HOLMES, Sir Robert (c.1622-92), of Whitehall and Carisbrooke Castle, I.o.W.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



26 Oct. 1669
Mar. 1679
1690 - 18 Nov. 1692

Family and Education

b. c.1622, 3rd s. of Henry Holmes of Mallow, co. Cork, and bro. of Sir John Holmes. unm. 1 da. Kntd. 27 Mar. 1666.1

Offices Held

Cornet (royalist) by 1643; capt. RN July 1660, r.-adm. 1666-72; capt. of Sandown Castle, I.o.W. Oct. 1660-7, indep. co. I.o.W. 1669-87, Princess Anne’s (later 8) Ft. 1687-9; gov. I.o.W. 1668-d.2

Page to Prince Rupert 1647.3

Freeman, Portsmouth 1661, 1666, Winchester 1669; j.p. Hants 1669-d.; v.-adm. Hants and I.o.W. 1669-May, 1692; keeper of Boldrewood walk, New Forest by 1672-?d.; ‘chief burgess’, Newtown 1677-d., mayor 1680-4; commr. for assessment, Hants 1690.4


Holmes’s grandfather, of Lancashire origin, fought in the Elizabethan wars in Ireland and was nominated provost of Mallow in the charter of 1612. Holmes himself was engaged in military affairs from his youth, serving in the Cavalier army in the Civil War. By 1647 he was in attendance on Rupert in France. He distinguished himself in Rupert’s privateering fleet during the second Civil War, and then served as a mercenary soldier in France, Germany and Flanders. ‘A very bold and expert man’, he returned to England well ahead of his patron with the rank of major, and was rewarded with a naval commission and a military command in the Isle of Wight. His attack on the Dutch settlements on the Guinea coast in 1664, by which he was alleged to have got £40,000, began the second Dutch war. Promoted to rear-admiral, he distinguished himself by the destruction of the Dutch East India fleet in 1666. He remained in high favour with Rupert, and with the eclipse of Lord Sandwich (Edward Montagu I) and (Sir) William Penn it was said that Holmes and his fellow-Irishman Sir Edward Spragge governed most business of the navy. As a second string to his bow he attached himself to Buckingham, acting as his second in his notorious duel with the Earl of Shrewsbury.5

At the end of 1668 Holmes was appointed captain and governor of the Isle of Wight. ‘He supported the dignity with much propriety, and by his constant residence acquired great popularity.’ In the following year he was returned for Winchester at a by-election. A moderately active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, he was named to 35 committees, including the committee of elections and privileges in three sessions, twice acted as teller, and made four recorded speeches. He was among those appointed to consider bills to improve the art of navigation (18 Nov. 1669) and to encourage a device sponsored by (Sir) Philip Howard for preserving ships (10 Nov. 1670). He was listed in the court party by the Opposition in 1671. Before the third Dutch war, he was ordered to intercept the Smyrna fleet in the Channel, but his attack was unsuccessful. He took part in the battle of Sole Bay, but received no further command at sea, despite pressure from Rupert. He was granted a pension of £500 per annum and fee-farm rents worth £600 per annum.6

When Buckingham was accused of responsibility for the attack on the Smyrna fleet, Holmes told the House on 14 Jan. 1674 that he had his orders from the Duke of York as lord high admiral. He was among those instructed to inquire into complaints about the press-gang a week later, and about abuses of the militia laws in the spring session of 1675. He was also appointed to a committee for granting Rupert a monopoly for his steel process. In a rowdy scene in the House on 10 May about British subjects in the French forces, he quarrelled with Lord Castleton (George Saunderson). In the autumn he was named to the committees to bring in a bill regulating customs duties on various commodities, and to hear a petition from the Isle of Wight against the local customs officials for exacting several extraordinary fees. Information was given to the House that the collector of customs at Southampton had aspersed Holmes and the islanders by saying that ‘the inhabitants were a company of mutinous persons, and the governor was ready upon all occasions to join with them’. The collector was sent for in custody, but released on making a full submission. Meanwhile Holmes had spoken twice on the naval programme, though he disappointed Samuel Pepys by failing to support his demand for large ships. He hoped for a share ‘in the trouble and danger of this fleet’, and on 4 Nov. explained to the House:

Whoever builds hulls must be at as great a charge for other materials as for hulls, and [he] sees not how you can come up to your vote unless you provide masts, sails, cables, standing and running rigging. He therefore moves to double the sum for your materials.

He acted as teller against an appropriation clause, and was included in the list of officials in the House. He was rewarded with over 3,000 acres of forfeited Irish estates. He was an eye-witness of the brush between Andrew Marvell and Sir Philip Harcourt on 21 Mar. 1677, and Shaftesbury marked him ‘thrice vile’. In A Seasonable Argumenthe was described as

first an Irish livery boy, then a highwayman, now bashaw of the Isle of Wight. Got in boons and by rapine £100,000. The cursed beginner of the two Dutch wars.

On 7 Feb. 1678 he was appointed to the committee to consider the papers tabled by the ordnance office and the Admiralty. He was teller against the address for the removal of counsellors on 10 May, and helped to prepare reports on the pay due to the newly raised forces and defects in the prohibition of French imports. Although his name appeared on both lists of the court party, he went over to the Opposition in the final session, and was ordered by the King to return to his duties in the Isle of Wight. Hence he was probably absent from the debate on Danby’s impeachment, and, unlike (Sir) Stephen Fox, was able to keep his post, which he held on a life patent.7

Holmes was entrusted with the management of the government interest in the three Isle of Wight boroughs in the Exclusion elections, and was returned himself for Newport, two miles from his official residence, at the first general election of 1679. His only committee was to hear a petition from certain foreign merchants who claimed that their goods had been wrongfully condemned as prohibited French imports. It was expected that the Commons would demand his dismissal, Shaftesbury classed him as ‘vile’, and he voted against the committal of the first exclusion bill. Though his acquisition of the manor of Thorley from Thomas Lucy gave him some claim to be regarded as a local landowner, he was blacklisted in the ‘unanimous club’, and replaced by John Leigh of the country party in the second and third Exclusion Parliaments. He sought to reconcile the Duke of Monmouth with his father in 1682, but the duke repudiated that part of the message in which he ‘refused to have anything to do with the Duke of York’, and the King was very angry with Holmes for adding the offensive phrase. Threatened with a court martial for false musters in 1684, he deferred a hearing through his interest with William Blathwayte, and seems to have escaped serious consequences.8

At the general election of 1685 Sunderland ordered Holmes to find a seat for the solicitor-general, the Hon. Heneage Finch I; but he does not seem to have done so. He regained his own seat at Newport, but did not become an active Member of James II’s Parliament. He was appointed only to the committees to examine the disbandment accounts and to propose remedies for the low price of wool and corn. He gave affirmative answers on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws, and was recommended for re-election as court candidate. According to one report, he hoped for the command of the fleet in 1688, but it was given to Lord Dartmouth (George Legge). He promised in September to keep a seat for Pepys in the Isle of Wight if he could, but warned him of the increase in discontent: ‘I was never so afraid as I am at present’, he wrote, ‘for fear of those devils falling upon me’. At the general election of 1689 he was returned for Yarmouth, where he had built himself a handsome house. According to Anthony Rowe he voted to agree with the Lords that the throne was not vacant; but he easily accommodated himself to the new regime and retained his governorship, despite a complaint from Sir Robert Dillington, 3rd Bt., about the quartering of soldiers at Knighton. His only committee was to draw up an address for the defence of the island and other vulnerable territories (18 June). On 25 Nov. he was given leave of absence for a month to attend the King’s service, and he is unlikely to have been present for the divisions on the disabling clause in the bill to restore corporations. He was returned for Newport in 1690, but died on 18 Nov. 1692, aged 70, and was buried at Yarmouth. His younger brother, Sir John, had lost his favour by marrying beneath him, and it was his elder brother’s son, Henry Holmes of Kilmallock, who inherited his property and interest on marrying his illegitimate daughter, and sat for Yarmouth as a Tory from 1695 to 1717.9

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: Paula Watson


  • 1. Worsley, Hist. I.o.W. 267; Torrington Mems. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xlvi), 180.
  • 2. R. Atkyns, Vindication (1669), 28; CSP Dom. 1660-1, p. 327; 1668-9, p. 118; Cal. Treas. Bks. ii. 167; Bulstrode Pprs. 61.
  • 3. E. Warburton, Mems. Prince Rupert, iii. 241.
  • 4. R. East, Portsmouth Recs. 356, 359; Winchester corp. assembly bk. 6, f. 53; Cal. Treas. Bks. iv. 838; Hants Field Club Pprs. ii. 100.
  • 5. Add. 14294, f. 29; CSP Ire. 1611-14, p. 303; DNB; Warburton, iii. 351, 387; Worsley, 267; Harl. 7020, f. 38v; Clarendon, Life, iii. 80; Pepys Diary, 24 June 1666, 17 Jan., 3 Dec. 1668.
  • 6. Worsley, 140; Cal. Treas. Bks. iv. 174, 247, 617; Williamson Letters (Cam. Soc. n.s. viii), 54; PRO 31/3, bdle. 127, f. 239.
  • 7. Grey, ii. 259; iii. 381, 402; iv. 330; Morrah, 391; Dering Pprs. 82; CJ, ix. 367, 374, 556; Pepys Naval Mins. (Navy Rec. Soc. lx), 13; HMC 12th Rep. IX, 79; Finch diary, 10 Feb. 1679; PRO 31/3, bdle. 142, f. 2.
  • 8. Pepys Further Corresp. ed. Tanner, 338, 342; HMC Ormonde, n.s.v. 96; vi. 316; PRO 31/3, bdle. 152, ff. 31-34; VCH Hants, v. 285; HMC Popham, 262; CSP Dom. 1683-4, p. 354.
  • 9. CSP Dom. 1685, pp. 21, 97, 100; 1687-9, p. 276; Hatton Corresp. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxiii), 91; Bryant, Pepys, iii. 269; Worsley, 140, 267; CJ, x. 112; Pepys Diary, 8 Apr. 1668; PCC 203 Fane.