Battle of Medway: The English defeat that's largely forgotten

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Burning of the English Fleet near Chatham (19-24 June 1667), Willem Schellinks, 1667 - 1678Image source, Rijksmuseum
Image caption,
The Dutch victory was celebrated in paintings, many of which are on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

It was a battle that set a river on fire, caused panic across London, and left England nursing the wounds of one of its worst ever military defeats. Yet not many people today have heard of the Battle of Medway. Why?

The whiff of gunsmoke, burning timber, pitch and tar. Warships ablaze, flames shooting through gunports, the smoke visible for miles along the north Kent coastline.

This is the scene that would have greeted eyewitnesses following the Dutch raid along the River Medway in June 1667.

Carried out over several days, it targeted the English fleet at Chatham, leaving a large section of the Royal Navy either captured or destroyed. There were few casualties, but the loss of the realm's largest warships brought humiliation to the country and damaged the personal reputation of King Charles II.

It was the third in a trio of disasters to befall the nation following on from the Great Plague and Great Fire of London. It created such panic in London that people sent their most valued possessions out of the city, fearing imminent occupation by Dutch forces.

Yet despite this, the raid is little remembered in the UK today. A full programme of commemorations is being held over the coming weeks in an effort to raise awareness of its 350th anniversary.

"Everyone knows about the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, but even people locally don't know about the Battle of Medway," said Richard Holdsworth, of the Historic Dockyard Chatham, where a series of commemorations are set to take place.

A humiliating defeat

Image source, Rijksmuseum

The English forces were totally unprepared for the Dutch assault on Chatham.

Dutch forces captured Sheerness fort and forced the Unity, a 42-gun guardship, to retreat towards Chatham.

They then broke through a defensive iron chain on the Medway, allowing them to attack the fleet at its base.

Finding the ships unmanned they attacked them again, leaving many ablaze.

Most humiliating of all, the flagship Royal Charles - as well as the Unity - were captured and towed back to the Netherlands as a prize.

The cause of this English amnesia is perhaps due to the fact that they lost. As with most nations, the English do not like talking about their defeats, even 350 years on.

Jeroen van der Vliet, a curator at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam which holds a large collection of objects related to the raid, said it was an important battle in the history of both nations.

It was one of the last times England was invaded by an enemy force while in the Netherlands it is regarded as the "high water mark of Dutch naval power".

Image source, Rijksmuseum

Over the next fortnight, a series of events marking the anniversary will take place, including a dramatisation of the raid screened against the backdrop of Upnor Castle.

An exhibition at the dockyard has gathered artefacts on loan from organisations including the National Maritime Museum, the Rijksmuseum and British Library.

The organisers hope it will help raise awareness of a battle that is arguably still relevant to our modern times.

"The problem is that our naval history inevitably focuses on the wars we won and the great heroes who fought in them," said historian Dr David Davies.

"By any criterion, it's one of the worst British defeats of all time.

"Personally, I'd say it's important to know about it in this country as an antidote to triumphalism - the idea that English, and then British, history has been a largely unbroken succession of victories.

"Nothing brings home that message more clearly than an attack which brought enemy ships right into the heart of the country's main naval base, and which saw the fleet flagship towed away as a trophy."

Image source, Rijksmuseum
Image caption,
The Dutch towed the Royal Charles flagship back to Holland - the stern carving is now kept in the Rijksmuseum

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