From Sorcerer to Clergyman to Pirate to Admiral, the Remarkable Life of Eustace The Monk.
The loss of Normandy, which made the Channel into a new political frontier, combined with general political instability and uncertainty to produce just the conditions which favoured adventurous, entrepreneurial sailors in their enterprising activities. These men were useful to the various authorities because they were able to react spontaneously and exploit political situations immediately, as they unfolded. The other side of the coin was that they lost no opportunities to make profits on their own behalf. The earliest of these to be recorded was Eustace the Monk, a nobleman from Boulogne, who first appears in 1205. He is a somewhat legendary figure who filled the roles of both pirate and mercenary. His story is derived from a combination of some ten of the medieval chronicles, which included a ‘romance’, or biography, which was written in the Picardy dialect, but even that not until 1284, some seventy years after his death. The chronicles are notorious for dramatisation and exaggeration, and no doubt the stories became embellished in the telling as they were handed down from one generation to another. They contain many contradictions. As with other colourful, larger-than-life historical characters, including the medieval outlaw Robin Hood, in the story of Eustace fiction became well embedded in fact. The following account, based on three secondary sources which were themselves based on the chronicles, is what seems most plausible.
Eustace was born into a noble family near Boulogne, probably around 1170. It is said by the Romance (and only, it seems, by that one source) that in his youth he visited Toledo in central Spain, which had been under Moorish domination for some three centuries until 1085. There, he studied the Black Art so successfully that he was without equal in the whole of France. Be that as it may, he is said to have appeared in a variety of disguises and terrified his opponents who knew of his reputation for his ‘power to become invisible’ as well as for his violence. Early in his life he also spent some time as a monk in the abbey of Samer, near Boulogne, in spite of the fact that one record describes him as ‘demoniac’. But, however unsuited to that occupation he may have been, it must have been that which was used later on by chroniclers as a title by which to identify him. He escaped from that life, apparently leaving in 1190 when he heard that his father had been murdered, in order to pursue the murderer.
He is next heard of in the employment of the Count of Boulogne but he fell out with him and left, swearing vengeance. Outlawed from there, in 1205 he crossed the Channel to England and offered his services to King John. The king is said to have equipped Eustace with a number of galleys, who then established himself on the island of Sark, from where he could raid the coast of Normandy, encouraged by John, who was hoping for retribution, having so recently lost that duchy. During that time Eustace carried out at least one major and daring raid, in which he penetrated some distance inland up the Seine, and then escaped from his pursuers by retreating west to Barfleur. One account says that as a reward for that raid he was given a rich ‘palais’ in London, although another suggests that this ‘palais’ may in fact have been in Winchelsea, since that was his home port when in England. He was evidently receiving royal favours, and it seems that, one way or another, Eustace had also amassed a personal fortune, presumably on the proceeds of piracy.
Then, sometime between May 1212 and November 1214, he changed his allegiance for the second time. He crossed the Channel again, in order to support France. The reasons given for that move are contradictory. One source suggests that by 1212, having apparently overstepped the mark, he was expelled from the Channel Islands by the English keeper, Philip d’Aubigny, and escaped in disguise to France, taking five galleys with him. An alternative account of his defection says he went voluntarily. This seems not unlikely, as he would have been disenchanted with John’s vacillation and weakness as a leader, and simultaneously attracted by the more positive approach of Philip Augustus.
From 1211 onwards both kings were jockeying for positions in Flanders. John still hoped to reconquer Normandy, while Philip Augustus had designs on England. Both of them needed a stepping-off base in Flanders, especially access to the harbour of the Zwin, and to Flemish mercenaries. Early in 1213 the Pope, after a long altercation with John, excused his English subjects from their allegiance to him and strongly encouraged all Christian leaders to unite in efforts to depose him. This, as described by the chroniclers, gave Philip Augustus the justification he was seeking for planning an invasion of England.
Events then led up to the episode known as the Battle of Damme, perhaps better described as an important raid. In the spring of 1213, Philip Augustus moved his land forces north and invaded Flanders. He devastated Bruges and attacked Ghent, at the same time ordering a ‘large’ fleet to move north up the coast. How large this force really was is not known, but it probably consisted mainly of sailors from Poitou, who were far from home and by no means entirely dependable.
John, having decided the best form of defence was attack, sent his half-brother William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, over at the head of a considerably smaller fleet to reconnoitre and, if possible, to intercept the French. They probably sailed in mid-April, and would have reached the mouth of the Meuse (the Zwin) in a couple of days, where Longsword was surprised to find the port full of vessels. Having established that the ships were indeed French, he took the opportunity to capture or burn the larger ones anchored out in the middle of the channel leading up to Damme while the sailors had apparently gone ashore to plunder what remained of the wealth of Bruges.
Hearing the news of this disaster and concerned particularly about the fate of his pay-chests which were on board one of the ships, Philip Augustus broke his siege of Ghent and hurried to Damme, where he found the remainder of his fleet, the smaller ships, still pulled up on the mud. However, confronted with the difficulty of getting those ships away from Damme in the face of the English fleet lying in wait outside, and mistrusting the mercenaries from Poitou, who might turn traitor and change sides at any moment, he burnt the rest of his own boats rather than let them fall into English hands. As a result, he was without a fleet and had to abandon any thoughts he may have had of invading England that year.
Although Philip Augustus could not prevent John landing in Flanders the following year, he defeated him and the armies of his allies, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne, in a decisive battle (on land) at Bouvines, between Lille and Tournai. This was the first great encounter between alliances of medieval European powers, and has been described as one of the most important in the history of medieval Europe. From the point of view of operations in the Channel, not only was John repulsed and thrown back on the defensive, but the way was laid open for the French (who were now led, for diplomatic reasons to satisfy the Pope, not by Philip Augustus, but by Louis, his son) to pursue their plans to invade England. They were further encouraged by the political situation in England, where John’s tyranny was so intensely unpopular that a large faction of the English barons invited Louis to cross the Channel and claim the crown of England.
This was where Eustace, whose experience of dealing with ships and shipping, tides and currents in the Channel was evidently second to none, was indispensable. He was employed by Louis to assemble another substantial fleet, suitable for carrying a large force over to England. That was the official side of his activities. On the other side of the coin he played on his well-known personal reputation for inspiring uncontrolled terror, which was well illustrated by the caveat Philip Augustus gave to the papal legate, as reported by Matthew Paris, one of the more reliable of chroniclers: ‘Through our land I will willingly furnish you with a safe conduct, but if by chance you should fall into the hands of Eustace the Monk or of the other men of Louis who guard the sea-routes, do not impute it to me if any harm comes to you.’
In 1215, the year better known for the signing of Magna Carta, the international balance of power in the Channel was becoming critical and Eustace had begun preparations for their campaign. He took certain ‘machines of war’, possibly trébuchets, counter-weighted catapults to be mounted either on land or on the ships for throwing heavy stones at castles or onto the decks of enemy vessels, over to Folkestone to support the English barons. His fleet was then used to ferry Louis and his army over to Sandwich, of which they secured control in the summer of 1216. On 10 July Louis began to lay siege to Dover Castle but as that was skilfully defended by Hubert de Burgh, he failed to take it, and had to concede a truce on 14 October. Meanwhile, his forces went on to join up with the rebellious barons and together they gained control of a large area of north-east England.
At the same time, John’s fleet of galleys (incidentally one of the largest maintained by any of the medieval English kings) was feinting in the Channel with the French fleet. Considerable raiding and counter-raiding took place, but neither side seized an opportunity to confront the opposing fleet when they saw it emerging from port. It was easier to inflict damage on enemy shipping by raiding them while in port, with less likelihood of damage being sustained by the attacker.
In January 1217, in response to the critical situation, Philip d’Aubigny, described by then as a veteran seaman, was appointed to defend the coast of south-east England. According to one account, it seems that with the help of an irregular band commanded by one Willikin of the Weald, some of the Cinque Ports men managed to shut Louis up in Winchelsea. But at the end of February Eustace and the French broke out through that blockade. The town was apparently burnt, and one chronicler describes a dramatic rescue of Louis by Eustace.
Whatever the truth of those stories, Louis then spent some two months in France, during which time he lost some support in England. He returned to Sandwich at the end of April, and by 12 May he was besieging Dover once more, control of which was highly important to him. But while there, on 25 May, news came through that his land forces had been disastrously defeated in a battle at Lincoln. To compound his difficulties, most of his ships were driven back to Calais by a storm. Louis could do little without reinforcements. He proceeded to London while Eustace retired to Calais and gathered together a new fleet which had been rapidly reinforced with more ships by the energetic wife of Louis, Blanche of Castile. On 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day, 1217, Eustace was sailing north up the coast of Kent at the head of this fleet, apparently bound for London in order to join up with Louis and the remaining land forces.
Having realised the very serious implications if the French reinforcements were to reach London, once the French had passed, Hubert de Burgh put to sea from Dover with a small fleet consisting mainly of royal galleys, reinforced by ships of the Cinque Ports. They started out on an eastern course, which gave the impression that they were making for Calais. But Hubert had a different object in mind. He made sure he had given himself the critical tactical advantage of having the wind and the sun behind him, and then turned north. The story goes that Eustace’s ship was the largest and was weighed down by a trébuchet, with the result that it was lagging behind the rest of the French fleet. Be that as it may, somewhere in the narrow space between Sandwich and the Goodwin Sands the English caught up with the French fleet and English crossbowmen began the action. They followed this by hurling pots of finely pulverised lime which blinded and paralysed the French, enabling the English sailors to board the French ships and slash down their rigging. As described by one of the chroniclers, this trapped everyone on deck ‘like a net [falling] upon ensnared small birds’. Eustace was found hiding in the ship’s bilges. Described by Mathew Paris as a ‘master-pirate’, he was a confidence trickster who in changing sides had inevitably made many enemies. He could expect no reasoned justice. He was brought out and summarily beheaded on his own ship, possibly by Richard, a bastard son of King John, possibly by Stephen Crabbe, a one-time friend whom Eustace himself had trained, who was now a rival pirate based at Sandwich To sum up, Eustace made the most of the opportunities offered by rapidly changing political circumstances. Very little is known of his life before 1204 but, in the light of what followed, he must have made very good use of that early period, becoming exceptionally proficient in everything concerned with sailing ships and with navigation in the eastern half of the Channel. This can only have been the result of extensive experience at sea. Courageous and fearless, he established a fearsome reputation among other mariners and also, it seems, respect among the national leaders. He was flexible and adaptable and, unhampered by any sense of long-term allegiance, he offered his services wherever and whenever adventure and commercial opportunity arose.
Was it a coincidence that he appeared in England almost as soon as John had lost Normandy? Probably not. He lacked one thing, and that was ships of his own. It is probable that he saw England as a good source of ships with which to follow his piratical inclinations. Then, when Philip Augustus began to plan to invade first Flanders and then England, and John was on the defensive, Eustace went over to the French side in search of an alternative source of ships, more profitable adventure, and probably greater rewards. In both instances his maritime experience proved indispensable, so much so that he seems to have had a hand in planning, and certainly in executing, the French invasion plans.
It was perhaps unfortunate for Eustace that he was eventually defeated by a chance combination of circumstances, by the determination and the political and strategic acumen of Hubert de Burgh, and by a direction of wind which, although it favoured his final voyage, also proved conclusively helpful to Hubert. If the French plan had succeeded, and had Eustace arrived in London to be greeted by rebellious English barons as well as Louis with the remnants of the French troops who had survived the Battle of Lincoln, France would have had a strong foothold in the contemporary turmoil of English politics, and the succession to the English throne might well have been different. As it was, John died in 1216, and his 9-year-old son, Henry III, succeeded to a throne which was independent of France, with William the Marshall as his first regent. After this period of acute uncertainty, the Channel was firmly established as a political frontier – and a good hunting ground for pirates.