The Battle of Lowestoft, June 3rd 1662
Forget the Armada and forget Trafalgar. The battle that really set England on the road to maritime supremacy was Lowestoft. It’s almost forgotten in England, but in the Netherlands it is still remembered as the greatest defeat at sea they have ever suffered.
England and the Netherlands have largely enjoyed excellent relations over the centuries. Both see the other as a natural ally against France, for a long time the main threat to the stability of Europe. However, in the Seventeenth century, England and the United Provinces were at daggers drawn. For a brief span of less than one hundred years the two competed around the world for dominance in the “carrying trade”, they spied on each other, they blackguarded each other in the European press, and they fought three of the largest and fiercest naval wars of all time.
A lot of the fallout from this rivalry can still be heard in the English language. We talk of a “Dutch bargain” – one in which one side has all the advantages. We talk of “Dutch courage”, i.e. bravery needing to be bolstered by hefty doses of alcohol. We even talk of “going Dutch” –a meal where the lady pays for her own food - a common practice in the Netherlands then and now, but not something any self-respecting chivalrous English gentleman would ever countenance!
The first of the Anglo-Dutch naval wars was a bit of walkover. The Dutch had run down their fleet and still stuck to the traditional tactic of boarding, whereas the English valued firepower above all else. The results were shattering for Dutch pride. They were heavily beaten, but the conflict was not decisive.
Everyone knew there would be a rematch, but the English were distracted by internal disputes. Oliver Cromwell’s Republic collapsed on his death and it was only after Charles II had been restored to the throne that attention once more turned to the Dutch. War was declared on March 4th, 1665. After some sparring the two sides concentrated their fleets for a showdown. They met on June 1st 1662, about ten miles out from the town of Lowestoft.
The scale of this battle was truly astounding. Admittedly the ships were smaller than the ones in the Napoleonic wars, but there were very many more of them. At Trafalgar the British had 27 battleships and the combined French/Spanish fleet 33. At Lowestoft the English had over 120 warships (including fireships and dispatch boats) manned by over 20,000 sailors. The Dutch had even more.
The easterly wind favoured the Dutch but they did not attack. It is unclear why, but the most likely explanation is that they feared that if things went wrong an easterly wind would make it difficult for them to retreat back to the Netherlands. The wind steadily veered southwards through the whole of the next day, and by the morning of June 3rd the English fleet, led by the Duke of York (the future King James II), managed to get upwind of the Dutch, who were forced to turn. The two fleets moved parallel to each other but in opposite directions and at long range. The resulting exchange of cannon fire did little damage, and both sides turned for another pass.
Unfortunately a signalling error in the English flagship allowed the Dutch to surge ahead. Seeing this, the English vice-admiral, Prince Rupert, on his own initiative turned his white squadron immediately ahead of his commander, whose red squadron formed a second line to prevent the English fleet from being outflanked. This was a difficult manoeuvre and two English ships became detached. In trying to rejoin the fleet one of them, the Charity, sailed right into the middle of the Dutch fleet. Pummelled by each Dutch ship in succession, Charity was eventually boarded and captured.
It is not exactly clear what happened next. Both sides attempted to turn again, but the English seemed to have tried to turn from the rear, an exceptionally difficult maneouvre for a sailing ship fleet. At the same time the wind suddenly shifted to the south west, throwing the Dutch into confusion. The English quickly took advantage and swung in closer. The battle dissolved into a giant melee. The two flagships (the English Royal Charles and the Dutch Eendracht) made for each other and were soon locked in a savage duel. Around about 2PM the English blue squadron split the Dutch fleet and surrounded part of it.
Around three in the afternoon the duel between Royal Charles and Eendracht ended abruptly when Eendracht blew up. The chaotic naval organisation of the Netherlands meant there was no clear line or succession in the event of the commander in chief’s death, and combined with the smoke and confusion several flag officers attempted to assume command, with the net result that the Dutch fleet fragmented, different clumps of ships following different commanders. The English pressed in with fireships on the broken formations, causing utter chaos, and chased the survivors all the way back to the Dutch coast. All told, in addition to Eendracht, seven Dutch ships were burnt, nine were boarded and captured, and eight who made it back were so badly damaged by gunfire they had to be scrapped. Over 2000 Dutch sailors were killed and almost as many captured. The English lost about 400.
In spite of this tremendous victory, the war was not to end well for England. The Royal Navy was invincible, but the exchequer ran out of money to keep it working. The Dutch were able to impose peace on their terms two years later.