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Sunday, November 9, 2014


The Art of the Anglo Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century

 There were three wars between the English and the Dutch in the seventeenth century.  The first war occurred under Cromwell, fought between what was then the Commonwealth of England and the Dutch Republic.  All three wars lasted approximately two years. The second and third Dutch Wars took place after the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy. The two latter wars were English defeats and they confirmed the Dutch Republic’s hegemony as a naval power in that century.


Gerard Sibelius, Portrait of the painter Willem van de Velde, the Elder, after Godfried Kneller. Van de Velde, and his son Willem the Younger, were both seascape painters from Leiden during the Golden Age of Dutch painting in the seventeenth century.

Willem Van de Velde, The Elder, The English Yacht 'Portsmouth" at Anchor

Ludolf Backhuysen, The Eendracht and a Dutch Fleet of Men of War Before the Wind

In the golden age of Dutch painting, the pride of the urban mercantile society of the republic that marshaled its resources to fight the Anglo Dutch sea wars, resulted in many paintings being commissioned by families of those directly involved, like the Tromps, or by city governments and private patrons, to depict and represent the great encounters between the fleets and the dramatic events attending them.  The Dutch Museums are replete with such paintings, of which the following are only a minimum sample.  At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the ink paintings of Willem Van de Velde and his son take pride of place.  The commentary is taken from the Museum’s own program notes.

The Art of the Anglo-Dutch Wars, mostly art of Dutch origin, since the Dutch were generally more successful in the prosecution and outcome of these naval wars, the following images are but a few examples, and they are an illustration and an expression of those wars, of that time and place, and of the myriad details of military life on ships and the brutal and fearsome incidents of battle.  But the paintings are also an esthetic celebration of the sea, and it is against the background of the fearful northern seas that the historical facts play themselves out.  Today, looking towards the English Channel from Scheveningen, or from Noordwijk, or Katwijk, the tranquility of the steely sea can only faintly echo the conflicts of those years between the two Protestant nations and the stillness contrasts markedly with the passion and tumult of the paintings.


Queen Elizabeth, The First English Sea Monarch

Engagement between English and Dutch fleets began during the wars of religion, predating the development of maritime trade. Queen Elizabeth had assisted the Dutch Calvinist Revolt against Spain, in 1585 and committed its fleet against the Spanish Empire, mostly in the form of piracy and privateering. 

Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury

After the conclusion of hostilities between the Dutch and the Spanish in the course of the seventeenth century, the conflict having been grievous for Spain and Portugal, the Dutch themselves gradually became adept at privateering and piracy, spread their vessels throughout the oceans, and began to replace the Portuguese as the main European traders in Asia. Their mercantile fleet became dominant and an armada was built to support its traffic, commanded by able seamen like Maartens Tromp and Michiel De Ruyter.  In time, the Stuarts would enter into secret agreements with Spain directed against Dutch sea power, but it was only after Cromwell’s victory that open hostilities with the Republic began.  Cromwell unified the country behind the creation of a powerful navy, expanding the number of ships of the fleet and improving its organization and discipline.  England sought to challenge Dutch trade dominance upon the seas.

Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of Michiel de Ruyter (1667). De Ruyter was born in 1607 and was a Dutch admiral, most famous for his role in the Anglo Dutch wars.  He is the hero of the Raid on the Medway. He died in 1676.

Matters came to a head after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 concluded the Thirty Years War, and the Dutch proceeded to occupy the trading positions of the Spanish and Portuguese.  Cromwell resented the superiority of the Dutch naval thrust, and he also feared the Orange faction in the Dutch government, as the Dutch Stadtholders had always favored the Stuarts, and he feared the English Catholic exiles.  He attempted peaceful talks through delegations to Den Haag, in order to avoid the heightening conflict, but with little success.

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell



Against this background, and to protect its trade with North America, the English Commonwealth’s Parliament passed a Navigation Act in October of 1651, which determined that all goods imported into England must be carried by English bottoms or by vessels from the exporting countries or colonies, excluding Dutch middlemen.  Although the Dutch were not very much affected by these sanctions, a rivalry developed between English and Dutch merchantmen and tense naval encounters between the two countries followed.  The English pirates operating from British territories began to take Dutch ships on the pretext that they were illegally carrying British trade.  The Dutch responded by arming their merchantmen.

 Willem Van de Velde, The Younger, Ships Riding Quietly at Anchor

Willem van de Velde II (1633-1707), Dutch Ships in a Calm, oil on canvas, c. 1665.  A few warships in a calm sea:  their sails are being hoisted, their anchors raised.  The small squadron is getting ready to depart.  A sloop with dignitaries rows past the ships, to the sounding of trumpets and firing of salutes.  Already in 1778, this painting was described in a sales catalogue as being exceptional: ‘one of the best gems by this outstanding marine painter.’

In this atmosphere of tension, the English attempted to revive an old custom whereby foreign ships were compelled to strike their flags in salute to English ships, even in foreign ports.  On May 29, 1652, Admiral Martens Tromp encountered an English fleet and refused to show the desired protocol.  A skirmish followed which became known as the Battle of Goodwin Sands.  On July 10, the Commonwealth declared war on the Dutch.

 Reinier Nooms, A Battle during the First Anglo-Dutch War.

The English were initially successful and defeated the Dutch Vice-Admiral Witte de With in the Battle of the Kentish Knock, October of 1652.  The English, mistakenly thinking the war was over, divided their ships and were surprised and routed by the fleet of Admiral Maarten Tromp at the battle of Dungeness in the English Channel. 


 Willem Van de Velde, The Younger, H.M.S. St. Andrew at Sea in a Moderate Breeze

Thereafter, the Dutch defeated the English at the Battle of Leghorn (Livorno) in March, 1653, after which the Dutch dominated both the English Channel and the Mediterranean.

The Battle of Livorno (Leghorn), Willem van de Velde (1611-1693), Ink on canvas, c.1659.  In 1653 the English ship Samson went up in flames off the coast of Italy after an encounter with Cornelis Tromp’s warship the Halve Moon. Van de Velde represented both vessels at the center of this pen painting.  Tromp commissioned the picture to honor and glorify himself.  The work is still in its original frame with the Tromp family coat of arms.

At this point, it seems that the English sea captain Robert Blake and General Monck designed a new system of naval tactics, centering on the use of the line of battle ships, which had great success for them at the Battle of Portland in the Channel and later in the North Sea at the Battle of Gabbard.  The Dutch navy was now in a position of inferiority with regard to English tactics. In August 1653, the Dutch were defeated at the Battle of Scheveningen and Admiral Tromp killed. The British captured about 1200 Dutch merchant ships. Both sides were exhausted and reached a compromise peace on April 5, 1654, with the signing of the Treaty of Westminster. The British had failed to replace the Dutch as the world’s dominant sea trading nation, and hence the war resolved nothing.  The stalemate between the two Protestant nations on the seas remained.

Jan Abrahamsz Beerstratten, c.1654, Battle of Scheveningen.


"No King will heed our warnings,
No Court will pay our claims –
Our King and Court for their disport
Do sell the very Thames!
For, now De Ruyter’s topsails
Off naked Chatham show,
We dare not meet him with our fleet –
And this the Dutchmen know!"

- Rudyard Kipling, "The Dutch in the Medway"

- See more at:

Bruce Von Stetina, The Second Day of the Four Day Battle of 1666

Portrait of Charles Stuart, eventually King Charles II of England

In pursuit of his own dynastic interest, the newly restored monarch, Charles II of England, intended to place his nephew, Prince William of Orange, as Stadtholder of the Republic of the Netherlands.  This direct intervention in the political affairs of the neighbor republic was well received at home, as it also served to incite the interests of British merchants against the rival Dutch. The King’s determination moved him to propose a series of mercantilist policies to advance British trade and shipping interests at the expense of Dutch trading companies, and so as to enhance his own political and financial strategy vis-a-vis the Prince of Orange. 

Lieve Pietersz Verschuier, the Arrival of King Charles II of England in Rotterdam, on May 24, 1660. (1665)



Portrait of King Charles II

 Portrait of William of Orange, later King William III of England

A commercial war was brewing against the States General of the Dutch Republic.

The King’s brother, the Duke of York, eventually King James II, had a large interest in the British Royal African Company. Originally known as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa by its 1660 Charter, it was granted a monopoly by the King over all English trade with West Africa, which was primarily the slave trade.  With the help of the British army and navy, it established forts on the West African coast that served as staging and trading stations and was responsible for seizing any English ships that attempted to operate in violation of the company's monopoly. In the prize court, the King received half of the proceeds and the company half.  As tension between England and the Netherlands grew, the momentum shifted to the colonies.

The Dutch Settlement of New Netherland (Nieuw Nederland or Nieuw Amsterdam), before the British conquest.

The King’s brother, the Duke of York, eventually King James II, had a large interest in the British Royal African Company. Originally known as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa by its 1660 Charter, it was granted a monopoly by the King over all English trade with West Africa, which was primarily the slave trade.  With the help of the British army and navy, it established forts on the West African coast that served as staging and trading stations and was responsible for seizing any English ships that attempted to operate in violation of the company's monopoly. In the prize court, the King received half of the proceeds and the company half.  As tension between England and the Netherlands grew, the momentum shifted to these coasts. In 1664, the Company’s ships under Admiral Robert Holmes attacked the Dutch African trade posts and seized a Dutch settlement on the African coast.  This prompted a response from the Dutch fleet, under Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, who set out with a fleet to Africa to seek revenge. The English government declared war on The Netherlands and moved on the American colonies.  At that time, the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam, or Nieuw-Nederland, claimed territory from Cape Cod to Chesapeake Bay. When a British fleet appeared off the coast of New Amsterdam, its governor, Pieter Stuyvesant surrendered the town.  The new British colony was named after the Duke, New York.

  James Stuart, Duke of York and eventually King James II of England

The war that followed lasted approximately two years and ended in the disastrous defeat of England at the Medway, in June 1667. It is a war characterized by catastrophic English defeats on the sea.  During the battle of the Four Days in 1666, which is the subject of a famous painting by Willem van de Velde, the Dutch captured the Prince Royal, one of England’s prize battleships.

Willem van de Velde II (1633-1707), The Surrender of the Royal Prince, oil on canvas, c. 1670-75.  In June 1666, the Dutch and English fleets fought a ferocious battle on the southern North Sea.  With his usual eye for detail and a sense of drama, Willem van de Velde portrayed the moment when the English flagship Royal Prince (at left) ran aground on a sandbank and was taken by the Dutch.  To signal their surrender the English crew hauled down their flags.

But the worst English defeat was the famous Raid on the Medway, in June 1667, which ended the war with a Dutch victory. It is considered one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history: a flotilla of ships led by Admiral de Ruyter sailed up the river Thames and to the heart of England itself, broke through the defensive chains guarding the Medway, burned part of the English fleet docked at Chatham, and towed away the ships Unity and Royal Charles, the pride and customary flagship of the English fleet. At this point, the Dutch Republic was at the zenith of its power, despite the losses and damages caused by two years of war and the damage to Dutch trade and industry they entailed. But the Dutch traders benefited from the absence of an English fleet.

The Raid on the Medway


 Pieter Cornelisz Van Soest, Attack on the Medway (1667)

Willem Schellinks (1627? – 1678), Attack on Chatham.   In 1668, Schellinks executed this oil painting on canvas, depicting an episode in the Second Anglo Dutch war, which was a triumph for the Dutch and a humiliation for the English.  In June of 1667, a naval fleet commanded by Michiel de Ruyter surprised English ships at anchor off Chatham on the River Medway, which flows into the Thames Estuary. In the foreground the fort at Sheerness is going up in flames, while further up the river columns of smoke rise from various English ships set alight by Dutch forces.  The raid on the Medway resulted in Holland’s victory against England and the end of the Second Anglo Dutch War.


The third Anglo-Dutch war also lasted two years, but it was a war without defeat and without glory.  King Charles was bound by the secret Treaty of Dover to assist France in the France in Louis XIV’s war against the Dutch Republic.  When the French army was halted at the line of the great rivers, threatened by the prospect of strategic flooding by the Dutch, an attempt was made to invade the Republic by sea, which directly engaged the English navy. De Ruyter gained four strategic victories against the Anglo-French fleet and prevented invasion. After these failures the English Parliament forced the hand of the King, and Charles sued for peace.


The naval battle of Texel, also known as Kijkduin, took place on August 21, 1673, in the course of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, which was itself part of the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-1678, during which King Louis XIV of France invaded the Dutch Republic intending to control both shores of the big rivers.  England became involved because of the secret Treaty of Dover.

Ludolf Bakhuysen, The Man of War Brielle on the River Maas off Rotterdam (1689).  Ludolf Bakhuysen was a Dutch painter who lived from 1631 to 1708.  The ship depicted in this painting is the ship that carried the Stadtholder of Holland, William, Prince of Orange, to England in 1688.  There he became King William III, upon the invitation of the Whig Lords, and helped drive the Catholic King, James II, to exile and to the triumph of the Protestant cause in England. He was crowned with his wife Mary Stuart, as William and Mary, in 1689, the year Sibelius painted this work.

Willem van de Velde (1611-1693) The Battle of the Downs, (1659).  To commemorate the Dutch naval commander Maerten Harpertsz Tromp, his family commissioned a series of pen paintings of Tromp’s best-known battles from Willem van de Velde.  This is one in that series, depicting in this instance the Dutch action in support of England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1639.  The Spanish attempted to transport troops and supplies to Flanders with a large fleet. The Spanish armada was intercepted in the English Channel by Maerten Harpertsz Tromp, who commanded a much smaller force. His spectacular victory and his capture of the Santa Teresa – the large Spanish warship burning on the left – established the Dutch fleet’s formidable reputation.

Willem van de Velde (1611-1693), The Battle of Terheide, (1657).  Another in the series of pen paintings commissioned to commemorate the Dutch naval commander Maerten Harpertsz Tromp.  The artist used pen and ink on canvas for these works, which resemble meticulous accurate engravings.  Van de Velde witnessed the Battle of Terheide in 1653.  He used the sketches that he produced on board as studies for this pen painting.  The battle between English and Dutch fleets took place in 1653.  He used the sketches that he produced on board as studies for this pen painting.  The battle between English and Dutch fleets took place

Willem van de Velde, (1611-1693), The Battle of Dunkirk, ink on canvas, 1659.  In 1639 Maerten Harpertsz Tromp prevented the Spanish fleet from leaving the harbor at Dunkirk with a blockade of twelve ships.  Van de Velde has depicted most of the Dutch vessels with their prows pointing towards the enemy armada.  With a remarkable eye for detail, he rendered the ship in pen the ship’s counters or transoms – the stern carvings from which the individual vessels can be identified.

Willem van de Velde II (1633-1707), Nocturnal Encounter during the Battle of Kijkduin, oil on canvas, c. 1675.  This painting is traditionally called the Nocturnal Battle.  However, the naval battle at Kijksduin, between Cornelis Tromp on the Gouden Leeuw and Sir Edward Spragg on the Royal Prince, actually took place in daylight hours on the 21st of August, 1675.  It looks like night only because the encounter is shown partially hidden behind clouds of smoke and gunpowder fumes.  While the Dutch flagship is sinking at the right, Tromp battles on from a captured ship.

Willem van de Velde II (1633-1707), The Cannon Shot, oil on canvas, c. 1680.  A Dutch warship in a calm, with its sails loosed, fires a cannon shot.  Two sloops float to either side of the man-of-war, and another Dutch ship with lowered sails can be seen in the distance.  The tranquility of this scene contrasts starkly with The Gust, in which a storm-battered English warship drifts rudderless on the high waves.

  • Boxer, Charles Ralph. The Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th Century (1974)
  • Hainsworth, D. R., et al. The Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars 1652-1674 (1998)
  • Jones, James Rees. The Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century (1996) online
  • Konstam, Angus, and Tony Bryan. Warships of the Anglo-Dutch Wars 1652-74 (2011)
  • Levy, Jack S., and Salvatore Ali. "From commercial competition to strategic rivalry to war: The evolution of the Anglo-Dutch rivalry, 1609-52." in The dynamics of enduring rivalries (1998) pp: 29-63.
  • Ogg, David. England in the Reign of Charles II (2nd ed. 1936), pp 283-321 (Second War); 357-88 (Third War
  • Rommelse, Gijs "Prizes and Profits: Dutch Maritime Trade during the Second Anglo-Dutch War," International Journal of Maritime History (2007) 19#2 pp 139-159.


  1. Thank you so much for re-acquinting me with Dutch history. It is a fine read in which your overview and clear observations make them both valuable and exciting to read.
    Twxel is one of 5 Wadden islands: Terschelling, Vlieland, Schiermonnikoog and Ameland.
    Kijkduin is a small coastal village south of Scheveningen (the geographical place where I was born).

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.