Sir Clowdisley Shovell

Pompous Incompetent or Misunderstood Hero?

Michael Dahl's portrait of Sir Clowdisley Shovell Is it better to be forgotten by history than to be remembered unjustly? One might wonder that about the current revival of the memory of Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell in relation to interest in the development of an accurate means by which to measure longitude.

When we meet him at the beginning of Dava Sobel's recent book Longitude, Sir Clowdisley is lost in a fog in the English Channel. He gathers the navigators of his fleet to get a definite fix on their location. Satisfied that they are safely off the coast of France, he orders a course home. When a sailor tries to warn him that he's in danger of wrecking on the Scilly Isles, the admiral orders the man hanged as a mutineer. Hours later, his flagship and three other ships of his fleet smash into the rocks. He is swept ashore only to be murdered by a woman who wanted his emerald ring.

Reading that account, it seems simple enough to dismiss Sir Clowdisley as an incompetent, a pompous ass who was more concerned with preserving his own importance by hanging anyone who dared to show up his mistakes than in getting the fleet safely home. Plenty of people have not only accepted that conclusion, but have taken it as a jumping-off point to pillory modern inept managers. There is at least one booby prize for bad bosses known as the "Sir Clowdisley Shovell Right to Manage Award," which specifically cites the story of his hanging the sailor who tried to warn him of the imminent shipwreck. Another similar booby prize uses his name to ridicule those whose insistence on rigid adherence to procedure transforms small smegups into major disasters by refusing to admit their mistakes and punishing subordinates who dare point those mistakes out.

As a professional historian (MA, Illinois State University, 1996), I was bothered by a sense that it wasn't so cut-and-dried, that there might be more to the matter. In particular, I was disturbed by the issue of sources. If there were no survivors of the wreck of the Association, Sir Clowdisley's flagship, where did the story of the hanging come from? Who could have carried it ashore to pass through the years to the present? Might it be more legend than fact?

Also, I was somewhat bothered by the implication that his decision to hang the sailor was motivated primarily by spite, trying to silence the voice that dared say he was wrong. Maybe it's the effect of having read so much naval historical fiction (Hornblower, Aubrey-Maturin, Wouk's WWII sagas) and lots of space adventure by Robert A. Heinlein (himself a former US Navy officer and US Naval Academy graduate) who frequently emphasized the importance of obeying orders to maintain the authority structure upon which the ship's successful functioning in a hostile environment depended, but it seemed to me that Sir Clowdisley probably felt no malice toward the sailor. Rather he probably considered the hanging necessary for the sake of discipline (or as Hornblower would have put it, "for the good of the service.") Since there were probably several other officers and maybe even common seamen present when the unfortunate fellow tried to warn the admiral, Sir Clowdisley probably felt that he couldn't take any official cognizance of the warning and order a course change without risking his authority, and all he could do was keep going and hope for the best.

However, I really didn't feel any great drive to research the matter further until I came across a portrait of Sir Clowdisley in a history of the Royal Navy while researching another topic. Once I'd seen his face, he became a real person to me and I was bitten by the intense desire to find out everything I could about him, and particularly the truth about his role in the wreck of the Association.

Although the readily available information about him was frustratingly small, it was enough to make me wonder if the current attitude toward him was majorly inaccurate. Most of the webpages I found had clearly derived their information from Longitude or similar sources. However, several false drops (search returns which contained the requested string of characters but were not about the requested subject) increased my doubt about the current judgement on his character. I came across several references to other people named for him, and generally people don't name their kids for someone who's regarded as an incompetent leader who tried to cover up his mistakes by executing the person who pointed them out. At least one of these namesakes was born in the Victorian era, which rules out the possibility of it just being a case of people naming sons for him while he was winning victories, before his fatal error and shipwreck.

Research into easily available print sources only increased my sense that there was more to Sir Clowdisley Shovell than the current image of an arrogant incompetent who got his comeuppance from a source that couldn't be cowed into silence. Two histories of the Royal Navy openly praised his fighting ability, and one even said that his death deprived the Royal Navy of one of its best admirals. These books also soft-pedaled or totally glossed over the role of navigation error in the wreck, which reinforced my suspicion that it's the civilian mindset that is seizing upon the shipwreck to perceive him as a prototype of the pointy-haired boss, rather than a man whose greatnesses were his own and his failings the products of his times.

Another piece of evidence came from an unexpected source. I was reading C. S. Forester's Hornblower books for another project. In the opening of Ship of the Line, Forester included Sir Clowdisley's name name in a list of great admirals who'd sailed by Ushant. It just didn't seem believable to think Forester would've included the name of someone he regarded as an incompetent in the same list with such greats as Drake, St. Vincent, and Nelson.

However, locating more detailed biographical sources proved difficult. Finally I was able to locate a copy of his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, which largely confirmed my suspicions that there was much more to this man than the shipwreck. Here was a lengthy list of victories, giving specifics of battles fought and won. Even more telling was the description of the public response after his death. There were national days of mourning after the fatal shipwreck, and he received a hero's funeral. He was buried at state expense in Westminster Abbey, at which was erected a large memorial which the Victorian author of the bio calls "in questionable taste". If the subsequent investigation of the causes of the shipwreck did find him in any way culpable, nobody considered it to subtract from his status as the architect of several major naval victories against Louis XIV. Instead, it looks like rather than trying to fix blame on him and posthumously drag his reputation through the mud (which would only hurt his widow and daughters), they did the sensible thing and concentrated on finding some way to keep similar disasters from happening again, hence the prize for whoever could find a reliable way to measure longitude

Research on him is not an easy project, and often new sources raise as many questions as they answer. One of my greatest frustrations has been trying to trace the story that Sir Clowdisley had a sailor hanged as a mutineer for trying to warn him that the fleet was in danger. Lloyd A. Brown's The Story of Maps gives a version of it, calling it "a story current, long after" (pp. 255-6), but responsibility for the hanging is laid upon the sailor's superior officers in general, rather than personally upon the admiral. Brown credits the story to Rupert T. Gould's The Marine Chronometer, which I obtained via interlibrary loan.

Unfortunately that path of investigation appears to be a dead end, since Gould's account of it (p2) is even more brief, simply stating the basic facts of the event, and gives no source for his information. The hanging story is mentioned in a footnote which also calls it a persistent story rather than a known fact, and says only that the sailor made his reckoning known to his superiors and was hanged for mutiny. The extent of the admiral's personal involvement is not mentioned, so it could be conceivable (assuming that the incident ever actually happened) that the sailor approached the ship's officers rather than the admiral and his staff (it is probable that the tradition had already been established by which the admiral and his staff are distinct from the officers who actually run the ship, and that the admiral does not interfere in daily operations of the ship) and Sir Clowdisley only gave the order in the sense that he was the senior officer aboard, and as such ultimately responsible for such things. The sailor's fate may well have already been sealed, and the admiral could not have spared him without creating divisiveness among his officers and thus endangering discipline.

If that were true, it would demolish the current notion that Sir Clowdisley killed the man out of spite, because he couldn't tolerate being accused of error. The footnote closes with the words Credat Judaeus Apella, a sort of Latin equivalent of "tell it to the Marines."

The wording of Brown's and Gould's retelling of the story makes me wonder if it may well have been groundless, the sort of rumor that passes from friend to friend until people believe it true for no better reason that they heard it from multiple sources. It is quite possible that there is no final source for it, and we can never know for sure whether it had any grain of truth to it or if it started as a malicious fabrication. However, now that it has gotten into the common awareness it is likely to persist into the future simply because it is so awfully believable. Lots of us have had unpleasant experiences with authority figures who refused to admit they were wrong, and who used their authority to silence subordinates who dared to suggest otherwise. People who want to pillory present-day bad bosses will likely continue to use his name simply because it's convenient. He's not around to fight back, and any descendants he may have don't feel any great emotional connection across the centuries to their ancestor, at least not enough to speak up in his defense.

Further research has been even more puzzling. I have found articles by people who argue that the entire received narrative of the wreck of the Association and its sequelae should be dismissed as improbable legends. Not only was there no sailor hanged as a mutineer, but one author argues that there is no evidence that the navigation meeting ever took place (thus clearing Sir Clowdisley of Morris' accusations by inuendo of having bullied the navigators into telling him what he wanted to hear). Furthermore, this author argues that Sir Clowdisley's death did not involve the dramatic escape in the barge or the murderous encounter with the local woman. Far from it, it is more likely that the unromantic truth was a simple drowning shortly after the Association went down, with his body being washed up dead and subsequently stripped of clothing and valuables by the locals.

What is the truth of the matter? It is quite possible that we will never be able to know, simply because the passage of time has made it impossible to find the information we need. Documents have been destroyed over the years, and some information was simply never written down at all.


Here is a bibliography of books and articles relating to Sir Clowdisley.

One of the most extensive biographies of Sir Clowdisley which I have located is in John Campbell's Lives of the Admirals. Due to its extreme age, it is a difficult source to find. However, it offers one of the most powerful counterexamples against the current attitude that Sir Clowdisley was an arrogant and incompetent fool. Because time has brought it into the public domain and it is almost impossible to find elsewhere, I have decided to transcribe the complete text of it and include it here.

Michael Phillips, webmaster of the Maritime History and Naval Heritage Homepage, brought to my attention another extensive biography appeared in the Naval Chronicle of 1815. Although it appears to draw heavily upon Campbell's work, it offers other stories of his exploits which stand as evidence against the notion that he was a pompous incompetents. Because time has brought it into the public domain and it is almost impossible to find elsewhere, I have decided to make the complete text of it available here.

When Sir Clowdisley was buried in Westminster Abbey, a memorial was commissioned to stand over his tomb. Almost as soon as it was erected, it began drawing fire from critics who regarded it as having done a disservice to the admiral's memory. As an artist, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to make my own comments on it.

Links to other sites

This site on GPS receivers opens with an account taken directly from Sobel's Longitude which repeats the story of the hanging of the sailor who tried to warn the fleet of disaster, concluding that Sir Clowdisley preserved the iron discipline but not the wooden ships of his fleet.

This high school science report not only repeats the hanging story, but openly condemns the admiral as being unwilling to admit he was lost or listen to anyone who suggested that he might be wrong.

This poem written by a skin diver not only repeats the hanging story, but calls the admiral's subsequent fate a punishment for having hanged the man who tried to warn him. The poet draws upon the old tradition that water would cast out evil, used by the witch-hunters of old (if the suspected witch floated, it was taken as a sign of her guilt), in telling how the sea cast Sir Clowdisley onto the beach to be murdered for that notorious emerald ring. In this interpretation, Sir Clowdisley's death becomes his just desserts for having silenced the sailor who tried to warn him, and the legend that no grass grows upon the site of his original grave in Porthellick Cove is the result of his injustice against the sailor.

Although this sermon recounts the story of the hanging, the minister does not seem to condemn Sir Clowdisley, but simply observes that the seaman was proved right by the shipwreck and that this was the direct result of the lack of reliable navigational data, a situation which continued until Harrison's invention of the chronometer.

This contest sponsored by GORP (Great Outdoor Recreation Pages) is at least one of the more neutral accounts of the shipwreck. It simply recounts the event without attempting to fix blame.

A webpage from the Isles of Scilly offers the tantalizing hint that Sir Clowdisley had a native Scillonian officer aboard his flagship who had plotted an unused course which might have averted the disaster.

An interview with an elderly Englishwoman includes a mention of a neighbor who was a relation of Sir Clowdisley, and the story that on stormy nights one can sometimes hear the ghostly ringing of the bell of his flagship near the site of the shipwreck.

This list of diving resources in the Isles of Scilly includes the site of the Association, Sir Clowdisley's flagship.

This BBC Online quiz page refers to the wreck that killed Sir Clowdisley, and refers to him as one of England's finest admirals. (A far cry from the image of him as pompous incompetent that is currently popular).

Ironically enough, Sir Clowdisley was an Elder Brother of Trinity House, a private organization that builds and operates lighthouses in the British Isles. After his death, the other Elder Brothers decided that the Isles of Scilly must be properly lit and warded (before that, the only lighthouse was the old coal crescet on St. Agnes), and built the lighthouse on Bishop Rock, not far from the Gilstone that sent the Association to the bottom and often misidentified as the flagship's killer.

Finally, something which acknowledges that Sir Clowdisley had a career before the notorious shipwreck. Here is an account of the Battle of Vigo and his role in its aftermath.

This devotion refers to the story of the future admiral's heroism while still a young cabin boy, swimming messages from the fleet flagship to another ship under heavy fire.

This biography of George Byng, first Viscount Torrington mentions his connections with Sir Clowdisley.

In addition to being one of England's leading admirals in the wars against Louis XIV, Sir Clowdisley was also Member of Parliament for Rochester, in Kent. Their webpage still remembers the contributions he made to their Guildhall and the Corn Exchange.

Rochester is now part of Medway. Their history webpage also recognizes Sir Clowdisley's contributions to the area.

In the Chatham Historic Dockyard, a stained-glass window includes an image of Sir Clowdisley's crest as a way of recognizing his contributions to the area.

Westminster Abbey, where he was buried, includes a page on his memorial. On it there is a brief biography which speaks favorably of the Admiral. Follow the link "Historical Enquiries" to find "People Buried or Commemorated (by name)" and you will find the link to the page on his memorial.

Sometimes a Websearch can uncover some truly unusual and intriguing items. Here is a CD of violin sonatas with a cover illustration that portrays a Memorial to Sir Clowdisley Shovell which is most decidedly not the one in Westminster Abbey. Whether it is an actual memorial existing somewhere in Italy, or if it existed only in the minds of the artists, I do not know at the present.

The Cowdisley Education Group, created by artist John Hagan, borrows an alternate spelling of the admiral's name because it is unusual and easy to remember. Although it really doesn't deal with the admiral himself, there is some material related to maritime art, in addition to extensive free lessons on painting and art technique. I rather expect that the admiral would far prefer be remembered in connection with these efforts than the pillorying of bad bosses. (I believe this site was where I first encountered a reference to him, since I recall having seen USENet posts by Hagan some time in 1997, and when I came across the account of the shipwreck in Longitude, I remembered the art site and thought, "Ahh, so that's him!")

An interesting bit of trivia -- the admiral has a furry namesake. In Prince Caspian, CS Lewis includes as a bit character a mole by the name of Clodesly Shovel (both spellings are attested variants of the admiral's name, not surprising when one considers that he lived in an age before standardized spelling). This talking animal is portrayed as a likable character, not a knave or a villain, although the author of The Companion to Narnia calls Lewis' choice to assign the mole the admiral's name a humorous touch. Still, it does seem to be another bit of evidence that the current opprobrium under which Sir Clowdisley's reputation lies is a recent change, and he had been previously regarded positively.

Last updated January 9, 2014.