‘Learning a hard lesson : the Dutch in the Medway 1667’ – the 2017 Unilever Lecture

From the announcement in the Winter 2016-17 Newsletter:

The Anglo-Dutch relationship has deep roots in shared aversion to the hegemonic ambitions of Continental superpowers and Habsburg Spain, but they remained rivals at sea. Their contest for command of the sea dominated the seventeenth century maritime world, in the greatest purely naval wars in history. The conflict was ended by the graver threat of Louis XIV’s pan-European ambitions, but not before the Dutch Republic had demonstrated the power of ideas and experience.

The 1667 attack on the Medway pitted a republican system against Royalty, and ended in humiliation for the King. His flagship, the mighty Royal Charles, was towed away, to become a fairground attraction in Amsterdam. England, divided and short of money, had no answer to the sound finances of the Republic. Twenty years later the English imported sound financial methods, and a Dutch ruler, to bolster the coalition that stopped Louis XIV’s plans. Ultimately, post-1707, the British state became the dominant partner in the maritime coalition that sustained the European balance of power, the Republic and Britain. If 1667 was a profound shock, it forced the English to reform their state and follow a better model.

Professor Andrew Lambert is a Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies at King’s College. After completing his  research in the Department he taught at Bristol Polytechnic, (now the University of the West of England), the Royal Naval Staff College, Greenwich, and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and also Director of the Laughton Naval History Unit housed in the Department. His books include ‘Nelson: Britannia’s God of War’, ‘Admirals: The Naval Commanders Who Made Britain Great’ and ‘Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Exploration’. His highly successful history of the British Navy, ‘War at Sea’, was broadcast on BBC Two.

From the Report in the Spring 2017 Newsletter:

A record number of some 110 members of the Anglo-Netherlands Society filled the auditorium of Unilever building to its maximum capacity for the 27th Unilever lecture. Some members had positioned themselves on the steps, but for obvious safety reasons had to be moved to somewhat more comfortable and safer positions. Our Chairman Dick van den Broek introduced Ms Lysanne Gray, Executive Vice President Financial Control, Risk Management, Pensions & Sustainability, Finance at Unilever, who welcomed Members on behalf of our Patron of so many years.

It was an email from Events manager Connie Sangster that did it. Thinking that naval historian Professor Andrew Lambert would be the best person to lecture members on the reasons for the Battle of the Medway, she contacted him. His reply was immediate and his talk was illuminating. Not surprising perhaps because he is Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, a position he holds since 2001 during which he must have inspired, guided and encouraged hundreds of his students to make their knowledge of wars their profession.

Maybe he also tells them that if ever they give a lecture their talk should have a logical structure, show evidence of impressive research, be understandable to the layman (as most Society members are), be spoken with a clear voice, include illustrations and contain a touch of humour because these are the exact fundamentals our speaker displayed so abundantly.

King Charles II must have been besieged with insolvable problems. While he recognised the importance of trade, London merchants having complained to Parliament about the Dutch republic’s hegemony of the seas, his finances were weak, his navy ill-equipped and its seamen often unpaid. Professor Lambert went into detail: “the English navy had fallen into debt, leaving sailors and dockyard workers unpaid, demoralised and destitute. Unpaid workmen stole from the yard to feed their families, and attended to their own affairs.”

As to sovereignty over the seas, the King had the dynamic maritime economy of the United Provinces as his greatest competitor and while he needed trade and wealth he could not obtain from his Parliament the funds needed to acquire either of these benefits without losing his royal power. Besides, Charles and his brother James who was the Lord High Admiral, distrusted their Parliament which only 16 years earlier had voted for the execution of their father Charles I. They would rather see their Dutch nephew, stadtholder William of Orange regain power in their country than Raads Pensionary Johan de Witt who believed that having an hereditary head of state such as a Stadtholder, was incompatible with the interests of the merchant elite of the United Republic.

By way of curious circumstance our speaker reminded us that Charles II had arrived back to his Kingdom coming from the shores of the United Provinces so as to avoid any mention of France where he had been in exile during England’s Civil War. Professor Lambert said: “He arrived on board Cromwell’s great first rate flagship the Naseby which had been hastily renamed Royal Charles.”

Of course our speaker concentrated on the year 1667; the Second Anglo-Dutch War, explaining how the United Provinces’ Raads Pensionary Johan de Witt and fellow republican Michiel de Ruyter had been planning their strategy long before any fighting could begin. “Spies had been sent”, he said:”to report on the river, the defences and the possibilities and they asked themselves how to burn and destroy England’s ships and the dockyard at Chatham, how to blockade the Thames and  which would be the best winds and tides to cut off trade with London.”

The professor went on: “Henry VIII had recognised the Medway as an ideal location for a naval base, combining a slow stream and rock free river bed with shelter from the prevailing south westerly winds while the sinuous ten miles of river between the Thames Estuary at Sheerness and the bridge at Rochester offered security, and natural locations for fixed defences. It was the ideal position for supporting fleets operating in the Dover Straits and Southern North Sea, the battleground of the Dutch Wars. Under the Tudors Chatham Dockyard expanded to support the fleet when laid up in ordinary, with dry docks, slipways and storehouses linked to private shipyards along the Medway. Good local supplies of oak and iron supported shipbuilding. The construction of Upnor Castle was ordered by Queen Elizabeth in 1559 when almost the entire Navy Royal lay close by.”

Yet de Witt also had his doubts, the Professor again: “De Witt had spent the winter of 1666-67 refining his plan for the Medway which if successful would support the peace negotiations at Breda. Thus, a devastating raid would humble English arrogance and secure a satisfactory treaty. Recognising an opportunity to strike down an enemy of Dutch trade and make a dramatic statement of power de Witt hoped that the entire dockyard would be destroyed and the fleet captured rather than burnt. How far he envisaged using the ships as leverage and how far as propaganda is unclear. There is no evidence that he realised just how fragile the English state was, perhaps underestimating the possibility that it might collapse.”

Supported by maps of the Medway projected onto a large screen members were given a most detailed account of the battle: of the 80 ships including 51 battleships and a 3,000-man Marine landing force and how they reached the King’s Channel. Then this detail: “A Council of War on board de Ruyter’s flagship, de Zeven Provinciën that night revealed serious differences between de Ruyter and his admirals, fearful they might be trapped in the difficult navigation. Cornelis de Witt, the Civil Commissioner who was on board, urged his brother Johan’s demands for immediate action.”

Because the word “chain” is linked so closely to that of “Chatham” – to the Dutch at least – it was interesting to hear the Professor explain exactly how the chain was broken. “When two formations of de Ruyter’s ships were held up by a massive English chain stretched across the river and covered by the fire of armed guard ships, Captain Jan van Brakel, recognising the favourable north east breeze, offered to take his ship, the Vrede, (Peace!), close to the chain to support an attack by two fire ships which were small, manoeuvrable vessels packed with combustible materials and gunpowder that were run into larger enemy ships and set alight. The crew escaped in boats. This terrifying weapon which called for nerves of steel and superior ship handling was a Dutch speciality.”

It was easy for the Professor’s audience to imagine and understand the wish of de Ruyter’s men to crown their victory by lowering the morale of the enemy by going for their greatest prize: the English flagship Royal Charles. Some details from the Professor: “Having cleared the chain and floating defences the Dutch took possession of the Royal Charles, which had thirty two guns on board but no powder or shot, and very few men. The gunner and boatswain were tried for abandoning ship without setting it on fire and batteries built to secure the ends of the chain were overwhelmed by Dutch gunfire. It was now midday, de Witt and Admiral van Ghent boarded their great prize and discussed the next stage of their attack. De Ruyter was summoned from the fleet still at sea to advise on the next day’s work. That evening Cornelis de Witt, sitting in the Great Cabin of the Royal Charles, reported back to the Hague that the fleet had humbled the pride of the English.” There must have been quite some jollity on board the Royal Charles as she was towed across the Channel to Holland where eventually she was scuttled but not before her beautifully carved stern had been removed, preserved and later exhibited to this day. The return of the Dutch fleet to Hellevoetsluis on October 5th , the Zeven Provinciën symbolically leading the Royal Charles into captivity, prompted more celebrations with Admiral de Ruyter, Cornelis de Witt and van Ghent receiving elaborate gold cups to commemorate their heroism. The sale of the 32 bronze cannon from the English flagship provided prize money for her captors in 1668. Numerous medals were struck to mark the success.

The second Anglo-Dutch war having come to a disappointing end for a humiliated Charles II and his people and his Parliament, the King was compelled to consider serious compromises. He became increasingly alarmed by the ambitions and power of Louis XIV and needed to keep the French out of the Spanish Netherlands and restrict Louis’s power over the Channel and entrances into the rivers Scheldt, Maas and Meuse. A compromise seemed inevitable and was made in 1668 when The Treaty of Breda was signed on July 21st and ratified on August 22nd when all operations ceased.

The Professor ended his talk by mentioning the delicate matter of King Charles enticing the Dutch marine painters father and son Van de Velde to come and live in England, the defeat of his brother James when his very nephew stadtholder Willem of Orange landed on Torbay, opening the way to the Glorious Revolution and finishing with proving the strength of Britain’s current naval power with photographs of aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth now nearing completion.

In thanking Professor Lambert, our president Sir Michael Perry said: “You gave us such a well-balanced picture of the strengths of the naval forces of our two countries over the centuries. It was most impressive.”

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