Robert Holmes (Admiral)

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Robert Holmes (right) with his friend Sir Frescheville Holles

Sir Robert Holmes (* around 1622 in Mallow ; † November 18, 1692 ) was an English admiral in the Royal Navy at the time of the Stuart Restoration . He took part in the second and third Anglo-Dutch naval wars, and both times he is considered to have caused the wars.

He was governor of the Isle of Wight , where he is buried in the parish of Yarmouth . Holmes was best known for his exploits on the voyage to Guinea (1664) for the Royal African Company and for the so-called Holmes' bonfire of 1666. Some saw him as the contentious officer of the Restoration period, others as the professional British naval officer.

Live and act

Military beginnings

Robert was born around 1622 to Henry Holmes, squire of Mallow , County Cork , Ireland . Nothing is known from his early years, although his flawlessly written commands and elegant handwriting indicate a good upbringing. It is very likely that he is the grandson of Robert Holmes, the mayor of Mallow in 1612.

The young Robert Holmes was first mentioned during the English Civil War , when he served on the royalist side in Prince Maurice's cavalry regiment as a cornet under Captain Richard Atkyns. The lifelong friendship with Prince Maurice's brother, Prince Rupert , whom he accompanied to the battlefields of mainland Europe after the defeat of the royalists , also came from this time .

Start of the naval career

When in 1648 parts of the English fleet defected to the side of the exiled English king, Holmes (at the time he was captain of the army) first came into contact with the navy.

From 1649 to 1652 he took part in the adventurous voyage of the royal fleet with the Kinsale through the Mediterranean Sea to West Africa (where he was temporarily captured by locals between Gambia and Cape Verde ) and to the Caribbean . Since the number of sailors fell sharply in the course of the voyage through storms, fighting and mutinies , towards the end of the voyage Holmes was given command of four prize ships with which he sailed back to France .

While Prince Rupert immediately went to the court of the exiled king on arrival in France, Holmes was entrusted with the sale of the prizes and the payment of the seamen.

According to a report by Cromwell's secret service, he is said to have received a letter of piracy from the Spanish king . However, since no other references to this activity are known, the veracity of this paper does not seem very high. It is conceivable that he - like many other soldiers loyal to the king and especially Irish officers - served in the imperial army. The inscription on his headstone in Yarmouth names Flanders , France and Germany as the theaters of war in which he fought. Shortly before the Stuart Restoration , he served as a courier between King Charles II and Edward Montagu , on whose behalf he also received his first naval command on the ship Bramble , which was patrolling the Medway .

Officer during the Stuart Restoration

After King Charles II returned to England, Holmes was awarded the rank of captain for his services and was given command of Sandown Castle . He also received new command of another patrol ship from the Duke of York (James, later King James II), who had meanwhile been appointed Lord High Admiral . But the end of his career was far from over.

The first expedition to Africa

Prince Rupert's reports of a "mountain of gold" in Gambia just waiting to be mined and brought to England drove the Royal African Company, of which the Duke of York was director, to equip an expedition to the Guinea coast, which at that time was largely owned by the Netherlands. Written records of the Royal African Company were then carried out by William Coventry and have survived to this day.

Holmes, who knew the coast, was the ideal man for this venture and was named captain of the flagship "Henrietta". The royal ships “Sophia”, “Amity”, “Griffin” and “Kinsale” also belonged to the fleet.

His orders were to assist the Company's representatives in every possible way and to build a fort. He was told confidentially to gather information about the "mountain of gold".

The result of this expedition was opaque. When he arrived on the island of Gorée , he boldly informed the Dutch governor that England was claiming the exclusive right to trade between Cape Verde and the Cape of Good Hope and to control the sea routes. After this provoked protests from the governor of the Netherlands and reprisals against English ships, the king and his adviser Sir George Downing denied having ever claimed these rights.

After Holmes explored the coast and the mouth of the Gambia, he built a fort on Dog Island in the mouth of the Gambia and renamed the island Charles Island. Upstream, on St. Andreas Island near Juffure , he conquered a fort that officially belonged to the Duke of Courland , but was obviously in Dutch hands. He renamed this island James Island .

Although the expedition did not pay off financially for the Royal African Company, it appears to have been profitable for Holmes. At least the State Secretary Samuel Pepys mentions in his diaries that Holmes led an expensive way of life from then on, even if he otherwise despised him.

The expedition was the turning point in Holmes' career. He had shown that he was adept at dealing with Africans, company representatives, the Dutch, his crew and officers, thus demonstrating all the skills of a prudent leader. Consequently, he was given command of the flagship "Royal Charles", only to be quickly lost again because he failed to force the Swedish ambassador to salute the flag. However, this was only a temporary step backwards, because the king soon gave him 800 pounds and he was given command of the ship “Reserve”, which had just been launched. The repeated opinion of Samuel Pepys that he was an awkward captain led to a public argument. This subsided over time, but there was never a discussion between the two.

On board his ship “Reserve”, Holmes tested a pair of pendulum clocks developed by Christiaan Huygens .

The second expedition to Africa

Admiral Michiel de Ruyter

The goals of the famous Guinea expedition of 1664 are unclear. Although he was later accused of having interpreted his orders too broadly because he had conquered Dutch forts and ships, the chronicler Coventry already speaks in his notes for the company that "a game" should be started, which can only mean , a Dutch-English war. (Bath MSS. CII, ff. 3-13).

Holmes' orders, written by Coventry and signed by King James, were "to advance the interests of the Royal Company and to kill, conquer or sink anything that should stand in its way", particularly the ship "Goulden Lyon of Flushing." “The Dutch West India Company , which had already caused many problems for the British.

The reason for the indictment against Holmes was actually that on the one hand he had such a success with his actions that exceeded even the wildest expectations, and on the other hand he was a suitable scapegoat.

Specifically, he captured the West Indies driver "Brill" within sight of the Dutch base on the island of Goree on December 27, 1663. As if he harbored a grudge - especially against the Dutch West India Company - he brought up Portuguese, African and Dutch merchant ships. He sank two ships, captured two others, all under the cannons of the Bastion of Goree. On 22./23. January 1664 he even took the fort himself. On March 28th, in a masterful tactical operation, he captured the "Goulden Lyon", which had since been renamed "Walcheren", and brought it to England, where it was used in the English Navy.

On April 10th he captured the "Anta Castle" off the Gold Coast , as well as several other fortresses and ships. The biggest coup was the capture of the Dutch main base in West Africa, Cape Coast Castle , near Elmina on May 1st.

Contrary to popular belief, Holmes was not involved in the conquest of New Amsterdam.

In August, Michiel de Ruyter was secretly sent with a force to West Africa to start the reconquest. He also managed to regain all of the bases, except for Cape Coast Castle, which meant that an English coastal base existed in the area even after 1664.

Holmes' return to England was rash, as he had no idea what impact his actions in London had had. Since he commanded ships in the Royal Navy, not everything that Holmes conquered automatically belonged to the Royal Company. The Maritime Tribunal also had to decide how much prize money Holmes and his men were entitled to. Since Holmes Prey fell short of the Company's (unreasonable) expectations, he was imprisoned twice in the Tower (January 9 and February 14, 1665), where he was questioned by Foreign Ministers Henry Bennet and William Morrice .

However, Holmes was freed from this predicament when the Dutch announced on February 22nd that they would take revenge on English ships as a result of the events in Africa. This was viewed by the English as a declaration of war.

The second Anglo-Dutch War

Naval Battle of Lowestoft
Naval Battle of the Four Days

Less than a month after his discharge and full rehabilitation, Holmes took command of the "HMS Revenge", a warship with 58 cannons, the flagship of Prince Rupert's "white squadron".

When the rear admiral of the White Squadron, Robert Sansum was killed during the naval battle at Lowestoft on June 3, 1665 , Holmes claimed his post, which Rupert also supported. James of York handed over the rank to the captain of his own flagship, Harman. Holmes reacted uncontrollably and returned his command.

What made the situation worse was that Holmes' constant rival Sir Jeremiah Smith was named flag captain. But again there was a conciliatory outcome.

On March 27, 1666, the powerful 64-gun warship "Defiance" was launched in the presence of King Charles II, his brother James of York and Prince Rupert. Holmes was appointed captain of this ship and was knighted on the same occasion .

Holmes and his ship now belonged to the "Red Squadron" and was ultimately also designated as the squadron's flagship. His job was to shadow the Dutch fleet and at the same time intercept French ships.

It was satisfactory for him that these orders placed him above Harman, the rear admiral of the "White Squadron". This insult clearly contradicted the seniority system and was unthinkable in later years.

During the grueling four-day battle , it was said that Holmes had "worked miracles" and he was confirmed as Rear Admiral of the Red Squadron.

His ship was so badly damaged during the battle that he had to bring the flag to the partly burned and demasted 72-gun ship "Henry". This was Harmon's ship that had been wounded.

Still, others were preferred to him for promotion, namely his rivals Sir Jeremy Smith, who was appointed Admiral of the "Blue Squadron" and Sir Edward Spragge , the Vice-Admiral of the Blue Squadron.

These constant rivalries were a hallmark of the Navy during the Stuart Restoration, and Holmes used Sir Jeremy Smith's conduct during the St. James's Day Fights to initiate a bitter argument with him. Smith's squadron had been routed during the battle of Cornelis Tromp .

These mutual accusations between the officers and their respective supporters also played a role in the subsequent parliamentary inquiry into embezzlement in the naval administration and conduct during the war.

Holmes' bonfire

On August 9, 1666, Holmes accomplished his greatest feat, again through the idiosyncratic interpretation of his orders, as chroniclers Pepys and Coventry angrily wrote in their records.

Holmes was supposed to land 500 men on the island of Vlieland and another 400 on the island of Terschelling . There they should loot and destroy as much as possible. Instead he launched a fire attack on the main part of the merchant fleet, which was anchored in the Vlie Strait. He destroyed 150 ships and set fire to the capital West-Terschelling. This act, called "Holmes' bonfire", was the English's hardest blow against the Dutch merchant fleet and seriously endangered the Dutch war effort. The English lost only 12 sailors in this operation.

Holmes was now in high favor. In the spring of 1667 he took over a squadron in Portsmouth and on the Isle of Wight, a lucrative appointment that gave him the opportunity to let one of the squadron's prize ships sail as a privateer. As early as December 1666, he had criticized Samuel Pepy's stubborn resistance to disarming the fleet with a view to the coming peace.

Attack in the Medway

Holmes continued to fear a Dutch attack, which took place on June 10, 1667. Michiel de Ruyter drove into the Medway, captured the ship "Royal Charles" and burned down a large part of the English fleet that was there at Chatham in the roadstead.

As a result, Parliament became more interested in naval matters. Prince Rupert and the Duke of Albemarle were, like many naval officers, especially from the noble camp, dissatisfied with the way they were treated by the naval command.

In the winter of 1666/1667 Holmes revived his quarrel with Sir Jeremy Smith. He is said to have even dueled with him. The dispute initially ended in December 1668, when Smith took over Sir William Penn's post in the Naval Supply Department . Holmes too had hoped to get this post.

After the peace agreement with Holland, Holmes intensified his influence on the Isle of Wight by buying the governorship from Lord Colepeper. As a result, he was not only responsible for the island fortifications (Sandown Castle, Carisbrooke Castle and Yarmouth Castle ), but also received the office of Vice Admiral of the Isle of Wight, Newport and Hampshire . This meant that he was entitled to 2/3 of all prize income that was achieved there. In addition, he was elected to Parliament for the Winchester constituency in October 1669 , where he supported the royal faction.

Third Anglo-Dutch naval war

Preparations to provoke the Dutch into a new war also included the appointment of Holmes to command in Portsmouth, where he had a strong squadron with the 90-gun flagship “St. Michael “commanded.

Holmes pushed for the confiscation of the large number of Dutch ships calling at English ports under foreign flags, but the government postponed the decision until the opportunity passed.

On March 13, 1672, however, Holmes was given permission to attack the Dutch Smyrna convoy heading to Holland. For two days the armed merchant ships and their escorts fought a violent battle with the English squadron, which suffered more damage than expected. The loot, on the other hand, was rather small, since there was apparently only one of the ships captured from the rich Smyrna convoy.

It so happened that Sir Edward Spragge's squadron had also appeared on his way back from the Mediterranean shortly before the meeting. For unknown reasons, however, he did not intervene in the fight and was not asked to do so by Holmes. This led to new mutual suspicions.

A few days later war was officially declared and command posts were distributed. Once again, Holmes came away empty-handed. This may be due to the fact that this time fewer commands were to be distributed because the “White Squadron” was provided by the French fleet this time.

Accordingly, Holmes fought in the ensuing naval battle of Solebay as a simple captain in the squadron of the Duke of York. The battle was one of the toughest, according to De Ruyter's memories, and cost the lives of Holmes' friends, Holles and Sandwich. During the battle, the Lord High Admiral had to change ships twice, first from the "Prince" to Holmes' ship "St. Michael ”and later on to the“ London ”.

After Sandwich fell, a new flag officer had to be appointed, but once again, and once and for all, Holmes' hopes were dashed.

After the end of the 1672 campaign, Holmes was no longer given any command. Even the constant advocacy of his influential friend, Prince Rupert, who had meanwhile become commander in chief, was of no use. Apparently the king himself did not want Holmes to be employed again. Holmes' naval career came to an abrupt end.

His "retired" life

Although he no longer wanted him to serve in his fleet, Holmes received gifts from the king all the time. Income from lands in Southampton , the Isle of Wight and Wales, and land holdings from seized property in Galway and Mayo . He owned houses in London , Englefield Green near Windsor , Bath, and of course a property in Yarmouth fit for a governor.

Most of the time he spent building up the forts on the Isle of Wight and serving in parliament. He did not apply for the exclusion parliaments in the years 1679–1681 . In 1682 he drew strong displeasure from King Charles II when he brought a petition from the Duke of Monmouth . A court-martial was prepared and an order issued to hand over the governorship to the Duke of Grafton. Holmes either managed to avert the charge or was acquitted, as he remained governor until his death. As Holmes was a lifelong supporter of the royal brothers, it is unclear why he should have worked with the Duke of Monmouth. Possibly this has to do with the seedy Irish banker Lemuel Kingdon, who was in contact with Holmes' brother John.

On August 21, 1687, Secretary of State Sunderland signed an order giving Holmes command of a squadron to fight pirates in the Caribbean. However, it is doubtful whether Holmes ever actively took over this command.

His health deteriorated steadily from a wound sustained during the battle with the Smyrna convoy. Therefore, the squadron, which sailed to the Caribbean in September 1687, was commanded on behalf of Sir John Narborough .

In the meantime, Holmes took care of strengthening the fortifications against a Dutch invasion. On November 4, 1688, five seamen of the invasion fleet entered the Isle of Wight to buy provisions and were treated kindly by the population. While the English fleet was in a lull in front of Beachy Head , William III landed . his forces at Torbay . Holmes was also dealing with a mutinous militia. King Jacob fled his capital and the parliament took over the leadership of the state. A day later, the Commander-in-Chief Sir George Legge handed the fleet over to William. However, Holmes resisted until December 17, when he surrendered.

Holmes remained governor of the Isle of Wight, occasionally being suspected of a Jacobite conspiracy.

His concerns about the overthrow of King James II stemmed primarily from his loyalty as a professional soldier to his commander. Although he voted against the accession of William and Mary to the throne in Parliament, he then served them as a loyal subject, as he had done to the Stuart kings.

Although his health increasingly forced him to take cures in Bath, the threat of French invasions in 1690 and 1692 made him hurry to return to his post.

He died on November 18, 1692, leaving Mary, his illegitimate daughter and heiress (* 1678, the mother is unknown). Some sources report that the mother was Grace Hooke, a niece of the famous scientist Robert Hooke . As her father wished, she married Henry Holmes, the son of his older brother Colonel Thomas Holmes of Kilmallock, of County Limerick. Her son Thomas received the title of Lord Holmes von Kilmallock for the family in 1760.

Holmes' younger brother, Sir John Holmes, was a respected and competent captain in the royal navy. For years he served together with his important brother and commanded the canal fleet from 1677 to 1679.


  1. Thurloe State Papers VII, p. 248, July 18, 1658. NS
  2. ^ Bath MSS. XCV, ff. 3-5
  3. CSP Dom., June 7, 1666


  • Richard Ollard: Man of War. Sir Robert Holmes and the Restoration Navy . London 1969
  • JD Davies: Gentlemen and Tarpaulins. The Officers and Men of the Restoration Navy . OUP, Oxford 1991, ISBN 0-19-820263-6