Kent History Federation Conference 2017 - The 800th anniversary of the Battle of Sandwich

Saturday 20th May 2017 - The Guildhall Sandwich

The 800th anniversary of the Battle of Sandwich

The 800th anniversary of the Battle of Sandwich and its consequences was the focus of the Kent History Federation Conference on Saturday, 20 May 2017, hosted by the Sandwich Local History Society.

Richard Brook (author of William Marshal, The Knight who saved England) was the guest speaker.

The practice of commemorating the Battle of Sandwich has sadly died out.On “the day of Bartholomew (24 August) the commune should meet in the city of Sandwich and make a solemn procession to the aforesaid hospital with tapers in their hands” - not to honour the Saint, but to give thanks to him for victory in the Battle of Sandwich on the Saint’s Day in 1217, eight hundred years ago. The last “solemn procession” was in the 1980’s.

What exactly was being commemorated? On St Bartholomew’s Day 1217, ships of the Cinque Ports sailing from Sandwich defeated a larger French fleet bound for London – the Dauphin Louis crowned King of England returned to France and the infant King Henry III reaffirmed Magna Carta and approved the first Charter of the Forest, two valuable historic documents now back in Sandwich.

For Sandwich the story began a year earlier, on 21 May 1216. On that day Prince Louis, son and heir apparent of Philip, King of France, but also a grandson-in-law of the late English King Henry II, arrived in the Haven to accept the invitation of the rebellious English Barons opposed to King John to replace him on the throne of England. The Barons’ War had erupted after King John reneged on the terms of the Magna Carta which he had agreed to the previous year.

At first all went well. Louis was crowned King in London in June. His forces occupied most of south east England. But the tide turned when John died. His eldest son, Henry was nine years old. The remaining royalists hastily had him crowned Henry III and declared their allegiance to him. Louis swiftly found himself being recast in popular opinion – no longer the conquering hero saving the barons and the country from the cruel John, but a foreigner bullying a small boy.

The tide of battle turned too. As the result of the Royalist resurgence, his forces at Chichester, Portchester, Marlborough, Winchester were either defeated or under siege. The siege of Dover castle was a stalemate. On 22 April he returned to Sandwich and in revenge for the town reverting to the Royalist cause, it was put to the torch.

After defeat of his forces at the Battle of Lincoln on 20 May 1217, Prince Louis retired to London, signalling his willingness to negotiate. The victor of Lincoln, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, Regent of England for the boy-king Henry III and Louis came close to an agreement but the negotiations broke down.

While still in London Louis received news that reinforcements were on their way. Encouraged, he resolved to fight on. Finally, on St Bartholomew's Day, 24 August 1217, in clear weather, the French fleet set out from Calais.

William the Marshal (the victor at Lincoln) spent the night of 23 August in Canterbury having ordered the portsmen of the Cinque Ports to assemble with their vessels in Sandwich. At this time the Cinque Ports provided the core of the ships and crew of the royal fighting fleet.

Off Sandwich the English simply outsailed the French, manoeuvring behind them to gain the windward advantage. In an early and successful employment of chemical weapons, large pots of quicklime were launched at the French which, on breaking on the deck, “the powder rose in great clouds and was this that caused the most damage. After that they could no longer defend themselves, for their eyes were full of powder”.

A biographer of William Marshal (Richard Brook The Knight who saved England) reports that the battle became a bloody rout; when the English “caught up with a ship, I can tell you that they lost no time at all in killing those they found on board and throwing them into the sea as food for the fish.”

Defeated, Louis returned to France. Within the year two valuable documents recently returned to Sandwich were agreed by Henry III, the reissued Magna Carta and the first Charter of the Forest.

The victorious English returned to port with a wealth of spoils. “What a fine share out it was!” Marshal’s biographer wrote. Sailors “were able to distribute the coin in bowlfuls”. In the following days sailors promenaded in Sandwich in costumes of rich silks and cloths. Not all the spoils however went on such frivolity: the chapel at St. Bart’s was founded to celebrate the victory on the saint’s feast day.

Richard Linning - Sandwich Local History Society