The Ouverture of Naval Artillery at the Battle of Arnemuiden

21 September 1338, at Arnemuiden, off the coast of Zeeland at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, cannon were used for the first time as naval artillery.
“Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death.“ (Jean Froissart, “Chronicles”)

A miniature of the Battle of Arnemuiden from Jean Froissart’s “Chronicles”,
Bruge, ca 1470

Trade with the continent was an important factor in English economy already during the Middle Ages. When war broke out in 1337 between England and France, the vital wool trade that would finance the war was disrupted and Edward III was in deep trouble. Five ships that left England for Flanders carrying a large cargo of wool were of considerable importance evidentially, since two of them were the two largest and best armed nefs, early cogs, the king had at his disposal, the “Christopher” and “Edward”. Another pattern was forming in the autumn of that year that would mould English politics for the next 700 years: the threat of invasion by an enemy with superior forces in the Channel. With their own vessels and lots of Genoese mercenary galleys the French had assembled a large fleet known as “The Grand Army of the Sea” that began to scout the English coast for a suitable place to land troops and harass and raid local settlements and towns. Both Portsmouth and Southampton were sacked. 

Maritime artist Montague Dawson's (1890 - 1973) imagination of an English cog 

However, things looked not too bad at first for the small English flotilla. They made the crossing to Flanders uncontested and began to unload their goods in the harbour of Arnemuiden on Walcheren, still an island during the 14th century and close to the trade centres of Ghent and Antwerp. But the Grand Army of the Sea was close. Under the command of the Admiral of France, Hugues Quiéret, 40 galleys had left Dieppe and Harfleur and leashed into the moored English ships in the morning of September 21st. The English stood no chance but defended themselves bravely, with the 4 guns mounted on “Christopher” pounding into the French galleys and giving an impression of how naval engagements would look in the future. Nonetheless, the action was over in the evening, the English ships taken and, by order of Hugues Quiéret, the English survivors decapitated quite unchivalrously to the last man.

Edward's revenge for Arnemuiden at the Battle of Sluys

The loss at Arnemuiden cost Edward dearly and the French remained masters of the Channel, but the English had learned their lesson and while warfare at sea ceased during the winter of 1338/39 the towns along the Channel coast and the Channel Islands were heavily fortified. Piracy remained a problem though and merchant ships and fishing boats captured as far west as the Bristol Channel, the bodies of their crews paraded through French towns. But when the Grand Army of the Sea made their next attempt to land and plunder in England, they were driven back across the Channel by Robert Morlay off East Sussex, the Italian mercenaries fled and what was left of the great French fleet defeated in the following year at Sluys, where Hugues Quiéret was captured and put to death for his atrocities.

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