Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The Dutch in the Medway

The most dreadful plague and the worst fire that had ever been known in England were followed in the very next year (1667) by the greatest disgrace that the country ever suffered. It was worse than all, perhaps, that England should have such a king as Charles II. We cannot say that he was to blame for these troubles, except that some of the money that should have been spent on the navy was wasted by him in foolish extravagance, but it is only fitting that the country should have suffered its worst losses in the time of its very worst king.

The trouble came from the weakness of our fleet, and the cause of this was the want of money. Partly, as I have said, the King was to blame; but the Plague and the Fire had also much to do with it. Commonly, when money was wanted in a hurry, the rich Companies and merchants in the City of London were ready to lend it. But now they had nothing to spare. The Plague had stopped all trade for more than half-a-year, and after this was at an end, the fire came and destroyed half of London. This had to be rebuilt. Thus it came to pass that Government could not borrow, because there was no one who could lend. You will remember how, in the time of the Protector, Blake had won victory after victory over the Dutch fleets. Even in the year before, the English had fought against them with fair success, losing one battle and winning another. But now it was found impossible properly to fit out a fleet. Accordingly, a certain Sir William Coventry, who was Chief Commissioner of the Navy, proposed that the larger ships should be laid up, and that two squadrons of light frigates should be equipped, one for the Channel and the other for the German Ocean, to do as much harm as possible to the enemy's commerce. The Dutch saw their opportunity, and did not fail to use it. De Ruyter, who was in chief command, ordered the fleet, which consisted of seventy vessels, to meet him in separate squadrons at the buoy off the Nore. He intended to sail up the Thames and the Medway, and to destroy the docks in which many of the English ships were laid up.

Naval engagement


The English Government knew what was intended, and did their best to guard against it. Three months before they had given orders to build a fort at Sheerness, to throw a boom across the Medway, to furnish the batteries with guns, and to get ready ten fire-ships. But to give orders for works without money to carry them out was useless. The Commissioners of the Navy were already nearly a million in debt; the sailors refused to serve; the labourers would not work. So De Ruyter found no real resistance. He sent one squadron as far as Gravesend; the other was to go up the Medway and burn the shipping that was in that river. The fort at Sheerness, which is on the right bank of the river where it joins the sea, fired upon the Dutch fleet, but to little or no purpose. The boom, however, was of more use. It stood against the shock of the Dutch men-of-war, though they came against it with both wind and tide. But even here the Government had been badly served. There was another channel which had been left unguarded. The Dutch vessels made their way up this, and opened fire upon the forts. At the same time, first one heavy fire-ship was driven against the boom, and then another; the chain broke under the weight of the two; very soon the guard-ships which had been moored behind it were on fire. The next disaster that happened was the taking of the hull of the Royal Charles, a man-of-war of the largest size. It had been left too far down the river. Samuel Pepys writes in his Diary (June 13)—"No sooner up but hear the sad news confirmed of the Royal Charles  being taken by them, and now in fitting by them (which Pett should have carried up higher by our several orders, and deserves, therefore, to be hanged for not doing it)." The next day, in spite of all the English were able to do in the night by way of mounting guns on the batteries, and collecting men to work them, there were fresh losses. The Dutch again came up the river. The men-of-war anchored in front of the batteries and engaged them. Meanwhile the fire-ships went on and burnt three more first-rates, the Royal James, Oak, and London. This done, the Dutch fleet went down the river again to the Nore.

De Ruyter now sailed along the south coast. There was no fleet to hinder him, but when he attempted to burn the ships at Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Torbay, he failed; nor did he again venture to sail up the Thames. But he had inflicted such a disgrace upon England as is scarcely to be equalled in all her history.