Today marks the 800th anniversary of the Battle of Sandwich, which took place on the 24th August 1217. Fought between the forces of Henry III of England and the future King Louis of VIII of France, the battle was the final major engagement of the First Baron's War, convincing Louis to seek terms and culminating in the Treaty of Lambeth a few weeks later. The war was a conflict between the supporters of King John and his son Henry's claim to the throne and those who supported the claim of Prince Louis; it would decide the character of the English monarchy and its relationship with Europe for centuries to come.
At the outbreak of the war in 1215, Louis and the Barons' position looked strong. They controlled most of south and east England and had the support of the Scottish and Welsh rulers in the north and west. Furthermore, when King John died in October 1216 Henry was just 9 years old and yet to reach his majority. This could be enormously problematic for medieval monarchies, however John had had the foresight to leave behind a group of very able people to administer the Kingdom, including William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, to act as regent.
On May 20th 1217 Marshal led a royalist army to victory at the Battle of Lincoln. This proved a significant blow to Louis as it significantly reduced his operational ability and removed many of his supporters from the field. Following the battle Louis attempted to come to terms with his opponents, however negotiations broke down and hearing that Eustace the Monk would soon be sailing from France with reinforcements and supplies, he resolved to fight on.
Eustace appears to have been a remarkable character. Born into minor nobility in the French county of Boulogne, he is said to have studied black magic in Toledo, Spain, then become a Benedictine monk at St. Samer Abbey near Calais, left the monastery to avenge the murder of his father and then become a mercenary pirate, selling his services to both English and French monarchs at different times. Between 1205 and 1208 he had been in the employ of King John and with the sovereign's blessing had seized the Channel Islands. In 2012 he switched sides and became instrumental in Louis’ successful capture of London and the Cinque Ports at the start of the Baron’s War.
On 24 August, in clear weather, Eustace and his fleet set out from Calais. With him were approximately 80 ships, around 10 of which were large and equipped for combat. Eustace's own vessel, the Great Ship of Bayonne, led the French squadron; aboard were some 36 knights under the command of Robert de Courtenay. All told, between the first four ships, including Eustace's flagship, were some 100-125 knights, while the remaining six troop ships carrying Men-at-arms.
Marshal had heard of Eustace's fleet and on the 19th August he arrived in New Romney to summon the sailors of the Cinque Ports. The sailors were hard to persuade, having been poorly treated by King John, however they were persuaded to fight with the promise of rewards should they defeat the French. With the exception of a large cog supplied by Marshal himself, the English ships were generally smaller than those of the French. They numbered around 40, with around 16-18 larger vessels and 20 smaller ones. Marshal was persuaded to remain a shore and the fleet was led by Hubert de Burgh. One ship was even commanded by King John's illegitimate son, Richard FitzRoy.
When the French fleet sailed past Sandwich, de Burgh ordered the English ships to leave port. As the French sailed towards the Thames Estuary it held the advantageous windward position, however perhaps overconfidently and against Eustace’s advice, Robert of Courtenay decided to engage the English fleet. However when the French shortened sail, the English ships were able to gain the windward position and attack. Aided by their position, the English archers were able to inflict considerable damage on the enemy before the French bowmen were able to respond. The English also opened pots of lime which blew in the French faces blinding them to the oncoming attack.
The Great Ship of Bayonne engaged FitzRoy’s ship early in the battle and as more English ships approached they would join the fight against the French flagship. The other French ships maintained a tight formation but failed to intervene. The Great Ship of Bayonne found itself caught between Marshal’s cog and FitzRoy's ship and after a one-sided melee, Robert of Courtenay and the French knights were captured for ransom, while the French sailors and common soldiers were massacred. Eustace was found hiding in the bilge and, seen as a traitor, beheaded on the deck of his ship. With their flagship taken, what was left of the French fleet headed back to Calais. They were pursued by the English who captured and plundered most of the fleeing French supply ships.
With supplies low and his connection with the continent severed Louis lost all hopes of a victory. The Treaty of Lambeth was signed in September and Louis returned to France, having renounced his claim to the English throne.
This model was built by Brick to the Past's James Pegrum as part of a series of scenes on important events in British history. Be the first to see them by following us on Twitter or Facebook.
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