Battle of Sluys
|Battle of Sluys|
|Part of the Hundred Years' War|
A miniature of the battle from Jean Froissart's Chronicles, 14th century
|Kingdom of England||Kingdom of France|
|Commanders and leaders|
King Edward III (WIA)|
Earl of Huntingdon
Hugues Quiéret † |
Nicolas Béhuchet †
|120–150 ships||213 ships|
|Casualties and losses|
Most ships captured
The Battle of Sluys (//; Dutch pronunciation: [slœys]), also called the Battle of l'Ecluse, was a naval battle fought on 24 June 1340 between England and France, in the roadstead of the port of Sluis (French Écluse), on a since silted up inlet between Zeeland and West Flanders. The English fleet of 120–150 ships was led by Edward III of England and the French of 230 by the Breton knight Hugues Quiéret, Admiral of France and Nicolas Béhuchet, Constable of France. It was one of the opening engagements of the Hundred Years' War.
Edward sailed from the Orwell on 22 June and encountered the French in Sluys harbour. His fleet spent some time manoeuvring to gain the advantage of wind and tide. The French bound their ships into three lines, forming large floating fighting platforms. During the battle the French navy was almost completely destroyed, with most of their ships being captured. They lost 16–20,000 men killed, against slight losses to the English. The battle gave the English fleet naval supremacy in the English Channel. However, they were unable to take strategic advantage of this and their success barely interrupted French raids on English territories and shipping.
Cause of war
Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, English monarchs had held titles and lands within France, the possession of which made them vassals to the kings of France. The status of the English king's French fiefs was a major source of conflict between the two monarchies throughout the Middle Ages. French monarchs systematically sought to check the growth of English power, stripping away lands as the opportunity arose. Over the centuries, English holdings in France had varied in size, but by 1337 only Gascony in south western France and Ponthieu in northern France were left. The Gascons had their own language and customs. A large proportion of the red wine that they produced was shipped to England in a profitable trade. The trade provided the English king with much of his revenue. The Gascons preferred their relationship with a distant English king who left them alone, to one with a French king who would interfere in their affairs. Following a series of disagreements between Philip VI of France and Edward III of England, on 24 May 1337 Philip's Great Council in Paris agreed that the Duchy of Aquitaine, effectively Gascony, should be taken back into Philip's hands on the grounds that Edward was in breach of his obligations as a vassal. This marked the start of the Hundred Years' War, which was to last one hundred and sixteen years.
At the beginning of the war the French had the advantage at sea. Their vessels were suitable for swift passage across the Channel under sail or oars. Galleys had long been used by the Mediterranean powers and the French adopted them for use in the Channel. The galleys could penetrate shallow harbours and were highly manoeuvrable, making them effective for raiding and ship-to-ship combat in meeting engagements. The French galleys were supplemented by galleys hired from Genoa and Monaco. The French were able to disrupt English commercial shipping, principally the Gascon wine and the Flanders wool trades, as well as raiding the south and east coasts of England at will. Operating the galleys was a specialist activity and called for highly trained crews, who were normally also drawn from Genoa, Monaco and, to a lesser extent, other Mediterranean ports. 
The English did not have a purpose-built navy. Edward owned only three warships. They relied on requisitioning cogs, the merchant vessels of English traders. Cogs had a deep draught, a round hull and were propelled by a single large sail set on a mast amidships. They were converted into warships by the addition of wooden castles at the bow and stern and the erection of crow's nest platforms at the masthead. The cogs had a displacement of 200–300 long tons (203–305 t) and were able to carry many fighting men. Their high freeboard made them superior to the oared vessels in close combat, particularly when they were fitted with the castles from which missiles could be fired or stones dropped on to enemy craft alongside. By English common law, the king was required to compensate the owners of ships impressed into service, but in practise he paid little and late.
In March 1338 Portsmouth was captured and razed by French galleys. Five English ships carrying wool were captured off Walcheren in September after a fierce fight known as the Battle of Arnemuiden. The lost ships included two of Edward's three warships: the Christopher and the "great cog" Cog Edward. In October the major port of Southampton was captured and burnt down. In 1339 it was the turn of Hastings.
The previous year there had been discontent among the Genoese mercenaries, whose commander had not been passing on their pay. Believing that the fault lay with their French paymasters a deputation sought an audience with the French king, Philip VI, in August 1339. He jailed them, causing the Genoese crews to mutiny and return to the Mediterranean. When the mutinous sailors arrived back in Genoa they led an uprising which overthrew the ruling patricians. The new regime was disinclined to enter into new contracts with the French. When several ship captains were persuaded to, they were bribed by English agents to renege. In January 1340 the English successfully raided Boulogne, where the majority of the French galley fleet was drawn up on the harbour beach and was inadequately guarded. Taking advantage of a mist the English surprised the French and destroyed 18 galleys, 24 other ships, large stocks of naval equipment and much of the harbour district before being driven off. The French were left with only 6 galleys, which they supplemented with 22 oared barges.
The loss of their galleys reduced the threat posed by the French to the English south coast and freed the English ships for offensive operations. During the winter and spring of 1340 the French ports of Dieppe, Le Treport and Mers were all successfully raided. The French fell back on the English expedient of requisitioning merchant ships. Philip ordered the collection of 200 ships, mostly Norman, into a Great Army of the Sea. Contemporary French documents record the fleet's size as 202 vessels: 6 galleys, 7 royal warships, 22 oared barges and 167 merchant vessels. The complement was 19,000, but they only included 150 men-at-arms and 500 crossbowmen. It was commanded by the Breton knight Hugues Quiéret, Admiral of France and Nicolas Béhuchet, Constable. The 6 galleys were commanded by Pietro Barbavera, who had learnt his trade in the Mediterranean as a corsair [a]
On land, an April offensive by Edward's continental allies had failed. A French offensive commenced on 18 May. It met with mixed fortunes, but Edward's outnumbered allies were desperate for the English army to reinforce them. Edward had planned to ship his army to Sluys, in Flemish Zeeland, in mid-April, but most English merchantmen, aware that they were unlikely to receive the payments they were entitled to, were refusing to muster. The departure date was repeatedly postponed. On 4 June the King's Council decided to sail with what ships they had, even though they could only carry 600 men-at-arms. On 10 June the Council received news that the Great Army of the Sea had arrived at Sluys on the 8th with consternation. Sluys was the main port of Flanders and had long been used by French and Genonese warships, despite Flanders having had its neutrality recognised by both sides. Quiéret and Béhuchet had cut English communications with the continent. As they blocked the roadstead a further 10 ships reinforced them, bringing the total French strength to 213 ships.
An acrimonious meeting of the Council took place. John de Stratford, Archbishop of Canterbury, a senior advisor, insisted that putting to sea would risk the loss of the king and that the whole expedition should be cancelled. The men in charge of the shipping arrangements were personally abused by the king. Stratford stormed out of the Council. In a fury Edward declared that "Those who are afraid can stay at home". A string of instructions went out. Coastal defences were stripped. Peremptory orders were sent to royal officers to brook no excuses from tardy mariners. Edward personally harangued the shipowners of Yarmouth, the largest port in England. Meanwhile, the horses which had already been loaded were unloaded and the erstwhile transports were rapidly converted to warships by having forecastles, aftercastles and crow's nests added. To general amazement a sizable fleet had been assembled at the Orwell by 20 June. The payroll records for the English fleet have been lost, so historians have relied on the estimates of chroniclers to ascertain the size of the fleet. 66 ships which sailed with it have been identified by name and it is believed that it totaled between 120 and 150 ships. Edward's lieutenants were the Earls of Northampton and Huntington. The fleet set sail early on 22 June 1340 and was in sight of the roadstead at Sluys by the afternoon of the following day. Edward anchored at Blankenberge and in the evening sent ashore Reginald Cobham, Sir John Chandos and Stephen Lambkin to reconnoitre the French fleet.
When the English were sighted the French fleet organised itself in three lines across the three miles wide estury of the Zwin. The ships of each line were bound together with chains and ropes to prevent the passage of enemy ships, "like a line of castles". Several large ships were stationed in the front of the line, including the very large captured English prize the Christopher. This was a normal medieval tactic for a fleet fighting on the defensive. Admiral Barbavera, the experienced commander of the galleys, was concerned about this. He realised that they would lack manoeuvrability in their anchorage and be open to attack from the ship-based English archers. He advised the French commander to put to sea and gain the weather gage, so as to be able to attack the English while they were unloading, or deter this by the threat of an attack. Béhuchet, who as constable exercised overall command, knew little of naval operations. He viewed Barbavera as a mere commoner and near pirate, and wishing to take no chances of the English slipping past insisted on holding a position blocking the inlet. Edward's intentions were well known; he wished to sail up the Zwin to Bruges and land his army to support his hard-pressed allies. The French were anchored at the entrance of the Zwin (also Zwyn) Channel and Béhuchet's intention was to bar Edward's way.
Cobham reported back late that night on the state of the French fleet. The extant records report that Edward entered the roadstead at high tide the next day, 24 June, manoeuvring to be able to attack with the advantage of wind and tide and with the sun behind them. The traditional view is that the attack took place at 3:00 p.m.[b] According to naval historian Nicholas Harris Nicolas modern research reveals that high tide would have been at 11:23 am on 24 June.[c] After nearly a day linked by chains and ropes, and with wind and rain working against them, the French ships were fouled against each other to the east of their starting positions. Béhuchet and Quiéret ordered the ships to be separated and the fleet attempted to move back to the west, against the wind and the tide. In this disorganised state they made contact with the English.
Edward sent his ships against the French fleet in units of three, two ships full of archers flanking one full of men-at-arms. The English ships with the archers would approach a French ship and rain arrows down on its decks; the men-at-arms would then board and take the vessel. The English archers, with their longbows, could accurately shoot arrows at twice the speed of the French crossbowmen and had an effective range of 300 yd (270 m) compared with 200 yd (180 m) for the crossbows.[d]
The battle resembled a land engagement at sea. Two opposing ships would be lashed together and the men-at-arms would then engage in hand-to-hand fighting while supporting troops poured in arrows or bolts. As the battle progressed Béhuchet's tactics proved disastrous for the French, as it allowed the English to attack single ships or small groups of ships with overwhelming force while the rest of the French were immobilised. The greater number of fighting men in the English ships, especially archers, also told. A London longbowman reported that the English arrows were "like hail in winter". Many French ships were boarded and captured after fierce battles. Barbavera had refused to tie his highly manoeuverble galleys in with the French ships and the Genoese managed to board and capture two English ships. As the it became clear that the battle was going the way of the English their Flemish allies sallied from the nearby ports and fell upon the French rear. In a letter to his son, Edward said that the French "made a most noble defence all that day and the night after".
Late at night the French rear line attempted to break out. Apart from the galleys only 17 other French ships escaped. The rest of the French fleet, 190 ships, was captured. Few, if any, prisoners were taken and the water was reported to be thick with blood and corpses. French losses were between 16,000 and 20,000 killed, a high proportion of these by drowning, including both French commanders; they were captured and Béhuchet was hanged from the mast of his own ship, while Quiéret was beheaded, in vengeance for the massacre they had overseen at Arnemuiden two years earlier and their raids on the English coast. Frenchmen who managed to swim ashore were clubbed to death by Flemish spectators. Only four English knights were killed, along with an unknown but small number of other English combatants. The English joked that if the fish in Sluys harbour could speak, it would be in French, from the feast of French bodies they had dined on. For days the tides washed up bodies. Edward was wounded in the thigh by either an arrow or a bolt. A modern historian summarises that "The French had suffered a naval catastrophe on a scale unequalled until modern times".
The French suffered an invasion scare and rushed troops to their coastal districts. Philip ordered that Barbavera be arrested for desertion. An alms house was set up at Leure (near Harfleur) to care for survivors too injured to work as seamen. Tactically the battle allowed Edward to land his army, which went on to besiege Tournai, a city in Flanders that was loyal to Philip VI. Strategically the victory had little effect. Philip had greater resources than Edward and was able to rapidly rebuild the French navy around the ships which had escaped and those which were not involved in the battle. Within a month a French squadron under their new admiral, Robert Houdetot, captured 30 merchantmen from an English wool convoy and threw the crews overboard. French ships continued to capture English merchantmen in the North Sea and to run men and munitions to Scotland. English coastal communities rejoiced in the victory and in the relief from French raids they supposed it brought. They were mistaken; later in the year the French raided the Isle of Wight, Portland, Teignmouth, Plymouth and the Channel Islands. The English retaliated in September by raiding Brest, capturing many ships, including 6 fully laden Genoese merchantmen. In 1341 French, Castilian and Portuguese squadrons successfully interdicted English communications with Gascony.
The battle was later commemorated on Edward's gold noble coin, which depicted the king seated in a ship. The inscription reads: IHC TRANSIENS PER MEDIUM ILLORUM IBAT (Jesus passing through the midst of them went his way).
- There are no verifiable records of any ships from Castile in the fleet.
- All the chroniclers, a number of whom witnessed the battle, state that the attack took place at three o'clock in the afternoon at the moment of high tide.
- "According to the calculation of the astronomer royal, high tide in the Schelde on 23 June 1340, occurred at 10:35 A.M. and 10:59 P.M., and on the following day at 11:23 A.M. and 11:46 P.M."
- A test conducted by Mike Loades for Weapons That Made Britain – Longbow (Lion Television for Channel 4, UK), found that a belt-and-claw span crossbow could discharge four bolts in 30 seconds, while a longbow could shoot nine arrows. A second speed test conducted using a hand-span crossbow found that the weapon could shoot six bolts in the same time it took for a longbow to shoot 10. Modern historian Jonathan Sumption states that the longbow significantly outranged the crossbow and had a rate of fire more than three time greater.
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