|Battle of Winchelsea|
|Part of the Hundred Years' War|
A depiction of medieval naval combat from Jean Froissart's Chronicles, 14th century
|Kingdom of England||Crown of Castile|
|Commanders and leaders|
King Edward III |
Edward, the Black Prince
|Charles de la Cerda|
|50 ships||40 ships|
|Casualties and losses|
At least 2 ships lost|
Heavy human losses
|14–26 ships captured|
The Battle of Winchelsea or the Battle of Les Espagnols sur Mer ("the Spaniards on the Sea"), was a naval battle that took place on 29 August 1350 and was a victory for an English fleet of 50 ships commanded by King Edward III over a Castilian fleet of 47 larger vessels commanded by Charles de La Cerda. Between 14 and 26 Castilian ships were captured, and several were sunk. Only two English vessels were sunk but there was significant loss of life. The battle was part of the Hundred Years' War between England and France.
English trade, war finance and ability to bring force to bear against France was heavily reliant on seaborne transportation, especially to its territory in Gascony. With its own ability to raise and support a fleet much reduced by English activities, the French hired Castilian ships to blockade English ports. Frustrated by their effectiveness, Edward III himself led the fleet which intercepted them and inflicted heavy losses. In spite of this success English trade and ports had little respite from French, and French-sponsored, naval activity.
Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, English monarchs had held titles and lands within France, the possession of which made them vassals of the kings of France. Over the centuries, English holdings in France had varied in size, but by 1337 only Gascony in south western France and Ponthieu in northern France were left. Following a series of disagreements between Philip VI of France and Edward III of England, on 24 May 1337 Philip's Great Council in Paris agreed that the Duchy of Aquitaine, effectively Gascony, should be taken back into Philip's hands on the grounds that Edward was in breach of his obligations as a vassal. This marked the start of the Hundred Years' War, which was to last one hundred and sixteen years.
Throughout the early part of the war English coastal areas were harassed by French raids. The port towns of Portsmouth, Southampton, Hastings and Plymouth were captured and razed, as were many smaller places. Numerous English merchant ships, and several warships, were captured. In June 1340 Edward III smashed the French fleet at the Battle of Sluys. In 1346 the English landed in northern Normandy and undertook a devastating chevauchée through northern France. The English navy paralleled the march of the army, capturing or burning large numbers of French warships and merchant vessels as it went. Thereafter the threat from the French navy was much reduced. The English then soundly beat the French at the Battle of Crécy and captured the major French port city of Calais. The Truce of Calais was agreed in September 1347 but the war continued via raids and guerrilla warfare; the ongoing fighting was "almost constant".
When war did not restrict trade, over 1,000 ships a year departed Gascony for England each year. Among their cargos were over 100,000,000 litres of wine. The duty levied by the crown on wine from Bordeaux was more than all other customs duties combined and by far the largest source of state income. Bordeaux, the capital of Gascony, was larger than London, and possibly richer. However, by this time English Gascony had become so truncated by French encroachments that it relied on imports of food, largely from England. Any interruptions to regular shipping were liable to starve Gascony and financially cripple England; the French were well aware of this.
In November 1349, Charles de la Cerda, a soldier of fortune, son of Luis de la Cerda, and member of a branch of the Castilian royal family, sailed from northern Spain, commissioned by the French, with an unknown number of ships. He intercepted and captured several English ships laden with wine from Bordeaux and murdered their crews. Later in the year de la Cerda led a Castilian fleet of 47 ships loaded with Spanish wool from Corunna to Sluys, in Flanders, where it wintered. On the way he captured several additional English ships, again throwing the crews overboard.
In early 1350 negotiations to renew the truce, brokered by two papal nuncios, were taking place. Nevertheless, the governments of both France and England were actively planning for the renewal of large scale military operations. In February, French intermediaries in Bruges paid 20,000 florins to hire the Castilian fleet as mercenaries. In April it blockaded the English Channel ports, while the French struggled to reinforce it with what native ships they could finance and man. In mid-June a truce was agreed. The Castilians were specifically named in it, and Phillip VI ceased to pay them.
Regardless, the Castilian ships continued to attack the English, now as outright pirates. They had converted their vessels into warships by the addition of wooden castles – raised fighting platforms – at the bow and stern and the erection of crow's nest fighting platforms at the masthead. They were based out of Sluys, and several hundred Flemish adventurers joined their ranks, mostly equipped as crossbowmen, in the expectation of plunder. Their assault on English shipping has been described as "ferocious", and as bringing "panic" to English ports. The English arrayed the coastguard for the first time since the Normandy campaign.
On 10 August, while the King was at Rotherhithe, he announced his intention of confronting the Castilians. The English fleet was to rendezvous at Sandwich, Kent. Edward had good sources of intelligence in Flanders and knew the composition of De la Cerda's fleet and when it sailed. He determined to intercept it and sailed from Sandwich on 28 August with 50 ships,[a] all smaller than the majority of the Castilian vessels and some much smaller. The King and many of the highest nobility of England, including two of Edward's sons, sailed with the fleet, which was well manned with men-at-arms and archers.
By the afternoon of 29 August the English fleet was off Dungeness. The king was sitting on the deck of his ship, with his knights and nobles, listening to his minstrels playing German airs, and to the singing of young John Chandos.[b] At 4.00 pm they sighted de la Cerda's force moving towards them with an easterly wind behind. The Castilians had become scattered and the English targeted their main body of approximately twenty-four. When the look-out in the tops reported the enemy in sight, the king and his company drank to one another's health, the trumpet was sounded, and the whole line stood out. There being no effective naval artillery at the time, battles at sea consisted of grappling with and boarding enemy vessels. In order that the Castilians not sweep past them on the wind, the English also ran before the wind, but with shortened sails so as to allow themselves to be overtaken. There seems to have been an hour before fighting commenced.
The difficulty of the manoeuvre is attested to by the King's own ship, the Cog Thomas, striking the Castilian it was attempting to grapple so heavily as to spring its timbers. At the second attempt it successfully grappled and archers deterred Castilians attempting to drop large rocks from their higher deck. The English ships seemed diminutive alongside the Castilians; "like castles to cottages" as a contemporary wrote. Using scaling ladders the men at arms boarded and cleared the deck. Edward transferred his flag, as Cog Thomas was clearly sinking. His son, Edward Prince of Wales, had a similar experience, his men reportedly barely fighting their way aboard their opponent before their own ship foundered, aided by Henry of Lancaster attacking from the other side.
This encouraged the prince's party, and presently the Spaniard surrendered. Her entire crew was, nevertheless, as was the custom in that age, and long afterwards, flung overboard. The prince and his followers had barely time to crowd into the prize before their own craft foundered.
La Cerda's crossbowmen caused many English casualties, firing from their elevated positions as the English closed and then attempted to board. The higher-built and heavier Castilian vessels were able to drop bars of iron or other weights on the lighter English vessels, causing serious damage. The conflict continued until twilight. At the close the English vessel La Salle du Roi, carrying the king's household, and commanded by the Fleming, Robert of Namur,[c] was grappled by a larger Castilian, and was being dragged off by him. A Flemish valet of Robert's, named Hannequin, boarded the enemy and cut the halliards of her mainsail with his sword, allowing other English ships to catch the Castilian, and it was taken.
King Edward is said to have captured between 14 and 26 of the enemy and it is possible that others were sunk.[d] What his own loss was is not stated, but as his own vessel and the vessel carrying the Black Prince were sunk, and from the peril of La Salle du Roi, it seems likely that the English fleet suffered heavily. Few if any prisoners were taken, dead and wounded Castilians and Flemings were thrown overboard. Much of this action was visible from the English shore, and the clifftops near Winchelsea were lined with spectators, which gave the battle its name.
There was no pursuit of surviving Castilian ships. They fled to French ports. Joined by French ships they continued to harass English shipping for the rest of the autumn before withdrawing to Sluys to winter. The following spring the Channel was still effectively closed to English shipping unless strongly escorted. Trade with Gascony was less affected, but ships were forced to use ports in western England, often impractically far from their cargo's intended markets. Chroniclers make much of this battle, no doubt because of the royal involvement. But historians point out the heavy English personal casualties and the likelihood of a number of their ships being lost. Others have suggested that it was just one of a number of significant and hard-fought naval encounters of the period, only recorded because of the prominent figures involved. Most stress its lack of effect on the operational or strategic situation.
Charles de la Cerda survived the battle and shortly after was made Constable of France. With communications with Gascony now more secure, the English launched a large expedition from there in 1356 under the Prince of Wales, at the end of which the French suffered a devastating defeat. Edward III continued the war, bringing it to a successful conclusion in 1360 with the Treaty of Brétigny.
The main contemporaneous account for the battle is Jean Froissart, who was at different times in the service of King Edward and of his wife, Philippa of Hainault, and of the counts of Namur. He repeated what was told him by men who had been present, and dwells as usual on the chivalry of his patrons. However, there are also records from chroniclers Thomas Walsingham and Robert of Avesbury, and later John Stow. Sir Nicholas Nicolas was the first modern historian to tackle this episode in naval warfare.