Battle of the Downs

Battle of the Downs

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of the Downs
partof=the Eighty Years' War

caption= "Before the Battle of the Downs" by Reinier Nooms, "circa"
1639, depicting the Dutch blockade off the English coast, the vessel shown is the "Aemilia", Tromp's flagship.
date=31 October 1639
place=near The Downs, English Channel
result=Decisive Dutch victory
commander1=Antonio de Oquendo
commander2=Maarten Tromp
strength1=77 ships
strength2=117 ships
casualties1=6,000 dead
43 ships destroyed or captured
casualties2=1000 dead
10 ships burned

The naval Battle of the Downs took place on 31 October 1639 (New style), during the Eighty Years' War and was a decisive defeat of the Spanish, commanded by Admiral Antonio de Oquendo, by the United Provinces, commanded by Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp.

Opening phase

In 1639, the Spanish prepared a force of 77 ships carrying 24,000 soldiers and sailors, in a desperate attempt to resupply their forces in Flanders after the French had cut off the usual land route. The fleet, under command of Antonio de Oquendo, left on 16 September from A Coruña. It tried to reach Dunkirk, the last large Catholic port on the North Sea coast. It was sighted in the English Channel by a Dutch squadron commanded by Tromp on 25 September (New style). Tromp had only 13 ships, sending one back for help, and at first merely fell back before the Spanish fleet.

When reinforced by Vice-Admiral Witte de With, bringing his total to sixteen (the "Groot Christoffel" had blown up on 26 September), Tromp closed in on 27 September. His own flotilla deployed in a line-of-battle formation in a leeward position, the first documented case of such tactics in history. Concentrating his fire upon the most powerful Spanish ships, he damaged them so severely that the morale of their entire fleet broke. This was perhaps also influenced by the fact that De With could not restrain himself, he left the line with his flotilla and in his usual rabid way directly attacked ship after ship with the utmost ferocity. The next day, more reinforcements arrived: 12 ships of Zealandic Rear-Admiral Joost Banckert. This preliminary fight is known as the Action of 18 September 1639 (Old style).

The Spanish, whose first priority was to protect the troops, not to endanger them by continuing the battle, were driven to take refuge off the coast of England, in the anchorage known as The Downs between Dover and Deal, near an English squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral John Pennington. They hoped the usual autumn storms would soon disperse the Dutch fleet. Tromp, as always, endured De With's insubordination with complacency. In a famous scene, described by De With himself, after the battle, he entered Tromp's cabin with his face sooty, his clothes torn, and limping from a leg wound. Tromp looked up from his desk and asked: "Are you alright, De With?". De With replied: "What do you think? Would I have been if you had come to help me?".

On the evening of the 28th, Tromp and De With withdrew to resupply, as they were short on gunpowder. They feared they had failed in their mission until they rediscovered the Spanish at the Downs on the 30th. Together, they blockaded the Spanish and sent urgently to the Netherlands for reinforcements. The five Dutch admiralties hired any large armed merchant ship they could find. Many joined voluntarily, hoping for a rich bounty. By the end of October, Tromp had 105 ships and 12 fire ships.

Meanwhile, the Spanish began to transport their troops and money to Flanders on British ships under an English flag. Tromp stopped this by searching the English vessels and detaining any Spanish troops he found. Uneasy about the possible English reaction to this, he pretended to Pennington to be worried by his secret orders from the States-General. He showed him, "confidentially", a missive commanding him to attack the Spanish armada wherever it might be located and to prevent by force of arms any interference by a third power. Tromp also formally asked de Oquendo why he refused battle though he had superior firepower. De Oquendo replied that his fleet had to be repaired first, but that he could not obtain masts and other materials now that the Dutch blockaded him. On learning this, Tromp supplied the Spanish with the necessary materials for repair. Nevertheless they did not leave the English coast.

The battle

On 31 October, an easterly wind giving him the weather gage, Tromp dispatched De With with one squadron to watch the English and prevent them from interfering, kept two squadrons to the north (under Cornelis Jol) and the south (under Commodore Jan Hendriksz de Nijs) to block escape routes and attacked with three squadrons. Some of the large, unmanoeuverable Spanish ships panicked on approach of the Dutch fleet and grounded themselves deliberately; they were immediately plundered by the English populace, present in great numbers to watch the uncommon spectacle. Others tried a planned breakthrough.

De Oquendo's Royal Flagship, the "Santiago", came out first followed by the "Santa Teresa", the Portuguese flagship. Five blazing fireships were sent into the Spanish ships. The first ship could disengage and avoid three of them in the last moment but these hit the following "Santa Teresa", who had just managed to repel the attack of the other two. Too big (the biggest ship in the Spanish/Portuguese fleet) and slow to manoeuvre, and with no time to react, the "Santa Teresa" was finally grappled and set on fire by one. With Admiral Lope de Hoces already dead by his wounds, she fiercely burned with great loss of life.

The Portuguese ships were intercepted by the squadron of the Zealandic Vice-Admiral Johan Evertsen who launched his fireships against them: most were taken or destroyed, leaving reportedly 15,200 dead and 1,800 prisoner. The number of dead is today considered as greatly exaggerated; for example, it does not take into account that a third of the troops had already reached Flanders. De Oquendo managed to escape in the fog with seven ships, most of them Dunkirkers, and reach Dunkirk.


The complete victory marked a weakening of Spanish sea power, though not its collapse. Spain, straining under the massive commitments of the Thirty Years war across Europe, was in no position to rebuild its dominance at sea, even as battles at sea and the interception of merchantmen by both sides raged on. The Dutch and English were quick to take advantage by seizing some more small Spanish island possessions. But by far the worst effects for Spain were the weakening of its position in the Southern Netherlands, and the subsequent insurrection of Portugal, with the restoration of its independence from the Spanish Habsburgs in 1640.

Tromp was hailed as a hero on his return and was rewarded with 10,000 guilders invoking the jealousy of De With who only got 1,000. De With wrote some anonymous pamphlets painting Tromp as avaricious and himself as the real hero of the battle. As Spain was gradually losing its position as the dominant great power, England was temporarily weak and France had not yet begun to build a strong navy. After the victory, the Dutch allowed their navy to diminish substantially with the war's end. So with an ineffective naval administration and too few and too light ships, they were at a serious disadvantage in their coming struggles with the English.

For England, the Battle of the Downs was a humiliation: a flagrant violation of English neutrality within sight of the English coast, with England's navy unable to intervene. Lingering resentment from this incident may have influenced the breakout of the First Anglo-Dutch War not far from the Downs at the Battle of Goodwin Sands in 1652.

Order of battle

The Netherlands (Maarten Tromp)

(not complete: the contemporaneous Dutch sources give only lists of participating captains; in many cases it is unknown which ship they commanded)
26 September:
"Aemilia" 57 (Tromp, flagcaptain Barend Barendsz Cramer) Rotterdam
"Frederik Hendrik" 36 (Pieter Pietersz de Wint) Amsterdam; on 31 October this was Witte de With's flagship
"Hollandsche Tuyn" 32 (Lambert IJsbrandszoon Halfhoorn) Northern Quarter (Noorderkwartier)
"Salamander" 40 (Laurens Pietersz Backhuysen) - WIC ship
"Gelderland" 34 (Willem van Colster) Rotterdam
"Sampson" 32 (Claes Cornelisz Ham) Noorderkwartier
"Omlandia" 28 (Jan Gerbrandszoon) Frisia
"Groot Christoffel" 28 (hired by Noorderkwartier admiralty, Frederick Pieterszoon) - blew up on 26 September
"Deventer" 28 (Robert Post) Amsterdam
"Gideon" 24 (Hendrick Jansz Kamp) Frisia
"Meerminne" 28 (Jan Pauluszoon) Zealand
unidentified ship of 32 cannon under Cornelis Ringelszoon from the Zealand admiralty.

Reinforcements 27 September:
"Maeght van Dordrecht" 42 (Vice-Admiral Witte de With) Rotterdam
"Overijssel" 24 (Jacques Forant) Amsterdam
"Utrecht" 30 (Gerrit Meyndertsz den Uyl) Amsterdam
"Sint Laurens" 32 (A.Dommertszoon)
"Bommel" 28 (Sybrant Barentsz Waterdrincker) Amsterdam

Reinforcements 28 September:
Banckert squadron:
"'t Wapen van Zeeland" 28 (Vice-Admiral Joost Banckert) Zealand
"Zeeridder" 34 (Frans Jansz van Vlissingen) Zealand
"Zutphen" 28 (Joris van Cats) Amsterdam
"Walcheren" 28 (Jan Theunisz Sluis) Amsterdam
"'t Wapen van Holland" 39 (Lieven Cornelisz de Zeeuw) Noorderkwartier
"Neptunis" 33 (Albert 't Jongen Hoen) Noorderkwartier
"Amsterdam" 10 (Pieter Barentsz Dorrevelt) Amsterdam
"Drenthe" 16 (Gerrit Veen) Amsterdam
"Rotterdam" 10 (Joris Pietersz van den Broecke) Frisia
"Arnemuyden" 22 (Adriaen Jansz de Gloeyende Oven) Zealand
"Ter Goes" 24 (Abraham Crijnssen) Zealand
"Friesland" 22 (Tjaert de Groot) Frisia

After reinforcements 31 September
Evertsen squadron:
"Vlissingen" 34 (Vice-Admiral Johan Evertsen, flagcaptain Frans Jansen) Zealand

De With squadron: thirty ships, four fireships

Jol squadron, seven ships:
"Jupiter" (Cornelis Cornelisz Jol "Houtebeen") WIC

De Nijs squadron, eight ships

pain/Portugal (Antonio de Oquendo)

Order of Battle of the Spanish Armada, 6 September 1639 (Orden de Batalla en media Luna). Total is 75 ships. Dates are now NS.

"Name" guns (squadron/type/commander etc.) - Fate

"Santiago" 60 (Castile) - Capitana Real or Royal Flagship. Escaped intoDunkirk, 1 November 1639
"San Antonio" (pinnace) (Masibradi) - Driven ashore 31 October
"San Agustin" (pinnace) (Martin Ladron de Guevara) - Driven ashore 31 October
"Santa Teresa" 60 (Portugal) - Don Lope de Hoces, commander. Destroyed in action 31 October
"San Jeronimo"
"San Agustin" (Naples) - Vice-Admiral. Driven ashore 31 October, sunk 3 or 4 days later
"El Gran Alejandro" (Martin Ladron de Guevara) - Taken by the Dutch
"Santa Ana" (Portugal)
"San Sebastian"
"Santa Catalina" (Guipuzcoa) - Driven ashore 31 October
"San Lazaro"
"San Blas" (Masibradi) - Driven ashore 31 October
"San Jer髇imo" (Masibradi) - Burnt in the Downs 31 October
"San Nicolas"
"Santiago" (Castile) - Burnt off Dover on the night of 2 November
"San Juan Bautista" (Guipuzcoa) - Sunk 31 October
"Esquevel" 16 (hired Dane) - Captured 28 September
"San Jose" (Dunkirk)
"Los Angeles" (Castile) - Driven ashore 31 October
"Santiago" (Portugal) - Driven ashore 31 October
"Delfin Dorado" (Naples) - Driven ashore 31 October
"San Antonio" (Naples) - Driven ashore 31 October
"San Juan Evangelista" (Dunkirk)
"El Pingue" (hired ship) - Sunk in the Downs 31 October
"San Carlos" (Masibradi)
"San Nicolas" (Masibradi)
"San Miguel"
"Orfeo" 44 (Naples) - Lost on the Goodwin sands 31 October
"San Vicente Ferrer" (Dunkerque)
"San Martin" (Dunkerque)
"Nuestra Senora de Monteagudo" (Dunkerque) - Escaped into Dunkirk 1 November
"Santiago" 60? (Galicia) - Captured 31 October
"?" (flag of Masibradi) - Captured 28 September, retaken same day, escaped to Dunkirk, 1 November, wrecked 4 days later
"Santo Tomas" (Martin Ladron de Guevara) - Driven ashore 31 October
"Nuestra Senora de Luz"
"Santa Clara"
"San Gedeon" (Dunkerque)
"San Jacinto"
"San Carlos" (Dunkerque) - Sunk 31 October
"Santo Cristo de Burgos" (San Josef) - Lost off the French coast 31 October
"San Paulo" (Masibradi)
"San Miguel"
"La Corona" (hired ship)
"La Presa" or "San Pablo La Presa" (Castile)
"San Esteban" (Martin Ladron de Guevara) - Captured 31 October
"San Pedro de la Fortuna" (hired ship) - Driven ashore but got off, 31 October
"Los Angeles" (hired ship)
"Aguila Imperial"
"La Mujer"
"Santo Domingo de Polonia" (hired Polish ship) - Driven ashore 31 October
"San Jose" (flagship of Vizcaya) - Captured 31 October
"San Salvador" (flagship of Dunkirk) - Escaped into Dunkirk 1 November
"São Baltasar" (Vice-Admiral of Portugal) - 800 tons. Back at Lisbon in 1640
"San Francisco" 50? (Rear-Admiral of Dunkerque) - Escaped into Dunkirk 1 November
"San Pedro el Grande" (flagship of Ladron de Guevara)
"Santiago" (Martin Ladron de Guevara)
"Jesus Maria" (pinnace)
"San Pedro Martir" (urca) (hired ship) - Driven ashore 31 October
"Fama" (Urca) (hired ship) - Driven ashore 31 October
"Santa Cruz" (Masibradi)
"San Daniel" (Guipuzcoa) - Driven ashore 31 October
"San Juan Evangelista" (hired ship of Hamburg) - Driven ashore 31 October
"Santa Agnes" (frigate) (Naples) - Stranded but got off, 3 November
"Grune"? (Castile) - Driven ashore, 31 October 1639
"Santa Teresa (Saetia)" (Castile) - Taken by a French privateer 31 October
"Exchange" (hired English transport) - All 8 English transports put into Plymouth 13 September, and reached the Downs 22 October, where they were detained
"Peregrine" (hired English transport)
"Assurance" (hired English transport)
5 other hired English transports

ee also




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