By Haydn Brown.
On 20 March 2007, the conservators of Norfolk County Council completed the restoration of some historic 16th-century records to their former glory; these had been buried in a village churchyard at the outbreak of the Second World War to prevent them falling into German hands. These documents confirmed much about Vice-Admiral Sir Christopher Myngs’s Norfolk origins and featured in a public exhibition in 2007. Included in this exhibition were items relating to the Salthouse hero, such as his baptism which appears in the Salthouse register for 1625. Other exhibits on display, apart from Myngs’s baptism entry, were deeds relating to the property which he purchased in Salthouse, a copy of a letter which he wrote on board ship, and a transcript of a description of Myngs’s funeral.
From these, and other records it can be deduced, with no 100% certainty you understand, that apart from young Christopher Myngs (1625- 1666) actually being born in Salthouse, Norfolk, his birthplace was believed to have been in the Manor House. He was the son of John Myngs, shoemaker, who had been married at Salthouse on 28 September 1623. The Register also recording that John Myngs was “as of the Parish of St. Katherine in the City of London”. It appears that John Myngs, in turn, was the kinsman or son of Nicholas Myness [sic], a son of Christopher, who was baptised on 8 March 1585 at Blakeney (Marshall, Genealogist, 38-9). – “a good old Norfolk family” according to Bloomfield in his ‘Topographical History of Norfolk’.
The maiden name of John Myngs’s wife, and Christopher’s mother, was Parr, Her family may also have owned the Manor House. That being the case then the following extract, taken from F.N. Stagg’s ’History of Salthouse’ – researched in the 1930s, would be of interest:
“The Parrs, I think we can safely say, lived in the Manor House—in which case Sir Christopher Myngs was born there. When the latter acquired some small degree of wealth, he bought a property in Salthouse and everything points to it having been what is now called the Hall [here there is a large asterisk in the margin and a ‘no’, and Stagg’s words ‘what is now called the Hall’ crossed out. The handwriting that is not Ketton-Cremer’s and may be that of Stagg himself supplants it with: ‘The building in Long Chats Lane [Long Church Lane] opposite the Hall’. If so, it must have been in that [Manor] House that his daughter Mary died in 1697-8, but Myngs’ second wife Rebecca must have disposed of it probably soon afterwards to one of her husband’s maternal relations, the Parrs.”
There may be little doubt that Cristopher Myngs was the “son of a shoemaker”, for even Samuel Pepys himself says so in his letter of (28 March 1665…) –‘ that his father was indeed a shoemaker and was consulted by the Navy Board about the uses to which leather shavings might be put.’ Bloomfield’s reference that the Myngs family may have been of “a good old Norfolk family” need not mean that Christopher’s father could not have been a shoemaker; Christopher did go to sea as a ‘mere cabin boy’…… proud that he rose in rank due to merit’. However, all this may be erroneous, along with Pepys’s story of Myngs being of ‘humble birth’ – this term possibly an explanation for Myngs’s popularity at the time? More importantly perhaps is the belief that Christopher Myngs was also a relative of the future Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell who was born, some 25 years after Myngs, at the nearby village of Cockthorpe. Here, there are strange coincidences between Myngs and Shovell – and they have little to do with the possibility that the two men may have been related.
Myngs was reputed to have been of ‘humble birth’, son of a shoemaker, possibly related to a knight, and went to sea as a cabin boy! Sir Cloudesley Shovell was reputed to have been that knight – but the latter was also born, or so it was said, into only ‘middling circumstances’ and was ‘apprenticed to a mean trade……of a shoe-maker’, and also went to sea as a cabin boy.’ What strange coincidences! One could be forgiven for wondering whether it was a prerequisite for 17th century Norfolk lad’s to first serve St Crispin [Patron Saint of Shoemakers] in order to obtain successful entry into the British Royal Navy!
So, as a young boy, Myngs may well have joined the British Royal Navy to serve first as a ‘mere cabin boy’, then as an ‘ordinary seaman’; but he did rise rapidly through the ranks thereafter, and this could well have been due to family connections? It has been also suggested that another reason for his rapid career rise was because, as his career progressed, he sided with Parliament and was its supporter; not to mention that the Council of State thought highly of him and, he was also recommended for promotion by the flag officers under whom he served. Myngs was also a friend of Sir John Narborough who was descended from an old Norfolk family. He married Elizabeth Hill, whose father was John Hill, a Commissioner of the Navy. After her husband’s death, Lady Narborough married none other than Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. Well, Well Well!
Myngs first appeared prominently during the first First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654) as captain of the ‘Elisabeth’ when he captured a Dutch convoy, including two men-of-war taken as prizes. From 1653 to 1655 he continued to command the ‘Elisabeth’ before being given command of the 44-gun frigate ‘Marston Moor’; whose crew happened to be on the verge of mutiny! After quelling the crew’s insubordination, the ship was sent to Port Royal to safeguard England’s new possession – Jamaica. Here, he became the subcommander of the naval flotilla on the Jamaica Station (Royal Navy), with the ‘Marston Moor’ as his flagship. Not bad for a lad from Salthouse.
On his arrival in Jamaica, Myngs assessed that the best defence was to take war to the Spanish. However, the ‘Marston Moor’ was the only English warship available so he decided to recruit local buccaneers. By using the tactic of attacking instead of defending, his buccaneers were to defeat countless Spanish attempts to capture Port Royal. Every potential attack was repulsed before it could begin; then Myngs would successfully counter-attack and regularly defeat the enemy ports nearby. The Spanish government considered him a common pirate and mass murderer, protesting to no avail to the English government of Oliver Cromwell about his conduct. Maybe the Lord Protector of the British Isles was influenced by the opinions that ‘one man’s pirate is another man’s privateer’, and that the Spanish interpretation of Myngs’s behaviour came from a nation that was given half the world by the Pope to rape and pillage. Also, the towns that were sacked by Myngs were cruelly controlled by the Spanish as they loaded their ships with gold. There was also some evidence circulating that suggested that some local populations welcomed the Spanish being given a bloody nose in return!
In February 1658, he returned to Jamaica as naval commander, acting as a commerce raider (privateer) during the Anglo-Spanish War. During these actions he received a reputation for unnecessary cruelty, sacking and massacring entire towns in command of whole fleets of buccaneers. Later in 1658, after beating off a Spanish attack, he raided the coast of South-America; but failed to capture a Spanish treasure fleet despite having a plan of hiding off the coast in wait. Unfortunately for Myngs the timing was not good because most of his fleet’s crew were ashore obtaining fresh water; this was when the Spanish treasure fleet appeared. The Marston Moor and another ship passed through the Spanish fleet and hung on its rear before unsuccessfully attempting to scatter them.
Myngs then proceeded to raid Tolú and Santa Marta, both in Columbia, again with only moderate results. It was then Myngs decided to change tactics. Previously, his large group of ships had pre-warned the local population who would retreat inland with their possessions. But he now divided his squadron into smaller flotillas and so increase the chance of surprise. He also would pursue them inland, sometimes using land troops as marines. Myngs then used his new tactics on three ports on the coast of Venezuela – Cumana, Puerto Cabello and Coro in present-day Venezuela. The latter contained a Spanish silver shipment valued at 250,000 English pounds – roughly £32.5million today. However, Myngs decided to split the money with his buccaneers to keep them interested for future expeditions, rather than with the Governor, Edward D’Oyley, and the English treasury. On his return to Port Royal, D’Oyley had him arrested on charges of embezzlement and acts of piracy, returning him to England on the Marston Moor in 1660 to face trial. However, in the confusion of the restoration of Charles II at the time, the charges were dropped.
In fact, the Restoration government retained him in his command and, in August 1662, sent Myngs back to Jamaica, as commander of the HMS Centurion, to resume his activities as commander of the Jamaica Station – despite the fact that the war with Spain had ended. This was part of a covert English policy to undermine the Spanish dominion of the area, by destroying as much as possible of the infrastructure. In 1662 Myngs decided that the best way to accomplish this was to employ the full potential of the buccaneers by promising them the opportunity for unbridled plunder and rapine. He had the complete support of the new Governor, Lord Thomas Hickman Windsor, who fired a large contingent of soldiers to fill Myngs’s ranks with disgruntled men. In the October of 1662, the buccaneers’ first target, Santiago in Cuba, fell easily despite its strong defences and much loot was brought back.
Other legendary buccaneers of the time, such as Henry Morgan and Edward Mansvelt, admired Myngs’ personal abilities and success and in 1663 some, including Morgan, accompanied him on next big expedition, as did many other Dutch and French soldiers. In fact, there were some 1400 buccaneers gathered in Port Royal; these were what could be termed semi-lawful sailors and soldiers but to Spain, they were just ordinary pirates whilst to England buccaneers were a lot more than that. These buccaneers were to be aboard a powerful fleet of 14 ships which had been assembled for the next assault on the Spanish which would be the attack on the Bay of Campeche and San Francisco. At one point during these attacks, Myngs was severely wounded and compelled to leave Edward Mansvelt in charge of his fleet and pirate army.
As expected, these raids again outraged the Spanish, who denounced Myngs as a common pirate and a mass murderer with a reputation for unnecessary cruelty; they threatened war with England and this forced King Charles to send a new governor Thomas Modyford to Jamaica with orders to stop the raids. The outcome was that this was to be the last Caribbean raid for hot-blooded Captain Myngs; he returned to England in 1664, still ambitious, but yet to be fully recovered from the injuries he received during the attacks on Campeche and San Francisco. Despite all that had happened to Myngs, the Government still promoted him to Vice-Admiral of the White under the Lord High Admiral James Stuart, Duke of York and Albany. Myngs flew his flag during the Second Anglo-Dutch War at the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665, and for his share in that action he was knighted.
In the same year Myngs then served under Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich, as Vice-Admiral of the Blue then, after the disgrace of Montagu, he served under the next supreme fleet commander, George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle. Myngs was on detachment with Prince Rupert’s Green squadron, when on 11 June 1666 the great Four Days’ Battle began; however, he was able to return to the main fleet in time to take part on the final day of this battle. Unfortunately, when Myngs flotilla was surrounded by that of Vice-Admiral Johan de Liefde he was mortally wounded by musket balls fired by a sharpshooter when his ‘Victory’ was challenged by De Liefde’s flagship, the ‘Ridderschap van Holland’.
Myngs was shot through the throat. He refused to leave the deck, even to have the wound dressed, but remained standing, compressing it with his fingers till he fell, mortally wounded by another bullet which, passing through his neck, lodged in his shoulder (Brandt, Vie de Michel de Ruiter, pp. 359, 363; State Papers, Dom. Charles II, clviii. 48; Pepys, 8 June 1666). The wound was, it was hoped on the 7th, ‘without danger;’ but on the 10th Pepys recorded the news of the admiral’s death. As he was buried in London on the 13th, it would seem probable that he died at his own house in Goodman’s Fields, Whitechapel. Pepys, who was at the funeral, noted that no person of quality was there……… ‘The truth is,’ continued Pepys, ‘Sir Christopher Myngs was a very stout man, and a man of great parts, and most excellent tongue among ordinary men.’ Myngs it seems had brought his family into a way of being great; but dying at this time, his memory and name will be quite forgot in a few months……. nor any of his name be the better by it; he having not had time to Will any estate, but is dead poor rather than rich.’
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 26 October 1665
Up, and, leaving my guests to make themselves ready, I to the office, and thither comes Sir Jer. Smith and Sir Christopher Mings to see me, being just come from Portsmouth and going down to the Fleete. Here I sat and talked with them a good while and then parted, only Sir Christopher Mings and I together by water to the Tower; and I find him a very witty well-spoken fellow, and mighty free to tell his parentage, being a shoemaker’s son, to whom he is now going, and I to the ’Change, where I hear how the French have taken two and sunk one of our merchant-men in the Streights [sic], and carried the ships to Toulon; so that there is no expectation but we must fall out with them. The ’Change pretty full, and the town begins to be lively again, though the streets very empty, and most shops shut. So back again I and took boat and called for Sir Christopher Mings at St. Katharine’s, who was followed with some ordinary friends, of which, he says, he is proud, and so down to Greenwich, the wind furious high, and we with our sail up till I made it be taken down. I took him, it being 3 o’clock, to my lodgings [Mrs Clerke’s home] and did give him a good dinner and so parted, he being pretty close to me as to any business of the fleete, knowing me to be a servant of my Lord Sandwich’s.
Observations of Pepys’s Entry:
Why did he Myngs tell Pepys that he was ‘a shoemaker’s son’? To admit to a very low birth, in a class-conscious age, was most unusual, especially when he was a Knight by then. Did Pepys keep quiet about his own father being a tailor – which would have been of a higher social standing than a cobbler, referring instead to his father as living “on our estate in the country”. Here, perhaps Pepys was bragging about his closeness to Lord Sandwich, so Christopher Myngs throws in a line “Oh I am only the son of a shoemaker” as if teasing Pepys – the English have always been masters of the understatement! Much depends on how far Pepys wanted to appear. He was the son of a tailor, but also cousin to Lord Sandwich. Perhaps Pepys is a little too pompous a climber to indulge in irony, Myngs on the other hand is obviously more comfortable in in own skin and “with some ordinary friends, of which, he says, he is proud”!
The above account of Christopher Myngs’s life and career is very imperfect. The actual details of Myngs’s career are only to be found in the Calendars of State Papers, Domestic; and, more fully, in the State Papers themselves. There are also many notices of him in Pepys’s Diary, for it can be said that he was a friend of Myngs.
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