History is rife with monarchs, presidents, and potentates who sent their navies off to war—but in the case of the largest, bloodiest, and most significant naval battle in the annals of medieval Northern Europe, it was the king himself who sailed forth into harm’s way at the head of his armed-to-the-teeth fleet.
Here was the age of knights and jousts, of chivalry and dynastic complexity: 14th-century England in the reign of King Edward III. To the north, the Scots threatened. To the south, the French—simpatico with the Scots—likewise threatened. Edward, himself a scion of the French royal line, had a long-standing lineage claim to France’s throne as well, and in 1340 he opted to assert it with deadly force. Bravado? A hollow assertion? Perhaps—but an opportune one. For too long a time, French raids had been plundering and bedeviling the English coast—and now came the moment to strike back.
A mighty French armada lay in waiting at Sluys, in the Scheldt Estuary on the Flemish coast. Rather than seeking an alternative site to make his approach, and against the admonishments of his advisers, the bold and brash English king decided to head straight to Sluys for a direct attack. On 22 June 1340, he embarked from Ipswich in his flagship, the cog Thomas, at the head of a force of some 200 vessels and 5,000 men. Across the North Sea at Sluys, a superior French force of some 15,000 to 20,000 men stood at the ready, their fleet at anchor across the mouth of the Scheldt, under orders to repel the English or face execution for failing to do so.
Sighting the enemy on 23 June, King Edward “saw so great a number of ships that their masts seemed to be like a great wood,” the contemporary chronicler Jean Froissart recounted. On 24 June, Edward made his move, advancing his ships in three lines abreast, he himself commanding from the front line. Each first-line ship carrying English men-at-arms ready to do battle was flanked by two ships bristling with archers—England’s deadliest asset at the time, their powerful longbows capable of delivering hell from the heavens. To the blaring cacophony of trumpets and drums, the fleets engaged.
As the distance closed, the orders commenced along the English forecastles: Nock! The longbowmen put arrow to bowstring. Draw! They drew their mighty warbows to full extent. Loose! And the sky turned black with the arc of thousands of deadly projectiles, wreaking havoc on the crowded French ships, whose crossbows were still helplessly out of range. And once within range, the crossbowmen simply could not compete with the faster shooting rate of the longbows. By mid-afternoon, King Edward’s ships were careening into the thick of the enemy line, casting grappling irons as English men-at-arms stormed onto the French decks and slaughtered at will.
“The battle was right fierce and terrible,” Froissart noted, “for the battles on the sea are more dangerous and fiercer than the battle by land; for on the sea there is no . . . fleeing, there is no remedy but to fight and to abide fortune.”
The fortune was all with Edward III that day. In a letter to his son (who later would gain fame as the Black Prince in the Hundred Years’ War that was commencing), the king wrote, “The day of St. John . . . soon after the hour of noon, with the tide, we, in the name of God, and in the confidence of our right quarrel, entered into the said port upon our enemies, who had placed their ships in very strong array, and which made a very noble defence . . . but God by his power and miracle granted us the victory . . . .”
It was said afterward that, if God had granted fish the power of speech, they would be speaking French after all the dead Frenchmen they ate after the Battle of Sluys. Edward III had spared his kingdom from the threat of a French invasion by sea—and ensured that, in the century of bloodshed to follow, all the fighting and suffering would take place on the soil of France, not England.
Edward III, letter to Prince Edward, 28 June 1340, London Guildhall, Register F, fol. 39; reprinted in Joseph Allen, Battles of the British Navy, vol. 1 (London: George Bell & Sons, 1878), 10.
Jean Froissart, The Chronicles of Jean Froissart, Lord Berner, transl.; Gillian and William Anderson, eds. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963), 32–34.
Gordon Corrigan, England Expects: The Battle of Sluys (London: Endeavour Press, 2016), 40–50, 55–66.
Susan Rose, England’s Medieval Navy, 1066–1509: Ships, Men & Warfare (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), 129–133.
Timothy J. Runyan, “The English Navy in the Reign of Edward III,” (unpublished dissertation, 1971, courtesy Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy), 15–27.