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The History of Kent

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Battle of Sandwich

Following the rejection of Magna Carta by King John in the summer of 1215, the rebel barons asked Prince Louis heir to the throne of France to replace John as King of England. Prince Louis landed a large army on the Isle of Thanet in May 1216. A royalist fightback only achieved any notable success following John’s death, in October 1216. In May 1217, the regent, William Marshal won a victory against the French and rebels at the battle of Lincoln. Louis returned to his stronghold in London to await reinforcements from France. The French fleet, of some 80 ships, half of which were supply vessels, set sail from Calais on Thursday 24 August. William Marshall assembled an English fleet, of 40 vessels, at Dover, 22 of which were capital ships fully armed and manned. He appointed Hubert de Burgh, Justiciar of England, and defender of Dover Castle, as Admiral of the Fleet.

The French flagship was ‘great ship of Bayonne‘, on which sailed admiral of the fleet Eustace the Monk, Robert de Courtenay, leader of the armed contingent and 40 knights. It was laden down with supplies - horses, food, treasure and even a trebuchet siege machine - the waves almost washed over it. The French advantage was the mass of their numbers and the fact that they had the wind behind them. It was a clear day when the two fleets set out from Dover and Calais to meet in the bloody climax of the French invasion of England.

De Burgh led his fleet, which was probably, in column. He made a feint towards the oncoming French who thought he was about to attack them head-on. At the last moment, de Burgh’s ship veered away to starboard. The overconfident French let out the hunting cry of ‘La hart! La hart’. However, this was part of the English plan to get windward of the French, a manoeuvre they had successfully performed against them in May. It achieved its objective as 20 ships passed and turned about; they now had the wind behind them, too. The two fleets joined in in bitter engagement.

The French ships resisted robustly, inflicting heavy casualties. The English quickly deployed a chemical weapon to great effect making use of their position in the wind; they launched large pots of quicklime onto the French decks. Here, they burst open, and the wind carried the dust into French eyes - blinding them totally. Crossbowmen and archers directed their missiles into the French, soon causing many fatalities among them. English galleys rammed into the French ships sinking many.

As the ships came alongside each other, close quarter fighting ensued. The lighter English vessels designed for fighting and not weighed down with supplies stood higher in the water and thus were able to shoot down on the French ships. With many of the French blinded, it was easier for the English to board them. Swords, daggers and spears, went to work.

The focus of the battle was Eustace’s flagship. The English cog and three other vessels surrounded Eustace and a remarkably intense engagement followed, starting with the exchange of missiles the English threw grappling hooks onto the side of the French ship and boarded it.

With the French flagship gone, an English victory seemed imminent. French soldiers and sailors threw themselves over opting to take their chances with the sea rather than with the certainties of capture. When the English caught up with a ship, they lost no time in killing those on board and throwing them into the sea, as food for the fish, 4000 French died that day. Only the knights lived, saved, just in time, by English knights eager for ransoms.

The Battle of Sandwich, as it became known, deprived Louis of his reinforcements, and forced him to accept peace terms and leave the country forever.

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