Academic journal article The Historian

Fidelity and Zeal: The Earl of Sandwich, Naval Intelligence, and the Salvation of Britain, 1763-1779

Academic journal article The Historian

Fidelity and Zeal: The Earl of Sandwich, Naval Intelligence, and the Salvation of Britain, 1763-1779

Article excerpt


ON 13 MARCH 1778, Viscount Stormont, the British ambassador to France, was recalled to England without taking formal leave of the French government. (1) Though war was not declared until July, Stormont's departure in response to French support of Britain's rebellious colonies signaled the renewal of the centuries-old conflict between England and France. The bloody quagmire in America stretched British resources to the breaking point. The Royal Navy had controlled the seas since the end of the Seven Years' War. By 1778, however, most of the army and much of the navy were serving in America, and Britons once again came under the threat of invasion from their continental enemies. Intragovernmental divisions over the American war precluded the creation of a unified foreign policy to deal with this revitalized European threat. John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty, utilized his ministerial discretion and the intelligence provided by the spy John Walker to formulate an independent policy of naval preparation to confront the Bourbon challenge.

Despite the importance of intelligence during this period, some modern scholarship has failed to highlight the links between intelligence collection and distribution and the subsequent creation of policy during the period under study. Hamish M. Scott does make extensive reference to intelligence as the basis of foreign policy, but some details are cursory. (2) This is a study of the use of intelligence, the structure of government, and the personalities who controlled the British state in the 1770s through the lens of Sandwich and John Walker, the chief Admiralty spy from 1771-1778. (3)

Sandwich's reputation has suffered from Whig historians who portrayed the First Lord as a corrupt hedonist whose mismanagement of the Royal Navy bordered on the criminal. This interpretation was still being proffered by popular historians through the 1960s. (4) N. A. M. Rodger, however, shows Sandwich as a highly competent administrator who served with distinction in three governments--an assessment shared by contemporaries. (5) Even Horace Walpole's acerbic pen recorded of Sandwich that "no man in the Administration was so much a master of the business, so quick, or so shrewd." (6) Unlike Sandwich, Walker has been generally ignored in modern scholarship. He is treated as an historical footnote, and is often not even mentioned by name despite his seven years of highly dangerous and successful intelligence work. Both men operated within a tense geopolitical sphere as British relations with the Bourbons were in constant flux.

After their humiliating losses in 1763, the Bourbons tested British resolve by reneging on various provisions of the peace settlement. Nicholas Tracy describes this period of British naval supremacy as a system of deterrence in which successive British governments used the Royal Navy to confront Bourbon violations of the 1763 settlement. What Britons saw as justifiable responses to Bourbon treaty violations, the Family Compact saw as oppression at the hands of a nation made too powerful by its naval hegemony. The deterrence system required a swift diplomatic and military response by a government that was unified over foreign policy objectives. With the outbreak of war in the American colonies, the system collapsed as attention and resources were diverted toward suppression of the trans-Atlantic rebellion. (7)

As Orville Murphy and Jonathan Dull show, the revitalization of the French Navy went hand-in-hand with French desires to redress the post-1763 power imbalance. (8) Renewed French ambitions culminated in an attempted invasion of southern England. In A. Temple Patterson's opinion, Britain escaped from disaster in 1779 only because of the Bourbon inability to capitalize on their naval superiority. (9)

All of these authors, however, either fail to examine Walker's role in British strategic thinking or downplay Sandwich's importance in preparing Britain for a naval war against the Family Compact. …

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