The Dutch Wars of the 1660s and their Medals
Early awards for campaign service.
London in the mid-1660s was a capital city in crisis – it was to experience the horror of the Great Plague in 1665, followed by the massive destruction wrought by the Great Fire and was in the depth of a military crisis which had already been running for over a decade. War (and even the possibility of a naval attack on London) was very much in the air, with Britain engaged in a series of on-and-off naval encounters with her great commercial rival, the Dutch. Its threats and anxieties were very much reflected in the famous Dairy of Samuel Pepys, in the works of other contemporary commentators like John Evelyn and in the new regular “news sheets” and official journals which were just beginning to appear in London in the 1660s (the London Gazette was first published on 7 November 1665).
At the beginning of the 17C, Anglo-Dutch relations were very good – based on their common defence of the Protestant religion and Britain’s assistance to the Dutch States during their wars of liberation against the Spanish. But as the century progressed, the Dutch began to build up their trading power, replacing the Portuguese as the main European traders in Asia and gaining control of the hugely profitable Far East trade in spices, as well as developing their links with Europe and in the Baltic. There was an enormous expansion of the Dutch merchant fleet, giving Holland the largest mercantile fleet of Europe – bigger that of all other nations combined. At the same time, the Dutch warship fleet also grew in size and power. By the 1640s, Britain and Holland were serious international trading rivals.
The English Civil War, after 1642, seriously weakened England’s naval position. Its navy was as politically divided as was the country so that the Dutch were even able to take over much of England’s maritime trade with its North American colonies. However, peace between Spain (its ancient enemy) and Holland in 1648 greatly reduced the need for a large and costly Dutch fleet, which was rapidly decommissioned. But England’s new republican “Commonwealth” under Oliver Cromwell created a powerful navy, greatly expanding the number of ships, directly to confront the Dutch threat to its international trade and to take advantage of the relative decline of Spain.
Cromwell’s government took an overtly aggressive attitude to the Dutch. In 1651 Parliament passed the first Navigation Act, which directed that all goods imported into England must be carried by English ships from the exporting countries, thus excluding what were mainly Dutch middlemen. The Commonwealth, aiming to revive an ancient perceived “right” for England to be recognised as the ‘lord of the seas’, demanded that all other ships strike their flags in salute to English ships, even in foreign ports. On 29 May 1652, Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp refused to lower his flag to salute a passing English fleet, the result being a naval clash known as the Battle of Goodwin Sands, following which the Commonwealth declared war on Holland on 10 July. Thus began the First Dutch War (1652-54).
After some inconclusive skirmishes during 1651, the English decisively won the first major battle when General at Sea Robert Blake defeated Vice-Admiral de Withe in October 1652. However, overconfident in their success, and believing that the war was all but over, the English divided their fleet and in December were routed by Admiral Tromp off Dungeness. The Dutch were also victorious in March 1653 off Leghorn, Italy, and won effective control of both the Mediterranean and the English Channel. In the winter of 1653 Admiral Blake and General George Monck rethought the whole system of naval tactics and the English navy drove the Dutch navy out of the English Channel in the battle of Portland and then out of the North Sea after the battle of the Gabbard. In the final battle at Scheveningen in August 1653 Tromp was killed but as both nations were exhausted, peace negotiations ended the First Dutch War in April 1654 with the the Treaty of Westminster.
After the Restoration in 1660, the new king, Charles II, promoted a series of anti-Dutch mercantile policies, believing that a combination of English naval power and privateering would cripple the rival Dutch Republic; Samuel Pepys recorded that war fever swept London at the time. The Second Dutch War, provoked in 1664, saw a number of English naval victories such as the taking of the Dutch colony of New Netherland (including Fort Amsterdam, now New York), but also Dutch victories, such as the capture of the Prince Royal during the “Four Days Battle” in 1666.
In June 1667, the Dutch inflicted one of the most humiliating defeats the British ever suffered. In a naval raid led by Admiral de Ruyter, a Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames, broke through the defensive chains guarding the Medway, and actually burned part of the English fleet as it lay docked at Chatham; they towed away as prizes the Unity and the Royal Charles – the latter being the flagship and pride of the English fleet. After this important victory, the expanded Dutch navy remained for years the world’s strongest and the Dutch Republic at the zenith of its power.
Dutch success had a major psychological impact throughout England, with London feeling especially vulnerable at a time when it was also dealing with the devastating effects of the Great Plague and the Great Fire – a period of anxiety well reflected in the Diary of Samuel Pepys, himself an increasingly important administrator for the Navy Board. All these factors led to the rapid signing of a peace treaty at Breda in 1667.
In the wake of such embarrassing failures, there was nothing for it but to rapidly rebuild England’s navy and re-assert some form of naval authority. Although there was little support for another naval campaign in a war-weary country, Charles II was bound by the Treaty of Dover to assist the French King Louis XIV in his attack on the Republic. When the French army faltered before Dutch land defences, an attempt was made to invade Holland by sea but the Dutch fleet under Admiral de Ruyter won a series of strategic victories against Anglo-French fleets (e.g. at the battle of Solebay in June 1672) and prevented invasion. After these failures the English parliament forced Charles to make peace in 1674, ending the Third Dutch War (1672-74).
The advent of a Dutch monarch in England in 1688, in the form of William of Orange (William III) somewhat altered the whole situation, with William anxious to sponsor the development of the English fleet rather than the Dutch and to use English military and naval power to aid Holland in its continuing conflict with France.
Commonwealth Naval Awards.
At a time when the actual awarding of medals for any service was by no means the norm – although several types are known from both sides of the English Civil War (1642-51) – there does appear to be the germ of a structured system of naval medals appearing during the Republican era. Although ad hoc awards were made to individuals for distinguished service at sea (e.g. the medals, in various metals and grades, voted by Parliament in 1650 to Captain Wyard and his officers and men in the Adventure), distinctive and standardised naval medals began to appear under the Common -wealth. All were designed by the prominent artist and Royal Mint medallist Thomas Simon (c.1623-1665), who designed the Great Seal of the Commonwealth and whose name or initials appear on the medals.
The earliest was a small die-struck medal (the first to be produced in this way), known in gold and silver, issued by order of Parliament in 1649-50. It was to be given to both officers and other ranks for “extraordinary service” at sea. Examples of these awards are, unsurprisingly, very rare indeed and the actual number awarded is not known, though it was probably very small. The medal bore on its obverse an anchor between the shields of England and Ireland and the legend Meruisti (“You have Merited”); the reverse showed he House of Commons in session – exactly as used on the Dunbar Medal of 1651.
The system of naval awards was taken one step further in 1653, with the appearance of what was perhaps intended to be part of a regulated series which could be issued in standard form as required in the future. In 1651, Scotland had joined the Commonwealth, so that what are called the “Commonwealth Naval Awards” authorised in 1653, bore on the obverse the Commonwealth arms of three linked national emblems, around an anchor – adding that of Scotland to those of England and Ireland used on the 1649-50 version. The reverse has a fine depiction of a full-scale naval engagement. It is believed that approx. 170 of these medals, in various types (as below), were awarded.
Some thought may have been given to reflecting the status of the recipients, since this type of medal was produced in three distinct sizes, with variations. The largest, an oval of 56mm x 51mm, was issued only in gold, to be worn from a valuable gold chain conferred with the medal, and given to high ranking officers and captain; those to Admiral Blake, General Monck, Vice Admiral Penn and Rear Admiral Lawson are among the nineteen believed to have been awarded; three surviving examples are known. The medal had an attractive border of naval trophies, including the arms of Zeeland and Holland, framing the main design. They were conferred for the great victory over Admiral van Tromp off the Texel on 31st July 1653 – the most decisive English naval victory.
Smaller versions of this medal, ovals of 50mm by 45mm, also made only in gold and with a less elaborate border decoration of laurel sprays, were granted ships’ captains and others. The initial Resolution of August 8th 1653 ordering its production refers to distribution “amongst the officers of the fleet” and it is believed that about 70 were awarded, without gold chains, of which only two are known to survive. They cost Parliament over £1000 to produce – a considerable sum.
The third version of this medal, a smaller oval at 41mm by 36mm, but again only known in gold, without chain, was conferred in 1658 retrospectively for service in the First Dutch War. It was given to approx 80 higher-ranking officers (and possibly, according to some sources, to junior officers) who distinguished themselves in one or more of a number of successful naval engagements during the war, like that off Beachy Head on 20th Feb. 1653. This type had no decorative border. Approx. 10 are known to exist.
Interestingly, these medals are known to have been issued with integral rings, which indicates that they were meant to be worn in public, if not from the expensive gold chains which were conferred with the first type, then presumably from a ribbon, so that they were more than a simple commemorative gift from a grateful government. General Monck is shown wearing his medal in a contemporary engraving.
The “Naval Reward” of 1665.
The sequence of naval awards was continued into the reign of Charles II, with the production of the “Naval Reward” of 1665. Intended to reward naval service in the Second and Third Dutch Wars (1665-67 and 1672-74) it was designed by Jan Roettier (1631-1703), the celebrated English engraver and medallist descended from a family of Antwerp goldsmiths who founded a dynasty of distinguished European goldsmiths, artists and sculptors; he had worked with Thomas Simon and was widely regarded as one of the finest engravers ever employed at the English mint, praised by both Evelyn and Pepys. He also designed, amongst many others, the new Great Seal and coronation medals.
Roettier’s naval medal, in silver, is a large and handsome piece, featuring on its obverse the laureate and mantled bust of Charles II with titles Carolus Secundus D.G. Mag. Bri. Fra. Et Hib. Rex; the reverse has the king attired à l’antique as a Roman emperor, observing a naval engagement from the shore. The exergue has the Virgilian quotation Pro Talibus Ausis (“For Such Deeds”). Unlike the Commonwealth types, the 1665 medal is not believed to have been intended as a wearable award – it is rather large and heavy.
There are a very few known examples of medals which may have been intended as similar naval rewards appearing under James II (1685-88) and William and Mary but regrettably the whole idea of producing and awarding anything like standardised medals fell into abeyance in the 18C, when there was a return to a less structured system of medallic awards and to the manufacture of individual and varied types produced as and when deemed necessary. Many of the original dies of these awards still exist and over the years were used to strike museum or collectors’ copies in a range of metals – much more widely found than the rare originals.
It should also be mentioned that, as was the custom of the times, a number of privately made purely commemorative medallions celebrating the various naval victories was produced.