Sir Charles Knowles was apparently the son of Charles Knollys, the titular 4th Earl of Banbury, by a lady named Elizabeth Price. He is traditionally said to have been born about 1697 and his education was overseen by his half-brother, the titular Lord Wallingford.
entered the Navy in March 1718, on board the ‘Buckingham' with Captain
Charles Strickland. In April, he followed Strickland to the ‘Lennox,’
with the rating of Captain's Servant and continued as such until December
1720. During the greater part of this time, the ‘Lennox’ was in the
Mediterranean under the orders of Sir George Byng (afterwards Viscount
Torrington). It appears, from Knowles' own papers, that in the battle off
Cape Passaro, he was actually serving on board the ‘Barfleur,’ Byng's
flagship, but, of this, there is no note in the Lennox's pay book. He was
June 1721 to June 1726, in the ‘Lyme’ frigate with Lord Vere Beauclerk.
During the first eighteen months of this period he continued with the rating
of Captain's Servant. For the rest of the time, he was rated an 'Able
Seaman.' During the five years of the Lyme's commission she, was stationed
in the Mediterranean, and it has been supposed that Knowles spent much of
this time in being educated on shore. In his riper years, he certainly spoke
French like a native, as well as being much more advanced in both
mathematics and mechanics than was was then usual in the Navy. After paying
off from the ‘Lyme,’ Knowles served on the ‘Winchester’ guardship in
Portsmouth. Then on the ‘Torbay,’ carrying the flag of Sir Charles
Wager. This was followed by the ‘Kinsale,’ again with Lord Vere
Beauclerk, the ‘Feversham’ and the ‘Lion’ until 30th May 1730 when
he was promoted to be Lieutenant aboard the ‘Trial’. In the following
March, he was moved to the ‘Lion,’ flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles
Stewart in the West Indies.
1732, Knowles was promoted to Commander of the ‘Southampton,’ a 40-gun
ship, but apparently for the rank only, as he did not take up the post
until 4th February 1737, when he was appointed to the ‘Diamond’. In her,
he went out to the West Indies, in 1739, and joined Vice-Admiral Edward
Vernon (1684-1757) at Porto Bello. The place had already been taken by the
British but he was ordered to take charge of the destruction of the forts.
This proved to be a work of some difficulty. Still in command of the
sent, in the following March, to examine the approach to Chagres. He had
command of the bombs and fireships in the attack on the town, on 22nd March.
Upon its surrender, he was appointed Governor of the castle, pending the
destruction of the defences. The work was completed by the 28th, when the
squadron withdrew. Towards the end of the year, Knowles returned to England
and was appointed to the 60-gun ‘Weymouth,’ one of the fleet that went
out to the West Indies with Sir Chaloner Ogle. Aboard the ‘Weymouth,’
Knowles took part in the expedition against Cartagena in March and April
1741. He acted throughout as the Surveyor and Engineer of the Fleet,
examining the approaches to the several points of attack, cutting the boom
across the Boca Chica, taking possession of the Castillo Grande and
destroying the captured works before the Fleet left.
harsh anti-army pamphlet 'An Account of the Expedition to Carthagena, with
Explanatory Notes and Observations' (1743) was generally attributed to
Knowles. It was much spoken of at the time and ran to several editions. The
preface to the 'Original Papers relating to the Expedition to Carthagena'
(1744), published with Vernon's sanction, describes the author of the
pamphlet as “an officer of approved abilities and resolution, who did not
depend on hearsay and uncertain reports, but was himself an eye-witness of
most of the transactions that he has given an account of.”
the failure at Cartagena, Knowles was moved onto the ‘Lichfield’ and, in
the course of 1742, onto the 70-gun ‘Suffolk’. In her, he commanded a
squadron sent by Sir Chaloner Ogle, in the beginning of 1743, to act against
the Spanish settlements on the Caracas Coast. No pains were taken to keep
the expedition a secret. The Spaniards had two months'
for their preparations and the Dutch, though allies of the English, supplied
them with powder. The result was that, when the squadron attacked La Guayra
on 18th February 1743, it was beaten off with very heavy loss. Later, having
refitted at Curacoa, it attacked Porto Cabello on 15th April and, again, on
the 24th, with no better success. On 28th April, a council of war decided
'the squadron was no longer in a condition to attempt any enterprise against
the enemy,' and, sending the ships and troops to their respective stations,
Knowles returned to Jamaica.
was then appointed an 'established' (or first-class) commodore, with his
broad pennant aboard the ‘Superbe’ and, afterwards, the ‘Severn’. He
continued, during 1743-5, as second-in-command on the ‘Jamaica’ and at
the West Indian Station under Ogle. Towards the end of 1745, he returned to
England and, after a short time as second-in-command under Vice-Admiral
William Martin aboard the ‘Downs,’ he was, early in 1746, sent as
Governor of Louisbourg,
which had been captured from the French a few months before.
There he remained for upwards of two years, repairing and renewing
the defences of the fortress. In the large promotion of 15th July 1747, he
was made Rear-Admiral of the White and, at the same time, was appointed
commander-in-chief of Jamaica.
February 1748, with his flag on board the ‘Cornwall,’ he took the
squadron along the south coast of Cuba and, after capturing Port Louis on
8th March, arrived off Santiago on 5th April. An attack was immediately attempted
but Captain Dent, who led aboard the ‘Plymouth,’ found the passage
blocked by a boom, which he judged too strong to be forced. He turned back
and the ships following did the same. A second attempt was considered
unadvisable. Knowles was much annoyed by the failure. Dent, as senior
officer, had been commander-in-chief for a short time before Knowles'
arrival. He was not, therefore, much inclined to undertake any extraordinary
steps, the credit for which, if successful, would go to the newly arrived
admiral. Knowles, no doubt, believed this to be the case and sent Dent home
to be tried on a charge of not having done his utmost. Nearly a year later,
the court-martial took place and relieved Dent of any blame.
Knowles, having refitted the ships in Jamaica, took them for a cruise off
Havana in the hope of intercepting the Spanish plate fleet. On 30th
September, he was joined by Captain Charles Holmes, in the ‘Lennox,’
with the news that he had been chased, the day before, by a squadron of
seven Spanish ships. These came in sight, the next morning, in the southern
quarter. When first seen, the Spaniards were straggling in two divisions.
If he closed on them at once, before they could get into compact order,
Knowles thought he would risk losing the weather-gage, without which -
according to the fighting protocol - no attack would be possible. He accordingly
spent some time in working to windward and, when at last he steered
towards the enemy, the unequal sailing of his ships disordered his line
and rendered the attack ineffective. The leading ships, too, misunderstood
or disobeyed the signal to engage more closely and took little part in the
action. The brunt of the battle fell on the ‘Stafford,’ commanded by
Captain David Brodie, and on Knowles' flagship, the ‘Cornwall’. Owing to
the disordered state of the line, this latter ship was singly opposed by
three of the enemy's ships and sustained severe damage. She did, however,
beat the ‘Africa,’ the enemy's flagship, out of the line. The
‘Conquistador’ struck at the ‘Strafford’, but when the
‘Canterbury’ came up, after having been delayed by the bad sailing of
the ‘Warwick,’ the Spaniards fled. It was then just dark. Knowles made
the signal for a general chase but the ‘Cornwall’ had lost her main
topmast and was disabled. As the ‘Conquistador’ rehoisted her flag and
endeavoured to escape, Knowles contented himself with taking possession of
her. In the pursuit, the ‘Africa’ was driven ashore, by the
‘Strafford’ and the ‘Canterbury’, and was afterwards burnt. The
other Spanish ships escaped.
1752, Knowles was appointed Governor of Jamaica and held the office for
nearly four years. He offended the residents by insisting on the supreme
jurisdiction of the English Parliament and by moving the seat of government
to Kingston, thus causing a depreciation of property in Spanish Town. A
petition for his removal, signed by nineteen members of the Assembly, was
presented to the King, and charges of “illegal, cruel and arbitrary
acts” were laid before the House of Commons. After examination by a
committee of the whole house, the action of the Assembly of Jamaica was
condemned as “derogatory to the rights of the Crown and people of Great
Britain,” and Knowles' conduct, by implication, fully justified.
However, Knowles had already returned to England and resigned the
Governorship in January 1756.
4th February 1755, he had been promoted to be Vice-Admiral and, in 1757,
with his flag on board the ‘Neptune,’ was second-in-command under Sir
Edward (afterwards Lord) Hawke in the abortive expedition against Rochefort.
Upon the return of the Fleet, public indignation ran very high and though,
for the most part, it was levelled against the government and Sir John
Mordaunt, Knowles was also bitterly reproached. He published a pamphlet
Conduct of Admiral Knowles on the late Expedition set in a true light'.
Unfortunately, this met with scant favour and a notice of it in the
'Critical Review' (May 1758) so far exceeded what was then considered decent
that the editor, Tobias Smollett, was tried for libel. He was sentenced to a
fine of £100
and to three months' imprisonment in the King's Bench. Nevertheless,
Knowles' share in the miscarriage, and still more his championship of
Mordaunt, offended the Government. He was superseded in his command in the
Grand Fleet and, though he had his flag flying for some time longer aboard
the ‘Royal Anne,’ a guard-ship at Portsmouth, he had no further active
service in the English Navy.
3rd December 1760, he was promoted to the rank of Admiral. On 31st October
1765, he was created a baronet. On 5th November 1765, he was nominated
Rear-Admiral of Great Britain. This office he resigned in October 1770 upon
accepting a command in the Russian Navy. Russia was, at that time, at war
with Turkey, but Knowles'
service seems to have been entirely administrative and to have kept him
at in the neighbourhood of St. Petersburg. On the conclusion of peace in
1774, he returned to England. The following year, Knowles published a
translation of 'Abstract
on the Mechanism of the Motions of Floating Bodies' by M. de la Croix. In
the preface, he said that he had verified the author's principles, by a
number of experiments, and had also found them “answer perfectly well
when put into practice in several line-of-battle ships and frigates that I
built whilst I was in Russia”. Although his country estate was at Lovel
Hill in Cranbourne (Berkshire), he died in Bulstrode Street, Marylebone on
9th December 1777 and was buried at Guildford in Surrey.
naval officers of high rank have been the subject of more contention or of
more contradictory estimations than Knowles. He was beyond question a man
that made many and bitter enemies and, when in command, was neither loved
nor feared, though he may have been hated. On the one hand, he has been
described as vain, foolish, grasping - even dishonest - tyrannical,
man of spiritless and inactive mind, cautious of incurring censure, but
incapable of acquiring fame”. On the other, Charnock,
who in this may be supposed to represent the traditions he had received from
Captain Locker, “believes him to have been a man of spirit, ability and integrity;
but to have thought too highly of his own merit in regard to the two first,
and to have wanted those conciliating and complacent manners which are
absolutely necessary to render even the last agreeable and acceptable”.
was twice married. Firstly in December 1740, he wed Mary, eldest daughter of
John Alleyne and sister of John Gay Alleyne, created a baronet in 1769. She
died in March 1742, leaving one son, Edward, who was lost in command of the
‘Peregrine’ sloop in 1762. Secondly, he married, at Aix-la-Chapelle in
July 1750, Maria Magdalena Theresa, daughter of the Comte de Bouget, by whom
he had, besides a daughter, a son, Charles Henry, who inherited the
Edited from Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1892).
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