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The History of Kent

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Dutch Raid of 1667

In an early morning in June 1667, the Dutch fleet sailed, unchallenged up the river Medway, their target the British Navy at anchor in Chatham. No alarm was raised, and the coastal defences were scattered far and wide. Most of the home army were based in London, although they had not been paid in months.

No challenge came from the British, either on water or ashore. Apart from the odd farmer or fisherman, the place seemed abandoned. They prayed for the morning sun to pierce the fog as their tired eyes scanned the shores. All they could hear was the lapping of the waves and the creaking of their vessels. The raid became the climax of the second Anglo-Dutch war when Britain was very much on the ropes, militarily and financially.

The story started some 20 years earlier, when the civil war had erupted in Britain and the newly independent state of the Netherlands had taken advantage of the gap in trade. They expanded their trading routes to North America, the Caribbean and the Far East and vigorously developed a stock market on the continent. Once Oliver Cromwell had consolidated his power base, he set about re-establishing dominance of trade routes, bringing him into direct conflict with the Dutch, and triggering the first Anglo-Dutch war. The war ended with no clear winner, apart from Spain who had made gains at the warring party’s expense.

By the 1660s, Cromwell had been replaced by Charles II, who appointed his brother the Duke of York as Lord High Admiral. However, relations between the English and Dutch had not improved with the change at the top; they had, in fact, been made worse by the large sums Charles owed to the Stadtholder of the Netherlands, Prince William III. It was only a matter of time before the two nations would be at war again.

The second Anglo-Dutch war had started well for the British with a victory at the battle of Lowestoft and the construction of new, larger ships. However, the Dutch were not idle, building seven ships for England’s one. They recalled their best Admiral from North America, giving the navy a huge morale boost, and forged military alliances with France. Despite this victory, followed victory for the British and the war was within Charles’ grasp when disaster struck away from the battlefield.

In 1665, a plague decimated London and a great fire in 1666 destroyed its financial institutions. Charles could no longer afford the war, and naval cutbacks were the only option. He began to put out peace-feelers; however, by the summer of 1667, his financial situation had become desperate. His unpaid soldiers walked away from their posts, and the navy stayed at anchor in the Medway.

The politician Johan de Witt planned the Dutch raid, while his brother Cornelius went along to supervise. The Dutch assembled a fleet that included 62 ships of the line together with lighters and fire ships, and on 4 June 1667 set sail to find the shores of the Medway virtually abandoned.

The Dutch landed marines at the fort in Sheerness, which was quickly captured. Although the alarm was raised, the response in London was slow. The only defence encountered were a string of shore batteries, having little effect, and a chain across the Medway, which was soon broken.

The fire ships were lit and floated towards the hapless fleet. The caretaker crews on board were panicked into setting fire to their own ships to prevent capture. A few brave souls put up a fight, most notable being Captain Archibald Douglas, who fought the flames although, perished with fire and smoke. Many fine vessels went to the bottom of the Medway that day, though several were later re-floated to fight again.

It was then that the Dutch saw the Royal Charles, the jewel in the English crown, and with the crew having already jumped ship, it was a simple matter to tow her back to Holland.

The Dutch had planned to demolish the dockyard at Chatham, however, before the engineers could complete their task a force arrived from London and they sailed away with a great propaganda coup.

The Royal Charles, was dry-docked in Holland, where she remained a tourist attraction for many years, before finally being broken up, although the transom, with the kings Lion and Unicorn emblem can still be seen at the Rijksmuseum in Holland.

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