England's First Great Naval Battle
King John, having by his various misdemeanours, enraged certain of his enemies, found his kingdom under a Papal interdict, and Philip of France, with the authority of the Pope, preparing to invade England. John, realizing that his soldiers were by no means loyal enough for him to rely upon them, patched up a peace, took oath of fealty to the Bishop of Rome, and promised tribute.
This act of weak-kneed diplomacy on the part of John naturally put a stop to Philip's warlike preparations against him, but the French king, feeling spiteful against Ferrand, Count of Flanders, for having refused to enter into a league with him against John, preferring rather to form a secret treaty with the latter, determined to thrash the valiant Count.
King John, for all his faults, was true to his compact, and so, when Philip marched his army into Flanders, and dispatched a huge fleet to Damme, an old Flemish town, and the port to Bruges, the English fleet was sent across the Channel to join issue with Philip on behalf of the Count. The French, on arrival at Damme, had offered peace—at a price. It had been accepted, and the money paid. The French then broke faith, and plundered the town and neighbouring country.
The French fleet numbered something like seventeen hundred vessels, the English only five hundred—odds of over three to one. These numbers sound vast, but it must be remembered that the ships of the thirteenth century were far from being Dreadnoughts, and that they were, in fact, only small vessels, boasting one centre mast, with large square sails, blazoned with the arms of the nation to which the ships belonged. Surmounting the sail were large, round turrets, from whose shelter cross-bowmen and archers were able to effect considerable damage to the enemy. With high poops and prows, gun-wales decorated with the shields of the knights who were aboard, sides well provided with grappling irons, these vessels, albeit smell, were by no means to be despised, especially when it was a case of a chase, for, supplementing the sails, long sweeps were then thrust out and lusty arms, pulling with the vigour and enthusiasm for which seamen are known the world over, sent the ships racing across the sea.
Such was the English fleet that sailed with all haste across the Channel to the aid of Count Ferrand. William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, commanded. Arriving off Damme, situated near the junction of the rivers Rey and Lieve, he found that he had come at an opportune moment, for while a few of Philip's vessels were moored inside the harbour, the larger ones, the "tall ships," were lying at anchor almost unmanned, most of the men being ashore engaged in pillaging the neighbourhood. It was too good an opportunity to be missed, and, having sent out scouts to learn the exact strength of the French, and finding that his task would be fairly easy, Salisbury gave the order for a general and immediate attack. The English bore down upon the French, fell to with a will—with such a will, in fact, that in a short time three hundred of the French vessels were captured, and over a third of that number were driven ashore. Having an eye to business, the English lost no time in ransacking the captured and stranded ships. When all that was worth having had been pillaged, they loaded the largest vessels with their spoils, manned them and sent them away to England, consigning the remainder to the flames.
So far, Salisbury had only attacked the ships riding at anchor outside the harbour. Having disposed of them, he next turned his attention to those within the harbour. He therefore dispatched his smaller vessels to effect the capture and destruction of the remaining French ships. In a short time the English had passed into the harbour, grappled with the French, and there ensued a terrible hand-to-hand battle. The Frenchmen were, of course, at a disadvantage, inasmuch as so many of their seamen were ashore, but to the credit of these latter be it said that as soon as they perceived the state of affairs they made all haste to return, and so not miss the fun.
The grappling-irons held fast, and the ships hugged each other so closely that the decks formed one great battlefield, and men could pass from one deck to another as the death-dealing work proceeded. The French put up a bold fight, and every inch that the English won was won at a terrible price.
While this was going on aboard the ships, Salisbury moved bodies of men on to the land, and these, "ranging themselves on both sides of the haven, beat the Frenchmen on both sides . . . till that finally the Frenchmen were not able to sustain the force of the Englishmen, but were constrained, after long fighting and great slaughter, to yield themselves prisoners."
Again the captured vessels were pillaged and fired, and then, having drunk of the cup of victory, Salisbury determined to drink still deeper if Fate should prove as kind to him again. Farther in the harbour there were still a large number of French vessels, protected by the town of Bruges, a formidable obstacle to be overcome, seeing that it held a large force of French. But obstacles are made to be overcome, and Salisbury set himself to the task of doing that in this case, especially as there was the prospect of a good haul in the event of victory.
Bringing his ships up before the town, he landed his men, who were joined by the Flemish Count. A grand assault was made, and a sharp engagement ensued. But this time the enemy was prepared, and a town is different from ships, and, moreover, Philip had been able to hasten from the siege of Gent, and hurl his force at the attackers. Salisbury found his match, the assault was unsuccessful, and so hot did the French make it that it was found advisable, after a glorious struggle, to call the English off. A retreat was, therefore, made to the ships, but so severe had the fighting been that Salisbury lost two thousand men, which, doubtless, caused him much mortification, seeing that by it he had effected nothing.
Still, it had been a fine battle, and one of which he had just cause to be proud, seeing that he had crippled Philip's fleet.
Regarding Philip, an index to his feelings may be found in the fact that, disgusted at having been so badly hit, and furious at having his scheme of vengeance knocked on the head, and knowing that there was little chance of saving his fleet, seeing that Salisbury was still in the vicinity, he gave Damme to the flames, burned what little remained of his one-time gigantic fleet, and shook the dust of Flanders from his feet.
So ended England's first great naval fight, her first pitched battle with France for the supremacy of the seas. England had won.