Medway in Flames

John Westrooke previews an almost-forgotten battle anniversary

Summer 2017 will see the Medway in flames. As the climax to a 10-day commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Medway, water screens, digital projection and fireworks are promised as part of a recreation of one of the most significant naval battles in English history.

It’s also one of the most forgotten battles despite being up there with the Norman conquest and the Spanish armada in importance – and no doubt that’s because the home side lost, badly.

The Second Anglo-Dutch War was mostly aimed at keeping open English trade routes – for slaves, among other things. England had its moments, including the capture of New Amsterdam, later to become New York. But its navy was in a mess because of underfunding (King Charles II was widely suspected of giving the money to his mistresses). The sailors were often press-ganged, and unpaid – some of them even joined the Dutch navy, which treated its men better.

Then in June 1667 a fleet of ships under Admiral Michiel de Ruyter sailed up the Medway river from the Thames, broke through defensive chains strung across the river, burnt 13 vessels near Upnor Castle and towed away another two – one of them the flagship, the Royal Charles. The rest of the ships had to be sunk by the English themselves, to stop the Dutch getting them.

It was the worst British military disaster until the American revolution, and it brought this war to an abrupt end. The immediate response of the Chief Secretary to the Admiralty – the diarist Samuel Pepys – was to hide his savings, in case anyone thought it was his fault. (It wasn’t, he’d been nagging the indolent Charles for ages). “I do fear that the whole kingdom is undone,” he wrote. “Went to bed full of fear and fright, hardly slept all night.”

But it had its upside, which is why it’s being celebrated. Following the humiliation, a major rebuilding programme began to replace the lost ships and upgrade dockyards, and Britannia ruled the waves for most of the next two centuries. And just 22 years later, the Dutch Prince William of Orange became king of England, thanks to a quirk of dynastic politics (he’d married Charles’s niece).

So the two sides became friends remarkably quickly, and have stayed that way ever since. The Dutch – who haven’t forgotten the battle at all: they call it Tocht naar Chatham, “the Chatham trip” – will be playing a part, and yachts and a naval patrol vessel from the Netherlands will be there, organised by Frits de Ruyter de Wildt, a direct descendant of the admiral.

Plenty of activities for families and children are on the menu; more cultural ones include a Dickens Festival, vessel visits, a two-nation band concert, a talk by local artist Keven Clarkson on researching and painting the battle, and an exhibition about the battle at Chatham Dockyard. The latter will include the journal of John Evelyn, Pepys’ friend, contemporary and fellow diarist, who recorded his eye-witness account of the Dutch “doing us not only disgrace, but incredible mischief”.

They did no mischief to the dockyard itself, which remains well worth a visit. As the attention of the navy switched to the New World, shipbuilding gravitated to Portsmouth and Plymouth, leaving Chatham largely untouched since the age of sail. The ropery that produced the rigging for HMS Victory at Trafalgar is still going – a quarter of a mile long, to keep the ropes straight.

A recent arrival in the dockyard, in the old pump-house, is the Copper Rivet Distillery, which is open for tours and last year launched its aromatic Dockyard Gin; so you can have some Dutch courage and tonic as you wait for the next war with Europe.