By Haydon Luke
The Anne – now sleeping quietly on the beach at Pett Level
Many people are aware that there is a significant shipwreck lying concealed in the beach at Pett Level. The remains are those of the Anne, one of the great ships of the navy of King Charles II. The story of how our local beach became her final resting place after an epic battle against the French is my tale for this issue of the Fairlight News.
If you had been a watcher on the cliffs at Fairlight in the midsummer 330 years ago, you would have been witness to the dramatic closing stages of the Battle of Beachy Head. Although the main battle was fought on 10th July 1690 there had been a series of naval engagements in the Channel during June and into July involving, on the one hand a combined British and Dutch fleet, and on the other, who else but the French.
The context was the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697), often called the War of the Grand Alliance or the War of the League of Augsburg. It was a conflict between Louis XIV of France and a European coalition of the Holy Roman Empire (led by Austria), the Dutch Republic, Spain, England, and Savoy. It was fought in Europe and the surrounding seas, in North America and in India. Because the theatres in which battles were fought were so widespread, it is sometimes considered to be the first world war.
The history of the period is complex but, from the English perspective, the conflict encompassed the consequences following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 which established protestant William of Orange on the English throne. There were wars in Ireland and Jacobite risings in Scotland. In colonial North America there were battles and skirmishes between French and English settlers and their respective Indigenous allies in New England and the St Lawrence Valley in Canada. In India the French were gradually losing influence to the increasingly dominant and successful English East India Company.
But let’s get local. What brought elements of this global conflict so close to our home on the Sussex shore? Again, I have to say, things are complex. But basically the battle was, as is so often the case, for the control of the English Channel.
The French, under the Comte de Tourville, commanding the combined Brest and Mediterranean fleets, have 75 ships of the line and 23 fireships. On 23 June they sail towards the Channel; by 30 June, the French are off the Lizard. The English fleet under the command of the Earl of Torrington sets sail from the Nore (the Thames estuary) but is weaker with many ships on duty far away. The Allied fleet has only 56 English and Dutch ships of the line, with 4,153 guns, against the French fleet which can deploy 4,600 guns.
Torrington’s fleet reaches the Isle of Wight and is joined by a Dutch squadron. On 5 July, Torrington sights the French fleet but, recognising their superior strength, announces his intention of retreating to the Straits of Dover, believing that the risk to his fleet in battle would be too great. In London, Queen Mary (King William is away fighting in Ireland) and her advisers are split over what to do and some believe that Admiral Torrington is beset by defeatism or even treachery.
Whilst arguments rage in London the two fleets move slowly up the channel with Torrington keeping carefully out of range of the French. Eventually those in London make their decision. It is for battle. The orders reach the admiral on 9 July whilst he is off Beachy Head. Torrington realises that not to give battle would be to be guilty of direct disobedience. But to give battle is, in his judgment, to incur serious risk of defeat. Torrington calls a council of war with his flag-officers, who conclude that they have no option but to obey.
And so, on 10th July, battle is joined. I know that for those who are not militarily inclined, descriptions of battles are frequently unintelligible so I will be sparing with the details.
The two fleets lined up alongside each other, broadside to broadside, as was the usual tactic in those days. The Anne, under Captain Tyrrell, was the lead ship in the English blue squadron. The two lines of vessels were close to each other and the battle was fierce – so fierce that cannon shots were passing clean through both sides of the vessel they were aimed at. The Anne was in the thick of things in a battle which raged for three hours with the blue squadron seriously outnumbered and with several enemy ships able to concentrate their guns on her at the same time.
The Anne suffered badly and at about 1.00 p.m. her foremast came crashing down bringing sails and rigging with it. But there was no respite. Half an hour later the main topmast was shot away and over the next hour or two the Anne was slowly being shot to pieces. At least 100 men had been killed or wounded, with as much hideous damage caused by flying oak splinters as by cannon balls.
By this time the fleets had drifted further up the Channel and would have been visible to watchers all along the Sussex shore. The sounds of gunfire and the screams of the casualties would have been audible.
At about 3.00 p.m. the wind died away and there was a chance for the Anne to disengage and despite 6 feet of water in the hold it was possible to tow her away and attempt some basic repairs. At about this time the tide began to ebb, the French fleet drifted off and the Anglo Dutch fleet anchored. The sailors on the Anne then had the horrific task of attempting to clean up the shambles on the decks and try to deal with the shattered masts and rigging. Below deck, 29 men lay dead or dying. The horrors of 17th century methods for attending to the wounded do not bear thinking about.
As the fleets drifted further apart the Anne was taken in tow just south of Hastings with the hope that she could be taken to Rye Harbour for safety but she was too deep in the water. By this time the wind had risen again and Captain Tyrrell had few options. Desperate, he decided to beach his ship as near shore as possible – which is how the Anne came to Pett Level.
Even at this stage Tyrrell hoped he might still save his ship. The wounded were got ashore together with some of her armaments and stores. However, about noon the following day the French entered the bay and as two of their ships came close in, Tyrrell set fire to the Anne himself in order to avoid his ship’s capture. She burned right down to the waterline and settled into the sand where she has lain ever since. The wreck is protected by Historic England and looked after by the Nautical Museums Trust, the charity which runs the Shipwreck Museum in Hastings.
The outcome of the battle was clearly a French victory for, temporarily at least, they controlled the Channel. However, they failed to press home their advantage and the French fleet returned home to Brest. No blame was placed on Tyrrell for the loss of his ship. Indeed within a day he was promised another command. He praised the conduct of his men many of whom asked to serve in his next ship.
Others weren’t as well thought of. The French Commander, Tourville, was criticised for not following up his victory and was relieved of his command. The English Admiral, Arthur Herbert, 1st Earl of Torrington – who had advised against engaging the superior French fleet but had been overruled by Queen Mary and her ministers – was court-martialled for his performance during the battle. Although he was acquitted, King William dismissed him from the service.
Less than two years later, after the Battle of Barfleur, the English fleet regained control of the Channel at the same time beginning a lengthy period as the world’s supreme maritime power.
Tyrrell died two years after the battle of Beachy Head, in November 1692, and is buried in his family chapel at St Mary’s Church, Oakley, Buckinghamshire.
The remains of the Anne in our shore are an important reminder of the start of England’s naval hegemony and England’s rise to international eminence.
[The wreck is rarely visible. It requires an extremely low tide and luck with the scouring effect of the wind and water to reveal the remains. These pictures were taken in 2013 when, briefly, it was possible to attempt archaeological survey work.]
By Haydon Luke