PortCities London

Trinity House

A military role

The Spanish threat

Elizabeth I, 1533-1603
View full size imageElizabeth I, (1533-1603). © NMM
Trinity House has sometimes had a military function. Towards the end of the 16th century, Elizabeth I was concerned about the rising threat of a Spanish invasion. She ordered Trinity House to prepare for war, as part of its charter.

In response, Captain Robert Salmon (Master of Trinity House 1588-89) wrote to Lord Burghley, the Queen's advisor. Salmon told him that it was possible to fit out 30 merchant ships in four days for the use of the Lord High Admiral, Lord Henry Seymour.

Golden Lion Lord Henry Seymour Armada 1588
View full size imageThe Golden Lion, commanded by Lord Henry Seymour in 1588. © NMM

Lord Seymour ordered Captain Salmon to 'go with his galley and make ready to guard the mouth of the Thames'.

As it turned out, the Trinity ships did not see any action against the Spanish in 1588. Nevertheless, the threat from the Armada had been real enough.

Mutiny and invasion

A View of the Frigates Stationed in the Hope under the Command of the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House.
View full size imageTrinity House frigates stationed in the Hope, c. 1803. © NMM
Trinity House was called on once more in 1797 during the naval mutiny at Nore. The Trinity Elders removed or destroyed all the beacons and buoys along the Thames. This effectively stopped the mutineers from being able to navigate to the open water of the English Channel.

The only other time in the history of Trinity House when they armed their ships to protect the coast was during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1803 they were formed into the Trinity House Volunteer Artillery. They blockaded the Thames at Lower Hope as a defence against a threatened French invasion.

Putting out the lights

HMS Royal Prince and Other Vessels at the Four Days Fight, 1-4 June 1666
View full size imageHMS Royal Prince at the Four Days Battle, 1-4 June 1666. © NMM

On only three occasions during its history has Trinity House put out its lights or removed buoys. The first time was during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67).

Charles II and his government insisted that all beacons and buoys be removed from the coast and from the Thames. Unfortunately, more of the English fleet were sunk because of this action than by the Dutch Navy at the Four Days Battle in June 1666.

Convoy arriving off St. Anthony's Lighthouse, Falmouth
View full size imageConvoy off St Anthony's Lighthouse, Falmouth, 1942. © NMM

During the First and Second World Wars Trinity House's lights remained off, but they were occasionally relit for the use of Allied shipping and fleet movements.

This image shows a convoy arriving off St Anthony's Lighthouse at Falmouth. The Trinity lighthouse was painted in camouflage colours.

Wartime risk

Turning off the lights in wartime was a risky business. On 28 October 1915, the cruiser HMS Argyll was wrecked on the Bell Rock.

Bell Rock Light House during a storm from the North East.
View full size imageBell Rock lighthouse during a storm from the north east. © NMM
The Bell Rock light had been turned off as wartime custom demanded. But the light had been requested to be turned back on for the Argyll. Due to some hitch it was not put on until it was too late. The lighthouse can be seen in this J. M. W. Turner drawing.