It was a terrible defeat, a humiliation for England and a personal embarrassment to the King. And it all happened in the River Medway.
The Dutch, now a nation of laid-back, inventive and charming people, were then our deadly enemies – and humiliated the mighty Royal Navy in the shadow of Upnor Castle.
The reason was trade and — some say — the seizing of the Dutch-held New Amsterdam, renamed New York.
In the 1660s, Holland and England were after the same trade and shared the same waters. Fierce competition led to skirmishes, then conflict. Charles II was being pressed by parliament to declare war, but remained wary.
Then came the victory in New England. In autumn, 1664, the King wrote to his sister in Holland: “You will have heard of our taking of New Amsterdam, which lies just by New England. ‘Tis a place of great importance to trade. It did belong to England heretofore, but the Dutch by degrees drove our people out and built a very good town, but we have got the better of it, and ‘ts now called New York.”
This was what he had been waiting for. With a navy comprising 109 large and 30 smaller vessels carrying 21,000 men and 4,200 guns, Charles went to war with Holland in 1665. It would end in the Royal Navy’s most humiliating defeat.
The first proper engagement was the Battle of Lowestoft on 13 June, 1665. The Dutch, under Admiral Opdam, were resoundingly defeated by the Duke of York (later King James II) on board his flagship the Royal Charles.
The war continued and the French were brought in as Dutch allies. And then the King suffered another setback. This was an expensive war and Charles, like his father and grandfather, always had problems in getting money out of parliament.
The King has been unable to pay his army and navy yet expected them to fight. Taxation was high, unemployment rife and some riots broke out. In naval towns such as Chatham, seamen and dockyard workers were cold and hungry.
An unprecedented war-time decision was made. Incredibly, the government ordered the main fleet to be laid up for the winter of 1666 at the principal dockyards — including Chatham. It was also agreed that the fleet did not need refitting for the next summer.
The defence of Britain in a time of war would rely on two small squadrons and the coastal fortifications. It was asking for trouble. And then came negligence.
Medway’s defences in 1666 were almost nonexistent. In medieval times there had been a castle at Queenborough, on the Isle of Sheppey, but this had been dismantled during Cromwell’s time.
A blockhouse had been built at Upnor in 1559. Later, when ships were moored in the reach below Upnor, two gun batteries protected by earthworks were built on the north shore. By 1666, these had fallen into disrepair. Naval experts believed the river’s narrow, tortuous channels themselves would be protection enough.
Plans were, however, made to strengthen fortifications. With hindsight, they were pretty pathetic. Orders were given to build a strong fort at Sheerness to guard the Medway’s mouth. In March, a chain was put across the Medway at Gillingham to stop enemy ships. Upnor Castle was to be put in order and strengthened. The Unity and two fire-ships were commanded to lay in readiness at Sheerness for the Dutch to enter the Medway.
All vulnerable ships moored at Chatham were to be removed to a greater place of safety. Thirty pinnaces (small tender ships) well-fitted with oars, grapples and chains were to be made ready. These were provided to combat the threat of Dutch fire-ships.
With the Medway so appallingly ill-prepared, the Dutch should have been expected at any time. Led by Admiral De Ruyter, they came on 10 June, 1667, and — with the help of two renegade English pilots — captured the Sheerness fort. Dutch troops landed on Sheppey and the Isle of Grain.
The next day, belated attempts were made to strengthen the Chatham Dockyard defences, and ships were sunk in the river to stop the Dutch advance.
On 12 June the Dutch continued their advance and broke the chain at Gillingham; the Unity was captured and the Charles V and Matthias destroyed. And, worst of all, the Royal Charles — pride of the Navy and the ship that had carried the King back from his exile — was captured. Dutchmen plundered Gillingham.
The next day was just as bad. Three other great ships, the Royal James, Royal Oake and Loyal London, were sunk or burned. The diarist John Evelyn wrote: “A dreadful spectacle as ever Englishmen saw and a dishonour never to be wiped off!”
The English had been beaten at sea. London went into panic and rumours abounded that Charles’s rule — weak at the best of times — was over. He needed peace — and he got it, by signing the Treaty of Breda with the Dutch that July.
Medway’s shameful moment was later commemorated by Rudyard Kipling in the lines:
Our ships in every harbour
Be neither whole nor sound,
And when we seek to mend a leak,
No oakurn can be found;
Or, if it is, the caulkers,
And carpenters also,
For lack of pay have gone away,
And this the Dutchmen know!
But there was a positive side. Dockyard defences were rebuilt and, by the time of the Napoleonic wars, the naval base was protected by a formidable ring of forts, chains and coastal batteries.
Medway went on to regain its proud and honourable reputation as the centre point of a great naval nation. Until Margaret Thatcher did what the Dutch, Napoleon and Hitler could not: Destroyed it.