Disasters sometimes come in twos or threes, and very occasionally twos and threes.
Most people know about the great plague of 1665, thought to have killed 100,000 people in London alone, roughly a quarter of the city’s population at the time.
Even more infamous is the 1666 Great Fire of London, though admittedly its silver lining may have been the death of scores of rats and fleas that were spreading the plague.
What’s less well known is that the following year, between June 9 and 14, a third disaster struck England, this one military.
It was a disaster that echoed an event that took place over 1600 years previously... and occurred in the exact same location.
So let's first look at the event from 43AD...
Before that time, England had avoided incorporation into the Roman Empire – Julius Caesar’s first effort had been frustrated by that very British of allies, bad weather; and his second had not achieved much in territorial gains, even if it did result in some slaves and riches.
Other plans had been made to invade the ‘barbarian-filled islands’ over the water, but they didn’t come to fruition until there was fresh leadership in Rome.
After the mad and sadistic Emperor Caligula was finally assassinated (to the relief of many), his uncle Claudius took his place.
Now it was time to dust off those invasion plans and persuade the new ruler to - this time - invade Briton properly.
The fact that this persuasion came largely from Verica, the king of the Atrebates, a Gaulish tribe thought to have spanned southern England and Belgium, is telling.
England had been divided between pro and anti-Roman sentiments since Caesar’s conquest in 55 BC.
These tribal divisions could easily work in Rome’s favour.
So when Claudius came around to the idea of an invasion (Britain was thought to be rich after all, and, on second thoughts, he did need an awful lot of money to buy off the army, didn’t he?), it wasn’t that hard to make a successful go of it.
What initial resistance there was to Roman incursion ended up collecting somewhere around the River Medway, perhaps near where the M2 bridge now crosses it.
The battle was largely a rout, with complacent Britons caught off-guard by Roman organisation, as per the stereotype.
Events on the Medway didn’t go much better for England in 1667 either.
Just like the previous defeat, lack of organisation was the main culprit; unlike the previous defeat, England lost despite being a major European power.
The disparate tribes of the Roman era may have long since fused into a nation, but tribalism, at least of the political and religious sort, was alive and well.
It played a significant role in the second Medway disaster.
In 1649, after years of quarrelling and then going to war with Parliament over how much authority he should have, King Charles I was executed.
His literal beheading was also the metaphorical beheading of the monarchy as it was replaced by a republic, one brought about and centred around one man: Oliver Cromwell.
It was meant to be the dawning of a new enlightened age, one where the common Englishman could govern himself.
But it didn’t take long for disenchantment to set in.
The ‘common man’ seemed to be taking the idea of self-government a bit too literally.
Surely, aspiring for a political position was not for any Tom, Dick or Harry.
It was a job meant for fine, upstanding, pious country gentlemen – men like Cromwell, obviously.
However, there were many who had something to say about this interpretation of the new republicanism, as explained by Simon Schama in the BBC’s ‘The History of Britain’:
“’Oh I see’, said Freeborn John Lilburne, the Leveller, an ex-army officer who wanted to level the distance between the mighty and the humble, the rich and the poor. ‘You mean the same kind of people who got us into this mess in the first place!’”
'This mess' referred to the excessive authoritarianism of the King that had brought about the civil war - in other words, Lilburne could see that England may have just replaced one kind of dictatorship, or one kind of oligarchy, with another.
It was a bad start to a nascent political order but Lilburne was right to have been cynical.
Four years later, the republic would morph into a kind of dictatorship, with Cromwell assuming the role of Lord Protector, a king in everything but name.
Except that this new king seemed to embody the worst of both extremes: He was tyrannical and austere, frightening and dull.
As Schama relates, when Cromwell became convinced that the country was backsliding because it was returning to 'normal' (as in, beginning to resemble what it had before he'd come to power) he saw this as a bad omen and took drastic measures.
His loyal lieutenants, or more precisely his major generals, military rulers answerable only to him, were dispatched across the land to act as a severe religious posse, enforcing the new order: Anti-monarchical and strictly, abidingly Puritan:
“It was their job to take righteousness out into the shires, the Protestant Taliban on horseback. Muffle the bell ringers, snoop on the alehouses, lock up the fornicators, cancel Christmas.”
Schama is not joking - Cromwell saw public gatherings as a threat and banned all of them, including Christmas, which henceforth could only be celebrated privately in the family home.
So in the end, when Cromwell died and his son Richard assumed his mantle, it only took a couple of years for England to decide that Cromwellian Puritan rule had been far too, well, Puritanical.
The monarchy was restored and Charles II welcomed back from exile to pick up from where his father Charles I had left off.
The trouble was, whereas Cromwell was too austere, Charles was too decadent, something that would hamper England on the world stage.
In particular, England would be set back relative to its primary competitor of the period: Holland.
Both were strong seafaring countries and both sought to be masters of developing trade networks.
Competition was tight and required years of dedication by rulers devoted to naval development, as explained by Angus Konstam in ‘Warships of the Anglo-Dutch Wars 1652-74’:
“Building a battle fleet of sailing warships was no easy matter. Expertise was required, along with shipyards, gun foundries, rope-makers, ironworkers, skilled shipwrights, experienced sailors, an efficient organization for naval supply and administration, and large quantities of natural resources – most of it timber. In 1652 only England and the Dutch Republic had sizeable battle fleets.”
It was these two nations then that would compete for dominance of the high seas, from Europe to India to the West Indies, as they fought to expand their commercial empires.
Of course, England’s main rival hadn’t always been Holland.
In the 16th Century, the Spanish Armada was savaged by a fleet of smaller more manoeuvrable English ships when it tried to attack the English mainland.
This showdown had been a long time coming – England and Spain had also effectively had a trade race in the years prior.
This saw the emergence of state piracy as English high-seas buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake harassed the Spanish ships and muscled in on their sea lanes.
By the 17th Century, the Dutch Republic was the new contender.
At first, under Cromwell’s rule, England got the better of Holland.
The goal of the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652 – 54 had been to achieve a maritime monopoly over the Dutch, and it had worked.
But the Dutch bounced back.
Britain initially had the edge in the ship-building arms race.
Holland’s coast consisted of shallow waters, which limited the draught of their ships (the depth to which a ship’s hull could drop below the waterline).
More flat-bottomed ships are prone to rolling and therefore can’t carry as much weight.
As a result, the Dutch ships couldn’t carry as many guns as their English counterparts.
Whereas English ships-of-the-line (the large-scale main fighting ships) might have 70 or 80 guns or more, Dutch vessels lagged behind.
However, they got around this problem by building a greater number of small, more manoeuvrable ships, and stacking them with lighter, lower-calibre cannons, and by continuing to experiment.
Their 30-gun vessels began to give way to larger and larger ones, eventually with 50 guns or more.
As Konstam explains, they also didn’t stop there:
“The result of this shipbuilding programme was that the Dutch commenced the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665 – 1667) with a far more balanced fleet than before, and one that was on numerical parity with the Royal Navy. For the most part this fleet was composed of pure-bred warships. Hastily converted merchantmen would no longer form the bulk of the fleet. Instead the smaller, older warships would augment a central group of these new large warships – the flagships of each provincial fleet. By Dutch standards these core warships were large two-deckers, carrying 60–70 guns apiece. The largest of them, the Hollandia, was an 80-gun warship, the equivalent of an English Second Rate. By the end of the war no fewer than 11 70- or 80-gun ships were in Dutch service. The largest of them, the Amsterdam-built warships Gouden Dolfin (86 guns) and the 82-gun Gouden Leeuw and Witte Olifant were actually three-deckers, as the waists of the vessels had been decked over to provide more space for the guns. The trouble was, with the exception of Indiamen, most of the older smaller ships were the equivalent of English Fourth Rates, carrying less than 50 guns apiece.”
And they did manage to build larger ships, however, it was difficult for the Dutch to do so to any great extent
Still, as they worked patiently to compensate for their geographical and maritime disadvantage, the Dutch had an ace up their sleeves that the English didn't know about: Finance.
England thought their enemies were constrained by the same laws of monetary gravity as them.
By 1667, Charles II's purse strings had been stretched to the limit by two years of war, so it seemed reasonable to assume that Holland’s had been too.
As British historian Andrew Lambert explains:
“The English were convinced they’d pretty much won the (Second Anglo-Dutch War). They’d won the great battle the previous year (the St James’ Day Battle), there’d been some attritional fighting and really they thought they were in charge now.”
And a bloody good thing too, because according to John Withington in ‘Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters: From the Roman Conquest to the Fall of Singapore’, patience for Charles' war was wearing thin:
“By now, the House of Commons was getting heartily sick of the Dutch War, and, especially, of paying for it, so in January 1667, Charles’s government put out peace feelers via France. King Louis XIV was receptive, but it was much harder to draw the Dutch to the negotiating table. Finally, in March, they agreed to start talks at Breda (in the Netherlands), but there was plenty of intelligence to show that, for the moment, the enemy were planning to keep fighting.”
Keep fighting, in this case, meant fitting out 72 battleships and supporting craft ready for a raid on England.
Samuel Pepys, surveyor-general of victualling for the Navy (a role in which he was charged with the provision of naval supplies to the men of the Royal Navy), noted in his diary that a Dutch invasion was feared.
The Duke of York, the King’s brother and future monarch James II (VII of Scotland), was busy checking fortifications in various ports throughout southern England.
Despite this, complacency set in because of, as Pepys put it, “a belief that the Dutch ‘cannot send out a fleet this year’.” Again, the English were spent, militarily and literally - how could the Dutch not be also?
Not only were the Dutch not spent, they were hatching a hugely ambitious scheme just over the Channel:
“(The) plan was the brainchild of Johan De Witt, a dauntingly clever man who had been elected grand pensionary – effectively prime minister – of the Dutch Republic at the age of twenty-eight, was also a successful businessman and the author of one of the first textbooks on analytical geometry.”
By now the force they’d been assembling had swelled to 80 battleships and 25 fireships.
This intimidating armada was spotted off the Kentish coast on June 7.
They eventually anchored off the Thames, safe because of England’s relative naval neglect.
English sailors by this point were being paid in IOUs that they had to exchange at the Treasury in London.
This was, of course, impractical, and many were close to starving.
Crews began to riot and mutiny, effectively leaving the door wide-open for a raid by the Dutch fleet.
This worked perfectly for Johan De Witt’s scheme, which had been given to his brother Cornelius, signed, sealed, and in secret.
His brother broke open the plans on the evening on June 7 and what they revealed was truly audacious: To split the fleet, leaving some at the mouth of the Thames for protection while the rest would sail down the Medway and knock on the front door of the anchored Royal Navy at Chatham.
In effect, destroying the entire English fleet as they sat at inland home ports.
Navigating the shallow and serpentine Medway would not be easy, but here there was a helping hand: two English defectors had offered assistance, one of whom was appropriately named Robert Holland.
Favourable winds wouldn’t arrive until June 9 (they had to sail upriver, after all) but that turned out to not be a problem - delays were something the English were dealing with too.
Pay had been hurriedly sent out to sailors in an effort to marshal many of them behind a vast defensive effort.
But by that point, it was well overdue and many had lost faith in the government’s ability to remunerate them. They didn’t show up.
Down at Chatham, Commissioner Peter Pett, who was charged with heading up the defence there, was waiting for something else: fireships.
With a neglected and undermanned navy, these vessels were his best chance of blocking the Dutch assault ships.
Pepys, who’d “been assailed” with letters from Pett, wrote that the Commissioner was
“in a very fearful stink for fear of the Dutch, and desires help for God and the King and Kingdom’s sake”.
Downriver from Chatham, the Dutch were coming up on the first line of English defences.
A chain had been strung out across the water from Gillingham out to the opposite bank.
It was protected by sunk ships meant to block the path of the invaders and a little further back a garrison at Upnor Castle waiting to fire on them.
But the Dutch skillfully manoeuvred around the sunken ships, they set the ones protecting the chain on fire, and then broke through the chain.
Their next obstacle would be the gunners firing at them from Upnor Castle, but here the disarray that had so characterised the English response played out in full.
The garrison was undermanned. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was something else very important missing besides personnel: the tough oaken planks used to stabilise cannons and provide a platform for them to roll back on after firing had been stolen.
Thinner non-oaken substitutes had been used in their place but it was very quickly discovered that these were not going to work.
Once the guns had been fired, they were flung back violently by the recoil whereupon they smashed through the thinner planks and got bogged down in the ground.
This effectively meant each cannon could either be fired only once or that they had to be dug out after every shot.
Either way, it severely hampered the defenders, who were, as noted, already thin on the ground.
The powder was also too old and often unusable, and, in many instances, the cannonballs were the wrong calibre for the guns - they were too big to fit in the barrels.
There was no stopping the Dutch.
They sent a number of their ships to harass the mighty 76-gun Royal Oak, anchored a Gillingham Reach, nearby.
After the third attempt they managed to set it on fire.
Everyone hastily abandoned ship, except for a Scots Army captain called Archibald Douglas, who elected proudly to do his duty and stand fast.
He was, of course, consumed by the blaze.
Worse still, the Royal Charles, the pride and joy of the Navy and the namesake of the King, was captured and towed away.
Pepys was scared that he might be blamed for the disaster, well-aware that it had been only 18 years since the beheading of the King’s father and that ‘revolutionary rumblings’ might pressure him into finding a scapegoat in one or more of his subordinates.
Pepys says in his journal that he felt Commissioner Pett should be hanged.
Pett would instead be imprisoned in the Tower of London, while an investigation was launched into the fiasco. He’d eventually be dismissed over it.
While Pepys was fretting about recriminations, down on the Medway the carnage went on.
The Royal James and Loyal London were the next targets, set ablaze like those before them.
At this point, the attack was causing panic across the south of England, and there was fear that London would be next.
Pepys sent his father and wife away to the countryside with £1,300 pounds (£287,000 in today’s money) and he carried £300 (£66,000) on his person to get him by if everything around him collapsed.
Reports he got must have continued to reinforce that this might actually happen.
Eyewitnesses related that English voices had been heard on the Dutch ships yelling to the shore:
“We did heretofore fight for tickets; now we fight for dollars!”
Others who’d not defected came to Pepys and told him they’d fight the Dutch if they were paid properly, but they certainly wouldn’t do so otherwise.
Meanwhile, women in East London began yelling:
“This comes of your not paying our husbands!”
What’s more, Pepys later acknowledged that more sailors probably would have gone and joined the French and Dutch if they’d had some means of getting over the Channel.
More pay was sent out, at least to the last stronghold left: the garrison upriver at Chatham.
But angry sailors hijacked the barge that was hauling the money, then ran off with the loot.
Dockyard workers were also not being paid, allegedly because of high absenteeism.
However, as Withington points out, it probably had more to do with resentment at IOUs becoming common currency while the King continued using ‘real money’ to fund his opulent lifestyle - replete with courtiers and mistresses:
“A story was doing the rounds that while the enemy had been burning the fleet, (King Charles) was chasing a moth with his mistress, Lady Castlemaine. Pepys groaned that ‘the King do follow the women as much as ever he did’ so England has ‘a lazy Prince, no Council, no money, no reputation at home or abroad.”
Parliament was also blamed for leaving the fleet defenceless:
“The Lord Chancellor, the earl of Clarendon, had his trees cut down, his windows broken, and a gibbet (for a hangman’s noose) set up outside his house, while Pepys and his colleagues had to put a guard on the door of the office.”
Considering that by the end of the six-day siege a huge chunk of the entire Royal Navy lay in ruins, and that the Dutch next threatened to bombard Dartmouth and Plymouth, England did well to avoid more damaging long-term consequences.
As it turned out, New Amsterdam, which had been renamed New York when it was seized from the Dutch along with the New Jersey area, was let go.
In return, the Dutch wanted one simple concession: an end to Anglo monopoly of the sea trading routes imposed at the end of the First Anglo-Dutch War.
The English agreed, but it didn’t hold them back.
With the help of France, England went to war with Holland again five years later.
When France invaded the Netherlands, an angry mob lynched the De Witt brothers.
England bowed out and left the French to it while continuing to outcompete the Dutch in global trading.
Ironically, they were able to do this because they adopted Dutch financial practices.
Niall Ferguson lays this out in ‘Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World’.
Essentially, the main funding component of this new tool kit consisted of a stock exchange that allowed the government to borrow money at much lower interest rates than everyone else.
Once the profligate spending of the monarchy had been brought back into line by Parliament, this made sense.
A responsible government with a national tax base to draw on could only inspire confidence in investors, and revenue from investors with a flexible repayment schedule would make it easier to fund large ventures like wars.
Ferguson sums it up this way:
“The English became, in effect, the super Dutch.”
With its innately larger economy, England, and then Britain, forged ahead and beat Holland (and other rivals) in establishing a global empire that would encompass a quarter of the planet - courtesy of, one could argue, gunboat diplomacy and Dutch finance.
But in a way, the Dutch would have the last laugh.
While the monarchy in England had won out over Cromwell’s Puritanical republic and protectorate, Protestantism would win out over Catholicism.
Charles II was replaced by his brother James, but not for long.
As a Catholic, James was seen as a threat to the Protestant elite of England and in 1688 he was replaced in a bloodless but momentous power shift. According to Ferguson:
“The Glorious Revolution is normally seen as a political event, the final clinching of British constitutional liberties. But it was also a giant Anglo-Dutch business merger. Dutch businessmen were already major shareholders in the East India Company. Now their man William of Orange was Britain’s new chief executive (King William III).”
For more on the Raid on the Medway in 1667, or Britain’s earlier defeat in 43 AD, read ‘Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters: From the Roman Conquest to the Fall of Singapore’ by John Withington.