Some on this site may be aware that I have been working my way through writing accounts of English battles from c500AD up to the Act of Union. Most of them fall outside the South-East but I have posted those battles that do fall within the area. I realise that there have already been far better qualified posts on this subject than I can come up with but, for what it is worth, below is my account of the Medway raid. I also attach copies of a map and a couple of paintings.
The Medway Raid 10th to 13th June 1667
“I think the Devil shits Dutchmen” Sir William Batten on hearing of the Dutch raid
During the winter of 1666 into 1667 the English fleet was laid up. Parliament would vote no more money claiming that they had voted £5,590,000 for the war and that the spending of £2,390,000 was unaccounted for. The seamen stopped being paid and regularly rioted, while ships were left unrepaired and unsupplied. The only way that senior officers could get anything done was through a process of cannibalisation. The Dutch meanwhile, despite Holmes successful raid on them, were still able to raise the money to fit out their fleet for the coming year.
Charles II, now having to finance the war out of his own moneys, decided to have the largest warships towed upstream out of reach of the Dutch and then laid up. He would then use only frigates to guard the coastline and warn of any approach by the Dutch. The idea was that the Dutch would, in theory, find no Royal Navy fleet to fight and the coast too strongly defended to attack. Their supplies would get used up and they would sail home empty handed and out of pocket. Meanwhile Charles put out feelers for an end to the war relying on the Dutch being distrustful enough of French intentions (with good reason) to agree to an easy peace.
Johan de Witt was, however, determined to extract his revenge for Holmes raid before agreeing to any peace. During 1664 and 1665 he had arranged for charts to be made of the channels in the Thames estuary. He was searched for English prisoners or renegade republicans who could act as pilots for the Dutch fleet. The Dutch admirals were though anything but convinced that a raid up the Thames was a good idea and feared getting trapped. De Witt could not afford to leave the Netherlands himself and so therefore appointed his elder brother Cornelis with full powers to act on his behalf to make sure that De Ruyter and the other admirals carried out the attack in accordance with Johan de Witt’s wishes.
On 7th June the Dutch fleet sailed for the Thames. The main Dutch fleet commanded by de Ruyter in the Zeven Provincien (80) lay at the mouth of the river while a squadron of seventeen smaller warships, four fireships and some other boats supported by 1,000 soldiers sailed up the river as far as Gravesend. On 10th June the Dutch landed troops to take the Sheerness fort that protected the entrance to the River Medway where the main Royal Navy warships were laid up. The Dutch found the fort to be incomplete with only a small garrison. The guns were so poorly mounted as to be effectively useless. A supporting English frigate fired one broadside and then retreated when the Dutch sent in a fireship, the garrison followed suit and fled.
On the Tuesday 11th June Monck arrived at Chatham on the Medway and was dismayed at what he found. There were few of the 800 soldiers who should have been there to conduct the defence, many of the thirty boats that should have been available to defend the river had fled and the chain laid across the river at Gillingham, sagged badly. The first-rater the Royal Charles formally the Naseby (80) could have aided the defences if it had been resupplied, but it was not. Monck ordered that it to be towed further upstream but, due to a shortage of ships, this never happened. He also ordered fireships to be sunk to strengthen the chain and shore batteries built on either side of the river to cover the chain. However, the solid oak planks that the guns should have been laid on to absorb their recoil were not available.
On Wednesday 12th June the Dutch attacked the chain led by the fourth-rater Vrede (40) supported by two fireships. The Vrede sailed for HMS Unity (42) formally the Dutch warship Enndracht guarding the chain giving it a broadside and then boarding it while one of the fireships broke the chain. The fireships, now set alight, were then sailed into the other English ships. Dutch frigates sailed up and opened fire on the shore batteries whose response was ineffectual due to the wheels of the guns driving into the softwood planks that they were mounted on. The Dutch captured the Royal Charles and that afternoon the victorious commanders met on board her with Cornelius de Witt composing an account to be sent back to his brother of the success so far. Monck could only look on in horror and, taking what few men he could find with him, retreated to Upnor Castle.
The first-rate Royal Oak (100), second-rate Loyal London (80) and second-rate Royal James (82) all now lay at the mercy of the Dutch and, to prevent their capture, Monck ordered them to be run aground and holed. However, on Thursday 13th June a force of Dutch fireships guarded by four frigates sailed towards them and set them all alight. One man, a Scottish captain Archibald Douglas refused to desert the Royal Oak and perished in the flames. The poet Andrew Marvell, who had previously penned an ode to Cromwell’s exploits in Ireland, now composed one on Douglas’ death.
Monck continued to do what he could with the pitiful forces at his disposal, having some ships moved further upstream and others beached to hamper the Dutch. They now, however, having come in range of the guns of guarding Chatham decided to pull back on the ebb tide taking the Royal Charles with them. The English seamen watching could only marvel at the skills of the Dutch as they manoeuvred the ship into the Thames Estuary. The number of ships lost by the Royal Navy was not actually that large, but it included all the first and second-raters other than Royal Sovereign at Portsmouth. It was viewed as a national humiliation and many must have thought that it was a humiliation that would have never been allowed to happen if Oliver Cromwell rather than Charles II had been in charge. No doubt such thoughts were in the minds of the former Cromwellian and Royalist admirals as they blamed each other for the disaster.
On the positive side, the Dutch failed to destroy the Chatham dockyards which would have taken far longer to replace than the lost ships and the raid in the direction of Gravesend failed to achieve anything. Additionally the Dutch attack on the Landguard fort near Harwich was repulsed with heavy loss and the Royal Charles was never to be used against the Royal Navy – the Dutch found that it floated too deep in the water to be of use in their channels and it was scrapped. Charles II proved correct in his estimation that, because of threatening moves by the French, the Dutch would accept a fairly easy peace and this proved to be the case. There had, however, to be a scapegoat for the defeat and, as this could not be Charles II, his chief minister Clarendon, who had actually opposed the war, was lined up for impeachment. Being well aware of the fate of Charles I’s chief minister Strafford, who was impeached and executed in 1641, Clarendon fled abroad to write his history of the Civil Wars.
In 2014, just before the Scottish referendum, the BBC TV ‘Historian’ Dan Snow wrote a polemic justifying the Act of Union in 1707 between England and Scotland and the continued United Kingdom by portraying England as weak prior to then. To justify this view, he referred to the Medway raid that occurred forty years before and the French defeat of the English Royal Navy in 1690. He, however, failed to mention that in 1692 the Royal Navy had inflicted a decisive defeat on the French Navy and that, by the time of the Act of Union, the English Royal Navy had far surpassed both the Dutch and French navies in strength. It was by then the dominant oceanic sea power with a strength of more than 300 warships including more than 100 ships of the line.