In part two of journalist Sam Kinchin-Smith‘s exploration of our besieged island history, he visits some of the romantic waterways and riverside castles that have played a part in the various invasions of England.
Missed part one? Read it here
The Waiting Game: Anticipating Invasion
‘And, the truth is, I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone … God help us! and God knows what disorders we may fall into, and whether any violence on this office, or perhaps some severity on our persons … God knows! I have, in my own person, done my full duty, I am sure.’
So wrote Samuel Pepys in his diary on 12th June 1667, 348 years ago this month as a fleet of Dutch ships sailed up the Medway, in Kent, taking or incinerating the greatest ships of the Royal Navy as it went. Pepys, a pragmatic guy, interspersed these apocalyptic sentiments with references to supper, sleep and self-interest:
‘I presently resolved of my father’s and wife’s going into the country; and, at two hours’ warning, they did go by the coach this day, with about 1300l. in gold in their night-bag … but my heart is full of fear: They gone, I continued in fright and fear what to do with the rest.’
But the sense that this influential gentleman, with access to reasonably accurate intelligence - in other words not a hysterically misinformed mob - was genuinely terrified by the prospect of an imminent invasion is unmistakable. This alarm at the thought of invasion can be traced in the words of many powerful figures from our history, from the correspondence of Elizabeth I referenced in the recent BBC programme Armada, to the caveats contained in Churchill’s famously belligerent speeches of 1940: ‘the Navy has never pretended to be able to prevent raids by bodies of 5,000 or 10,000 men … thrown ashore at several points some dark night or foggy morning,’ he admitted in one; ‘we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and treacherous manoeuvre … no idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered,’ in another.
The fear of invasion for our forefathers was a profound, existential fear that today we often understate, or struggle to imagine. With the benefit of hindsight we read these accounts conscious that, however bad things got, there would be light at the end of the tunnel (from 1066 onwards, anyway). The Dutch would quit while they were ahead, the Armada would get itself into all sorts of trouble, and Britain would win the Battle of Britain. But this is a tendency we should seek to interrogate. And not only because of the general dangers of complacency Churchill identified in 1940, in his ‘fight on the beaches’ speech:
‘there has never been a period in all these long centuries of which we boast [of] an absolute guarantee against invasion … There was always the chance, and it is that chance which has excited and befooled the imaginations of many Continental tyrants.’
Rather, we should reflect upon this ‘chance’ because to understand it, and the way it sometimes crystallised into terrifying inevitability, and the impact this had on subsequent strategy and governance of the realm, is to understand a crucial part of our besieged island story. To better understand this mindset, we have to put ourselves into the past, stand where some of this history was made and imagine a vague but terrible imminent attack in deeply resonant circumstances. Fortunately, some of the best places in the country to do this can be grouped under a rather appealing heading…
Romantic Waterways and Riverside Castles
England is blessed with beautiful rivers and spectacular castles in every one of its regions, but the part these places have played in our besieged island history is very much a story of one area in particular. It is the south-east, from Felixstowe to Dover, via the Thames, the Medway and of course London, right in the political heart of England, that the terror of invasion has arguably struck most frequently and most acutely.
One of the most evocative places in England to imagine imminent invasion is Rochester Castle in Kent. Its very existence is largely the result of the way this position, a short distance up the Medway, has been a crucial locus of both offensive and defensive effort since the Roman conquest of Britain in AD43. Running skirmishes along the Medway and the Thames between the Romans and the sons of Cunobeline (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, once thought to have been buried at Bluebottle Grove) culminated in an epic, two-day battle on the site of what would become Rochester. A century and a half after the construction of the first castle, built to consolidate William I’s invasion, the First Barons’ War saw King John laying siege to it, and burning Rochester’s bridge over the Medway with fire ships, after another invasion force from France had taken it as part of its initial advance into the south-east of England. Indeed the Medway is a river where invasion has been anticipated, and played out, perhaps even more frequently than on the Thames (whose own defensive history can be traced at places like Tilbury Fort). Nowhere can this be felt more keenly than from the top of Rochester Castle’s keep.
Except, perhaps, at a different castle on the Medway, which witnessed the river’s most ignominious and alarming episode of all. Ironically, the success of the Dutch raid of 1667 may partly have been the product of a lack of English recognition of the threat, until it was too late. It was only on the 10th June, four days after the Dutch fleet was first spotted, that Charles II ordered an admiral to go to Kent to take charge. The unlucky Admiral, dismayed by the lack of guns at important strategic points along the way, such as Tilbury Fort, and now conscious that Dutch were coming up the Medway, decided to concentrate the English defensive effort in one location, Upnor Castle, filling it with guns and men, and the portion of the Medway it overlooks with blockships.
For the next three days, between the 12th and 14th June, English hopes of sidestepping outright catastrophe depended on this elegant little Elizabethan artillery fort. And eventually, thanks to a combination of sustained firepower from Upnor, and the English fleet sinking many of their own ships, the Dutch turned round and made a leisurely escape, towing with them the Royal Charles, the flagship of the Royal Navy. There are few places in England that have had so much hope and fear invested in them, for a single terrifying week - and few accounts of mass panic as evocative as Pepys’s. I recommend spending an afternoon reading the Diary at the castle.
Of course, the story of rivers and invasions in England isn’t exclusively located in the south-east. The most compelling area to consider is Yorkshire and the Humber - and specifically, the River Ouse. For it was up the latter that the invasion force of Harald Hardrada sailed in 1066, kicking off the chain of events that would result in the Norman conquest. Hardrada crushed the forces of two English earls at the Battle of Fulford before sailing into York, and then out again towards a tributary of the Ouse, the River Derwent. And it was at a bridge over the Derwent, named Stamford, that Hardrada’s river-loving forces were intercepted by Harold Godwinson’s English army, and defeated. Godwinson’s mission up north is considered a major contributor to his defeat at the Battle of Hastings less than three weeks later. The victor, William I, recognised the dangers of an undefended Ouse and built an early precursor to Clifford’s Tower in York to keep an eye on it. Another Viking invasion in 1069 - sailing, as ever, up the Humber and the Ouse - saw the first of many assaults on riverside castles in York, and the views over the river from the top of Clifford’s Tower offer a spectacular insight into the extreme watchfulness (as well as vicious pre-emptive strikes) that characterised the first decade of William’s reign, when invasion was expected to arrive from within, as well as without.
Almost 1000 years later, as Churchill’s Britain prepared for the ‘novel stratagems’ and ‘treacherous manoeuvres’ of ‘Operation Sea Lion’, plans were made in ancient nerve centres such as Scarborough, Pendennis and of course Dover Castle. These places where it was decided that the cruisers and destroyers of the Royal Navy’s British Home Fleet would be deployed, would have been familiar touchstones for those charged with anticipating the invasion of England for two millennia: Sheerness at the mouth of the Medway, destroyed by the Dutch in 1667; Harwich, facing Landguard Fort at the mouth of the Orwell, invaded by Isabella of France in 1326; The Humber, the Vikings’ favourite entry-point into the British Isles; and Dover itself, the ‘Key to England’, the story of which we will explore in part three of this series.