28 July 1993
EARL ST. VINCENT'S TESTIMONY OF APPROBATION 1800, gold, contained in its original glazed case, the gold rim fitted with rings for suspension, the edge inscribed (Given to the Revd. Cooper Willyams A.M. his Lordships Domestic Chaplain) extremely fine and rare
Ex. R.U.S.I. Collection
Cooper Willyams (1762-1816), topographer and artist, was the only son of Commander John Willyams R.N. He was educated at the King's School, Canterbury, where he was contemporary with Charles Abbott, first Lord Tenterden, Bishop Marsh, and Sir S.E. Bridges. Willyams was entered in October 1780 at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and graduated B.A. in 1784 and M.A. in 1789. In the spring of 1784 he was in France with his friend Montague Pennington, and in that year he was ordained to a curacy near Gloucester, where his 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. In early life Willyams had imbibed a love of the sea and it therefore seemed natural that he should serve aboard the ships of His Majesty's Royal Navy. For intelligent, well-educated men who were incarcerated for long periods in their 'wooden cities', the ability to write journals, or memoranda for works to be published when seafaring was ended, was an appropriate natural endowment. Among the best known chaplains possessing this talent was Cooper Willyams, whose first ship was the Brunswick in 1793. While in the flagship Boyne soon afterwards he prepared his Account of the Campaign in the West Indies in the year 1794, which is a vivid and detailed description of the combined operations against the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir John Jervis and Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Grey. Willyams had a very observant eye, and his reporting of events is a first-class record of the expedition. He landed with his shipmates and risked all the hazards, including yellow-fever, which claimed the life of 'Chaplain Ruxton' of the 56th Regiment. Willyams generally did not refer to his own participation, but he was clearly an eye-witness of a great deal of the action which he described: ’On Feb. 7th the Admiral sent Lieutenant Miln of the Boyne, accompanied by Lieutenant James of the fifteenth regiment and the Chaplain of the Boyne, with a letter for the municipality or Governor of Maran.Williams was greatly interested in topography, and this probably contributed to his skill as an artist. The Account has some fine illustrations by his own hand, and his experience as he sought to land at Maran in Martinique led to an illustration of the incident, the caption to which, as given in the Appendix of the book, reads:The Boyne's boat bearing a flag of truce, fired on by the enemy, and a shot falling into the water near itThus we owe to the pencil of Willyams a rare example of an illustration showing a naval chaplain landing under fire. Just over a month later he described how he conducted the funeral of Lieutenant Miln in the garden of the hospital of St. Pierre. Miln had died of lockjaw after losing a leg. The chaplain was with him several times up to the moment of death, but there are few descriptions of his spiritual ministrations, and none are recorded concerning two soldiers found guilty of plundering, who were 'hanged in view of the whole army'. The book was published in 1796, the year in which Willyams returned to England and his country living. The 'candid and favourable reception' which this book received led him to write another a few years later-A Voyage up the Mediterranean in His Majesty ~r Ship the Sw:ftsure with a Descr~tion of the Battle of the Nile, which was published in 1802, and which is an even more important contribution to naval history. In the Introduction he stated he was 'placed in the midst of a battle as splendid and extraordinary as the page of history has ever recorded', and was an attendant of the chase which preceded it'. In this second work he well maintained the standards of authorship which he had previously set himself. After leaving the Boyne, Willyams was appointed to the London on 13 April 1798. He had become domestic chaplain to Earl St. Vincent, no doubt through his good service in the Boyne, and the admiral was on that date Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet in the Ville de Paris blockading Cadiz. The London had been involved in the mutiny at Spithead in 1797, and Willyams' predecessor, Samuel Cole, who had been put ashore with Admiral Sir John Colpoys and his flag-captain by the mutineers, had been unpopular with the lower-deck. In view of this unhappy history, it was thought desirable that the London should be sent to serve under the disciplinarian St. Vincent, who may have been responsible for Willyam's appointment to the ship in order that the chaplain's status on board should be recovered. If so, this would accord with St. Vincent's endeavours to respect the personal interests, comfort and health of the seamen under his command off Cadiz, which included the forwarding of letters with the least possible delay, the establishment for the first time of a regular sick berth, and proper apartments in each ship for the reception of the sick. Willyams, however, was only in the London for a few weeks, for he is known to have joined the Swiftsure on 24 May, although his presence there is not recorded in the 1757-1825 list of chaplains' appointments. This was the day when the pick of St. Vincent's two-deckers (Culloden, Bellerophon, Defence, Theseus, Goliath, Zealous, Minotaur, Swiftsure and Majestic) were detached under Troubridge from St. Vincent's Cadiz fleet, and proceeded to reinforce Nelson on the cruise which led to the Battle of the Nile. So Willyams was once again favoured with an appointment which would give abundant scope to his talents as a reporter of deeds of war, and sent to serve under Nelson. Willyams' Voyage up the Mediterranean was described as 'the first, the most particular, the most authentic account of the battle'. It is well-written, clinical in style, and abounds in detail, as the following extracts show:’ The Swftsure... was anchored within half-pistol-shot of the larboard bow of l'Orient... The expected explosion of such a ship as lOrient was to be dreaded as involving all around in certain destruction. At thirty seven minutes past nine the fatal explosion happened. The fire communicated to the magazine, and lOrient blew up with a crashing sound that deafened all around her. The tremulous motion, felt to the very bottom of each ship, was like that of an earthquake; the fragments were driven such a vast height into the air that some moments elapsed before they could descend, and then the greatest apprehension was formed from the volumes of burning matter which threatened to fall on the decks and rigging of the surrounding ships... An awful silence reigned for several minutes, as if the contending squadrons, struck with horror at the dreadful event, which in an instant had hurled so many brave men into the air, had forgotten their hostile rage in pity for the sufferers. But short was the pause of death; vengeance soon roused the drooping spirits of the enemy’. When he had described the battle and the orders Nelson gave for thanksgiving to be offered in the British ships, Willyams was moved to offer his own personal view of the French attitude to religion following the Revolution: ’Christianity, that mild system of true and disinterested philanthropy, was however entirely laid aside, or made a butt for impious witlings to scoff at. Death was declared to be nothing more than eternal sleep. This doctrine, subversive of all social order, and destroying all the well regulated systems of long established principles, was the favourite topic of every Frenchman, and to disseminate it was his prime object'. Willyams remained in the Swiftsure after the battle. Clearly he was a desirable social companion so far as the senior officers of the fleet were concerned: ’On Easter Sunday I attended Lord Nelson, Sir William and Lady Hamilton, the Consul-General's Lady, and Captains Troubridge, Hood and Hallowell, to the Capuchins' monastery, about a mile from the south gate of the city... On the 26th of March Captain Hallowell gave a ball and supper to Sir William and Lady Hamilton. Several of the nobility of Palermo, Lord Nelson, and some of the principal officers of the fleet were also of the party. The quarter-deck was decorated with the flags of different nations, as was also the poop; the former was the ballroom, on the latter the supper was served up, and the cabins were appropriated to cards. The novelty of the scene, which had a very brilliant effect, surprised and equally pleased the noble visitors, who did not depart until the morning, highly gratified with their entertainment’. Cooper Willyams landed at Portsmouth from the Swiftsure on 10 September 1800, and it was the end of his naval career. When his Voyage up the Mediterranean was published in 1802 its reviewer in the Naval Chronicle wrote: ’In the event of a future war, we hope his example will not want imitators, and that the Chaplains of the Navy will become historiographers of the squadrons to which they may belong’. During the years that Willyams served as a naval chaplain he held the livings of Exning, Suffolk, and St. Peter, West Lynn, Norfolk. He resigned Exning in 1806 to become Rector of Kingston, near Canterbury, and then of Lower Hardres (which he exchanged at once for Stourmouth.) He died in London on 17 July 1816, and is believed to have been buried at Fulham, which is also the burial-place of Bishop Henry Compton, the supervisor of naval chaplains a century before Willyams' time. Ref. D.N.B.; The Sea Chaplains, Gordon Taylor, 1978.