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Keats, Sir Richard Goodwin (1757–1834), naval officer, was born at the vicarage at Chalton in Hampshire on 16 January 1757, the elder son of Richard Keats, curate of Chalton, headmaster of the free grammar school, Tiverton, rector of Bideford, and domestic chaplain to the duke of Clarence, and of his wife, Elizabeth. He entered New College School at Oxford in 1766 and was admitted to Winchester College in 1768 but lacked scholastic aptitude and was glad to enter the Royal Navy as a protégé of the earl of Halifax.

Early career

Keats joined the Bellona (74 guns) on 25 November 1770 under Captain John Montague, and accompanied him to the Captain (74 guns) in 1771 when Montague was promoted rear-admiral and appointed commander-in-chief of the North American station. There he sent Keats to the sloop Kingfisher, commanded by his son James, who took the youth on with him to the Mercury (20 guns). They participated in several small boat actions, and, after the conquest of Rhode Island in December 1776, Keats returned to Admiral Montague, his flag then in the Romney (50 guns) as commander-in-chief at Newfoundland, which Keats was to govern in the next century. After his return to England he was promoted lieutenant (7 April 1777) into the Ramillies (74 guns) under Captain Robert Digby and was present at Augustus Keppel's inconclusive action with D'Orvilliers off Ushant a year later, the only major engagement in home waters during the American War of Independence. In 1779 he went with Digby to the Prince George (98 guns) where Prince William (later duke of Clarence and then William IV) was a midshipman in his watch for well over two years. Keats and Thomas Foley, another lieutenant who as a captain was also to be of Nelson's brotherhood, saw to the prince's professional education, and, in the words of Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Byam Martin, ‘but for them his youthful spirits and propensities might not have been checked with such good judgement’ (Kennedy, 47). They were present at the relief of Gibraltar in 1780 and 1781, when Keats followed Digby to the Lion (64 guns) and was promoted commander (18 June 1782) into the sloop Rhinoceros, which had been fitted out as a floating battery for the defence of New York. He went on to command the Bonetta, another sloop which took a leading part in taking the French frigate Aigle in the Delaware on 15 September 1782. She returned to England in 1785 and paid off. Unemployed, Keats went to live in France for four years; he returned to be made post (24 June 1789) into the Southampton (32 guns) at the request of the duke of Clarence who aspired—unrealistically—to foreign service as war approached.

In French and Spanish waters

In 1793 Keats was appointed to the London (98 guns) in command but the ducal flag failed to materialize and in 1794 she was paid off, Keats going to command the Galatea (36 guns) in the frigate squadron led by Sir John Borlase Warren and then by Sir Edward Pellew off the west coast of France. In 1795 he saw the sadly mismanaged landing by French royalists at Quiberon, and off that coast he had the satisfaction of emulating, if on a smaller scale, Lord Hawke's successful disregard of a pilot's advice when on his own initiative he chased the larger French Andromaque into the shoals near Arcachon until she struck the ground and her colours on 23 August 1796. His return to home waters in 1797 was marred by his being turned out of his ship when the naval mutiny spread from Portsmouth to Plymouth, where Keats was ill-supported by Warren. He was appointed to the faster Boadicea (38 guns) and returned to French waters, firmly putting down an incipient mutiny. Keats's transit of the Brest roads by night, his capture of three large privateers and merchant ships, and his sagacious retreat on discovering Bompart's force (about which he warned Warren in time for him to defeat the threatened invasion of Ireland), were much to his credit. In April 1800 when Earl St Vincent came out to command the Channel Fleet his benevolent detachment of Keats put him in the way of several more prizes, until 22 February 1801 when he was given command of the Superb (74 guns) with which his name will always be associated.

In July 1801 Keats's detachment on blockade isolated him from Rear-Admiral Sir James Saumarez's first engagement with the Spaniards. He made up for it a week later when, after heroic repair work at Gibraltar, Saumarez got to sea on 12 July with five of the line, including the Superb, and two frigates to pursue a Franco-Spanish squadron twice its size. Following it into the Mediterranean, the admiral lost touch and told Keats to harass the enemy rear. This he instantly did, outsailing the fleet by the minute at over eleven knots until ‘I found myself abreast of a Spanish three deck ship which, having been brought with two other ships, in nearly line abreast, I opened my fire upon them’ at not more than 300 yards of the unsuspecting Real Carlos (112 guns), into which he fired three broadsides before she responded.

This evidently produced a good effect, as well in this ship as the others abreast of her, which soon began firing at each other, and, at times, on the Superb. In about a quarter of an hour, I perceived the ship which I was engaging, and which had lost her fore-top-mast, to be on fire; upon which we ceased to molest her, and I proceeded on to the ship next to hand, which proved to be the San Antonio of 74 guns … wearing a broad pennant and manned nearly equally by 730 French and Spanish seamen … which after some action struck her colours … I learn that in the confusion of the action the Hermenegildo, a first rate ship, mistaking the Real Carlos for an enemy, ran on board of her and shared her melancholy fate. (Keats papers, Som., ARS)
Superb's surgeon thought the explosion of the two Spanish ships ‘sublime and appalling’; Saumarez, who had seen L'Orient go up in Abu Qir Bay, said ‘so awful a scene I have never yet witnessed’ (Kennedy, 255). It may have been only an incident in the long French wars but it is still a memorable event and probably the best-known in Keats's career. Saumarez was made KB: for far less effort and gain Sir John Duckworth was at the same time similarly honoured, with General Trigge, for snapping up with no casualties the Danish and Swedish islands in the Caribbean. Keats received the thanks of parliament and saw his first lieutenant promoted. He remained in the Mediterranean under Sir Richard Hussey Bickerton through the brief peace, and was blockading Toulon when Nelson arrived to take the command in July 1803.

With Nelson—but not at Trafalgar

Nelson was quick to perceive Keats's merits. Given fourteen days sick leave, he returned, still unwell, after nine rather than deprive the squadron of his ship. In October Nelson told the duke of Clarence that his mentor was ‘a most valuable officer and does honour to your friendship. Every day increases my esteem for him as an officer and as a man’ (16 Oct 1803, Dispatches and Letters, 5.248); in December he was described as ‘a treasure to the service’ (7 Dec 1803, ibid., 5.302). Nelson's mercurial temperament was such that he often exaggerated his expressions of praise or blame; his regard for Keats was constant and considerable. In January 1804 Keats achieved what Nelson saw as the complete diplomatic defeat of the dey of Algiers over the British consul. Nelson wrote to express his ‘full and entire approbation’ of his conduct (19 Jan 1804, ibid., 5.380), and told Lord Hobart that there had been ‘nothing but rage and violence on the part of the dey and firmness on the part of Captain Keats, the stamp of whose character, if it was not so well known by his actions, is correctly marked by his sensible, clear letters’ (20 Jan 1804, ibid., 5.381).

But in 1805 came professional dismay. Renowned for her sailing qualities—she had romped away from the flag off Algeciras—the Superb was now foul and needed careening; she had become Nelson's slowest ship, and the West Indian dash in March 1805 after the fruitless search up the Mediterranean made her captain apprehensive of being left behind. Nelson reassured him that he should ‘have neighbour's fare in everything’, and expressed his concern ‘that you may think that the Superb does not go as fast as I could wish … I desire that you will not fret upon the occasion’ (Nelson to Keats, 8 and 19 May 1805, Dispatches and Letters, 6.429, 442). Keats kept his studding sails perpetually set, sailing on when the squadron paused; there is no evidence that his ship hindered any of Nelson's intentions. She and her captain were remembered a century later in Sir Henry Newbolt's The Old Superb, set to music by Sir Charles Stanford. When the squadron returned to Plymouth, Victory and Superb pressed on to Portsmouth, Keats dining with Nelson, and discussing sympathetically Sir Robert Calder's action. Since joining the Superb (19 March 1801) and putting her into dockyard hands (22 August 1805), Keats had spent only one night out of her, and that because of the dey of Algiers, in those four years and five months. He met his admiral once more at Merton; it was to Keats that Nelson propounded his Trafalgar tactics, intended to bring about ‘a pell mell battle which is what I want’ (C. Oman, Nelson, 1951, 589).

But Keats was to miss Trafalgar, and it rankled. Having recommissioned Superb, he was detained at Plymouth while the Admiralty decided in which ship Sir John Duckworth should hoist his flag as third in command to Nelson. Lord Barham and his board procrastinated, Duckworth seemed keener to wait for his band—an Italian quartet—and for some of his old protégés, than to get to sea. All this was anathema to Keats, whose diary suggests a belief that he was simply giving Duckworth passage to his new command where a flagship awaited him, and who found that it was no longer Nelson to whom they reported on 15 November off Cadiz, which they blockaded for two weeks. There followed another Atlantic dash, the second within a year for Keats, when Duckworth lifted the blockade in pursuit of a French squadron with which he failed to deal, though Keats's opinion of that abandoned chase on Christmas eve is a corrective to William James's early nineteenth-century account. Yet again the diary conveys a note of resignation—Duckworth's flag ‘being still in the Superb’—until the victory off San Domingo lightened the tone. But admiral and flag captain were temperamentally so much at loggerheads that they seldom spoke, occasionally even communicating in writing, though this did not prevent them from winning a neat little victory which, after Richard Strachan's action on 4 November 1805, virtually ended the power of the French battle fleet. Duckworth went into action making the seldom quoted signal ‘This is glorious’; Keats silently hung a portrait of Nelson on the mizzen stay. Each received the appropriate gold medal. They rejoined the fleet in Cawsand Bay (13 May) when Duckworth went on compassionate leave. Keats, glad to be commanding a private ship once more, pleased to find himself a colonel in the Royal Marines and grateful for further parliamentary thanks, a 100-guinea sword from the patriotic fund, and a tribute from Duckworth for his ‘firm and manly support’ on 6 February, rejoined St Vincent and was sent to watch Rochefort as a commodore with a captain under him. Tucker was told that Keats rose in the estimation of the earl upon every report that he received on or from him, and that a baronetcy seemed appropriate; Keats was apparently consulted, but nothing came of the notion, although St Vincent rated him ‘the most promising Officer on this side the Atlantic [sic] … who must soon be at the head of our fleets’ and told him that he had ‘done everything becoming the character of a great Officer’ (Memoirs of Earl St Vincent, 316–17, 319).

Expeditions and governorships

Keats was relieved in April to command a secret expedition; its cancellation enabled him to take some sick leave from which he was recalled to hoist his pennant in Ganges (74 guns) and sent to reinforce Admiral James Gambier in the Baltic. Detached to safeguard the Great Belt, Keats welcomed the advent of the Superb, to which he shifted his pennant and in which, promoted rear-admiral on 2 October 1807, he hoisted his flag—an additional compliment from their lordships. He helped escort the Danish fleet to England in November and recuperated until appointed in April 1808 to convoy General Sir John Moore's expeditionary force to Göteborg. Saumarez sent him again to the Great Belt, where again he flew his flag in the old Superb. He was instrumental in rescuing the Spanish marqués de La Romana and his force, deployed by Napoleon and then garrisoning Danish territory, and anxious to return to Spain to support the rebellion against French occupation. The masterly evacuation of over 9000 troops and all their artillery and stores brought Keats a well earned KB; he took for his arms the motto on the Spanish commemorative medal—Mi patria es mi forte. Lord Mulgrave observed to Saumarez that his second had ‘conducted his service with his customary talent, zeal and judgement’ (25 May 1808, Memoirs and Correspondence, 1.114). Keats remained in the Baltic, assuming the overall command while Saumarez wintered in England and he and a reduced squadron were frozen into Winga Sound for Christmas 1808. In July 1809 he brought home a convoy of more than 400 ships. Within days of this he was off on the abortive campaign to the Scheldt, second in command to Richard Strachan; they were safely back by 8 September and in November the Superb, which had been Keats's virtual home for nine years as captain, commodore, and admiral, was taken out of commission. He went on leave to recruit his health and in 1809 was appointed governor of Malta ‘which appointment however he soon afterwards resigned’ on grounds unknown. He was recalled in July 1810, to hoist his flag in the Implacable (74 guns; Captain Cockburn), ‘in a manner that could not be declined and that made health a secondary consideration’, and to command off Cadiz, under French threat (Keats papers, Som., ARS). He supported several expeditions, including one from Algeciras which occasioned the battle of Barossa (5 March 1811). Having been advanced to vice-admiral on 1 August, and given the choice of joining the Mediterranean Fleet or remaining in command off Cadiz, he opted to become second in command to Sir Charles Cotton, who had succeeded Lord Collingwood in command of the Mediterranean station. But Keats's health continued to decline and he was invalided home in 1812. In 1813 he succeeded Duckworth as governor and commander-in-chief at Newfoundland, his flag in the Bellerophon (74 guns); the Anglo-American War (1812) did not concern him, and there was no activity to justify his recall to European waters. Peace offered no further employment and he hauled down his flag in 1816, having been advanced to GCB on the reconstitution of the Order of the Bath in 1815. He was promoted major-general in the Royal Marines on 17 May 1818, and admiral on 27 May 1825.

Final years and assessment

In 1821 Keats was appointed governor of the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, ‘an appointment which was the more acceptable and agreeable as it was unsought on his part, but most graciously bestowed by His Majesty at the recommendation of the First Lord [Melville], as a remuneration for his long years of toil and warfare in the defence and support of his country’ (Keats papers, Som., ARS). He became a member of the board of longitude until its demise in 1828 and in 1832 ex officio a director of the new Royal Sailingmen's Society which maintained a floating hospital in the Chanticleer off Millbank for Thames watermen.

Keats had been followed into the service by his nephew William, who entered as a volunteer on 30 September 1805. With his uncle, he missed Trafalgar but was present in the Superb at San Domingo and in the Baltic and, as his flag-lieutenant, at Newfoundland. He was promoted captain in 1826 but never employed. Admiral Keats did not marry until 27 June 1820 when, at the age of sixty-three, he wed Mary, eldest daughter of Francis Hurst of Alderwasley in Derbyshire; they had no children. He died, an admiral of the white, on 5 April 1834, his death hastened by the drowning of William's first wife a few weeks after her marriage. Keats was buried with full military honours at the express command of his old pupil, now William IV; the pall was carried by six full admirals in the presence of the full Board of Admiralty. His remains lie in a mausoleum in the grounds of his hospital, only a few miles upstream from Northfleet where his Superb had been built. For its chapel William IV commissioned a memorial, by Chantrey, to record their early naval service together, testifying to his ‘esteem for the exemplary character of a friend, and his grateful sense of the valuable services rendered to his country by a highly distinguished and gallant officer’ (DNB). Keats was a short man, stout and rather portly. He was neither taciturn nor loquacious, but urbane, and throve under difficulties. John Laughton's conclusion that Keats's fame rests on ‘countless minor excellencies rather than any achievement of transcendental brilliance’ is correct, but though he had no Trafalgar those ‘who knew him well have no scruple in placing him at the very head of our naval phalanx, having shown himself second to none in gallantry, genius or talent’ (DNB).

A. B. Sainsbury


DNB · NMM, Keats papers · Som. ARS, Keats papers · J. Ralfe, Naval chronology of Great Britain, 2 (1820), 81 · J. Marshall, Royal naval biography, 1 (1823), 342 · J. Ralfe, The naval biography of Great Britain, 2 (1828), 487 · The dispatches and letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, ed. N. H. Nicolas, 7 vols. (1844–6); repr. (1997–8) · W. James, The naval history of Great Britain, from the declaration of war by France, in February 1793, to the accession of George IV in January 1820, 5 vols. (1820–24); [4th edn] (1847) · E. P. Brenton, The naval history of Great Britain, from the year 1783 to 1836, 2 vols. (1837) · GM, 2nd ser., 1 (1834), 653 · L. Kennedy, Nelson's band of brothers (1951) · The memoirs of Earl St Vincent (1844) · Memoirs and correspondence of Admiral Lord de Saumarez, ed. J. Ross, 2 vols. (1838)


NMM, letter-book · Som. ARS, corresp. and papers |  BL, letters to Lord Nelson, Add. MSS 34919–34934 · BL, corresp. with William Windham, Add. MSS 37878–37879 · NL Scot., letters to Sir Thomas Graham · NMM, letters to Sir Thomas Foley · NMM, letters to Sir Thomas Graham · NMM, letters to Sir Samuel Hood · NMM, letters to Lord Melville · NMM, letters to Charles Yorke


Ridley and Blood, stipple, pubd 1808 (after H. Matthews), BM; repro. in W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy: a history from earliest times to the present, 7 vols. (1897–1903), vol. 5, p. 273 · J. Jackson, oils, 1822, NMM · W. Behnes, marble bust, 1831, Royal Collection · F. Chantrey, bust, 1835, Greenwich Palace Chapel · F. Chantrey, relief on memorial, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich