The British Fleet at the Battle of the Texel / Kijkduin, 11/21 August 1673 – Part 1
A major event on the blog this week and next! My old website contained a piece which attempted to list the British line of battle at the important Battle of the Texel (known to the Dutch as the Battle of Kijkduin), the final engagement during the three Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century. This, in turn, was originally meant to be the appendix to a book I planned to write on the battle; indeed, a major academic publisher had already accepted the title in question. Unfortunately, this project was sidelined by events, notably the sudden ‘take off’ of my fiction series, the Journals of Matthew Quinton. It remains possible that I’ll return to it one day – who knows, the 350th anniversary of the battle is in 2023! – but some elements of it will be finding a home in my new non-fiction book for Seaforth Publishing, Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy, due for publication next year. However, I’ve continued to work intermittently on the fleet list, and have been joined in that work by Frank Fox, author of Great Ships: The Battlefleet of King Charles II and The Four Days Battle of 1666, the acknowledged authority on the ships and operations of the later Stuart navy. This week, I’m publishing the extended introduction to the list; next week, this site will carry the list itself, which is, we hope, as accurate a reconstruction of the order of battle on 11 August 1673 as is likely to be achieved.
The Battle of the Texel, known to the Dutch as the Battle of Kijkduin, was fought on 11 August (Old Style) 1673, when a combined Anglo-French fleet of eighty-six ships of the line under the command of Prince Rupert of the Rhine confronted a Dutch fleet of sixty under Michiel Adrianszoon De Ruyter.  It was not a decisive action; no ships were lost on either side, and in one sense, it was simply the third and last in a series of confused and inconclusive actions that took place in the summer of 1673. It was not the largest, nor the most dramatic, action of the three Anglo-Dutch wars that were fought during the third quarter of the seventeenth century. It lacked the brutal destruction of one side by the other that characterised the Battle of the Gabbard (1653), or the shocking drama of the explosion that obliterated the Dutch flagship Eendracht at the Battle of Lowestoft (1665). It was not on the same scale as the Four Days’ Battle of 1666, the largest, longest, and most terrible action fought in the entire sailing ship era. It contained no tragic sacrifice to match the deaths of the Earl of Sandwich, Admiral of the Blue Squadron, and many of his men, when the flagship Royal James was burned by a fireship during the Battle of Solebay (1672); the death of Sandwich’s successor, Sir Edward Spragge, at the Battle of the Texel, took place in almost farcical circumstances, when the longboat taking him from his shattered flagship to a new command was hit and sunk, and was a consequence of his own vanity and disregard for orders. At first sight, then, the Texel hardly seems an obvious subject for detailed study.
For contemporaries in the British Isles, though, the battle was notable for one reason above all: the belief that the French squadron deliberately stood apart from the fighting, allegedly because it had secret orders from King Louis XIV to do just that. It was certainly true that the French made little attempt to engage, became separated from the main action, and ignored repeated attempts to get them to join the melee. Even the second-in-command of the French gave credit to the story that his superior had ordered the squadron to stand apart, thereby permitting more Dutch ships to deploy against the two British squadrons. The subsequent popular outcry against the French contributed to the downfall of a government (King Charles II’s ‘cabal’ ministers); this was one of the first occasions when public opinion clearly forced a British government entirely to change the direction of its policies and abandon an unpopular war, a theme with not a little contemporary resonance. The battle thus marked the decisive downfall of the controversial and much-debated diplomacy of Charles II that produced the secret Treaty of Dover (1670), with its explosive promise to restore Catholicism to England.
The battle, and specifically the behaviour of the French squadron, was undoubtedly one of the most significant single incidents in convincing English popular opinion that the French, rather than the Dutch, had become the undoubted and natural national enemy. The widespread popular belief in French duplicity, both at the Texel and during the third Anglo-Dutch war as a whole, exacerbated already negative perceptions of France, and contributed in large part to the growth of virulent popular francophobia in the 1670s and 1680s. In later years, the assumption that the French had failed to support the British squadrons at the Texel – at best thanks to incompetence, at worst because of conspiracy – was central to all accounts of the battle in standard naval histories. When he contemplated the battle, the Victorian naval journalist 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.  More recently, Stephen Baxter and Carl Ekberg have seen the battle of the Texel as 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’.  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 stance. 
The battle of the Texel also formed the culmination of a virtually unknown British campaign to invade the Netherlands, itself a consequence of Charles II’s Dover diplomacy. This proved to be the last occasion in history when a primarily English army was assembled with the serious and avowed intention of invading mainland Europe to permanently annex territory there: in that sense, 1673 witnessed the last ‘medieval’ campaign of conquest in the old tradition of the Angevins, Henry V and Henry VIII.  However, the existence of a powerful invasion army on English soil generated profound suspicions in Parliament and elsewhere, and helped fuel the growing perception that an army controlled by Stuart kings was bound to be a vehicle for imposing arbitrary power on the country.  More debatably, the Texel can also be seen as the last battle in which the entire existence of an independent Dutch nation was in doubt. The brilliant defensive tactics employed by Admiral Michiel De Ruyter during the 1673 campaign against a foe that was much stronger numerically form one of the classics of naval history, and also ensured the survival of his country. Indeed, on 11 August De Ruyter only gave battle reluctantly, and only because he was effectively forced to do so by pressure from a number of influential mercantile and political interests, notably that of William, Prince of Orange, the future King William III of England. The burden of history was against De Ruyter: in exactly the same confined waters, twenty years before almost to the day, the Dutch navy had suffered one of its most cataclysmic defeats, culminating in the death of its iconic admiral, Maerten Harpertszoon Tromp. De Ruyter had been a commodore in that battle, and would have known better than anyone the stakes for which he fought.  As it was, by avoiding defeat in the battle of the Texel / Kijkduin, De Ruyter effectively ensured the survival of the Dutch Republic, giving this tactically indecisive action an almost mythic status in the history of the Netherlands – in marked contrast to the almost total ignorance of it in the English-speaking nations. 
The Battle of the Texel was the last fought by both Prince Rupert of the Rhine, once the glamorous cavalier general of the civil wars,  and by his abrasive Irish second-in-command, Sir Edward Spragge. The relationship between Rupert and Spragge was fraught, both before and during the battle; indeed, even after Spragge’s death his friends continued their quest to redeem their old admiral’s reputation by pulling down that of the prince they hated. This proved to be the climax of a vicious squabble between different factions within the officer corps, factions that reflected broader alignments at court and in the country at large. The battle contained no individual moments of high drama or heroism that entered popular folklore, but this is probably because of the controversy surrounding the French and the simple fact that it was the last battle of a deeply detested war. Nevertheless, several incidents within the battle were on a truly heroic scale: above all, the gallant defence put up against seemingly overwhelming odds by the crew of the shattered Prince, commanded by an inexperienced lieutenant, was an epic of its kind, and deserves to be better known. The battle effectively turned on the inadequacies of the signalling system in place at the time, and on a series of much-debated and, in some cases, much-criticised tactical decisions made by Rupert, De Ruyter and their subordinate commanders.
(To be continued)
- This engagement has always been known in Britain as ‘the battle of the Texel’, which was how seventeenth century Englishmen always described the large island, the most southerly and westerly of the Frisian Islands, which lies off the coast of North Holland opposite the town of Den Helder. The island is correctly called ‘Texel’, without the definite article, and is pronounced ‘Tessel’. In any case, neither the British nor the Dutch names for the battle are strictly correct, as it was fought somewhat to the south of Texel and rather to the north of Kijkduin.
- 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.
- S Baxter, William III (1966), 104; C Ekberg, The Failure of Louis XIV’s Dutch War (Chapel Hill, NC, 1979), 154.
- 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).
- The capture of Gibraltar in 1704 was a spontaneous operation on behalf of the Habsburg claimant to the Spanish throne; at first, there was no intention of turning Gibraltar into a British colony, and it did not become one until 1713. Between 1689 and 1815, all other British landings on the continent were either diversionary raids (such as the landing on Walcheren in 1809) or attempts to ‘liberate’ territory and restore ‘legitimate’ regimes (such as the landing at Den Helder in 1799); an occupation of Normandy was contemplated in 1744, as a means of putting pressure on Paris, but there was no intention of holding the territory after a satisfactory peace. I am grateful to Professor Richard Harding for discussion of these eighteenth century expeditions.
- L G Schwoerer, ‘No Standing Armies!’: The Anti-Army Ideology in Seventeenth Century England (Baltimore, MD, 1974), 98-107; Pincus, Protestantism and Patriotism, 422-7; C-E Levillain, ‘Ruled Britannia? Le problem de l’influence Français en Grande-Bretagne dans la seconde moitié du xviie siècle’, France-Angleterre: un siècle d’entente cordiale 1904-2004: deux nations, un seul but? (Paris, 2004), 123-4.
- R Prud’homme van Reine, Rechterhand van Nederland: Biografie van Michiel Adrianszoon de Ruyter (Amsterdam, 1996), 78-80.
- See, for example, the portrayal of the battle in the 2015 Dutch film Michiel De Ruyter (released in the UK and US as Admiral: Command and Conquer), although the film-makers stretched dramatic licence to its limits by having the French squadron plough onto the Dutch coast – a loose adaptation of a real event, albeit one which occurred five years later, and in the Caribbean to boot!
- Rupert’s role at the Texel, and indeed his entire career as an admiral, has usually been neglected by his biographers, who prefer to concentrate on his more dramatic (but little more successful) service as a cavalry general; the most recent study of the prince’s life, by Earl Spencer, devotes precisely five paragraphs to the battle itself (C Spencer, Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier (2007), 356-7). Rather fuller coverage, albeit based on no manuscript sources, is provided by F Kitson, Prince Rupert: Admiral and General-at-Sea (1998), especially pp. 280-9. A much more balanced and academic study of the prince’s career, which if anything goes to the other extreme and underplays his exploits in the civil war, is provided by R Rebitsch, Rupert von der Pfalz (1619-1682). Ein deutscher Furstensohn im Dienst der Stuarts (Innsbruck, 2005); Rebitsch’s account of Rupert’s role in the third Anglo-Dutch war and at the Texel is at pp. 119-36.