Between March 4th, 1665 and July 31st, 1667, England fought the Dutch Republic over control of trade routes and their colonies in Africa and North America. The monarchy had been restored in 1660 and Charles II, egged on by various advisers who hoped to profit handsomely from war, became eager to carve off a piece of that Dutch naval dominance for his new kingdom.
Unfortunately England was ill-prepared to confront the Dutch navy. The crown was still suffering financially from debts accrued by doomed King Charles I during the civil war, and Charles II was no frugal monarch himself. Throw in the Great Plague and Great Fire that decimated London, center of English commerce and government, in 1665 and 1666, and there was little money left to build new ships or repair old ones. Meanwhile, the Dutch Republic was prosperous and had new ships ready to fight plus more being built.
By February of 1667 money was so tight that England gave up trying to refurbish their heavy ships and sent them all to the Royal Dockyard at Chatham on the Medway River. Charles tried to buy time to get repairs done by entering peace talks with the Dutch in March at Breda, but he had secretly made a deal with the French that he would support their conquest of the Spanish Netherlands.
Dutch politician Johan de Witt knew what Charles was up to. He decided it would be best to hit the English fleet with one decisive blow that would break the English fleet and will to fight. Admiral Michiel de Ruyter led the Dutch fleet stealthily to the mouth of the Thames. There they captured the Sheerness fort and broke through the chain blocking the entrance to the Medway river. Then they sailed a few yards to Chatham and destroyed the immobile Royal Navy laid up there.
The raid was a shocking, staggering success. Fifteen English ships were destroyed, three of eight big ships were burned, but most symbolically agonizing of all, the English flagship, HMS Royal Charles, was abandoned by its crew and captured by the Dutch without a single shot fired. They just took it, towing the entire ship with its royal crest-emblazoned stern back home with them, the ultimate war prize.
The Royal Charles was built in 1655, under Oliver Cromwell. The largest ship in the Royal Navy, the 80-gun, three-deck ship of the line was originally named the Naseby after the battle wherein Cromwell decisively defeated the royalist army of Charles I in 1645. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, its Oliver Cromwell figurehead was removed and on May 23, 1660, it was sent to pick up King Charles II who was waiting, ironically, in The Hague. When it arrived at Scheveningen harbor, the Naseby’s name was changed to HMS Royal Charles and then set to carry said royal Charles to England and his throne.
The capture of this ship, therefore, was a devastating blow to King Charles II. The fact that an enemy fleet had sailed the Thames and the Medway and reduced the Royal Navy to rubble caused enormous consternation in London and England as a whole. The English had been fond of their unblemished invasion record since 1066; this was just a little too close for comfort. Just as de Witt had planned, the daring raid put a stop to all the backroom shenanigans and to the Second Anglo-Dutch War.
For six years the Royal Charles was kept on public display at the naval port in Hellevoetsluis. It was never enlisted into the Dutch fleet because it was considered too crappy for them and for the rough Dutch waters. When keeping it floating became more trouble than it was worth, the ship was broken up for scrap in 1673. They kept the stern carvings, though, cutting the crest of Charles II off the ship and keeping it on display at the Rijksmuseum.
There it has remained for 345 years, until last week. Now it is back in England temporarily, on loan to the National Maritime Museum which is celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the museum’s 75th anniversary with an exhibit about the role of the Thames in English history: Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames. The exhibit includes dozens of artifacts on loan from the Royal Collection and from other private collections all over Europe that have never before been put on public display.