The First Anglo-Dutch War: Overview

The First Anglo-Dutch War was fought entirely at sea. The major actions of the war revolved around control of the two principal trade routes upon which Dutch commerce depended: the eastern route through the Danish Sound into the Baltic Sea, and the western route along the English Channel to France, Spain, the Mediterranean and the Indies, with a longer, alternative route around the coast of Scotland.

The Rival Fleets

The Dutch navy reflected the political constitution of the United Provinces. There was no centralised admiralty or national navy. During the long struggle for independence from Spain, five provincial admiralties had emerged: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Friesland, Noorderkwartier and Zeeland, each with its own fleet, revenues and naval establishment. Dutch naval administration was further complicated by municipal boards of Directors appointed to fit out ships for convoy duty. The East and West India Companies and numerous privateering syndicates also maintained their own fleets, which could be hired by the state. Although the States-General had nominal authority over the fleet, naval operations were frequently complicated by rivalries between the provincial admiralties, the merchant houses and syndicates, and by political factionalism between republicans and Orangists.

The Dutch navy had achieved a number of successes during the war with Spain, notably Maarten Tromp's victory at the battle of the Downs in 1639, in which he trapped and destroyed a Spanish fleet sheltering in the Downs anchorage off the Kent coast. However, most Dutch naval actions had involved defending merchant convoys and blockading the notorious Dunkirk privateering base. The Dutch built fast, lightly-armed warships for these duties and also relied upon armed merchant vessels. The majority of Dutch warships carried between twenty and forty guns; the most powerful Dutch ship was Tromp's flagship the Brederode, which carried fifty-four guns. During 1651, as tension between the Netherlands and England mounted, the States-General voted to increase the size of the Dutch fleet to around 230 ships by hiring and equipping a further 150 merchant vessels as warships.

In contrast to Dutch practice, the English concentrated on building larger and heavier ships, which sacrificed speed and manoeuvrability for firepower. English warships were rated according to their tonnage and the number of guns carried. The Prince Royal, built in 1610 and renamed the Resolution under the Commonwealth, was capable of carrying up to 102 guns. The Sovereign of the Seas, built in 1637 and renamed the Sovereign, carried up to 120 guns. These two vessels were among the most powerful warships then afloat and were classified as "great ships". During the English Civil War, when most of the navy declared for Parliament, smaller and faster vessels were hired for duties like chasing Royalist privateers or blockading ports. The Constant Warwick (32 guns), built in 1645 and hired then purchased by the Parliamentarian navy, was the first of a new class of warship — the frigate. These vessels were faster and lighter than the great ships but still had greater firepower than all but the most powerful Dutch ships. While Dutch naval tactics generally involved boarding an enemy ship and overpowering its crew, the English were beginning to rely upon heavier ordnance and the use of the broadside, where all guns on one side of a ship were fired together to wreck an enemy ship.

The Course of the War

The English had a strategic advantage because they could dictate the terms of the conflict by threatening the vulnerable Dutch trade routes. During the early stages of the war, Robert Blake disrupted the North Sea trade route and dispersed the Dutch herring fleet, while Sir George Ayscue threatened Dutch convoys in the western Channel. Dutch admirals were forced to react to English initiatives, while at the same time striving to defend vital merchant convoys from attack. Maarten Tromp was obliged to resign as commander of the Dutch fleet after failing to secure the North Sea; his successor, Vice-Admiral de With, was defeated by Blake at the battle of Kentish Knock in September 1652. Tromp returned to command and defeated Blake at the battle of Dungeness a few weeks later. The Dutch were also successful in defeating the English naval presence in the Mediterranean.

The shock defeat at Dungeness resulted in a thorough review of English naval administration and tactics. During the winter of 1652-3, an admiralty committee under the direction of Sir Henry Vane was established which introduced better rates of pay for seamen and greater efficiency in supplying the fleet. Reliance upon the hiring and arming of merchant vessels began to be phased out because it was observed that captains and owners were often reluctant to risk damage to their ships in battle. The distinguished artillery officers George Monck and Richard Deane were appointed generals-at-sea to serve alongside Blake. Under their supervision, the first official Articles of War and Fighting Instructions were issued to English naval commanders, which remained the basis of naval tactics and discipline throughout the next century. The fleet was divided onto three squadrons—red, white and blue—each with its own admiral, vice-admiral and rear-admiral, to make fleet actions more manageable. The concept of fighting in line-of-battle to maximise the use of the broadside was introduced. Although the earliest use of the line-of-battle tactic is attributed to Tromp at the battle of the Downs in 1639, its adoption by the English navy in 1653 maximised the advantage of the more powerful English warships over the Dutch. The line-of-battle tactic developed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and continued to be used in naval warfare until the end of World War II.

The generals-at-sea re-established English command of the Channel at the three-day running battle of Portland in February 1653. A subsequent Dutch attack in the North Sea was decisively defeated at the battle of the Gabbard where Deane was killed. The victory at the Gabbard enabled Monck to impose a blockade on Dutch ports during mid-1653 which crippled Dutch overseas trade. A final Dutch bid for victory was defeated at the battle of Scheveningen in July 1653, during which Tromp was killed. Although the English were victorious at sea, the cost of repairing and supplying the fleet proved to be exorbitant. During 1653, victuallers refused further contracts with the Admiralty unless their existing bills were settled; in October 1653, unpaid sailors rioted in the streets of London.

Peace negotiations were conducted early in 1654 and the First Anglo-Dutch War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Westminster in April 1654.


John Barratt, Cromwell's Wars at Sea, (Barnsley 2006)

Bernard Capp, Cromwell's Navy: the fleet and the English Revolution (Oxford 1989)

Sir William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to the present, vol.ii (London 1898)

Angus Konstam, Warships of the Anglo-Dutch Wars 1652-74 (Osprey 2011)