With the development of the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch Republic built up a lucrative trade with Asia. They created trading posts, forts and garrisons to protect and defend their merchant vessels as they transported valuable cargoes between Asia and northern Europe. The English king, Charles II, was keen to take a share in this wealth. He plotted to destroy the Dutch merchant fleet in alliance with the French.
Why Sole Bay?
Assembling in Sole Bay, the allied fleet was carrying out repairs and taking on supplies before moving to a strategic position for a blockade of the Dutch ports. The Dutch contingent had already made one foray to find the English fleet, but arrived in the Medway in thick fog, allowing the English, who were unaware of the Dutch presence, to sail north to Southwold.
In the early hours of 28 May, 1672, a French frigate sailed into the bay with the news that the Dutch fleet had been sighted and were just a few hours away. Most of the crews were enjoying shore leave in the various taverns and inns of Southwold, Dunwich and Walberswick when battle was declared. It took the bailiffs and a drummer boy four hours to clear the sailors out of the taverns and back on to their ships.
The Dutch fleet was under the command of Admiral Michiel Adriaenzoon de Ruyter aboard the ship ‘Zeven Provincien’. The Admiral played a significant part in all three of the Anglo-Dutch wars. He commanded around 75 ships, 36 fireships, 4,484 guns and around 20,732 men. His Lieutenant Admirals were Adriaen Banckert and Willem Joseph van Ghent.
The Anglo-French fleet was under the command of James, Duke of York, later to become James II, aboard the ‘Royal Prince’ as Admiral of the Red. His side-lieutenants were Edward Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, Admiral of the Blue, aboard the newest and biggest ship in the English fleet, the ‘Royal James’. On the French side was Comte Jean II d’Estrées, Admiral of the White, aboard ‘Sainte Philippe’. The allied fleet had around 71 ships, plus frigates and fireships, over 5,500 guns and 24,000 men.
James, Duke of York, and the Earl of Sandwich, had both spent the night prior to the battle at their Headquarters, Sutherland House, in Southwold’s High Street.
By the time most of the sailors were rounded up and the ships were ready to put to sea, it was 5.30am. The French fleet, anchored off Dunwich, was intended to be in front, but the approach by the Dutch from an unexpected direction meant that they found themselves in the rear. Interestingly, the French fleet turned south, away from the battle, but they were pursued by Banckert who inflicted heavy casualties. It is thought that Louis XIV had given secret orders to Vice Admiral Comte d’Estrées to avoid battle if he could, in the hope that the English and Dutch would destroy each other to the benefit of the French. However, towards the end of the battle, the French responded to the firing from Banckert, and headed north again in pursuit of the Dutch.
The Dutch had divided their fleet into small units, and by 8am, the English fleet had become spread out and individual ships became easy targets to pick out. The English were unable to form tight formations and therefore couldn’t deliver effective broadsides. The Earl of Sandwich’s flagship, the ‘Royal James’, was attacked by ‘Groot Hollandia’ (captained by Jan van Brakel) which attached itself to the ‘Royal James’ and repeatedly cannoned the hull. The Earl ordered parties from other ships to board the ‘Groot Hollandia’, forcing the Dutch captain to cut the lines and retreat. The ‘Royal James’ drifted away, sinking, and was attacked by several fireships. The ship burnt with a great loss of life. The Earl’s body was found weeks later, only recognisable by his scorched clothing still bearing the Order of the Garter.
The battle lasted for most of the day, and in the thick smoke, noise and confusion, losses were heavy. It ended at sunset, where the failing light and the possible return of the French caused the Dutch fleet to withdraw. The Dutch lost two ships and 1,800 men, the English lost two ships and about 2,000 men. For weeks afterwards, the Southwold Chamberlain’s accounts record payments of a shilling to anyone who found and buried the body of a drowned sailor. Over 800 wounded men from all sides were landed at Southwold.
Both sides claimed victory, but the Dutch probably gained most from the encounter. The Dutch lost four vessels (two were captured as prizes, one was sunk, the other blew up) but they had successfully prevented the English fleet from blockading the Dutch ports and couldn’t support a French landing off Holland.