Hawke, Edward

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Hawke, Edward

British commander of the Home Fleet (1748-52), commander of the Western Fleet (1755-56), commander of the Mediterranean Fleet (1756), admiral (1757-66), first sea lord (1766-71), admiral of the Fleet (1768-81), 1st baron Hawke KB, PC

born February 21, 1705, London, England

died October 16, 1781, Sunbury-on-Thames, England


Edward Hawke, 1st Baron Hawke was an officer of the British Royal Navy. He is best remembered for his service during the Seven Years' War, particularly his victory over a French fleet at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759, preventing a French invasion of Great Britain. A number of Royal Navy warships were named after him, in commemoration of this. He had also won an earlier victory, the Battle of Cape Finisterre in 1747 which made his name. Hawke acquired a reputation as a "fighting officer" which allowed his career to prosper, despite him possessing a number of political enemies. He developed the concept of a Western Squadron, keeping an almost continuous blockade of the French coast throughout the war.

Hawke also served as first lord of the admiralty for five years between 1766 and 1771. In this post, he oversaw the mobilisation of the British navy during the 1770 Falklands crisis.


Painting of Lord Edward Hawke - Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hawke was born in London in 1705, the only son of a lawyer. His uncle on his mother's side was Colonel Martin Bladen a member of Parliament. Hawke joined the navy in 1720 at the age of 14, as a midshipman. In 1725 he passed his examination as a lieutenant, but it was 1729 before he could find a position on a ship because of a shortage of active commands in peace time. After this his career accelerated and he had received promotion to captain by 1734. The following year he went on half-pay and did not go to sea again until 1739 and the outbreak of the War of Jenkins Ear. He was then recalled and sent to cruise in the Caribbean with orders to escort British merchant ships. He did this successfully, although it meant his ship did not take part in the British attack on Porto Bello.

In 1737 Hawke married a wealthy woman, Catherine Brooke, whose money supported him throughout the remainder of his life.

Hawke did not see action until the Battle of Toulon in 1744 during the War of the Austrian Succession. The fight at Toulon was extremely confused, although Hawke had emerged from it with a degree of credit. While not a defeat for the British, they had failed to take an opportunity to comprehensively defeat the Franco-Spanish fleet when a number of British ships had not engaged the enemy leading to a mass court martial. Hawke's ship managed to capture the only prize of the battle, the Spanish ship Poder, although it was subsequently destroyed by the French. Hawke was largely spared the recriminations that followed the battle, that led to the eventual dismissal of the British Commander Thomas Mathews from the navy.

Despite having distinguished himself at Toulon, Hawke had little opportunities over the next three years. However, he was promoted to rear admiral in 1747 and replaced Admiral Peter Warren as the commander of the Western Squadron the same year. Hawke then put a great deal of effort into improving the performance of his crews and instilling in them a sense of pride and patriotism. The Western Squadron had been established to keep a watch on the French Channel ports. Under a previous commander, Lord Anson, it had successfully contained the French coast and in May 1747 won the first Battle of Cape Finisterre when it attacked a large convoy leaving harbour.

The British had received word that there was now an incoming convoy arriving from the West Indies. Hawke took his fleet and lay in wait for the arrival of the French. In October 1747 Hawke captured six ships of a French squadron in the Bay of Biscay in the second Battle of Cape Finisterre. The consequence of this, along with Anson's earlier victory, was to give the British almost total control in the English Channel during the final months of the war. It proved ruinous to the French economy, helping the British to secure an acceptable peace at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, despite the recent French conquest of the Austrian Netherlands. In recognition of his victory, Hawke was made a baronet.


For Hawke, however, the arrival of peace brought a sudden end to his opportunities for active service. In 1747 he was elected as a member of parliament for the naval town of Portsmouth, which he was to represent for the next thirty years. As one of the most celebrated admirals of the recent war, Hawke was able to secure a command in the peace time navy - and he was almost entirely at sea between 1748 and 1752. He was not on good terms with the new first lord of the admiralty, Lord Anson, although they shared similar views on how any future naval war against France should be waged. In spite of their personal disagreements, Anson had a deep respect for Hawke as an admiral, and pushed unsuccessfully for him to be given a place on the admiralty board.

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was considered by many merely to be an extended armistice and it was widely anticipated that a return to war was likely. Great Britain and France clashed over control of the Ohio country and this colonial conflict escalated throughout 1754. Under Anson's direction, the British navy again began preparing for war.

Seven Years War

As it began to seem more likely that war would break out with France, Hawke was ordered to reactivate the Western Squadron – followed by a command to cruise of the coast of France intercepting ships bound for French harbours. He did this very successfully, and British ships captured more than 300 merchants ships during the period. This in turn further worsened relations between Great Britain and France, bringing them to the brink of declaring war. France would continue to demand the return of the captured merchant ships throughout the coming war. By early 1756, after repeated clashes in North America, and deteriorating relations in Europe, the two sides were formally at war.

Fall of Minorca

Hawke was sent to replace Admiral John Byng as commander in the Mediterranean in 1756. Byng had been unable to relieve Minorca following the Battle of Minorca and he was sent back to Great Britain where he was tried and executed. Almost as soon as Minorca had fallen in June 1756, the French fleet had withdrawn to Toulon in case they were attacked by Hawke. Once he arrived off Minorca, Hawke found that the island had surrendered and there was little he could do to reverse this. He decided not to land the troops he had brought with him from Gibraltar. Hawke then spent three months cruising off Minorca and Marseille before returning home where he gave evidence against Byng. He was subsequently criticised by some supporters of Byng, for not having blockaded either Minorca or Toulon.

Descent on Rochefort

Hawke blockaded Rochefort in 1757 and towards the end of the year he was selected to command a naval escort that would land a large force on the coast of France. The plan was to raid a town to hurt the French war effort, and force them to use troops to protect their own coastline, rather than sending them to Germany to attack Prussia or Hanover. Hawke, like many of the generals, was extremely sceptical of the value of such a landing. The expedition was late setting off, further reducing its chances of success. The British finally decided to launch a raid on Rochefort. The expedition arrived off the coast of Rochefort in November. After storming the offshore island of Île-d'Aix, the army commander Sir John Mordaunt hesitated before proceeding with the landing on the mainland. Despite a report by Colonel James Wolfe that they would be able to capture Rochefort, Mordaunt was reluctant to attack. Hawke then offered an ultimatum - either the generals attacked immediately or he would sail for home. His fleet was needed to protect an inbound convoy from the West Indies, and could not afford to sit indefinitely off Rochefort. Mourdaunt hastily agreed, and the expedition returned to Britain without having made any serious attempt on the town. There was a later court of inquiry, but both Hawke and Mordaunt were cleared of any blame, and it was concluded that the conception of the attack of Rochefort had been an error. For Hawke, the failure at Rochefort was a disappointment, and he remained sensitive about the issue for many years.


For Great Britain, much of the war so far had been a disaster including the loss of Minorca and the failure at Rochefort. The rise of William Pitt to power, began to change things as he pushed a new strategy which involved expeditions against French colonies in Canada, Africa and the West Indies. Despite the failure of Rochefort, Pitt pushed for fresh landings on the French coast, believing they would be a useful distraction - preventing the French from sending troops to Germany or to the relief of their colonies around the globe. In 1758, Hawke directed the blockade of Brest for six months. That same year, he was involved in a major altercation with his superiors at the admiralty which saw him strike his flag and return to port over a misunderstanding at which he took offence. Although he later apologised, he was severely reprimanded. He was taken out of active service, but was later restored to command because the cabinet respected his talents of seamanship. In his absence a raid on Saint-Malo had ended badly with the combat of Saint-Cast, which had seen a British force defeated and captured - bringing an end to the policy of descents, although it was now to be replaced with a far tighter blockade. In Hawke's absence the Channel Fleet had been under the command of Lord Anson.

Battle of Quiberon Bay

In 1759 Hawke was tasked with stopping a planned French invasion fleet from reaching Great Britain. A French army was assembled in Bretagne, with plans to combine the separate French fleets so they could seize control of the English Channel and allow the invasion force to cross and capture London. Hawke's orders were to prevent the large French fleets at Brest and Toulon from joining together. His ships continued their close blockade of Brest.

When Hawke's force was driven off station by a storm, the French fleet under Hubert de Brienne, Comte de Conflans, took advantage and left port. On November 20 1759, he followed the French warships and during a gale he won a sufficient victory in the Battle of Quiberon Bay, when combined with Edward Boscawen's victory at Lagos, to remove the French invasion threat.

Although he had effectively put the French channel fleet out of action for the remainder of the war, Hawke was disappointed he had not secured a more comprehensive victory asserting that had he had two more hours of daylight the whole enemy fleet would have been taken. He occupied the Île Dumet and returned home.

Blockade of France

Hawke's victory at Quiberon Bay ended any immediate hope of a major invasion of the British Isles. In spite of this the French continued to entertain hopes of a future invasion for the remainder of the war, which drove the British to keep a tight blockade on the French coast. This continued to starve French ports of commerce, further weakening France's economy. After a spell in England, Hawke returned to take command of the blockading fleet off Brest. The British were now effectively mounting a blockade of the French coast from Dunkerque to Marseilles. Hawke attempted to try and destroy some of the remaining French warships, which he had trapped in the Villaine Estuary. He sent in fire ships but these failed to accomplish the task. Hawke developed a plan for landing on the coast, seizing a peninsula, and attacking the ships from land. However he was forced to abandon this when orders reached him from Pitt for a much larger expedition.

Capture of Belle Île

In 1761, the British undertook an expedition against Belle-Isle which was finally captured. It was located close to Quiberon Bay, where Hawke had defeated the French two years before.

In an effort to further undermine the French, Pitt had conceived the idea of seizing the Island of Belle Île, off the coast of Bretagne and asked the navy to prepare for an expedition to take it. Hawke made his opposition clear in a letter to Anson, which was subsequently widely circulated. Pitt was extremely annoyed by this, considering that Hawke had overstepped his authority. Nonetheless Pitt pressed ahead with the expedition against Belle Île. An initial assault in April 1761 was repulsed with heavy loss but, reinforced, the British successfully captured the island in June.

Although the capture of the island provided another victory for Pitt, and lowered the morale of the French public by showing that the British could now occupy parts of Metropolitan France – Hawke’s criticisms of its strategic usefulness were borne out. It was not a useful staging point for further raids on the coast and the French were not especially concerned about its loss, telling Britain during subsequent peace negotiations that they would offer nothing to exchange for it and Britain could keep it if they wished. Britain soon sent much of the garrison of the island to Martinique and Portugal to take part in other operations.

War with Spain

After the entry of Spain into the war on the French side (1762), Hawke had the great luck to capture Spanish treasure-ships, which at the time meant that he gained great wealth, after which he retired from active service.

First Lord of the Admiralty

In 1766 Hawke joined the Government of William Pitt as first lord of the admiralty, a post he held for the next five years. Pitt had led the country during the Seven Years War, but he struggled to counter the many challenges facing Great Britain during the 1760s.

Hawke then retired from active duty, and given the honorary rank of vice-admiral of Great Britain in November 1765. He was made first lord of the admiralty in December 1766. His appointment was due to his expertise on naval matters, as he did little to enhance the government politically. Hawke held this post until January 1771, shortly after the Falklands crisis. He was succeeded by Lord Sandwich. Hawke was appointed to the Privy Council in 1766.

Hawke was made admiral of the fleet in 1768.

Naval reforms

During his time as first lord, Hawke was successful in bringing the navy's spending under control. Hawke oversaw Great Britain's naval mobilisation during the Falkland's crisis. Britain faced a resurgent France trying to rebuild its power by enlarging its navy and gaining new colonies while Hawke was forced to reduce the costs of the Royal Navy which had peaked during the Seven Years' War when over a hundred ships-of-the-line were in service.


Hawke was made a baron in 1776. Towards the end of his life he lived at Swaythling House, near Southampton, although he died in Sunbury-on-Thames. His memorial, depicting the Battle of Quiberon Bay, is in St. Nicolas' Church, North Stoneham near Swaythling. He was succeeded in his title by his son Martin Hawke, 2nd Baron Hawke.


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