- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- August 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
On June 10th, 1340 Edward arrived at the port of Orwell and found that only 40 ships had been impressed. He was also advised by John Stratford, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had a captured Flemish pirate in tow, that the French had assembled a large naval force of some 180 ships at Sluys to prevent the English return to Flanders. Bishops had a lot of clout, both ecclesiastical and physical in those brave days of old. (Provided they kept off the toes of the Monarch).
Forty into one hundred and eighty was just as hopeless as Sir Richard Grenville taking on 53 Spaniards in HMS Revenge 250 years later on.
Edward sent for his chief yeoman. Signals were sent to all southern posts to seize and deliver to Orwell every 30 ton and over ship in harbour.
Accompanying the order were such dire threats that within 10 days the fleet had vastly increased in number.
According to J R Kepler (Speculum 48, 1973): “The total number of ships, however, is open to question. Estimates from contemporary chronicles vary widely. Lanercost, 147: Monks of Meaux, 200: Baker, 260 and the French Chronicle of London, 300.” Kepler settled for Baker’s 260 as most realistic. Shades of the 1940 retreat from Dunkirk in reverse.
Froissart described how Edward crossed the Channel sitting on the deck of his cog Thomas while Sir John Chandos entertained him by singing German songs to the playing of minstrels. The fleet was on its way to a curious battle, although one of much renown. The object of the expedition was firstly to reclaim Queen Philipa, set-up a royal court in Flanders and secondly to convoy an invasion force. A number of high-born ladies were being shipped – “embarrassant, mais essentielle”, to quote Froissant, it being in those times of chivalry when knights indulged in jousts wearing the talisman of their favoured ladies – the cult of courtly love. Remember, it was King Edward III who instituted the Order of the Garter (leading, no doubt, to the contemporary courtesan exchange, “Here’s to the knight with his hand on my garter; he hasn’t gone far but he’s a jolly good starter”).
Two French admirals, Hugues Quieret and Nicolas Behwchet, with a fleet including powerful Genoese and Castilian contingents, had the duty of preventing Edward from returning to the continent. Instead of advancing to the open sea, they remained massed in the Zwin estuary. The Genoese commander withdrew his galleys just as Edward approached from the west and with the setting sun in the eyes of the French, the English long bowmen decimated the opposing crossbowmen after which they laid alongside and slaughtered the remaining French crews. Both French admirals were killed.
The Battle of Sluys lasted half a day and at the end of that there was no doubt at all which side had won. As “an especial act of grace” the King paid a sum of half the cost of the 21 ships provided by the Cinque Ports to show his appreciation of their work.
Edward III wrote from the cog Thomas to the Black Prince, “Very dear son… On the Saturday, St John’s Day, soon after the hour of noon, in the name of God and trusting in our just quarrel, we entered the said harbour with the tide to attack our said enemies who had assembled their ships in a very strong array and offered a noble defence all that day and the following night, but God with His power and miracle granted us the victory over our enemies for which we thank Him as devoutly as we can. The number of the ships, galleys and large barges of our enemies amounted to 180 and 10 all of which were taken save 24 in all, which fled and some are taken at sea. The men-at-arms and other armed people amounted to 35 thousand of which number by estimate 5000 have escaped and the remainder as we have been given to understand by certain men taken alive are lying dead in a great many places on the coasts of Flanders”.2
The victory at Sluys established the pattern of English control of La Manche (the Channel) which defeated French visions of English invasions then and subsequently by Napoleon and Adolph Hitler.
Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes stories, also wrote two novels set in the Hundred Year War. Both are classics, beautifully written and thoroughly researched as to life in those days of chivalry, knighthood, tournaments and bloodletting. Most libraries have copies of “The White Company” and “Sir Nigel”.
1 English repossession of Gascony was vital. Perroy’s “La Guerre de Cent Ans” (Paris 1945) quotes the 1307AD revenue from the duchy in rents, revenue and dues as £56,001/4/7 greater by £456/11/6 than the total revenue of England
2-W.L. Clowes, author of “The Royal Navy” (1897, p.256) claims that his was “the earliest English Naval despatch”.