by Dr Richard Blakemore
At the end of June, I attended a conference in Amsterdam to mark the 350th anniversary of the Dutch navy’s raid on Chatham dockyard in 1667. The raid is most famous for the Dutch capture of the English flagship, the Royal Charles, the decorated stern of which is still on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
It was a great symbolic triumph for the Dutch republic, and a blow for Charles II, who was forced to negotiate a peace treaty. The Royal Charles had been built during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, and was originally named the Naseby after a parliamentarian victory, so its renaming and then its loss to the Dutch highlights the unstable nature of seventeenth-century British politics. Perhaps just as frustrating, for the Stuart government, was the fact that many British sailors fought on the Dutch side, either for political beliefs or because the pay was better than in British service.
Symbols like this alternating flagship were a key theme of the conference, both for the seventeenth century and their echoes today. One question we considered was why the Chatham raid has attracted so much attention: this conference was only one of a series of commemorations, in Britain as well as the Netherlands, even though (with a few exceptions) Britain does not habitually celebrate historic defeats. It was pointed out that a British raid on the Dutch merchant fleet at Ter Schelling in August 1666 is almost entirely forgotten outside certain historical circles, as are many other events of those years. When and why does a mere moment become a momentous occasion, worthy of remembrance? Is it due to the nature of the events themselves, or because they fit – or don’t fit – with the kind of stories we like to tell about certain segments of the past?
Another dimension was added to the conference by a kind gift from the organisers, the Vrienden van de Witt and the Naval Dockyard Society, to all of the speakers: a commemorative medal. This too has its own echoes. One thing I mentioned in my presentation at the conference was the medals produced by Britain’s Stuart monarchs to proclaim their ‘sovereignty of the sea’, a sovereignty challenged by the Dutch most forcefully at Chatham in 1667. Indeed, the Dutch struck their own medals in celebration of their victory.
These were powerful political objects. Both Dr J. D. Davies and Dr David Onnekink noted in their talks that when Charles II once again declared war on the Dutch in 1672, five years after the Chatham raid, ‘ridiculous Pictures, and odious Medails’ were mentioned as some of the most significant provocations. It might seem odd to go to war over a picture or a medal, and it’s hard to know what the sailors and soldiers thought of it all, but for an early modern monarch, your reputation was so important that it was worth fighting for.
As with all good conferences, this event didn’t answer questions so much as pose new ones. I left it pondering – and l still am pondering – the importance of symbols and commemoration, and the reasons that some events are notorious while others remain obscure. Meanwhile, my own ‘momentous’ medal, an object both with its own short history and tied into a longer one, has taken up residence on my desk in Reading.
For more information about the 1667 Medway raid, see this excellent post about it on The National Archives’ blog.