The Royal Navy’s Darkest Day: Medway 1667

8 mins read
Patrick Boniface recalls one of the most humiliating defeats in the history of Britain’s Royal Navy.

To the people of Chatham the approaching ships on the River Medway must have looked impressive. Under full sail a Dutch flotilla was racing towards the Royal Navy stronghold intent on causing maximum damage. The June 1667 raid on the Medway would go down in history as one of the worst disasters to befall the Royal Navy. But it was one that could so easily have been avoided.

Budget cuts are not new. In 1667, on the order of King Charles II, much of the Royal Navy was laid up and left inactive due to lack of finance. Yet Britain was at war with the Dutch, who viewed this lapse in defence as a great opportunity.

What they achieved was both brilliant and calculated, as well as being an exceptional display of bravery and seamanship. The Dutch sailed right up the River Medway and attacked the British fleet at their anchorages at Chatham. By the end of the attack, the Royal Navy had lost three capital ships and ten smaller vessels, while HMS Unity and the pride of the British fleet, HMS Royal Charles, had been captured and taken as war prizes back to the Netherlands.

The British had been caught napping, as their extensive spy network on the Continent had given clear indications that something was being planned. But as the attack took shape, all the Royal Navy’s available ships were deployed in the wrong locations – further up into the North Sea around Harwich, the expected target of any Dutch aggression.

In truth, the British admirals had regarded an assault on Chatham as extremely unlikely, since it was some miles inland and lay behind treacherous shoals in the Thames Estuary.

The Anglo-Dutch Wars

The Anglo-Dutch Wars were fought for control of the seas and of important trade-routes to the rest of the world. England had built an impressive navy under King Henry VIII, and later Queen Elizabeth’s ships, under the likes of Sir Francis Drake, embarked on long-range privateering missions, mostly against the Spanish. At that time the Dutch were Protestant allies against Catholic Spain, with the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585 leading to direct English support for the Dutch Revolt.

The following 40 years saw a shift in allegiances, with relations between Spain and Britain improving, while the Dutch built the largest merchant fleet in the world. This fleet took over the Portuguese trade in spices to the Far East. To defend their merchantmen, the Dutch also expanded their Navy.

King Charles I (1625-1649) made a secret agreement with the Spaniards in January 1631 to attack this growing Dutch dominance. At great expense, he built a number of spectacular warships, including HMS Sovereign of the Seas. Eight years later, however, relations with the Spaniards deteriorated: during the Battle of the Downs, a Spanish treasure fleet under Dutch attack sought refuge in English waters and was denied it. Even so, the King’s lack of action in relation to these events antagonised Dutch supporters at home and contributed to the outbreak of the Revolution in 1640.

The Civil War weakened the Royal Navy to the point that the Dutch Navy quickly became superior in size and power. But with Oliver Cromwell’s victory came a rebuilding of British naval strength and a growing belligerence towards the Dutch, who were considered ungrateful for British support against the Spaniards, to have over-fished the North Sea, and to have usurped much of Britain’s trade with the West Indies and North America.

The Navigation Acts

Early in 1651 Cromwell sought to ease tensions by sending a delegation to The Hague proposing that the Dutch Republic join the Commonwealth and assist the English in conquering Spanish America.

This barely veiled attempt to end Dutch sovereignty began a countdown to war. The ruling peace faction in the States of Holland was unable to formulate an answer to Cromwell’s unexpected and far-reaching offer. The pro-Stuart Orangists in Holland incited mobs to harass the envoys. When the delegation returned, the English Parliament, offended by the Dutch attitude, became set on confrontation.

In October 1651 the first of a series of new Navigation Acts was passed. They stated that all goods imported into England were to be carried in English ships. This excluded the Dutch from lucrative trade; it was also an open invitation to pirates to take any Dutch ship they encountered.

The Dutch responded by employing armed merchantmen. The resulting clashes continued until the Battle of Goodwin Sands on 29 May 1652, after which war was declared between England and Holland on 10 July.

The First Dutch War began with victory for the English at the Battle of the Kentish Knock in October 1652, but the Dutch took the honours at the subsequent Battle of Dungeness and Battle of Leghorn. The latter victory gifted control of the Mediterranean to the Dutch.

In 1653, however, at the Battle of Portland, the Dutch were routed by a reinvigorated Royal Navy, a victory further reinforced at the Battle of Gabbard. The First Dutch War ended on 5 April 1654 with the Treaty of Westminster.

After the Restoration in 1660, King Charles II (1660-1685) was said to be ‘mad for war’ – and he chose the Dutch for his enemy. He restarted privateering missions against the Dutch merchant marine. It was this aggression that triggered a new war – a war of short duration, culminating in the Dutch raid on the Medway of June 1667.

The Dutch Plan

The Dutch first came up with plans for a raid on Chatham in 1666, but this was postponed following their heavy defeat during the St James’s Day Battle off North Foreland that year. The Dutchman credited with formulating the raid was politician Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt.

Dutch Admiral Cornelius De Ruyter

De Witt had grown frustrated with King Charles II’s prevarications during peace talks, and decided that a decisive victory was required to force the British monarch’s hand. Dutch commanders doubted his scheme would succeed without great losses in ships and men, but their navy did hold two aces, in the shape of a pair of disenchanted river pilots who had defected from Britain. One of them was the appropriately named Robert Holland.

Between 17 May and 4 June, Dutch Admiral Cornelius De Ruyter sailed his ships between Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Schooneveld, accumulating the strength required for the planned onslaught. He eventually headed across the North Sea with 62 ships-of-the-line, 15 smaller vessels, and 12 fireships.

During the passage, the fleet was reorganised into three squadrons. De Ruyter commanded the first, Lieutenant-Admiral Aert Jansse Van Nes the second, and Lieutenant Admiral Baron Willem Joseph Van Ghent the third; the latter had done most of the detailed planning for the operation, and would eventually lead the assault into the River Medway.

Two days later, on 6 June, a fog bank cleared slowly to reveal the Dutch fleet in the approaches to the Thames Estuary. The next day, Cornelius de Witt’s sealed orders to his commanders were opened. The Dutch officers were incredulous at the audacity of the plan, and they openly expressed their fears. Famously, Admiral De Ruyter’s reply was simply ‘bevelen zijn bevelen’ (‘orders are orders’); with that, the Dutch Navy prepared to attack.

The English defences

Only three guard ships had been left at Chatham – on the orders of the Duke of York – along with three fireships and some small rowing-boats. This left Chatham and neighbouring Sheerness dangerously exposed. English morale was low, and leadership extremely poor, from King Charles II downwards. To make matters worse, the men had not been paid for months by the parsimonious Restoration government.

In the five days it had taken the Dutch to reach the mouth of the Thames, no effective defences were put in place. On arrival, the Dutch force manoeuvred through the treacherous shoals, with the aid of the British river pilots, before leaving the heaviest and largest ships as a covering force for the subsequent withdrawal of the smaller and more manoeuvrable ships that were to make the actual journey up the Medway.

The Commissioner of Chatham Dockyard, Peter Pett, raised the alarm on 6 June, but nothing much happened during the next three days, as 30 Dutch ships under Van Ghent’s command sent troops onto Canvey Island and to Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey. The troops were ordered not to plunder, so as to shame the British, who had sacked the town of Terschelling the previous August. Some of the men disobeyed the order, and smashed their way through the small town.

On hearing news of the attack on Sheerness, King Charles II ordered the Earl of Oxford to mobilise the militia from all around London. He also ordered all barges in the London area be used to create a causeway on the Lower Thames linking Kent and Essex, providing a bridge for troops to cross from one side to the other. Meanwhile, on 9 June, the Dutch landed on the Isle of Grain, opposite Sheerness.

The Dutch attack

Depiction of the Dutch attack on the Medway. Upnor Castle can be seen in the backdrop, centre-left.

The next day, Admiral George Monck, the Duke of Albemarle, was sent to Chatham. When he arrived, he found just 12 men out of the 800 employed at the dockyard on duty, no gunpowder for the guns, and no gun protection for the iron chain used to block the river.

In desperation he quickly assembled as many guns as he could from London,

Gravesend, and garrisons across Kent. This took precious time.

The incomplete Sheerness fort was under bombardment from the Dutch fleet, led by the frigate Vrede, by 10 June. The only British ship present was HMS Unity, which soon withdrew under withering fire from the Dutch guns. Eight hundred Dutch marines landed to reinforce those already ashore at Sheerness.

On 12 June, the Dutch sailed up the River Medway. They soon captured HMS Unity, before bombarding the English defences and destroying the iron blockchain stretched across the river. The British Matthias was soon af lame, and fireships were launched against HMS Charles V. (The Dutch did not get it all their own way, however: shore batteries succeeded in destroying the Catharina.)

Dutch sailors then boarded King Charles II’s favourite warship, the flagship of the Royal Navy, HMS Royal Charles, and sailed her off to the Netherlands. The attack left the anchorage ablaze and only HMS Monmouth afloat.

The greatest damage was caused by panic measures. The British had sunk numerous blockships in anticipation of the Dutch ascent of the river, and they now sank an additional 16 warships further up the river to prevent them falling into Dutch hands, bringing the total British losses as a result of the raid to more than 30 vessels.

Andrew Marvell wrote at the time:

Of all our navy none should now survive, But that the ships themselves were taught to dive.

The Dutch then proceeded into the docks, sailing the fireships Delft, Rotterdam, Draak, Wapen van Londen, Gouden Appel, and Princess around the bend in the Medway and within range of the guns of Upnor Castle. Casks of oil, pitch, and tar stored on the decks were set alight, and the vessels were then steered in the direction of ships at anchor. Soon three more Royal Navy ships – HMS Loyal London, HMS Royal James, and HMS Royal Oak – were aflame; they would later sink in the muddy waters of the River Medway.

A decisive victory

Having crippled the Royal Navy, Cornelius de Witt withdrew on 14 June, taking HMS Unity and HMS Royal Charles with them as trophies. The Dutch fleet then made marauding attacks on the East Anglian coast, but by this time British resistance had stiffened and the Dutch were eventually repelled.

Of the sunken ships, HMS Royal James, HMS Royal Oak, and HMS Loyal London were eventually salvaged and rebuilt, though at great expense. In fact, the cost of rebuilding the Loyal London was so great that the City of London refused to pay for it. The irony no doubt caused wry smiles in the taverns among anti-royalist supporters of the ‘Good Old Cause’. The King’s response was to rename the ship HMS London.

Three years after the raid on the Medway, the Royal Navy was a still a shadow of its former self. But, like a sleeping giant roused from its slumber, it embarked on a new building programme in 1670 that would, within a few years, make the Royal Navy the world’s premier maritime force, rivalled in size only by the French Navy.

Medway Council is running a series of events and exhibitions commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Medway. For more information visit www.new.medway.gov.uk/news-and-events/bom.

1 Comment

  1. The Dutch admiral Cornelius De Ruyter as portrayed in this article was actually Admiral Michiel Adriaanszoon De Ruyter.
    A statue of this admiral is found today in his city of birth, the coastal town “Vlissingen” (Flushings) in the far south-west of The Netherlands

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