Battle of Damme

William Longespee’s ships attacking the French ships during the battle of Damme. Artist Dariusz Bufnal

Philip II awaits his fleet.

The Battle of Damme was fought on 30 and 31 May 1213 during the 1213–1214 Anglo-French War. An English fleet led by William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury accidentally encountered a large French fleet under the command of Savari de Mauléon in the vicinity of the port of Damme, in Flanders. The French crews were mostly ashore, pillaging the countryside, and the English captured 300 French ships at anchor, and looted and fired a further hundred beached ships. The main French army, commanded by King Philip II of France, was nearby besieging Ghent and it promptly marched on Damme. It arrived in time to relieve the town’s French garrison and drive off the English landing parties. Philip had the remainder of the French fleet burned to avoid capture. The success of the English raid yielded immense booty and ended the immediate threat of a French invasion of England.

From 1211 onwards both kings were jockeying for positions in Flanders. John still hoped to reconquer Normandy, while Philip Augustus had designs on England. Both of them needed a stepping-off base in Flanders, especially access to the harbour of the Zwin, and to Flemish mercenaries. Early in 1213 the Pope, after a long altercation with John, excused his English subjects from their allegiance to him and strongly encouraged all Christian leaders to unite in efforts to depose him. This, as described by the chroniclers, gave Philip Augustus the justification he was seeking for planning an invasion of England.

Events then led up to the episode known as the Battle of Damme, perhaps better described as an important raid. In the spring of 1213, Philip Augustus moved his land forces north and invaded Flanders. He devastated Bruges and attacked Ghent, at the same time ordering a ‘large’ fleet to move north up the coast. How large this force really was is not known, but it probably consisted mainly of sailors from Poitou, who were far from home and by no means entirely dependable.

John, having decided the best form of defence was attack, sent his half-brother William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, over at the head of a considerably smaller fleet to reconnoitre and, if possible, to intercept the French. They probably sailed in mid-April, and would have reached the mouth of the Meuse (the Zwin) in a couple of days, where Longsword was surprised to find the port full of vessels. Having established that the ships were indeed French, he took the opportunity to capture or burn the larger ones anchored out in the middle of the channel leading up to Damme while the sailors had apparently gone ashore to plunder what remained of the wealth of Bruges.

Hearing the news of this disaster and concerned particularly about the fate of his pay-chests which were on board one of the ships, Philip Augustus broke his siege of Ghent and hurried to Damme, where he found the remainder of his fleet, the smaller ships, still pulled up on the mud. However, confronted with the difficulty of getting those ships away from Damme in the face of the English fleet lying in wait outside, and mistrusting the mercenaries from Poitou, who might turn traitor and change sides at any moment, he burnt the rest of his own boats rather than let them fall into English hands. As a result, he was without a fleet and had to abandon any thoughts he may have had of invading England that year.

King John Naval Campaigns

In the reign of king John whose loss of Normandy in 1205-6 had ensured the geographical separation of his territories in England and France and placed the southern coast of the Channel in the hostile hands of Philip Augustus, king of France.

The fundamental issue was the strength and power of the French monarchy. King John was determined to regain the Angevin lands seized by Philip Augustus in 1204. He found potential allies in the princes of the lands between France and Germany, many of whom – notably Ferrand, Count of Flanders, Renaud of Danmartin, Count of Boulogne, and Henry I of Brabant, whose daughter married Otto IV in May – were deeply nervous at the prospect of French domination. John’s diplomacy revived the strategy of Henry I, Henry II and Richard I, in seeking allies on the northern and eastern flanks of France. His intrigues were the more dangerous for Philip because of his family relationship with Otto IV, who claimed to be King of Germany and emperor. Philip decided to support the rival claimant to the Empire, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, who enjoyed the support of Pope Innocent III. Papal diplomacy and French money created a Hohenstaufen party and plunged Germany into a civil war, which rapidly became deadlocked. Thus Otto was drawn into the web of John’s plans for the recovery of the Angevin lands in France. Philip Augustus attempted to head off the coalition by invading England, but his fleet was destroyed at the sea-battle of Damme on 30 May 1213. At one stroke, England was freed from the fear of invasion, and Ferrand, Count of Flanders, was able to turn from the French king to an English alliance. 

John’s strategy was essentially a repeat of Henry I’s of 1124: Henry had called in his ally, the emperor Henry V, to invade France from the east while he fought on the Norman frontier.

John has also been linked with the growth of the idea that a fleet could be used in war as something more than a means of transport; in particular with the notion that `a naval offensive is the best and surest defence against a threat of invasion’. In 1213 France faced him with such a threat and, as well as using the diplomatic tactic of submitting to the Pope in order to remove Philip’s justification for his actions, John dispatched a fleet under William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury to Flanders. Both John and Philip had been actively seeking the support of Flemish lords in their quarrels and at this point Philip had invaded Flanders furious at the suggestion that the Count of Flanders had made a compact with John. He had also ordered the fleet which he had assembled in the mouth of the Seine to sail instead to the Zwyn, the area of the estuary of the Scheldt adjacent to the town of Damme. The English fleet also sailed to the Zwyn and from the tone of the chronicle it would seem that the commanders had no idea that they would find the French fleet already there. Despite their surprise they sent out scouts who confirmed that this was indeed the French fleet and also that it was virtually unguarded, most of the crews and the men at arms being on shore sacking the town and the surrounding countryside. The Zwyn at Damme was already a very shallow anchorage (the town is nowadays some distance from the sea) and it seems that some of the French ships were beached. Those at anchor were boarded, the few defenders overwhelmed, and the ships sailed back to England with their valuable cargoes of victuals and arms. Those on the mudflats were burnt once the spoils had been removed. Philip and his army on discovering this disaster were left with no option but to withdraw and to abandon the idea of invading England. In the context of the whole campaign, however, this English victory had no strategic importance; the final outcome, as in 1066, was decided by a land battle, the battle of Bouvines in 1214, a triumph for Philip.

Despite Brooks’ grand claims for a change in the perception of naval warfare, the nature of the engagement and the tactics used seem very traditional. The battle of Dover, however, which occurred in 1217 substantiates the theory of a new view of the possibilities of war at sea. When civil war broke out in England between John and the barons, the king should have been able to use his control of a relatively large group of ships to his own advantage. He failed, however to ensure the loyalty of the Cinque Ports. This made it possible for the rebellious barons, convinced that John had no intention of keeping the promises enshrined in Magna Carta, to receive help from the dauphin to whom they went so far as to offer the crown. French forces got ashore at Sandwich in May 1215. By the time of the king’s death in 1216 they controlled more than half the country.

Eustace the Monk

Eustace the Monk commanded the fleet needed to bring them to England. This seafarer called a viro flagitiosissimo (a real pain) by Matthew Paris was almost a legendary figure to his countrymen. He came from near Boulogne and may have had some early connection with the religious life. He gave it up, however, when his brother died without male heirs and by c. 1205 was in the service of king John. He seems to have conducted raids in the Channel and as far as the Channel Islands with a squadron of ships based on Winchelsea. By 1211 he was forced to flee from England and took service with the dauphin and was of great use to him in his English campaigns. The ballad written of his exploits includes many dramatic and unlikely stories involving magic and phantom ships among other things but it is clear enough that he was a skilled and experienced seaman.

For an introduction to naval tactics and combat, see: F. W. Brooks, `The Battle of Damme, 1213′ in The Mariner’s Mirror 16 (1930), 264-271; James Sherborne, `The Battle of La Rochelle and the War at Sea, 1372-1375′ in The Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 42 (1969), 17-29; Federico Foerster Laures, `The Warships of the Kings of Aragon and Their Fighting Tactics during the 13th and 14th Centuries AD’ in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 16 (1987), 19-29; Susan Rose, Medieval Naval Warfare 1000-1500 (London, 2002); Ian Friel, `Oars, Sails and Guns: The English and the War at Sea, c. 1200-1500′ in War at Sea in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. John B. Hattendorf and Richard W. Unger (Woodbridge, 2003), 69-79; William Sayers, `Naval Tactics at the Battle of Zierikzee’ in Journal of Medieval Military History 4 (2006), 74-90; and Kelly DeVries, `God, Leadership, Flemings and Archery: Contemporary Perceptions of Victory and Defeat at the Battle of Sluys, 1340′ in Medieval Ships and Warfare, ed. Susan Rose (Aldershot, 2008), 131-150

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *