Post-classical history

The Start of Sea Power

JOHN, that bad man and most execrated of monarchs, must be given credit as the founder of the British navy. While Normandy was under the rule of the English kings and the Channel was a national strait which did not require guarding, there had been no royal navy and no need of one. The necessity for transportation to and from the Continent had been solved by the creation of the Cinque Ports, a federation of the sea towns of Kent and Sussex. In return for certain privileges these towns undertook to supply the kings with ships and men. They were allowed to govern themselves by portmotes and to take flotsam and jetsam (which turned them into more or less open nests of piracy), and a cluster of lesser rights which need not be enumerated, although it is interesting to mention some of them for the color of the words—den and strond, tol and team, blodwit and fledwit, infang and outfang, soc and sac, and mundbryce. This was a convenient arrangement but hardly adequate after John lost all the northern possessions in France. With hostile ports so close at hand, he was compelled to get together the first semblance of a national fleet.

His navy was quite small. In addition to a limited number of fighting ships, none of which exceeded eighty tons, he had available many smaller vessels for the carrying of supplies and troops. They were called sornakes, passerettes, schuyts, and nascellas. Being a methodical man and a first-rate organizer, John devised a plan for the management of the royal ships which led in due course to the formation of the Admiralty. He appointed one William de Wrotham as the head. It is not recorded that William de Wrotham had displayed any great proficiency at polishing up the handles of front doors, but it is almost certain that he had never gone to sea. He was a churchman, as were all state officials, holding the archdeaconery of Taunton. He confined himself to the details of management, and it was his responsibility to supply the silk and canvas for the sails, to purchase or seize the stores of food, and to impress the men needed for the crews. He seems to have been a capable official and to have given his capricious master full satisfaction, but it is recorded that at one time he paid twenty-three hundred marks for the King’s favor, benevolentiam regis. Probably the post gave ample opportunities for the feathering of personal nests.

John was the first also to perceive the need for adequate dockyard facilities. Although the law of eastern drift had not yet seriously filled with silt the harbors of the chalk cliffs, he seems to have been aware that it would be wise to go farther west for permanent ports. At any rate, he issued orders to William de Wrotham to take over the docks at Portsmouth and to build around them a strong wall with penthouses for stores and tackle. The work was not carried very far because John, as usual, could not bring himself to supply the funds for the purpose.

This curiously contradictory ruler, who, it must be said, was always popular with sailors because of his wry humor and the rough and sardonic edge of his tongue, was the first, moreover, to score a conclusive triumph at sea. The destruction of the French fleet at Damme (in which he had no personal part) toward the end of his reign was the first in that long succession of naval battles which over the centuries built up the tradition of invincibility at sea.

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All that was left of John now lay in the Norman choir at Worcester between two splendid Saxon saints, Wulfstan and Oswald, as he had requested with his last breath. If the Evil One had taken possession of his soul in spite of the protection thus afforded him, it would neither have surprised nor distressed the men who faced the consequences of his bitter wrongheadedness. Not only did the French standard float over Calais, but above the towers and walls of London as well. Most of the castles of the southeast were in the hands of Louis. Transports filled the ports of Normandy to bring across the reinforcements which Blanche of Castile had collected for her husband. The small group on whom the responsibility of undoing what that worst of English kings had done contained, fortunately, such courageous and shrewd men as William the Marshal, Hubert de Burgh and Philip d’Aubigny, who had been warden of the Channel Islands and was now in charge of the defense of the southeastern coast On them the lesson of the victory at Damme had not been lost. They were convinced it would be folly to wait and use their ships only to contest a landing. Better to venture out and challenge the power of France in the open waters of the Channel. Accordingly, when Eustace the Monk led his armada from Calais on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1217, the relatively small English fleet was ready to go into action.

The chronicles agree that it was a bright and sunny day, one of those clear days, in fact, when keen eyes from the chalk cliffs could catch a glimpse of foreign soil across the Channel. The anxious watchers, who had taken possession of rooftops and trees and spires, had a good view of the French ships as they gained mid-Channel, and of what then transpired.

Eustace the Monk was in the first and largest ship in the line, and it would have been obvious to anyone who saw the condition of his vessel that the dreaded sea captain was suffering from overconfidence. He had, at any rate, loaded it so heavily that the water washed over the gunwales with each movement. In addition to thirty-two knights with the bluest of blood in their veins and enough steel on their proud backs to weigh down any ship, there was a trebucket on board (a cumbersome siege engine) and a string of horses intended for the use of Prince Louis. Eustace had collected and equipped the ships, but the commander was Robert de Courtenai. The latter had distributed the 120 knights who made up his personal following in the four vessels which came next in line. There were six other vessels, so loaded with knights and men-at-arms that they swerved and luffed erratically into the wind and were at times almost out of control. Following the troopships were seventy smaller craft carrying supplies.

The English fleet consisted of smaller vessels in the main. They were all under one hundred feet in length, high in bow and stern, flat-bottomed, and stoutly clinker-built, which means that the planks in the hold overlapped each other. They had one mast only, in the exact center, a single square sail of no great size, made of silk with reinforcements of canvas, and were steered by an oar fixed on the starboard. In battle they were maneuvered by sixteen oars on each side. For this crisis they had been “bearded,” the bows strengthened by bands of iron for use in ramming. There were sixteen ships of battle and many more smaller craft.

William the Marshal had contributed one of the largest in the fleet, a cog, which was a stoutly constructed type of vessel with rounded bow and stern. Never having avoided a fight in the whole of his life, he intended to go aboard the cog and take charge of the operations. His attendants knew, however, that the splendid old paladin lacked the seaworthiness of leg needed for participation in the hurly-burly of a naval battle. They persuaded him, with great difficulty, to stay ashore. Hubert de Burgh took his place in command.

The tactics of the English had been planned with the audacity which alone wins battles afloat. They waited until the French armada had passed Sandwich and then issued out behind it. Eustace, standing in front of his tent on the raised platform called a bellatorium, boomed out his delight when he saw what was happening. He was certain that the English were hoping to divert him by a feint at Calais. He was too old a fighting cock, he averred, to be caught by any such transparent device as this. Let them attack the port from which he had just sailed! They would find he had left it strongly guarded and would get well singed for their pains; and in the meantime he would proceed with his task of landing the men and supplies so badly needed by the French army of invasion.

His satisfaction, however, was short-lived. The English had no intention of attacking Calais. They had swung about into the wind and were coming fast after the French transports. By this one move they had accomplished the prime objective of all the maneuvering which precedes a brush at sea; they had gained the windward position and were pounding on after him with a brisk breeze at their backs. Eustace, no doubt, swore many loud nautical oaths as he strove to bring his ships about to meet them. The French vessels floundered and pitched and fell out of line and were, as a result, badly disorganized when the battle was joined. With Hubert de Burgh and Richard Fitz-John, a bastard son of the late King, in the van, the small English ships came on to make the most of the situation, their sails bellying in the western wind, the sailors seated at the oars in readiness, the constables with their archers in the waists, even the grummets (the boys who made part of all crews in ships of the Cinque Ports) clambering up the masts and cheering wildly, and above them the most skilled of the bowmen in the gabies.

The wind played a big part in the English plan of attack. As soon as they came within range, the constables gave orders to the archers to begin. The feather-tipped shafts gained increased speed from the sustained breeze into which they were launched, and took murderous toll of the Frenchmen, still frantically engaged in the task of turning. As the islanders came abreast, moreover, they opened pots of finely powdered lime and the wind carried it into the eyes of the French. As a result the steel-trussed knights were unable to put up any effective resistance when the English, their eyes filled with battle fire above the daggers held in their teeth, their pikes slung loosely on their backs, came swarming over the rails. Even Eustace, that veteran of many sea fights, could not organize a front against them, for both the cog and the ship commanded by Richard Fitz-John had elected to attack him, one on each side. The struggle here was short and the slaughter of the French was tremendous. Only the knights were spared (because of the ransoms they could pay), and Robert de Courtenai was among the prisoners taken.

Eustace valued his life and he disappeared when he realized that the fight was a hopeless one. A search was made for him as soon as resistance ceased, and he was found burrowing down under the ballast sand and bilge water in the hold, surely the largest and least willing frog ever fished out of that malodorous scum. Brought on deck with arms lashed behind his barrel-like torso, the doughty pirate pleaded for his life and offered to pay a ransom of ten thousand marks. This was proof that piracy pays, because few noblemen would have been able to buy their freedom at such a price.

It was a tempting offer, but the feeling against this double renegade ran higher than the cupidity of his captors. “Base traitor!” cried Richard Fitz-John, putting into words the sentiment of the other leaders. “Never shall you again seduce anyone by your fair promises.”

It was decided he must die, and accordingly he was strapped down on his grufe along the rail of the ship, still pleading frantically for his life. A man named Stephen Crabbe, who had once served with Eustace, volunteered to act as executioner.

In later years the legend of the monkish pirate grew and it was believed that, after breaking his monastic vows, he had studied black magic in Spain and had the power to make himself and his ships invisible. If Eustace ever possessed such power this surely was the time to display it. Nothing happened, needless to state, to obscure the body over which Stephen Crabbe hovered with his blade suspended in the air. Perhaps an old grudge put skill and dispatch in the sailor’s arm. At any rate, he severed the head from the body with one stroke and the gory locks of Eustace floated from the end of a pike when the victorious fleet put in later at Dover. The pirate’s head was a prized exhibit for a long time and was carried about England, still on the end of the spear, to be gazed at and exulted over.

This was a fitting end, no doubt, for Eustace the Monk.

The capture of the flagship gave victory to the English. The other troopships turned and set sail for Calais, and all, or nearly all, got safely back. The reason for their escape was that the English, with the day won, found the booty of the supply ships more to their taste than the glory of capturing knights in shining armor. They took most of the smaller craft, killing the crews or spilling them without ceremony into the sea. On their triumphant return, therefore, the English ships were piled so high with loot that they rode as heavily as the French had done earlier in the day. The men of the Cinque Ports were allowed to keep most of the spoils, but a certain percentage went to the Hospital of St. Bartholomew’s, which was established at Sandwich in honor of the victory.

The decisive battle of Sandwich had done more than cut Louis off from his base and leave him powerless to continue his efforts: it had set a pattern which would persist down the ages. From that day on it was recognized that the wooden walls of the navy were the first line of defense and, as it developed, the only line needed. If a prophetic sense had visited the furiously aggressive masters and constables under Hubert de Burgh or the exultant watchers on shore, they might have seen in the haze of the future phantom fleets with great carved superstructures and glistening orange sails which stemmed from their efforts of that day, and mighty frigates mountainously rigged and sailing in line, and steel-encased leviathans with guns capable of hurling shells beyond the horizon; and they might have heard a whisper of the names of great sailor men who would fight and win in the same way, Drake and Howard and Rodney and Blake and Nelson.

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