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. "It was English experience in naval matters that won the day at Sandwich," says Sean McGlynn. (Print Collector/Getty Images)

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

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.

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