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Medway: The forgotten battle that shook Britain to its core

A gallery photo with objects in glass cases

Breaking the Chain at Chatham Historic Dockyard. Photo Credit Dan Turner

We talk to Chatham Historic Dockyard historian Richard Holdsworth about the forgotten Medway Raid, which is explored in a series of exhibitions in Chatham during summer 2017

In a century that saw a catastrophic civil war, the beheading of a king, a great plague and a fire that consumed massive swathes of the city of London, it’s perhaps forgivable that the small matter of an intermittent war with the Dutch has largely slipped from the UK’s collective memory.

Yet the Anglo Dutch Wars raged throughout the later seventeenth century and the second of them, between March 1665 and July 1667, witnessed one of the most audacious and effective attacks on British shores since William’s longships landed at Pevensey in 1066.

The 1667 Battle of Medway, which is currently being explored in a series of exhibitions in Chatham marking its 350th anniversary, saw a small flotilla of Dutch ships under the command of Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter sail up the River Medway, past a defensive ‘chain’ slung between the river banks, and destroy the British fleet. The Dutch also sailed away with HMS Royal Charles, whose stern piece is still displayed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

“The taking of The Royal Charles back to Holland, was of course full of symbolism,” says Chatham Historic Dockyard historian Richard Holdsworth, who has put the exhibition together with colleagues from Holland. “It was originally built as the Naseby then renamed the Royal Charles after Charles II, but if you wanted to steal something that really hurt, that was the ship to take.

“Four other big capital ships of the time burnt to the waterline so it had a huge immediate impact on the Royal Navy. The Dutch didn’t get to the dockyard, if they had it would have set the Navy back 25-30 years as Chatham at that time was England’s principle naval base.”

a print showing a ship sailing up a river

The Dutch break the chain. A broadsheet detail. Image reproduced courtesy of the Guildhall Museum, Rochester

a painted wooden decoarted panel showing the Royal coat of arms

Stern Decoration of the Royal Charles c. 1663 – c. 1664 Courtesy the Rijksmuseum Public Domain (CC0 1.0)

a broadsheet commemorating the Battle of Medway with print and images

The 1667 broadsheet. Reproduced courtesy of the Guildhall Museum, Rochester

The repercussions of this defeat were indeed massive yet ironically it paved the way for the Royal Navy’s mastery of the seas for centuries to come. The Dutch wars however rumbled on until 1764 via a series of deadly naval engagements.

“The Second Anglo Dutch War had actually started off pretty well for England,” says Holdsworth, “1666 was a year of mixed fortunes, there was probably the longest naval battle fought anywhere – the Four Days Fight, which was effectively a defeat for the English Navy, with the loss of many lives and ships.”

A more positive outcome for the British came later in the year, with something known quaintly as the St James’ Day Fight in which a British force under Robert Holmes ruthlessly burned the village of West-Terschelling in Holland together with a merchant fleet of around 130 ships.

“The Great Fire of London was seen by many Dutch people as Divine Retribution”

“This caused a great of amount of economic damage to Holland,” says Holdsworth, “over £1 m worth at the time, which was enough to make them close the Amsterdam Stock Exchange for three days while they sorted out what had happened.

“The Great Fire of London a month later [in September 1666] was seen by many Dutch people as divine retribution for what Holmes had done to West-Terschelling, but the combination of losses of ships and people and the Great Fire of London meant that Charles II had actually run out money.”

a painted scene of ship burning in an estuary

Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611-93), ‘Holmes’s Bonfire’, the burning of Dutch Merchant Ships between Terschelling and Vlieland, 19th August 1666 Signed and dated 1676. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

a gallery shot of two portriatsof late seventeenth century nautical types

Breaking the Chain at Chatham Historic Dockyard – Portraits of Michiel de Ruyter and Cornelis de Witt. Photo Dan Turner

a photo of map chart showing seas and land masses

A Dutch 1668 sea chart. reproduced courtesy of the Guildhall Museum, Rochester’

With the economic heart of Britain literally burnt out the government took the decision in 1667 to go to the negotiating table. And with no money to put the fleet to sea in 1667, they kept a squadron of frigates at Harwich and improved the defences of the River Medway, with a new fort at Sheerness and a defensive chain across the river downstream at the Dockyard at Chatham.

“Then they didn’t get on with the peace negotiations at Breda,” adds Holdsworth, “Charles II kept stalling and a combination of Dutch indignation about Terschelling and wanting to force Charles back to the negotiating table meant they brought back plans for a raid on the Thames and Medway. They clearly saw it as being an ‘in and out job’.

“It was a tremendous feat of seamanship because the Medway is a very difficult river and Chatham is twelve miles from the sea and it was very tide dependant. They had to come in on the high spring tides and come out on them as well.

“But the target was the fleet and the dockyard at Chatham. They effectively came into the Thames Estuary and Medway without any opposition because the fleet was largely laid up.”

The objects that tell this dramatic story include British and Dutch art, literature, historic manuscripts and objects on loan from a number of national and international cultural institutions, both British and Dutch National Maritime Museums, The British Library, National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Collection.

From the English perspective two diaries from the time offer insights into how the raid was perceived. Both the diary of Samuel Pepys, who was working for the Navy Board at the time, and the entries of the lesser known but equally prolific diarist John Evelyn, help us gauge the importance of the events.

“It was clearly a very worrying time,” says Holdsworth, “you can see from both diaries that in government nobody was actually sure whether it was a raid or the start of an invasion.”

Like Pepys, John Evelyn was a government commissioner – for the Sick and Hurt Board set up to look after seamen and soldiers during the war – so both looked at the incident from an official position.

“I think the big difference is that Evelyn is much more hard-nosed about it,” says Holdsworth, “in his diary he’s prepared to be much more critical of the government and what’s going on. He came down to Chatham in the immediate aftermath of the raid.

a photo of an open diary on display in a gallery

Breaking the Chain at Chatham Historic Dockyard. John Evelyn’s Diary. Photo Dan Turner

a photo of a handwritten diary

John Evelyn’s Diary © British Library Board

“Pepys diary is much more concerned, as the Pepys diary always is, about Samuel Pepys and he provides us with a fantastic insight into what people in the Navy Board were thinking. There’s a lovely bit in there when they hear the commissioner of the Dockyard, Peter Pett, has been arrested and sent to the Tower after the raid and he’s concerned that they may do the same with him.

“Evelyn meanwhile was not enamoured with the way Pett was treated and he describes the events on the Medway as the greatest dishonour ever to have befallen Englishmen.”

Undoubtedly a key in event in the Dutch Golden Age, but the Raid on the Medway also signalled the rebirth of the British Navy and with it the mastery of the oceans.

“Pepys becomes the great survivor and in a sense his career is made out of his defence of the Navy Board against all sorts of commissions and enquiries,”says Holdsworth. “He becomes secretary to the Navy Board and an MP and manages to get parliamentary approval for a 30-ship programme costing £600,000, which in the 1670s is a huge sum of money.

“That rebuilt Navy is then in the position – once the Glorious Revolution has united Britain and Holland – to command the oceans and protect British interests across the world in the middle of the eighteenth century.

“Another interesting thing about how you can perhaps win the war and lose the peace is how at the time the Dutch valued the spice trade and sugar trade. As they were able to drive the terms of the Peace Treaty of Breda they decided they would keep the sugar factories that had been captured from English traders in Surinam in the Caribbean, but they wouldn’t take back the gains that English colonist had made in North America.

“So New Amsterdam became New York, Britain took over Manhatten and a great chunk of the Eastern seabord. You can imagine how different history could have been if different decisions had been made in 1667.”

Breaking the Chain is at The Historic Dockyard Chatham until September 3 2017;  The Journey to Chatham is at The Guildhall Museum until November 12 2017; Of Fireships and Iron – artworks by Lily Dudle / Laura Dunnage / Heather Haythornthwaite / Xtina Lamb / Adam Newton is at Rochester Art Gallery until August 26  2017 and The Battle of Medway Exhibition is at Upnor Castle throughout 2017.

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