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Promotion in the Flag Ranks in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars

By Stephen Millar

“You villains – you God-damned villains. I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you. I'll have every man jack swinging at the yardarm before I'm done – God damn me if I don’t.”

-- attributed to Lieutenant (later Vice-admiral of the Blue) William Bligh, 28 April 1789[1]

During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Horatio Nelson – the United Kingdom’s most famous admiral – was at the foremost of many well-known officers. Nelson, along with flag officers like Admirals Sir John Jervis, Sir James de Saumerez and Sir Graham Moore, commanded the Royal Navy squadrons which blockaded France, defeated her (and her allies’) fleets and hunted down commerce-raiding French frigates and privateers.

The United Kingdom’s great naval effort against Revolutionary France and Napoleon required the services of many officers; however, the Navy’s system of promotion by seniority also made inevitable the promotion of men who could not – or should not – hold flag rank. The Captains’ List – the official record of every post-captain’s seniority – made it possible for unsuitable post-captains (like Sir Charles Knowles and William ‘Breadfruit’ Bligh) to reach the ranks of Admiral of the Red and Vice-admiral of the Blue, respectively.

1. ‘An extremely inflexible system’: the Captains’ List

Each Royal Navy officer who reached flag-rank came from the Captains’ List. This seniority determined which officer was next in line for promotion; post-captains with greater seniority would be promoted before those officers lower down on the list. The Captains’ List was all-important:

“Since admirals were promoted only from the top of the Captains’ List, it was crucial to an officer’s career to take post as young as possible. One of the simplest and most telling indicators of an officer's professional fortunes is his age on reaching post rank, or the time elapsed since his first commission as Lieutenant.”[2]

An example of this was Admiral James Gambier, 1st Baron Gambier (13 October 1756 – 19 April 1833). One of the Royal Navy’s highest-ranking officers (he was promoted to Admiral of the Blue in 1805), Gambier had made the Captains’ List at the age of 22.

In times of peace, Royal Navy promotion was dreadfully slow – but the main problem with the seniority system was the advancement of unfit post-captains. If he waited long enough, even an inefficient post-captain had a good chance to retire at the rank of a ‘yellow admiral’:

“In 1747, the Admiralty introduced a scheme for senior Captains whereby those not selected for active flag rank received a nominal promotion to the rank of ‘Rear-Admiral without distinction of squadron’. In effect, this was a disguised form of compulsory retirement scheme, but the ‘yellow admirals’ retired on a Rear-Admiral’s half-pay. The intent of the 1747 scheme was to stop the complaints of Captains passed over for promotion. It did nothing to eliminate the many elderly or unfit Captains who had not yet risen to the top of the list.”[3]

Every Navy post-captain waited and kept a watchful eye on the list:

“Once he had been made a post captain, promotion to admiral was automatic. This was done by seniority, but it didn't mean he would necessarily fly his flag at sea. Admirals could be appointed to an unspecified squadron, commonly known as ‘the yellow squadron’, if the Admiralty had no confidence in a captain’s ability to command a fleet. The follow on effect to this was that if the Admiralty wanted to promote an able captain to flag rank, they would have to reach down the list and promote all the captains above him.”[4]

One source says in 1799, Vice-admiral of the Blue Robert Linzee (died September 1804) was promoted directly to Vice-admiral of the Red – by-passing the rank of Vice-admiral of the White.[5]  This unusual promotion is unclear; Linzee is listed in the 1796 Mediterranean Fleet as a Vice-admiral of the White (flying his flag in the 98-gun Princess Royal).[6]  Linzee, promoted to Rear-admiral of the Blue on 11 April 1794, appears to have advanced through the two remaining ranks of rear-admiral in the same year.[7]  He died in September, 1804 with the rank of Admiral of the Blue (dated from 1 January 1801).[8]

2. Blue, White, Red: the Admirals’ Squadrons

If a post-captain was selected by the Admiralty for active duty in a flag-rank – thus avoiding the nominal promotion of ‘yellow admiral’ – he was promoted to Rear-admiral of the Blue Squadron. Depending on his seniority, each admiral was attached to a ‘squadron’ – a traditional British method to differentiate each admiral’s rank. There were three squadrons (Blue, White, Red) and each officer advanced through these squadrons:

“Promotion of admirals…took place in this order – a Rear-Admiral of the Blue on promotion became a Rear-Admiral of the White as his first flag promotion. Once he had reached Rear-Admiral of the Red, he would then become a Vice-Admiral of the Blue on promotion and so until he finally became an Admiral of the White. It was only in the Red squadron that the hierarchy was not followed. There was no Admiral of the Red since this would be deemed as being in overall command of the whole fleet. However, this was the province of the Admiral of the Fleet and until 1862, there could only be one holder of this rank and it was an appointment held for life…In 1805, after the battle of Trafalgar, the rank of Admiral of the Red was introduced to reward the most successful admirals and acted as a compliment to the Navy for the successes it had achieved during the Napoleonic Wars. It became the highest rank that an Admiral could attain until 1862, when an allowance was made for more than one Admiral of the Fleet to be appointed.”[9]

The following two tables will help clarify this ‘squadron system’ (as well as show the great increase in the number of admirals during Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars):

Table A: Flag-ranks in 1769

The honorary rank of ‘Vice-admiral of Great Britain’ was held by Admiral of the Fleet Edward Hawke, 1st Baron Hawke (1705-1781), who was appointed in 1765.

1 Admiral of the Fleet: Edward Hawke, 1st Baron Hawke (1705-1781) 15 January 1768

Admirals (7)

3 Admirals of the White; 4 Admirals of the Blue

Vice-admirals (10)

3 Vice-admirals of the Red;
3 Vice-admirals of the White
4 Vice-admirals of the Blue

Rear-admirals (11)

4 Rear-admirals of the Red; 4 Rear-admirals of the White; 5 Rear-admirals of the Blue

In 1769, there were also 22 rear-admirals who were considered ‘superannuated’ (incapacitated or disqualified for active duty by advanced age).[10]

Table B: Flag-ranks in 1812

An example is given of an officer holding a rank in each of the three squadrons; the date refers to the date of his promotion to that rank (the rank of Admiral of the Red was established in 1805).

Two men successively held the position of First Lord of the Admiralty in 1812: Charles Philip Yorke (1764-1834) and Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville (1771-1851).

1 Admiral of the Fleet: HRH the Duke of Clarence (1765-1837), appointed 1811.[11]

Admirals (61)

21 Admirals of the Red:
20 Admirals of the White: James Hawkins Whitshed (1762-1849), 12 August 1812
20 Admirals of the Blue: Sir Robert Calder, Bt. (1745-1818), 31 July 1810

Vice-admirals (65)

22 Vice-admirals of the Red: Sir James de Saumerez, Bt. (1757-1836), 31 July 1810
19 Vice-admirals of the White: George Martin (1764-1847), 12 August 1812
24 Vice-admirals of the Blue: Francis Pickmore (1756-1818), 12 August 1812

Rear-admirals (64)

19 Rear-admirals of the Red: Sir Thomas Thompson, Bt. (1766-1828), 12 August 1812
17 Rear-admirals of the White: Thomas Francis Freemantle (1765-1819), 12 August 1812
24 Rear-admirals of the Blue: Sir Richard King, Bt. (1774-1834) 12 August 1812[12]

In 1812, there were also 31 rear-admirals who were considered ‘superannuated’ (incapacitated or disqualified for active duty by advanced age).[13]

As with the Captains’ List, an admiral’s seniority was the key to promotion:

“The system was extremely inflexible in that it was impossible to overtake those above you on the list; but this did not stop the Admiralty appointing a man from well down the list to command a squadron or a fleet if he was felt to be ‘the best man for the job’. However, no flag officer could be placed under the orders of someone blow him on the list. The longer one had one’s commission, the higher one was up the list.”[14]

3. ‘An imbecile, totally incompetent’: Captain Sir Charles Henry Knowles, Bt.

As mentioned above, the main deficiency with the Captains’ List was the inevitable promotion of inefficient post-captains to flag-rank. One of these ‘unfit captains’ was Sir Charles Henry Knowles, Bt. – an officer for whom Admiral Sir John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent (20 January 1735 – 13 March 1823), had little professional respect:

“Jervis never tired of reminding officers that, ‘the present indiscipline of the Navy originated with the licentious conduct of the officers’. He tested his officers and moved them around from ship to ship. [Captain] Sir Charles [Henry] Knowles of Goliath was described by Jervis as, ‘an imbecile, totally incompetent, the Goliath no use whatever under his command’. Knowles was ordered to exchange ships with Captain [Thomas] Foley of Britannia. Foley restored Goliath to order whilst Britannia slid under Knowles.”[15]

Charles Henry Knowles was born on 24 August 1754 to the second wife of Admiral Charles Knowles, former commander of the Jamaica Station (1746-1749) and Governor of Jamaica (1752-1758).[16] King George III granted his father, who would later rise to the rank of Admiral of the White, a baronetcy (31 October 1765).[17] Knowles inherited his father’s baronetcy on 9 December 1777, after he had joined the Royal Navy (his older half-brother, a Royal Navy captain, had previously died at sea). Early in his career, the young officer developed an interest in naval communication:

“Further progress in this matter [of standardizing Royal Navy signals] was evident in 1778 when Lieutenant Sir Charles Knowles submitted to the Admiralty a proposal for a ‘Signal Book’. This officer continued to show a keen interest in the subject for many years. The first Fleet Signal Book was issued in 1799.”[18]

He reached the rank of post-captain on 2 February 1780. Despite Jervis’ comments about his performance, Knowles almost made it to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet during his career. He was made Rear-admiral of the White on 14 February 1799, Rear-admiral of the Red on 1 January 1801 and Vice-admiral of the Blue on 23 April 1804.[19]

The post-Trafalgar years saw Knowles climb into the highest echelon of the Royal Navy: Vice-admiral of the Red (9 November 1805); Admiral of the Blue (31 July 1810); Admiral of the White on 12 August 1812. King George IV advanced him to the Red Squadron on 19 July 1821; when Knowles died on 28 November 1831, he was in second position on the list of Admirals of the Red.[20]

4. ‘Harsh exercise of authority’: Captain William ‘Breadfruit’ Bligh

One of the most controversial officers on the Captains’ List, William Bligh was born in Plymouth on 9 September 1754. Early in his naval career, Bligh sailed with Captain James Cook on his final voyage. He was subsequently given command (as a lieutenant) of the Bounty – a scientific vessel whose mission was to attempt the transplantation of Tahitian breadfruit to the West Indies.

On 28 April 1789, during the return voyage to the West Indies, mutineers cast Bligh and several of his supporters adrift in a small boat. It is still unclear today how much of a part Bligh’s temperament had played in sparking the mutiny:

“Bligh was certainly extremely hot-tempered; he swore well and vigorously and was infuriated by any incompetence shown by his subordinates; but the evidence suggests that his rages were short-lived, that in general he was not a harsh commander and that the mutiny was his misfortune, not his fault. This was certainly the view of the Admiralty, which promoted him captain in November and in 1791 sent him in the Providence to make a second attempt to transplant bread-fruit from Tahiti to the West Indies.”[21]

Now known behind his back as ‘Breadfruit Bligh’ and ‘Bligh of the Bounty’, he later participated in the battles of Camperdown and Copenhagen. In 1801, Bligh was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.[22]  His final official posting was as governor of New South Wales.

The governorship was probably ill-suited for a man of Bligh’s temperament. His colonial administration was interrupted on 26 January 1808 by a rebellion led by a militia officer named Major George Johnston:

“Bligh's naval career had seasoned him to danger but it had not fitted him for a difficult administrative post, and he was quite unable to cope with the intrigue that surrounded him. The rebellion in which he was deposed by Major George Johnston of the New South Wales Corps may not have been inevitable had Bligh played his cards a little more shrewdly, but it certainly came at no surprise.”[23]

In the months following the rebellion, Bligh refused to abandon the now-defunct governorship:

“For more than a year after his arrest in January 1808 Bligh remained in confinement in Sydney, refusing to promise to sail to England if liberated. In February 1809 he agreed to go if placed in the [ship] Porpoise, but when on board he broke his word on the ground that it had been extorted by force.”[24]

Almost three years later, Bligh returned to the United Kingdom. Johnston’s subsequent London court-martial, inevitably, centered on the controversial Bligh himself:

“Bligh reached England on 25 October 1810 and was soon involved in the court martial of Johnston. Since the defence was justification, this was virtually his trial too. Johnston's conviction was his own acquittal; but the rider to the sentence on Johnston, that ‘novel and extraordinary circumstances’ offered some, though not a ‘full’, extenuation of his conduct, suggests that the court thought the governor not free from blame, unless it was merely unwilling to punish Johnston…Though Bligh's hot temper and violent language did not justify mutiny, they certainly marred his record and reduced his efficiency, especially as they seem to have been accompanied by the normal belief of contemporary administrators that offices were to be valued as much for their perquisites as for their salary.”[25]

Although Bligh never again received a sea-going post, he was promoted to flag-rank on 31 July 1811 and to Vice-admiral of the Blue in 1814.[26]  He died in London on 7 December 1817.

I. Electronic sources:

II. Print sources from

1) Benton, Edward Pelham, Life and Correspondence of the Earl of St. Vincent (Vol. 1), London, 1838.

2) Courthope, William (ed.), Debrett’s Baronetage of England, London, 1839.

3) Hayden, Joseph, The Book of Dignities, London, 1851.

4) Kippis, Andrew (ed.), New Annual Register (1801), London, 1802.

5) Pickering, William (ed.), Debrett’s Baronetage of England, London, 1840.

6) The Universal Magazine (Vol. 95), London, 1794.

7) Urban, Sylvanius, ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ (July-December 1831), London, 1831.







[6] Benton, Edward Pelham, Life and Correspondence of the Earl of St. Vincent (Vol. 1), p. 137.

[7] Hayden, Joseph, The Book of Dignities, p. 289 and The Universal Magazine (Vol. 94), p. 67.

[8] Kippis, Andrew, New Annual Register (1801), p. 100.



[11] The Duke of Clarence had replaced Admiral of the Fleet Sir Peter Parker, Bt. (1721-1811).





[16] Hayden, Joseph, The Book of Dignities, London 1851, p. 278.

[17] Urban, Sylvanius, The Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1831, p. 564; Courthope, William (ed.), Debrett’s Baronetage of England, London, 1839; Pickering, William (ed.), Debrett’s Baronetage of England, London, 1840, p. 333.



[20] Urban, Sylvanius, The Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1831, p. 564.





[25] Ibid.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2008


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