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When Medieval England was Almost Invaded

“Why shouldn’t we go over to England for once and have a look at the country and the people?” – these were the words of one French knight as he and others gathered at the port of Sluis in 1385. They were part of an army preparing to invade England, which was being commanded by the Burgundian duke Philip the Bold. While many historians have neglected the events of 1385-6, a recent article by Laura Crombie reveals just how close England was to being invaded.

Detail of a miniature of a fleet of ships, depicted in Froissart’s Chronicles – British Library MS Harley 4379 f. 60v

Her article, “A New Power in the Late Fourteenth-Century Low Countries: Philip the Bold’s Planned Franco-Burgundian Invasion of England and Scottish Alliance, 1385–1386,” examines the Duke’s ambitious plans and the alliances he made. By the 1380s, Philip had gained his nickname for his performance at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, and by the mid-1380s had amassed considerable power within France, including the duchy of Burgundy and the rich counties of Flanders, Artois and Burgundy Palatine. Since both the kings of France and England, Charles VI and Richard II, were both young, Philip saw this as his opportunity to lead his own invasion of England. Crombie writes:

As an ambitious prince, in near-control of France, with experience in war and diplomacy, Philip understood the challenges of peace, and conceived of an ambitious plan to deal a knockout blow to England; to cause such devastation that Richard II would accept peace, thus in a single move strengthening France and removing the English influence and the threat of internal divisions from his own lands.

Philip was able to set up an alliance with both Brittany and Scotland, and in May of 1385 the first part of his plan was set in motion: a force of 2,000 men-at-arms and 400 bowmen was sent to Edinburgh, where a joint attack was made with the Scots on northern England, hoping to draw more English forces away from the southern coast. As this was happening,

The army gathered at Sluis was similar in size to Richard’s, including almost all of the princes of the blood as well as many foreign mercenaries. Unlike the armies raised in the later years of Charles VI’s reigns, famously weakened by divisions and lack of leadership, the force of 1385 represented a united nobility. The army was not simply composed of knights and mercenaries; Philip the Bold had made a great effort to recruit bowmen from his own lands, and from the towns of northern France. Drawing on urban forces helped Philip once again to assert control over his lands and make clear to them that the balance of power between France and England was changing. Numerous towns sent their shooters, as well as money, equipment and supplies, to the Franco-Burgundian host, for instance thirty members of the crossbow guild of Courtrai were among the host, as were the Saint George crossbowmen of Bruges.

16th century map of Sluis

However, the planned invasion did not happen, as in July of that year the city of Ghent, which was an English ally, seized an important town near Sluis, cutting off Philip from his main supply centre of Bruges. Chroniclers believe that this attack was a deliberate attempt to divert the invasion of England, and it worked, as Philip stopped his preparations to deal with the Ghentaars. It would not be until December of that year that he was able to make peace with the rebellious city and again return to his plans for invading England.

Crombie writes:

Preparations began early in 1386. From March, Philip was collecting subsidies from his lands ‘for the passage that he will make to England’ and in France taxes were collected across the kingdom for ‘the passage across the sea’. Lille sent its militias and its archery and crossbow guilds to Sluis, ‘to the king and our lord the duke for serving him in the journey that he intends to make to England’. Bruges granted Philip a special aide of £8,400 and on top of this sent men and equipment to a value of £8,534. Paris send their king an aid of £12,000, and throughout September the royal wardrobe recorded huge costs for buying armour and cloth for the king and other princes ‘for the passage that the king will make to England’. French towns, including Laon, sent their crossbowmen on top of the money they had agreed to grant the king… Froissart enthusiastically notes that many among the French host ‘considered England to be already crushed and devastated, all her men killed, and her women and children brought to France in slavery’.

Again, however, Philip’s plans did not end with an invasion. Instead poor weather prevented the fleet from setting sail, and soon they were struggling to bring in enough supplies to feed the men. According to one report, the cost of a loaf of bread went from one penny to 18 pence. Troops began to plunder the local countryside, and other French nobles began to raise concerns about the invasion. When another ally of Philip’s found themselves under attack, all of these distractions proved enough for the Duke to abandon his grand plan.

Crombie concludes:

The projected invasions of 1385 and 1386 show Philip attempting to rebalance the political and military powers of northern Europe around his new domain in the Low Countries. His plans could have removed English influence from his newly inherited county as well as strengthening the kingdom his nephew would soon rule in his own right. With support from Brittany and Scotland, as well as unity in France building on the successes of Charles V, the time seemed right to make France the greatest power in Europe, bound to a new Burgundian power. What might have been cannot be known, but the planned invasions highlight the complex diplomatic situation at the end of the fourteenth century, the uncertainty of the future of the Hundred Years War, and the significance of Flanders within the conflict. With failure in 1385 and 1386, Philip turned his attention first to strengthening and expanding his rule in the Low Countries and, from 1392, to becoming the power behind the throne of his mentally unstable nephew.

Her article, “A New Power in the Late Fourteenth-Century Low Countries: Philip the Bold’s Planned Franco-Burgundian Invasion of England and Scottish Alliance, 1385–1386,” appears in the January 2016 issue of History: The Journal of the Historical Association, Volume 101, Issue 344.

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