American Revolution: Battle of Flamborough Head

Bonhomme Richard battles HMS Serapis
Public Domain

The Battle of Flamborough Head was fought September 23, 1779, between Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis and was part of the American Revolution (1775 to 1783). Sailing from France in August 1779 with a small squadron, noted American naval commander Commodore John Paul Jones sought to circle the British Isles with the goal of wreaking havoc on British merchant shipping. In late September, Jones' ships encountered a British convoy in the vicinity of Flamborough Head off the east coast of England. Attacking, the Americans succeeded in capturing two British warships, the frigate HMS Serapis (44 guns) and the sloop-of-war HMS Countess of Scarborough (22), after a protracted and bitter fight. Though the battle ultimately cost Jones his flagship, Bonhomme Richard (42), the victory cemented his place as one of the preeminent American naval commanders of the war and greatly embarrassed the Royal Navy.

John Paul Jones

A native of Scotland, John Paul Jones served a merchant captain in the years before the American Revolution. Accepting a commission in the Continental Navy in 1775, he was appointed as the first lieutenant aboard USS Alfred (30). Serving in this role during the expedition to New Providence (Nassau) in March 1776, he later assumed command of the sloop USS Providence (12). Proving an able commerce raider, Jones received command of the new sloop-of-war USS Ranger (18) in 1777. Directed to sail for European waters, he had orders to assist the American cause in any way possible.

Arriving in France, Jones elected to raid British waters in 1778 and embarked on a campaign that saw the capture of several merchant vessels, an attack on the port of Whitehaven, and the capture of the sloop-of-war HMS Drake (14). Returning to France, Jones was celebrated as a hero for his capture of the British warship. Promised a new, larger ship, Jones soon encountered problems with the American commissioners as well as the French admiralty.

A New Ship

On February 4, 1779, he received a converted East Indiaman named Duc de Duras from the French government. Though less than ideal, Jones commenced adapting the vessel into a 42-gun warship which he dubbed Bonhomme Richard in honor of American Minister to France Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac. On August 14, 1779, Jones departed Lorient, France with a small squadron of American and French warships. Flying his commodore's pennant from Bonhomme Richard, he intended to circle the British Isles in a clockwise fashion with the goal of attacking British commerce and diverting attention from French operations in the Channel.

Commodore John Paul Jones. Hulton Archive / Stringer/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

A Troubled Cruise

During the early days of the cruise, the squadron captured several merchantmen, but issues arose with Captain Pierre Landais, commander of Jones' second largest ship, the 36-gun frigate Alliance. A Frenchman, Landais had traveled to America hoping to be a naval version of the Marquis de Lafayette. He was rewarded with a captain's commission in the Continental Navy but now resented serving under Jones. Following an argument on August 24, Landais announced he would no longer follow orders. As a result, Alliance frequently departed and returned to the squadron at its commander's whim. After an absence of two weeks, Landais rejoined Jones near Flamborough Head at dawn on September 23. The return of Alliance raised Jones' strength to four ships as he also had the frigate Pallas (32) and the small brigantine Vengeance (12).

Fleets & Commanders

Americans & French

  • Commodore John Paul Jones
  • Captain Pierre Landais
  • Bonhomme Richard (42 guns), Alliance (36), Pallas (32), Vengeance (12)

Royal Navy

  • Captain Richard Pearson
  • HMS Serapis (44), HMS Countess of Scarborough (22)

The Squadrons Approach

Around 3:00 PM, lookouts reported sighting a large group of ships to the north. Based on intelligence reports, Jones correctly believed this to be a large convoy of over 40 ships returning from the Baltic guarded by the frigate HMS Serapis (44) and the sloop-of-war HMS Countess of Scarborough (22). Piling on the sail, Jones' ships turned to chase. Spotting the threat to the south, Captain Richard Pearson of Serapis, ordered the convoy to make for the safety of Scarborough and placed his vessel in a position to block the approaching Americans. After Countess of Scarborough had successfully guided the convoy some distance away, Pearson recalled his consort and maintained his position between the convoy and approaching enemy.  

First Shots

Due to light winds, Jones' squadron did not near the enemy until after 6:00 PM. Though Jones had ordered his ships to form a line of battle, Landais veered Alliance from the formation and pulled Countess of Scarborough away from Serapis. Around 7:00 PM, Bonhomme Richard rounded Serapis' port quarter and after an exchange of questions with Pearson, Jones opened fire with his starboard guns. This was followed by Landais attacking Countess of Scarborough. This engagement proved brief as the French captain quickly disengaged from the smaller ship. This allowed Countess of Scarborough's commander, Captain Thomas Piercy, to move to Serapis' aid. 

A Bold Maneuver

Alert to this danger, Captain Denis Cottineau of Pallas intercepted Piercy allowing Bonhomme Richard to continue engaging Serapis. Alliance did not enter the fray and remained apart from the action. Aboard Bonhomme Richard, the situation quickly deteriorated when two of the ship's heavy 18-pdr guns burst in the opening salvo. In addition to damaging the ship and killing many of the guns' crew, this led to the other 18-pdrs being taken out of service for fear that they were unsafe.

Using its greater maneuverability and heavier guns, Serapis raked and pounded Jones' ship. With Bonhomme Richard becoming increasingly unresponsive to its helm, Jones realized his only hope was to board Serapis. Maneuvering closer to the British ship, he found his moment when Serapis' jib-boom became entangled the rigging of Bonhomme Richard's mizzenmast. As the two ships came together, the crew of Bonhomme Richard quickly bound the vessels together with grappling hooks.

The Tide Turns

They were further secured when Serapis' spare anchor became caught on American ship's stern. The ships continued firing into each other as both side's marines sniped at opposing crew and officers. An American attempt to board Serapis was repulsed, as was a British attempt to take Bonhomme Richard. After two hours of fighting, Alliance appeared on the scene. Believing the frigate's arrival would turn the tide, Jones was shocked when Landais began indiscriminately firing into both ships. Aloft, Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning and his party in the main fighting top succeeded in eliminating their counterparts on Serapis.

Moving along the two ships' yardarms, Fanning and his men were able to cross over to Serapis. From their new position aboard the British ship, they were able to drive Serapis' crew from their stations using hand grenades and musket fire. With his men falling back, Pearson was forced to finally surrender his ship to Jones. Across the water, Pallas succeeded in taking Countess of Scarborough after a prolonged fight. During the battle, Jones was famously reputed to have exclaimed "I have not yet begun to fight!" in response to Pearson's demand that he surrender his ship.

Aftermath & Impact

Following the battle, Jones re-concentrated his squadron and began efforts to save the badly damaged Bonhomme Richard. By September 25, it was clear that the flagship could not be saved and Jones transferred to Serapis. After several days of repairs, the newly taken prize was able to get underway and Jones sailed for Texel Roads in the Netherlands. Evading the British, his squadron arrived on October 3. Landais was relieved of his command shortly thereafter. One of the greatest prizes taken by the Continental Navy, Serapis was soon transferred to the French for political reasons. The battle proved a major embarrassment for the Royal Navy and cemented Jones' place in American naval history.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Flamborough Head." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Revolution: Battle of Flamborough Head. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Flamborough Head." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).