Today, 25 July 2016, is Saint James’ day in the Church of England’s liturgical calendar, and exactly 350 years ago, the relatively little known Saint James’ day battle took place in the waters of the southern North Sea. This was a sequel to the huge Four Days’ Battle that had been fought at the beginning of June, where King Charles II’s fleet, under Prince Rupert and the Duke of Albemarle, was beaten by the Dutch under Michiel De Ruyter. Remarkably, the royal dockyards repaired the battle damage within six weeks, and when the fleet ventured out again, it was markedly stronger than it had been before, partly through the addition of the enormous Sovereign – better known under her original name from 1637, the Sovereign of the Seas.
I’m ‘live tweeting’ the events of the battle today, and those who aren’t on Twitter can see the sequence on the right hand side of this web page. Therefore, I don’t propose to duplicate an account of the fighting in this blog; for those who want to know more, the Wikipedia entry about the battle is reasonably accurate, and anybody who wants to know a lot more is referred to Frank Fox’s outstanding book, The Four Days Battle of 1666, which also covers this battle and the subsequent events. However, the Saint James’ day fight features in the fifth Quinton book, The Battle of All The Ages, and the new title, Death’s Bright Angel, which comes out next month, follows on immediately from these events. So as a ‘taster’, here’s one passage from my fictional account of the battle, which describes a real incident, the astonishing escape of the Gelderland; and to accompany it, there’s a picture of the spectacular memorial to her captain, Van Ghent, in the great Dom Kerk in Utrecht, which I last visited back in 2008.
‘One of De Ruyter’s seconds is in trouble,’ I said, peering through my own eyepiece. ‘A big one, at least sixty guns – a similar size to the Sceptre. Both his fore and mizzen topmasts are down. Looks as though his rudder is damaged, too.’
‘The Sovereign’s altering course to go for her, Sir Matthew!’ cried Urquhart.
‘Then we sail with the Golden Devil, gentlemen!’
What a sight we were, bearing down on the crippled Dutchman – the Gelderland, as we later learned. With all sail set, ensigns and pennants streaming from our staffs and mastheads, four of England’s mightiest men-of-war sailed toward the easiest of victories. The Royal Sovereign led the way, a terrifying sight as her huge gilded hull rose and fell on the gentle swell. Then came the Lion, the Triumph and ourselves, any one of us more than capable of taking the Dutchman on our own. The Dutch saw the danger, but there was little they could do to prevent it. Even De Ruyter himself attempted to come up with the Seven Provinces, but his flagship was too shattered. Besides, it was impossible for him to make much headway against the breeze and, more importantly, against the racing ebb.
We were very nearly level with the Sovereign, we moving onto the starboard side of the Dutchman, the Golden Devil onto the larboard. The Lion and Triumph were similarly in parallel behind us, moving to take up position on her quarters.
‘He might as well strike his colours now,’ I said. ‘He’s done for.’
‘No,’ said Delacourt, his telescope fixed on the bows of the Dutchman. ‘No, he can’t be –‘
‘Saw it done once by a sloop in the tiderace at the Shannon’s mouth – but surely it can’t work –‘
‘She’s dropping anchor!’ cried Urquhart.
In that moment, the large anchors on both the starboard and larboard bows of the Dutchman, together with her stern anchor, fell into the sea.
‘Jesus,’ I swore. ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! Mister Burdett, there! Larboard battery to engage –‘
But it was already too late. The Dutchman came to a dead stop. Carried forward inexorably by the racing ebb, and by the weight of canvas we had aloft, we were past her even before the order to fire could be given. The same was true of the Sovereign. The Lion and Triumph, coming up behind us, managed to fire off a desultory broadside each before they, too, swept past the stationary Dutchman.
‘Clever,’ said Musk. ‘Clear-headed, and clever.’
‘Surely we can simply turn and capture him!’ cried Rochester.
‘My Lord,’ I snapped, ‘ships do not simply turn. We cannot sail back directly into the wind, nor into this ebb. That which stopped the Dutch coming up to rescue him now prevents us going back to take him. He has outfoxed us, whoever he is. A brave man, and a skilful one, that captain. A great seaman.’
But that, he was not. When we met at Veere, my good-brother Cornelis told me that the captain of the Gelderland was a landsman – a soldier named Van Ghent, a colonel of Marines. It seems that all the old seamen among his officers furrowed their brows and stroked their chins when he ordered the sudden dropping of the anchors, it being a thing beyond the compass of minds that must do things this way, because that is how they have always been done. Such is the way of old seamen, and probably always will be.