Certain invasions of England are part of the English national story – the Danes, the Vikings and the Normans. Other attacks involving Continental feet on the ground figure prominently in popular history – Hitler, Napoleon, and King Phillip’s Spanish Armada are all well known in the annals of the “Island Race”.
Surprisingly enough the 14th century does not figure on the popular English invasion list, despite the fact that on more than 60 occasions between 1325 and 1390 French-led or French-sponsored forces landed on English territory and carried out significant damage.
These were not trivial episodes. They could be extremely destructive. For example in 1339 when the French fleet, accompanied by allies from Genoa and Monaco rowing Mediterranean oared galleys, made their way up the Solent, and landed in Southampton, they killed civilians, and looted the entire city taking away valuable goods such as wine and wool from the merchants’ cellars.
In an act designed to cripple the economy of the port the allies destroyed documents, seals and records needed for its functioning, and before withdrawing the marines burnt the entire town. For several decades, Southampton, possibly England’s major port, was out of action. It was as desolate as a bombed city in the 20th century. And we can guess that many wealthy merchant families were ruined.
The sight of a French fleet approaching the coast was meant to be terrifying. In the 14th century, fighters dressed up to fight, and ships were highly decorated with banners, standards, and war pennants. The fleets that attacked England included many oared galleys from Genoa and Monaco, a type of ship hardly ever seen in English waters.
One can imagine the cry “Galley from Monaco!” upon sight of a ship with the distinctive red and white Monegasque coat of arms on its sail, instilling fear and panic among the civilian population.
While these raids were taking place, many full-scale big invasions were also launched with the intention of removing the anti-French English royal family. Almost all failed for a surprisingly wide range of reasons.
In 1340, an entire French invasion fleet ready to carry 19,000 men was entirely destroyed by 400 battle hardened English soldiers led by Edward III in person, in Sluys harbour at the mouth of the Rhine. In this case, Edward’s audacity in daring to take the fleet on was a key factor, as were his brilliant tactical battlefield instincts.
Other plans were simply ill-thought out – like when the disinherited pro-French Welsh Prince, Owen Llawgoch set out with a Franco-Welsh landing force to encourage the people of Wales to rise up against King Edward. But the fleet set out in December, and not surprisingly was unable even to get round Land’s End.
After 13 days at sea, the fleet had to admit defeat not by the English but by one of England’s most reliable allies – the weather, supplementing astonishingly foolhardy timing.
In May 1387, a French army landed in Scotland ready to lead a Franco-Scottish invasion of England, with a second French army ready to land in Southern England and join in the middle.
The slow moving force did not arrive near Newcastle until the end of June by which time the fast and responsive English had summoned a huge army, marched north and met them on the way. Dwarfed by the English volunteer force the French quietly withdrew.
The following year in a return match a gigantic French invasion force of 100,000 fighting men and 10,000 mounted knights all ready to go was trapped in the ill-fated harbour of Sluys by pro-English gale-force winds coming down from the North. As autumn drew on they gave up and went home.
Deposing a king
Ironically, the only invasion that went according to plan during this period was the one led by Queen Isabella, French wife of Edward II of England with the support of the Flemish based fleet, leading to the removal of Queen Isabella’s husband Edward II in favour of her young son Prince Edward.
Only Isabella was able to put together the complex pieces of a jigsaw that had to fit together properly. The landing took place without disaster, allies on the ground were ready and supportive, and Edward II fled, allowing Isabella to realise her ambition to put her young son on the throne as Edward III. This was not a role that medieval queens were supposed to assume which probably explains her title: “She-Wolf of France”.
The background to these events was the Hundred Years’ War, waged around the claim of Edward III that he was the rightful King of France – a theory supported by no one in France.
A medieval Dad’s Army
Unlike the great set-piece battles that were waged on the Continent during this period – Crécy and Poitiers for example, where well-trained English and French knights, who all subscribed to the same chivalric ideal, slugged it out together according to certain rules accompanied on many an occasion by armour-clad monarchs – for the raids onto English territory the picture is of professional French fighters interfacing with determined, warlike and well-prepared English civilians, from all classes of society from peasant up to gentry.
During almost all of this period the English Crown organised what was essentially a sort of medieval Dad’s Army in order to fight off the French. In the coastal areas up to three leagues inland all males between 16 and 60 were liable for service when needed, and when an invasion scare was on, it was an offence to run off inland.
For much of the period, archery on Sundays was compulsory, and games such as football were banned. Even clerics were at times ordered by King Edward himself to do their duty.
And on many occasions the amateur English led. In 1377, for example, the 60 year old Abbott of Battle, on horseback in full armour, chased the French professionals back to their ships at Winchelsea. This was a revival of the system feudal obligation that had largely become obsolete in the previous century as a result of the rise of the professional paid soldier.
Keepers of the maritime lands or commissioners of array appointed by the Crown had the power to recruit able bodied males between the ages of 16 and 60 into defensive forces. They were obliged to train, maintain and keep them in a state of readiness. The system worked and there is plenty of evidence that the people in the coastal areas took their responsibilities seriously.
The Prince of Monaco
In 1372 the Monaco Prince Rainier Grimaldi (ancestor of the current Monaco Princely family) was cruising along close to the English coast in a fleet of nine galleys looking for a suitable place to land and carry out a raid.
A posse of English defenders appeared but when Price Rainier tried to row away he found that his ship was grounded. The English waded up to the ship. “Surrender to the King of France!” they called. Rainier was puzzled. “What do you call him?” he asks. “His name is Edward.” they called. Of course – Edward claimed the throne of France.
Rainer refused to surrender – he and his crew started to fight them off. The galley was surrounded. The water filled up with bodies, but the English did not give up. Capture or ransom looked likely for the Prince.
The elements came to the rescue; the tide lifted the galley off the rocks; the men of Monaco rowed frantically until the English could no longer follow. The ordinary people had triumphed over a prominent member of the chivalric class.
Duncan Cameron has been a regular contributor to publications on international business, and Bloomsbury International published his most recent work. In recent years Duncan has also been engaged in heritage work in Brighton and saved two buildings from destruction by developers by winning them Grade II listed building status.
Invasion: The Forgotten French Bid to Conquer England is his latest book and was published on 15 December 2019, by Amberley Publishing.