This addition to our Anglo-Dutch Wars series is from Ferry Gouwens, a Dutch Historian. He looks at one of the most colourful episodes of the 2nd Anglo-Dutch War, the Raid on the Medway that was a result of the English decision to not put a fleet to sea that summer.
After the success of the Raid on the Medway in 1667 Jan de Baen, a portrait painter from Haarlem, was requested to make a painting of Cornelis de Witt, the deputy of the States General of the Dutch Republic during the raid. The painting depicted the apotheosis of Cornelis with the burning English ships on the background. The painting suggests that Cornelis was the mastermind, but actually it was his younger brother Johan who should’ve got those credits. Johan de Witt was appointed councilor pensionary of Holland ( raadpensionaris in Dutch) in 1653 at the age of 27. As councilor pensionary of the most influential province of Holland in the United Provinces he was able to influence much of the decision-making processes in the States General, the intergovernmental organ of all provinces where decisions had to be made concerning, among others, finances, foreign affairs, the admiralties, and military and maritime affairs. Because of his great influence in both the States of Holland and States General, De Witt has often anachronistically been described as a sort of prime minister. This article examines his influence on the decision-making process prior to and during the Raid on the Medway in June 1667.
Grand Pensionary De Witt and the Dutch fleet
Grand Pensionary De Witt always had a special interest in the Dutch fleet, since he saw it as a crucial instrument to his foreign policy.1 Quickly after De Witt became councilor pensionary in the States General decided to reform the navy. New specially designed war ships were built which were much larger than the existing ones and carried more guns – in comparison to the number of cannons three decades earlier the number was doubled – with a larger caliber than their predecessors. Until 1653 trading ships were converted to war ships and as such were used to convoy Dutch merchants, but it was De Witt who saw the importance of a professional navy. The European and intercontinental trading routes were essential to the economic supremacy of the Dutch Republic and had to be protected. It was the main reason why the States General decided to interfere in the Second Northern War (1655-1660).
In 1664 a naval war with England seemed inevitable. Not only a lot of Dutch merchant ships were taken by English privateers, but different sources in England also reported that the English fleet was made ready for a naval war. The docks at Chatham and Rochester were full with unfinished ships, which were spotted by Herman Ghijssen, a merchant from Dordrecht and a friend of De Witt, who had asked Ghijssen if he could write a report about the strength of the English fleet in Chatham and Rochester.2 At the same time Robert Holmes was undertaking an expedition to Guinea where he captured the fortress of Goeree and some other possessions of the Dutch West India Company. The States General answered by ordering admiral De Ruyter to sail to Guinea and retake all forts taken by Holmes, in which he largely succeeded. So de facto hostilities between Britain and the Dutch Republic already began in 1664, although the official declaration of war didn’t come until the next year.3
In order to speed up the decision-making process the States General installed a secret committee on the 3 rd of April 1665. The secret committee consisted of eight men; two from the province of Holland and one deputy from each of the other provinces. Although the composition of the committee varied in the years 1665-1667, one can conclude that there was a certain continuity. Obviously, De Witt was present in all three years, which can also be said of Bonifacius van Vrijbergen (Zeeland), Gijsbert van der Hoolck (Utrecht) and Ludolph Gockinga (Friesland). Rudolph van Ommeren (Gelderland) and Cornelis Witsen (Holland) were part of the committee in two out of three years.4 The question is what this continuity meant for the process of decision-making. Without a doubt it ensured that secret information was kept in a very small group and that the chance of leaking information was minimal. Furthermore it seems that De Witt had gathered some of his friends to execute the plans he had made for the fleet. In one of his articles on the committees in the States General John H. Grever names some of De Witt’s friends, Van Vrijbergen and Van der Hoolck among them.5 So although in theory de deputy from Gelderland functioned as president of the committee it was De Witt who was the natural leader and driving force. The primus inter pares .
The committee didn’t always make decisions on its own, although according to the resolution of the States General states that the committee could make all decision without consulting the States General, it was impossible to do so. Eight men was enough to coordinate, but it wasn’t enough to execute everything. A couple of times the committee summoned De Ruyter and his higher ranking officers to The Hague when tactical decisions had to be made and to discuss further steps concerning the hiring of troops and the provision of all essential supplies. On other occasions different deputies of the five Admiralties attended the deliberations, among others the older brother of raadpensionaris De Witt, Cornelis, who was a member of the Amiralty of Rotterdam. Because of his position in the Admiralty of Rotterdam and the fact he was the brother of the councilor pensionary of Holland it is likely that Cornelis was informed by his brother beforehand.
From the beginning of the war De Witt was the central figure in the decision-making process. In the 1630s admiral Maarten Harpertsz Tromp insisted in the States General that His High Mightinesses would send deputies to the fleet as a support for his officers, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the Second Anglo-Dutch War until this actually happened. Two weeks after the committee had its first meeting, De Witt and two others were sent to the fleet, at first only with the intention of helping with the preparations, but on July 25 th 1665 a resolution was accepted in the States General which ordered the presence of three deputies on the fleet during the campaign at sea, and although the States of Holland and his wife Wendela complained De Witt was one of the three deputies, alongside Johan Boreel and 73(!) year old Rutger Huijgens.6 Apparently the States General felt the necessity of a deputy on the fleet after the disastrous defeat of the Dutch fleet in the Battle of Lowestoft the month before, in which the Royal Charles defeated the Dutch flag ship Eendracht under the command of admiral Jacob van Wassenaar-Obdam. The Eendracht exploded, which killed Van Wassenaar-Obdam and left the Dutch fleet without effective command.
Despite the fact that the three deputies were the highest authority on the fleet now, they carefully listened to the advice of Cornelis Tromp, the temporary commander of the fleet and the son of Maarten Hartpertsz Tromp. With the close cooperation of De Witt, Boreel and Huijgens, for the first in the Dutch maritime history, regiments of soldiers were specially trained to serve in the navy and to be used in amphibious operations. By the end of 1665 2280 men (nineteen regiments consisting of 120 men each) were already hired.7 Their commanding officer, Willem Joseph van Ghent, also got his own ship. After the death of Van Wassenaar-Obdam De Witt was able to persuade Boreel and Huijgens to appoint De Ruyter as the new ‘Chief and Leader of the Fleet’. On the 11 th of August 1665 the States General accepted a resolution which explicitly stated that De Ruyter should function ‘under the supervision of Huijgens, councilor pensionary De Witt, and Johan Boreel’.8 Although the States of Holland requested his presence in The Hague, De Witt himself wanted to stay on the fleet, and that was what he did.
In the following year the Dutch had one big advantage: the French entered the war alongside the Dutch after they declared war upon England in January. The French would support the Dutch with twenty to thirty ships, but De Witt was determined to rebuild the navy to such strength that it would be able to face the enemy alone. It was also De Witt who led the deliberations with the French envoy in The Hague, the earl Godefroi d’Estrades, about the conjunction of the French fleet under admiral De Beaufort and the Dutch under De Ruyter.9 After the preparations were completed, De Witt again went to the fleet to hand over the general instructions of the committee to De Ruyter on his new flag ship De Zeven Provinciën (‘The Seven Provinces’), a ship of the line equipped with around 80 guns. The committee wanted De Ruyter to seek out the English fleet and attack it, with or without the help of the French.10 The execution of these instructions were put completely in the hands of De Ruyter. Just like the rest of the committee, De Witt stayed in The Hague this time, much to his wife’s relief.
With the support of the French it would have been possible to destroy much of the English fleet in a direct confrontation since the combined French/Dutch fleet would outnumber the English, but the French never showed up. Nevertheless De Ruyter gained a big victory in the Four Days’ Battle, but was also defeated in the St. James’s Day Battle. Overall, it was a moral victory, since De Ruyter saved most of its fleet and only lost two ships. After the St. James’s Day Battle De Witt and Van der Hoolck went to the island of Texel to inspect the fleet and to oversee the repairs. After a weeks the States of Utrecht summoned Van der Hoolck to return to Utrecht, leaving De Witt as the last remaining deputy of the committee. The States General chose to give De Witt the full responsibility over the navy:
‘ No less than in the previous year (…) we have found it necessary that a few persons, in which we trust that God Almighty has gifted them with prudence and steadfastness, will bring our authority by representation and delegation to this countries’ fleet. (…) And therefore We rely on the good qualities, wisdom, prudence, generalship, and steadfastness of Johan de Witt, councilor pensionary of Holland and West Frisia.’11
De Witt now could make decisions alone. From the 26 th of September till the 23 rd of October De Witt stayed on the fleet with the intention of seeking out the enemy again. Before he could do so, a flu epidemic broke out, and De Ruyter went home to recover. An attack on the English fleet was blown off.
Cornelis de Witt as deputy on the Dutch fleet
Although the campaign season of 1666 wasn’t unsuccessful, the question arose in the States of Holland to what extent the deputies on the fleet were a necessity. Besides, the English fleet was defeated in the Four Days’ Battle without their presence. Apparently, the fleet was able to function well, as long as the naval officers followed the orders of the committee. Furthermore, the political climate had changed; after the outbreak of the plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in September 1666, which consumed approximately 13.200 houses, the English were longing for peace. The royal treasure was practically empty and although Charles II received an extra £1.600.000 it was evident that the support for the continuation of the war was dwindling. In the end it was decided that the English fleet wouldn’t be sailing out and would remain in the harbors of Chatham and Harwich.12 The English opened the peace negotiations in May 1667, which were held in the city of Breda in the Dutch Republic.
On the other side of the Channel Grand Pensionary De Witt had his hands full. Not only he had to coordinate the peace negotiations at Breda, but he also had to deal with the French threat from the south. The Sun King Louis XIV had stationed his troops at the borders of the Southern Netherlands and never made a secret of his intention to annex this part of the Low Countries, which he claimed (on dubious grounds) was rightfully his. The English negotiators at Breda, Denzill Hollis and Sir Henry Coventry assumed that the Dutch Republic also wanted peace in order to arm itself against the French. They made impossible demands, hoping that the Dutch would take the bait. For example, they claimed the sovereignty of the sea, which meant that a Dutch ship had to lower its flag when encountering an English vessel. Although Godefroi d’Estrades, the French extraordinaris ambassador at The Hague, urged the Dutch to give in, they didn’t.13 The unwillingness of the two countries to make any concessions led to an impasse in the negotiations.
In May 1667 the preparations for the raid were already in a final stage. The question remained: who should coordinate it? It had to be someone who’s courage, reliability and loyalty was unquestionable. Besides that, some knowledge of maritime affairs was required. Eventually Cornelis de Witt was appointed. No doubt Johan was the one who proposed the committee to appoint his brother. In the resolutions of the States General a motivation for choosing Cornelis is lacking; only the resolution of the 25th of September 1666 is mentioned, in which Johan was chosen as a deputy to the fleet. So we can conclude that Cornelis would also be the superior authority on the Dutch fleet and that all naval officers, including fleet commander De Ruyter, should ‘acknowledge, respect and obey’14 him. With his brother on the fleet, the Grand Pensionary was able to influence the decision-making process. And since only he, his brother and admiral De Ruyter knew all the details of the mission, the chance that sensitive information came in to the wrong hands was very small.
The correspondence of the two brothers in June 1667 sheds a very interesting light on how Johan almost desperately tried to coordinate the mission, without being physically present. Apart from that, for the Grand Pensionary the key to success was secrecy and to his frustration Cornelis acted a bit careless. On the 10 th of June for example, Cornelis described in a letter to the States General the exact position of the fleet. The next day his brother sent him a letter to remind him that this kind of information ‘should not be read out to those, for who the destination is secret, and should remain secret’.15 On the evening before the fleet had set sail to the English coast Cornelis de Witt informed the higher ranking officers about the mission. According to the journal of Aert van Nes, De Ruyter’s right hand, those who were present had to swear an oath of secrecy and also didn’t receive a copy of the instructions, which would normally have been the case.16 Until then Cornelis corresponded with his brother on a daily basis, but when the Dutch sailed into English waters it was impossible to wait for new orders from The Hague as the situation could change rapidly any second.
Since the English fleet was unable to sail out, it didn’t form a direct threat. It wasn’t until the 18 th of June that Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that the latest news was that the Dutch were sailing to Harwich with around eighty ships.17 In the following days, Pepys received different orders to hire fire-ships ‘to annoy the Dutch’.18 The English were powerless; only a few days after the Dutch had taken Sheerness fort with the help of their new regiments of marines, Pepys writes on the 22 nd of June:
(…) and there in his letter find that the Dutch had made no motion since their taking Sheernesse; and the Duke of Albemarle writes that all is safe as to the great ships against any assault, the boom and chaine being so fortified; which put my heart into great joy. When I come to Sir W: Coventry’s chamber, I find him abroad; but his clerk, Powell, do tell me that ill newes is come to Court of the Dutch breaking the Chaine at Chatham; which struck me to the heart.19
After the chain was broken the Royal Charles , which destroyed the Eendracht in 1665 was taken and eventually towed back to the Dutch Republic as a war trophy. In a letter to his brother in The Hague Cornelis claimed that it was he who made the orders.20 The English losses were enormous, or as Van Nes wrote in his journal: ‘victory was everywhere’.21
The next day De Ruyter, who had been ill the first days of the raid, took over command. Whilst some frigates attacked Upnor Castle, De Ruyter and Cornelis preceded a couple of fire ships and among others the Loyal London , Royal James and Royal Oak were burned. With this last display of strength by the Dutch the Raid on the Medway ended, although Dutch forces attacked several other ports on the English east coast. Until the peace treaty was signed on the 31 st of July the Dutch fleet was spotted at Harwich, Portsmouth and Plymouth. Sir William Batten felt so miserable about the situation that he cried: ‘By God, I think the Devil shits Dutchmen!’22 In the words of Pepys: Thus, in all things, in wisdom, courage, force, knowledge of our own streams, and success, the Dutch have the best of us, and do end the war with victory on their side.23
From 1665 onwards De Witt played a vital role in the decision-making process. Together with some of his political allies in the committee he was able to coordinate everything concerning the Dutch fleet. An important step in this concentration of power was the decision of the States General to send the councilor pensionary as one of three deputies to the fleet. When both Boreel and Van der Hoolck were summoned back by their provinces, it was De Witt who pulled all the strings. The appointment of his older brother Cornelis as deputy to the fleet can therefore not be seen as a coincidence. By appointing his brother the councilor pensionary had one of his confidants on the fleet who he could instruct himself. Although in theory all deputies from the provinces could influence the decision-making process, in the end it was Johan de Witt who decided to carry the Raid on the Medway. The fact that only a very small group of people could coordinate and execute the mission was one of the reasons why the Raid on the Medway was so successful.
1# J.K. Oudendijk, Johan de Witt en de zeemacht (Amsterdam 1944) 58-64: H.H. Rowen, John de Witt. Statesman of the ‘True Freedom’ (Cambridge 2002) 85-88.
2# Rowen, John de Witt, 94. See also the reports of the committee: National Archives The Hague (hereafter NA), Archives States General (hereafter SG), inv.nr. 9248, 4th of July 1666.
3# J.R. Bruijn, Varend verleden. De Nederlandse oorlogsvloot in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw (Amsterdam 1998) 103; G. Rommelse, The Second Anglo-Dutch War. International raison d’état, mercantilism and maritime strife (Hilversum 2007) 105-106.
4# These names are based on the resolutions of the States General on the 3rd of April 1665 (NA, SG, inv. nr. 3271), the 25th of March 1667 (NA, SG, inv. nr. 3275) and the list of names included in the reports of the committee in 1666 (NA, SG, inv. nr. 9248-9249).
5# J.H. Grever, ‘Committees and deputations in the Assemblies of the Dutch Republic 1660-1668’, Parliaments, Estates and representation 1 (1981) 13-33: 22-23.
6# NA, SG, inv. nr. 3272, resolutions 25th of July 1665.
7# Oudendijk, Johan de Witt, 142-143.
8# NA, SG, inv. nr. 3272, resolutions 11th of August 1665.
9# NA, SG, inv. nr. 3273, resolutions 26th of March 1666.
10# Rowen, John de Witt, 122. For the exact instructions see: NA, SG, inv. nr. 9249, 3rd of July 1666.
11# See the first page of the report of De Witt: NA, SG, inv. nr. 9240.
12# Rommelse, The Second Anglo-Dutch War, 163-167, 176.
13# Ibid., 179-180
14# NA, SG, inv. nr. 3274, resolutions 25th of September 1666.
15# NA, Archives De Witt/De Witt-Beijerman (hereafter: ADW), inv. nr. 4, Johan de Witt to Cornelis de Witt 11th of June 1667.
16# NA, SG, inv. nr. 9336, journal Aert van Ness, 6th of June 1667.
20# NA, ADW, inv. nr. 4, Cornelis to Johan 23rd of July 1667.
21# NA, SG, inv. nr. 9336, Journal Aert van Nes, 23rd of June 1667.