The Raid on the Medway took place towards the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in June 1667. Sometimes called the Battle of the Medway, The Dutch Raid or the Battle of Chatham, it was a successful and daring attack conducted by the Dutch fleet, penetrating deep upriver and targeting both the dockyard at Chatham, then England’s principal fleet base and the largest English naval ships of the day – at the time laid up in the River Medway unarmed and unmanned due to lack of funding following the Great Fire of London.
At the time, the fortress of Upnor Castle, a newly installed defensive chain protected by small gun platforms placed across the river off Gillingham and the 42-gun guardship Unity, stationed off Sheerness, were felt sufficient to protect both fleet and dockyard whilst protected peace negotiations were underway at Breda.
The Dutch Fleet, under the command of Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, entered the River Medway, captured a fortification at Sheerness and used fireships to force the Unity to withdraw up the Medway towards the chain at Gillingham. Risking the perils of treacherous shallows, sandbars and shoals, a squadron of the Dutch fleet sailed up the River Medway to Gillingham, broke through the chain, captured and towed away the Unity and the Royal Charles, flagship and pride of the English Fleet, before burning three capital ships and ten lesser naval vessels.
The Dutch attack on the dockyard and fleet in the Medway was in part motivated for reasons of retaliation for Sir Robert Holmes attack on Terschelling the previous year and a desire to force English agreement to peace terms in the negotiations at Breda. At the time it was seen as one of the most humiliating actions in the Royal Navy’s history. The English 17th century diarist John Evelyn describing it as the ‘greatest dishonour to befall an Englishman’.
The events on the River Medway of June 1667 form a compelling element of Samuel Pepys’s diary. His defence of the Naval administration to Parliament after the attack set him on course to become one of Britain’s great naval administrators and led to the rebuilding of the Royal Navy and its success at sea during the following century.
The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), fought mainly over the two countries maritime trade ambitions, was largely contested between the English and Dutch navies in the North Sea. Early English victory at the Battle of Lowestoft in June 1665 was followed in 1666 by two less conclusive engagements – the Four Days Battle and the St James’s Day Battle…..
In February 1667 Charles II’s government, reeling under the financial pressure of war and the impact on England’s economy of both the Great Plague of 1665 and Great Fire of London of September 1666, began to seek a peace settlement with the Dutch with negotiations underway at Breda from March onwards….
The plan for the attack on the Medway was orchestrated by Johan de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland who had made plans for such an attack to have taken place the previous year following the Four Days Battle but had been prevented from carrying them out by the later St James’s Day Battle…….
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 14 June Cornelis de Witt ended the attack fearing stiffening English resistance and the Dutch ships began their withdrawal from the Medway taking the Royal Charles and Unity back to Holland as prizes.
The Battle of Medway ended Charles II’s ability to continue the Second Anglo Dutch War and peace terms were agreed at Breda a fortnight later. The English Navy lost all but one of its largest warships which in the short-term left the country in a dangerously weak position.
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