Much more than just ‘Double Dutch’ for buccaneer Holmes
Perhaps we would expect any man who could start two major international wars almost single-handedly to be widely remembered in history. Yet in the case of Admiral Sir Robert Holmes, who did exactly that by twice provoking war with the then mighty Dutch in the 1660s and 1670s, he has slipped through almost unnoticed. Since his death in 1692 only one biography has been written about him.
With Holmes, there is an intriguing story of buccaneering heroics from start to finish; as an audacious and loyal Royalist on land and sea through the nine years of the Civil War, then as an intrepid senior commander in the Restoration Navy of Charles II and, later as the piratical and profiteering Governor of the Isle of Wight. Throughout almost half a century he mixed with the best known and most impressive figures of later Stuart England, including the Royal family, who, like most others, found Holmes as quarrelsome and controversial as he was talented and brave.
Islanders should perhaps know more about this extraordinary character, because besides his distinction as national figure, he was a memorable Governor of the Island for almost a quarter of a century before his death and subsequent burial in St. James’s Church, Yarmouth. There, the small Holmes side-chapel is dominated by an imposing full-size marble statue of the great man, along with a fulsome tribute to his outstanding achievements.
Born in 1621 or ’22 into an Anglo-Irish family at Mallow, near Cork, the first record of Holmes appears in 1643 when, as a young man who went to fight on the Royalist side in the English Civil War, he distinguished himself serving Charles I’s nephew, Prince Maurice, the younger brother of the famous cavalry commander, Prince Rupert of the Rhine.
Maurice was captured by Parliamentarians, and in a daring and successful rescue bid led by a Captain Atkyns and his lieutenant, Holmes, the colours were lost, only for Holmes to reappear with them the following day!
A month later, in the greatest cavalry victory of the civil war, at Roundway Down, Atkyns recorded how, on finding himself in mortal peril at the hands of the Parliamentary leader ‘in this nick of time came up Mr. Holmes, who never failed me in time of danger, and went up to him with great resolution, and discharged his pistol’.
It was an incident regaled by Maurice to both Prince Rupert and the King himself.
So started Holmes’s life-long association with the Royal family. Following the ultimate surrender of Charles I, Holmes was one of the few chosen to accompany the two princes when they were allowed to leave the country and join the court-in-exile in France, where the queen, Henrietta Maria, had earlier fled.
There Holmes joined the Royalist figurehead in his bid to raise funds for the bereft royal cause. A reluctant Rupert was persuaded, with Holmes, to lead French troops as a mercenary in their struggle with the Spanish, who one day ambushed and surrounded the Prince. Holmes led a daring rescue bid, but in a reversal of fortune during the fierce ensuing struggle, Holmes’s leg was shot in pieces just below the knee, and his horse killed under him. He would have died, or at least been taken prisoner, had His Highness ‘not gone himself, took him up onto his horse with great difficulty, and carried him off’.
With Prince Rupert, Holmes found himself embarking on his long career at sea as part of an astonishing four-year naval adventure to raise royalist funds. Rupert led a handful of ships from Holland to Ireland, where they wreaked havoc and took many valuable ‘prizes’, as captured vessels were called. Forced to flee from the combined land and sea forces of Cromwell and Admiral Blake, they regrouped in Portugal, and, after evading capture in a dangerous rampage around the western Mediterranean, sailed via Madeira to the Azores.
There Rupert’s flagship foundered in ferocious storm; the Prince and Holmes among the handful aboard to survive as 330 others perished. Then they sailed via the Verde Islands to the African coast and into the Gambia River, where Holmes was given his first command – a small captured coastal craft.
After Rupert had again saved Holmes’s life, they sailed across the Atlantic – Holmes in his ill-suited vessel the ‘John’ – in the vain belief that some of the West Indies were still in royalist hands. It was not so. There followed a lengthy and action-packed escapade from St. Lucia to the Virgin Islands capturing ‘prizes’ aplenty before everything, bar Rupert’s ship with Holmes aboard, was lost in a hurricane.
Surviving this and more trouble in the Azores, Rupert and his right-hand man finally made France, by which time, having survived over 15,000 miles and four years of almost constant danger at sea, Holmes’ reputation as a fearless and accomplished soldier-sailor was fully established.
When, in 1660, the monarchy was restored, Holmes’ heroic and unflinching loyalty was duly rewarded. He was made Captain of Sandown Castle, the start of his profitable Island involvement, and given charge of an expedition to the Dutch-dominated African Guinea coast to promote English trade, build a fort and seek the gold Prince Rupert had heard so much about. On his return in 1661 he brought with him the gold for England’s first ‘Guinea’ coins. His reputation was enhanced; his name acquiring fame.
Although, in recognition, he was appointed captain of the navy’s flagship the ‘Royal Charles’, and charged with the honour of bringing the King’s bride-to-be back from Portugal, he almost immediately broke protocol and was dismissed. Yet soon back in favour once more, he was appointed to lead a second Africa Expedition, which he pursued with gusto throughout 1664. While returning a wealthy man, he was also in trouble. Provoked by his aggression, the Dutch declared war on England, and Holmes found himself in the Tower for overreaching his brief.
But as the fighting started in the ‘2nd Anglo-Dutch War’, Holmes was needed! Released and again promoted, he fought heroically, once more under Prince Rupert, in the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665, but when he was denied the flag rank both he and Rupert thought he deserved, he resigned his commission in anger – something accepted by the Lord High Admiral, the Duke of York, who never fully understood or tolerated this man.
With the war continuing, his fortunes reversed. Given a new command, knighted by the King and made an Admiral, Holmes ‘did wonders’ in the bloody Four Days Battle of June 1666, before pulling off his most admired coup. Sent to demolish two Dutch coastal stations in an amphibious assault, he went far beyond his brief – discovering, trapping and destroying a huge and valuable merchant fleet, in a single day burning over 140 vessels at the loss of just six men.
News of ‘Holmes’s Bonfire’, the greatest loss ever suffered by the Dutch, was celebrated, on the King’s orders, with nation-wide bonfires. In high esteem, Holmes reaped rich rewards. In 1667, when the war ended, he was given charge of a squadron to control the waters around Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, a profitable arrangement much enhanced at the end of 1668 when he acquired the Captainship of the Island. That gave him extensive ‘rights of admiralty’ whereby two-thirds of the value of any ‘hostile’ ship captured in the surrounding seas were his to pocket! It was an arrangement which made him extraordinarily rich.
Terming himself ‘Governor’ rather than Captain, he at once organised the improvement of the island’s defences, including at Yarmouth, where he had the castle’s moat filled in, and built for himself a handsome new house. This was the original part of today’s George Hotel, where three times he entertained Charles II, on the first occasion 1671, along with Prince Rupert and the Duke of York, the future King James II.
Although by now an MP, his naval command at Portsmouth mattered more. The attack he launched on their passing merchant fleet returning from Smyrna, that immediately triggered a fresh Dutch declaration of war on England in 1672. In the first battle of that conflict Holmes again distinguished himself, but with the loss of 10 English ships’ captains, including two close friends, he was incensed that in the following flag officer promotions he was again denied by the Duke and the King.
So he ended his naval career, but not his dedicated work as Governor of the Island, where for the next 20 years ‘he supported the dignity with much propriety, and by his constant residence acquired great popularity’. His health was suffering from the effects of numerous old wounds and, probably malaria, but not his pocket. He enjoyed a handsome mansion in Whitehall, another near Windsor and a house at Bath, but the island remained his preferred base, the place where he settled his only child, an illegitimate daughter, Mary, and his nephew and heir, Henry, who was to marry her.
That couple’s wealth and children combined to dominate Island political life through the 18th century, corrupt and highly profitable as it was. But even if his legacy is perhaps less glorious, the astonishing achievements of Robert Holmes deserve far greater remembrance and recognition – among the inhabitants of the Island and more widely among the country as a whole.
Kevin Shaw is currently writing a full biography of Robert Holmes, which should be published in late 2018. Meanwhile, the story of Robert Holmes is one of the many historical subjects on which Kevin offers lively and fully illustrated historical talks to audiences of all sorts. He can be contacted via the Editor of the Beacon