“The Medway Raid is the military apogee of the Netherland’s Golden Age.”
By John Danielski
IT IS THE greatest heist of the 17th Century, but does not involve gold, jewels, or chests of treasure. It is not the private caper of a baroque Danny Ocean and 11 master criminals, but is a state sponsored enterprise of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Its chief object represents treasure of a kind, but it is much more psychological booty than physical; theft of the prestige of the English nation. Its successful capture carries the potential to end a war.
The article in question is 168 feet long on the principal deck, weighs 1,700 tons, and England’s sovereign considers the item a “she” rather than an “it.” She is The Royal Charles, an 80-gun warship that is the flagship of the English fleet. King Charles II takes great pride in the vessel that bears his name. Under her former name, The Naseby, she was ship that transported him from exile in the Hague to London, where he was triumphantly restored to his throne.
Charles is an intelligent monarch who knows much about ships and plays an active role in naval affairs. It is he who proposes all midshipmen pass a rigorous examination before receiving a commission — a major step in the creation of a truly professional service. He introduces the yacht design to England and one his numerous mistresses becomes the model for the nautical Britannia used on English coins. His advisors inform him the anchorage of The Royal Charles is impregnable.
The highest ranking Dutch statesman, Johan de Witt, devises a daring plan to capture The Royal Charles. Burning the vessel would rob the English of a considerable naval asset, but taking her as a prize of war would represent a huge political victory for the up-and-coming maritime power.
De Witt, who holds the innocuous sounding post of Radd Pensionaris — literally grand pensionary — of the Province of Holland, is actually the most powerful individual in the Dutch Republic. He is as brilliant a diplomat and administrator as he is a naval thinker. The great build up of the Dutch fleet prior to the war has been almost entirely his doing.
De Witt knows England has not yet recovered from a horrendous visitation in 1665 of the bubonic plague. The outbreak, which spanned a year, killed 75,000 in London alone. The Great Fire deals the city another blow the following year. Both events have greatly reduced the financial resources of London and rebuilding the city is expensive. Charles is close to broke. Ship-building supplies are running low, numerous vessels remained unfinished, and dockyard workers and sailors are angry because they had not been paid for many months. This, De Witt realizes, is exactly the time to apply pressure in an unexpected spot.
A strike on the Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway will do more than the usual burning and sinking of ships. He will aim his raid straight at English pride; humiliate the country by bringing back as prizes as many of its vessels as he can. The Royal Charles will represent the greatest trophy of all.
Tied up with affairs of state, De Witt is unable take part in the raid himself, but sends his younger brother Cornelius to accompany the brilliant Admiral Michiel de Ruyter who will command. Cornelius admires de Ruyter greatly and the two form an effective operational partnership.
The Second Anglo-Dutch Naval War began in 1665 over issues of trade but was really about dominance of the seas since it involved the two premier naval powers of the age. Two years of fighting have proven bloody but inconclusive and both sides are weary of the conflict.
Peace negotiations at Breda are close to producing a treaty, but the British are dragging their feet over several minor points. They need a push to do the right thing. DeWitt believes a Medway raid will prove a game changer.
The Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway, which flows into the Thames near its mouth, is the chief shipbuilding facility in England as well as home to much of the British Fleet, including The Royal Charles. It is 11 miles from the open sea and its main defenses are the sandbanks, mudflats, and zigzagging channels of the Medway and the Thames. Both rivers are hard to navigate without the aid of skilled pilot and frequent headwinds can make upriver progress difficult.
Fire-ships at Chatham stand ready to engulf any hostile vessel that approaches. A 14.5-ton iron chain boom blocks the way into the dockyard. The mouth of the Thames is defended by a fort at Sheerness. Upnor Castle will dispute any Dutch attempt to pass through the Medway narrows. In theory, the Chatham Yard is a very tough nut to crack.
Lack of money, carelessness, and outright ineptitude render the reality of the dockyard defenses far less formidable. Upnor Castle has been turned from fortress into storage facility and is manned by only 30 men who are little more than glorified supply clerks. The fort at Sheerness remains unfinished due to a shortage of money. The immediate defenses of dockyard itself are also incomplete and no marines or soldiers are assigned as a garrison.
De Ruyter’s fleet of 80 warships carrying 4,000 soldiers arrives at the mouth of the Thames on June 6, 1667. They are unopposed since Charles has unwisely laid up much of his fleet as an economy measure; he believes a peace is close. The best the English can do is remove the buoys and channel markers on the Thames.
De Ruyter quickly discovers that a number of English pilots are so disgruntled at not being paid that they are willing to serve the Dutch in return for gold. Peter Pett, the dockyard superintendent and current head of a famous dynasty of shipbuilders, waits three days after the first appearance of the Dutch before fully mobilizing the dockyard defenses. He cites a lack of funds.
De Ruyter’s soldiers are led by a highly competent English colonel named Thomas Dolman. Dolman has been outlawed by the English government for refusing to accept the restoration of King Charles and offered his services to the Dutch in angry response. His men successfully storm the fort at Sheerness after a preliminary naval bombardment and later level the place. A regiment of hastily assembled, untrained Kentish militia retreats without firing a shot.
On June 7, an English peace commissioner arrives on a Dutch Ship with a treaty for Charles to sign. De Ruyter and De Witt allow him to proceed to London but nonetheless decide to continue with the operation against the Dockyard. It will give Charles an added incentive to quickly agree to the terms.
London is in an uproar over the appearance of the Dutch. Many fear the enemy will sail right up to Westminster at any minute. The English response is hasty and ill coordinated. The Duke of Albemarle, who commanded the English fleet in the largest naval engagement of the age, the Four Days Battle in June, 1666, is placed in charge. He assembles a force of 800 veterans and marches them to the dockyard. Unfortunately, these veterans turn out to be broken men years removed from their prime and likely useless in battle. Albemarle issues orders for the Royal James and Royal Charles to be moved upriver. The Royal James is moved; the Royal Charles is not.
The Dutch assault the gigantic iron boom that protects the dockyard at Gillingham on June 12. Wind and tide are against the English, so their fire ships are not employed. Twenty-two sail of the line move boldly forward, but the leading Dutch warships are repulsed with effective cannon fire directed by Albemarle himself.
Captain Jan van Brackl of the Vrade, a hard bitten sea dog under arrest for insubordination, volunteers his ship to draw English fire, while the De Ruyter brings up fire ships with strongly reinforced bows to puncture the chain. The Vrade is shredded from hails of round shot and grape, but ploughs on, coming face to face with the 44-gun frigate Unity positioned in front of the chain. Brackl reserves his fire until the last second then unleashes a crushing broadside. His men throw grapnels, bind the ships together and Brackl himself leads the boarding party, screaming like a banshee and waving a cutlass. Unity’s crew puts up a tepid defense and most of her 150 men jump overboard. A small prize crew sails Unity away from the boom and a path is opened for the fire ships. The first fire ship bounces off the chain but the second continues its advance.
The second fire ship hits the boom hard enough to break several links attached to posts which keep it above the water. The weight of the severed chain sinks it low enough for other Dutch ships to pass. Sparks from the fire ship ignite two British warships nearby, The Matthias and the Charles V. British longboats packed with men armed with swivel guns and muskets receive contradictory orders from several commanders—unity of command is nowhere in evidence— and withdraw in confusion. The Dutch fleet pours through the gap.
Albemarle orders the warships Monmouth and Royal Charles moved farther up the Medway to safety, but the Royal Charles cannot comply since she is only half-rigged, has a skeleton crew, and just 32 of her guns are mounted in place. There is no time to arrange a tow and she is captured by the Dutch with a singular lack of drama. That night, Cornelius de Witt pens a triumphal dispatch from the Admiral’s cabin of the Royal Charles.
The English sink 16 of their own as yet unarmed warships to prevent their capture.
The following day, Dutch proceed upriver. Albemarle has by this time placed fifty big guns from the Tower of London in Upnor Castle and ringing the dockyard. The guns at Upnor are well handled by the seasoned naval captains Thomas Scot and Sir Edward Spragge. The heavy and effective fire prevents the Dutch from passing any further upriver toward the supply center at Rochester.
Despite the fury of the bombardment, the Dutch burst into the main anchorage at Chatham. Under storms of shot, they run fire ships alongside the great warships Royal Oak, Royal James, and Loyal London, and set them ablaze. The British defense is disorganized; save on the Royal Oak. Captain Archibald Douglas, with a contingent of Scots soldiers, puts up a heroic defense and dies with the ship.
Two more fire ships set additional, lesser vessels alight. Giant clouds of black smoke from 13 burning ships make it difficult to breathe the Medway air.
The Dutch begin their withdrawal from the Medway on June 14 with the Royal Charles, Unity, and several smaller vessels in tow. They are fired on at intervals as they proceed down the Medway. With English pilots no longer willing to serve after the recent battles, navigation of the twisting river proves slow and difficult. Several vessels ground on mud banks but are skillfully pulled clear. Their English opponents grudgingly acknowledge that the Dutch are fine sailors.
The Dutch return home in triumph and national pride swells to unprecedented heights with the widespread exhibition of the Royal Charles. She is eventually docked and made a tourist attraction. The Medway raid is the military apogee of the Netherland’s Golden Age. Cornelius de Witt receives 30,000 guilders for his part in the undertaking. Michiel de Ruyter is rewarded with numerous medals and celebrations throughout the country: his reputation as the Netherland’s greatest admiral is assured. A heroic portrait of him painted in 1668 is prominently displayed at the Dutch National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam.
England is shaken and angered by the reverse. Peter Pett becomes the sacrificial lamb for the debacle and is forced into retirement, dying in obscurity in 1672. Charles signs the peace treaty at the end of June, 1667. The terms are not entirely favorable to England but Charles is hardly in a position to argue. He has no money for further war and English pride is at an all-time low. Enough issues are left unsolved by the treaty to guarantee another war in the not too distant future.
The Royal Charles was scrapped in 1673, but a striking remnant of her has survived. For art lovers, the highlight of Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum is Rembrandt’s most famous painting, “The Night Watch.” But for lovers of nautical history, the museum’s best piece is a hundred yards away in an adjoining gallery. It is an extraordinary wooden sculpture similar in dimensions to the 12 x 15 feet of the great painting, and represents the Royal Arms of England. The huge lion and unicorn from the stern of the Royal Charles may seem out of place on a floor devoted to art from the Netherland’s Golden Age, but actually are quite appropriate. They represent an exquisite ornamental reminder of the day that the tiny Netherlands humbled the greatest naval power of the time.
John Danielski is the author of the Pennywhistle Quartet, a series of novels set in the Napoleonic period. These include: Active’s Measure, The King’s Scarlet, Blue Water, Scarlet Tide, and Capital’s Punishment. Danielski has worked as a living history interpreter at Fort Snelling, a journalist and has taught history at both the secondary and university levels. Visit his website here.