Great Sea Fights 5: A Tudor Battle, 1512 Part II: The Contemporary Accounts

August 2021

In this, Part II of our special episodes on the battle of St Mathieu in 1512 and its aftermath, we hear three contemporary accounts. The first is from the Venetian Ambassador Nicolo di Favri, fascinating as it includes a great deal of information on life and manners in Tudor England as well as war news. The writer was newly appointed to the court of Henry and was a member of the Venetian elite who served in the Councils of the Republic, and finds the English somewhat eccentric. The second is a letter from Thomas Wolsey to the Bishop of Worcester August 1512. At the time of writing Wolsey had been appointed almoner of Henry VIII – so responsible for distributing alms – and was therefore a member of the Privy Council.  The final account is from Edward Etchyngham to Thomas Wolsey written in May 1513 and explores the events of the summer after the battle of St Mathieu when Edward Howard launched a bold attack on a squadron of French galleys at Blancs Sablons near Brest, losing his life. Etchyngham was the commander of the fleet of victuallers which reached Howard’s fleet off Brest shortly before the events in the Bay of Blancs Sablons. He was therefore well placed to give an account of the battle and the loss of Howard.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to this our fifth edition of a ‘Great Sea Fights’ special. If you have missed out on the others do, please find them in our back catalogue. We have multiple episodes exploring the histories of the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, and Jutland in 1916, those enormous showdowns between fleets of steel battleships. We have also covered the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797, surely the moment that Nelson would have been most proud of in his glittering biography, and the Battle of the River Plate of 1939, that key naval engagement at the very start of the First World War. We needed to correct the obvious bias of ignoring the medieval world and so here we are looking at one of the most iconic of medieval sea battles, the Battle of St Mathieu of 10th of August 1512.

    This episode brings to you three contemporary accounts of the battle and its aftermath, each with a unique perspective fascinating in its own right. For important background, do make sure that you have listened to Part One of this Great Sea Fights special, as the first episode explored the events with a compelling narrative, and provides important background information. Coming tomorrow we will have Part Three, which will explore the challenges posed to historians of recreating a medieval seafight with particular reference to this battle, but also for the Battle of the Solent in 1545, in which the Mary Rose sank. We start today with a brief note about the historical sources available to historians of the Tudor Navy.

    Researching naval history in the reign of Henry VIII presents some problems although it can also be said that it is much easier than in the late 15th century and the reign of his father Henry VII. In that earlier period, there are only a few primary sources concerning naval matters, the most important being a set of accounts relating to the building of the Regent and the Sovereign, at Portsmouth, both in 1488. Other documents are few and far between and come from perhaps unlikely places such as the household accounts of the Duke of Norfolk. For the reign of Henry VIII, the state papers were collected together in a series of volumes by indefatigable 19th century archivists and scholars. Later, a comprehensive calendar of these documents was produced under the title of ‘The Letters and Papers of Henry VIII. This is the indispensable starting point for any research in the period. The volumes include accounts and administrative documents relating to the king’s ships, the beginnings of the Royal Navy, but few accounts of actions. No logbooks were either kept or survived from this period, nor are there any personal accounts of shipboard life. Fortunately, the brilliant Navy Records Society if you don’t know about them do look at, produced two early volumes which greatly assist historians of the period. These are Oppenheim’s, ‘The Naval Accounts and Inventories of the Reign of Henry VIII’ and Spont’s ‘Letters and Papers Relating to the War with France, 1512-13’. It also should be noted that the ‘Letters and Papers of Henry VIII’ have been digitised with an excellent search facility and are available freely online at British History Online. These documents are in English, though some obsolete technical terms are used, but most of them can be found in Smith’s ‘Sailor’s Word Book’, which if you don’t know it, do search it out.

    For Henry VIII navy, we also have the remarkable ‘Anthony Roll’ a lavishly illustrated inventory of the entire Navy made by Anthony Anthony, a man who worked in Henry’s ordinance office. Now divided into two parts – half is in the British Library, and the other half, once owned by Samuel Pepys, is in the Pepysian Library at Magdalene College in Cambridge. The images are quite astonishing – I’ll make sure that some are posted online. The Anthony Roll however, dates from the 1540s and the battle we are talking about today, the Battle of St Mathieu, is more than a generation older in 1512; which makes the Battle of St Mathieu, of August 1512, all the more remarkable because there are a number of sources both English and French, which mentioned the battle as well as its aftermath and in particular the death of Edward Howard the following year at Blanc-Sablons.

    So, now do please enjoy these contemporary descriptions of the battle, the Battle of St Mathieu and the Battle of Blanc-Sablons the following year. This episode was put together with the help of Susan Rose and Tim Concannon. Many thanks to you both.

    The first account is from the Venetian Ambassador Nicolo de Favri; it’s fascinating as it includes a great deal of information on life and manners in England as well as war news. Venice was allied with England in the holy league against France. The real issue in the war was the French invasion of northern Italy and its consequences: England had sort of tagged on to satisfy Henry VIII’s desire for glory. Venice was the first state to have regular diplomatic missions abroad, the main purpose of which was to supply news of importance to the economic interests of Venice. The writer here was newly appointed to the court of Henry and was a member of the Venetian elite who served in the counsels of the Republic, as was Francesco Gradenigo, the man to whom Favri was writing (whose ancestor had in fact been Doge in the 14th century). The war news related to the War of the Holy League and is an example of the way this particular battle was widely publicised because of the exceptional loss of two important warships and their commanders, as well as many others of high social standing. Other reports from Venetian diplomats on English affairs can be found in the ‘Calendar of State Papers, Venice’ available on British History Online. The bits in this account about english life are fascinating because they offer a view of how the English was seen of the time, and it seems to be that they were slightly eccentric. The account is read by Andrea Capello from Turin.

    In England, the houses are all of wood, and both rooms and corridors are of the same material. Over the floors, they strew weeds called “rushes”, which resemble reeds, and which grow on the water. Every eight or ten days they put down a fresh layer; the cost of each layer being a Venetian livre, more or less, according to the size of the house.

    In England the women go to the market for household provisions; if gentlewomen they are preceded by two men servants. Their usual vesture is a cloth petticoat over the shift, lined with grey squirrel’s or some other fur; over the petticoat they were a long gown line with some choice fur. The gentlewomen carry the train of the gown under the arm; the commonality pin it behind or before, or at one side. The sleeves of the gown sit as close as possible; are long and unslashed throughout, the cuffs being lined with some choice fur. Their headgear is of various sorts of velvet, cap fashion, with lappets hanging down behind over their shoulders like two hoods; and in front they have two others, lined with some other silk. Their hair is not seen, so cannot say whether it be light or dark. Others were on their heads muslins, which are distended, and hang at their backs, but not far down. Some draw their hair from under a kerchief, and wear over the hair a cap, for the most part white, round and seemly; others again were a kerchief in folds on the head: but be the fashion as it may, the hair is never seen. Their stockings are black and their shoes doubly soled of various colors, but no one wears “choppines,” as they are not in use in England. When they meet friends in the street, they shake hands, and kiss on the mouth, and go to some tavern to regale, their relatives not taking this amiss, as such is the custom. The women are very beautiful and good-tempered.

    The men are well made, tall, and stout; well clad, wearing gowns called doublets plaited on the shoulders, reaching half-way down the leg, and lined with several sort of very fine furs. On their heads they wear caps with one or two ornaments; with short hair like the priests in Venice, the hair over the forehead being cut away.

    In England no one makes bread at home; but every morning all take it at the baker’s and keep tallies there; at present bread is dear on account of the war. The price of meat has more than doubled, as a “milizia” has been salted for the army; and by day and night, and on all festivals, the cannon founders are at work.

    The Venetian Ambassador is at great expense, as he daily receives visits from one nobleman or another, most especially now that Parliament is sitting.

    The floors of the English houses are for the most part planked. Aloft, at the window-sills (which are all of wood), they put a rosemary, sage and other herbs. In England it is always windy, and however warm the weather, the natives invariably were furs. At present it has not yet been cold here, nor is it rainy or muddy. The summers are never very hot, neither is it ever very cold.

    The King of England has an army of picked men in Scotland, under a valiant commander, called my Lord Treasurer, one of the King’s chief ministers, a man 70 years old and upwards, to whom, on the Scottish border, the King of Scotland sent “carta biancha,” and they made terms together. It is said in England that the perfidious King of France caused the King of Scots to attack King Harry, but that the English had made provision betimes.

    A third force, consisting of a number of ships, under a valiant Admiral, the men being all picked, is at sea. They sighted a Frenchman, on board which were 200 French gentlemen; whereupon a brave captain of an English ship went into action against it, with his own vessel alone. The engagement lasted until both ships caught fire, and were burnt, all the hands being drowned; but France was by far the greatest loser, for 200 gentlemen were on board the Frenchman, whereas England did but lose the captain; on which account the English are more than ever determined not to hear the Frenchman named…

    The Parliament has decided that the King is to cross the Channel in the spring, in person, with 60,000 troops, all picked men, a match for 100,000. It is said that the King of France will not even fight, and that the King of England will have a great victory.

    Formerly many rich French merchants had houses in London.; some of those who remain have been imprisoned, and their goods seized and sequestrated. Some French tradesmen have also remained, but when the English found them abroad, they maltreated them.

    A tax of a tenth has been levied throughout the kingdom. The lords and great personages pay according to their property; tradesmen, servants and attendants one penny per head, equal to twenty-eight Venetian “piccoli”. This tax will yield a million of gold, so that the King means to make war. The King is a young man of three-and-twenty; when he moves the ground shakes under him; he is well made, tall, and stout, and very fond of the Venetian ambassador, whom he chooses to accompany him, so that the ambassador requires money for his outfit…

    Sam Willis

    The second account is from Thomas Wolsey to the Bishop of Worcester August 1512. At the time of writing of this letter, Wolsey had been appointed Almoner of Henry VIII, so responsible for distributing arms, and therefore a member of the Privy Council. His first step into public life in the reign of Henry VII had been as a royal chaplain, and private secretary to Richard Fox, the Bishop of Worcester, one of the kings most trusted counsellors. At this date, Fox still had influence with the young king but were strongly opposed to the idea of war with France.

    Wolsey is reporting news of the battle, but this letter gives little hint of the tensions over foreign policy between the two, which was to lead to the older man retiring into private life in 1516, which is read by Tim Concannon

    And to ascertain you of the lamentable and sorrowful tidings and chance which hath fortuned by the sea, our folk, on Tuesday fortnight, met with 21 great ships of France, the best with sail and furnished with artillery and men that ever was seen. And after innumerable shootings of guns, and long chasing one another, at the last the Regent most valiantly boarded the great carrack of Brest, wherein were four lords, 300 gentlemen, 800 soldiers and mariners, 400 crossbowmen, 100 gunners, 200 tuns of wine, 100 pipes of beef, 60 barrels of gunpowder and 15 great brazen curtalls with so marvellous a number of shot and other guns of every sort. Our men so valiantly acquainted themselves that within one hour’s fight, they have utterly vanquished with shot of guns and arrows the said carrack and slain most part of the men within the same. And suddenly, as they were yielding themselves, the carrack was one flaming fire, and likewise the Regent within the turning of one hand. She was so anchored and fastened to the carrack that by no means possible she might for her safeguard depart from the same, and so both in fight within three hours were burnt, and most part of the men in them. Sir Thomas Knyvett, which most valiantly acquitted himself that day, was slain with one gun. Sir John Carew, with diverse others whose names be not yet known, be likewise slain…

    The residue of the French fleet, after long chasing, was by our folks put to flight and driven off into Brest haven. There were six as great ships of the said fleet as the Regent or the Sovereign, howbeit as cowards they fled. Sir Edward hath made his vow to God that he will never see the King in the face till he has revenged the death of the noble and valiant knight SirThomas Knyvett.

    Sam Willis

    The final account is from Edward Echyngham to Thomas Wolsey, written in May 1513, and explores the events of the summer after the Battle of St Mathieu, when Edward Howard launched a bold, but perhaps crazy and suicidal a more appropriate adjectives, attack on a squadron of French galleys at Blanc-Sablon, near Brest. Echyngham was the commander of the fleet of vittlers, which reached Howard’s fleet off Brest, shortly before the events in the Bay of Blanc-Sablon. He was therefore well placed to give an account of the battle and the loss of Howard. Wolsey, by this time, was clearly in charge of the war with France both from the point of view of policy and that of logistics.

    Echyngham’s letter was written on his return to Plymouth on the 5th of May. The account is read by the playwright and author, Daniel Jamieson.

    Sir, for to write unto you the news of these parties, they be so dolorous that unneth, I cane write them for sorrow; how be it I have found you so good maister unto me that it heth pleasit you to cause the kynges most noble Grace to write unto me, which hathe encouraged me for to send you in writyng of those thynges that I have sene.

    Upon Ffrydaye, the which was the 22nd day of Aprill, 6 galyes and 4 foysts came through parte of the Kynges navie, and there they sanke the ship that was maister Compton’s, and strake through oone of the Kynges new barkes, the which sir Stephyn Bull is capiteyn of, in 7 placys, that they that was within the ship hade much payne to hold her above the watre. Then the ship’s bootes toke oon of the ffoystes, and the residew of the gallyes and ffoystes and went into Whitsonbaye, besyde Conkett, and there thaye laye Satterdaye all daye.

    Upon Sondaye, my lord Amirall appoynted 6000 men for to land betwene Whitsondbaye and Conkett, and so to come unto the backside of the galyes. And as we were landing, my lord Admyrall espyede Sabyn commyng under sayle. And than that purp[ose] was loste, for every capiteyn that put his men into vyttellers, and my lorde Admyrall sende Mr Ffythwilliam unto all theym that ware capiteyns of the great shypes for to retorne into the Treade where as the greate shipes lay before the havyn of Brest, and soo for to abide still before the haven of breast, th[at the] armye of Ffraunce shuld not come oute whillist that the small shippes s[hould run] upon the galyes. And the small shippes and the greate laye 4 myles.

    Upon Saynt Markes daye, the which was the 25 daye of Aprill, my lord Admyrall, Sir Edward Howard, appoynted 4 capiteyns, and hymself for to borde the [galyes, A]t 4 of the clok in the afternone, my saide lorde went into [one of the galeys] hymself with 80 men with hym, and in thother [my lord] Ferris, with suche companye as to hym semyd best, and with 2 small crayres, in oon of the crayres w[ent] Sir Thomas Wallop, and in thother went Sir Henry Sherburne and William Sidnaye. And theise were they that enterprysed for to wyn the ffrenche galyes, with the helpe of the bootes, for there couth no ship comme [to] theyme for lack of water, for the said frenche galyes laye in a baye betwene rockes, and on both sides of the galyes were made bulwerkes where laye full of ordynaunce, that no boote nor vessell couth comme unto them, but that they must comme betwene the bulwarkes, the which [were] soo thick with gonnes and crosbowis that the quarrelles and gonstons came together as thick as it hade be haylestones.

    Ffor all this My lordw wold needes borde the galyes [in] his owen person for there couth no man counsayle hym to the contrary, and at the owre above wreten he bordit the galye that Preyer John was in. And as sone as he was aborde of Preyer Johns galye, he leped out of his owne galye unto the fore castell of Pryer Johns galye, and Charran, the Spanyart, with hym, with 16 other persones. Sir, by advice of my lord Admyrall and Charran, they hade cast theyre ancre … and fastened the cabull unto the capsten, for this consideration yf it happened … any of the galyes to have bene on fyre, that they myght have vered the cabull and have fallen of … the Frenchmen did hew asondr the cabull, or els somme of our said maryners in our galye lete slip the cable, when my lorde Admyrell went into the frenche galye, and all for fere of the ordynaunce that was on the galyes and from the lande, and so they lefte this [poor Admerall in the] handes of his enymes, whereas by divers mens saying the Morris pickes … Sir, ther was a maryner that … the which is woundit in 18 placys … the whiche by adventure recouered unto the boye of the galye, and soo the bote of the galye toke hym up, and he saythe that he sawe my lord Admyrall thrasted up agaynst the rayls of the galy with Morris pikes.

    Also Charran’s boye tellith the tale in like maner, for when his maister and my lord Admyrall were entert into the galye, Charran bade his boye fetche hym his hande gonne and when he came up with the gonne to delyuer it to his maister the oone galye was off from thother, and he saith he see my lord Admirall wayvyng with his handes and cryeng to the galye: ‘Comme aborde agayne! Come aborde agayne!’. And when my lord saw that the galye couth not comme to hym agayne, the boy saide, he sawe hym take his whistil from aboute his neck, and wrap it together, and hurlid it into the see, and thus he lost sight of my saide lord, Admyrall.

    Sir, for to knowe the more suretie whither he ware alyve or not, we sende in a bote to the shore a standart of peax, and in the bote went Thomas Cheyne, Richard Cornewale and Wallop, for to have knolege whither they hade taken any English men prysoners or not. And when they came to the shore, there came unto them 2 gentilmen of Ffraunce, who askid theym what they would have, and they saide they came to speke with th’ Admyrall of Ffraunce … And there Thomas Cheyne mett with acquayntance of the quene of Ffraunce court. And thus, as they were talkyng and makyng chere yche to other, came Preter John, ridyng on horsbak. And soo they askid if they hade takyn any prisoners English or not, for Thomas Cheyne saide he hade a kynsman that was outher takyn or slayne among theym, and if they hade hym, [that] they wold assigne hym to his ransom, and he wold paye it, or [else] that he myght be well kept that they shuld be richly rewardid [for] his kepyng. And then Pryer John stept forthe hymself and [said] to them: ‘Sirs, I ensure you I have no prysiners English within my galye but one, and he is a maryner, but there was oon that lept into my galye with a gilt targett on his arme, the which I caste overborde with Morris pikes and the maryner that I have prysoner told me that that same man was your Admyrall’.

    Sir, I have forgoten to write to you of the galye that my lord Fferris was in [with the] other companye. Sir, there came in my lord Fferris with his galye … fell among the other galyes, and there he shott all his ordynance both pouder and stone that he had within borde, and he shott 200 sheif of arrois among theym in the galyes … and then came Thomas Cheyne and Wallop in theyre crayre and they shott theyre ordynaunce such as they hade. And then came Sir Henry Sherborne and Sir William Sidnaye, and they russhid aborde Pryer Johns galye and brake parte of his oris on one side … the greate ships laye without any more doyng, for they knew not perfitely where my lord Admirall was.

    Sir, when the holl armye knew that my lord Admirall was outher takyn or slayn, I trow there was never men more full of sorrow than all we ware, ffor there was never noble man so ill lost as he was, that was of so greate courage and hade so many vertues, and that rowled so greate an armye so well as he did, and kept so good order and trew justice.

    Sam Willis

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