‘Sink Me the Ship, Master Gunner!’
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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.
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
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.
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
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