‘Sink Me the Ship, Master Gunner!’

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Sir Richard Grenville

Sir Richard Grenville

This day 422 years ago Sir Richard Grenville in the galleon Revenge, and separated from the rest of the English fleet off the Azores, began one of the most epic ‘last stands’ in naval history.

For fifteen hours, from three o’clock in the afternoon of 31 August 1591 until dawn the following morning, Revenge stood against a fleet of 53 Spanish warships, sinking two of them outright.

Last hours of an heroic fight

Last hours of an heroic fight

At one stage Grenville ordered his own ship to be sunk rather than see her go to the enemy crying, ‘Sink me the ship, master gunner!’ However, implored by his officers not to do so, he relented, on condition that the Spaniards spare the lives of his crew.

Grenville, who had been gravely wounded in the fight, died aboard the Spanish flagship several days later.

This extraordinary action of courage and fighting spirit gripped the imagination of Elizabethan England and began the traditions that in the centuries to follow made these islands the greatest maritime power.

In 1878 Alfred Lord Tennyson immortalised the action in his poem, ‘The Revenge: a Ballad of the Fleet’

    And the pikes were all broken or bent, and the powder was all of it spent
    But Sir Richard cried in his English pride
    ‘We have fought such a fight for a day and a night
    As may never be fought again!
    We have won great glory my men!
    And a day less or more
    At sea or ashore
    We die – does it matter when?
    Sink me the ship, Master Gunner – sink her, split her in twain!
    Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!’

You can read the full version here

World-War II battleship that proudly carried the famous name

World-War II battleship that proudly carried the famous name

In a twist of fate, less than a week after the battle, Revenge, with a 200-man Spanish prize crew aboard, was lost with all hands in a violent storm.

The name Revenge would become one of the most renowned in naval history, proudly carried by a number of Royal Navy ships. The most recent Revenge was a Polaris submarine launched in 1969 and decommissioned in 1992.

As an aside, Grenville’s father Roger was captain of the ill-fated Mary Rose and drowned, along with most of those aboard, on 19 July 1545.

Copyright notices
Grenville: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; Revenge: Public Domain via Wikipedia; WWII battleship: By Royal Air Force official photographer : Devon S A (Mr) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

7 Comments on “‘Sink Me the Ship, Master Gunner!’”

  1. It was passed down in my Drew family line that one of my ancestors (could have had a different surname) was a gunner/gunnere on The Revenge. I researched the 1591 battle and history extensively and in the 1980s found some sort of claim on the British govt for reimbursement of expenses including to a gunneer (that spelling) called Forster. Do not have that surname in my ancestry. Can’t prove anything but I love Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem. I am in Australia and commissioned a painting of the battle and the ship by Tony Crago, a famous maritime artist. Valerie Wotton nee Drew

  2. I’ve read this line as spoken by Lockhart in that most beatufull book: ‘The cruel sea’, but I was never able to ‘place’ it. Now I know the text it came from. I almost have the whole text by heart now. Thnx, Julian.

  3. I continue to be educated and edified with Julian’s gems of historical note. What other author has been such a source of entertainment as well as education?

  4. I was very moved by this story.
    The picture of Sir.Rechard Grenville is really impressive.
    The history of the Grenvilles is colored by tragedies, so I am very interested in them.
    The Grenville family is remain in Cornwall now?
    Or remain only in historical records and ghost stories?
    ( I read a famous ghost story of the dart moor. Sir. Rechard Grenville of the civil war appeared in the story .)

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