Ships and Fleets in Anglo-French warfare, 1337-1360
American Neptune, v.46 (1986)
Introduction: The most consuming military and naval conflict of later medieval Europe was the Hundred Years’ War. Beginning in 1337 and continuing until 1453 this struggle involved most of the states of western Europe although the principals were England and France. Edward III claimed the French throne by right of inheritance intending to remove the newly established Valois dynasty as usurpers. Dynastic claims or consequent ties of vassalage, however, were not the precipitating factors in the outbreak of war. Researchers over the past few decades have emphasized much more strongly the role of England’s possessions in France, especially Gascony, to explain the origins of the war. This approach recognizes the economic and strategic importance of English possessions and control in France as compelling factors in Edward III’s decision to initiate the conflict. French encroachments and claims on Gascony and other English possessions struck at the heart of Edward’s state – a kingdom which was transmarine.
Naval conflict in the English Channel and elsewhere between the French and their allies and the English was not a sudden result of the actions of 1337. Undeclared warfare at sea is the best description of the state of naval and mercantile relations between these parties extending back at least to the reign of Edward I at the turn of the century. Merchants frequently pirated or were pirated with the excuse that the other parties were the enemies of France or England. Truces seem to have been conveniently forgotten and suits to the crown were often the recourse.3 These appeals remain our record of these piratical raids. They were, in effect, crimes of convenience with convenient excuses generated to justify plundering.
The solution achieved at some point in the late thirteenth or fourteenth century to help abate this problem was the introduction of convoys. These were especially successful in the English wine trade routes to Gascony. Larger fleets of merchants often escorted by royal ships filled with men-at-arms could deter individual raiders or even small pirate fleets. But not all merchants could afford or were prepared to wait for the cumbersome process of gathering a fleet at a designated port, awaiting royal escorts to join them and then sailing a prescribed course to Bordeaux or elsewhere. Many ship-owners preferred to push on with their trade and risk encounters with French merchants cum pirates. The same held true for the French, although they were not as active in the trade of wine or wool which was so important to the English economy.