Sunday 29 June 2014

After the Battle - a Guest Post by Julia Jones

Our June guest is Julia Jones, who writes about a sea battle that might be unfamiliar to you.

Julia Jones was running a bookshop and local publishing business in Essex when she discovered Margery Allingham's WW2 autobiography The Oaken Heart. This was a life-changing moment. She's since re-published two editions of The Oaken Heart, written Allingham's biography and spent more years that she likes to admit working through the extraordinary archive material that Allingham preserved from her father, Herbert Allingham's, working life. Closure was finally achieved with Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory which was published in 2012.

Julia and her partner Francis Wheen own Peter Duck, a yacht built for Arthur Ransome, on which Julia sailed throughout her childhood. The return of Peter Duck from her adventures in Russia with the Palmer family was the catalyst that convinced Julia to begin writing fiction of her own – hence the 'Strong Winds' series. It also initiated a friendship with History Girl Imogen Robertson (Mrs Ned Palmer). One of life's neater narrative sequences perhaps?

Julia Jones writing on board
Lovely June weather means open season for naval warfare in the waters around Britain. The 'miracle of Dunkirk' (May 27th – June 4th) was only made possible by several days of light winds and calm sea conditions and the weather forecasts before the D-Day landings (June 4th) have been described as “the most important in history”. That single weather window of opportunity – overlooked by the Germans, gambled on by the Allies. It was, indeed, a game-changer.

Seventeenth century seafarers had fewer resources at their disposal. They could watch the clouds, observe the rings around the sun and check the level of mercury in their barometers but ultimately What You Saw was What You Got in meteorological terms. The morning of the Battle of Sole Bay (May 28st or June 7th 1672, depending which calender you were using) dawned light and fair. The combined English-French fleets were at anchor off the coast of Suffolk. The English had been at sea since the beginning of the month and had been forced to withdraw from harassing the Dutch in order to replenish their supplies and undertake various maintenance tasks. HMS Prince, flagship of James, Duke of York, the Lord High Admiral, was heeled over on her side being careened. James and his entourage had elected to avoid the discomfort by sleeping ashore in the small town of Southwold. It was the day before his brother King Charles II's birthday so they'd stayed up late, partying. Considerable numbers of other officers and crew were also in the taverns.

The Dutch under their great admiral Michiel de Ruyter were more focussed. The union of Protestant England with Roman Catholic France, which had been secretly established by the Treaty of Dover in1670, threatened their survival as a republican nation. De Ruyter was a master strategist who liked to pick his own times for fighting. He discovered the Duke of York's whereabouts from a captured collier and early in the morning of May 28th he and his seventy five ships were nicely positioned to windward and making the most of a light east-south-east breeze to bear down on the unprepared Allies.

It took four hours to get the sailors out of Southwold and back to their ships. Then there was the technical difficulty of getting sailing vessels away from a lee shore. Somehow, in the process James's orders to the French admiral d'Estrees were misunderstood. The French fleet headed south, as per the agreed original battle plan: the English tacked north in response to the new conditions. The English accused the French of cowardice. Admiral d'Estrees wondered aloud whether the reason James had failed to make himself clear was that he hadn't fully recovered from the previous evening's celebrations.

The early morning breeze soon died and by the time the fleets engaged it was a serene and beautiful day. The sails on the ornately decorated wooden warships hung limp and almost useless as they drifted up the coast with the ebb tide, pounding each other with their cannon or dispatching fireships to burn their opponents. “The sea was all day as smooth as a fishpond and the day very hot and fair sunshine, the fairest day we have seen all this summer before,” recalled John Narborough of HMS Prince. By mid-morning his senior officer had been killed and he had been promoted captain of a battered, semi-sinking wreck. The Duke of York was forced to move his admiral's flag first to the St Michael and then to the London as he was targeted by de Ruyter's gunners. The fleets came close to running aground on the Lowestoft shoals but were able put about in time and, when the tide turned at around midday, they drifted back down the coast again, still fighting.

Door and windows rattled for miles inland – as they would centuries later when the heavy guns of both world wars were felt in the eastern counties. Spectators gathered along the low Suffolk cliffs but could see nothing. The lack of wind meant that the smoke from the cannon and the fireships hung over the combatants like shrouds. HMS Royal James, the newest addition to the English fleet and the first to be attacked, endured hours of her own private hell as ships which might have come to her assistance sailed blindly past. Finally she was set ablaze by a Dutch fireship and most of the remainder of her eight hundred crew were burned or drowned.

The lurid end of the Royal James is the subject of one of the most unforgettable paintings in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. It's the work of Willem Van der Velde the Younger and was based on the sketches and observations made on the spot by his father, the elder Willem Van der Velde. He was official war artist to the Dutch fleet (as far as I'm aware he was the first accredited war artist there had been in Europe) and his perspective was unique. Van der Velde would travel on board one of the warships then, as the fighting began, he would transfer onto a galjoot, a small unarmed sailing boat supplied by the Admiral. The sailing master would be instructed to take the artist wherever he wanted to go and Van der Velde would sit amidships sketching events on long strips of paper which rolled up securely as he went. He sometimes included himself in his drawings and labelled one section of his Sole Bay record “My galjoot luffing to be out of the way of the action.”

After the Battle of Sole Bay Van der Velde would have expected to return to his studio in Amsterdam and work up his sketches into highly detailed grisailles which he could sell as far afield as the Italian courts. Sometimes they would be used as in tapestry design. His son, Willem the Younger, would develop his father's notes and drawings into oil paintings for rich patrons.

A freshening breeze developed towards evening and by nightfall De Ruyter's ships were heading back towards his own coast with the English in pursuit. They attempted to fight again on the following day but were prevented, first by fog and then by strong winds. It continued to blow “a stout gale” for the next two days until the Dutch took shelter among the shoals of Walcheren and the English returned to Sole Bay. Overall it had been an inconclusive encounter, though with about 2,500 dead and wounded on both sides. The Dutch had wreaked the most tangible damage: destroying the Royal James and seriously damaging the Prince and several other first rate ships: the English had captured a single, somewhat elderly, warship named the Stavoren.

Strategically however the Allies had triumphed. While De Ruyter and the fleet had been away Louis XIV had invaded overland with a 100,000 strong professional army. It was a cataclysmic moment in Dutch history and the end of their Golden Age. Five of the seven provinces were occupied and the last two, Holland and Zeeland, were only saved by opening the dykes and inundating the countryside. The republic fell, its leaders, the de Witt brothers were lynched and Stadtholder Willem III seized power. Sixteen years later he would also become King of England, deposing James II, the former Duke of York.

The more I learned about the Battle of Sole Bay and its aftermath, the more fascinated I became.

I had been to school in Southwold and studied seventeenth cuentury history. I had learned nothing about the Third Anglo-Dutch war and can only assume that the arbiters of the curriculum were too ashamed of the part played by merry King Charles II and his aristocratic relatives. I was born in Suffolk and from babyhood used to shout out “red wo-wo, red wo-wo” when my brothers or I spotted the distinctive pub sign of the Red Lion, Martlesham. More than fifty years later I stumbled across the fact that it had been the figurehead on that single captured ship, the Stavoren.

Van der Velde had sailed on board the Stavoren to the Battle of the Sound in 1658 when she was trim and newly built. The English used her to fight against her former owners in the summer of 1673 but she was badly damaged at the Battle of the Texel and was eventually broken up, probably in Ipswich. Van der Velde and his son also ended their days in England, though in more comfortable circumstances. War chaos in the United Provinces was too extreme for artists and craftsmen to continue working after the French invasion so Charles II issued an invitation to Dutch craftsmen to settle in England. He paid Van der Velde and his son generous salaries and offered them studio space in the underused Queen's House at Greenwich. There the younger Van der Velde painted his masterpiece, the Burning of the Royal James and the elder supervised the production of Sole Bay tapestries, some of which were hung in Hampton Court Palace. Such pragmatism was non untypical in the seventeenth century.

I'm not a historical novelist however. I write adventure stories and my interest is in the effect of history – the influence that the actions of former generations have on the lives of my young protagonists. As I worked on the first draft of the novel that became The Lion of Sole Bay I realised that my increasing interest in the seventeenth century was threatening my imagining of events in the twenty-first. I couldn't simply cut out the history as I guessed that many of my potential readers would be as ignorant about the Third Anglo-Dutch war as I had been. When I showed school children pictures of the Stavoren's red lion figurehead, for instance, they usually guessed that it was a Chinese dragon. I thought about writing a prologue but that felt clich├ęd as I'd done something similar in my first novel, The Salt-Stained Book. I experimented with interwoven chapters which were clunky and slowed the pace of the story. Flashbacks were insufficient and possibly confusing without knowledge of the historic context.

In the end I was lucky. My heroine suffers from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and I was talking to the mother of a child with a similar condition. “Of course the parents often have something similar – I can recognise it my husband and myself,” she added disarmingly. “But we express it differently – in our various obsessive behaviours, for instance.” I looked at the fictional father of my unhappy heroine and realised that my friend was right. His coping strategy for his own disorder was a single-minded fascination with local history. He shared a surname with the Van der Veldes though he'd never been able to trace a direct family connection – much to his disappointment. Why shouldn't he be invited to give lectures on the Battle of Sole Bay? They could be printed at the back of the book so that anyone who wanted the seventeenth century facts could refer to them whenever they chose. Those who didn't would be free to hurry along with the fiction as the lunatic fringe of twenty-first century Dutch nationalism prepare to take back their trophy – the figurehead of the unfortunate Stavoren, the Lion of Sole Bay.

[All illustrations by Claudia Myatt, except the photo of the Red Lion pub sign, taken by Julia Jones]

You can find out more about all of Julia's titles at Golden Duck Publishing.


Sue Purkiss said...

It's quite sobering how much even of our own history we don't know - thanks, Julia. I love the cover of your book!

Imogen said...

Great post! (I thought the figurehead looked like a Chinese dragon too).

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed reading this Julia. I often wondered about that figurehead as I drove past the Red Lion and discovered its origins from your earlier blog about teaching history and using this story with school pupils. Now I see it very differently!

Clare Mulley said...

My daughter loved The Salt-Stained Book, so now I am looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of The Lion of Sole Bay. I particularly love your solution to getting the history in via the lectures - brilliant!