Crusaders Embark 1450. (Photo by: Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Problem in Context

‘One of the greatest victories ever in that part of the world,’ in the estimation of a sixteenth-century chronicler, was won off the Malabar coast on 18 March 1506. A Portuguese squadron of nine ships, which triumphed over the fleet of the Zamorin of Calicut, allegedly 250-sail strong, helped to establish a pattern which was already becoming discernible in European encounters with distant enemies. European naval superiority enabled expeditions to operate successfully, far from home, against adversaries better endowed in every other kind of resource.

This was not only true at sea. The critical moment of the conquest of Mexico was the capture of a lake-bound city 7,350 feet above sea level, with the aid of brigantines built and launched on the shores of the lake. A little later, even more conspicuously, the conquest of Siberia—the largest and most enduring of the empires acquired by European arms in the sixteenth century—was of an enormous hinterland with little access to the sea; but it was very largely a conquest of rivers, which were the highways of communication in the region. Russian superiority in river warfare was as decisive in Siberia as was Portuguese naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean or that of the Spanish in lake-borne warfare in Mexico.

We know little of the medieval background from which these world-beating traditions of naval warfare emerged or of the maritime culture in Europe which bred them. Medieval chroniclers were almost always landlubbers, whose descriptions of sea fights were conventional and ill informed. Artists who depicted battle scenes were rarely interested in realism. Official records give little more than clues about the structure and equipment of ships. Treatises of tactics, which are in good supply to historians of land warfare, are virtually non-existent for the seas. Marine archaeology has only recently begun to yield additional information. In recent years, moreover, naval history has been out of fashion, except as a small department of maritime history—partly as a reaction against the obsession of earlier generations, who took ‘the influence of sea power on history’ as an article of credal authority. The material in this chapter must therefore be more tentative than much in the rest of this book.

The Framework of Nature

During the age of sail, the outcome of fighting at sea depended on nature. Weather, currents, rocks, shoals, winds, and seasonal severities were the extra enemies with which both sides in any encounter had to contend. Europe has two sharply differentiated types of maritime environment, which bred their own technical and, to a lesser extent, strategic and tactical practices in the middle ages.

The Mediterranean, together with the Black Sea, is a tideless and, by general standards, placid body of water with broadly predictable winds and currents. Since it lies entirely within narrow latitudes, it has a fairly consistent climate, except in the northernmost bays of the Black Sea, which freeze in winter. Atlantic-side and Baltic Europe, by contrast, is lashed by a more powerful, capricious and changeable ocean which stretches over a wide climatic band. Climatic conditions had inescapable strategic implications. To some extent, these corresponded to universal rules of naval warfare under sail. In attack, the ‘weather gauge’ is usually decisive: in other words it is of critical advantage to make one’s attack with a following wind. Havens are easiest to defend if they lie to windward. Since westerlies prevail over most of the coasts of Europe, and right across the Mediterranean, these facts give some communities a natural historic advantage. Most of the great ports of Atlantic-side Europe are on lee shores but England has a uniquely long windward coast well furnished with natural harbours; only Sweden, Scotland, and Denmark share this advantage, albeit to a lesser extent. In Mediterranean conflicts, thanks to the winds, relatively westerly powers tended to have an advantage. The racing current, moreover, which powers eastward through the Strait of Gibraltar, flows anti-clockwise along the southern shore of the sea. In consequence, in the great ideological conflict of the middle ages—between Islam, which generally occupied most of the southern and eastern shores, and Christendom in the north and west—the balance of advantage lay on the Christian side. In seaborne warfare, speed of access to critical stations is vital; the return voyage is relatively unimportant for an expedition whose aim is to seize or relieve a point on land.

The Technological Process

Naval historians like to stress the cost of naval war and the magnitude of the logistical effort it demands, but in our period it was relatively economical, compared with expenditure on knights, seige works, and fortifications. For most of the period, few fighting ships were purpose-built at public expense and the opportunities of recouping costs by seizing plunder and prizes were considerable. Only very gradually did naval expenditure overtake the costs of land warfare, as warships became more specialized and land forces less so. The full effects of this change were not felt until after our period was over. Nevertheless, the cheapness of naval warfare was a function of its scale. The occasional great campaigns, in which vast quantities of shipping were taken out of the regular economy and exposed to immolation in hazardous battles, could represent a terrible, if short-lived, strain.

Weapons apart, navigation was the most important aspect of technology for battle fleets, which often took those aboard outside familiar waters. Haven-finding was essential for keeping fleets at sea; precise navigation was essential for getting them to the right place. Most of the technical aids of the period seem hopelessly inadequate to these tasks and it is not surprising that experienced navigators, in regions they knew at first-hand, kept close to the coasts and navigated between landmarks. Advice from a treatise of about 1190 represents an early stage of the reception in Europe of the navigator’s most rudimentary tool: when the moon and stars are enveloped in darkness, Guyot de Provins explained, all the sailor need do is place, inside a straw floating in a basin of water, a pin well rubbed ‘with an ugly brown stone that draws iron to itself’. The compass was made serviceable in the thirteenth century by being balanced on a point, so that it could rotate freely against a fixed scale, usually divided between thirty-two compass-points. Other tools for navigators were gradually and imperfectly absorbed in the course of the middle ages, but their reception tended to be delayed and their impact diminished by the natural conservatism of a traditional craft.

Mariners’ astrolabes, for instance, which enabled navigators to calculate their latitude from the height of the sun or the Pole Star above the horizon, were already available by the start of our period. Few ships, however, were carrying astrolabes even by the period’s end. Tables for determining latitude according to the hours of sunlight were easier to use but demanded more accurate timekeeping than most mariners could manage with the sole means at their disposal: sandclocks turned by ships’ boys. The so-called ‘sun compass’—a small gnomon for casting a shadow on a wooden board—might have been useful for determining one’s latitude relative to one’s starting-point; but we lack evidence that navigators carried it in our period.

Warfare took navigators from the Atlantic and Mediterranean into each other’s spheres, where they had to contend with the dangers of unknown coasts and narrows (and, in northern waters, tides). This created a demand for sailing directions, which survive in original form for the Mediterranean from the early thirteenth century. They soon began to be cast in the form of charts, criss-crossed with compass bearings, which were probably less useful for practical navigators than written directions in which detailed pilotage information could be included.

The oldest original cartographic artifact in the Library of Congress: a portolan nautical chart of the Mediterranean Sea. Second quarter of the 14th century.

In view of the dearth of useful technical aids it is hard to resist the impression that navigators relied on the sheer accumulation of practical craftsmanship and lore to guide them in unknown waters. From the thirteenth century onwards, compilers of navigational manuals distilled vicarious experience into sailing directions which could genuinely assist a navigator without much prior local knowledge. ‘Portolan charts’ began to present similar information in graphic form at about the same period. The earliest clear reference is to the chart which accompanied St Louis on his crusade to Tunis in 1270.

At the start of our period, there were marked technical differences between Mediterranean and Atlantic Europe in shipbuilding. In both areas, the shipwright’s was a numinous craft, sanctified by the sacred images in which ships were associated in the pictorial imaginations of the time: the ark of salvation, the storm-tossed barque, and the ship of fools. Much of our knowledge of medieval shipyards comes from pictures of Noah. Underlain by this conceptual continuity were differences in technique which arose from differences in the environment. Atlantic and northern shipwrights built for heavier seas. Durability was their main criterion. They characteristically built up their hulls plank by plank, laying planks to overlap along their entire length and fitting them together with nails. The Mediterranean tradition preferred to work frame-first: planks were nailed to the frame and laid edge-to-edge. The latter method was more economical. It demanded less wood in all and far fewer nails; once the frame was built, most of the rest of the work could be entrusted to less specialized labour. In partial consequence, frame-first construction gradually spread all over Europe until by the end of our period it was the normal method everywhere. For warships, however, Atlantic-side shipyards generally remained willing to invest in the robust effect of overlapping planks, even though, from the early fifteenth century, these were invariably attached to skeleton frames.

Warships—in the sense of ships designed for battle—were relatively rare. Warfare demanded more troop transports and supply vessels than floating battle-stations and, in any case, merchant ships could be adapted for fighting whenever the need arose. In times of conflict, therefore, shipping of every kind was impressed: availability was more important than suitability. Navies were scraped together by means of ship-levying powers on maritime communities, which compounded for taxes with ships; or they were bought or hired—crews and all—on the international market.

Until late-medieval developments in rigging improved ships’ manoeuvrability under sail, oared vessels were essential for warfare in normal weather conditions. Byzantine dromons were rowed in battle from the lower deck, as shown in this late eleventh-century illustration, with the upper deck cleared for action, apart from the tiller at the stern.

Maritime states usually had some warships permanently at their disposal, for even in time of peace coasts had to be patrolled and customs duties enforced. Purpose-built warships also existed in private hands, commissioned by individuals with piracy in mind, and could be appropriated by the state in wartime. From 1104, the Venetian state maintained the famous arsenal—over 30 hectares of shipyards by the sixteenth century. From 1284 the rulers of the Arago-Catalan state had their own yard, specializing in war galleys, at Barcelona, where the eight parallel aisles built for Pere III in 1378 can still be seen. From 1294 to 1418 the French crown had its Clos des Galées in Rouen, which employed, at its height, sixty-four carpenters and twenty-three caulkers, along with oar-makers, sawyers, sail-makers, stitchers, rope-walkers, lightermen, and warehousemen. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy from 1419 to 1467, whose wars and crusading projects created exceptional demand for shipping, founded a shipyard of his own in Bruges, staffed by Portuguese technicians. England had no royal shipyard, but Henry V maintained purpose-built ships of his own as well as borrowing them from others: an ex-pirate vessel, the Craccher, was for instance loaned by John Hawley of Dartmouth. Such loans were not acts of generosity: Henry V was one of the few monarchs of the European middle ages who were serious about curtailing their own subjects’ piracy.

At the start of our period, warships, whether on the Atlantic-side or Mediterranean-side of Europe, were almost invariably driven by oars. Rigging was light by modern standards and only oars could provide the manoeuvrability demanded in battle, or keep a vessel safe in the locations, often close to the shore, where battles commonly took place.

Gradually, however, oars were replaced by sails, especially on the Atlantic seaboard. With additional masts and more sails of differing size and shapes, ships could be controlled almost as well as by oars, while frame-first construction permitted rudders to be fitted to stern-posts rising from the keel: formerly, ships were steered by tillers dangled from the starboard towards the stern. These improvements in manoeuvrability, which were introduced gradually from the twelfth century onwards, freed ships from the economic and logistic burden of vast crews of oarsmen. Oar-power dominated Baltic warfare until 1210, when the crusading order of Sword-brothers switched to sail-driven cogs, which helped them extend their control along the whole coast of Livonia. King John of England had forty-five galleys in 1204 and built twenty more between 1209 and 1212. Edward I’s order for a battle fleet in 1294 was for twenty galleys of 120 oars each. A hundred years later, however, only small oared craft formed part of England’s navy, in which the fighting vanguard was entirely sail-driven. French shipbuilding changed faster. The French at Sluys in 1340 had 170 sailing ships as well as the royal galleys: many of them were certainly intended for the fray.

To a lesser extent, the oar-less craft played a growing role in Mediterranean warfare, too. The Florentine chronicler, Giovanni Villani, with characteristic exaggeration, dated the start of this innovation to 1304 when pirates from Gascony invaded the Mediterranean with ships so impressive that ‘henceforth Genoese, Venetians and Catalans began to use cogs. . . . This was a great change for our navy.’ In the fifteenth century, the Venetian state commissioned large sailing warships specifically for operations against corsair galleys.

Once free of oar-power, ships could be built higher, with corresponding advantages in battle for hurlers of missiles and intimidators of the foe: the tactics favoured throughout the period made height a critical source of advantage. To hoist tubs full of archers to the masthead was an old Byzantine trick, which Venetian galley-masters adopted. Rickety superstructures, which came to be known as ‘castles’, cluttered the prows of ships; shipwrights strained to add height even at the risk of making vessels top-heavy. The clearest demonstration of the advantages of height is in the record of sailing-ships in combat with galleys: countless engagements demonstrated that it was virtually impossible for oar-driven craft to capture tall vessels, even with huge advantages in numbers—like those of the reputed 150 Turkish boats that swarmed ineffectively round four Christian sailing ships in the Bosphorus during the siege of Constantinople of 1453, or the score of Genoese craft that hopelessly hounded the big Venetian merchantman, the Rocafortis, across the Aegean in 1264.

In the Mediterranean, galleys tended to get faster. The Catalan galleys of the late thirteenth century, at the time of the conquest of Sicily, had between 100 and 150 oars; by the mid-fourteenth century, complements of between 170 and 200 oars were not unusual, while the dimensions of the vessels had not grown significantly. Light galleys pursued and pinned down the foe while more heavily armed vessels followed to decide the action. The oarsmen had to be heavily armoured, with cuirasse, collar, helmet, and shield. Despite their place in the popular imagination, ‘galley slaves’ or prisoners condemned to the oar were never numerous and were rarely relied on in war. Oarsmen were professionals who doubled as fighters; once battle was joined, speed could be sacrificed in favour of battle strength and up to a third of the oarsmen could become fighters.

The Tactical Pattern

Deliberately to sink an enemy ship would have appeared shockingly wasteful. The use of divers to hole enemy ships below the waterline was known and recommended by theorists but seems to have been rarely practised. For the object of battle was to capture the enemy’s vessels. At Sluys, as many as 190 French ships were said to have been captured; none sank—though so many lives were lost that the chronicler Froissart reckoned the king saved 200,000 florins in wages. Vessels might, of course, be lost in battle through uncontrollable fire, or irremediably holed by excessive zeal in ramming, or scuttled after capture if unseaworthy or if the victors could not man them.

Ships fought at close quarters with short-range missiles, then grappled or rammed for boarding. The first objectives of an encounter were blinding with lime, battering with stones, and burning with ‘Greek fire’—a lost recipe of medieval technology, inextinguishable in water. A digest of naval tactics from ancient treatises, compiled for Philip IV of France, recommended opening the engagement by flinging pots of pitch, sulphur, resin, and oil onto the enemy’s decks to assist combustion. It was a blast of lime, borne on the wind, that overpowered the crew of the ship carrying the siege train of Prince Louis of France to England in February 1217. Protection against lime and stones was supplied chiefly by stringing nets above the defenders; flame-throwers could be resisted, it was said, by felt soaked in vinegar or urine and spread across the decks. In a defensive role, or to force ships out of harbour, fire ships might be used, as they were—to great effect—by Castilian galleys at La Rochelle in June 1372, when blazing boats were towed into the midst of the English fleet.

‘Greek fire’ was ignited by a substance, combustible in water, of which the recipe is lost. Together with short-range missiles and blasts of blinding lime and fire-bombs, it was used prior to boarding, to distract the enemy crew and cripple rather than destroy the ship. Normally, a hand-held siphon with a bronze tube at the prow was used to project it.

As the ships closed, crossbowmen were the decisive arm. According to the chauvinistic Catalan chronicler of the fourteenth century, Ramon Muntaner, ‘The Catalans learn about it with their mother’s milk and the other people in the world do not. Therefore the Catalans are the sovereign crossbowmen of the world. . . . Like the stone thrown by a war machine, nothing fails them.’ Catalan proficiency in archery was supported by special tactics. When Pere II’s fleet confronted that of Charles of Anjou off Malta in September 1283, the Catalans were ordered by message ‘passed from ship to ship’ to withstand the enemy missiles with their shields and not to respond except with archery. The outcome, according to the chronicle tradition, was that 4,500 French were taken prisoner.

At close quarters, Philip IV’s digest recommended a range of devices: ripping the enemy’s sails with arrows specially fitted with long points, spraying his decks with slippery soap, cutting his ropes with scythes, ramming with a heavy beam, fortified with iron tips and swung from the height of the mainmast, and, ‘if he is weaker than you, grappling.’ Ramming or grappling was the prelude to an even closer-fought fight with missiles followed by boarding.

As far as is known from a few surviving inventories, the weapons carried on board ships reflected more or less this range of tactics. When inventoried in 1416, Henry V’s biggest ship had seven breech-loading guns, twenty bows, over 100 spears, 60 sail-ripping darts, crane-lines for winching weaponry between fighting decks, and grapnels with chains twelve fathoms long. It must not be supposed that the inventory was complete as most equipment was surely not stowed aboard, but it is probably a representative selection. Artillery detonated by gunpowder came into use during the period, but only as a supplement to existing weaponry, within the framework of traditional tactics. Numbers of guns increased massively in the fifteenth century, though it is not clear that they grew in effectiveness or influenced tactics much. Overwhelmingly, they were short-range, small-calibre, swivel-mounted breechloaders; anti-personnel weapons, not ship-smashers.


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.

Khmer History and Armies

In 1181, King Jayavarman VII launched a military campaign against the Chams, as vengeance for the Cham raids of Angkor in 1177, and to finally defeat one of their traditional enemies. Leading a powerful army, Jayavarman VII repelled the Chams from Angkor, and attacked Champa, further east, to finally defeat them. The conquest of Champa gave Jayavarman VII the highest position of God-King, and sparked his rule as one of the greatest achieving Khmer kings.

The Khmer Army It is based on Khmer reliefs from Angkor, Bayon and Banteay Chmar, dated 1113 – 1218 AD, and on foreign emissaries’ reports. Khmer elephants are depicted with a driver, armed with spear and shield, and a single archer or sometimes spearman. Those ridden by generals (identified by being shown enlarged) are accompanied by one or more parasol carriers on foot. Chariots, with only one fighting crewman, are shown only in scenes believed to depict Indian mythology, although of a distinctively Khmer type. A Chinese ambassador notes guards on horseback and in chariots in 1295. The ph’kak is an axe-like weapon resembling a hockey stick with an axe blade at right angles to its end. Maiden guard are depicted in one relief armed with ph’kak and mounted on horses apparently disguised as dragons. Doubt has been expressed whether these are over-interpretations of a damaged relief, but such equipment is only an exaggeration of the normal cavalry tack, which includes a possibly leather rump guard over a tail plaited to a point, a “dragon horn” (of stiffened horse hair?) on the forehead and sometimes face and chest protection. Spearmen carry either a long or small round shield. Khmer in (possibly armoured) jackets and with long shields or with round shields. The archers shown behind a wall of pavises, but most appear to be skirmishers. The artillery. was Chinese-type “double crossbows” man-handled on wheels or mounted (or possibly only transported) on elephants. It was probably acquired from the Cham, who learned its use with that of crossbow cavalry from the Sung Chinese.

Khmer, which was also called the Kambuja Kingdom, was centred in Cambodia with its capital being Angkor from 802-1432. The Khmer expanded their power by establishing a number of vassal states. The peak of Khmer power is regarded by many as being in the 1100s, when it extended from northern Thailand in the west to the northern Tokin area of Vietnam in the east.

Civil wars dominated the 1200s and 1300s which weakened the Khmer state. In 1373 a long war with the Thais began which lasted until 1473 when the new capital at Phnom Penh was sacked by the Thais.

Until 802 the Khmers were organized into a number of warring independent kingdoms. They often fought among themselves and against foreign enemies such as the Chams located in present-day central Vietnam. King Jayavarman I, also named Parameshvara posthumously, united these disparate kingdoms. He first appeared in historical sources in 709. The Khmer empire was to span most of present-day Cambodia and had vassal states in parts of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.


According to text inscribed on a stela (stone or wooden slab) King Jayavarman I originated from Java, though the Malay Peninsula has also been suggested by scholars as a possible place of origin. From his initial base in Indrapura, most likely situated northeast of Phnom Penh, he launched attacks across the Mekong and on Sambhrapura, Wat Phu, and onward to Phnom Kulen, a sacred place for the Khmers, where he settled in 802. At the time it was known as Mahendravaparta. It was here that the sacred rites were performed on Jayavarman by Brahmin priests of the Shivaite sect proclaiming him the universal monarch of the world, or chakaravartin, a rite based on Hindu tradition from India.

The system of dynastic succession within the Khmer kingdom was highly complex. Both men and women could become rulers. More importantly, kingship was passed through other family members of the same generation rather than to sons upon the death of a ruler, although there was often strong opposition to this. The next king, Jayavarman II, was responsible for laying the spiritual foundations within the Khmer Empire. After the death of Jayavarman II in 834, Jayavarman III succeeded him. Harihalaya became his capital, southeast of Angkor. The civilization of Angkor was unique as it was a mixture of two influences-Indian and Javanese.


The second king built many shrines, but the next ruler, Indravarman I, also called Isvaraloka, was credited for contributing the most to the religious environment within the Khmer empire. Indravarman laid the foundations for the now centralized Angkor state. Indravarman II ascended to the throne in 877 and ruled until 889. His period of rule was relatively peaceful, even though he succeeded in extending the borders of the Khmer Empire. An ancestral temple, Preah Ko, was built in the imperial capital of Hariharalaya and was consecrated in 880. It was a shrine consisting of a set of six brick temples dedicated to his ancestors and past kings. The temple is considered a piece of art with beautiful male and female divine fi gures, structural elements such as colonnades, and other embellishments.

Another major building project was the state temple, south of the ancestral temple. This temple, known as Bakong, resembled a stepped pyramid and symbolically was regarded as a mountain. Hindu temples in the Khmer kingdom were often built as mountains as they were seen as earthly representations of the divine mountain, Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology. A precursor to the spectacular Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the temple had a complex structure and was surrounded by a huge double moat, a feature of Angkor Wat as well. At the same time Indravarman set into place a system of irrigation for cultivated rice fields. Large agricultural projects were undertaken, such as building a huge reservoir.


King Yashovarman, who ruled from 889 to 900, established the city of Yasodharapura (also known as Angkor) as the new capital. Between 900 and 1200 Angkor achieved great prominence because of the rise of impressive temples in Angkor, including the famous temple that became known as Angkor Wat. It was built in the 12th century during the reign of Suryavarman II. who ordered it to be built. Suryavarman II, dubbed one of the greatest Khmer kings, was a warrior-king and launched many attacks on the Dai Viet, which was highly resilient and resisted subjugation. Suryavarman had gained the throne through the violent means of killing his great uncle, King Dharanindravarman.

The architecture of Angkor Wat is in classical Khmer style. It was also a temple-mountain surrounded by a wide moat, crossed by a causeway on the east side. The state temple was dedicated to Vishnu, whom Suryavarman II considered the Protector of the Khmer empire, a departure from earlier rulers, who regarded Shiva as the protector of their kingdom. The 11th century witnessed a general rise in Vaisnavite thought in religious and philosophical life in India, and since travel between India and Southeast Asia was frequent, Angkor Wat could have been a refl ection of the contemporary trends in Hindu philosophy. The external appearance resembles descriptions of Mount Vaikuntha, home of Vishnu.


The city of Angkor Thom was built by another great king, Jayavarman VII, in 1181, after he defeated the Chams who had captured Angkor in 1177. Instead of reclaiming the old Khmer spirituality before the Cham defeat, Jayavarman pursued a course of reinvention. He enacted a major change in the Khmer Empire by replacing Hindu religion with Mahayana Buddhism as the official state religion. The power of the Hindu aristocracy within the empire was seriously undermined. It is said that Jayavarman VII was following the example of Ashoka, the model for all Buddhist rulers. The imposition of Buddhist cosmology led to an extensive reworking of religious, political, and military organization within the Khmer kingdom. Jayavarman VII was responsible for organizing the capital, Angkor Thom, into a mandala, which is a symbol of the universe and its energy. The construction of Angkor Thom, based on this highly regulated pattern, took about a decade. It was an awesome feat as the mandala was extremely diffi cult to replicate in the form of a city.

The new capital city was known as Angkor Thom Mahanagara, or simply Angkor Thom. The site of the city coincided with that of an earlier city, Yasodharapura, built more than two centuries before. Right in the middle of the city is the Bayon, the state temple built by King Jayavarman VII, in the exact center of his capital of Angkor Thom. Every road from the city gates leads directly to the Bayon. The Bayon, which was covered in gold and orientated toward the east, according to a Chinese account, was also known as the Assembly Hall of Gods. According to the concept of the mandala, the gods would gather there on certain days. Jayavarman VII was at the peak of his reign, and he assumed supreme rule.


The decline of Angkor began soon after Jayavarman’s death. His son, Indravarman II, who ruled from 1219 to 1243, withdrew from many provinces previously conquered from the Champa kingdom. Their neighbouring rivals, the Thais, were also gaining more power, strengthened by the establishment of the kingdom of Sukhothai. The Khmer once again lost their hold on Thai provinces. Soon, the Thais emerged as the chief rivals of the Khmers, replacing their former enemies, the Chams. The Mongols under the leadership of General Sagatu also presented a threat to the Khmers, but the Khmer rulers were careful not to go to war against such a powerful force.

Jayavarman VIII ascended to the Khmer throne in 1243. He was a Hindu rather than a Buddhist like his immediate predecessors. He was a violent anti-Buddhist and went on to destroy many Buddhist sculptures and converted the Bayon temple into a Hindu temple. His son-in-law, Srindravarman, who usurped his throne in 1295, was a Buddhist, though he was a follower of Theravada Buddhism. Later Khmer kings were adherents of this faith.

The Thai Ayuttaya kingdom replaced the Sukothai kingdom in 1350 and succeeded in diminishing Khmer power through several attacks. By 1431 the Thais had conquered Angkor. Despite being weakened, a line of kings managed to rule from Angkor and a separate line of Khmer kings continued to rule in Phnom Penh. The latter line achieved more prominence because of the rise of Mekong as an important trade center, leading to the fall of Angkor.

Further reading: Coe, Michael D, Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003; Dumarcay, Jacques. The Site of Angkor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998; Legendre-DeKoninck, Helene. Angkor Wat: A Royal Temple. Weimar: Verlag und Datenbank fur Geisteswissenschaften, 2001; Raveda, Vittorio. Sacred Angkor: The Carved Reliefs of Angkor Wat. London: River Books, 2002.

The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part I

Piracy had been endemic in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay for centuries, but the Earl of Crawford’s destructive cruise of 1402 was different. It was more organised, larger in scale and plainly enjoyed the support of influential men in the French government if not of the King’s council itself. The raids left a trail of unsatisfied claims by merchants and shipowners who had lost their property and a legacy of ill-feeling between the two governments. Each responded in the time-honoured fashion by authorising reprisals against the property of the other in an escalating cycle of violence. These operations were mainly the work of English, French and Flemish privateers. They inaugurated the first great age of Atlantic privateering, and the birth of a tradition that would continue until the eighteenth century. In a later age the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius would classify such operations as legitimate private war, but some of those involved could fairly be called pirates. The boundary between war and crime, between public and private violence, was as uncertain and permeable at sea as it was on land.

Privateering, a practice which was sanctioned by international law until the middle of the nineteenth century, was a method of making war which had been developed largely by the English since the thirteenth century and had already achieved a high degree of organisation. Governments issued letters of marque to merchants claiming to have suffered losses at the hands of nationals of a foreign prince, which authorised them to recoup their losses by ‘reprisal’, in other words by seizing ships and cargoes of the foreign prince’s subjects at sea. In time of war, letters of marque were commonly issued in more general terms, which were not limited to seizures by way of reprisal. They authorised the persons named to capture the merchant ships and cargoes of declared enemies for their own profit provided that they left neutral property alone. The Anglo-French treaty of 1396 had banned the issue of letters of marque and with a few exceptions the ban had been observed. But from 1402 onward they began to be issued again, and most privateers had at least the tacit authority of their sovereigns even if they did not have formal commissions. ‘Know ye,’ declared a typical English document,

that we have given leave to our well-beloved Henry Pay to sail and pass across the seas with as many ships, barges and balingers of war, men-at-arms and bowmen, all fully equipped, as he may be able to recruit in order to do all the damage he can to our declared enemies as well as for their destruction and for the safeguarding and defence of our faithful lieges.

The King directed his admirals and all his officers in coastal areas to give whatever advice or assistance Pay might require. This was manifestly an officially sanctioned venture.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century the English had begun to enlarge the scope of their privateering operations by targeting not just enemy ships but neutral ships carrying enemy cargoes. The rewards were high and the privateers no doubt needed little encouragement. But it seems clear that the initiative came from the government. Blockading an enemy’s seaborne trade was a highly effective weapon of war. But it was also extremely abrasive and provoked bitter complaints in the fifteenth century, just as it would in the time of Blake or Nelson, for it required neutral ships to submit to being stopped and searched at sea and taken into English ports if they were found to be carrying suspicious goods. This could be a terrifying experience. Early in 1403 the Christopher from the Hanse port of Danzig was captured in the Channel by four ships of London and Dartmouth operating from Calais. Henry IV personally interviewed their masters to discover the facts before defending his subjects in a letter to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. This reveals very clearly what the King expected of privateers holding his commission. The German ship, he said, had been sailing without national markings. When the English challenged the crew to state their nationality they gave no answer, filled the top-castles with armed men, let out all their sail and tried to make off. The English opened fire with bombards mounted on their forecastles. They caught up with the fleeing ship and boarded her, overcoming and capturing the crew after a long and bloody hand-to-hand fight. She was found to be carrying wine from La Rochelle and was taken into Southampton where she was eventually forfeited to her captors. The Hanseatic towns had lost eight ships in this way during 1402 in addition to another four which were plundered and then allowed to go. Castile, another important neutral, lost seventeen.

The distinction between enemy and neutral property was not always easy to apply. Ownership was often uncertain. Enemy ships could sail under neutral colours. Enemy cargoes could be carried in neutral hulls and vice versa. Ships’ manifests were not always honest. It was not always clear whether a truce was in force at the time of the capture. Of course privateers were not particularly fastidious about the limits of their authority. But their trade was not the free-for-all that it is sometimes assumed to have been. An elaborate body of practice and law had grown up for adjudicating on the right to prize, which was administered partly by the chancellor and the king’s council, partly by the admirals and their local deputies, marshals, sergeants and clerks. Their work has generated a mass of documents in the remarkably full surviving records of the English government. They show that complaints of breaches of the truce, unauthorised acts of war or attacks on neutral property were taken seriously and routinely investigated. Privateers, however favoured, were liable to be summoned before the council or the admirals’ officers to prove their right to prize ‘as the law of the sea requires’. There was a regular flow of orders to restore neutral goods or hulls or to pay compensation to ruined German or Castilian shipowners and merchants. In one notable case a squadron of ships was specially fitted out by the Admiral of England to capture the notorious Rye pirate William Long, who was taken off his ship at sea and consigned to the Tower of London. If some men disobeyed the king and got away with it, that was to be expected of the uncertain processes and limited police powers of the medieval state. But there were others who paid for their transgressions with their property and a few with their liberty or their necks.

The growth of officially sponsored privateering at the beginning of the fifteenth century reflected the progressive withdrawal of governments from the costly business of building and operating warships themselves. In France the great state arsenal at Rouen, which had turned out oared warships since the thirteenth century, had stopped building and refitting ships by the end of the 1380s and, apart from brief spurts of activity in 1405 and 1416, never restarted. In England the last of Edward III’s great ships, the 300-ton carrack Dieulagarde, had been given away to a courtier in 1380. In the early years of his reign Henry IV owned just one sailing ship in addition to four barges which appear to have been used mainly to move the baggage of the royal household along the Thames. Requisitioning ships was not much less expensive than owning them, for hire had to be paid by the ton and crew’s wages by the day. Chiefly for reasons of cost, the English government had since 1379 entrusted much of the routine work of keeping the sea to contract fleets raised by commercial syndicates in London and the West Country. Privateers and contract fleets had their limitations. They were undisciplined. They brought the King into collision with neutral countries. They had little interest in his larger strategic objectives. They were particularly bad at defensive work, such as convoy duty and patrolling the Channel against coastal raiders, which offered limited prospects of spoil. An ambitious attempt to hand over the whole work of ‘keeping the seas’ to commercial operators in 1406 in return for the proceeds of the tunnage and poundage dues proved to be disastrous for all of these reasons, and the arrangements had to be terminated early. But for offensive operations against enemy commerce and coastal settlements, privateers largely displaced royal fleets throughout the reign of Henry IV. They operated at their own risk and expense and cost nothing in wages, hire or maintenance. They were therefore the natural resort of penurious governments.

In the early fifteenth century there were active privateering syndicates in London, Hull, the Cinque Ports and Guernsey. But the West Country was already the major centre for this kind of buccaneering, as it would remain for centuries. Dartmouth, Plymouth and Fowey were important privateering bases. According to a charter of Richard II Dartmouth had ‘above all places in the realm long been and still is strong in shipping and therewith has wrought great havoc on the King’s enemies in time of war’. The most celebrated English privateers, the Hawley family of Dartmouth, father and son, were living testimony to the wealth that could be made from prizes. Hawley the elder may have been a pirate in French eyes and occasionally in English ones, but he was a man of some social standing at home, the owner of Hawley’s Hall, the grandest house in Dartmouth, fourteen times mayor of the town and twice returned to Parliament. He founded St Saviour’s Church in Dartmouth, where his grand memorial brass, showing an idealised knight in full armour, can still be seen. His son, who carried on the family business, acquired extensive estates in the West Country, married the daughter of a chief justice of King’s Bench and sat twelve times in Parliament for Dartmouth. The Hawleys were close to the governments of Richard II and Henry IV and commonly acted under royal commissions.

More typical perhaps was the much rougher Harry Pay, the recipient of the commission quoted above. He was a professional pirate based at Poole in Dorset who had been attacking the ships and harbours of neutral Castile for years before he received a commission. His operations in the Channel against the French were to make him a popular hero in the first decade of the fifteenth century. Mark Mixtow of Fowey and the Spicer brothers of Plymouth and Portsmouth were men of the same stamp although on a lesser scale and for shorter periods. The Spicers had been actively engaged in piracy in the Atlantic for at least two years before the breach with France brought legitimacy to their operations and respectability to their lives. Richard Spicer represented Portsmouth in Parliament, served on commissions of array and ended up as a Hampshire gentleman. The Channel pirates contributed a good deal to the economy of the depressed coastal towns of southern England and, as the careers of men like Hawley and Spicer show, they enjoyed strong popular support. When William Long was eventually released from the Tower the town of Hythe held a banquet in his honour and Rye elected him to Parliament.

The French made use of very similar adventurers. The Bretons were regarded in England as ‘the greatest rovers and the greatest thieves that have been in the sea many a year’. Saint-Malo, an enclave of French royal territory within the duchy of Brittany, was the major centre of piracy and privateering on the French Atlantic coast. Its seamen were responsible for a large number of the captures of 1402. Privateers operating from Harfleur, another important base, were said in March 1404 to have taken £100,000 worth of cargoes in addition to exacting exorbitant ransoms from their prisoners. A contemporary described the port as the capital of Atlantic piracy, rich in the spoil of English shipping. Gravelines, although technically part of Flanders, was in fact under the control of the French captains-general commanding on the march of Calais, who built it up as another major privateering centre.

In France as in England most privateering ventures were commercial enterprises, financed by shrewd businessmen for profit. Guillebert de Fretin, a native of the Calais pale who had fled after refusing to swear allegiance to the English King, made his base at Le Crotoy in Ponthieu and achieved a short-lived fame as the leading French corsair of his time. His career of destruction would culminate in the sack of Alderney in June 1403 in which a large number of the inhabitants lost their lives. Guillebert’s cruises were funded by a syndicate of merchants of Abbeville and almost certainly authorised by French officials. When the French temporarily withdrew their support from French privateers and banished him, he and one of his lieutenants continued their depredations under the flag of Scotland. Equally commercial in their inspiration were the campaigns of Wouter Jansz, probably the most successful Flemish privateer of the time, who operated several ships out of Bervliet and Sluys in north-west Flanders. His most famous exploit was to sail up the Thames and capture an English freighter filled with the booty of a recent raid on the coast of Flanders, including the painted altar-piece of Sint Anna ter Muiden. Jansz appears to have been financed at least in part by an Italian corsair called Giovanni Portofino who had terrorised the western Mediterranean during the 1390s before moving his operations to northern Europe. The English regarded Jansz as a ‘notorious pirate’ and he is unlikely to have held any formal commission. But he made himself useful to the towns of the Zwin estuary by guarding the entrances against enemy incursions and he certainly had well-placed protectors.

In July and August 1402 the English and French ambassadors met at Leulinghem to deal with the escalating violence at sea. Faithful to the increasingly hollow pretence that the truce of 1396 remained in force, they reached agreement on 14 August on a procedure for verifying and meeting claims and on measures to prevent a recurrence. The seamen involved on both sides were formally disowned and declared to be criminals actuated entirely by malice and greed. All prisoners and cargoes in their hands were ordered to be released without payment and outstanding letters of marque and reprisal were cancelled. Pirates who persisted in attacking merchant ships were not to be received in either country.

These arrangements were a dead letter from the start. In the last quarter of 1402 another twenty English merchantmen were captured. Crawford had by now returned to Scotland with the rump of the French expeditionary force. But many of the ships and crews responsible for the new seizures had previously served under him. In the following January twelve English vessels were captured in a single incident and taken into Harfleur where their cargoes and crews were taken off under the noses of royal officials and their hulls set on fire. Another twenty or thirty English merchantmen were reported to be held in Norman ports. The English retaliated with vigour. They seized French and Flemish property in English ports. They commissioned new privateering fleets of their own. Over the winter of 1402–3 most of the more notorious English privateers were once more at sea with the King’s commissions. There are no reliable figures for French losses in these months, but they were almost certainly higher than English ones. With a much larger seafaring community and many more ships, the English were always likely to have the better of these exchanges. During the following months English privateers sacked the Île de Ré off the coast of Poitou, burning down its famous abbey. They seized French fishing boats in the Channel, carrying off large numbers of fishermen for ransom. They landed at several points along the French coast to seize booty and prisoners. According to French estimates some 3,000 English and Gascon seamen were engaged in these operations, which continued until the following summer.


The sudden upsurge of fighting at sea awakened ancient ghosts in Flanders. Flanders was a province of France, but as one of the principal trading and shipowning regions of Europe it had enjoyed close commercial and political relations with England for centuries. Flanders needed English wool, the indispensable raw material for the great cloth industries on which much of its population depended. England was also a significant market for the finished product. There was a large Flemish community in England, based mainly in London, and an even larger English mercantile community in Bruges and in the Dutch port of Middelburg on the other side of the estuary of the Scheldt. England and Flanders had a common interest in the security of the trade routes of the North Sea. It was not simply a question of preserving trade between them. As the Flemings had learned to their cost in the 1380s, the maintenance of peace across the North Sea was the key to the international banking and entrepôt business of Bruges and the county’s trade with the Italian maritime cities of Venice and Genoa and the Baltic towns of the Hanseatic League.7 There was an important political dimension to Flanders’s links with England. The English kings had always had allies in the towns of Flanders and unparalleled opportunities to make trouble there. They had been the patrons of all the great urban revolutions which had divided the Flemings and undermined the power of their counts since the end of the thirteenth century. Jacob van Artevelde, the leader of the Flemish revolution of 1339, had been a client of England and his son Philip, who had led the revolution of Ghent during the civil wars of the 1380s, was a pensioner of Richard II. English fleets and armies fought in Flanders in support of their cause. An English garrison had been stationed in Ghent as recently as 1385.

The informal alliance between England and Flanders was a perennial problem for the counts. They were under constant pressure from their subjects to avoid war with England or, if it could not be avoided, then at least to remove Flanders from the front line. Philip of Burgundy had inherited these problems with the territory. The Four Members of Flanders, a sort of grand committee representing the interests of Bruges and its district and the industrial towns of Ghent and Ypres, wielded considerable political influence. They openly pressed for a commercial treaty which would allow Flanders to remain neutral even at times when England and France were at war. Their demands posed an awkward dilemma for the Duke of Burgundy. As the King’s uncle and a considerable figure on his council, Philip could not easily remove a French principality from the international orbit of France. But neither could he ignore the interest of the powerful commercial and industrial oligarchies of Flanders on whom he depended for his political authority and a growing proportion of his revenues.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, as France moved closer to war with England and the war at sea acquired a momentum of its own, these ancient dilemmas re-emerged. The English government had generally treated Flanders as an autonomous state and a neutral, in spite of its legal status as part of the French kingdom. But the expansion of English privateering to target French cargoes carried in neutral bottoms spelled disaster for the important Flemish carrying trade. In the course of 1402 no fewer than twenty-seven Flemish ships had been captured at sea on account of England’s quarrel with France. When the winter gales subsided in March 1403 and the English privateers resumed their cruises they took another twenty-six Flemish ships in the space of two months. The Duke of Burgundy’s first instinct had been to take reprisals against English merchants and goods in Flanders. But his subjects, terrified of falling out with their main trading partner, refused to cooperate. Meeting at Ypres in July 1402 the Four Members resolved to look for an accommodation with England instead. As one of its representatives told the English agents in Calais, whatever the Duke might say ‘the land of Flanders is no enemy of the King of England’.

That autumn they sent ambassadors to England and Scotland to open negotiations for what amounted to a treaty of neutrality. These initiatives culminated in an agreement with Henry IV’s council at Westminster on 7 March 1403. The terms provided for a temporary truce pending a conference at Calais in July, when it was hoped to make a more permanent arrangement. Meanwhile Flemish goods were to be immune from seizure in England or at sea, on the Flemings’ undertaking that they would not pass French goods off as their own. A corresponding immunity was conferred on English cargoes in Flanders. The practical effect was to allow Flemish traders to exclude French goods from the Flemish carrying trade as if France was a foreign country. The Flemish emissaries understood this perfectly. When Philip received them in Paris after their return they pressed him to allow Flanders to ‘remain neutral in the war of the two realms’. They were followed a few days later by a delegation of the Four Members. There were ‘rumours and fears throughout Flanders’, they said, that war would shortly break out with England. The life of the territory depended on the trade in cloth and wool. They would all be ruined if the war was allowed to interrupt it.

Since one of the Flemish negotiators at Westminster was his councillor and the other a canon of St Donatien in Bruges, the Duke of Burgundy must have given at least his tacit assent to their dealings with the English. But he regarded them as a disagreeable necessity. As the date fixed for the Anglo-Flemish conference at Calais approached, Philip reluctantly submitted to the Flemish demands. At the beginning of May 1403, during an interval of lucidity, Charles VI was induced to let Philip negotiate a separate treaty with England in his capacity as Count of Flanders. The terms of his negotiating authority were hammered out between his officials and Charles’s councillors in Paris in the course of June. It was a remarkable document, which envisaged an immunity not just for the Anglo-Flemish trade but for the county itself. The Duke was authorised to agree that if war broke out the Flemings would not be required to take up arms in the cause of France. French royal troops would not be allowed to operate from Flanders unless the English actually invaded it, and French ships of war would not be allowed to use Flemish ports except for short visits to take on water and victuals. It is obvious that some features of this arrangement were completely unacceptable to the French royal council and had been included simply to satisfy the Four Members. In a secret protocol drawn up shortly afterwards Philip promised the King that in spite of the breadth of the authority conferred on him he would agree nothing that might prevent a French army from launching an expedition to Scotland or an invasion of England from Flemish ports.

For some years Flanders was destined to pursue two inconsistent policies towards England, the Duke’s policy and that of the Four Members. The Four Members did their best to enforce the agreement that they had made with Henry IV. They sent their agents to every port of western Flanders from Sluys to Gravelines with orders to stop the fitting out of ships of war against England. At least one corsair who defied their wishes was imprisoned. Meanwhile Philip of Burgundy declined to be bound by the agreement and in April 1403 authorised the seizure of £10,000 worth of English merchandise by the water bailiff of Sluys in retaliation for the latest piratical raids in the North Sea. Philip nominated his own representatives to participate in the Anglo-Flemish conference at Calais alongside those of the Four Members, but they were consistently obstructive, raising one procedural objection after another. As a result the conference was repeatedly adjourned without a permanent agreement. Nevertheless the provisional arrangements agreed at Westminster were extended from session to session and progressively expanded as the English pressed their demands and the Flemings yielded. In August 1403 the Four Members agreed to formalise the prohibition on the carriage of French cargoes in Flemish ships and extended it to cover Scottish merchandise as well. They also promised to release English prisoners and cargoes seized by the Duke’s officers. All of this was done on their own authority without any formal endorsement by either the Duke of Burgundy or the King of France. The French royal council expressed the strongest misgivings about the whole business and in the event the August agreement was never ratified. But it was generally observed in practice and negotiations were never entirely broken off. The English government maintained what amounted to a permanent diplomatic mission in Calais charged with the conduct of relations with Flanders under the supervision of Henry IV’s long-serving lieutenant-governor of the town, Richard Aston, and a meticulous Oxford lawyer called Nicholas Ryshton. It would take them four years of continuous and accident-prone negotiation before an Anglo-Flemish treaty was finally concluded in very different political conditions in 1407.

The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part II

Brittany was not an economic or maritime power on a level with Flanders, but shipowning was just as important to its people. Much of the population of the duchy was concentrated in the innumerable small harbours of its coastal fringe and drew their subsistence from the sea. Breton ships were actively engaged in the entrepôt trades in grain, wine and salt, trades which were heavily dependent on the great producing areas of Poitou and Gascony and the markets of England and Flanders. The Bretons were therefore just as vulnerable as the Flemings to the disruption of the sea lanes of the Channel and the North Sea. The surviving customs records suggest that Brittany’s trade with England fell by more than half during the maritime wars of 1402. No comparable assessment can be made of the impact on Brittany’s trade with Flanders but it must have been considerable. Flanders, as the author of the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye observed in the 1430s, was ‘the staple of their marchaundy, which marchaundy may not pass [that] way but by the coast of England’.

The political situation in Brittany was at this stage extremely uncertain. The duchy had been ruled since the 1340s by the house of Montfort, a baronial family from the Île de France which had succeeded in establishing itself in power only after a succession of civil wars and with English military support. Their rivals the counts of Penthièvre, who had been backed by the French Crown, had been defeated in the field and finally submitted in the treaty of Guérande, which brought an end to a quarter of a century of civil war in 1365. The outcome had eventually been acknowledged by the French Crown in 1381, when John IV de Montfort had submitted to Charles VI and renounced his former English connections. But the treaty did not put an end to the divisions of Brittany, any more than John IV’s submission put an end to the residual suspicion of his house among the politicians in Paris. The counts of Penthièvre, although they paid lip-service to the treaties and did homage to the Montfort dukes, had never recognised defeat. In the 1380s and 1390s, they had maintained a sullen resistance, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of violence. They were supported by a network of clients and allies dominated by Olivier de Clisson, former Constable of France and the most powerful territorial magnate in Brittany. Clisson, whose daughter Marguerite had married the head of the house of Penthièvre, had for many years been the animating spirit behind their opposition to the reigning dynasty.

John IV had died at Nantes in November 1399, leaving a ten-year-old son to succeed him as John V. The government was exercised on the child’s behalf by his mother Joan of Navarre, a beautiful and politically astute woman of thirty-one. In the short period of her rule Joan’s main concern was to protect her son from the venomous legacy of Brittany’s fourteenth-century civil wars. To this end she negotiated a historic reconciliation with Olivier de Clisson. He was now a venerable figure in his mid-sixties and age had dulled his former ambitions. On 23 March 1402 Joan had her son John, although still a minor, crowned as duke in Nantes cathedral, the first recorded occasion on which any duke of Brittany had received a formal coronation. Clisson himself appeared at the ceremony and marked the end of the ancient and destructive feud by knighting the young Duke in front of the high altar of the cathedral. According to a later, perhaps apocryphal story, his daughter had urged him to seize the chance to secure the duchy for her family. ‘Cruel, perverse woman,’ he is supposed to have replied, dismissing her from his presence with such fury that she broke her leg as she escaped down the stairs.

The timing of John V’s coronation had been carefully planned. As soon as the festivities were over Joan announced her intention of marrying Henry IV of England. After what must have been several months of secret negotiations she was married to him by proxy in a ceremony at the palace of Eltham on 3 April 1402. The couple were not complete strangers. They had met at least once in 1398, when she had accompanied her first husband on a brief visit to England. Joan probably married Henry for status and it may be for companionship. He was thirty-four years old, a widower for the past decade, a famous figure in the world of European chivalry and a king. Henry’s own motives are more difficult to divine. Brittany was important to England. It had long-standing commercial relations with the country. It also stood across the main sea and land routes to Gascony. It is natural to suppose that Henry IV hoped to renew England’s old alliance with the Breton duchy and perhaps even take control of the regency. But in the conditions of 1402 these ideas were hardly realistic. Joan’s declared intention was to resign the regency and join her new husband in England. The great ceremonies at Nantes suggest that the plan was to leave John V in Brittany as the nominal head of his government with Olivier de Clisson as regent for the brief period of eighteen months before he reached his majority. Clisson had already been put in possession of the newly enlarged and refortified citadel at Nantes which served as the centre of the ducal administration.

To the Duke of Burgundy, however, a Clisson regency in Brittany was hardly more welcome than an English one. Olivier de Clisson was a declared ally of Louis of Orléans. Indeed all the circumstantial evidence suggests that Louis had actively promoted a Clisson regency in the hope of adding the duchy of Brittany to his extensive network of alliances. Philip was determined to prevent it. Charles VI had relapsed into his old incapacity in July 1402 and, apart from a fortnight in early October, remained ‘absent’ for the next seven months. For the first time a major decision had to be made in Paris without reference to him. In the last week of August 1402 the Duke of Orléans returned to the capital from Coucy and procured the despatch in the King’s name of a testy letter to the baronage of Brittany urging them to get on with the business of appointing Clisson as regent. But Louis had underestimated the strength of the opposition to Clisson in Brittany itself, especially among the officials of the late duke and the noblemen who had served him against the house of Blois during the civil wars. They distrusted the ex-Constable and feared that once in power he would pursue the grudges accumulated over thirty years of dynastic conflict. They responded to the royal letters by pressing the Duke of Burgundy to intervene. For three weeks in September 1402 Philip called in all his favours among the princes and politicians about the King. There were prolonged discussions between Philip and the leading councillors and officers of the King in the castles of Melun and Corbeil and at Jean II de Montaigu’s mansion at Marcoussis until he finally got his way.

Towards the end of September Philip left for Brittany to take control of the duchy. He entered Nantes on 1 October 1402. He dazzled the duchess and the nobility by the magnificence of his suite and the grandeur of his manner, and showered them with gifts, banquets and flattery. On 19 October the Estates of Brittany gathered in the city. They agreed to appoint the Duke of Burgundy as guardian of the young John V and his three brothers Arthur, Gilles and Richard. Olivier de Clisson resisted these measures as best he could with the support of his kinsmen and allies. But a large majority of those present was against them. Clisson finally submitted with ill grace and surrendered Nantes castle to Philip’s officers. The Duke spent the next six weeks in Brittany dealing with the practical arrangements for the government of the duchy. The administration was placed under his control. The principal ducal castles were delivered up to his officers and garrisoned with French troops. Joan of Navarre was persuaded to surrender her dower lands in return for a money pension. In January 1403 she embarked with her two unmarried daughters on a fleet of English ships escorted by a magnificent cortège of noblemen sent out from England to fetch her. Philip of Burgundy had already left for Paris taking John V and two of his brothers with him.

The change of regime in Brittany had an immediate impact on the duchy’s relations with England. For as long as Joan of Navarre remained in Brittany open hostilities with England were avoided. There were many piratical incidents but both sides declared themselves willing in principle to make reparations for them. However, within weeks of Joan’s departure, Brittany found itself in the front line of the maritime war. Trade to English ports abruptly ceased in February 1403, possibly on the orders of the Duke of Burgundy’s officers. Breton seamen joined forces with those of other French ports and stepped up their attacks on English and Gascon shipping in the Bay of Biscay and the Channel. In the spring active steps were being taken to assemble a Breton fleet for operations against England itself.


The exclusion of Olivier de Clisson from the regency of Brittany was Philip of Burgundy’s last notable triumph over his nephew. Within a few months the Duke of Orléans had finally achieved the dominant position within the French government that he had craved ever since his brother’s first attack of insanity. Behind the closed doors of the Hôtel Saint-Pol and the princely mansions of the capital a great power struggle was in progress throughout the first half of 1403. Charles VI was ill again, as he had been for most of the past year. His recent relapses had been worse and longer than before. There were concerns for his life. Louis of Orléans’ influence in council visibly grew as Charles’s health deteriorated. He was the man of the future to whom the ambitious, the greedy and the simply realistic were inevitably drawn. The consensus was expressed by the clerk to the Parlement. He was no friend of Louis but thought that by right of birth and stature he was the ‘natural’ ruler of France in a way that could never be true of the King’s elderly uncles. There had been a trial of strength at the beginning of the year when Louis de Sancerre, the valiant old Constable and companion of Du Guesclin, resigned his office. The favoured candidate of the court was the Queen’s brother, Louis of Bavaria. But the Duke of Orléans succeeded in imposing his ally Charles d’Albret in spite of the fact that he was, in the words of an indignant contemporary, ‘lame, small, weak, and lacking in age, dignity or military experience’.

The Dukes of Berry and Burgundy could see the direction of events and moved to pre-empt it. On about 25 April 1403 the King enjoyed a partial recovery. On the following day there occurred what was described as a meeting of the royal council, although no notice of it appears to have been given and the only persons present were the King, his two uncles, and the clerk. It approved three new ordinances making radical changes to the arrangements for the government of the realm. They abrogated the ordinances of 1393, which had provided for the Duke of Orléans to become regent in the event of the King’s death, and provided instead that the Dauphin would succeed at once without a formal minority or regency. Until he was old enough to exercise his powers in person the government would be carried on in his name by the Queen with the support of the four royal dukes of Berry, Burgundy, Orléans and Bourbon and the rest of the royal council. Decisions of this body were to be made by the voices of the ‘larger and wiser number’. Similar arrangements were to apply while the King was alive but ‘absent’ or otherwise incapable of conducting affairs of state. Any letters of Charles VI purporting to modify these provisions were declared to be void. At the same time the King agreed to marry two of his children into Philip of Burgundy’s family. The Dauphin’s hand was promised to Margaret, daughter of Philip’s heir, John Count of Nevers, in spite of an earlier undertaking that he would marry a daughter of Louis of Orléans. The King’s daughter Michelle would marry the Count of Nevers’ eldest son Philip, who was destined to inherit the Burgundian empire after John’s death. These ordinances were aimed at diluting the influence of the Duke of Orléans and the Queen. They would have instituted a system of collective decision-making which the Duke of Burgundy could hope to control in his lifetime, while the marriage alliances would ensure that his heirs would succeed to his influence at the centre of affairs in the next two generations.

Louis of Orléans was out of Paris when the new ordinances were made but he returned as soon as he heard about them and set about turning the King round. On 7 May Charles was induced to confirm the rights granted to Louis under all earlier ordinances and to repeat his previous promise that the Dauphin should marry a daughter of the house of Orléans. Any past or future instrument prejudicing Louis’ rights was declared to be null and void. The pliable king can scarcely have been able to follow what was happening. Four days later, on the 11th, the King was made to issue a fresh ordinance at a meeting of the council at which only the Duke of Burgundy is recorded as being present. This declared that the letters procured by Louis on 7 May were inconsistent with those of 26 April, a state of affairs which was described as disruptive and intolerable. The letters of 7 May were accordingly to be treated as void. Who prevailed in this war of ordinance and counter-ordinance? In different ways both of the rivals did. Philip’s most significant gain was the double betrothal of Charles’s children to those of John of Nevers, which Charles refused to repudiate. But it was Louis who prevailed on the form of government in the King’s ‘absences’. None of the competing ordinances appears to have been put into effect or regarded as expressing the King’s will. They were all ignored by subsequent legislation, which treated the political arrangements made in 1393 as still in force.

What is clear is that from the summer of 1403 onwards the Duke of Orléans consistently got his way on critical issues which had hitherto divided the council. As always the most reliable indicator of the balance of power was the state of France’s relations with the Avignon Pope. On the night of 11 March, after five years in which he had been blockaded by his adversaries in the papal palace at Avignon, Benedict XIII had escaped heavily disguised and found his way to the castle of the counts of Provence at Châteaurenard. His escape had been organised by the Aragonese ambassador with the assistance of Robert de Braquemont, Louis of Orléans’ representative in the papal city. Protected by a large garrison, in territory that still recognised him, Benedict could now defy his enemies with impunity. In Paris Louis moved quickly to build upon his victory. On 15 May a council of the French Church gathered under the glazed eye of the King in the Hôtel Saint-Pol. It had been summoned before Benedict’s escape in order to endorse the policy of withholding recognition from both popes which the Dukes of Burgundy and Berry had pursued for the past decade. But by the time it met Louis of Orléans was very obviously in control. He came armed with various declarations which his agents had extracted from Benedict XIII, in which the obstinate old man promised to mend his autocratic ways, to submit the whole question of the papal succession to a council of the whole Latin Church within a year and meanwhile to moderate the burden of papal taxation on the French Church. The Pope had not the least intention of performing these undertakings if he could avoid it. But they made the desired impression on the council in Paris. On 28 May Louis summoned before him at the Hôtel Saint-Pol a carefully selected delegation of bishops who were loyal to him and to Benedict. They gave him a list of those who were in favour of restoring obedience to the Avignon Pope. Whether the names on the list were a majority we shall never know. Louis at once took them to his brother, who was recovering from his siesta in the cool darkness of the palace chapel. He presented him with the list. Charles agreed to recognise Benedict as Pope. Knowing the King’s vacillating temperament Louis seized a crucifix from the altar and called on his brother to back up his decision with an oath. A notary was produced from Louis’ entourage to record it. The proceedings were brought to an end with a sung Te Deum led by the King himself. The Dukes of Berry and Burgundy were not even consulted. When they learned that evening what had happened they were appalled. They did their best to change the King’s mind. But Charles was immovable. The decision was proclaimed from the steps of Notre-Dame on 30 May 1403.


The Duke of Orléans’ assumption of power in Paris quickly affected France’s already tense relations with England. At the end of March 1403 Louis wrote another deliberately offensive letter to Henry IV and sent his herald across the Channel to deliver it. Louis accused the English King of usurping Richard II’s crown and of deliberate cruelty and dishonesty towards Richard’s widow. He publicly challenged the suggestion made in Henry’s last letter that he had himself been one of the usurper’s chief accomplices. He had never, he said, intended to support a coup d’état but had only wanted to help Henry recover the heritage of his father. Henry wrote back a month later with a rebuke for writing in a manner unworthy of a royal prince. There followed a leaden point-by-point rebuttal in which he lost no opportunity to rub in their past alliance, revealing fresh details of their cordial relations since his accession. It was not so much a correspondence as an exchange of manifestos. Henry’s letter was delivered to the Duke of Orléans by Lancaster Herald at Coucy on 30 May 1403. Shortly after this, in June, planning began in Paris for the repudiation of the current truce and the reopening of the war with England. The French government envisaged simultaneous campaigns against English possessions in Calais and Gascony in the following spring. Three thousand men-at-arms and a thousand crossbowmen would be deployed on each front for five months plus a mobile reserve of 300 mounted men in Normandy and Picardy to fight off English coastal raids. In addition a large naval force was to be deployed off Calais to cut off supplies and reinforcements from England. A sailing fleet would be obtained by requisitioning and converting merchantmen in the French Atlantic provinces. In addition it was also proposed to acquire the use of ‘at least’ thirty war galleys of which ten were expected to be contributed by the King of Castile under the current naval treaty with France. Louis of Orléans addressed letters to many German princes and noblemen, calling on them to contribute troops to the campaign.

While this was going on in Paris the English and French ambassadors were meeting at Leulinghem for another round of negotiations on the confirmation and enforcement of the truce. The conference opened with the ill-tempered exchanges which had become normal on such occasions. Henry Bowet Bishop of Bath, who spoke for the English delegation, raised the question of the Duke of Orléans’ challenge of the previous year and his more recent letter of March. What did all this signify? To write such things hardly seemed to be consistent with the truce which they had come to Leulinghem to discuss. Who was in charge in Paris? Was the Duke of Orléans acting on his own account? Or with the authority of the King? Or of the royal council? Until they received an answer to these questions, sealed by the King or the royal princes, the English were not prepared to proceed with the business of the conference. The French delegation was led by the experienced but abrasive Jean de Hangest and the President of the Chambre des Comptes, Jean de Montaigu Bishop of Chartres. They were extremely guarded. The French King’s position, ‘or at least the position of his council’, Jean de Hangest replied, was that the truce of 1396 remained in force and that they would not be the ones to break it. All the royal princes were agreed upon that. The English asked for clarification. The French said they were unable to say more because of the incapacity of the King, who had relapsed into incoherence again at the beginning of the month. They thought that they might have a fuller answer in the following year, or earlier if he recovered earlier. Bowet’s bluff had been called. He did not walk out. The maintenance of the truce was too important to the English King. On 27 June 1403 the two sides agreed to republish the truce of 1396 and made new arrangements to deal with claims arising out of the fighting at sea. Another month was passed in quarrelling over the unpaid ransom of John II, the unreturned dowry of Isabelle of France, compensation for prizes taken at sea, the release of prisoners captured in the fighting, the perennial issue of the application of the truce to Scotland and the diplomatic stomach cramps of Jean de Hangest by which the French, as their English opposite numbers saw it, tried to drag out the proceedings whenever they seemed to be approaching some sort of conclusion. None of these questions was resolved.

The truth was that the French ambassadors at Leulinghem were looking over their shoulders at larger plans being made in Paris. In the margins of the conference the Bishop of Chartres and his colleagues were busy preparing a draft war budget. They costed the proposed military and naval operations against England at no less than 1,212,500 livres. This was an enormous sum. But it was not the limit of the Duke of Orléans’ ambitions. He was also contemplating a major campaign in northern Italy under his own command during the autumn and winter. His father-in-law Gian Galeazzo Visconti had died suddenly at the height of his powers in September 1402, leaving his domains to be governed by his widow as regent for their under-age son. Louis feared for the future of the duchy of Milan and his own county of Asti, which were threatened with internal disintegration and attack from outside by Florence, the papacy and Ruprecht’s Germany, all of them victims of Gian Galeazzo’s twenty-year career of conquest.

In the first half of July 1403 there was intense discussion between the royal dukes in Paris about how Louis’ multiple wars were to be financed. The whole subject was exceptionally sensitive and their deliberations were veiled in secrecy. What is clear is that they agreed in principle that when the time came there would be a heavy new taille. The Duke of Burgundy might have been expected to object. In the event he did not. Instead he seems to have abandoned his long-standing attachment to the truce with England and acquiesced in the imposition of a tax very like the one that he had gone to such lengths to veto in 1402. Why? Part of the answer is that his political position in Paris was weaker than it had been a year earlier. But the main reason appears to be that he was bought off. Having resigned himself to the loss of his political influence he exacted a large increase in his drawings from the French royal treasury as the price of his complaisance. He ultimately got an enlarged pension for the current year of 100,000 livres and another 120,000 livres by way of a one-off grant from the treasury reserve. Almost all of this money was paid over between October 1403 and April 1404. From a strictly financial point of view it was an outstanding bargain. Philip obtained more in these months from the French royal treasury than in any comparable period of his life.

It is obvious from the exchanges at Leulinghem that the English were profoundly suspicious of their French opposite numbers and doubted their good faith. They had good reason to, for the French government, while publicly adhering to the truce, was using the Bretons as surrogates to break it. During the summer of 1403 a fleet of armed merchantmen was assembled at Morlaix in north-western Brittany for service against the English: some thirty ships with 1,200 men-at-arms on board in addition to their crews. The scale of this venture and the identity of those involved leaves little doubt that it had the support of the French King’s council. The principal captains were the Admiral of Brittany, Jean de Penhoet, and the captain of the ducal fortress at Brest, Guillaume du Châtel, a chamberlain of the Duke of Orléans who had been foremost in the lists at Montendre the year before. The Morlaix fleet did a great deal of damage. On 8 July 1403 it surprised an English raiding force which was lying at anchor in the harbour at Saint-Matthieu. The English tried to escape but the Bretons split their force into two divisions and headed them off, uttering terrible cries as they closed with the opposing ships. The ensuing fight lasted for six hours until the English ran out of ammunition. By then 500 of their crews had been killed in the fight and another 500 thrown into the sea and drowned. A thousand more were captured and ransomed. Forty English ships were reported to have been captured. Fresh from landing their prizes and prisoners the Bretons sailed again at about the beginning of August against the west of England. There they lay off the harbours waiting to attack ships entering or leaving. They landed and burned settlements, killing many of the inhabitants and carrying off others for ransom. On 9 August 1403 these operations came to a violent close when they penetrated Plymouth Sound in the early afternoon and landed their men about a mile from the town. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham’s accusations of negligence may well have been justified, for nothing appears to have been done to interfere with the landings. The town was unwalled. The French approached it unobserved at nightfall and fell on it after dark, rapidly overwhelming the inhabitants. The whole night was passed in burning and looting. On the following morning they sailed away with many prisoners and several captured freighters as Sir Thomas Berkeley approached with the levies of the western counties. On their way home the Bretons landed on Guernsey and Jersey, causing more destruction and exacting heavy patis from the inhabitants. It was the worst coastal raid that England had suffered since the 1370s.


These events coincided with the gravest internal crisis of Henry IV’s reign. In the spring of 1403 the Percies, Henry Earl of Northumberland and his son Harry Hotspur, who had taken the leading part in the revolution which put Henry on the throne in 1399, resolved to break with him. Their reasons reveal much about the English King’s failings as a political manager. The Percies had been the dominant territorial magnates of the north for nearly a century. For most of the reign of Richard II they had enjoyed almost viceregal powers in the north as wardens of the east march, and in the aftermath of Henry IV’s coup of 1399 in the west march, Cheshire and north Wales as well. They owed their power in the region to personal factors which it was not easy for outsiders to match: their immense landholdings in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumberland, their possession of some of the principal private fortresses of the north, their familiarity with border society on both sides and the intense tribal loyalty which these highly successful warriors inspired among their tenants, allies and followers. In the words of the fifteenth-century chronicler of the region, himself a Percy retainer, they ‘have the hertes of the people by north and ever had’. They had become indispensable. When Richard II had briefly attempted at the end of his reign to exclude them from the wardenship, his nominee the Duke of Aumale had bluntly told him that it was impossible to govern the north without them.

In 1403 the Percies had a number of reasons to feel that their worth was not being recognised. One was Henry IV’s attempt to balance their power by promoting the interests of the Nevilles, the other great noble house of the north. Ralph Neville Earl of Westmorland was the King’s brother-in-law and had been close to him for many years. At the time of Henry’s accession Westmorland was one of the great territorial magnates of the north with important holdings on both sides of the Pennines. In the north-east, where the Percy interests were concentrated, his power was visibly growing. He was already much the largest landowner in the palatine county of Durham. Shortly after the King’s coronation he had been granted the immense honour of Richmond in Yorkshire, traditionally a possession of the Dukes of Brittany, which had previously been farmed or leased to the Percies. He acquired control of the border fortresses of Wark and Bamburgh in Northumberland, where the Percies had once been the sole military power. The removal of Hotspur in 1402 from the command of Roxburgh, the last surviving royal fortress in southern Scotland apart from Berwick, was a symbolic act. Roxburgh stood in territory where the Percies had ancient claims and large ambitions. Hotspur’s replacement was the Earl of Westmorland.

The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part III

The Percies’ resentment of the Nevilles’ growing status in the north was aggravated by their precarious financial position. They had personally borne much of the heavy burden of funding the defence of the Scottish and Welsh marches. Henry IV was tardy in repaying them, the result of his own acute financial problems. In July 1401 Hotspur reckoned that the arrears owed to him and his father had reached £5,000. Two years later they had risen fourfold to £20,000. The Percies were immensely rich, but cash was scarce and their lack of it demeaned them in the face of their followers. As the Earl wrote to Henry in June 1403, unless his fees and expenses were paid ‘the chivalry of your realm will be discredited in these parts and I and my son, who are your loyal lieges, will be dishonoured’. It did not help that the Percies’ tallies from the Exchequer were frequently dishonoured, whereas their Neville rival had so far experienced no difficulty in getting his own tallies paid. After the victory at Humbleton Hill, Northumberland and Hotspur and their followers had been covered in praise and honour but little if anything had been done to clear their arrears and their hopes of rich war profits had been dashed by Henry’s refusal to let them ransom the more valuable prisoners. Hotspur refused to comply with the King’s order to surrender the Earl of Douglas to him, an issue which was still unresolved. Medieval government was based on a combination of sentiment and bluff. The mental barrier to rebellion had been weakened by the events of 1399. One coup d’état by its nature encourages another. The Percies resolved to seize their chance to control the power of the Crown in their own interest.

In about April 1403 Hotspur assembled the Percy tenants and retainers and invaded Teviotdale in Lothian, one of the domains of the Earl of Douglas which had been granted to him by Henry IV after the battle of Humbleton Hill. He laid siege to Cocklaws castle at Ormiston, near Hawick. In May the defenders of this place agreed to surrender it on 1 August unless it was relieved before then by King Robert or the Duke of Albany. There are many odd features of this campaign. There is good reason to think that it was a charade plotted between the Percies and the Earl of Douglas to cover the assembly of a large army without arousing suspicion. Cocklaws was an insignificant stone peel defended by a small garrison. Indeed the Duke of Albany had some difficulty in persuading the general council of Scotland that it was worth relieving. Hotspur also brought Douglas himself on the campaign, although it was ostensibly directed against his domains, and allowed him to recruit troops among his followers in the region. It seems likely that the two men had done a deal by which Douglas traded his liberty for his military and political support against Henry IV. Hotspur had other supporters too. He had obtained sealed letters from prominent English lords, which the chronicler John Hardyng claimed to have seen, pledging their support for a rebellion to overthrow the King.

While the Percies were in Scotland they opened negotiations with Owen Glendower using one of Hotspur’s Welsh squires as a go-between. In July Glendower embarked on an offensive in Carmarthenshire which was probably concerted with Hotspur. The Welsh of the region rose in a body and thousands came to join him. At Llandovery, the nationalist leader mustered 8,240 men, the largest army that he would ever command. They captured Newcastle Emlyn and the royal castle at Carmarthen, one of the oldest English towns in Wales and the administrative centre of the south-west. English officials in Wales despaired. From the walls of Brecon castle one of them reported that the ‘whole Welsh nation’ was in arms. The border counties were gripped with panic. Writing to the King on 8 July the archdeacon of Hereford begged him to come in person to rescue the situation. ‘For God’s love, my liege lord, thinketh on yourself and your estate or by my trouth all is lost else.’ In fact the alarm was probably overdone. Glendower lost 600 of his men in an ambush and was forced to abandon Carmarthen. Shortly afterwards Brecon castle was relieved by a force sent from Herefordshire. Henry IV declined to intervene. He was on his way north. Suspicious perhaps of what was going on in the north, he had evidently decided to take control over Hotspur’s campaign in Scotland and apparently proposed to join him outside Cocklaws. The King had reached Nottingham when he learned that the Percies had risen in rebellion.

Hotspur had withdrawn from Cocklaws into Northumberland with his army. From here he marched on Chester, his old headquarters, accompanied by a handful of men, no more than 200 according to one account, including the Earl of Douglas and a company of his followers. Hotspur had acquired a large following in Cheshire and north Wales during the Welsh rising. He counted on being able to raise a new army there. He had apparently agreed to join Glendower on the banks of the Severn near Shrewsbury. His father would follow, bringing with him the army of Cocklaws and whatever additional troops could be raised among the Percy tenants and followers in Northumberland and Yorkshire. The sixteen-year-old Prince of Wales had recently been appointed as the King’s lieutenant in Wales. He had established his headquarters at Shrewsbury. The third Percy, Northumberland’s brother Thomas Earl of Worcester, was with him there. He was the Prince’s guardian and tutor and a highly influential figure in the counsels of the King. They had a small army under their command, about 600 men-at-arms and rather more than 3,000 archers who had been recruited in the Welsh marches for service against Glendower. When the news arrived of Hotspur’s approach, Worcester made off to join him at Chester. About a third of the army at Shrewsbury defected and went with him.

On 10 July 1403 Hotspur raised his flag at Chester. From here he published two manifestos. One was directed to potential supporters in England and was sent to them in sealed letters. In this document Hotspur presented himself as a reformer. He was acting, he said, in the public interest in order to reform the government, install wise and loyal councillors and stop the frivolous waste of tax revenues by Henry’s officials. The other was addressed to Hotspur’s own army and the military community of Cheshire, who had been Richard II’s most powerful and consistent supporters in his lifetime. To them he presented himself as a revolutionary. He announced that Richard II was alive and was with his father in the north-east. They were raising an army there which would shortly join him to challenge the usurpation of ‘Henry of Lancaster’. Hotspur knew well enough that Richard was dead. The real object, as he admitted to his intimates, was to put the eleven-year-old Edmund Mortimer Earl of March on the throne. The young Earl had the aura of legitimacy in England as the descendant of the senior surviving line of Edward III. He also had a strong appeal for Hotspur’s Welsh allies. His family were major landowners in Wales but unlike other marcher lords had intermarried with the native princely families. The Earl’s uncle, Edmund Mortimer, had become the partisan and son-in-law of Glendower. In a short time Hotspur raised a large army from the men of Chester and north Wales. Contemporary estimates gave him 14,000 men. The figure is certainly exaggerated but Hotspur probably had the largest army currently in the field. They included many of the surviving members of Richard II’s Cheshire guard, office-holders of the late King who had been excluded from favour after his deposition and many others who had lost out in the tumults of the past two decades.

Hotspur’s creation of an army from nothing was a tribute to his skill as a soldier and propagandist and to his famously affable personality. But from the moment that he had done it things began to go wrong. The Earl of Northumberland’s efforts in the north-east took longer than expected. Left to his own devices Hotspur decided to advance against the Prince at Shrewsbury without waiting for his father. His plan was probably to defeat the Prince before Henry IV could reach him with reinforcements, and then join forces with Owen Glendower to confront the King. The movements of the Welsh leader at this point are particularly obscure but according to one report a large body of Welsh wearing Richard II’s insignia on their tunics was making for Lichfield as if to head off the King. Henry IV reached Burton on Trent on about 16 July 1403 and for the first time sized up the rebellion. He summoned men from all the counties of the Midlands to join him on the road. But George Dunbar, who was with him, urged him not to wait for them but to make straight for Shrewsbury with only the men he had about him. They could deal with the Welsh later.

The King reached Shrewsbury on 20 July 1403, just before Hotspur, and joined forces with his son. On the following morning they drew up their combined army in battle array and advanced against the rebels, who were encamped about three miles north of them by the village now known as Battlefield. Hotspur and his men were taken by surprise. There was a brief pause while both sides tried to negotiate. But Henry and Dunbar were determined to fight before Hotspur had time to recover and array his forces. They cut the talking short and attacked. It was a bloody fight between two English armies with similar tactics and weapons. Both sides suffered heavy casualties from the opening volleys of the bowmen. The Prince was severely injured by an arrow in the face which penetrated six inches into his head. Thirty-six knights of the King’s personal retinue were killed around him. The royalists initially fell back. Some of them broke ranks and fled the field. Hoping to seize the advantage of the moment, Hotspur and Douglas gathered their men and charged what they thought was the King’s standard. But Henry IV had two doubles in the host and was quickly removed from danger by his companions. The charge was brought to a halt and Hotspur and Douglas found themselves trapped in the midst of the enemy army. ‘Henry Percy King’, some of his men cried. But at that moment Hotspur was struck and fell to the ground. Henry shouted out that Hotspur was dead. The cry was taken up and passed through the ranks on both sides. The rebel army began to melt away. Douglas, a huge man clearly visible across the battlefield, struck left and right about him and was one of the last to be captured. Wounded in the genitals, he became a prisoner for the second time in a year. All the surviving rebel leaders were captured. On the following morning 1,847 dead were counted on the field. Another 3,000 corpses had fallen in the pursuit, their bodies scattered over a distance of three miles from the site of the battle. The body of Hotspur was pulled out of the mass of corpses and put on display. The Earl of Worcester was taken to see it and broke down and wept. On the next day he was summarily condemned for treason and beheaded together with two of Hotspur’s Cheshire lieutenants.

A week after the battle the Duke of Albany appeared with a large Scottish army outside Cocklaws, thus releasing the garrison from their undertaking to surrender. In England what remained of the rebel cause quickly collapsed. The Earl of Northumberland’s efforts ended in fiasco. The army that he had commanded in Scotland consisted mainly of borderers from Northumberland, many of whom would not fight against the King. The Earl had found more recruits in Yorkshire, the real heartland of his family. But the mustering arrangements were confused and many of them were unable to discover where he was. Eventually the Earl collected all the men he could find and tried to join his son at Chester in time for the decisive battle. Marching south, he found his route blocked by a loyalist force under his arch-rival the Earl of Westmorland. He retreated to Newcastle but found the gates of the town closed in his face. The townsmen would only allow him to enter for the night with a small retinue, leaving the rest of his army outside the walls. Believing that they were about to be betrayed, the men mutinied. Next day the Earl abandoned the fight and fled to the Percy castle at Warkworth.

At the beginning of August 1403 the Earl of Northumberland came before the King at Pontefract, the great fortress of the dukes of Lancaster in Yorkshire where Richard II had been murdered. The Earl, who was in his sixty-second year, was a broken man. He submitted to the King and promised to surrender all his castles in the north of England in return for his life and ‘sufficient’ honour. Henry stripped him of all his offices and held him under guard while his council considered what to do with him. But his fortresses continued to hold out for several months even when presented with written orders to surrender under the Earl’s seal. Henry’s officers were obliged to engage in patient negotiations with the garrisons of the great Percy strongholds at Alnwick and Warkworth and a number of smaller castles including Cockermouth, where most of the Scottish prisoners of Humbleton Hill were being held. At Berwick, which was a royal fortress but held by a Percy garrison, the captain, Sir William Clifford, set out his demands in impudent detail. They reflected a characteristic mixture of self-interest and Percy loyalism: a pardon for Clifford and his men; the garrison to be paid its arrears; the Percy domains to be preserved for the benefit of Hotspur’s nine-year-old son Henry; and Clifford himself to have custody of both Berwick and the young Henry. These issues were not resolved until the following year.

When at the end of the battle Henry IV had sent to the veteran Lancastrian magnate Sir John Stanley for his advice on how to treat the defeated army Stanley, who had been wounded by an arrow in the neck, is said to have replied, ‘rattelynge in the throte’, ‘Burn and slay! Burn and slay!’ Yet when it came to it the King’s vengeance was brief and muted. The heads of Hotspur and Thomas Percy were taken to London and impaled above the gatehouse of London Bridge. Their lands were confiscated and part of them used to endow the real hero of the battle, George Dunbar, who had proved himself to be Henry’s ablest commander in the short time since his flight from Scotland. Most of the rebel dead forfeited their property and the county of Cheshire was fined 3,000 marks plus an extra 300 marks on the city of Chester. Apart from the two defeated captains at Shrewsbury, a handful of ringleaders and a hermit who had preached in favour of the pseudo-Richard at York were executed. But most of the rebels received a royal pardon. They included the Earl of Northumberland, the greatest of them all, who was eventually pardoned at the request of the Parliamentary Commons. He was restored to his domains and left in control of all his fortresses in the north, some of which were still holding out against the King’s forces. The Commons declared that they regarded the Earl’s conduct as treasonable. But they remembered his valiant service against the Scots and were plainly frightened by the thought that the north might be lost. Henry IV could afford to be magnanimous. As the events of the following years would show, the power of the Percies was broken for a generation.


On 14 October 1403 the Duke of Orléans addressed his last epistle to the English King, this time addressing him as ‘Henry of Lancaster’. It was a rambling, eccentric and self-indulgent document in which Louis proclaimed himself the champion of his insulted niece Isabelle of France and of all of French womanhood. ‘If I have loved them and they have loved me,’ he added, ‘then the stock of love has risen and I am grateful and glad of it.’ He formally defied Henry IV, repudiating whatever bonds might once have existed between them, and declared his intention of attacking England as soon as an opportunity arose. Louis’ previous letters to Henry IV had been couched as declarations of private war in the belief that this would not engage the responsibility of the French state or involve the repudiation of the truce. But by now the pretence this was a purely personal vendetta was wearing thin. As the English Chancellor told Parliament the following January, Louis’ letters were ‘a great outrage, a disgrace to our lord the King and a shame and offence to the whole realm’. In spite of its highly personal and undiplomatic tone, the latest letter was clearly conceived by its author as a public act. He directed the clerk of the Parlement of Paris to register it among the royal ordinances. The clerk was surprised and indignant. ‘Prolix, windy and devoid of judgment or consequence’, he wrote in the margin of the register, ‘and why now?’

If the clerk had known more about what was happening in the French King’s council he could have answered his own question ‘why now?’ Louis of Orléans left for his domains on the Loire in mid-October 1403 and passed the rest of the year in the Rhône valley negotiating with Benedict XIII and preparing his campaign in northern Italy. But in Paris the King’s councillors were actively engaged in planning the double campaign against Gascony and Calais intended for the following spring. In Brittany and the Channel ports, ships were being requisitioned and armed for war. One of Louis of Orléans’ chamberlains, Charles de Savoisy, was on his way to Castile to hire more. Meanwhile the French suspended all diplomatic contacts with England. When the English ambassadors arrived in Calais in November 1403 for talks with the representatives of France and Flanders they found that there was no one to talk to. They tried to make contact with the French delegation but their letters were left unanswered for weeks. Discussion with the Four Members about a separate treaty with Flanders were taken over by the Duke of Burgundy and buried.

The French were generally ill-informed about English domestic politics but they did take notice of the Percy rebellion. The brief civil war opened their eyes to the vulnerability of Henry IV’s government at home and the significance of the Welsh rebellion. The French government had employed Welsh mercenaries for many years but they knew very little about Wales. The country was far away and even less accessible than Scotland. So far they had taken little interest in Owen Glendower. But this was about to change. In August 1403 a small squadron of ships sailed from France to make contact with the Welsh leader. The absence of any trace of this expedition in the French records suggests that it may have been a private enterprise of its captain, a knight called Jean d’Espagne, who in spite of his name was apparently a Breton. Towards the end of the month he reached south Wales and landed a company of at least 200 French and Breton soldiers. At the beginning of October the constable of the Lancastrian castle at Kidwelly on the Carmarthenshire coast recorded their arrival and reported that they had joined forces with Henry Don, one of the leaders of the rebellion in south Wales. They had already destroyed the extensive unwalled suburbs of Kidwelly and forced an entry into the borough below the castle.

The French arrived in Wales at a low point of English fortunes there. Henry IV had recently been in Carmarthenshire but had been forced by want of funds to withdraw from the country less than a fortnight after entering it. The castles on which the English depended to hold down the country and defend their colonies were in a bad state. The garrison of Carmarthen, the largest in Wales, was unpaid and refusing to serve beyond the term of its indentures. Other important garrisons were poorly supplied and seriously below strength. Caernarvon, on the Menai Strait, the centre of English administration in north-west Wales, was supposed to be defended by at least a hundred men but had fewer than forty. Harlech, which been under loose siege for several months, was defended by just five Englishmen and sixteen Welsh. Aberystwyth, also under siege, was reported to be on the verge of surrender for want of money, stores and men. These immense fortresses, masterpieces of military architecture constructed by the engineers of Edward I at the end of the thirteenth century, were designed to be defended by relatively small numbers of men on the assumption that they could be rapidly reinforced and resupplied by sea in emergencies. This calculation was rudely disturbed by the appearance of Jean d’Espagne’s squadron with its complement of soldiers. At the beginning of November 1403 he re-embarked his men and sailed north to the Menai Strait to support the Welsh siege of Caernarvon.

Henry IV’s response to the growing threat from France was constrained by his penury and his weak political position. His first instinct was to turn to privateers. On 26 August 1403 the King wrote to the bailiffs of all the leading privateering ports declaring that the Bretons, whom he had previously regarded as friends, were now to be treated as hostile and attacked wherever they could be found. In the following weeks a large fleet of armed privateers was assembled in the West Country ports: Bristol, Saltash, Fowey, Plymouth and Dartmouth. Their leaders were three prominent businessmen, John Hawley the elder, William Wilford of Exeter and Thomas Norton, reputed to be the richest merchant in Bristol. In about the middle of October they sailed against Brittany. In the course of this prodigiously destructive cruise the English captured ten ships off Finistère and another thirty which were found sheltering at Belle-Île laden with wine from La Rochelle. The crews were massacred, some of the ships sunk and the rest taken back to England with their cargoes. Many more were caught and sunk as they fled along the coast. At least eight of the captured ships were Castilian freighters carrying cargoes belonging to neutral merchants whose claims were to be a bone of contention between the Crown and the western seamen for years. Heading back with their spoil, the English completed their campaign with a series of attacks on coastal settlements in Finistère. They landed at Penmarch, burning the town and penetrating fifteen miles inland to destroy villages and manors. The famous victualling station at Saint-Matthieu a few miles north was destroyed. The garrison of Brest came out to challenge the invaders, supported by a large number of Bretons recruited inland, but were driven off with heavy casualties.

The English King was usually well-informed about what the French were doing. Ships were sent out to report on concentrations of shipping in French ports. The German Emperor’s ambassadors told him about Louis of Orléans’ efforts to recruit mercenaries in Germany and gave him a copy of one of his letters. At least one well-placed English spy reported regularly from Paris. Everything that happened in the French royal council, the English diplomats at Leulinghem unwisely boasted to their French opposite numbers, was at once reported to them. It was from this source that Henry’s council learned, probably in October 1403, about fresh operations at sea planned by the Count of Saint‑Pol.

Waleran Count of Saint-Pol was the leading territorial magnate of Picardy and the captain of the permanent French army which was stationed in a great arc from Gravelines to Boulogne to contain the English garrisons of Calais. He was a man with a past to live down. As a young prisoner of war in England in the 1370s he had married Richard II’s half-sister and done homage to the English King for his French domains. In 1379 he had been involved in an abortive attempt to put English garrisons into a number of castles in Picardy and Vermandois. Returning to France on the accession of Charles VI in 1380 he received a royal pardon, but many felt that he was lucky not to have been executed. In 1403 Saint-Pol instituted a blockade of Calais. He stopped overland traffic to the town through Picardy and Flanders, forbade French merchants to have any dealings there and ordered English ones to be arrested on the roads. He also sponsored privateering operations against English shipping in the Channel from the Flemish port of Gravelines in conjunction with professional corsairs from Flanders and Scotland. By October his ambitions had grown larger. He established a base at Le Crotoy at the mouth of the Somme. Here he recruited ships and seamen, mainly from Brittany, and soldiers from Picardy and Flanders, and laid in stores for a long campaign against coastal settlements in England. Shortly afterwards, finding that he had not enough ships, he moved his base to the great centre of French privateering at Harfleur in the estuary of the Seine, where he was able to increase his fleet to about 200 vessels.

On 9 November 1403, taking a leaf out of Louis of Orléans’ book, Saint-Pol wrote a letter of defiance to Henry IV in which he declared his intention of attacking England. He claimed that as Richard II’s kinsman and former ally he had a personal vendetta against the man who had murdered and supplanted him. By portraying his venture in this way Saint-Pol no doubt hoped to enable the French government to disclaim responsibility when the English complained, as they inevitably did. Henry IV regarded Saint-Pol’s venture as a serious threat. He was not deceived by his profession to be acting on his own initiative. The English ambassadors at Calais wrote a long protest to Philip of Burgundy. They found it hard to believe, they declared with self-conscious irony, that these things had been authorised by the King of France or his council and least of all by those such as Philip himself who had personally sworn to observe the truce in 1396.

The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part IV

In England lessons were being learned from the debacle at Plymouth. During October, as reports came in from Calais of Saint-Pol’s activities, coast-guards were mobilised in the maritime counties, regional commanders assigned to them and beacons prepared on cliff-tops for the first time in more than two decades. Two new admirals were appointed, the King’s half-brother Sir Thomas Beaufort for the east coast and Sir Thomas Berkeley for the south and west. Berkeley, who bore the brunt of the defence against Saint-Pol’s fleet, was a flamboyant soldier, a munificent patron of fighting men, and an enthusiast for the war at sea who had once commissioned his own war barge. He knew how to work with professional seamen and forged a strong relationship with Harry Pay, the notorious corsair of Poole. Berkeley proved to be one of the more effective sea commanders of the age. Over the winter of 1403–4 some 260 requisitioned merchantmen were put at his disposal. About a third of these were concentrated at Dartmouth to confront Saint-Pol at sea while the rest were assigned to the defence of individual harbours.

At the beginning of November 1403 Saint-Pol sailed from Harfleur. He did not make straight for England as he had been expected to do. Instead he took his fleet south across the Bay of Biscay and into the Gironde. There he blockaded the city of Bordeaux, while on land French troops attempted to choke off the flow of goods reaching Bordeaux through the river valleys. Further south the Count of Armagnac was reported to be raising money and troops to invade the valley of the Adour towards Bayonne. These concerted operations, together with the concurrent blockade of Calais, were conceived as a softening-up exercise for the campaign planned for the following spring. They were designed to force England’s three major coastal strongholds in France to run down their food stocks in advance of a French siege. Leaving most of his ships in the Gironde, Saint-Pol returned to Harfleur at about the end of the month. From here on 4 December he sailed for England with twenty-nine large armed barges carrying 1,500 men-at-arms in addition to their crews and some companies of crossbowmen. After two days at sea they arrived off the Hampshire coast on 6 December. Their objective was probably Southampton. But they were unable to penetrate the Solent because a large naval force was concentrated there waiting to escort the annual wine fleet to Bordeaux. So the French landed instead on the Isle of Wight. Several of Saint-Pol’s companions were dubbed as knights as they disembarked and gathered on the foreshore. But they found no one to do battle with. The inhabitants had abandoned their homes and fled to the security of Carisbrook castle or hidden in the densely wooded interior of the island. The invaders began to burn the villages of the coast and round up cattle. Eventually a priest came before them to discuss a ransom treaty. But the negotiations dragged on. By 9 December, before they were complete, the English had managed to collect enough troops for a counter-attack. Saint-Pol drew up his men in battle array. But as Berkeley’s ships began to appear off the coast, threatening his line of retreat, he thought better of it. Hastily abandoning his spoil Saint-Pol re-embarked his men.

For the next three weeks the whereabouts of Saint-Pol’s fleet was unknown. The English King’s ministers believed that a large army was waiting somewhere on the French coast in preparation for a fresh landing on a much larger scale. They sent six ships to scour the ocean for sightings and a spy to listen out for gossip in France, all without success. In the English counties the old Ricardian loyalists were stirred by the spectacle of a government in disarray and by the usual heady mix of rumour, garbled reports and fantasy. Maud de Vere Countess of Oxford, the widow of Richard II’s favourite of the 1380s, was convinced that Saint-Pol would land with an army at Harwich at the end of December and that he would be accompanied by the Duke of Orléans and Queen Isabelle. At her manor at Bentley in Suffolk she and her friends and household, according to the prosecution at her subsequent trial, were making ready to destroy the warning beacons set up on the coast and guide the invaders to Northampton where they were expected to join with the forces of the pseudo-Richard II.

A few days before Christmas 1403 a great council met at Westminster to take stock of the crisis. The assembly had been planned as a show of unity in the face of what seemed to be a concerted French attempt to provoke fresh rebellions in England and Wales. All of the peers and prelates present renewed their oaths of fealty to Henry IV and his descendants. They swore to ‘live and die with him against all persons in the world’. A group of French heralds, who were at Westminster on diplomatic business, were invited to attend as observers. A few days later, on 28 December, the King’s permanent councillors met in the London mansion of the Countess of Salisbury to review the defences of southern England. They called on a group of experienced shipmasters to advise them. The meeting decided to reinforce Berkeley’s fleet and man it with double crews so that they could operate in shifts. A smaller squadron was to be sent south to Guernsey to seek out Saint-Pol’s fleet in the inlets of Brittany. Ultimately Berkeley was expected to have 1,000 men-at-arms, 2,100 archers and 5,000 seamen under his command.

In fact, although the council did not know it, the danger had already passed. Baulked of their spoil on the Isle of Wight, Saint-Pol’s ships had looted their way down the coast of Normandy before stopping to winter at Barfleur. His commercial backers had wasted the money that they had invested in victuals and equipment and had taken hardly any spoil. They decided to cut their losses and abandon the venture. Saint-Pol himself was received with mockery and embarrassment when he appeared in Paris to join the celebrations at court over Christmas. Henry IV learned most of this in the new year. His own naval forces were temporarily stood down and a herald was sent to France with a sarcastic message expressing his disappointment that the Count had not stayed long enough in England for Henry to attend to him in person. Later, in February 1404, the Calais garrison wreaked revenge on Saint-Pol’s domains in Picardy, looting and burning them for four days before returning to Calais with so many cattle that it was necessary to build a large temporary stockade outside the walls in which to hold them. In the following month Sir Thomas Berkeley was commissioned to hold the Channel for another three months with 21 ships, 300 men-at-arms and 600 archers. The cost of these operations was prodigious. The council estimated that Berkeley’s fleet would cost nearly £15,000 over the winter. Much of this was borne in the first instance by Berkeley himself. He sold his Essex estates in order to help fund the venture.

The Count of Saint-Pol was a braggart with ample resources and strong political support but no clear idea of what he was trying to achieve apart from fame. By comparison Jean d’Espagne’s tiny force in Wales won no fame, for it was ignored by all the French chroniclers. Yet it made a significant contribution to the operations of Glendower and his captains over the winter of 1403–4. His men passed more than two months at Caernarvon, engaged in the siege of Edward I’s mighty fortress on the Menai Strait. They wasted much of Anglesey, from which Caernarvon was usually supplied. They captured the English sheriff as he was proceeding with a large armed escort on his rounds and sent him as a prisoner to Glendower. By January 1404 the garrison of Caernarvon was desperate. The Constable got a woman to carry a message through the siege lines (‘because no man dared to do it’). She reported that the French and Welsh had begun to assault the fortress with stone-throwers, wheeled shelters (or ‘sows’) and extensible ladders. The Welsh never took Caernarvon, even with French help. But the garrison of Harlech finally agreed in February to sell out unless relieved within a short time limit. The circumstances of its fall are not recorded but Jean d’Espagne’s ships and troops are known to have participated in the later stages of the siege. Towards the end of April, they were taking part in an extremely destructive Welsh raid into Shropshire which was said to have wasted a third of the county and provoked large-scale emigration from the region. Shortly afterwards Sir Thomas Berkeley arrived with a fleet fitted out in Bristol. His orders were to resupply the beleaguered garrisons of north and west Wales and expel the French squadron. In this he seems to have succeeded, for nothing more is heard of Jean d’Espagne. The probability is that after maintaining itself in Wales for seven months the French expeditionary force returned home in May 1404. They brought with them to France Glendower’s chancellor, Griffin Young, and his brother-in-law, John Hanmer. They were charged to make a formal alliance between the Welsh leader and the King of France.


At New Year 1404 the French royal princes gathered in Paris at a court without a King. Charles VI had been ‘absent’ since shortly before Christmas. It was the traditional season for exchanging gifts and planning the military operations of the coming year. The full council assembled on 7 January 1404 to consider the war with England. The Duke of Orléans did not attend. Ever changeable, headstrong but easily disheartened, Louis had by now abandoned his plans to invade Italy and paid off the army that he had assembled in the Rhône valley. But he was detained in Avignon by difficult discussions with Benedict XIII and did not return to Paris until the following month. However, the critical decisions had already been agreed in the previous summer and reflected Louis’ agenda. The next major conference with the English was due to open at Leulinghem on 1 March 1404 and according to the French reckoning their commitment to observe the truce would expire three weeks later on the 20th. The council decided that it would not be renewed. As soon as it expired they planned to make war on England on several fronts. The main military operations would be the long-planned campaigns against the remaining English possessions in Calais and Gascony. But a third army was now envisaged, to be sent to Wales to support Owen Glendower. According to Henry IV’s informants the council also resolved to send embassies in search of assistance to Scotland, Milan and Brittany in addition to the embassy of Charles de Savoisy which was already active in Aragon and Castile. To pay for all this activity the new taille agreed between the princes in July was now confirmed and fixed at 800,000 livres, the largest imposition of its kind since the tax had been devised in the 1380s. It would be collected, they decreed, at the end of April. These decisions were eventually ratified by the King when he recovered his faculties towards the end of January. The taille was duly proclaimed on 30 January. The three royal dukes present swore to see it spent exclusively on the war, apart from 200,000 livres which was earmarked for the King of Navarre in return for the cession to the Crown of the fortress-port of Cherbourg. The Duke of Orléans, they declared, would in due course swear the same oath.

Reports of the proceedings at the French council meeting had already reached England when, a week later, Parliament opened at Westminster. The Chancellor’s opening address was filled with foreboding. He recited the recent events in Wales and Scotland, the rebellion of the Percies, the assumption of power by the Duke of Orléans in France, the raiding fleet assembled by the Count of Saint-Pol and the threat to Calais and Gascony. The deliberations of both houses were overshadowed by reports coming in daily of ‘enemies and rebels’. The Commons believed that at any moment a fresh rebellion might break out, forcing a dissolution of Parliament as the King and the lords were called away to deal with it. They repeated for a third time since 1399 their oaths of fealty. But any impression of unity was undermined by the Commons’ brutal attack on the King’s management of his finances. They were convinced, as so many of their predecessors had been, that if properly husbanded the customs and the revenues of the royal demesne together with the treasure left by Richard II would be enough to fund the whole cost of the war in Wales, the defence of the Scottish border, the protection of the coast against French fleets and the suppression of internal rebellion. The King, they complained, had authorised profligate expenditure on grants to favourites and ‘various ladies’ and on repaying borrowings from his Italian bankers, while his castles went unrepaired and his troops unpaid. There was some truth in the accusation that Henry’s household expenditure was extravagant and that his grants were excessive. But the Commons’ concerns were exaggerated. Their belief that the cost of defence could be met without general taxation was completely unrealistic, just as it had been when they had uttered the same complaints in the 1370s and 1380s. In the event all that they were willing to vote by way of taxation was a tax on incomes from land amounting to just £12,000, less than a third of the value of a standard Parliamentary subsidy. Moreover the proceeds were required to be paid not to the treasury but to a special commission of war treasurers answerable to the Commons. The commission, comprising a clerk and three London businessmen, was charged to disburse the money exclusively on defence. This parsimony was borne of distrust of the King’s competence and of his servants’ honesty. But it left England perilously exposed to the most significant threat from France for two decades.

It was not that the Commons were under any illusions about the reality of the threat. Much of February was passed in drawing up a great remonstrance in the name of King, Lords and Commons, addressed to the ‘prelates, peers, lords spiritual and temporal and the whole community of France’. This was a long protest against the conduct of the French over the past year: the challenges of the Duke of Orléans and the Count of Saint-Pol, the attacks on England and Bordeaux over the winter, and the suspension of diplomatic contact since the previous autumn. If the truce broke down and more Christian blood was spilled, they declared, it would be France’s doing, not England’s. The document pointed out that the English ambassadors were at Calais waiting for the conference fixed for 1 March to open, but there had been no sign of a French embassy and the English delegation’s letters were still unanswered. Were they going to attend or not? Parliament’s remonstrance was intended as a direct appeal to the French political community, an attempt to sidestep the personal animosity to Henry IV among the royal princes which had undermined four years of frustrating and inconclusive diplomacy. The task of delivering it was entrusted to the Gloucestershire knight Sir John Cheyne, who had served on the King’s council and had been four times Speaker of the Commons. His instructions were to take it to Paris and deliver it in person to the French royal council. Henry IV, perhaps unrealistically, expected great things of Cheyne’s mission. He ordered the captains of the fortresses on the march of Calais to refrain from all hostilities during the two months which it was expected to take, except for those directed against the Count of Saint-Pol personally. But the herald sent to apply for a safe-conduct was turned back by the French captain of Boulogne and the Count of Saint-Pol threatened to arrest Cheyne if he caught him. Cheyne seems to have been able to hand over the remonstrance to Jean de Hangest at Calais in June but he himself never got further than the town gates.

By the time that Hangest received the English remonstrance it had been overtaken by events. At Saint-Malo a very large privateering expedition had been fitting out since the beginning of the year. Some 150 Breton ships were concentrated in the harbour and more were being made ready in the ports of Normandy. About 2,000 men-at-arms had been recruited to embark on them in addition to their crews and some companies of crossbowmen. The captains were Jean de Penhoet and Guillaume du Châtel, the two Breton noblemen who had led the raid on Plymouth the previous August. They had the explicit approval of the royal dukes. When the French delegation failed to appear at Calais on 1 March, Henry IV and his ministers assumed the worst. It was the first time that the French had broken off diplomatic contact completely or allowed the truce of 1396 to lapse. A French landing in England was declared to be imminent. The admirals were ordered to concentrate all available ships in the Downs off the Kent coast. Men-at-arms were summoned to London from across England to board them and coast-guards were arrayed to defend the beaches.

In the second week of April 1404 the Breton and Norman fleets put to sea and joined forces in the Channel before making for the Devon coast. They met with no resistance at sea. But the ships were sighted and the coast-guards were ready for them. On 15 April the French landed at Blackpool Sands, about two miles from Dartmouth. They found that a long line of trenches had been dug along the escarpment behind the beach. A large force of armed men was gathered behind them. Guillaume du Châtel landed with the first companies of men-at-arms. His instinct was to wait for his crossbowmen and the rest of the men-at-arms, who were still disembarking from the ships, and then to try to take the defenders by the flank. But he was talked out of this cautious tactic by his companions. Instead it was decided to mount a frontal assault on the defenders from the beach. It was an act of courageous folly. The men advanced into a hail of arrows, suffering heavy losses. Those who penetrated to the trenches were killed in large numbers as they tried to fight their way across. Many of their companions were drowned as they tried to wade ashore from the ships in full armour to join the mêlée. Others were massacred by furious local levies with no conception of the value of a man-at-arms taken alive. About 500 French died including Guillaume du Châtel himself. When it was all over a large part of the French force, including Jean de Penhoet, was still on board the ships. Seeing the fate of their companions, they turned about and made for home. Twenty knights and three lords were taken alive in addition to a large number of men of lesser rank. They included a Scottish knight, Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith, an unnamed Welsh squire and two of Guillaume du Châtel’s brothers, one of whom, Tanneguy, was destined to play a notorious part in the wars of the next generation. In due course the leading prisoners were sent under escort to London to be interrogated about future French plans. Guillaume himself was pulled out from among the dead and buried in Dartmouth Church. Some time afterwards, another brother wrote to the King from Brittany asking to be allowed to visit the place where he had fallen and to take his body home. ‘Men who get caught up in war’, he wrote, ‘may perchance be blessed by good fortune or cursed by bad, for none of us knows the inscrutable ways of the Lord.’


The Duke of Burgundy had approved the Breton expeditionary force. His retainers and servants were prominent in Guillaume du Châtel’s army and some had had their expenses paid by their master. But it was to be Philip’s last contribution to the war with England. In the spring of 1404 a severe epidemic of flu swept across northern Europe. Philip, who had left Paris early in March, was taken ill at Brussels on 16 April. He deteriorated fast. On 26 April he left for Arras in a litter, preceded by a team of sweepers to smooth the road as he passed. On the following day he died at an inn in the small town of Halle at the edge of the Flemish plain. Over the following six weeks the Duke’s embalmed remains, clothed in the habit of a Carthusian monk and encased in a lead coffin weighing a third of a ton, were carried slowly across the rough roads of north-eastern France, escorted by his sons, courtiers and servants and sixty liveried torch-bearers. On 16 June he was buried in the magnificent Carthusian monastery of Champmol outside Dijon which he had built to serve as the mausoleum of his family, in the great marble tomb surrounded by mourners in carved stone on which teams of sculptors had been working intermittently for more than two decades.

Philip of Burgundy had been born in 1342, five years after Edward III had declared war on France. His whole life had been overshadowed by the struggle with England. He had been at the forefront of France’s public life since the day, nearly half a century before, when he had been captured with his father John II on the battlefield of Poitiers. Widely regarded as France’s most experienced international statesman, he had succeeded in maintaining his grip on power for more than twenty years after the death of Charles V in 1380 by dint of sheer experience, eloquence and force of personality. Only in the last few months of his life was he displaced by a younger generation. In a number of ways Philip’s death marked a turning point. He had plundered the resources of the monarchy to create the germ of a great transnational state standing across France’s eastern and northern borders, as much German as French. He had been too close to the French court and administration, too intimate a member of the inner circle of the French royal family to perceive any difference between his own interests and those of France. His successors were inevitably more distant and objective, and in their time the divergent destinies of France and Burgundy became more obvious. A younger generation of French royal princes, of which the 32-year-old Duke of Orléans was the figurehead, was coming to power. They had not lived through the catastrophes of the mid-fourteenth century. They lacked Philip’s cautious ways, his wider grasp of European politics and his understanding of the limits of French power, and they did not share his historic respect for England.

Merlin’s Prophecy I

  The Eagle of the broken covenant …

  Shall rejoice in her third nesting.

—Geoffrey of Monmouth, “The Prophecies of Merlin”

They found the tomb deep in the earth between two stone monuments erected so long before that no one could remember what they signified or what the words inscribed upon them meant. Digging deep, as the king directed, they at last encountered a wooden sarcophagus of great size, which they carefully drew up and opened. There they discovered two sets of bones—the huge ones of a man and, at his feet, the smaller and more delicate bones of a woman. Word spread quickly. The bodies of King Arthur and his queen, Guenevere, had at last been found.

From the outset, accounts of the discovery differed. Neither of the two men who first chronicled the event—Ralph of Coggeshall and Giraldus Cambrensis—was present at the scene, although Giraldus visited soon after. A monk named Adam of Domerham wrote of the exhumation a full century later, but he seems to have drawn upon eyewitness testimony. Adam was a monk of Glastonbury, the abbey in Somerset where King Arthur’s body was discovered and where details of the marvelous find must have been told and retold long after. Their very own abbey, the “glassy isle” that in the Saxon tongue had become “Glastingeburi,” had turned out to be the legendary isle of Avalon.

Yet according to legend, Arthur—who was a special hero of the Celts—had not died at all and would someday return in messianic fashion to lead his people to victory over all their enemies. Quite probably in response to this legend, as well as to the widespread Celtic unrest that simmered along his kingdom’s borders, England’s Henry II had set out to find Arthur’s remains and settle once and for all any question of the ancient king’s return.

The result was the remarkable discovery at Glastonbury. Almost as remarkable was the fact that it was Henry who told the monks where to dig. According to Giraldus Cambrensis, the king “had heard from an ancient Welsh bard, a singer of the past, that they would find the body at least sixteen feet beneath the earth, not in a tomb of stone, but in a hollow oak.” Giraldus then goes on to describe the dramatic scene of exhumation. Opening the coffin—wooden, although Giraldus specifically calls it a hollow oak—the monks discovered the bones of a man and a woman, the man’s of remarkable size. The woman’s hair still glinted gold, but when an overeager monk reached out to touch it, the hair crumbled to dust in his hand.

There could be no doubt about the contents. Above the coffin lay a lead cross bearing the words, “Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur with Guenevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.”2 Rejoicing, the abbot and monks of Glastonbury bore the precious bones into their abbey church, where they placed them in a marble tomb before the high altar. There, according to John of Glastonbury’s fourteenth-century account, they remained until 1278, when King Edward I and his queen opened the tomb and confirmed its contents with their seals and an accompanying inscription.

It is of course quite possible that the monks of Glastonbury, in response to pressure from the king or simply a desire for renown (and the wealth that a flood of pilgrims would bring), had successfully passed off a couple of old skeletons as Arthur and Guenevere. Even Edward I’s seal did no more than certify that the tomb’s contents were plausible; the king had no way of knowing for sure.

Bogus or not, the news of the Glastonbury discovery created a sensation. Henry II, however, did not live long enough to be gladdened by the news, for he died in 1189, shortly before King Arthur was found. Many had already taken due note of the relevance of some of Merlin’s prophecies to current events. Henry’s death brought to pass one of Merlin’s most famous prophecies: that the eagle of the broken covenant—which the twelfth century understood to mean Henry’s queen, Eleanor—would rejoice in her third son, or nesting. The broken covenant referred to her first marriage, to France’s King Louis VII, which ended in divorce. As for rejoicing, she certainly had cause. Upon the death of Henry II, who was her second husband, their third son—Richard Lionheart—became ruler over all the vast Plantagenet realms.

Richard was the apple of his mother’s eye. Born in 1157, two years after Prince Henry and a year after the death of three-year-old William, Richard from childhood was singled out as Eleanor’s designated heir, the future ruler of Aquitaine and Poitou.

He seems to have been a handsome lad, muscular and deep-chested like his father, but tall and long-limbed, with red-gold hair and a ruddy complexion. Named for his Norman forebears, he embraced his remarkable heritage with enthusiasm, devoting himself with rigor and single-mindedness to the pursuits of war. Without question, Richard loved nothing better than a good fight. By the time he was sixteen, he was a blooded warrior, and while his older brother, Prince Henry, contented himself with tournaments, Richard seems to have been dissatisfied with anything less than the real thing. Fierce and single-minded when focused on warfare (which he generally was), he soon mastered the combatant’s skills and moved on to the commander’s, absorbing the larger lessons of siegecraft and assault, fortress-building and defense, to such remarkable effect that—as Giraldus was quick to point out—scarcely a castle could hold out against him. The roll call of fortifications that crumbled to Richard, generally in record time, constituted one of the marvels of the age.

Far narrower in his interests than his father, whose talents lay in governance as well as war (and who preferred the former), Richard seems to have been bored by administration and little intrigued by the realm of ideas. Had he been born in the tenth or even the eleventh century, he would have bathed his steps in blood and never bothered to wash for dinner. Instead, under Eleanor’s tutelage, he became something far more complex—a very model of chivalry.

Eleanor adored him.

Bernard of Clairvaux had never much liked Eleanor. The saintly monk had never liked Henry, either, but he had a particular aversion to Eleanor and her family, the house of Poitou. Although renowned for his obliviousness to the things of this world, Bernard seems to have had a sharp eye when it suited him. He understood the appeal of Cluniac art and architecture, even as he rejected it, and he just as clearly noticed and understood the appeal of Louis’ first queen. Bernard did not necessarily speak for all ecclesiastics, as the Church had never been a seamless whole, whether in the exercise of power or opinions. Even as bishop jostled bishop and Cistercian took on Cluniac, Bernard did not sit well with all higher prelates, including the powerful Abbot Suger, whom Bernard had once scolded for worldliness. Always the politician and statesman, and ever devoted to the house of Capet, Abbot Suger tried to keep Eleanor—and her vast lands—by Louis’ side. But Bernard, who had early concluded that Eleanor was a bad seed descended from evil stock, pressed Louis to free himself from her influence. At length—after Suger’s death—Louis reluctantly did as Bernard urged.

For once, although for vastly different reasons, Eleanor and Bernard were in agreement. Still, her subsequent marriage to Henry of Anjou must have confirmed whatever evil the saintly monk believed of them both. She and Henry began married life in mutual defiance of Louis, with the bright overtones of sexual as well as political triumph. The thirty-year-old countess pleased her nineteen-year-old husband, and just as important, he pleased her. Both were passionate and strong, dangerous as well as attractive to the opposite sex. Henry had the more legalistic mind, while Eleanor was the more romantic—but neither gave place to the other in intelligence or wit.

Eleanor bore this lion of a husband eight children, five during the first six years alone—something of a record given the two children she had managed to conceive during her fifteen years with Louis.6 Even more remarkably, all but one of this strong brood survived infancy. Between them, she and Henry founded a dynasty.

In December 1166 or early 1167, at the age of forty-five, Eleanor gave birth to her last child, John. Henry had by this time taken firm hold of his empire, consolidating control over England and his extensive Continental domains—stretching from Normandy and Anjou down through Poitou and Aquitaine—as well as extending Plantagenet authority over Brittany. He also managed to put down rebellions in Wales, while preparing to bring Ireland and Scotland into the fold. It was an enormous undertaking, and Henry held his far-flung territories together by sheer tenacity; he was constantly in the saddle as he rode the considerable length of his strung-out domains.

Given Henry’s constant wars and travels, he and Eleanor had never seen much of one another—although the time they did spend together appeared to be productive, as Eleanor conceived little Plantagenets with remarkable regularity. Yet by the late 1160s, Eleanor’s childbearing years had come to a close. She had lived up to and even exceeded all expectations for a medieval queen, for Henry certainly required no more sons. The larger question, in fact, appeared to be how best to provide for them all.

Henry’s solution emerged early in 1169, at Montmirail, where he announced his intention of dividing his realm. His eldest, Prince Henry, who was heir to England, would receive his father’s own inheritance. In recognition of this, the young prince now did homage to Louis VII for Normandy and Anjou—his father’s lands, but subject to the French crown. Richard, as expected, bent the knee for Eleanor’s vast lands in southwestern France, while Geoffrey, the third living son, paid homage to Prince Henry—and through him, to the French king—for the English king’s recent conquest, Brittany. These youngsters—aged thirteen, eleven, and ten, respectively—now held the titles to go with their expected inheritances. The following year, Henry even had his eldest son crowned king. This was not an unusual procedure, as the Capetians and others had been doing it for years to secure the succession. The problem lay in the homage that these heirs of Henry II had now paid to Henry’s hereditary rival, Louis VII of France.

Exacerbating this potentially explosive situation was the inevitable question of when Henry’s sons would receive the lands, revenues, and responsibilities to go with their titles. To Henry, the answer was obvious: upon his own death. Yet in the following years, as the boys grew to manhood, they became restless under the restrictions their father imposed. Even Richard, who as duke and count of his mother’s lands had considerably more independence than the rest, was held on a tight leash. But it was Henry’s oldest, the duly crowned young king, who chafed the most, for by 1173 he was eighteen years old and a married man. To his mind, his father was treating him like a child.

Henry the Younger (or the Young King), as this young man was known, was the handsomest of all the Plantagenet brood, a striking fellow with an engaging manner and easy ways. A spendthrift and something of a dandy, he was surrounded by friends and hangers-on who urged him to claim what was rightfully his.9 After all, hadn’t his father received Normandy from his father, in fact as well as in name, when he was still in his teens? Marriage to Princess Marguerite of France only worsened the situation.

This remarkable union had taken place many years earlier, after Louis VII’s second wife most disappointingly gave birth to yet another daughter. Contemplating the English king’s growing brood of male children, Louis set pride aside and—looking to the future—proposed a marriage alliance with his erstwhile rival. If a Capetian son did not seem destined to rule over France, then perhaps a grandson could rule over France as well as the vast Plantagenet realms. Sweetening the deal, Louis offered an especially strategic piece of property between French and English crown lands called the Norman Vexin, which he had extracted from the Plantagenets some years before. The outcome was the betrothal of baby Marguerite to three-year-old Prince Henry, with the all-important Norman Vexin as her dowry. Marguerite, aged six months, went to be raised in the court of her future husband, as was the custom, while Louis sat back, prepared to retain control over the entire Vexin until Marguerite and her young prince reached marriageable age.

He failed to appreciate the wiliness of the elder Henry, who quickly outmaneuvered him, marrying off the youngsters—by now two and five years old, respectively—and reeling in the Norman Vexin before Louis could sit up and take notice. It was a brazen move, made possible only because a pope in dire need of Henry’s support was willing to overlook the extreme youth of the bride and groom and cast his blessing on the marriage. Louis himself, thoroughly preoccupied in the tumult surrounding the unexpected death of his second wife (while giving birth to yet another girl) and his almost-immediate remarriage to Adele of Champagne, did not catch what Henry was about until it was too late.

King Henry II of England had thus most grievously jeopardized relations with his Continental overlord, the king of France, on the heels of yet other causes for hostility (a tedious list for the reader, but not for the French king). It was hardly surprising that Louis’ animosity now grew increasingly open, as his marriage to Adele of Champagne so clearly signaled. Certainly neither Adele nor her brothers—the powerful Theobald of Blois and Henry of Champagne—were friends of the Plantagenets.

More than this, in the year 1165, Adele at long last presented Louis with a son.

It was a sweltering August night, and twenty-year-old Giraldus Cambrensis—drawn to Paris like other young students of his time—had retired from the heat to his room in the Cité. A zealous student (by his own account), he had remained up studying until well past midnight. At last, thoroughly exhausted, he collapsed upon his bed. But no sooner had he fallen into slumber than a great commotion of clanging bells awakened him. Fearful that a great fire had broken out, he dived toward his window and leaned out. The city was ablaze with bonfires, and people rushed westward toward the king’s palace, lighting the narrow streets with torches as they went.

“What is it?” he cried out as two old crones hastened by.

Recognizing from his accent that he was English, the one called out, “This night a boy is born to us, who by the blessing of God shall assuredly be a hammer to your King!”

At long last, at the age of forty-five, Louis VII had fathered a son. They named him Philip, but they called him Dieudonné (God-given), for God had finally answered their prayers. Bolstered by the event, Louis seems to have developed more sprightliness. He now took it upon himself to stir up flames of rebellion wherever they appeared within his rival’s vast empire, whether in Wales or Scotland, Aquitaine or Brittany. Most particularly, he offered asylum to Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who had recently evolved from the English king’s closest friend into his bitterest enemy. Henry countered by marrying off his eldest daughter, Matilda, to the powerful Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, and threatened to join with the German emperor in supporting a rival pope. It was at this moment that Louis decided to raid the Norman Vexin. Henry replied with a brilliant sack of Louis’ heavily fortified arsenal on the French side of the border, at Chaumont-sur-Epte. Louis in turn sacked the nearby town of Andely.

Thirty years later, Richard Lionheart would choose Andely as the site on which to build his magnificent castle, Château-Gaillard. But for now, Henry and Louis called a truce. This was the occasion that brought Henry and his three eldest sons to Montmirail in early 1169. And this was the place where Henry proposed to divide his realm, while Louis agreed to betroth the youngest of his four daughters, a princess by the name of Alais, to young Richard. Just as her older sister had brought the invaluable Vexin to Henry as her dowry, Alais promised to bring portions of the equally significant borderland of Berry into Henry’s hands. Louis, in turn, received homage from Henry and his sons, plus the promise of eventual joint Capetian-Plantagenet rule over the greater part of Henry’s realms. Both sides had reason to be pleased.

Yet Louis had reason to be wary as well. Becket, whose case figured large at Montmirail, warned the French king that Henry was not to be trusted, and Henry’s subsequent actions only heightened Louis’ concerns. Once again, the rivalry between the king of England and the king of France exploded into war, only this time—the year was 1173—there was an astonishing difference.

This time, in an amazing turn of events, Henry’s queen, as well as his three oldest sons, allied with Eleanor’s former husband, the king of France.

Sometime during the late 1160s and early 1170s, the dazzle faded and the remarkable marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II took a dismal turn. Eleanor left Henry and established herself at her court of Poitiers. Henry’s biographer, W. L. Warren, concludes that Eleanor was aggrieved because her marriage to Henry had brought “neither the power nor the influence she—a duchess in her own right, and a queen before she married Henry—thought to be her due.” This possibly accounts for it, for in Poitiers, Eleanor—with her favorite son and heir by her side—proceeded to establish herself in charge of her vast and turbulent lands to a degree quite impossible had she remained with Henry. Still, the acrimony that continued to grow between Eleanor and Henry has encouraged speculation that something more was afoot. Had Eleanor been merely dissatisfied or even aggrieved with her role as Henry’s queen, her years at Poitiers, in control of her own lands and court, should have brought her a measure of peace and satisfaction. Instead, Henry now was her mortal enemy, and marriage—all marriage—was a sham. Eleanor—still strong and beautiful, still the recipient of troubadours’ sighs—was behaving like a woman scorned.

If Giraldus can be trusted, it was not Henry’s infidelity per se that sent Eleanor packing, for over the long years of her marriage, Eleanor must have known what everyone else knew. Fidelity in a husband in those times was unusual—in Louis’ case, possibly even boring—and Henry was often far from her side. His many casual liaisons would have been beneath her contempt, and for years she seems to have successfully ignored them. Yet Rosamond Clifford was different.

The shock would not have been that Henry had taken a mistress; what seems to have been unique, and devastating, was how he loved this one, treating her as if she were his queen. In the fair young daughter of Walter de Clifford, the unsophisticated offspring of a simple knight, Eleanor of Aquitaine had most unexpectedly met her match.

The affair was a long one, lasting from around 1166 to Rosamond’s death in 1177, but Eleanor probably learned of it in its first bloom, while in England to give birth to John. This would explain, at least in part, the bitterness of the estrangement that arose between her and Henry following John’s birth, including Eleanor’s subsequent departure for her own court in Poitiers. Under her guidance, Poitiers became the most brilliant court in Western Christendom, as well as a hotbed of intrigue. Here, encouraged by Eleanor, troubadours sang of romantic love, knights learned courtly chivalry, and Eleanor’s four surviving sons learned to hate their father.

It was not a difficult task. A crafty and unreadable man of sudden and violent temper, Henry demanded total loyalty and utter dependency. Giraldus says that he was a kind father during his sons’ youth and childhood, “but as they advanced in years looked on them with an evil eye, treating them worse than a stepfather.” Giraldus, who himself harbored considerable resentment of Henry, having been denied a much-coveted bishopric, nevertheless could be perceptive: “Whether it was that he would not have them prosper too fast,” he ruminated, “or whether they were ill-deserving, he could never bear to think of them as his successors.”

According to Giraldus’s contemporary, Walter Map, Henry acquired this particular trait by training as well as by instinct, for his mother, Matilda, had taught her son to “spin out all the affairs of everyone, hold long in his own hand all posts that fell in,” and “keep the aspirants to them hanging on in hope.” She supported this Machiavellian observation with the analogy of an unruly hawk: “If meat is often offered to it and then snatched away or hid, [it] becomes keener and more inclinably obedient and attentive.” Map thought this teaching offensive, but concluded that it explained Henry’s less attractive qualities. Certainly Henry, who was an avid hawker, seems to have readily taken to it, baiting his filial as well as other relationships with hunger, and holding the choicest tidbits just out of reach.

Henry Plantagenet was thus a difficult and even dangerous man. Not surprisingly, his sons showed similar promise, although on a meaner scale. Young Henry, the heir, was handsome and a general favorite but, in the end, weak and pathetic. Geoffrey was a schemer, with a talent for behind-the-throne manipulation. John, the baby, was shamelessly crooked, with neither the talent nor the interest to disguise it. Richard, Eleanor’s favorite, was also flawed. Yet of the four sons who survived infancy, Richard showed the greatest promise, and Eleanor showered her affection on him.

It should therefore have come as little surprise when the discontented older sons, aided by their bitter mother and her former husband, Louis of France, led a general uprising against Henry of England. But even before this, Eleanor had carried on her own form of rebellion in Poitiers. There she not only turned Henry’s offspring against him, but undertook to turn the scruffy, blood-soaked sons of the nobility into gentle knights in the service of love, beauty, and fair womanhood.