The Battle of Solebay: Southwold sea battle to mark 340th anniversary

IN May 1672, the coast off Southwold was the scene for one of the key confrontations of the Anglo-Dutch war. As we approach its 340th anniversary, BEN WOODS looks back at the Battle of Solebay and how it left its mark on the town's history...

IT was supposed to be a time of rest for the English navy – when the thought of war was far from people's minds.

But as the night set in, ill-prepared sailors were literally dragged from their taverns to fend off an attack by dozens of Dutch warships.

It was to become one of the most important periods in Southwold's history; a conflict hailed as the Battle of Solebay, the first naval engagement of the third Anglo-Dutch war in which thousands of men lost their lives fighting along the north Suffolk coast.

The date was May 28, 1672, and it began at 2.30am when a French frigate spied a Dutch fleet – led by Lieutenant Admiral Michiel de Ruyter – heading for English shores.

Their sights were set on Southwold – headquarters of the Admiralty and home port to scores of sailors who formed England's first line of defence against a naval attack from the east.

Led by the Duke of York and the Earl of Sandwich, the Anglo-French fleet quickly assembled 93 vessels, including 6,018 cannons, frigates, fireships and 35,000 men.

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But with 75 vessels, more than 20,000 men and 4,484 cannons, the Dutch fleet proved a formidable foe.

The Duke – who later became King James II – had to transfer ship twice as the St Michael was sunk and the Prince Royal was crippled after a two-hour duel with De Ruyter's flagship, the De Zeven Provinci�n,

Meanwhile, Admiral Edward Montagu, the first Earl of Sandwich, faced a desperate struggle for survival after his flagship, the HMS Royal James, came under attack.

His ship was repeatedly pounded by cannon fire after Dutch Captain Jan van Brakel managed to attach the Groot Hollandia to his vessel.

Determined not to surrender to Cpt van Brakel – a man of lower birth – the Earl ordered crews from smaller ships to swarm the decks of Cpt Van Brakel's vessel.

The Dutchman was forced to retreat, but unleashed a fleet of fireships on the Royal James, causing the English sailors to abandon ship.

The Earl was drowned during the attempted escape and his body was later discovered after being washed ashore. The shield of his Order of the Garter was used to identify his charred remains.

Elsewhere, death and destruction heaped tragedy on both nations in almost equal measure.

The Dutch counted two ships and 1,800 men among their casualties, while the English lost a number of ships and 2,000 men.

Come sunset, the battle was over and the Dutch fleet was heading back across the North Sea – with both nations claiming victory.

For John Miller, a steward of Southwold museum, the naval battle remains one of the most fascinating events in the town's long history.

'During the second world war the town was on the front line and we were bombed by German aircraft and people died as a result. But in 1672 we were also on the front line when it came to the Battle of Solebay,' he said.

Mr Miller, who played a major role in creating the museum's Southwold at War exhibition, lays some blame at the doors of the French forces who left the scene of battle after spotting the Dutch fleet sailing into English waters.

'The French, our allies, did not take part because they hoped the English and the Dutch fleet would clash so much that the French fleet would be the victor in the long run,' he said.

'The battle went on all day, but many of the British sailors were drunk because it was Whitsun holiday and the Duke had given them permission to have a few days' relaxation and rest.'

Contemporary reports of the battle recount how bailiffs and a drummer boy spent four hours pulling men away from the local taverns to get them back on the ships to do battle.

Meanwhile, people in the town gathered along the cliffside to watch the spectacle unfold, even though it happened about 10 miles from the shore.

Mr Miller said: 'The battle took place from Easton Bavents to Minsmere – perhaps six or 10 miles out to sea. But nevertheless, hundreds of people from the villages all stayed on the cliffs in order to see what was going on.

'Because they feared that if the Dutch won they would enter the bay and make a line for looting, the authorities closed the bridge linking Southwold and Reydon, so people could not flee.

'In the end both sides claimed victory, and the irony is that 10 years later we would invite William of Orange to come and be our king.'

In the battle's aftermath, the people of Southwold were left caring for more than 800 injured sailors, many of whose shipmates had met a violent end.

The English and Dutch fleets were to meet again the following year at the Battle of Schooneveld, but the Battle of Solebay would never be forgotten in one corner north Suffolk.

• For more on the history of the Battle of Solebay click on the link in the top right hand corner of the page to find out more about Sutherland House and its links to the conflict.

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