England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands found themselves at war in three successive decades of the seventeenth century in what was, despite interludes of peace, an essentially continuous conflict caused by intense commercial rivalry. The first outbreak of hostilities came in 1652, during the Interregnum of the Commonwealth, and lasted for two years before being ended by the Treaty of Westminster from which England emerged relatively victorious. The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67) was instigated by the recently restored King Charles II and was characterised by three large-scale fleet encounters during 1665 and 1666, the largest of which was the mammoth Four Days' Battle (1st - 4th June 1666). Each of these battles employed massive fleets yet outright victory still eluded both sides as the second year's campaigning drew to a close with the onset of winter. Charles II, beset by serious financial problems exacerbated by the Great Fire of London that September, then found that he simply could not afford to fit out his fleet in the spring of 1667 and resolved, instead, to lay up the big ships at Chatham and rely on frigates to patrol the coast and provide early warnings of any Dutch attack. Had the Medway defences been properly armed and manned, the King's plan might well have been successful; as it was, however, the Medway was far from secure and the Dutch, sensing this to be the case, decided to mount a daring offensive operation to force England to sue for peace.
The Dutch fleet, under de Ruyter, put to sea on 7th June 1667 and was soon in the Thames estuary. Although it failed to take Gravesend due to contrary winds, the partially completed Sheerness Fort was captured on 10th June and a squadron under Admiral von Ghent began working its way up the Medway towards Chatham. The ensuing attack on 12th June completely overwhelmed the defending forces there and proved a triumph for Dutch audacity. The English flagship, the Royal Charles, was the first to be taken and whilst her "great guns" should have been assisting her defence, a contemporary source reported that "there was neither sponge, ladle, powder nor shot in her;" rather, she was an empty shell and an easy target for the attackers. Many of the bigger English ships lay behind the protection of a giant iron chain slung across the river, but once one of the enemy fireships had crashed through it "as if it were rotten string", the Dutch onslaught was unstoppable. Several ships were burned to the waterline and others were run ashore by skeleton crews in a vain attempt to save them. As the Dutch finally withdrew on the ebb tide in the late afternoon of 13th June, they saved the greatest insult until the last; to the consternation of everyone ashore, including General Monck (in command), the Royal Charles was towed down river and out to sea to become the most celebrated prize in Holland's history. It was a bitter humiliation for England's navy and the memory of it would linger in the national psyche for centuries. Charles II, stunned by what had occurred, ordered peace negotiations to be started immediately and, on 31st July (1667), the Treaty of Breda was signed bringing the Second Dutch War to its ignominious end.
This magisterial painting shows the Dutch fleet falling upon the defenceless English ships as they lie at anchor in the upper reaches of the Medway. In the centre, the Royal Charles is being boarded before our eyes, with the artist emphasising the acute embarrassment of her loss by his careful attention to her command flags. At the main masthead, a Dutch sailor is seen hauling down her red pennant whilst another man, perched precariously on the bowsprit, has already replaced her [Union] jack with the Dutch colours as an added insult.
For another version of this work, see the Concise Catalogue of Oil Paintings in the National Maritime Museum, 1988, p.368, no. BHC 0295 (b).