Michiel Adriaenszoon de
Ruyter is one of the most famous admirals in Dutch history. De Ruyter is most
famous for his role in the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century. He fought
the English and French in these wars and scored several major victories, the
best known probably being the Raid on the Medway. The pious De Ruyter was
very much loved by his sailors and soldiers; from them his most significant
nickname derived: Bestevaêr (older Dutch for 'grandfather'). He is honoured
by a statue in his birthplace Vlissingen, where he stands looking over the
De Ruyter was born in 1607 in Flushing (Vlissingen) as the son of beer porter
Adriaen Michielszoon and Aagje Jansdochter. Little is known about De Ruyter's
early life, but he probably became a sailor at the age of 11. In 1622 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. 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. Although Dutch
sources have no data about his whereabouts in those years, it is known that
De Ruyter spoke Irish fluently. He would occasionally travel 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" most probably was a nickname given to him. An explanation might
be found in the meaning of the older Dutch verb ruyten or ruiten which means
"to raid", something De Ruyter was known for to do as a privateer
with the Lampsins ship Den Graeuwen Heynst.
In 1631 he married a farmer's daughter named Maayke Velders. The marriage
lasted until the end of the year 1631 when Maayke died after giving birth to
a daughter who followed her mother in death three weeks later.
In 1633 De Ruyter set sail for Jan Mayen Island serving as first mate on a
fleet of five whalers. He repeated this action in 1634 and 1635. At this
point 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 would give him four children. One of these 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 raiders operating from Dunkirk who were preying on Dutch
merchant shipping. He fulfilled this task until 1640. After sailing for a
while as schipper (skipper) of a merchant vessel named de Vlissinge, he was
contacted again by the Zeeland Admiralty to become captain 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
A Dutch fleet, with De Ruyter as third in command, beat back a
Spanish-Dunkirker fleet in an action of Cape St Vincent 4 November 1641.
After returning he bought his own ship, the Salamander, and between 1642 and
1652, he mainly traded and travelled to Morocco and the West Indies to amass
wealth as a merchant. During this time his esteem grew among other Dutch
captains as he would regularly free Christian slaves by redeeming them at his
In 1650 De Ruyter's wife, who in 1649 had given him a second son named Engel,
unexpectedly died. On 8 January 1652 he married the widow Anna van Gelder and
decided the time had come to retire. He bought a house in Flushing, but his
blissful family life would not last long.
First Anglo-Dutch War
During the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654), De Ruyter was asked to join the
expanding fleet as a subcommander of a Zealandic squadron of "director's
ships": privately financed warships. After initially refusing and
stating he wasn't qualified enough for such a job, De Ruyter proved his worth
under supreme commander Lieutenant-Admiral (the nominal rank of
Admiral-General was reserved for the stadtholder but at the time none was
appointed) Maarten Tromp, winning the Battle of Plymouth against Vice-Admiral
George Ayscue. He also fought at the Battle of Kentish Knock, the Battle of
Plymouth and the Battle of the Gabbard. De Ruyter functioned as a squadron
commander, being referred to as a Commodore, which at the time was not an
official rank in the Dutch navy.
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 bypassing the seniority
principle would bring him into conflict with Witte de With and Johan
Evertsen. Later De Ruyter and De Witt would become personal friends. Colonel
Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam then became the new Dutch supreme commander of the
confederate fleet. De Ruyter - after refusing to become Obdam's naval
'advisor' - remained in service of the Dutch navy however and later accepted
an offer from the admiralty of Amsterdam to become their Vice-Admiral on 2
March 1654. He relocated with his family to the city in 1655.
In July 1655 De Ruyter took command of a squadron of eight of which the
Tijdverdrijf was his flagship and set out for the Mediterranean with 55
merchantmen in convoy. His orders were to protect Dutch trade. Meeting an
English fleet under Robert Blake along the way, he managed to avoid creating
a new flag incident. Operating off the Barbary Coast he captured several
infamous corsairs and having negotiated 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 Northern Wars
by sending a fleet to the Baltic Sea. The Swedes controlled this area after
Charles had invaded Poland and made himself king there. De Ruyter once again
embarked on the Tijdverdrijf arriving in the Sound the 8th of June; there he
waited for Lieutenant-Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam to arrive. After Obdam
had assumed command De Ruyter and the Dutch fleet sailed to relieve the
besieged city of Gdańsk on 27 July, without any bloodshed. Peace was
signed a month later. Before leaving the Baltic De Ruyter and other
flagofficers were granted audience by Frederick III of Denmark. De Ruyter
took a liking to the Danish king who would later become a personal friend.
In 1658 the States-General 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, continued despite a peace settlement. In accordance with the
States' balance of power politics 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 the Danish king Frederick III of
Denmark. From 1661 until 1663 De Ruyter had convoy duty in the Mediterranean.
Second Anglo-Dutch War
In 1664, a year before the Second Anglo-Dutch War officially began, he
clashed with the English off the West African coast, where both the English
and Dutch had significant slave stations, retaking the Dutch possessions
occupied by Robert Holmes and then crossing the Atlantic to raid the English
colonies in America.
Arriving off Barbados in the Caribbean at the end of April, 1665 aboard his
flagship Spiegel, he led his fleet of thirteen vessels into Carlisle Bay,
exchanging fire with the English batteries and destroying many of the vessels
anchored there. Unable to silence the English guns and having sustained
considerable damage to his own vessels, he retired to French Martinique for
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 (the former New
Amsterdam) to retake New Netherland. He then took off to Newfoundland,
capturing several English fishing boats and temporarily taking St. John's before
proceeding to Europe.
On his return to The Netherlands he learned that Van Wassenaer had been
killed in the disastrous Battle of Lowestoft. Many expected that Tromp's son
Cornelis would now take command of the confederate fleet, especially Cornelis
Tromp himself, who had already been given a temporary commission. Tromp
however was not acceptable to the regent regime of Johan de Witt because of
his support of the Prince of Orange's cause. De Ruyter's popularity had grown
after his heroic return and, most importantly, his affiliation lay with the
Estates-General and Johan de Witt in particular. He therefore was made
commander of the Dutch fleet on 11 August 1665, as Lieutenant-Admiral (a rank
he at the time shared with six others) of the Amsterdam admiralty.
In this Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667) he won a hard-fought victory in
the Four Days Battle (June 1666) but narrowly escaped disaster in the St
James's Day Battle (August 1666) which brought him into conflict with
Cornelis Tromp, eventually leading to Tromp's dismissal. He then became
seriously ill, recovering just in time to take nominal command of the fleet
executing the Raid on the Medway in 1667. 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 and the war
to its end. Between 1667 and 1671 he was forbidden by De Witt to sail, in
order not to endanger his life. In 1669 a failed attempt on his life was made
by a Tromp supporter, trying to stab him with a bread knife in the
entrance-hall of his house.
Third Anglo-Dutch War and death
De Ruyter saved the situation for the Netherlands in the Third Anglo-Dutch
War. His strategic victories over larger Anglo-French fleets at the Battles
of Solebay (1672), the double Schooneveld (1673) and Texel (1673) warded off
invasion. The new rank of Lieutenant-Admiral-General was created especially
for him in February 1673, when the new stadtholder William III of Orange
Again taking the battle 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. 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. Nonetheless, the Dutch soldiers
went ashore without the support of the fleet's guns, and were badly mauled in
their attempt to reach the French fortifications atop the steep cliffs.
Within two hours, the soldiers were returning to the fleet, with 143 killed
and 318 wounded, as compared to only fifteen 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 Duquesne twice at
the Battle of Stromboli and the Battle of Agosta, where he was fatally
wounded when a cannonball hit his left leg. On 18 March 1677 De Ruyter was
given an elaborate state funeral when his body was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk
(New Church) in 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 ("Granddad") for him, both because of his
disregard for hierarchy (he was himself of humble origin) and his refusal to
back away from risky and bold undertakings despite his usually cautious
Respect also extended far beyond the borders of the Republic. On his last
journey home, the late Lieutenant-Admiral-General was saluted by canon 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.
In the 2004 election of De Grootste Nederlander (The Greatest Dutchman)
Michiel de Ruyter was the seventh most voted. 'Michiel de Ruyter' is the
default name for the Dutch in Sid Meier's 1994 game, Colonization. He was
buried in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Amsterdam. De Ruyter's burial site
has now turned in to a tourist attraction. De Ruyter's praalgraf is visible,
protected by a glass pane. However, descendents of the De Ruyter family are
granted unrestricted access to his grave, and De Ruyter's descendent stated
in a 2007 issue of Dutch newspaper Het Parool that he visited the coffin
privately in 1948 with his own grandfather, and they decided to lift the
coffin's lid. The grand-grand son was shocked with the sight and said:
"it wasn't a pleasant sight. He (De Ruyter) was embalmed with great
haste, and they didn't bother with his shot-off leg, they just dropped it in.
It was just lying there. No, it wasn't pleasant, it was a shock actually
ships of the Royal Netherlands Navy
have been named HNLMS De Ruyter after Admiral Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter
De Ruyter, launched in 1880, was an Atjeh-class unprotected cruiser.
De Ruyter, launched in 1926, was an Admiralen-class destroyer. She was
renamed Van Ghent to make way for the 1935 De Ruyter.
She served in World War II and was
wrecked on Bamidjo reef on 15 February 1942.
De Ruyter, launched in 1935, was the lead ship of her class of light
She served in World War II and was sunk in the battle of the
Java Sea on February 28, 1942.
HNLMS De Ruyter (C 801), launched in 1944, was a De Zeven Provinciën-class
cruiser (laid down as De Zeven Provinciën,
renamed after the sinking of the 1935 De Ruyter). She was
sold to Peru in 1973 and renamed Almirante Grau.
De Ruyter (F 806), launched in 1974,
was a Tromp-class guided missile frigate.
De Ruyter (F 804), launched in 2002, is a De Zeven