A Fateful Emerald: The Story of Sir Cloudesley Shovell
By David Dennis
In All Saints’ Street in the Old Town is said to be the oldest home left standing in Hastings. This was also the home of the mother of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. When living in Cockthorpe, on the coast of Norfolk in 1650, she had given birth to a child who went to sea as a cabin boy at 13 and rose through the ranks over 44 years, to become Admiral of the Fleet. He was a national hero but suffered a terrible death in 1707.
Sir Cloudesley Shovell, whose own home was in Soho, London, came to Hastings in 1691 to visit his mother. This tiny 15th century lime-mortared residence with its Elizabethan façade, is now called ‘Shovells’.
Victory for the Admiral and the formation of Great Britain
In the early part of 1707, England was at war and Cloudesley Shovell was Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet during a remarkably complicated period now called the War of the Spanish Succession. In April of that year, the Bourbon Army of Spain – led by French-born Englishman James Fitzjames – defeated the combined Portuguese, English and Dutch forces led by a Huguenot, the Earl of Galway. Then on 1st May (by the old calendar) the state of Great Britain was formed: Parliaments of England and Scotland combined in the Act of Union. Chief ministers Godolphin and Marlborough directed Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell to lay siege to the French port of Toulon from 29th July to 21st August 1707. Shovell was victorious and the French fleet was put out of action. The Admiral gathered his fleet, made repairs and began the long journey from the Côte d’Azur, through the Straits of Gibraltar to Plymouth.
By October 1707 (by the old calendar) he thought his fleet had reached the Western Approaches. Legend says that it was here that a young crew member tried to tell senior officers that Admiral Shovell’s navigation was at fault. For this mutinous presumption, he was hanged from the yardarm.
If we move this tale to the new calendar, we find ourselves by that modern system of dating on the 7th November 1707, on a stormy night just off the coast of the Scillies.
All Saints’ Street, Old Town, Hastings
At 8pm that night, in the blackness, the fleet was driven onto the rocks by high winds. The hanged man had been right. Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s flagship, HMS Association, had struck the Outer Gilstone rocks, off St Mary’s Island.
Here lived a Poldarkian sort of people who relied on shipwrecks for wood and plunder. Ferocious winds had turned the Western Approaches current northwards. Eight hundred died from the flagship, and although figures vary, perhaps between 1,450 and 2,000 souls perished overall from the flotilla. Shovell and some others managed to either get onto a rowing boat or hold on to planking and finally reached the shore. Was he saved at last?
The legend of the hanged man
Before we find out, let’s look at this story again. The Royal Navy now says that it is impossible to prove because everyone died on the Association. However, there was a ship that observed the tragedy and may well have seen the hanging. The horrified observers were the crew of the first-rate ship of the line – HMS St George. Those sailors survived. In those days, only the flagship held a full set of flags. It may have been the custom to run a flag up the mast to signal an execution or even to fire a gun which could easily be seen or heard from another ship in daylight or even moonlight. Calculations show the moon at that time was waning gibbous, so it might be possible to see what was happening on another ship. If a particular gun signal was used, then darkness would be irrelevant. However, it would be hard for a remote crew to know why a man on another ship had been sentenced to death – maybe the reason was a surmise based on obviously disastrous events. It is often stated that the hanged man was from the Scillies and recognised the danger of the waters they were entering.
Plaque above the door in All Saints’ Street, Old Town, Hastings
So what of our hero? A fatal emerald
Admiral Shovell crawled ashore. Records show that when his body was discovered at Porth Hellick Cove beach not far from St Mary’s, after a long search, he had two bullet wounds. His index finger had been bent back and broken. So, had his crew become mutinous when they realised their fate?
Yet the bullet wounds were not what killed him. A death-bed confession by an elderly woman revealed that she had gone down to that beautiful beach beneath the headland known as Giant’s Castle and there, amongst the rock samphire and yellow-horned poppies, she found a man in naval uniform with much gold braid and with a large emerald ring on his finger. He was still alive, so she stabbed him and stabbed him until there was no movement, she said. Then she bent back his finger to snap it and took the ring for herself.
You can imagine the scenes that followed. First, a messenger on a boat to the mainland of Cornwall at Penzance. Then a series of riders, changing horses at hostelries across southern England. At last the final rider, perhaps on a pale horse, riding up All Saints’ Street in Hastings Old Town to knock on the door of the mother of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell – to break her heart.
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