King’s Captain covers the career of Dewey Lambdin’s naval hero Alan Lewrie from Valentine’s Day 1797 through the collapse of the Nore Mutiny in June 1797.
Following his adventure in Jester’s Fortune, Lewrie finds himself and Jester still under the command of Admiral Sir John Jervis in his Mediterranean Fleet that now, by the loss of Toulon, Corsica, and the Italian states, has been effectively expelled from the Mediterranean.
Major spoilers follow.
The novel opens with Lewrie’s Jester serving as a repeating frigate for Jervis’s fleet at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. His frigate is stationed opposite Commodore Horatio Nelson’s HMS Captain near the rear of the British line of battle. As Nelson begins his famous maneuver to break the Spanish line, Lewrie is forced by circumstances to accompany Nelson. Though he doesn’t wish to be there, Lewrie acquits himself well winning the praise of Jervis, soon to be created Earl St. Vincent, and Nelson.
Jester goes home to payoff. Lewrie turns over command to another officer. He visits the Admiralty enroute home to try to line up a new ship. There he has an interview with Evan Nepean and Lewrie receives one of the medals struck to commemorate the battle from the hands of Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, and a seeming promise of future employment.
While still at sea he received a plaintive letter from his wife, Caroline, informing him that his father, General Hugo Willoughby, had bought land near their home and was a regular feature at their house. Lewrie arrives home but quickly bores of domestic life. He has resigned himself to never getting the knack of farming and he remains something of a social outcast because of the tumultuous beginnings of his marriage to Caroline. Caroline, on the other hand, is very happy with their home but she is growing weary of Lewrie’s frequent and extended absences.
The domestic setting is changed radically when Lewrie is visited by Maggie Cony, the wife of his long time servant, Will Cony, whom he has arranged to receive a warrant as bosun of the Jester. Jester is being refitted in Spithead and Cony is now involved in the mutiny there. Lewrie goes to Spithead and unsuccessfully attempts to convince Cony to abandon the mutiny. He agrees with the grievances of the sailors but disagrees with their mutiny.
He is only back home a short period of time when a letter arrives ordering him aboard HMS Proteus as captain. This is his major career move from commander to post captain. Caroline is upset by the appointment but relents and agrees to accompany him to the shipyard near Chatham where Proteus is being outfitted.
His introduction to the ship is inauspicious. He detects insolence in his first lieutenant and the ship is dangerously undermanned. He sets off down the Medway to the great naval anchorage of the North Sea Fleet, The Nore where he will have access to men aboard receiving ships to fill out his crew.
Among those he brings aboard is an obviously experienced seaman who goes by the name of Bales, which coincidentally was the name of Lewrie’s first commanding officer.
When the mutiny hits The Nore, Lewrie attempts to get Proteus underway and escape down river. Unfortunately there are members of the conspiracy in his crew led by Bales and so Proteus becomes swept up in the mutiny.
Lewrie brings together officers and they begin to identify loyal crew members. He perceives that the leading mutineer on the ship, Bales, has it in for him personally. Lewrie adopts a passive aggressive strategy of not challenging the mutineers head on but rather sowing discontent by rumors and inflaming existing fault lines between factions in the mutiny.
The Fleet Delegates controlling the mutiny have decreed that while women may come on board ships they may not leave. Money has now run out, rations are reduced, and the women on Proteus are very unhappy. Lewrie plays on this unhappiness. At the same time Lewrie faces challenges from his officers. His first lieutenant, Ludlow, challenges several of Lewrie’s decisions eventually forcing Lewrie to place him under arrest.
Fresh food has been cut off and most bumboat merchants no longer deal with the mutinous ships. One intrepid merchant comes on board Proteus. He winks at Lewrie as he announces his name as Zachariah Willis. Lewrie immediately gathers that the man is a representative of Zachariah Twigg, a Foreign Office operative with whom he has dealt before (here | here). Within the goods he brings on board are copies of the Royal Proclamation granting a pardon to all mutineers who return to duty. The man passes Lewrie a note which orders him to abandon Proteus along with his officers if the men will obey the proclamation.
Lewrie is called by the crew to explain the terms of the proclamation. He uses his speech to further divide the crew. When other ships begin raising the white flag, Lewrie calls upon the loyal crew members to seize the ship. There is a brief but spirited fight and the mutineers prevail.
Lewrie proceeds to obey his orders. He assembles his officers to depart Proteus. Bales intervenes and will not allow Lewrie, the sailing master, and a few others to leave. Lewrie is left with only the youngest and most inoffensive officers.
Undeterred, Lewrie starts planning a new attempt to retake Proteus taking advantage of the mutineers having let their guard down. The new attempt succeeds as Lewrie seizes the ship and sails her out of the Nore.
As Lewrie prepares his ship to join the squadron blockading the Dutch ports his father comes on board and informs him someone has sent a letter to Caroline informing her of his philanderings.