Thomas Mathews

Thomas Mathews bigraphy, stories - Royal Navy officer during the Nine Years' War, and the War of Austrian Succession

Thomas Mathews : biography

October 1676 – 2 October 1751

Thomas Mathews (October 1676 – 2 October 1751) was a British officer of the Royal Navy, who rose to the rank of admiral.

Mathews joined the navy in 1690 and saw service on a number of ships, including during the Nine Years’ War and the War of the Spanish Succession. He interspersed periods spent commanding ships with time at home at the family estate in Llandaff. He distinguished himself with service with Sir George Byng’s at the Battle of Cape Passaro in 1718, and went on to command squadrons in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, before largely retiring from naval service. He returned to active service in 1741, following Britain’s entry to the War of the Austrian Succession, and took command of the fleet in the Mediterranean. The usual difficulties of performing delicate diplomatic duties were further exacerbated by the fact that he was on bad terms with his second in command, Richard Lestock, on whom he relied to manage the fleet. The pivotal moment of his naval career came in 1744, when he attempted to intercept a Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Toulon. The action was fought in confused circumstances, with poor communications and the breakdown of the chain of command. Despite possessing the superior force, Mathews was unable to secure a decisive result, and the enemy were able to escape with the loss of one ship, while Mathews’s fleet lost one and had several others badly damaged.

The failure to secure a victory incensed the British public, and a series of courts-martial and a public inquiry led to several officers being cashiered. Mathews’ second in command, Lestock, was tried but acquitted, blaming the outcome on Mathews’ poor planning and ill-tempered and unwise attack. Mathews was tried and convicted of the charges, and dismissed from the navy. He returned to his estates at Llandaff, before moving to London and dying there in 1751.

War of the Austrian Succession

The outbreak of war with Spain and the imminent threat of war with France during the early stages of the War of the Austrian Succession led to Mathews’ return to active service, with a promotion directly to vice-admiral of the red on 13 March 1741. He was given a command in the Mediterranean, and made plenipotentiary to Charles Emmanuel III, king of Sardinia, and the other courts of Italy. The appointment was somewhat unexpected, Mathews was not especially distinguished, and had not served in the navy for a number of years. His second in command in the Mediterranean was Rear-Admiral Richard Lestock, a man Mathews knew from his time as commissioner at Chatham, when Lestock had commanded the guardships stationed in the Medway. The two had not been on good terms, and on receiving the Mediterranean posting, Mathews requested that Lestock be recalled, a request the Admiralty declined to act upon.

The two men continued their disagreements during their time in the Mediterranean, though Mathews’ continued distractions with diplomatic duties meant that they did not break out into an open argument. In 1742 Mathews sent a small squadron to Naples to compel King Charles, later the King of Spain, to remain neutral. It was commanded by Commodore William Martin, who refused to enter into negotiations, and gave the king half an hour in which to return an answer. The Neapolitans were forced to agree to the British demands.

In June 1742 a squadron of Spanish galleys, which had taken refuge in the Bay of Saint Tropez, was burnt by the fire ships of Mathews’ fleet. In the meantime a Spanish squadron had taken refuge in Toulon, and was watched by the British fleet from Hyères. On 21 February 1744 (N.S., 10 February O.S.) the Spaniards put to sea in company with a French force. Mathews, who had now returned to his flagship, followed, and an engagement took place on the 22 and 23 February.

Battle of Toulon

The fleets had become scattered in the light winds as they approached, and as they began to form up for the Battle of Toulon on 22 February, Mathews signalled for the formation of the line of battle. The line had still not been formed as night fell, leading Mathews to hoist the signal to come to, intending for his ships to first finish forming the line. The van and centre squadrons did so, but Lestock commanding the rear obeyed the order to come to, without having formed the line. By daybreak on 21 February, the rear of the British fleet was separated by a considerable distance from the van and centre. Mathews signalled for Lestock to make more sail, reluctant to start the attack with his ships still disorganised, but the slowness of Lestock to respond caused the Franco-Spanish force to start to slip away to the south. Mathews feared that they would escape him, and pass through the Straits of Gibraltar to join the French force gathered at Brest for the planned invasion of Britain.