Medieval Navy of France

Facing the North Sea and the Atlantic, the kingdom of France possessed, in theory, around 2500 kilometres of coastline, stretching from the estuary of the Zwyn in Flanders to Hendaye on the frontier with Castile. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, however, only the counties of Ponthieu and Artois on the north coast were ruled directly by the French king; other territories including Flanders, Normandy, Brittany, Poitou and Gascony were fiefs of the French Crown, but were ruled directly by dukes or counts who often followed their own policies. This was particularly the case with the territories which were ruled by the Kings of England as dukes, first of Normandy from the Conquest till c.1204 and from c.1417 to c.1450, and second of Gascony (also known as Aquitaine) from 1152, when the future Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine, till 1453. Brittany, under its own duke, also pursued independent policies until the last years of the fifteenth century, when the French king took over the direct rule of the duchy by marrying Anne, the heiress of the last duke in 1491. As a consequence of this situation, kings of France had taken little interest in maritime matters, until the collapse of English rule in northern France in the reign of King John extended their power over most of the Channel coast. The kings of France, initially Philip II Augustus, now had control over a coastline in the north of their kingdom with excellent ports, where maritime trade was on the rise, and where skilled and adventurous seamen could be found in large numbers. They also had the power to demand feudal service at sea from these mariners and their ships in much the same way as the English Crown could rely on its power to conscript ships and crews for royal fleets. As Michel Mollat put it, ‘Philip [II] did not have a fleet but he had ships’. It was a fleet raised in this manner which met with the English at the battle of Dover in 1217.

Sources for French naval forces

There are not, however, many surviving French equivalents of the letters patent, commissions and accounts which allow historians to examine in detail the fleets largely made up of conscripted merchant ships raised by English kings from the thirteenth century onwards. It is easier to find evidence of the measures taken by French kings to defend their coastline by fortifying ports and building castles, for example at Montreuilsur-Mer and Boulogne. After their control also extended by the mid thirteenth century to the coast of Poitou and Saintonge, the fortifications of the major port of La Rochelle were also strengthened, although it was not until 1345–47 that the twin towers which guard the harbour entrance were built. These still exist and the Tour St Nicholas, in particular, is a very imposing structure; the watch tower is more than 35m above sea level. A chain was stretched across the entrance to the harbour between the two towers on which cannon were also mounted. Harfleur had similar towers, while at Honfleur across the estuary of the Seine one tower was built by the French in the mid fourteenth century, and another built c.1430 when the town was ruled by the English.

Le Clos des galées

The idea of special facilities for French royal maritime forces first took shape in 1240 on the Mediterranean coast of France. In that year Louis IX founded the port of Aigues Mortes in the marshes of the Camargue, on the small section of the southern coast of France between Marseille and Montpellier, under direct French royal rule. From this vantage point the French monarchy acquired direct experience of the sophisticated form of galley warfare which dominated these southern waters in the second half of the thirteenth century. The war between Charles II of Anjou, Louis IX’s nephew, and ruler of Provence, and successive kings of Aragon, usually known as the war of the Sicilian Vespers, had a major naval component with galley battles fought in the waters off Sicily and Catalonia. Both the Aragonese kings and Charles built galley fleets and, from c.1270, began the development of large galley-building shipyards at Barcelona or Marseille. It is very probable that awareness of these events and the effectiveness of galleys as warships was one of the motivations for Philip IV of France to establish a galley-building yard of his own, in the north of his kingdom on the river Seine at Rouen. Shipbuilding had gone on at Rouen since at least 1226, and the tidal regime in the river ensured the town’s success as a port, despite its distance from the sea. It was also, of course, well placed if the primary opponent of vessels to be built in the yard was England.

The yard was established around 1293–95, with the initial task of setting up the enterprise in the hands of Genoese shipwrights, some of the most successful and experienced workers in this field in the Mediterranean. It was initially quite a modest enclosure, defended only by ditches and a palisade, but eventually became a galley yard on the model of those in Genoa or Barcelona, with substantial buildings including housing for the officers and workers and covered galley sheds. It was designed round a basin leading off the river itself, with the entry and exit of vessels controlled by lock gates. It was certainly a much more impressive establishment than the temporary buildings and hedged enclosures used by the English Crown at Ratcliff on the Thames in the mid fourteenth century.

It is hard, however, to be sure how effective the Clos was as a shipbuilding yard since there are considerable gaps in the surviving documentation. In some ways it was more use as providing winter shelter for galleys according to the usual practice in the Mediterranean. At Rouen they could be taken out of the water and placed in covered galley sheds in the yard. It is also the case that, under the supervision of the director of the Clos, ships were also built for the French Crown in other ports. Jean Ribaut was responsible for building three new barges at Rouen in 1369–70 and others in Dieppe and Caudebec. After 1376 more vessels were ordered by the Crown from the Clos des galées, but it is not clear that the work on all of these was finished.

It was certainly also used as a storage facility and victualling yard; the French fleet that fought at Sluys was assembled there, and in 1355 a fleet was provided with victuals for one month comprising biscuit, beef, salt pork, herring, dried peas and beans, salt, and onions. The administration of the yard was reorganised in the 1370s in the reign of Charles V and given greater responsibility for the provisioning of expeditions and the provision of artillery, in addition to that for the building and repair of royal ships. The surviving accounts for Jean Champenois, master of the Clos des galées for 1382–84, however, make depressing reading. The inventory section of the accounts makes clear that despite the expenditure of a certain amount of money in wages and supplies, there were no vessels in the Clos ready to go to sea. The galleys St Agnes, St Cross, and St Victor required repairs and lacked some equipment. The Madeleine was rotten and beyond repair, while three old horse transports had been on the stocks for at least twenty-seven years. The only other vessels were four half-built barges. In 1385, probably as part of the preparations for an abortive French attempt to invade England, biscuit for fifty-three vessels was provided by the yard; around thirty of these ships were, however, hired from Spain and most of the remainder came from Harfleur. This flurry of activity was followed by a long slow decline into inertia under corrupt officials. By the time the Clos was overrun by the English and burnt down in 1417, the yard was no longer engaged in building or repairing ships. The final expenditure recorded was nothing to do with these matters but with the repair of the stained glass windows with armorial borders in the hall and the chapel of the ‘ostel du clos des gallees lez Rouen’.

As the editor of the greater part of the surviving accounts has pointed out, the establishment of the Clos by Philip IV does not represent the fulfilment of a wish to have a permanent navy. In her view the only thing permanent about the Clos was the officials and their salaries. The number of ships built or based in the Clos was too small for any kind of permanent navy and, moreover, they were not kept in a ‘sea-ready’ condition but allowed to deteriorate in times of truce. There were no permanent crews for the vessels, with most of the galleymen coming from the Mediterranean when an expedition was in preparation, a process which could take some time and lead to delays in the fleet putting to sea. Finally, Philip IV and the kings who succeeded him had other means of raising a fleet. It has been estimated that a French king could raise a fleet of from one to four hundred ships in French ports using his powers of conscription, and also had the ability to hire at least forty of the best Mediterranean galleys, usually from Genoa or Castile, whenever he chose. Galleys were not suitable for commercial use or for fishing in northern waters, and therefore could not be put to other uses in time of truce. Even so, in the view of the editor of the surviving documents, the little ‘nutshells’, most with a capacity of less than one hundred tuns, built in the yard made ‘England tremble for more than a century’.

The policy of Philip IV

Even if the galleys built in the Clos desgalées did not have quite such a dramatic effect on English mariners as this remark implies, there is little doubt that Philip IV was unusual among French kings in spending much care and attention on a maritime policy intended to deal with not only the English, but also the Flemings, especially those in the merchant towns on the coast who were in rebellion against the French Crown. As well as acquiring a squadron of his own ships, he also created the office of Admiral of France; the first was Otton de Toucy, followed by the Genoese Enrico Marchese, and the Castilian Benedetto Zaccaria. The King was able to defray the considerable cost of these innovations by imposing a duty on ships which had to be registered for royal service when needed.

The highpoint for the Clos, and in some ways for the medieval French navy, was the preparations for a possible invasion of England in the first half of the fourteenth century. These began in 1338, some two years before the battle of Sluys. Ordinances for the French fleet were drawn up in the same year, which in many ways are very similar to some of those we have looked at for the English fleet, produced at much the same time. The French fleet was to be ordered in ‘battles’ or ranks with the mariners from the Seine and Flanders in the van, followed by those from Dieppe and Picardy. The systems of signalling by flag for councils of war, or for the first sighting of an enemy ship, was the same as those for the English fleet. The administration of the admiralty was also clarified at this time; a vice admiral would be appointed with assistants in Leure, Dieppe, Abbeville and Boulogne. Payments for these officials and the Clos would come from the Chambre des Comptes via the Clerc des arbaletriers with funds provided from a special aide voted by the estates of Normandy.

Well might Philip VI consider that he now possessed a truly Grande Armée de la Mer, the phrase used in surviving orders and accounts. To oppose the English in the early months of 1340 there were 200 ships mustered at Rouen from ports all along the northern coast of France. Among these were three galleys, twenty-two vessels which were either barges or the smaller bargots and seven nefs that are all described as being in royal ownership. In addition three Genoese galleys, commanded by one Barbavera, had been hired by the French. In total, victuals and other provisions had to be provided for over twenty thousand men before they set off for the estuary of the Zwyn. As we have seen, the battle was a disaster for the French with very high casualties. Many of the men lost would have been skilled and experienced mariners; their loss was a serious matter for France and may have led to a curtailment of maritime endeavours for some time.

Philip VI

In 1346/7, at the time of the invasion of France by the English which ended with the siege of Calais, it is notable that Philip VI’s initial response to the threat posed by English preparations was to turn to galleys hired from the Mediterranean, not to rely on the resources of the Clos or French shipowners. In the first months of 1346 he concluded an agreement with Carlo Grimaldi to hire from him thirty-two galleys and one galiot crewed by around seven thousand men. Unfortunately for Philip, the force did not arrive in French waters until 19 July 1346, by which time Edward III’s army had already disembarked at Saint-Vaast-la-Hogue. During the long English siege of Calais over the winter and spring of 1346/7, the Grimaldi galleys did little to bring relief to the town. An early success in breaking through the English blockade was not followed up; at the end of October the galleys were taken out of the water and disarmed according to the custom in the Mediterranean.

The flotillas which did have some success in bringing in supplies to the starving town were made up of ships from all the ports along the French coast, acting, according to Bourel de la Roncière, the historian of the French navy, entirely out of patriotic fervour. He included in his account of the siege some stirring stories including the tale of hundreds of women in Dieppe who dragged an overloaded victualler free of the mud in the harbour by hauling on ropes. This vessel formed part of a relieving force which got through the English defences in late March. No others were successful. The fact that Calais was in English hands from 1347 did to some extent limit the freedom of movement of French ships in this part of the Channel. As a consequence of these defeats, the French Crown had also to a degree lost its appetite for new maritime initiatives; better to rely on galleys hired from its southern allies than to use France’s own resources.

Charles V

The fortunes of the Clos des galées and the French navy, however, revived in the reign of Charles V, along with those of France in general. English fortunes were at a nadir, especially following the defeat at La Rochelle, which to one commentator signified the loss of English control of the Golfe de Gascogne. Ordinances issued in 1373 and 1377 reorganised the Clos and the Admiralty under the leadership of Jean de Vienne, who proved himself as competent and imaginative a leader in warfare at sea as he had done on land. The letters appointing the new Mâitre et garde of the galley yard in 1374 make plain how bad things had apparently become before this date. Victuals and other equipment were rotten and spoilt, while the galleys themselves were in such a condition that they could not put to sea in any emergency. The new master Estenne de Brandiz came from the south where he had been in charge of ‘pors et passages’ in Carcassonne and Beziers, and had proved himself by organising the return of the pope from Avignon to Rome. The success of Vienne’s strategy of destructive raids on English coastal towns is neatly summarised in the report on the doings of the Armée de mer drawn up at the end of 1380. The purpose of the report was to finalise the sums owed by Charles V to the King of Castile for the hire of twenty galleys which had been involved in many of these raids. The purpose of the squadron had always been to do as much damage as possible to the Isle of Wight, Jersey and Guernsey, and other places. The report declared that they had burnt ‘Vincenezel’ (Winchelsea) and Rye, had raided up the Thames in August, and had finally left for Spain at the end of September. Their base was Harfleur, more convenient for this sort of activity than the yard up the river at Rouen.

The fifteenth century

It is also reasonable to suppose that Charles V had a deliberate policy of increasing the French monarchy’s direct control over the maritime regions and coasts of France, both to extend his own powers and because of the economic benefit this would bring France. Most of this unravelled in the reign of his son Charles VI. The failure of the enormous efforts put into the projected invasion of England in 1386 perhaps created a climate in which no one in a position of power or authority wished to be associated with endeavours like this. Rather than grandiose projects including an invasion by a large French fleet, security in the Channel could be better provided by gaining the political support of the Burgundians and the Dukes of Brittany.

In the early years of the fifteenth century, as we have already seen, the French monarchy turned once again to the well-tried medium of hired vessels, at this period largely from Genoa, to defend themselves from the forces of Henry V. The issue of royal ships or even a royal navy did not come to the fore again until the 1450s when the defeat of the English had returned the northern coasts of France, with the sole exception of Calais, to French control.

The whole issue of the attitude of the French monarchy to maritime affairs at this time was debated with vigour in a pamphlet supposedly recording a debate between the heralds of France and England. Written sometime after the battle of Castillon in 1453, which ensured the loss by the English of all their French territories except Calais and the Pale, the Herald of France pours particular scorn on the English claim to be ‘roys de la mer and then mounts several arguments in favour of France exerting her own power at sea. Apart from better natural resources in harbours and shipbuilding materials than England, the Herald claimed that the King of France, without leaving his palace, could destroy all the great ships of England by shutting them out of the immensely profitable trades in wine and bay salt. He recalled the reign of Charles V and the way in which he had successfully deployed forces of galleys against the port towns on the English coast and had even sent a fleet up the Thames which had attacked the city with cannon fire. In his view, these raids could be easily repeated any time the French king wanted. The French could also easily wage war against the English at sea if they wished. It was true that the French nobility was not enthusiastic about going to sea – seasickness is mentioned as a particular problem – but this was not a matter of importance. The French could get as many ships as they needed from their Spanish allies and, moreover, since the French had authority over Genoa more ships, both carracks and galleys, could come from there. Finally, the writer makes a plea to the French crown:

Item, et pour ce je prie Dieu qu’il doint au roy de France cuer et courage de vous faire guerre a la mer, car ce sont les verges de quoy il vous peut chastier et refroider vostre hault couraige et a tous vos voysins quant il luy plaira l’entreprendre.

Unfortunately the precise date of the composition of this pamphlet is not known, otherwise the recommendation to restart raids on the English coast might be thought to have inspired that on Sandwich in 1457.

One individual who would have thoroughly agreed with the Herald’s conclusions would have been Pierre de Brézé, the grand seneschal of Normandy from 1451–61. He had been in the service of Charles VII of France since 1437 and was much involved in the reconquests of Normandy by the French and the defeat of the English. A fragmentary account for the years 1452–58 preserved in the archives of the Musée Condé has cast light on his activities as an active promoter of the guerre de course against the English in the Channel. He held shares in at least two ships, the carvel Marquise and another ship called the Poulle. These were based at Honfleur and put to sea with the clear aim of taking English ships and profiting from their cargoes and the ransoms of their crews. A tenth of any profits after some expenses, including the victualling of the ships, had been taken into account went to the Admiral of France. Like the raid on Sandwich in 1457, of which de Brézé was one of the leaders, these were at least semi-official voyages. De Brézé’s main aim was political and military, to wrest mastery of the Narrow Seas from the English. Any personal profits were a secondary matter. The accounts reveal a degree of success; in 1456 his ships took the Ghost of London, the George of Hull and another smaller ship. The final profit after expenses and the tenth due to the admiral, made up of the value of the cargoes of wool and lead on the ships taken, the ransoms of the prisoners, and the sale of the Ghost, came to just over 76k 6s.

The Herald’s impassioned plea for a coherent naval policy by French kings was also largely ignored by Charles VII’s successor Louis XI. He was concerned to encourage French maritime commerce, but concentrated his efforts on political manoeuvres aimed at securing power in Burgundian territories and in Brittany. One of the principal ways in which he attempted to achieve this was by continuing the policy of encouraging the activities of the corsairs who swarmed in French ports, letting them attack Flemish and Breton shipping almost with impunity. Mollat summed up Louis’ attitude to any form of navy by remarking that it was hardly possible to speak of the ‘marine royale’ at this time. Since many of his political intrigues were successful, Louis XI would have cared little for this verdict. Once the long-running and destructive war with England was over, France had other preoccupations, most of which had little impact on maritime or naval matters. Her rulers’ eyes turned southwards towards Italy, away from the Channel and the Atlantic, and made little effort to acquire their own naval forces.