The Battle of Sandwich was a naval battle fought on the 24th August 1217 between an English fleet under the command of Hubert de Burgh and a French Fleet led by one Robert de Courtenai.
The last few years of the reign of king John degenerated into civil war. After signing Magna Carta in 1215 to accommodate the baronial opposition to his rule, John soon repudiated this agreement which in turn led a majority of the barons to support the claims of Louis of France to the English crown. By the time John died on the 19th October 1216 large parts of the country including the capital London were in Louis's hands and there were severe doubts as to whether John's nine year old son and heir Henry would ever succeed in making good his claim.
Henry had some notable supporters including the Marshal of England, William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, and Hubert de Burgh the justiciar and the Henrician loyalists were able to win a notable victory over the supporters of Louis at the battle of Lincoln Fair on the 20th May 1217. This result of this battle persuaded some 150 barons to change sides and support Henry, whilst Louis was forced to abandon the siege of Dover Castle. However peace negotiations between Louis and the representatives of the young Henry III broke down, and so Louis decided to continue the fight and to wait in London for reinforcements from his father Philip king of France.
Despite Louis's request, Philip could not be seen to openly supporting his son. As Roger of Wendover explained, "Since the king feared to bear aid to his excommunicated son, having often been censured by the Pope for complicity with him, he imposed the whole of the work upon the wife of Louis"1. Thus it was Louis's wife Blanche of Castille who took on the role of gathering the necessary men and supplies at Calais, "where she toiled very hard to make his people pass over to rescue their lord" 2.
In this task Blanche was assisted by Eustace the Monk who, from his base in the Channel Islands, largely controlled the channel and was thus responsible for gathering the required ships, and Robert de Courtenai, the uncle of the French queen, who became the main recruiter for the proposed expedition and assembled a force of knights from the counties of Boulougne and Artois. All together they had ten large ships carrying between them a total of between a 100 and a 125 knights and some seventy smaller ships carrying supplies. It was clearly their intention to cross the English Channel and head up the Thames to London, where Louis of France awaited them.
These preparations came to the notice of William Marshal, the effective ruler of the country3, who naturally began his own counter-preparations. He instructed Phillip d'Aubigny, who had been given the job of defending the south coast, to assemble what ships he could muster at Sandwich in order to intercept the enemy. There Phillip was joined by Hubert de Burgh, who as justiciar assumed nominal command of the fleet, and Richard Fitz John, king John's illegitimate son who was in command of the men supplied by his uncle the Earl Warenne. It was with great difficulty that William Marshal himself was persuaded to stay onshore. (He was in his seventies at the time.)
According to Matthew of Paris the English fleet consisted of "sixteen ships well fitted out, besides attendant small boats to the number of twenty" whilst the Histoire des Ducs du Normandie states that there were eighteen large ships. But whatever the exact number of English ships they were clearly outnumbered by the French fleet.
There was a certain amount of skirmishing before the battle; there being at least one failed attack by the English on the French fleet at Calais, and one failed French attempt to reach the Thames which was driven back by a storm.
The French fleet set sail on the 24th August, when "the day was fine and clear and they could look far out at sea" 4. They were sailing past Sandwich when the English fleet emerged to intercept them. Hubert de Burgh's ship manoeuvred as if to attack the French, and then slipped behind them. At this point Eustace the Monk wanted to leave the English alone and proceed to the Thames, but he was over-ruled by Robert de Couretnai who, conscious of the French superiority in numbers, saw an easy victory and gave the order to attack.
The French flagship then appears to have hit Richard Fitz John's ship and the battle began. The great cog under the command of Phillip d'Aubigny soon joined in the battle, and "began to throw finely pulverized lime in great pots upon the deck, so that a great cloud arose. Then the French could no longer defend themselves for their eyes were full of powder"5. An English warrior by the name of Ranulf Paganus boarded the French vessel and forced the surrender of the French knights. Eustace the Monk was found hiding below decks by two men named Richard Sudole and Wudecoc and dragged on deck. Eustace offered 10,000 marks as his ransom but one Stephen Crabbe simply cut off his head, which was then stuck on a lance and paraded through the streets of Dover and Canterbury. (Eustace's prior career as a pirate had not been forgotten by the English, who regarded his capture and execution as a welcome bonus.)
Whilst this was happening Hubert de Burgh attacked the rear of the French line, where most of the store ships were to be found. Indeed it seems that the English were far more interested in the store ships than they were in continuing the battle. Having captured the French flagship, the other troopships were allowed to get away and returned safely to Calais, whilst the English busied themselves slaughtering much of the crew on the store ships, and bore the captured supplies home in triumph to Sandwich.
The booty was distributed between the combatants but a portion was reserved and later sold and the proceeds used to build the hospital of St Bartholomew near Sandwich to commemorate the victory. The 24th August was Saint Bartholomew's day, and some of the later accounts of the battle were to credit the personal appearance of the saint with inspiring the English to victory.
Defeat at the battle of Sandwich meant the end of the attempt of Louis of France to seize the English crown. Within a month he agreed at the Treaty of Lambeth to abandon his claim, thereby confirming the young Henry III as king. The English even succeeded in regaining the Channel Islands, although Louis's reneged on a promise to help Henry recover Normandy. Oddly enough, subsequent traditional accounts of the battle rarely mentioned its role in 'saving' England from the French. Rather the focus was on the capture and execution of Eustace the Monk, whose piratical exploits seem to have raised him to the status of a folk devil.
1 Ever since king John had signed the Concession of England to the Pope the papacy had supported him and thus excommincated his rival Louis.
2 Histoire des Ducs du Normandie et des Rois l'Angleterre
3 Or at least that part of it controlled by the supporters of Henry III.
4 Histoire de Guillame de le Maréchal
5 Li romans de Witasse le Moine
Maurice Powicke The Thirteenth Century (OUP, 1962)
- Arthur Tilley Medieval France: A Companion to French Studies (London, 1922)
- Henry Lewis Cannon, The Battle of Sandwich and Eustace the Monk - from the English Historical Review v.27 (1912) from which the source quoataions are drawn