Prince Louis makes his mark

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Towards the end of the reign of the despised King John, who set his seal to Magna Carta in 1215, the English Barons, deeply unhappy at his rule, invited Prince Louis, Dauphin of France, and heir to the throne, to come to England as king. He arrived at the Isle of Thanet with a huge fleet of 700 ships and quickly took control of London, Winchester, the ancient capital of England, and the Cinque Ports. The fleet was partially under the control of a monk turned pirate, Eustace. He, together with his brothers and friends were so outrageously successful that the English spoke of his “diabolical ingenuity”. Between 1205 – 8 he had worked for King John, seizing and holding the Channel Islands, with his supply base at Winchelsea. In 1212 he deserted John and swore allegiance to the King of France.

On May 20 1217, a battle was fought at Lincoln, between supporters of Louis and of the young King Henry III. It ended in overwhelming defeat of the army of French supporters. An agreement was being negotiated between Louis and William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who had led the English army to victory. One item of contention was pardoning bishops who had supported Louis, and this required the agreement of Pope Honorius III. It wasn’t possible to travel to Rome to gain this, so negotiations ended unsatisfactorily. When Louis was told that his wife, Blanche of Castile, and others, were arranging for supplies and reinforcements for his greatly reduced forces, he decided that the fight was still on.

August 24 1217 was a beautiful, clear summer day, when the French fleet sailed out of Calais harbour. Eustace the Monk had provisioned them, and they were under the command of Robert de Courtenay. The English commander of the Royal fleet was Philip d’Aubigny, who was in charge of defending the southeast coast. Lord Pembroke had arrived in New Romney on August 19 and called out the sailors of the Cinque Ports. They were hesitant and made complaints about the way they had been treated by King John. Pembroke persuaded them with the promise of riches if they defeated the French.

Leading the French fleet was Eustace the Monk, deputy to de Courtenay, in his vessel, the Great Ship of Bayonne. Third in command was Ralph de la Tourniele and fourth was William des Barres. The flagship held 36 knights. Three following ships were commanded by the Mayor of Boulogne, William of St. Omer and Mikius de Harnes. The first four ships were carrying more than 100 knights. Ordinary soldiers, Men at Arms, filled six more ships, all supported by 70 supply ships. All the main ships were badly overburdened, especially the flagship, which had horses and a trebuchet, a large siege weapon like a catapult, with a long arm, capable of launching heavy missiles.

The English had mustered no more than 40 ships, all, apart from a large cog provided by Lord Pembroke, smaller than the French ships. In charge was Hubert de Burgh, the King’s Justicar (equivalent now to Prime Minister). Lord Pembroke was persuaded to stay on shore. Richard FitzRoy, the illegitimate son of King John was commanding one of the English ships.

The English fleet was moored in Sandwich, which they had recently taken from the French. As the French fleet sailed past, the English streamed out after them. De Burgh headed straight for the French ships, tacking away when he seemed to be in a weak position. Courtenay ordered his fleet to attack, against the advice of the more experienced Eustace. The English caught up and attacked, with de Burgh attacking from behind and taking two French ships. His manoeuvre had been a clever bluff. The great English weapon, its longbowmen, now went into action, decimating the French sailors and troops before their French opposite numbers were ready to respond. The English had another nasty surprise for the French. With the wind in their favour, large tubs of powdered lime were opened up, their burning contents blowing into the faces of the French. Cruel but effective. Richard FitzRoy had been attacked by the French flagship. Other English ships came to his aid, whilst the French ships kept to their order and managed to not help their flagship. It was grappled by Lord Pembroke’s cog and FitzRoy’s ship and Courtenay and his knights were captured to be held for ransom, the usual way in the Middle Ages. Also, as was usual, the ordinary soldiers and sailors were all killed, many by the traditional method of throwing them overboard. Eustace was found, hiding in the ship’s bilge, and tried to buy his freedom with an offer of 10,000 marks. After much consideration of this large sum, it was held that Eustace was a traitor and turncoat. He was tied to the deck and decapitated with one blow by Stephen Crabbe.

The French fleet tried to retreat back into Calais, but the English continued to harry them, cutting their rigging, ramming them and catching them using grappling irons. Nine large troopships managed to return to Calais, but the English fleet took most of the smaller vessels. It is believed that no more than 15 ships in total escaped. The troopships had to thank their own supply ships for their escape, for they were captured and plundered of anything valuable. Most of the sailors on the captured ships were dumped into the channel to drown, with no more than three from each ship being taken by the English.

The English sailors went home, pockets laden with loot. Part of it was used to add a chapel to the Hospital of St. Bartholomew in Sandwich. The hospital had been founded in 1190, to offer, “accommodation of pilgrims and travellers where they might be furnished with lodgings, provisions and other necessaries for their journey”. It was soon converted into an almshouse for 16 Brothers of Sisters.

The scale of the English victory meant that Prince Louis was totally cut off from his base and all support. The English were in control of the channel, so nothing could come in from France, and he couldn’t go back. His English supporters were thinking now of themselves and wanted an amnesty and forgiveness for their rebellion. A peace treaty was signed on September 12. In return for being allowed safe passage home, Louis had to give up his claim to the English throne. King Henry III granted Louis’s English supporters a pardon and were made to pay Louis 10,000 marks to ensure he left swiftly. This he did, from Dover, before the end of September.

Image Credits: British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 385 .

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