19 August, 2021

Edward II's Attacks on Normandy and the French Fleet in August/September 1326

A post about a curious and little-known event which took place late in Edward II's reign: the king's attacks on the French duchy of Normandy and on Norman ships in the late summer of 1326. The whole affair is obscure and barely came to the attention of contemporary chroniclers, though there are some references to it in the chancery rolls and, in particular, in Edward II's chamber account of 1325/26. Natalie Fryde and Roy Martin Haines, two of the very few historians to discuss the incident, date the attack to the first half of September 1326, though it's clear from the royal chamber account that at least part of the engagement actually took place in August. [1] It's all very difficult to figure out, firstly because, as noted, the event is weirdly obscure; secondly because Edward II's summons for armed men to attack the French and/or Normandy are easily confused with his summons to repel Queen Isabella's invasion force, which landed in Suffolk on 24 September 1326; and thirdly because the sources we do have seem to contradict each other, or rather, seem to be describing several different events. Therefore, this post is probably somewhat incoherent, for which, my apologies.

The background, very briefly, is that Edward II again went to war against his brother-in-law Charles IV of France in the summer of 1326, and his wife Isabella and their teenage son Edward of Windsor had been in France since 1325 and were refusing to return to England (or at least, Isabella was, and was keeping her son with her in her homeland). The earliest reference I can find to something happening in Normandy dates to 6 August 1326, when Edward II was leaving Portchester on the Hampshire coast and was on his way to his palace of Clarendon just outside Salisbury in Wiltshire. His chamber account shows that he gave £10 on that date to two men: Jack Pyk of Winchelsea in Sussex, a valet of the royal chamber and the captain of a royal ship called the Blome, and Pey-Bernat de Pynsole from Bayonne, a Gascon sergeant-at-arms in the king's household and the captain of another royal ship called the Petre. This entry states that Jack and Pey-Bernat had sailed to Portchester "in two long boats" to inform Edward and Hugh Despenser the Younger of recent events, and arrived just before Edward's departure for Clarendon. They told the king and his chamberlain that an English fleet had conquis, i.e. 'defeated' or 'captured' or 'taken by force', 140 ships from Edward's "enemies of Normandy" (enemys de Normandie). Something pretty major had already happened at sea by early August 1326, and the English side evidently had the best of it, though frustratingly I can't find any other reference to this. You'd think, surely, that an English fleet capturing well over 100 French ships might have appeared in a chronicle somewhere.

Below, p. 80 of Edward II's chamber account of 1325/26, Manuscript 122 in the library of the Society of Antiquaries in London, talking about Jack Pyk and Pey-Bernat de Pynsole's visit to Edward and Hugh Despenser in Portchester in early August 1326.

The king spent much of August 1326 at his palace of Clarendon. While there on 18 August, Edward ordered his treasurer and the barons of the Exchequer to have the following provisions sent to Portchester Castle by "Saturday the morrow of the Decollation of St John the Baptist", i.e. 30 August: "100 cross-bows with windlass for two feet, 200 cross-bows for one foot, with baldrics and quarrells sufficient for them, 100 hand-bows, with 1,000 cords for the same, and 1,000 heads for arrows, and 20 lbs. of glue, 100 lbs. of thread fit for the strings of cross-bows, and a sufficient quantity of cat-gut". On the same day, the king sent letters to the mayor and bailiffs of numerous ports along the coast of the south of England, and ordered them to have all the ships in their jurisdiction able to carry "50 tuns and upwards" sent to Portsmouth also by 30 August, "to set out in the king's service against the attack of the French". 

Edward also sent letters on 12 August to the archbishops of Canterbury and York, Walter Reynolds (d. 1327) and William Melton (d. 1340). He declared that his aim was to "restrain the malice of the men of the king of France", who were allegedly detaining Edward's wife and son in France against their will - a convenient fiction - and who, rather more plausibly, were, he said, capturing English ships and slaying the sailors and merchants on board. Ten days later, still at Clarendon, Edward ordered the sheriff of Kent to send fifty-four "well-armed footmen" to Portsmouth. Thirty men would be under the command of Richard Haukyn, captain of a ship called the Mariot, and twenty-four under the command of Robert Frende, captain of the Alice. The sheriff of Hampshire was to send 200 armed footmen to Portsmouth in thirteen ships, and according to the annalist of St Paul's in London, one of the very few chroniclers who mentioned the Normandy incident (albeit extremely briefly), another 100 men went from London and 100 from Kent. [3] The admiral of the western fleet, Sir Nicholas Kyriel of Kent (b. December 1282) - whose surname is spelt in approximately 117 different ways in contemporary documents, including Cryel and Crioll - and Peter Barde, bailiff of the Kent port of Sandwich and captain of the king's ship the Cog John (and a future admiral), visited Edward on 27 August 1326. They were given 100 marks (£66.66) because they had purchased ships for an assault on Normandy. [4] On 26 and 29 August and again on 10 September, Edward II ordered the arrest of all French people living in England. [5]

Natalie Fryde (Tyranny and Fall of Edward II, p. 184) cites the Canterbury chronicler's statement that Edward II sent a fleet of 300 ships to attack Normandy. As is usually the case when medieval chroniclers give numbers, this seems likely to be an exaggeration. According to Edward III, after he had succeeded his father as king some months later, the assault on Normandy took place "while we [i.e. himself] were in those parts" (dum eramus in partibus illis). His statement occurred in the context of a royal pardon for Sir John Felton, a knight who had been in the retinue of the late Hugh Despenser the Younger and was staunchly loyal to him, for holding Caerphilly Castle against Queen Isabella and for "invading Normandy and committing depredations" while the young king was there. [6] I don't know whether Edward III meant that he was specifically in Normandy in August/September 1326 or whether "in those parts" meant France more generally, though Natalie Fryde speculates that Edward II intended to seize his son in Normandy and return him to England. It certainly seems possible that the king had received intelligence that his son was in Normandy, though in fact the thirteen-year-old duke of Aquitaine and his mother Isabella had arrived in the county of Hainault by 27 August 1326, on which date the young duke was betrothed to Philippa of Hainault. As for Sir John Felton, he doesn't appear in Edward II's chamber account in connection with the raid on Normandy, as far as I can tell, though on 5 August 1326, the king gave him £5 for his excellent service to Hugh Despenser the Younger. [7]

Several entries in the chamber account indicate that some kind of engagement between English and French ships took place off the coast of Brittany, which was ruled at the time by Edward II's kinsman Duke John III (1286-1341), grandson of Edward I's sister Beatrice (1242-75) and a man with whom Edward II appears to have been on perfectly amicable terms and with whom he was in occasional contact in 1326. The duchy of Brittany was, unlike the duchy of Normandy, independent from the kingdom of France. On 3, 6 and 9 September 1326, entries in the chamber account mention "two ships of Normandy" (ij niefs de Normandie) called La Dorre and Cog Seint Thomas which had been captured off the coast of Brittany and taken to the port of Winchelsea by John Pym and other sailors in August. Assuming that the 140 ships captured by the English fleet, as also stated in the chamber account, is an even remotely correct number and not a wild exaggeration, I have no idea what happened to the other 138 of them. The king sent a sailor called Litel John (i.e. Little John) to Winchelsea with letters for Stephen and Robert Alard - the Alards were a thirteenth/fourteenth-century naval family of Winchelsea whose tombs can still be seen in the church of St Thomas the Martyr in the town - ordering them to take La Dorre to Portsmouth. Stephen Alard received a gift of £5 from the king on 15 September 1326 because he "went to sea with the great fleet" (ala a la meer oue la g'de flote). Stephen was said to be staying in Portchester Castle around this time, ill, though whether that means he was injured at sea or in Normandy while fighting against the French, or maybe just had a head cold or something, isn't clarified.

Rauf Rosekyn, captain of a royal ship called the James, seized the sum of £15 from a French ship "at Oderne in the parts of Brittany", which I assume means Audierne, and gave it to Edward II on or before 20 September 1326. The port of Audierne lies in the south of Brittany, pretty far from Normandy, so how Rosekyn's action fits in with an assault on Normandy and with Edward II's possible intention to seize his thirteen-year-old son there, I have no idea. On 28 June 1326, Rauf Rosekyn, as captain of the James, had been one of a number of ships' captains "whom the king is sending to diverse parts to further business enjoined on him", as stated on the Patent Roll. The others were Jack Pyk of the Blome, Per-Bernat de Pynsole, now in command of the Seint Edward, and Peter Barde of the Cog John, all named above; Rauf's brother Andrew Rosekyn of the Marie; Richard 'Hick' Fille of the Despenser; John Dyn of the Nicholas; Bernard Prioret of the Alianore; Badin Fourne of a galley also called Seint Edward; and Robert Bataill of the Godyere ('Goodyear'). The combined crew of these men's ships totalled 780 men. A few weeks later on 23 July 1326, another four ships' captains - Richard Councedieu of the Valence, William Pouche of the Blithe, Roger Catour of the Cog Nostre Dame and Robert Metacre of the Maudeleyne - were sent "to diverse parts on the king's affairs" with a total crew of 220 men. As is frustratingly often the case in the chancery rolls, what the men were up to was not specified, but given that Rauf Rosekyn appears in Edward II's chamber account a couple of months later and had clearly been involved in some kind of skirmish with a French ship off the coast of Brittany, it seems reasonable to assume that the other captains were sent on the same mission.

On 7 September 1326, there's a reference in the chamber account to three sailors from Bayonne in Gascony, part of Edward II's domains, whose names were recorded as Will Bernard and Garsy and Ernaud Remond (I doubt the first man was actually called 'Will', but Edward's chamber clerks usually anglicised French names even though they were writing in French). The three sailors had paid £20 for a ship in which they sailed against "the king's enemies of Normandy in the month of August", and the captain of the ship was Thomas Springet of Greenwich, a sailor who often appears in Edward II's accounts and was close enough to him that he was allowed to talk to the king in person in Edward's private rooms. [8] A couple of years earlier in 1323/24, some of the townspeople of Bayonne were involved in a feud with sailors from Normandy, and were summoned to appear before the seneschal of Poitou to explain the damages they had inflicted on Norman ships at sea. Sir Ralph Basset, steward of Gascony, sent a letter to Edward II about the ryote (dispute or quarrel) between "your people of Bayonne and the people of Normandy" in January 1324. [9] An earlier dispute between Gascon and Norman mariners, back in 1293, blew up into a war between England and France.

The reasons for Edward II's attacks on Normandy and on French ships are not entirely clear, and the silence of most chroniclers does not help (perhaps the ever-useful Vita Edwardi Secundi would have given an account of the event, but unfortunately the text ends abruptly in late 1325). It may be that Edward's son was in Normandy or at least that he believed him to be, or perhaps the king intended a pre-emptive strike against the French, in the belief that Charles IV would aid his sister Isabella during her invasion of England. Walter Reynolds, archbishop of Canterbury, told Edward in January 1326 that he had heard news of a hostile fleet gathering in Normandy. [10] That may be true, or it may simply have been one of the many rumours flying around at the end of Edward II's reign.

The sizeable numbers of men and ships gathered in Portsmouth at the end of August 1326, plus the 1,000 men in fifteen ships sent somewhere on the king's business in June and July and their activities off the coast of Brittany, plus the reference to the 140 French ships captured in or before early August, all suggest that Edward II was expecting a full-scale invasion by the French, or hoping to prevent one. The references in his chamber account, however, all talk about les enemys le Roi de Normandie, "the king's enemies of Normandy" specifically, not his "enemies of France", so maybe the whole thing had more to do with the quarrel between Gascon and Norman sailors in some way. Edward's itinerary shows that he arrived in Portchester, close to Portsmouth, on 30 August and remained in the port until 16 or 17 September. While there, his chamber account is full of entries about ships being repaired and refurbished, payments being made to fletchers for feathering arrows, Edward ordering a coat of mail to be made for himself and having his sword and its scabbard mended, etc. There's a general air of military preparation about the whole thing. Whether this was connected to an attack on Normandy or the expected arrival of the queen's invasion force isn't entirely clear, though the reference on 13 September to la guerre entre le Roi e les g'ntz de la t're, "the war between the king and the magnates of the land", suggests the latter. Edward II being Edward II, though, he still found time to pop into a forge and have a chat with local blacksmiths called Philip Darrington and William Dertemewe (i.e. Dartmouth), and several carpenters and fletchers were said to have done their work "in the king's presence".

What actually happened on the ground in Normandy is difficult to ascertain. Roy Martin Haines (King Edward II, p. 172) states that Edward gave the order for his fleet assembled at Portsmouth to "sail to Normandy and there inflict as much damage as possible...The force was repulsed immediately on landing and many men perished. Two days later at the Downs the flotilla was instructed by the king to hasten to Yarmouth, but during the night fifteen of the ships were lost with their men. It was a great disaster". The source appears to be the Canterbury chronicle, also cited by Natalie Fryde, as noted above, and in an endnote on pp. 443-4, Haines explains that the expedition probably landed at Barfleur and raided nearby Cherbourg Abbey. Haines also cites Charles de la Roncière's Histoire de la Marine Française, vol. 1, p. 384, if anyone's interested in digging any deeper.

In any event, according to Haines, the English "great fleet" was repulsed and many men and ships were lost. As he points out, the loss of many English ships was perhaps a reason for the utter failure of Edward II's fleet to prevent the landing of the queen's invasion force on 24 September 1326, though certainly the gross unpopularity of Hugh Despenser the Younger and of the king himself was also a major factor. As the French Chronicle of London says, "the mariners of England were not minded to prevent their coming, by reason of the great anger they entertained against Hugh Despenser [the Younger]." [11] Then again, what happened to all those French/Norman ships supposedly captured by the English sometime before 6 August 1326? Ultimately, I can find very little about this mysterious attack on Normandy, though Seymour Phillips is perhaps correct when he suggests it was a "commando-style raid" intended either to bring Edward II's teenage son back home or to forestall a French attack on England. [12] It is apparent from Edward III's pardon to Sir John Felton in February 1327 that some Englishmen went ashore in Normandy and "committed depredations" there, though how the naval engagement(s?) between English and Norman ships off the coast of Brittany fits into the whole scenario, I don't know.


1) Natalie Fryde, The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326 (1979), pp. 184-5, 265; Roy Martin Haines, King Edward II: His Life, His Reign, and Its Aftermath, 1284-1330 (2003), pp. 172, 228-9.
2) Society of Antiquaries of London Manuscript 122, p. 80.
3) Calendar of Close Rolls 1323-27, pp. 640-43; Calendar of Patent Rolls 1324-27, pp. 308, 310; Foedera 1307-1327, p. 637; Annales Paulini in Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, ed. Stubbs, vol. 1, p. 313.
4) SAL MS 122, p. 92.
5) Foedera 1307-27, pp. 638, 641.
6) CPR 1327-30, p. 10.
7) SAL MS 122, p. 79.
8) SAL MS 122, pp. 74, 83-6, for the last three paragraphs; CPR 1327-30, pp. 276, 278-9, 300, for 28 June 1326.
9) The War of Saint-Sardos (1323-1325): Gascon Correspondence and Diplomatic Documents, ed. Pierre Chaplais, pp. 7-18.
10) The National Archives SC 1/49/92.
11) Croniques de London, ed. G.J. Aungier, p. 51.
12) Seymour Phillips, Edward II, p. 503.


sami parkkonen said...

Fantastic stuff!

Medieval war ships, the big ones, were terrible to handle and needed fair winds to work. Thus many used smaller boats etc. which could be counted as ships. This could explain the 140 French ships gone missing. Perhaps majority of those were small boats which the English simply sank, burned or destroyed.

It also looks like the English naval effort was almost piratical by it's nature rather than concentrated operation with the invasion in mind. The number of men was too small for any real invasion but enough for pirate raiding along the coast. Also, if the English operated from Gascony in the south west to the Normandy in the north east it certainly looks like that.

Never the less, it is weird that the whole operation has been so well hidden/ forgotten from any history. There were thousands of men involved, hundreds of ships and boats, thousands of miles of operational theater, so it was by no means insignificant event.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Sami! It is really puzzling to me how this whole thing went almost unnoticed by contemporaries. Perhaps those who might have described it in their chronicles got caught up with Isabella's invasion instead, which was so dramatic and had such significant consequences.

Henry Funk said...

Super, thanks! Yes, usually a victory would not have gone practically unnoticed. We have a list of calendar entries of records relating to Little John here: https://www.irhb.org/wiki/index.php/Little_John_the_mariner_(record_texts) .

He was also involved in what looks like privateering against Flemish fishermen and sailors during the "trade war" between ENgland and Flanders.

Kathryn Warner said...

Henry, ah, thank you for that! How interesting! I find the sailors of the 1320s oddly fascinating, and they do crop up in a lot of records, which is fab. William Pouche or Ponche appears in Edward OO's chamber account in 1325 because he had a mistress, and his wife went to Edward to complain that he was ignoring her. :D Richard Councedieu, also, is a sailor I feel I know pretty well. As well as the chancery rolls and Edward II's chamber accounts, he appears a couple of times in the coroner's rolls in London. Thomas Springet and his wife Alice had a son called Simon, who also became a ship's captain.

sami parkkonen said...

For what ever reasons many historians forget that English sea faring traditions are very old. Well before Romans there was trade and movement across the Channel, there were continuing connections between England and homelands of the Jutes, Frisians and Angles and Saxons, and of course during the whole Viking epoch ships were sailing across the ocean from Vineland to Jorsala (Jerusalem) etc.

So, the England has been land of sailors and ships for centuries before Elizabethan times, Spanish Armanda, sea dogs and Drake.

As for why this thing has been forgotten: I think you are right, Kathryn. The Invasion of Isabella and following events most certainly over shadowed this episode and once Edward was deposed there was no need to write about it.