Paintings by Jan Carel Donatus van Beecq
The Dutch forces assembled between June and October: a total of 463 ships, mostly small troop-transports but including forty-nine warships, carrying a total of 40,000 men, of whom over half were troops. Besides William’s own Blue Guards, there were the Scots and English regiments of the Dutch army, plus Dutch, Huguenot, German, Swiss and Swedish regiments; there was even a unit of Laplanders. To make this possible the size of the Dutch army was multiplied four-fold. The whole force was at least double the size of the Spanish Armada of a century before, assembled in little more than a tenth of the time. William III was well aware that it was extremely dangerous to mount any naval operation, let alone a landing, in the season of the equinoctial gales, but there was no time to wait until the spring, by which time the French army might be on the Republic’s inland frontier. Nor was there time to send the fleet to sea to win a victory and clear the way for the invasion convoy, and in any case it was essential to avoid starting a fourth Dutch War if William was to arrive in England in the guise of a religious saviour rather than a foreign conqueror. Arthur Herbert was appointed commander-in-chief of the Dutch fleet with instructions at all costs to avoid battle – but the odds against being able to evade a watchful English fleet less than a hundred miles away seemed almost insuperable, and Herbert was certainly prepared to fight.
Both James II and Louis XIV had their attention elsewhere and were badly served with intelligence on Dutch preparations. It was not until late August that James II began to take the possibility of Dutch intervention seriously and ordered the main fleet to mobilize. Even then he initially thought France was a more likely Dutch target than England. It was hard for so experienced a seaman to take seriously the idea that professional naval men would risk a fleet, let alone an army, to the autumn gales, and he took it for granted that no troops would sail until the fleet had cleared the way by a decisive victory. It was therefore best for the English fleet to avoid battle with an enemy believed to be much superior, until the moment was right, but there was a risk of being caught by the sort of opening attack the Dutch had so often mounted in the past. The Downs, otherwise so well situated, were therefore out of the question. Learning that Dartmouth proposed to assemble the fleet at the Gunfleet, within fairly easy reach of the Thames and Medway yards, he recommended him to move further out, ‘for fear he should be surprised while there by the sudden coming of the Dutch fleet, as being a place he cannot well get out to sea from, while the wind remains easterly’. It would have been well for Dartmouth had he listened to a king who knew those waters much better than he did, but he preferred the convenience of the Gunfleet, and James was scrupulous in not overriding his admiral’s judgement.
The Dutch fleet sailed on 19 October and was almost immediately driven back into port by a gale. On 1 November it sailed again. The wind was hard easterly, and the initial course was to the north. William’s intentions were, as usual with him, a close secret, and he may have had thoughts of landing on the Yorkshire coast (as James certainly anticipated), but an easterly wind made that impossible. Sometime about dusk on 2 November, with all the ships clear of the Flanders Banks but before the head of the fleet neared the dangerous shoals off the Norfolk coast, the decision was taken to reverse course and steer down-Channel. Dartmouth had sailed at almost the same moment as the Dutch, but the easterly gale prevented him from getting clear of the sands. At dawn on the 3rd the outliers of the Dutch fleet were actually in sight from his flagship, sailing south, but they were dead to windward and ‘the ebb being almost spent, we could not weather the Long Sand Head and the Kentish Knock’. By the time Dartmouth got to sea on the 4th, the Dutch were well down-Channel. On the 5th the wind veered south-westerly, blocking his further progress, and blowing the Dutch fleet neatly into Torbay. There William and his troops landed over two days of unseasonable calm.
After the event, when there was so much to be gained by it, various English captains, all followers of Herbert and therefore not natural friends of Dartmouth, claimed to have formed a successful conspiracy to paralyse the English fleet. There is hardly any impartial evidence that this ‘Tangerine conspiracy’ existed. Dartmouth’s councils of war were virtually unanimous, experienced officers like Strickland, who could not possibly have been secret friends of William III, concurring with more junior figures like Matthew Aylmer who subsequently claimed to have been conspirators. Given the false intelligence that the Dutch fleet was much the stronger, and the reasonable though false assumption that it would never risk the army at sea until it had won a victory, there was everything to be said for caution – and Dartmouth was naturally of a cautious, not to say hesitant, disposition. On 16 November, with better intelligence, his fleet sailed from the Downs to fight the Dutch, only to be prevented once more by bad weather. Even then the alleged conspirators did nothing more risky than secretly to send a junior officer (Lieutenant George Byng) with a verbal message to William III. William may well have hoped or even expected that the English fleet would be disabled by disaffection, but it is not at all clear that it really was. All the evidence is that his extraordinary triumph in the face of grave risks was indeed a matter of wind and tide. As a good Calvinist, he for one had no doubt that he had been predestined to succeed, and as a master of public relations he took care to spread the image of the Protestant saviour favoured by the Protestant wind, but the English seamen found it harder to identify the hand of God. ‘’Tis strange that such mad proceedings should have such success at this time a year,’ Dartmouth wrote despondently to James II.
William III was now ashore with his army, but his intentions were and still are obscure, though he had brought ammunition and supplies for a prolonged campaign. However many political leaders James II had alienated, very few joined William. The royal army lost a few senior officers but remained overwhelmingly loyal and substantially larger than the Dutch. Even among the minority who welcomed William, it is uncertain how many either desired or expected that he would seize the throne. The political crisis was resolved by a completely unexpected event. James II, whose bravery had been proved in a score of battles by sea and land, lost his nerve and ran away. Undoubtedly he meant to return, but it was the last and worst of his political misjudgements. His supporters’ morale was broken by his desertion, while his enemies seized the chance to declare that he had abdicated the throne, and that his infant son was spurious. Both claims were manifestly false, but they gave William III his opening. An illegal ‘Parliament’ was summoned to do his bidding. Surrounded by Dutch troops, it obediently voted that Princess Mary had succeeded her father, and Prince William was joint sovereign.
By April 1689, when they were crowned, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ had already fallen apart. The English, obsessed by fear of Catholicism, had imagined that nothing but love of the Church of England could have persuaded William III to risk his life and the Dutch Republic to spend over seven million guilders. Now they began to realize that their new king, though a Calvinist rather than a Catholic, was an ally of Catholic princes with reasons of state to be as tolerant in matters of religion as James II had been. It also began to dawn on them that he meant to involve them in an overseas war of ruinous expense. The first expense was a bill presented by the States-General for the whole cost of the invasion, computed as £663,752 (of which £600,000 was eventually paid). The bulk of the Anglican, loyalist political establishment had a very bad conscience about abandoning James II, and offered William at best a grudging tolerance. Many of the most eminent Anglican clergy refused to break their oaths of loyalty by swearing allegiance to the new king and queen. The true Whigs, on the other hand, had hoped for a restored Republic, while the Dissenters complained that William was able to extract from Parliament only limited toleration for them. Everyone charged him, very justly, with failing to persecute the Catholics. In Scotland the Revolution was taken over by extremists completely out of William’s control. Discarding constitutional figleaves, they openly declared James VII deposed for tyranny (thus making Scotland an elective monarchy), and demonstrated their superior purity and godliness by violent intolerance, including the execution of witches, Episcopalians and Englishmen. The Anglican church, forced to concede toleration to Presbyterians in England, found their Scots co-religionaries were ruthlessly persecuted in return. In both kingdoms the active supporters of William III were a minority, and the political world was divided into numerous hostile groups, each with plausible reasons to suspect the loyalty of the others. From prudence or conviction many leading politicians, William III’s supporters included, kept in contact with James II.
Although he was in all but name a conquering sovereign whose troops occupied London, William III did not have the time or opportunity to impose his will completely. He had to get himself and the Dutch army home quickly, before the French took advantage of their absence, and he was obliged to compromise with English politicians. All his experience of the Dutch constitution, moreover, had taught him that government was an impenetrable labyrinth largely inhabited by enemies. His business was to avoid government and control power by acting in secret through a handful of trusted men in key positions. Though he was the son and husband of English princesses and knew English well, he insisted on corresponding exclusively in French or Dutch (both of which he wrote surprisingly badly), and only a few Englishmen joined his close advisers. For him it was normal that formal responsibility should be dispersed among many overlapping jurisdictions, while the jealousy and suspicion which marked the English political situation was much what he was used to at home. Though the letter of the English constitution was not radically changed in 1689, the manner in which it operated was. Naval administration was particularly affected by the removal of a king who knew a great deal about his Navy, and his replacement by one who took no interest in it at all.
In foreign policy the situation in the spring of 1689 was confused. Louis XIV was at war with the League of Augsburg, including the Dutch Republic, and with William III in person as Prince of Orange, but not officially with England or Scotland. King William III of England and Scotland had as yet no formal alliance with Prince William III, Captain-General and Admiral-General of the Dutch Republic. James II’s followers controlled almost all Ireland, while in the Highlands of Scotland a Royalist army under the Viscount Dundee was in arms against the Edinburgh government. James II, whose strategic sense was so much better than his political judgement, meant to join his Irish and Scottish forces as the first stage of his campaign to regain his thrones. On 12 March 1689 French warships landed him in Ireland with some troops and money. Louis XIV, however, was busy elsewhere, he had not anticipated a naval war, and his Brest fleet was not ready for serious operations. William III cared equally little for Ireland, but had a better sense of the strategic value of sea power, and pushed the Anglo-Dutch negotiations which led to the convention of 19 April 1689, closely modelled on the abortive treaty of 1678, to create a joint Anglo-Dutch fleet. The ships were to be provided in the ratio five-eighths English to three-eighths Dutch, and the commanders-in-chief were always to be English. Naturally this was unpopular among the Dutch admirals, who on average were older and more experienced than their English contemporaries, but William was quite ruthless in putting the wider interests of alliance strategy first.
At this point, on the threshold of a naval war which was to continue over much of the following twenty-five years, it is worth pausing for a moment to survey the three navies principally involved. The most superficially impressive in many ways was the great fleet which Colbert, Louis XIV’s naval minister, built up almost from nothing in less than twenty years, and whose administration was codified in the nicest detail in 1689. Between 1672 and 1690, 216 million livres (about £16,500,000)17 were spent on it, creating a fleet of over eighty ships of the line, at least equal in numbers to the English, and on average considerably larger and more heavily armed. Contemporaries were dazzled, as they were meant to be, and some historians still are, but the practical effectiveness of this great fleet was severely compromised. More than twice as much money was spent on shipbuilding as on the naval yards, which were quite inadequate to maintain the ships. Much of what was spent on the yards went on Colbert’s new showpiece establishments at Le Havre – which had to be abandoned as an entire failure because of the hostile tidal system of the Seine – and at Rochefort, even worse situated twenty miles up a river too shallow to float large ships of the line. The French navy was almost unprovided with dry docks, so essential for the maintenance of big ships, and suffered badly from all sorts of industrial and technical weaknesses, notably in gun-founding. Its manning system, based on the compulsory registration of the coastal population for service one year in three, was widely admired abroad but never worked as intended, and never provided enough men to mobilize the whole fleet at once. The fleet itself, composed largely of big ships which drew too much water to enter any French Channel or North Sea port, was remarkably ill-adapted for war against the English and the Dutch. Above all, Colbert’s navy was an accountant’s navy, a bureaucrat’s dream whose function was to obey the regulations and balance the books. Hardly anywhere in his voluminous instructions is there any mention of war.
The Dutch fleet was the same redoutable force which had so often fought the English. It had the same dispersed and ramshackle administrative system as before, and the admiralties still drew on the hypothecated ordinary revenues and the unequalled borrowing capacity which were the envy of every other naval administration. Nevertheless the system was under strain, and began to suffer badly by the early years of the eighteenth century. Financial exhaustion seriously affected even Holland, and effectively extinguished the Admiralty of Friesland. Bureaucratic decay and corruption (notably at Rotterdam) resisted attempts at reform, and the death in 1704 of Job de Wildt, Secretary of the Amsterdam Admiralty, removed the last figure with the influence and force of character to unify the system. The design of Dutch warships, which were notably slower and more leewardly than English, made problems for the allied admirals.
The English Navy had been built up by Charles II and James II as a formidable force to fight the Dutch, as we have seen, but it was not perfectly adapted for the new strategic situation. Its ships of the line were very heavily armed, but lacked the seaworthiness and weatherliness for operations in the Atlantic – not least because they were overloaded with guns. The ‘thirty ships’ of the 1677 programme had hardly been tried at sea. There were few cruisers and little recent experience of protecting trade outside the Mediterranean; indeed there was a notable lack of senior officers with any recent fighting experience. The Navy’s logistical system was largely based in the Thames and Medway, and it had no naval yard west of Portsmouth. The administration, for all Pepys’s reforms, had never managed to keep large fleets operational for more than a few months even in the North Sea, close to its bases, and the victualling system was especially fragile. The financial resources of the English state had never matched its naval ambitions.
Unlike their new sovereign, the English Parliamentarians were acutely worried by the situation in Ireland, and anxious that the Navy should frustrate James’s campaign there. The Navy, however, was short of money after Dartmouth’s midwinter cruising, and Parliament did not vote any until 25 April. Arthur Herbert, newly appointed commander-in-chief of the main fleet, did not get to sea until the beginning of April, leaving behind a number of ships which had mutinied for overdue pay. On 1 May (a week before war was declared) he encountered and fought a French fleet under the marquis de Chateau-Renault, which was landing troops in Bantry Bay at the south-western corner of Ireland. Herbert probably had nineteen ships of the line, all English, against twenty-four French. Initially the two fleets stretched up the bay in parallel lines, then tacked and sailed back out to sea. The French were to windward throughout and left Herbert’s ships too much damaged to renew the action, but did not press their advantage and returned, first to the bay and later to Brest. It was a missed opportunity, followed by a violent quarrel between Château-Renault and his junior flag-officers, Job Forant and Jean Gabaret. For the English the action was equally unsatisfactory. Herbert’s warning that ‘though the battle is not always to the strong, yet the odds seem to be of that side’ had been justified. It took two months to repair his squadron at Portsmouth, during which Irish waters were completely uncovered. William III created Herbert Earl of Torrington, but neither of them was happy with the battle, and it was clearly his work the previous year which had earned him the title.
Parliament and the public were intensely concerned at the Irish situation, and the almost complete lack of protection for trade against French privateers (between May and June there were only two English cruisers at sea in the Channel). James’s forces were besieging Londonderry, the capture of which would open communications with Dundee’s army in Scotland. Three French frigates under Captain Duquesne-Monnier were assigned to support him, two of them commanded by English officers who had followed James. No English warships opposed them, only two small cruisers, the Pelican and the Janet, which had been commissioned by the Scottish Parliament. On 10 July they were both taken by the French force in the North Channel. A larger French squadron would probably have won James’s campaign, as both he and some French admirals urged, but Louis XIV was not much interested, and the Brest fleet did not sail until 5 August, when it cruised in the Bay of Biscay, well away from the enemy. Duquesne-Monnier was unable to prevent an Anglo-Dutch army under Marshal Schomberg landing near Belfast on 22 August. Torrington got to sea with the main Anglo-Dutch fleet in July and cruised in the Western Approaches, remaining at sea, at William III’s insistence, until the end of September, by which time the fleet was extremely sickly, and the admirals thoroughly alarmed. To Edmund Dummer of the Navy Board it seemed ‘a mighty boldness to advance with the Grand Fleet further westward of the Isle of Wight than the [Royal] Sovereign had been known to have been, since the time of her build’, without staying out into the autumn, ‘the time of the year being so uncertain’, as Admiral Edward Russell complained, ‘long nights and a dark moon coming upon us, which are dreadful things at sea at this time of the year’.