Great Sea Fights 5: A Tudor Battle in the Reign of Henry VIII, 10 August, 1512.

August 2021

In this, the fifth episode of our Great Sea Fights series we explore the remarkable battle of St Mathieu, of 10 August 1512. In one of the earliest engagements of the Mary Rose a French squadron is surprised near Brest, and it ends with two major warships one French, and one English – and the largest in both fleets, on fire. It is also possibly the earliest naval battle fought with cannon, firing through gunports. This episode explores the events of the day and also its aftermath, following the narrative up to the summer of 1513 and the extraordinary story of the death of Edward Howard at the battle of Blancs Sablons.

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    Sam Willis

    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 catalogues 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 very start of the First World War.

    Now those with a key eye for chronology will note that we have yet to dip our toes in the early years of maritime history and so, to correct this, we are looking at one of the most iconic of medieval sea battles, the battle of Saint Mathieue of 10 August, 1512.

    This episode will explore the events with a compelling narrative. Part two will bring to you three contemporary accounts of the battle and its aftermath, each with a unique perspective fascinating in their own right; and part three will explore the challenges posed to historians of recreating a medieval sea fight with particular reference to this battle, but also to the battle of the Solent in 1545 in which the Mary Rose sank.

    For now though, please enjoy this description of the battle of Saint Mathieue, an episode put together with the able assistance of Susan Rose and Tim Concannon.


    The Battle of Brest and its aftermath 1512-13

    When Henry VIII inherited the throne in 1509 he was young, handsome, athletic and determined to cut a dash on the European scene.   His first move was to marry Catherine of Aragon; this re-invigorated the alliance between England and Spain where Catherine’s father was now sole ruler after the death of her mother, Isabella.   Spain joined the Papacy and Venice in the Holy League in 1511 with the purpose of driving French forces out of Northern Italy. In Henry’s mind, England’s adherence to the League would signal the arrival of the realm  as a player in European diplomacy and provide opportunities to attack France.  Success in this would allow the young monarch to acquire a reputation to rival that of his predecessors, Edward III and Henry V. Little more than this desire for personal glory lay behind England’s involvement in the War of the Holy League and particularly the naval campaigns of 1512-13.

    Henry was fortunate to inherit from his father, a full treasury and a revived squadron of royal ships, the nucleus of a royal navy, including the great ships the Sovereign and the Regent . Henry also had the benefit of the organisation for war rapidly put in place by his new adviser Thomas Wolsey. All seemed set fair for success in a campaign at sea, something not attempted by any English monarch since the reign of Henry V.  A naval expedition was specifically mentioned in the treaty with Ferdinand which set the proposed plan of campaign of their alliance. An English  fleet manned with 3000 men, ‘well and sufficiently armed in ships dressed and furnished with habillements of war apt and necessary for battle on the sea’ would patrol the Channel between the mouth of the Thames and Brest ‘against the course of outward enemies’. This fleet commanded by Sir Edward Howard set out in April and conducted a successful campaign  harassing enemy merchant vessels in the Channel and launching lightening raids on villages along the French coasts. The squadron included around seven royal ships with the remainder being hired merchant vessels. It returned to Portsmouth for provisions and reinforcements on more than one occasion.  When Howard  set out  on a new cruise in early July after a formal inspection by Henry VIII both the Regent and the Sovereign were in the squadron and his flagship was the new carrack, launched just two years before, the Mary Rose.

    The send-off , according to Hall’s Chronicle included , ‘much noise of minstrelsy’ and the 25 ships were ‘of great burthen and well -furnished of all things’. The French response to these activities was at first desultory but began to gather pace in early July  with the issue of a royal proclamation declaring that it was the English intention ‘to ruin our kingdom’ (France).  The Admiral of France René Clermont with the help of the Admiral of Brittany,  Hervé du Portx-Moguer, then went ahead with assembling a fleet of around 22 armed ships  in the safe harbour of Brest to confront the English . An order was also issued that the French Mediterranean fleet of galleys under Prégent de Bidoux should sail for Brest.

    When Howard arrived off Brest with his squadron on 10th August he found the French fleet anchored in Brest Roads between the Anse de Berthaume and the Pointe de Toulinguet about three miles outside the haven itself. De Clermont was on board the Louise of 790 tons and Portz-Moguer  on board the Marie de la Cordelière of 1000 tons. Portz-Moguer had a personal reason to be eager to fight the English – Howard had burned his family manor house Pouarzel, overlooking the Conquêt shoal in one of his incursions the previous month.

    On the morning of 10 August, there was a fresh breeze, probably from the south west or west. The tide was ebbing, an hour before low tide, and the fleet was en fète. All the great and the good of Brittany were enjoying a party on board the Cordilière to wish them God speed. All of Portz-Moguer’s family were there, including his stepfather and his wife’s parents, the Bailiff of Brittany and 300 gentlemen and their retainers, along with wives and others. They were waiting for a fair wind

    Although coastal watchers had seen the English fleet arrive off the coast the previous evening their intelligence was disregarded and the French were astounded when Howard’s ships came into sight.  The English would have been running down a line of latitude from well out to sea.

    One report suggests that the fleet looked even more intimidating than it was because it was accompanied by a number of prize vessels captured during the voyage from Portsmouth.

    At 11:00, the horrified Franco-Breton fleet was met with the spectacle of the whole English fleet, rounding Pte. St. Mathieu, 4 miles from the anchored allied fleet, about thirty minutes away from long gunshot. They were bearing down on them under full sail. The leader was a galley, with 25 warships and the 26 captured Flemish Hulks, now filled with troops and munitions of war. Fleeing in panic before this monstrous sight were two small French vessels

    It is most likely that they had come from behind the southernmost of the Poignant islands, Béninguet, and then the short trip to the point. There was simply no time for any warning from anyone. It was an astonishing feat of seamanship on the part of the English

    De Clermont had been entertaining friends and relations , all the elite of Brittany, on his ship and the sight of the English in such numbers caused him to lose his nerve and  order his vessels to retreat with all speed. The only option was to cut their cables and raise sail to get into the inner harbour under the guns of Brest Castle.

    The majority of the French ships cut their cables and made with all speed for the safety of  the Rade de Brest. This was no easy matter as the wind was unfavourable and wind over tide made the sea choppy.  De Clermont was accused of cowardice in a later inquiry but a more charitable interpretation is that he wished to keep his fleet in being rather than face what looked like impossible odds.

    Moreover the Louise, under his  command, attempted to cover the general retreat along with the Cordelière and the Nef de Dieppe. The Louise, however, came under gunfire from Howard in the Mary Rose and Ughtred  in the Mary James and lost a mast. By the end of that action, the tide had turned and the shattered hulk was drifting on the tide.

    Clermont then retreated to Brest to re-join the rest of his fleet.  Out in the Roads there remained only the Cordelière and the Nef de Dieppe. These two then became the targets for the gunnery of the Regent and the Sovereign.  The Sovereign commanded by Charles Brandon made for the Cordelière with the intention of boarding her.

    But, Like a terrier attacking a great bull, the little Nef-de-Dieppe under Rigault de Borquetot launched herself at the Sovereign in a series of repeated attacks, until she was disabled and was left adrift.

    The Regent, captained by Thomas Knyvet, turned away from her original quarry,  Nef de Dieppe, and tried to close with the Cordelière.  Her commander, the aggressive and experienced Breton Portz -Moguer released a withering hail of gunfire on both the Regent and the much smaller Mary James. with her sixteen great guns, fourteen stone guns and almost two hundred smaller pieces.

    The Sovereign was trying to get into a position to board, but manoeuvring was tricky for these ships in these conditions, because of their huge castles which were a wind trap. The Bretons claim that she was also dismasted, which is why she couldn’t close. This action must have been before the tide turned at midday as both the Mary James and the Sovereign were not captured and made the open sea.

    Despite high casualties among the crews of both ships and the death of Knyvet himself, the Regent came up with the Cordelière and a desperate boarding action began with the two great ships grappled together.

    At the same time the rest of the English fleet subjected the unengaged side of the Cordilière to a cannonade as the opportunity arose. At this point, de Borquetault had set up a jury rig on the Nef de Dieppe and re-entered the fray harrying the attackers as he could.

    Wolsey writing later to the Bishop of Winchester claimed that ‘our men so valiantly acquitted themselves that within one hour’s fight they had utterly vanquished with the shot of guns and arrows the said carrack and slain most part of the men within the same’.

    With defeat inevitable for the Cordelière,  at this moment an enormous explosion tore the bottom out of the ship and set the upper works on fire. The flames spread to the Regent on which ‘ within the turning of a hand’ the magazine also exploded. A few survivors were able to escape by throwing themselves into the sea but soon nothing was left but the smoking remnants of both vessels.  Howard’s fleet remained off Brest for  a further fortnight undertaking similar raids and attacks on shipping but then returned to Portsmouth for Howard to receive his due reward for his success from the King, the post of Lord Admiral. In France these events created  somewhat more of a sensation. Portx- Moguer (who died with his ship) was already something of a hero to the Bretons and their Duchess Anne, also of course Queen of France.   Around 1200 lives were lost in the explosion on the Cordelière including  around 300 Breton notables who had been enjoying the commander’s hospitality before the battle commenced. Only 20 escaped alive.

    Rumours spread very quickly, and by the 27th of September, Cardinal Wolsey was writing to Cardinal Bainbridge, that on seeing the surrender, a “Frenchman (sic) more heretic than Christian set light to all the powder in the ship by which flame both ships were burned, with all the soldiers and their leaders except for 60 of our own who, in great peril, swam to two of our ships.”

    At Anne’s court poets and heralds wrote both French and Latin epics which glorified the heroism of Portz -Moguer.  The work of the herald of Brittany, Pierre Choque, was illustrated by a striking image of the fire  engulfing the two ships.  The Cordelière  and her fate became  the French equivalent of the story of Sir Richard Grenville and the Revenge who died at the battle of Flores, hugely outnumbered by a Spanish fleet.

    The historian David Loades in his work The Tudor Navy also sees this duel between two great ships as more akin to events like the encounter of the Chesapeake and the Shannon 300 years later in the war of 1812 than the careers of Edward III’s flagship Cog Thomas or Henry V’s Grace Dieu.

    This was not, however the end of the involvement of English ships in the war of the Holy League. During the winter of 1512-13  both combatants improved their navies and their ability to wage war at sea. Repairs were made to English royal ships at dockyards along the Thames while the King also bought four more great ships including the Gabriel Royal and the Great Nicholas. When Sir Edward Howard was ready to go to sea again in early 1513 he commanded a fleet of 23 royal ships plus a further 27 hired vessels and as many victuallers.  In Brittany Prégent de Bidoux, who had not reached Brest from the Mediterranean until late October,  made ready his six galleys. These were armed with a single very heavy gun in the bows called a basilisk which, by repute,  was capable of sinking any warship.   The King , Louis  XII, also ordered the fitting out of a fleet of around 26 war ships based in ports on the Norman and Breton coasts. These were under the command of Guyon le Roy rather than Clermont. Despite all this , March 1513, because of a period of bad weather in the Channel, passed with little sign of warlike activity by either side .  By early April, however,  Howard was off the Breton coast with his fleet.  At first the French response echoed that of the previous year. Their great ships retreated into the haven at Brest . A report to Henry VIII from Thomas Spinelly,  his agent in the Low Countries had claimed that the French forces in Brest comprised 32 or 33 warships, and  15 other vessels not counting de Bidoux’s galleys.   By the time he reached Brest, Howard realised that his fleet was very short of food,  that the reports of the size of the French fleet were accurate and that  their anchorages were well protected by shore batteries.  He therefore ordered the fleet to anchor in the bay of Bertheaume, to the west  of Brest and sent raiding parties on shore to search for food .   He also suffered the loss of one of his warships which had its hull badly damaged  after striking a rock as it entered the bay. A direct attack on the French clearly presented problems.

    His immediate problems with victuals were resolved by the arrival of a relief squadron from Queenborough under William Etchingham on the 19th April. Three day later, de Bidoux, with his galleys came across some of the English fleet and provoked an artillery duel.  The English lost one vessel, the Nicholas of Hampton and another, the Lesse Bark, was badly damaged. Howard then withdrew part of his fleet to the far side of the Pointe St Mathieu to the Bay of Blancs Sablons  probably to consider his options. He was followed by de Bidoux with his galleys which were  anchored near the rocky shore sheltered between two promontories.. Several of Howard’s  great ships were still at the Bay of Bertheaume,  but unwilling  to attack because of the strength of the shore defences.  The Lord  Admiral had with him at Blanc Sablons the royal row barges and other small vessels but these had neither the manoeuvrability of Bidoux’s galleys nor an equivalent armament.  Nevertheless in the afternoon of 25th April he decided to make an attack on the French galleys  with the clear intention of  boarding Bidoux’s own vessel.  Etchingham’s report to Wolsey on 5th May  makes clear the events which followed. His fellow commanders advised Howard against this dashing but  very risky action.,but ‘no man could counsel him the contrary’.  Howard managed to leap on board de Bidoux’s galley leading a group of sixteen boarders .  His vessel was not grappled to the enemy but the attacking boarders  had managed to get a cable from Howard’s craft on to the capstan of the enemy.   This was either cut or slipped and the two vessels swung apart leaving Howard and his men on the enemy vessel facing overwhelming odds and with no means of escape.  The Admiral was trapped against the rails of the galley by French pikemen . A survivor then saw Howard ‘take his whistle from about his neck and wrap it together and hurled it in the sea.’  Howard disappeared in the confusion of the fighting on the galley and feared to have died.  Other vessels continued the action for a brief while and then broke off contact with the French.

    The next day under a flag of truce the English sent envoys to De Bidoux asking if Howard was his prisoner; the reply was that an officer who was probably the Admiral had been thrown into the sea during the battle. His death was confirmed when his body was later recovered.   By 30th April the English fleet was back in Plymouth to face the King’s anger and disappointment at the outcome of this campaign. Although Lord Thomas Howard, the new Lord Admiral made strenuous efforts to re-equip the fleet and restore its morale the King’s attention was now elsewhere.   Henry’s own incursion into France and the land campaign which ended in the capture of  Thérouanne and Tournai now took centre stage.  This was a success which helped to satisfy Henry’s desire for glory and  erase the memory of the events at Blancs Sablons.

    It is notable that English maritime historians have tended to pass quickly over these events. The only more general significance of the two actions is a suggestion that this was the first time that shipboard artillery played an important role in the outcome of a battle.  Charles Bourel de la Ronçière in his old but very inclusive Histoire de la Marine Française has a long and somewhat romanticised account which lays much emphasis on the heroics of Portz-Moguer and the discomfort of the English.  The dramatic picture of the explosion on the Cordelière still serves as a powerful reminder of the battle of Brest and perhaps a foretaste of the epic duels between great ships common in future encounters between the navies of England and France.

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