J D Davies

Solebay 340, Part 3

The Battle of Solebay did little to foster greater unity within the combined fleet. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the battle the bitterest recriminations were not those between the British and the French, but those between individual officers in the two fleets. Sir Joseph Jordan and Sir John Kempthorne, Sandwich’s two subordinate flag officers in the blue squadron, were both accused of not supporting their commander. The most damning criticism of Jordan came from Sandwich’s flag captain, Richard Haddock, who accused him of failing to come to the aid of the Royal James. Although Charles and James excused Jordan’s conduct, the ancient admiral had fought his last battle. He retired to Hatfield in Hertfordshire with a royal pension of £500 a year and lived on into his eighties, just long enough to witness the succession of his old commander-in-chief to the British thrones. Meanwhile, d’Estrées launched a vitriolic attack against his own second-in-command, Duquesne. This led to the removal of the Huguenot admiral, an act that was inevitably given an unfavourable religious interpretation by English commentators. Early accounts of the conduct of the French as a whole were mixed. For example, Ralph Verney of Claydon, Buckinghamshire, had been serving on the Prince. When he wrote to his father Edward on 29 May he had time only for a brief account of the few facts he knew, such as the loss of Sandwich and the Royal James; he made no mention of the French at all. By 2 June, he was able to write ’tis certaine the French…behaved themselves gallantly in the fight at sea’, but four days later he wrote ‘the French have lost all that glory, that the first newes brought of their feates at sea. For they were so discreet as to keepe themselves quite out of danger, soe that they lost their men, nor hurt their tackle’ – a charge which was patently untrue, and sounds suspiciously like a case of the younger Verney jumping on a populist bandwagon. Similar rumours swept through the court, the navy and the coffee-houses of London in the early days of June. However, many of these criticisms have to be set in the context of wider political agendas. As Verney pointed out, anyone who censured the French ‘is thought a malignant, and against the court’, and conversely, tales of French misconduct were inevitable at a time when many in the political nation were opposed to the French alliance and the Dutch war. Many had expected the French to betray the British, so in that sense, Solebay provided almost reassuring wish-fulfilment.

In fact, there were few, if any, grounds on which to criticise the conduct of the French squadron at Solebay. The French were the van squadron, and would therefore expect to lead the combined fleet’s line-of-battle to sea – unless they received contradictory orders from the commander-in-chief. Both British and French sources indicate that the only order of any sort which d’Estrées received was a verbal one to keep as close to the wind as he could, an order which did not imply a preference for one tack or the other. If d’Estrées followed the blue and red squadrons to the north he would almost certainly have fallen to leeward of the Dutch; similarly, the direction taken by the British fleet was born of pragmatism, rather than design, because in the flood tide between five and seven on the morning of 28 May, with the wind at east-south-east, the ships would already have had their heads to the north. Why were no clearer orders given? In the first place, the Dutch attack was an almost complete surprise, with the allies having placed too much store on intelligence reports which indicated the Dutch were in their own anchorages; consequently, many accounts of the battle indicate that all parts of the combined fleet, including the French, were in considerable confusion for some time, and many ships cut their anchor cables in their frantic endeavours to gain sea room. Crucially, the confusion seems to have been particularly great aboard the fleet flagship, the Prince, which had begun to careen at two in the morning of the twenty-eighth. When the approach of the Dutch was reported at about three, her master noted ‘[we] cleared shipp in Gods name’, but even so, the ship was only ready for action by seven, half-an-hour before she engaged and some time after she had got under sail. The ship had been heeled over for the careen and her yards had been topped. Therefore, for an indeterminate amount of time after three it is doubtful whether the flagship could have made many signals at all, and there is no evidence that James ever attempted to communicate with individual ships or squadrons; the only signal recorded in all the contemporary accounts is the general one for the fleet to weigh, namely a gun firing and the Prince’s foretopsail being let loose.

It is not even clear whether James was with the ship throughout the night, or whether he had returned hastily to her from quarters ashore; and if so, when. A Southwold restaurant still bears a plaque recording the local tradition that it was the duke’s headquarters ashore prior to the battle (as well as preserving the delicious legend that the doomed Sandwich spent his last night on earth in the building, bedding a local serving wench). Local legend also recalls a panicked recall of men from ashore and suggests that many men were drunk, having been given leave by the duke to celebrate the Whitsun holiday; even if there is only a grain of truth in these stories, the fleet’s response to de Ruyter’s attack was clearly disorganised and hastily improvised. At about six, d’Estrées sent one of his officers, Hérouard, to request specific orders, but received in reply only the verbal command to keep close to the wind. Sir Julian Corbett’s remark that ‘it apparently never entered the duke’s head to tell [the French] the rear was to lead’ makes perfect sense if it is set in the context of a flagship aboard which confusion reigned and to which the admiral might have returned only recently, without time to assess the situation fully. Moreover, James had a habit of giving peremptory and ambiguous commands, then expecting his subordinates to second-guess his meaning. It is therefore entirely possible that the Duke of York simply forgot to give, or did not properly explain, a simple but essential part of an order whose verbal nature again suggests an element of haste. Significantly, James never seems to have suggested, even in private, that the French had disobeyed his orders.

Nevertheless, perception was all, and the popular perception was undoubtedly that the French had been duplicitous. This impression was reinforced during the course of the war – by Louis XIV’s triumphalist campaign in the Netherlands and above all by the naval battle of the Texel / Kijkduin on 11 August 1673, when the French fleet again separated from the two British squadrons but this time failed to engage in a meaningful way and allegedly disobeyed a recall command, again allegedly because it was under secret orders from Louis to permit the British and the Dutch to hammer each other. The growing opposition to the war was reflected in Parliament and ultimately forced Charles II to make a unilateral peace with the Dutch early in 1674, but more importantly it can be argued (and has been, by the likes of Steve Pincus and myself) that Solebay, the Texel and the war as a whole were critical in developing a popular mindset which regarded the French, rather than the Dutch, as the natural national enemy.