Battle of Zierikzee

Rainier I of Grimaldi, victor of the naval battle at Zierikzee

The French victory over the Flemings at the Battle of Zierikzee in Zeeland (1304) may have assuaged the bitterness of defeat at the Battle of Courtrai (the Battle of the Golden Spurs) two years earlier but seems not to have been conclusive, despite the peace treaty signed at Athis-sur-Orge in 1305, since the efforts by Philip IV of France to extend control over Flanders continued until at least 1320. Perhaps because only two contemporary vernacular chronicles provide accounts of the battle, it has been little studied since a single article by Pierre J.-B. Legrand D’Aussy in the late eighteenth century – a study which until recently had dictated subsequent understanding of the naval tactics deployed in the encounter and of the course and outcome of the battle. The better known of the two vernacular authors is Guillaume Guiart, a former soldier who served in the French army at Mons-en-Pévèle (1304). He composed his memoirs toward the end of his life and thus at some distance from the events at Zierikzee, which he did not personally witness. Even less mined by historians than Guiart’s rhymed chronicle, at least beyond Netherlandic studies, is that by the Utrecht author Melis Stoke, writing about these same events from an even more proximate point in time.

In 1303 and 1304, the city was besieged several times by Flemish troops over a territorial dispute between the Count of Flanders and the Count of Holland going back to the 11th century. They couldn’t let bygones be bygones. The Flemish failed to take the town and were eventually defeated at the Battle of Zierikzee in August 1304. This two-day sea battle was a global clash. The winning side had 30 French and eight Spanish cogs and 11 Genoese galleys. (Cogs and galleys were Medieval merchant and warships). The Dutch contributed five ships from Schiedam. The losers had a fleet of 37 Flemish, English, Hanseatic, Spanish, and Swedish ships, as well as numerous smaller vessels from who knows where.

The major battle to consider in detail occurred in 1304 in the waterway leading to the town of Zierikzee in Zealand. The protagonists were Philip IV of France and Guy de Namur the Count of Flanders. The French had been attempting to extend their control over Flanders at least since 1297; the situation was complicated both by the involvement of the English, the major trading partners of the Flemish towns and the semi-independent status of the major cloth-producing towns of the region. In 1302, a major rebellion against French rule in the region had led to the defeat of the French land forces at the battle of Courtrai. The English had used this moment of weakness on the part of France to conclude a treaty with them. Thus when the French began a new campaign in Flanders in 1304 the English were at least temporarily allies of France while the Flemings had turned to Scotland for support. Guy de Namur had in the meantime attempted to take over the lands of John d’Avesnes, the Count of Holland and Hainault. These included Zealand while John himself was also allied with the French. Guy’s forces were laying siege to the town of Zierikzee, part of d’Avesnes’ territories, when the French fleet approached.

The events of the battle were recorded in a metrical history written c. 1306, by one Guillaume Guiart who seems to have had access to good information. 18 The attacking French fleet consisted of two diverse squadrons. One consisted of what the author calls `grands nefs’, one variation on the round sailing ship type of northern Europe; this was led by Pedrogue from Calais and consisted of eight Spanish ships and French vessels arrested along the Channel coast. The other was made up of 12 galleys hired from Genoa under the command of Renier Grimaldi who also had overall command. Five further ships commanded by Count William, the son of John d’Avesnes joined them at the mouth of the Scheldt. Here the wind and tide turned against them and it took at least eight days to bring all the ships up the waterway to the besieged town. The plan, according to Guiart, was to divide the ships into three groups of about 15 each while the galleys also stayed together. The ships were equipped not only with fore, aft and top castles for the mast but also with springals; a white banner was flown as a recognition signal. The first move was made by Pedrogue who moved forward with his own and three other ships to within crossbow range of the Flemings. The tide, however, was ebbing and all ran aground becoming easy targets both for the Flemings on shore and those on their ships who greatly outnumbered the French. According to Guiart, the response of the remainder of the French fleet to this emergency was to form into one squadron and anchor to avoid being swept on shore by the tide or the wind. He also states that the ships passed cables from one to the other as did the galleys which were behind the nefs, tying them into a block. Guy decided to send fireships towards his immobilised enemy but the wind shifted allowing them to drift back towards the town. In the ensuing confusion Guy’s shipmasters seem to have realised too late that the tide had turned and Pedrogue’s ships were on the move again. The battle now became a confused melée with the air thick with missiles of all kinds from the springals, crossbows and archers. Two of the largest Flemish ships were boarded and taken. By this time darkness had fallen but neither side broke off the battle. Grimaldi, whose galleys had taken no part in the fighting as yet, saw that the enemy was in confusion, and now attacked with great success taking at least three more Flemish ships. Guy steered his ship, now under full sail towards Grimaldi’s own galley, broke up its oars but failed to grapple it successfully. A second attempt also failed and by this time it was clear that the French had won the day. The account concludes with the lifting of the siege and the return of Pedrogue to Calais.

How much credence can be based on this account and what does it tell us about battle tactics at this date? The account is very nearly contemporary but there is no evidence that the writer had any direct experience of war at sea. An eighteenth-century commentator on the poem pointed out that the tactic of `bridling’ warships or tying them together can be found in Livy and thus may be here no more than the conventional following of a classical model. Other aspects of the account are more valuable. Although the battle took place near the shore the action of wind and tide was crucial to the outcome. The ability to handle a vessel under sail in difficult circumstances could decide the issue. Guy’s desperate attack on Grimaldi’s galley could have turned the fortunes of the battle if it had succeeded. Even if the closing stages were marked by boarding actions the exchange of fire, whether by bowmen or by those operating the big catapults, was of great importance. The overall consequences of the French victory are less clear-cut. The peace treaty signed in 1305 at Athis-sur-Orge was unfavourable to the Flemings but this in no sense resolved the conflict which continued intermittently until at least 1320.

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