In one week I’ve gone from the very nadir of British maritime history to its zenith. On Monday I visited the excellent but low key Upnor Castle on the Medway, where in 1667 King Charles II had laid up his fleet ‘in ordinary’ because he had no money to send them to sea and no inclination to go to parliament and ask for more.
To lay aside one’s naval shield in peacetime was risky, in war it was madness. England was embroiled in the Second Dutch War at the time. In one of the most daring naval raids of all time, on 12 June, a Dutch fleet smashed the chain across the river at Gillingham and sailed up the river on the tide. U
Desperate English defenders sank some of their own ships to try and block the river but they could not stop the Dutch taking and burning several ships. The batteries at Upnor had been supplied with the wrong size of cannon ball and the dockyard workers at Chatham had not been paid for two years; the raid exposed the shambolic shortcomings of the Stuart state.
On many Dutch ships the voices of English sailors were heard, men who preferred payment to patriotism. Three capital ships were burned to the waterline, an admiralty clerk wrote that it was ‘the most dismal spectacle my eyes ever beheld’ It was enough, he said ‘To make the heart of every true Englishman bleed.’ A fourth mighty ship, the Royal Charles, the finest vessel in the Royal Navy and often the flagship in battle, was towed away back to Holland where a piece of its stern still sits in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
The staff at Upnor say that many of their visitors are Dutch school groups. They have come to see the site of the battle about which they have learnt so much; one of the most impressive victories in Dutch history. I did not have to ask if they got many British school trips. Crushing moments of national incompetence aren’t on the syllabus!
It was a wonderful place to ponder how it was that this enfeebled, broke, useless country recovered from that disaster to dominate the world as no power had done before. By pure coincidence two days later I found myself on the TGV racing towards the south coast of Brittany.
Just over a century after the Medway, in 1759, a Royal Naval fleet chased the French fleet into Quiberon Bay with a November gale driving them towards a lee shore riddled with reefs, shallows and rocks, all of which were uncharted by the Royal Navy. In the tempest the British admiral Hawke had demanded that his ships wait until they were at pistol shot before they unleashed their broadsides.
The pathetic French ships, crewed by conscripts, unused to the sea because they had been shut up in Brest for six months by a British blockade, were systematically destroyed. The Superbe sank with all hands after two broadsides from Hawke’s Royal George. I thought the stories of the Royal Charles and the Royal George were an apt metaphor for the reigns of their royal sponsors.
I sailed into Quiberon Bay at sunset, with an unseasonable gale pushing my yacht passed 10 knots even with a fully reefed mainsail. It was not totally dissimilar conditions to those on that November afternoon 250 years ago. That battle has been overshadowed now by Nelson’s victories, and yet it remains one of the most decisive in naval history. In that storm blasted bay off the French coast, the Royal Navy won the battle for global maritime supremacy. It was a long way from Upnor.