The Battle of the Gabbard (a.k.a. North Foreland), 1653

All dates are given in the "Old-Style" (OS) Julian calendar, which was used in England until 1752. The dates of these battles are often given in the "New-Style" (NS) Gregorian calendar, which was used in the Netherlands. During the 17th Century, the Julian date was 10 days behind the Gregorian equivalent, e.g. the battle of the Gabbard began on 2 June 1653 OS, equivalent to 12 June 1653 NS.

During the spring of 1653, tentative approaches towards a peace treaty were made between the Commonwealth of England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Both Oliver Cromwell and the leading Dutch republican statesman Johan de Witt were in favour of peace but Blake's success at the battle of Portland in February encouraged the Rump Parliament and its successor the Nominated Assembly to adopt a more belligerent attitude, while in the Netherlands, the powerful Orangist faction remained fundamentally opposed to negotiations with the regicide Commonwealth.

On 29 March 1653, the generals-at-sea issued a new set of Fighting Instructions to captains of the fleet. The generals realised that the lack of cohesion amongst the English squadrons during the opening stages at Portland had almost cost them the battle. The new Instructions built upon previous admiralty orders for the conduct of the fleet in battle and included a significant advance in naval tactics with the introduction of line-ahead squadron formations to maximise the effectiveness of the broadside and exploit the superiority of English gunnery.

Meanwhile, Tromp and de With warned the States-General of the comparitive weakness of the Dutch navy. The fleet was repaired and refitted but there were no plans to build larger warships capable of challenging the more powerful English vessels. On 5 May, Tromp, Rutyer and de With sailed from the Texel with a fleet of eighty warships to escort an outbound merchant convoy to the Shetlands on the northerly trade route around Scotland since the route down the Channel was too dangerous. Upon returning from the North Sea, the Dutch fleet was reinforced with a further sixteen ships under the command of Pieter Floriszoon, then sailed to the Downs anchorage where Tromp and his officers expected to find the English fleet. They planned to repeat the successful operation carried out against the Spanish at the battle of the Downs in 1639. However, the Downs and the Dover Roads were empty and the Dutch fleet was driven away under heavy gunfire from Dover Castle.

Monck and Deane had put to sea with the English fleet early in May. They had searched for Tromp off the coast of Zeeland then returned to the vicinity of Yarmouth to pick up reinforcements. Blake, though still suffering from the leg wound sustained at the battle of Portland, has assembled a squadron of eighteen ships in the Thames Estuary and was at the Gunfleet anchorage south of Harwich.

Battle of the Gabbard map
The battle of The Gabbard, 1653

At around noon on 1 June 1653, English frigates scouting ahead of the main fleet sighted the Dutch near the Gabbard Shoal, a sandbank off the Suffolk coast. The two fleets were about twelve miles apart. The English sailed towards the Dutch but progress was slow as the wind was light and visibility was poor. When the English fleet dropped anchor for the night, the Dutch were still several miles to the south.

Next morning, the fleets closed for battle. The English fleet consisted of one hundred men-of-war and five fireships. It was organised in the now customary three squadrons, with the generals-at-sea George Monck and Richard Deane aboard the Resolution (88 guns) commanding the Red squadron in the centre, John Lawson in the George (58) commanding the White squadron in the van and William Penn in the James (66) with the Blue squadron in the rear. The generals hoped that Blake's squadron would arrive in time to reinforce the fleet before the battle began, but the wind remained light and Blake's progress from the Gunfleet anchorage was slow.

The Dutch fleet comprised ninety-eight men of war and six fireships. It was organised in five squadrons, each under the command of one of the leading admirals: Maarten Tromp in the Brederode (54), Jan Evertsen in the Vlissingen (40), Witte de With in the Vrijheid (44), Michiel de Ruyter in the Witte Lam (40) and Pieter Floriszoon in the Monnikendam (38).

The battle began about twelve miles off the North Foreland on the Kent coast. In accordance with the new Fighting Instructions, the squadrons of the English fleet sailed in line formation, with orders that no enemy ship was to be boarded until it had been crippled by gunfire. The wind continued light and it was not until about 11 am that the English ships came within range of the Dutch. The two fleets opened fire on one another in an artillery duel that lasted several hours. Early in the battle, Deane was hit by a Dutch cannon ball and killed outright. Monck, walking beside him on the quarter-deck of the Resolution, covered his remains with his cloak to avoid discouraging the sailors.

The lighter-armed Dutch ships were at a disadvantage during the cannonade. One ship of de Ruyter's squadron (name uncertain) was sunk by gunfire. De Ruyter in the leading Dutch squadron tried to get ahead of Lawson's van squadron in the hope of crossing his bows to rake the George with gunfire before closing for combat, but the wind remained too light. At about 3 pm, the wind freshened slightly. Lawson's course began to converge with de Ruyter's. At the same time, Tromp in the following Dutch squadron steered the Brederode towards a gap that had opened between Lawson's squadron and Monck's. Other ships in Tromp's squadron were hauled around by boats to bear down on the English line.

Caught between de Ruyter's squadron and Tromp's, Lawson's ships came under heavy attack. However, the Dutch advantage was fleeting under the greater weight of the English guns. Both fleets engaged all along the line. Tromp boarded Penn's flagship the James but was thrown back. Penn then boarded the Brederode and his men were only dislodged when the Dutch blew up the decks. At around 6 pm, the battered Dutch fleet bore away before the wind, pursued by the English. The pursuit continued towards Dunkirk until nightfall, the Dutch losing another ship in an explosion.

During the night, Blake reinforced the English fleet with another eighteen ships. The Dutch were running short of ammunition and were greatly discouraged by the superior firepower of the English ships. During the morning of 3 June, Tromp made for the Wielings anchorage with the English fleet bearing down to press home the attack. At about 11 am, when the fleets were off Ostend, the wind dropped, leaving the Dutch helpless under the English guns. Tromp struggled to maintain cohesion among his ships but the battle degenerated into a rout. Several Dutch ships collided with one another in their desperation to escape. Towards evening, the fleet succeeded in retreating into the shallow waters of the Flemish coast, where the larger English vessels did not risk following them.

Eight Dutch ships were sunk or burned in the battle and a further eleven were captured. There is no record of Dutch casualties but 1,350 prisoners were taken, including six captains. No English ships were lost or seriously damaged. 126 men were killed, including Deane and two captains, and 236 wounded. The death of General-at-Sea Deane was a great loss to the Commonwealth. Blake was still suffering from his leg wound and had to be put ashore at Solebay to recover, leaving Monck as the only active general-at-sea.

After sending home his prizes and damaged ships, Monck imposed a blockade on Dutch ports, which had a devastating effect on the trade and economy of the Netherlands. Overseas commerce came to a standstill and starvation threatened some coastal towns. The Dutch were forced to consider peace terms with the Commonwealth.


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.ii (London 1903)


Anglo-Dutch Wars blog

The Kentish Knock Company

3decks Naval Sailing Warfare History wiki

The State's Navy list, March 1651/2