The Battle of Kentish Knock, 1652
Following Lieutenant-Admiral Tromp's resignation after his return from the North Sea, he was replaced as commander of the Dutch fleet by Vice-Admiral Witte Corneliszoon de With. The appointment was unpopular because de With was a republican whereas most of the fleet were Orangist in sympathy. De With also had a fearsome reputation for severity. Officers and crew of Tromp's old flagship the Brederode refused to allow de With to move his flag to it. He was forced to use the East Indiaman Prins Willem as his flagship instead. Having had no experience of the superiority of English firepower, de With's strategy was more aggressive than Tromp's. Against the advice of his officers, he decided to confront the English fleet and attempt to clear it from the Straits of Dover in order to safeguard the Channel for Dutch commerce. After joining forces with de Ruyter's squadron, the Dutch fleet of about sixty-two ships set sail from Schoonveld on 25 September to seek out the English.
with the powerful Sovereign on the left.
General-at-Sea Robert Blake's fleet was stationed at the Downs anchorage when de With sailed to confront it. Blake had sixty-eight ships, including the powerful 90-gun Sovereign (formerly named Sovereign of the Seas) and the 80-gun Resolution (formerly the Prince Royal). The most powerful Dutch ships were de With's flagship Prins Willem (56 guns) and Tromp's former flagship the Brederode (54). As soon as it set sail, the Dutch fleet ran into storms which continued for several days. The Dutch were obliged to ride out the rough weather in the open sea, which scattered the fleet and damaged several ships. On 28 September, when the weather moderated, Blake transferred his flag from the powerful but unwieldy Sovereign to the more manoeuvrable Resolution and ordered his ships to put to sea. The English fleet sailed north out of the Downs to confront the Dutch near the Kentish Knock, a sandbank in the Thames Estuary.
The Dutch were taken by surprise at the swift approach of Blake's leading ships. De With had no time for a council of war so sent a boat around his fleet to give orders to his captains. The Dutch fleet quickly formed up into three squadrons: the van commanded Vice-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, the centre by de With himself, and the rear by Rear-Admiral Gideon de Wildt. However, Blake lost his advantage because the swift advance out of the Downs had disordered his fleet forcing him to wait for Vice-Admiral William Penn and the rearmost English division under Rear-Admiral Nehemiah Bourne to come up.
With only a few hours of daylight remaining, Blake decided to launch an attack on the Dutch before Bourne's rear division was in place. Almost immediately, the Sovereign and Penn's flagship the James ran aground on the sands of the Kentish Knock when they tried to make way for Blake's van division. De With waited until Blake's leading ships were almost in contact then signaled the whole fleet to tack from its westerly course to face south-east. This brought de With's and de Wildt's divisions around to engage Blake and Penn, while de Ruyter bore down on Bourne's squadron to the south.
For the rest of the afternoon, the battle raged between the two divisions. Bourne's isolated squadron appeared to be in danger of being overwhelmed when de With's division broke clear of Blake's ships to bear down on him, but the tables were turned when the James and the Sovereign were hauled off the sandbank by boats to join the battle. The superior weight of the English gunnery had a devastating effect on the Dutch ships. The massive Sovereign is said to have taken on twenty ships at once. Several Dutch ships were severely damaged, including de With's flagship the Prins Willem, which was dismasted. The Burgh van Alkmaar blew up. A number of Dutch ships held back from the fighting as a result of the political factionalism in the fleet. The battle came to an end with the onset of darkness.
When de With tried to persuade his captains to resume the battle the next day, about ten Dutch ships deserted the fleet and sailed away. There was sporadic long-range gunfire during the day but de With was eventually obliged to break off the action and retreat, hurling accusations of cowardice at his vice-admirals and captains. Blake pursued until the Dutch reached the shallow waters of the Flemish coast and made their escape to Helvoetsluys.
John Barratt, Cromwell's Wars at Sea, (Barnsley 2006)
Sir William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to the present, vol.ii (London 1898)
Bernard Capp, Cromwell's Navy: the fleet and the English Revolution (Oxford 1989)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. iii (London 1903)