Crusaders embarking for the Holy Land, 15th century. Banners show the Papal arms, those of the Holy Roman Emperor and the kings of England, France and Sicily. From Statutes of Order of Saint Esprit. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Conceptual Imperatives

There is something Homeric about the pattern of war these tactics represent: ships duelled with each other in single combat; their fighting crews closed in a mêlée that might be determined by individual prowess. The way wars were fought depended on how they were conceived in the adversaries’ minds and, at least as much as land warfare—more, perhaps, as time went on—the naval warfare of our period was shaped by the great aristocratic ethos of the high and late middle ages: the ‘cult’ of chivalry, which warriors’ deeds were meant to express. There is no need to dwell on the perennial objectives of war, for greed, power-lust, and various religious or moral pretexts for bloodshed are always with us. What was peculiar to the warfare of Latin Christendom was that it was animated by belief in the ennobling effect of great ‘deeds’ of adventure. As chivalry infused seafaring, it made naval service attractive for more than the hope of prize money. The sea became a field fit for kings.

A chivalric treatise of the mid-fifteenth century tells us that the French aristocracy eschewed the sea as an ignoble medium—but the writer was responding to a debate which had already been won by spokesmen for the sea. Almost from the emergence of the genre, the sea was seen in chivalric literature as a suitable environment for deeds of knightly endeavour. In the thirteenth century, one of the great spokesmen of the chivalric ethos in the Iberian peninsula was Jaume I, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona. When he described his conquest of Majorca in 1229, he revealed that he saw maritime war as a means of chivalric adventure par excellence. There was ‘more honour’ in conquering a single kingdom ‘in the midst of the sea, where God has been pleased to put it’ than three on dry land.

A metaphor quickly established itself, which was to be a commonplace for the rest of the middle ages: the ship, in the words of King Alfonso X of Castile, was ‘the horse of them that fight by sea’. St Louis planned to create the Order of the Ship for participants in his Tunis crusade. The Order of the Dragon, instituted by the Count of Foix in the early fifteenth century, honoured members who fought at sea with emerald insignia. By the time of Columbus, the Portuguese poet, Gil Vicente, could liken a ship at once to a warhorse and a lovely woman without incongruity, for all three were almost equipollent images in the chivalric tradition. Anyone who contemplates late medieval pictures of fighting ships, caparisoned with pennants as gaily as any warhorse, can grasp how, in the imagination of the time, the sea could be a knightly battlefield and the waves ridden like jennets.

No text better illustrates the influence of this tradition on the conduct of war than the chronicle of the deeds of Count Pero Niño, written by his standard-bearer in the second quarter of the fifteenth century. A treatise of chivalry, as well as an account of campaigns, El victorial celebrates a knight never vanquished in joust or war or love, whose greatest battles were fought at sea; and ‘to win a battle is the greatest good and the greatest glory of life.’ When the author discourses on the mutability of life, his interlocutors are Fortune and the Wind, whose ‘mother’ is the sea ‘and therein is my chief office’. This helps to explain an important advantage of a maritime milieu for the teller of chivalric tales: it is on the sea, with its rapid cycles of storm and calm, that the wheel of fortune revolves most briskly.

At one level, sea warfare was an extension of land warfare. Set-piece battles were rare and usually occurred in the context of the activities on which naval strategy was commonly bent: the transport of armies and the blockade of ports. Inevitably, however, campaigns of this sort suggested strictly maritime strategies. It became conceivable to fight for the control or even the monopolization of sea-lanes and the extension of what might be called a territorial attitude over the sea: seizure of rights of jurisdiction over disputes arising on it and exploitation of its trade for tolls. At the level of grand strategy, some of the aims of naval warfare declared in medieval sources seem stunningly ambitious. English monarchs called themselves ‘roys des mers’ and aspired to the ‘sovereignty of the sea’. An influential political poem of 1437, the Libelle of Englische Polycye, anticipated some of the language of the ages of Drake and Nelson, stressing the imperatives of maritime defence for an island-kingdom. Similar language was sometimes used in the Mediterranean, such as Muntaner’s dictum, ‘It is important that he who would conquer Sardinia rule the sea.’

Late medieval warfare in the Mediterranean was therefore increasingly influenced by strictly maritime considerations: instead of being used as an adjunct to land wars, mainly to transport armies and assist in seiges, ships were deployed to control commercial access to ports and sea lanes. The ideal of naval strategy was represented by the claim of the chronicler, Bernat Desclot, that in the early fourteenth century ‘no fish could go swimming without the King of Aragon’s leave.’ In practice, no such monopoly was ever established anywhere but major powers, such as England, Venice, Genoa, the Hanseatic League, and the House of Barcelona, achieved preponderance, at various times, on particular routes and coasts. This way of conceiving grand strategy was carried by early modern invaders from Western Europe across the oceans of the world, to the consternation and, perhaps, the confusion of indigenous powers.

The Siren of Piracy

Even at its most commonplace, the grand strategy of maritime ‘lordship’ never displaced the small wars of mutually predatory shipping. Pirate operations could be extensive—more so than official campaigns, especially in the piracy ‘black spots’ found in narrows and channels, such as the Strait of Otranto, the Skaggerak, or the Straits of Dover, where for centuries the men of the Cinque Ports terrorized other people’s shipping, and the Sicilian Channel, which ships are obliged to use if they want to avoid the whirlpool of the Strait of Messina ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’.

At certain levels, piracy is hard to distinguish from other kinds of warfare. Savari de Mauléon fought on crusade against Albigensians and Saracens before setting up as a sea-predator: Philip Augustus offered him great lordships for his services. Eustace the Monk, a nobleman from Artois and escapee from the monastic life of St Wulmer, was invaluable in support of Prince Louis’s invasion of England in 1216 while terrorizing the Channel from his base on Sark. He grew rich enough to invest his son with jewelled armour and renowned enough to be hailed by the chronicler, William the Breton, as ‘a knight most accomplished by land and sea’. Guillaume Coulon, who wrecked a fleet off Lisbon in 1476 when Columbus was on board, was reviled as a murderer by his Venetian and other victims but in France was honoured as an admiral and knight of the Order of Saint-Michel. States routinely authorized acts of piracy against enemy shipping in wartime.

Strictly understood, however, piracy is only a limited form of war. It depends on the trades it feeds off and therefore seeks to interrupt or exploit them, not block them altogether. Control of trade was part of statecraft, for trade yielded tolls; but, as in other periods, opinion in the middle ages was divided on the question of whether war was a cost-effective way of garnering commerce. The association of trading ports known as the Hanse, which played a major role in the trade of the north from the late twelfth century, was capable of organizing war fleets when necessary: generally, however, its policy-makers, who were merchants themselves with vocations geared to peace, relied on economic warfare—embargoes, preferential tariffs, subsidies. Violence was a gambler’s option: if it worked, it could be practised at a profit.

The Courses of War

The Atlantic Side

Our period can be said to have opened in a sea-power vacuum, vacated by vanished hegemonies—those of the Norse in the Atlantic zone and of Muslim powers and the Byzantine empire in the Mediterranean. New powers emerged only slowly. In the French case, the chronicle tradition represents what must have been a gradual process as a sudden experience, analogous to a religious conversion. On a morning in 1213, King Philip Augustus woke up with a vision of the possible conquest of England. He ‘ordered the ports throughout the country to collect all their ships together, with their crews, and to build new ones in great plenty.’ Formerly, French kings’ rule had been almost restricted to a landlocked domain. Now—especially in the reign of Philip Augustus—France seemed to drive for the sea in every direction, and was transformed with relative suddenness into a Mediterranean and Atlantic power. Normandy was conquered by 1214, La Rochelle in 1224. The Albigensian Crusade provided a pretext and framework for the incorporation of the south, with its Mediterranean ports, into what we think of as France by 1229.

France’s main maritime rival for the rest of the middle ages was already a naval power: the dominions of the English crown straddled the Irish Sea and the English Channel. A permanent navy was maintained at least from early in the reign of King John—perhaps from that of his predecessor, Richard I, who had shown some flair as a naval commander in the Mediterranean on the Third Crusade and in river-war along the Seine. After the failure of the efforts of Louis of France, doomed by the defeat of Eustace the Monk off Sandwich in 1217, no French invasion of England materialized, though a threat in 1264 flung the country into something like a panic. Sea-power was used only for transporting English expeditions across the Channel or for exchanges of raids and acts of piracy, until 1337, when Edward Ill’s claim to the throne of France raised the stakes and made control of the Channel vital for both crowns in what promised to be a prolonged war on French soil.

At first it seemed unlikely that the issue at sea could be decisively resolved. French naval forces appeared strong enough, in numerical terms, to impede English cross-channel communications; indeed, the French struck the first blow of the war in the spring of 1338, when some of their ships raided Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Although Edward was able to land an army in Flanders shortly afterwards, it would evidently be hard for him to keep it supplied or reinforced without substantial help from Continental allies. Re-crossing the Channel in June 1340, after a brief return to England, he encountered a French fleet of daunting proportions at anchor off Sluys. According to one account, the outcome of the battle of Sluys was the result of the refusal of the French to escape when the tide and wind were against them. ‘Honi soit qui s’en ira d’içi,’ replied the treasurer of the fleet when discretion was proposed by one of the Genoese technicians advising him. The English adopted the usual tactics of inferior forces: using the weather gauge to stand off from the enemy within bowshot-range until his forces were depleted by slaughter. Like so many famous English victories on land in the Hundred Years War, Sluys was a triumph of long-range archery. The English gained command of the Channel—the freedom to transport armies unopposed. Edward Ill’s new coinage showed him enthroned on board ship. The victories of Crécy and Poitiers were, in a strict sense, part of the consequences. The English advantage was confirmed in 1347, when the capture of Calais gave English shipping a privileged position in the narrowest part of the Channel—an advantage maintained until the 1550s.

Thirsty for revenge, Edward III’s ships smashed against the formidable French fleet in the 1340 Battle of Sluys.

The most promising French response was the intrusion of Castilian ships into the Channel from 1350: they were expert in the guerrilla warfare of the sea, but their attempts to wrest control of the straits were never fully successful. Thanks to the permanent advantage which possession of the English shore conferred by virtue of wind and weather in the Channel and the North Sea, the French never succeeded in reversing English naval dominance for long. The most they could achieve were successful raids, effected by their own ships or those of their Castilian allies, at, for example, Winchelsea (1360), Portsmouth (1369), Gravesend (1380), and a string of ports from Rye to Portsmouth (1377). By taking a wide berth out into the North Sea, the French could send fleets to Scotland in support of Scots military actions, but the prevailing winds made direct attacks on the east coast of England highly unlikely to succeed. If any doubt lingered over the balance of advantage in the northern seas, it was dispelled by events of 1416, when the English were able to relieve the blockade of Harfleur and ensure control of access to the Seine by defeating a Genoese galley fleet. The French shipyard at Rouen was dismantled. England’s military power waned in the fifteenth century and her vulnerability to invasion was demonstrated by the landing of the future Henry VII in 1485; but her naval supremacy in home waters would not again be challenged by a foreign state until the cruise of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The Mediterranean

The trajectory of naval warfare in the Mediterranean had some similarities with that in the north: a power vacuum at the start of our period, in which new contenders arose and disputed mastery of the sea. By c.1100 the naval war against Islam had already been won by Christians. Westerners were masters of Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, southern Italy, and the coasts of Palestine and Syria. The difficulty of dominating the Mediterranean from its eastern end had also affected Byzantine sea power. Byzantium was already in the process of being reduced to minor importance as a naval power by comparison with some rivals further west.

The Egyptian Fatimid fleet, which had once been a formidable force is almost unmentioned in the records after the first decade of the 1100s: it continued to exist, and could put up to seventy galleys at sea in the mid-twelfth century, but it became confined to a largely defensive role. By 1110, the crusaders held almost all the Levantine ports; thereafter, the operation of Egyptian galleys against Christian shipping was practically limited to home coasts: they had virtually no friendly ports to the north in which to water. Turkish naval power, which would be invincible by the end of our period, had hardly been foreshadowed. In the 1090s Syrian collaborators provided free-lance Seljuk war-chiefs with ships that briefly seized Lesbos and Chios and even threatened Constantinople; but the crusades forced the Seljuks back; the coasts were not recovered for Islam for another hundred years or so. The crusader states depended on long and apparently vulnerable communications by sea along lanes that led back to the central and western Mediterranean. Yet they were hardly jeopardized by seaborne counter-attack. Saladin created a navy of sixty galleys almost from nothing in the 1170s, but he used it conservatively and with patchy success until it was captured almost in its entirety by the fleet of the Third Crusade at Acre in 1191.

The Christian reconquest of the Mediterranean had been effected, in part, by collaboration among Christian powers. Venetian, Pisan, Genoese, and Byzantine ships acted together to establish and supply the crusader states of the Levant in their early years. Successful allies, however, usually fall out. Relative security from credal enemies left the victors free to fight among themselves. The twelfth century was an era of open competition in the Mediterranean for the control of trade, by means which included violence, between powers in uneasy equipoise. In the twelfth century, Sicily was perhaps the strongest of them. It maintained the only permanent navy west of the twenty-second meridian, but the extinction of its Norman dynasty in 1194 marked the end of its potential for maritime empire. Pisa was a major naval power of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: its war against Amalfi in 1135–7 effectively dashed all prospect of that port emerging as an imperial metropolis; and the contribution of its ships, with those of Genoa, was decisive in the destruction of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily; but Pisa made a poor choice of allies in thirteenth-century wars and, after a series of setbacks which left it isolated, at the battle of Meloria in 1284 it suffered a blow at Genoese hands from which its navy never recovered. So many prisoners were taken that ‘to see Pisans’, it was said, ‘you must go to Genoa.’

Three rivals stood the course of these wars: the Genoese and Venetian republics and the House of Barcelona. At different times and in overlapping areas of the Mediterranean, all three established seaborne ‘empires’—zones of preponderance or control over favoured routes and coasts. The possibilities were demonstrated in 1204, when Constantinople fell to a mixed host of Westerners and Venice carved a maritime empire out of the spoils. The Republic became mistress of ‘one quarter and one half of a quarter’ of Byzantine territory. At first, Genoa responded with energetic corsair warfare, which had effectively failed when the peace settlement of 1218 nominally restored to Genoese merchants the right to live and trade in Constantinople. In practice, however, they remained victims of the Venetian hegemony until 1261, when Byzantine irredentists recaptured Constantinople and the uneasy parity of the Genoese and Venetian traders was restored.

Genoa acquired an empire of its own—albeit one much less tightly centralized than that of Venice: it comprised, at first, an autonomous merchant-quarter in Constantinople and scattered settlements along the northern shore of the Black Sea, ruled by a representative of the Genoese government. By Byzantine grants of 1267 and 1304, the alum-producing island of Chios became the fief of a Genoese family. Around the middle of the fourteenth century its status was transformed by the intrusion of direct rule from Genoa. The Aegean was effectively divided between Genoese and Venetian spheres. Venice dominated the route to Constantinople via the Dalmatian coast and the Ionian islands, whereas Genoa controlled an alternative route by way of Chios and the eastern shore.

Eastern Mediterranean rivalry between Genoa and Venice was paralleled in some ways in the western rivalry between Genoa and the dominions of the House of Barcelona. Catalans were relative latecomers to the arena. They enjoyed privileged natural access to the entire strategic springboard of the western Mediterranean—the island bases, the Maghribi ports; but while the islands were in the unfriendly hands of Muslim emirs, they were trapped by the anti-clockwise flow of the coastal currents. But by 1229 the power of the count-kings of Barcelona and Aragon and the wealth of their merchant-subjects had developed to the point where they could raise enough ships and a large enough host to attempt conquest. By representing the venture as a holy war, Jaume I was able to induce the landlubber aristocracy of Aragon to take part in the campaign. Once Majorca was in his hands, Ibiza and Formentera fell with relative ease. The island-empire was extended in the 1280s and 1290s, when Minorca and Sicily were conquered. In the 1320s an aggressive imperial policy reduced parts of Sardinia to precarious obedience.

Meanwhile, vassals of members of the House of Barcelona made conquests even further east, in Jarbah, Qarqanah, and parts of mainland Greece. The impression of a growing maritime empire, reaching out towards the east—perhaps to the Holy Land, perhaps to the spice trade, perhaps both—was re-inforced by the propaganda of count-kings who represented themselves as crusaders. The easterly vassal-states were, however, only nominally Catalan in character and, for most of the time, tenuously linked by juridical ties with the other dominions of the House of Barcelona. Catalan naval operations in the eastern Mediterranean were made in alliance with Venice or Genoa and were generally determined by western Mediterranean strategic considerations. If the island-conquests of the House of Barcelona stretched eastward, towards the lands of saints and spices, they also strewed the way south, towards the Maghrib, the land of gold. They were strategic points d’ap-pui of economic warfare across the African trade routes of other trading states. From 1271 onwards, at intervals over a period of about a century, the naval strength of the count-kings was used in part to exact a series of favourable commercial treaties governing access to the major ports from Ceuta to Tunis.

Of the well integrated Catalan world, the easternmost part, from the 1280s, was Sicily. For the count-king Pere II its conquest was a chivalresque adventure in dynastic self-aggrandisement; for his merchant-subjects, it was the key to a well-stocked granary, a way-station to the eastern Mediterranean and, above all, a screen for the lucrative Barbary trade, which terminated in Maghribi ports. Normally ruled by a cadet-line of the House of Barcelona, the island was vaunted as ‘the head and protectress of all the Catalans’, a vital part of the outworks of Catalonia’s medieval trade. Had Sardinia become fully part of the Catalan system the western Mediterranean would have been a ‘Catalan lake’. But indigenous resistance, prolonged for over a century, forced repeated concessions to Genoa and Pisa. The Catalans paid heavily for what was, in effect, a political and commercial condominium. By a cheaper policy—without acquiring sovereign conquests further afield than Corsica—Genoa ended with a greater share of western Mediterranean trade than her Catalan rivals.

Thus, between them, Venice, Genoa, and a Spanish state established a sort of armed equilibrium—a surface tension which covered the Mediterranean. It was broken at the end of our period by the irruption of a new maritime power. The Turkish vocation for the sea did not spring suddenly and fully armed into existence. From the early fourteenth century, pirate-nests on the Levantine shores of the Mediterranean were run by Turkish chieftains, some of whom allegedly had fleets of hundreds of vessels at their command. The greater the extent of coastline conquered by their land forces, as Ottoman imperialism stole west, the greater the opportunities for Turkish-operated corsairs to stay at sea, with access to watering-stations and supplies from on shore. Throughout the fourteenth century, however, these were unambitious enterprises, limited to small ships and hit-and-run tactics.

From the 1390s, the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I began to build up a permanent fleet of his own, but without embracing a radically different strategy from the independent operators who preceded him. Set-piece battles usually occurred in spite of Turkish intentions and resulted in Turkish defeats. As late as 1466, a Venetian merchant in Constantinople claimed that for a successful engagement Turkish ships needed to outnumber Venetians by four or five to one. By that date, however, Ottoman investment in naval strength was probably higher than that of any Christian state. The far-seeing sultans, Mehmed I and Bayezid II, realized that the momentum of their conquests by land had to be supported—if it were to continue—by power at sea. After the long generations of experiment without success in set-piece battles, Bayezid’s navy humiliated that of Venice in the war of 1499–1503. Never, since Romans reluctantly took to the sea against Carthage, had a naval vocation been so successfully embraced by so unlikely a power. The balance of naval strength between Christendom and Islam, as it had lasted for four hundred years, was reversed, at least in the eastern Mediterranean, and a new era can properly be said to have begun.

Retrospect and Prospect

In the long run, sea power in the European middle ages was more influenced by the outcome of conflicts on land than the other way round. Coastal strongholds could be established by naval forces but control of hostile hinterlands could not be permanently sustained by the same means. The Third Crusade recaptured the Levantine coast but could not re-take Jerusalem or restore the crusader states. Venetian sea-power delivered Constantinople into Latin hands in 1204; but the Latin Empire lasted only until 1261 and Byzantium’s permanent losses were all in or beyond the Aegean. St Louis captured Damietta by sea in 1249 but had to relinquish it after a defeat on land the following year.

To some extent, the fate of the English ‘empire’ in France illustrates the same principles: only its maritime fringe was held for long; and the Channel Islands were never lost to French sovereignty; but the ultimate fate of the rest was determined by campaigns on land, where the English were at a long-term disadvantage.

Thus the great events of European history—the making and unmaking of states, the expansion and limitation of Christendom—happened, to some extent, in spite of the sea. For world history, however, Europe’s medieval naval apprenticeship had grave implications. When European warfare was exported into the world arena of the early modern period, and met aggressive and dynamic imperial states in other parts of the world, it was carried by ships onto the home grounds of distant enemies and could deploy the resources of a long, rich, and varied maritime experience. In competition for world resources, European maritime powers had the advantage of an unbeatably long reach.

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