Four Days' Battle, 1-4 June 1666

The Four Days' Battle (1-4 June 1666) was a major Dutch victory during the Second Anglo-Dutch War that saw a badly outnumbered British fleet suffer heavy casualties in one of the largest and longest battles fought during the age of sail.

At the start of 1666 the French and Danes declared war on Britain, joining the Dutch. While the Danish contribution was minimal, the threat from the French fleet led directly to the Dutch victory in the Four Days' Battle. In the spring of 1666 the English had 80 major warships in the Channel, under Prince Rupert of the Rhine and George Monck, duke of Albemarle, while the Dutch had 85 ships under de Ruyter. The two fleets were thus fairly evenly balanced.

This changed when a false rumour reached Charles II that a French fleet of thirty-six ships under the Duc de Beaufort had sailed from Toulon, and was close to the English Channel. Charles responded by ordering Prince Rupert to take one third of the fleet west to the Isle of Wight to guard against this potential threat. This left Monck with only fifty-six ships to face de Ruyter's eighty-five.

Portrait of Cornelis Tromp by Abraham Willaerts
Portrait of Cornelis Tromp
by Abraham Willaerts

As Prince Rupert took advantage of an easterly wind to head west along the Channel de Ruyter used the same wind to approach the Downs, where Monck was anchored. On the morning of 1 June de Ruyter was anchored in the middle of his fleet, with Tromp to his south-east and Evertson to the north-west. The English fleet was off to the south-west, and had the wind.

Monck decided to use this advantage to attack the superior Dutch fleet. Unfortunately for the British the sea was too rough for their bigger ships to use their lower tier of guns, where the largest guns were mounted. Monck's only real advantage was surprise, for de Ruyter was not expecting him to attack with such an obviously inferior fleet.

Monck decided to use the wind to attack Tromp and the Dutch left/ rear. The first few hours of the battle were thus between the thirty-five ships that had managed to keep up with Monck and Tromp's squadron, but by noon the Dutch centre and van had also joined the battle. A prolonged and costly melee followed, although relatively few ships were actually lost. On the Dutch side the Hof van Zeeland and Duivenvoorde both caught fire, while the English lost three men-of-war (including the Swiftsure and the Loyal George). Vice-Admiral Sir William Berkeley was killed during the fighting on the Swiftsure.

The evening was marked by a concerted fireship attack on the Henry, flagship of Vice-Admiral John Harman. Having become isolated Harman attempted to fight his way past De Ruyter's flagship, but was almost disabled. The Dutch sent in three fireships, two of which actually reached her, but Harman, together with his lieutenant Thomas Lamming, managed to fend off the fireships, and the Henry escaped back to port. With almost her final shot the Henry killed Cornelis Evertsen, one of two Dutch admirals to be killed on the first day of the battle (the other being Frederick Stachouwer).

The fighting ended for the day at about 10 pm, with the British to the west of the Dutch. The British had suffered most heavily during the fighting, and Monck only had forty-five of his fifty-six ships left (most of the rest having been sent back to port for repairs). The Dutch still had eighty ships, but despite this Monck decided to resume the battle on the following day.

Another long day of confused fighting followed, and by the early evening the British were close to disaster. Monck only had thirty-four seaworthy ships by the end of the day, while the Dutch received twelve reinforcements. Monck began a retreat to the west, hoping to run into Prince Rupert's squadron returning from the west.

The capture of the Royal Prince during the Four Days Battle
The capture of the
Royal Prince during
the Four Days Battle

This set the pattern for the third day of the battle. Monck abandoned three of the most damaged ships, and managed to stay ahead of the pursuing Dutch. One disaster did strike the British during the day when the Royal Prince (90), flagship of Admiral Sir George Ayscue, ran aground on the Galloper sandbank. He was threatened by two fireships, and was forced to surrender.

Soon after this a force of 20 ships was spotted to the west. For some time both commanders believed it to be their own reinforcements – either Prince Rupert or the Duc de Beaufort, but the Dutch would be disappointed. By the end of 3 June the two British squadrons were reunited, and Monck had around sixty ships to oppose de Ruyter's seventy-eight.

The battle resumed yet again on 4 June. A period of somewhat confused operations in line-of-battle was followed by more of a melee. The outnumbered British suffered most heavily, before the wind came to their rescue. The battle ended with both sides exhausted, and the Dutch to the lee of the British.

Different sources disagree on the number of ships lost on each side, but it was clear that the Dutch had won a significant victory. At a cost of six of seven ships lost they captured eight ships which they were able to bring back to port, and two or three more that surrendered but sank, as well as the Royal Prince, and eight or ten which sank or were burnt during the battle – a total of at least twenty ships lost by the British.

Despite suffering so heavily during the Four Days the British were quickly able to rebuild their fleet, and were back at sea in July, and the next battle, the St. James's Day Battle, would be a British victory.

De Ruyter, Dutch Admiral, ed Jaap R. Bruijn, Ronald Prud'homme van Reine and Rolof van Hövell tot Westerflier. A collection of interesting essays written by Dutch historians and that examines different aspects of de Ruyter’s life and the wider world of the Dutch Republic. This is a valuable piece of work that helps explain the important of de Ruyter as a European figure (not just as a commander during the Anglo-Dutch Wars). [read full review]
The Four Days Battle of 1666, Frank L Fox. This is a detailed study of the longest major battle of the age of sail, using English and Dutch accounts of the fighting to produce a clear but detailed account of the battle, the events that led up to it and its aftermath. An excellent study of a battle often described as the 'Greatest Sea Fight of the Age of Sail', and one that came just as the old melee tactics were being replaced by the line of battle [read full review]
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Subject Index: Anglo-Dutch Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (19 August 2009), Four Days' Battle, 1-4 June 1666 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_four_days.html

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