The Burning of the Royal James at the Battle of Solebay, 7 June 1672 by Willem van de Velde the younger. De Ruyter’s flagship De Zeven Provinciën is shown in the left background in close combat with the Vice-Admiral of the Blue, Sir Joseph Jordan on Royal Sovereign. The ship to the right of the burning Royal James is that of Vice-Admiral Johan de Liefde.
French flagship Saint-Philippe at the Battle of Solebay.
The Second Anglo-Dutch War had ended in exhaustion and a shift in diplomatic priorities after the French invasion of the Spanish Netherlands. Fears of French expansion brought the United Provinces, England and Sweden together in a Triple Alliance in 1668, but it did not last long. Only the Dutch had compelling reasons to be alert to French expansion at this stage. Swedish disputes with Denmark, Charles II’s domestic financial difficulties and his hostility to the republican Dutch were far greater long-term considerations. On 1 June 1670, Charles II signed the secret Treaty of Dover with Louis, promising 60 ships and 4,000 foot soldiers for a war against the United Provinces in exchange for an annual subsidy of £230,000. Charles had become convinced that an overwhelming French attack would bring England substantial financial and economic gains, which would enable him to pursue his domestic policies with greater freedom.
Charles was aware that it was financial weakness that had crippled English efforts between 1664 and 1667. The Dutch had been able to spend more than twice the English on the war effort in those years. The military lesson of the war seems to have been that victory was determined by the largest battleships. In open waters these ships had been almost impregnable. In a mêlée, they provided a support to the smaller ships in danger of being surrounded and boarded. They had also provided the force to push their way through the mass of Dutch vessels leaving confusion in their wake and the enemy vulnerable to fireship attack. Therefore, despite financial difficulties, Charles embarked on a major expansion of the largest ships in his fleet. He had only one ship capable of carrying between 90 and 100 cannons in 1667, but by 1673 he had added seven more to his fleet. The Dutch commenced a major building programme of “70s” and “80s” in the early 1660s but did not maintain this momentum after 1667.
In France, the preparations made by Colbert were bearing fruit. Six three-deckers capable of mounting over 100 cannons were built at Brest and Toulon in the late 1660s. Twenty 60- to 80-gun ships were added to the fleet and 24 50- to 60-gun vessels. The organizational problems posed by this rapid material expansion of the fleet could not be solved in the immediate term, but on paper the French fleet expanded to become the largest in the word by the mid-1670s. Louis XIV agreed to send 30 of his warships under the Comte d’Estrées as his contribution to the naval campaign in the Channel.
Louis had prepared the diplomatic ground quite carefully before declaring war on 4 April (n.s.) 1672, and by early May his army swept through the eastern Netherlands. By early June, the maritime provinces of Holland and Zeeland were facing invasion by French forces advancing from the east. De Witt had not been taken by surprise, but had to concentrate all his forces on the collapsing land frontiers. An invasion from the sea could be expected. Sir Robert Holmes had attacked the Dutch Smyrna convoy as it passed the Isle of Wight on 12 March before war had been declared, and de Witt had little doubt that the English would soon be cruising off the Dutch coast. His main hope was to blockade the English fleet which was assembling in the Thames before it could unite with the French. De Ruyter’s fleet gradually came together during the first week of May and was only ready to sail west on 12 May (n.s.), the same day as James took the English fleet south to join the French off Portsmouth. On 19 May, de Ruyter stood off the Galloper sands expecting to give battle in the Channel, but James took the allied fleet further north, hoping to draw de Ruyter into battle in the more open and deeper waters of the North Sea. De Ruyter’s force of 85 ships was outnumbered by the allied fleet of 103, and he refused to be drawn, falling back before the allied advance. On 21 May, James led the allies into Sole Bay to revictual and water. At this point, on 28 May, de Ruyter took advantage of a southeasterly wind to fall upon the allied fleet of 82 sail, which was stretched along the coast. De Ruyter’s force of 75 approached from the northeast in three massed squadrons. Sandwich’s squadron, at the north of the English line, cut its cables and ran towards the Dutch. To the south the French sought sea room by manoeuvring southwards. In the centre, James followed Sandwich. The English were not able to get into line and the battle developed into a fierce mêlée of boarding and counter-boarding. The new large English ships played a creditable part in the battle but could not take advantage of their superior firepower. The Earl of Sandwich was killed in the Royal James (100) which was grappled by fireships and burned. James’ flagship, the Prince (100) was so badly damaged that he was forced to transfer to another of the new first rates, the St Michael (98). To the south a separate battle took place between d’Estrées’ squadron and a squadron under Bankert. As d’Estrées tried to tack back northward towards the main battle, the two forces were able to form line and fought an artillery duel, with Bankert having the advantage of the wind and more experienced gunners to keep d’Estrées separated from the English.
The battle ended with de Ruyter retiring back to his own coast. The allied fleet was too badly mauled and disordered to follow. De Ruyter had gained vital time for the United Provinces. The allied fleet needed to repair, refit and revictual before it could sail to the Dutch coast. Shortage of victuals and seamen meant that it was the end of June before James was able to sail with about 80 ships to intercept the homecoming VOC convoy, which was rumoured to be heading south towards the Ems estuary. De Ruyter had put back into the Schooneveld, an anchorage sheltered by sand banks off the Scheldt. Most of his seamen were drafted to man the land defences, but the safety of the VOC convoy could not be ignored. He was ordered north to try to escort the convoy to the Texel. However, he was ordered not to risk his fleet in battle–while his fleet remained intact, it posed a threat to allied operations. Its destruction, like the laying up of the English fleet in 1667, would expose the whole coast to attack. In the event, James missed the convoy. A shortage of victuals and serious sickness in the fleet forced him into Bridlington Bay and de Ruyter was able to slip the convoy through to the Texel.
The Battle of Sole Bay may have been “one of the most critical battles of the Anglo- Dutch Wars”, but the campaign of 1672 had demonstrated a fundamental weakness in naval power. A mass of powerful warships could be deployed by the allies, but they were extremely vulnerable. Their requirements for stores, victuals and manpower stretched the maritime infrastructure to the limit. De Ruyter’s strike at the allies in Sole Bay did not end in dramatic victory or heavy losses for one side or the other, which had become common during the battles of the previous wars. No allied ships were taken as prizes and only the Royal James (100) was destroyed, but the general damage done to the fleet was greater than the east coast resources could rapidly put right. As the fleet repaired, so it consumed victuals that became scarcer and the seamen deserted or gradually succumbed to disease. The larger the fleet, the more difficult it was to get it to sea quickly and sustain it there. In 1672, the period for repairs gave the Dutch a vital respite which enabled them to send the seamen to assist the land defences against the French assault, but this was also assisted by the allied decision to concentrate their attentions on the VOC fleet rather than putting pressure on the Dutch coast. After May, the Dutch fleet did not pose a serious threat to the allied fleets in the open sea. Yet James could not turn this advantage to decisive effect. As in the previous war, a major battlefleet could not be sure of hunting down convoys. Timing, the weather and the wind were critical to enable a battlefleet to intercept convoys that had news of their whereabouts. Cruisers and privateers on both sides ravaged the enemy’s trade, but could not intercept the powerful East Indiamen or escorted convoys. Trade could be stopped and disrupted, but the capture of the valuable ships and cargoes was a rare event.
The allied objective of the 1673 campaign was to land an invasion force in Zeeland. De Ruyter’s force, sheltering in the Schooneveld, posed a threat to the fleet and transports as they made their way into the Flanders shallows. The allied fleet again united off Portsmouth before de Ruyter could intercept them. By 27 May (o.s.), the allied fleet of 76 warships was at anchor off the Schooneveld, watching de Ruyter’s 52. On 28 May, de Ruyter came out in line to meet the allies who bore down before the wind on a converging course from the southwest towards his fleet. Rupert led, with d’Estrées in the centre and Sir Edward Spragge at the rear. As Rupert’s division clashed with the Dutch van under Cornelius Tromp, d’Estrées failed to keep up, leaving a large hole in the allied line through which de Ruyter led his and Bankert’s division to concentrate on Spragge. The battle developed into a series of vicious, indecisive close actions. The Dutch were able to get back into the Schooneveld without loss to repair their damage, leaving the allies in the offing to repair as best they could. On 4 June, de Ruyter took advantage of an easterly wind to emerge with his repaired and restocked fleet and drive the allies back to their own coast (Second Battle of Schooneveld). While the allies slowly refitted and manned, de Ruyter rode out in the Channel.
Despite superior numbers, the allied fleet failed to maintain a presence in the narrow seas. In the meantime, relationships within the allied command had deteriorated. James had resigned his post as Lord High Admiral on 13 June (o.s.), after refusing to sign the Test Act, but Rupert suspected him of being behind a series of instructions from Charles II which made him doubt the degree of authority he had over his fleet. The performance of the French had also soured relations between Rupert and d’Estrées, while the failure of Rupert to consult with the Duke of Schomberg, the commander of the expeditionary force assembling at Great Yarmouth, led to quarrels within the army and fleet. In the Low Countries, the crisis of 1672 had passed. The Dutch defence of their river lines had been desperate and the political crisis, which brought the Stadthoulder William III to power, had stiffened Dutch resistance further. By the late summer of 1672 Louis had turned his attention to defending his position in western Germany and the focus of the war continued in this theatre throughout 1673.
In July allied attempts to draw de Ruyter out into open water failed to Rupert’s increasing frustration (Third Battle of Schooneveld, 22 July (o.s.) 1673). In early August the imminent arrival of a VOC convoy gave the English the opportunity to force de Ruyter out. The fleets met off the Texel on 11 August (o.s.) with the Dutch having the wind from the east. The poor order of the allied line enabled de Ruyter to concentrate his inferior numbers on the English divisions. Once again, the Dutch were able to negate the greater numbers and firepower of the allied fleets by mêlée. The Royal Prince (100) and the St Michael (98), two of the new first rates, were left shattered by the fighting. The Dutch suffered heavily as well in such close combat with the powerful English ships, but managed to maintain their cohesion until nightfall allowed the forces to drift apart.
Rupert’s frustration boiled over at this disappointment. He blamed Sir Edward Spragge, who led the van and had been killed in the battle, for the poor order of the advance to contact and he accused d’Estrées of having secret orders to avoid battle. This latter accusation found a receptive audience in England where a very effective Dutch propaganda campaign had done a great deal to undermine what little confidence parliament had in Charles’ war. The war had not brought the wealth of captured Dutch merchantmen that had been expected, nor security for the Channel by the occupation of Zeeland and the Scheldt estuary. Dutch privateers had been active from July 1672, but when news arrived that Louis had declared war on Spain in October 1673, there was a real fear that English Mediterranean commerce could become victim to Spanish privateers as it had done between 1656 and 1659. Charles found it impossible to obtain the finances to continue the war and on 9 February (o.s.) 1674 he signed the Treaty of Westminster. The Dutch agreed to salute the English flag, but refused to concede the English claim of sovereignty of the narrow seas. They had their fishing rights in Nova Scotia confirmed and retained Surinam, but returned New York which a small squadron had captured in 1673 and agreed to pay a small indemnity.