War on Two Fronts, 1544-46, Battle of the Solent

The Mary Rose is a Tudor ship, built in 1510. In service for 34 years. Sank in 1545. Discovered in 1971. Raised in 1982. Now in the final stages of conservation, she takes her place in a stunning and unique museum.

The second season of Henry’s wars against France and Scotland therefore drove England into a strategic terra incognita and forced the realm to cope with the consequences of its military and administrative structures being pushed to breaking point and beyond.

If the war had been expensive and alarming during 1544, it would now become far more threatening and costly. The difficulties which Scotland presented to England became obvious when a large English raiding party was ambushed and annihilated at Ancrum Moor in February 1545. Eight hundred of the raiders were killed and another 1000 were taken prisoner. Compounding the blow to England, and the boost to Scottish spirits, was news that French troops would soon be dispatched to reinforce the Scots. In the event, it was not until June that 3500 French soldiers arrived in Scotland and, despite various alarms, no large-scale actions actually occurred in the north. Nevertheless, the prospect of a Franco-Scottish invasion compelled England to ready an army of 27,500 men from its northern counties, stiffened by more than 3000 foreign mercenaries shipped into Newcastle. Month after month, the bored Spanish, Italian, German and Albanian mercenaries waited for action in their various billets, often causing trouble with the local inhabitants. Several hundred more mercenaries spent the summer in camps in Essex and Kent. England’s defensive measures against direct attack from France also involved calling up the militia to create three armies of about 30,000 men each to defend the southern coasts, while another 12,000 men served aboard the fleet. There were also 7000 men at Boulogne and at least 15,000 in and around Calais, many of them foreigners. All up, Henry’s government had over 150,000 men in arms during the summer of 1545. Even if several thousand of these troops were costly foreign mercenaries, this was an extraordinary degree of mobilisation at a time when the total population of England and Wales was less than three million.

The great French offensive finally began in mid-July, when a fleet variously estimated at 30,000 men and 150 to 300 ships, including 26 oar-powered galleys, sailed from Normandy towards Portsmouth. The English fleet, under the lord admiral, Lord Lisle (who had been recalled from Boulogne at the end of 1544), numbered about 160 ships of all sizes. Although both fleets were built around a hard core of large royal warships, most vessels were armed merchantmen carrying contingents of soldiers who would defend their own ship, or attack an enemy vessel, using bows, handguns, bills and javelins. Most ships carried various forms of cannon, but there were relatively few large guns even aboard the biggest royal warships. The Mary Rose, one of the largest English warships, nominally carried 126 guns, but 50 of these were handguns, 20 fired light hailshot and only 12 were heavy bronze cannon. The ship also carried 250 bows, 400 sheaves of arrows and 300 staff weapons. Although the ship carried 185 soldiers and 30 gunners, many of these hand weapons were intended for the sailors, who were expected to fight when necessary. This was essential because naval combat was fought at close quarters. While cannon fire from a few hundred yards might damage an enemy ship and occasionally perhaps even land a crippling blow, the real fighting usually involved showering the enemy with arrows and iron and stone shot from short range, before finally boarding the now-battered enemy hulk and capturing it hand to hand.

Naval warfare was also critically dependent upon fickle winds. In late June, Lisle tried to launch a pre-emptive strike against the French fleet while it still lay in harbour. Unfortunately, the wind failed as the English fleet closed in, leaving it suddenly stranded and open to attack from the French galleys, whose oars enabled them to manoeuvre while the sailing ships were immobilised. Potential disaster for the English was only averted when a fresh breeze sprang up. This forced the galleys to seek shelter because the same wind which filled the sails of the English fleet and restored its mobility also made the sea too rough for galleys to function effectively. However, sixteenthcentury sailing ships were very limited in their ability to sail at an angle to the wind and this breeze soon threatened to blow the English fleet into treacherous shallows. Lisle wisely chose to withdraw and return home rather than risk shipwreck.

This frustrating engagement set the pattern for the naval campaign of 1545. When the French fleet finally arrived in the Solent on 19 July, the same light winds which had cost it nine days in crossing the Channel made it very difficult for the English fleet even to get out of Portsmouth. When Lisle’s fleet finally put to sea, the Mary Rose broached dramatically, drowning almost its whole crew in full view of the king, who was watching from ashore. Although the French claimed that it had been sunk by gunfire from a galley, it seems that the ship was flooded with water when its over-eager commander neglected to have the lower portholes closed before hoisting full sail. Incompetence was not restricted to the English side. The French admiral twice had to transfer his flag even before the voyage had begun because his first flagship caught fire and exploded, while the second ran aground in leaving harbour. Nevertheless, such dramas did not reflect the larger course of events. Frustrated by weeks of fluctuating winds and unwilling to risk precipitate action, neither side could get to grips with the other and force the sort of close-range combat necessary for decisive results. Although a few French troops landed on the Isle of Wight – where they were ambushed by the local militia and forced to withdraw – and 7000 men went ashore to reinforce the French army which was now besieging Boulogne, a full month’s manoeuvring off the English coast produced no result and the French fleet was forced to head home. Packed into their ships for weeks on end and suffering from poor victuals and hygiene, the soldiers and sailors of the French fleet had begun to sicken and die. This was the regular fate of fleets in the early modern period and a reminder that staying power was often no less important than firepower. In this instance, neither side was able to strike a telling blow and the English victory ultimately came from outlasting the enemy. The only decisive action came at the beginning of September when Lisle burned the French port of Tréport and destroyed 30 vessels in its harbour. However, disease showed no respect for nationality and the English fleet soon began to suffer the same fate as its French counterpart. By the middle of September, the naval campaign was over and both sides were trying to disinfect and demobilise their ships.