Sluys, Battle of, 1340


The often forgotten Battle of Sluys of 24th June 1340 was a major turning point in the Hundred Years’ War; a war that practically defined the direction that both England and France would follow for centuries. The Hundred Years’ War began in 1337 after nearly 300 years of disagreements between the Kings of England and the Kings of France over land claims on the Continent. By the 14th century the Capetian dynasty of France had wrested away most of the previously held English territories on the Continent (such as Anjou and Normandy). King Edward III of England was seemingly passed over in the dynastic succession of France, when Philip VI was crowned King of France. While Isabella (the daughter of Philip IV of France) and Edward III’s mother, was, by law, clearly not able to become the monarch of France, Edward III made the case that the throne could pass through a female line (thus making him King of France) rather than reverting back a generation to Philip VI, the son of Charles, Count of Valois.

Through the 1330s, the French began to build their navy, especially in northern waters. The English felt that their relations with Flanders (today, Belgium and the Netherlands) were threatened by this naval build up. Flanders’ economy depended on cloth weaving and, at the time, the wool provided by England was crucial. In May 92 The south wall of the former Great Yarmouth Port and Haven Commissioners, South Quay, Great Yarmouth. This wall was certainly standing at the time of the Battle of Sluys 1337, Philip seized Aquitaine and, by October, Edward III took official steps to war.

In early 1338, the French began raiding English coastal towns, such as Southampton, Portsmouth and the Channel Islands. Flanders rose in rebellion against the local count, Louis de Nevers, who supported the French side and the cloth trade was damaged as a result. By the end of 1338, the Holy Roman Emperor, Ludwig of Bavaria, joined Edward III against the French. Early in 1339, the French continued raids on the English towns of Folkestone, Harwich, Hastings, Southampton, Plymouth and Dover. The English navy was steadily growing in strength, as the English army marched ineffectively through France in September and October of 1339. In February 1340, Edward III was officially crowned King of France in a ceremony in Ghent. By the summer of 1340, there had been no major battles fought between the English and the French. Following a failed attack on the Cinque Ports by the French and the desertion of Italian mercenaries from the French navy, the French fleet in the Channel was severely cut back. The English heard news of this and rushed to the French coast, raiding towns including Ault and Le Tréport. Thus the stage was set for the first major battle of the Hundred Years’ WarS. The French and English fleets met outside the town of Sluys (today L’Ecluse in Holland) on 24th June 1340. In the histories of Great Yarmouth we read that the town provided Edward III with 43 ships and 1,075 mariners for his fleet in 1340 (the vast majority), whereas London could only provide twenty-five ships. As a result, Great Yarmouth was rewarded for this support by having its coat of arms halved with the Royal Coat of Arms, as is seen today and the three lions were allowed to be incorporated by Edward III. Originally three silver herrings made up the coat of arms. The English fleet, led by Sir Robert Morley, was somewhat outnumbered, but they had advantageous positioning. His ships lay alongside the French, and her crew fired arrows and showers of heavy stones, leaving the way clear for men-at-arms to board, to overcome the survivors and take the ships and their crews. Combat lasted the better part of the day extending into the evening. The two French commanders were both captured and killed in an overwhelming victory for the English forces. Edward III was wounded in the battle. The English suffered a few thousand casualties whereas the French suffered nearly 20,000 casualties. The English captured some French ships, which were not destroyed by the battle. The English ship losses were minor and they could assume dominance of the English Channel. Some say that the coat of arms were halved following the Siege of Calais in 1346/8, when Great Yarmouth again played a large part providing a large number of both ships and seamen.

The Battle of Sluys was a major turning point early in the Hundred Years’ War, because it virtually destroyed the French fleet. The majority of French ships had been amassing to invade England and the English victory at Sluys ensured that this never came to pass. Thus, most of the combat throughout the Hundred Years’ War occurred in France. To a nation whose history is full of important naval victories, the English victory at Sluys is an early and tremendously important maritime success that should be remembered.