The destruction of an English fleet led by Sir John Arundel in 1379 is reported by most chroniclers to be an unfortunate accident. However, if you read what Thomas Walsingham has to say about what happened, you get a far more horrific version of events.
The basic facts of this story are agreed upon – in early December of 1379 the English organized a naval expedition in support of their ally the Duke of Brittany, who was being attacked by the French. Command of this expedition was given to John FitzAlan, 1st Baron Arundel, who had the title of Lord Marshal.
According to Jean Froissart, one of the most well-known chroniclers of the period, the fleet and its commander soon came to a bitter end:
All these knights drew to Hampton; and when they had wind, they entered into their ships and departed. The first day the wind was reasonable good for them, but against night the wind turned contrary to them, and whether they would or not, they were driven on the coast of Cornwall. The wind was so sore and strainable, that they could cast none anchor, nor also they dared not. In the morning the wind brought them into the Irish sea, and by the rage of the tempest three of their ships burst and went to wreck, wherein was Sir John Arundel, Sir Thomas Banaster and Sir Hugh Calverley, and a hundred men of arms, of the which eighty were drowned, and Sir John Arundel their captain was there perished, which was great damage…
Froissart adds that some mariners saved themselves by holding onto the masts or wooden tables. Those ships that weren’t wrecked managed to return back to Hampton, after which they reported about their misfortune to the king. Another chronicler, Adam Usk, simply notes the shipwrecks and adds that the accident was divine punishment against the English crown for having raised taxes on the people and clergy.
A far different account of this campaign emerges from the writing of Thomas Walsingham, a monk who lived at St Albans abbey. He wrote several works, including the Chronica maiora, which covers events from the years 1376 to 1422. A meticulous and opinionated historian, Walsingham was not shy to criticize people in power.
He begins his account of the campaign of 1379 by explaining that John Arundel and the English soldiers had travelled to the coast, hoping to set off for the continent, but the winds were not favourable for launching the ships (this was a common situation for ships wanting to cross the English Channel during the Middle Ages). Therefore the commander decided to wait until the weather changed.
Walsingham continues the story:
In the meantime he made his way to a convent of nuns which was not far away. Entering this with his men, he asked the mother superior to allow his fellow knight, who were labourers in the king’s service, to lodge in their monastery. The nun, weighed up in her mind the dangers which could arise from having such guests, and such a request utterly contravened their religious rule so with fitting respect and humility, she explained that many who had arrived with him were young men who could easily be induced to commit unforgiveable sin. This would not only bring dishonour and ill-repute upon the house, but peril and destruction to himself and his men, who on the one hand should avoid impugning the fortress of chastity, and on other should be endeavouring to shun every kind of sin.
The abbess pleaded with Arundel, trying to convince him that he and his men should find lodgings elsewhere.
However, he would not change his mind, and arrogantly commanded her to rise, swearing that he would not in any way be deflected from providing lodgings for his men in that place. He immediately ordered his men to enter the buildings, and to take occupation of the public and private rooms until the time for sailing arrived. These men, urged on by the spirit of the devil, it is believed, rushed into the cloisters of the convent, and, as is usual with so ill-disciplined a mob, they each began to burst into different rooms in which the maiden daughters of important men in the district were looked after in order that they might learn their letters. Most of these girls had already made the decision to take the vow of chastity. The knights, feeling no reverence for the place and abandoning any fear of God, assaulted these girls and violently raped them.
Widows and married women who were also staying at the nunnery were attacked too, while in the surrounding district other English soldiers attacked people and carried off their provisions. “But those outrages were few and insignificant,” Walsingham ominously adds, “compared with those that followed.”
Once they learned that the fleet would be setting out, the soldiers grabbed the women and girls from the nunnery and forced them onto their ships. They even found a young bride, who had just left a church after a marriage ceremony, and kidnapped her too. Walsingham continues:
Not content with those crimes, some of them went to the lengths of committing sacrilege. For after first hearing Mass – clearly without any reverence – before the priest could put away his chasuble, they approached the altar and very quickly seized the chalice from it, gleefully, as if it were plunder. They then ran to the ships, with the priest pursuing them in his sacred vestments, his alb, stole, and maniple, and demanding back the chalice, he threatened them with eternal punishment. When the priest received terrible mimicking threats about what would happen if he did not go back, he still refused to be silent. Instead, he summoned neighbouring priests, and processed to the very shore with burning candles, bells, books, and things which are required for the proclamation of such a sentence. There he demanded, on pain of excommunication, the restoration of the stolen property. When they did not see fit to comply with the demand, he publicly pronounced a terrible proclamation of excommunication against them, extinguishing the candle by tossing it into the sea.
As this was happening, Sir John Arundel ordered the men to embark and prepare to set out. The captain of the flagship, a sailor named Robert Rust, then spoke up saying that there would be bad weather coming, and advised that they should not leave port. Arundel ignored the prediction, and the fleet moved out. Soon enough, the storm clouds appeared, and using the words of Virgil, Walsingham described how “all at once the winds churned up the sea, and huge waves surged high, and the ships were blown apart in the vast ocean.”
The chronicler goes on to add more detail:
And, more terrible than death itself, men say, a vision or image of the devil appeared amongst them, which seemed visibly to threaten with destruction those who had embarked with John Arundel. It is not easy to describe the shouting, or the great sorrow, the lamentation and the floods of tears at that time amongst the women who had boarded the ships either through force or of their own volition, when the ships rose high into the sky as the winds and waves struck and then plunged again into the depths, when they saw no longer the likeness of death but death itself at hand, and did not doubt at all that they were shortly to suffer it.
The panicked crews then rushed to lighten the burden of the ships, hoping that it would keep them afloat:
… first by throwing over utensils, those of little value first, then those that were more valuable, in the hope that by doing so their expectation of survival would be raised. However, when they realized that the situation was not less desperate but more so, they imputed the cause of their misfortune to the women themselves, and, in a frenzied state of mind, with the very hands with which previously they had amorously handled them, with the same arms with which they had lustfully fondled them, they now snatched them up and threw them into the sea; as many as sixty of the women, they say, were thrown overboard to be eaten by the fish and sea monsters.
The storm, however, did not pass, but continued on for some days and night, leaving the ships at the mercy of the waves. Eventually, someone on the flagship spotted land – it was a small island off the coast of Ireland, and Arundel ordered the sailors to take him to shore. When some of them objected, saying the the force of the storm would cause their ship to crash against the rocks, “Sir John was furious and rushed upon them, brutally killing some of them, it is said.”
The captain Robert Rust obeyed the command, although he told his crew to make their confessions, “For there is now no place left for us to escape to.” The ship sailed towards the island, knocking into rocks and sandbars as it aimed for the steep slopes by the shore. Although the ship was damaged and taking on water, it got close enough to the shore for the men to jump off. The captain and others were able to escape, but as Walsingham writes:
Finally Sir John Arundel himself also jumped, and reached the sand, but it seemed that he was too sure of his own safety; for, as if there was nothing to be afraid of, though standing on quick-sand, he began to shake the water from his clothing which had been soaked in the ship by the waves of the sea. When Robert Rust saw this, he thought about the dangers which Sir John had not yet escaped, and went down again on the sand. There grabbing hold of his hand he tried hard to pull him from his dangerous position; but in rashly concerning himself about another’s safety, he neglected his own and lost his life. For in fact while he was trying to pull Sir John with him, high waves of the rough sea at that moment were flowing in their own direction and as the waves came in further, they knocked them both down, and then when they ebbed they dragged them both into the deeper waters; and that was the end of them.
Walsingham adds that two knights were also killed trying to rescue the commander, as the seas slammed their bodies into the sharp rocks. Others were also killed trying to escape the ship, and those who reached land were left soaked and in the cold, causing some to succumb to hyperthermia. It took three days for some Irish residents to spot the survivors and rescue them, and it was also then that the body of John Arundel floated back to shore. He was buried in an abbey in Ireland.
Walsingham goes on to note that twenty-five ships were lost in the storm, with the rest of the fleet landing back in England or in Ireland. He explains that some of the ships survived without any loss of life – they belonged to the more upright men of that campaign, who were not involved in the attacks on the people, and concludes that “it is pleasing to see in these events the evidence of divine punishment as well as the conspicuous mercy of God’s goodness.”
There are some readers who will question Walsingham’s account – it sounds almost too scripted to be true, with evil soldiers committing unspeakable acts, only to have God coming down to punish them. The chronicler himself is ready for the criticism, for he ends the account of the campaign of 1379 with these words:
But lest we should be judged to have dealt with those whose adversity or good fortune we have described, from dislike or favour, we have left it to our readers to put whatever construction they like on those accounts. We add what is certainly true, that we have avoided all taint of falsehood, bias, provocation, or incitement, but have at all times told the whole truth as we have learned it from those who were involved in all these events, and we have no right to disbelieve them.
The St. Albans Chronicle: The Cronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, has been edited and translated by John Taylor, Wendy Childs and Leslie Watkiss, and published in two volumes by Clarendon Press in 2011. Click here to visit the publisher’s site for more details.