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Peter Pett and the Sovereign of the Seas.
Painting by Peter Lely, 1637[1]

Peter Pett, (6 August 1610 – ? 1672) was an English Master Shipwright, and 2nd Resident Commissioner Pett of Chatham Dockyard, the son of the King's Master Shipwright Captain Phineas Pett. He is best known for the incident concerning the protection of his scale models and drawings of the King's Fleet during the Dutch Raid on the Medway, in Kent, (the Medway is a major tributary into the Thames, beyond London), in June 1667, during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

This was the Peter Pett who had been introduced in his youth to King Charles I of England in 1634 and who was ordered to construct a new ship of 500 tons, to be named the Leopard. With the construction of the Leopard underway, Charles decided that he would have a ship built larger and more ornate than any of her predecessors.

Thus in June of 1634 whilst at Woolwich and on the Leopard with the King, Phineas Pett, Peter's father, relates: "His Highness, calling me aside, privately acquainted me of his princely resolution for the building of a great new ship, which he would have me undertake...."

Under the watchful eye of his father Phineas, who had drawn up the plans for this great ship Peter Pett so built 'HMS Sovereign of the Seas' at Woolwich Dockyard.

One of the largest ship in the world at that time, the Sovereign was a ship of 1,637 tons and was launched on 12 October 1637, after about two years in construction.

John Evelyn wrote in his diary on 19 July 1641 "We rode to Rochester and Chatham to see the Soveraigne, a monstrous vessel so called, being for burthen, defence, and ornament, the richest that ever spread cloth before the wind. She carried 100 brass cannon, and was 1600 tons, a rare sailer, the work of the famous Phineas Pett."

Commissioner Pett

Despite his contracts from the King Peter Pett nevertheless sided with Parliament during the English Civil War and was consequently retained as Commissioner at Chatham Dockyard during 'The Commonwealth' (1649~60).

Pett was the only member of the group of Commonwealth Commissioners who governed the Navy with any technical knowledge of shipbuilding; it is not surprising then that the designs of most new ships should rest principally upon him.

Determined to survive the rigours of the nation's political upheavals, Peter Pett, with great resourcefulness, having withheld Chatham from Charles I, was afterwards in Holland preparing the fleet to accompany the return of Charles II.

The success of these efforts established for him a firm relationship with the King. Pett had reached the zenith of his career and he basked in the sunshine of Royal favour. He had also become a Justice of the Peace and had been one of the Members of Parliament for Rochester in 1660.

In 1667 he was blamed for the insufficient protection of the British fleet at Chatham. He failed to tow the most capital ships higher upon the river. Modern historians agree that it is doubtful whether this would have protected them, the Dutch being powerful enough to advance a few miles more, and that Pett didn't have enough manpower anyway. Being asked during the official investigation why he had brought his ship models into safety but not the ships themselves, he famously answered that the former were more valuable, much to the incredulous laughter of his accusers. But in a way Pett was right: without the models it was impossible to build new ships, it not yet being feasible to build from drawings alone. Pett was made a scapegoat for the incompetence of higher ranking officers, fined and fired.

Of course most Englishmen knew very well Pett was but a scapegoat as is shown by part of Andrew Marvell's satirical poem:

After this loss, to relish discontent,
Someone must be accused by punishment.
All our miscarriages on Pett must fall:
His name alone seems fit to answer all.
Whose counsel first did this mad war beget?
Who all commands sold through the navy? Pett.
Who would not follow when the Dutch were beat?
Who treated out the time at Bergen? Pett.
Who the Dutch fleet with storms disabled met,
And rifling prizes, them neglected? Pett.
Who with false news prevented the Gazette,
The fleet divided, writ for Rupert? Pett.
Who all our seamen cheated of their debt,
And all our prizes who did swallow? Pett.
Who did advise no navy out to set,
And who the forts left unrepairèd? Pett.
Who to supply with powder did forget
Languard, Sheerness, Gravesend and Upnor? Pett.
Who should it be but the Fanatic Pett?
Pett, the sea-architect, in making ships
Was the first cause of all these naval slips:
Had he not built, none of these faults had been;
If no creation, there had been no sin.
But his great crime, one boat away he sent,
That lost our fleet and did our flight prevent.

Peter Pett's will was proved on 2 December 1672, and it revealed that he had a sufficiency of worldly goods to enable him to live in comfort after his dismissal as Commissioner. In his will there was, for example mentioned a necklace containing over 270 pearls, and that he was Lord of the Manors of Woodbridge Ufford and Kettle Ufford in Suffolk indicates that he remained possessed of some wealth.

The Pett Dynasty

It is not surprising that over the years some confusion has arisen between the identities of Peter Pett and his many cousins; even the Navy Board had difficulty in keeping its records straight on this matter.

From probably before the time that John Pett, (son of Thomas) was 'paid' for 'Caulking' (making watertight) the 'Regent,' in 1499 the Petts have been variously mistaken, one for the other. Often this was the case with Peter, the Master Shipwright at Deptford, who died in 1652, and with each of that Peter's two sons, Sir Peter, the Advocate General for Ireland and Sir Phineas Pett, Master Shipwright at Chatham, who was knighted in 1680, and who was the Comptroller of Stores, and resident Commissioner at Chatham, and who is further to be distinguished from the Commissioner Peter Pett's brother Phineas, a clerk of the check at Chatham.

Three other Petts named Phineas were at the same time in the Naval Service at Chatham or in the Thames, one of whom was killed in action in 1666 whilst in command of the 'Tiger', this being a brother of the 2nd Commissioner at Chatham.

The Roll and index of the domestic State Papers have so confused the numerous Petts as to have been described as useless.

References

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