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Alfriston’s Red Lion & a Fighting Dutchman at Pevensey

Alfriston' s red lion
Photo credit Immanuel Giel, CC by 3.0

Alfriston’s red lion is hard to miss, prominently present as it is outside the Star Inn on the High Street, as well as proudly depicted on the village sign on the Tye (village green).

Alfriston's red lion
Photo credit Nils Visser

Some refer to the large wood statue as a dragon, understandably so as the depiction is heavily stylised. Upon my first encounter, I heard various origin stories. A commonality was that our red friend hailed from a Dutch ship, albeit from a wide range of time periods.

Alfriston's red lion
Photo credit to Philip Bird,

I was researching 17th century Dutch nautical history for my Flying Dutchman trilogy at the time, so I was much intrigued. The red lion appeared to fit the 17th and 18th centuries rather well. The replica of the 1628 Batavia in Lelystad has a similar figurehead, as does the replica of the Amsterdam in Amsterdam. The original Amsterdam, by the by, was shipwrecked on the Sussex coast in 1749 and occasionally resurfaces at Bulverhythe at extreme low tide.

Dutch ship, the Batavia
A replica of the Batavia. Photo credit to Katarzyna Mazurowska,

I sent a picture of the red lion to a contact at the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, to ask if he knew about Alfriston’s red lion and if it was indeed a Dutch figurehead. I received a prompt reply. My contact hadn’t known about the Alfriston red lion but said that stylistically it appeared to be a late 17th century Dutch figurehead. In contrast to England’s gold-crowned lions, the Dutch ones were red with yellow manes. The crown was added to Dutch warships after Prince William of Orange, Stadtholder in the Low Countries, became King of England in 1689, sharing joint sovereignty with his wife and cousin Mary Stuart.

Alfriston's red lion and The Amsterdam
Figurehead on the replica of The Amsterdam. Photo credit to Katoosha,

My contact was fairly excited by the find since there are, after all, not a great many original 17th century figureheads left. Having delved into historical documents he was also certain as to when the figurehead was cast ashore at Cuckmere Haven.

Cuckmere Haven

The 1690 Battle of Beachy Head 

Even before he had become King of England & Scotland, William III had clashed with France’s Louis XIV. As Stadtholder in the Netherlands William had been active in setting up a European alliance to oppose the French Sun King, leading to the Nine Year’s War (1688-1697).

Sussex naval history
17th century Dutch warships, as drawn by Hastings based artist Julie Gorringe

As newly crowned King, William III grew from an irritant upstart prince to a fellow monarch, a threat to be reckoned with. Louis XIV countered by throwing his support behind the Jacobites in Ireland. This made control of the English Channel an objective for both sides, thus setting the context for the 1690 Battle of Beachy Head in which an Anglo-Dutch fleet clashed with a French fleet off the Sussex coast.

Beachy Head Eastbourne

Admiral Anne-Hilarion de Costentin, Comte de Tourville, led the French fleet. It consisted of 75 ships of the line and 28,000 crewmen as well as 4,600 guns. The Anglo-Dutch fleet was led by Admiral Arthur Herbert, the 1st Earl of Torrington. The English component consisted of 34 English and some Dutch ships of the line but was reinforced by a Dutch squadron of 22 ships of the line, led by Admiral Cornelis Evertsen. In total the allies had 23,000 crewmen and 4,153 guns.

Dutch English naval battle of Beachy Head
Admiral Arthur Herbert, 1st Earl of Torrington (John Closterman).

One could presume that a sea battle involving over 130 ships of the line, 50,000 men, and 8,700 guns, all within sight (and earshot) of the Sussex coast might have left a lasting impression, but the tendency has been to make little mention of it. Other than being a triumphant French naval victory, a major cause for selective memory might be that the battle was marked by English cowardice. Admiral Torrington had already expressed reservations about tackling the numerically superior French. When push came to shove and Cornelis Evertsen led his vanguard squadron of 22 into battle, Torrington refused to commit the rest of his fleet. The greater part of the allied fleet was reduced to the role of unemployed spectators, watching the Dutch battling nearly four times their number. Evertsen’s squadron predictably received quite the pounding. The Dutch admiral averted total disaster by outsmarting the French, ordering his vanguard to anchor while under full sail, meaning the French drifted away on the tidal stream.

Battle of Beachy Head
Cornelis Evertsen, commander of Admiral Herbert’s vanguard (Nicolaes Maes, original kept at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

The allied fleet was able to reunite and sailed eastward, with Tourville in pursuit. However, many of the ships in Evertsen’s squadron had been so badly battered that most had to be towed, slowing down the escape. Torrington, therefore, ordered the crews to be transferred and the ships destroyed to avoid capture. Thus, Torrington’s retreat was marked by a trail of shipwrecks in his wake – not to mention a detached figurehead in the form of a red lion.

Battle of Beachy Head
A 1691 French depiction of the battle, showing the fleets’ dispositions.

Due to tidal patterns, Alfriston’s red lion figurehead is unlikely to have originated from any of the ships lost east of Beachy Head. These include the Noorderkwartier (72 guns) which was entirely dismasted during the battle and scuttled close to Beachy Head. The Gekroond Burcht (62 guns) was set on fire in view of Eastbourne and blew up when the fire reached the powder kegs at three o’clock in the morning, presumably offering the inhabitants of Eastbourne an explosive spectacle. The badly damaged Wapen van Utrecht (64 guns) sank on its own accord at Norman’s Bay and is a likely candidate for the Norman’s Bay wreck that is still being explored. The Maas (64 guns) was beached at Pevensey to prevent capture. The Maagd van Enkhuizen (72 guns), Elswout (50 guns), and Tholen (50 guns) were sunk or beached and set on fire at Hastings (White Rock) to prevent capture. Finally, the English ship the Anne (70 guns) was beached and set on fire at Pett Level to avoid capture. The Anne’s wreck can still be seen at low tide.

Battle of Beachy Head
The Battle of Beachy Head, the French surround the outnumbered Dutch, Torrington’s English squadrons observing from a safe distance (Pieter van der Aa, public domain).

As for ships lost west of Beachy Head, the Friesland (68 guns) had been captured and then burned by the French during the battle. However, Alfriston’s red lion figurehead’s dimensions fit a smaller ship, the Friesland was definitely too large. The Noord Holland (40 guns) was smaller, but unfortunately, her stats have been lost so we’re not entirely sure about her size, albeit we know she was still a ship of the line. The Noord Holland was badly damaged during the battle and sunk by the allies to prevent capture. Two fire ships were lost in the main action of the battle, the Suikermolen (4 guns) and the Kroonvogel (6 guns). The Suikermolen was sunk by broadsides from the French ship of the line Le Conquérant. The Kroonvogel was burned in action after an unsuccessful attack on the French centre. Although traditionally fire ships were redundant freighters given a (short) second life, they were sometimes built as brand-new ships in this period, specifically designed to function as military fire ships in which case a figurehead would have been included.

Battle of Beachy Head
Dutch ships of the line in action in the 17th century (Willem van der Velde, original kept at the National Maritime Museum, Amsterdam).

The most likely contenders for Alfriston’s red lion are the Noord Holland, the Suikermolen, or the Kroonvogel.

Alfriston's red lion and the Battle of Beachy Head
Was Alfriston’s Red Lion the figurehead of a smaller ship? Depicted here is the staten yacht Utrecht, sailing past modern counterparts at the naval base in Den Helder. Both Beachy Head fleets were attended by smaller vessels, but these often remained anonymous with the main focus on ships of the line (Bert de Boer,

Although Tourville had won a magnificent victory and was initially hot on the heels of the allied fleet, he failed to maintain a rigorous pursuit and the allies managed to make it to the safety of the Thames. Torrington was relieved of duty and court-martialled. Cornelis Evertsen accused him of cowardice. Daniel Finch, 2nd Earl of Nottingham and Secretary of State, advised William III that “Torrington deserted the Dutch…shamefully”. William III penned an apology to political leaders in the Netherlands, recording “I cannot express to you how distressed I am…as I have been informed that my ships did not properly support those of the Estates (ed-Dutch Republic), and left them in the lurch.” To William III’s disbelief and displeasure, the admiral’s fellow naval officers acquitted Torrington but the king did dismiss him from service.

battle of Beachy Head
A hail of shot. (Willem van de Velde de Jongere, original kept at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

The Fighting Dutchman of Pevensey

There is a more positive note amidst the post-battle acrimony, as we have a veritable man of the match to highlight. Captain Jan Snellen of the Maas (Dutch name for the Meuse river, 64 guns) had lost his mainmast and mizzenmast during the main battle, as well as 150 crewmembers killed or wounded – close to half the crew. Initially, the Maas was towed away by respectively the English ships Milford and Assurance, but after various mishaps, Snellen was left to his own devices. He turned west, hoping to make it to Portsmouth, but was discovered by the French ship of the line Le Saint-Louis and forced to beach the Maas at either Holywell (Eastbourne) or Pevensey. The French initially assumed that the disabled Maas offered easy pickings, but Snellen directed his remaining Rotterdam crew to bring enough guns and munitions ashore to establish an improvised shore battery.

Dutch Anglo Naval history
Man of the match, Johan (Jan) Snellen, captain of the Maas (Gobius).

What happens next is a topic for debate. According to a Dutch source, twelve to thirteen French ships of the line descended upon Pevensey and surrounded the stricken Maas. They were prevented from destroying the ship by the stubborn resistance of the Rotterdammers manning their improvised shore battery. After a battle lasting several days Tourville ordered his ships to retreat, leaving Snellen lord and master of Pevensey beach, this shoreline of England temporarily adorned with battle-worn Dutch tri-colours. However, English historian J.D. Davies pointed out that the sea at Pevensey was far too shallow to allow French ships of the line to approach too closely. Davies said the French launched longboats and thrice attempted amphibious assaults on Pevensey beach, each time repulsed by the Dutch. According to Davies the French departed looking for easier targets by the end of the day.

When the danger had passed Snellen managed to refloat the Maas and limped her home to the Netherlands – with only the foremast sails at his disposal. Snellen received a hero’s welcome and he was promoted to Rear Admiral.

As a native of the port of Rotterdam, I do like the notion that fellow Rotterdammers fought an epic battle against overwhelming odds for days on end on this bit of the Sussex coast. However, I’ll settle for Davies’s more modest account, because even that heroic last stand scenario was a remarkable feat. It allows me to view the Battle of Beachy Head not as a humiliating defeat, but as a successful operation to defend Sussex by the Sea against French invaders. A victory (of sorts) after all, if viewed with a bit of poetic license.

By Nils Visser – born in Rotterdam, Nils now lives in Brighton and amongst many other talents is author of a number of novels available on Amazon. 

The author fancies this is his credential for meddling in Dutch maritime matters: Bleak Future, the first book in his The Flying Dutchman Trilogy based on his great-grand-uncle’s 1901 De Vliegende Hollander novel (Cover art by Tom Brown).


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