Isles of Scilly

by Nick

The Department of Works clearly subscribed to a Whig interpretation of the Civil Wars when they put this sign up…

I’m just back from honeymoon in the Isles of Scilly, where my wife and I – I get to say that now! – had a great time wandering round the islands visiting historical sites. Luckily she is just as interested in tramping round rocky islands trying to find bronze age graves as I am…

I’ll be blogging about the various things we visited: today’s post is about Admiral Robert Blake’s assault on the islands in 1651.

Scilly went through as turbulent a time politically during the Civil Wars as the mainland – strongly royalist, it was captured by Parliament only for troops to mutiny and return it to royalist hands. By 1651, the governor Sir John Grenville was using the islands to carry out privateering raids on Commonwealth and Dutch shipping. Sir John seems to have been some kind of military wunderkind – he led troops into battle at Lansdowne when he was only 16 after his father was killed in action, and even in 1651 he was only 23.

Blake’s assault started by anchoring his ships to the east of Tresco – a first assault on Old Grimsby was rebuffed due to unfriendly winds and currents, but through a second assault he took Tresco then Bryher to the west. The point at which Blake’s forces landed is now about the site of the Island Hotel, where we stayed.

This set Blake up nicely for a further assault on St Mary’s, the largest of the islands. A makeshift battery was set up at the southern tip of Tresco, only to explode killing a number of men and injuring Blake himself. A second battery at the same point proved more successful and was used to bombard the harbour at St Mary’s to the south. Unfortunately there’s not much left today.

As a result, Grenville and Blake negotiated terms and the royalist forces were able to achieve an honourable surrender. Parliament then set to fortifying the islands – “Cromwell’s castle” was built as a gun platform on the west side of Tresco, recycling materials from an earlier gun platform further up the hill. Despite being built in the 1550s (and incidentally very poorly sited) this has become known as “Charles’s castle”, to counterpoint Cromwell’s castle further down the hill. Hence the sign I started with!

Overall about 3,000 troops were stationed in the islands, a huge amount considering there would have been perhaps 600 native inhabitants before this point. It reinforced to me the oft-cited point about the New Model Army – that this was perhaps the first time there had been such a huge movement of men across the country, and was maybe one of the factors that allowed for such rapid radicalisation of parts of the army in the late 1640s. You wonder what impact it had on Scilly.