“For the King and His Crown Rights!”
Of all the valiant captains who served in His Majesty’s Navy in the 18th century, none is so resiliently popular as Sir Edward Winthrop, who was in his day the most feared and respected man on the high seas. Edward Winthrop’s famous declaration — “For the King and His crown rights!” — fired the hearts of his brave sailors who served under his command.
In one famous sea battle, three pirate ships took Winthrop by surprise on a return voyage to England. But Winthrop’s badly provisioned ship maneuvered cleverly to run one pirate crew aground on a coral reef, sunk another with one cannon volley, and quickly out ran the third. Several days later, they found the three crews hiding in a nearby cove together on one ship. With great indignation, the captain bellowed out his famous words — “For the King and His crown rights!” A fiery deluge of smoke and lead descended on the pirate ship, demolishing one of the last pirate crews in the Caribbean. Winthrop’s “take no prisoners” philosophy was what made him feared by all the enemies of the King of England.
The ship which Edward Winthrop commanded, the H.M.S. Ecclesia, had an even longer and more illustrious history. By the time of its decommissioning in 1830, the Ecclesia had fought in over 100 battles and had been restored or rebuilt many times. Her name first appeared on a rustic galleon 250 years earlier. Only the U.S.S. Constitution (or “Old Ironsides”) even closely rivals the Ecclesia’s fame and longevity.
Yet most Americans today are vaguely aware, at best, of this great monument to the expansion of British civilization. The Ecclesia first appeared in the battle of the Spanish Armada in 1588. At that time, the Ecclesia was an old unmaneuverable ship used for powder storage and supplied other ships in battle. Smaller ships, called “sea dogs” under the command of Sir Francis Drake, ran circles around the larger Spanish galleons in the English channel. With superior seamanship, English and Irish sailors quickly sank the majority of the Spanish fleet, clearing the paths of the high seas for the King’s dominion of the New World.
A smaller, fitter Ecclesia was commissioned in the early 1600s to protect convoys of settlers off the shores of Virginia, New England and later Georgia. Decked with tight rows of cannons, the ship fended off any threat to the colonial settlers. She fought many battles in the Caribbean, defending British settlements, and sinking many Spanish ships. Not only was she used in battle, settlement and commerce, but the Ecclesia returned to English port often bow laden with Spanish gold, winning several of her captains great honor among the monarchs of England. In all, three captains of the Ecclesia were knighted: Sir Calvin Edwards, Sir Luther Robinson and, of course, Sir Edward Winthrop.
Of interesting note to historians, Edward Winthrop was named by his parents in honor the first captain of the Ecclesia, Sir Calvin Edwards. Edward Winthrop’s father, Francis, also served as a crewman on the Ecclesia. Oddly, Francis Winthrop was both a distant relative of Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop and Sir Francis Drake. Sir Edward Winthrop’s mother was a distant relative of John Knox, the Scottish Presbyterian reformer. Thus this illustrious family rose in fame with the exploits of the H.M.S. Ecclesia.
During the reign of England’s Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, Francis Winthrop sailed with a Puritan crew under the command of Captain Cotton Blackstone. The fame of the Ecclesia began at this time, when she helped to run pirate ships out of the Mediterranean Sea.
In the 1730s, under the command of Captain Isaac Howells, the Ecclesia ferried Christian missionaries to Georgia during the administration of Governor Oglethorpe. It is rumored that George Whitefield took a brief trip on the Ecclesia which ended abruptly off the coast of England when a mast cracked in the high winds. This record conflicts with the sea log of another ship, however, and it is impossible to tell from Whitefield’s writings whether he sailed on the Ecclesia since he had long before abandoned his practice of keeping his journal.
Under Sir Edward Winthrop’s command, the Ecclesia rose to the zenith of her fame. Winthrop had a reputation among his men as being stern in discipline, but fair in its dispensation. On a south sea voyage, one crewman threatened mutiny, an offense for which, according to maritime law, he could have been keel-hauled or set adrift on the high seas. Instead, Winthrop cast him in irons until he could receive a “fairer trial in the Christian courts of Britain’s capital.” During the trial, the court found conflicting testimony and set the man free. When some of Winthrop’s crew protested the ruling, Sir Edward supported the court’s decision, saying, “When common law proceedings are made a mockery, though it be only in the case of one man, the entire nation may soon suffer shipwreck.”
Winthrop hated the slave trade to the Americas most of all, which he called “the execrable sum of all villainies.” After slavery was outlawed in England, some British subjects still took part in the illegal West Indian slave trade. On one occasion, Winthrop apprehended a British crew aboard a slave ship off the coast of the Canary Islands. He interrupted his journey to Cape Verde in order to cast the British subjects in irons. His wrath was never more severe, as he commanded his men to give the slavers five lashes across the back each day of their voyage back to England. Quoting scripture, Winthrop sentenced them: “For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”
When Winthrop died in 1828, pirates had long since become a rarity. But occasionally, a crew would prey on lone ships carrying rum and molasses. Ecclesia’s last captain, Darby Scofield, suffered an attack by one of these rare pirate crews in the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately for Scofield, the ship was long overdue for repairs. Had the Ecclesia been more seaworthy, Captain Scofield may have stood his ground and fought. But he believed that the ship was at the end of its service and he doubted the loyalty of his men under attack. Furthermore, their cache of powder was not sufficient for a drawn out battle.
After suffering only one canon volley, the Ecclesia began to take on water. Scofield commanded his crew — “It’s no use boys to polish the brass on a sinking ship. Abandon!”
Ecclesia’s crew sought haven on island within view. The pirate crew, though fewer in number, boarded the ship and managed to repair the cannon holes by running her aground at low tide. When high tide surged in, the pirates had commandeered the Ecclesia. Indeed a sad chapter in the annals of British sea lore!
A convoy carrying some men who had been under Sir Winthrop’s command appeared within a few days. Miraculously, the crew of the Ecclesia were rescued and the convoy set out in search of the pirates. Less than one week later, the pirate crew raised a white flag at the first sight of the British fleet and three high flying Union Jacks.
The scene stood in stark contrast to Sir Edward Winthrop’s famous battle cry forty years earlier. The episode was an embarrassment to the crown, for the Ecclesia had never before lost a battle. A few months later, the British parliament voted unanimously to retire the H.M.S. Ecclesia rather than restore and recommission her.
The ship was bought by a Presbyterian church in Brighton and the lumber was used to construct a meeting house and a parsonage. The house of worship stood for 53 years and bore a plaque with the likeness of Sir Edward Winthrop. Underneath the image is inscribed the ironic question: “What is Christ’s Church? — A wrecked pietistic vessel, or a Puritan battle ship?”
NOTE: This tale is not a true account, but is an allegory used to illustrate the point: “What is your church?” Soon after circulating the first draft, I found that some still did not get it. Hence this footnote.