1665: The Second Blast

In the summer of 1665, while plague was beginning to spread in London, one of the greatest battles of the sailing era took place. The Battle of Lowestoft ‘was one of the most blue-blooded battles of the age of sail. The British fleet was commanded in person by James, Duke of York, Lord High Admiral, heir to the throne, and the first prince to command a fleet in battle since the days of the Plantaganets’ (as I put it in Pepys’s Navy). Prince Rupert of the Rhine commanded the White Squadron of the British fleet, while a horde of aristocrats swarmed to sea as volunteers: they included Charles II’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth, the king’s favourite the Earl of Falmouth, and a number of the most famous Restoration rakes, such as the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Buckhurst. Meanwhile the Dutch were hamstrung by factional jealousies between their seven provinces and five admiralties. As a result their fleet had no fewer than twenty-one flag officers, the British only nine (in the pattern established in 1653 of admirals, vice-admirals and rear-admirals of the Red, White and Blue squadrons). The bitter rivalries in the Dutch fleet ultimately caused chaos during the battle itself, contributing to one of the worst defeats of the Netherlands’ ‘golden age’.

On paper, though, the two fleets were relatively equal. The Dutch had 107 ships, 92 of which carried thirty guns or more, and the fleet as a whole mounted 4,864 guns and was manned by 21,500 men. The British had 88 ships mounting thirty guns or more in a fleet carrying a total of about 4,800 guns and some 24,000 men. But these bare figures concealed a huge disparity in weight of shot: the British had twenty-seven ships capable of firing over 1,000 pounds of shot, the Dutch just one. (Pepys’s Navy)

What follows is a precis of my account of the battle in Pepys’s Navy:

The two fleets sighted each other on 1 June, but on that and the next day, Obdam (the general appointed to command the Dutch fleet) refused to attack, despite the apparent advantage that the easterly wind gave him…By the morning of the third, though, the wind had come round more to the south-south-west, favouring the British, and at 2 a.m. the fleets were about five miles apart. From dawn (about 4 a.m.) onwards, both sides manoeuvred to gain the weather gage, a contest that was won by Vice-Admiral Christopher Myngs, flying his flag in the Triumph, and the van division of the Red. The two fleets then passed each other on opposite tacks, too far apart to do any real damage to each other…Once the two lines had passed each other, at about 5.30, the Dutch began to tack, and York intended his fleet to tack from the rear, according to his new fighting instruction; but it took so long for his flagship to hoist the correct signal that Rupert, commanding the van or White squadron, used his initiative and tacked first. This seemingly confused Sir John Lawson, leading the van of the Red in the Royal Oak, who did not tack in his turn, thereby opening up a gap between the White, now heading north-west, and the Red, still heading south-east. To remedy the situation, Penn took the flagship Royal Charles out of the line, followed by the Earl of Sandwich’s Blue squadron. The manoeuvre was made smartly enough to prevent the Dutch breaking through the fleet as it tacked, although Sandwich almost became entangled in a mass of confused ships. The two squadrons then formed a second line to windward, the Red covering Rupert and the White while the Blue fell in behind the latter. Obdam attempted to break through to gain the weather gage at about 7.00, but was deterred by the presence of the Red, and as the two lines came abreast on opposite tacks, at about 8.00, James again ordered his fleet to tack from the rear, this time with better success. Carrying out this remarkably difficult manoeuvre while under fire was an astonishing achievement, never to be repeated in the rest of the age of sail…

At about 10 a.m., both sides began a terrific bombardment that lasted for some eight hours, and could be heard plainly in London…Lawson, leading the van again, was wounded (mortally, as it later transpired); his ship dropped out of the line, and his division fell into confusion…The centre and rear divisions of the Red remained to windward, effectively out of the action, leading the commander of the latter (Berkeley of the Swiftsure) to be publicly derided for cowardice; the commander of the former, the Duke of York, also came in for criticism after the battle, though it is possible that Sir William Penn, making the decisions on the flagship, sought to keep the Red apart as a reserve, ready to support any part of the line that required it. Sandwich’s vast but cumbersome Royal Prince and her seconds came under such heavy attack from Obdam’s 84-gun flagship Eendracht and the 76-gun East Indiaman Oranje that James and the Red finally committed to the action and sailed down to relieve them. Sandwich and Rupert both then launched their squadrons into the heart of the Dutch fleet, Sandwich noting that he hoisted ‘my blue flag on the mizzen peak, a sign for my squadron to follow me’.  York’s Royal Charles then fell in alongside the Eendracht, and the two flagships began a murderous duel. At about noon, three courtiers standing next to James on the quarterdeck were killed by one chainshot, and the heir to the throne was splattered with their brains. Obdam, too, was killed, and a little later, at about 2.30 the magazine of the Eendracht exploded, killing all but five of the 409 men on board. The blast, which was probably caused by an error in handling powder, shook houses and blew open windows in The Hague.

The destruction of the Eendracht fully exposed the weaknesses in the Dutch command structure, and the inter-provincial jealousies that blighted their fleet. Kortenaer, Obdam’s nominal deputy, was severely wounded and unable to assume command, but his flag captain kept his pendant flying. Meanwhile, the Amsterdam contingent, led by Cornelis Tromp (son of the great Maarten, killed at Scheveningen), would not accept orders from the next in seniority, Jan Evertsen, a Zeelander, so the afternoon ended in chaos, with three separate ships flying the commander-in-chief’s pendant of distinction. Many ships simply turned and fled. The Dutch were pursued relentlessly by the British squadrons, although the Red was held up for some time by the astonishing attack of the lone East Indiaman Oranje, which took on the Royal Charles herself before gradually succumbing to the steady stream of the duke’s seconds as they came up in turn. Small groups of Dutch ships were cut off and forced to surrender, or were destroyed by fireships…

In all, and including several captures of fleeing ships made on the following morning, the Dutch had lost seventeen ships. Eight had been destroyed, including the three largest, and nine captured. There were about five thousand casualties, twenty per cent of the fleet’s manpower, which included the commander-in-chief and two other flag officers killed. 2,844 prisoners of war were landed in Suffolk in the immediate aftermath of the battle. By contrast, the British had lost one ship and only some 700 men, though these included two flag officers, including Lawson (whose wound turned gangrenous), and the royal favourite Falmouth, one of the three young men scythed down alongside the Duke of York.

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However, the British failed to exploit their victory. Sail was mysteriously shortened during the night, allowing the Dutch fleet to escape; this was attributed to the actions of a courtier, Henry Brouncker, allegedly acting under orders from the Duke of York. The mystery of Brouncker’s motivation forms part of the plot of the third ‘journal of Matthew Quinton’, The Blast That Tears The Skies, and all the other key events of the battle feature in the story too.

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Finally, and changing subject entirely, today is the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the Falklands War. I originally started out as a ‘warship buff’, my primary interest being in the Royal Navy’s ships of my childhood and youth, so the war, the first time the navy of that era saw action, was something that made a huge impact on me. I also have some hopefully unique recollections of and perspectives on it that I’ll share on this site in future posts. In the meantime, a Happy Easter to all!

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