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Book Review, NRJ 66.3

August 24, 2021 10:12 AM | David Eddy (Administrator)

Admiral Lord St. Vincent: Saint or Tyrant? The Life of Sir John Jervis, Nelson’s Patron

James D.G. Davidson

John Jervis, Lord St. Vincent was one of Britain’s stellar admirals of the end of the age of fighting sail. Despite an outstanding record, he is largely neglected. Today he is best known for his influence on Horatio Nelson’s career.

Admiral Lord Saint Vincent—Saint or Tyrant? The Life of Sir John Jervis, by James D. G. Davidson is the first modern biography of John Jervis in nearly ninety years.

Davidson does a workmanlike job of tracing the arc of John Jervis’s rise from obscurity to prominence. Jervis’s father was a lawyer who wanted his son to follow him into the law. Instead John Jervis determined to become a sailor, and entered the Royal Navy as twelve-year-old able seaman. After four years he was rated a midshipman, and two years later, with the requisite sea time, became a lieutenant. While distantly related to Lord Anson, he appears to have risen on his own merit. Promotion then came steadily. He distinguished himself during the Seven Years War, participating in the capture of Quebec and ended that war as a post captain commanding the 44-gun two-decker Gosport. (It was not the frigate Davidson stated it was.) He commanded the 80-gun Foudroyant at the start of the Wars of American Independence, participated in the Battle of Ushant, and supported Whig Keppel over Tory Palliser in the political imbroglio following the battle, not because of politics, but because Keppel’s actions were correct from a naval standpoint.

He served in Parliament between the American and French Revolutionary Wars, rising to flag rank in February 1793. He commanded a West Indies expedition, and then the Mediterranean Fleet, winning the Battle of St. Vincent (gaining a peerage). Later he served as commander of the Channel Fleet and First Lord of the Admiralty.

Davidson does an outstanding job of showing the difficulties St. Vincent overcame during his tenure in these three roles. He also shows how St. Vincent served as mentor for Nelson and other British naval stars. Davidson also does an excellent job explaining St. Vincent’s reforms as First Lord.

Davidson breaks little new ground in this biography. Some primary sources were used, including the Naval Records Society’s The St. Vincent Papers and Brenton’s nineteenth century Life and Correspondence of St Vincent. Most of the bibliography appears taken from twentieth-century sources published before 1980. Davidson seems to have missed much new research unearthed over the last forty years. He draws his views on life in the sailing era Royal Navy from Masefield rather than N. A. M. Rodger.

This book is for those interested in naval history, especially the period from 1750 through 1820. Ship modelers and wargamers will find nothing of interest in it.

Readers will come away from Davidson’s book feeling Saint Vincent was neither a saint nor a tyrant. Instead he is revealed as an officer of extraordinary competence, dedication, and honesty, one whose services proved critical to British success over Napoleon. Despite limitations, Admiral Lord Saint Vincent—Saint or Tyrant? is a book worth reading.

  • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2020
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, vii + 230 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, appendix, bibliography, index. $39.95
  • ISBN: 9781844153862

Reviewed by Mark Lardas, League City, Texas


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