“the Dutch are known to be abroad with eighty sail of ships of war, and twenty fire-ships; and the French come into the Channell with twenty sail of men-of-war, and five fireships, while we have not a ship at sea to do them any hurt with”
Samuel Pepys 3 June 1667
The arrival of the Dutch Fleet in the Thames estuary on the 6th June was greeted with alarm in London and Chatham. On the 7th June the Dutch made an attempt capture a fleet of twenty English merchantmen seen higher up the Thames in the direction of London, but this failed as they fled to the west, beyond Gravesend.
On the 9th June thirty ships of Van Ghent’s squadron closed on the Thames and Medway estuary at Sheerness with landing parties despatched to Canvey Island in Essex (where they were driven off by English militia) and on the Isle of Sheppey
The Dutch fleet arrived off the Isle of Sheppey on 10 June, and launched an attack on the incomplete fort there. Captain Jan van Brakel in Vrede, followed by two other men-of-war, sailed as close to the fort as possible to engage it with cannon fire. Sir Edward Spragge was in command of the ships at anchor in the Medway and those off Sheerness, but the only ship able to defend against the Dutch was the 42-gun guardship Unity, which was stationed off the fort where sixteen guns had been hastily placed.
The Unity fired only a single broadside, before being forced to withdraw up the Medway when attacked by a Dutch fireship allowing a force of 800 Dutch marines to land close to the fort which was quickly captured and blown up.
This morning Pett writes us word that Sheernesse is lost last night, after two or three hours’ dispute. The enemy hath possessed himself of that place; which is very sad, and puts us into great fears of Chatham.”
Samuel Pepys 11 June 1667
On the 11th June a squadron of cavalry and a company of soldiers were ordered to reinforce Upnor Castle and the chain across the river was guarded by light batteries. River defences were hastily improvised with block ships sunk downriver of the chain, with further blockships sunk in Upnor Reach below Upnor Castle to provide a further barrier to the Dutch should they break the chain. The Charles V, Matthias and Monmouth were moored above the chain in positions that they could bring their broadsides to bear on it. In the midst of all this activity Commissioner Pett was unable to find sufficient men to move the Royal Charles, flagship of the English fleet, then moored in Upnor Reach further upstream behind the protection of Upnor Castle
“All our hearts do now ake; for the newes is true, that the Dutch have broke the chaine and burned our ships, and particularly “The Royal Charles”, other particulars I know not, but most sad to be sure. And, the truth is, I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone, that I do this night resolve to study with my father and wife what to do with the little that I have in money by me”
Samuel Pepys 12 June 1667
Van Ghent’s squadron now advanced up the Medway on 12 June, attacking the English defences at the chain. First the Unity was taken by Van Brakel by assault. Then the Dutch fireship Pro Patria broke through the chain and destroyed the Matthias by fire. The Dutch fireships Catharina and Schiedam attacked the Charles V and set it alight forcing the crew to abandon ship and be also captured by Van Brakel. The Royal Charles was abandoned by her skeleton crew when they saw the Matthias burn, was then captured and carried off to the Netherlands. Only the Monmouth escaped.
As the attack unfolded and the Royal Charles was carried off some of the largest remaining English warships, the Royal Oak, Royal James and Loyal London were sunk to block the river between Upnor Castle and Chatham Dockyard and to prevent them being taken like the Royal Charles.
On 13 June, Van Brakel’s ships continued their advance up the river and closed on Upnor Castle. Despite fire from the castle and other hastily erected shore batteries fireships were launched against the line of sunken warships downstream from the Dockyard setting all three on fire – causing them all to be burnt to the waterline – and de Ruyter joined Van Ghent’s squadron in person to survey Dutch success.
In three days the English Navy had lost four of its largest warships – the Royal Charles, captured, and the Royal Oak, Royal James and Loyal London burnt to the waterline.
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