The Brederode off Hellevoetsluis. This famous ship was built in 1644. Vice Admiral Witte de With commanded the Brederode for most of her career, with the exception of 1650–1654. From early 1652 until August 1653 the Brederode was Lt Adm Tromp’s flagship, but by July 1654 the Brederode was again Witte de With’s flagship. The first significant operation that involved the Brederode was the convoying of a large fleet of Dutch merchant ships through the Sound without paying the toll to Denmark, a mission that succeeded. The next major operation was not until the relief expedition sent to Brazil in late 1647 and that returned in the latter part of 1649. The undertaking was doomed to failure from the start, as the ships were unsupported and without the resources and political leadership necessary to rescue the Dutch situation in Brazil. For that operation, Witte de With seems to have commanded his own ship, with Jan Janszoon Quack as his lieutenant. After Witte de With was imprisoned on returning from Brazil, the Brederode was given to Lt Adm Tromp for use as his flagship. The original plan had been to send the Brederode to the Mediterranean in 1652, but Tromp’s illness kept the ship in home waters until the point when there seemed to be an imminent threat of war with England.


The Dutch warship building industry had considerable advantages over its competitors in neighbouring countries, notably England and France. It could build ships more cheaply and more rapidly, thanks to superior technology (such as wind-powered sawmills) and to the presence in the immediate vicinity of the shipyards of both a large skilled workforce and naval supplies of all sorts. Raw materials could also be obtained relatively easily. The Dutch obtained oak for warship hulls from Poland, as well as from Westphalia, Brandenburg, and other parts of Germany, with the timber being shipped via the Maas and Rhine to Dordrecht in the south or to Zaandam, Edam, Hoorn and Enkhuizen in the north. Pine for masts and yards came from Scandinavia, Pomerania, Prussia and Poland; iron from Spain, Sweden and the Harz mountains; hemp from Russia or Riga; tar from Russia and Sweden, particularly Vyborg; pitch from Stockholm. Sailcloth was traditionally imported from Brittany, but from about 1660 onwards it was produced locally, in the villages adjacent to the shipyards along the River Zaan.

Bythe end of the seventeenth century, though, the Dutch were falling behind their rivals. Stubborn adherence to old methods meant that, until nearly the end of the seventeenth century, ships were still being designed principally by rule of thumb – on ‘the eye and the judgement of the master shipbuilder’, as one contemporary put it – rather than employing plans and models that could permit the production of repeat designs. Amsterdam and Rotterdam built ships in entirely different ways, and to an extent to different dimensions: Amsterdam ships were built in the Scandinavian fashion, with the lower part of the hull built ‘shell first’, while those in Rotterdam were built ‘frame first’, with planking then added to the frame (although it is unclear when and why both shipbuilding centres adopted these different methods). All Dutch warships were characterised by relatively high, square sterns, elaborately decorated with symbols of national or provincial loyalties, such as the emblem of a lion rising from the sea that adorned Zeeland ships.

Size of Warships

The size of Dutch warships was constrained above all by the shallow waters off the Dutch coast and in the approaches to the republic’s harbours. This also dictated hull form: Dutch ships were flatter-bottomed, and thus had a shallower draught, than their contemporaries in other countries. Until the 1590s, the republic operated ships that generally displaced less than 100 tons, and had few of more than 200. Seventeen much larger ships, planned to blockade Spanish ports, were built between 1599 and 1601, including two that displaced well over 1000 tons (or, by the measurement in use at the time – for which, see below – about 500 lasten). This experiment with very large ships was repeated in the early 1620s, but the ships in question were transferred to the VOC and no more vessels on a similar scale were then built for the Dutch navy until the 1650s and 1660s. Instead, the Dutch concentrated on smaller units, displacing roughly 300-700 tons, which were more suitable for convoying.91 The contrast with England was marked: When average sizes are considered, the discrepancy is even more marked. In 1620, the average displacement in tons of English warships of over 100 tons was 830; the equivalent figure for Dutch warships was 270. The gap closed in later years, but even by 1650 the figures were 680 and 470 respectively, and when the first Anglo-Dutch war began in 1652, the British state had at least eighteen warships that were larger than anything the Dutch could send to sea. The comparatively small nature of Dutch warships is well illustrated by Maarten Tromp’s two famous flagships: the Aemilia, from which he flew his flag during the Battle of the Downs, mounted 57 guns, while her slightly larger replacement, the Brederode, had a gundeck length of about 40 metres, mounted between 53 and 59 guns, and had a crew of 270. By contrast, the English Sovereign of the Seas, as first built in 1637–8, was over 51 metres long on the gundeck, was initially fitted for 102 guns, and, when she faced the Brederode, had a nominal crew of 700.

Increasing the size of Dutch warships encountered both geographical and political obstacles. When the decision was taken to order large new ships in 1652, Maarten Tromp proposed building vessels of at least 150 feet in length, but the Amsterdam Admiralty objected to anything longer than 140 feet, claiming, entirely spuriously, that this was the maximum size that could traverse the Pampus shoals which restricted access to its own harbour. Consequently, the new rounds of warship building which commenced in 1654–5 concentrated on larger ships, initially to ‘Charters’ of 130, 136 and 140 feet in length; the only exceptions that were permitted, following tortuous debate in the States-General at the end of 1652, were the 150-foot-long Eendracht, the new fleet flagship, and the Groot Hollandia, flagship of the Admiralty of the Maas. Even so, the great majority of these new ‘large’ ships were actually of a size roughly equivalent to the Fourth Rates under the British flag, with the two fleet flagships being about the same size as small Second Rates; there was still no equivalent at all of the vast First Rates that existed across the North Sea, like the Sovereign and the Naseby (later renamed Royal Charles) of 1655.

By 1664–5, however, Amsterdam’s objections had been over-ruled by experience, and orders were being placed for ships of between 145 and 170 feet, much closer in scale to those available to King Charles II and his Royal Navy. During the 1660s the Dutch added ten ships displacing 1400-1600 tons and mounting 72–84 guns, such as the Amsterdam-built Dolfijn of 1667, and another twenty of 1100 tons, mounting 60–74; it was a remarkably large and rapid programme of construction, which finally put the republic’s battle fleet on the same footing as those of its rivals. The dramatic change in Dutch warship size can also be seen when comparing average sizes, where the republic had lagged so badly for so long. In 1670, the average size of the 129 largest warships of the Dutch navy, measured by average displacement in tons, was 790, while the figure for Charles II’s navy was only marginally ahead at 810 (although both were now eclipsed by the French navy, which was dominated by large prestige vessels and had an average displacement of 950 tons). All of these larger vessels built for the Dutch navy from the early 1660s onwards were ordered by, and to the specification of, the States-General; however, the individual admiralties also continued to order smaller warships on their own accounts. Regardless of where they were built, the increase in size led to tremendous increases in cost, with obvious implications for the finances of the Admiralties and of the republic as a whole. A typical warship of 1632 cost some 19,000 to 22,000 guilders; the Eendracht, the flagship blown up during the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665, cost 60,000 guilders.


The constraints of Dutch coastal waters meant that even the largest of the new ships built in the 1660s were still only two-deckers carrying 80 guns, well short of the 100 or more on the largest English (and, increasingly, French) ships of the line; the Dutch finally began to build three-deckers with a complete upper gun deck in the 1680s. But simple numbers of guns provide a deceptive picture, for Dutch ordnance was also on a very different scale to that available to its enemies. In 1666, for example, the largest British ships carried cannon-of-seven which fired 42-pounder shot, while many others carried 32-pounder demi-cannon. By contrast, the Dutch had very few guns that fired more than 24-pound shot, so their broadsides were inevitably weaker than those of their opponents (even when one takes into account the fact that the two countries had different pound weights, as described below). Thus the new British 64-gun Third Rates Rupert and Defiance could fire at least 1334 pounds of shot, probably rather more, whereas the five Dutch 70-gunners built at roughly the same time could fire only between 924 and 1054 pounds. This was partly a result of the Netherlands’ inability to produce sufficient ordnance, notably the brass guns favoured by the English, and partly a deliberate consequence of different tactical conceptions. English shipwrights and admirals favoured packing in as many guns as possible with minimal freeboard, while the Dutch preferred higher freeboard, greater manoeuvrability, and a continued emphasis on boarding over artillery duels. The British regularly brought Dutch prizes into their own navy, but the Dutch found some of the larger prizes that they took during the Anglo-Dutch wars unsuitable both for service in their own waters and for their conception of how to fight a naval war: the Royal Charles, famously towed away from Chatham during the Medway raid in 1667, was simply laid up at Rotterdam until broken up in 1673. However, the Swiftsure, taken during the Four Days’ Battle of 1666, carried a large number of the brass guns which the republic lacked, so she was swiftly commissioned into the Dutch navy as the Oudshoorn.

Until about 1648, the most common shot weights employed by the Dutch were of 5, 10, 15 and 20 pounds. Thereafter, the standard weights were 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, 18, 24 and 36 pounds, although these figures are deceptive. For one thing, the Dutch ‘pound’ was not equivalent to that used for English ordnance: the Amsterdam pound was 494.1 grams, compared with its English equivalent of 453.6. Moreover, many guns were captured from foreign ships or purchased abroad: hence, perhaps, the 5-pounders carried prior to 1648 (possibly English-made sakers) and the 7-pounders carried by Zeeland hired ships in 1652, which were originally captured from the Spanish. As noted above, the Dutch were heavily dependent on importing ordnance, with many iron guns being supplied from the foundries at Finspång in Sweden that were run by the Walloon expatriate Louis de Geer. Shortages led to desperate expedients, such as stripping coastal fortifications and city walls of their artillery in order to fit out the ships. It also meant that, until the 1670s, the Dutch were rarely able to arm their larger ships with uniform tiers; instead, they mounted a smaller number of the largest guns on their lower decks, mixed with some of the next highest shot weight.

The Middelburg, Veere,Dordrecht and Vlissingen, all built by the Zeeland Admiralty in 1654-5, were designed to carry four brass 24-pounders, ten iron 18-pounders, four brass 12-pounders, eight iron 12-pounders, ten iron 8-pounders, and eight brass 6-pounders. The practice of mixed batteries (which, it must be said, was not exclusive to the Dutch) continued in some cases until the end of the century, with, for example, the Beschermer of 1691 carrying a mixture of 36- and 24-pounder guns on her lower gundeck.

Frigates, Galleys and Other Types of Warship

By the 1620s, the Dunkirkers were introducing relatively small, low-hulled, but broad and fast, warships that were given the name ‘frigates’. The Dutch swiftly emulated these, although the definition of the word ‘frigate’ changed over the years (as it did in Britain). By the late seventeenth century, the term was being applied to ships of between 20 and 36 guns, with one continuous gun deck; these were distinguished from the ships of the line with two or three gun decks, which were divided into four Charters that corresponded approximately to the Royal Navy’s First to Fourth Rates. The Dutch made some use of galleys during the Revolt, and in 1600 built the Black Galley of Dordrecht, a relatively large vessel with nineteen oars to each side and fifteen guns; this became famous, even in England, after taking part in a successful attack on Antwerp (7 November 1600). The republic’s galleys were discarded either before or at the truce in 1609, although one seems to have still been in existence at Schiedam into the 1630s. Other types of vessel included the hoy, the fluyt (which proved unsatisfactory when employed as a warship), the crommesteven (‘cromster’ to the English; a ketch, used extensively in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries), and the jacht, or yacht, which was used as a despatch boat and for other purposes. The Dutch also made considerable use of fireships. Tromp used them to good effect at the Battle of the Downs in 1639, where they fired the Portuguese flagship Santa Teresa. The most spectacular success came during the Battle of Solebay in 1672, when the fireship Vrede of the Maas Admiralty fastened herself to the Royal James, flagship of the Earl of Sandwich, Vice-Admiral of England. The great ship was destroyed, and Sandwich and somewhere in the region of four or five hundred men perished.


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