Stories from English History: I - Alfred J. Church

How King Edward III. Won the Battle Of Sluys

It has been said already, in the story of Becket, that the King of England at one time "ruled more of France than the King of France himself"; and that these possessions led in the end to a great deal of trouble. Time after time the English were called upon to fight for the provinces in France, and a great many lives were lost and much treasure spent. But the worst trouble of all came in this way.

Edward II., the weak king who was defeated at the battle of Bannockburn, married Isabella, daughter of Philip IV., King of France. This Isabella was a very wicked woman—she was called the "she-wolf of France"—but worse than all the harm she did herself, was that which came from being the French king's daughter. This made her son, Edward III., claim the kingdom of France for himself. It came about thus. Philip IV. left three sons, Louis, Philip, and Charles. Each one of these became king in turn, but none of them left a son, only daughters. Now by the law of France (called the Salic Law) it was forbidden that a woman should reign. So when Charles IV, the youngest of Philip IV.'s sons, died, Philip de Valois succeeded him, as being the nearest male heir, though he was Charles's second cousin only. But Edward III., by the advice of his Parliament, claimed the French crown as son of Isabella, Charles's sister. He said, "Philip of Valois is second cousin only to the King; I am his nephew; so, being more nearly related to him, I have a better right to succeed him." He of course was obliged to allow that a woman could not succeed, not only because that was quite certain in itself, but also because otherwise Joan, daughter of Louis, Philip IV.'s eldest son, would have had a better right than he. But he maintained that though a woman could not herself succeed, her son might inherit, and that when the three sons were dead, the daughter's son had the best right.

This claim caused wars between France and England that lasted for a hundred years. The first great battle that was fought I am now going to describe.

Two days before Midsummer Day in the year 1340, King Edward set sail with his whole fleet from the Thames, and made straight for Sluys, which was a seaport of the country called Flanders. The King had it in his mind to help the men of Flanders against the French. Now at Sluys there lay more than one hundred and twenty large ships, and many small ones with them. On board of these were forty thousand men; some were sailors, and others fighting men and archers from Picardy and Genoa. Certain knights commanded them, and a famous sailor whom they called "Blackbeard." The King of France had commanded that they should lie at anchor, waiting for the King of England, that they might hinder him from going any further. When the fleet had almost got to Sluys, the English saw so many masts standing before them that it seemed as if it were a wood. The King said to the captain of his ship, "What can these be?" The man answered, "I take it that this must be that fleet of Normans which the King of France keeps at sea. These are they that have done you so much harm, burning your good town of Southampton, and taking your large ship the Christopher." To this the King made answer, "I have now for a long time desired to meet with these men; now, please God and St. George, we will fight with them. In truth they have done me much mischief, and I will revenge myself on them, if it be possible." Thereupon the King caused all his ships to be drawn up in line. The strongest he put in front, and on the wings the ships in which the archers were embarked. Between every two vessels with archers was placed one with men-at-arms. Other ships, full of archers, he kept in reserve. These were meant to give help to any that might seem to need it. Besides sailors and soldiers, there were in the fleet many ladies from England, countesses, and baronesses, and wives of knights and gentlemen, who had come to attend upon the Queen, for the Queen was at this time in Ghent. To guard these ladies with all care, the King had appointed three hundred men-at-arms and six hundred archers. When the King and his marshal had set the fleet in order, they hoisted all their sails, so that they might have the sun behind them, for before it had been shining in their faces. This they thought would be against them. When the Normans saw them tack, at first they wondered what this might mean. Afterwards they said, "See, they take good care to turn about, for they are afraid to meddle with us." And indeed the English had before been sailing straight towards them, and now changed their course. When the Normans knew that the King was on board, seeing his banner, they were very glad, for they were very eager to fight with him. So they put their vessels in order, a thing which they did well, being brave and skilful seamen.

[Illustration] from English History Stories - I by Alfred J. Church


First of all they made the Christopher, a big ship which they had taken from the English the year before, fall upon the King's fleet. They had filled it with fighting men, and had put trumpeters on board. With this the battle began, very fiercely. Archers and crossbow-men shot with all their might at each other, and the men-at-arms engaged hand to hand. And that they might not be separated by the moving of the vessels, they had large grapnels, and iron hooks with chains, which they flung from ship to ship to moor them to each other. The Christopher, which, as has been said, came first of all the French fleet, was taken again, and all in her were either killed or made prisoners. The English, having taken her, filled her with archers, and sent her against the men of Genoa.

Never was battle fiercer and more murderous than this. And, indeed, fights at sea are more deadly than fights on land, for none can flee; every man must stay where he is and meet his fate. From early in the morning until noon did the battle last. But though the English were hard pressed, for the enemies were four to one, besides being men used to the sea, in the end they won the victory, being somewhat helped by ships that came to them from the harbours on the coast hard by. Scarcely one of the Normans escaped with his life.