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

Landing of William III at Torbay, 5 November 1688. English School. BHC0326

Constantijn Huygens described their arrival in his diary:

The village where we landed is called Braxton. It is very rundown, with few and poorly constructed houses, built of that inferior stone which this entire coast and the land adjacent to it are made of, and covered in slate. Nearby is a high mountain, and the houses huddle beneath it in short rows, as if stuck to it.

At Braxton he had his first experience of roughing it English-style:

I ran into Willem Meester in front of an inn which was named the Crowned Rose Tavern. He wanted me to join him for a glass of cider, we entered and discovered the entrance hall crowded with a rabble of soldiers, drinking and raging. Coincidentally, I saw My lord Coote in this place, who had been given a room upstairs, and I entreated him to give me a place to put a mattress on the ground, which he gladly did, and we agreed to have dinner together in the evening. We had an exceptionally leathery fricassée of mutton that evening.

Prince William confided to Huygens that he preferred any kind of lodging, however humble, to spending another night at sea.

Unloading troops and supplies began on the evening of 5 November. Local fishermen proposed a suitable landing point for the horses, where the beach fell away steeply so that they would not have too far to swim ashore, and they were unloaded without incident the following day. The landing was completed late on the seventh. Prince William, his Scottish-born chaplain Gilbert Burnet, his private secretary Constantijn Huygens junior, and his most intimate and influential favourite, Hans Willem Bentinck, ‘sitting on very bad horses’ (provided by the locals) watched the swift and efficient disembarkation with satisfaction from a high cliff at nearby Brixham.

Burnet and the Prince agreed (though not entirely seriously) that the easy arrival was probably proof of predestination, and certainly the work of Providence.

Huygens’s first impression of the reception the Dutch were to receive was favourable, in spite of the obvious local poverty (he was clearly relieved):

Wednesday 17 December: The land between consisted of grand and high mountains and deep valleys, everything separated by many hedges and walls, the roads curiously poor, all of stone and strewed with loose bricks, on top of which layers of sludgy filth.

Alongside the roads the people had gathered, as on the previous day, women, men, and children alike, all shouting: ‘God bless you’ and waving to us a hundred good wishes. They gave the Prince and his entourage apples, and an old lady was waiting with a bottle of mead and wanted to pour his Highness a glass. In a little square, five women were standing, greeting him, each of whom had a pipe of tobacco in her mouth, like the large crowds we have seen, all smoking without any shame, even the very young, thirteen and fourteen year olds.

This promising start was, however, not to be sustained. Torrential rain hampered the subsequent march to nearby Paignton, and it was freezing cold. En route from Paignton to Exeter, carts and cannon frequently stuck in the mud. William waited for twelve days at Exeter for the weather to improve, and in the hope that the English gentry would begin to flock to support him.

Meanwhile, some two hundred miles away in the capital, news and rumours of the landing were trickling through in dribs and drabs to anxious Londoners: ‘confusd news of Dutch Landing near Portsmouth: Forces marchd that way early this morning … Dutch seen off the Isle of Wight … Dutch sayd to be landed at Poole … news of yesterdays and this days riots of Rabble’. Unconfirmed stories of military engagements, casualties, naval assaults and civil disturbance proliferated.

The diarist John Evelyn and the wealthy financier Sir Stephen Fox were somewhat better informed about William of Orange’s movements. Evelyn wrote in his diary on 1 November:

Dined with Lord Preston, with other company, at Sir Stephen Fox’s. Continual alarms of the Prince of Orange, but no certainty. Reports of his great losses of horse in the storm, but without any assurance.

On 2 November (old style) these ‘alarms’ were made concrete. Some of William’s horses had indeed been lost in a first, abortive attempt to launch the fleet in late October, but now the armada was well under way. Eyewitnesses had watched it leave Brill on its way to Hellevoetsluis, seen off publicly by William’s wife, James II’s eldest daughter, the Princess of Orange. News of the landing at Torbay reached London three days later, and immediately provoked fears of a breakdown in civil order:

5th [November]. I went to London; heard the news of the Prince having landed at Torbay, coming with a fleet of near 700 sail, passing through the Channel with so favourable a wind, that our navy could not intercept, or molest them. This put the King and Court into great consternation … These are the beginnings of sorrow, unless God in His mercy prevent it by some happy reconciliation of all dissensions among us.

By the beginning of December the Prince of Orange was believed to have reached Oxford and to be on his way to London against little opposition, but there were contrary rumours of a French force coming to James’s assistance from Dunkirk (this news was contradicted later that day), and of Scottish troops marching south: ‘Great confusion of reports, noe certainty. Disturbance at Cambridge, St Edmondsbury and other places.’ On 15 December, the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society in London, Robert Hooke (one of those chronicling events as they unfolded in his private diary), reported ‘confusion all’ and succumbed to a depression.

Lingering, in Devon, Prince William and his right-hand man Hans Willem Bentinck were privately disappointed at the absence of support from the English gentry and nobility at disembarkation. The Prince’s English advisers were quick to reassure him that this was simply a matter of everyone hanging back, in order not to be seen to be the first to abandon James II. In the absence of troops gathering to William’s side, and cheering hordes of English men and women welcoming the Prince who would deliver them from servitude and tyranny, it was decided to choreograph William’s arrival with heavy symbolic components, in a bid to proclaim the impeccable moral foundation for the invasion and his good intentions, to be broadcast as widely and as quickly as possible. A hastily written eyewitness account was rushed into print and distributed throughout the area.

The customarily sober and understated William entered Exeter in triumphal procession: ‘Armed cap a pee. A plume of white feathers on his head. All in bright armour, and forty two footmen running by him.’ Fifty gentlemen and as many pages attended him and supported his banner, which bore the inscription ‘God and the Protestant religion’. William rode on a ‘milk white palfrey’ and was preceded by two hundred gentlemen in armour, English and Scottish for the most part, mounted on heavy Flemish horses. For further dramatic effect, these knights were accompanied by ‘two hundred blacks brought from the [sugar] plantations of the Netherlands in America [Surinam]’, all dressed in white, turbaned and befeathered. No clearer symbolism could have been used to represent William as God’s appointed champion, as described in the Book of Revelation: ‘I saw and behold, a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow, and a crown was given unto him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer.’ The white-clad ‘blacks’ reinforced the millennial theme – William was a global ruler, whose dominion extended to the limits of the known world.

From Exeter, Bentinck wrote to the commander of the Prince’s fleet, Admiral Herbert, still expressing concern at their lukewarm reception by the local gentry. The arrival of the Prince’s army would, he said, have looked less like an act of military aggression – less like an invasion, indeed – if the local landowners had only ridden out to welcome them:

I doubt not that the Good God will bless the cause, the people appear everywhere here extremely well disposed, it is only the gentlemen and the clergy who are somewhat more cautious, and do not espouse our cause. I am surprised at the latter, it seems to me that fear of the gibbet has more effect on their minds than zeal for religion.

In fact, the gentry were busy hedging their bets, trying to ascertain whether William’s bold adventure would succeed. They were preoccupied, too, with covering their backs – politically and financially. As early as 11 November, Sir Stephen Fox, anticipating his imminent dismissal from his office at the Exchequer, hastily approached the Royal Surveyor, Sir Christopher Wren, for written confirmation that building works he had carried out on his Whitehall lodgings (which belonged to the Crown) ten years earlier had cost him £1,000. Wren obliged with the certification of expenditure, and on 17 November issued a royal warrant guaranteeing Fox the right to remain in his Whitehall property until the money had been refunded to him.

Fox’s attempts to put his finances in order were part of a growing recognition at Whitehall Palace that the royal administration there was in the process of collapse. Support began to ebb away from the King’s party, and officials started discreetly to leave their posts. King James’s own first attempt at flight on 11 December contributed strongly to the confusion, since while attempting to remove himself and his family to safety abroad, he took steps to disrupt affairs of state, allowing him time (he hoped) to get French backing and to return. Before he left, he called for the most recent batch of Parliamentary writs and burned them. As he was being rowed across the Thames from Whitehall Palace to Vauxhall en route for the Kentish coast, he dropped the Great Seal, which he had retrieved from Lord Chancellor Jeffreys two days earlier, into the river. ‘He believed – correctly as it turned out – that there could be no lawful parliament held without his writs of summons under the Great Seal. His going thus created a hiatus in government, or interregnum, which was to be exploited by his enemies.’

James was right in thinking that his decision to flee would cause a constitutional crisis. Until he did so, William’s mission appeared to be one of ‘restauration’ – to restore English government to stability by any means necessary. With the throne apparently vacant, and government suspended, the Prince of Orange could for the first time openly express a willingness to fill the political vacuum by taking political control for himself and his wife, ‘to prevent the effusion of blood’. ‘Affaires being now altered by the King’s retirement’, William wrote to the Earl of Danby, James’s supporters like the Earl should disband their forces, return to their homes and ‘stand for to be chosen parliament men in their counties.’ His satisfaction turned out to be premature, however. In London, peers largely loyal to James had already set up a provisional government or Convention, which sat for the first time on 12 December, and continued to govern the country uninterruptedly, and without William’s interference, until James II fled for good just before Christmas.

On 12 December, as the Dutch army made its way towards London, reports began to reach them that James II had fled to France. Gilbert Burnet, Prince William’s Scottish chaplain, told Huygens ‘at table’, that a ‘Convocation’ or ‘free Parliament’ had been set up at Westminster to govern the country. On 14 December they reached Henley. As they marched from Henley towards Windsor, the weather was fine, and Huygens – an accomplished amateur artist, some of whose exquisite watercolour landscapes survive – marvelled at the beauty of the countryside:

Because the weather was so beautiful, we marched from Henley to Windsor. My Master was riding along with me, and we went off course, too much to the left, and headed toward the river, to the extent that we made a detour of an entire mile, yet alongside that same river we saw the world’s most beautiful views. That of Henley, when one reaches a certain height, is magnificently beautiful.

We rode through a large hamlet, named Maidenhead, where my Master stayed behind because his horse had some pebbles in his horse shoes and consequently had gone lame. I continued on my own, and closer to Windsor came on an empty road. For a long stretch, I had to wade through water, which came up to the horse’s belly. I could find no one to ask directions because all the people had gone to the street where his Highness was scheduled to make his procession.

On 18 December the Prince of Orange and his army entered London in another carefully organised ‘triumph’, to be welcomed, this time, by cheering crowds of Londoners. In spite of miserable weather, people in coaches and on horseback, as well as on foot, lined the streets. Huygens reports with evident relief that many of them wore orange ribbons, while others had stuck oranges on sticks and waved them in the air. One of those who has left us his own on-the-spot account of these events records:

The universall joy and acclamation at his entrance was like that at the Restauration [of 1660] in all things, except in debaucheries, of which there was as little appearance as has been known upon such occasion and such a publick concourse. An orange woman without Ludgate gave diverse baskets full of oranges to the Prince’s officers and soldiers as they marched by, to testifie her affection towards them. Divers ordinary women in Fleet Street shooke his soldiers by the hand, as they came by, and cryed, welcome, welcome. God blesse you, you come to redeeme our religion, lawes, liberties, and lives. God reward you. etc.

William’s London entrance was designed to ensure that his arrival would be remembered as a liberation rather than a conquest. Crowds could be fickle – the same people had also lined the streets for King James, who had returned to the capital, after a first attempt at joining his wife and baby son in France had been thwarted, two days earlier. The Prince had therefore taken precautions to ensure that there was no unseemly opposition to his arrival. He had sent a senior troop commander on ahead of the main army, with units of the trusted Dutch Blue Guards, to take up positions protecting Whitehall, St James’s Park and St James’s Palace, in advance of his coming into residence. One of his key instructions was to replace the guard protecting James II with a contingent of élite Dutch troops, and to move him out of London, ostensibly for his own safety.

Three battalions of Dutch infantry and supporting cavalry entered London at about ten o’clock on the night on 17 December. ‘Having secured the posts at St James Palace, they marched on Whitehall in battle formation, their matches lit for action.’ As King James was going to bed around eleven o’clock, he was informed of their presence in St James’s Park. Thinking there was some mistake (’he could not believe it, because he had heard nothing of it from the Prince’), he sent for the Dutch commander, Lord Solms.

Then Count Solmes pressed the adding of some new [Dutch] Troopes of the Prince’s, just then come to town, to the Guards at Whitehall. The King was unwilling of that. But Count Solmes said it was very necessary.

Having vainly ‘argued the matter with him for some time’, James ordered Lord Craven (long-time devoted servant of James’s aunt, Elizabeth of Bohemia, and now in his eighties), commander of the Coldstream Guards protecting the King at Whitehall, to withdraw his men. Craven protested that he would ‘be rather cut in pieces, than resign his post to the Prince’s [Dutch] guards’. James, however, insisted, ‘to prevent the possibility of a disturbance from guards belonging to several masters’. The King retired to bed, a prisoner in his own palace, only to be woken during the night and escorted out of London to Rochester.

The Coldstream Guards marched reluctantly out of London to St Albans. Solms ordered all English army regiments in and around London to move out to towns and billets scattered throughout Sussex and the home counties, thereby ensuring that the troops were thoroughly dispersed. The Life Guards were packed off to St Albans and Chelmsford. ‘The English souldiers sent out of towne to distant quarters,’ John Evelyn recorded – they were ‘not well pleased’.

So the Prince and his highly disciplined Dutch army marched into London down Knightsbridge, confident that they would meet no resistance, along a two-mile route lined with Dutch Blue Guards. In the absence of any actual military drama to mark this final act in the well-orchestrated invasion, it was an entrance as carefully staged, in a long military tradition of ‘glorious entries’ into conquered cities, as that first entry into Exeter a few weeks earlier. William again wore white, with a white cloak thrown over his shoulder to protect him from the heavy rain. There was some consternation when the Prince, who disliked crowds, did not actually remain at the head of the cavalcade the full length of the official route to Whitehall, but instead cut across St James’s Park and gained access to his new residence at St James’s Palace from its ornamental garden.

 

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One thought on “England Invaded by the Dutch: The Conquest that Never Was! Part II

  1. I don’t understand your headline. “Invasion that never was!” What does that mean? It certainly was an ‘invasion,’ even if SOME of the English welcomed it.

    Like

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