In June 1667, the Dutch fleet forced its way up the river Medway to the main naval base at Chatham. There the Dutch destroyed a number of the most powerful and valuable British 1warships and captured the fleet flagship, Royal Charles, named after the reigning monarch, Charles II. This was a great blow to the king’s image – the largest warships were powerful symbols of national prestige.
The Medway Raid is one of the greatest humiliations in British naval/military history, and as a defeat, is little-remembered today. It is, though, a central episode in the diary of Samuel Pepys and is seen as the last of a ‘triple whammy’ of disasters, following the Great Plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666).
At this time, the Dutch Republic (the United Provinces of the Netherlands) was the leading seaborne trading nation. Intense British-Dutch maritime rivalry led to three wars within less than 25 years (1652-1674). The Medway Raid was the final and decisive major operation of the second of these (1664-1667).
Before the 20th century, economic wars at sea were fought by capturing the enemy’s merchant ships and cargoes. Besides this economic damage to the enemy, selling the captured ships and goods earned revenue for the captor state. But before it could be sold as legal ‘prize’, the nationality of a captured ship had to be determined and proven. This was one of the core functions of the High Court of Admiralty (HCA).
The court records of the HCA – held at The National Archives – provide a unique insight into maritime and global history, and papers from captured ships give underappreciated insight into British naval history. Here, we focus on a critical event in the Anglo-Dutch wars.
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- 1. Between the Regal Union of 1603 and the Parliamentary Union of 1707 it is entirely appropriate when referring to the Royal Navy to use ‘British’ rather than ‘English’. Even though the navy may indeed have been financed entirely from English revenue, from 1603 the Stuart monarchs claimed the title ‘King of Great Britain’. They pursued their British imperial projects using as their tools the diplomatic corps, the army, and the navy – all of which institutions they made ‘British’. ^