Devon’s own Sir Richard Grenville, (born June 15, 1542—died September, 1591), may not be as well-known as his contemporaries Sir Francis Drake or Sir Walter Raleigh. However, his exploits at sea are no less colourful, daring and interesting.
In his early career, he found himself in the midst of the imperial army fighting against the Turks in Hungary (1566–68). Shortly after he was in Ireland, suppressing an uprising in Munster in 1568–69.
One of his most notable ambitions though, was between 1573 and 1575 when he made preparations for a voyage of discovery to the South Pacific, hoping to locate a northwest passage from England to China. For political reasons the expedition was never made, but Sir Francis Drake adopted the plan for his circumnavigation voyage of 1577–80.
However, what the Devon naval commander will forever be celebrated in maritime legend for, was when he and his men fought heroically against overwhelming odds, in an encounter with a Spanish fleet off Flores Island in the Azores.
He couldn’t have had a better companion in terms of a ship, taking to sea in the appropriately named The Revenge.
At the time, it was a pioneering piece of design and one of Europe’s most famous vessels. Before fighting the battle of the Azores, The Revenge had an extraordinary career. In 1587 she had accompanied Drake when the English attacked Cadiz, ‘singeing’ the Spanish king’s beard. In 1588 she had led the line against the Armada with Drake on board.
Then in 1591 under Sir Richard Grenville she was part of an English squadron that was met by the Spanish at the island of Flores in the Azores.
Now to set the context of one of the most fascinating naval engagements of all time…
At Flores, an English fleet of 22 ships commanded by Lord Thomas had taken rest while lying in wait for a Spanish Treasure Fleet. The English squadron, including the crew of The Revenge, had suffered heavily from a fever epidemic and were barely ready when, on 31st August, a Spanish war fleet, not treasure fleet, came into view. Oh how hearts must have sunk.
The England squadron were far outnumbered. While historians’ estimates vary, it is approximated that the Spanish outweighed the English three to one. Some of the Spanish fleet’s most impressive ships such as San Felipe (1500 tons) and the San Cristóbal, would have loomed large in the distance and would have made men tremble.
In the circumstances, Lord Thomas did the sensible thing: he ran. His boats cut anchor and took to the ocean as quickly as the winds would allow him.
Grenville, however, would do something so unexpected, that it has echoed through the ages ever since. Indeed, historians to this day are still trying to work out what possessed him to make such a decision: He ordered The Revenge – most of whose crew were sickly below – to sail straight at the Spanish.
Picture the scene: a lone English vessel, in the vast expanse of the sea, lit by the summer sunshine, sailing straight toward a whole Spanish fleet. I can only imagine what must have been going through the minds of the Spanish. The English bulldog spirit well and truly on show.
The Revenge’s crew fought for fifteen hours, repelling boarder after boarder including the San Felipe, her extraordinary joinery allowing her to survive body blows from scores of Spanish cannon. The English sailors sang an evening psalm at dusk and at dawn the Spanish surveyed the ship with its masts shot away ‘a logge on the sees’.
They needed to do a lot more than that, however, in order to quell the thirst for battle that Grenville, his men and The Revenge were showing.
In fact, when the Devonian sea commander realised that all was lost he wanted to blow up the ship rather than allow it to fall into Spanish hands: an order his crews baulked at. Surrender was negotiated and the Spanish took possession on 1st September 1591.
Despite his fighting spirit, this is one battle that Grenville could not walk away from. He was wounded during the fighting and died a few days later from the wounds inflicted on him.
His ship had other ideas, however. Wrecked by the Spanish, The Revenge sank with her Spanish boarding party at the nearby island of Terceira. One could argue that it was her final act of Revenge. Her cannons were still being washed ashore in the seventeenth century.
Richard Grenville’s legend lives on, in part thanks to the poem by Lord Tennyson called The Revenge, the penultimate verse of which goes:
And the stately Spanish men to their flagship bore him then,
Where they laid him by the mast, old Sir Richard caught at last,
And they praised him to his face with their courtly foreign grace;
But he rose upon their decks, and he cried:
“I have fought for Queen and Faith like a valiant man and true;
I have only done my duty as a man is bound to do.
With a joyful spirit I Sir Richard Grenville die!”
And he fell upon their decks, and he died.