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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: Sir Robert Holmes

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
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One of the most interesting stories concerning wrecks on the Island is that of Sir Robert Holmes. His tomb and his white marble statue dominate the Holmes Chapel in Yarmouth Church.

Early Career

Born in Ireland in 1622, Holmes had a long military career that began in the army under Charles I and continued in the Navy under Prince Rupert in the Civil War, where Holmes gained the rank of Major.

In 1646, after the battle of Oxford which the Royalists lost, he accompanied Prince Rupert to the Continent. By 1648, during the Protectorate, when much of the English Navy had defected and joined Prince Rupert in Holland fighting for the Royalist cause, he became essentially a mercenary, fighting in France, Germany and Flanders.

Holmes and the Dutch

After the Glorious Restoration of Charles II in 1660 Holmes took service with the Royal African Company, and was placed in charge of the squadron sailing for West Africa. Spoils from his harassment of the Dutch off West Africa's Guinea Coast included the first baboon brought to England (described by Samuel Pepys in his Diary in 1661). He also brought Guinea gold to the United Kingdom: the English Guinea coin is named after his exploits.

He was described as 'the cursed beginner of two Dutch Wars', as a similar expedition to Africa in 1663 resulted in his capturing many Dutch trading posts, and ended in war. He was also responsible for burning 180 ships in the Dutch port of Ely and the town of Bradderinum, the capital town of the island of Schelling, in 1664.

In 1665 he was knighted, given the rank of Admiral of the Red, and commanded Defiance, one of the newest warships afloat. He was soon at war again, in the Battle of Lowestoft, and raided the Dutch islands of Vie and Schelling, destroying 150 ships of the Dutch East Indiamen with the loss of 12 men.

On the Island

In 1665 he had been made Captain of Sandown Castle, and in 1668 he became Governor of the Isle of Wight, a title he held until his death in 1692. He also held the titles of Vice-Admiral of the Isle of Wight, Governor and Vice-Admiral of Newport, and Vice-Admiral of Hampshire.

From 1665 he spent much of his life on the Island. As part of his privileges he was entitled to two-thirds of the value of any enemy ship (and its cargo) that he captured in local waters. This was at a time when both France and Holland were regarded enemies. From his base in Yarmouth, Holmes carried out an almost piratical operation and added vastly to his wealth.

The Statue

The statue was intended to be one of King Louis XIV. The sculptor had carved the body, and was planning to finish the head once he had arrived with the statue in the court of the King and could see Louis in the flesh. On his way there, however, the ship was wrecked. Ship, statue and sculptor were captured, and Holmes forced the sculptor to finish the statue in Holmes's own likeness.

Holmes directed that on his death the statue should stand over his tomb. The sculptor may well have had the last laugh, however, since its head is too big for its body, giving the statue a ridiculous look.


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