Conviction on the High Seas

Blair Worden

  • Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy 1650-68 by Steven Pincus
    Cambridge, 506 pp, £45.00, May 1996, ISBN 0 521 43487 4

To contemporaries, the three Anglo-Dutch naval wars that were fought in the third quarter of the 17th century were epic encounters on which the fate of Europe depended: modern equivalents of Rome’s wars with Carthage or of the Battle of Actium. The size and prowess of the fleets drew astonishment across the continent. So did the thunderous battles, whose scale and drama can still be sensed in the paintings of the Van de Veldes.

Yet the wars seem inexplicable within conventional accounts of 17th-century political motive and conduct. From the 1570s, English advocates of a Protestant foreign policy had applauded the Netherlanders’ struggle for independence from Spain and viewed them as necessary allies against the international Catholic menace. In the 1640s, the Parliament which fought against Charles I condemned his indifference to the Dutch plight. In 1648-9, both countries renounced their foreign rulers, the Dutch finally breaking free from what they held to be the Popish tyranny of Spanish rule, the English Parliament repudiating what it held to be the Popish tyranny of the house of Stuart. To the common interest of Protestantism was thus added the common interest of patriotic republicanism. What could be more natural than that the two new republics, both of them imperilled by the great Catholic monarchies of Spain and France, should make common cause?

Early in 1651 an English embassy to the Hague seemed likely to seal such an alliance. Yet the negotiations ended in acrimony, and the following year the two republics went to war. Since that war seems to make neither religious nor political sense, historians have turned to economics to explain it. For if the English and Dutch had long been Protestant friends, they had also, for almost as long, been commercial enemies. The Dutch economic miracle of the earlier 17th century – the wealth of Amsterdam, the advances in ship design, the expansion of the maritime carrying-trade between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, the exploitation of new markets overseas and especially in the East Indies – threatened England’s economic security. Alongside the friendly images of Dutch Protestantism there grew up hostile ones of Dutch commercial greed and ruthlessness.

That the English Parliament of 1652, whose members had devoted their careers to their Protestant ideals, and risked their lives for them, should suddenly have elevated economic arguments above the imperatives of religion, politics and diplomacy has always seemed odd. The historians least troubled by that scenario have been the Marxists. To them the execution of Charles I was a bourgeois revolution: it brought new bourgeois interests to power in the City of London and enabled bourgeois pressure groups to persuade the infant Commonwealth to fight an economic war. The primacy of economics, on this view, was confirmed after the Restoration, when the monarchy, while reversing the changes brought about by the political and religious ideals of the Interregnum, persisted with the anti-Dutch policy of the Commonwealth. Thus the Navigation Act, which Parliament had passed against the Dutch in October 1651, was re-enacted by the Crown in 1660. In the Marxist view, the war of 1652-4, which the English happened to fight under a radically Protestant republic, was the first of three conflicts, of which the other two, the wars of 1665-7 and 1672-4, happened to be fought under an Anglican monarchy.

Steven Pincus’s Protestantism and Patriotism torpedoes that argument and, along with it, the entire historiography of the Anglo-Dutch wars. His subject is the first two of the three wars. They were fought, he maintains, not for economic but for ideological purposes, and at some economic cost. Pincus’s starting-point is the basic division within the Dutch polity, which ran parallel to that within England. In the seven provinces of the new Dutch federation, the focus of division was the monarchical ambition of the house of Orange: in England it was that of the Stuarts, who had been allied to the Orange family since the marriage of Charles’s daughter Mary to the second William of Orange in 1641. William’s death in November 1650, which made possible two decades of republican rule in the Netherlands, was as large an event in Dutch politics as the execution of his father-in-law the previous year had been in English politics. But while it brought republicanism to the centre of Dutch power, it gave it no regional or popular base. Dutch public sentiment remained largely Orangist.

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