Battle of Goodwin Sands, 19 May 1652

The battle of Goodwin Sands (or Dover) of 19 May 1652 developed from a chance encounter between two English squadrons and a Dutch fleet taking shelter off Dover, and led to the outbreak of the First Anglo Dutch War.

Relationships between the Dutch and the English had been poor for some time. Commercial rivalry was at the heart of the issue, but the tension was also increased by the English claim to rule the seas around the British Isles and the accompanying insistence that any foreign ship in 'English Waters' had to dip its flag in salute to any English warship. Things only got worse after Parliament's victory in the Civil War. The Trade and Navigation Acts of 1651 insisted that all goods imported into England be landed in English ships. This threatened the Dutch herring industry, forced her ships out of the lucrative English coastal trade and made it harder for the Dutch to bring goods in from the Baltic. Parliament's victory in the Civil War also meant that the Navy was properly funded, and in 1652 the English fleet was significantly more powerful than its Dutch equivalent.

The first direct clash between English and Dutch warships in the Channel came on 12 May 1652, off Start Point (near Dartmouth). A convoy of seven Dutch merchant ships, escorted by three warships, was heading west along the Channel on its way towards the Mediterranean. Three English ships under Captain Anthony Young (in the President) sailed close to the Dutch convoy in the mistaken belief that the ships were English. The commander of the Dutch fleet dipped his flags, but one of his captains. Young was forced to open fire, and a ninety minute gun battle followed before the entire Dutch squadron dipped their flags and were allowed to sail on.

Six days  later a much bigger Dutch fleet containing forty-one warships under the command of Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp (1598-1653), was forced to abandon an exposed anchorage between Dunkirk and Nieuport and take shelter close to Dover.

Two English squadrons were present off the Kent coast as the Dutch approached. The largest – thirteen ships under the command of Admiral Robert Blake – was in the Downs, while another nine ships were on the far side of the Goodwin Sands. Tromp didn't want to risk a battle, and so sent two of his captains to Blake's flagship to explain the situation. This first encounter between the two fleets ended peacefully. On the morning of 19 May Blake moved his squadron towards the Dutch fleet, which took advantage of the improved weather to sail out of English waters. Unfortunately for Tromp he then discovered that a convoy of seventeen Dutch merchant ships, returning from the Mediterranean, was anchored close to the English coast. Despite the presence of the two English squadrons Tromp decided to turn back to protect the convoy.

As the two fleets closed on each other Blake fired a gun, the signal that the Dutch were expected to dip their flags. Tromp refused. Blake fired another signal gun, and then a third warning ship that hit Tromp's flagship, the Brederode.

Each side gave a different version of what happened next. The English claimed that Tromp fired a broadside, while Tromp claimed that the English fired first, aiming at his rigging. This signalled the start of a full scale battle, between Tromp's forty-one ships and Blake's twenty-two (at about 4.00pm). Although the English were outnumbered their ships were generally larger that Tromp's, and at the end of five hours of fighting the English had won a slender victory. Two Dutch ships were too badly damaged to leave with the rest of Tromp's fleet, and fell into English hands, although one soon sank.

The battle of Goodwin Sands effectively opened the First Anglo-Dutch War. Blake was back at sea by June, although war wasn't officially declared until July.

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Subject Index: Anglo-Dutch Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 August 2009), Battle of Goodwin Sands, 19 May 1652 ,

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