The Battle of Beachy head 10 July 1690

Battle of Beachy head
Photo of Beachy Head cliffs
Beachy head, photo by Mark Hills
Date:10 July 1690
Outcome:French Victory
United Provinces

1 Strategic considerations in mid-1690

1.1 Objectives for the Anglo-Dutch fleet

The most important objectives for King William's navies in 1690 were the protection of the merchant navy, supporting the war in Ireland and protecting the English coast. In March 1690 a fleet of more than 30 warships had left to escort 400+ warships to Spain and further into the Mediterranean. Some of these would return in time for the Battle of Beachy head. The support for Ireland had been arranged when a minimal escort fleet had secured King William III's landing at Carrickfergus in June 1690. Not loosing control of the Channel was the only task left by July 1690.

1.2 Objectives for the French fleet

For the French fleet the strategic objectives can be distilled from official documents. The first of these is the memo Tourville sent to King Louis1. He mentions that his first objective was to join the Mediterranean squadron to the Channel fleet at Brest. He proposed a reactive strategy once this was completed. For this he wanted to know whether he should do battle to prevent a possible landing in Normandy or elsewhere on the coast. If this was not necessary he wanted to follow the allied fleet into the Mediterranean with 50 ships. In case that was not allowed he asked for a decision to do battle with the alliance fleet.

The first instructions for Tourville were to enter the Channel with 84 ships and 15 galleys. He was then to sail to Plymouth and from there to send squadrons to Torbay and Portland to capture merchant ships. Next to attack the enemy fleet at Portsmouth/Spithead. After that he was to enter the Northsea and disturb allied shipping from a position near the Galloper. He was not to do battle in the Downs. In case he was attacked he should retreat to the entrance of the Channel and fight there. In September he should be back in Brest.

Two months after this a new instruction was given to Tourville. He was now to look for the enemy and to accept battle in any place, even in the Downs or in the Thames.

2 The Opposing fleets

2.1 The Anglo-Dutch fleet

To the left the Anglo-Dutch fleet Order of Battle in the Battle of Beachy head. One should notice that there were one Dutch and two English divisions, but the Dutch had had about 40% of the ships. The Dutch ships are based on a 5 July list of the 22 Dutch ships of the line in the allied fleet at Beachy head2. The English order of battle is based on secondary sources3.

The best use for both pictures is to open them in a new window and then compare them. See whether the Anglo-Dutch were really inferior or not? One is bound to notice that in spite of all the talk of the superior French fleet, the heaviest ships were to be found in the English divisions.

2.2 The French fleet

To the left is the French fleet's order of Battle at Beachy head. A quick glance learns that apart from some remarkable ships the majority of this fleet consisted of quite regular men of war. Its strength at Brest was noted as 70 ships of the line; 5 light frigates; 18 burners and 15 galleys. The galleys did sail, but had to return to Brest because of the wheather.

A sound judgement about which fleet was stronger is very difficult. First of all the absolute number of guns is unreliable because sometimes the smaller guns were counted and sometimes they were not. Therefore there is often a variation of about 8 in the number of guns mentioned. Furthermore the absolute number of guns says nothing of their caliber. The heaviest ships might have 36 pounder guns at the lowest deck while the smallest had only 18 pounders there. The heaviest guns were however often so close to the waterline that they could only be used in fair wheather.

3 Fleet movements in June 1690

In June 1690 the French Mediterranean fleet had joined its forces to Admiral Tourville's fleet in Brest. Admiral Tourville left Brest on 23 June 1690. When he entered the Channel the galleys had to be sent back to Camaret because of the wheather conditions. These were so adverse that it was 30 June when Tourville saw Cap lizard. On 3 July he was at Saint Albans head.

Admiral Arthur Herbert 1st earl of Torrington's English fleet and Evertsen's Dutch fleet were in St. Helen's Bay on 2 July, when it got the message that the French were near Portland. On the 3rd the allied fleet then sailed and reached a position about 12km SSE of Culver Cliff. On the 4th it reached a position SSW of Culver Cliff. On 5 July a with a NNE wind the fleet reached a position about 25 km SSE of Dunose.

While in this position on 5 July, a frigate announced the arrival of the enemy, and soon the French were sighted. A council of war was held, which decided that the enemy was too strong. The allies opted for retreating to the Downs and informed Queen Mary by express. On the 6th the fleets drew in line opposite each other, but the absence of wind prevented combat. In the evening the wind was NW and the allies sailed towards Dover. The French followed at about 20 km distance. While near Beachy head on 9 July the allies however received orders to fight, and so the fleets met in Battle near Beachy head on 10 July 16904.

4 The Battle of Beachy head

4.1 Overview

The Dutch ships were in the van and engaged the French, the English center kept itself at the maximum gun range and the English rear did engage the French. The result was that the Dutch squadron was set upon by larger number of Frenchmen and suffered heavy damage. At first it was only a minor French victory with 1 Dutch ship sunk. The allied fleet then fled with the French in pursuit. In the days of this pursuit four more Dutch ships were destroyed or scuttled to avoid capture. The aftermath of the Battle of Beachy head saw temporary control of the Channel for the French. Control of the Channel was however regained shortly after when the Anglo-Dutch fleets concentrated.

The following detailed description is based on a map made by Petit-Renau on board the Soleil-Royal. With the accompanying description it gives a very accurate account of what happened. The letters and numbers point to this map. That this map was made on the day of the battle was noted in Tourville's account.

4.2 Forming the lines of Battle

In the early dawn on 10 July, just before the end of the ebb, the allied fleet was again spotted by the French. The allied fleet then was about 5 km SSE of Beachy head. When the light became clear enough they were seen deploying on a the line 1-5. The wind was north-east and soon the allied fleet approached with the wind at their back. At that moment the French fleet was seperated in two parts. The van (blue) was in the space a-b, the center (white) at c-d, and the rear (white and blue) at d-e.

The French started to form their line of battle. The French center and rear used only a little sail and steered West South-west along the lines c-g; d-h; e-j. This gave time to the French van to run downwind along the lines a-f and e-g. With that the whole French fleet was arranged in line of battle along the line f-i. The Dutch division occupied the space 1-2. The squadron of the vice-admiral (John Ashby) of the allied center was at 2-3. The squadron of the admiral (Torrington) of the allied center was at 3-4. The Allied rear was at 4-5.

4.3 Torrington keeps himself out of range

The allied fleet approached on the lines 1-6 and 5-12. The Dutch moved 1-6 and 2-7 and closed in on the French. Ashby's squadron moved 2-7 and 3-8, but did not move so close as the Dutch. Torrington's squadron moved 3-9 and 4-10 and stayed at maximum gun range. The allied rear moved 4-11 and 5-12 and came a lot closer. To put it short; the whole allied line executed the regular maneuver to close in on the French. Only Torrington's squadron failed to do its duty, the English squadron in front of him and the division behind him took up their regular position in the line.

4.4 The cannonade in the morning

According to Renau the cannonade started at 9 o'clock and lasted till 5:30 PM. He remarked that after 2-3 hours only the Dutch were returning fire. Evertsen made a remark that at about noon the wind was absent and that he then did not see the English. It seems therefore that there was a phase before noon and a phase in the afternoon.

In the van Chateaurenault commanded the French. He stated that the Dutch engaged him in good order and arrived earlier than the rest of the line, but did not reach the start of his line. He qualified this as a serious mistake, from which he profited by ordering De Vilette's squadron to turn and envelop the head of the Dutch. He wrote that his Dauphin Royal and the l'Ardent engaged the Dutch Vice-Admiral and Rear-Admiral, which in the French meaning should mean the Hollandia and the Veluwe. Furthermore that the cannonade was intense and at close range. L'Ardent received such damage that it had to leave the line. Le Précieux also had to leave the line.

Le Fier, Le Fort, Le Maure, L'éclatant, Le Conquerant and the Courtisan then turned about to envelop the Dutch, and so did Chateaurenault. It's however not clear how far this maneuver succeeded in enveloping the allied van. Chateaurenault implies that soon after this turn the calm set in and all movement ceased. He furthermore states that the Dutch were engaged by his division and part of Tourville's. Also that he did not see the English after his turn.

On the Dutch side we have Evertsen's letter of 11 July. He stated that the cannonade started at about 9 AM and lasted about 3 hours. That the French were forced to keep their distance. At noon a calm set in, which set the Dutch division into some disorder and prevented it from following the French. (Mind that this was a published letter!)

In the center Tourville commanded in the Soleil Royal. He stated that Torrington did not want to fight him and that he engaged Ashby on the Sandwich. For the action in the center we also have Renau as direct witness. He states that soon Torrington and his seconds tired of fighting the Soleil Royal, and that after loosing a mast Torrington had himself hastily towed away by three or four sloops. Then Renau continues about d'Infreville in his Magnifique making all efforts to get to Torrington, but failing to get a good shot at him. Obviously the allied center moved slower than the French, Torrington first facing the Soleil Royal and then the Magnifique.

These accounts, the map and the fact that the English were out of sight at noon, make it likely that Torrington's attempts to stay out of range of the French caused a gap in the allied line. Ashby then saw the distance between the van and Torrington's squadron getting steadily wider. He tries to stretch a bit to keep the line closed, but in the end there is a gap in front of him and behind him. Ashby then retires too, and the Dutch are abandoned.

In the rear Deleval's division fought galantly. The Terrible was forced to withdraw from the line with a fire on the poop. The Fleuron and the Modéré were forced to abandon the line because they were leaking. According to the French two English ships were dismasted. Later the Anne would be beached and destroyed.

4.5 Fighting in the afternoon

Possibly shortly before noon Ashby's retreat enabled the Soleil Royal to get to the rear of the Dutch. This is confirmed by Evertsen's statement that many ships of the French center attacked the last of the Dutch squadrons. Anyway, Renau states that the Soleil razed a vice-admiral and his second, so they looked like pontoons afterwards. These must be the Gekroonde Burg of VA Van der Putten and the Noord Holland of RA Dik, both lost the next day.

Evertsen describes the fighting to have continued till 5 PM, part of the French center engaging the Dutch rear and only 3 ships of the Dutch rear being servicable afterwards. These must be the Reigersbergen, Veere and Cortiene. The Vriesland of Captain van der Goes was captured by the French. The ebb then made an end to the fight, the Dutch anchoring and staying put, the French shifting south-east. The Dutch also used sloops to tow themselves away. Tourville remarked that their lesser draught helped them with this. One can wonder whether the quality of the anchorage also played a role in this. Also this rather clean separation makes it very unlikely that the reverse maneuver of the first squadron ever succeeded in envelopping a Dutch ship.

4.6 10 July after the Fight

On 11 July the fleets were at some distance of each other and the Dutch and English united again. The allied fleet then perceived that the French wanted to follow it, and held a Council of War. There it was judged that continued towing of the damaged ships would lead to the risk of a new battle on very unfavorable terms. Therefore the crews of the Gekroonde Burg and the Noord Holland were moved to English ships and the ships themselves scuttled.

On the 12th, 13th and 14th the French continued their pursuit. The Wapen van Utrecht of Captain Dekker was sunk after the crew had transferred to the Princes Maria. The Elswout commanded by Northey's lieutenant was beached. The Maagd van Enkhuizen was first beached and then burned. The Maas of Captain Snelle was seen sailing to Hastings and the Tholen refuged itself at Rye. The Maas beached between Hastings and Rye and was there attacked by four French ships. Snelle however made two batteries on shore and repulsed the enemy. Afterwards he refloated and reached Goeree with only one mast5

The French fleet was said to have been anchored at Romney Bay (between Dungeness and Folkestone) on 18 July6.

5 After the Battle

5.1 Losses

The total Dutch loss was 7 ships of the line and 3 burners. The Vriesland captured and burned on the day of the battle. De Gekroonde Burg and Noord Holland scuttled on 11 July. The Utrecht sunk in the night of 13-14 July. The Elswout, Maagd van Enkhuizen and Tholen were beached and burned on 14 July. The English lost the Anne. Furthermore the 15 remaining Dutch ships were heavily damaged, and most of them needed repairs before facing the French again.

The majority of the English ships were not damaged at all, and could sail again at any time. For the English the damage to the reputation of the navy was far more serious. In London the government and population doubted whether it could count on the navy. In Versailles Louis also started to think that the English Navy was not loyal to King William.

5.2 Aftermath

Later the Dutch and a lot of Englishmen had trouble finding another explanation than malice or cowardice for the fact that Torrington's English center did not engage the French. When the counts of Pembroke and Devonshire asked particulars from Evertsen right after the battle he stayed polite by stating that the question why Torrington had not engaged the French should be answered by Torrington7.

The French were however less timid in their remarks. Tourville stated: 'Herbert did not want to fight me and did not even fight one of our large ships. I fought with his vice-admiral and two seconds as large as his.'8. Chateaurenault remarked that the Dutch had made a mistake by not prolonging their line enough to engage the first ship of the French line9. Furthermore he stated that the English had abandoned the Dutch10. And still further Chateaurenault stated that he had not seen the English, but had come to know that: Herbert did not dare to find himself in reach of Tourville's or any other considerable ship, but preferred to be in the reach of the Modéré, the Comte and the Cheval Marin, which will confirm you in what I said about that general on account of the Battle of Bantry Bay11. Renau made similar statements about Herbert's part of the line.

Torrington was court martialed and aquitted, but lost his position as admiral. There are minutes of this court-martial, but I'v not seen them.

6 Sources for the Battle of Beachy head

The most important source for this article is doubtlessly Histoire de la Marine Française by Eugène Sue, printed Paris 1836. It contains a lot of testimonies by French commanders, but above all a letter by Monsieur de Renau with a very exact description and map of the battle. It forms the basis of the description of the Battle on this page. Second it the Europische Mercurius for 1690, with a lot of letters by Dutch commanders. For the English part the Royal Navy a history from the earliest times to the present, by William Laird Clowes, volume 2 printed London 1898 is important, because it contains an order of Battle for the English Fleet.

7 Notes

1) Histoire de la Marine Française by Sue contains this memo by Tourville.
2) Hollandse Mercurius under July 1690, page 204 has this order of battle for the Dutch at Beachy head
3) Clowes, volume 2 pages 335
4) Clowes, volume 2 pages 337 about the movement of the fleets.
5) Hollandse Mercurius under July 1690, page 208 for Snel's actions.
6) The anchorage at Romney bay London Gazette
7) Hollandse Mercurius van het jaar 1690, page 205 Missive van den Luytenant Admirael C. Evertsz: ...hebben we haer Excellenties niet positivelijck daer op gerepliceert, dewijl sulcks bij den Heere Grave van Torrington het allerbest konde en behoorde verantwoort te werden,..
8) Histoire de la Marine Française by Eugène Sue Paris 184, Tome 4, Book 8, page 104: Tourville wrote on 11 July: Herbert ne voulut pas me combattre et même ne combattit avec aucun de nos pavillons. Je combattis avec son vice-amiral et seconds aussi gros que lui.
9) Ditto page 107 Chateaurenault's relation of the Dutch 'mistake': Les Hollandais me tombèrent en partage et arrivèrent un peu plus tot que le reste de la ligne. Ils firent une faute bien considérable pous des gens du métier. Je vis bien d'abord qu j'en profiterais; mais je les lassai engager le combat, et lorsque je vis qu'ils allaient commencer et qu'ils n'avaient pas asséz prolongé leur ligne pour combattre les vaisseaux de la tête, je fis le signal ordonné pour que la division de M. de Vilette fit force de voiles pour être en état de revirer sur les ennemis et les mettre entre deux feux. English historians sometimes like to interpret this as Chateaurenault saying the Dutch had made a mistake that caused a gap in the line, but the passage is clearly not about a gap in the line, but about the line not being extended forward enough.
10) Ditto: .. aux Anglias qui les avaient abandonnés
11) Ditto: J'ai su seulement que M. Herbert n'avait osé se trouver par son travers, ni d'aucun vaisseau considérable, et qu'il avait préféré de se trouwer par celui du Modéré, du Comte et du Cheval Marin, ce qui vous confirmera de que je vous ai dit de ce général à l'occasion du Combat de Bantry.
x)AC 06041690 reigersbergen en andere begeven
x)ohc10aug1690 snel op strand tegen 4 franse schepen, en dan Forbin erbij