Michiel de Ruyter

Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter (IPA: [mɪˈxil ˈaːdrijaːnˌsoːn də ˈrœytər]; 24 March 1607 – 29 April 1676) was a Dutch admiral. Widely celebrated and regarded as one of the most skilled admirals in Dutch history, De Ruyter is arguably most famous for his achievements with the Dutch Navy during the Anglo-Dutch Wars. He fought the English and French forces and scored several critical victories, with the Raid on the Medway being the most famous among them.

Michiel de Ruyter
De Ruyter in 1667, by Ferdinand Bol
Birth nameMichiel Adriaenszoon
Born(1607-03-24)24 March 1607
Flushing, Dutch Republic
Died29 April 1676(1676-04-29) (aged 69)
Syracuse, Kingdom of Sicily
Allegiance Dutch Republic
BranchDutch State Navy
Service years1637–1676
RankLieutenant-admiral general[lower-alpha 1]
AwardsOrder of Saint Michael
RelationsEngel de Ruyter (son)

Often dubbed a Dutch folk hero, De Ruyter is one of a few select officers in the history of the Dutch navy to hold the title of the lieutenant admiral (Dutch: luitenant-admiraal). Reportedly beloved by his subordinates and seamen, De Ruyter was commonly nicknamed bestevaêr (Middle Dutch for "grandfather") during his service, a nickname that is sometimes still used to refer to him in Dutch media.

Early life

De Ruyter was born on 24 March 1607 in Vlissingen, in the Dutch Republic, as the son of brewery drayman Adriaen Michielszoon and Aagje Jansdochter.[1] Little is known about De Ruyter's early life, but he was sent to sea as a boatswain's apprentice at the age of 11, the usual age for Zeeland boys to begin seafaring.[2] It is said that when he was a child he climbed up ladders to get to the roof of his home town's church. Not knowing De Ruyter was there, some workers then removed the ladders. De Ruyter had to lift tiles on the church roof to get into the church and out the door.

In 1622, during the Eighty Years' War against Spain, he fought as a musketeer in the Dutch army under Maurice of Nassau against the Spaniards during the relief of Bergen-op-Zoom. That same year he rejoined the Dutch merchant fleet and steadily worked his way up through the posts of boatswain and chief mate before becoming a merchant ship's master at the age of thirty. Although having had little formal education, he spoke tolerable French and fluent English.[3]

According to English sources, he was active in Dublin between 1623 and 1631 as an agent for the Vlissingen-based merchant house of the Lampsins brothers. Little is known about his whereabouts in those years, yet it is known De Ruyter spoke the Irish language fluently.

He occasionally travelled as supercargo to the Mediterranean or the Barbary Coast. In those years, he usually referred to himself as "Machgyel Adriensoon", his name in the Zealandic dialect he spoke, not having yet adopted the name "De Ruyter". "De Ruyter" was most probably a nickname given to him: one explanation might be found in the older Dutch verb ruyten or ruiten, which means "to raid", something De Ruyter was known to do as a privateer with the Lampsins ship Den Graeuwen Heynst. Another suggestion is that the name "Ruyter", meaning "horseman" commemorates a grandfather that was a cavalry trooper.[2]

On 16 March in 1631, he married a farmer's daughter named Maayke Velders. On 31 December that year, Maayke died after giving birth to a daughter; who also died just three weeks later.[4] In 1633 and 1635, De Ruyter sailed as a navigating officer aboard the ship Groene Leeuw ("Green Lion") on whaling expeditions to Jan Mayen. Until 1637, he did not yet have a command of his own. In the summer of 1636 he remarried, this time to a daughter of a wealthy burgher named Neeltje Engels, who gave him four children – one of whom died shortly after birth. The others were named Adriaen (1637), Neeltje (1639) and Aelken (1642).

In the midst of this, in 1637, De Ruyter became captain of a private ship meant to hunt for the Dunkirkers, raiders operating from Dunkirk who were preying on Dutch merchant shipping. He fulfilled this task until 1640. After sailing for a while as skipper of a merchant vessel named De Vlissinge, he was contacted again by the Zeeland Admiralty to become a captain, this time of the Haze, a merchant ship turned man-of-war carrying 26 guns, in a fleet under admiral Gijsels fighting the Spanish, teaming up with the Portuguese during their rebellion.

In 1641, De Ruyter was nominated by the Admiralty of Zeeland to be Schout-bij-nacht or third in command of a national Dutch fleet being fitted out to fight Spain. Although this expedition had little success, De Ruyter distinguished himself in combat against a Spanish fleet in the inconclusive action on 4 November 1641, off Cape St. Vincent. However, this action led to the Dutch fleet returning home without completing its mission.[2] After the fleet was disbanded, De Ruyter returned to merchant service, which he undertook either as master of a Lampsins ship,[2] or after buying his own ship, the Salamander. Between 1642 and 1651, he made a number of profitable trading sailings to Morocco, Brazil and the West Indies,[5] and by 1651, he had saved enough money to retire. In 1650, De Ruyter's second wife, who in 1649 had given him a second son named Engel, unexpectedly died. On 8 January 1652, he made the widow Anna van Gelder his third wife and bought a house in Flushing for his proposed retirement, which however lasted less than a year.[3]

First Anglo-Dutch War

During the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652–1654, De Ruyter agreed to join the expanding Dutch fleet as a junior flag-officer or commandeur, a rank broadly comparable to that of commodore, commanding a Zealandic squadron of "director's ships", which were privately financed warships,[6] after initially refusing the post.[7] De Ruyter proved his worth under the supreme commander lieutenant-admiral Maarten Tromp. The rank of admiral-general was reserved for the stadtholder, but at the time, no-one held that appointment. The main function of De Ruyter's squadron was to convoy outbound ir returning Dutch merchant ships in the English Channel, where they were vulnerable to attacks from English ships based at Portsmouth or Plymouth[8]

In August 1652, a convoy of around 60 Dutch merchant ships left the Netherlands for the Mediterranean, initially with an escort of 10 warships. The convoy was joined off the coast of the Spanish Netherlands by a further escort commanded by De Ruyter of between 20 and 30 fighting ships. The exact number of Dutch fighting ships involved in the subsequent battle is unclear, but De Ruyter sailed with 21 warships from all five of the Dutch admiralties, two large Dutch East India warships and six fireships. Additional warships may have joined him on route to the convoy and at least one was damaged and left.[9] On 15 August 1652, the convoy and its escort were sighted by an English fleet commanded by General at Sea George Ayscue with around 45 ships. Three of these were warships more powerful than any in the Dutch fleet, but many of the others were small armed merchant ships rather than purpose-built warships. On the afternoon of 16 August 1652, Ayscue attempted to attack and capture the Dutch merchant ships with around nine of his strongest and fastest warships, but De Ruyter counter-attacked, leaving the convoy unprotected and surrounding those English warships that had attacked in a mêlée battle. This continued until nightfall, as the outnumbered English ships could rely on their stronger batteries to keep the Dutch at bay.[10] Most of the hired English merchant ships neither attempted to aid their warships nor pursue the Dutch merchant ships. As Ayscue was defeated in his aim of capturing or destroying Dutch merchant ships, and as De Ruyter fought off an attack by a potentially superior force by a bold attack on its strongest ships, De Ruyter clearly won this battle of Plymouth and saved the convoy. He also fought at the battle of Kentish Knock and the battle of the Gabbard during this war.[11][12]

Tromp's death during the battle of Scheveningen ended the war, and De Ruyter declined an emphatic offer from Johan de Witt for supreme command because he considered himself 'unfit' and also feared that it would bring him into conflict with Witte de With and Johan Evertsen, both of whom had more seniority.[9][13] Later, De Ruyter and De Witt became friends. Colonel Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam then became the new Dutch supreme commander of the confederate fleet. De Ruyter at first refused to become Obdam's naval 'counsellor and assistant',[14], but later was persuaded by De Witt to accept and remained in the service of the Dutch navy in that post until he accepted an offer from the Admiralty of Amsterdam to become their vice-admiral on 2 March 1654.[15] He relocated with his family to the city in 1655.

Northern Wars

In July 1655, De Ruyter took command of a squadron of eight ships, of which the Tijdverdrijf ("Pastime") was his flagship, and set out for the Mediterranean with 55 merchantmen in convoy. His orders were to protect Dutch trade interests in the region and to ransom Christian slaves in Algiers.[16] Meeting an English fleet under Robert Blake along the way, he managed to avoid an incident. Operating off the Barbary Coast, he captured several infamous corsairs and, after negotiating a peace agreement with Salé, De Ruyter returned home May 1656.

The same month, the States General, becoming ever more wary of Swedish King Charles X and his expansion plans, decided to intervene in the Second Northern War by sending a fleet to the Baltic Sea.[17] The Swedes controlled this area after Charles had invaded Poland and claimed the Polish throne. De Ruyter once again embarked aboard the Tijdverdrijf, arriving at the Øresund 8 June; there he waited for Obdam to arrive. After Obdam had assumed command, De Ruyter and the Dutch fleet sailed to relieve the besieged city of Danzig on 27 July, without any bloodshed. Peace was signed a month later[18] Before leaving the Baltic, De Ruyter and other flag officers were granted an audience by Frederick III of Denmark. De Ruyter took a liking to the Danish king, who later became a friend.

In 1658, the States General, on the advice of a leading member, Cornelis de Graeff, one of the mayors of Amsterdam, decided to once again send a fleet to the Baltic Sea to protect the important Baltic trade and to aid the Danes against Swedish aggression, which continued despite a peace settlement. In accordance with the States' balance-of-power political approach, a fleet under Lieutenant-Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam was sent, without De Ruyter, who at the time was blockading Lisbon. On 8 November, a bloody melee took place, the battle of the Sound, which resulted in a Dutch victory, relieving Copenhagen. Still the Swedes were far from defeated and the States decided to continue their support. De Ruyter took command of a new expeditionary fleet and managed to liberate Nyborg in 1659. For this, he was knighted by King Frederick III of Denmark.[19] From 1661 until 1663, de Ruyter did convoy duty in the Mediterranean.

Second Anglo-Dutch War

In 1664, a year before the Second Anglo-Dutch War began, Robert Holmes had captured several Dutch West India Company trading posts and ships on the West African coast, where companies from the two nations were rivals in the slave trade. Although Johan de Witt wanted to avoid an all-out war with England, he considered that this provocation must be responded to, and proposed to the States General that De Ruyter's squadron in the Mediterranean should be sent to West Africa to retake the West India Company's forts there. De Ruyter received his instructions at Malaga on 1 September 1664 and, by early the next month, all the Dutch West African posts had been recaptured and the squadron was ready to cross the Atlantic to attack English shipping in the West Indies and at the Newfoundland fisheries in reprisal.[20]

De Ruyter's activities in the American waters had less satisfactory results than those off West Africa. Arriving off Barbados in the Caribbean at the end of April 1665 aboard his flagship Spiegel ("Mirror"), he led his fleet of thirteen vessels into Carlisle Bay, exchanging fire with the English batteries and destroying many of the vessels anchored there.[21] Unable to silence the English guns and having sustained significant casualties and considerable damage to his vessels, he retired to French Martinique for repairs.[22]

Sailing north from Martinique, De Ruyter captured several English vessels and delivered supplies to the Dutch colony at Sint Eustatius. Given the damage he had sustained, he decided against an assault on New York, formerly New Amsterdam in order to retake New Netherland. He then took off to Newfoundland, capturing some English merchant ships and temporarily taking the town of St. John's before proceeding to Europe, travelling around the north of Scotland as a precaution.[22][23]

In December 1664, the English fleet attacked the Dutch Smyrna fleet. Though the attack failed, the Dutch in January 1665 allowed their ships to open fire on English warships when threatened.[24] War was declared by the Dutch on 4 March 1665, following two further English attacks on Dutch convoys off Cadiz and in the English Channel.[25] The Dutch fleet was confident of victory, but it contained a significant proportion of older or weak ships. In the first year of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, at the Battle of Lowestoft on 13 June 1665, the Dutch suffered the worst defeat in the history the Dutch Republic's navy. At least sixteen ships lost, and one-third of its personnel captured or killed, including Van Wassenaer.[26]

On his return to the republic, De Ruyter learned that Van Wassenaer had been killed at Lowestoft. Cornelis Tromp had been put in temporary command of the confederate fleet after the battle, but was not acceptable to the regime of Johan de Witt because of his support for the Orangist cause.[27] De Ruyter was politically neutral, but on friendly terms with Johan de Witt and his associates. His successes in distant waters, which ensured he was not involved in the battle of Lowestoft and tainted with defeat, made him the obvious candidate to succeed Van Wassenaer as commander of the Dutch fleet, which he did on 11 August 1665.[28] He was therefore made lieutenant-admiral, a rank he then shared with six others in the Dutch admiralties.

In the second year of the war, 1666, De Ruyter won the hard-fought Four Days' Battle of 1 to 4 June 1666. The division of the English fleet gave the Dutch the advantage of numbers on the first and second days if fighting. An English attack on the anchored Dutch fleet on the first day was resisted and, after two days fighting, the English fleet retreated towards the Thames.[29] However, the English fleet was reinforced by a squadron of undamaged ships on the third evening and fought strongly on the fourth day, so that Tromp seemed near to defeat in the afternoon, until De Ruyter decided the battle with a surprise all-out attack that demoralised his opponents into retreat.[30]

However, the English fleet was not destroyed and, on 4 and 5 August, the Dutch suffered heavy losses and narrowly escaped disaster in the St. James's Day Battle. After the battle, De Ruyter accused Cornelis Tromp of ignoring the main English attack on the Dutch fleet, preferring to chase the English rear squadron as far as the coast. This eventually led to Tromp's dismissal.[31] De Ruyter then became seriously ill, recovering just in time to take nominal command of the fleet executing the Raid on the Medway in 1667, the third year of the war. The Medway raid was a costly and embarrassing defeat for the English, resulting in the loss of the English flagship HMS Royal Charles and bringing the Dutch close to London. A planned Dutch attack on the English anchorage at Harwich led by De Ruyter had to be abandoned after the battle of Landguard Fort, at the close of the war.[32] The Peace of Breda brought the war to an end.

Between 1667 and 1671, De Ruyter was forbidden by De Witt to sail, so as not to endanger his life.[33] In 1669, a failed attempt on his life was made by a Tromp supporter, who tried to stab him with a bread knife in the entrance hall of his house.[34]

Third Anglo-Dutch War

The Treaty of Breda which ended the Second Anglo-Dutch War in July 1667 failed to remove the causes of the long-standing Anglo-Dutch rivalry, which included colonial quarrels, including the exclusion of the English traders from Dutch colonies and the English occupation of the New Netherland colony, and English enforcement of the Navigation Act, although tensions between the two nations lessened between 1668 amd 1670.[35] However the desire of Louis XIV to acquire the Spanish Netherlands and neutralise the Dutch Republic and his subsidising Charles II led to an unprovoked and unsuccessful English attack on the Dutch Smyrna fleet in March 1672, and an English declaration of war against the Netherlands in the same month began the Third Anglo-Dutch War, followed by a French declaration of war in May 1672.[36]

The Dutch were surprised by these events but managed to prepare a strong fleet of 75 ships under De Ruyter, which attacked the combined Anglo-French fleet of 92 ships at the Battle of Solebay in June 1672. THE Dutch fleet concentrated on the English rear squadron, while the French van of 30 ships steered away from the main action, engaging only in long-range fire with 15 Dutch ships. Although the battle was tactically indecisive, it disrupted Anglo-French plans to blockade Dutch ports and land soldiers on the Dutch coast, and also created dissention between the allies, so was a strategic victory for De Ruyter.[37][38]

The war on land went badly for the Dutch in 1672, which they called the Rampjaar or "disaster year", and this led to the resignation and then murder of Johan de Witt in August 1672 and the replacement of republicans by Orangists.[39] De Ruyter was saddened by the killings of his friends, De Witt and his brother, but agreed to continue serving as commander of the fleet. He attempted to blockade the mouth of the Thames with 30 ships in May 1673 but did not succeed, and decided to rendezvous with the rest of the Dutch fleet in the coastal waters of the Schooneveld, where by late May he had assembled a fleet of 50 large ships with frigates and fireships, 64 in total.[40] These restricted waters neutralised the numerical advantages of the allied fleet and, in the two Battles of the Schooneveld of 1673, he manoeuvered skillfully to damage the allied fleets sufficiently to force them to end their blockade of Dutch ports.[41][42] Finally, at the Battle of Texel in August that year, De Ruyter's smaller fleet prevented the larger allied fleet landing troops on the Dutch coast and forced it to retreat.[43] The new rank of lieutenant-admiral general was created especially for him in February 1673, when the new stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland, William III of Orange, became admiral-general. Although successive Princes of Orange, when stadtholder, generally commanded the Dutch army as its captain-general, they never commanded the Dutch fleet as admiral-general.[44]

Again taking the fight to the Caribbean, this time against the French, De Ruyter arrived off Martinique aboard his flagship De Zeven Provinciën on 19 July 1674. He led a substantial force of eighteen warships, nine storeships, and fifteen troop transports bearing 3,400 soldiers. When attempting to assault Fort Royal, his fleet was becalmed, allowing the greatly outnumbered French defenders time to solidify their defenses.

The next day, newly placed booms prevented De Ruyter from entering the harbor, but regardless the Dutch soldiers went ashore. However, without the support of the fleet's guns they were severely mauled in their attempt to reach the French fortifications atop the steep cliffs. Within two hours, the soldiers returned to the fleet with 143 killed and 318 wounded – compared to only 15 French defenders lost. His ambitions thwarted and with the element of surprise lost, De Ruyter sailed north to Dominica and Nevis, then returned to Europe while disease spread aboard his ships.


In 1676, he took command of a combined Dutch–Spanish fleet to help the Spanish suppress the Messina revolt, and fought a French fleet, under Abraham Duquesne, at the battle of Stromboli and the Battle of Augusta, where he was fatally wounded when a cannonball struck him in the right leg. On 18 March 1677, De Ruyter was given an elaborate state funeral. His body was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk of Amsterdam. He was succeeded as supreme commander by Cornelis Tromp in 1679.


De Ruyter was highly respected by his sailors and soldiers, who used the term of endearment bestevaêr ("grandfather") for him, both because of his disregard for hierarchy—he was himself of humble origin—and his refusal to turn away from risky and bold undertakings, despite his usually cautious nature.

He is honoured by a statue in his birthplace, Vlissingen, which stands looking over the sea. Multiple towns in the Netherlands have a street named after him. Respect also extended far beyond the borders of the republic. On his last journey home, the late lieutenant-admiral general was saluted by cannon shots fired on the coasts of France by the direct orders of the French King Louis XIV. The town of Debrecen erected a statue of him for his role in freeing 26 Protestant Hungarian ministers from slavery.

Six Royal Netherlands Navy ships have been named HNLMS De Ruyter; seven are named after his flagship, HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën. De Ruyter was involved in the founding of the Netherlands Marine Corps, established on 10 December 1665. The new base for the marine corps, which will be built in De Ruyter's birthplace of Vlissingen and should be finished by 2020, will be called the "Michiel de Ruyter Kazerne".

A biopic about his life, called Michiel de Ruyter, was released in 2015.


  1. The rank of lieutenant-admiral general was created specifically for De Ruyter and Cornelis Tromp, to distinguish them from other naval officers with the rank of lieutenant-admiral.


  1. Prud'homme 1996, p. 19.
  2. Fox 2018, p. 133.
  3. Fox 2018, pp. 133-134.
  4. Prud'homme 1996, p. 23.
  5. Kloster 2016, p. 165.
  6. Fox 2018, p. 134.
  7. Prud'homme 1996, p. 59.
  8. Bruijn 2011, p. 105.
  9. Bruijn 1993, p. 65.
  10. Bruijn 2011, pp. 105-106.
  11. Bruijn 1993, pp. 61-62.
  12. Young 2004, p. 168.
  13. Prud'homme 1996, p. 85.
  14. Prud'homme 1996, p. 86.
  15. Rowen 2015, pp. 195-196.
  16. Kloster 2016, p. 102.
  17. Warnsinck 1941, pp. 246-247.
  18. Warnsinck 1941, p. 247.
  19. Prud'homme 1996, p. 114.
  20. Bruijn 1993, pp. 68-69.
  21. Staff writer (n.d.). "History: History and Development > SETTLEMENT OF BRIDGETOWN". Barbados' UNESCO World Heritage application. The Ministry of Community Development & Culture, Barbados. Archived from the original on 7 July 2011. Retrieved 17 March 2011. In 1665, the Charles Fort played a major role in successfully defending Barbados from attack by the Dutch (commanded by Admiral Michel De Ruyter) who had attempted a surprise assault from the east.
  22. Kloster 2016, p. 103.
  23. Staff writer (n.d.). "History of St. john's". Archived from the original on 28 January 2016.
  24. Rommelse 2006, pp. 135,139.
  25. Fox 2018, pp. 67-68.
  26. Fox 2018, pp. 126-127.
  27. Prud'homme 1996, p. 152.
  28. Fox 2018, pp. 125-127.
  29. Fox 2018, pp. 234-236.
  30. Fox 2018, pp. 263-264.
  31. Fox 2018, pp. 293-296.
  32. Fox 2018, pp. 301-304.
  33. Prud'homme 1996, p. 228.
  34. Prud'homme 1996, p. 253.
  35. Boxer 1969, pp. 70-71.
  36. Boxer 1969, pp. 71,74.
  37. Bruijn 2011, pp. 40, 263-264.
  38. Palmer 2005, pp. 60-61.
  39. Rowen 2015, pp. 858, 881-883.
  40. Warnsinck 1941, p. 382.
  41. Bruijn 2011, pp. 40,251,263.
  42. Warnsinck 1941, pp. 399-400.
  43. Bruijn 2011, p. 264.
  44. Bruijn 1989, p. 123.


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