350 years since the Battle of Medway: 1667 - 2017
PUBLISHED: 10:47 04 December 2020 | UPDATED: 13:29 04 December 2020
Phil Lee Photographics
In June 1667, 350 years ago, an Anglo-Dutch naval battle on the Medway saw English defeat and the tide of history turned for ever. Article first published in June 2017
The implacable enemy penetrated deep into Kent, bombarding and capturing Sheerness, attacking Chatham and Gillingham. For six days the county was aflame as citizens cowered and the military endeavoured to fight back.
Is this some apocalyptic nightmare set in a bleak future, or did this actually happen? Yes it did, precisely 350 years ago.
The ‘lesser-known’ Anglo-Dutch Wars of the second half of the 17th century were almost wholly naval trade wars, the catalyst being English Navigation Acts aiming to give our shipping a monopoly in colonial trade.
The first war, fought between 1652-1654, saw the Dutch victorious off Dungeness, the English outnumbered, outgunned and outmanoeuvred.
The story went that Dutch admiral, Maarten Tromp, stuck a broom on his masthead, signifying his sweeping of the English from the seas. The Dutch were sufficiently dominant to lie off Dover, bombarding the harbour.
There were a dozen naval engagements before hostilities ceased with the Treaty of Westminster. Tromp, meanwhile, died, shot through the heart in one of those battles. The fragile peace only lasted around a decade.
The second war is the one that concerns us, a conflict lasting from March 1665 to July 1667. Continuing commercial rivalry between the two nations lay at its heart.
After some initial reverses, the Dutch secured a series of victories, aided and abetted from January 1666 by our old foe, the French.
It was a bad time for England, what with the plague and the Great Fire of London, and the Dutch proceeded to stick their collective boot in, as they gained the upper hand at sea.
The attack was two-pronged. A small squadron, under Lt-Admiral Van Ghent, penetrated the Thames, his attack beginning on 9 June 1667. His progress was slow, as he battled south-westerly winds, and that night he moored just below Gravesend. The more potent threat would come against the Medway, with Admiral-in-chief Michiel de Ruyter leading the way.
Henry VIII saw the danger in the previous century, albeit it was the French and Spanish he had in mind. Having established the naval dockyard at Chatham, he ordered the building of a fort at Sheerness, on Sheppey’s north-west tip, to prevent enemy ships entering the Medway and attacking Chatham.
Ironically, work was underway in 1667 to beef up these defences, when the Dutch attacked. The fort was destroyed and Kentish castle builders had to start over.
Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary for 11 June 1667: “Sheerness is lost last night, after two or three hours’ dispute. The enemy hath possessed himself of that place; which is very sad, and puts us into great fears of Chatham.” He was right to be afraid.
The Medway was badly defended, with English ships laid up due to lack of money (the plague and fire not helping). Soldier-politician George Monck was ordered to install a gun battery at Gillingham; however, the Dutch were already in the Medway. Having moored off Gravesend on the night of 9 June, they penetrated the Medway the next day and captured Sheerness.
It was only now the English looked at effective countermeasures, including laying an iron chain across the water at Gillingham, with a modest gun battery at either end, and the Unity posted just below the chain.
On 12 June the Dutch attacked, bursting through this makeshift defence, Unity was captured and the chain breached by Dutch fireships. The English fleet at anchor in the river was now all but defenceless. In the debacle that followed, fireships were again employed, home ships burnt, or ran aground attempting to flee. Job done, the Dutch withdrew from the Medway on 14 June, sailing some English ships away as prizes, including the Royal Charles, surely a humiliation for the ‘Merry Monarch’ (Charles II).
Upnor, backed by wooded hills, would become a resort and yachting base for the folk of the Medway, but the activity on the water here was far angrier 350 years ago.
The castle, built in 1561 to protect the Medway and approaches to Chatham, failed to halt the Dutch in 1667. The enemy sailed past, sank English men-at-war and sailed back again, all with relative impunity.
The war’s culmination came with the Kent attack and destruction of those English ships docked at Chatham, in fact, the raid is sometimes called The Battle of Chatham.
The attack was daring, Dutch ships arrowing deep up river, targeting English warships. By the time the firing had ceased, the home fleet had lost 13 vessels, the singular low point of England’s much-vaunted naval power.
The Second Dutch War ended with the Treaty of Breda in July 1667, but this wasn’t quite the end. Pepys, as Secretary of the Admiralty, ordered the construction of Sheerness Dockyard as an extension to Chatham (it survived until 1960).
The raid was significant because of its shocking result and what was done afterwards to prevent a repetition. The Second Dutch War and humiliation of Chatham clanged alarm bells about coastal defence. Come 1670 Charles was demanding major improvements.
Why did they attack in Kent? Once Henry VIII established his dockyard at Chatham, he’d also provided a magnet for Dutch ships and guns. With colonial trading wars in the offing, the enemy needed to strike hard at our navy’s heart.
Meanwhile, Charles’s commitment via the Treaty of Dover (1670) to support a French invasion of the troublesome Dutch Republic led to further inconclusive fighting between Dutch and English, which finally petered out in 1674.
The title of ‘Garden of England’ is said to date back to Henry VIII and a dish of Kentish cherries that sat well with the King. Not only did he give the county the dockyard of Chatham, which the Dutch targeted in June 1667, but the Garden of England. That summer Kent must have felt anything but a garden.
Key events in Medway this June
Battle of Medway International Exhibition (8 June - 3 September)
A landmark exhibition at The Historic Dockyard Chatham brings together for the fist time an extraordinary collection of Dutch and British art, literature, historic manuscripts and objects on loan from national and international museums, including the National Maritime Museum and the Rijksmuseum.
On special loan from the British Library will be the original manuscript of the diary of John Evelyn, a contemporary of Pepys who worked as a Commissioner of the Sick and Hurt Board during the Battle of Medway. Evelyn provides the only eyewitness account, from his position on ‘the hill above Gillingham’ and he produced a sketch of the raid that he sent to Pepys in London. Other significant loans include Holmes’s Bonfire by Willem van de Velde the Elder, on loan from The Royal Collection.
Visits to historic vessels, (8 - 17 June)
Many of the local and visiting Dutch heritage vessels will be open to the public throughout the festival at Basins 1 and 2 and other river locations.
Dickens Festival, (9 - 11 June)
Three-day festival in Rochester to commemorate the life of Charles Dickens and celebrate his links with Medway through parades, talks and readings.
Family fun (8 - 17 June)
Family friendly activities will run throughout the festival, from Dutch tile-painting workshops to youth football matches and storytelling sessions in Medway’s main libraries. The festival’s very own friendly rat mascot Samuel Squeaks (below and page 31) will also be on hand to help younger visitors to learn aboutl how he grew up in London during the plague, fled the Great Fire and ended up on board a ship on that fateful day in June 1667.
Sporting events (9 - 11 June)
The Dutch and English will go head to head once again with a range of sporting events, from rowing to handball. The programme includes sitting volleyball where, fresh from Rio, Paralympic qualifying teams from the Netherlands and Canada will take on Great Britain in a three-day tournament in Medway Park.
Royal Marine Band Concert (10 June)
A unique collaboration from the Dutch and UK Royal Marine bands who will perform at the St George’s Centre, Chatham.
Of Friendships and Fire (2 June - 27 August)
A display of new works by five Medway based artists pushing the boundaries of contemporary printmaking to produce pieces that explore the stories of the Battle of Medway. The works, which will be displayed in Rochester Art Gallery and Rochester Cathedral, are inspired by the Guildhall Museum’s collection of 18th-century Dutch artefacts connected to the raid.
Medway in Flames (17 June)
In a spectacular river finale, a specially commissioned dramatisation of the events leading up to the raid will be screened against the backdrop of Upnor Castle.
Medway 1667 - 1027
In the best traditions of celebrating honourable (or dishonourable) reversals, the Medway towns sportingly staged a Dutch Week in 1967 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of our ignominious defeat.
Queenborough (Sheppey) was also twinned with Brielle (Holland), recognition perhaps not just of the Dutch attacking and occupying the small town, along with Sheerness, but also the fact the local economy was strengthened afterwards by the project to improve naval defences.
The twinning was extended to include the whole of Sheppey. Now, 50 years later, on the 350th anniversary, Medway Council in partnership with The Historic Dockyard Chatham is marking one of the most destructive episodes in Kent’s past history with a huge international programme of events that is the result of Anglo-Dutch collaboration of the highest level.
But not only do the festivities honour one of the most significant moments in Anglo-Dutch military history, they also celebrate the hundreds of years of friendship and cooperation between the two nations since the conclusion of the Anglo-Dutch wars. Fittingly, the opening will be marked with the tandem appearance of ships from both the British Royal Navy and Netherlands Royal Navy.
As Richard Hicks, Medway Council’s Director of Regeneration, Culture, Environment and Transformation, said: “The 350th anniversary of the Dutch raid on Medway presents a great opportunity to promote Medway to an international audience through a programme of events taking place in June.
“Medway has a rich heritage, and this battle had wide-ranging consequences for the British Navy and impacted on world history, as the country went on to command the oceans. The commemorations will be a significant event for Medway; we’re inviting residents and visitors to immerse themselves in the area’s rich heritage and explore all that Medway has to offer. Dutch Admiral Michiel de Ruyter put Medway on the map in 1667 and we’re set to do that again in 2017.”
Indeed, in the Netherlands Tocht Naar Chatham is celebrated with great pride and Michiel de Ruyter, who led the raid and scored several victories against the English and French, is one of the most celebrated and beloved Admirals in Dutch history.
The battle had great national and international significance and was recorded painstakingly by Sameul Pepys, who worked as a naval administrator at the time.
He was spurred by the Dutch victory to transform the British Navy through huge investment in new ships and dockyards.
This laid the foundation of British supremacy at sea for the next 200 years and contributed to Britain’s economic success and the growth of the empire. So the Battle of Medway, although one of the Royal Navy’s worst defeats, really did help change the course of British naval history.
Friendly rat mascot Samuel Squeaks, will be popping up in various places to help everyone understand the story of the Battle of Medway. He loves a a selfie, so if you meet him, be sure to share your photos on Twitter #BOM350
Find out more
For updates and details of all events and activities during festival fortnight, visit new.medway.gov.uk/news-and-events/battle-of-medway and also thedockyard.co.uk
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The Diary of Samuel Pepys, volume 2, 1664-1667 (Ed. J Warrington, 1906)
Invasion Road (P Warner, 1980)
Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1974)
History of War (www.historyofwar.org)
About.com Military History (www.militaryhistory.about.com)
British Naval History (www. british navalhistory.com)
The Guardian (www.theguardian.com)