This article from Dr JD Davies is part of our Anglo-Dutch Wars Series. David discusses The Battle of the Texel, a major turning point in the Third Anglo-Dutch War. This is a fascinating example how medieval English military practices persisted to nearly the 18th century.
The Battle of the Texel, known to the Dutch as the Battle of Kijkduin, was fought on 11 August (Old Style) 1673, when a combined Anglo-French fleet of eighty-six ships of the line under the command of Prince Rupert of the Rhine confronted a Dutch fleet of sixty under Michiel Adrianszoon De Ruyter. i It was not a decisive action; no ships were lost on either side, and in one sense, it was simply the third and last in a series of confused and inconclusive actions that took place in the summer of 1673. It was not the largest or most dramatic action of the three Anglo-Dutch wars that were fought during the third quarter of the seventeenth century. It lacked the brutal destruction of one side by the other that characterised the Battle of the Gabbard (1653), or the shocking drama of the explosion that obliterated the Dutch flagship Eendracht at the Battle of Lowestoft (1665). It was not on the same scale as the Four Days’ Battle of 1666, the largest, longest, and most terrible action fought in the entire sailing ship era. It contained no tragic sacrifice to match the deaths of the Earl of Sandwich, Admiral of the Blue Squadron, and many of his men, when the flagship Royal James was burned by a fireship during the Battle of Solebay (1672); the death of Sandwich’s successor, Sir Edward Spragge, at the Battle of the Texel, took place in almost farcical circumstances, when the longboat taking him from his shattered flagship to a new command was hit and sunk, and was a consequence of his own vanity and disregard for orders. At first sight, then, the Texel hardly seems an obvious subject for detailed study.
For contemporaries in the British Isles, though, the battle was notable for one reason above all: the belief that the French squadron deliberately stood apart from the fighting, allegedly because it had secret orders from King Louis XIV to do just that. It was certainly true that the French made little attempt to engage, became separated from the main action, and ignored repeated attempts to get them to join the melee. Even the second-in-command of the French gave credit to the story that his superior had ordered the squadron to stand apart, thereby permitting more Dutch ships to deploy against the two British squadrons. The subsequent popular outcry against the French contributed to the downfall of a government (King Charles II’s ‘cabal’ ministers); this was one of the first occasions when public opinion clearly forced a British government entirely to change the direction of its policies and abandon an unpopular war, a theme with not a little contemporary resonance. The battle thus marked the decisive downfall of the controversial and much-debated diplomacy of Charles II that produced the secret Treaty of Dover (1670), with its explosive promise to restore Catholicism to England.
The battle, and specifically the behaviour of the French squadron, was undoubtedly one of the most significant single incidents in convincing English popular opinion that the French, rather than the Dutch, had become the undoubted and natural national enemy. The widespread popular belief in French duplicity, both at the Texel and during the third Anglo-Dutch war as a whole, exacerbated already negative perceptions of France, and contributed in large part to the growth of virulent popular francophobia in the 1670s and 1680s. In later years, the assumption that the French had failed to support the British squadrons at the Texel – at best thanks to incompetence, at worst because of conspiracy – was central to all accounts of the battle in standard naval histories. When he contemplated the battle, the Victorian naval journalist David Hannay condemned ‘the entire worthlessness of the French as allies’, and this condescending, xenophobic attitude was common in British naval histories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. ii More recently, Stephen Baxter and Carl Ekberg have seen the battle of the Texel as one of the most significant factors in both the collapse of the Anglo-French alliance and the survival of the Dutch state itself, with Baxter calling it ‘the turning point of the war’. iii Both Ronald Hutton and John Miller have set the battle in the context of the complex domestic and international realpolitik which existed in the second half of 1673 and the early months of 1674, while Stephen Pincus has seen it as a critical stage in the shift of English popular attitudes towards an anti-French stance. iv
The battle of the Texel also formed the culmination of a virtually unknown British campaign to invade the Netherlands, itself a consequence of Charles II’s Dover diplomacy. This proved to be the last occasion in history when a primarily English army was assembled with the serious and avowed intention of invading mainland Europe to permanently annex territory there: in that sense, 1673 witnessed the last ‘medieval’ campaign of conquest in the old tradition of the Angevins, Henry V and Henry VIII. v However, the existence of a powerful invasion army on English soil generated profound suspicions in Parliament and elsewhere, and helped fuel the growing perception that an army controlled by Stuart kings was bound to be a vehicle for imposing arbitrary power on the country. vi More debatably, the Texel can also be seen as the last battle in which the entire existence of an independent Dutch nation was in doubt. The brilliant defensive tactics employed by Admiral Michiel De Ruyter during the 1673 campaign against a foe that was much stronger numerically is one of the classics of naval history, and also ensured the survival of his country. Indeed, on 11 August De Ruyter only gave battle reluctantly, and only because he was effectively forced to do so by pressure from a number of influential mercantile and political interests, notably that of William, Prince of Orange, the future King William III of England. The burden of history was against De Ruyter: in exactly the same confined waters, twenty years before almost to the day, the Dutch navy had suffered one of its most cataclysmic defeats, culminating in the death of its iconic admiral, Maerten Harpertszoon Tromp. De Ruyter had been a commodore in that battle, and would have known better than anyone the stakes for which he fought. vii
The Battle of the Texel was the last fought by both Prince Rupert of the Rhine, once the glamorous cavalier general of the civil wars, viii and by his abrasive Irish second-in-command, Sir Edward Spragge. The relationship between Rupert and Spragge was fraught, both before and during the battle; indeed, even after Spragge’s death his friends continued their quest to redeem their old admiral’s reputation by pulling down that of the prince they hated. This proved to be the climax of a vicious squabble between different factions within the officer corps, factions that reflected broader alignments at court and in the country at large. The battle contained no individual moments of high drama or heroism that entered popular folklore, but this is probably because of the controversy surrounding the French and the simple fact that it was the last battle of a deeply detested war. Nevertheless, several incidents within the battle were on a truly heroic scale: above all, the gallant defence put up against seemingly overwhelming odds by the crew of the shattered Prince , commanded by an inexperienced lieutenant, was an epic of its kind, and deserves to be better known. The battle effectively turned on the inadequacies of the signalling system in place at the time, and on a series of much-debated and, in some cases, much-criticised tactical decisions made by Rupert, De Ruyter and their subordinate commanders.
However, to understand this battle properly – as, indeed, is the case with every naval battle – it is essential to know exactly which ships were where. But one of the principal difficulties with many accounts of the battle of the Texel is a lack of certainty about the actual composition of the British fleet, let alone its dispositions. Even general lists of individual squadrons do not provide an entirely satisfactory picture, given the importance of knowing where particular ships lay in the line-of-battle to any attempt to understand accounts penned on board those ships. An attempt to assemble a reasonably comprehensive list of the British fleet was made by R C Anderson in his Journals and Narratives of the Third Dutch War (Navy Records Society, 1946), but this exercise suffered from the circumstances in which it was produced; Anderson assembled his material during and just after the second world war, when both the (then) Public Record Office and the British Library were inaccessible to researchers, and his remark that ‘it is probable…that they would not add very much further information’ has proved to be well wide of the mark. 9 At the National Archives, Kew, ADM 8/1 (disposition book, 1673-89) provides a list of the blue and red squadrons on both 1 July and 1 August 1673, although the latter is out of place in the volume. 10 PRO 30/24/5 (Shaftesbury papers) contains a list of the fleet, in squadrons and divisions, for 31 July, although this contains some inaccuracies – for example, it lists the fifth rate Pearl twice and includes the Algier , which had been lost a fortnight earlier, while it also includes the Constant Warwick and Antelope within the line of battle (both had been detached to escort home prizes before the battle of the Texel). These sources can be supplemented from the lists in British Library, Sloane MS 2032, fos 6-8 (lists of the red and blue squadrons, undated but within 1673) and by BL Additional MS 34,729, fos 160-2, rough lists endorsed ‘line of battle’. From internal evidence, it is clear that the list given at fos 160-1, although not entirely complete or accurate, closely resembles the fleet which fought at the battle of the Texel.
These written sources can be supplemented by examination of the van de Velde drawings of the battle, and this sort of detailed analysis has been carried out by Frank Fox, the author of Great Ships: The Battlefleet of King Charles II and The Four Days Battle of 1666. The drawings reveal thatsome ships lost their place when the fleet first tacked. The St George, an old, heavy sailer, fell back into Kempthorne’s division, which is presumably why she came up on the Prince from astern and was thus available for the transfer of Sir Edward Spragge’s flag that took place during the battle. In the same drawing, the Royal Charles is shown right alongside the Prince, thus leaving open the question of whether she belonged ahead or astern of her in the line.
By using the drawings, the manuscripts, and the occasional references to the order of ships within individual accounts of the battle, it has been possible both to correct some of Anderson’s conjectures about the composition of the fleet and to present a more complete list of that fleet in its line-of-battle. In all, Anderson wrongly suggested that the Leopard (actually in the Mediterranean) and Portland (actually in the Caribbean) could have been present at the Texel; the York, Advice, Pearl and Lion were allocated to the wrong squadrons; and fourteen ships were not allocated to squadrons at all. In the following amended list, only points of contention between the main sources listed above have been enumerated, together with those instances when the placing of a ship is based on evidence contained within ships’ journals rather than the main sources. Fireships expended during the engagement are indicated with an asterisk. Ships are listed in their sailing order within the line-of-battle, from van to rear of each of the English squadrons. The numbers of guns cited are those given in ADM8/1, which are often different from those supplied by Anderson. For example, some ships, such as the Fairfax, were certainly armed beyond their nominal establishment, while two views of the Lion, drawn at Portsmouth in 1673, show 70 guns.
THE RED SQUADRON
York xi 62 Henry Clarke
Anne 60 Thomas Elliott
French Ruby 80 Thomas Roomcoyle
Lion 70 John Ashby
London (Vice-admiral) 100 Sir John Harman
Warspite 68 Robert Stout
Happy Return 48 John Stainsby
Triumph 70 William Davis
Stavoreen 50 Charles Royden
Attached fireships: Leopard*, Robert, George, Amity.
ADMIRAL’S DIVISION: xii
Royal Katherine 100 George Legge
Mary 60 Sir Roger Strickland
Henry 80 Sir John Ernle
Crown 50 Richard Carter
Rupert 66 Sir John Holmes
Sovereign (Admiral) 100 Prince Rupert / Sir William Reeves
Resolution 70 Sir John Berry
Princess 54 Thomas Mayo
Edgar 74 Richard Le Neve
Old James 70 James Storey
Attached fireships: Ann and Christopher, Friendship*, Katherine*, Supply*, Hopewell*, St Lawrence*, Hawke, Thomas and Edward.
REAR-ADMIRAL OF THE RED’S DIVISION:
Mary Rose 48 Thomas Hamilton
Victory 80 Sir William Jennens
Assurance 40 Ralph Lassells
Fairfax 72 Dominic Nugent
Charles (Rear-admiral)100 Sir John Chicheley
Monmouth 70 Robert Robinson
Newcastle 52 John Pierce
Nonsuch 40 Lawrence Wright
Yarmouth 50 John Keene
Attached fireships: Truelove*, Dartmouth, Wivenhoe.
THE BLUE SQUADRON
REAR-ADMIRAL OF THE BLUE’S DIVISION: xiii
Hampshire 46 Richard Griffith
Sweepstakes 40 Peter Belbin
Swiftsure 66 Richard Rooth
St Michael (Rear-adm.)98 Earl of Ossory
Greenwich 60 Thomas Bridgman
Foresight 52 Richard James
Rainbow 56 Mark Harrison
Portsmouth 48 James Page
Swallow xiv 46 Edward Russell
Attached fireships: Firebuss, Hope Prize.
ADMIRAL OF THE BLUE’S DIVISION:
Dreadnought 66 Richard Trevanion
St George 68 Thomas Darcy
Bristol xv 48 Eric Sieubladh
Henrietta 60 Gustavus, Count Horne
Royal Charles xvi 102 John Haywood
Prince (Admiral) 100 Sir Edward Spragge
Cambridge 70 Arthur Herbert
Advice 50 John Dawson
Dunkirk 64 Francis Courtenay
Also with this division: Guernsey 30, Leonard Harris. xvii
Attached fireships: Society*, Prudent Mary*, Benjamin, Blessing*, Pearl*.
VICE-ADMIRAL OF THE BLUE’S DIVISION:
Diamond 48 John Shelley
Unicorn 64 John Rogers
Ruby 48 Stephen Pyend
Monck 58 Bernard Ludman
St Andrew (Vice-adm.) 100 Sir John Kempthorne
Plymouth 58 Anthony Young
Falcon 40 Thomas Andrews
Gloucester 60 William Coleman
Bonadventure 50 Henry Killigrew
Attached fireships: Hester, Jason, Marigold.
OTHER UNITS WITH THE FLEET:
Fifth rates – Pearl 28, William Booth (attached to blue squadron) xviii; Nightingale 34, Edward Pierce; Success 30, Thomas Berry.
Sixth rate – Roebuck 18, Charles Lloyd
Sloops, etc, of 4-8 guns (generally serving as tenders to individual great ships) – Boneta, Cutter, Chatham, Chatham Double, Dolphin*, Emsworth, Fox Shallop, Hound, Prevention, Lizard, Invention, Spy, Vulture, Woolwich.
(This list, taken from TNA, PRO 30/24/5, is certainly not comprehensive: eg it omits the Roe and Rose doggers, and the Henrietta Yacht, all of which were lost in the engagement.)
Notes & References
- This engagement has always been known in Britain as ‘the battle of the Texel’, which was how seventeenth century Englishmen always described the large island, the most southerly and westerly of the Frisian Islands, which lies off the coast of North Holland opposite the town of Den Helder. The island is correctly called ‘Texel’, without the definite article, and is pronounced ‘Tessel’. In any case, neither the British nor the Dutch names for the battle are strictly correct, as it was fought somewhat to the south of Texel and rather to the north of Kijkduin.
- D Hannay, A Short History of the Royal Navy (1897), 436. Cf J Campbell, The Naval History of Great Britain (1818), II, 213; W L Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History (1898), II, 317-22.
- S Baxter, William III (1966), 104; C Ekberg, The Failure of Louis XIV’s Dutch War (Chapel Hill, NC, 1979), 154.
- R Hutton, Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland (Oxford 1989), 302-19; J Miller, Charles II (1991), 205-19; S Pincus, ‘From Butterboxes to Wooden Shoes: The Shift in English Popular Sentiment from Anti-Dutch to Anti-French in the 1670s’, Historical Journal, 38 (1995), 333-61 (especially pp 356-7).
- The capture of Gibraltar in 1704 was a spontaneous operation on behalf of the Habsburg claimant to the Spanish throne; at first, there was no intention of turning Gibraltar into a British colony, and it did not become one until 1713. Between 1689 and 1815, all other British landings on the continent were either diversionary raids (such as the landing on Walcheren in 1809) or attempts to ‘liberate’ territory and restore ‘legitimate’ regimes (such as the landing at Den Helder in 1799); an occupation of Normandy was contemplated in 1744, as a means of putting pressure on Paris, but there was no intention of holding the territory after a satisfactory peace. I am grateful to Professor Richard Harding for discussion of these eighteenth century expeditions.
- L G Schwoerer, ‘No Standing Armies!’: The Anti-Army Ideology in Seventeenth Century England (Baltimore, MD, 1974), 98-107; Pincus, Protestantism and Patriotism, 422-7; C-E Levillain, ‘Ruled Britannia? Le problem de l’influence Français en Grande-Bretagne dans la seconde moitié du xviie siècle’, France-Angleterre: un siècle d’entente cordiale 1904-2004: deux nations, un seul but? (Paris, 2004), 123-4.
- R Prud’homme van Reine, Rechterhand van Nederland: Biografie van Michiel Adrianszoon de Ruyter (Amsterdam, 1996), 78-80.
- Rupert’s role at the Texel, and indeed his entire career as an admiral, has usually been neglected by his biographers, who prefer to concentrate on his more dramatic (but little more successful) service as a cavalry general; the most recent study of the prince’s life devotes precisely five paragraphs to the battle itself (C Spencer, Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier (2007), 356-7). Rather fuller coverage, albeit based on no manuscript sources, is provided by F Kitson, Prince Rupert: Admiral and General-at-Sea (1998), especially pp. 280-9. A much more balanced and academic study of the prince’s career, which if anything goes to the other extreme and underplays his exploits in the civil war, is provided by R Rebitsch, Rupert von der Pfalz (1619-1682). Ein deutscher Furstensohn im Dienst der Stuarts (Innsbruck, 2005); Rebitsch’s account of Rupert’s role in the third Anglo-Dutch war and at the Texel is at pp. 119-36.
- Journals and Narratives, 400-3.
- At fo. 39.
- All manuscript lists, and a list cited by Anderson in ibid., 402n, give York in the blue squadron, and she was certainly there as late as 1 August, but her MS log (BL Egerton MS 840B) makes it clear that she was in the red. My placing of her in this position is speculative; it simply places her in the position previously occupied by the detached Constant Warwick. On the other hand, this solution would have entailed the least disruption to the existing line, and would have placed a ship of substantial force in the van of the red.
- For the order of the ships around and astern of the Sovereign, I have followed the lists in PRO 30/24/5 and ADM8/1. The list in BL Add MS 34,729, fos 160-1, gives an order after Crown of Edgar, Sovereign, Rupert, Princess, Old James with a blank space, presumably for Resolution, at the rear.
- Removing the York, which had been second in the line, considerably weakens this division, and it is unlikely that the two fourths Hampshire and Sweepstakes retained the positions shown; possibly Swiftsure could have been moved between them, with one or more of the unallocated fifths covering the flagship as Swallow did in the admiral’s division. Portsmouth has been given Swallow‘s old place in the line.
- For this positioning of Swallow, see BL Egerton MS 928, fo. 143.
- Bristol, not allocated to a squadron until on or after 31 July, took this place in succession to the Antelope; her position in this division is certain, as she was one of the candidates for Spragge’s final transfer of the blue flag.
- All MS lists have her eighth in the line, but BL Egerton MS 928, fo 143 indicates that she had been moved to this position ahead of the flagship.
- TNA, ADM 106/287.
- See Pearl‘s log, TNA, ADM 51/3932.
The first question that’s begged is who, and why, thought an undistinguished cavalry officer was a natural naval commander….it may however be argued that the realisation dawned on the Royal Navy from this action that commanders should be promoted by competence rather than status or patronage; however, as late as 1941 it was basically ‘buggin’s turn’ which gave command of Force Z (HMSs ‘Prince of Wales’ and ‘Repulse’) to Admiral Tom Philips, whose total lack of appreciation of the aerial threat to his squadron was a factor in its calamitous loss.
Who is it you refer to as ‘an undistinguished cavalry officer’?
If you’re referring to Rupert, then you need to read up on the Wars of the Three Kingdoms- Rupert had acted as Lord High Admiral, commanding the Royalist privateers from 1648-1653. Also, it’s pretty well established that command ability was pretty widely transferable- the Duke of York, Duke of Albermarle, Earl of Sandwich were all capable flag officers
This “undistinguished” and incompetent” commander is the only naval officer in history ever to manage to keep a fleet in being with no money and no base! Rupert kept a Royalist flag flying in these circumstances from 1649 to 1653- long after the rebels were triumphant on land and longer than ANY naval officer had managed to keep a fleet in such circumstances. He kept 20-30 Parliamentary ships chasing his half-dozen or so elderly undermanned vessels for ages. This does not strike me as incompetence, but quite the contrary!