin peninsula). It seems likely that the French commander, Anne-Hilarion de Costentin, comte de Tourville (who had begun his military career as a Knight of Malta), failed to realise in the prevailing sea mist that he was heavily outnumbered. After a great deal of manoeuvring in light wind, Sir Cloudesley Shovell (sadly, more famous for his tragic death in 1707 than for his part in this action) broke the French line.
Fog then stopped play, but when it lifted, the French fled in disarray, pursued by the allies. Some ships got away westward and eventually arrived back at Brest, but over the next two days, three, including Tourville’s own flagship, the Soleil Royal, were beached and burnt by fireships sent in by the British at Cherbourg. The remaining French captains hoped that the battery and land forces assembled at St Vaast La Hougue might give them some protection, but Russell sent parties in longboats to attack on land, and again used fireships to good effect. On 24 May, twelve French ships of the line, with other smaller craft, were destroyed at what became known (in Britain) as the battle of La Hogue.
The scattering of the fleet, and the burning of, or damage to, so many ships, led the French to abandon any immediate plan of invasion, and in the longer term to concentrate their forces on land rather than attempting to achieve naval superiority for its own sake. (They also, using the benefit of hindsight, built forts on the entrance to the harbour at St Vaast.) Meanwhile, the British celebrated, not least with a review of the fleet by William and Mary at Spithead, off Portsmouth, in February 1693. The wider significance of the victory has been downplayed since, for a variety of reasons, but at the time, Russell was the hero of the hour. He was offered a peerage, but declined on the ground that he did not have enough money to support that rank; and following a political row, resigned as commander-in-chief in December 1692, remaining Member of Parliament for Portsmouth.
Though he could not have known it, his timing was fortunate: he had been succeeded in the Admiralty by a Gang of Three, including Admirals Rooke and Delaval, who had been under his command at La Hogue, and they carried the can for the disastrous defeat by the French at the battle of Lagos (off Portugal) in June 1693 when Tourville got his own back for La Hogue, and huge losses were accrued by the City of London as trading ships heading for Smyrna under the escort of the fleet were captured. Russell was back in his post by November, and as a member of the cabal known as the First Whig Junto, became First Lord of the Admiralty in May 1694.
He took the innovative step of keeping his fleet of sixty-three ships at Cadiz over the winter of 1694-5 (instead of returning to home ports when bad weather started, as had been the universal custom heretofore), and in the spring sailed round to Barcelona, to forestall any French attack on the coast of Catalonia. Frustrated in an attempt to encounter the French at Toulon by their refusal to emerge from the harbour, he returned home, and retired from the sea.
Becoming M.P. for Cambridgeshire in the 1695 election, Russell – all too aware of the continuing French threat – attempted to use his influence to maintain the strength of the navy. In 1697, he finally accepted a peerage, being made earl of Orford, Viscount Barfleur (not many perks, one imagines) and Baron Shingay (he had recently inherited the manor of Shingay, near Royston, where he built a small chapel, now totally vanished, to replace the parish church of St Mary, which had been demolished shortly before, as the village’s population collapsed).
His building activities, at his home of Chippenham Hall in Cambridgeshire, at Orford Hall near Bishop’s Stortford, and at his (still surviving) London residence, 43 King Street, Covent Garden, led to suspicions of corruption, but he survived, and lived to welcome George I to London, and later to entertain him at Chippenham, where, having withdrawn almost entirely from public life, he died childless in 1727. (In 1742, the Orford title was revived as a sop for the fallen Sir Robert Walpole.)
As for Admiral Russell’s frame, it is believed that this spectacular piece of wood-carving may have been created by carpenters (perhaps French or Dutch Huguenot, and perhaps used to carving decorated ships’ prows?) in the royal dockyards at Chatham as a tribute to the victor of La Hogue.
It is not a very refined piece of work, the figures of Heracles (carrying the golden pomegranates of the Hesperides) and Hermes being rather crudely executed, though the sea-shells along the top are superbly realistic.
Along the bottom, a winged Fame or Glory blasts on a long trumpet while supporting another against her neck – was this perhaps a misinterpretation of classical and later images of a double flute or shawm, or does Fame have one instrument to blast good news to the east and another for the west? Or one for Good Fame and one for Ill?
It must have been made before 1697, as, with the earldom, Russell’s coat-of-arms would have been topped by a coronet, whereas here the shield surmounting the frame, and supported by two mermen, is merely that of a younger son of the Russell family.
The traveller Celia Fiennes visited Chippenham in 1698, and commented on the ‘finest carved wood in fruitages, herbages, gems, beasts, fowls etc. very thin and fine’. Hopefully, after an energetic round of fund-raising by the Museum and its Friends, the frame will return to Cambridge, if not actually to Chippenham Park itself – a lovely bicentenary birthday present for the Fitzwilliam Museum!
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