The Shortening of Sail After the Battle of Lowestoft, 3 June 1665

To mark the 350th anniversary of the battle, I’ve been tweeting the key events at the appropriate times during the day. However, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the battle doesn’t lend itself readily to Twitter. After destroying the Dutch flagship during the day’s action – a brief description of which can be found here – the Duke of York’s fleet began to pursue the Dutch, who were in considerable confusion and lacked a proper command structure. During the night of 3-4 June, though, the fleet was ordered to shorten sail. Why this happened has always been something of a mystery. Here’s what I wrote in Pepys’s Navy; I believe I’m right in saying that I was the first historian to find and cite Brouncker’s justification of his actions. After the references, I’ve added my fictional account from The Blast That Tears The Skies, as witnessed by the future admiral Edward Russell, serving as a volunteer on Matthew Quinton’s ship, but temporarily aboard the flagship Royal Charles after carrying despatches to the Duke of York. (In reality, Russell went to sea for the first time in the following year.)

The Battle of Lowestoft, 3 June 1665, showing the 'Royal Charles' and the 'Eendracht'. Hendrik van Minderhout. National Maritime Museum

The Battle of Lowestoft, 3 June 1665, showing the ‘Royal Charles’ and the ‘Eendracht’. Hendrik van Minderhout. National Maritime Museum

The narrow escape of the heir to the throne may explain the strange failure to follow up the crushing victory of Lowestoft, and to turn it into a complete annihilation of Dutch maritime power. The British fleet shortened sail during the night, supposedly because a courtier on the flagship, Henry Brouncker, deluded the flag captain, John Harman, and the ship’s master, John Cox, into believing that he was relaying the (sleeping) duke’s orders to that effect. It was subsequently suggested by the Earl of Clarendon that Brouncker, ‘a disreputable friend (and alleged pimp) of James’, had promised Clarendon’s daughter, the duchess of York, that he would bring her husband home safely, or else that he acted unilaterally to preserve the life of the heir to the throne (and, by implication, his own, as satirists and politicians were quick to point out)[i]. The matter was investigated in Parliament in October 1667 and April 1668, when, with the finger of suspicion pointing firmly in his direction, Brouncker panicked and fled abroad[ii]. His ex post facto defence, written from Paris in June 1668, made no mention of the duchess, but accused Harman, Cox and the other witnesses of perjury and contradicting each other. Brouncker implied that he was merely passing on the duke’s order not to engage during the night, which was then misinterpreted by Harman and Cox as an order to shorten sail; he also claimed that Cox did not sooner put on sail again because the night was so dark, and it was impossible to distinguish enemy and friendly lights[iii].

Regardless of Brouncker’s actions and subsequent justifications of them, it was clear that some ships on the British side would have found it difficult to mount a hot pursuit on the night of 3-4 June. Sandwich’s Royal Prince had to slow down to replace her main topsail, which had been ‘shot to pieces’, while the Bonadventure, which had spent almost all her powder and shot, had to lay by in the night to mend her rigging, ‘having every running rope in the ship shot, and [i.e. as well as] most of our main yard and bowsprit and spritsail yard’[iv]. Even so, none of this should have been sufficient to prevent a general chase being ordered. Up to a point, the failure to do so can be attributed to the clearly confused chain of command aboard the flagship and to Brouncker himself; whether he was acting maliciously or inadvertently is effectively irrelevant. However, Brouncker’s suggestion that James, who must have been exhausted and in some degree of shock after his narrow escape, gave an ambiguous order and then expected his subordinates to second-guess his meaning is entirely in keeping with the duke’s personality and subsequent track record as an admiral (he did something similar at [the Battle of]Solebay [28 May 1672][v]) and as king. As it was, the fleet only returned to a ‘running posture’ at about 4 a.m. on 4 June, too late to prevent the more northerly remnant of the Dutch fleet, commanded by Tromp and Evertsen, getting through the Texel sea-gate at about noon[vi].

[i] J R Jones, The Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century, 158.

[ii] J D Davies, Gentlemen and Tarpaulins: The Officers and Men of the Restoration Navy, 150, 156.

[iii] British Library, Additional MS 75,413, piece 9.

[iv] Sandwich Journal, Navy Record Society, 228; Lincolnshire Archives Office, MS Jarvis 9/1/A/1, log of Christopher Gunman.

[v] Journals and Narratives of the Third Dutch War, Navy Records Society, 175.

[vi] National Maritime Museum, WYN/13/6.


And now, from The Blast That Tears The Skies…


Beneath a brilliant orange dawn, the sea was empty. Of the Dutch fleet, there was no sign.

That could mean only one thing: they had got through the sea-gates. Somehow, we had let them get away.

I had been summoned to the quarterdeck in the middle of the night, at about two in the morning, when the great stern lanterns aboard the Royal Charles had flickered the signal that she was shortening sail. I had been in a dead sleep for perhaps three hours, far too little to be properly rested, and had sprung from my sea-bed forgetting my wounded foot, which screamed a reminder to me as it struck the deck. Thus I had limped onto the quarterdeck in a confused state, noted the action of the flagship, relayed its order to my own officers and thus to the hands aloft, who had promptly set about adjusting the clew-lines and the like, and had not really pondered its consequences before returning to my slumber. But when I returned to the deck at dawn, expecting the imminent resumption of the battle, I realised at once that all was wrong – beginning with the assumptions I had made in the middle of the night.

The Royal Charles might have ordered a shortening of sail because we were in danger of over-running the Dutch in the night. Well, not so,as was now all too evident.

The Royal Charles might have ordered a shortening of sail because our scouts had seen the Dutch do the same. Also not so, equally evidently.

The Royal Charles might have ordered a shortening of sail because the Dutch had already escaped within their sea-gates, and we were in danger of being blown onto their lee shore. Plainly not so, for we were still too far out to sea and with plenty of sea-room.

Thus either the Dutch fleet had been spirited away by their ally Beelzebub, or, rather more likely, something terribly wrong had happened aboard the Royal Charles.

I was fortunate to learn the truth before almost any other man in the fleet, for later that morning, as we despondently sighted the masts of the Dutch safe behind Texel, Cherry Cheeks Russell returned aboard the Merhonour and breathlessly recounted all he had seen and heard. Realising the importance of his evidence, I set him at once to write down his account, albeit in his execrable spelling.

Russell had stayed all night upon the quarterdeck (or, as he wrote it, ‘kwotadek’) of the Royal Charles, excited beyond measure by the sights and sounds around him – even by the spectacle of seamen scrubbing the deck clean of the blood of Lord Falmouth and the rest – and eager to catch sight of the Dutch by the first light of dawn. Thus he witnessed the arrival upon deck of Harry Brouncker, evidently intent upon conversation with Captain Cox, the sailing master, who had the watch.

‘New orders from His Royal Highness,’ said Brouncker officiously to Cox, ‘entrusted to me before he retired. He considers it too dangerous for the fleets to engage during the night, Captain, and wishes you to adjust your course accordingly.’

Cox, whom I knew as a capable and quick-witted man, looked at Brouncker suspiciously. ‘Adjust my course, Mister Brouncker? But if I adjust my course, every ship in the fleet has to adjust its own, dependent upon the signal from our lanterns.’ He looked up at the three huge structures at the stern, in each of which burned a fire that marked the flagship’s position by night.

‘That is what His Royal Highness means, Captain Cox. The fleet is not to engage by night.’

‘Then does he mean for us to shorten sail? Look at all the lights ahead of us, man. Some of them are our scouts, but most are the Dutch. We will be up with them well before dawn unless we shorten sail.’

Brouncker looked about him nervously, or so young Russell thought. ‘Well, then, Captain, that is what His Royal Highness means. The fleet to shorten sail.’

Cox stared steadily at him. ‘I’ll not order such a thing,’ he said. ‘I need to wake Captain Harman.’

Captain, later Admiral Sir, John Harman

Captain, later Admiral Sir, John Harman

He crossed the quarterdeck, knelt down and shook a bundle that lay between two culverins. The bluff, handsome John Harman, captain of the Royal Charles, stirred at once and got to his feet. His own cabin had been given over to Sir William Penn, but even so, Harman had an ample sea-bed awaiting him below; although he wore his hair long and dressed as a cavalier, in times of drama, like many of the true old tarpaulins, he still preferred to sleep on deck under one of the sheets that gave its name to his kind.

In hurried whispers, half-overheard by Russell, Cox apprised Harman of the situation. The two men approached Brouncker, and Harman said, ‘To shorten sail, Mister Brouncker? But that risks allowing the Dutch to escape us. You are certain that this is the Duke’s intention?’

‘I have said so, upon my word,’ blustered Brouncker. ‘We must not engage in the night. The fleet to shorten sail, if that is what it takes.’

Cox was anxious. ‘Perhaps we should wake Sir William,’ he said.

Harman frowned. ‘We could attempt to wake Sir William, but I doubt if it would do us any good.’

Every man on the quarterdeck, indeed probably every man on the Royal Charles – including even young Cherry Cheeks Russell – knew full well that the only way in which the Great Captain Commander could obtain some relief from the gout by night, and thus some precious sleep, was by taking some of the more potent drugs in the surgeon’s chest and washing them down with prodigious quantities of the strongest drink on the ship. Thus waking Sir William Penn would be akin to dragging the dead out of their graves before the sounding of the Last Trump.

‘In that case,’ said Cox, ‘surely we should awaken His Royal Highness, to seek confirmation of his intentions?’

Russell saw Brouncker gesticulate angrily at Cox. ‘Damnation, man, do you doubt my word? My word as a gentleman? I have told you His Royal Highness’s order, sir!’

‘Nevertheless,’ said Harman, ‘it would be best to have the Duke’s confirmation –‘

‘And do you really think he will thank you, Captain Harman, if you wake him and he finds you have done so merely to confirm an order that he has already given through me? What will that do to your prospects of becoming Admiral Harman, do you think?’ That struck home; by tradition, the captain of the fleet flagship had the first claim upon a vacant flag, and with Sansum dead, Harman’s path to promotion lay open, pending confirmation by the Duke of York.

Yet Cox and Harman clearly remained unconvinced. Russell overheard snatches of their conversation: they were worried by the proximity of the Dutch and the dangers of a night engagement, but equally alarmed at the prospect of slowing the fleet too much and allowing the Dutch to escape.

As the two officers debated, Cherry Cheeks watched Brouncker become increasingly agitated. At last he strode up to Cox and Harman and almost bellowed in their faces.

‘Think upon what you do here tonight!’ cried the red-faced courtier. ‘For all we know, the plague or a fanatic’s bullet might have carried away Charles Stuart this day, and the man sleeping beyond that bulkhead might at this very moment be King of England, by the Grace of God! Are you really prepared to deny the will of Majesty, Captain Cox? Captain Harman, are you?’

Cox and Harman exchanged one last, despairing glance. Then Harman said decisively, ‘Very well, then. Captain Cox, you will give the orders for the Royal Charles to shorten sail. I will see to the transmission of that order to the fleet. May God grant that we do the right thing.’


  1. Frank L Fox says:

    I used a slightly different version in The Four Days Battle of 1666, p. 99, from The Life of Edward Earl of Clarendon, Written by Himself (New Edition, Vol. II, 1827), pp. 396-7. According to Clarendon, Brouncker first went to Sir William Penn and beseeched him ‘to slacken the sails, that the Dutch might get what ground they could, to avoid a further encounter’. Penn replied that ‘he durst give no such orders, except he had a mind to be hanged, for the Duke had himself given positive charge to the contrary. Clarendon says that Brouncker waited until Penn had retired, and only then went to the second captain, Harman, claiming that the orders were James’s own. Clarendon doesn’t mention Cox, who was the warrant master. I have no idea whose account should be given the greater authenticity, and will cheerfully yield if Clarendon is deemed unreliable by the Honorable Blogmaster!


    • A very tricky one – Clarendon is pretty shaky on a lot of naval matters, and of course, his reliability would be even more questionable if his daughter really was involved!


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