St. James's Day Battle/ North Foreland/ Two Day's Battle, 25-26 July/ 4-5 August 1666

The St. James's Day Battle (25-26 July 1666) was a British victory during the Second Anglo-Dutch War that proved that the Royal Navy had not been too badly damaged during the Dutch victory in the Four Days' Battle at the start of June.

The battle became known as the St. James's Day Battle in Britain, where it started on 25 July in the Julian calendar. To the Dutch, for whom the battle started on 4 August in the Gregorian calendar the battle was known as the Two Days' Battle.

After the Four Days' Battle both sides needed time to repair the damage to their fleets, and the Dutch only beat the British to sea by seven days. On 15 July they put to sea with troops onboard, in the hope that they would be able to land in England, but a lack of French cooperation prevented this and the troops were landed back in the Netherlands. The fleet itself remained at sea, and on the evening of 22 July was to the north-east of the mouth of the Thames. The fleet, of 88 men-of-war, 10 yachts and 20 fireships, was under the command of Michiel de Ruyter.

On the same day the British fleet, under George Monck and Prince Rupert, assembled at the mouth of the Thames. The British fleet was slightly smaller than the Dutch, with 81 men-of-war and 18 fireships. The British fleet anchored eighteen miles to the south west of the Dutch, but the weather then intervened to prevent an immediate battle. On 23 July both fleets were becalmed, while on the night of 23-24 July a storm blew, doing damage to both sides. During 24 July both fleets manoeuvred for position, with the British attempting unsuccessfully to seize the advantage of the wind. On the night of 24-25 July the two fleets anchored between Orfordness and the North Foreland, with the Dutch to the north-east of the British.

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

Finally, on the morning of 25 July, the two fleets prepared for battle. The British weighed anchor at about 2 am and for the next eight hours the fleets slowly approached each other. The battle would be decided by the greater discipline on the British side. Both sides formed into a line of battle, but the Dutch line was curved, and the ships were unevenly distributed and crowded together in the van and centre, while the rear, under Tromp, was somewhat isolated.

Each fleet was organised into three squadrons, and from about ten they each appear to have clashed with their opposite numbers – van against van, centre against centre and rear against rear – although Tromp appears to have drawn away from the main fleet in an attempt to break the British line. As a result the battle developed into two separate fights – Tromp vs Smyth with the two rear squadrons began to drift towards the English coast, while the battle between the van and centres drifted east.

The battle between the English and Dutch vans lasted until around 1 pm. By this time three Dutch admirals had been killed, amongst them Jan Evertsen, and eventually the Dutch van broke and fled.

In the centre De Ruyter was more successful, but his squadron was also eventually forced to pull out of the fight, although not until 4 pm. By this time the British flagships Royal Katherine and St. George had both been forced out of the battle, while De Ruyter's own flagship had been dismasted. At about 4 the Dutch centre gave way, but the British were in no position to take advantage of that until the evening, by which time De Ruyter had restored some order to his squadron. The Dutch centre then fought a fighting retreat which lasted into the morning of 26 July before they reached the safety of the shallow waters near the Dutch coast. The Dutch were forced to abandon and burn two of their most badly damaged ships before the retreat.

The Dutch rear had the most success. During the fighting on 25 July Smyth is said to have continuously pulled away from the Dutch, to draw Tromp away from the main fight, but also probably because he was badly outgunned. During this fighting a Dutch fireship destroyed the Resolution. Overnight Tromp learnt of the defeat of the Dutch van and centre, and was forced to retreat back towards safety with Smyth now in pursuit. During this phase of the battle the Dutch lost Rear-Admiral Govert Hoen before reaching safety.

By the end of the battle the Dutch had lost four admirals, two major ships and most of their fireships, and had suffered as many as 7,000 casualties. The British had lost the Resolution and at least six of their fireships.

In the immediate aftermath of the battle the British gained complete control of the seas off the Dutch coast, using the Dutch anchorage at Schooneveld and then sailing north up the coast seizing merchant ships. The most catastrophic Dutch losses came at Vlie on 10 August, when a British force under Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Holmes burnt as many as 170 Dutch merchant ships ('Holmes's Bonfire')

The British advantage won on St. James's Day was soon lost. The country was already suffering from the after effects of the Great Plague of 1665, while on 2-5 September 1666 the Great Fire of London raged. Charles II found himself desperately short of money, and over the winter of 1666-67 the fleet was badly neglected. When the war resumed in the spring of 1667 the Dutch took advantage of this crisis and launched a raid into the Thames, destroyed a number of British warships in the Medway in one of the most humiliating defeats suffered by the Royal Navy. 

Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail, Peter Kirsch. A lavishly illustrated look at one of the most feared weapons of the age of sail. This is a very impressive piece of work – well written and researched, wide ranging in scope and with detailed accounts of most of the key fireship attacks from the sixteenth century wars against Spain to the Greek War of Independence. An essential read for anyone interested in naval warfare in the age of sail. [see more]
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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]

Subject Index: Anglo-Dutch Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 August 2009), St. James's Day Battle/ North Foreland/ Two Day's Battle, 25-26 July/ 4-5 August 1666 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_st_james_day.html

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