Holmes's Bonfire - Background


After its victory in the St James's Day Fight on 4 and 5 August 1666 (Gregorian calendar, 25 and 26 July Julian Calendar), the English Fleet controlled the North Sea. The Dutch fleet, though having lost only two ships, was severely damaged and would for some weeks be unable to challenge the English fleet. The joint fleet commanders, George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle and Prince Rupert of the Rhine, on 7 August discussed how best to exploit this situation. The most advantageous course of action, initiating a permanent blockade of the Dutch coast and thus preventing the Dutch fleet from leaving port, was precluded by the fact that the supply situation of the English fleet was very poor, due to the structural lack of sufficient funding. It was to be expected that the English fleet would be forced to return to the home ports, even before the Dutch fleet was repaired. To accomplish anything of import during the limited time period available, a much more aggressive undertaking than a mere blockade was indicated: to attack one of the Dutch ports.

The most attractive Dutch targets were however also the most dangerous. In the south, the port of Rotterdam was too far inland and the naval ports of Flushing and Hellevoetsluis too heavily defended. More to the north, the vast wealth of the city of Amsterdam could only be reached by recklessly entering the Zuyderzee past most of the still active vessels of the Dutch fleet, lying in wait in the Texel. Because of these dangers, there would be no English attempts on these ports until Napoleonic times. But one lesser target was more exposed. The naval port of the Admiralty of Friesland, Harlingen, lies at the southern edge of the Waddenzee, the vast stretch of mudflats between the Frisian Isles and the continental coast. Harlingen's exit to the North Sea, located 20 miles (32 km) to the northwest, is the Vlie, the ancient estuary of the IJssel river, between the islands of Vlieland and Terschelling. The channel was often used as moorage and it was, correctly, assumed that a large number of merchantmen were at anchor here, sheltering from the English fleet and waiting to resume their voyage to the Baltic, each year the destination of thousands of Dutch vessels.

The shoals, at this point even more dangerous than usual at the Dutch coast, were generally considered sufficient protection against any enemy attack. However, the English had the advantage of being aided by a Dutch captain, Laurens Heemskerck, known to the English as "Lauris van Hamskirck", who in 1665 had fled to England after having been condemned to death for cowardice shown during the Battle of Lowestoft. Trying to ingratiate himself with his new masters, he had for some time been promoting a possible raid on this location. On the 7th Heemskerck was sent out on the Little Mary, a sixth-rate vessel of 12 cannon, to reconnoitre the coast together with Rupert's private yacht, the Fan Fan, returning the evening of the next day. A sweep along the coast by a frigate squadron during the following week brought only few prizes. When the English fleet, sailing along the Dutch coast from the south, anchored in front of the Texel on 16 August, during a council of war Heemskerck convinced Rupert and Monck that an attack was feasible as "(...) the islands of Vlie and Schelling were very ill guarded, notwithstanding there were Store-houses both for the States, and the East-India Fleet, and Riches to a good value".

As the English had no special marine units, for the landing a makeshift force was assembled, consisting of 300 men from each of the three squadrons of the fleet, two thirds of them sailors, one third sea soldiers. Eight frigates were dedicated: the Advice (of 46 cannon), Hampshire (40), Tyger (40), Dragon (40), Assurance (36), Sweepstake (36), Garland (28) and Pembroke (28). To this force were added five fireships and seven ketches. Rear-Admiral of the Red Robert Holmes was given command of the expedition; the landing force was divided into nine companies of a hundred men, each consisting of seventy musketeers and thirty pikemen and headed by a captain; Sir Phillip Howard would command an additional 120 volunteers, mostly noblemen who, due to their station, could not honourably serve under a commoner. Holmes kept some men apart for personal protection and thus speaks of eleven companies.

Holmes's orders were to put the main emphasis on plundering the islands. He himself was to land on Vlieland with a force of five hundred men; if possible a simultaneous attack by the remaining four hundred men under Sir William Jennings should be carried out on Terschelling. Dutch shipping was but a secondary target: "You are to seize what vessels you finde in the Harbour, which you are to make use of in bringing away the Booty: what are not servicable you are to sink or Burn". The common people among the local population should be spared: "(...) that no violence be done to women or children, nor the inferior sort of people, unless in case of resistance (...)".

While the main fleet remained at anchor along the coast of Texel island, Holmes on 18 August (8 August Old Style) sailed towards the Vlie, being joined that day by the Fan Fan that had reconnoitred the channel and reported that a large merchant fleet was indeed present, estimated at fifty vessels. Because he was unable to immediately enter the Vlie anyway because of a contrary southeasterly wind, he sent a ketch to sound the Westerboomsgat, in that period the main Vlie channel, running from west to east towards the land head of Terschelling. Today the situation has changed considerably: the channel has shifted four miles to the southwest, eroding the north coast of Vlieland and causing Terschelling to grow in the same direction.

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