Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Beating the French

You cannot have too much of a good thing it seems and I have been learning this week that this includes great naval victories over the French. The noble English tradition of trouncing our rivals across the channel extends back to the Middle Ages and in my delvings into medieval French history I have come across some early encounters between our great nations which deserve to be better known alongside the famous battles of Nelson’s age.

In the summer of 1217 England lay exposed to the threat of French conquest following the disastrous reign of King John. Forces commanded by the Dauphin Prince Louis had landed in support of English rebels, but now with John dead and the nine year old Henry III on the throne, the French looked set to capitalise and overrun the kingdom.

In response, the regent William Marshall had assembled a fleet at Sandwich, which set out to intercept the larger French fleet bringing vital reinforcements to Louis. Having manoeuvred up-wind of the French, the English ships came about and closed with the French fleet. The French ships were heavily laden with the materials of war and the English ships rode higher in the water. This gave them a distinct advantage in being able to fire down into the French ships. In addition to a hail of arrows the French were bombarded with jars of quicklime.

The capture of the French flagship signalled the end of resistance and the French commander Eustace the Monk was executed on the spot. The loss of his fleet effectively doomed Louis’ campaign to failure.
Battle of Sandwich

In 1340 the Hundred Years War was in its early stages. King Edward III was determined to press his claim to the French throne, but faced the threat of invasion from a large French fleet massed in the estuary of Sluys on the Flemish coast. Edward decided to lead his fleet in an offensive action against the French. Rather than engaging in the open sea the French commanders elected to stay put in the estuary, forming their ships up in line and even chaining them together in order to present a formidable floating wall against the English attack. This tactic was criticised by the commander of the Genoese contingent who recognised the danger and slipped away before battle was joined.

With the wind behind them the English ships bore down upon the French and crashed into them with great destruction. The English ships were arranged in fighting squadrons of three – with two ships filled with archers supporting one filled with men at arms. In the ensuing battle the murderous fire of the English longbowmen wrought havoc on the decks of the French, just as they would on the battlefield of Crecy six years later. At least one of the French ships carried cannon and these succeeded in sending one English cog to the bottom in what must be one of the earliest examples of naval gunnery. Ultimately the battle was won through fierce hand to hand fighting in which the English men at arms triumphed over their French counterparts with heavy casualties on both sides. As at Sandwich, with the capture and execution of their leaders the fight largely went out of the French, although fighting continued into the night. The following morning found most of the great French fleet captured, burned or sunk, although a few ships managed to slip away in the night. With victory at Sluys Edward III gained the upper hand in the war and would follow up his success with devastating invasions of French territory culminating in the Crecy campaign.
Battle of Sluys

We’re all friends now of course. But the next time you feel like jingoistically sticking your fingers up at a Frenchman in the spirit of friendly rivalry you could invoke the memory of Sandwich or Sluys.

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