The Revenge

Occasionally, in life, as in history, there arises a character you really don’t want to get involved with.

This is the soul you cross to the other side of the room to studiously avoid, because trouble heads for them. Even the air around them has the quality of a tempest. Conversing with them makes one uneasy, one knows not why: a wild quality, a lawlessness, possibly a palpable malice.

I have been reading the story of a man who may, or may not, have been one of these souls.

My doubt lies in my source: an adversary who would have every reason to demonise such a man. Yet sometimes do not man’s actions speak for themselves?.

Sir Richard Grenville’s dad captained the Mary Rose as it sank beneath the waves in Portsmouth Harbour.

Richard was insanely well-connected, with cousins Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh; he inherited vast tracts of land upon his 18th birthday: Stowe in Cornwall; Bideford and Buckland Abbey in Devon. He began to study law at Inner Temple at 17 and was made a member of parliament at 18.

At 20, he ran a man through with a sword in The Strand. For which, times being what they were, he was pardoned.

He was nothing if not warlike. By the time he was 26 he has in Hungary battling the Turks; three years later he was in Ireland with his eyes on the land. The Irish, as is traditional, right and proper, did not like this at all. They battled with the ferocity of the Celts and trounced Grenville and his cronies; and shortly afterwards, Grenville got on a ship and sailed to England.

From what I can gather, he left his wife behind him at the walled city of Waterford, waiting for him to return with reinforcements. The legendary James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald brought an army to the walls of the city and demanded that Grenville’s wife be surrendered to him, along with the other English.

The citizens declined: and still Grenville did not return.

The trail of the story goes cold there, but I will add that Lady Grenville outlived her husband by decades. He managed eventually to purchase 24,000 acres in Ireland but despite bringing settlers out to people the land, he returned to England late in 1590.

He was involved in the exploration of the Americas too: but Β the hour which inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem about him was based on his last day on this earth.

The account I have is written by a contemporary of the time, but I don’t think he was present on the day the warship Revenge sailed foolhardily into certain death.

John Huyghen Van Linschoten was a Dutch merchant, historian and traveller. He wrote a Discourse of Voyages into the East and West Indies which was published seven years after the Spanish Armada.

His story of the Revenge commences on September 13th, 1591 at the island of Corvo, where the English navy sighted 30 enemy ships in convoy. They had but 16.

So the Admiral, Lord Thomas Howard, directed that the boats hold back.

And who should the Vice Admiral be, but Sir Richard Grenville? Knowing his deeds as you do, would Grenville hold back meekly and avoid a fight?

No, he would not.

He was sailing a new kind of warship constructed at Deptford: a sleek, pared-down beauty without cumbersome fo’c’sles of earlier ships. He flew in the face of his superior’s orders, sailing into the heart of the Spanish ships, waiting for everyone to follow.

But no-one did.

The ship had an amazing sail: one which enabled it to flee even at the very last minute. But to the dismay of the men on the ship, Grenville vowed to hang any man who laid hands on that sail.

It is true that they fought bravely, causing damage to 15 galleons. They fought for 12 hours, the men Grenville had sentenced to their end. That day they lost, by fighting or drowning, around 400 mothers’ sons.

Sir Richard was shot in the head, but as befits his character lived on for days longer. He was taken to a Spanish ship called the San Paulo where he continued to converse with the Spanish officers who felt him unutterably courageous. He ate wine glasses for their entertainment.

“Sir Richard Grenville,” Writes Van Linschoten, “was a great and rich gentleman of England,…but he was a man very unquiet in his mind, and greatly affected to war…he had performed many valiant acts…but of nature very severe, so that his own people hated him for his fierceness, and spake very hardly of him.”

Occasionally, in life, as in history, there arises a character you really don’t want to get involved with.

If only someone had alerted the sailors on the Revenge.

Written in response to Side View’s weekend challenge: “Revenge”. Sidey never fails to choose a diverting theme: if you want to have a try, you can find the brief here.


47 thoughts on “The Revenge

  1. All heroes have to be a little bit mad!!!
    Tennyson’s poem ‘The Revenge’ was part H’s English curriculum, and he remembers it to this day. All the boys in his class loved it.

    1. Such is the power of the writer, Rosemary: Tennyson may well have re-written the history books with his romanticised version of events. It’s a blokey fairy tale. Who wouldn’t love it?

      I can’t bring myself to like him, though.

      I wonder if Tennyson knew all the evidence, and had read contemporaneous accounts? There is plenty of documentary evidence that Grenville was an unconvicted murderer and a loose cannon. He did love a good fight, though, all the way through his life; and must have died satisfied after causing all that mayhem. He took a lot of lives with him.

    1. You speak the truth, Lou. I think of the mothers who had to deal with the strange bouts of powered idiocy Grenville would have. But his power and status kept him well away from retribution.

  2. Totally bonkers, of course. He seems to have taken a lot of killing.
    Lord Tom would have looked a right ninny if he had managed to defeat the whole armada single-handed … er, shipped.
    Sort-of overlooking orders worked far better for Horatio, though.

    1. An excellent point, Col. What makes a hero? Horatio is one of mine: but I believe he was respected and loved by those around him. For Grenville, bonkers is a very good word.

      1. Great link, Nancy: Stewart picks up on the hopelessness of the mission, doesn’t he? Who knows what the source of his behaviour was: sometimes in life there are people who have way more anger than empathy. Dangerous person to be around.

  3. A very interesting post today, Kate. It lead me on a search for other historical figures who might well have been similarly wild, lawless or malicious. Along the way, I searched (among others) the terms “historical mad men” and “mad historical figures” and, ultimately, arrived at this intriguing premise:

    I wonder if we could someday truly find, and successfully implement, a way to prevent such frightening individuals from wielding the powers they so frequently manage to acquire?

    1. What an amazing link, Karen! Thank you – it enriches our debate hugely. It takes a great determination to stand in the way of people like this: machiavellian characters who would stop at little to get their way. We’d need leaders as determined and focused as these leaders are, but with integrity at their core. I guess Churchill was an example: he stopped one of the maddest leaders of all time in his tracks…

  4. Such deep thoughts here! … So true that there are people like this in life. Some people are even attracted to them. I think it has a lot to do with the “Law of Attraction.” Have you ever read The Secret?


  5. Wow, another meeting of the minds from across the sea it seems here. A little de-javu feeling, as I just posted this in response to Adeeyoyo’s poem: Multi Sided:
    “Look at the Bright Side”

    (From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam:27, 1850:)

    I hold it true, whate’er befall;
    I feel it, when I sorrow most;
    ‘Tis better to have loved and lost
    Than never to have loved at all.

    Also, Greenville, North Carolina, 2 hours up the coast from me is named after Sir Richard. There are conflicting stories surrounding who drew first blood on the Island of Roanoke, with Grenville being of course at the helm, but, I found with a more in-depth study Captain Ralph Lane to be the perpetrator, as I disclosed in my semi-comedic, yet, true to times spiel about the “Lost Colony”
    Of course, Grenville and all the cousins you mentioned had hand or sail in the mix.
    Bless You

  6. There’s a place for a character like him somewhere in annals of Rose and Isaac, though he’d be a bit out of his time there. If only he were fictional…

  7. What a story! I hadn’t thought of the Tennyson poem in years! It was in an anthology I read and re-read long ago, actually. And of course, I knew nothing of the “real” story. I am frequently quite impressed by what i DON’T know! You do know you have that affect on people, don’t you, Kate? LOL! Debra

  8. What fascinating history, Kate. I checked out the link offered by Karen – great article. I’ve wondered about leaders who appear to be unbalanced – for whatever reason. Are they protected and propped up in the belief that it is for the good of the people? No. It’s to protect the protectors.

    Amazing how people, including the masses, hand over power.

    1. I think some who seek power are driven by a peculiar world vision, and helped by an ability to deceive oneself to the most extraordinary extent: to the point of delusion, Amy. I see it on a small scale when managers love to issue orders but will not lead by example. They care about their own advancement but not the welfare and happiness of those they lead. Nancy Hatch reminded me of that Milton quote: hell of heaven, a heaven of hell…the leader can be responsible for either, depending on their motivation.

  9. I’ve very much enjoyed reading this post, Kate, for some reason… I tend to steer clear of the ‘troubled’ sort, who I can seem to recognise when I first see them… I suppose I shouldn’t really be as judgmental. Very interesting indeed! πŸ˜€

    1. I don’t think it’s judgemental: more self-preserving! I was once mugged at gunpoint in Amsterdam, and what struck me later was that it was split-second judgements which could have kept me out of trouble. If we trust our instincts they usually lead us away from danger.

  10. I may have heard this tale back in the day, but have long forgotten. I’m off to read more about the Revenge. I’m always intrigued when history remembers a ship by name.

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