It’s not often that you come across a medal that’s been created to mark a notable military defeat. This copper token was struck to commemorate the Battle of Toulon, a naval engagement between the Royal Navy and a combined Franco-Spanish fleet which was fought off the southern coast of France on 22nd February 1744. Although the outcome of the battle was indecisive and strategically irrelevant, the fact that a British fleet had come off worst against a smaller, more lightly armed foe, provoked consternation among the inhabitants of a nation that had come to view themselves as virtually invincible in any form of naval warfare.
Opinion immediately divided over the question of who was to blame for the debacle. Some chose to point the finger at Admiral Thomas Mathews, whose poor maneuvering during the opening stages of the battle had resulted in the foremost ships of the British line having to engage the entire enemy force single-handedly. Others argued that true blame lay with Vice-Admiral Richard Lestock, commander of the squadron at the rear of the fleet, who had held his forces back and watched as Mathews and the ships in the van had been knocked to bits by enemy fire. Mathews and Lestock were known to dislike each other and therefore it was suggested that the latter had deliberately sabotaged the battle in order to save his own skin and damage the reputation of his rival.
Although public opinion generally favoured Mathews version of events and hailed him as a hero for his courage during the battle, Lestock had connections in Parliament who were prepared to come to his rescue. The subsequent inquiry was a complete whitewash, with Lestock being totally exonerated whilst Mathews was condemned and cashiered from the service. The verdict provoked further outrage for seemingly punishing bravery and rewarding cowardice. This would eventually result in legislative changes to prevent politicians meddling in naval matters and discourage naval officers from failing to show sufficient aggression in battle. This change to the articles of war would eventually be used to justify the execution of Admiral John Byng in 1757.
The token carries a very detailed design and while examples are not rare, most are usually far more worn than the one shown here. Interpreting the meaning of the image is a matter of guesswork, as the lettering that has been cut into parts of the design suggests that it was originally supplied with a printed key that identified the various figures depicted. If we start on the right-hand side of the image above, we can see a representation of the Battle of Toulon in the background with the figure of either Admiral Mathews or Vice-Admiral Lestock hanging from a gibbet in the foreground. The fact that this figure has been represented in such an ambiguous way may have been deliberate, as it would have allowed an unscrupulous publisher to print off two different keys and sell tokens to the supporters of either man.
The left hand side shows ships attacking a coastal fortification whilst troops are being put ashore. The column of advancing soldiers appears to be led by a Gallic cockerel which is being set upon and savaged by a British lion, so we must assume that this is a reference to the French invasion that it was feared would follow in the wake of the defeat at Toulon. Ultimately these fears proved to be groundless, as although the French attempted to launch an invasion of Britain at the end of February 1744, their fleet was immediately beaten back into port by a combination of bad weather and fear of the prowling British Channel Fleet.