A rip-roaring account of the dramatic four-year siege of Britain’s Mediterranean garrison by Spain and France—an overlooked key to the British loss in the American Revolution

For more than three and a half years, from 1779 to 1783, the tiny territory of Gibraltar was besieged and blockaded, on land and at sea, by the overwhelming forces of Spain and France. It became the longest siege in British history, and the obsession with saving Gibraltar was blamed for the loss of the American colonies in the War of Independence.

Located between the Mediterranean and Atlantic, on the very edge of Europe, Gibraltar was a place of varied nationalities, languages, religions, and social classes. During the siege, thousands of soldiers, civilians, and their families withstood terrifying bombardments, starvation, and disease. Very ordinary people lived through extraordinary events, from shipwrecks and naval battles to an attempted invasion of England and a daring sortie out of Gibraltar into Spain. Deadly innovations included red-hot shot, shrapnel shells, and a barrage from immense floating batteries.

This is military and social history at its best, a story of soldiers, sailors, and civilians, with royalty and rank and file, workmen and engineers, priests, prisoners of war, spies, and surgeons, all caught up in a struggle for a fortress located on little more than two square miles of awe-inspiring rock. Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History is an epic page-turner, rich in dramatic human detaila tale of courage, endurance, intrigue, desperation, greed, and humanity. The everyday experiences of all those involved are brought vividly to life with eyewitness accounts and expert research.
Chapter One

Beginnings

We on salt pork and beef are fed,
A stone supports each wearied head,
A horn of water is our drink,
Pleasures forgot, on War we think.
We cry ‘Alls well’, count shell and shot,
Who’d envy our happy lot?
Come here and learn the Ways of War.

Written by a soldier in Gibraltar during the Great Siege

Spain desperately wanted Gibraltar. This strange rocky peninsula fortress, protruding from the southern shore of Andalusia and dominating the landscape, had proved a constant source of irritation ever since its capture by the British in 1704. The Spanish king and his government insisted on regarding Gibraltar as a plundered possession that had to be reclaimed, but the inhabitants of Andalusia were more relaxed, content to enjoy plentiful tradeand friendly relations with their neighbours. So there was nothing unusual about the morning of Saturday 19 June 1779, when the British governor of Gibraltar, Lieutenant-General George Augustus Eliott, rode across the border into Spain at the head of a splendid procession of officers and aides-de-camp. Their destination was the hilltop town of San Roque, 5 miles away, where they intended to congratulate Joaquin de Mendoza, the Spanish governor,on his recent promotion to lieutenant-general.

Reciprocal social events between the people of Spain and Gibraltar were frequent, and the normal courtesies were dutifully observed, as had happened only two weeks earlier when the British and Spaniards celebrated the birthday of King George III at a gala ball – though with hindsight it was perhaps odd that Mendoza’s wife attended the event when he himself was absent. Life was exceptionally pleasant for those posted to the military garrison of Gibraltar, and several officers had sent their families to spend the summer at San Roque and in the small Andalusian villages around the picturesque Bay of Gibraltar. They themselves could indulge in fishing or perhaps go on hunting trips further inland, and according to John Drinkwater, an ensign in the 72nd Regiment,

the strictest intimacy subsisted between the military, and the Spaniards resident in the adjacent villages. Parties were reciprocally visiting each other, and the officers constantly making excursions into the country. These excursions, with others tothe coast of Barbary [Morocco], (which in the season superaboundswith various species of game) were pleasing relaxations from the duties of the garrison, and rendered Gibraltar as eligible a station as any to which a soldier could be ordered.

Private letters often mentioned local wine being shipped to England, and only a few weeks earlier, on 12 April, Eliott hadwritten to his brother-in-law Sir Francis Drake (a descendant ofthe famous Elizabethan seafarer) that a shipment of wine was onits way to him at Nutwell Court near Exeter in Devon. No payment was required, Eliott said, only Devon cider in return, and he urged Sir Francis to join him at Gibraltar: ‘I am sure it would delight you; travelling in Spain is full as commodious as in Wales. I don’t despair of seeing you when the war [with France] is over. The French I should think have nearly enough.’ Eliott’s assessment was wrong, because on the very day he wrote this letter, France and Spain signed a treaty that would change the lives of everyone on Gibraltar.

When Eliott and his officers reached San Roque, instead oftheir normal welcome, Governor Mendoza was noticeably embarrassed, and their visit was awkward and brief. Something was obviously wrong. Later on that day, back in Gibraltar, the reason for his manner became startlingly clear when Charles Logie, the British consul at Tangier, sailed across the Straits to bring Eliott the news that war between Britain and Spain looked highly likely. Such a war had long been the subject of speculation, and just forty-eight hours later Mendoza wrote officially to Eliott that he had received orders from Madrid to cut off all contact with Gibraltar by land and sea. Every British subject living at San Roque, he said, should return immediately to Gibraltar, even some young girls sick with smallpox, while British residents further afield were instructed to travel to Portugal.

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Ross and Captain John Vignoles, both of the 39th Regiment, were on leave in Spain and found themselves unable to return. From Malaga, they rode to San Roque, but on being refused entry were forced to make a long journey to the port of Faro in Portugal. They only reached Gibraltar a month later, after rowing back in disguise in an open boat. Others failed in their escape attempts and were taken prisoner. Britain and Spain were now at war, and with cool diplomatic courtesy, Gibraltar was cut off from the world. The Great Siege had begun.

Already one of the most bitterly contested territories on earth, this was Gibraltar’s fourteenth siege. Siege warfare was the processof capturing a fortified place, such as a castle, city or fortress, usually by setting up a blockade to stop supplies getting in, which meant deploying a sizeable army. Especially in the ancient world and during medieval times, before the invention of gunpowder, sieges were commonplace and could drag on for years. The aim was to wear down the defenders so that starvation, thirst and disease would force them to surrender. The besiegers would also attack the defensive walls to weaken and breach them, perhaps using battering rams or weapons such as catapults that fired huge stones. One such siege took place at Harlech Castle.

Following his conquest of Wales in 1283, the English King Edward I built the castle right on the coast (though it is landlocked now). From 1460, during the Wars of the Roses, it was held by the Lancastrians against the Yorkists and became a base for operations. Edward IV chose not to attack Harlech as it was too costly, but finally decided to capture the castle when Jasper Tudor, the Earl of Pembroke, landed near Harlech in June 1468 and led raids into Wales. A large army was mobilised, and after a siege lasting a few weeks, the garrison surrendered. Claims are made that Harlech was the longest siege in British history, but the siege itself lasted only a very short time. The longest siege was the Great Siege of Gibraltar, lasting 1323 days, from 21 June 1779 to 2 February 1783 and far exceeding the duration of other notable sieges such as Leningrad and Malta in World War Two.

Although known as the Great Siege, this fourteenth siege of Gibraltar is arguably the greatest ever siege, with its extraordinary events, innovations and massive artillery bombardments exchanged between the British and Spaniards. When it started in 1779, Spain was unable to spare large numbers of troops to capture Gibraltar, and in any case previous sieges had shown the futility of relying on infantry and cavalry attacks. Instead, the plan was to prevent all provisions reaching Gibraltar. It was relatively straightforward to stop communication by land, and Spanish warships would try to prevent vessels sailing to and from the Rock. While the garrison was being starved into submission, France and Spain also planned to invade Britain in order to force everyone to the negotiating table.

The strategic importance of Gibraltar was well known from Classical times, when it was regarded as one of the Pillars of Hercules, an awe-inspiring sight that warned sailors they hadreached the edge of civilisation. Beyond was the perilous ‘Ocean’, thought to be a vast river that encircled the earth. Gibraltar (‘Calpe’) was one of the pillars that the god Hercules had set up,and the other one was Ceuta (‘Abyla’), a similar-shaped rock on the opposite African coast. Originating with the ancient Greeks, the myth of the pillars was subsequently adopted by the Romans.

It explained how Hercules had cut a channel – the Straits – to separate Africa and Europe, though another version said that he actually pulled the two continents together to prevent Atlantic sea monsters from bursting into the Mediterranean. With the limitations of their sailing vessels, only the most intrepid sailors would have ventured westwards into the Ocean. The rest would have been deterred by fears of the unknown and the real dangers of difficult tides, currents and winds at the meeting point of the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

In the fifth century AD, Roman Spain fell to Visigothic invaders. Three centuries later the daughter of Count Julian, the governor of Ceuta, was raped by the Visigothic King Roderick, provoking Julian to persuade the Moors – the Muslim inhabitants of Morocco and Algeria – to invade Spain. At least, that is how legend explained why, in 711, an invasion and conquest of Spain by Muslim Arabs began when Tarik ibn Ziyad sailed with his army from Tangier, some 30 miles west of Ceuta. He landed near (or possibly on) Gibraltar, a name that derives from the Arabic Djabal Tarik – Tarik’s Mountain.

The subsequent Christian ‘Reconquest’ (Reconquista) to recover the lost lands across the Iberian peninsula lasted nearly eight centuries, and during this struggle Ferdinand IV of Castile took control of Gibraltar in 1309 after its very first siege. It was a brief Christian interlude, because during a fourth siege twenty-four years later, the fortress reverted to Muslim control. On the other side of the Straits, Ceuta was captured from the Moors in 1415 by Portugal, which was that country’s first overseas conquest. Gibraltar itself did not again surrender to Christian control until the eighth siege, on 20 August 1462 – the feast day of St Bernard of Clairvaux, who became Gibraltar’s patron saint. This ended seven centuries of Muslim rule, and although further sieges followed, they were between warring Christian factions.

Ferdinand II of Aragon and his cousin Isabella of Castile were married in 1469, and their joint rule as the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ led to the unification of Spain as a single nation. Granada was the last Muslim kingdom to surrender, in January 1492, marking the end of the Reconquest, and Ferdinand and Isabella then gave their blessing for Christopher Columbus to embark on his voyage of exploration across the Atlantic – well beyond the Pillars of Hercules. That same year also saw religious persecution escalate across Spain, with the expulsion of thousands of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity, followed shortly afterwards by Muslims being given the same choice of conversion or expulsion.

By now, the Duke of Medina Sidonia held Gibraltar, but he complied with an order from Isabella to surrender it to the Spanish Crown, and in July 1502 a new coat-of-arms was granted to Gibraltar that included a castle linked by a chain to a key. The accompanying Royal Warrant explained that Gibraltar ‘is very strong and, by virtue of its position, is the key to those kingdoms between the eastern and western seas, and the guardian and defender of the Straits between these same seas, such that no ships or people passing from one sea to the other can fail to see it or call in’. Isabella died two years later, and her last will and testament decreed: ‘I charge the Princess [her daughter Joanna] and the Prince, her husband [Philip of Burgundy], and the Kings who shall succeed me in these Realms, ever to hold as inalienably of the Crown and Royal Patrimony, the City of Gibraltar and all that belongs to it; never to give it away, or alienate it or suffer it to begiven away or alienated, nor anything that belongs to it.’ Contrary to her will, Gibraltar was lost two centuries later, but before then Spain gained Ceuta when, in 1580, Philip II of Spain also became Portugal’s king. Ceuta has remained in Spanish hands ever since,even after Portugal became independent.

With an improvement in sailing ships, the seventeenth century saw power shift from the central Mediterranean to countries on Europe’s western seaboard, notably Britain, Spain, Portugal and Holland. In the middle of the century, England decided to keep a permanent naval squadron in the Mediterranean, though Oliver Cromwell thought a few frigates would be sufficient if Gibraltar was taken. Without a suitable invasion force, nothing came of this plan, but after the restoration of the monarchy Charles II obtained Tangier in 1662 as part of the dowry of his wife, Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the king of Portugal. Avast amount was spent on a mole to create a sheltered harbour, but Tangier was deemed too costly to maintain, especially after being constantly attacked and besieged by the Moors under their ruler Muley Ismail. Samuel Pepys was brought from London to advise on Tangier’s destruction, which was then reduced to rubble and abandoned. The Moors partly rebuilt Tangier, and from 1694 thousands of Muley Ismail’s troops turned their attention to taking Spanish-held Ceuta.

When Carlos II of Spain died childless in November 1700, Philip, Duke of Anjou, succeeded to the throne as Philip V of Spain. Because he was the grandson of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, it was feared that France would dominate worldwide trade, and so the War of Spanish Succession was triggered, with Britain, Austria and the Netherlands supporting the rival Habsburgclaimant – the Archduke Charles of Austria. On the Continent, the Duke of Marlborough commanded Anglo-Dutch forces against the French, with notable victories at Blenheim and Ramillies, while Admiral Sir George Rooke was in charge of an Anglo-Dutchfleet. A naval base was urgently needed between the French and Spanish Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, and so in 1703 Rooke was ordered to seize the Spanish port of Cadiz. He failed in the attempt, but shortly afterwards Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty with England, and the allied fleet was able to make use of Lisbon instead.

The following year, Rooke attempted to take Barcelona, but the attack was soon called off. At a council of war on board his flagship,it was decided – almost as an afterthought – to attack Gibraltar. Manned by a weak Spanish garrison, the Rock was captured withrelative ease in the name of Archduke Charles on 24 July 1704 (according to the calendar still used in England; it was 4 August elsewhere in Europe). Just three months later, the Spaniards tried to regain Gibraltar in what was its twelfth siege, but gave up in April 1705. The War of Spanish Succession dragged on with enormous costs to both sides, but peace negotiations finally began in1712, and the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in March 1713.

Part of the settlement confirmed Philip V as king of Spain, so the intended purpose of the war had failed, though Great Britain (Scotland and England having formally established a union in1709) did gain Gibraltar, which was granted in perpetuity, along with the Mediterranean island of Minorca that had been captured from Spain in 1708. The treaty did not deter Spain from mounting yet another siege of Gibraltar in 1727, the thirteenth, but theattempt was abandoned four months later. The Spaniards fared better at Ceuta, because on the death of Muley Ismail in the same year, the siege that had lasted intermittently for so long was finally lifted.

At the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756, rumours were heard that Minorca was under threat, and so in early April Vice-Admiral John Byng’s squadron was ordered to sail there from Portsmouth. On reaching Gibraltar four weeks later, Byng learned that it was too late – the French had already landed thousands of troops without opposition and were besieging the formidable Fort St Philip at Port Mahon, into which the weak British garrison had retreated. He headed for Minorca and engaged with the French fleet, but after suffering damage and casualties he decided to retreat in order to safeguard Gibraltar. Fort St Philip surrendered two months later – news that was met with hysterical consternationin Britain.

In a court-martial at Portsmouth, Byng was found guilty of failing to do his utmost to take or destroy the French ships. He was shot by firing squad on 14 March 1757 and is best remembered through Voltaire’s 1759 novel Candide in which the hero witnesses Byng’s execution and is told that ‘in this country it is good to killan admiral from time to time in order to encourage the others’ (‘pour encourager les autres’). In France, jubilation at the victory was expressed in songs and plays, as well as in the creation of a new culinary treat named after Port Mahon – Mahonaisesauce, now spelled mayonnaise.

The celebration was shortlived, because at the end of the war, under the Treaty of Paris, France lost a great deal of territory, including Minorca, which was returned to Britain.

Just over a decade later, America became the focus of attention when the struggle for freedom from Britain broke out at Lexington in 1775. In an attempt to gain revenge for their losses in the Seven Years’ War, Louis XVI ’s France soon sided with the rebel American colonies and agreed to supply ships, men and weapons, but once the French intervened a new wave of patriotism spread through Britain. Many militia regiments were formed as a home guard, since there was a genuine fear of Britain being invaded, while new regiments were enthusiastically recruitedby private subscription, including the 72nd Regiment of Footat Manchester. It was originally intended for America, but was actually diverted to Gibraltar, with recruiting posters boasting that this was ‘the best garrison in His Majesty’s Dominion’. The recruits included fifteen-year-old John Drinkwater from Latchford in Cheshire, a former pupil of Manchester Grammar School, who became an ensign. His father, also known as John Drinkwater, was a surgeon and man-midwife who practised in Salford and was one of the committee responsible for raising this regiment. All the recruits were young, and Joseph Budworth, another former pupil, wrote of his company: ‘I never saw so fine a body of men, or more undaunted soldiers . . . I was the oldest man but one . . . at twenty- one.’

Although hostilities had already started, France only officially declared war on Britain in July 1778, but they needed Spanish naval ships to achieve overwhelming superiority. The Spaniards under Carlos III, who had become king in 1759, were initially reluctant to help the American colonists gain independence. Because Carlos III wished to regain Minorca and Gibraltar, for which an invasion of Britain was part of the strategy, they were finally persuaded by the French to unite against Britain, their common enemy. The French promised to fulfil their wishes and pledged not to sign any peace treaty with Britain or enter into a truce until everything was achieved. In April 1779 France and Spain signed a treaty at the royal palace of Aranjuez that set out the aims of both sides, and in June, after various delays, Spain declared war on Britain, marking the start of the siege of Gibraltar. Drinkwater kept a detailed journal of events throughout the conflict, and he summarised the situation with the words ‘the Fortressof Gibraltar was now become a little world of itself’.

Although the Great Siege has no other name, it was in reality part of the American War of Independence. The actions and ambitions of France and Spain had caused that war to spill across the Atlantic into Europe, and the war zone would extend from Britain to Gibraltar, Spain and Minorca. Britain found herself virtually alone, at war with most countries in western Europe as well as America, with the Great Siege forming one of the most neglected events within the American War of Independence. No major study of the Great Siege has been published since 1965, when (coincidentally) two books were published, by Jack Russell and T.H. McGuffie. If France and Spain had not become entangled in this conflict, Britain would have had thousands more troops and many more warships to deploy in America, and so the outcome of the War of Independence might have been very different. As it is, the Great Siege became one of the most amazing military events in history.
Roy and Lesley Adkins are husband-and-wife historians and archaeologists and the bestselling authors of Gibraltar, Jane Austen’s EnglandNelson’s TrafalgarJack Tar, and The Keys of Egypt, among other books. They live in Devon, England. View titles by Roy Adkins
Roy and Lesley Adkins are husband-and-wife historians and archaeologists and the bestselling authors of Gibraltar, Jane Austen’s EnglandNelson’s TrafalgarJack Tar, and The Keys of Egypt, among other books. They live in Devon, England. View titles by Lesley Adkins

About

A rip-roaring account of the dramatic four-year siege of Britain’s Mediterranean garrison by Spain and France—an overlooked key to the British loss in the American Revolution

For more than three and a half years, from 1779 to 1783, the tiny territory of Gibraltar was besieged and blockaded, on land and at sea, by the overwhelming forces of Spain and France. It became the longest siege in British history, and the obsession with saving Gibraltar was blamed for the loss of the American colonies in the War of Independence.

Located between the Mediterranean and Atlantic, on the very edge of Europe, Gibraltar was a place of varied nationalities, languages, religions, and social classes. During the siege, thousands of soldiers, civilians, and their families withstood terrifying bombardments, starvation, and disease. Very ordinary people lived through extraordinary events, from shipwrecks and naval battles to an attempted invasion of England and a daring sortie out of Gibraltar into Spain. Deadly innovations included red-hot shot, shrapnel shells, and a barrage from immense floating batteries.

This is military and social history at its best, a story of soldiers, sailors, and civilians, with royalty and rank and file, workmen and engineers, priests, prisoners of war, spies, and surgeons, all caught up in a struggle for a fortress located on little more than two square miles of awe-inspiring rock. Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History is an epic page-turner, rich in dramatic human detaila tale of courage, endurance, intrigue, desperation, greed, and humanity. The everyday experiences of all those involved are brought vividly to life with eyewitness accounts and expert research.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Beginnings

We on salt pork and beef are fed,
A stone supports each wearied head,
A horn of water is our drink,
Pleasures forgot, on War we think.
We cry ‘Alls well’, count shell and shot,
Who’d envy our happy lot?
Come here and learn the Ways of War.

Written by a soldier in Gibraltar during the Great Siege

Spain desperately wanted Gibraltar. This strange rocky peninsula fortress, protruding from the southern shore of Andalusia and dominating the landscape, had proved a constant source of irritation ever since its capture by the British in 1704. The Spanish king and his government insisted on regarding Gibraltar as a plundered possession that had to be reclaimed, but the inhabitants of Andalusia were more relaxed, content to enjoy plentiful tradeand friendly relations with their neighbours. So there was nothing unusual about the morning of Saturday 19 June 1779, when the British governor of Gibraltar, Lieutenant-General George Augustus Eliott, rode across the border into Spain at the head of a splendid procession of officers and aides-de-camp. Their destination was the hilltop town of San Roque, 5 miles away, where they intended to congratulate Joaquin de Mendoza, the Spanish governor,on his recent promotion to lieutenant-general.

Reciprocal social events between the people of Spain and Gibraltar were frequent, and the normal courtesies were dutifully observed, as had happened only two weeks earlier when the British and Spaniards celebrated the birthday of King George III at a gala ball – though with hindsight it was perhaps odd that Mendoza’s wife attended the event when he himself was absent. Life was exceptionally pleasant for those posted to the military garrison of Gibraltar, and several officers had sent their families to spend the summer at San Roque and in the small Andalusian villages around the picturesque Bay of Gibraltar. They themselves could indulge in fishing or perhaps go on hunting trips further inland, and according to John Drinkwater, an ensign in the 72nd Regiment,

the strictest intimacy subsisted between the military, and the Spaniards resident in the adjacent villages. Parties were reciprocally visiting each other, and the officers constantly making excursions into the country. These excursions, with others tothe coast of Barbary [Morocco], (which in the season superaboundswith various species of game) were pleasing relaxations from the duties of the garrison, and rendered Gibraltar as eligible a station as any to which a soldier could be ordered.

Private letters often mentioned local wine being shipped to England, and only a few weeks earlier, on 12 April, Eliott hadwritten to his brother-in-law Sir Francis Drake (a descendant ofthe famous Elizabethan seafarer) that a shipment of wine was onits way to him at Nutwell Court near Exeter in Devon. No payment was required, Eliott said, only Devon cider in return, and he urged Sir Francis to join him at Gibraltar: ‘I am sure it would delight you; travelling in Spain is full as commodious as in Wales. I don’t despair of seeing you when the war [with France] is over. The French I should think have nearly enough.’ Eliott’s assessment was wrong, because on the very day he wrote this letter, France and Spain signed a treaty that would change the lives of everyone on Gibraltar.

When Eliott and his officers reached San Roque, instead oftheir normal welcome, Governor Mendoza was noticeably embarrassed, and their visit was awkward and brief. Something was obviously wrong. Later on that day, back in Gibraltar, the reason for his manner became startlingly clear when Charles Logie, the British consul at Tangier, sailed across the Straits to bring Eliott the news that war between Britain and Spain looked highly likely. Such a war had long been the subject of speculation, and just forty-eight hours later Mendoza wrote officially to Eliott that he had received orders from Madrid to cut off all contact with Gibraltar by land and sea. Every British subject living at San Roque, he said, should return immediately to Gibraltar, even some young girls sick with smallpox, while British residents further afield were instructed to travel to Portugal.

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Ross and Captain John Vignoles, both of the 39th Regiment, were on leave in Spain and found themselves unable to return. From Malaga, they rode to San Roque, but on being refused entry were forced to make a long journey to the port of Faro in Portugal. They only reached Gibraltar a month later, after rowing back in disguise in an open boat. Others failed in their escape attempts and were taken prisoner. Britain and Spain were now at war, and with cool diplomatic courtesy, Gibraltar was cut off from the world. The Great Siege had begun.

Already one of the most bitterly contested territories on earth, this was Gibraltar’s fourteenth siege. Siege warfare was the processof capturing a fortified place, such as a castle, city or fortress, usually by setting up a blockade to stop supplies getting in, which meant deploying a sizeable army. Especially in the ancient world and during medieval times, before the invention of gunpowder, sieges were commonplace and could drag on for years. The aim was to wear down the defenders so that starvation, thirst and disease would force them to surrender. The besiegers would also attack the defensive walls to weaken and breach them, perhaps using battering rams or weapons such as catapults that fired huge stones. One such siege took place at Harlech Castle.

Following his conquest of Wales in 1283, the English King Edward I built the castle right on the coast (though it is landlocked now). From 1460, during the Wars of the Roses, it was held by the Lancastrians against the Yorkists and became a base for operations. Edward IV chose not to attack Harlech as it was too costly, but finally decided to capture the castle when Jasper Tudor, the Earl of Pembroke, landed near Harlech in June 1468 and led raids into Wales. A large army was mobilised, and after a siege lasting a few weeks, the garrison surrendered. Claims are made that Harlech was the longest siege in British history, but the siege itself lasted only a very short time. The longest siege was the Great Siege of Gibraltar, lasting 1323 days, from 21 June 1779 to 2 February 1783 and far exceeding the duration of other notable sieges such as Leningrad and Malta in World War Two.

Although known as the Great Siege, this fourteenth siege of Gibraltar is arguably the greatest ever siege, with its extraordinary events, innovations and massive artillery bombardments exchanged between the British and Spaniards. When it started in 1779, Spain was unable to spare large numbers of troops to capture Gibraltar, and in any case previous sieges had shown the futility of relying on infantry and cavalry attacks. Instead, the plan was to prevent all provisions reaching Gibraltar. It was relatively straightforward to stop communication by land, and Spanish warships would try to prevent vessels sailing to and from the Rock. While the garrison was being starved into submission, France and Spain also planned to invade Britain in order to force everyone to the negotiating table.

The strategic importance of Gibraltar was well known from Classical times, when it was regarded as one of the Pillars of Hercules, an awe-inspiring sight that warned sailors they hadreached the edge of civilisation. Beyond was the perilous ‘Ocean’, thought to be a vast river that encircled the earth. Gibraltar (‘Calpe’) was one of the pillars that the god Hercules had set up,and the other one was Ceuta (‘Abyla’), a similar-shaped rock on the opposite African coast. Originating with the ancient Greeks, the myth of the pillars was subsequently adopted by the Romans.

It explained how Hercules had cut a channel – the Straits – to separate Africa and Europe, though another version said that he actually pulled the two continents together to prevent Atlantic sea monsters from bursting into the Mediterranean. With the limitations of their sailing vessels, only the most intrepid sailors would have ventured westwards into the Ocean. The rest would have been deterred by fears of the unknown and the real dangers of difficult tides, currents and winds at the meeting point of the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

In the fifth century AD, Roman Spain fell to Visigothic invaders. Three centuries later the daughter of Count Julian, the governor of Ceuta, was raped by the Visigothic King Roderick, provoking Julian to persuade the Moors – the Muslim inhabitants of Morocco and Algeria – to invade Spain. At least, that is how legend explained why, in 711, an invasion and conquest of Spain by Muslim Arabs began when Tarik ibn Ziyad sailed with his army from Tangier, some 30 miles west of Ceuta. He landed near (or possibly on) Gibraltar, a name that derives from the Arabic Djabal Tarik – Tarik’s Mountain.

The subsequent Christian ‘Reconquest’ (Reconquista) to recover the lost lands across the Iberian peninsula lasted nearly eight centuries, and during this struggle Ferdinand IV of Castile took control of Gibraltar in 1309 after its very first siege. It was a brief Christian interlude, because during a fourth siege twenty-four years later, the fortress reverted to Muslim control. On the other side of the Straits, Ceuta was captured from the Moors in 1415 by Portugal, which was that country’s first overseas conquest. Gibraltar itself did not again surrender to Christian control until the eighth siege, on 20 August 1462 – the feast day of St Bernard of Clairvaux, who became Gibraltar’s patron saint. This ended seven centuries of Muslim rule, and although further sieges followed, they were between warring Christian factions.

Ferdinand II of Aragon and his cousin Isabella of Castile were married in 1469, and their joint rule as the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ led to the unification of Spain as a single nation. Granada was the last Muslim kingdom to surrender, in January 1492, marking the end of the Reconquest, and Ferdinand and Isabella then gave their blessing for Christopher Columbus to embark on his voyage of exploration across the Atlantic – well beyond the Pillars of Hercules. That same year also saw religious persecution escalate across Spain, with the expulsion of thousands of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity, followed shortly afterwards by Muslims being given the same choice of conversion or expulsion.

By now, the Duke of Medina Sidonia held Gibraltar, but he complied with an order from Isabella to surrender it to the Spanish Crown, and in July 1502 a new coat-of-arms was granted to Gibraltar that included a castle linked by a chain to a key. The accompanying Royal Warrant explained that Gibraltar ‘is very strong and, by virtue of its position, is the key to those kingdoms between the eastern and western seas, and the guardian and defender of the Straits between these same seas, such that no ships or people passing from one sea to the other can fail to see it or call in’. Isabella died two years later, and her last will and testament decreed: ‘I charge the Princess [her daughter Joanna] and the Prince, her husband [Philip of Burgundy], and the Kings who shall succeed me in these Realms, ever to hold as inalienably of the Crown and Royal Patrimony, the City of Gibraltar and all that belongs to it; never to give it away, or alienate it or suffer it to begiven away or alienated, nor anything that belongs to it.’ Contrary to her will, Gibraltar was lost two centuries later, but before then Spain gained Ceuta when, in 1580, Philip II of Spain also became Portugal’s king. Ceuta has remained in Spanish hands ever since,even after Portugal became independent.

With an improvement in sailing ships, the seventeenth century saw power shift from the central Mediterranean to countries on Europe’s western seaboard, notably Britain, Spain, Portugal and Holland. In the middle of the century, England decided to keep a permanent naval squadron in the Mediterranean, though Oliver Cromwell thought a few frigates would be sufficient if Gibraltar was taken. Without a suitable invasion force, nothing came of this plan, but after the restoration of the monarchy Charles II obtained Tangier in 1662 as part of the dowry of his wife, Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the king of Portugal. Avast amount was spent on a mole to create a sheltered harbour, but Tangier was deemed too costly to maintain, especially after being constantly attacked and besieged by the Moors under their ruler Muley Ismail. Samuel Pepys was brought from London to advise on Tangier’s destruction, which was then reduced to rubble and abandoned. The Moors partly rebuilt Tangier, and from 1694 thousands of Muley Ismail’s troops turned their attention to taking Spanish-held Ceuta.

When Carlos II of Spain died childless in November 1700, Philip, Duke of Anjou, succeeded to the throne as Philip V of Spain. Because he was the grandson of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, it was feared that France would dominate worldwide trade, and so the War of Spanish Succession was triggered, with Britain, Austria and the Netherlands supporting the rival Habsburgclaimant – the Archduke Charles of Austria. On the Continent, the Duke of Marlborough commanded Anglo-Dutch forces against the French, with notable victories at Blenheim and Ramillies, while Admiral Sir George Rooke was in charge of an Anglo-Dutchfleet. A naval base was urgently needed between the French and Spanish Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, and so in 1703 Rooke was ordered to seize the Spanish port of Cadiz. He failed in the attempt, but shortly afterwards Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty with England, and the allied fleet was able to make use of Lisbon instead.

The following year, Rooke attempted to take Barcelona, but the attack was soon called off. At a council of war on board his flagship,it was decided – almost as an afterthought – to attack Gibraltar. Manned by a weak Spanish garrison, the Rock was captured withrelative ease in the name of Archduke Charles on 24 July 1704 (according to the calendar still used in England; it was 4 August elsewhere in Europe). Just three months later, the Spaniards tried to regain Gibraltar in what was its twelfth siege, but gave up in April 1705. The War of Spanish Succession dragged on with enormous costs to both sides, but peace negotiations finally began in1712, and the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in March 1713.

Part of the settlement confirmed Philip V as king of Spain, so the intended purpose of the war had failed, though Great Britain (Scotland and England having formally established a union in1709) did gain Gibraltar, which was granted in perpetuity, along with the Mediterranean island of Minorca that had been captured from Spain in 1708. The treaty did not deter Spain from mounting yet another siege of Gibraltar in 1727, the thirteenth, but theattempt was abandoned four months later. The Spaniards fared better at Ceuta, because on the death of Muley Ismail in the same year, the siege that had lasted intermittently for so long was finally lifted.

At the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756, rumours were heard that Minorca was under threat, and so in early April Vice-Admiral John Byng’s squadron was ordered to sail there from Portsmouth. On reaching Gibraltar four weeks later, Byng learned that it was too late – the French had already landed thousands of troops without opposition and were besieging the formidable Fort St Philip at Port Mahon, into which the weak British garrison had retreated. He headed for Minorca and engaged with the French fleet, but after suffering damage and casualties he decided to retreat in order to safeguard Gibraltar. Fort St Philip surrendered two months later – news that was met with hysterical consternationin Britain.

In a court-martial at Portsmouth, Byng was found guilty of failing to do his utmost to take or destroy the French ships. He was shot by firing squad on 14 March 1757 and is best remembered through Voltaire’s 1759 novel Candide in which the hero witnesses Byng’s execution and is told that ‘in this country it is good to killan admiral from time to time in order to encourage the others’ (‘pour encourager les autres’). In France, jubilation at the victory was expressed in songs and plays, as well as in the creation of a new culinary treat named after Port Mahon – Mahonaisesauce, now spelled mayonnaise.

The celebration was shortlived, because at the end of the war, under the Treaty of Paris, France lost a great deal of territory, including Minorca, which was returned to Britain.

Just over a decade later, America became the focus of attention when the struggle for freedom from Britain broke out at Lexington in 1775. In an attempt to gain revenge for their losses in the Seven Years’ War, Louis XVI ’s France soon sided with the rebel American colonies and agreed to supply ships, men and weapons, but once the French intervened a new wave of patriotism spread through Britain. Many militia regiments were formed as a home guard, since there was a genuine fear of Britain being invaded, while new regiments were enthusiastically recruitedby private subscription, including the 72nd Regiment of Footat Manchester. It was originally intended for America, but was actually diverted to Gibraltar, with recruiting posters boasting that this was ‘the best garrison in His Majesty’s Dominion’. The recruits included fifteen-year-old John Drinkwater from Latchford in Cheshire, a former pupil of Manchester Grammar School, who became an ensign. His father, also known as John Drinkwater, was a surgeon and man-midwife who practised in Salford and was one of the committee responsible for raising this regiment. All the recruits were young, and Joseph Budworth, another former pupil, wrote of his company: ‘I never saw so fine a body of men, or more undaunted soldiers . . . I was the oldest man but one . . . at twenty- one.’

Although hostilities had already started, France only officially declared war on Britain in July 1778, but they needed Spanish naval ships to achieve overwhelming superiority. The Spaniards under Carlos III, who had become king in 1759, were initially reluctant to help the American colonists gain independence. Because Carlos III wished to regain Minorca and Gibraltar, for which an invasion of Britain was part of the strategy, they were finally persuaded by the French to unite against Britain, their common enemy. The French promised to fulfil their wishes and pledged not to sign any peace treaty with Britain or enter into a truce until everything was achieved. In April 1779 France and Spain signed a treaty at the royal palace of Aranjuez that set out the aims of both sides, and in June, after various delays, Spain declared war on Britain, marking the start of the siege of Gibraltar. Drinkwater kept a detailed journal of events throughout the conflict, and he summarised the situation with the words ‘the Fortressof Gibraltar was now become a little world of itself’.

Although the Great Siege has no other name, it was in reality part of the American War of Independence. The actions and ambitions of France and Spain had caused that war to spill across the Atlantic into Europe, and the war zone would extend from Britain to Gibraltar, Spain and Minorca. Britain found herself virtually alone, at war with most countries in western Europe as well as America, with the Great Siege forming one of the most neglected events within the American War of Independence. No major study of the Great Siege has been published since 1965, when (coincidentally) two books were published, by Jack Russell and T.H. McGuffie. If France and Spain had not become entangled in this conflict, Britain would have had thousands more troops and many more warships to deploy in America, and so the outcome of the War of Independence might have been very different. As it is, the Great Siege became one of the most amazing military events in history.

Author

Roy and Lesley Adkins are husband-and-wife historians and archaeologists and the bestselling authors of Gibraltar, Jane Austen’s EnglandNelson’s TrafalgarJack Tar, and The Keys of Egypt, among other books. They live in Devon, England. View titles by Roy Adkins
Roy and Lesley Adkins are husband-and-wife historians and archaeologists and the bestselling authors of Gibraltar, Jane Austen’s EnglandNelson’s TrafalgarJack Tar, and The Keys of Egypt, among other books. They live in Devon, England. View titles by Lesley Adkins

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