The History of the First Vanguard of the Royal Navy
1586  -  1629
                                                                          LIST OF CAPTAINS

                                               22 Dec.  1587     Sir William Wynter (and as Vice-Admiral)
                                               26 Aug.  1588     Sir Henry Palmer
                                                 1 Oct    1588     Sir Martin Frobisher
                                                 2 May.  1589     Sir George Beeston
                                               10 Sept. 1589     Sir Henry Palmer
                                               15 July.  1594     Sir Martin Frobisher ( and as Admiral)
                                               12 April  1596     Sir Robert Mansell(and as Rear-Admiral)
                                                 1 Jan.   1598     Sir Robert Crosse
                                                 9 May   1598     Sir Henry Palmer
                                                 3 Feb.   1600     Sir Richard Leveson
                                                 4 June  1600     Captain Somers
                                               10 Dec.   1600     Sir Richard Leveson
                                                 7 June   1602     T Button
                                                 6 Oct.    1602     Sir Richard Mansell
                                               21 July    1604     Sir William Monson (and as Admiral of the Narrow Seas)
                                               29 July    1608     Sir William Monson (and as Admiral of the Narrow Seas)

                                                               1620     Sir Richard Hawkins (and as Vice Admiral)

                                                               1625     John Penington ("Captain and Admiral") 

The name Vanguard was introduced into the Royal Navy in 1586, when it was given to a ship being built by Matthew Baker at Woolwich. She was a galleon, 108 feet long, with a beam of 32 feet and a depth of 13 feet, rated at 500 tons ; she carried an armament of 8 demi-cannon (30 pounders), 10 culverin (17 pounders), 14 demi-culverin (9 pounders), 4 light pieces and 18 quick-firers. She was described as " low and snug in the water, and more like a gallcass" and, for those days, was longer for her beam than usual; the Swiftsure built 13 years earlier had a beam of 30 feet on a length of only 70 feet. Though by no means the largest warships of their day, the Vanguard and her sistership, the Rainbow, were the last word in naval architecture at the time of the Armada.

She commissioned in stirring times: Spain was at the peak of her strength at sea, fitting out her great Armada and massing her armies in the Netherlands for an assault on England; though Elizabeth in 1587 indulged in the national tendency to appeasement, our navy and our seamen, having already shown what they could do to the Spaniards, were ready for any further action when the moment came. In fact, the most unusual step was taken of commissioning the fleet in December and keeping it in readiness throughout the winter.

The Vanguard put to sea with the fleet on 21st February 1588 to guard against any attempt by the Duke of Parma to cross the Channel from the Netherlands ; she remained in the Narrows, flying the flag of Sir William Wynter, in the squadron commanded by Sir Henry Seymour in the Rainbow, when the main part of the fleet under Lord Howard of Effingham sailed to the westward on 22nd May to meet the Armada.

The Armada   
It was not until 21st July that the Armada arrived off Plymouth, and two days later that the news reached Seymour off Dover. His ships were at this time in sore need of provisions, having sufficient to last only till the end of the month. They maintained a patrol off Dover, Dungeness and Folkestone, however, until 27th July, when they put into the Downs to satisfy their by then urgent need for victuals, as there had been no further news of the Armada. Their anchors had been down a bare half-hour before they received orders from Effingham, off Calais, to join him there. They reached Calais Roads that same evening with two days' provisions remaining.

Sunday, 28th July, was a day of conferences and preparations. That night., an attack by eight fireships was launched against the Spaniards and, though it did no damage, it caused them to get under way in much confusion and put before the wind to the N.N.E.

The British fleet followed and came up with them off Gravelines at 0900 next morning, Monday, 29th July. There ensued the battle of that name in which the Vanguard and Rainbow attacked the starboard, or inshore, wing of the Spanish crescent-formed fleet. They are specifically mentioned as having driven ashore two large ships; these were the San Felipe, 800 tons and 40 guns, and the San Mateo, 750 tons and 34 guns. The action, lasting from 0900 until 1800, was fought at very close range, usually within hailing distance and all the time within arquebus shot, but the Vanguard appears to have suffered little damage at the Spaniards' hands. She continued the chase with the fleet until the evening of 30th July, when Seymour's squadron was ordered back to Harwich to provision and resume the patrol of the Narrows.

After the defeat of the Armada the Vanguard saw no more fighting  until 1594. She was then the flagship of Sir Martin Frobisher, cruising in the Eastern Atlantic to intercept Spanish convoys reinforcing ports on the, west coast of France, which the Spaniards had occupied for use later as bases for a second Armada. Meanwhile, a combined force was being formed to drive them out and, in July, Frobisher's squadron covered a landing of troops at Paimpol, on the north Brittany coast.

Fort Crozon.
Having reduced Paimpol the army moved on Brest, the most important of the captured ports and, on 1st November, with the support of the fleet, laid siege to the Spaniards in Fort Crozon. Their repeated assaults failed, in spite of the supporting fire of the fleet;  then Sir Martin Frobisher himself landed with seamen from the fleet to reinforce the army for the final assault. It was successful, but Frobisher himself received a wound from which he died shortly after the Vanguard landed him at Plymouth.

In spite of the complete defeat of their Armada in 1588 and of the loss of their forward base in 1594, the Spaniards continued with their plans for an invasion of England, fitting out ships with this object.  In 1595, the Earl of Essex planned a great combined operation, under the joint command of himself and Lord Howard of Effingham, to repeat Drake's "singeing of the King of Spain's beard" in 1587 by capturing  the city and harbour of Cadiz and destroying the Spanish fleet.

After much vacillation, Elizabeth at last gave her assent to the operation and, in May 1596, a force of some 45 fighting ships and 60 transports sailed from Plymouth. Essex's secret had been well kept, so that it was not until his squadron was sighted from the shore three days before it arrived off Cadiz, on 18th June, that the Spaniards had any idea of what was  on. Two days were then spent in councils of war, then on the third day the plan of attack had to be changed after the troops had embarked in  the boats, as the wind rose from an unsuitable direction. By this time the defences of the harbour, which had been considerably improved in the interval since Drake's attack, were fully mobilised;  they consisted of shore batteries, supported by galleons at anchor, and by galleys which could either anchor under the cover of the batteries or make lightning attacks on our transports if any opportunity was given them.

The Vanguard, under the command of Sir Robert Mansell, was one of the ships detailed to attend to the galleys;  this she did most effectively. At a later stage in the day, when the Spanish fleet was in flight to the inner recesses of the harbour, she did useful work intercepting a number of ships which were trying to escape from the inner harbour through the Suaco Canal, which connected with the sea to the south of Cadiz.

This operation, though not of the brilliance of Drake's venture, achieved all it set out to do;   the captured town was held for a week, and the Spaniards burnt their fleet rather than surrender it. Our forces then embarked --- with many souvenirs and reached home at the end of July, 1596.

The records state that in 1599 the Vanguard was rebuilt ; but in those days the term was used to cover anything from a major refit, or a partial re-armament, to building a new ship using some of or all the  timbers of the old. On this occasion, it was a matter of increasing her main armament and she was ready for service the following season, as a 40 gun ship.

Peace overtures were being made in 1600, but these did not. prevent  either the Spaniards or ourselves from making preparations  for action at sea. For our part, a small squadron of four ships, including the Vanguard, was fitted out and put under the command of Admiral Leveson, ostensibly with the object of suppressing the Dunkirk pirates, but really to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet returning from America. The Spanish were equally alert and sent out a larger force to cover the return of their valuable ships. It was all fruitless effort, however; though our squadron got to the Azores in time and was away from the 26th June until 4th October, it neither sighted the treasure fleet, nor was it seen by the Spanish covering force.

There followed a long period of peace for the Vanguard though she was commissioned from time to time, she saw no more active service until 1620. In the interval, she was again " rebuilt "; on this occasion it appears to have been a major affair, as she was rated at 650 tons on its completion in 1615.

In 1620, she was one of the six Royal Ships which formed part of Sir Robert Mansell's force sent to quell the Algerian pirates, and flew the flag of Sir Richard Hawkins, the son of the famous,  John Hawkins of Elizabeth's reign.

The force sailed from England on 12th October, was at Algiers from 17th November till 8th  December and secured the release of 40 prisoners without firing a shot but it got no other satisfaction from the Bey. The ships cruised in the western Mediterranean from time to time during the winter, spending much time in Malaga, Alicante and the harbours of Majorca before returning to Algiers on 21st May 1621. They were more bellicose this time, launching, a "cutting out" expedition on the ships in harbour but the wind failed at the crucial moment, their fireships were becalmed and the attack was a failure. The force was recalled shortly afterwards, reaching England on 22nd September.

Shortly before the death of James I in 1625, a marriage was arranged between his son --- soon to be Charles I --- and Henrietta Maria, daughter of Louis of France. One result of this was a contract to lend eight  English ships to the French: in April, the French calling on Charles to redeem his father's promise, Captain John Penington was ordered to take the Vanguard and seven armed merchant ships to Dieppe. Charles knew that the ships would be used against the rebellious Huguenots in Rochelle and that the transfer would be extremely unpopular with the Protestant people of England, as well as with the ships' companies. Captain Penington stalwartly refused to turn the ships over without written orders from the King.  Charles 1, for his part, managed to delay matters for three months, during which time the crews of the ships made their views quite clear by sailing back to Portsmouth. Eventually the order was given and, on 5th August 1625, the Vanguard, without officers or men, was transferred on loan to the French. It is unlikely that she was much use to them before the winter weather in the Bay of Biscay put an end to naval operations against Rochelle, but one account says that. she "mowed the Rochellers down like grass."  She was returned to the Royal Navy on 1st May 1626, but had to be withdrawn from active service at the end of the summer owing to her leaky condition.

She saw further service in the Narrow Seas in 1627 and 1628, but this first Vanguard's career came to an end in 1629, when she was " cast from the service " at the age of forty-three. It seems that there was much good material in her still, as another report states that she was again "rebuilt as a larger ship"; be that as it may, the second Vanguard appeared in 1631.

Back to The History Page