Book Review of Edward III and the War at Sea: The English Navy, 1327-1377

Graham Cushway. Edward III and the War at Sea: The English Navy, 1327-1377. Warfare in History series. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-84383-621-6. Notes. Illustrations. Maps. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxii, 265. $99.00 (hardcover).

The English navy played a key role in the Hundred Years War.  Dr Graham Cushway, a maritime historian and Associate Analyst for the United Nations, explores the English navy and the war at sea from the accession of Edward II (ruled 1307-1327) to the death of  Edward III (1327-1377).  The author examines the organization and structure of the navy, along discussing political events, naval innovation, and naval campaigns.  The author argues that Edward III “would command the most potent English navy prior to the modern age” (p.1).

Cushway sets the political, strategic, and military scene for English naval operations.  This allows the author to explain naval developments and fleet movements in context to English wars.  He describes naval operations, and depicts the armaments and tactics employed in those sea battles.  The author believes that the King’s navy consisted of about twenty-five ships each year, and throughout his reign Edward III employed roughly one hundred different ships (p.20).  On top of this, the king would requisition (“arrest”) English merchant ships for use in his wars.  Edward III required larger fleets than his predecessors.  He requisitioned 85 ships in 1337, 350 in 1338, 130 in 1339 and 200 in 1340.  These requirements escalated to 250 in 1341, 440 in 1342, 750 in 1346 and 738 in 1347, followed by the great fleet of up to 1,100 in 1359 (p.153).  This fleet was supported by an increasingly complex administrative and logistical structure.  The English navy provided transport and naval support in the First War of Scottish Independence (1296-1328), Second War of Scottish Independence (1332-1357), Edwardian War (1337-1360), and Caroline War (1369-1389) during the first half of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).

The Hundred Years War broke out after King Philip VI of France (ruled 1328-1350) attempted to confiscate Aquitaine (southwest France) from Edward III in 1337.  Cushway goes on to relate numerous naval operations in defense of English interests.  In 1340, Edward III took the bold step of declaring himself King of France.  His naval strategy was to protect English economic interests while attacking the enemy’s vital economic interests.  The English monarch also sought to bring the enemy to battle.

Cushway stresses the English navy’s value in naval operations.  He discusses Edward III’s  naval victory against the French off the coast of Flanders at Sluys (1340).  In the battle, English ships grappled the French vessels.  “English men-at-arms,” so writes Cushway, “fought their way from ship to ship, supported by longbowmen shooting from vantage points” (p.98).  The battle of Sluys was decisive, the “possibility of a French invasion [of England] was greatly reduced for a generation and English invasion fleets could henceforth operate without serious opposition at sea” (pp.98-99).

Edward III soon expanded his conflict with Philip VI of France.  The English king supported the House of Montfort in the struggle with Charles of Blois (supported by France) for control of Brittany in the Breton War of Succession (1341-1364).  Then, in 1346, Edward III deployed a large force, with the assistance of the English navy, from England to Normandy.  The English army attacked La Hogue, Barfleur, Cherbourg, and Caen, before defeating the French at the battle of Crécy, and later besieging and capturing the important seaport of Calais (1346-1347).  In this operation, Edward III used 738 king’s and merchant ships (p.153).

Edward III’s navy controlled the English Channel.  The French monarch, however, began to rely upon the naval prowess of Castile.  The Castilian fleet would attack English merchant shipping.  Therefore, Edward III prepared his navy and commanded an attack against the Castilian fleet as it passed through the English Channel on its way from Flanders to the Iberian Peninsula.  The English achieved a victory at the battle of Winchelsea (1350) off the south coast of England.

In 1359, the French reneged on the English-imposed Second Treaty of London.  Edward III held the French king as a prisoner after the battle of Poitiers (1356), and was seeking territorial aggrandizement and a ransom for the king’s release.  As such, Edward III assembled an army of about 10,000 men in England and had a fleet of 850 ships transport the force to Calais to carry out a military campaign to force the issue (p.168).  The army failed to take Reims.  Meanwhile, a small French force landed on the southern coast of England and raided Winchelsea (1360).  Soon England and France agreed to the Treaty of Brétigny (1360) which ended the first phase of the Hundred Years War.

In 1362, Edward III allied with and supported King Peter “the Just” of Castile and León (ruled 1350-1366, 1367-1369) in his struggle against the French-supported Peter IV of Aragon (ruled 1336-1387) in the War of the Two Peters (1356-1375).  But, in 1366, the First Castilian Civil War (1366-1369) broke out between Peter the Just and his brother Henry of Trastámara.  Edward III and his heir Edward, the Black Prince, continued to support Peter while France supported Henry.  In 1366, England deployed a large army overseas to support Peter the Just.  In 1367, the Black Prince and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, along with Peter of Castile, led an Anglo-Gascon army of 24,000 men that fought a Franco-Castilian army, commanded by Bertrand du Guesclin and Henry of Trastámara, at the battle of Nájera in Castile.  The Anglo-Gascon army smashed the much larger Franco-Castilian army and forced Henry to retreat to France.  However, England soon abandoned Peter, and Henry returned with an army, murdered Peter, and took the crown of Castile and León for himself.

In 1369, the second phase (Caroline War) of the Hundred Years War broke out between England and France.  France took Ponthieu in 1369.  In response, John of Gaunt deployed forces from England to Calais.  But, French forces raided and devastated the English seaport of Portsmouth.  England feared a full French invasion.  The English fleet was on the high seas and searching for the “imaginary” French invasion fleet.  In the meantime, Henry II of Castile and León (ruled 1366-1367, 1369-1379) and Charles V of France (ruled 1364-1380) agreed to an alliance, whereby the Castilians lent a fleet to the French in return for military aid on land.  Thus, in 1372, a combined Franco-Castilian fleet joined the French forces which were besieging English forces at La Rochelle.  During the siege, a small English fleet, commanded by the Earl of Pembroke, engaged, and was defeated by the Franco-Castilian fleet.  Cushway states that the naval defeat at La Rochelle resulted in a major loss of prestige for Edward III (p.202).  The English navy had been in decline since the end of the Edwardian War but the defeat made it evident.

Cushway sees Edward III as a “military genius” in his early years.  The monarch developed a system that supplemented the King’s navy by employing the merchant shipping of the kingdom to meet his military ambitions.  “The ultimate expression of Edward III’s grandiose plans was the vast fleets of 1347 and 1359” (p.217).

Edward III and the War at Sea is an interesting study of English naval operations during the first half of the Hundred Years War.  It provides valuable information, based on intensive archival research in government records, regarding the organization and administration of Edward III’s navy.  The study is greatly aided by the author putting naval activities in context with political, strategic, and military affairs.  The study adds much to our knowledge of the Hundred Years War.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Anglo-French Wars, Book Reviews, British Naval History, Hundred Years War (1337-1453), Late Medieval Europe and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review of Edward III and the War at Sea: The English Navy, 1327-1377

  1. William Young says:

    Reblogged this on Military History.

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