In this series we may have become accustomed to dealing with land based combat between Irish and English (or English backed) armies. But today we’re going to swing away from that, to the other side of the country from where the War of the Two Kings was raging at its hottest, to look at a naval battle fought between ships of England and France, connected strongly to the conflict in Ireland, but also one part of a growing conflagration that was soon to draw in several major European powers.
Louis XIV, le Roi-Soliel, was the King of France at the time. A Catholic and a huge believer in the absolute rule of monarchs, Louis was a natural ally of the deposed James II. He was also an enemy of his successor, William of Orange, in the Netherlands, where numerous conflicts would be fought involving France during the reign of Louis. When James fled England during the “Glorious Revolution”, it was to France that he went, there to find sympathy and support from the French King. The War of the Two Kings in Ireland would be swept up into the larger War of the Grand Alliance, a nine year conflict that raged throughout north-western Europe from 1688 to 1697. The Grand Alliance would be an allied effort of various European powers arraigned against France, and the combat in Ireland was one of the earliest clashes in this larger war.
In France, James gathered together his small expeditionary force, that which landed in Kinsale on the 12th of March 1689. It was a small mix of Irish, English and French troops, with Louis allowing a large number of this small army’s officer corps to be, essentially, borrowed Frenchmen, people like Pointis and de Rosen. But this army was not an all-conquering force. It had food and arms to sustain itself for a short while, but brought no extras with which to harry the Williamite enemy or to arm the large amount of militia that had sprang up in Ireland. James, destitute of a support base in England, was reliant on support from France, especially when it came to basic war material like guns, powder, cannon and food to keep his soldiers going, not to mention money to keep them paid (and happy). As we have already seen, the lack of things severely curtailed Jacobite efforts at the Siege of Londonderry, or in the attempts to stifle the holdouts of Enniskillen.
The English knew that James was going to need a stream of supplies to be sent from France in order to maintain his war effort, and were determined to try and stem the flow if they could. The new commander of England’s navies was Arthur Herbert, soon to be the Earl of Torrington. He had been cashiered out of the service by James for refusing to vote for the repeal of the Test Act, and had been intimately involved in the plan to invite William over to England to take the throne. His reward was his raising to the position of command he now held, but he had little time to celebrate, taking to sea soon after his appointment, in April of 1689. The Royal Navy had been absent when James made his crossing, but were determined that any further ships from France would not have such an easy time of reaching Ireland.
Herbert had 19 ships at his command, less than he would have liked, with some left docked back in England due to mutineering sailors dissatisfied with withheld pay. Patrolling in and around the Cork coastline, Herbert’s mission was to discourage and, if possible, intercept French vessels that were on their way to Ireland to resupply James II.
That challenge would come soon enough. Sailing from Brest in May, a fleet of French ships under Francois Louis de Rousselet, the Marquis of Châteaux-Renault, made for the County Cork coast. It was a larger gathering of ships than the English had, with over 20 third and fourth rate vessels, a couple of frigates, numerous fire ships, as well as the transport vessels that were carrying the actual supplies that James desperately needed. While the climax of the age of sail was still some way off, the opposing fleets still contained many big ships, the largest carrying over 60 guns. The largest English vessel, the Pendennis, had 70 guns, while Chateaux-Renault’s own flagship, the Ardent, had 66.
Châteaux-Renault was well warned of the English adversary facing him. Though he outnumbered his enemy, the presence of the English fleet meant that a normal docking operation and unloading at Kinsale would be out of the question, and an actual engagement could still be overly dangerous to his own fleet (coincidently, Herbert was one of the early proponents of the “fleet-in-being” concept, that a fleets very existence, even if it never left port, could be enough to severely impact the movements of the enemy). Instead, as the French fleet approached the Irish coast, they swung west, taking anchor in Bantry Bay on the 10th of May. Bantry Bay is marked by a long and deep inlet, bordered on the north by the Beara Peninsula and by Sheep’s Head Peninsula to the south. In good weather, the Bay can provide decent sanctuary for ships because of the depths there, as well as several natural harbours, but in military terms, any fleet venturing into it carries the risk of being trapped behind a bottleneck.
Châteaux-Renault evidently had little fear of such a scenario, perhaps positing that his superior numbers would give him the advantage if he had to break out. On the 11th of May, he commenced unloading the men and supplies he had brought, but was watchful for any interference. It wasn’t long before it came, Admiral Hebert’s fleet following the French into the bay. He had caught sight of Châteaux-Renault’s fleet some time before and shadowed it to the present location, having come to rest outside Bantry Bay the night before.
Châteaux-Renault continued his unloading while setting up his largest ships for a defence. A fairly standard naval battle erupted between the two fleets at first, the ships laid out in parallel lines, blazing away at each other with cannon. After a time of this sort of combat, Châteaux-Renault pressed his advantage of holding the “weather gage”, that is, being upwind of the enemy vessels, and thus better able to manoeuvre.
With the weather gage, Châteaux-Renault unanchored his ship and drove at the English, forcing Herbert to withdraw his fleet out of the bay and into the open ocean. More importantly, the Royal Navy was sent hurtling back from the supply ships that were still offloading their cargo. Out in the Atlantic, a confusing and pell-mell engagement continued, for up to four hours. Herbert was unable to gain the advantage of the wind, while Châteaux-Renault, with much of his offensive options back in the Bay protecting the rest of the fleet, was unable (or unwilling) to press the attack too far.
Late in the afternoon, Châteaux-Renault choose to break off from the engagement, in order to return to the Bay and offer greater protection to the rest of the fleet. Herbert, having taken the worst of the fight and with many casualties, was unable to pursue. The French were able to finish their unloading, and then sailed away, Châteaux-Renault making for Brest. Herbert, many of his ships in a bad state of repair following the battle, made for the Scilly Isles and Spithead.
The result of the battle however, was more even than it appeared. The Royal Navy had taken a beating that would require over two months of repair for its ships, during which time the coast of Ireland was left largely unpatrolled. But it had survived the encounter, with no actual ships lost. Châteaux-Renault, much to the dismay of some of his subordinates, failed to do any real lasting damage to the enemy navy, withdrawing from the battle before he could completely gut it in a manner that could have been labelled decisive. That being said, he did succeed in his primary mission of getting the men, money and supplies he had been tasked with transporting safely ashore. Bantry Bay is a unique little moment in the military history of Ireland, even if popular remembrance of the battle, in Ireland and in the nations that contested it, has largely faded away.
There was plenty of regret to be had for the French in the long term, with the Williamite naval presence in Irish seas soon to swell to over 50 ships, from both England and the Netherlands. It would be some time before the French dared to take on this fleet the way it had at Bantry Bay, and the results of this can be seen almost immediately. In the north, the English efforts to relieve Londonderry by sea went almost entirely unchallenged by any Jacobite sea power, when even just a portion of Châteaux-Renault’s fleet could have driven Kirke away.
France was now fully engaged with England, the War of the Grand Alliance building up and up even as Londonderry fell under siege. James could rely upon French support for now, but if he wanted to regain his throne he was going to have do some fighting himself. His Jacobite troops in Ireland would soon face another huge test in Ulster.
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