This summer marks the 350th anniversary of the Raid on the Medway. The historic battle, in which the Dutch launched a successful and daring assault on the English, is generally regarded as one of the country’s greatest naval disasters. Here, Dr Keith McLay, historian and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, provides a compelling account of this key event in local, national and international history, when the River Medway was engulfed in flames.
"And the truth is, I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone"
Thus did Restoration diarist and Secretary of the Navy Board, Samuel Pepys, record the Dutch raid on the Medway anchorages of Chatham and Gillingham on 12 June 1667. Led by the celebrated Admiral, Michiel de Ruyter, the attack by the Dutch Navy was daring, unexpected – as late as the morning of the 12th, Pepys was assured that the Dutch had been stopped at Sheerness with additional fortifications also laid up river – and ignominious for England. Not only did the Dutch come so close to London as to set off widespread panic throughout the city, prompting King Charles II to waylay his future war plans and seek peace, but the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Royal Charles, which only seven years previously had carried a triumphant Charles home from exile to restoration on the thrones of the British Isles, was carried off.
The raid on the Medway proved to be the final act in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which began in March 1665. Historians typically view the early-to-mid 17th century as the ‘Golden Age’ for the Dutch United Provinces (the seven provinces which we know today as the Netherlands). Then the dominant European naval power by far, its Admiralty protected Dutch mercantile and commercial interests overseas by securing the Atlantic, Levant and East Asian trade routes. Trading under this security, and able to settle and create trading posts across the globe, the United Provinces was not only economically buoyant but also culturally and politically strong.
England had challenged Dutch supremacy some 12 years previously when, during the First Anglo-Dutch War, 1652-1654, the navy of the Cromwellian Protectorate had some success in claiming control of the Channel and the seas around mainland Britain, as well as securing a monopoly on trade with its colonies. However, mercantile tensions, particularly with respect to overseas trade and settlements, remained. Indeed, within a decade, these commercial, mercantile and colonial disputes proved to be the wellsprings for a second war.
Despite English trading gains at the conclusion the first war, the Dutch continued to trade freely while a tariff system maintained a limit on English trade. The Restoration monarchy and key members of Charles’s Court, his brother, James, Duke of York, and the Keeper of the Privy Purse, Henry Bennett, 1stEarl of Arlington, felt this economic competition keenly. By 1663, both were arguing strongly that another war against the United Provinces would be to the nation’s advantage. There was a personal element to this counsel as both the Duke and Arlington stood to benefit if the English trading companies in which they were involved, such as the Royal African Company, could displace the Dutch merchants on the most lucrative overseas routes. For the King, Charles II, always less interested in the finer details of mercantile policy, the motivation was the recognition that a successful war would help stabilise his restoration.
From late 1663, the Court sought to provoke the Dutch and engender national sentiment in favour of war. English merchants and privateers were encouraged to attack Dutch settlements overseas, including New Amsterdam (subsequently, New York) on the North American eastern seaboard, while a campaign of maritime insult was instituted by the Royal Navy and the other English vessels by refusing to return the customary salute to Dutch ships on passing; within two years, war was officially confirmed.
The war was almost exclusively fought by the two nations’ navies in home waters or overseas along the trade routes. There were three celebrated naval battles in the first two full years of the conflict. On 13 June 1665, a combined total of around 200 ships engaged off the Sussex coast at Lowestoft. Then, the Duke of York, commanding the Royal Navy and showing considerable naval skill, secured a crushing victory over the United Provinces fleet led by Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam. Unable to capitalise on this victory by making gains overseas against the Dutch colonies and on the trade routes, it is generally considered that the Royal Navy came off the worst almost a year later at the Four Days Battle. Between 1 and 4 June 1666, in what remains one of the longest naval engagements in history, a Royal Naval fleet of around 80 ships under George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, engaged Michiel de Ruyter’s command of approximately 85 vessels off the North Foreland at the eastern end of the Isle of Thanet. The two fleets slugged it out broadside to broadside until, on the fourth day, De Ruyter managed to break the English line in three places, destroy 10 ships and thereby cause Albemarle to disengage.
The remaining naval battle in 1666, and the final one of the war, was contested in late July. Again off North Foreland, Albemarle (albeit alongside Charles’s cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine) and De Ruyter were brought back together in contesting commands of around 90 ships each. The outcome of the St James’ Day Battle was a resounding victory for the Royal Navy: between 25 and 26 July, the Dutch line was broken and its squadrons separated, forcing De Ruyter to steer a course back to port. Unlike after the battle of Lowestoft, the English took advantage of this St James’s Day victory and the Dutch return to anchorage by despatching Rear Admiral Robert Holmes with small squadron of eight ships to wreak havoc on the islands of Vlieland and Terschelling, which lay in the estuary that provided the principal access to the North Sea for the Dutch Admiralty. Holmes’s success in burning a merchant’s fleet of over 100 vessels and sacking the town of West-Terschilling in many respects foreshadowed the Dutch penetration of the Medway a year later.
By 1667, the raid up the Medway had been long in the planning. Indeed, De Ruyter’s intent prior to the St James’s Day Battle had been to lead to an expeditionary force to destroy the Royal Navy while the bulk of its vessels lay at its Chatham anchorage being repaired. Frustrated then in the summer of 1666 by the weather, the failure of the French to make good on their promised support and the English fleet weighing anchor ahead of time, the Dutch returned to their blueprint for attack in May 1667. On this occasion, they were assisted by an empty English Exchequer causing the majority of the larger English ships to be laid up at the Chatham anchorage and the Court being deaf to intelligence, which suggested that such an attack was likely. The latter also contributed to the lack of defensive counter-measures along the Medway estuary and in front of the Chatham and Gillingham dockyards.
When Dutch fleet reached the Isle of Sheppey on 10 June, it made light work of the unfinished fortification Garrison Point and was able to turn into the estuary largely unimpeded by the English commander of the Medway, Sir Edward Spragge, who could bring to bear only the frigate HMS Unity. Now realising the gravity of the situation, overnight the King ordered Albemarle to take charge and that the ‘Gillingham Chain’ in front of the Chatham anchorage be bolstered. As we know from Pepys’ diary, it was nonetheless too little too late. On 12 June, the chain was broken and the Dutch wreaked havoc among the Royal Navy’s anchorages with some 13 ships lost and two, including HMS Royal Charles, towed away.
Dr Keith McLay, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities
The successful raid proved precipitous. Almost immediately, the King ordered the signing of the peace treaty, which had been discussed for some months at Breda. Notwithstanding the English gains in the treaty, such as New York and the victories during the course of the war off Lowestoft, the St James’s Day battle and Holmes’s attacks in the Vlie, Pepys astutely captured the impact of the Raid on the Medway. Writing in his diary on 29 July, just prior to the signing of peace, he noted: “Thus in all things… the Dutch have the best of us, and do end the war with victory on their side.”
Dr Keith McLay is Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and an early modern military and naval historian.
Banner image © Kevin Clarkson. Artwork reproduced by kind permission of the artist, Kevin Clarkson, and the Guildhall Museum, Rochester.