Sir Richard Grenville, Vice Admiral, of the Revenge Sir Richard Grenville, Vice Admiral, of the <I>Revenge</I>

Sir Richard Grenville,

Grenville or Greynvile, Sir Richard (1541? - 1591), naval commander, of an old Cornish family, whose name has been spelt in a countless number of different ways, was the son of Sir Roger Greynvile, who commanded and was lost in the Mary Rose in 1545, and grandson of Sir Richard Greynvile (d.1550), marshal of Calais under Henry VIII. There were other Rogers and Richards, as well as Johns and Diggorys, all closely related, and often confused one with the other (eg Froude, Hist.of England, cab.edit., iv.436 n)

In early youth Greynvile is said to have served in Hungary under Emperor Maximilian against the Turks, and to have won special distinction (Arber p 10). On 28 April 1570 he made a declaration of his submission to the Act of Uniformity of Common Prayer and Service (Col. State Papers, Dom). In 1571, and again in 1574, he sat in parliament as one of the members for Cornwall, of which county he was also sheriff in 1577. He is said to have been knighted while holding this office, but it appears from a petition, 22 March 1573-4 (ib), that he was already a knight at that date. He was then interesting himself, in company with Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in ['an enterprise for the discovery of sundry rich and unknown lands',]but it does not appear that he himself undertook any such voyage till in May 1585 he had command of a fleet of seven ships which sailed from England for the colonisation of Virginia, acting in this, it would seem, as the representative of his cousin, Sir Walter Raleigh. On his return in October he fell in with a Spanish ship, homeward bound from St Domingo, which attacked him, but was herself overpowered and captured; Greynvile and a part of his men, not having any boat, going on board her on a raft hastily made of some old chests, which fell to pieces just as they reached the Spaniard. In 1586 he returned to Virginia with stores for the colonists, who, however, had left before his arrival [see Drake, Sir Francis; Lane, Ralph], and on his homeward voyage he landed at the Azores, where he pillaged the towns and carried of many of the Spaniards as prisoners. He had already, in 1583 and 1584, been employed as a commissioner for the works at Dover harbour, and from the time of his return from Virginia he was actively engaged in concerting measures for the defence of the western counties; an important post, which he still held through the eventful summer of 1588 (Col State Papers, Dom 8 March 1587, 14 Sept 1588).

The Expedition to the Azores,
and the capture of the Revenge

In 1591, when a squadron of queen's ships and private men-of-war, with some victuallers, under the command of Lord Thomas Howard [qv], was sent to the Azores to look out for the homeward-bound treasure fleet of Spain, Greynvile, as vice-admiral, or second-in-command, was appointed to the Revenge, a ship of 500 tons and 250 men, which had carried Drake's flag against the Armada in the Channel three years before. As a defence against this or any other squadron the King of Spain fitted out a powerful fleet of ships of war, and despatched it to the Azores. The Earl of Cumberland, however, then on the coast of Portugal, sent off a pinnace, to warn Howard of the impending danger. The pinnace, being a good sailer, kept company with the Spanish fleet for three days, learning the details of its force and gaining assurance of its route; then leaving the Spaniards, brought the intelligence to Howard on 31 August. Howard, then lying at anchor on the north side of Flores, had scarcely heard the news before the Spanish fleet was in sight. It is said to have numbered fifty-three sail all told. Of English ships there were in all sixteen, six of which were queen's ships, but they were very sickly; quite half the men were down with fever or scurvy, and the rest at the moment were busy watering. Howard determined at once that he was in no condition to fight a force so superior, and, hastily getting his men on board, weighed anchor and stood out to sea. It has been supposed that the Spanish fleet passed to the southward of Flores, and thus came in on the English from the west; that Greynvile, not knowing or not believing the news which the pinnace had just brought, was convinced that the ships coming round the western point were the long-awaited treasure ships, and therefore refused to follow Howard. Such seems to have been the opinion of Monson, a contemporary seaman, and of Linschoten, who was at the time actually at Tercera. On the other hand, Ralegh, writing, it must be remembered, as a cousin and dear friend, has stated that Greynvile was delayed in getting his sick men brought on board from the shore. But the other ships also had to get their sick men on board, and sickly as the Revenge was, she was no worse off than her consorts. It is quite certain, however, that by some cause the Revenge was delayed, and before she could weigh, the Spanish fleet had stretched to windward of her, cutting her off from the admiral and the rest of the squadron. Greynvile might still have got clear by keeping away, and so, doubling on the enemy, have rejoined his friends. But he was not a seaman, nor had he any large experience of the requirements of actual war. Acting from what is difficult to describe otherwise than as a false notion of honour, he scornfully and passionately refused to bear up, and with angry voice and gesture expressed his determination to pass through the Spanish fleet. In attempting to do so, that happened which any seaman could have foretold. The Revenge coming under the lee of some of the huge high charged galleons was becalmed; they were enabled to close with her, and she lost the advantage of her superior seamanship and superior gunnery which in all other contests during that war told so heavily in favour of the English. She was beset by numbers, boarded, and overpowered after a long and desperate resistance, the circumstances of which, as related in the first instance by Ralegh, have been enshrined in immortal verse by Tennyson. The Revenge was captured, and Greynvile, mortally wounded, was taken on board the Spanish Admiral's ship San Pablo, where he died a few days afterwards.

Thermopylae compared

His chivalrous courage has generally been held to atone for the fatal error. The defence has been compared to that of the three hundred at Thermopylae, and the lines in Campbell's famous ode were originally (Naval Chronicle, 1801, v.427):

Where Granville, boast of freedom, fell,
Your manly hearts shall glow.

It is therefore necessary to point out that, in the opinion of contemporaries well qualified to judge, the loss of his ship, of his men, and of his own life was caused by Greynvile's violent and obstinate temper, and a flagrant disobedience to the orders of his commanding officer. His 'wilful rashness' according to Monson, 'made the Spaniards triumph as much as if they had obtained a signal victory, it being the first ship that ever they took from her majesty's, and commended to them by some English fugitives to be the very best she had.' Mr. Froude, on the other hand, tells us that the gallant defence, 'struck a deeper terror, though it was but the action of a single ship, into the hearts of the Spanish people; it dealt a more deadly blow upon their fame and moral strength than the destruction of the Armada itself, and in the direct results which arose from it it was scarcely less disastrous to them' (Short Studies, i 494). For this statement there is no sufficient authority, and it may be doubted whether in it, as in Ralegh's prose or Tennyson's verse, there is not a good deal of poetic exaggeration. In the numbers there is certainly such, for of the fifty-three Spaniards, a large proportion were victuallers intended for the relief of the Indian ships. Not more than twenty were ships of war, and of these not more than fifteen were engaged with the Revenge (Bacon, Considerations touching a War with Spain, in Arber, p.8). That was sufficient. The truth in its simple grandeur needed no exaggeration. When we have before us the fact that 150 men during fifteen hours of hand-to-hand fighting held out against a host of five thousand, and yielded only when not more than twenty were left alive, and those grievously wounded, the story, 'memorable even beyond credit and to the height of some heroic fable' (ib), is not rendered more interesting, and scarcely more wondrous, by trebling the numbers of the host.

The circumstances of Greynvile's death correspond very exactly with what we are told of his character; a man he was 'of intolerable pride and insatiable ambition' (Lane to Walsingham, 8 Sept 1585; Cal. State Papers, Col), a man 'very unquiet in his mind and greatly affected to war', 'of nature very severe, so that his own people hated him for his fierceness and spoke very hardly of him' (Linschoten, in Arber, p 91), but also a man 'of great and stout courage', who 'had performed many valiant acts, and was greatly feared in these islands' the Azores.

Greynvile married Mary, daughter and coheiress of Sir John St Leger, and by her left issue four sons and three daughters..... The spelling of the name Greynvile is that of Sir Richard's own signature, in a bold and clear handwriting...... A portrait, supposed to be of Sir Richard Greynvile - half length, embossed armour, red trunk hose, dated 1571 - was exhibited at South Kensington in 1866, lent by Rev Lord John Thynne.

Some alterations to layout and punctuation have been made, and headings inserted, to the above text, which is taken from The Dictionary of National Biography Vol VIII. published by OUP, where it appears as an entry initialled J.K.L. and the following are given as sources:

  1. Visitation of Cornwall, 1620, Harl.Soc Publications, ix, 85.
  2. Calendars of State Papers, Domestic and Colonial
  3. Monson's Naval Tracts, in Churchill's Voyages, iii,155
  4. Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, ii 169, iii 251
  5. Linschoten's Discours of Voyages
  6. Many of these and other minor contemporary notices have been collected in one of Arber's English reprints, under the title, 'The Last Fight of The Revenge at Sea' also under the title 'The Last Fight of the Revenge, and the Death of Sir Richard Grenville' in the Bibliotheca Curiosa of Messrs Glodsmid.
  7. A poem by Gervase or Iervais Markham, 'The most honorable Tragedie of Sir Richard Grenvile', appeared with a dedication to Lord Mountjoy, London 1595, 4to.
  8. See also the bibliographical notice in Courtney and Boase's Bibl.Cornub. i 193, iii 1208
  9. and an interesting and careful article in the Geographical Magazine, v 233

    Press here to return to Ben Simpson's home page.