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General-at-Sea Robert Blake 1599-1657

General-at-Sea Robert Blake (Royal Naval Museum)
General-at-Sea Robert Blake (Royal Naval Museum)

Robert Blake was the most distinguished admiral or general-at-sea during the Commonwealth period following Parliament's victory in the English Civil War.

Blake made his name during a series of sieges during the war. In April 1644 he took command of the town of Lyme Regis in Dorset. Supplied by the Parliamentary navy Blake conducted a successful defence for three months until relieved by the Earl of Essex. The following month Blake led his forces against Taunton, an important Royalist communications centre, and captured it. He resisted three Royalist sieges and held Taunton for a year until the siege was finally lifted in July 1645.

In 1649 Blake was appointed general-at-sea and undertook operations against Prince Rupert's Royalist fleet. He followed Rupert to Lisbon in Portugal and then Toulon in France eventually forcing him into the Atlantic. Two years later Blake captured the Royalist bases on the Isles of Scilly and the Channel Islands.

The First Anglo-Dutch war began in May 1652 and Blake fought a series of battles against the famous Dutch admiral Marten Tromp. He won decisive victories at the Battles of Kentish Knock in September 1652 and Gabbard in June 1653. Blake was also largely responsible for improved naval tactics brought together in the Fighting Instructions, which were employed by the English fleet in 1653.

England went to war with Spain in 1654. An important part of England's naval strategy was to capture the Spanish bullion fleet, the flota, sailing from the Caribbean back to Spain. In March 1656 Blake led a fleet to try to intercept the flota. During the winter of 1656-1657 Blake mounted an unprecendented blockade of the Spanish coast which forced the Spanish to change their plans. Blake learned of the presence of the flota in the Canary Islands and destroyed it at the Battle of Santa Cruz on 20 April 1657. Unfortunately the bullion had been put ashore but without it Spain's finances were in ruins and she was forced to abandon plans to reconquer Portugal.

Santa Cruz was Blake's final and most famous action. His health failing, Blake died when his ship was in sight of Plymouth where a hero's welcome awaited him. Blake was buried in Westminster Abbey after a full state funeral.