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And he used to be such a nice, quiet boy

Before Britainnia Ruled the Waves

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In the early morning mist of June 1667 the Dutch fleet sailed, unchallenged, and as silent as ghosts, up the Medway river.  Their target:  The British Navy at anchor within the confines of the Chatham shipyard.  No alarm was raised and the coastal defenses were spread far and wide.

No challenge came from the Navy either on water or ashore.  Apart from the odd farmer or fisherman the place seemed abandoned.  Their tired eyes scanned the shore and they prayed for the morning sun to pierce the fog.  All they could hear was the lapping of the waves and the creaking of their vessels.

The Medway raid was a forerunner of later naval and aviation raids such as Port Arthur, Taranto and most famously, Pearl Harbour.  It occurred at the climax of the second Anglo-Dutch war when Britain was on the ropes, financially and militarily.

The background goes back a good twenty years.  As civil war erupted in Britain the newly independent state of the Netherlands took advantage of the gap in trade.  They expanded their trade routes to America, the West Indies and later into the East Indies and Asia.  They bought and sold herbs and spices, furs and skins, and founded the most vigorous stock market on the Continent.  The British civil war petered out as Oliver Cromwell seized control.  After consolidating his power-base Cromwell’s next objective was to regain dominance of the trade routes.   This brought him directly into conflict with the newly enfranchised Dutch, triggering the first Anglo-Dutch war.

The war ended with no clear winner, indeed it seemed both sides were losing while Catholic Spain made most of the gains at their expense.  By the 1660s Cromwell was gone and a completely different type of man was at England’s helm.

Charles the Second was brave, personable, and diplomatically sound, but to sum up, he was a lover, not a fighter.  His romantic dalliances have filled volumes and need no repeating here.  He appointed his brother, the Duke of York, as High Admiral.  He bolstered his team with formerly land based Generals such as the warhorse, General Monk.  Another was the colourful Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

The second Anglo-Dutch war started over silly little things, such as raising and lowering flags and returning salutes.  They were exascerbated by the fact that Charles still owed large sums of money to William, the Stadtholder of the Netherlands.  Pouring petrol onto this bonfire was a lot of pride and arrogance from both sides of the North sea.  Not only that, it was poked and prodded by capricious merchants with their eyes on Africa.  Thus the fuse was lit on the Anglo-Dutch powder keg.

The war started well for the British, with a victory at the battle of Lowestoft and the construction of new, larger ships.  But the Dutch were not idle and, far from licking their wounds,  they were training new sailors and building seven vessels for every one in England.  They recalled their best Admiral from North America to give the Navy morale a huge boost.  Finally they forged links with France, a major world power.

A major slugging match ended in a draw at the Four Day Battle, and the St James’s day battle ended with a clear British success.  Finally victory seemed within Charles’ grasp.  However disaster would strike far from the sea of battle.  In 1665 a major plague in London broke out.  The following year the Great Fire destroyed England’s financial institutions.  None of this helped Charles’ rocky relationship with his financiers and naval cutbacks seemed the only option.  Very quietly he put out peace feelers, but by the early summer of 1667 his financial situation had become so desperate.  His unpaid army walked away from it’s guard posts.  The Navy languished at anchor and so the scene was set for the raid.

The politician, Johann De Witt planned the raid, and his brother, Cornwallis went along to supervise the assault.  The assembled fleet included 62 ships of the line, along with numerous lighters and ifreships that would be put to deadly use.  As a naval ballistic weapon  they predated torpedoes by more than 200 years.  They set sail of 4th June to find the Medway virtually abandoned.

The first Dutch marines were put ashore at the fort of Sheerness, quickly capturing it.  Contrary to expectations, the marines behaved well and correct.  The alarm had finally been raised, but in London the response was slow and lumbering.  The only serious opposition the Dutch encountered was a chain across the Thames which was easily broken.  Then a battery of cannons opened up, offering the first serious resistance of the day, but it was too little too late.  The fire-ships were lit and floated towards the helpless English fleet.  The caretaker crews on board were taken by surprise and panicked.

A few brave souls put up a fight, notables among them, Captain Archiebald Douglas, who fought the flames but perished amid his burning ship.  Many fine vessels went to the bottom of the Medway that day, although some were recovered to fight again.

It was at this point that the Dutch spotted the jewel in the crown of the British Navy.  The King’s ship, the Royal Charles stood proud and aloof as it’s namesake, and it was theirs for the taking.  The few crewmen on board had already jumped so it was just a case of attaching the tow ropes.  Along with Unity, another prize ship, she would be towed back to the Netherlands.

The Dutch engineers would now turn their attention to demolishing the dockyard facilities at Chatham, but they were out of time.  A scratch force of conscripts and horsemen were on their way east from London with all haste.  But regardless, the Dutch knew they had a real propaganda  coup against the English that would result in a peace more favourable to them.  And so it would prove.

Two more wars with the Dutch followed but Charles popularity suffered greatly from the raid.  The total losses amounted to £200,000 and few felt compelled to share the financial burden.

As for the prize ship, the Royal Charles,  she was taken home to Holland, but her deep hull was not designed for such shallow waters so she was dry-docked.  For many years she was a tourist attraction for visiting heads of state until finally she was broken up.  Only her transom  (the back end) remains, still bearing the lion and unicorn coat of arms.  You can still see it in the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands.

This dismal episode in British Naval history was neatly summed up by Samual Pepys, the secretary of the Navy.  He said:  “I think the Devil shits Dutchmen.”  Perhaps he was right.



Written by Nick Gilmartin

June 23, 2011 at 7:56 pm

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