The first of three 17th Century naval wars between England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands.
The United Provinces of the Netherlands was a loose confederation of seven semi-autonomous republican states (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Overijssel, Gröningen, Gelderland and Friesland) that had won independence from Spain during the Eighty Years War (1568-1648). Dutch national policy was formulated by delegates from the seven provinces at the States-General in The Hague. The chief executive official of each province was the Stadtholder. By tradition, the Prince of Orange was chosen as Stadtholder by most of the provinces and thus dominated the States-General. However, the influence of the Orangists was counterbalanced by the increasingly powerful mercantile houses, which tended to be republican in sympathy.
Background to the Conflict
Friction between England and the Netherlands had been growing since the early 17th century as both nations competed in maritime trade and colonial expansion. The war between the Netherlands and Spain was advantageous to English merchants, who could trade in Spanish markets from which the Dutch were excluded. After the peace treaty of 1648, however, Dutch merchant fleets returned to every trading sphere. English merchants had already been driven out of the lucrative East Indian spice trade and soon began to lose markets to the Dutch in Spain, the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the Americas. Unofficial warfare developed as English privateers began seizing Dutch ships and their cargoes.
Despite the commercial rivalry between the two nations, the Council of State regarded the Protestant Dutch republic as a natural ally of the English Commonwealth in its apocalyptic struggle against monarchy and popery. In 1650, the Stadtholder Willem II, Prince of Orange, died of smallpox at the age of twenty-four. As his son was too young to inherit, no Stadtholder was appointed to replace him. Dutch republicans led by Cornelis de Graeff and Johan de Witt took the opportunity to try to end the influence of the aristocratic house of Orange over the States-General. Meanwhile, a diplomatic delegation from the English Commonwealth headed by Oliver St John arrived in The Hague in March 1651 to negotiate an alliance in which it was proposed to combine the two republics into a single diplomatic and commercial Protestant federation. The Dutch were suspicious of the proposal and supporters of the House of Orange vehemently opposed it, expressing outrage at the execution of King Charles I and refusing to recognise the regicide Commonwealth. After negotiations broke down, St John drafted the provocative Navigation Act of October 1651, which greatly increased tensions between the two nations.
During the winter and spring of 1651-2, large numbers of Dutch vessels were intercepted and searched by English ships. French support for the Royalists had led the Commonwealth to issue "letters of reprisal", which authorised English captains to seize French cargoes carried in Dutch ships. When Sir George Ayscue arrived to claim the colony of Barbados for the Commonwealth in October 1651, he seized twenty-seven Dutch ships that were trading with the Royalists in contravention of a Commonwealth embargo. As a further irritant, the Commonwealth continued the traditional claim to sovereignty of the "British Seas" — from the German Ocean (the North Sea) to Cape Finisterre — and required foreign ships in these waters to strike their flags to English men-of-war as a mark of respect. Dutch ambassadors in London tried to ease the growing tension, but both sides realised that war had become inevitable. The veteran admiral Maarten Tromp put to sea in April 1652 with orders to protect Dutch shipping from English aggression. After a confrontation between Tromp and Robert Blake off Dover in May, war was officially declared on 8 July 1652.
The Rival Fleets
The Dutch navy reflected the political constitution of the United Provinces. There was no centralised admiralty or national navy. During the struggle with Spain, five provincial admiralties had emerged: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Friesland, Noorderkwartier and Zeeland, each with its own fleet, revenues and naval establishment. Dutch naval administration was further complicated by municipal boards of Directors appointed to fit out ships for convoy duty. The East and West India Companies and numerous privateering syndicates also maintained their own fleets, which could be hired by the state. Although the States-General had nominal authority over the fleet, naval operations were frequently complicated by rivalries between the provincial admiralties, the merchant houses and syndicates, and by political factionalism between republicans and Orangists.
The Dutch navy had achieved a number of successes during the war with Spain, notably Maarten Tromp's victory at the battle of the Downs in 1639, in which he trapped and destroyed a Spanish fleet sheltering in the Downs anchorage off the Kent coast. However, most Dutch naval actions had involved defending merchant convoys and blockading the notorious Dunkirk privateering base. The Dutch built fast, lightly-armed warships for these duties and also relied upon armed merchant vessels. The majority of Dutch warships carried between twenty and forty guns; the most powerful Dutch ship was Tromp's flagship the Brederode, which carried fifty-four guns. During 1651, as tension between the Netherlands and England mounted, the States-General voted to increase the size of the Dutch fleet to around 230 ships by hiring and equipping a further 150 merchant vessels as warships.
In contrast to Dutch practice, the English had concentrated on building larger and heavier ships, which were rated according to their tonnage and the number of guns carried. The Prince Royal, built in 1610 and renamed the Resolution under the Commonwealth, was capable of carrying up to 102 guns. The Sovereign of the Seas, built in 1637 and renamed the Sovereign, carried up to 120 guns. These two vessels were among the most powerful warships then afloat and were classified as 1st rate "great ships". Even English 4th rates, carrying around forty guns, had greater firepower than all but the most powerful Dutch ships. While Dutch naval tactics generally involved boarding and overpowering an enemy crew, the English were beginning to rely upon heavier ordnance and the use of the broadside, where all guns on one side of a ship were fired together to wreck an enemy ship.
The Course of the War
The First Anglo-Dutch War was fought entirely at sea. Most of the major actions of the war revolved around control of the two principal trade routes upon which Dutch commerce depended: the eastern route through the Danish Sound into the Baltic Sea, and the western route along the English Channel to France, Spain, the Mediterranean and the Indies, with a longer, alternative route around the coast of Scotland.
The English were at an advantage because they could dictate the terms of the conflict by threatening the vulnerable trade routes. During the early stages of the war, Robert Blake disrupted the North Sea trade route and dispersed the Dutch herring fleet, while Sir George Ayscue threatened Dutch convoys in the western Channel. Dutch admirals were forced to react to English initiatives, while at the same time striving to defend vital merchant convoys from attack. Maarten Tromp was obliged to resign as commander of the Dutch fleet after failing to secure the North Sea; his successor, Vice-Admiral de With, was defeated by Blake at the battle of Kentish Knock in September 1652. Tromp returned to command and defeated Blake at the battle of Dungeness a few weeks later. The Dutch were also successful in defeating the English naval presence in the Mediterranean.
The shock defeat at Dungeness resulted in a thorough review of English naval administration and tactics. During the winter of 1652-3, an admiralty committee under the direction of Sir Henry Vane was established which introduced better rates of pay for seamen and greater efficiency in supplying the fleet. Reliance upon the hiring and arming of merchant vessels began to be phased out because it was observed that captains and owners were often reluctant to risk damage to their ships in battle. The distinguished artillery officers George Monck and Richard Deane were appointed generals-at-sea to serve alongside Blake. Under their supervision, the first official Articles of War and Fighting Instructions were issued to English naval commanders, which remained the basis of naval tactics and discipline throughout the next century. The fleet was divided onto three squadrons — red, white and blue — each with its own admiral, vice-admiral and rear-admiral, to make fleet actions more manageable. The concept of fighting in line-of-battle to maximise the use of the broadside was introduced. Although the earliest use of the line-of-battle tactic is attributed to Tromp at the battle of the Downs in 1639, its adoption by the English navy in 1653 maximised the advantage of the more powerful English warships over the Dutch. The line-of-battle tactic developed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and continued to be used in naval warfare until the end of World War II.
The generals-at-sea re-established English command of the Channel at the three-day running battle of Portland in February 1653. A subsequent Dutch attack in the North Sea was decisively defeated at the battle of the Gabbard where Deane was killed. The victory at the Gabbard enabled Monck to impose a blockade on Dutch ports during mid-1653 which crippled Dutch overseas trade. A final Dutch bid for victory was defeated at the battle of Scheveningen in July 1653, during which Tromp was killed. Although the English were victorious at sea, the cost of repairing and supplying the fleet proved to be exorbitant. During 1653, victuallers refused further contracts with the Admiralty unless their existing bills were settled; in October 1653, unpaid sailors rioted in the streets of London.
Tromp's death at Scheveningen was a severe blow to the Dutch Orangist faction. The republican Johan de Witt succeeded in purging the Dutch fleet of supporters of the House of Orange. Increasing republican influence in town councils across the United Provinces created an atmosphere conducive to peace with the Commonwealth. In England, radical members of the Nominated Assembly were in favour of continuing the war to the bitter end, but peace negotiations began when moderates dissolved the Assembly and handed power to Oliver Cromwell, who had never been in favour of war against a Protestant nation.
Peace negotiations were held in London during the early months of 1654 and the Treaty of Westminster was signed in April. The Dutch were obliged to salute the Commonwealth flag in territorial waters and to pay compensation for loss of trade sustained during the war and in earlier colonial disputes. The principal aim of the treaty, however, was to secure the exclusion of the pro-Stuart House of Orange from office in the United Provinces. The States-General subsequently passed the Act of Seclusion, which barred Willem III, Prince of Orange, from being appointed Stadtholder. Royalist exiles were also expelled from Dutch territory.
The Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars were fought from 1665-7 and 1672-4 during the reign of Charles II. The fourth Anglo-Dutch War of 1780-4 was ancillary to the American Revolutionary War.
John Barratt, Cromwell's Wars at Sea, (Barnsley 2006)
Bernard Capp, Cromwell's Navy: the fleet and the English Revolution (Oxford 1989)
Sir William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to the present, vol.ii (London 1898)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vols ii and iii, (London 1903)
Ronald Hutton, The British Republic (Basingstoke 2000)
Jack Sweetman (editor), The Great Admirals: command at sea 1587-1945 (Annapolis 1997)