The battle of Sandwich: England’s medieval Trafalgar

In 1217, with a French armada approaching the coast of Kent, English sailors secured what may be the most significant naval victory in their country's history. Sean McGlynn describes the battle of Sandwich

English sailors engage the French invasion fleet at the battle of Sandwich in 1217.

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Nelson and Trafalgar? Yes. Drake and the Armada? Yes. But de Burgh and Sandwich? This unlikely-named combination of medieval naval hero and sea battle proved arguably of far greater importance than its more renowned successors.

Errol Flynn would find it hard to measure up to a contemporary writer’s swashbuckling account of the hand-to-hand fighting that occurred at the battle of Sandwich in the summer of 1217: Reginald Pain of Guernsey, “with nothing of the coward in him, jumped from the English cog [type of naval vessel] onto the French flagship. His landing was not gentle, for his leap had been a fearsome one.”

Reginald’s fall was broken by a French knight whom he bowled over. As he fell he also took down another knight with a well-timed blow. As he got to his feet he was set upon “with great force” by a third knight, and a lengthy duel – “a battle royal” – ensued with Reginald triumphing once again.

The writer leaves our hero grappling with yet another French knight before breaking off to describe the rest of the battle. Yet the reality of Sandwich was a lot less stylised and a lot more bloody and brutal.

The background to the battle was one of great peril for England. In the aftermath of King John’s rejection of Magna Carta in the summer of 1215, the rebel barons had asked the Capetian prince Louis, heir to the throne of France, to replace John as King of England.

Louis ‘the Lion’ (compare this to John’s ‘Softsword’) landed with a large army on the Isle of Thanet in May 1216. A second battle of Hastings might have occurred but John bottled the battle, and Louis went on to conquer and occupy over one-third of England for a year.

A royalist fightback only began to achieve any notable success after John’s death in October 1216, when the regent William Marshal’s army won a victory against the French and rebels at the battle of Lincoln in May 1217. The defeated army retreated to its stronghold in London and there awaited reinforcements to begin the reconquest. The French fleet that the English engaged with off Sandwich that summer was bringing these reinforcements.

The battle was a major one that attracted much coverage by contemporary writers. Our leading chronicle source in Latin comes from Roger of Wendover, who has been wrongly traduced by many historians; he was actually an invaluable commentator on the military affairs of his day. The vernacular accounts also offer rich details. Chief of these are The History of William Marshal and the under-utilised Romance of Eustace the Monk. From these and other sources we can construct a detailed picture of this great naval battle, of which a flavour is given here.

Conquer the realm

A close reading of various sources points to a French army of some 300 cavalry plus infantry and crossbowmen. The History of William Marshal is not alone in saying that these reinforcements (when added to the rebel barons and the French already in England) were enough “to conquer the realm”. The leader of the armed contingent was Robert de Courtenay who had already served with Louis in England. The admiral of the fleet was Eustace the Monk, whom one English chronicler of the time condemns as “a shameful man and a wicked pirate” (see box).

The English regency council, headed by William Marshal – the king, Henry III, was still only nine years old – ordered a full muster at the port of Sandwich near Dover for 24 August.  Here the English sailors were in high spirits as they “made seaworthy every one of their bowlines, guide ropes and guys, their sturdy anchors and strong cables”.

William Marshal appointed Hubert de Burgh as admiral of the English fleet. De Burgh, justiciar of England since Magna Carta, was a veteran warrior who had successfully defended Dover Castle against Louis’ epic siege during the invasion. His second was the experienced naval captain Philip d’Albini. Marshal delivered a stirring battle exhortation, calling on his men to prevent the French reclaiming the land.

The exact composition of the English fleet is hard to determine, but the various sources present a total of about 40 vessels, 22 of which were capital ships, fully armed and manned. The biggest ship was the cog, standing high out of the water with impressive fighting platforms and ‘castles’. The fighting galleys in both navies were reinforced by iron prows to ram enemy ships.

The French fleet numbered about 80 vessels, but half of these would have been supply ships neither designed nor intended for combat, unlike the convoy escorts. The flagship was “the great ship of Bayonne”, on which sailed Eustace, de Courtenay and 40 knights. It was so laden down with supplies – horses, food, treasure and even a trebuchet siege machine – the waves almost washed over it. Their advantage was the mass of their numbers and the fact that they had the wind behind them. It was a clear day on Thursday 24 August when the two fleets set out from Dover and Calais to meet in the bloody climax of the French invasion of England.

De Burgh led his fleet which was probably in column. He made a feint towards the oncoming French who thought he was about to attack them head-on. At the last moment, de Burgh’s ship veered away to starboard. The over-confident French let out the hunting cry of “La hart! La hart”. But this was part of the English plan to get windward of the French, a manoeuvre they had successfully performed against the French in May. It achieved its objective. Twenty ships passed and turned about; they now had the wind behind them, too. They joined in a bitter engagement with the enemy.

The French ships resisted robustly, inflicting heavy casualties. The English quickly deployed a chemical weapon to great effect. Making use of their position in the wind, they launched large pots of quicklime onto the French decks. Here they burst open and the wind carried the dust into French eyes, “which blinded them totally”, says the Anonymous of Béthune. All of the four leading sources of the battle testify to the effectiveness of this tactic.

Wendover’s hero is Philip d’Albini who “with his crossbowmen and archers directing their missiles into the French, soon caused many fatalities among them”. He reports English galleys ramming into French ships, sinking many.

As the ships came alongside each other close-quarter fighting ensued. The lighter English vessels, designed for fighting and not weighed down with supplies, stood higher in the water than the French ones and thus were able to shoot down on them. With many of the French blinded, it was easier for the English to board them. Swords, daggers and spears were put to work.

The focus of the battle was Eustace’s flagship. The English cog and three other vessels surrounded Eustace, and a remarkably intense engagement followed, starting with an exchange of missiles. The English threw grappling hooks onto the side of the French ship and boarded it; it is here we witness Reginald Pain’s full flow of martial prowess.

Eustace’s biographer gives a more authentic portrayal of the messy combat: “Some had their arms broken, some their heads smashed, others a collar-bone shattered.” Eustace broke a few heads by swinging an oar. But his men “could no longer defend themselves, for their eyes were full of powder”.

English aggression

With the French flagship gone and the aggressive English tactics taking their toll, an English victory seemed imminent. French soldiers and sailors threw themselves overboard, opting to take their chances with the sea rather than the certainties of capture; when the English “caught up with a ship, I can tell you that they lost no time at all in killing those they found on board and throwing them into the sea as food for the fish”. Only the knights were spared – saved just in time by English knights eager for ransoms. One contemporary estimates that 4,000 French died.

The end of the battle belongs to Eustace the Monk. He had deserted the fighting to hide in the ship’s hold. A search was made for him and he was soon dragged onto deck. He pleaded for his life and freedom, offering 10,000 marks to his captors and promising to serve faithfully the King of England. But he was not to be spared on any account. A sword was drawn and Eustace’s head was struck off.

The English victory was not only a great one in terms of its scale – the haul of booty was paraded in the ports, and the sailors “were able to share out the coin in bowlfuls” –  but a vitally important one, too. With their victory the English had put to an end Louis’ hopes of winning back England.

The loss to Louis in terms of men and supplies was irreparable; he had invested all his resources in the fleet. Had his reinforcements reached him, they would have enabled him to lead another full campaign in the country of the type that had brought him great gains before. The defeat at Sandwich signalled the end of 18 months of invasion and occupation. Within a month Louis had agreed peace terms and left the country forever.

Such large-scale naval encounters were rare in English waters, especially when they were as decisive as this. We have to wait until 1340 and the English victory at Sluys for something even remotely comparable. Even the Spanish Armada of 1588 and the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 arguably had less at stake than Sandwich.

Why did the English win? For some contemporaries the answer was simple: the English ruled the waves. As an island, they had long invested in a maritime defence, something we can trace back to King Alfred in the ninth century and the occasional naval victory over the Vikings. The seas were now the first line of defence, especially since John’s loss of Normandy in 1204. In 1213, when another French invasion threatened, Wendover noted that John “placed his chief defence” in the fact that he “had a superior navy to the French king”. John’s strategy was therefore to fight the French at sea, just as the English planned at Sandwich.

Wendover attributes the victory at Sandwich to the fact that the English “were skilled in naval warfare” while the French were “not used to it”. When in 1213 a successful English combined naval-marine raid on Damme on the Flemish coast burned a French invasion fleet, even that most French of chroniclers, William the Breton, had the French king admitting: “We do not know the ways of the sea.”

It was English experience in naval matters that won the day at Sandwich.


Eustace the Monk

“A shameful man and a wicked pirate”

Just as in the Napoleonic Wars naughty children were told to behave lest ‘Old Boney’ came and grabbed them, so Eustace the Monk’s name struck fear into sailors and people living near the English Channel. He was certainly one of the most colourful and dynamic characters of the 13th century.

Born to a noble family near Boulogne (probably c1170), Eustace trained as a knight and became an experienced seaman. For some unknown – but obviously completely unsound – reason he made a career change and became a monk. It did not work out. The Romance of Eustace the Monk portrays him as a foul-mouthed, irredeemably dishonest trickster, fond of four-letter words and farting – which he would blame on his horse’s saddle. In his favour we are told that he dressed up as a woman only once and that he was not a sodomite (the Romance uses a far more colloquial term).

Little wonder Eustace renounced his holy orders to resume a startling military career as a naval mercenary. He proved a better pirate than monk. Such was his notoriety that after he was killed, his head was stuck on a spear and paraded across England to reassure people that this black legend was truly dead.

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Sean McGlynn is author of Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England 1216 from The History Press