In 1667, England was in the middle of an austerity programme. Tax receipts had been hammered by two major disasters, the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of 1666. One government cut involved laying up the Royal Navy’s great ships, and paying off most of their crews.
Unfortunately, there was a war with the Dutch going on at the time, and at the beginning of June, their commander, Admiral De Ruyter, detached a task force from his fleet with the mission of attacking the pride of the navy in the Medway.
The English had sunk ships in the river, and stretched a chain across it, and they had guns ashore to stop the progress of the enemy, but unfortunately there was a shortage of gunners, supplies had been pilfered, and the Dutch came on regardless.
They set three warships alight, and captured and took away two others, including the 82-gun Royal Charles – the pride of the navy, the ship that had brought Charles II back from exile. It was, considered the diarist John Evelyn, ‘a dishonour never to be wiped off’, and was perhaps Britain’s greatest ever naval humiliation.