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Reign of George I page 17

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A council of officers had been held, and Cammock, an Irishman in the Spanish service, had advised this plan, showing that, ranged thus with their broadsides to the sea, they would be defended by their batteries and troops on shore, and that the force of the currents would make it a very difficult thing to attack them. Castaneta, the admiral, however, dared not to maintain that position; he put out to sea. So soon as they were clear of the straits a council was held to determine whether they should fight or retreat. They came to no fixed resolution, but continued to linger about in indecision till admiral Byng was down upon them. Near Cape Passaro he found the Spanish rear-admiral de Mari, with six ships of the line, and all the galleys, fire- ships, bombs, and store-ships separated from the rest of the fleet, and standing in for the Sicilian shore. He ordered captain Walton, of the " Canterbury," and five other ships, to look after de Mari, and himself continued the pursuit of the main fleet.

Mari commenced firing upon Walton and his squadron, and thus the Spaniards were the first to commence hostilities. Byng's vessels were carried by the breeze into the very midst of the Spaniards, who seemed to have no plan of action whatever. Castaneta, though he had shown no generalship, displayed much bravery. He fought with desperation, though wounded in both legs; but no valour could save the fleet; every ship was taken or sunk except ten, with which Cammock forced his way out of the battle and escaped to La Valetta. Captain Walton, on his part, had come up with de Mari, and compelled him with all his ships, bombs, ketches, &c., to surrender. In his report to the admiral he said - "Sir, - We have taken and destroyed all the Spanish ships which were upon the coast; the number as per margin." On which Campbell, in his "Lives of the Admirals," observes - "The ships which captain Walton thrust into his margin would have furnished matter for some pages in a French relation."

This action, which annihilated the new armada of Spain, was fought on the 11th of August. The loss of the English was trifling; no ship was lost, but the "Grafton" was severely injured. Singularly enough, Byng affected not to regard the battle as any regular demonstration of war, but merely an accident, occasioned by the Spaniards firing upon him, and compelling him in honour to resist. He sent a complimentary letter to general de Lede, explaining the accident, and trusting that it would not be regarded as any motive for a rupture betwixt the two nations. At the same time he sent his son to carry the news of the victory to England, where he was received with enthusiasm. There was no change of ministry at this crisis to convert the accident, as in the modern similar case of the battle of Navarino, into "an untoward event." The king received captain Byng most graciously, made him a handsome present, and sent him back to his father with powers authorising him to negotiate with the princes of Italy as occasion might arise; and with a royal grant to the officers and seamen of all the prizes they had taken from the Spaniards.

And well was this liberal conduct merited, for the British fleet had at a blow crushed the reviving naval power of Spain - a power which, in its rapid resuscitation, had astonished Stanhope when in Spain, and which cotemporary writers describe in terms of equal wonder. Castaneta and some of the other principal prisoners assured Byng that in another summer they meant to have fifty sail of the line at sea. In proportion to these prodigious exertions was the rage of Alberoni at this exterminating defeat. He was beside himself. He wrote to the marquis de Monteleone, denouncing the English for breach of faith, though he was conscious that they had only counteracted his own, and ordered him at once to quit England. The ambassador's letter to Mr. Craggs, accompanied by a copy of this letter of Alberoni's, was published, by his direction, in London, in order to damage the ministry; and he ordered all British vessels and goods in Spanish ports to be seized, and the British consuls to be dismissed from Spanish territory. Priva- teens were sent out to molest the English commerce; and yet, singularly enough, no declaration of war was published on either side. In order to prevent the news of the destruction of the Spanish fleet becoming known to the nation at large, the cardinal took the insane precaution of prohibiting all persons from speaking of it, by beat of drum through Madrid.

Byng, on his part, exerted himself to follow up his advantages. On the 23rd of August he sailed to Reggio, and encouraged general Wetzell, the Austrian commander, to throw his troops into Messina; but the Savoyard authorities, count de Borgo, the resident, and count Maffei, the viceroy, elated by the victory of Byng, objected to admit the imperial troops, notwithstanding a convention to that effect was signed betwixt count Daun, the Austrian agent, and them. Byng, however, let them know that, unless they admitted the troops, he should sail away and leave them to the unobstructed attacks of the Spaniards. This had its effect; the troops were admitted, but were found so few and so indifferent, that, after all, the Savoyards were compelled to surrender the place on the 29th of September. Afterwards Byng sailed to Malta, and menaced its possessors, the knights of St. John, with vengeance for harbouring Cammock, who had fled thither with the ships which escaped from the battle of Passaro, but who had again sailed before they could reach Malta.

Alberoni, though defeated at sea, was more successful in Sicily, and he continued his cabals against England in nearly every court of Europe with only the more assiduity. He was zealously at work in France, England itself, Holland, Piedmont, and Sweden. By his ambassador at the Hague, the marquis Beretti Landi, he endeavoured to keep the Dutch out of the quadruple alliance by exciting their commercial jealousy; but he was ably opposed by our minister there, the earl of Cadogan. In Piedmont he endeavoured to deter Victor Amadeus from entering into this alliance by assuring him that he was only endeavouring to secure Sicily to keep it out of the hands of the Austrians, and reserve it for him; while, on the other hand, he threatened him with thirty thousand bayonets if he dared to accede to the quadruple treaty. The allies, however, threatened still greater dangers, and the duke at last consented to accept Sardinia in lieu of Sicily, and that island remains attached to the house of Savoy to the present time.

Foiled in these quarters, Alberoni appeared more successful in the north. A negotiation had been opened betwixt the two potentates, so long at bitter variance, the czar and Charles XII. of Sweden. They were induced to meet in the island of Aland, and to agree that the czar should retain Livonia, Ingria, and other Swedish territories south of Finland which he had reft from Sweden; but, in compensation, Charles was to be allowed to re-conquer from George of Hanover and England Bremen and Verden, and Norway from Denmark; and that the two monarchs were to unite their arms for the restoration of Stanislaus to the throne of Poland, and of the pretender to that of Great Britain. The latter enterprise was but the continuation of the old plan of Charles's minister, Gortz, who was now all the more bent on it in revenge for his seizure and imprisonment in Holland at the instigation of the king of England.

The success of these arrangements appeared to Alberoni so certain that he boasted that the northern tempest would burst ere long over England with annihilating fury; but even here he was doomed to disappointment. Charles XII. delighted in nothing so much as some wild and romantic enterprise. Such was that of the conquest of Norway; and he was led by his imagination to commence it without delay. With his characteristic madness, he divided his army into two parts, with one of which he took the way by the coast to Norway, and the other he sent over the mountains at the very commencement of winter. There that division perished in the snow amid the most incredible horrors; and he himself, whilst carrying on the siege of Frederickshall, was killed on the 11th of December, as appears probable, by the treacherous shot of a French engineer in his service. The death of this strange monarch, who had inflicted, by his military mania, the deepest calamities on his own country as well as on the north of Europe generally, was the signal for a total change of administration in Sweden. All his projects were abandoned, his ministers dismissed, his sister Ulrica was placed on the throne in his stead, and his favourite, Gortz, perished on the scaffold. The tempest on which Alberoni had so fondly calculated for the ruin of England, burst only in the north, and left the atmosphere of Britain perfectly serene.

In France, the machinations of the Spanish minister appeared for a time equally promising, yet proved equally abortive. He had dexterously availed himself of all the discontents in France to destroy the regent, and bring Philip of Spain to the French throne. The duke of Maine was engaged in a desperate conspiracy against the regent. It was intended that he should be seized in one of his parties of pleasure near Paris; that the States-General should be assembled, and Philip of Spain, as next of blood, proclaimed the rightful regent, and the duke of Maine his deputy. In this conspiracy the duchess of Maine, a granddaughter of the celebrated Conde, was the chief actor. She was a woman of a passionate and daring character, whom her flatterers had persuaded that she had all the abilities of her ancestor. As for the duke himself, he was weak and timid, but these deficiencies were supposed to be made up by the vigour and talent of his wife. She entered zealously into the conspiracy with Cellamare, the Spanish ambassador and creature of Alberoni, and fomented the many discontents which existed to a head. Almost all parties were indignant at the boundless influence of the profligate Dubois; the military men, especially the marshals d'Huxelles and Villars, were disgusted with the quadruple alliance; the Jesuits were busy intriguing for a return to power; there were complaints of oppressions from the provinces, and the parliament of Paris was plotting to increase its prerogatives.

The conspiracy had reached its height. Manifestoes were already prepared by cardinal Polignac for publication, armed bands, in the disguise of salt smugglers, were collecting on the Somme; and in the beginning of December Cellamare dispatched a young Spanish abbé, Don Vincente Portocarrero, a relative of cardinal Portocarrero, accompanied by a son of the marquis Monteleone, with an account of his proceedings, and with copies of the manifestoes to Madrid, and to bring back Alberoni's last instructions. Portocarrero had arrived at Poictiers, when he was arrested and his papers seized. Securely as the conspirators thought they had been working, they had been long silently watched by Dubois, the French government having been warned both from the court of St. James and from the French embassy at Madrid that a grand plot was in progress. Dubois had let the matter go on till he had full evidence to produce by seizing the emissary with all the papers, which he then laid before the astonished regent. The duke and duchess of Maine were instantly seized, the duke confined at Dourlens, in Picardy, the duchess in the castle of Dijon. Cellamare was arrested, as Gyllenborg, the Swedish envoy, had been in London, his papers examined, and himself conducted to the frontiers. To justify this seizure of an ambassador, two of the letters which he had sent by Portocarrero were printed, and a circular addressed to all the foreign ministers in Paris, explaining his offences. Cardinal Polignac, M. de Pompadour, and other of the chief conspirators were also apprehended, and the scheme was thus completely crushed.

Meantime, the duke of St. Aignan, the French minister at Madrid, aware of what was going on, had demanded his audience of leave. Alberoni had eluded his demands under one pretext or another, anxious to retain him in his hands as a guarantee for the safety of Cellamare; but Aignan, perceiving his drift, quietly departed from Madrid, and made the best of his way towards France. Expecting pursuit and detention, he quitted his carriage near Pampeluna, and took his way across the mountains on a mule, thus safely reaching the frontiers. Hi« apprehensions were soon justified; he was pursued, and his servant arrested in mistake for himself. Alberoni lost no time in warning Cellamare in Paris of what had taken place, and yet urging him, before providing for his own safety, to bring the conspiracy to a crisis. Before his letter arrived the conspiracy had reached a crisis, the reverse of what he hoped; and his letter to Cellamare falling into the hands of the French government, became the public evidence of his clandestine attempts against it. There remained, therefore, nothing for it but for his master, Philip, to hardily justify the Spanish proceedings as measures fairly directed against a spurious and illegal administration in France; and there was nothing for it on the part of the regent but to proclaim war against Spain - a measure which England had long been urging on him. The English declaration appeared on the 17th of December, o.s. and the French on the 9th of January, n.s., 1719.

The Spanish affairs gave a handle to the opposition in parliament, which had met on the 11th of November. The addresses in both houses were opposed. In the lords the earl of Strafford led the attack; in the commons, Walpole; but they were boldly answered by lord Stanhope in the lords, who declared that it was high time to check the growth of Spanish ambition and protect our trade, and that he was willing to stake his head oa the support of Byng's proceedings. Walpole, in the commons, was zealously backed by Shippen and Wyndham, and as ably replied to by Mr. Craggs; and in both houses the addresses were carried, in the lords by a majority of eighty-three against fifty, and in the commons by two hundred and sixteen against one hundred and fifty-five. On the declaration of war there was a still larger majority in the commons, and Byng was loudly applauded.

In this session Stanhope and his colleagues endeavoured to undo the arbitrary measures of 1711 and 1714, the Occasional Conformity Bill and the Schism Bill. Stanhope would have made a strenuous effort to abolish not only these laws, but the Test Act itself; but Sunderland, though equally liberal, was more prudent, and showed that, to attempt too much was to ruin all; and when they came to introduce their greatly modified measure - that of annulling only some of the less prominent clauses of the Test Act under the name of a bill for strengthening the protestant interest - they found so much opposition that Sunderland's discernment was fully justified. Not only the two archbishops and some of the bishops opposed the measure, but the great whigs, the duke of Devonshire and earl Cowper. Cowper, though he expressed himself willing to abolish the Schism Bill, stood stoutly for the Test and Corporation Acts as the very bulwarks of our constitution in church aud state; whilst the earl of Isla declared even this moderate measure a violation of the union with Scotland. On the other hand, the bishops Hoadley, Willis, Gibson, and Kennett, supported the bill, which, however, was not carried without considerable mutilation; and had Stanhope introduced such a measure as he proposed, including even considerable relief to catholics, the whole would have been lost.

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