Great Yarmouth boasts one of the most distinctive and unusual of any coats-of-arms to be found and its origin goes back to a decisive but long-forgotten naval battle, plus a King’s gratitude to a town that gave so generously of its ships and men for what turned out to be the 1340 Battle of Sluys and the start of the Hundred Year’s War.
With no dedicated fleet of warships King Edward III had to assemble hundreds of merchant vessels, called Cogs, for his assault on northern France; the majority of these were supplied by Great Yarmouth. This assault was the precursor to what became known as The Hundred Years War. It is said that Great Yarmouth provided King Edward III with a total of 1,075 mariners and 43 ships, whereas London only provided 25 ships. The fierce sea battle that ensued at Sluys, then the best harbour in Europe, saw the English overwhelm a combined force and destroying French naval capability for some years. This victory allowed the King to land with little opposition and head off an invasion of England. Afterwards, Edward was gracious enough to not only hail the contribution of men and ships from Yarmouth, but also to allow the town to half its own coat-of-arms of three silver herrings and add his own three lions; thus elevating Great Yarmouth’s standing and creating an arresting heraldic emblem.
The Cause of the Hundred Year War:
Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, English monarchs had held titles and lands within France, the possession of which made them vassals to the kings of France. The status of the English king’s French fiefs was a major source of conflict between the two monarchies throughout the Middle Ages. French monarchs systematically sought to check the growth of English power, stripping away lands as the opportunity arose. Over the centuries, English holdings in France had varied in size, but by 1337 only Gascony in south western France and Ponthieu in northern France were left. The Gascons had their own language and customs and a large proportion of the red wine that they produced was shipped to England in a profitable trade. This trade provided the English king with much of his revenue. The Gascons preferred their relationship to be with the distant English king who left them alone, rather than with a French king who would interfere in their affairs. Following a series of disagreements between Philip VI of France and Edward III of England, on 24 May 1337 Philip’s Great Council in Paris agreed that the Duchy of Aquitaine, effectively Gascony, should be taken back into Philip’s hands on the grounds that Edward was in breach of his obligations as a vassal. This marked the start of the Hundred Years’ War, which was to run one hundred and sixteen years.
The Opposing Forces:
Initially the French had the superior fleet, their galleys were ideal for swift passage across the Channel under sail or oars, could penetrate shallow harbours and were highly manoeuvrable and ideal for raiding or ship-to-ship combat. The huge French fleet was supplemented by galleys from Genoa and they were able to disrupt English commercial shipping, particularly that of the Gascon wine and the Flemish wool trades, as well as raiding the south and eastern coasts of England at will.
There was no English Royal Navy in the 14th Century and the English did not have a purpose-built navy. The principle type of English merchant vessel was the Cog, which was clinker-built, fitted with a single mast and a square-rigged single sail, and had a deep draught and round hull. They ranged from about 15 to 25 meters (49 to 82 feet) in length, had a beam of 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 feet) and the largest could carry up to about 200 tons. Edward requisitioned a number of these ships from the merchant fleet and converted them into warships by adding wooden “castles” at the bow and stern, and a crow’s nest platform at the masthead, from which archers could use bows or drop stones on to enemy craft alongside. The high freeboard of the Cog made it superior in close combat to the French galley allowing the English to look down on their French adversaries.
Edward III assembled his fleet in the River Orwell and River Stour near Harwich. He made the Cog ‘Thomas’ his flagship and set sail on 22 June 1340 and was approaching Sluys by the afternoon of the following day. The English fleet anchored off Blankenberge and that evening King Edward sent Sir Reginald Cobham, Sir John Chandos, and Sir Stephen Lambkin to reconnoitre the French fleet. They found the French fleet anchored at the entrance of the Zwin estuary and ranged in three tightly packed lines that included the great cog Christopher, a captured English prize.
The French fleet is believed to have been around 200 ships; Edward in a letter to his son counts 180 sails and contemporary French documents record the fleet size as 204 vessels. Part of the fleet consisted of Genoese galleys serving as mercenaries under the command of Admiral Pietro Barbavera and the French fleet was under the command of the Breton knight Hugues Quiéret, admiral for the king of France, and Nicolas Béhuchet, the Constable of France.
The size of the English fleet is not accurately known as no contemporary records exist. It is believed that the English fleet that set sail from the Orwell consisted of 160 ships and that these were joined by the northern squadron led by Sir Robert Morley. In addition, King Edward’s Flemish allies are also reported to have joined the battle and it is thought therefore that the English fleet was somewhere between 120 and 320 ships in total.
Forget ships that fired cannons from a distance, this was close-up combat of the most savage kind with boats lining up against each other so that men-at-arms could hack at their adversaries, throwing the survivors overboard. In fact, the task force of merchant ships, called Cogs, were not designed for warfare or manned by naval personnel. This made being a seafarer in the middle ages a risky and violent business, at a time when the King required maritime towns, such as Great Yarmouth, to maintain ships on standby for battle.
King Edward sent these ships against the French in groups of three; two ships were crammed with archers and the third full of men-at-arms. The English ships with the archers would close on a French vessel and the archers would rain arrows down on the enemy’s decks. The English archers, with their long bows, could accurately shoot 20 arrows per minute at a range of up to 270 metres (300 yards), whereas the Genoese crossbowmen could only manage two bolts per minute and had a lot shorter range. While the enemy vessel was so engaged, the ship carrying the men-at-arms would come alongside and the men-at-arms would board and seize it. Because of how tightly the French vessels were packed together, the battle became essentially a land battle at sea.
The English managed to board and seize many French vessels after fiercely contested hand-to-hand fighting. The Genoese crossbowmen managed to successfully board and capture two English ships. French sources asserted that Nicolas Béhuchet wounded King Edward III during the fighting, but there was no evidence, other than a legendary one, that a personal encounter between King Edward and the French commander. It is, however, a fact that the King was indeed wounded during the battle by either an arrow or a crossbow bolt.
Nicolas Béhuchet’s tactics proved disastrous for the French, as it allowed the English to attack their left flank while leaving the rest of the fleet paralyzed. In a letter to his son, King Edward said that the enemy made a noble defence “all that day and the night after”. By the end of the battle, the French fleet had been broken at the cost of only two English ships captured, and the water was reported to be thick with blood and corpses. The number of English losses is unknown, the French are thought to have lost between 16,000 and 18,000 and virtually all of their vessels were captured.
The Aftermath of the Battle:
After the battle King Edward went on to lay siege to Tournai, a Flemish city that had been loyal to Philip VI of France. Edward and his forces reached Tournai on 23 July 1340 and laid siege trapping, apart from the inhabitants, a sizable French garrison inside. The siege dragged on and Philip VI with a relieving army drew closer, while Edward was running out of funds to keep his army in the field. At the same time, Tournai was running out of food. It was King Edward’s mother-in-law, Jeanne of Valois (who was also Philip’s sister), who visited King Edward in his tent on 22 September and begged for peace. She had already made the same plea in front of Philip VI and consequently a truce, known as the Truce of Espléchin, was made on 25 September 1340 – thus bringing the siege to an end without anyone losing face.