The first of three 17th Century naval wars between England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands.
The United Provinces of the Netherlands was a loose confederation of seven semi-autonomous republican states (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Overijssel, Gröningen, Gelderland and Friesland) that had won independence from Spain during the Eighty Years War (1568-1648). Dutch national policy was formulated by delegates from the seven provinces at the States-General in The Hague. The chief executive official of each province was the Stadtholder. By tradition, the Prince of Orange was chosen as Stadtholder by most of the provinces and thus dominated the States-General. However, the influence of the Orangists was counterbalanced by the increasingly powerful mercantile houses, which tended to be republican in sympathy.
Background to the Conflict
Friction between England and the Netherlands had been growing since the early 17th century as both nations competed in maritime trade and colonial expansion. The war between the Netherlands and Spain was advantageous to English merchants, who could trade in Spanish markets from which the Dutch were excluded. After the peace treaty of 1648, however, Dutch merchant fleets returned to every trading sphere. English merchants had already been driven out of the lucrative East Indian spice trade and soon began to lose markets to the Dutch in Spain, the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the Americas. Unofficial warfare developed as English privateers began seizing Dutch ships and their cargoes.
Despite the commercial rivalry between the two nations, the Council of State regarded the Protestant Dutch republic as a natural ally of the English Commonwealth in its apocalyptic struggle against monarchy and popery. In 1650, the Stadtholder Willem II, Prince of Orange, died of smallpox at the age of twenty-four. As his son was too young to inherit, no Stadtholder was appointed to replace him. Dutch republicans led by Cornelis de Graeff and Johan de Witt took the opportunity to try to end the influence of the aristocratic house of Orange over the States-General. Meanwhile, a diplomatic delegation from the English Commonwealth headed by Oliver St John arrived in The Hague in March 1651 to negotiate an alliance in which it was proposed to combine the two republics into a single diplomatic and commercial Protestant federation. The Dutch were suspicious of the proposal and supporters of the House of Orange vehemently opposed it, expressing outrage at the execution of King Charles I and refusing to recognise the regicide Commonwealth. After negotiations broke down, St John drafted the provocative Navigation Act of October 1651, which greatly increased tensions between the two nations.
During the winter and spring of 1651-2, large numbers of Dutch vessels were intercepted and searched by English ships. French support for the Royalists had led the Commonwealth to issue "letters of reprisal", which authorised English captains to seize French cargoes carried in Dutch ships. When Sir George Ayscue arrived to claim the colony of Barbados for the Commonwealth in October 1651, he seized twenty-seven Dutch ships that were trading with the Royalists in contravention of a Commonwealth embargo. As a further irritant, the Commonwealth continued the traditional claim to sovereignty of the "British Seas"—from the German Ocean (the North Sea) to Cape Finisterre—and required foreign ships in these waters to strike their flags to English men-of-war as a mark of respect. Dutch ambassadors in London tried to ease the growing tension, but both sides realised that war had become inevitable. The veteran admiral Maarten Tromp put to sea in April 1652 with orders to protect Dutch shipping from English aggression. After a confrontation between Tromp and Robert Blake off Dover in May, war was officially declared on 8 July 1652
The war was fought between 1652-3 with a number of fleet battles in the North Sea and English Channel, as well as smaller scale actions in the Mediterranean. In general, the heavier, better-armed English warships prevailed over the Dutch. The war culminated with the defeat and death of Tromp at the battle of Scheveningen in July 1653.
The Treaty of Westminster
Tromp's death at Scheveningen was a severe blow to the Dutch Orangist faction. The republican Johan de Witt succeeded in purging the Dutch fleet of supporters of the House of Orange while increasing republican influence in town councils across the United Provinces created an atmosphere conducive to peace with the Commonwealth. In England, radical members of the Nominated Assembly were in favour of continuing the war to the bitter end, but peace negotiations began when moderates dissolved the Assembly and handed power to Oliver Cromwell, who had never been in favour of war against a Protestant nation.
Peace negotiations were held in London during the early months of 1654 and the Treaty of Westminster was signed in April. The Dutch were obliged to salute the Commonwealth flag in territorial waters and to pay compensation for loss of trade sustained during the war and in earlier colonial disputes. The principal aim of the treaty, however, was to secure the exclusion of the pro-Stuart House of Orange from office in the United Provinces. The States-General subsequently passed the Act of Seclusion, which barred Willem III, Prince of Orange, from being appointed Stadtholder. British Royalist exiles were also expelled from Dutch territory.
The Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars were fought from 1665-7 and 1672-4 during the reign of Charles II. The fourth Anglo-Dutch War of 1780-4 was ancillary to the American Revolutionary War.
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Sir William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to the present, vol.ii (London 1898)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vols ii and iii, (London 1903)
Ronald Hutton, The British Republic (Basingstoke 2000)
Jack Sweetman (editor), The Great Admirals: command at sea 1587-1945 (Annapolis 1997)