England Invaded by the Dutch: The Conquest that Never Was! Part I

Unknown 17th Century Dutch Artist, Embarkation of William III, Prince of Orange, at Helvoetsluis, c. 1688-99, oil on canvas, Royal Collection

The Fame of the Intended Invasion from Holland, was spread all over the Nation, & most Men were preparing for the Generall Insurrection which ensu’d, when I was obliged to go to London to settle my accounts, in October 1688, & had not continu’d there above 3 weeks, before the News came of the Dutch Fleet’s being sail’d to the Westward, & seen off the Isle of Wight.

The assault on the supposedly impregnable sovereign territory came out of the blue – the slickest feat of naval planning and execution ever to have been witnessed in Europe.

On 1 November 1688 (new style), Prince William of Orange, elected ruler or Stadholder of the Dutch Republic, and husband of the English King James II’s eldest daughter, Mary Stuart, embarked upon a seaborne invasion of the British Isles. His invasion force consisted of an astounding five hundred ships, an army of more than twenty thousand highly trained professional troops, and a further twenty thousand mariners and support staff. As a naval and military undertaking, the sheer scale, temerity and bold ambition of the venture captured the European imagination for years afterwards. The exact numbers of the invading forces were a matter of dispute and deliberate exaggeration (and have remained so ever since), but there was no uncertainty at all about William of Orange’s intentions – this was a redoubtable force, and it was headed for the English coast.

Rumours of dramatic action against the increasingly absolutist behaviour of James II had been circulating for months. As early as May, John Evelyn recorded anxiously in his diary:

The Hollanders did now al’arme his Majestie with their fleete, so well prepar’d & out before we were in any readinesse, or had any considerable number to have encountered them had there been occasion, to the great reproch of the nation.

Reliable intelligence on Dutch naval and troop movements was unusually hard to come by. Some snippets of information, though, had leaked out. There was talk that troops were on the move on the Dutch borders. There were anxious whispers that France was making preparations to come to the assistance of the Catholic English regime (what Evelyn refers to as ‘the Popery of the King’ was increasingly an issue). Right up to the moment when William’s fleet left the shelter of the Dutch coastline and headed out across open water, northern Europe was awash with unsubstantiated rumour and hearsay, anecdote and false alarm. Once the assault was under way, there was talk of little else.

The joint naval and military operation was on an unprecedented scale. Its meticulous organisation astonished political observers. There had initially been some suggestion that the build-up of troops in the Low Countries was in preparation for a land engagement with the French. It was then rumoured that the Dutch might send these forces to help prevent an imminent French invasion of the Palatinate. But by the time the size of the operation became clear in the middle of October there could be no doubt as to its destination or its purpose. The Dutch, reported the stunned English ambassador at The Hague, intended ‘an absolute conquest’ of England.

‘Never was so great a design executed in so short a time. All things as soon as they were ordered were got to be so quickly ready that we were amazed at the dispatch,’ wrote one of those involved in the secret planning, while the English ambassador at The Hague warned that ‘such a preparation was never heard of in these parts of the world’. Not only the foreign diplomats at The Hague but all Europe was astounded by the unusual speed and efficiency with which the Dutch state – which historians generally like to describe as one of the less well-organised in seventeenth-century Europe – assembled so enormously complicated an expedition.

William, it slowly emerged, had started to build up his army in the first half of 1688, without consulting the Dutch government – the States General. His closest and most trusted favourites, Hans Willem Bentinck and Everard van Weede van Dijkveld, had shuttled clandestinely around Europe for months securing backing from those known to be sympathetic to the Protestant cause, and negotiating supporting troops and financial loans. Between June and October they surreptitiously assembled a massive force of well-trained, well-paid and experienced soldiers drawn from right across Protestant Europe. They also made arrangements for troops from neighbouring territories to move into place to fill the gap left on the European mainland, to defend the Dutch borders against possible French attack once William had switched his best troops to the English campaign.

The uncertainty and swirling rumours seem to have paralysed the English administration. By mid-September the diarist John Evelyn, on a visit to James II’s court in London, ‘found [it] in the uttmost consternation upon report of the Pr: of Oranges landing, which put White-hall into so panic a feare, that I could hardly believe it possible to find such a change’. He also reported ‘the whole Nation disaffected, & in apprehensions’. The King himself was suffering from recurrent nosebleeds (a sign of raised blood pressure, perhaps). Strategically, over a period of months, the combination of extreme secrecy, rumour and false alarm sapped English morale.

The Dutch government was not consulted officially until well into September (and the French ambassador got wind of this through his ‘intelligencers’ – undercover agents – only days later). On 8 October William had let it be known in Holland that his invasion – if it took place – was to be both an intervention on behalf of the Dutch state, to prevent James II from forming an anti-Dutch Catholic alliance with France, and a bid to secure his own and his wife’s dynastic interests. The States General were finally asked for, and gave, their approval, on the understanding that ‘His said Highness has decided to start the said matter upon His Highnesse’s and Her Royal Highnesse’s own names, and to make use of the States’ power only as auxiliary.’

What the Dutch States General could and did provide was additional financing for the campaign (which they would later require to be repaid from the English exchequer of King William III). In spite of the Prince’s personal wealth, there was still a significant shortfall in the ready money needed for so large a naval and military undertaking. The States General placed at William’s disposal 4 million guilders, out of taxation income earmarked for defence of their land borders. A further 2 million guilders was raised in loans from sympathetic financiers (chief among them the Sephardic Jewish banker Francisco Lopes Suasso).

On 1 November, driven onward at speed by a strong easterly wind, a vast Dutch fleet left its sheltered harbour at Hellevoetsluis and sailed out into open waters. At a signal from William of Orange the great gathering of ships organised itself into a prearranged formation, ‘stretching the whole fleet in a line, from Dover to Calais, twenty-five deep’. The Dutch began their mission, ‘colours flying’, the fleet ‘in its greatest splendour’, ‘a vast mass of sail stretching as far as the eye could see, the warships on either flank simultaneously thundering their guns in salute as they passed in full view of Dover Castle on one side and the French garrison at Calais on the other’. As the great flotilla proceeded magnificently on its way, the Dutch regiments stood in full parade formation on the deck, with ‘trumpets and drums playing various tunes to rejoice [their] hearts … for above three hours’.

In his diary for the day, Constantijn Huygens junior, * William of Orange’s Dutch secretary, recorded how, the morning after they set sail: ‘We arrived between Dover and Calais, and at midday, as we passed along the Channel, we could see distinctly the high white cliffs of England, but the coast of France could be seen only faintly.’ Constantijn junior, and the other children of the distinguished statesman, connoisseur, poet and musician Sir Constantijn Huygens, together with their father, will be important witnesses and guides as the present book unfolds.

Poised between England and Holland (like other members of his family he was an outstanding linguist, whose English and French were as fluent as his native Dutch), Constantijn junior was equally at home in the élite circles of either country. Like his father and his younger brother, the scientist Christiaan Huygens, he moved easily between countries, his international experience proving invaluable to his princely employer.

From the very start, the Dutch fleet achieved its key strategic aim, creating an unforgettable spectacle, inducing a feeling of shock and awe in onlookers on either shore. The iconic image of its offensive sortie into the English Channel was commemorated in countless contemporary paintings and engravings, still to be found today, on display or in store, in galleries on both sides of the Narrow Seas. As the seventeenth-century armada made its way along the Channel, crowds gathered on the clifftops of the south of England to watch it pass. It was reported that the procession of ships had taken six hours to clear the ‘straits’.

The departure from Holland and arrival in England of this great fleet had been contrived with exceptional care, down to the very last detail. As the foremost historian of this period of Anglo–Dutch relations puts it, ‘The boldest enterprise ever undertaken by the Republic of the United Netherlands was stage-managed with exquisite artistry.’ The expedition comprised fifty-three warships, of which thirty-two were ‘capital ships’ designed for combat – thirteen with between sixty and sixty-eight guns, seven with between fifty and fifty-six, and twelve with between forty and forty-eight – the rest escort ships. There were ten fireships and about four hundred other vessels to transport troops, supplies and horses. The army was made up of 10,692 regular infantry and 3,660 regular cavalry, plus gunners of the artillery train and five thousand gentleman volunteers – expatriate Englishmen, Huguenots and other sympathisers. On top of this there were 9,142 crew members and a further ten thousand men on board the transport vessels. William’s plan was that this spectacular floating combination of forces and resources should avoid naval engagement at all costs. Like the D-Day landings, this was a huge feat of transportation, rather than a navy seeking a sea battle.

The munitions, equipment and supplies with which the expeditionary force was provided were formidable, and state-of-the-art. According to one eyewitness (who, as usual, may have slightly exaggerated the numbers), the fleet carried a total of seven thousand horses – mounts for the 3,660 cavalry officers, the Prince, his entourage and the officer and gentleman volunteers, and draught horses for the carts carrying provisions and ammunition. Further draught animals were needed to pull the fifty artillery pieces.

Every possible eventuality had been anticipated. Special equipment for the venture had been manufactured covertly in Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. Intelligencers reported in the months preceding the invasion that the Dutch government had ordered ‘at Utrecht the making of severall thousand of pairs of pistols and carabins’, while Amsterdam ‘has undertaken to furnish 3,000 saddles’, and ‘they are also night and day employed at The Hague in making bombs, cuirasses and stinkpotts’. There were ‘muskets, pikes of all sorts, bandoliers, swords, pistols, saddles, boots, bridles and other necessaries to mount horsemen; pickaxes, wheelbarrows and other instruments to raise ground’, and ‘boats covered with leather to pass over rivers and lakes’. The fleet carried a mobile smithy for shoeing horses and repairing weapons, ten thousand pairs of spare boots, a printing press, and a large quantity of printing paper. Additional vessels were hired at Amsterdam to transport hay, provisions, etc. The wind, Constantijn Huygens recorded in his diary for the day after the fleet set sail, was steadily easterly, and the weather good.

The one decision that had not been taken by William and his advisers in advance was whether the fleet would aim to make landfall in the north of England, in Yorkshire, or in the south-west (in either case avoiding the English army, which was massed in the south-east). Pragmatically, and to perplex English intelligence, it was decided to leave that choice to the prevailing winds. In the event, the wind, which had blown ferociously from the west for almost three weeks previously, battering the Dutch coast and thwarting William’s attempt to launch his attack in mid-October, swung round suddenly (some said providentially) in the final days of October.

Responding to the favourable wind, the invasion fleet proceeded in the direction of the English coast, headed towards Harwich, as if to make landfall in Yorkshire. Having sailed just past Harwich, however, William of Orange, commander-in-chief in person of this mighty flotilla, gave new orders for it to proceed instead south-westwards, to take full advantage of the ever-strengthening easterly wind. The English war fleet, trapped in the Thames estuary by the same wind, watched William’s armada go by twice, helpless to follow and engage until it was too late.

The vast Dutch fleet sailed past the Hampshire coast at speed, barely managing to avoid being swept past Torbay, the last port capable of receiving it. It arrived there on 3 November, English style. Since the Northern Provinces, along with the rest of Continental Europe (but not England), used the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar, this corresponded to 13 November (new style) – the day before William of Orange’s birthday. Many in his entourage urged him to take advantage of that propitious day to launch his invasion of England. To the Dutch the choice of date would have had enormous ‘good luck’ significance.

To the English, whose support had to be won by every propaganda means possible, the coincidence of dates would have been entirely lost. For as far as they were concerned, on what the Dutch considered to be William’s birthday, the anniversary was still ten days away. Prince William and his fleet lay to off the English coast for two more days, and then landed. On 5 November 1688 (according to the English calendar) William began disembarking his troops on the coast of Devon.

Thus it was (once again, ‘providentially’) that the landing took place on the anniversary of another great triumph of English Protestantism over the hostile forces of Catholicism – the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The convenient match with the familiar date meant that Catholic threats were opportunely on people’s minds. Those who had witnessed the Spanish Armada approaching a hundred years earlier, in 1588, had continued to talk about its fearful appearance for the rest of their lives. Now, a century after that failed attempt at conquering Britain from the sea, a Dutch fleet somewhere around four times the size of the Armada successfully made landfall on English soil, bent on conquest. The frigate Den Briel, carrying William, flew the colours of the Prince and Princess of Orange. Its banner was emblazoned with the motto – announcing the Prince’s justification for his offensive action – ‘For Liberty and the Protestant Religion’. Beneath these words was the motto of the house of Orange, ‘Je maintiendrai’ – ‘I will persevere’.


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