A Rake’s Progress: The Earl of Rochester and the 2nd Anglo-Dutch War
Today’s guest blog was written by Rebecca Rideal, Researcher at University College London. She looks at the actions of notorious rake, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, during the 2nd Anglo-Dutch War.
When thinking about English naval history, the notorious rake and poet, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, might not be a name that immediately springs to mind. Yet, in the mid-1660s, the teenage earl was involved in two of the key battles of the 2nd Anglo-Dutch War.
In 1665, shortly after the first major clash of the war (the Battle of Lowestoft), and following a brief spell in the Tower for kidnapping an heiress, eighteen-year-old Rochester joined the fleet as a ‘gentleman volunteer’. Close to Flamborough Head, Sir Thomas Allin recorded in his journal on 12 July:
My Lord of Rochester, Lieutenant O’Brien and a French gentleman were very earnest to go away to the fleet in the Edward and Eve ketch . . . carrying money, soldiers and seamen with them. I loath to venture so many in a vessel of little defence against privateer [so] ordered the Success to go along with them.[i]
On 15 July, the small convoy reached the main fleet and the Earl of Sandwich (who had been given active command of the navy following Lowestoft) noted in his journal how, ‘My Lord Rochester came . . . to remain on my ship for the voyage’.[ii] At Charles II’s request, Rochester was placed under Sandwich’s direct care and given a cabin of his own on the flagship Prince Royal. Sandwich, whose fifteen-year-old son Sydney was also on board, said he had accommodated Rochester ‘as best I can’.
The first of Rochester’s engagements came in late July when the fleet was sent on a mission to the neutral port of Bergen, Norway. They were to raid or capture returning Dutch East India ships in the hope that the gains would help fund the English war effort. There was no question that naval action would give Rochester an opportunity to win back the King’s favour, but treasure-lust was doubtlessly a motivating factor as well. He noted himself how ‘full of hopes and expectation’ he had been during this first mission as he sought ‘shirts and gould’.[iii]
In the end, slippery intelligence, bad planning, low supplies, and terrible weather turned the mission into a dreadful failure. When the English reached Bergen, the locals and the Dutch formed an alliance and battered the English ships. Hundreds of men died, including six captains. Rochester, who was on board Sir Thomas Teddeman’s flagship, the Revenge, during the action, witnessed two of his friends being killed by cannon fire. None of the Dutch ships were captured. The day after the battle, he wrote a letter to his mother from ‘the Coast of Norway amongst the rocks aboard the Revenge’, describing the action and telling her ‘Mr Mountague & Thom: Windhams brother were both killed with one shott just by mee, but God Almyghty was pleased to preserve mee from any kind of hurt’.[iv]
Rochester spent the remainder of the summer campaign in active service. In September, he was with the fleet when they captured several Dutch ships – conducting himself in a ‘brave’ and ‘industrious’ manner[v] – and was selected to carry the news to the exiled court. In 1666, he missed the Four Days Battle due to his new role as Gentleman of the Bedchamber, but rejoined the fleet in time for the St James’s Day Battle (a victory for the English). During this battle he courageously carried messages from the Royal Charles to another vessel, while under heavy fire.
On his deathbed years later, Rochester’s thoughts returned to the battle at the port of Bergen. He revealed to Bishop Gilbert Burnet that a pact had been made between himself and Mr Windham. They had promised that if one of them should die in the action they would return to the other to prove that there was a ‘future state’. According to Burnet ‘that Gentlemans never appearing was a great snare to him, during the rest of his life.’
Join me on the 19th November to discover more about the lives and deaths of the men who fought in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. To find out more and book tickets, visit the website.
[i] Anderson, (eds). The Journals of Sir Thomas Allin, 1660–1678, Volume I (Navy Records Society, 1929) p. 240.
[ii] Anderson, (eds). The Journal of Edward Montagu, First Earl of Sandwich, Admiral and General at Sea.
1659–1665, (Navy Records Society, 1929) p. 243.
[iii] Treglown, Jeremy (eds) The letters of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, (Blackwell, Oxford, 1980), p. 46–49.
[iv] Treglown, Jeremy (eds) The letters of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, (Blackwell, Oxford, 1980), p. 46–49.
[v] SP 29/132 f.127