There’s a persistent myth that the country has never been invaded since William landed at Hastings at 1066. Since 1066, too, many actions on land and at sea have become household names: Bosworth 1485, Naseby 1645, Trafalgar 1805, Waterloo 1815, Dunkirk 1940 and D-Day 1944, to name but a few.
There is one action of the 17th century, however, that is both relatively little-known and was an invasion. It has been somewhat overshadowed in the history books because of the internal drama of the Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration, taking up 1642-1660, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (itself an invasion, and a successful one).
It was the Raid on the Medway, an action of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). For the English the war had begun inauspiciously with the loss of the warship London (now a protected wreck in the Thames Estuary) in March 1665. The ensuing engagements of the war were to see some of the greatest battles of the age of sail and the Raid was a phenomenal feat of seamanship.
The English had already recognised the potential vulnerability of Chatham Dockyard on the Medway. A defensive chain was laid across the river under the protection of Upnor Castle, to protect the yard and England’s capacity to build and repair ships.
Stationed at the chain were the guardships, the Charles V, or, to give her her Latin name, Carolus Quintus and Matthias. If you think that these names are unusual for English ships (we have never had a Charles V), you would be right. They were English, but only by default: they had been captured from the Dutch in previous engagements to enter English service.
The Raid began 350 years ago on 9th June 1667 according to the Old Style calendar still in force in England, but on 19th June 1667 according to the New Style calendar already in use in the Netherlands. (It would be over 100 years before the same calendar was adopted in Britain.)
We are used to a constant scroll of instantaneous news as it happens, from mobile footage to Twitter feeds. So here is what happened next in the words of those there at the time: mouse over the footnotes to read the original documents.
On the 7th/17th 50 ‘warships, yachts and frigates’ left Den Helder. (1) On the 9th/19th a report from Harwich noted ‘between 40 and 50 sail of Dutch appeared on this coast, in the Sledway, over against Bardsey Ferry, where they continued all the day till 7 in the evening’ (2)
News travelled fast. Samuel Pepys, then Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, wrote the same evening: ‘Being come home I find an order come for the getting some fire-ships presently to annoy the Dutch, who are in the King’s Channel, and expected up higher.’ (3)
Things had changed swiftly by the morning of the 10th/20th June: ‘Up, and news brought us that, the Dutch are come up as high as the Nore, and more pressing orders for fireships.’ (4) Pepys went hither and thither gathering intelligence, standing ship captains a drink at a tavern, and all confirmed the news of the Dutch being at the Nore in the Thames Estuary, between Shoeburyness on the Essex coast and Sheerness on the Kent side, and less than 50 miles from London.
Yet the Medway, rather than the capital, appears to have been the Dutch objective. On the 11th/21st, Pepys noted that Commissioner Pett of Chatham Dockyard ‘is in a very fearful stink for fear of the Dutch’ having ‘written word, that Sheernesse is lost last night, after two or three hours’ dispute.’ More fire-ships were hired following an order in Council that ‘under an invasion, as he owns it to be, the King may, by law, take any man’s goods.’ (5)
On that day a number of ships were sunk west of the chain as blockships to deny the Dutch entry to the twists and turns of the Medway. Some of these vessels were requisitioned merchantmen, others were warships. Even those with an unbroken history in English service had still had a chequered career, such as the Marmaduke, which had served first the Royalist, then the Cromwellian causes, and was now in Charles II’s navy.
Yet the Dutch, under their commanders, including Michiel de Ruyter, (the Dutch equivalent, perhaps, of Nelson), were nothing daunted by chain, blockships or fireships, or the perils of navigating a narrow, winding, muddy river. Two fireships attempted the chain, the second, the Pro Patria, breaking through, and the rest following. Further fireships were expended. The official correspondence of the time is full of ‘strange reports’ and garbled rumours. (6)
These rumours came to the ears of Samuel Pepys, who wrote on the 12th/22nd: ‘ill newes is come to Court of the Dutch breaking the Chaine at Chatham, which struck me to the heart . . . and so home, where all our hearts do ake; for the newes is true, that the Dutch have broke the chaine and burned our ships, and particularly the Royal Charles.’ (7)
A letter to Pepys on the 14th/24th made some sense of events: ‘Yesterday the Royal James, Royal Oak, and Royal London were fired. Saw all three flaming, and the enemies become masters of the Royal Charles, giving her such a friendly entertainment that it is expected she will be our enemy this afternoon. On Tuesday two or three more ships were lost . . . Several other vessels have been sunk. The enemy have lost five or six fire-ships, either by sinking or in executing their employ.’ (8)
The Dutch then sailed back with the Royal Charles in tow, to a heroes’ welcome. To this day the counter-stern of the Royal Charles is displayed in the Rijksmuseum, as is the golden cup awarded to Michiel de Ruyter in commemoration of his deeds.
What wreckage remains from this action over several days in June 1667? What is the archaeological potential beneath the mud of the Medway?
The Commissioners of the Navy literally sought to salvage what they could from the wreckage. The majority of the sunken ships were painstakingly recovered – they were an obstruction to navigation. By August 1668 they were planning to raise the Marmaduke ‘which is the ship most hurtful to the river’. (9) They succeeded in ‘making her swim’. (10) However, she required pumping and by the next August there was nothing more to be done with her: ‘We think that the best manner of disposing of the Marmaduke will be by exposing her to sale, she being incapable of removal, and inconvenient to break up at so great a distance from the yard.’ (11) She was then broken up by her buyer.
There are tantalising clues that something may yet remain: a ‘bottom’ here, or a disappearance of a ship from the records there (but this may mean that the records do not survive rather than that a piece of wreckage does).
What archaeological discoveries have been made were third-hand, at best: there is a box in the collections of the National Maritime Museum, fashioned from timbers attributed to the Matthias or Carolus Quintus according to a label inside. It continues: ‘found by a party of convicts during the excavating of the new docks and basins at the extension works, St. Mary’s Island, HM Dockyard Chatham in the year 1876.’ (12) There is no indication of how the identification was made, or by whom, and a gap of 200 years sits between the alleged origin of the timbers and their identification.
Other archaeological evidence may reside in other wrecks far from the Medway with a greater or lesser degree of certainty. It was the lot of a warship to have an eventful career, and frequently to end that career in a similarly eventful fashion. One such vessel was HMS Ramillies, wrecked at the Bolt Tail in 1760. Some sources attribute the origins of the Ramillies to the Royal Katherine, of 1664, one of the ships scuttled, then raised at the Medway: but if this is true, after two intervening rebuilds there can have been very little left of the original vessel! It is also possible that the Hind Sixth Rate, lost on the Isles of Scilly later in 1667, is identifiable with the Hind which was scuttled and recovered from the Medway.
The fortunes of the three Anglo-Dutch wars see-sawed between the two nations. The Dutch won some battles, the English others; defeat could follow victory and victory defeat; and indeed, in some engagements, both sides claimed victory. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that the Royal Charles is in Amsterdam, and a possible piece of the remains of the Matthias or Carolus Quintus in London, reflecting the characteristic fortunes of their ships.
The Raid on the Medway was a clear defeat for the English navy, but the Dutch did not press home their advantage and attack London, as was feared. The other great diarist of the time, John Evelyn, records his impressions (several days’ worth compressed into the slightly erroneous date of 8th/18th June):
‘To London, alarmed by the Dutch, who were fallen on our fleet at Chatham, by a most audacious enterprise . . .This alarm caused me, fearing the enemy might venture up the Thames even to London (which they might have done with ease, and fired all the vessels in the river too), to send away my best goods, plate, etc., from my house to another place.’ (13) With all that going on, no wonder he was too busy to write up his diary!
What remains, then, is a shared heritage of words and pictures, if little in the way of wreckage.
Places to visit:
National Maritime Museum (paintings of the Raid, portrait of Michiel de Ruyter, which can also be seen on the website)
Rochester Castle (English Heritage)
Upnor Castle (English Heritage)
(1) Oprechte Haerlemsche Courant, June 11, 1667 (NS)
(2) London Gazette, Thursday June 20, to Monday June 24, 1667, (NS), No.167
(3) Pepys, Diary, June 9, 1667 (OS)
(4) Pepys, Diary, June 10, 1667 (OS)
(5) Pepys, Diary, June 11, 1667 (OS)
(6) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, Vol.205, No.4
(7) Pepys, Diary, June 12, 1667 (OS)
(8) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, Vol.205, No.58
(9) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, Vol.244, No.101
(10) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, Vol.245, No.77
(11) Calendar of State Papers Domestic, Charles II, Vol.264, No.103
(12) Royal Museums Greenwich, REL0550
(13) Evelyn, Diary, June 8, 1667 (OS)