Born on March 24, 1607, Michiel de Ruyter was the son of Vlissingen beer porter Adriaen Michielszoon and his wife Aagje Jansdochter. Growing up in a port town, de Ruyter appears to have first gone to sea at age 11. Four years later he entered the Dutch army and fought against the Spaniards during the relief of Bergen-op-Zoom. Returning to business, he worked in the Dublin office of the Vlissingen-based Lampsins Brothers from 1623 to 1631. Returning home, he married Maayke Velders, however the union proved brief as she died in childbirth in late 1631.
In the wake of his wife's death, de Ruyter became first mate of a whaling fleet that operated around Jan Mayen Island. After three seasons on the whale fishery, he married Neeltje Engels, the daughter of a wealthy burgher. Their union produced three children that survived to adulthood. Recognized as a gifted sailor, de Ruyter was given command of ship in 1637, and charged with hunting raiders operating from Dunkirk. Successfully fulfilling this duty, he was commissioned by the Zeeland Admiralty and given command of the warship Haze with ordees to aid in supporting the Portuguese in their rebellion against Spain.
Sailing as third-in-command of the Dutch fleet, de Ruyter aided in defeating the Spanish off Cape St. Vincent on November 4, 1641. With the fighting concluded, de Ruyter purchased his own ship, Salamander, and engaged in trade with Morocco and the West Indies. Becoming a wealthy merchant, de Ruyter was stunned when his wife suddenly died in 1650. Two years later, he married Anna van Gelder and retired from the merchant service. With the outbreak of the First Anglo-Dutch War, de Ruyter was asked to take command of a Zealandic squadron of "director's ships" (privately financed warships).
Accepting, he successfully defended an outbound Dutch convoy at the Battle of Plymouth on August 26, 1652. Serving under Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp, de Ruyter acted as a squadron commander during the defeats at Kentish Knock (October 8, 1652) and the Gabbard (June 12-13, 1653). Following Tromp's death at the Battle of Battle of Scheveningen in August 1653, Johan de Witt offered de Ruyter command of the Dutch fleet. Fearful that accepting would anger officers senior to him, de Ruyter declined. Instead, he elected become the Vice Admiral of the Amsterdam Admiralty shortly before the end of the war in May 1654.
Flying his flag from Tijdverdrijf, de Ruyter spent 1655-1656, cruising the Mediterranean and protecting Dutch commerce from the Barbary pirates. Shortly after arriving back in Amsterdam, he re-embarked with orders to support the Danes against Swedish aggression. Operating under Lieutenant-Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam, de Ruyter aided in relieving Gdañsk in July 1656. Over the next seven years, he saw action off the coast of Portugal as well as spent time on convoy duty in the Mediterranean. In 1664, while off the coast of West Africa, he battled with the English who had occupied Dutch slaving stations.
Crossing the Atlantic, de Ruyter was informed that the Second Anglo-Dutch War had begun. Sailing to Barbados, he attacked the English forts and destroyed shipping in the harbor. Turning north, he raided Newfoundland before re-crossing the Atlantic and arriving back in the Netherlands. As the leader of the combined Dutch fleet, van Wassenaer, had been killed at the recent Battle of Lowestoft, de Ruyter's named was again put forward by Johan de Witt. Accepting on August 11, 1665, de Ruyter led the Dutch to victory at the Four Days Battle the following June.
While initially successful, de Ruyter's luck failed him in August 1666, when he was beaten and narrowly avoided disaster at the St. James Day Battle. The outcome of the battle furthered de Ruyter's growing rift with one of his subordinates, Lieutenant-Admiral Cornelis Tromp, who coveted his post as commander of the fleet. Falling gravely ill in early 1667, de Ruyter recovered in time to oversee the Dutch fleet's daring raid on the Medway. Conceived by de Witt, the Dutch succeeded in sailing up the Thames and burning three capital ships and ten others.
Before retreating, they captured the English flagship Royal Charles and a second ship, Unity, and towed them back to the Netherlands. The embarrassment of the incident ultimately forced the English to sue for peace. With the war's conclusion, de Ruyter's health continued to be an issue and in 1667, de Witt forbade him from putting to sea. This ban continued until 1671. The next year, de Ruyter took the fleet to sea to defend the Netherlands from invasion during the Third Anglo-Dutch War. Encountering the English off Solebay, de Ruyter defeated them in June 1672.
The following year, he won a string crucial victories at Schoonveld (June 7 & 14) and Texel which eliminated the threat of English invasion. Promoted to Lieutenant-Admiral-General, de Ruyter sailed for the Caribbean in mid-1674, after the English had been driven from the war. Attacking French possessions, he was forced to return home when disease broke out aboard his ships. Two years later, de Ruyter was given command of a combined Dutch-Spanish fleet and sent to aid in putting down the Messina Revolt. Engaging a French fleet under Abraham Duquesne at Stromboli, de Ruyter was able to achieve another victory.
Four months later, de Ruyter clashed with Duquesne at the Battle of Agosta. During the fighting, he was mortally wounded in the left leg by a cannon ball. Clinging to life for a week, he died on April 29, 1676. On March 18, 1677, de Ruyter was given a full state funeral and buried in Amsterdam's Nieuwe Kerk.