The Other Norfolk Admirals

30 Jul 18
Posted by: David Hobbs

by Dr Simon Harris

The author is a retired consultant anaesthetist who lives in the UK and has a long-standing enthusiasm for naval history. He has written books on a variety of topics, including an earlier biography of Sir Cloudesley Shovell after his interest was stimulated by the sale of a pewter chamber pot from the admiral’s sunken flagship.
Harris has lectured extensively on the three Admirals that form the subject matter of this book and on the wounds suffered by Admiral Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar. The Anglo-Dutch naval wars of the seventeenth century fall well outside my primary area of interest but I found this book to be an interesting read that will, I am sure, appeal to anyone who wants to learn about this period. The author’s original intention was to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of Shovel’s flagship, HMS Association, which was wrecked off the Isles of Scilly in 1707. As new material became available, however, he expanded the work to cover all three men after discovering that they had served together and were possibly related, at least by marriage. In the 1660s all three served in HMS Centurion, Myngs as Captain, Narborough as a Lieutenant and Shovell as a cabin boy. Narborough and Shovell came from the same small Norfolk hamlet of Cockthorpe and Myngs from nearby Salthouse. All three played a part in the succession of naval wars in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Christopher Myngs attacked Spanish shipping in the West Indies during the 1650s, very much in the style of the earlier Elizabethan buccaneers. After appropriating the treasure he seized rather than handing it over to Cromwell’s Protectorate he was brought back to England in disgrace, but after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 his popularity with the public facilitated his return to naval command. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War he led the English van at the Four Days’ Battle in 1666 but his face was shattered by a musket ball and, after being taken ashore, he died at his London home six days later.
John Narborough was an explorer and navigator who sailed into the Pacific Ocean between 1669 and 1671. He kept journals of this voyage which included paintings of the flora and fauna he encountered as well as accurate depictions of the harbours that he visited. They have recently been purchased for the nation by the British Library and Harris made use of them when researching this book. Narborough was the first Englishman to sail through the Straits of Magellan from west to east but eventually died from a mysterious illness after trying to salvage treasure from the sunken Spanish ship Senora de la Concepcion.
Following Narbrough’s early demise Shovell, the former cabin boy, married his widow and went on to become the leading British fighting admiral during the reigns of William and Mary and of Anne, last of the Stuart monarchs. In 1707 Shovell and 2,000 of his men died when Association and other ships were wrecked on rocks off the Isles of Silly following a navigational error whilst returning to Britain. Harris sheds new light on the disaster and explains that, according to Shovell’s grandson, he survived the sinking and made it ashore only to be brutally murdered for the theft of an emerald ring on his finger. The fate of the Admiral’s gold dinner service is also examined, as is the cause of the disaster.
In summary, this is a well-researched book that offers a very readable account of an often-neglected period of British naval history. If that period interests you or even if you are interested in reading a collection of fascinating stories about adventures at sea three centuries ago, I thoroughly recommend this book.

David Hobbs
Australian Naval Institute