Authors: Gordon Corrigan
Far from the allied armies being on parade in July, it was not until September 1339 that Edward’s army was ready to move, and even then not all the promised participants had turned up. The
exhausting and expensive, and it achieved nothing. Much manoeuvring in Picardy around Cambrai, St Quentin and Buironfosse failed to bring Philip and the French
army to battle. A win for Philip would not gain him England, whereas a defeat could lose him France. The longer Edward stayed in France without a decisive battle, the more likely it was that his
allies would slip away, and his funds would not last forever. The end of the campaigning season found Edward angry, frustrated and increasingly in debt. His priority now was to raise enough money
to continue the war, and also to persuade Flanders that neutrality was not an option.
On 23 January 1340, in the marketplace in Ghent, Edward III proclaimed himself king of England and France. Not only was this a restatement of his mother’s and his own claim to the French
throne – one he was egged on to make by Robert of Artois – but, if he was king of France, then the Flemings could not be accused of treason if they fought against Philip, whom Edward
claimed to be a usurper. More importantly, given that there were genuine legal doubts as to whether English kings held their French lands in liege homage from the king of France or in full
sovereignty, if Edward III was the rightful king of France, then the question was irrelevant.
The French fleur-de-lys was now incorporated into the English royal coat of arms, quartered with the English lions (or leopards), and Edward took as his motto
Dieu et Mon Droit
‘God and my right’ – which has remained the motto of English and then British sovereigns to this day. Oddly, perhaps, Philip did not object to the incorporation of the
fleur-de-lys – as the grandson of a French king, Edward was entitled to use it – but he did object to the lions, the symbol of a poor offshore island, being placed in precedence over
the arms of the great kingdom of France. In England itself, Edward’s claim was not universally approved; there was widespread distrust and indeed hatred of France, and Parliament had to enact
a statute saying that in no circumstances, now or ever in the future, could any Englishman be subject to the laws of France.
Although Philip had no intention of meeting the English army in open battle in northern France, fighting was going on in Gascony, French forces were besieging English castles in the Agenais, and
they were active at sea too. Between 1337 and 1339, Rye, Folkestone, Dover, Harwich, Plymouth and the Isle of Wight were all subject to sudden French landings, followed by a brief period of
pillage, rape and murder before the raiders
set fire to what would burn and took to sea again. In 1338, they took most of the Channel Islands and held them until 1340, and
also in 1338 they captured England’s largest ship, the king’s own cog
, along with the
While the English responded by equally bloody raids on Le
Tréport and Boulogne, no town on England’s east and south coasts was safe from French raids, usually by galleys which, being powered by rowers, were less subject to wind or tide than
were English cogs.
In addition, Edward’s financial situation was precarious. So far, the cost of procuring allies and sending an English expeditionary force to Europe and keeping it there had been met by
loans, mainly from Italian bankers and English and Flemish merchants, but these sources were drying up. Some loans were coming due for repayment, more recent loans went only to repay old ones, new
ones could only be obtained at exorbitant rates of interest, and the wool brought over by Manny had not fetched as much as had been hoped. Things were so serious that Edward had actually pawned the
crown of England in Bruges. He had to tilt the balance of the war in his favour quickly, and the only solution was to raise more money from England and to bring over an army large enough to force a
battle. In February 1340, a month after proclaiming himself king of France, Edward returned to England to raise funds. It was a humiliating departure: he had to agree to his queen and a number of
his nobles remaining behind as surety for the loans, and he had to promise that he would return with the money or, if without it, that he would subject himself to detention until it was found.
In the almost two years that Edward had been out of England, Parliament had increasingly begun to question the cost of the war, laying down all sorts of conditions before granting yet another
tax. Edward met Parliament in March 1340 and deployed his extraordinary ability in managing public opinion to charm the legislators. Explaining that, if the money was not raised, then his honour
would be destroyed, his lands in France lost, and he himself imprisoned for debt, and assuring all that he had no intention of combining the two kingdoms nor of taking any action in England in his
capacity as king of France, Edward asked for, and received, a tax of a ninth.
This, in addition to more loans squeezed from
London merchants and a levy on the clergy, would be sufficient for him to carry on the war. He did not even discuss Parliament’s conditions, agreeing to them all without argument.
The troops being assembled to reinforce those already in Europe were a mix of men raised by feudal array, volunteers and paid professionals, both men-at-arms and archers. The reported numbers of
men in medieval armies are notoriously unreliable, and the number of English ships said by contemporary chronicles to have been mustered for the crossing vary from 147 (Lanercost)
to 260 (Le Baker).
But as the number of French ships is generally agreed to be around 200 and all
chroniclers of both sides agree that the French fleet outnumbered that of the English, then 150 is probably the most the English could have had. If we allow that around 50 ships would have been
carrying horses, stores and the ladies going out to join the queen and that a 100-ton cog could carry at most 100 men of whom 25 would be crew, then the maximum number of soldiers might have been
around 5,000, in the proportion of three archers to two men-at-arms.
By the time Edward and his fleet were ready to leave England, in June 1340, the English knew that the French fleet had been moved to Sluys, now silted up but then the main port for Bruges,
north-east of it at the mouth of the Zwin on the south side of the Honde estuary. As the only purpose of stationing the fleet there would be for an invasion of England, or at the very least to
prevent an English army from crossing the Channel, Edward decided that he would meet the threat head-on and, rather than avoiding the French ships and landing at Dunkirk or Ostend, would do battle
This was an audacious plan indeed, and, when Edward suggested it, his chancellor, Archbishop Stratford, argued strongly against it; and when he could not change the king’s mind, he
resigned his office and returned the Great Seal of England to the king.
Edward summoned his most experienced admiral, Robert Morley, and asked his
opinion. Having previously served Edward II and been party to the coup that deposed him, Morley initially served on land in Edward III’s Scottish wars before taking to the sea. He had shown
himself a most accomplished organizer and leader of raids on the French coast and had been appointed Admiral of the North in February 1339.
Morley pointed out the dangers of
the king’s plan and advised against it, and this opinion was backed up by the very experienced Flemish seaman John Crabbe, originally a mercenary pirate in the Scottish service who had been
captured by the English and changed sides and was now the king’s captain. Edward lost his temper and accused all three of plotting against him, telling them that they could stay at home but
he was going anyway. He was mollified only when Morley and Crabbe announced that much as they opposed the caper, if the king went, then so would they.
The story of the Battle of Sluys – the first major engagement of the Hundred Years War – is not one that springs to the lips of every English schoolboy, but in its way it is as
significant as the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1558 and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. For if it had been lost, the 20,000 troops that Philip of France was amassing to invade England would
have found nothing at sea to oppose them and precious little on land once they got there. Like Admiral Jellicoe at Jutland over half a millennium later, Edward III was the one man who could have
lost the war in an afternoon.
Up to this point, despite the improving English ability to mount coastal raids, the French had been superior at sea, and had the Great Army of the Sea, as Philip termed it, been in the Channel a
year earlier, things would have been very different. Then, not only would the French have mustered many more ships overall than they did now, but also they would have had many more galleys, swift
and manoeuvrable and far more suited to war at sea than the sluggish English cogs. Fortunately for the English, the combination of a revolution in Genoa that had resulted in a regime no longer
inclined to hire galleys and crews to the French, and English raids that had burned beached galleys at Boulogne, had left the French with only six galleys, four of their own and two Genoese. In
addition, the fleet had twenty-two oared barges, not as manoeuvrable as the galleys but more easily handled than the cogs nonetheless, seven sailing ships specifically built as naval vessels, and
167 requisitioned merchantmen.
Manning the ships were around 19,000 soldiers and sailors, although only about 500 crossbowmen and 150 men-at-arms
were professional soldiers, the rest being mariners, militia and recently impressed recruits.
Knowing that Edward was intending to sail for the Low Countries, the best alternatives open to the French admirals were to blockade English
ports or to catch the English
fleet at sea and annihilate it. In the event, they did neither. The two French admirals, Quiéret and Béhuchet, elected to take up a defensive posture across the mouth of the
three-mile-wide estuary running south-west from the island of Cadzand, deploying their ships in three lines, chained together. Béhuchet, a short, fat Norman, had been a civil servant before
showing considerable ability as a leader of raids on the English coast, and Quiéret too was an experienced sailor; but the two men did not get on personally. Both should have known better,
for they were relinquishing the opportunity of fighting a sea battle, something at which the French were better than the English despite their shortage of galleys. Instead, they were affording the
English the chance to fight a land battle on ships – and the English were very much better at fighting on land than the French. The third commander of the Great Army of the Sea – a
Genoese mercenary named Pietro Barbanero, Barbenoire, Barbevaire or Barbavera, depending on the source – was the most experienced practitioner of naval warfare of them all. He urged that such
a defensive deployment gave no room for the ships to manoeuvre and that the fleet should put to sea and make use of its numerical advantage to fight the English well away from the shore. He was
The English fleet sailed from the mouth of the River Orwell at first light on 22 June 1340, with the king aboard the cog
, and hove to off the Flemish coast the following morning
at (according to Edward’s despatches) the hour of Tierce, or 0900 hours.
The two fleets could see each other. Edward first ordered the church
militant, in the shape of the bishop of Lincoln, to go ashore, ride the ten miles or so to Bruges, and encourage the Flemings to attack the French from the shore once the English fleet attacked
from the sea. Three knights were also landed to observe and report on the French fleet. By early next morning, 24 June, Edward knew the strength and disposition of the French fleet, and he had also
received the bishop of Lincoln’s unwelcome news that the citizens of Bruges were adamant that on no account should the English attack such a huge French fleet, for to do so would court
disaster. Rather, they said, Edward should wait a few days until he could be reinforced by Flemish
ships. The king ignored this advice, but, since to attack at once would
mean sailing into the sun, Edward decided to tack out to sea and position himself where the wind and the tide would be at his back. This and the redisposition of the fleet into attack formation
took most of the day. Some sources say that the manoeuvring was interpreted by the French as an English retreat and that they began to unchain their own ships in order to pursue; and Barbanero
certainly advised a move out to sea. In any event many French ships were still chained together and their fleet was still in a defensive posture when the English, with the wind, the tide and the
sun behind them, struck.
Edward had arranged his fleet in line abreast, with one ship full of men-at-arms – infantry – flanked by two of archers. The archers were on the fore and stern castles and in the
crow’s nests, and, as the fleets closed, a storm of arrows began to cause casualties among the French. Their crossbowmen replied, but there were insufficient of them and with their much
slower rate of fire they were ineffective. When the lines of ships crashed into each other, the English sailors swung their grappling irons and the infantry began to board. This was difficult, as
many of the French ships were higher than those of the English, particularly the Spanish vessels of Philip’s Castilian ally, but once on board the raw sailors were no match for the English
men-at-arms, most of whose fighting skills had been honed by their participation in the Scottish wars. With sword, mace, short spear and bill, the English infantry captured ship after ship in the
first line and recaptured the cog
Once the colours of Philip of Valois were struck and replaced by the lions and fleur-de-lys of England, panic set in amongst the second line
of smaller ships and less experienced crews. By nightfall, most of the ships of the second French line had been captured and those of the third were trying to make their escape. Many soldiers and
sailors jumped overboard to avoid the ferocity of the English attack, but a good number of those who managed to swim ashore were bludgeoned to death by the waiting Flemings. Those who could not
swim (most, in fact) were drowned, as were many who could swim but were weighed down by their armour. In the darkness some French ships got away, including Barbanero’s galleys, but next
morning any remaining in the estuary were swiftly accounted for, and altogether 190 French ships were captured or sunk.