Ship of State: The Fortunes of Oliver Cromwell and Charless II and the Regard in Which Their Successive Regimes Came to Be Held Were Mirrored in the Fate of One of Their Mightiest Naval Vessels

By Little, Patrick | History Today, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Ship of State: The Fortunes of Oliver Cromwell and Charless II and the Regard in Which Their Successive Regimes Came to Be Held Were Mirrored in the Fate of One of Their Mightiest Naval Vessels


Little, Patrick, History Today


In the middle of May 1660, as the Restoration of Charles II became inevitable, hasty changes were made to the British fleet lying off the coast of the Low Countries. Samuel Pepys, who witnessed it, described a frenzy of activity, as 'this morning we began to pull down all the State's arms in the fleet, having first sent to Dover for painters and others to come to set up the King's'. While the carved arms on the sterns of the ships received the attention of the carpenters, on deck ...

... the tailors and painters were at work cutting out of some pieces of yellow cloth into the fashion of a crown and 'C.R.' [Carolus Rex], and put it upon a fine sheet, and that into the flag instead of the State's arms.

Such swift alterations were vital as in a few days time these very ships would be bringing Charles II home in triumph. The royal party joined the fleet on May 22nd and was entertained on the flagship, the Naseby, named after Parliament's great victory over Charles I in June 1645. The other ships in service bore similarly unhappy titles: the Worcester. the Marston Moor. the Dunbar; to name but three. Further changes would have to be made and, according to Pepys, this turned into something of a parlour game: 'After dinner, the king and the duke [of York] altered the names of some of the ships, viz. the Naseby into Charles'. So it was that the new king was brought back to England, two days later, on the newly named Royal Charles.

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What could not be erased in the days before the Restoration was the knowledge that the Naseby, the biggest and most powerful of the ships of the newly reestablished Royal Navy, had in fact been built under the regime of Oliver Cromwell. Indeed, her provisional name, while still under construction at Woolwich in 1655, was the Great Oliver. Even enemies of the Cromwellian regime had been impressed by the strength of the Protector's flew Ship In April the same year the royalist John Evelyn went to see progress on 'the great ship newly built, by the Usurper Oliver' and was amazed to see that not only was this a powerful, first-rate battleship; she was also highly decorated:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In the prow was [an effigy of] Oliver on horseback trampling six nations underfoot, a Scot, Irishman, Dutch, French, Spaniard and English, as was easily made out by their several habits. A [statue of] Fame held a laurel over his insulting head, and the word 'God with Us'.

It was not only Evelyn who objected to this. A few weeks earlier, as reported in The Faithful Scout:

The statue and portraiture of his highness the Lord Protector ... with sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, trampling the Scots under his feet, was in the night time exceedingly defaced, by having the nose of this rich and glorious picture cut off; which is now carved out; and very curiously prefixed on the face.

Estimates differed as to the scale of the new ship.

Evelyn recorded that she was of 1,000 tons, with 96 guns; the newsbook, Mercurius Politicus, reported that she boasted 100 guns; while the Venetian ambassador described her variously as carrying 115 and 120 guns and as having been built regardless of cost, of marvellously rich construction.' Modern historians tend to accept a slightly lower estimate of 80 or 86 guns, a crew of 500 men and a displacement of around 1,200 tons, Even the more sober accounts show her to have been an impressive ship, similar in size and opulence to the famous Vasa of Sweden's King Gustavus Adolphus (which was launched and sank in 1628), but with superior firepower. Perhaps the more telling comparison is with Charles I's great warship, the Sovereign of the Seas, launched in 1637. The Sovereign had borne the effigy of the Saxon king, Edgar, and the statue of Oliver on the new ship may have been modelled on this. The writer of Mercurius Politicus thought Oliver's ship better than the "king's, 'near the length of that great ship called the Sovereign, but built more fit for service' and this was echoed by the Venetian ambassador, who said it was 'undoubtedly larger than the Sovereign built for the late king'.

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