Timothy J. Runyan
American Neptune: v.46 (1986)
The most consuming military and naval conflict of later medieval Europe was the Hundred Years’ War. Beginning in 1337 and continuing until 1453 this struggle involved most of the states of western Europe although the principals were England and France. Edward III claimed the French throne by right of inheritance intending to remove the newly established Valois dynasty as usurpers. Dynastic claims or consequent ties of vassalage, however, were not the precipitating factors in the outbreak of war. Researchers over the past few decades have emphasized much more strongly the role of England’s possessions in France, especially Gascony, to explain the origins of the war.1 This approach recognizes the economic and strategic importance of English possessions and control in France as compelling factors in Edward III’s decision to initiate the conflict. French encroachments and claims on Gascony and other English possessions struck at the heart of Edward’s state – a kingdom which was transmarine.2
Naval conflict in the English Channel and elsewhere between the French and their allies and the English was not a sudden result of the actions of 1337. Undeclared warfare at sea is the best description of the state of naval and mercantile relations between these parties extending back at least to the reign of Edward I at the turn of the century. Merchants frequently pirated or were pirated with the excuse that the other parties were the enemies of France or England. Truces seem to have been conveniently forgotten and suits to the crown were often the recourse.3 These appeals remain our record of these piratical raids. They were, in effect, crimes of convenience with convenient excuses generated to justify plundering.
The solution achieved at some point in the late thirteenth or fourteenth century to help abate this problem was the introduction of convoys. These were especially successful in the English wine trade routes to Gascony. Larger fleets of merchants often escorted by royal ships filled with men-at-arms could deter individual raiders or even small pirate fleets.4 But not all merchants could afford or were prepared to wait for the cumbersome process of gathering a fleet at a designated port, awaiting royal escorts to join them and then sailing a prescribed course to Bordeaux or elsewhere. Many ship-owners preferred to push on with their trade and risk encounters with French merchants cum pirates. The same held true for the French, although they were not as active in the trade of wine or wool which was so important to the English economy.
It is perhaps convenient to rethink at this point the value of seaborne commerce to the royal economy. English trade in wine and wool as measured by the customs accounts and extant shipping records show this to be a major source of crown revenue.5 The interruption of this trade and thus a resultant decline in customs revenue was a matter of serious consequence to the treasury and therefore of the ability of Edward III to wage war unless this revenue could be replaced in other ways.6 So-called control of the seas, therefore, is a meaningful term for this period if limited to a definition which signifies the capacity of seaborne commerce or the transport of troops to continue to move unobstructed by pirates or enemy fleets. We are frequently told that this control was greater than that which I have defined here and was in the hands of the English after 1340 when they won the great battle of Sluys. Careful review of the records, however, reveals quick retaliation and raiding by the French. The ports on the southern coast of England were raided as they had been in the 1330s and attacks on the routes to Gascony in the Bay of Biscay continued.7
It is true that major expeditions were launched in the 1340s against the French coasts by large flotillas, but this did not require command of the seas. It would have taken an equally large flotilla of several hundred ships to intercept the English expeditions of 1342-1343 and 1346. While we focus on the resultant victories on land at Crecy in 1346 or Poitiers in 1356, we must not lose sight of the achievement involved in moving men, horses and supplies to the Continent. Again, the French retaliated and these three great victories of the early phase of the war were soon forgotten when conditions soured and a truce was signed at Bretigny in 1360 much to the dissatisfaction of the English.8 Followed by a peace which lasted to 1369, this lengthy interruption of the war resulted in its shift south into Iberia and back onto the seas where royal standards were replaced with the banners of merchants and pirates.9
What this overview of the period 1337-1360 fails to account for are the numerous privately owned sailing vessels which continued to ply the waters of the northern seas, the Channel and Bay of Biscay, unimpeded by the conflict. No comment is made on the extent of mercantile traffic, the size and types of vessels involved or questions of ownership and impressment when demanded by the crown. What is missing is the story related by the history of a single ship, a mini-biography or prosopographical study of the known vessels to generate an example to serve as a window into this era. In an effort to produce such a study I undertook a comprehensive computer-assisted study of English ships during this important first phase of the Hundred Years’ War, 1337-1360. After enrolling 1,291 entries of ships for this period the list is not comprehensive; there remain numerous other references to be added. This has prevented the compilation of the ship biographies which I hoped to produce, but the survey did generate interesting data about ships and mariners during this phase of the Hundred Years’ War.10
The list of vessels includes 965 which are not identified by type. The remainder are identified by type as follows: 1 buss, 2 flunes, 2 galiots, 2 hulks, 3 doggers, 3 lodships, 5 crayers, 5 spinaces, 6 galleys, 7 carracks, 12 barges, 12 nefs, 13 tarites, 19 boats, 46 ships, and 187 cogs. This last vessel, the very important cog, constitutes 57 percent of the 325 vessels identified by type. Working vessels such as barges only constitute 3.7 percent of those identified and balingers are not even mentioned in this survey.11
A number of observations can be made about these numbers but nothing can detract from the impressive number of cogs which are noted here. We must rec–ognize that most ships used for naval operations were impressed merchant ships which may or may not have been refitted for service. In fact, of the 1,291 ship en–tries only 31 are identified as the king’s ships. These vessels are generally purpose-built for warfare with fore- and rear-castles and fighting tops. It is also prob–able that many of these were refitted for war at sea– many impressed vessels underwent extensive carpentry work to make them fit as horse and troop transports or men‑of‑war as indicated by exchequer accounts in the Public Records Office where notice of payments to ship carpenters is made. Most entries, however, are for the repair and refitting of vessels already designated as king’s ships.
A final observation drawn from the ship survey of nearly 1,300 vessels concerns the home ports of the vessels. The survey was broken down into home ports and from this the number of vessels from individual ports or regions can be analyzed. In this instance only a few comments are relevant to the conduct of the war. Most noticeable is the clear emergence of ports from north of the Thames to the Humber and the southwestern coastal towns as important suppliers of ships for trade and war. Registrations from the principal members of the Cinque Ports (Dover, Romney, Hythe, Hastings and Sandwich) produced only eighteen ships, twelve of which were from Sandwich. Other members, Rye with ten ships and Winchelsea with thirty-two, Clearly rank with or above their associates. London listed thirty-five vessels.
In the survey of 1,291 entries, the number of English vessels whose home ports are noted has been reduced to 467 for comparative purposes. Of the 1,291 vessel entries, 316 are not identified by home port, 271 are foreign vessels. Also, home ports which listed only one or two vessels were removed from the survey (237 vessel entries), leaving the number of vessels at 467. This is an arbitrary selection but one which helps allow a relative comparison of the home ports of the ships.
The home port from the southwestern coast with the largest number of references was Dartmouth with seventy-one. Bristol provided 29 vessels, Southampton 22, Fowey 14, Exmouth 9, Plymouth supplied 8 and doz–ens of smaller ports added vessels. This survey of the larger southwestern ports provides a count of 153 ves–sels. This is 153 of the 467 English ships listed from home ports which contributed 3 or more vessels. It rep–resents 33 percent of the total.
On the North Sea coast along East Anglia to the Humber, Great Yarmouth provided 50 ship references, the largest number from a single port (although some few of these may refer to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight). King’s Lynn accounted for 30 vessels, Kingston-upon-Hull 29, Ipswich 18, Little Yarmouth another 4, and Harwich 11. This sample totals 142 ship listings. These 142 vessels coupled with the 153 from the southwest coast, total 295 of the 467 listed, or 63 percent of the total. A large portion of the remainder come from small ports which supplied only a few vessels each.
A number of conclusions may be drawn from this data, but of particular note is the large number of ships from the southwest and from along the coast between the Thames and the Humber. While they are adjacent to London and the Cinque Ports, they clearly overshadow both in the number of registrations of vessels. Recruitment of ships for war would obviously need to concentrate heavily in these regions. In fact, many of the corresponding entries for the king’s sergeants-at-arms sent to impress ships for royal use are directed to these coastal regions, but no systematic study of their activities in this regard has been made. But since, as we have seen, only 31 vessels of nearly 1,300 surveyed are identified as king’s ships, there was a constant need by the crown to find and arrest ships for naval service.12
The attention given to the identification and preparation of fleets is justified because of the need to understand how fleets were assembled for expeditions to France and elsewhere. The use of merchant vessels in the conduct of war came at a price to the commercial interests of the crown and the merchants, since the ships were removed from commercial use for long periods of time. The king’s alternatives were to hire a mercenary fleet, as the French did, or to build and man a standing navy of considerable size. Neither option was acceptable. This returns us to the earlier discussion of the composition of English fleets in the war.13
English fleets consisted almost entirely of privately owned vessels impressed for royal service. The number of ships privately owned account for 98 percent of the 1,291 vessels in this survey for 1337 to 1360. Also confirmed is the dominant position of the cog as the principal ship of the age. It is evident from reading the documents from this period that the merchant marine did constitute the naval forces of England. However, it has not been demonstrated to what extent this was true, the source and ownership of the vessels or the terms and conditions of their service under the crown.14
The realities of conflict at sea during the early phase of the Hundred Years’ War must be translated into our general historical interpretation of this conflict. Warfare at sea had a great impact on the outcome of battles on land. The major ships of war were the large cargo vessels – the cogs. They increasingly carried more men and material to pursue war on land. Horses were readily transported in large numbers with hundreds of men on board. The size of cogs ranged widely, but this survey produced many of over 100 tons.15 They would continue to grow as demand for larger vessels continued. Increased size was advantageous for trade since larger cargoes could be carried without substantial increases in cost. These vessels grew taller which proved an advantage in warfare since the soldiers and mariners aboard could hurl spears, arrows, and other objects down on smaller vessels. Cannons were not yet a decisive factor in warfare at sea, although they had begun to appear aboard ships.
The two principal naval battles of this period were fought at Sluys (1340) and off Winchelsea in the fight known as Les Espagnols sur Mer a decade later. We have reasonably good descriptions of both these battles, especially that by Jean Froissart in his Chroniques.16 Froissart provides a heroic account of English action at Sluys by Edward III and his men when they closed in on the harbor-bound Genoese-commanded fleet. Edward III’s principal ships were cogs and all the vessels were described as sailing ships. The French relied primarily on galleys, we believe, although Froissart only refers to large ships and barges. The French may have used some cogs, but galleys were procured from the Mediterranean and housed in the royal arsenal at Rouen, the Clos des Galees.17 If this battle is imagined as a struggle between cogs and galleys it dramatically heightens our appreciation of the conflict. More maneuverable, able to move in calms and capable of ramming and puncturing the hull of the high-sided cog below the waterline, the low-lying galley was a barb capable of inflicting a deadly blow to the cogs. The conditions of winds and seas played a major role in determining who held the advantage.
The cogs countered with height, size, greater numbers of marines and archers and towering castles. Battle strategy and tactics were very much a function of utilizing the virtues of each design to the best advantage. Ultimately, as Froissart states, the grappling hooks went out, the ships were held together as the men fought in hand-to-hand combat. Sea‑fights were always fiercer than fights on land, he claimed, because retreat and flight were impossible.18
The sea battle of the Les Espagnols sur Mer in 1350 pitted the English against the Spanish who had ships which impressed Froissart with their size.19 Sailing from Sluys with the wind at their stern, the Spaniards had specially made heavy iron bars and stones in their fighting tops to hurl down on the English ships. We are told there were forty such vessels. Edward III drew up his ships in close battle formation. As the Spaniards had the advantage of the wind, Edward directed his ship into a fast moving Spaniard and they crashed together. Froissart tells us that the castle of Edward’s ship caught the castle of the Spaniard and broke the mast affixed on the castle. This should clearly indicate it was at least a two-masted vessel. As the battle continued the king’s ship began to sink. To save themselves a French vessel was grappled and boarded; the men were killed or thrown overboard.
The Black Prince’s ship was holed in several places we are told, but the means of accomplishing this are not explained. Could it have been galleys with rams? Artillery? The Prince also abandoned his sinking vessel and was transferred to a captured ship. Meanwhile, the Salle du Roi, which carried the king’s wardrobe, was grappled and hauled away by a large Spanish sailing ship. It was halted when an English soldier leaped aboard and cut the halyard and mainstays which stopped the ship. She was soon overrun and taken. The battle ended just before dark with as many as two-dozen Spanish ships taken or destroyed.20
It is difficult to recreate a credible naval battle from the accounts of Froissart or other chroniclers. Naval strategy and tactics often appear simplistic. The ships, the principal engines of war, are rarely described in sufficient detail to ascertain their exact nature or form of construction. As noted above for the battles at Sluys and Les Espagnols sur Mer, our knowledge of the types of vessels employed is essential for a proper understanding of these conflicts. This is of particular significance when dealing with this era when ship design (and sizes) are changing and when Mediterranean galleys are contesting full-rigged sailing ships built in the northern seas. The archaeological finds to date have given us the fine merchant ship, the Bremen cog (77 feet and rated at 130 tons), but no galley or warship has been excavated. The documentary records and contemporary illustrations remain the principal sources of information on ships of this era.21
A study of ships and fleets for the period 1337 to 1360 should make some effort to recognize the tensions at work between the mercantile community and the crown. We have found that 98 percent of the 1,291 ships surveyed were privately owned. We know further that the king seemed less able to depend on the Cinque Ports with their obligation of fifty-seven ships for fifteen days annually to compose a fleet.22 Ships were heavily recruited from the Thames north to the Humber and in the southwestern ports. These ports possessed a large number of vessels. The crown was constantly arresting ships for royal service through sergeants-at-arms who were ordered to arrest vessels of various sizes with broadly worded writs from the king. The merchants and others who owned these vessels undertook great risks once their vessels were arrested: they might be destroyed or captured, they could lose the profits from trade they were engaged in or their vessels could return unfit for further service without first undergoing expensive repair.23
Resistance to writs of arrest are not well documented, but no doubt many fled the king’s sergeants and their writs. Once recruited to do a task, the merchants did it and looked for a quick escape back to the world of trade and money-making. Perhaps the best expression of this independent-minded behavior was made in 1343. Edward III assembled a huge fleet of over 300 vessels to transport men and victuals to Brittany that year. Once unloaded, the captains pulled out and made for their home ports or to collect cargoes for the run across the Channel. The king was stranded with a large army, his back to the sea with no means to escape across the Channel, if necessary. He was furious and ordered all the `deserters’ arrested. It soon became clear that he could not and should not arrest a good portion of his captains and their vessels, so he dropped the threats.24 Tension continued between the crown and shipowners and should make clear the further complexities of warfare at sea in an age before the organization of standing fleets.
1. G. P. Cuttino, ‘Historical Revision: The Causes of the Hundred Years’ War,’ Speculum. XXXI (1956), 463-77 and his English Diplomatic Administration, 1259-1339, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1971). John Le Patourel, ‘The Origins of the War,’ in K. Fowler, ed., The Hundred Years’ War (London, 1971), pp. 28-50. P. Chaplais, ‘La Souverainete du roi de France et de pouvoir legislatif en Guyenne au debut du xive siecle,’ Le Moyen Age, LXIX (1963), pp. 449-69.
2. This view is an expansion of those by John Le Patourel in his articles: ‘Edward III and the Kingdom of France,’ History, XLII (1958), pp. 173-89 and ‘The Plantagenet Dominions,’ History (1965), pp. 289-308.
3. For notice of the Cristemasse, pirated by men of Bristol. see Calendar of Close Rolls (1337-1339), p. 88. (Hereafter cited as CCR.) Simon de Rathby, master of the Escumer, was recorded plundering and murdering merchants off the Isle of Wight, Calendar of Patent Rolls (1343-1345), p. 388, hereafter cited as CPR. The Tarete. bound for Flanders, was robbed and boarded by members of the king’s fleet. Edward III agreed to compensation and held responsible the owners and masters involved. CPR (1340-1343), p. 538.
4. For example, ships were escorted to Bordeaux. Public Records Office (London), Exchequer Accounts, Issue Rolls, E. 403/555 m. 44.
5. See Robert L. Baker, The English Customs Service, 1307-1343: A Study of Medieval Administration, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, N.S.56, pt. 6 (Philadelphia, 1961), Appendix I for wool exports. For the volume of trade and revenues, J. H. Ramsay, A History of the Revenues of the Kings of England. 1066-1399 (Oxford, 1925) gives a breakdown of income sources. For information on expenses at this time see M. M. Postan, ‘The Costs of the Hundred Years’ War,’ Past and Present, XXVII (April 1964), pp. 34-53. For naval implications, see J. W. Sherborne, ‘The English Navy: Shipping and Manpower 1369-1389,’ ibid., XXXVII (July 1967), pp. 163-75. On the wine trade, M. K. James, ‘Fluctuations in the Anglo-Gascon Wine Trade during the Fourteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, 2nd series, IV (1951). For wool, see T. H. Lloyd, The English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1977).
6. For financial implications see the work of E. B. Fryde including his ‘Materials for the Study of Edward III’s Credit Operations, 1327-1348,’ Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research XXII (1949), pp. 105-38; XXIII (1950), pp. 1-30.
7. Before the Battle of Sluys the French had considered a full scale invasion of England. This plan of 1339 is found in British Library, Harleian MS. 3836 and is printed in T. Twiss, ed.. Black Book of the Admiralty (4 vols.; London, 1871-1876), I, pp. 420, 426-27. In July 13.12 an English fleet commanded by the Earl of Northampton lost four ships to a Spanish fleet while crossing to Brittany. P.R.O.. E. 101/24/8; 9 (6). m. 26; Henrici Knighton, Chronicon, ed. J. Lumby. Rolls Series (2 vols., London, 1889-1895), II, pp. 27-28.
8. The settlement followed the disastrous campaign of 1359-1360. On the treaty see J. Le Patourel, ‘The Treaty of Bretigny. 1360.’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series. X (London, 1960), pp. 1939; P. Chaplais, ‘Some Documents Regarding the Fulfillment and Interpretation of the Treaty of Bretigny,’ Camden Miscellany, 3rd ser.. XIX (1952).
9. This activity is noted by P. E. Russell, The English Intervention in Spain and Portugal in the Time of Edward III and Richard 11 (Oxford 1955), especially chapters I and XI.
10. The project is CMS/SAS based with a program designed to record entries of a ship’s name, home port, size, owner, master, whether or not the vessel belongs to the king’s fleet, crew size, general information concerning its activities, the source of the reference. and additional information. It should be clear to the reader that this data is not without problems of purity. Included here and in the following discussion of home ports, are all references to ships from the Calendar of Close Rolls and Calendar of Patent Rolls for this period. In some instances a ship may be entered more than once. There are many St. Marys for instance, and it is not always possible to tell if the St. Mary with no master, size or home port given, is the same ship as say the St. Mary of Lynn which was ordered to join the king’s fleet at Southampton under the command of William Alfen (C.C.C. 1350-54. 52). My survey is not comprehensive enough to date to eliminate such repetitions and ascertain the exact number of discrete vessels there are among the 1,291 entries. Given this significant caveat, I believe the analysis to be of value, but only if considered within a broad context. The reader should be well aware of the frailty of the numbers and percentages noted in the following pages for these reasons. By way of further example, there are 57 entries for ships named La Nicholas. This is understandable since St. Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors. But it is not possible to deter–mine how many discrete vessels there were named La Nicholas. For their assistance with the design of the computer program and compilation of ship references, I would like to thank Daniel Morris, William Harris and Claudia Benko.
11. On ship types from contemporary references, see B. Sandahl, Middle English Sea Terms, 3 vols. (Uppsala, 1951-1982) and R. W. Unger, The Ship in the Medieval Economy (London, 1980), chap. 4: I. Friel, `Documentary Sources and the Medieval Ship: Some Aspects of the Evidence,’ International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Un–derwater Exploration XII, 1 (1983), pp. 41-62. For the significance of certain ship types, see J. W. Sherborne, `English Barges and Balingers of the Fourteenth Century,’ Mariner’s Mirror 63 (May 1977), pp. 109-14. More extensive work on ship types from illuminations is included in the essays by C. Villain-Gandossi, La Mediterranee aux XIIe siecles: relations maritimes, diplomatiques de commerciales (London, 1983).
12. Some of the royal expeditions required hundreds of vessels. The king’s fleet at the Battle of Sluys was estimated at between 147 and 300 ships by five chroniclers: The Chroniques de London depuis L’An 44 Henri III jusque d L’An 17 Edward III, ed. J. Anngier, XXVI II (London: Camden Society, 1844), pp. 26-27 says 300 ships; Chronicon Monasterii de Melsa, ed. E. A. Bond, Rolls Series (3 vols.; London, 1866-1868), 111, p. 44, says 200; Geoffrey le Baker, Chronicon, ed. E. M. Thompson, Rolls Series (London, 1889), 68 and Adam Murimuth, Continuatio Chronicarum, ed. E. M. Thompson, Rolls Series (London, 1899), p. 105, claims 260 ships; the low estimate of 147 is made in Chronicon de Lanercost, ed. J. Stevenson (Edinburgh, 1839), p. 333. Edward III’s own estimate was 190 ships, noted in a dispatch to his son, the Black Prince. Archives of the City of London, Register F, fol. 39. Over 220 ships were involved in the 1342-1343 expedition to Brittany. CPR (1343-45), p. 92. Estimates for the 1346 expedition to Normandy range up to 1,000 ships, cf. Thomas Washington, Historia Anglicana, ed. H. T. Riley, Rolls Series, 2 vols. (London, 1863‑1864), I, pp. 267-68. For an estimate of 400, see Chroniques de J. Froissart, eds. S. Luce, G. Raynaud. L. and A. Mirot, Societe de L’histoire de France (14 vols.; Paris, 1869-1966). III, p. 355. The very high number of 738 ships was given for the transport of 32,000 men to the siege of Calais in 1347. British Library, Harleian MS 246, f.12 b; ibid., 3968, f. 130, and ibid., Cotton MS Titus F. III, F. 262.
13. For further information on the preparation of fleets, see T. Runyan, ‘The Organization of Royal Fleets in Medieval England,’ Proceedings of the North American Society for Oceanic History, ed. C. G. Reynolds (Annapolis, 1978), pp. 1-15.
14. On the conversion of merchant ships to royal service, T. J. Runyan, ‘Merchantmen to Men-of-War in Medieval England.’ in New Aspects o/ Naval History, ed. C. L. Symonds (Annapolis. 1981). pp. 33-40.
15. Our only extant example is the Bremen cog, a merchant ship found in the Weser River in 1962 and now undergoing chemical treatment in a tank in Bremerhaven. The ship dates from 1350-1400, is 77 feet (23.5m) long with a beam of 23 feet (7 m.), and rated at 130 tons.
16. Chroniques de J. Froissart, ed. S. Luce, et al., I I, pp. 34ff. for the Battle of Sluys and for Les Espagnols sur Mer, ibid., IV, pp. 89-98.
17. For the history of the development of this arsenal, A. Merlin-Chezelas, Documents relatifs au clos de galees de Rouen, 2 vols. (Paris. 1977-1978).
18. Chroniques de J. Froissart. II, p. 34. For a readily accessible translation, Froissart, Chronicles, ed. and trans. G. Brereton (Harmandsworth, England, 1968), p. 64.
19. His account is full and begins with a description of Edward III’s angry demand that the Spaniards must be stopped from raiding the English. Next he is found demanding song and dance aboard his ship, the Salle du Roi, before the battle. Chronique de J. Froissart, ed. S. Luce. et al., IV, pp. 89-98.
20. Ibid. Froissart makes no mention of the use of artillery in this battle, either guns or catapults.
21. For recent comments on the development of the ship. Ian Friel, ‘Documentary Sources and the Medieval Ship: Some Aspects of the Evidence,’ International Journal on Nautical Archaeology 12 (1983 ), pp. 41-62.
22. Actually the number of ships required of the Cinque Ports was reduced by the crown as the vessels grew larger. For their obligations, K. M. E. Murray, The Constitutional History of the Cinque Ports (London, 1935) and F. W. Brooks, The English Naval Forces, 1199-1272 (Manchester, 1932, reprinted 1962), chap. VI.
23. There is little evidence of compensation by the crown to owners of merchant vessels damaged while in royal service. For some examples. P.R.O. E. 101/24/9(6) mm. 1-45. J. W. Sherborne, ‘The English Navy: Shipping and Manpower, 1369-1389,’ Past and Present (July 1967), pp 163-75 addresses this question. See also J. S. Kepler, ‘The Effects of the Battle of Sluys upon English Naval Impressment, 1340-1342,’ Speculum XLVIII (January 1973), pp. 70-77.
24. CPR (1343-45), p. 92.