Battle of Vågen
The Battle of Vågen (also Battle in the Bay of Bergen, or shortened Battle of Bergen) was a naval battle between a Dutch merchant and treasure fleet and an English flotilla of warships in August 1665 as part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The battle took place in Vågen (meaning "the bay, voe" in Norwegian), the main port area of neutral Bergen, Norway. Due to a delay in orders the Norwegian commanders took the side of the Dutch, contrary to the secret intentions of the King of Norway and Denmark. The battle ended with the defeat of the English fleet, which retreated, much damaged but without losing any ships. The treasure fleet was relieved by the Dutch home fleet seventeen days later.
Arrival in Bergen
The Dutch merchant fleet consisted of about sixty vessels. Ten of them were Dutch East India Company (VOC) vessels under command of Commodore Pieter de Bitter which were returning from the East Indies. Twice each year the Dutch East India Company sent a Return Fleet back to the Netherlands. This one had departed on Christmas Day 1664 and had at that time the richest cargo ever. It was laden with many luxury goods, typical for the "rich trade": spices, including 4,000,000 catty of pepper, 440,000 pounds of clove, 314,000 pounds of nutmeg, 121,600 pounds of mace, and about 500,000 pounds of cinnamon; 18,000 pounds of ebony; 8,690 catty of silk and about 200,000 other pieces of cloth; 2,000 pounds of indigo; 18,151 pearls; 2,933 rubies, 3,084 raw diamonds, and 16,580 pieces of porcelain. The total European market value was about eleven million guilders or three million rigsdaler, more than the total annual revenues of the Danish crown. The Dutch had paid the equivalence of 36 tons of gold, or 3,648,490 guilders, to buy this cargo.
In order to avoid the English fleet controlling the English Channel after its victory in the Battle of Lowestoft, the merchant fleet had sailed north of Scotland in order to reach the Dutch Republic via the North Sea. After having been dispersed by a storm on 29 June, most ships gathered in neutral Bergen harbor for shelter during July to wait for the repair of the Dutch home fleet after its defeat. The first three VOC vessels, the yacht Kogge (cargo purchase value: 67,972 guilders), the fluyt Diemermeer (cargo value 272,087 guilders), and Jonge Prins (cargo value: 438,407 guilders) arrived on 19 July (Julian calendar). On 29 July another seven vessels entered the harbour: Walcheren (cargo value 346,964 guilders), Phoenix (cargo value 297,326 guilders), Slot Hooningen (cargo value 386,122 guilders), Brederode (cargo value 296,773 guilders), the yacht Rijzende Zon (cargo value 288,400 guilders), and the fluyts Wapen van Hoorn (cargo value 300,464 guilders) and Amstelland (cargo value 282,785 guilders). Not all of the VOC fleet was present: the Muskaatboom (cargo value: 293,688 guilders) had disappeared in a storm near Madagascar, and the yacht Nieuwenhoven (cargo value: 77,251 guilders) and the fluyt Ooievaar (cargo value: 300,246 guilders) had found refuge in Trondheim. Except for Diemermeer and Amstelland, the Dutch ships were heavily armed; many were specially built company vessels with the dual function of warship and merchantman.
The English battle fleet was from 4 July present in the North Sea to intercept the squadron of Vice-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, which was about to arrive from America, having raided the English possessions there. The English fleet learned about the arrival of the first ships of the VOC fleet, already announced by the English ambassador in the Republic, George Downing, from a merchantman from Rostock on 22 July. This caused a heated discussion about which target should have priority. The fleet commander, Lord Sandwich, against the advice of most of his flag officers decided to split the fleet. On 30 July, after a merchantman from Ostend had reported the other VOC ships had also arrived, a small task force was dispatched to Bergen to capture or at least block the convoy. The flotilla under Rear-Admiral Thomas Teddiman first consisted of 22 warships but it was reduced to fourteen when eight ships sailed too westerly, were swept beyond Bergen and could not beat up the wind to the south. Besides the gunships, the fireships Bryar, Greyhound, and Martin Gally were present. Teddiman reached Bergen at six in the evening of 1 August, and blocked the entry to the bay. The beginning of the English action was inauspicious: Teddiman's flagship Revenge ran aground that same evening at Cape Nordnes and only with much effort managed to work itself free. The entrance of the bay being only about 400 metres wide, the English could position but seven ships there. These were, from north to south, Prudent Mary, Breda, Foresight, Bendish, Happy Return, Sapphire, and Pembroke. The others pointed their guns at the coastal batteries.
At Vågen, the fortresses of Bergenhus and Sverresborg guarded the harbor. Representatives from both fleets approached Johan Caspar von Cicignon, commandant of the fortresses, and Claus von Ahlefeldt, commander of the Norwegian forces at Bergen. The Norwegians for now decided to remain out of the dispute. Ahlefeldt had heard rumors of a secret deal between King Charles II of England and King Frederick III of Denmark-Norway, but no concrete orders had arrived. By treaty a force of five warships of any nation might enter the harbour; Ahlefeldt indicated he wouldn't allow anything else.
In fact a secret, purely oral, agreement had been made a week earlier between the English envoy, Sir Gilbert Talbot, and Frederick III. Denmark-Norway would allow the English fleet to assault the Dutch convoy and the loot would be shared in equal parts. This was despite the official alliance of Frederick with the Dutch. Frederick sent an order to Ahlefeldt that he should protest the English attack, but take no action against it. This order did not reach Bergen in time. The English sent an order to their fleet to postpone their attack until Ahlefeldt had received his orders, but the messenger was intercepted en route by the Dutch. Teddiman had, however, been told that a deal was in the making. Both Charles and Frederick hoped to get the loot for their personal funds, not for their official national treasuries. Charles had instructed Lord Sandwich in a personal secret meeting to arrange for this. Lord Sandwich therefore sent his namesake nephew, the courtier and adventurer Edward Montagu (1635–1665), with Teddiman to ensure everything would proceed according to plan. Teddiman had been ordered to act as quickly and forcefully as possible to avoid an involvement of the main English fleet which would compromise secrecy.
Eve of the battle
When Teddiman sent Montagu to Bergen to coordinate the attack, to his great disappointment the Danish commanders refused to cooperate. At 4:00 AM Montagu returned but was immediately sent back by Teddiman, now to threaten the fortresses with violence should they remain obstinate. Montagu claimed the English fleet had 2000 cannon and 6000 men, a claim which made little impression, as it was obvious he was exaggerating the true size by about three times. He was taken even less seriously when he offered the Order of the Garter in exchange for compliance. When he was again refused, Montagu made a little detour and let his boat row alongside the Dutch fleet to inspect their preparations. The Dutch respected the neutrality of the port, played the Wilhelmus and saluted Montagu three times with white smoke. His vessel saluted back.
Meanwhile, the city was in an uproar as English sailors had entered it to intimidate the population. Many citizens fled. De Bitter hastily called back the Dutch crews, most of them on shore leave in Bergen, by ringing the church bells. As few of them had much fighting experience — and many weren't even Dutch — he raised their spirits by promising three months of extra wages in case of a victory. Such promises were legally binding under Dutch law and the news was met with great enthusiasm. When he ended his speech by asking: "Do you have the courage to stand up to the enemy or not?", the men according to the Dutch reports cheered: "Yes, sir! We'll remain firm until we'll have defeated the enemy and rather die than surrender such rich treasure or ourselves to the English!"
Most Dutch ships were very deep in the bay; at about 300 metres from the English line De Bitter positioned from north to south the Slot Hooningen, Catherina, his flagship the Walcheren, the Gulden Phenix and the Rijzende Zon. Thousands of sailors from the lighter ships were sent to reinforce the fortresses.
Early in the morning the English beat their drums and sounded their trumpets and the Dutch knew hostilities would soon begin. Their crews bared their heads for a short prayer and then hastily manned the guns.
When violence erupted at six in the morning of 2 August Old Style, both fleets engaged at merely some hundreds of metres distance of each other. Teddiman decided against using fireships in order not to endanger the precious cargo. Besides he didn't have the weather gage and simply couldn't execute a direct attack. The Dutch had positioned their eight heaviest ships so that they could give broadsides at the English; most smaller guns had been moved to point at the enemy as manoeuvring would be impossible anyway. The English fleet was in a leeward position and thus had a better range, but the English gunners overcompensated for this, and so their shots mostly fell short. Fierce southern winds and rain blew the smoke from the English guns back to the ships, blinding them, and they were unaware the Dutch ships were rarely hit. As Bergen protrudes somewhat into the bay from the north, the most northern English vessels had to shoot just along it to reach the Dutch. An English shot landed in the fortress, killing four people. The commandant responded by firing back at the English fleet. The English fleet which in total possessed about 600 cannon and 2000 men was in itself far superior to the Norwegian arsenal which had only 125 guns and 200-300 men. However the ships facing the Dutch were poorly positioned to answer the Norwegian fire. Besides most English vessels were frigates and unable to take as much damage as the large Dutch merchantmen, while the Dutch actually had some superiority in firepower. Teddiman had hoped Dutch morale would quickly break and made the mistake not to break off action when this didn't happen. After three hours of being mercilessly pounded, the English blocking ships were routed. Their panicked crews cut the anchor ropes, but some ships remained entangled and threatened to capsize because of the weight of the broken masts, so they had to anchor again under fire to cut them off. The English were forced to retreat, to Herdla, at around ten in the morning.
The English had 421 casualties: 112 dead (among them most of the captains of the blocking ships) and 309 wounded. Andrew Marvell wrote in his long ironic poem about the "Dutch War":
- Six Captains bravely were shot,
- And Mountagu, though drest like any bride,
- Aboard the Admiral, was reacht, and died
The "reached" was a typical sneer from Marvell, alluding to the fact Teddiman hadn't placed his flagship in the blocking line, though it was by far the most powerful ship he could employ.
In the biography of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester the story is told that Rochester, Montagu and George Windham, three young noblemen, had had a strong premonition of their death. They made a pact that whoever should perish first would appear to the other in spirit form. Late in the battle, George suddenly began to shake with fear. Edward embraced him for consolation and then both were slain by the same cannonball.
The Dutch convoy suffered some damage to their ships, especially the Catherina, a Mediterranean fleet vessel, and about 25 dead and seventy wounded. Eight men died in the fortress, and another ten died in the city.
Order of Battle
|Slot Hooningen||Herman de Ruyter||60|
|Catharina||Ruth Maximilian||40||Ran aground|
|Walcheren||Pieter de Bitter||60 - 70|
|Jonge Prins||Jacob Jochemszoon||60 - 66|
|Gulden Phenix||Jacob Burckhorst||65|
|Wapen van Hoorn||Pieter Willemszoon van Weesp||60 - 66|
|Prudent Mary||Thomas Haward||28|
|Breda||Thomas Seale||40 - 48|
|Foresight||Packington Brooks||34 - 48|
|Happy Return||James Lambert||52|
|Sapphire||Thomas Elliot||36 - 40|
|Pembroke||Richard Cotton||22 - 34|
|Guernsey||John Utber||22 - 30|
|Golden Lion||William Dale||42|
|Norwich||John Wetwang||24 - 30|
|Guinea||Thomas Room Coyle||34 - 40|
Casualties in Bergen reported by a diary writer
"The diary writer from Bergen, Michel Hofnagel, who lived at the time [of the battle] tells about the following: 'In the city three citizens, three women, two farmers and two animals were killed and three or four wounded. On skansene seven [were] killed an twenty six wounded.'", according to Bjørn Arvid Bagge, University Librarian and author of 2012 book, Storpolitikk og intriger.
The orders from Denmark reached Ahlefeldt six days later, on 8 August. With the Dutch merchant vessels still in Bergen, Ahlefeldt travelled to the English fleet at Herdla the next day to try to repair the damage, offering them a chance to attack again without interference from the fortress. The offer was rejected however as Teddiman knew he couldn't be ready in time before the actions of the main fleets had decided the outcome of the entire enterprise. Also Von Ahlefeldt refused to attack the Dutch himself. In the days after the battle the Dutch had strongly fortified their position: a defensive chain was positioned in the entry of the bay and their sailors improved the fortifications, adding another hundred guns. As the wind turned north they expected a direct attack from Teddiman, but the British Rear-Admiral, though now rejoined with the eight vessels that had got separated, limited himself to observing the harbour; on 10 August he left to join the main fleet, that however had already been forced by lack of supplies to depart for England on 6 August, ignorant that it had failed to intercept De Ruyter.
On 13 August Sandwich, learning that De Ruyter had reached the Republic on 27 July, took sea again, sailing to the east, but failed to meet Teddiman's flotilla though it was but thirty miles to the north of him; both English forces were unaware of each other and of the fact that not fifty miles east of them, De Ruyter was heading north, having on arrival been appointed Lieutenant-Admiral and supreme commander of the rebuilt combined Dutch fleet, that was now out in force with 93 warships, 20 yachts, 12 fireships, 15,051 sailors, 4583 marines and 4337 cannons. Again returning to England, Sandwich joined Teddiman near Flamborough Head on 18 August, anchoring at Solebay on the 22nd to resupply and departing on the 28th.
Meanwhile, on 19 August De Ruyter's relief fleet had arrived at Bergen; on 23 August he left again to shield a planned escape by the merchant fleet, but adverse gales forced him to return two days later. Only on 29 August did the Dutch merchant fleet leave the harbour. The next day the convoy of 184 ships was struck by a hurricane, lasting till the afternoon of 1 September, that completely dispersed it. When the storm subsided De Ruyter had only 37 warships and eight merchantmen with him. Sandwich, now to the east of De Ruyter, on 3 September managed to intercept and take a straggling group of four warships, the Zevenwolden, Westvriesland, Groningen and Hoop and, much more important, two VOC-vessels: the Slot Hooningen and Gulden Phenix, that would again be lost by them during the Raid on the Medway. Receiving the false news that De Ruyter was east of him with the mass of the Dutch fleet, Lord Sandwich retreated to the west to bring his prizes to safety, again narrowly missing De Ruyter, moving to the east. Montague would afterwards be severely criticised for this as he thus forwent an excellent opportunity to destroy the Dutch in detail or at least capture more of the treasure ships. He on 9 September managed however to intercept and capture a second group with two WIC-vessels, four warships and seven fluyt naval supply ships. After breaking off a chase of another thirty vessels, for fear of the shoals of the Frisian Isles, he finally returned to Solebay on 11 September. The other Dutch vessels returned to the Dutch Republic safely, mostly reassembled by De Ruyter.
For the English the escape of the Dutch Return Fleet from the Indies was an enormous blow: they could only finance the war by capturing it. But the blow was somewhat softened by the later capture of the two VOC-merchantmen. Lord Sandwich was blamed for the failure and fell into disgrace. After his arrival in the Thames he illegally, but perhaps with connivance of Charles, took goods of considerable value from the hulls of the Slot Hooningen and Gulden Phenix, sold these in secret and divided the gain among his nine flag officers, reserving for himself ₤4000. When this came to light, Charles had no choice but to cashier him, though Sandwich defended his conduct by pointing out he took only a small part of the booty, the value of which was estimated by him at ₤500,000. Samuel Pepys thus describes the impression of wealth when visiting one of the captured ships, in his diary entry of 16 November: "So I on board my Lord Bruncker; and there he and Sir Edmund Pooly carried me down into the hold of the India shipp, and there did show me the greatest wealth lie in confusion that a man can see in the world. Pepper scattered through every chink, you trod upon it; and in cloves and nutmegs, I walked above the knees; whole rooms full. And silk in bales, and boxes of copper-plate, one of which I saw opened (...)which was as noble a sight as ever I saw in my life(...)".
Lord Sandwich also thought he had been tricked by the Danish king, as Pepys recounts in his diary entry of 18 September: "But the main thing my Lord wonders at, and blames the Dane for, is, that the blockhead, who is so much in debt to the Hollander, having now a treasure more than much than all his Crowne was worth, and that which would for ever have beggared the Hollander, should not take this time to break with the Hollander, and thereby pay his debt that must have been forgiven him and have got the greatest treasure into his hands that ever was together in the world". In February 1666 the Danish king would declare war against England, after receiving large Dutch subsidies. Pieter de Bitter received an honorary golden chain from the States-General.
One reaction to the battle was the construction of a [additional] fortress—Fredriksberg Fortress (on Nordnes); the battle "showed clearly how vulnerable the city really was", according to Bjørn Arvid Bagge.
Today, the Bergen Cathedral has a cannonball from the battle imbedded in the wall of its tower . In 2015 a plaquette was unveiled on a wall of the cathedral; an information board (infoplate) was unveiled "near Kongestatuen at Bergen[s]hus Fortress". Bergen Maritime Museum has on display part of the decoration on the English vessels: two wooden figures, depicting the head of a lion and the head of a unicorn; in 2015, an exhibition marked the 350th anniversary of the battle: [kings, spices and gunpowder] "Konger, krydder og krutt".
- A painting was done by Willem van de Velde the Younger; [it is located at] "National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London".
- Vrakrestene etter slaget på Vågen (Wreckage after the battle of Vågen) Article in Bergens Tidende, 7 January 2005. (in Norwegian)
- Steen, Sverre (1969). Bergen - byen mellom fjellene. Bergen.
- Slag in de Baai van Bergen, 12 augustus 1665 (in Dutch)
- Warnsinck, JCM, Van Vlootvoogden en Zeeslagen, PN van Kampen & Zoon, 1940
- List of sailing warships