Chatham and the failure of English Politics

350 years ago this week the British navy suffered a disaster after the Dutch Raid on the Medway. In this blog our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the parliamentary background to one of the worst defeats in British naval history… 

On 12 June 1667, the leading ships of a Dutch fleet forced their way through the chain barring access to the Medway at Gillingham, and captured the Royal Charles, one of the greatest capital ships in the Royal Navy; on the following day the Dutch pushed further up river, burning more major ships,  before retreating triumphantly with the Royal Charles and another smaller vessel as prizes. The Dutch raid on the Medway is usually treated in England as a naval disaster. But it was even more a political disaster – a sorry tale of political overreach and mismanagement that ended with what was probably the most humiliating defeat inflicted on the navy.

The Raid on the Medway, by Dutch artist Willem van der Stoop, via Wikimedia Commons

The second Anglo-Dutch war was one of a series of conflicts between the English state and a Dutch republic which had emerged in 1648 from years of war with the Spanish crown, from whose control it had revolted in the sixteenth century, as an unlikely sea and colonial power: a collection of city states – dominated by Amsterdam – whose great trading companies were feeding the growing luxury markets of Europe with goods from the East Indies, Africa and the Americas. English attempts to protect its own fishing fleets and merchant shipping from Dutch competition had already been the main reason behind the first conflict between the two countries’ navies, under the English republic in 1652-4. But commerce was always complicated by politics. Though formally a republic, the Dutch state had its own aspirant royal family – the Princes of Orange, closely allied by marriage to the English and Scottish Stuarts. English conflict with the Dutch in the 1650s had a political edge as the English republic fought in part at least to combat the Orange interest in the Dutch republic. After 1660, the sweeping away of the English republic, and the Restoration of the monarchy, the English state had changed its colours, and was now a firm protector of the infant Prince of Orange against those in Dutch politics who wanted to keep monarchy firmly at bay.

The monarchical question introduced fresh tensions into the post-1660 Anglo-Dutch relationship. English royalists had imbibed a strong suspicion of the Dutch republic over the previous twenty years. Any republic, from a royalist point of view, was to be treated with extreme caution; moreover, though both states were Protestant, the Dutch willingness to tolerate just about any Protestant sect, including some of the radical groupings that had flourished during the civil war that royalists regarded as ‘fanatics’ and a threat to their own stability, eroded Protestant solidarity and poisoned  a series of negotiations between the two countries for a commercial treaty in the early 1660s. But were these issues, or the commercial rivalry – increasingly visible as it was across the world – enough, in themselves, to spark war?

The House of Commons’ resolution of April 21, 1664 appeared, on the face of it, to indicate determined parliamentary backing for a vigorous confrontation with the Dutch. Supposedly based on evidence from various economic interest groups about the economic problems facing the country, it declared that

‘the wrongs, dishonours, and indignities, done to his Majesty by the subjects of the United Provinces, by invading of his rights in India, Africa, and elsewhere, and the damages, affronts and injuries done by them to our merchants, are the greatest obstruction of our Foreign Trade: And that the same be humbly and speedily presented to his Majesty: And that he be most humbly moved to take some speedy and effectual Course for Redress thereof, and all other of the like Nature, and for the Prevention of the like in future: And, in prosecution thereof, they will, with their Lives and Fortunes, assist his Majesty against all Oppositions whatsoever’.

It was greeted universally as a sign of general enthusiasm for war with a country that was aggressively seeking to hoover up the world’s trade and to become a hegemonic power. But the truth was more complicated. There is plenty to indicate that the ground for the resolution had been assiduously prepared by the government itself, and that those who spoke for a new company, The Company of Royal Adventurers trading into Africa, were given undue prominence. Voices that might have emphasised the harm that war might do to the economy were not heard. There are perhaps two ways of looking at the government’s evident attempt to secure the April 1664 resolution. One is that it was intended as a tactic in a difficult series of bilateral negotiation: an attempt to show the Dutch that the English state was very capable of going to war if negotiations on a treaty broke down. Certainly the English ambassador in the republic, Sir George Downing, had urged such a course of action. The other is that it was a deliberate attempt by some within the government to create the background that might justify a war, with the most belligerent figure James, Duke of York, the king’s brother, and the future James II. James was certainly aggressive, keen on military action and national glory. He was actively and deeply involved in the affairs of the Royal Adventurers’, and encouraged global challenges to Dutch trading interests.

Whichever of these is more true, it’s undeniable that the 1664 resolution helped to ensure that there would be a war, surprising those sceptical of parliamentary backing for the war with the vehemence of its support, and acting as the platform from which the government, that autumn, made an argument for a grant of £2.5 million pounds – a huge and unprecedented sum – in order to prepare the navy for conflict with a formidable opponent. Financial and political backing for the war would continue throughout 1665 and into 1666, but after two years’ gruelling campaigning, in which the fleets slugged it out in a series of bloody but ultimately indecisive battles, interest in and support for it were probably already failing. The plague that broke out in the summer of 1665 had some impact, but the fire of London in September 1666 probably had the more devastating effect in terms of England’s ability to fight the war.

Parliament’s session of 1666-7 was summoned to obtain finance for a third year of fighting against the Dutch. Although the House of Commons quickly voted another huge sum of money – £1.8 million – to sustain the war effort, the question of how the money should be raised proved vastly more controversial. It is difficult to disentangle the reasons for this. It may have been because the government overreached itself in a bid to secure the money through the unpopular device of an extension to excise taxation (the struggle against this proposal was immortalised by Andrew Marvell in his Last Instructions to a Painter, possibly the only verse about a parliamentary debate ever written by a known poet). It was possibly because members had very real concerns over the state of the economy in the wake of two years’ of war – though their economic concerns in this session were largely concerned with the cattle trade with Ireland, which had rather little to do with the war. It may have been because while members were unwilling to be seen directly opposing the grant of money, they were less reluctant to be seen protecting the interests of their constituents by wrangling over how it should be raised. Or it could have been because the Duke of Buckingham, a favourite of Charles II, but an erratic politician increasingly hostile to the Duke of York, was active stirring up trouble among members of Parliament on various issues throughout the session.

The government got their grant of money by the end of the session. But it seems to have been little help in preparing for war. It isn’t completely clear why, but it is likely that the government was used to raising credit on the basis of parliamentary supply – the money could take years to actually be collected – and there was simply no credit to be had. The government had little choice but to cross fingers and hope that peace (negotiations were already well under way) would be agreed before the beginning of the summer campaigning season, and that no fleet would be required. The hope proved misplaced.

The 1664-7 war was a completely unnecessary one, and there is more than a suspicion that it was inspired by the imperial and military ambitions of the king’s brother, and the manipulation of Parliament to achieve his ends. The failure to raise money in 1667 to combat the Dutch for a third year was perhaps as much a financial, as a political, failure;  but undoubtedly, the political management that made it possible to secure the April 1664 resolution was severely lacking by 1666-7. Having tried so hard to engineer Parliament’s backing for a misconceived war in 1664, the government found it impossible to ensure it was still behind it when the going became really tough in 1666.


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