On 28th June 1346 Edward III sailed out of Portsmouth amidst great secrecy – or as much secrecy as he could hope to achieve with a fleet of some 750 ships and an army of between 7,000 and 10,000 men. Half of the men were archers. As well as fighting men there were also surgeons, farriers, carpenters, tent makers, miners, masons, smiths, clerks and household servants. On board were all three of Joan’s husbands: Thomas Holand, William Montagu and Edward, Prince of Wales.
Nobody knew where they were going. The king had gone to great lengths to hide his plans from his enemies (the French) by the usual methods of arresting foreign traders and closing the ports, and also, in this instance, by dispatching a small diversionary force of some 18 barges and 250 men to the Low Countries. The favoured destinations of those who were taking bets were Gascony, Brittany or Flanders. Normandy would have been an “also ran”.
At dawn on 12th July, after more than two weeks at sea, the king’s fleet anchored off a great open beach south of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue in Normandy. Nobody was there to greet them! (In June 1944, some 600 years later, allied forces were to land at the neighbouring “Utah Beach”.)
At about mid-day, the king went ashore and on a small hill nearby he knighted many of his young nobles, including the Prince of Wales, William Montagu and Roger Mortimer (the grandson of the man who had usurped the king’s power some twenty years earlier and had been hanged for it at Tyburn in 1330.)
It took five days to rest the army, disembark the horses, remove the enormous quantity of stores from the ships, bake bread, reconnoitre the surrounding area and put down occasional pockets of resistance. The king issued proclamations requiring good behaviour from his troops but with so many men and inadequate chains of command this was largely ignored. La Hougue and Barfleur were systematically looted, burned and reduced to ashes.
The king’s strategy was to march eastwards and then down the valley of the River Seine to Paris. He divided his army into three. The Prince of Wales (who was 16 years old) was to command the van with the earls of Northampton and Warwick to guide him; the rear was to be commanded by the worldly Bishop of Durham and the centre by the king himself. Of his 750 ships, 200 were to sail along the coast keeping pace with the army while the rest were to return to England. On 18th July the army set out for Paris.
And where was the French army while all this was going on? Philip VI, the king of France was desperately trying to raise enough troops to combat the English invasion force. His armies were scattered, some in the south-west, some in the north-west but almost none in Normandy. A decision was taken, probably by the Constable of France, Raoul be Brienne, Count of Eu, to try and stop the English at the town of Caen. Caen which sat on marshy ground by the Rivers Orne and Odon, was the largest walled town west of Rouen, with a population of about 9,000 people. Its castle had been built by William the Conqueror when he was Duke of Normandy. The Constable had transferred his entire force from Harfleur to Caen by boat as soon as he received word of the English landings.
At 9 o’clock in the morning of 26th July the English army arrived on the low ridge surrounding the town. From the walls of the town the army looked even larger than it was. In the ensuing disorderly battle for the town (it is hard to imagine an orderly battle under the circumstances) with hand-to-hand fighting, houses and boats being fired and the fight spreading from the old town across the bridge and along the line of the river, the English gradually pushed back the town’s defenders. As the English advanced, some of garrison escaped into the castle and the Constable and the lord of Tankerville took refuge in the upper storeys of the bridge tower. Below them was a scene of mass slaughter – the English archers and spearmen were killing everyone they encountered.
At this point enter Sir Thomas Holand. Shortly after his secret marriage to Joan in 1340, Thomas had embarked on a Holy Crusade and it was there on the chilly frontiers of Christendom that he had made the acquaintance of one Raoul de Brienne whose father at that time was the Count of Eu. From his refuge in the bridge tower, the Constable recognised Thomas, called out to him and offered up his sword in surrender. At the same time, the lord of Tankerville surrendered to one of the Prince’s men, Sir Thomas Daniel.
Subsequently Thomas sent his valuable prisoner back to England under the watchful eye of his brother, Sir Otho Holand. Thomas later sold the count to the king for the enormous sum of eighty thousand florins (a sum so vast that my attempt to convert it into today’s money crashed the system!). It was this money that Thomas used to petition the pope for the restoration of his young wife from her second marriage with William Montagu.
And so, if Edward III had decided to sail other than to Normandy and if Thomas Holand and Raoul de Brienne had not fought together in the Baltic Crusades …..
It is with such small incidents that history is made.
Sources: The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer
Trial by Battle, Vol 1 The Hundred Years War by Jonathan Sumption