Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Although noblemen were not trained for naval warfare, which, unlike fighting on land, was not considered a noble pursuit, naval operations were an important part of the HUNDRED YEARS WAR. The English, being the aggressors, required ships to transport men, supplies, and equipment, as well as to control sea lanes and defend coasts against raiders. The French, attempting to resist invasion, needed vessels that could intercept enemy fleets and launch swift, destructive raids on enemy shores. While navies only became vital components of European military establishments in the sixteenth century, the Hundred Years War laid the groundwork for that development in both England and France, neither of which had real navies before 1300. During the war, both kingdoms developed ships and fleets suited to their particular needs, as well as the facilities and administrative support required to maintain naval forces.

The Hundred Years War witnessed several large naval battles. The most important of these encounters were the Battle of SLUYS (1340), which was the first major Anglo- French engagement of the war; the Battle of WINCHELSEA (1350), which was an English attempt to clear the Channel of Castilian raiders; the Battle of LA ROCHELLE (1372), which cost the English both a fleet and an important port; the Battle of CADZAND (1387), which gave the English temporary control of the Channel; and the Battle of the SEINE (1416), which broke the French siege of HARFLEUR. Other important naval actions included the English seizure of Brest (1342), which gave EDWARD III a major port in BRITTANY and secured the sea route to AQUITAINE; the French attack on Winchelsea (1360), which destroyed an English town and foreshadowed the damage French raiders would frequently inflict on the English coast in the 1370s; and the Franco- Castilian blockade of BORDEAUX (1451), which helped complete the French reconquest of GASCONY. The naval battles of the Hundred Years War were hand-to-hand encounters that recreated land combat on the decks of ships. Men fought with the same weapons used on land, although sailors might throw soap or stones to impede enemy boarders, or quicklime to blind enemy combatants. The same projectile weapons employed on land were used to bombard enemy ships, including longbows and crossbows—English ARCHERS made effective use of the former against grappled French vessels at Sluys—as well as lances, spears, and darts; ARTILLERY, however, was rarely mounted on ships before the fifteenth century.

Naval needs also affected overall strategy and the course of wartime DIPLOMACY. The VALOIS soon realized that they could not depend on the maritime resources of FLANDERS, the Flemings being too dependent on wool for their cloth industry to make war on the main supplier of that vital commodity. As a result, French kings forged agreements with Castile, Genoa, and even Denmark to supply ships for naval actions against the English. The Anglo-French interventions in the CASTILIAN WAR OF SUCCESSION in the 1360s were based in large part on the desire of both parties to secure for themselves the assistance of the Castilian fleet, the value of which was clearly demonstrated at La Rochelle in 1372. Intervention in Brittany in the 1340s was similarly based on a desire to control the ports and naval resources of that duchy, and Edward III’s siege of CALAIS in 1346–47 was undertaken in the hope of securing for England a cross-Channel port for landing men and supplies. In the fifteenth century, HENRY V focused his attention on conquering NORMANDY in part to achieve English control of both sides of the Channel and thus secure his armies’ lines of supply and communication.

In the fourteenth century, neither Crown owned many ships, largely because the cost of building them and the facilities required to maintain them were prohibitively expensive. Thus, war fleets were raised as needed by impressing private vessels. Officers working under the admirals were sent to ports to requisition ships for the king’s use. In England, the Cinque Ports, a confederation of southeastern towns, had a special responsibility to provide the Crown with ships and sailors; however, the large fleets required to transport Edward III’s army to France for the RHEIMS CAMPAIGN in 1359 or Henry V’s for the AGINCOURT campaign in 1415 deprived many merchants and fishermen of their vessels during the height of the trading and fishing seasons. Because ship owners received no payment for the use of their vessels, no compensation for lost business, and no reimbursement for vessels destroyed, damaged, or captured in royal service, such impressments were highly unpopular. What’s more, requisitioned ships often had to be substantially modified for war service. Ships carrying horses needed special accommodations below decks, while merchant vessels destined for naval combat had to be fitted with high castles fore and aft.

The English need for vessels with carrying capacity meant that high-sided merchant cogs were best suited to royal service, and impressments of such ships continued to be the best way to raise a fleet. In France, where the need was for smaller, faster ships that could engage the enemy at sea and raid his coasts, the ideal vessel was the galley, a flatbottomed ship powered by oars or sails that could come in close to shore. By the 1360s, the French Crown was building its own galleys at the Clos de Galées, a shipyard in ROUEN. In the fifteenth century, Henry V realized that he needed a permanent fleet to patrol the Channel and regularly ferry men and supplies to France. By the 1420s, the king, through purchase, capture, and construction, had built a royal fleet of thirty-five vessels and given oversight of naval matters to a clerk of the king’s ships headquartered in Southampton. However, after Henry’s death in 1422, the fleet was gradually disbanded to save money, with ships being sold or allowed to rot. By the 1440s, when the government of HENRY VI was too poor to rebuild his father’s fleet, the English war effort was severely hampered by lack of a navy.

Further Reading: Allmand, Christopher. The Hundred Years War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988; Rodger, N. A. M. The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660– 1649. London: HarperCollins, 1997; Sherborne, J. W. ‘‘The Hundred Year’s War: The English Navy: Shipping and Manpower.’’ Past and Present 37 (1967): 163–75

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