Holmes's Bonfire - Aftermath


On 21 August (11 August Old Style), Holmes returned to the main fleet and could report, using Howard as messenger, to Monck that he had destroyed "about 150 ships", captured an old flyboat (with twelve cannon) at the south shore of Vlieland and had destroyed ter Schelling, all of this at a cost of half a dozen dead, an equal number wounded, and a single sloop — and despite being rather ill throughout the operation, perhaps from a malaria attack. A day earlier, the secretary of prince Rupert James Hayes, using the Julian calendar, had already written to England: "On the 9th, at noon, smoke was seen rising from several places in the island of Vlie, and the 10th brought news that Sir Robert had burned in the enemy's harbour 160 outward bound valuable merchantmen and three men-of-war, and taken a little pleasure boat and eight guns in four hours. The loss is computed at a million sterling, and will make great confusion when the people see themselves in the power of the English at their very doors. Sir Robert then landed his forces, and is burning the houses in Vlie and Schelling as bonfires for his good success at sea", thus being the first to use the word "bonfire" for this event, which soon became very common. Charles II of England ordered bonfires to be lit in celebration of the victory, as was usual. A poem thus expressed the boisterous elation felt by the English, that their victory in the naval fight was so soon followed by this success:

Where are those boasting boors, what are their names?
That swore they blockt us up i'th River Thames
Brave, were it done: I must confess the Hogan
Was very willing, but wanted Mogan
Our streets were thick with bonfires large and tall
But Holmes one bonfire made, was worth'em all
Well done Sir Robert, bravely done I swear,
Whilst we made bonfires here, you made'em there

Much of the credit however, was given to Heemskerck.

After the defeat in the St James's Day Fight political tensions in the Dutch Republic had strongly increased, with the loyal servant of the States regime, Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, accusing the champion of the rivaling Orangist faction, Lieutenant-Admiral Cornelis Tromp, to have abandoned the main body of the Dutch fleet to seek his personal glory. On 21 August the news of a second catastrophe at the Vlie caused rioting in Amsterdam, where the stock market collapsed; an angry Orangist mob tried to plunder the house of De Ruyter. Commentators in England predicted the fall of the leader of the States faction, Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt, expecting him to flee to France.

De Witt however, deftly exploited the situation to his advantage. Having arrested on 19 August the main English contact with the Orangists, Henri Buat, he soon produced convincing evidence that the Orangists had collaborated with the enemy. The outrage this caused was then directed by him to the humanitarian aspects of the raid and away from the fact that a fleet worth two million guilders had been lost. In this he was aided by the reaction of the Dutch population to the destruction of Terschelling. Whereas in the English Channel and the Irish Sea it would well into the 18th century remain common to raid villages of other nations, even in peacetime, the English and Dutch had gradually stopped attacking each other's coastal settlements around the middle of the 16th century, reaching a situation in the North Sea of what the Dutch liked to call 'good neighbourship' between Protestant brother nations. Everybody understood that in wartime soldiers would plunder, but laying waste to an entire town, as Holmes had done, was seen as a betrayal of mutual trust and thus caused a storm of indignation. Many pamphlets were written dedicated to the "Sack of ter Schelling", highlighting the presumed atrocities committed by the English. Such accusations had only a limited factual basis; the number of civilian casualties had been low. After the English had left, the operator of the northern fire beacon of Schelling was found slain and the remains of two invalid elderly women were discovered in the charred ruins of their houses; they had apparently been unable to escape the fire when it reached their homes. In some pamphlets these tragic facts were translated into a brutal massacre of the population, with English soldiers callously burning alive decrepit grandmothers. Charles's ordering of bonfires in these circumstances was condemned as a show of particularly poor taste.

Three weeks later, the Great Fire of London occurred. This led to a new wave of Dutch pamphlets and poems linking these events, often showing two engravings, the Destruction of ter Schelling at the left mirrored by that of London on the right. To the Dutch mind the connection was obvious: London had been destroyed as a Divine retribution, the Lord punishing Charles for having dared to rejoice at the calamity of his fellow Christians, "the sparks of the fire of Schelling crossing the sea, blown by the same easterly that would relentlessly burn London".

The English accounts of the raid that were published later that year did not make this connection. However, while self-congratulatory when covering the burning of the fleet, their tone turned apologetic as the destruction of ter Schelling was described. They emphasized how neat and well-laid out the town was and that it was burnt more by accident than intent, Holmes, according to them, not intending to terrorize the population. This reflected a changed mood in England. After the first feeling of satisfaction had subsided, a more sober analysis brought many to the conclusion that the raid had done the Dutch much harm, but the English little good. Although it was to be the largest single loss of shipping ever to be afflicted to the Dutch merchant fleet, 130 ships represented only a minor fraction of the total number of merchantmen, so the blow was hardly fatal. Nothing constructive had been accomplished; no major prizes taken, nor goods, no permanent base established on the islands. The destruction of ter Schelling was seen as a foolish act that could lead to a dangerous escalation. Nobody relished the prospect of the Dutch taking revenge on the largely defenceless towns of the English east coast.

In the Dutch Republic also a change of mood took place. The initial dismay was replaced by a dogged determination to continue the war and repair the damage done. The Republic had for the time a strongly institutionalised system of poor relief; as ter Schelling was unable to help its poor, aid was offered by several municipalities, including Harlingen. Also most churches in the province of Holland held special collections of donations; as the rivalling denominations tried to outdo each other in the amount of money given, soon enough funds were available to shelter the poor for the coming winter and make a start with rebuilding the town. The Great Fire of London brought most to the conclusion that God had already avenged the destruction of ter Schelling, so no special retaliation on English coastal towns was necessary. However, when the following year Charles deliberately procrastinated the peace talks held in Breda, De Witt used the lingering resentment caused by Holmes's Bonfire to convince the States of Holland that it was justified to end the war by a devastating raid on Chatham Dockyard where the larger vessels of the English fleet were laid up. During this Raid on the Medway the Dutch marines had strict orders not to plunder or destroy any civilian property, in order to shame the English. That at least some of the English understood this, is shown by Samuel Pepys' diary entry of 30 June 1667: "It seems very remarkable to me, and of great honour to the Dutch, that those of them that did go on shore to Gillingham, though they went in fear of their lives, and were some of them killed; and, notwithstanding their provocation at Schelling, yet killed none of our people nor plundered their houses, but did take some things of easy carriage, and left the rest, and not a house burned; and, which is to our eternal disgrace, that what my Lord Douglas's men, who come after them, found there, they plundered and took all away".

When after the successful raid it seemed that Charles was still trying to prolong the talks, De Witt suggested some "light spoiling" to be carried out on the English east coast, but Lieutenant-Admiral De Ruyter protested vehemently against such a change of policy after which the Grand Pensionary had to admit such actions would be "counterproductive and even somewhat unchristian".

In later Dutch accounts of the raid the burning of ter Schelling would be much emphasized. It was kept alive in memory by a famous legend, that of the Stryper Wyfke, the "Little Wife of Stryp". According to the, probably apocryphal, story, those people having escaped massacre by fleeing to the east side of the island were saved from the encroaching English troops by an old crone near the hamlet of Stryp, where an ancient abandoned graveyard laid on a dune. Peering through the fog, some soldiers mistook the standing headstones for a line of Dutch troops and asked the old woman how many there were. She answered, in some versions of the legend in order to deceive, in others through a misunderstanding of the question: "Hundreds of them are standing, but thousands are lying" — referring to the buried corpses — after which the English would have become so frightened that they abandoned their approach. Many accounts of English naval historians however, only mention the burning of the fleet, glossing over the destruction of the town.

Today, the legend of the Stryper Wyfke is commemorated by a bronze statue west of Midsland that shows her pointing to the graveyard, facing an easterly breeze.

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