And now for Part 2 of my account of the Battle of the Texel/Kijkduin, 11/21 August 1673…the same caveats apply as last week!


Ironically, one aspect of the original strategy agreed by Charles and Rupert before the fleet sailed in July worked almost exactly as they had planned it – one of the very few such occurrences in the three Anglo-Dutch wars. By the beginning of August, William and de Ruyter were under growing pressure from the Amsterdam merchants and the VOC to safeguard the returning merchant fleets. On 2 August, William visited his fleet off Scheveningen and persuaded de Ruyter of the necessity of giving battle, even though, as they both knew, their fleet only possessed about two-thirds of the Anglo-French force’s numerical strength.42 The Dutch fleet moved north; by 8 August the two forces’ scouts were in sight of each other, but high seas kept the main fleets at anchor for two days, during which time the potential threat to the republic’s trade was amply illustrated by the capture of the lone VOC ship Papenburg by the French warship Bourbon. The combined fleet weighed anchor at 6a.m. on the tenth and steered south-east with the advantage of the wind, closing steadily on de Ruyter. At four that afternoon de Ruyter tacked to avoid engaging, put on sail and rapidly shot ahead, with the combined fleet in pursuit.43 Given the hour, Rupert decided not to engage on that day. The (French) van squadron was ordered to continue to steer south-east until they came to the ten-fathom line where they were to change course to the south-west in order to keep the wind.44

By one means or another, by the morning of 11 August the combined fleet had completely lost the considerable tactical advantage which it had possessed the day before: as dawn broke, the allied captains found that the Dutch had gained the wind during the night and were bearing down on them. Even de Ruyter seemed surprised to find his enemy to leeward of him.45 The possible explanations for the allies’ losing the wind were and are contentious, especially as they provided part of the argument for the subsequent attack on the conduct of the French, and will be considered in due course. However, it is clear that one of the most important factors in explaining the change of circumstances was that the wind itself had changed during the night, swinging around from north-east roughly to south-east – a change which would have sufficed in itself to give the Dutch the wind, regardless of any manoeuvring on the part of either force.46 As it was, the combined fleet tacked several times during the night, finally making a tack between six and seven in the morning which set it on a course roughly to the south-west, formed up into its line-of-battle but with the Dutch closing from the south-east, having got themselves between the combined fleet and the Dutch coast, roughly seven miles off Petten and Camperduin (not, in fact, the Texel, as was stated in many of the English and French accounts). To confront the three allied squadrons the Dutch had divided their fleet in a similar manner, with the Zeeland ships under Lieutenant-Admiral Bankert in the van opposite the French, a largely Rotterdam-based squadron under de Ruyter in the centre opposing Rupert’s red squadron, and the Amsterdam ships under Cornelis Tromp in the rear opposite Spragge’s blue squadron.47 Between seven and nine the long lines-of-battle gradually converged and the battle began.

Another Van de Velde the Younger painting of the duel of the Gouden Leeuw and Royal Prince

Another Van de Velde the Younger painting of the duel of the Gouden Leeuw and Royal Prince

The combined fleet’s line-of-battle, the good order of which had impressed several of its officers, began to break up almost immediately. The French in the van pressed ahead, trying to gain the wind from the Dutch (or so they subsequently claimed); conversely, shortly before eight Spragge ordered his blue squadron, in the rear, to back their sails to their masts, ostensibly to close his three divisions to each other but in reality to ensure that he could continue his personal duel with Tromp, a legacy of the second Anglo-Dutch war. Virtually the last words in Spragge’s journal, written up in the small hours of 11 August to conclude his account of the previous day’s events, are ‘he [Tromp] will, I hope, fall to my share in the Blue squadron tomorrow’.48 As a result of these manoeuvres, the battle of the Texel effectively developed very quickly into three separate engagements – a fact which would later allow those who reported from each of the combined fleet’s three squadrons to claim that their actions had been correct and those of the other two had been wrong. In the admiral of the blue’s division, Spragge’s Royal Prince was engaged by Tromp’s Gouden Leeuw and a general engagement followed until about noon, with both the English and Dutch divisions sailing slowly southward before turning west and then north-west in the afternoon. Both the Prince and several of the ships near her suffered severe damage; the Prince lost the effective use of two of her masts and almost all her rigging, while ‘many valiant men [were] sent into the other world without any ceremony besides peals of thundering ordnance’.49 The Prince dropped out of the line at about eleven to effect repairs, the Royal Charles taking over her position. Captain Arthur Herbert’s Cambridge, immediately astern of her in the line, dropped out of the line twice during the same period due to damaged rigging, while the Advice lost her foretopmast and had six feet of water in her hold, forcing her crew to bail and pump continually. Spragge’s attempt at about noon to bring the Prince back into the line in order to launch a counter-attack against Tromp was thwarted by the rapid destruction of his recently-repaired main and mizzen masts, and he transferred his flag to the Saint George, which he immediately tried to interpose between Tromp and the crippled Prince. Finding the quality of the Saint George‘s gun crews to be totally unsatisfactory, or else because she, too, had become disabled (depending on whether one believes unofficial or official accounts), Spragge decided at about one to shift his flag again to the Royal Charles, ‘and stayed a little to take his flag with him…which some think was observed by the enemy, and occasioned the disaster that soon followed, for scarce was he got a cable’s length before the bullets began to fall thick about his boat, and one found easy passage through her to let in that good servant, bad master, the watery element’. Some of the boat’s crew managed to keep Spragge, a notoriously poor swimmer, afloat for a while, but when they were finally rescued it was found that although ‘they saved his body…his glorious soul had forsaken that habitation’.50The loss of Spragge, or rather of the blue flag which had perished with him and the Saint George‘s boat, was an unmitigated disaster for his division, which now lacked any effective leadership. Tromp sought to take advantage of this by finishing off the Prince and made at least three concerted attacks on her in the first part of the afternoon, almost managing to secure his fireships to her; the boatswain only just managed to cut away the hooks of one of them from the ship’s foreshrouds, and the entire saga of the Prince‘s defensive fight under her captain, Thomas Fowler, came to be regarded as a classic of its type.51

Despite the undoubted heroics of her own crew, the saving of the Prince was attributable chiefly to the intervention of the two other divisions of the blue squadron – the rear-admiral’s division under Thomas Butler, earl of Ossory, in the Saint Michael, and the vice-admiral’s division under Sir John Kempthorne, which had been stationed in the rear of the entire fleet. Between eight in the morning and midday, Ossory’s division had been trading broadsides with the ships of the Amsterdam rear-admiral Jan de Haan. With considerable damage to her rigging, the Saint Michael and her division had come up to Spragge’s Royal Prince at about noon, at which time the wind veered to the south-west and gave the English ships the weather-gage. This was the moment when Spragge’s intention to counter-attack on the wind was rendered futile by the disability of the Prince and his own death shortly afterwards. Despite suffering even more damage to the Saint Michael’s masts and rigging, Ossory kept her close to the Prince, with some of his fireships in position to deter Tromp. At four that afternoon, with both Rupert’s and de Ruyter’s squadrons in sight bearing down from the south-west and with Tromp having abandoned his final attempts to fire the Prince, Ossory ordered the Hampshire and Ruby (later joined by the Pearl) to take the crippled flagship in tow.52 Meanwhile, the rear-admiral’s division of the blue, under Sir John Kempthorne, had been engaged with vice-admiral Isaac Sweers of the Witte Olifant and his division since the beginning of the battle, although both divisions had fallen well to leeward of the rest of their squadrons. Kempthorne’s Saint Andrew lost her main and foremasts early on and had to anchor, and the damage which he had sustained, so Kempthorne claimed, made it difficult for him to manoeuvre to the assistance of the Royal Prince in the early afternoon. Nevertheless, he tacked with the intention of attacking Tromp, but found he was supported by only three other ships of his division. Kempthorne claimed that he passed the Prince and tried to set his fireships onto Tromp but that too many other ships were in the way. After tacking once more, Kempthorne hove-to to repair his torn foresail before weathering Tromp and sailing on to join Rupert at about four.53

For the red squadron, the morning had begun with the disconcerting spectacle of the white and blue squadrons disappearing ahead and astern, leaving them isolated to face what Rupert claimed was the whole of de Ruyter’s squadron and most of Banckert’s Zeeland squadron as well. From eight until twelve the red and its opponents followed a course roughly to the north-west, fighting all the time – an observer on the Royal Katherine, at the head of Rupert’s division, claimed that they had been the first ship to be hit, but that subsequently the Mary and Rupert’s flagship Sovereign had been particularly heavily engaged.54 By midday Rupert’s and his vice-admiral, Harman’s, divisions had been weathered by a large Dutch force, with rear-admiral Sir John Chicheley some way to leeward. As a result, most of the red lay between two Dutch squadrons, one to windward and one to leeward of them, with de Ruyter’s flagship De Zeven Provincien almost in the Sovereign‘s wake; the Royal Katherine dropped back from her place in the line to protect her. Several attempted fireship attacks by both sides were abortive.55 (Indeed, during the whole course of the battle of the Texel the English expended more fireships than in any other battle of the sailing ship era.56) Shortly afterwards, ‘our disput had a seseation’ when Rupert veered away to join forces with Chicheley, and then sailed northwards to assist the blue, who were about four leagues away. De Ruyter, similarly, hoped to assist Tromp, so that the early afternoon witnessed the peculiar spectacle of the two fleets’ centre squadrons sailing north almost parallel to each other, but not firing a shot.57

Between four and five, the red and blue joined forces. De Ruyter and Tromp launched another attempt to administer the coup de grace to the Royal Prince, but Rupert hastily improvised a new line-of-battle with the ships around him, interposing himself between the Dutch and Spragge’s old flagship and sending two fireships to thwart de Ruyter’s attack, so that a new general engagement began at about five. ‘The fight was very strong and close’, Rupert claimed, and it continued until about eight that evening, when the English squadrons withdrew to the west-north-west to take care of their disabled ships, and the Dutch bore off to the east, towards their own coast. Despite the severe damage to the Prince and the lesser damage to several other vessels, and the loss of Spragge, five other captains, and perhaps 500 seamen, Rupert claimed that he had gained the better of the engagement, and this boast was repeated in several accounts of the battle. It was regarded as a certainty that Kempthorne had sunk a Dutch seventy-gunner, but this was just as much a fiction as the Dutch claim to have sunk one of Rupert’s squadron. Although the Dutch had lost more senior officers, including two vice-admirals (Sweers and de Liefde), the claim to a ‘great victory’ in their journals was rather more justified, for as they immediately realised, they had achieved their objective of forcing the combined fleet away from their coast, ensuring that there could be no immediate landing (even if Charles II felt inclined to order one).58 Nine days after the battle, William of Orange signed the three great treaties with the Emperor Leopold, the queen-regent of Spain and the duke of Lorraine, which virtually guaranteed the survival of the United Provinces. Just over a fortnight after the battle he undertook his first serious offensive, taking Naarden and thereby relieving some of the French pressure on Amsterdam. If the Texel had been a Dutch defeat, it is very difficult to see how William could have contemplated such significant moves as these.

A Dutch congregation took refuge in its church as the battle raged offshore: plaque at Huisduinen, North Holland

A Dutch congregation took refuge in its church as the battle raged offshore: plaque at Huisduinen, North Holland

The conduct of the French squadron

As far as many of the Englishmen who had actually been present at the battle were concerned, let alone the vociferous francophobe elements ashore, the fact that the Texel quite plainly had not been the great victory they had wanted was due (at least in part) to the behaviour of the one remaining allied squadron in the battle, the French in the van. Even journals and accounts which were clearly written up immediately afterwards, several of them probably on the evening of the eleventh itself, contained the essential ingredients of the story which would be sweeping London for the following two or three months. Aboard the Royal Katherine, one of Captain George Legge’s servants saw the French at about six in the evening ‘above a leag to windward of us all and all the tyme of this our latter ingagmt the French never bore up a foot but looked one’.59 In the log of the Crown, which had lain just ahead of Rupert’s flagship in the red squadron, Captain Richard Carter noted that

the French yn haveing the van of the fleet and the wind shifteing to ye SW they tacked and gott the wind of the enemy who made so little use of so greate an advanta yt they kept yr wind as neare as possible they could and to the best of my knowledge fired but very few Gunns after they had so great an advantage of doeing considerable service.60

Rupert’s letters and his subsequent relation of the battle took the same line, his letter to Charles II on 17 August even containing a sketch of the situation at five or six in the afternoon of the battle, when the red and blue were starting to engage again but the French were standing apart, well to windward.61

Any attempt to interpret the conduct of the French at the battle of the Texel suffers from a particularly exaggerated case of the problem which to varying degrees besets the battle as a whole – not only was the interpretation of the facts open to debate, both at the time and since, but so too were many of the facts themselves. The ‘official’ version of the French squadron’s actions was contained in ‘the Relation from the White Squadron’, one of the three accounts published by authority on 17 August.62 In this, the French claimed that their rear-admiral, Martel, had attempted unsuccessfully to gain the wind of Bankert’s Zeeland squadron, and that d’Estrées had then broken through Bankert’s line between eleven and twelve in the morning, despite a narrow escape from Dutch fireships and the deaths of thirty men on his flagship, La Reine. Even the official account then passed over the actions of the French throughout the afternoon and evening with remarkable speed, claiming only that they had

pursued the enemy before the wind, and with all their sails, till half an hour past seven in the evening, when we found fifty of the enemy’s ships, who had rallied, and who durst not bear upon the prince’s squadron, because we had thewind of them, expecting only the Prince’s orders to do whatever his Highness should think fit. The Comte d’Estrées thinking he ought to keep the advantage of the wind, to renew the fight the next day, it being then already too late to engage afresh, without express orders from his Highness.63

Like the English journals and accounts of the battle, several more detailed accounts of their part in the engagement were produced within the French squadron in the days immediately following the Texel. D’Estrées’ own account was essentially a more detailed version of what was to become the official French narrative, and this line was supported both by an anonymous relation written up on 12 August and another by Hérouard, major d’escadre of the French squadron. Indeed, it was Hérouard who made the first serious attempt to counter the barrage of criticism against his squadron when he had an audience with Charles II on 17 August.64

Unfortunately for d’Estrées and for the Anglo-French alliance, this version of events was seriously undermined by the actions of the marquis de Martel. His journal for his flagship, the Royal Therese, formed the basis of the account which he subsequently sent to Rupert, which therefore came to form an essential part of Rupert’s criticisms of French conduct, and which was published with such devastating impact on English public opinion. According to Martel, the Dutch had employed only eight major ships and two fireships ‘pour amuser toute l’escadre de France’, and it is certainly the case that only this number of Zeeland ships, under vice-admiral Evertsen, were engaged with Martel’s van division in order to hinder any attempt by the French to tack; the rest of Banckert’s squadron soon dropped back to engage Rupert. Martel claimed that he had attempted to engage more vigorously, but had been thwarted by d’Estrées’ failure to support him. Indeed, he claimed that d’Estrées had secretly ordered the other captains in his division not to engage properly, and that by midday, when they had gained the wind of the entire Dutch fleet and Martel was keen to engage, d’Estrées for his part insisted they should stay clear of the main battle, at which Martel ‘shrugged up his shoulders’ and went along with his admiral’s orders.65 To this damning indictment of d’Estrées Rupert was able to add the charge that he had ignored the signal of a blue flag at the mizzen peak, which he had hoisted at about five in the afternoon as a signal (so he claimed) for the rest of the fleet to fall into his wake, in accordance with the fighting instructions; indeed, both English and French accounts indicate that d’Estrées saw this signal but (according to the more charitable reports) he did not know what it meant and sent a messenger to Rupert to find out, thereby losing so much time that the opportunity to engage was gone.66

The intensity of the criticism from both the English and Martel forced the French ambassador in London, Colbert de Croissy, and his political superiors in Paris, to attempt a damage limitation exercise and to undertake an extensive enquiry into the conduct of d’Estrées’ squadron. Indeed, the exhaustive nature of that enquiry, and the obvious concern to redeem the reputation of the French nation apparent in the letters of Colbert and his son, the navy minister Seignelay, gives the lie to the notion that ‘secret orders’ had been transmitted to d’Estrées from his government, perhaps even from Louis himself – apart from the obvious difficulty of implementing any such orders, the execution of which would have depended heavily on decisions of the Dutch rather than the French, the obsession of the king and ministers with their honour and ‘gloire’ makes it highly improbable that they would have ordered d’Estrées to act in such a blatantly dishonourable way, especially at a time when further English participation in the war was in the balance and public opinion was already hostile to France.67 By the beginning of September, Seignelay and Colbert were making every effort to obtain accurate information on the actions of the French squadron from its captains and others who had been present during the battle, and Colbert de Croissy was fighting a valiant rearguard action to counter the effects of Rupert’s and Martel’s relations. Both Seignelay and (later) d’Estrées attempted point-by-point rejoinders to each of Rupert’s criticisms of the French squadron.68 It was unfortunate for the French ministers and sea-officers that their detailed investigation was not made known English public opinion (which would probably have ignored it if it had been, of course), for even by the early days of September, that opinion was starting to shift slightly in a way which would in fact have been supported by the evidence being produced in France.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the battle, a few voices had been raised to question the conduct of individual English captains and, indeed, that of Rupert himself. The veteran admiral Sir Thomas Allin, writing from Yarmouth on 15 August in response to the first news of the battle, castigated the English as much as the French, and it was not only Rupert who censured the conveniently dead Spragge for disobeying orders and falling astern with the blue squadron in order to engage Tromp.69 On 30 August Arlington wrote to Essex that, although Rupert had been blaming d’Estrées and the French, ‘our English squadrons were not altogether Exempt from factions on their part, they also blaming one another, in a word wee lost an infinite advantage upon the ennemy although our strength was much superior to theirs by these divisions amongst us’.70 Factional point-scoring and settling of scores was endemic within the English officer-corps from August 1673 onwards. Sir John Kempthorne was criticised for not doing more to save the Prince and replied by attacking the other flag-officer of the blue squadron, the earl of Ossory, who petitioned the king and eventually won a retraction from Kempthorne.71 Rupert implicitly attacked most of the captains of the fleet by singling out only fourteen for praise – an action which offended even one of the fourteen and one of the prince’s own divisional captains, George Legge72 -  and he explicitly criticised his own rear-admiral, Sir John Chicheley, although the contemporary drawings of the battle made for Legge suggest that Chicheley’s conduct had been exemplary.73 The bitter factional feud culminated in the publication of the anonymous pamphlet An Exact Relation of the Several Engagements in the autumn of 1673, which made a detailed defence of Rupert and his clients, criticising several of the other flag officers, the French (predictably), the navy board, the ordnance office, and even the duke of York and Charles II himself. Its account of the Texel was based closely on Rupert’s own relation, supplemented by Martel’s, and on the whole it is this version which has become the accepted orthodoxy about the battle.74 However, both the other French and several of the English accounts present a very different picture, and one with a very different villain.


42  Newsletter from Amsterdam, 29 July / 7 Aug 1673; ‘Avis de Hollande’, 1/10 Aug 1673: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 294-6; P Blok, The Life of Admiral de Ruyter, trans. G J Renier (1933), 340-1. Cf the perceptive comments of Henry Coventry about the importance of the VOC ships to the Dutch: Coventry to Curteus, 11 Aug 1673: Coventry MS 82, fo 129.

43  Scout ships: PRO ADM 51/3932 (log of Pearl). Capture of Papenburg: inter alia, PRO ADM 106/284/151, 168. The most detailed accounts of fleet movements, wind directions and courses steered, 8-10 Aug 1673, are Bod, Rawl MS C213 (log of Henrietta), PRO ADM 51/3817 (log of Crown), Journals and Narratives 310 (Legge, Royal Katherine), 330 (Spragge, Royal Prince), 352-3 (Narbrough, Saint Michael).

44  This, at least, is the interpretation presented in ‘The True Relation of the Battle’, BL Harleian MS 6845 fos 158-9 and in ‘A Relation of the Battle…’, Bod, Tanner MS 42, fos 21-2, both printed in Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 304. Both the veracity of these sources and their interpretations of Rupert’s decisions can be questioned. The Tanner MS account is noticeably inaccurate in the timings of many events during the battle, and both accounts take a strongly pro-Rupert line.

45  De Ruyter’s reaction: his journal entry for 11/21 August 1673 in Algemeen Rijksarchief, Collectie de Ruyter, inventory, fo. 64 (printed in J R Bruijn, ed., De oorlogvoering ter zee in 1673 in journalen en andere stukken (Groningen, 1966), 89). English reactions & descriptions of their course, etc, at daybreak on 11 August can be found in the journals (except Spragge’s) cited in n43 above and n47 below.

46  For purely factual accounts of the change of wind, free of any criticism of the French or Rupert, see inter alia ‘P B’ to Sir Charles Lyttelton, 12 Aug. 1673: PRO SP 29/336/243 (accurate summary in CSPD 1673, 490); PRO ADM 51/588 (log of Mary Rose); PRO ADM 51/3817 (log of Crown); Bod, Add MS C213 (log of Henrietta).

47  Tacks during night & position at daybreak on 11 August: Bod, MS Add C213; Bod, Carte MS 38 fo 30r (account by Fowler, Royal Prince); Journals and Narratives, 310-11 (Legge), 353-4 (Narbrough); Staffs RO, MS D(W)1778/Ii/355, 9th, 14th, 15th & 17th documents in folder (respectively, an anonymous discussion of ‘The Reasons how the Dutch came to get the Weather Gage of our Fleet’, and parts of journals by Francis Hamond, Richard Streete and Charles Stephens, respectively midshipmen and master’s mate aboard Royal Katherine). There is some dispute about the exact number and timings of the combined fleet’s tacks, but this is hardly surprising given the complexity of night manoeuvring relatively close to shore and the added complication of the change of wind – moreover, the degree of confusion within and between the journals is entirely consistent with the fact that by dawn, the fleet’s sailing order was in considerable disarray. Division of Dutch fleet: Bruijn, Oorlogvoering, 152, 205-9.

48  Quotation: Journals and Narratives, 330. Quality of line-of-battle: Journals and Narratives, 354; Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 305. Spragge’s orders to Blue squadron: Bod, Carte MS 38, fo 30r (Fowler); Journals and Narratives 354-5 (Narbrough). Spragge’s ostensible and actual motives for backing his sails were discussed in detail by Legge, Staffs RO MS D(W)1778/Ii/355, 23rd document in folder, fo 13 (manuscript pamphlet by Legge – provenance discussed by J D Davies, Gentlemen and Tarpaulins (Oxford 1991), 167-8) and this clearly formed the basis for the (unattributed) analysis of Spragge’s tactics by Sir J S Corbett: A Note on the Drawings in the Possession of the Earl of Dartmouth Illustrating the Battle of Solebay, 28 May 1672, and the Battle of the Texel, 11 August 1673 (NRS 1908), 37.

49  Quotation: ‘P B’ to Sir Charles Lyttelton from Royal Prince, 12 August 1673: CSPD 1673, 490.

50  Quotations: ibid., 491. Surviving accounts from the admiral of the blue’s division: ibid., 490-2; PRO, ADM 51/13, pt 1 (log of Advice); Captain John Dawson, Advice, to Navy Board, 18 Aug 1673: ADM 1/3545, p 197; Bod, Carte MS 38, fos. 30-1, 34-5 (accounts by Fowler, Royal Prince, and Herbert, Cambridge); BL, Egerton MS 928 fos 143-4 (another account by Fowler); account by Captain Guy, Henrietta Yacht: PRO SP 29/336313 (accurate summary in CSPD 1673, 523. For the blue squadron as a whole, cf also the official ‘Relation': Journals and Narratives, 392-4.

51  Cf Fowler and ‘P B’ accounts from Royal Prince cited in n50. For the perpetuation of the story of the Prince‘s defence see, inter alia, Corbett, Drawings, 43.

52  Surviving accounts of the rear-admiral of the blue’s division: Journals and Narratives, 354-62 (journal of Narbrough, Saint Michael); an earlier and briefer summary of the battle by Narbrough is BL Harleian MS 6845, fos 156-7, printed in Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 310-12. Most accounts only give two the first two frigates named towing the Prince, but it is clear that the Pearl joined the tow later: CSPD 1673, 523; PRO ADM 51/3932 (log of Pearl).

53  Surviving accounts of the vice-admiral of the blue’s division: BL Egerton MS 928, fo. 146 (account by Kempthorne, Saint Andrew). The journal for the flagship of Kempthorne’s adversary, Sweers, is printed in Bruijn, Oorlogvoering, 152-4.

54  Staffs R.O., MS D(W)1778/Ii/355, 17th document in folder (account by Richard Streete).

55  Surviving accounts from the red squadron (all from admiral’s division with the exception of BL Egerton MS 840B, York, and PRO ADM 51/588, Mary Rose, the former of which was probably in the vice-admiral’s division – see Appendix – and the latter of which was definitely in the rear-admiral’s division; both of these journals are almost entirely navigational): Rupert’s relation, printed both in CSPD 1673, 520-2 and Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 306-9; sources listed in n44 above; Journals and Narratives, 311 (Legge, Royal Katherine), 390-1 (the official ‘Relation’); Staffs R.O. MS D(W)1778/Ii/355 (accounts by Legge and several of his midshipmen and master’s mates aboard Royal Katherine); PRO, ADM 51/ 3817 (log of Crown). Journals by de Ruyter on De Zeven Provincien and his son Engel de Ruyter, captain of the Waesdorp – both in the squadron opposing the red – are printed in Bruijn, Oorlogvoering, 89-90, 184-5 respectively.

56  D Hepper, British Warship Losses in the Age of Sail 1650-1859 (Rotherfield 1994), 10-11 and passim. Cf also the comments of W Maltby, ‘Politics, Professionalism, and the Evolution of Sailing-Ship Tactics’, The Tools of War: Instruments, Ideas and Institutions of Warfare, 1445-1871, ed J A Lynn (Urbana, 1990), 57-8. (I am grateful to Drs P Le Fevre and R Harding for this reference.)

57  Quotation: document cited in n54 above.

58  Quotation: CSPD 1673, 521. Latter stages of battle: journals cited in ns 50, 52, 53 and 55 above. English & Dutch losses: Journals and Naratives, 52-3. Dutch perspective: Bruijn, Oorlogvoering, 89-90, 154, 185; newsletter from Middelburg, 16/26 Aug 1673: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 333-4. A good example of the wildly exaggerated English claims can be found in ibid., 306.

59  Quotation: document cited in n54 above.

60  PRO, ADM 51/3817.

61  PRO, SP 29/336/259.

62  Journals and Narratives, 391-2.

63  Ibid., 392.

64  D’Estrees and Herouard accounts published in Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 312-16, 325-8; anonymous account in ibid., 328-30.

65  Martel’s accounts are printed in ibid., 316-25 (quotation from p324).

66  Cf Rupert’s relation: CSPD 1673, 521-2; Martel to Colbert de Croissy, 27 Aug/6 Sept 1673: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 340-1; sources quoted in n93 below.

67  See Ekberg, Failure, 163.

68  Seignelay to d’Estrees, 30 Aug/9 Sept, 7/17 Sept 1673; same to Colbert de Croissy, 7/17 Sept 1673: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 342-3, 347-9; Colbert to Seignelay, 31 Aug/10 Sept 1673, ibid., 351-4; rejoinders by d’Estrees and Seignelay to Rupert’s allegations, ibid., 355-8. Cf ibid, Colbert and Seignelay to d’Estrees, 23 July/2 Aug and 4/14 Aug 1673 (ibid., 293, 299) for earlier expressions of the French government’s desire for ‘la gloire’ from its fleet;

69  Allin to Navy Board, 15 Aug 1673: PRO ADM 106/284/158; Henry Coventry to Princess Elizabeth of the Rhine, 18 Aug 1673: Coventry MS 82, fo 129v.

70  BL Stowe MS 202, fos 334-5.

71  See Davies, Gentlemen and Tarpaulins, 171-2.

72  Staffs R.O., MS D(W)1778/Ii/355, 19th document in folder (unsigned, undated list of criticisms of Rupert).

73  Names of the fourteen officers and Rupert’s criticisms of Chicheley are contained both in his relation (CSPD 1673, 520-2) and in The Exact Relation, printed in Journals and Narratives, 382-5.

74  Ibid., 380-6. Several MS copies of the pamphlet survive, eg in Staffs R.O. MS D(W)1778/Ii/355. For its appearance and impact see ibid., 1st, 22nd and 23rd documents in folder.




Today, 11 August 2014, marks the 341st anniversary of the sea battle known in Britain as the Battle of the Texel and in the Netherlands as the Battle of Kijkduin. (The date was 21 August on the calendar then in use in the Netherlands.) This proved to be the last battle of the Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century, and it’s always fascinated me. Although it was indecisive, it has most things one could wish for in a sea fight: high drama, personal conflicts and tragedies, and an abiding ‘conspiracy theory’, centred on the notion that the French squadron, forming one third of the combined fleet under the command of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, was under secret orders from King Louis XIV to effectively withdraw from the action and leave the British and Dutch to fight each other to a standstill. I intended for several years to write a book about the battle, and, indeed, this proposal was accepted by Boydell and Brewer. Unfortunately, both this project and a related one (to produce a volume of contemporary views of the battles of the third Anglo-Dutch war for the Navy Records Society) were overtaken by events – especially the Quinton series, which meant I no longer really had the time to carry out the sort of intensive academic research that the book would demand. But who knows, maybe I’ll return to it one day, perhaps in time for the 350th anniversary in 2023!

In the meantime, I’m going to use my next three posts to publish online the existing draft of my account of the battle. This was originally in article form, and would have formed the basis of a greatly expanded and more detailed account in the book that I intended to write. It also formed the basis of the much briefer account of the battle that appears as Chapter 52 of my award-winning book, Pepys’s Navy. In so doing, I need to provide a few caveats. This was very much an incomplete work in progress; I’ve done little new work on this in at least ten years, so it takes no account of new research that either I’ve undertaken, or that others have published, during that time. (For example, if I was writing this account now I’d certainly want to refer to the likes of Charles-Edouard Levillain’s excellent Vaincre Louis XIV. Angleterre, Hollande, France. Histoire d’une relation triangulaire (1665-1688), 2010, and Matthew Glozier’s biography of Marshal Schomberg; while the cognoscenti of such things will observe that my unmodified notes still refer to the National Archives as the Public Record Office!) Not all of the references are in place, and others are incomplete. What’s more, it’s not been through the usual process of checks that such a work would undergo, e.g. review by a team of critical readers. As a result, I have no doubt that this account contains many errors and flaws; but I hope that even in this very rough state, it’ll be of interest to some of you! So without further ado, here’s the first part: my account of the project to launch an Anglo-French seaborne invasion of the Netherlands in the summer of 1673.

Willem Van De Velde the Younger's great painting of the Battle of the Texel, showing the duel between Tromp in the Gouden Leeuw and Spragge in the Royal Prince.

Willem Van De Velde the Younger’s great painting of the Battle of the Texel, showing the duel between Tromp in the Gouden Leeuw and Spragge in the Royal Prince.


The battle of the Texel, known to the Dutch (more accurately) as the battle of Kijkduin, was fought on 11 August 1673 between the combined Anglo-French fleet under Prince Rupert of the Rhine and the Dutch fleet under Michel Adrianszoon de Ruyter. Although no major ships were lost on either side, it proved to be a tactical success for the Dutch; it also proved to be the last battle of the three Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century. That it became both of these things can be attributed to the controversy which began almost immediately after, or perhaps even during, the engagement. On the twelfth, Rupert wrote to Charles II to claim that his failure to obtain a decisive victory was due chiefly to the failure of the French squadron, which, he stated, had stood to windward of the main battle, engaged with only a few Dutch vessels . This account was carried to London by Captain Charles Haward, who had been wounded in the engagement, and the first reports of the battle reached the court in the late evening of 15 August .2 Howard’s ‘whispers’ quickly became the accepted orthodoxy concerning the battle of the Texel; one of the ‘whispers’ had Howard, on Rupert’s quarterdeck, asking the prince, ‘”Does your Highnesse see the French yonder?” and that the Prince replyed in a great passion, “Yes God zounds, doe I”‘.3 The hurried postscripts to the letters which his correspondents sent late on the fifteenth to Sir Joseph Williamson, then attending the Congress of Cologne, told him that ‘the French did not behave them[selves] well, as haveing the wind and yet not bearing upon the enemy but keeping at a distance, though the signall was given them to beare upon them’, and cast other aspersions on the conduct of the French squadron.4

These early rumours were quickly supported by other evidence from the fleet, as damaged ships returned to the Thames and injured officers and seamen returned to land. The reaction in the coffee-houses and social gatherings of the capital was predictable. By the seventeenth, ‘the dinn [was] soe great against the French squadron for not bearing in when they had the full advantage of the wind, and might have destroyed all, that the Prince will never forgive them…This is like to breed ill blood…the whole Towne has been strangely enraged against the French’.5 Official narratives of the battle were hurried out on that day, but these only appeared under the (justified) suspicion that they had been doctored to appear more favourable to the French.6 Further letters from Rupert only reaffirmed his initial criticisms of his allies: on the twenty-third, for instance, he informed Arlington that
I find that Monsr d’Estrées [the French admiral] intends to make great excuses for not bearing into the enemy, not understanding the signs and many other fine things…I will satisfy His Majesty and the whole world that his squadron was to windward of the enemy, drawn up in very good order, and never bore within cannon-shot of the enemy, leaving their whole fleet upon me and some few of my
By the end of August, the popular clamour against the French was already at fever-pitch – ‘every seaman’s wife haveing an account from her husband of their haveing been betrayed, as they call it, by the French’8 – when two developments served only to exacerbate the frenzy. Firstly, Rupert himself came to London from the fleet on the twenty-seventh ‘and complaines much of the behaviour of the French in the late engagement…they did not, he thinkes, absolutely run away, but twas so like it, that he knows not how else to call it’.9 Rupert followed up his verbal complaints by publishing his own narrative of the battle at the beginning of September, in which he claimed that ‘if the French…had…borne down against the enemy…I must have routed and torn them all to pieces’.10 Secondly, the English attempt to scapegoat their allies, which a few more dispassionate commentators had suggested might have originated in ‘the little inclination the English generally have for the French’11, suddenly received what seemed to be conclusive support from an unexpected quarter. Before the end of August, a relation by the vice-admiral of the French squadron, the marquis de Martel, was circulating in London. This supported Rupert’s position by claiming that Martel had attempted to engage as actively as he could, but that he had not been seconded by d’Estrées and the rest of the squadron, whose inactivity he described as ‘shamefull’.12

These new revelations gave fresh impetus to the popular disgust against the French squadron, especially when it was learned that Martel’s punishment for producing his version of events was to be a spell in the Bastille. One of Williamson’s correspondents claimed that ‘every apple-woman makes it a proverbe, Will you fight like the French?'; William Temple informed the earl of Essex that ‘all the talk breaks out so openly about the French squadron acquitting themselves so ill in the last fight, that there is no surpressing it'; while Sir Ralph Verney’s correspondent William Denton informed him that ‘ye Monsrs plaid the Pultroons’.13 The barrage of criticism was sustained throughout September, with an increasing awareness of the impact it was likely to have on the imminent meeting of parliament. ‘Every one dreads the meeting of this Parliament’, Henry Ball had written to Williamson on 29 August, ‘and feare our enmity to the French may breed ill blood among them, for all people will have it that wee must breake off our league with them, or suffer our selves to be ruined, but I dare not write halfe of what is spoken in publique in every coffee-house’.14 Graphic accounts of the popular hostility to the French fleet and the French alliance continued to fill letters from London until well into October, when Ball wrote ‘the hate and malice against the French continues as high as ever…the French treachery dayly appeares more palpable’.15 Charles II’s dangerous disregard of such sentiments is epitomised by his decision in November 1673 to grant three large diamonds worth £2,200 to d’Estrées and individual jewels worth between £400 and £600 to three other French officers including, astonishingly, even the disgraced Martel.

In these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the session of parliament which began on 27 October should have taken up the clamour against the French. Sir John Monson, MP for Lincoln, remarked that ‘the last fight was, as if the English and Dutch had been the gladiators for the French spectators’, while the former secretary to the Lord Admiral, Sir William Coventry, damned the entire French performance and the subsequent treatment of the marquis de Martel:
Has heard of two captains killed in the French fleet, and one died of an unfortunate disease (the pox)…one unfortunate gentleman did fight, and because that gentleman said…”that the French did not their duty”, he is clapped up into the Bastille…Martel has fought too much, or said too much, which is his misfortune.16
At much the same time the French ambassador, Colbert de Croissy, and other observers, were commenting on the impact of the reports of the battle, and the ways in which they were making it difficult to hold the alliance together17. References to the battle of the Texel were still being made in the Commons as late as January 1674, when one of the articles of impeachment against the earl of Arlington blamed him for bringing in the French fleet and all the consequences which followed18, but by then the French alliance was in its death throes, and it was finally buried by the treaty of Westminster in the following month, when England unilaterally withdrew from the Franco-Dutch war. Even so, the memory of the battle remained alive. In his devastating satire of 1676, The History of Insipids, Rochester made reference to it:
But Charles what could thy policy be,
to run so many sad disasters,
To join thy fleet with false D’Estrees,
To make the French of Holland masters?19
In later years, the assumption that the French had failed to support the English at the Texel and were therefore chiefly responsible for the failure to obtain a victory was central to all accounts of the battle in standard naval histories. Indeed, it was often given the dimension of a ‘conspiracy theory’ by reviving a charge which was first made in the autumn of 1673, namely that the French squadron had been acting under secret orders from Louis XIV – orders which prohibited any wholehearted action against the Dutch.20 David Hannay condemned ‘the entire worthlessness of the French as allies’, and this condescending, xenophobic attitude was common in British naval histories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.21 More recently, Stephen Baxter and Carl Ekberg in particular have regarded the battle of the Texel as being one of the most significant factors in both the collapse of the Anglo-French alliance and the survival of the Dutch state itself, with Baxter calling it ‘the turning point of the war’.22 Both Ronald Hutton and John Miller have set the battle in the context of the complex domestic and international realpolitik which existed in the second half of 1673 and the early months of 1674, while Stephen Pincus has seen it as a critical stage in the shift of English popular attitudes towards an anti-French stance23. Indeed, there is little doubt that the popular reaction to the perceived French perfidy at the Texel was a genuine and significant political force during that period, with virtually everyone from the proverbial apple-woman upwards (with the obvious exception of Charles II himself) seeming to be united in their condemnation of the French. Rather more debatable is the question of whether that popular reaction was actually justified: was the outcome of the battle of the Texel truly decided because, in the words of Captain John Dawson of the Advice, part of the Blue squadron in the engagement, ‘[the French] lay like so many Newters more then an Enemy to the Dutch’?24

The invasion project

Paradoxically, the battle of the Texel was the product of a strategy which had already been abandoned in most of its essentials when the battle was fought. From 1672 onwards, Charles II and his ministers had been developing a plan for an invasion of the Dutch province of Zeeland as part of a longer-term strategy aimed at obtaining some or all of that province in any peace settlement. The idea seems to have originated with George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, who allegedly proposed the conquest of Zeeland to Oliver Cromwell as a way of becoming ‘master not only of the Dutch to all perpetuity but [also] sole arbitrator of the sea’. He apparently reiterated the proposal to Charles II in the winter of 1665-6, and at much the same time a paper was produced (probably unofficially) advocating a direct attack on Vlissingen, which was said to be weakly defended and likely to fall easily to an expeditionary force of only fifteen ships and 2,000 men.[24A] These schemes were mooted at a time when the Netherlands was being invaded from the east by Charles’s ally the Bishop of Munster. The bishop’s army had advanced into the eastern provinces of the Netherlands in 1665 and initially experienced spectacular success. Although he was ultimately pushed back and made peace with the Dutch in 1666, his attack suggested both that the eastern borders of the Netherlands were vulnerable, and that a ‘pincer movement’, culminating in an invasion of Zeeland, might be feasible if the Dutch drew forces away from that province to deal with a similar (or, better, a significantly greater) assault from the east. Therefore, the invasion project must have seemed a much more realistic possibility in 1672-3, when the main invasion was being undertaken by the rather more formidable armies of Louis XIV . At the very least, Charles hoped to regain the ‘cautionary towns’, Den Brielle, Vlissingen and the Rammekens fort, which had been held by England from 1585 until his grandfather James I had returned them to the Dutch in 1616. Indeed, there seemed to be some grounds for believing that Zeeland might choose voluntarily to place itself under English rule (if only as the lesser of two evils, if the alternative was succumbing to the tender mercies of Louis XIV), and Charles magnanimously planned to offer the Zeelanders the golden opportunity to send MPs to Westminster and pay taxes to his exchequer.25

After a succession of false starts and disputes over the command, a ramshackle army of some 8-10,000 men was assembled at Blackheath in the spring and early summer of 1673, and an amphibious flotilla of sorts was assembled in the Thames – 20 transports, 5 storeships, 5 so-called ‘horseships’, 1 coal ship, 1 ship carrying hay, 9 so-called ‘vessels for landing’ and 8 barges.26 Pepys undertook a detailed breakdown of the cost of transporting 10,000 troops and one hundred horse to the Netherlands and maintaining them there for two months (the estimated total came to £48,827).27 The actual strategic plan was vague, and had been altered several times since 1672. There had been schemes for landing in Zeeland itself, at Goeree or elsewhere, but by May 1673 the favoured option was a landing near Scheveningen, which, it was hoped, would allow the invasion force to effect a conjunction with the prince of Condé’s army, advancing from Utrecht.28 Meanwhile, the combined Anglo-French fleet sought in vain to achieve the triumph over de Ruyter’s numerically inferior force which had eluded it in the previous year. Two battles off the main Dutch anchorage, the Schooneveld, in May and June, failed to give the allies anything like the advantage which they craved, and the fleet retired to the Thames to await a decision on its next move.

Between 6 and 16 July, Charles II, the duke of York and Rupert presided over a series of three important councils of war. Rupert’s view, that without defeating the Dutch fleet it would be little short of folly to make a serious attempt at landing in Zeeland, won the day; it was decided that, after an appearance off the Schooneveld to alert the Dutch to his presence, Rupert should cruise off the Texel in the hope that de Ruyter would be drawn out to defend against the expected landing and to escort home the valuable incoming fleet of the Dutch East Indies Company, the VOC. Although an actual landing at the Texel was approved at the council on 6 July, the final meeting on the sixteenth only approved the diversion of the invasion flotilla to Yarmouth, where the army was to be landed to await the outcome of the anticipated victorious battle at sea.29 This, therefore, was the rather nebulous strategic ‘plan’ which the combined fleet possessed when it sailed out of the Thames on 17 July, accompanied by the army from Blackheath on board its flotilla in the rear of the fleet. ‘A more formidable fleete has at noe time sayled out of England’, Sir Robert Southwell reported to the earl of Essex; ‘such a fleet as I never yet saw’, wrote Sir Edward Spragge, admiral of the blue.30 After seeing the invasion flotilla safe into Yarmouth, the main fleet sailed for the Dutch coast. It consisted of approximately ninety major warships, the French under the comte d’Estrées forming the white squadron and Prince Rupert and Sir Edward Spragge commanding the red and blue squadrons respectively.

Unfortunately, the optimism of both Southwell and Spragge was distinctly misplaced. Even before the July councils of war, the actual role of both the fleet and the army had been called into serious question. Several commentators, notably the French and Venetian ambassadors, realised that Charles and his ministers needed a successful landing for their own domestic political agenda; there were hopes that foreign conquests would reconcile a hostile public and parliament to an unpopular war.31 However, the actual reaction to the proposed invasion, from some quarters at least, had been to condemn ‘the design to hold strong places overseas, which commit the country, involve great expense, yield no profit and scant honour and are incapable of bridling the Dutch, as is boastfully pretended’.32 Moreover, the invasion scheme was very much a purely English brainchild in what was supposed to be a jointly-run war, but which in reality was an overwhelmingly French effort. Louis and at least some of his ministers were opposed to the scheme, partly because the English demands for territory in Zeeland were threatening to sabotage the progress of the peace talks at the congress of Cologne (the Swedish mediator there, Count Tott, was particularly hostile to the notion of England being established as a power on both sides of the North Sea).33 In addition, Charles and his ministers had deliberately kept their invasion plans as secret as possible from their French allies, so that Colbert de Croissy, Louis’ ambassador in London, had little idea of what the English were actually up to.34 Faced with so many different pressures, English policy fluctuated confusingly, but by the last weeks of July, with the combined fleet already at sea and the army encamped at Yarmouth ready to descend on the Dutch coast once it was called for, Charles finally abandoned his demands for Dutch towns and inclined towards a more moderate peace settlement.35 The rationale underpinning Rupert’s cruise had effectively disappeared, and on 3 August Charles wrote to the prince to inform him that he now considered the invasion scheme ‘less advisable than it was at first’, and that, because of the progress of the Cologne negotiations, he should seek only to keep the sea – the assumption being that de Ruyter was unlikely to emerge from behind his sheltering sandbanks.36

The rather pathetic demise of the Zeeland invasion project led to some caustic comment, even in a parliament where many had suspected the ‘potential for absolutism’ inherent in the king’s new army – as Henry Powle commented a few months later, ‘the army has done nothing but the famous expedition from Blackheath to Yarmouth’, and Sir Thomas Meres quipped that ‘some said it was to land to beate the Dutch, but it turned off, it seems, to take Harwich’.37 Both contemporaries and historians took the view that it was just as well the army had not got beyond Yarmouth: the camp at Blackheath had been a shambles, with raw, drunken recruits marshalled unsuccessfully by raw, drunken officers under a widely detested foreign general, Count Schomberg.38 Indeed, a landing in Zeeland might well have been disastrous. The Dutch had major garrisons to the south of the province, and the main Dutch field army was drawn up only about forty miles to the east, between Geertruidenberg and Huisden, with William of Orange’s headquarters situated at Raamsdonk. Although Condé proclaimed his readiness to assist an English landing as well as he could, his ability to do so would have been limited by the fact that much of the land between his army and the coast was under water.39 On the other hand, the Dutch defences were not necessarily as formidable as Charles claimed they were in his letter to Rupert, nor as some recent historians have assumed they were. The appearance of the prince’s fleet off the Dutch coast on 24 July caused panic from Den Brielle to The Hague; the coastal towns themselves were poorly fortified, largely because William had decided to entrust his coastal defence almost exclusively to de Ruyter’s fleet in order to maximise the size of his field army, which was itself largely raw and untried. Three regiments were hastily despatched from Geertruidenberg to Scheveningen, but otherwise, the only real force which could have immediately confronted an English invasion would have been a ‘home guard’ drawn from the burghers of The Hague, Delft, Leiden, Dort and Rotterdam.40 Even Schomberg’s shambolic army might have stood a realistic chance of defeating such a force. Moreover, the hastily-conceived last-minute switch to the strategy of attempting a landing at the Texel and/or Den Helder might have caused the Dutch even greater problems. Although it would have been more difficult to support such a landing force from England, it would have taken far longer for William to deploy regular units against it (and it might have been easier for Condé to threaten any such move north by the Dutch), and even a short-lived presence at the entrance to the Zuiderzee would certainly have created real problems for Dutch commerce, especially for the returning VOC fleet which traditionally trans-shipped its cargoes into barges at the Texel to allow it to make a more lightly-laden transit of the Pampus shoals leading to the river Ij at Amsterdam. Above all, even as brief and disastrous an invasion as any carried out by Schomberg’s army threatened to be might well have forced William at least to postpone his switch to the offensive in September 1673, when he captured Naarden and subsequently pressurised Louis in the Rhineland by taking Bonn.41 In the light of these considerations, it is at least possible that Charles II abandoned his invasion project too early and too easily.

[to be continued]


1. Rupert to Charles, 12 August 1673: PRO SP 29/336/242 (accurate summary in CSPD 1673, 490)

2. Ibid; W Bridgeman to Williamson, 15 Aug 1673, & H Ball to same, 18 Aug 1673: Letters to Williamson, I, 162, 170; Alberti to Doge and Senate, 15/25 August 1673: CSPVen 1673-5, 98; Lady Dorothy Long to Sir Justinian Isham, 16 August 1673: Northamptonshire Record Office (hereafter NRO), Isham MS 787.

3. R Yard to Williamson, 16 August 1673: Letters to Williamson I, 174.

4. Bridgeman and Yard to Williamson, 15 August 1673: Letters to Williamson, I, 161-2, 168.

5. Sir R Southwell & Ball to Williamson, 17-18 August 1673; ibid., I, 168-70. Cf Captain Seth Thurston to Navy Board, 24 Aug 1673: PRO ADM 106/284/339.

6. CSPD 1673, 498; Yard to Williamson, 18 August 1673: Letters to Williamson, I, 173-4; narratives printed in Journals and Narratives, 390-4.

7. Rupert to Arlington, 23 August 1673: PRO SP 29/336/286 (accurate summary in CSPD 1673, 509). Cf same to same, 14 Aug.; to Charles II, 17 & 24 Aug.: CSPD 1673, 494, 498, 510.

8. Yard to Williamson, 25 August 1673: Letters to Williamson, I, 186.

9. Ball & Bridgeman to Williamson, 29 August 1673: ibid., 189-92.

10. Most accessible copies of Rupert’s narrative: CSPD 1673, 520-2; Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 306-9. Dating of narrative: Yard to Williamson, 5 Sept 1673: Letters to Williamson, II, 9.

11. Bridgeman to Williamson, 15 Aug 1673: ibid., I, 162.

12. Martel’s narrative: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 321-5. Dating of narrative: Bridgeman to Williamson, 29 Aug 1673, & Ball to same, 1 Sept 1673: Letters to Williamson, I, 189-90, II, 1. His arrest: ibid., II, 20; Seignelay to Colbert de Croissy, 7/17 Sept 1673: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 348.

13. Quotations: Letters to Williamson, II, 2; Temple to Essex, 30 Aug 1673: BL Stowe MS 202, fo 337; Denton to Verney, 4 Sept 1673: BL M636/26. Cf Lady Dorothy Long to Sir Justinian Isham, 23 Aug 1673: NRO, Isham MS 788.

14. Ball to Williamson, 29 Aug 1673: Letters to Williamson, I, 194. Cf ibid., I, 185, 194-5; II, 13, 16.

15. Ball to Williamson, 10 & 17 Oct 1673: ibid., II, 36, 46.

16. Grey, Debates, II, 198-9, 212. Cf Garraway’s speech, 31 Oct 1673: ibid., II, 205.

17. Letters of Colbert de Croissy to Colbert & Seignelay: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 332ff.

18. Grey, Debates, II, 346-7; CJ, IX, 294.

19. Poems by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. V de Sola Pinto (1953), 111.

20. For examples of contemporary or near-contemporary expositions of the ‘conspiracy theory’ see Grey, Debates, II, 212; Christianissimus Christianus (1678), 39-40. A judicious modern assessment is provided by C J Ekberg, The Failure of Louis XIV’s Dutch War (Chapel Hill, 1979), 163, although he does cite a document which supposedly provides some evidence in support of the theory – AN, serie marine B5, fo 198ff.

21. D Hannay, A Short History of the Royal Navy (1897), 436. Cf J Campbell, The Naval History of Great Britain (1818), II, 213; W L Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History (1898), II, 317-22.

22. S Baxter, William III (1966), 104; Ekberg, Failure, 154.

23. R Hutton, Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland (Oxford 1989), 302-19; J Miller, Charles II (1991), 205-19; S Pincus, ‘From Butterboxes to Wooden Shoes: The Shift in English Popular Sentiment from Anti-Dutch to Anti-French in the 1670s’, Historical Journal, 38 (1995), 333-61 (especially pp 356-7).

24. Dawson to Navy Board, 18 Aug 1673: PRO ADM 1/3545, p 197.

24A. BL Additional MS 34,729, fos. 251-2, ‘Proposition pour le surprise de la ville de Vlyssynge’. From internal evidence, it seems likely that this paper had originally been drawn up in the previous war, probably over the winter of 1665-6.

25. Minutes of committee of foreign affairs, 1672-3: PRO, SP 104/177, fos 60, 62-5, 68, 79, 152-3, 162; original instructions to Rupert, 26 Apr 1673: NMM AGC/C/2; Ralph Verney to Edmund Verney, 15 & 19 May 1673: BL M636/26; Baxter, William III, 88, 90.

26. Composition of amphibious flotilla: PRO, ADM 106/284/98. Cf ADM 1/3545 & 106/26, passim; BL Egerton MS 862. Army at Blackheath: Hutton, Charles II, 303-4; Miller, Charles II, 207-9.

27. Bod, Rawl MS A191, fo 211.

28. Earlier schemes: see minutes of foreign affairs committee cited in note 25. 1673 scheme: Charles to Rupert, 24 May 1673: BL Lansdowne MS 1236, fo 156; Aungier to Essex, 13 May 1673: BL Stowe MS 202, fo 40; Colbert de Croissy to Louis XIV, 21/31 July 1673: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 289-92.

29. Ibid., 288, 292-3; Journals and Narratives, 42, 324-6.

30. Southwell to Essex, 18 July 1673: BL Stowe MS 202, fo. 205; Spragge’s journal, 17 July 1673, Journals and Narratives, 326.

31. Colbert de Croissy to Louis XIV, 21/31 July 1673: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 289-92; Alberti to Doge and Senate, 16/26 May 1673: CSPVen 1673-5, 52.

32. Same to same, 11/21 July 1673: ibid., 75.

33. Baxter, William III, 104; Ekberg, Failure, 85-90.

34. Minutes of foreign affairs committee, 13 Mar 1673: PRO SP 104/177, fo 151v; Colbert de Croissy to Louis XIV, 21/31 July 1673: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 290. Cf CSPVen 1673-5, 83, 85.

35. Ekberg, Failure, 92; Hutton, Charles II, 305-6; Miller, Charles II, 205-7.

36. Charles to Rupert, 3 August 1673, printed in Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 297-8; James to Rupert, 3 August 1673: BL Lansdowne MS 1236, fo 162. Cf Charles to Rupert, 8 August 1673: ibid., fo 219.

37. Speeches of 31 Oct and 3 Nov 1673 respectively: Grey, Debates, II, 208, 215. The reference to Harwich presumably refers to the diversion there of those vessels which could not get into Yarmouth: PRO, ADM 2/1736, fo 40v, order to Schomberg, 25 July 1673.

38. Hutton, Charles II, 304; Miller, Charles II, 208-9.

39. Conde to de Cheuilnes, 30 July / 8 Aug 1673: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 295; F J G Ten Raa, Het staatsche leger 1568-1795, VI (Den Haag 1940), 11-13, 19.

40. Dutch coastal defences: newsletters from Rotterdam, 25 July / 3 Aug, & from Amsterdam, 29 July / 7 August 1673: Colenbrander, Bescheiden, 293, 294-5; newsletters and reports in PRO SP 101/57 (inconsistent foliation). William’s strategy: Ten Raa, Leger, VI, 13, 15-16. Quality of Dutch field army: Baxter, William III, 95 (a corrective to Dr Hutton’s exaggerated opinion of the qualities of William’s troops: Charles II, 304). Cf J. R. Jones, The Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century (1996), 201-3.

41. Baxter, William III, 105-7.

Like most people, I don’t particularly enjoy being proved wrong. But in the particular instance I’m blogging about this week, I’m absolutely delighted to admit that I’ve been well and truly in the wrong – and hope that I’ll be proved even more wrong in the future!

The interior of the Llyn Maritime Museum, Nefyn

The interior of the Llyn Maritime Museum, Nefyn, in the final stages of fitting out before opening

In the conclusion of Britannia’s Dragon, I bemoaned the state of the maritime heritage sector, especially in Wales: Lack of public interest and the difficulty of attracting younger generations of volunteers has closed some Welsh maritime museums and put the survival of others on a knife-edge. I wrote those words barely two years ago, but they’ve already been overtaken by some really encouraging recent developments. I recently spent some time in north Wales, principally to give a talk under the auspices of the Llŷn Maritime Museum in Nefyn. This was reopening a week after my visit, having been closed for several years, and I was lucky enough to be offered a ‘sneak preview’. Housed in a former church, this small but perfectly formed museum tells the story of both the local community and the area’s rich seafaring heritage through a series of impressive display boards and exhibits. There’s an area that can be used for talks and other community events, and the hugely enthusiastic and committed team of volunteers has exciting plans galore for the future. It’s a similar story just across the peninsula at Porthmadog, where, again, the maritime museum has reopened after several years of closure. Stunning Victorian photographs, ship models, and artefacts – notably from the once flourishing local shipbuilding industry – tell the story of what was once a thriving port and maritime community. What’s more, two entirely new maritime museum projects are under way – one at Llandudno, the other at Connah’s Quay. Add into the mix the very fine maritime museum in Holyhead, going strong thanks to its dedicated volunteers, and north Wales is fast developing into a real mecca for maritime history buffs! Moreover, the south already has the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, and recently acquired an excellent new heritage centre in the former dockyard chapel at Pembroke Dock, which I also visited recently.

A display at Porthmadog maritime museum

A display at Porthmadog maritime museum

This positive story isn’t just confined to Wales. The maritime museum in Ramsgate reopened in 2012, after being closed for several years – a particularly welcome development as far as I’m concerned, as Ramsgate displays a large number of artefacts from the seventeenth century warships wrecked on the Goodwin Sands during the ‘Great Storm’ of 1703. Meanwhile at Deptford, the project to build a replica of the 1677 warship Lenox remains on course, following Boris Johnson’s decision to make it a condition of the planning permission for Convoys Wharf, a.k.a. the site of the historic Deptford royal dockyard. But all of these encouraging developments need to be set in context. Nationally, the state of many parts of the heritage sector remains precarious: for example, Cambridgeshire County Council continues to be determined to offload the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, while the Cynon Valley museum looks likely to fall victim to myopic local authority bean counters, as so many other much-loved local museums already have. And to be fair, some museums don’t help themselves. For one thing, can any museum really afford not be on Twitter and/or Facebook in this day and age? Worse still, I know of one example which makes virtually no effort to publicise its location or even its very existence; which has a cliquey ‘friends’ group whose members seem to be more interested in self-congratulation than in doing anything proactive; and which frequently keeps its substantial front door shut ‘so that the staff on the reception desk don’t get cold’, thus leading many potential visitors to believe that the museum is closed. Those responsible for running such museums in these unprofessional and frankly incompetent ways should pay a visit to Porthmadog, Nefyn, Holyhead and the rest to see what a bit of enthusiasm and vision can do.

A very quick posting this week, as unforeseen domestic circumstances have knocked my work schedule for six (apologies to my American readers for that impenetrable cricket reference)… Because of this, and various trips that were already on the agenda for the next few weeks, there’s likely to be a 3-4 week hiatus on this blog. I’ll try and post if and when I can, though, but in the meantime, a recent email exchange with ‘the usual suspects’ of the 17th century naval history field got me thinking about the new world where, quite literally, everyone’s a critic…


New authors of naval historical fiction will quickly start to garner reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, blogs, and so forth. With a few honourable exceptions, these reviews tend to be pretty stereotypical, and having recently published my fifth novel in the genre, I think I’m now sufficiently qualified to be able to provide a guide to them, so that newcomers will be able to take all such criticisms in their stride. Believe me, I’ve had some or all of the following applied to my work – sometimes about the same book, sometimes even in the same review, for goodness sake.

1/ There’s too much technical nautical language - the principal charge levelled at Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series by those who can’t stand it. Can’t tell your futtock from your cro’jack? You’re toasted cheese.

2/ There’s too little technical nautical language – the principal charge levelled at every other series by those who loved Patrick O’Brian. No mention of futtocks and cro’jacks? Yep, Welsh rarebit time.

3/ There’s too much action - Sorry, this is naval historical fiction. To be true to the reality, you have to include battles. In some cases, very, very long battles, which are bound to take up a great many pages (e.g. in my latest book, which features a battle that lasted for four days).

4/ There’s too little action – Sorry, this is naval historical fiction. To be true to the reality, you have to include long periods in which very little happens. (And even if you haven’t ploughed through literally hundreds of ships’ log books of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, which prove the point in spades, read O’Brian again – and let’s be honest here, folks, for a lot of the time during that outstanding series, nothing much happens.)

5/ Too much of the plot is set ashore – Scenes on shore add variety, especially if you’re in exotic locations (as in my latest book, where I have several chapters set in mysterious, umm, Plymouth), and depending on the period and the theme you’re writing about, you might well need to set quite a lot of the action ashore. On the other hand, if the entire book is set ashore, you’ve probably strayed into writing in a completely different genre without realising it.

6/ Too little of the plot is set ashore – Scenes at sea add variety… OK, you get the idea.

7/ There’s too much soppy romantic stuff - Guess which demographic principally levels this charge at you?

8/ There’s too little soppy romantic stuff - Ditto. (Good morning, dear.)

9/ There’s too much random mindless violence - I refer you back to point 3. The battles of the period I write about were quite astonishingly bloody, and to play that down would be to give the reader a false, sanitised image, and – equally important in my opinion – it wouldn’t do justice to the remarkable bravery and resilience of those who fought through such horrors.

10/ There’s too little random mindless violence - I worry about you. I really do.

But finally, the key to reacting to criticism is to paraphrase the words of that well known vampire hunter, Abraham Lincoln: ‘You can please some of your readers all of the time, and all of your readers some of the time, but you can’t please all of your readers all of the time. I’m still bitter about whoever gave the Gettysburg Address a one star review on Amazon’.


In the last post, I noted how various events of the Second Anglo-Dutch war – notably the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667 – were recalled during the First World War, exactly 250 years later. Of course, by far the most famous chronicle of the Dutch War is the diary of Samuel Pepys, so it’s hardly surprising that an author thought it would be a good idea to create a new version of Pepys to chronicle the events of the Great War. The writer in question was Robert Massie Freeman (1866-1949), a journalist living in Surrey. Freeman produced three books in his role as the latter-day ‘Samuel Pepys Junior': A Diary of the Great Warr, Second Diary, and a Last Diary. The style is a decent pastiche of the original, and does convey something of the sense of the times; but Freeman, of course, lacked the real Pepys’s direct contact with those in positions of power (and the real Pepys was not bound by constraints of censorship, either by the authorities or by himself!). To give a flavour, here are Freeman’s first entries about the Battle of Jutland:

The title page of the second volume by 'Samuel Pepys Junior'

The title page of the second volume by ‘Samuel Pepys Junior’

June 3 – So home, and, dinner scarce dis- patched, when comes a news-sheet, and gives the most horrible tidings of the fleet being hotly engaged with the Germans westward of Jutland, and three of our greatest battle-frigates sunk, the Queen Mary one of them, with many others, to the number of a dozen or more ; of the enemy’s ships but one of any note foundered, and a few smaller craft. No word of any victory gained, so that none can doubt but Jellicoe is worsted. And a most dire misfortune it is for us. Yet what does, I believe, beyond everything trouble me is two of our lost frigates being the Warrior and Defense, they both laid down while I was of the Navy Office, and did myself see them on the stocks in Pembroke yard, having their plates put on. So to bed, mighty heavy of heart, and lay till past midnight, hearing the sea roar without the windows, and considering of all the poor sailors that be drowned. God have mercy on us all.

June 4 – Up betimes and to get news of the fleet, which is better than my expectatioun, the Navy Office giving particulars of many German ships believed to be sunk. Presently walking with Mr. Cripps by the sea, there we met Comr. Williams, with whom we talked and walked some time, and is, I find, a very brave experienced seaman, as good to hear speak as ever I met. He believes that Jellicoe and Beatty have for certain given the Germans their belly-fulls. He looks to hear in a few houres that the enemy, having been at last engaged with his whole fleet, hath been driven back to port with but a remnant of it. As for our losses, they are no more, says he, than the breaking of eggs, without which we may have no omeletts. Hearing which, and seeing his trust in our men and ships, did put me in pretty good heart. So home, and to eat lunch with some gust, having to it a very choice hen-lobster, among other things. This dispatcht, to Bexhill and Pevensey, and, Mistress Cripps coming in the coach, we had a pretty merrie ride.

June 5 – Home this day by the rail road, being sorely troubled with twekes of the lumbago by my being catcht abroad yesterday in Cripps ‘s coach, when comes towards evening a most fierce gale of wind and rain, and did soke me to the skin. The news in towne this day is all of the late battle ; and now ’tis made clear enough that Jellicoe did indeed belabour the Germans most soundly, and they only saved from losing their whole fleet by taking to flight and the night ling. But, Lord ! to read of the Germans, how- they do boast of their having got a great victory over us, all mad for joy, and singing hymns of praise in publick; most ridiculous beyond anything.

The First World War also saw the publication of one of the first properly analytical histories of the Restoration navy to be written by a trained historian. A W Tedder’s The Navy of the Restoration was published in 1916, and remains a reasonable introduction to the events of the period 1660-67; in particular, Tedder’s use of a wide range of often very obscure contemporary sources, written in several different languages, is exemplary, and an object lesson to students of naval history to this day. Tedder was actually quite an important influence on my own work. His was one of the first books I perused in the naval library at Plymouth, where I’d sometimes spend dreary Saturdays in 1980-81 reading about the Restoration navy, and where the idea of studying for a doctorate on the subject first came to mind. But by the time the book was published, Arthur Tedder had rather more pressing matters on his mind than the state of victualling during the second Dutch war: newly commissioned a captain in the Royal Flying Corps, he was fighting in dogfights over the Western Front. He never returned to naval history, but went on to rather greater things. By 1944, he was an Air Chief Marshal and the Deputy Supreme Commander of allied forces under Dwight D Eisenhower; he died in 1967, the first Baron Tedder.

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, the Dutch viewpoint on the connections between the history of the Anglo-Dutch wars and the First World War sometimes appeared in print in Britain during the latter conflict. On 14 October 1914, for instance, The Times published the poem The Dutchman’s Greeting by one A J Barnouw of The Hague, which played to a highly sentimentalised notion of shared seafaring heritage and mutual respect:

England, there was a time when the Mijnheers

Did rule the waves, and Holland sent her fleet

In honourable war the foe to meet

Whose growing sea-power was a threat to theirs.

Then were the might days of those great heirs

Of glory, great in victory and defeat:

De Ruyter, Tromp, Blake, Deane, the sea’s elite,

To whose high deeds each country record bears.

The war is now with mightier foes than we,

But not with them shall thine old rival side

In feelings nor in deeds, whate’er betide,

For we in Holland recognise in thee

The champion of our nation’s dearest pride,

Dearer than wealth and power, sweet Liberty. 

In November 1915, J C Van der Veer, the London correspondent of the Amsterdam Telegraaf, filed a story about a visit to the Grand Fleet, which was circulated by the Press Association and printed in many British papers. Memories of shared heritage came to the fore once again, even in his conversations with the commander-in-chief:

Sir John Jellicoe can…cruise around the North Sea with a broom at the mast of his flagship, as did our Tromp, of whose heroic deeds the above-mentioned admiral reminded me good-humouredly. It seems to me that the British naval officers still today respect our naval heroes Tromp and De Ruyter.

Is that strange? The famous traditions of the former British fleet have gone over to the British. The latter rules the sea today… And when the British destroyer conducted me through long lines of warships, passing out of sight on either hand, I thought involuntarily how proud our great sea-hero would have been of the command of such a mighty fleet.


There’ll be no post next week due to various commitments during the preceding weekend and early part of the week. Back in a couple of weeks!

I’m typing this blog on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, during a period when the centenary commemorations of the First World War are already well under way. Moreover, we’re only a year away from the anniversaries of Agincourt and Waterloo. Regular readers might remember that I’ve already made a plea for the 350th anniversaries of the events of the second Anglo-Dutch war not to be overlooked during what might well become a period of ‘anniversary fatigue’ – or at least, not overlooked in Britain, because the Dutch will most certainly be commemorating their brilliant attack on Chatham during 2017. But all of this got me thinking. After all, the 250th anniversaries of the second Dutch war fell during the First World War, so how, if at all, were the events of the former remembered during the latter?

Fortunately, that superb resource, the British Newspaper Archive, provides quite a lot of fascinating evidence with which to answer that question. Perhaps inevitably, the most memorable event of the war – the Dutch in the Medway – appears most frequently in the papers, usually as a point of comparison for ‘dastardly’ German raids. This was evident in the early months of the war, in response to the bombardment of the east coast ports of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool by the battlecruisers of the High Seas Fleet. On 17 December 1914, for example, the Manchester Evening News named the Dutch attack as the nearest parallel in history to the German raids, and reminded its readers of the havoc the Dutch had wreaked. A similar line was taken by the Evening Telegraph and Post on the same day, which went into considerable detail about the chronology of De Ruyter’s attack.

Britannia demands revenge for the German raid on Scarborough, 16 December 1914

Britannia demands revenge for the German raid on Scarborough, 16 December 1914

However, not all of the coverage of the raids made the same, relatively measured, comparisons. Hysterical reporting of the German raids in both the British and, especially, the American press drew forth a response from one of the most distinguished historians of the age, A J Pollard, Professor of History at University College, London, and later the founder of the Institute of Historical Research, who wrote a lengthy letter to The Times, published on 19 December 1914. Pollard was particularly exercised by American suggestions that the raids demonstrated Britain’s command of the sea to be purely nominal, and proceeded to list the many occasions since 1066 when the British coast was ‘not merely bombarded but invaded’. Chatham featured on the list, but so, too, did the French attack on Teignmouth in 1690 (an event omitted from more than one recent book about invasions of Britain), along with thirteen other enemy attacks from 1338 to 1797. ‘If the raid on the East Coast disproves our command of the sea,’ Pollard observed, ‘then we have never possessed it’.

Unfortunately, the reasonable and entirely correct judgements of historians like Pollard carried little weight alongside the torrent of hysteria being peddled by the popular press. For example, the Dutch attack on Chatham was recalled later in the war, too, as a (perhaps unlikely) point of comparison for Zeppelin raids. In July 1917, the Daily Mail thundered after one such attack that ‘Since the Dutch burned Chatham 250 years ago [they didn't, but accuracy has never been the Mail's strong suit], making mock of the miserable system of passive defence which the feeble English government of that age had organised with Stewart slovenliness [that's 'Stuart', proto-Paul Dacres], there has not been a more discreditable event in our military history than Saturday’s raid’. The 250th anniversary was noted by others, too. On 13 June 1917, the Liverpool Daily Post reported how Prime Minister Lloyd George had heard, from Whitehall, the sound of the bombardment that opened the battle of Messines, and compared this with Charles II hearing the guns of De Ruyter’s fleet as it came up the Thames exactly 250 years earlier: with the ‘Whiggish’ view of history typical of the times, it commented that ‘Cromwell had left the name of England feared; the poltroon Charles left the country a vassal of France’.

Not that sort of gun fleet: James, Duke of York's fleet at the Battle of Lowestoft, 3 June 1665

Not that sort of gun fleet: James, Duke of York’s fleet at the Battle of Lowestoft, 3 June 1665

Finally, it should be remembered that, at the time of the First World War, there was a much greater popular awareness of the Dutch wars, and of seventeenth century history in general. The average man in the street was likely to know who Robert Blake and Prince Rupert were in a way that would be inconceivable today, when many people think that ‘Nelson’ refers to ‘Mandela’. In the Cornhill Magazine for May 1917, for example, Bennett Copplestone commented on how certain families contributed men to the navy for generations on end, as a way of explaining the superiority of the British ‘seamen by heredity’ to the upstart Germans: ‘You may read the same names in the Trafalgar Roll and back to the Dutch wars. Most of us were Pongos [soldiers] before that – shore Pongos who went afloat with Blake or Prince Rupert – but then we became sailors, and so we remained, father to son’. On the other hand, the nostalgic and complacent assumptions so beloved of, say, certain Secretaries of State for Education, that schooling was so much better in the ‘olden days’, receive a sharp corrective from the little piece in the Newcastle Journal for 16 March 1915, a date which, the author claimed, was the 250th anniversary of the Duke of York’s establishment of a ‘gun fleet, the first regular system of naval warfare in England’. Evidently, the author had disastrously misinterpreted the name of the Gunfleet anchorage off the Essex coast, where James, Duke of York, took command of his fleet in March 1665.

(To be continued)


Finally for this week, a quick update on the forthcoming movie about Admiral Michiel De Ruyter, which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago: it seems that Charles Dance has been cast as King Charles II, no doubt to capitalise on his high profile from Game of Thrones. Some might quibble about the 67 year old Dance playing the king, who was 43 in 1673 (when the film is set), but then, De Ruyter was 66 in the same year, and the actor playing him is 44, so I suppose it all evens out! Personally, I think it’ll be fascinating to see Dance’s take on Charles; he’s an outstanding actor, so it could well be inspired casting.

You know the scene.

Perhaps it’s in a 1930s cop movie, or maybe it’s a 1970s Cold War thriller. In either case, there might well be a moment where a bespectacled drone leads our hero into a huge, dark basement. The lights flicker on, illuminating the cobwebs in the corners. Rats scurry across the floor. Ahead of the hero: a vast bank of wooden drawers. His heart sinks, for he knows that somewhere within the interminable contents of those drawers will be the single, minute, piece of evidence which will prove the guilt of the gang boss or the identity of the traitor. Or maybe it’s a 1960s private detective thriller, where our hero arrives to see a blood-spattered body on the floor, surrounded by hundreds of scattered pieces of card, and knows at once that the one bearing the crucial clue has been stolen by the killer.

…and that, dear reader, was how we used to do historical research in the days before databases and Google. Yes, welcome to the world of the card index. The world that was once mine, and in one sense, still is.

The Way We Were

The Way We Were

It’s difficult now to conceive of just how ubiquitous the card index was. In a nutshell, pretty much everything that would now be stored on a database had to be fitted onto small pieces of blank card and stored in a suitable receptacle. Such an index was only as good as the people who conceived it, the system they devised, and the durability of said receptacle. I once proved the latter in spectacular fashion at the John Rylands University Library, Manchester, where the catalogue was on a card index in very large, sturdy looking wooden drawers. But they were not quite as sturdy as they seemed to be; pulling on one (‘C’, if you must know) with what I thought was only modest force, the whole thing jumped at me like a ravenous lion, with cards scattering to all corners and the drawer itself falling to the floor with a crash that probably did for several of the older and more somnolent readers.

Undeterred by this calamity, I created my own miniature version. When I began my doctoral research on the officers and men of the Restoration Navy in 1982, I realised pretty quickly that I needed a detailed index of all the captains and lieutenants of the period, which as much biographical information as I could muster on them, to enable me to carry out comparisons of, say, social origin and career structure. My starting point was Pepys’ register of sea officers, evidently compiled around the time he left office in 1689 and printed in volume 1 of the Calendar of the Pepysian Manuscripts at Magdalene College, Cambridge. So I produced cards for every officer on the list, about 1,500 men in all: two to a card in the cases of officers with very brief careers, one per card for those with many commissions and/or relatively famous careers. Onto each, I wrote in longhand the details from the Pepys list, usually just the post held (name of ship, lieutenant or captain), the year of each commission, and the name of the person who signed the commission; for the years 1660-73, for example, this was invariably James, Duke of York, the Lord High Admiral. Then, as I went through other sources over the years, I added extra information to the cards.

It quickly became clear that Pepys’ list had many inadequacies. Dates were sometimes simply wrong, or else confused; so, too, was the identification of people, particularly those with similar names. So gradually, my own index began to become much more accurate than any single source on which it was based. A few examples, chosen from many:

  • Pepys listed one officer called Peter Belbin, and allocated him lieutenants’ berths on the Rupert in 1672, the Gloucester in 1673, the command of the Sweepstakes in 1673, and then the post of first lieutenant of the Mountague in 1677. But according to ADM10/15 at the National Archives – a very similar source to the Pepys list, but which gives exact dates of service evidently drawn from information in the original ships’ pay books (long since lost), and every single entry and date in which I again added longhand to the card index (!) – there were actually two Peter Belbins, father and son, with the father holding the first three posts (albeit in the order Gloucester first, then Rupert) and the son having the commission on the Mountague. From other sources, I discovered that Peter senior was 63 in 1678, when he was superannuated on the grounds that he was too old to hold further office at sea; a Portsmouth man, he had also been the master of a number of important warships for at least twenty years, including the First Rate St Michael.
  • Pepys listed three John Hubbards, two of whom were commanding ships at exactly the same time. He gave ‘John I’ seven commands, ending with the Falcon in 1670, and ‘John II’ eight, ending with the Assistance in 1668, and noting of ‘John II’ that he was ‘slain in fight with some Algier men-of-war in the Streights, 1668′. But it was actually ‘John I’ who was killed in battle, when in command of the Falcon, in November 1669; ‘John II’s command of the Assistance actually began on 1 January 1671, and he died in command of her in the West Indies in July 1671. So ‘John II’ had the longer career, the opposite of what the Pepys list suggests.
  • Pepys shows one John Wood, captain of four small ships from 1660 to 1667, second lieutenant of the St Andrew in 1672, captain of the Kent in the same year, then lieutenant of five ships in 1673-4 and of three more in 1676-81. But again, these were two different men: ‘John I’ was dismissed the service after being held responsible for the wrecking of the Kent in October 1672, while ‘John II’s last four commissions were actually as captain, with three of them being large and prestigious frigate commands. So relying on Pepys alone would give a completely inaccurate picture of the careers of these men.

But it wasn’t just a case of sorting out cases of mistaken identity in the Pepys list, or rectifying the significant number of omissions. Often, I was able to add detail that made the men in question real, living people, rather than just names on a page. For example, a quick skim of the Pepys list would suggest that Captain Argenton Alington had a brief and unremarkable career, serving only as lieutenant of the Charles in 1668 and captain of the Guernsey in 1669 before being ‘slain in fight with Algier men-of-war off — in the Streights 166-‘. In fact, Alington was killed on 3 July 1670, and his death was greatly mourned. He was the brother of the third Baron Alington, MP for Cambridge, and it was said of him that he was ‘a gentleman greatly to be lamented, as being a person of exceeding promising hopes'; Lord Alington was immensely proud of his brother’s career and his heroic death, even though he knew that it might well mean the end of his family’s male line and with it, the title. Then there was Thomas Penrose, recorded in the Pepys list with a bare entry showing his command of the Monck during the Second Anglo-Dutch war. But from other evidence, Penrose was clearly a colourful character – a client of the ship’s namesake, General George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, he was a Cornishman who kept his wife aboard his ship during the winter of 1665-6, by which time it was said that he ‘grows debauched’ and was much addicted to drink. (Hmm, now there’s a thought: I think Thomas Penrose really ought to put in an appearance somewhere in the Quinton Journals!)

I might well try and track down some other interesting information from the card index for future posts. In the meantime, though, I really must see about getting the material transferred into a database…after all, the world is full of criminal gangs desperate to get their hands on the exact dates of each commission held by, say, Lieutenant Endimion Drake (no relation – or was he?), or to sort out which Captain John Johnson was actually which. You can’t be too careful, after all.


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