"I have for a long time wished to meet with them, and now, please God and St. George, we will fight with them" - King Edward III and the naval Battle of Sluys in 1340

24 June 1440, an English fleet under the command of King Edward III decisively defeated the French “Army of the Sea” at the Battle of Sluys off Zeeland during the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War.
 “Our knights are much braver than the English.” “How so?” said Philip, “The English do not dare to jump into the sea in full armour.” (Philip VI’s court jester breaking the news of the French defeat at the Battle of Sluys to the king)

The Battle of Sluys - Illustration from Book I of Froissart's Chronicles around 1470

Somehow, England was caught on the wrong foot out at sea, when young King Edward III made his claim for the crown of France and the Hundred Years’ War broke out in 1337. His kingdom was dependant on trade, from the wine pressed in his continental domains in Aquitaine to the wool of hundred thousands of sheep back home in England and already in mid-14th century, that meant sea trade with the continent. Neither he nor Philip VI of France possessed professional navies, though, there were no dedicated warships outside of the Med, but his French rival managed to hire Catalan and Genoese mercenaries with their fast, highly manoeuvrable war galleys and together his own Norman and Breton vassals and hired Scottish, Scandinavian and Frisian privateers, he ordered merchant ships from the Atlantic coast to be commandeered and refitted and France was, all of a sudden, a naval power. English commerce in the Bay of Biscay and to the South was quickly disrupted as well as the essential wool trade with Flanders and England had nothing to counter them. And if that was not enough, the largely privatised navy in French service began raiding the English coasts with a vengeance. Portsmouth became the first major victim of the naval chevauchées. The important trade city was virtually destroyed in 1338 during a major raid and many coastal villages and cities like Southampton along the southern English coast followed, the Channel Islands were occupied, the coasters were in panic and King Edward began to run short of the money his continental alliance depended upon. An armed English convoy of 5 converted merchantmen, all Edward cut put to sea in a trice and lead by the two large cogs, “Christopher” and “Edward”, were captured by a total of 48 war galleys under the ex-treasury official and now Grand Admiral of France Nicolas Béhuchet and Captain General Above and Before All Others of the Army of the Sea Hugues Quiéret at Arnemuiden, off the coast of Zeeland. The two enterprising admirals and their privateer and mercenary fleet did not only get the rich cargo meant for trade with Flanders in their hands but took the “Christopher” and “Edward” as prizes and added them to their Army of the Sea. Afterwards, they put every man jack of the English crews who had survived the battle to the sword. King Edward was in deep water at the end of the year 1338 and it took him more than a year to retaliate. But on 22 June 1340, a fleet of 160 converted nefs and cogs, crammed to their high freeboards, added castles and crow’s nest platforms with men-at-arms and archers, left the River Orwell in Suffolk and set sail for Flanders with King Edward III personally leading from his flagship, the cog “Thomas”.

A late medieval Mediterranean war galley

The two French title-heavy pirate kings Béhuchet and Quiéret knew of course that the English were approaching with an unusually large fleet, sailed their ships into the Zwin inlet near the Scheldt estuary off Sluis, plundered the island of Cadzand for good measure and ordered their 200 keels to be anchored in three battle lines across the waterway between the island and ter Muiden on the main, chained together and with the prizes “Christopher” and “Edward”, their biggest units, on each wing to prevent the English to roll up the lines. The Genoese Admiral of the mercenaries, Pietro Barbavera, obviously a keen student of Themistocles, gasped, pointed at the favourable wind that blew the English sailing ships right into their lines and allowed them full manoeuvrability, referenced that their bigger vessels were superior to their galleys with their low free boards in close combat and that their chance lay in pitting the mobility of their own sleek warships against the ponderous English cogs, swarm them and picking them off one after the other. Methods of naval warfare hadn’t changed that much since the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. The old sea dogs Béhuchet and Quiéret, both a bit spoiled by success, simply ignored him went on with the plan. On June 24 then, Edward sailed into the river with the high tide, ordered his ships to the windward, attacked the “Christopher” on the wing, retook her and began to roll up the French line-of-battle, just as Barbavera had predicted and the fight became a land battle on the decks of the French ships. The matelots were all good sailors but under the hails of arrows shot by the English archers on the cogs’ castles and crow’s nests with their deadly long bows high above them and charged by the fully armoured English men-at-arms and knights, they stood no chance. When the sun set over Zeeland, the first line was overpowered and the English fell on the other two where the smaller and weaker ships were stationed. Only Barbavera’s Genoese galleys could, by and large, disengage from the battle and flee. The rest of the “Army of the Sea” was sunk or taken and those who managed to swim to the shore were massacred by the Flemish who had gathered there to watch the spectacle. Quiéret was slain when his ship was boarded, allegedly by Edward himself, Béhuchet surrendered and was promptly strung up on Edward’s order in retribution for Arnemuiden. The rest of the French who had survived the slaughter did not fare any better. Allegedly, 20,000 lost their lives and Philip VI’s Army of the Sea was no more.


A 19th century imagination of
English boarding a French vessel at Sluys

The English archers and men-at-arms who fought on the ships at Sluys were landed and bolstered the defences of Edward’s Flemish allies and the French overland invasion of their renegade province of Flanders was stalled. Six years later, they would protect Edward’s left flank when he invaded Normandy in the campaign that climaxed with the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers and ended with the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360. In the meanwhile, the English coasts were more or less safe from raiders and trade recovered, providing Edward with the necessary funds for his war. Since the victorious English cogs that fought at Sluys were, by and large, taken from the wool merchants and pressed into service, shipbuilding in England did not exactly flourish anymore, though, since the wary mercantile people feared another major recruiting of their keels. By the end of Edward’s reign in 1377, the ships the king once commanded were history long since and he never thought of maintaining an expensive navy. French raiding began anew, albeit on a far lesser scale than late in the 1330s. French aristos, in the meanwhile, had put all the blame for the disaster of Sluys on the late, originally untitled Béhuchet, widening the gap between the ascending bourgeoisie and nobility and isolating themselves in playing all major roles in civic as well as military affairs, a development that would cost them dearly when the flower of French chivalry was slain on the battlefields of the Hundred Years’ War by the arrows and billhooks of English and Welsh commoners.

A modern interpretation of the cog “Thomas”

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