J D Davies

The Butterboxes are Coming! The Butterboxes are Coming!

…butterboxes, of course, being one of the principal terms of neighbourly respect (umm…) that seventeenth century Brits used for the Dutch. They were certainly coming in 1667, culminating in the famous attack on the Medway in June, and they’re coming this year, too, for the 350th anniversary! So I thought I’d use this blog to highlight some of the events that are taking place this summer, and to flag up how I’m getting involved.

Naturally, most of the commemorative events are taking place in and around the River Medway, and the local council seems to be doing a good job of organising and publicising many of them. There’s a dedicated microsite, plus two Twitter hashtags, #BoM350 and #TnC350, the latter being the Dutch one – tocht naar Chatham, ‘the trip to Chatham’, is the delightfully jolly Dutch description of their attack! I’ll be using these hashtags throughout the spring and summer, as well as my own, #2ADW350, for the overall 350th anniversary of the second Anglo-Dutch war – tweets with that hashtag will resume in March, work permitting!

The gun battery at Upnor Castle. No passeran…but they did.

Among the events I’m particularly looking forward to are a new exhibition at the always wonderful Chatham Historic Dockyard, the presence of British and Dutch warships in the Medway (play nicely this time, please), a commemorative service at Rochester Cathedral, a river pageant, a rowing race between the two nations, and what should be a spectacular climax to the celebrations, a ‘Medway in Flames’ entertainment on the river. It’ll also be well worth getting over to Upnor Castle, then the principal source of resistance to the Dutch attack, which will have an exhibition (opening in April) and special events. There’s also meant to be an academic conference at the University of Kent, beginning on 30 June, but at the moment, details of this seem to be very sparse.

Unsurprisingly, quite a lot’s happening over in the Netherlands. There’ll be exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum and at the Dutch naval museum in Den Helder, a symposium at the former, and, no doubt, other events still to be announced. I’ll be going over for what’s shaping up to be a fantastic conference in Amsterdam on 23-24 June, jointly organised by the Vrienden van de Witt (NL) and the Naval Dockyards Society (UK); I hope to be able to provide full details of this on this website in a few weeks, but I can exclusively reveal that I’m going to be speaking at it! I’m also making sure that I factor in enough free time to take in the Rijksmuseum exhibition, too. More detail from the Dutch angle can be found on the website of the De Ruyter Foundation, run by Frits de Ruyter de Wildt, a direct descendant of the great admiral. Here you’ll find much more detailed information about the sailing and rowing events, plus the most comprehensive breakdown of event timings on both sides of the North Sea.

Willem Schellinks’ drawings of ‘the Dutch in the Medway’ (top) and the capture of Sheerness fort (Rijksmuseum)

As for what else I’m doing to mark the anniversary… Well, I’ve contributed a foreword to a new edition of P G Rogers’ The Dutch in the Medway, being published by Seaforth at the end of next month. Although Rogers isn’t error-free by any means, his account remains the fullest available in English, and is highly readable. I’ve also written an essay on some of the myths that grew up around the Chatham attack for a new book on Famous Battles and their Myths, forthcoming from Routledge. Above all, I’m currently writing The Devil Upon the Wave, the latest Matthew Quinton adventure, as previously flagged in this blog.  This is proving to be terrific fun to write, and it’s also very instructive – putting oneself into the position of the British defenders of Chatham, and trying to envisage what they would have seen, heard and felt, has already given me plenty of insights into the events of June 1667.

(And before any readers take me to task for referring to ‘British’ defenders, rather than ‘English’ – yes, good morning High Wycombe – I’d point out that about the only bright spot in the sorry saga of the generally supine defence against the Dutch was provided by the heroic sacrifice of Captain Archibald Douglas, who perished in the blazing wreck of the Royal Oak after a doomed attempt to defend her, so my Scottish friends have a perfect excuse to raise a wee dram or two in the general direction of Chatham on 13 June. As if you needed one.)

All in all, then, it promises to be a terrific few weeks in the summer, and a fitting commemoration of one of the most astonishing feats in the whole of naval history. Finally, though, a warning to my British readers: if you know any Dutch people, it might be worth avoiding them during June, as they could well be a bit smug.