With the limelight of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt fading, the anniversary of a less well-known naval engagement fought in the mouth of the river Seine is approaching.
On 15 August 1416, a fleet of English ships under the command of the king Henry V’s brother the Duke of Bedford successfully defeated and scattered a Franco-Genoese naval force blockading the recently conquered port of Harfleur.
Also known as the naval battle of Harlfeur, one may question whether it is worth highlighting this relatively little known naval encounter at all, but there are two very good reasons for doing so.
Firstly, it was one of only a few naval battles fought by an English fleet in the medieval period. Secondly, without this victory Henry’s conquest of France from 1417-20 and the treaty of Troyes, agreeing to Henry inheriting the French throne, may not have happened.
Only half a year had passed since the victory at Agincourt, yet by April 1416, England’s hard won military prestige in 1415 was close to unravelling. French and Genoese ships had since raided ports and villages along the south coast of England and were besieging and blockading the port of Harfleur.
Described in a 1416 session of parliament as ‘the chief key to France’ (C 65/78 m.10, transcribed, translated and available online subject to subscription), Harfleur’s loss would be a huge military reversal for Henry damaging to both his military ambition and prestige.
Preparing the relief force
Sir John Skidmore and Reginald Courtoys, victualler, along with others, were dispatched from Harfleur to the king on 6 April 1416 to bring word of the increasingly desperate situation and gather much needed supplies and owed wages. Food stores were running low, the garrison had incurred losses in unsuccessful overland raids, and morale was lower still with wages outstanding. This must have caused alarm as a flurry of administrative activity followed a few days later to raise supplies and a relief force.
Entries in the enrolments of royal correspondence in the Patent and Close rolls (C66 and C 54) show that on 14 April royal officials were appointed to promptly gather supplies and oversee the requisitioning of ships for the relief of Harfleur. Richard Cliderawe and William Ledes were for instance ordered to buy 1000 quarters (that is 200 ‘tuns’ or 448,000 lbs) of wheat to be taken ‘with convenient speed for the victualling of the town of Harfleu[r]’ to the port of Sandwich (C 66/399 m.36).
Crews of merchant and fishing ships and privately owned vessels were obliged to perform service to the crown when required. These vessels requisitioned in English ports would serve alongside vessels directly owned or maintained by the crown. This was in effect England’s ‘Navy’ during the medieval period.
At the same time, preparations were being made to recruit soldiers to serve as the main fighting force on board ships to be assembled for embarkation at Southampton. There were no trained maritime fighting units like the Royal Marines on ships at this time, but mariners would have been involved in fighting if required.
French and Genoese ships attempted to frustrate efforts to relieve the beleaguered port by staging further raids on the south coast and blockading Portsmouth and Southampton in May 1416. English chroniclers even accused the French of entering into superficial peace negotiations to delay the dispatch of a relief force before the town capitulated. 1
These actions as well as contrary winds delayed the relief expedition by about two to three months, but finally two sections of the Duke of Bedford’s fleet set sail, arriving at the mouth of the Seine on 14 August.
The size of Bedford’s armada was perhaps between 250 and 300 vessels of varying tonnage. The smaller Franco-Genoese fleet, commanded by the Vicomte de Narbonne, consisted of approximately 100 vessels, eight hired Genoese carracks and 12 galleys. Although Bedford enjoyed numerical superiority, the Genoese carracks were formidable fighting ships, with high sides and larger in size than most vessels in the English fleet. Bedford’s task would be difficult.
As dawn broke over the waters of the Seine on 15 August 1416, the two opposing fleets taking advantage of the light winds closed in on each another.
The chronicler of the Deeds of Henry V picks up the story:
‘the two fleets…had drawn close to one another in the mouth of the river Seine and then having grappled, had come to grips, and…following an exchange of missiles, iron gads [sharpened spears], stones and other weapons of offence, the fury of the combatants had reached boiling point’ 2
A French chronicler described the attempts of English ships to board the Genoese carracks with grapnels: they were repeatedly repulsed by a hail of missiles, spears and stones.
The battle lasted for several hours but eventually the English triumphed, capturing three Genoese carracks and sinking one hulk. One further Genoese carrack was wrecked on a sand bank. The hard-won victory was made easier by the withdrawal of several Genoese galleys and other ships to the port of Honfleur across the Seine estuary.
Casualty figures for the battle vary between accounts. One states 1,500 French and Genoese dead, 400 taken prisoner and 100 English dead. One French writer states that at least 700 English knights and esquires were wounded during the battle.
Evidence of the damage done during the battle can be found hidden in the enrolled financial accounts of the exchequer. Inventories of the king’s ships enrolled in E 364 show certain equipment for two royal ships involved in the battle – the Holy Ghost and the Trinity Royal – that was lost, sunk at sea or damaged. Items include anchors, yard ropes lanterns and other apparatus. 3
With the blockade now lifted, much needed supplies and reinforcements flowed into Harfleur. This remarkable victory alongside the tenacious defence by the garrison of Harfleur had prevented a catastrophic military defeat. It would herald the success of future English military operations in northern France.
Agincourt may have been a monumental victory against the odds, but it eclipses other military triumphs that were far more critical to the success of English military strategy in France in the 15th century. The battle of Harfleur is certainly one of these forgotten victories, and it deserves recognition for this very reason. Most importantly perhaps, the battle stands as a testament to the capability of England’s maritime forces several centuries before Britain established itself as a dominant naval power across the globe.