Admirals: The Naval Commanders who Made Britain Great by Andrew Lambert is a fascinating history of the admirals who shaped the institution of the Royal Navy, and one written to establish the context of Britain’s greatest admiral Horatio Nelson.

Accordingly it does not include a chapter about Nelson, rather it deals with those established the Royal Navy that Nelson served in, and those who were subsequently inspired by the service of Nelson.

Thoroughly researched [1] this is an impressive work of naval history.

Importantly it is also a work that deals with the full range of an admiral’s responsibilities, particularly prior to instantaneous communications enabled governments to micromanage the fleets.

Although discussions of battle leadership receive proper attention, as much (or more) attention is devoted to strategy, diplomacy, managing relationships with the government of the day, and fleet logistics. Indeed Geoffrey Hornby would “hear guns fired in anger only once, while still a child” [2], but Mr Lambert makes a solid, well written, case for describing him as a great admiral.

There were several surprises for me in this book. Chapter 2 God’s Republican Warrior: Robert Blake (1536-1624) reveals more of Cromwell’s New Model Army in the DNA of the Royal Navy than I would have ever guessed.

Similarly chapter 3 The King: James II, Duke of York (1633-1701) presents a much more complicated view of the man: a bad king certainly, but also a courageous admiral capable of holding a fleet together in desperate circumstances, even when he had two flagships shot out from underneath him.

The inclusion of chapter 9 Ruthless Bounder: David Beatty (1871-1936) was also a surprise. Beatty was included not for his flawed command of the equally flawed [3] battlecruisers, but for his subsequent stewardship of the navy as First Sea Lord.

This is a recurring theme, many of the admirals discussed served as First Sea Lord with long term institutional effects on the Royal Navy. This is, in my opinion, another good reason for excluding Nelson from the book: Nelson’s death at Trafalgar prevented this from occurring, and this may have prevented Nelson from having a similar effect over the Royal Navy.

Overall I greatly enjoyed Admirals, and thoroughly recommend it. I may have to look up some of Andrew Lambert’s other books on the topic.


[1] There are over 30 pages of footnotes.

[2] Chapter 7 The Embodiment of the Victorian Navy: Geoffrey Hornby (1825-95)

[3] That is a personal opinion, I regard the battlecruisers as one of Admiral Fisher’s brainfarts. That said, Fisher’s inclusion as chapter 8 Radical Reform: John Fisher (1841-1920) was both inevitable and well justified.