William Cornwallis

For the early English essayist, see William Cornwallis (died 1614).
Admiral The Honourable
Sir William Cornwallis

Admiral William Cornwallis after a Portrait by Daniel Gardner, Published in the Naval Chronicle
Member of Parliament
for Eye
In office
In office
In office
In office
Member of Parliament
for Portsmouth
In office
Personal details
Born 10 February 1744
Died 5 July 1819(1819-07-05) (aged 75)
Relations Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, Viscount Charles Townshend
Awards GCB
Military service
Nickname(s) Blue Billy[1] Coachee, Billy go tight and Mr Whip
Allegiance  United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Ireland
Service/branch  Royal Navy
Years of service 17551806
Rank Admiral

HMS Wasp
HMS Swift
HMS Prince Edward
HMS Guadeloupe
HMS Lion
HMS Canada
HMS Ganges
HM Yacht Charlotte
HMS Robust
HMS Crown
Commander-in-Chief East Indies

Commander-in-Chief Channel Fleet

Admiral Sir William Cornwallis, GCB (10 February 1744 – 5 July 1819) was a Royal Navy officer. He was the brother of Charles Cornwallis, the 1st Marquess Cornwallis, British commander at the siege of Yorktown. Cornwallis took part in a number of decisive battles including the Siege of Louisbourg in 1758 and the Battle of the Saintes but is best known as a friend of Lord Nelson and as the commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet during the Napoleonic Wars. He is depicted in the Horatio Hornblower novel, Hornblower and the Hotspur.

Early life

William Cornwallis was born 10 February 1744. His father was Charles the fifth baron and first earl Cornwallis and his mother was Elizabeth, daughter of Viscount Charles Townshend. William was the younger brother of General Charles Cornwallis.

Seven Years' War

The young William entered the navy in 1755 aboard the 80-gun HMS Newark bound for North America in the fleet of Admiral Edward Boscawen. Cornwallis was shortly after exchanged into HMS Kingston and was present in her at the Siege of Louisbourg in 1758. The siege itself was one of the pivotal battles of the war. Louisbourg, was the only deep water harbour that the French controlled in North America and with its capture it enabled the British to launch an attack on Quebec City. General James Wolfe's attack on Quebec City at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham saw the beginning of the end of French colonisation in North America.

When the Kingston returned to England in 1759, Cornwallis was taken aboard the 60-gun Dunkirk by Captain Robert Digby. During the planned French invasion of Britain in 1759 the Dunkirk was with Admiral Edward Hawke's squadron and took part in the Battle of Quiberon Bay against the French fleet under Admiral Conflans. The victory was part of what became known as Annus Mirabilis of 1759 and in concert with the other victories of that year gave the Royal Navy almost complete dominance over the oceans for over a century. The succession of victories led Horace Walpole to remark "our bells are worn threadbare ringing for victories".[2]

Cornwallis remained in the Dunkirk when she was assigned to the Mediterranean fleet then commanded by Admiral Charles Saunders. Dunkirk was detached on blockade duty, ensuring the French fleet remained in the city of Heraklion, Crete. Cornwallis moved to Saunders' flagship HMS Neptune where he remained for little over a year. On 5 April 1761 Cornwallis passed his examination for lieutenant and was promoted into the newly commissioned third-rate HMS Thunderer. In July 1761 Cornwallis was with Thunderer and two other line-of-battle ships blockading Cadiz. Two French ships escaped the blockade and the British squadron set off in pursuit. Thunderer caught up with the 64-gun Achille and captured her in a single-ship action that lasted about half an hour. The British lost seventeen killed and one hundred and thirteen wounded.

In July 1762 Cornwallis received his first command in the 8-gun sloop-of-war HMS Wasp. In 1763 he was given command of the more powerful and newly launched 14-gun HMS Swift. He continued in her into the peace with France after the Treaty of Paris had ended the war in 1763. During the peace in 1765 he was promoted post-captain and given command of the 44-gun HMS Prince Edward. He commanded her until she was paid off and the ship was sold in 1766. In September of the same year he was given command of HMS Guadeloupe and was variously employed throughout the peace between the Seven Years' War and the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War.

American Revolutionary War

When the French lent their official support to the American cause in 1778 with the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the war between Britain and the United States became a global war. Captain Cornwallis was in command the newly commissioned HMS Lion. The Lion was sent, with Admiral John Byron, to the West Indies.

Battle of Grenada

Main article: Battle of Grenada
Battle of Grenada 1881Jean-François Hue

When war was officially declared, the Comte d'Estaing, the French naval commander in North America swiftly captured the islands of Saint Vincent and Grenada. Byron on hearing the news that Saint Vincent had been captured assembled his forces but on his way to recapture the island he received intelligence that d'Estaing and his fleet were in the process of capturing Grenada. Byron consequently took his fleet to Grenada in the hopes of engaging them and preventing the capture of Grenada. The island however had only held out for two days and was already in French hands.

The Battle of Grenada took place on 6 July 1779 d'Estaing saw the British fleet of 21 ships of the line approaching and weighed anchor. Byron gave chase and attempted to form line of battle as per the Sailing and Fighting Instructions set down by Admiral Blake in 1653. d'Estaing, realising that his force although superior in guns was not so in numbers, had ordered his captains not to engage directly but to bear away when British ships approached and to bear down on any individual ship that might through wind or poor seamanship become separated from the line.

This tactic proved successful and d'Estaing's ships managed to escape the superior force causing considerable damage to three of the British ships. Cornwallis' Lion was one of those ships and when he became separated from the British fleet she was forced to break away and make a run for Jamaica rather than risk capture.[3] Lion suffered a reported 21 killed and 30 wounded.[3]

Duty in the West Indies

During his time in the West Indies, Cornwallis came to own, then later free the "doctoress" Cubah Cornwallis. Cubah became Cornwallis' mistress and housekeeper in Port Royal, Jamaica. Later she treated Cornwallis' friend, Captain Horatio Nelson on his return from the disastrous mission to Nicaragua. She also treated Prince William Henry, later William IV when he was stationed in the West Indies.[4]

Lion remained on the Jamaica station under the orders of Admiral Peter Parker and when she was repaired began a series of cruises in the West Indies. On 20 April 1780 Cornwallis was in command of a small squadron of two line-of-battle ships, the Lion and HMS Bristol and one large 44-gun frigate, HMS Janus.

Off Saint-Domingue the small British squadron discovered a convoy under the protection of 4 ships-of-the-line and one frigate commanded by Monsieur de la Motte Picquet. The French chased and the British ran. The French outsailed the British ships and when in range opened fire. The chase continued throughout the night and into the morning of the 21st. The breeze died and the two squadrons began to repair their damage. When the wind blew once more the chase renewed and continued throughout the night of the 21st and into the 22nd.

On the morning of the 22nd three sails appeared to leeward. The arrival of these new sails would determine the outcome of the battle. The newcomers proved to be the 64-gun HMS Ruby, the 32-gun HMS Niger and the 28-gun HMS Pomona. The French squadron bore away for Cap-Français, leaving the two small British squadrons to repair and make for Jamaica. The British squadron under Cornwallis had lost 12 killed including Captain Glover of the Janus.

Cornwallis returned to England in the Lion in June 1781 and was appointed to command the 74-gun third-rate HMS Canada. He immediately returned to the West Indies under the orders of Admiral Samuel Hood, 1st Viscount Hood.

Canada was with Hood's fleet at the Battle of St. Kitts in 1782. Hood took his 21 ships of the line and lured the French fleet of 29 ships of the line under the Comte de Grasse from its anchorage at Basseterre on St. Kitts and then sailed into the roadstead and anchored. Hood then repulsed de Grasse's efforts to dislodge the British fleet. The Battle of Brimstone Hill sealed the fate of the island despite Hood's efforts and St. Kitts fell into French hands. With the island in enemy hands and the French fleet cruising off the harbour, Hood was forced to withdraw and made his way to Antigua. The Canada in Commodore Edmund Affleck's division suffered 1 killed and 12 wounded.[5] On 22 March Hood joined Admiral George Rodney's fleet in Barbados

Battle of the Saintes

Main article: Battle of the Saintes
The Battle of the Saintes, 12 April 1782: surrender of the Ville de Paris by Thomas Whitcombe, painted 1783, shows Hood's HMS Barfleur, centre, attacking the French flagship Ville de Paris, right

Between 9 April 1782 and 12 April 1782, Canada made up part of the fleet of Admiral Rodney at the Battle of the Saintes. During the battle, Cornwallis and Canada were fourth in line on the starboard tack in the centre division between HMS Repulse and HMS St Albans. Canada sustained 35 casualties in total with 12 killed and the rest wounded.[6] The outcome of the battle meant that the French and Spanish abandoned their planned invasion of Britain's most valuable Caribbean island, Jamaica. The battle, although a victory for the English caused a great deal of controversy in later years that included Cornwallis' direct criticism in writing of Rodney. The final couplet of the poem said to have been written in Cornwallis' own hand reads:

Had a chief worthy Britain commanded our fleet,
Twenty-five good French ships had been laid at our feet.[7]

It appears that the criticisms of Admiral Hood and Cornwallis went unheard and Rodney was created a baron and given a life pension of £2,000 per year. Cornwallis was sent home under Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves with the convoy that included the captured French flagship Ville de Paris. A violent storm hit the convoy and the Ville de Paris sank along with several of the convoy and one of the escorts, HMS Centaur.[8] The convoy and her escorts finally arrived at Portsmouth and the Canada was paid off in October 1782.

Home service and peace

In January 1783 Cornwallis was given command of HMS Ganges and in March of the same year was moved to HM Yacht Charlotte. The American Revolutionary war between Britain and the allied forces of America and France ended with Britain's defeat in September 1783 and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Paris. With the peace came the downsizing of the navy. Cornwallis however remained employed in command of the Royal Yacht until 1787. In 1787 he was briefly given command of HMS Robust before hoisting his broad pennant as commodore in the 64-gun HMS Crown in October 1788 when he was appointed commander-in-chief of the East Indies Station.

Third Anglo-Mysore War

In November 1791 Cornwallis ordered that French shipping be intercepted and searched for contraband. The British and French were not at war but the French were openly aiding the Tipu Sultan in his war against the British. Cornwallis detached Captain Richard Strachan in HMS Phoenix to intercept the French frigate Résolue and two French merchant ships that were heading for the French held port of Mangalore. The subsequent Battle of Tellicherry[9] [10] saw Phoenix capture and search all of the vessels. The local French commander was outraged and sent word back to France, but the French authorities were too busy with internal upheaval to pay the incident much notice.

French Revolutionary Wars

Though the conflict with Tipu Sultan was over, the French Revolutionary Wars had only begun. Promoted to rear-admiral on 1 February 1793, Cornwallis remained in the area and aided in the capture of Pondicherry, captaining his new flagship, the frigate HMS Minerva, and commanding a small flotilla of three East Indiamen[11]Triton, Princess Charlotte, and Calcutta (1795). He left command of Pondicherry to Captain King and returned to England, docking at Spithead in August 1793.[12] He was succeeded in command of the East Indies Station by Commodore (later Admiral) Peter Rainier.

In May 1794 he hoisted his flag aboard the 74-gun HMS Excellent and was promoted vice-admiral of the blue squadron. In August he shifted his flag to the newer and larger 80-gun HMS Caesar and then once more in December to the first rate Royal Sovereign. Throughout this period he was in command of various divisions within the Channel Fleet. The Channel Fleet was responsible for preventing invasion from France and for the blockade of French Channel ports.

First Battle of Groix

Main article: First Battle of Groix

On 16 June 1795 he was in command of a small squadron that sighted a much larger French fleet. The ensuing action became famously known as "The Retreat of Cornwallis."

Cornwallis was cruising near Brest with five ships of the line, the HMS Royal Sovereign, HMS Mars, HMS Triumph, HMS Brunswick, HMS Bellerophon, two frigates and one cutter, HMS Phaeton, HMS Pallas, HMS Kingfisher when a French fleet of twelve sail of the line and fourteen large frigates appeared, commanded by Admiral Villaret Joyeuse. The odds being very greatly against him, he was compelled to order a retreat. But two of his ships were slow and unweatherly and fell behind the rest. The van of the French fleet began to catch the two slower British ships. The rearmost ship, the Mars, was caught and suffered severely in her rigging and was in danger of being surrounded by the French. Witnessing this, Cornwallis turned his squadron around to support her. The French admiral made the assumption that Cornwallis must have sighted assistance beyond his own field of vision and had turned to engage the enemy knowing that a superior force was nearby to come to their relief. The French admiral ordered his ships to disengage and Cornwallis and his small squadron retreated in order. The action is remarkable evidence of the moral superiority which the victory of the Glorious First of June, and the known efficiency of the British crews, had given to the Royal Navy. The reputation of Cornwallis was amplified and the praise given him was no doubt the greater because he was personally very popular with officers and men.

Court martial

In 1796 Cornwallis incurred a court-martial (in consequence of a misunderstanding and apparently some temper on both sides) on the charge of refusing to obey an order from the Admiralty. He was practically acquitted. The substance of the case was that he demurred on the ground of health at being called upon to go to the West Indies, in a small frigate, and without "comfort".

Command of the Channel Fleet

John Bull peeping into Brest, The caption above the French fleet reads: "Mercy on us what a Monster he'll swallow all my ships at a mouthful. I hope he don't see me."

Cornwallis was promoted admiral of the blue squadron in 1799 and held the Channel Command for a short interval when Admiral Jervis (Earl St. Vincent) fell ill in 1801. Cornwallis took command once more when Jervis stood down as commander and became first lord of the Admiralty between 1801 and 1804. During this time Cornwallis was in charge of protecting the coast of the United Kingdom as Napoleon was building a large invasion force. Following Lord Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, Cornwallis was removed from his post and Earl St. Vincent took his place.

Honours and politics

In 1796, Cornwallis was promoted to Rear-Admiral of Great Britain, the title becoming Rear-Admiral of the United Kingdom after the Act of Union came into force in 1801,[13] and then in 1814 he was promoted to Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom

His greatest honours might be considered to be his various nicknames among the sailors, "Billy go tight" (given on account of his rubicund complexion), as well as "Billy Blue", "Coachee", and "Mr Whip". Sailors appear to have only given nicknames to those commanders whom they liked. The various nicknames of Cornwallis seem to show that he was regarded with more of affection than reverence. Cornwallis was also made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1815.

Cornwallis served as Member of Parliament (MP) for Eye during the periods, 1768–1774, 1782–1784, 1790–1800 and, 18011807. He also served as MP for Portsmouth from 1782 to 1790.

Later life

Cornwallis never married. In 1800 he leased and later purchased the Newlands estate in Milford on Sea in Hampshire.[14] He was joined by his close friend and fellow naval officer Captain John Whitby and his wife Mary Anna Theresa Whitby.[14] John Whitby died in 1806, but Mary and her infant daughter Theresa stayed on looking after Cornwallis into his old age.[14] On Sir William Cornwallis' death in 1819, Mary Whitby and her daughter inherited his fortune.[14]


  1. The Naval Chronicle Vol. 16, p.114
  2. Anderson, Fred (2001). Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 17541766. Faber and Faber. p. 298.
  3. 1 2 The London Gazette: no. 12018. p. 1. 1779-28-09. Retrieved 19 August 2010.
  4. Hill, Richard (1855). A week at Port Royal. Cornwall Chronicle Office. pp. 2–6. Retrieved 4 October 2010.
  5. The London Gazette: no. 12277. pp. 2–3. 3 September 1782. Retrieved 8 August 2010.
  6. The London Gazette: no. 12396. pp. 3–4. 12 October 1782. Retrieved 8 April 2010.
  7. Leyland, John (1899). Dispatches and letters relating to the blockade of Brest, 18031805. Printed for the Navy Records Society. p. xx.
  8. Lavery, Brian (2003). The Ship of the Line - Volume 1: The development of the battlefleet 16501850. Conway Maritime Press. p. 178. ISBN 0-85177-252-8.
  9. Brenton, Edward Pelham (1823). The Naval History of Great Britain, Vol. I. London: Henry Colburn. pp. 208–210.
  10. James, William (2002) [1827]. The Naval History of Great Britain, Volume 1, 17931796. London: Conway Maritime Press. pp. 118–119. ISBN 0-85177-905-0.
  11. James, p. 172
  12. Brenton, p. 210
  13. The London Gazette: no. 13875. p. 258. 1796-15-03. Retrieved 10 August 2010.
  14. 1 2 3 4 Historical faces from Milford on Sea

Schom, A. (1990). Trafalgar: Countdown to battle 18031805. New York: Atheneum.


Military offices
Preceded by
Charles Hughes
Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station
Succeeded by
Peter Rainier
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
The Viscount Allen
Richard Burton
Member of Parliament for Eye
With: The Viscount Allen 1768–1770
Richard Burton Phillipson 1770–1774
Succeeded by
Richard Burton Phillipson
John St John
Preceded by
Richard Burton Phillipson
Arnoldus Jones-Skelton
Member of Parliament for Eye
With: Richard Burton Phillipson
Succeeded by
Richard Burton Phillipson
Peter Bathurst
Preceded by
Sir Henry Fetherstonhaugh
Hon. Thomas Erskine
Member of Parliament for Portsmouth
With: Sir Henry Fetherstonhaugh
Succeeded by
Sir Henry Fetherstonhaugh
Hon. Thomas Erskine
Preceded by
Richard Burton Phillipson
Peter Bathurst
Member of Parliament for Eye
With: Richard Burton Phillipson 1790–1792
Peter Bathurst 1792–1795
Viscount Brome 1795–1796
Mark Singleton 1796–1799
James Cornwallis 1799–1800
Succeeded by
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Parliament of Great Britain
Member of Parliament for Eye
With: James Cornwallis 1801–1806
Marquess of Huntly 1806–1807
Succeeded by
Marquess of Huntly
James Cornwallis
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The Lord Bridport
Rear-Admiral of Great Britain/the United Kingdom
Succeeded by
Sir William Young
Preceded by
The Viscount Bridport
Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom
Succeeded by
Sir William Young
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