Many historical characters wend their way through the nautical fiction of the Age of Sail. The Royal Navy was a fairly small organization, especially in the number of officers, and as employment was gained via interest and patronage it is essential that the heroes in these books have a patron. If the character is to insinuate himself into real events, the patron must be real.
We’ve already touched on the initial sponsor of young Midshipman Alan Lewrie, Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. Fans of Horatio Hornblower will know that he achieved post rank through the patronage of Admiral Sir William Cornwallis. One significant figure crosses the stage frequently but thus far I have yet to encounter him as a patron of one of our heroes.
That figure is the imminently unlovable John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent.
He came from comfortably middle class surroundings and had been chosen by his father to follow him into the practice of law. Young John Jervis ran away to sea at age 14. He was retrieved by a disapproving father who quickly reconciled himself to his son’s determination to make the sea his career.
Jervis was legendary in the fleet for his frugality as a midshipman. One story has a bank draft against the allowance from his father being dishonored because his father had not allocated the money. Jervis immediately sold all his possessions, including his mattress, resigned from the midshipman’s mess and moved forward to live with the common sailors. He did so until he’d paid off his debt.
He was demanding of himself and of his officers. During the 1797 mutinies at the Nore and Spithead troubled ships were dispatched from the notoriously lax Channel Fleet to Jervis’s Mediterranean Fleet in order to stop the spread of sedition. At one point he complained, “What do they mean by invariably sending the mutinous ships to me? Do they think that I will be hangman to the fleet?”
He was called home in 1799 to take command of the Channel Fleet from the largely inept and disinterested Admiral Alexander Hood, Viscount Bridport under whom the great mutinies had taken place and he proceeded to impose discipline and rid the fleet of officers who either could not or would not conform. Under this new regime, the commanders of ships in the Channel Fleet were forbidden to go ashore, especially to spend the night, without permission of the commander-in-chief. This led one wife to publicly state, “May his next glass of wine choke the wretch.”
He was also brutal on his flag officers. When Rear Admiral George Berkeley was commanding Jervis’s Inshore Squadron during the blockade of Brest he repeatedly complained of the dangerous nature of the waters he patrolled. Jervis led the Channel Fleet
A certain Rear-Admiral in command of the in-shore squadron, not much liking his position, occasioned his Commander-in-chief some annoyance by frequent complaints about the shoalness of the water so near to the coast. In order to convince the Rear-Admiral how groundless his remonstrances were, he made use of a practical demonstration, by leading the main body of the fleet considerably within him, sailing round him, and standing out again. Very soon afterwards, the Rear-Admiral was ” advised to go home and recruit hie health.”
At the same time he took a personal interest in seeing that promising officers were rewarded.
…[Lieutenant] Coghlan, in the Viper cutter, captured the Cerbere by a dashing feat of gallantry. Lord St. Vincent, in writing to the Secretary of the Admiralty says —” I did not think the gallantry of Sir Edward Hamilton and Captain Patrick Campbell could have been rivalled, until I read the enclosed letter from Sir Edward Pellew, relating the desperate service performed by acting Lieutenant Coghlan of the Viper cutter, which has filled me with pride and admiration. […] I am persuaded the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty will do all in their power to console him under his severe wounds, and make a minute for his promotion the moment he is in a capacity to receive it.” They did so; and this promising officer, in the progress of his service, became Sir Jeremiah Coghlan, a post-captain.
But Lord St. Vincent did not stop here; he thus wrote to Lord Spencer:—
” My Dear Lord,
“I shall not trouble your lordship with a word more than is contained in the enclosed private letter from Sir Edward Pellew on the subject of the intrepid Coghlan, except to say (not out of ostentation, but to prevent the city, or any body of merchants, making him a present of the same sort) that I give him a sword of one hundred guineas’ value.
Yours most faithfully,
To the extent he is mentioned in fiction, he is probably most famous for the fiery exchange in Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain when Earl St. Vincent, as First Lord of the Admiralty, meets an unemployed Lieutenant Jack Aubrey in search of employment.
“The Cacafuego was a thirty-two gun xebec-frigate, my Lord.’
‘She was a privateer, sir.’
‘Only by a damned lawyer’s quibble,’ said Jack, his voice rising.
‘What the fucking hell is this language to me, sir? Do you know who you are talking to, sir? Do you know where you are?’
‘I beg your pardon, my Lord.’
“You took a privateer commanded by God knows who. with a well-manned King’s sloop at the loss of three men, and you come here prating about your claim to post rank.”
“And eight wounded. If an action is to be rated according to the casualty-list, my Lord, I beg leave to remind you that your flagship at the Battle of St. vincent had one killed and five wounded.”
St. Vincent probably did more than any other single figure to create the Royal Navy that preserved Great Britain during the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars. He insisted on iron discipline and demanded that the officers be bound by the same discipline as the men. His command of the Mediterranean Fleet set the standard for efficiency and saw the rise of a generation of officers in the mold of Horatio Nelson.