'A dishonour never to be wiped off' - John Evelyn, 28 June 1667
- PG Rogers
In 1967 I spent a week in the Dutch destroyer Limburg. Contrary to RN practice, the Dutch officers each had a particular place at their wardroom table. The one assigned to me meant that I had to eat all my meals for a week looking at a print of her predecessors breaking the Medway boom and burning the British fleet three hundred years before.
Originally published in 1970, Seaforth bring us a new edition of what must be the standard work on the subject, right on cue for the 350th anniversary of this raid in which the Dutch, under Cornelis de Wit and Admiral de Ruyter, towed away in triumph and as trophy the Royal Charles (ex Naseby), the battleship that had brought Charles II to his throne in 1660. They sacked the Royal Navy's stores and facilities at Sheerness, and burnt or captured a significant part of the English battle fleet (further depleted by our use of some as fireships and blockships), laid up 'in Ordinary' in the Medway because we could not afford to put it in proper commission for the summer fighting season. At Upnor the home team at last rallied and deterred the Dutch from forcing their way to the main prize, Chatham dockyard and the ships within it.
The author is a Man of Kent who has sailed these waters from youth and thus brings an acute local perspective to his narrative, itself extensively researched in Britain and in the Netherlands as is evident from the sources cited and the bibliography.
The book opens with a clear exposition of the political, diplomatic and strategic situation which led up to the Second Dutch War in 1665. We see how want of cash led to embezzlement, malversation and pilfering in a vicious circle which led to what funds there were being further diminished. Particularly explained are the shambolic Command arrangements on both sides although de Ruyter established firm tactical control of the Dutch fleet and its embarked forces.
My childhoood book of our monarchs summarised Charles II:
'He did not worry overmuch/When up the Medway sailed the Dutch'
He, and his Government, were certainly rattled afterwards and we see the resultant unedifying witch-hunt and scapegoating needed to point blame away from where it truly belonged. The immediate result was our capital city in a panic; a political disaster at home, even though the effect on relative naval strength was minimal; and the loss of diplomatic position at Breda where peace treaty negotiations were continuing in the background during the raid.
This is a very well-written and illustrated work and is a cautionary tale against failing to fund the first task of Government, the Defence of the Realm.
The additional picture attached to this review shows Van der Velde's depiction of the cutting out of the Royal Charles.