The posting of this blog coincides with the exact 350th anniversary of the start of the Four Days’ Battle in 1666. Perfectly understandably, all of the media and social media attention focused on naval history this week has centred on the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, so this is my attempt to redress the balance, if only very slightly.
I don’t intend to provide a detailed account of the events of the battle here. For one thing, I’m ‘live tweeting’ specific incidents on my Twitter account, @quintonjournals, on their exact anniversaries (see the feed on the right hand side of this site); for another, a number of perfectly serviceable outline accounts can be found online. Those seeking more detail ought to get hold of Frank Fox’s brilliant study, The Four Days’ Battle of 1666 – a fine exemplar of how all accounts of naval battles ought to be written. However, the battle formed the basis of the fifth Quinton novel, The Battle of All The Ages, so, to honour the memories of those who fell on both sides, here are some extracts from that.
From the ‘Historical Note’
The plot of The Battle of All The Ages is centred on the longest, as well as one of the largest and hardest, sea battles in the entire age of sail. Between 1 and 4 June 1666, the British fleet under George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, and Prince Rupert of the Rhine, fought a colossal duel in the North Sea against the Dutch fleet under Michiel Adrianszoon De Ruyter, the Netherlands’ greatest admiral. The British were weakened by the fact that Rupert had been detached to confront a French threat believed to be approaching from the west, but when it was clear that this decision had been based on false intelligence, he was recalled and rejoined Albemarle on the third day. The battle featured some remarkable individual events, such as the loss of the huge flagship Royal Prince (her commander, Sir George Ayscue, remains the only British admiral ever to have surrendered in action) and the suicidal attack by Sir William Berkeley and his Swiftsure. It is also one of the best illustrated naval battles of all time: the famous Dutch marine artist Willem van de Velde the elder was present, sketching from a boat throughout the action, and his drawings, now preserved principally at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and the Boymans – Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, formed an invaluable research resource for this book. The British fleet was ultimately defeated and forced to retreat into the Thames, having suffered the worst attrition rate among commanding officers in the entire history of the Royal Navy, before or since. But in an astonishing feat by seventeenth century standards, the dockyards repaired the shattered ships and got the fleet back to sea within seven weeks, where they inflicted a defeat on the Dutch during the St James’ Day fight.
The Opening Scene of the Book
‘Eighty-one. Eighty-two. Eighty-three. Eighty-four. Eighty-five. Eighty-six.’ Lieutenant Christopher Farrell lowered his telescope and turned to look directly at me. ‘They outnumber us by thirty, Sir Matthew.’
The horizon to the east-south-east was filled with hulls and sails. The metal-grey sea was rough, whipped up by a strong, warm, blustery south-westerly breeze; Kit Farrell had seemed to take an eternity to count the number of ships opposing us, for the distant vessels kept vanishing behind the swell. Even so, I could still make out the colours flying from the enemy’s ensign staffs and topmasts. The Dutch colours.
‘For a fleet that’s supposed still to be in harbour, they seem quite remarkably seaborne,’ I said sarcastically. ‘God bless our spies in Holland, who are paid so well for their invaluable intelligence.’
‘Forgive the ignorance of a landsman, Sir Matthew,’ said the youth at my side, in a tone at once haughty and irreverent, ‘but if the enemy outnumbers our fleet so heavily, why are we advancing toward it? Why are we not withdrawing discreetly into the safety of the Thames? Why are we, if I may be so bold as to venture the word, attacking?’
‘Because, My Lord,’ I began, ‘His Grace –‘
‘Because,’ interrupted Phineas Musk, the barrel-shaped, bald creature who served nominally as my clerk, ‘His Grace the Duke of Albemarle, that was General Monck, that was the man who restored the King, that is our beloved general-at-sea – His Grace thinks as highly of the Dutch as he does of a dog-turd on the sole of his shoe. If he was out alone in a row-boat against the fleet yonder, he’d still consider the odds to be in his favour. My Lord.’
I scowled at Musk; such sentiments ought not to be expressed loudly upon the quarterdeck, where various mates and topmen could hear them. But Musk, an ancient retainer of the Quinton family, had somehow acquired the sort of licence that kings once gave their court jesters. He spoke the brutal truths that most men preferred to dissemble, and seemed perfectly impervious to any reprimand. Besides, he was entirely correct. At the council-of-war two days previously, I myself had heard the obese old Duke of Albemarle’s contemptuous dismissal of our Dutch enemy, uttered in his broad Devon brogue: ‘A land of atheistical cheese-mongers wallowing in bog-mud, gentlemen. Cowards to a man. One good English broadside and they’ll run for home, shitting themselves in fright.’ The Duke’s confidence seemed not to have been shaken a jot by the loss of nearly a third of his fleet, despatched west under his joint general-at-sea, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, to intercept the French fleet that was reported to be coming up the Channel to join its Dutch allies, or else perhaps to stop the French invading Ireland, or Wales, or the Isle of Wight; no man seemed entirely certain what the French were meant to be doing, which was ominous. The prince had been recalled, but God knew where he was, or how long it would take his ships to return.
‘Ah yes,’ said my young companion, ‘His Grace. Never was the ducal address of honour so inappropriate. Was there ever such an ungraceful Duke in England as poor, fat old Georgie Monck?’
I frowned. There were men within earshot, and it did not do for them to hear their betters denigrating those who were better still. But I could say nothing. The lad was an Earl, and I was merely the brother and heir to an Earl. He was also given a quite remarkable degree of licence by the King, and, it was said, an even more remarkable degree of it by virtually every woman in London, from bawds to baronesses. By many of the men, too, allegedly; and, as some would have it, even by some of the animals. It was no surprise that his eyes were already old and tired, with bags beneath them that bore witness to far too many debauches. His shirt was open to the waist: to emulate the seamen, he claimed, though few of them were so underdressed in such a strong breeze, and none wore shirts of the finest silk. I suspected that the young man’s display of his bare chest might have been prompted by other, and rather baser, considerations. For this was John Wilmot, the young Earl of Rochester, come to sea as a volunteer on my ship, so that he could demonstrate his bravery to – well, it was not entirely clear which of his recent amours of any gender or species he was meant to be demonstrating it to. His father and my brother, the enigmatic Earl of Ravensden, had been friends and allies in exile, forever plotting to overthrow Cromwell and restore King Charles to his throne, and this connection proved sufficient to place the poetically-inclined young Earl aboard my ship. In a moment of weakness, I even agreed that My Lord could bring with him his pet monkey, an astonishingly evil creature that now gazed at me malevolently from its favoured perch in the mizzen shrouds.
[Note: the notorious Restoration libertine, Rochester, really did serve in the Four Days Battle]
The Fate of Berkeley and the Swiftsure
A shout from the lookout at the maintop – a great, deep noise, then the sound of rope and canvas tearing apart –
I ran to the other side of the quarterdeck, taking my telescope from Kellett.
‘What is it, Sir Matthew?’ Rochester demanded.
‘Look yonder, My Lord. There, in the Dutch line. Two of them have collided! Great God – one of them is Tromp himself!’
It was an astonishing sight: two mighty men-of-war locked together, their rigging entangled, the bows of the one wedged onto the bow of the other. Even as we watched, the mainmast of Tromp’s flagship Hollandia came down, taking her tricolour command flag with it. Yet again, good fortune seemed to be carrying the battle the way of the English – or as Musk had put it, turning everything topsy-turvy in the blink of an eye. Collision is always a real possibility in a sea-fight, for ships are often sailing very close to each other; and the Dutch were unaccustomed to the line-of-battle, where each ship was meant to keep station only a very short distance from those ahead or astern of it, to give an enemy no room to break through gaps in the line. But the collision of the two great ships – Tromp’s Hollandia and the Leifde, as we later learned – meant that they were falling away to leeward, helplessly entangled. Thus there was not just a gap in the Dutch line, but a huge, gaping, tempting passageway. An empty avenue of sea presented itself, stretching away to the irresistible target at the end of it, exposed and unable to manoeuvre. The Hollandia. The great Admiral Tromp himself.
‘The Vice-Admiral, Sir Matthew,’ said Kit, pointing ahead and slightly to larboard.
The Swiftsure, with the white command flag streaming from her foretop, was adjusting sail and beginning to fall down with the wind, making for the gap and the crippled Hollandia. Will Berkeley was intent on redeeming himself in the eyes of Albemarle, the fleet and the kingdom. Will was sailing to seize or destroy Tromp.
‘Your orders, Sir Matthew?’ asked Hardy, the Royal Sceptre’s master.
I said nothing, instead scanning as much of the battle as I could see with my telescope. Will’s opportunity was obvious, but so too was the terrible risk he was taking. He had to get up to Tromp before the Dutch could bring down enough reinforcements to seal the gap in the line. With far fewer ships at his disposal, Albemarle could not similarly reinforce Will, even if he was so inclined. The general was still heavily engaged against De Ruyter, and now there was a new threat. Through the smoke and the great melee of masts, sails and hulls, I caught glimpses of our Blue squadron, in the Rear. But now there were Dutch flags to the west of the Blue – in other words, to windward. The Dutch rear divisions, strengthened by the ships that had been out of action to the north, but which were now coming into action almost by the minute, had broken through the Blue and gained the weather gage. If Albemarle was going to redeploy his ships in the centre to reinforce anywhere, it would have to be there. And that meant Will Berkeley’s charge at Tromp, unsupported, was likely to be suicidal.
‘Your orders, Sir Matthew?’ Hardy repeated, with a more obvious note of urgency in his voice.
My Royal Sceptre was the Swiftsure’s second. Under the fleet’s orders, and by naval tradition from time immemorial, the second supported the flagship of its division. Will Berkeley was one of my dearest and best friends. Every bone in my body, every feeling in my heart, every last shred of my sense of honour, screamed out the order to go to his aid. But my head knew full well that without further reinforcement, following in Will Berkeley’s wake was simply insane. We and the remaining ships of Will’s Vice-Admiral’s division were too few on our own. If we sailed after our flagship, unsupported – and as the senior captain remaining, I would have to give that order – there was a strong likelihood that we would be overwhelmed. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of the men aboard the King’s Prick and the other ships of our division would be slaughtered. And given the existing disparity in numbers between the fleets, the loss of the six remaining ships of the Vice-Admiral’s division of the White Squadron would almost certainly lose us the battle. No other ships of our fleet showed the slightest sign of sailing to support the Swiftsure or her division. A bitter thought struck me: even if there was no threat from the north, would Albemarle sail in any case to support two young gentlemen captains – representatives of a breed he detested? Even as the thought came to me, I saw the Royal Charles begin to turn into the wind and break out the blue flag at the mizzen peak, the signal for the rest of the fleet to follow in his wake. To follow west-north-west: towards the Blue Squadron, away from the Swiftsure and ourselves.
As I stood alone – desperately alone – at the larboard rail of the quarterdeck, I could see the gap in the Dutch line beginning to close. Slowly but surely, the enemy fleet was swallowing the Swiftsure. Will Berkeley was sailing to his fate, whatever that was to be.
‘Your orders, Sir Matthew?’ demanded Hardy, for a third time.
I could barely speak the words I had to speak, such was the unutterable guilt, grief and sense of dishonour that coursed through me.
‘We tack to follow the general,’ I said.
The Second Day of the Battle
I have a good memory for a man of my years. Indeed, it is usually significantly better than the memories of those who are barely a quarter of my age: in these days when almost the whole of England is awash on a sea of gin, even young men seem incapable by dinner of remembering what they had for breakfast. But when it comes to the precise order of events on that second day of the battle, I can chiefly recall only fragments of memories, and they come above all from flashes of the senses, from sight, smell and sound.
The little ships of both fleets – the yachts, galliots and the like – dashing hither and thither between the great hulls, fighting their own vicious miniature battles.
The sea carpeted with fallen masts and sails, interspersed with the bloated bodies of dead men.
The stench of gunsmoke, which hung over the battle like a shroud, the winds too light to disperse it: so thick at times that we could barely identify the nationality of the ship we were firing at, or see our own forecastle from the quarterdeck.
The men at the guns, stripped to the waists, sweat pouring down their bodies as the muzzles got ever hotter. The sun beating down relentlessly, its shafts sometimes piercing the smoke to cast a strange, ghostly light upon our decks.
The roaring of the great guns. The shock of their blast, striking one as hard as a punch in the chest. The sounds of the different types of shot as they sped through the air. The firing of muskets, with the pop of matchlocks contrasting with the sharper sound of the newer flintlocks. The shrill blast of officers’ whistles. The cracking of timber as masts, yards and hulls splintered. The screams of men in their death throes, and of the wounded being carried down to the surgeon’s cockpit. My own voice, hoarse from shouting orders and exhortations all day long. My swordarm, painful from having the heavy weapon in hand for hours on end.
Pass the Dutch on opposite but parallel courses, fire three or four mighty broadsides, try to break through their line and prevent them breaking through ours, tack, rest and repair in the interval, pass each other again, repeated over and over throughout the day, God knows how many times – even soon after the battle, some men were prepared to swear on their mothers’ graves that we and they had passed five times, others said seven, others nine.
At one point, we thought we had won. Tromp and his squadron somehow became detached from the rest of the Dutch fleet and were lying to leeward, in the east, with our Red Squadron pouring down onto them. Fresh Holles, the charming rogue who later became a friend of sorts, once told me of it, as we sat drinking wine in the Southwark George:
‘We had them, Matt. I’d taken the Spiegel with my Antelope – we’d set the Liefde on fire – two of their biggest ships, and we were pressing Tromp himself. We’d have won the war there and then, that afternoon, if you and the White had come to our aid. We saw the Prince coming up, the rest of you behind her. But did that old woman Ayscue come down to support us? No, he and the rest of you sailed merrily by –‘
‘Hardly fair, Fresh. There was another Dutch squadron to windward of us. If we’d moved to support you, they’d have split our fleet in two, isolating the Blue.’
‘Stuff, Matt Quinton. Stuff, I say. A bold admiral would have been able to overwhelm Tromp before their other ships could move. As it was – well, you know what happened. The great De Ruyter himself smashes through our line and rescues Tromp. Now he knows what boldness means, that man. Not that I witnessed it, of course, because that was just after they blew my fucking arm off.’
Holles raised his glass to his lips with his right, and sole remaining, hand.
‘You got a knighthood out of it, Sir Frescheville. And old Lely’s painting of you and Rob Holmes wouldn’t have been as fetching if you still had the other arm.’
‘Fetching? You think it’s fetching, with Holmes wearing that ludicrous turban? You have damned strange tastes in art, Matt Quinton.’
The ‘Butcher’s Bill’ of the British Fleet in the Four Days Battle
Officers Slaine and Wounded:
Captains Whitty of the Vanguard, Wood of the Henrietta, Bacon of the Bristol, Mootham of the Princess, Terne of the Triumph, Reeves of the Essex, Chappell of the Clove Tree, Dare of the House of Sweeds, Coppin of the St George, all slaine.
Sir William Clarke, secretary to His Grace of Albemarle, slaine.
Sir Christopher Myngs, maimed, and since dead.
Captain Holles, his arm shot off.
Captain Miller, his leg shot off, since dead.
Captain Gethings, drowned.
Captains Jennens and Fortescue, maimed; Harman, hurt by the fall of a mast; Pearce, Earle, Silver and Holmes, all wounded
Sir George Ayscue, prisoner in Holland.
Sir William Berkeley of the Swiftsure, perhaps prisoner in Holland, perhaps slaine.
Lost on our side, 6,000 men.
Adapted from ‘A Particular Account of the Last Engagement between the Dutch and English, June 1666’: Bodleian Library, Oxford