Anglo-Dutch Fishing Disputes and the Sovereignty of the Seas, 1558-1640

Recent trade negotiations between the UK and the EU have shone a spotlight on European fishing rights in British territorial waters. While Britain sought to control access to her waters, arguing that her sovereignty was at stake, the EU expected to continue large-scale fishing in these same seas. Historians of early modern England might be forgiven for thinking that we have been here before, as the editor of our Elizabethan House of Lords project, Dr Andrew Thrush, explains.

Before the seventeenth century, English kings were generally content to share the fishing grounds around their coasts with their neighbours. Elizabeth I, for instance, opposed the idea of restricted waters, refusing to recognize Spanish claims to sovereignty over the western Atlantic and the Pacific. English claims to sovereignty were limited to a patch of sea off the Sussex coastal town of Rye known as the Sowe (or Zowe). Frenchmen fishing in these waters were expected to buy licences from the lord warden of the Cinque Ports, and their numbers were strictly limited.

English thinking was altered following the emergence of the Dutch Republic. Following their declaration of independence from Spain (1581), the Dutch enlarged their already substantial North Sea fishing industry. Worth £1 million a year, it provided cured herrings to most of Europe, employed a fifth of the population of the Netherlands and was the envy of Europe. Described by one observer as their ‘chief goldmine’, the ‘great fishery’ enabled the Dutch to become a major naval power and also to defeat Spain. By comparison, as early as the 1540s the English fishing industry was in decay. An Act of 1563 tried to prop up the native industry by increasing the number of weekly fish days from two to three, but it failed to arrest the decline because the English continued to buy their fish from the Dutch.

Dutch herring busses escorted by a Dutch naval warship, Pieter Vogolear, c.1700.
Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons

The rise of the Dutch fishing industry was not the only factor which helped to change English thinking. Another was the emergence of a legal concept of territorial waters, which was first articulated by the lawyer Sir Edmund Plowden. In Sir John Constable’s Case, Plowden argued that the ‘bounds of England’ extended to the middle of the adjoining sea, and that the crown had exclusive jurisdiction over the entire English Channel because of the monarch’s historic claim to the crown of France. While Elizabeth remained alive, Plowden’s ideas remained largely theoretical. However, the accession of the Scottish king James VI to the throne of England in 1603 changed all that. Scottish law, unlike English, had long acknowledged the concept of territorial waters. From the twelfth century, kings of Scotland had authorized coastal monasteries to issue fishing licences to foreign fishermen. James was therefore disposed to think that foreign fishermen ought to pay for the privilege of fishing in English and Scottish waters. This view was sharpened both by his distaste for the Dutch, whom he regarded as rebels, and by his growing financial difficulties, which forced him to look for new sources of revenue. In 1609, as his finances spiralled out of control, he issued a proclamation requiring all foreign fishermen to take fishing licences, either at London or at Edinburgh. At around the same time a consortium of London merchants proposed to form a fishing company and levy a tax of 10% on foreigners who fished in British waters.

In the event, the proposed fishing company failed to materialize, while the Dutch disregarded James’s proclamation. Matters might have rested there were it not for the fact that in 1616 the Dutch struck a serious blow at the English economy by forbidding the import of English dyed cloth. James immediately retaliated by dispatching a small royal warship to the North Sea with orders to compel the Dutch to buy fishing licences. This mission proved highly successful, as the tax demanded was peaceably paid by the Dutch busses. However, when an attempt was made to repeat the exercise the following year, James’s representative was arrested on the orders of the States-General. In the ensuing diplomatic row the Dutch backed down, and in 1618 and 1619 James demanded the duty again. However, by now he was nervous of pressing his claims of sovereignty too far. When, in 1618, the lawyer John Selden presented him with a treatise entitled Mare Clausum, which argued that the seas around Britain were British, James declined to publish it for fear of offending the Danes.

James’s son and heir, Charles I, was less concerned than his father at causing offence. The publication in 1626 by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius of Mare Liberum, a treatise aimed at refuting Spanish claims to dominion in the East Indies, was widely perceived as an attack on English pretensions. In 1632 Charles responded by authorizing the creation of a joint stock company to rival the Dutch. He also launched a propaganda campaign, which included publication of Selden’s Mare Clausum, copies of which were deposited in the Council chamber, the Exchequer and the court of admiralty. Moreover, unlike his father, he demonstrated a willingness to enforce his claims with overwhelming force. Between 1635 and 1640 Charles put to sea large annual fleets paid for by Ship Money (an annual levy demanded without parliamentary approval to pay for the Navy), whose purpose was to uphold England’s claim to sovereignty of the seas around her coasts. In 1636 the fleet was ordered to sell licences to the Dutch. As the latter were still at war with Spain and their Flemish allies, purchasers were promised protection from the Dunkirkers who, the previous summer, had sunk or captured more than 70 Dutch fishing busses. As in 1616, many Dutch fishermen willingly paid the new duty in return for English defence, to the dismay of the States-General.

Although the sale of licences yielded only a modest financial return, Charles had succeeded in enforcing his claims. In 1637, after a brief suspension occasioned by the prospect of war with Spain (in which England would need the support of the Dutch), he revived the scheme. Unfortunately for him, the successes of 1636 were not repeated, for in July Dutch warships prevented an English captain from distributing licences. Furthermore, Charles’s new fishing company was so under-capitalized that it quickly foundered. By 1638, with war with the Scottish Covenanters on the horizon, the campaign to enforce Dutch acknowledgement of English sovereignty over the North Seas fisheries largely ceased. However, this was far from being the end of the matter. During the 1650s the Cromwellian regime revived Charles’s policy, and thereby helped precipitate war between England and the Dutch.


Still feeling fishy? Read about the politicisation of Cornish pilchards in the 17th century in this blog from our Civil War section.

Follow the research of our House of Lords 1558-1603 project here.

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