Fighters In The Longest War Actually Forgot They Were Fighting

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, February 27, 2014
english civil war
“Time ripens all things. No man is born wise.” —Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha

In A Nutshell

The 335-Year War is the longest war in history. It was fought—technically—between the Netherlands and England’s Isles of Scilly, although the conflict went on for so long that it was largely forgotten that the two nations were actually at war. It started when the Dutch decided to get involved in the English Civil War and declared war on the losing side. The conflict was never settled—until 1986, when the end of the war was officially declared.

The Whole Bushel

Ever spend so much time mad at someone that you forget what the original fight was about, who started it and why it got as bad as it did? That’s kind of what happened around the events that led to the longest war in history.

It was, for lack of a better word, fought between the Dutch and a group of islands that sit about 45 kilometers (28 mi) off the southwest tip of England called the Isles of Scilly. And it started in 1651.

To make better sense of the whole thing, a quick history lesson for the non-British. When Elizabeth I died, the crown passed to her cousin, James Stuart (the son of Mary, Queen of Scots). For the first time, England, Ireland, and Scotland were united under one monarch. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t sit well with, well, anyone. Matters got worse when he was succeeded by his son, Charles I, whose popularity decreased even further when he first wholeheartedly fought in then withdrew from the Thirty Years’ War—a largely continental conflict.

Charles continued to make bad decision after bad decision, including an attempt to rewrite prayer texts and trying—unsuccessfully—to step on Scottish rebellion. Eventually, outright armed rebellion by the Irish against both English and Scottish settlers led to the division of power in England. The Royalists supported the king and his right to rule, while the Parliamentarians wanted Charles ousted.

Enter the Dutch.

The Dutch decided to give their support to the Parliamentarians, who were on the opposite side of a crown they had, up until then, been allied with. The Royalists retaliated, by raiding any and all Dutch ships that came into the English Channel. It was a losing battle for the Royalists, though, and bit by bit they were forced to retreat until their last remaining stronghold was the Isles of Scilly.

The Dutch decided to take that opportunity to get their piece of the Royalists, sending 12 warships to the tiny group of islands to demand repayment for the ships and supplies they had lost to Royalist raids. The Royalists refused, and the head of the Dutch contingent declared war on the Royalists and the islands. The blockade lasted for three months before the Royalists surrendered to Cromwell. Now that the islands were under Parliamentarian control, there was no one to demand reparations from, and the Dutch went home.

Only, they forgot to un-declare war.

The war went completely forgotten by both sides, until 1986 when a Scilly historian dug up evidence of the role the islands played in the Civil War, the surrender, and as the object of much Dutch stamping-of-feet and demanding-of-reparations. When he inquired at London’s Dutch embassy, they found the documents that supported the idea that they had actually been at war for more than three centuries at that point.

(We like to think that at least one person said, “Oops!”)

An official peace treaty was signed on April 17, 1986, bringing an end to the longest war in history—without a single casualty.

Show Me The Proof

BBC History: Overview: Civil War and Revolution, 1603–1714
Historic UK: The 335 Year War
Featured image: Charles Landseer (painting of English Civil War)