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Anglo-Dutch wars: 1652-1674

The first clash at sea between England and the United Provinces comes at a period, in 1652, when both nations are republics - England as the self-proclaimed Commonwealth which has executed its monarch in 1649, and the United Provinces as a republic which has at last achieved full international recognition in 1648.

As Protestant republics the two should be in sympathy. But as maritime nations, competing for trade around the world, and together requiring the Channel and the North Sea for access to their home harbours, they have everything to fight for.


The Dutch have a stronger trading position. Their dominance in the far east has been brutally asserted in 1623, with the massacre of English merchants in Amboina. They have more recently seen off English fleets in the Mediterranean. But geographically they have a major disadvantage in relation to England. To bring home their merchantmen, heavily laden with valuable goods, they have to escort them through waters close to British shores - either through the Channel, or by the northern route round Scotland.

Between 1649 and 1651 the leaders of the Commonwealth double the size of the English fleet. By 1652 they are ready to challenge Dutch merchant fleets passing through the Channel.


The first engagement is an inconclusive encounter between a Dutch fleet commanded by Maarten Tromp and an English squadron under Robert Blake. They are two of the best admirals of the time. A third is Michiel de Ruyter, who fights brilliantly for the Dutch in later stages of the conflict. It is he who carries off the famous triumph (or in British eyes the outrageous affront) of sailing up the Thames and into the Medway in 1667, to destroy much of the English fleet in its home base.

These three admirals all lose their lives in sea battles. Every engagement of these Anglo-Dutch wars is fought at sea - an indication of the new importance, since the Armada, of naval warfare.


The first Anglo-Dutch war ends in 1654 with the treaty of Westminster, by which the Dutch pay an indemnity - long after the event - for the massacre at Amboina. Hostilities resume in 1665, until the treaty of Breda in 1667 formally cedes New Amsterdam to England. The third war lasts from 1672 to 1674, ending with another treaty of Westminster and the symbolic concession that Dutch ships will salute the English flag in the North Sea - as a mark of respect only.

In immediate terms the effect of these wars has been slight. The important underlying change is that the English navy has grown steadily in strength and stature and can now stake a claim - fully justified in the next century - to be the world's leading maritime power.


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