Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (18 & 19 July 2018)
Date of Auction: 18th & 19th July 2018
Sold for £15,000
Estimate: £5,000 - £7,000
Earl St. Vincent’s Testimony of Approbation 1800, silver-gilt, struck on a thick flan, contained in its original presentation gold case with glass lunettes, fitted with rings for suspension, the edge engraved in neat capitals (Given to the Revd. Cooper Willyams A.M. his Lordships Domestic Chaplain) extremely fine and exceptionally rare £5000-7000
FootnoteProvenance: Royal United Service Museum Collection (dispersed 1962-66), catalogue No. ‘715’ impressed near suspension ring; David Spink Collection, Spink Auction, December 1986; Dr A. B. King Collection, Morton & Eden, October 2003.
Commissioned privately by Earl St. Vincent, at his own expense, from C. H. Kuchler, and struck by Matthew Boulton at the Soho Mint, Birmingham, these medals were mostly presented to the officers and men of his flagship, the Ville de Paris. Named examples are extremely rare. The post-nominal ‘A.M.’ on Willyams’s medal derives from the Latin Artium Magister, or Master of Arts.
Cooper Willyams was born in June 1762, probably at Plaistow House in Essex. He was the only son of Commander John Willyams R. N. (1707-79). Cooper was educated at the King's School, Canterbury, where his contemporaries included the bibliophile and author Sir Samuel Brydges. He did well at the School and was later invited back to give the annual sermon before the King's School Feast Society (Canterbury School, Sidebotham p 24 refers). Willyams entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in October 1780. He graduated B.A. in 1784 and A.M in 1789. In the spring of 1784 he was in France with his friend Montagu Pennington, and later in the year he was ordained to a curacy near Gloucester, where his widowed mother lived. He was appointed in 1788 to the vicarage of Exning, near Newmarket, and in 1793 to the rectory of St. Peter, West Lynn, Norfolk. Willyams was a talented, entirely self-taught, artist, topographer and author. His illustrated account of Exning appeared in ‘The Topographer’ of September 1790 (iii. 192–4), and in 1792, when he was thirty, he published his first book, A History of Sudeley Castle, dedicated to Brydges, who aspired (vainly) to inherit the property. Poems by Brydges referring to Willyams are in ‘Censura Literaria’ (iv. 79–100, viii. 87, 91), and ‘Ruminator’ (i. 5, 209).
The West Indies Campaign
Influenced by his father, Willyams had developed a love of the sea, and on 24 November 1793 he sailed as Chaplain of H. M.S. Boyne (88 guns), the recently-built flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir John Jervis, who was commanding a naval expedition to the West Indies. In the spring of 1794, a series of effective amphibious operations mounted by Vice-Admiral Jervis and Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Grey conquered some of the richest islands in the French West Indies, including Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Lucia, despite a heavy death-toll from yellow fever. Cooper Willyams contracted yellow fever, survived it, and during the last part of the campaign was the only Chaplain left in the expedition. Guadeloupe surrendered on 22 April 1794, and Willyams was appointed Chaplain to the English troops occupying the island.
The British garrisons of the captured islands were weakened by continual outbreaks of disease and by slave revolts incited by French revolutionary agents, who declared all slaves to be free, while the French planters tried to stop the British government from emancipating or arming slaves. Many of the islands, including ones that had been British, were lost to the French, while Jervis and Grey, accused of corruption, resigned in disgust and returned to England in the Boyne. In 1796 Cooper Willyams published An Account of the Campaign in the West Indies in 1794, including his own illustrations.
Earl St. Vincent’s Domestic Chaplain
In 1797 Willyams was appointed Domestic Chaplain to Admiral Sir John Jervis, now Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, who had recently been created Earl St. Vincent. The domestic chaplain was effectively a spiritual Aide de Camp, an important status symbol that was part of the life of the peerage in England from the reign of Henry VIII to the middle of the 19th century (A Social History of the Domestic Chaplain W. Gibson (1997) pp 1-6 refers). Cooper Willyams had acquired an important and prominent patron. He would benefit from his connection with Earl St. Vincent for the rest of his life. Until 1840, Anglican domestic chaplains were regulated by law and enjoyed the substantial financial advantage of being able to purchase a license to hold two benefices simultaneously, while residing in neither. Willyams’s appointment to St Vincent’s personal staff was a significant and public mark of confidence from a man who was becoming one of the most influential and powerful officers in the Armed Forces of the Crown.
Admiral Sir John Jervis, Earl St. Vincent, rose in the Navy purely on merit and lived on his pay and prize money. He served with General Wolfe and Captain Cook in Canada during the Seven Years War and became known as a strict disciplinarian with a grim sense of humour, an important influence on the efficiency of the Navy, and a mentor of Nelson. His greatest victory was the destruction of the Spanish fleet at the battle of Cape St. Vincent on 14 February 1797. Jervis was recognised as a fine naval administrator and reformer. When he was First Lord of the Admiralty, he attempted to stamp out corruption in the Royal Dockyards and introduced innovations, including block-making machinery. He was famous both for his generosity to those he considered worthy of reward and for his punishment of those he felt had deserved it. “His importance lies in his being the organiser of victories; the creator of well-equipped, highly efficient fleets; and in training a school of officers as professional, energetic, and devoted to the service as himself.” Dictionary of National Biography refers.
From mid-1797 Jervis’s flagship was H.M.S. Ville de Paris (110 guns), which, when first commissioned in 1796, was the most powerful and most expensive warship ever built in a British shipyard. With twenty-one ships of the line, the Commander-in-Chief focused on maintaining a close blockade of the main Spanish fleet at Cadiz. Cooper Willyams, like most naval officers, found the tedium of the blockade hard to bear. The following year, with St. Vincent’s approval, he took up an opportunity to join the detached squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Eyewitness at the Battle of the Nile
On 24 May 1798, Willyams became Chaplain of the Swiftsure (74 guns), serving under the American-born Post Captain Benjamin Hallowell. Hallowell had excitedly slapped the stern, imposing Sir John Jervis on the back during the battle of Cape St. Vincent, exclaiming “That's right, Sir John, that's right! By God, we shall give them a damned good licking!” Jervis forgave the over-familiarity, and officially commended Captain Hallowell. Willyams was present during Nelson’s search for the French fleet that had sailed from Toulon, culminating in the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798.
Willyams wrote a detailed eyewitness account of the battle, as he was able to watch much of it from Hallowell’s quarterdeck. Swiftsure was one of the last ships in the British line of battle as it entered Aboukir bay. Fighting was already raging as Captain Hallowell made strenuous efforts to engage the French warships. Warned away from the Aboukir shoals by the grounded Culloden, Hallowell directed Swiftsure’s Master to by-pass the melee at the head of the French and British lines and aim directly at the French centre, where the largest, most powerful enemy ships were stationed.
Shortly after 20:00, a dismasted hulk drifted in front of Swiftsure. When hailed, she identified herself as "Bellerophon, going out of action disabled." Relieved that he had not accidentally attacked one of his own ships in the darkness, Captain Hallowell stopped Swiftsure when she was between two much bigger enemy ships, L’Orient (120 guns) and Franklin (80 guns). He opened fire on them both. At 21:00, flames were observed on a lower deck of L’Orient. Captain Hallowell ordered his gun crews to aim directly at the blaze. Sustained bombardment spread the fire and neutralised all efforts to extinguish it. Soon the flames ascended the rigging and set the vast sails alight. The nearest British ships, Swiftsure, Alexander and Orion, all stopped firing, closed their gun-ports and began edging away from the blazing ship, anticipating that it would blow up once the fire reached a gunpowder magazine. Men were taken from the British gun crews to form firefighting parties and soak the sails and decks with sea-water.
At 22:00 L’Orient, still, as Willyams noted, “within half pistol shot” (about 15-20 metres) of Swiftsure, was almost completely destroyed by two massive explosions. The blast was heard ten miles away in Rosetta. The concussion opened the seams of the nearest ships and flaming wreckage landed in a huge circle, much of it flying directly over the surrounding ships into the sea beyond. Swiftsure, Alexander and Franklin were all set alight by falling wreckage, although in each case their crews succeeded in extinguishing the flames. At 22:10, Franklin resumed firing on Swiftsure. Isolated and battered, it was soon dismasted and forced to strike by the combined firepower of Swiftsure and Defence. More than half of Franklin's crew had been killed or wounded. By midnight only Tonnant (80 guns) remained engaged, firing on Majestic and on Swiftsure when the British ship moved within range. By 03:00, after more than three hours of close quarter combat, Tonnant was a dismasted hulk which drifted away to the south.
During the Battle of the Nile Swiftsure suffered 29 casualties and was significantly damaged. She played a leading role in the destruction of L’Orient and the capture of Franklin. Willyams’s narrative A Voyage up the Mediterranean in the Swiftsure, illustrated by engravings from his own drawings, was praised as “the first, the most particular, and the most Authentic account of the battle”. Willyams, a skilful and clever artist, drew prolifically: A Selection of Views in Egypt, Palestine, Rhodes, Italy, Minorca, and Gibraltar, with descriptions in English and French was published posthumously in 1822. His reports and drawings of the expeditions in which he took part are ‘intelligent and useful,’ showing great attention to detail and accuracy.
Return to England
In June 1799 Earl St. Vincent reluctantly resigned his command in the Mediterranean, due to ill-health. H.M.S. Ville de Paris was ordered to return to England for a refit at Plymouth in October 1799. On 26 April 1800, a somewhat recovered Earl St. Vincent was appointed to command the Channel Fleet, and he once again selected Ville de Paris as his flagship. He privately commissioned medals to be presented to officers and ordinary sailors who had won his approbation.
Willyams returned to England from the Mediterranean about a year later than his patron. He landed at Portsmouth on 10 September 1800, just after his 38th birthday. He stayed with his old school-fellow Brydges before returning to Gloucestershire. In Cheltenham, on 20 July 1801, he married Elizabeth Rebecca Snell. They had four children. Earl St. Vincent, who soon came ashore to take on the prestigious post of First Lord of the Admiralty, had not forgotten him. St. Vincent ordered one of his Medals of Approbation to be gilded, cased and named as a rare presentation piece.
In 1806 Willyams’s friend Brydges appointed him to the rectory of Kingston, near Canterbury, in Kent. In the same year he was nominated by the Lord Chancellor, through the influence of Earl St. Vincent, to the neighbouring rectory of Lower Hardress, which he at once exchanged for that of Stourmouth. These two benefices together produced an income of over £1,000 a year, enabling him to resign the Exning appointment.
Cooper Willyams died, aged 54, at Bernard Street, Russell Square, London, on 17 July 1816.