Set in tranquil grounds adjoining a riverside village, this rare example of an Elizabethan artillery fort was begun in 1559 and redeveloped in 1599-1601, to protect warships moored at Chatham dockyards. Despite a brave attempt, it entirely failed to do so in 1667, when the Dutch sailed past it to burn or capture the English fleet at anchor.
The fort Upnor stands on the left or N. bank of the Medway, almost opposite to the dockyard of Chatham. It was built by Queen Elizabeth for the defence of this reach of the river, and consists of a long castellated oblong building in rear, three storeys in height, having a high round tower at each end, anti with the addition now of a casemated ravelin in front, at the river edge, where was a platform for guns defended by a stockade. It was long used as a powder magazine, with an establishment of a governor and other officers, and an officers’ guard of soldiers in a barrack in rear. The entrance was through a square tower in rear of the W. side, the governor’s quarters being in the S. tower.
The only time in which its services were called on was in 1667, on the occasion of the Dutch invasion by De Ruyter, so dishonourable to England, the circumstances of which in connection with Upnor Castle it may be worth while to recall.
After the Restoration, the glories of the British Navy under Blake appear to have been forgotten ; the moneys intended for the fleet and naval stores were otherwise appropriated, and when, in 1667, the States General determined to strike a vigorous blow on this country, the English fleet was laid up in ordinary, the dockyards were depleted, and the sailors mutinous from long overdue wages. De Ruyter, with Van Gent and the best fleet officers, sailed in the spring with a powerful squadron to make a descent on the Thames and destroy all the ships of war he could find, and to burn the magazines and stores. Intimation of this being received, the Duke of York took measures for protecting the ships lying in the Medway, a fleet of sixteen line-of-battle ships, the finest in the navy, but only partially armed and rigged, and without crews. He caused an iron chain cable to be stretched across the Medway at Gillingham, which weighed 4 tons 6 cwt.. and was supported with floats and strained taut by windlasses at either end, Two flank batteries were formed also to protect the chain, but were not armed in time.
Behind the chain were moored two large ships, which had been taken from the Dutch during the Commonwealth, the Charles V., and the Matthias, to protect the barrier with their broadsides, while a number of ships were sunk in the channels to render these impassable. Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Spragge lay at Sheerness, at the mouth of the Medway, with a small squadron, but the fortifications here were neglected.
On June 10, the Dutch came before Sheerness, and, after cannonading the fort there, landed and took the place at once—the garrison running away, and the Unity frigate making off towards Chatham. Munitions Of war were taken to the value of £8000, and fire was set to the place. The Duke of Albemarle (General Monk) was then sent to see to the defences of Chatham, but he found all in panic there, and could effect little beyond reinforcing Upnor Castle, and arming some batteries, besides sinking more ships to block the river, the principal one, the Sancta Maria, being, however, carelessly run ashore and so leaving the main channel open.
On the 12th the enemy came on .with a fair wind and tide, two men-of-war leading, and successfully passed all the intricacies of the channel, with a number of fire-ships in company. One of the Dutch captains, Van Braakel, reaching the Unity, near the chain, at once boarded and carried her ; then two of the fire-ships charged the chain, which gave way, and so allowed the whole fleet of some twenty-five ships to pass up. How this obstacle was passed was never quite ascertained : Pepys, who visited the place, says he found both ends fast; but it seems possible that the chain, being borne down by the .weight of the first ship, some of the floats became detached, allowing it to sag, and the other vessels to pass over. Then one of the fire-ships grappled and set fire to the guardship Matthias, while two others did the same to the Charles V., which burned all day and blew up at night. Meantime the fort at Gillingham and the battery at the N. end of the chain may be assumed to have done what they could .with their incomplete armament, but the Dutch account says they were abandoned at once.
Worse followed. Moored a little above the chain, with only her lower masts in, and no more than thirty-two out of her 100 guns on board, lay the Royal Charles, the finest ship in the navy. She had originally been named the Naseby, but having brought the King home at the Restoration had been re-christened. Orders had been given repeatedly that this magnificent ship should be taken to a safer berth, but the officials had neglected to do so, and now, with a couple of small boats, the Dutch captured her and carried her away, with the Unity, to Holland. Then, after they had set fire to the Sancta Maria, the state of the tide obliged the enemy to defer other proceedings till the next day. On our side the Duke of Albemarle did what he could during the night to raise new batteries, with the aid of volunteers, most of his men having deserted, as they could not get their wages.
On the following morning (13th) the Dutch, sending on a squadron of six men-of-war to engage Upnor and the batteries, proceeded with five fire-ships to compass the destruction of the large ships they saw lying above Upnor, and at 2 P.M. their fleet engaged the batteries. The guns of these and of Upnor Castle on the other side returned a heavy fire of cannon and musketry, but the English record says that the enemy “made no more account of Upnor’s shooting than of a fly.” So passing through the smoke the fire-ships attacked the three ships lying close above the castle, namely the Royal James, Loyal London, and Royal Oak, all fine 80-gun ships, and set them on fire. Thus it happened that on this afternoon there were six British ships of war blazing fiercely in our own waters ; in the words of Evelyn, “as dreadful a spectacle as Englishmen ever saw, and a dishonour never to be wiped off.” Then having successfully achieved their well planned invasion, and inflicted a fearful indignity upon the Power so long in command of the sea, the Dutch at once retired from the scene of their triumph. They had burnt six of the best of our ships, and carried off two others and many prisoners, with the loss only of the fire-ships, and of some thirty men killed and wounded.
In excavating for new dock basins at Chatham in the year 1876, there were discovered, below a deposit of fifteen feet of mud, the timbers of an old ship, in the bend of the river near the E. entrance to St. Mary’s Creek. She was of foreign build ; and twenty-one guns, some of Dutch make, were dug up around her. She had evidently been blown up, her after-part being missing, and all points to the fact that these were the remains of the Charles I, which had been captured from the Dutch in 1665, and which formed, as has been told, one of the guards of the chain. Set on fire she probably drifted on the tide to this spot, where she grounded and blew up during the night, settling down then on the spot where her timbers were thus discovered 209 years afterwards. (Castles Of England, Sir James D. Mackenzie, 1896)