Four naval conflicts between England and the Dutch Republic in the 17th–18th century. The First (1652–54), Second (1665–67), and Third (1672–74) Anglo-Dutch Wars all arose from commercial rivalry between the two nations, and victories by England established its naval might. The two countries had been allied for a century when the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780–84) broke out over Dutch interference in the American Revolution. By 1784 the Dutch Republic had declined dramatically in power and prestige.
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The Anglo-Dutch Wars (Dutch: Engels-Nederlandse Oorlogen or Engelse Zeeoorlogen) were fought in the 17th and 18th centuries between England (later the Kingdom of Great Britain during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War) and the United Provinces for control over the seas and trade routes. They are known as the Dutch Wars in England and as the English Wars in the Netherlands.
Around the turn of the century however, Anglo-Spanish relations began to improve, resulting in the peace of 1605, ending most privateering actions and leading to a neglect of the Royal Navy. The unsuccessful Anglo–Spanish War of 1625 was only a temporary change in policy. In the same period the Dutch, continuing their conflict with the Habsburgs, began to carry out long distance actions, not only being very successful in privateering, Admiral Piet Heyn in 1628 being the only one succeeding in capturing a large Spanish treasure fleet, but also replacing the Portuguese as the main European traders in Asia. Taking over most of Portugal's trade posts in the East Indies gave them control over the hugely profitable trade in spices. This coincided with an enormous growth of the Dutch merchant fleet, made possible by the cheap mass production of fluyt ships. Soon the Dutch had the largest mercantile fleet of Europe, and a dominant position in European, especially Baltic, trade. Though less spectacularly so, gradually also the Dutch navy grew in power.
From January 1631 Charles I of England engaged in a number of secret agreements with Spain, directed against Dutch sea power. He also embarked on a major programme of naval construction, enforcing ship money to built such prestige vessels as HMS Sovereign of the Seas. Charles's policy was not very successful however. Fearing to endanger his good relations with the powerful Dutch stadtholder Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, his assistance to Spain limited itself to allowing Habsburg troops on their way to Dunkirk to employ neutral English shipping; in 1636 and 1637 he made some halfhearted attempts to extort North Sea herring rights from Dutch fishermen until intervention by the Dutch navy made an end to such practices. When in 1639 a large Spanish transport fleet sought refuge in the English Downs moorage, Charles did not dare to protect it against a Dutch attack; the resulting Battle of the Downs undermined both Spanish sea power and Charles's reputation.
The English Civil War, commencing soon hereafter, severely weakened England's naval position. Its navy was as internally divided as the country as a whole; the Dutch, as superior on land as they were at sea, even took over much of England's maritime trade with her North American colonies. Between 1648 and 1651 however the situation reversed completely. In 1648 the United Provinces concluded the Peace of Münster with Spain; most of the Dutch army and navy was decommissioned. This led to a conflict between the major Dutch cities and the new stadtholder William II of Orange, bringing the Republic to the brink of civil war; the stadtholder's unexpected death in 1650 only added to the political tensions. Meanwhile Oliver Cromwell united his country into the Commonwealth of England and in a few years created a powerful navy, expanding the number of ships and greatly improving organisation and discipline. England was ready to challenge Dutch trade dominance.
The mood in England was rather belligerent towards the Dutch. This partly stemmed from old perceived slights: the Dutch were considered to have shown themselves ungrateful for the aid they had received against the Spanish by growing stronger than their former British protectors; they caught most of the herring off the English east coast; they had driven the English out of the East Indies committing presumed atrocities such as the Amboyna Massacre while vociferously appealing to the principle of free trade to circumvent taxation in the English colonies. But there were also new points of conflict: the decline of Spanish power at the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648, the colonial possessions of the Portugal (already in the midst of Portuguese Restoration War), and perhaps even of a beleaguered Spain, were up for grabs. The Dutch had after 1648 quickly replaced the English in their traditional Iberian trade. Cromwell feared the influence of the Orangist faction and English exiles in the Republic because the stadtholders had always supported the Stuarts; the Dutch abhorred the decapitation of Charles I.
Early in 1651 Cromwell tried to ease tensions by sending a delegation to The Hague proposing that the Dutch Republic join the Commonwealth and the Dutch would assist the English in conquering most of Spanish America. This attempt to keep the peace ended in war. The ruling peace faction in the States of Holland was unable to formulate a constructive answer to the unexpected and far-reaching offer. The Orangists, intent on war, incited mobs to harass the envoys. When the delegation returned, the English Parliament, feeling deeply offended by the Dutch attitude, decided to pursue a policy of confrontation.
In order to protect its position in North America, in October 1651 the Parliament of the Commonwealth of England passed the first of the Navigation Acts, which mandated that all goods imported into England must be carried by English ships or vessels from the exporting countries, thus excluding (mostly Dutch) middlemen. This typical mercantilist measure as such did not hurt the Dutch much as the English trade was relatively unimportant to them, but it was used by the many pirates operating from British territory as an ideal pretext to legally take any Dutch ship they encountered. The Dutch responded to the growing intimidation by enlisting large numbers of armed merchantmen into their navy. The English, trying to revive an ancient right they perceived they had to be recognised as the 'lords of the seas', demanded that other ships strike their flags in salute to their ships, even in foreign ports. On 29 May 1652, Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp refused to show the respectful haste expected in lowering his flag to salute an encountered English fleet. This resulted in a skirmish, the Battle of Goodwin Sands, after which the Commonwealth declared war on 10 July.
After some inconclusive minor fights the English were successful in the first major battle, General-at-sea Robert Blake defeating the Dutch Vice-Admiral Witte de With in the Battle of the Kentish Knock in October 1652. Believing that the war was all but over, the English divided their forces and in December were routed by the fleet of Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp at the Battle of Dungeness in the English Channel. The Dutch were also victorious in March 1653 at the Battle of Leghorn near Italy and had gained effective control of both the Mediterranean and the English Channel. Blake, recovering from an injury, rethought, together with George Monck, the whole system of naval tactics, and after the winter of 1653 used the line of battle, first to drive the Dutch navy out of the English Channel in the Battle of Portland and then out of the North Sea in the Battle of the Gabbard. The Dutch were unable to effectively resist as the States-General of the Netherlands had not in time heeded the warnings of their admirals that much larger warships were needed. In the final Battle of Scheveningen on 10 August 1653 Tromp was killed, a blow to Dutch morale, but the English had to end their blockade of the Dutch coast. As both nations were by now exhausted and Cromwell had dissolved the warlike Rump Parliament, ongoing peace negotiations could be brought to fruition, be it after many months of slow diplomatic exchanges.
The war ended on 5 April, 1654 with the signing of the Treaty of Westminster (ratified by the States-General on 8 May), but the commercial rivalry was not resolved, the English having failed to replace the Dutch as the world's dominant trade nation. The treaty contained a secret annex, the Act of Seclusion, forbidding the infant Prince William III of Orange from becoming stadtholder of the province of Holland, which would prove to be a future cause of discontent. In 1653 the Dutch had started a major naval expansion programme, building sixty larger vessels, partly closing the qualitative gap with the English fleet. Cromwell, having started the war against Spain without Dutch help, during his rule avoided a new conflict with the Republic, even though the Dutch in the same period defeated his Portuguese and Swedish allies.
After the English Restoration, Charles II tried to serve his dynastic interests by attempting to make Prince William III of Orange, his nephew, stadtholder of The Republic, using some military pressure. This led to a surge of patriotism in England, the country being, as Samuel Pepys put it, "mad for war". This war, provoked in 1664, witnessed quite a few significant English victories in battle, (but also some Dutch ones such as the capture of the Prince Royal during the Four Days Battle in 1666 which was the subject of a famous painting by Willem van de Velde). However the Raid on the Medway in June 1667 ended the war with a Dutch victory. A flotilla of ships led by Admiral de Ruyter broke through the defensive chains guarding the Medway and burned part of the English fleet docked at Chatham. The greatly expanded Dutch navy was now for a few years the world's strongest. The Dutch Republic was then at the zenith of its power.
Soon the English navy was rebuilt. After the embarrassing events in the previous war, English public opinion was unenthusiastic about starting a new one. Bound by the secret Treaty of Dover Charles II was however obliged to assist Louis XIV in his attack on The Republic in the Franco-Dutch War. The French army being halted by inundations, an attempt was made to invade The Republic by sea. De Ruyter, gaining four strategic victories against the Anglo-French fleet, prevented invasion. After these failures the English parliament forced Charles to sign peace.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 ended the conflict by placing Prince William III of Orange on the English throne as co-ruler with his wife Mary. Though this was in fact a military conflict between England and The Republic, William invading Britain and Ireland with a Dutch fleet and army, it is never described as an Anglo-Dutch war, as he had strong support in England and was partly serving the dynastic interests of his wife.
However, the regime change brought about the ultimate downfall of the Dutch Republic. The Dutch merchant elite immediately began to use London as a new operational base. Dutch economic growth slowed. William ordered that any Anglo-Dutch fleet be under English command, with the Dutch navy having 60% of the strength of the English. From about 1720 Dutch wealth declined. Around 1780 the per capita gross national product of the Kingdom of Great Britain surpassed that of the Dutch Republic. Whereas in the 17th century the commercial success of the Dutch had fuelled English rivalry, in the late 18th century the growth of English power led to Dutch resentment. When the Dutch began to support the American rebels, this led to the fourth war, and the loss of the alliance made the Dutch Republic fatally vulnerable to the French. Soon it would be subject to regime change itself.
The Dutch navy was by now only a shadow of its former self, having only about twenty ships of the line, so there were no large fleet battles. The British tried to reduce the Republic to the status of a British protectorate, using Prussian military pressure and gaining factual control over the Dutch colonies, those conquered during the war given back at war's end. The Dutch then still held some key positions in the European trade with Asia, such as the Cape Colony, Ceylon and Malacca. The war sparked a new round of Dutch ship building (95 warships in the last quarter of the 18th century), but the British kept their absolute numerical superiority by doubling their fleet in the same time.
Although this war is technically an Anglo-Dutch war (as it was between England and the Netherlands), many respectable historians, such as Steven Pincus, argue that this later war stemmed from completely different causes and therefore should not be included in a discussion of these earlier wars.