Saturday, 31 March 2012

Wherein the Dutch Navy Doth Singe the King of England’s Wig…

Attack on the Medway
The Attack on the Medway

In June 1667, in the later stages of the Second Anglo-Dutch war, the unthinkable happened. The Dutch navy sailed up the river Thames to London. They returned to the Low Countries with a royal prize in tow – the largest ship of the English fleet – the Royal Charles, which had carried Charles II back to England from exile on 23rd May 1660.

War broke out between the two countries in the winter of 1663-4, when an English squadron reached the west coast of Africa, to support the Royal African Company - headed by the king’s brother, the Duke of York, against the Dutch. The squadron took an island north of the Gambia River & Cape Coast castle on the Guinea Coast. The Duke of York & Lord High Admiral had been intriguing for a war with the Dutch for some time & this excursion was the prologue.

War with the Dutch co-religionists was very popular in England, as the Dutch had control of the majority of the spice trade from the east. The first war with the Dutch had been concluded while England was still a Republic & the peace treaty forbad the province of Holland from allowing any member of the House of Orange to be its Stadtholder. The current head of the House of Orange was Charles’ nephew William, whose guardian Charles was.  

Charles II attempted to ally England with France, while some of his ministers preferred an alliance with Spain. Neither country wanted to fight the Dutch & England had no inducements sufficient to overcome this inertia. Indeed the French were already party to a commercial & defensive alliance with the Dutch, signed in April 1662. France stood to gain if the English & Dutch weakened themselves in a mutual war. Louis XIV used his influence at the Spanish court to persuade Spain to remain neutral.

In June 1664 English ships attacked the Dutch colony in America – the New Netherlands – which was under English control by October. In December the Dutch, under Admiral de Ruyter had taken back control of their African colonies taken the previous winter.

‘At noon to the Change at the Coffee-house, and there heard Sir Rd Ford tell the whole story of our defeat at Guinny – wherein our men are guilty of the most horrid cowardize & perfidiousness, as he says it and tells it, that ever Englishmen were. Capt. Reynolds, that was the only commander of any of the King’s ships there, was shot at by De Ruyter, with a bloody flag flying. He, instead of opposing (which endeed had been to no purpose, but only to maintain honour), did poorly go on board himself to ask what De Ruyter would have; and so yielded to whatever Ruyter would desire. The King & Duke are highly vexed at it.’[i]

In the same month the English navy was ordered to attack the Dutch merchant fleet en route home from Smyrna. The attack near Cadiz in January was a virtual failure as most of the Dutch ships escaped to continue their homeward journey. Only three were captured & one Dutch ship & two English ships sunk.

Admiral De Ruyter
The Dutch admiral Opdam lost his life in an engagement off Lowestoft on 13th June 1665 – the worst defeat in Dutch naval history. Twenty five Dutch ships were lost, sixteen of them sunk. But the Dutch fleet returned to the fray a mere two months later. In August 1665 Admiral de Ruyter’s ships were guarding the spice fleet. The fleet took the northerly route home, around Scotland. The King of Denmark agreed to let the English attack the Dutch fleet in harbour at Bergen, in exchange for a share of the spoils. Due to a misunderstanding the Danish harbour forts fired on the English, who retreated with the loss of 400 men killed, including 6 captains. The Danish now joined the anti-English alliance being built up by the Dutch.

From the spring of 1665 until the end of 1666 the Great Plague was rampaging through England. As the plague waned a second catastrophe caused the English grief – the Fire of London in September of 1666. The following winter saw Englishmen rioting against unemployment & high taxes (paying for the war). Meanwhile the Dutch were finding the costs of their war loans heinous. Both sides were moving slowly towards thoughts of peace.

Eventually in January 1666, concerned that the Netherlands would fall to the Hapsburgs & in view of his fixed intention to invade the Spanish Netherlands, Louis XIV in belated accordance with the 1662 treaty, declared war on England. But French input into the war was minimal. Louis’ envoys harried the English, who put forward proposals for peace which included the demand of a position for Charles’ nephew William & for £200,000[ii] indemnities.

In June 1666 the Four Days battle saw the defeat of the English fleet, under the command of the Duke of Albemarle, primarily a soldier, who was fighting the Dutch genius of De Ruyter & Tromp. This longest of all sea battles ended with the loss of four Dutch ships for the price of ten English ships.

In 1667 the English government decided not to send a fleet to see, but to destroy Dutch commence with privateers, while relying on coastal defences. By June the peace negotiations were flagging & the Dutch decided to implement a long nurtured plan to push the English back to the negotiating table.

The Dutch fleet arrived at Harwich on the 8th June with 80 ships:

‘Up and to the office, where all the news this morning is that the Duch are come with a fleet of 80 sail to Harwich, and that the guns were heard plain’[iii]

James, Duke of York
By the 12th June the Dutch had reached Chatham & broken the chain protecting the English fleet. The Dutch burnt four English ships & towed away the Royal Charles, at 80 guns the largest vessel in the fleet. The Dutch then sailed home unharmed with their prize.

‘But his clerk Powell doth tell me that ill news is come to Court of the Dutch breaking the Chaine at Chatham, which struck me to the heart …. For the news is true, that the Dutch have broke the Chain and burned our ships, and particularly the Royall Charles.’[iv]

‘No sooner up but hear the sad news confirmed, of the Royall Charles being taken by them & now fitting by them.’[v]

The audacious raid had the desired effect on English procrastination. The peace treaty between the two combatants was signed on 31st July 1667. It brought the English one substantial new overseas possession – the New Netherlands, which filled in a gap on England’s eastern American seaboard. New Amsterdam was renamed New York, a compliment to the king’s brother, James, Duke of York & Lord High Admiral.


The Later Stuarts 1660-1744 – Sir George Clark, Oxford University Press 1985

The Shorter Pepys – ed. Robert Latham, Penguin 1987

The Life & Times of Charles II – Christopher Falkus, George Wiedenfeld & Nicholson 1972

[i] Samuel Pepys 24th December 1664
[ii] £340,000,000 as at 2010 using average earning –
[iii] Samuel Pepys 8th June 1666
[iv] Samuel Pepys 12th June 1666
[v] Samuel Pepys 13th June 1666

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks, I have very little knowledge of this period, or indeed of this war bar vague knowledge of the names of those involved... this has increased my understanding greatly.