Defence of the Realm: The Wars at Sea I

Model (scale approximately 1:48) based on the Seal of Dover in use in 1284. The Seals of the Cinque Ports are almost the only contemporary information available. The ships of the 11th and 12th centuries differed little from Viking longships. As more reliance came to be placed on sail power the vessels were built with increased beam and depth to carry the larger sail. During the 13th century, fore and aftercastles were added to these ships for fighting purposes. This ship was about 75 ft in length and 25 ft wide. The Cinque Ports are first mentioned in an English Royal Charter of 1155. They were five ports (Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings) which, in return for certain privileges, guaranteed to provide the Crown with ships in times of national strife or crisis.

It has long been an axiom that, as an island, Britain’s best defence was to attack the enemy at sea and for many centuries the warships and sailors from the Cinque Ports of Sussex formed part of England’s coastal defence.

The Cinque Ports were a maritime confederacy whose privileges and duties were legally defined by a Royal Charter of 1278. In return for the defence of the coast against sea-borne incursions and the provision of fifty-seven armed ships and crews for fifteen days each year for the Royal fleet, the confederation was granted certain rights and privileges. These included exemption from many taxes, the rights of wreckage (an important, if irregular, source of income) and Honours at Court. If the ships were required for longer than the fifteen days the king had to pay for their services.

The original five ports were Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich with Winchelsea and Rye as attached members of Hastings. The full title of the confederation was the Cinque Ports and Two Ancient Towns. At various times throughout the Middle Ages other towns and ports, from as far as Brightlingsea in Essex to Seaford in Sussex (and including Pevensey and Bulverhythe), were affiliated with the confederation, forming one of the most important naval forces in England. At the height of its power and influence the confederation numbered no less than forty-two towns and villages.

The ports had been active as a confederation long before their position was legally established. It is known that the Cinque Ports’ fleet sailed up the eastern coast in support of King Harold’s march to York to face Hardrada’s Vikings in 1066. Unfortunately for Harold these vessels were still in the north when William sailed from Normandy and the Conqueror found the coast undefended. Ironically it was the loss of Normandy by King John in 1204 which thrust the south coast and the Cinque Ports into the front line defence of England.

Their first recorded large-scale battle occurred early in 1213 when the Cinque Ports’ fleet attacked Dieppe and destroyed French ships which had been assembling in the Seine estuary in preparation for an attack upon England. In May of the same year the Cinque Ports’ ships formed part of an English naval force which defeated the French at the Battle of Damme where, it was claimed, the Portsmen captured 200 enemy vessels.

In 1216 Rye and Winchelsea opened their gates to the Dauphin of France in his unsuccessful bid to wrest the English throne from the hated King John. The French also occupied Chichester Castle. The following year the Castle was recaptured and the Cinque Ports’ fleet, having been bribed to change sides, defeated the French navy in a battle off Sandwich. So that Chichester Castle could never be used again by the French it was pulled down in 1225.

In 1242 the Cinque Ports were granted permission to ravage the French coast but it was during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) that the men and the ships of the Cinque Ports were most frequently in action. This conflict was a continuation of the confusion that arose after William the Conqueror divided his Anglo-Norman empire between his sons. From that moment on, the leading men in England and France were locked in seemingly endless disputes over the rights to property on both sides of the Channel. Often this took the form of legal debate but sometimes the arguments were decided by the force of arms. So when Phillip VI seized Gascony in 1337 the English king – Edward III – went to war to regain his Gascon possessions and to assert his own claim to the throne of France.

The first battle of the Hundred Years War was at sea. Edward, with a massive fleet of ships, including a large contingent from the Cinque Ports, achieved a great victory off Sluys. French losses were claimed to have reached 25,000 men. The significance of this victory, and of another success by the Cinque Ports’ fleet at the Battle of Les Espagnols-sur-Mer off Winchelsea in 1350, was that Edward’s army was able to cross the Channel and most of the fighting of the Hundred Years War took place in France.

Inevitably the French fleet felt obliged to retaliate and the Sussex coast, particularly the Cinque Ports, came under attack. Winchelsea was first assaulted in 1337 when around a hundred houses were burnt to the ground. Rye suffered a similar raid in 1339 when fifty of its houses were destroyed.

Twenty years later, on Sunday 15 March 1359, some 3,000 Frenchmen landed whilst the townspeople were in Winchelsea’s Church of St Giles celebrating Mass. The French broke into the church killing and raping. Forty of the inhabitants were murdered before help came. In the ensuing conflict some 400 English were drowned in the harbour. When the French sailed away they took with them thirteen well-laden ships.4

Exactly one year later, on 15 March 1360, Rye and Winchelsea suffered another raid, with both ports and the surrounding countryside being ravaged and burnt. A retaliatory raid was made by the Cinque Ports’ fleet a few months later.

The largest French raid came in the summer of 1377. Rye was overrun by a considerable force of possibly 4,000 men in 120 ships led by Admiral Jean de Vienne. At the sight of such a large force the inhabitants fled. All the wooden buildings in the town were burnt. Rye’s small castle, the Badding’s Tower, which had been built in the time of Henry III, proved incapable of defending the town against such attacks and it was clear that Rye would have to be properly fortified. With the help of Royal grants a stone wall was subsequently erected around the town with impressive strong-points in the form of the Land Gate and the Strand Gate. Baddings Tower was sold to a private individual, John de Ypres, in 1430 and has been known as the Ypres Tower ever since.

The French raiders then moved against Winchelsea. But the Abbot of Battle, having learnt of the French incursion, armed his men and sent them to help man the town’s defences. The raiders were driven off. Winchelsea’s defences were formed when the new town was built on its present site at the end of the thirteenth century. The walls were partly wood and earth, with stone only being used at key locations. The whole of the eastern side was surrounded by a wide ditch.

Undeterred by their repulse at Winchelsea, the French continued along the coast, ransacking Hastings and destroying its churches. Hastings was no longer the major port in the region. Hastings heads the list of the Cinque Ports and at its height in the twelfth century it contributed twenty ships to the king’s fleet. By the early thirteenth century Hastings’ contribution to the confederation was no more than half-a-dozen vessels. Hastings Castle had also declined in importance and as early as 1339 the town and the castle had been ransacked by one of the first raids of the Hundred Years War.

The French attackers continued westwards and, sighting a gap in the cliffs, de Vienne decided to make landfall – they had arrived at Rottingdean. The ships anchored or ran aground and the French troops advanced inland, only to be met by a volley of arrows from the locals. Though outnumbered, the archers were able to delay the French long enough to allow their women and children to escape. One man was sent by horse to alert the people of Lewes.

Meanwhile the rest of the French force made its way ashore. They looted the houses and set fire to the church of St Margaret. As de Vienne prepared to extend his raid further inland one of his scouts reported that an English force of some 500 men was approaching. The French admiral planned an ambush.

The English force was led by John de Caroloco, the Prior of the St Pancras Priory at Lewes. The Prior had no idea that the French were ashore in such large numbers and when he saw the small advance force on the edge of the village, he led the English into the attack. De Vienne, however, had stationed the majority of his troops on the wooded slopes of Beacon Hill, from which vantage point they could watch the English rushing into their trap.

The small French body turned and ran back to the beach, luring the English with them. At a pre-arranged signal, de Vienne unleashed his men who charged down upon the rear of the unsuspecting English. A handful of the English managed to cut their way through the French ranks but Prior de Caroloco was captured and around 100 men were killed.

Having beaten the local militia, de Vienne was now free to plunder the local area and it is possible that the French got as far as Lewes only to find the gates closed and the walls manned. After five days the French took to their ships again, eventually returning to France. It is said that John de Caroloco was taken back to France and ransomed. It has been said that he was released after a ransom of 300 marks had been handed over.

Ecclesiastical establishments of the Middle Ages played an important part in local defence, especially as places of refuge. The great gatehouses of places like Battle Abbey and Michelham Priory, as well as the moats dug around churches, such as that at West Tarring, were genuine defensive structures.

In retaliation for the raid of 1377 the men of Rye and Winchelsea attacked the French coast the following year. They captured all the wealthy people that could be held to ransom and they recovered the church bells of the two towns which had been taken by the French the previous year.

The French attacked the Sussex coast again in 1380. Led by Admiral Jean de Vienne, the Cinque Ports of Rye, Winchelsea and Hastings were once more the main targets of the raiders. The final French raid of the Hundred Years War was against Rye in 1448.

The repeated French attacks prompted a number of important landowners living close to the coast to build castles.

Amongst those was Bishop William Rede who sought a license to crenellate his house at Amberley after the raid of 1377. Though Amberley is more than six miles from the sea, it is less than a mile from the Arun which French ships could easily navigate. With curtain walls reaching forty feet in height the castle was protected by a moat along its southern face and the extensive marsh land of the Wild Brooks to the north and west. Its most impressive feature was its twin-towered gatehouse, built with a drawbridge and portcullis. Amberley Castle was attacked only once, in 1643 during the Civil War, when it was captured without a struggle by the Parliamentarians.

Around the same time that Amberley Castle was being fortified, Roger de Ashburnham also received permission to strengthen his manor house at Scotney. Until the nineteenth-century boundary changes Scotney was in Sussex, but is now in Kent. A few years later, on 21 October 1385, Sir Edward Dalngrigge received a licence to crenellate his property at Bodiam. Like Amberley, Bodiam Castle is near to one of Sussex’s major rivers. In this instance the Castle overlooks the River Rother, close to an ancient harbour which had been in use since Roman times.

Bodiam, one of the most picturesque castles in England, was built within a huge rectangular moat, some eight feet deep, which measures 542 feet by 340 feet. Rising to forty-one feet above the level of the water, the short curtain walls are flanked by four circular drum towers at each corner of this virtually square building. Midway along each of the southern, eastern and western walls is a rectangular tower and the northern wall boasts an impressive gatehouse. The towers stand twenty feet higher than the walls. Bodiam is classified as a courtyard castle which means that the internal buildings are set around a central courtyard.

The towers of the gatehouse flank the entrance which was built with three portcullises and a drawbridge which led to a barbican gate. A second drawbridge led to a small octagonal island which was reached by a bridge from the western side of the moat. It is also known that the castle was armed with a 15-inch “bombard”, one of the earliest types of artillery piece, as one of these guns was found in the moat. This weapon is now on display in the Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich.

With such defences, the castle would have been virtually unassailable, yet the only occasion that it was attacked – during the Civil War – it appears to have been given up without a fight. Bodiam was also besieged in 1483 but nothing is known about the event.

Herstmonceux Castle was built in the penultimate decade of the Hundred Years War by Roger de Fiennes who made his fortune fighting, and plundering, the French. Though the castle is not near a navigable river it does command the exposed Pevensey Levels. Despite its impressive double-parapeted gatehouse and water-filled moat, Herstmonceux is considered to be more a fortified manor house than a true castle.

During this period of unrest Pevensey Castle was garrisoned with around twenty or thirty men, usually consisting of ten men-at-arms, twenty bowmen and a watchman. However, in 1372 the Castle passed into the hands of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, and he refused to defend the Castle against the French raids. His failure to provide troops to garrison the Castle during the 1377 raid (claiming that if the Castle was damaged he could afford to re-build it!) made the Duke an unpopular figure. During the Peasant’s Revolt four years later the locals had their revenge and a mob broke into the Castle and burnt the court rolls used for assessing the Poll Tax. A similar attack was made at this time upon Lewes Castle.

In 1394 John of Gaunt went to Ireland and he entrusted the Constableship of Pevensey Castle to Sir John Pelham. When, five years later, John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, clashed with Richard II, Pelham remained loyal to the Gaunt family and Pevensey Castle found itself under siege for the final time in its history. On this occasion the Castle, held by Pelham’s wife Joan, was not taken and after Bolingbroke was crowned Henry IV, Pelham received the Castle and Honour of Pevensey as his reward.

With the ending of the Hundred Years War, the military importance of the Cinque Ports faded. Their decline was due in part to the growth of the Royal Navy but also to the silting up of the harbours. Only Dover, with aid from the state, has managed to keep its harbour open. The Cinque Ports were called to defend the realm just one more time when England faced its severest test since 1066. This time, though, it was not from France that the would-be invaders came, but from Spain.

Religion, which has so often whipped up the storm of international conflict, was the wind behind the sails of the magnificent armada of war ships that departed Spain in 1588 intent upon the subjugation of liberal England. Catholic Spain, then the most powerful nation in Europe, numbered the Netherlands (present-day Belgium and Holland) amongst its possessions. The growing Protestant movement in the Low Countries worried the severely orthodox Spanish monarch, Philip II, and he decided to end the advance of the heretics and enforce strict Catholicism upon his wayward Dutch and Flemish subjects.

A strong force of mercenaries from Spain’s Italian provinces, led by the Duke of Alva, was despatched to the Netherlands in the summer of 1567. Alva arrested the province’s leading figures and instigated a reign of inquisitorial terror against the defenceless Protestants. Many fled the Inquisition by crossing the North Sea. The Low Countries had long been England’s commercial inlet into Europe and the Flemish weavers and Dutch merchants received a friendly welcome from their old trading partners in Protestant England.

Tension between England and Spain was heightened the following year with the capture of an English fleet of ships in the Caribbean by the Spaniards, and by the retention of the cargo from a Spanish convoy that had sought shelter in the ports along the south coast. That cargo was gold bullion which had been destined to pay the troops occupying the Netherlands. Firstly Spain and then England responded by placing embargoes on each other’s trade with the Low Countries.

Relationships between the two countries deteriorated even further when Mary Queen of Scots attempted to seize the English throne with the assistance of the Spaniards. Mary’s Catholic supporters captured Hartlepool to allow Alva’s men a secure disembarkation but the Spaniards lacked the naval strength to ensure a safe crossing of the North Sea and the rebellion was quickly quashed.

By contrast, northern Europe continued to experience great civil unrest amidst Reformation and Counter-Reformation. It was, therefore, in England’s settled shires that industry could flourish in peace.

In Sussex the Wealden forests glowed with the fires of the gun foundries. Firstly for the ships of the Royal Navy and then for the forts and castles of the shores, the cannon of Sussex armed the nation – and none too soon. For the dare-devil actions of English privateers on the Spanish Main and open support for the Dutch rebels had enraged Philip and he would tolerate England’s interference no longer.