The French Raid on Southampton, 5th October 1338

The French Raid on Southampton, 5th October 1338

“They set out with their fleet, which carried at least a thousand fighting men of various kinds, and sailed for England, coming into Southampton harbour one Sunday morning when the people were at mass. The Normans and Genoese entered the town and pillaged and looted it completely. They killed many people and raped a number of women and girls, which was a deplorable thing. They loaded their ships and vessels with the great plunder they found in the town, which was rich and well stocked, and then went back on board. When the tide was high again, they raised anchor and sailed with a good wind towards Normandy, putting in at Dieppe, where they shared out their booty.” Chronicles of Jean Froissart. Trans G Brereton. Penguin, 1968.

That the French raided Southampton in 1338 is well known locally. Stories of the assault are visible to visitors to the town, and it is frequently referred to in local community groups. But how much of the story, as told by the chronicler Froissart above, is myth, and how much is a true account of the events of October 1338?

Traditional accounts of the French Raid tell the story of 49 ships sailing undetected up Southampton Water on a Sunday in October. They landed by West Quay, took the townsfolk totally unaware and ransacked the town. Much damage was done, buildings were burnt, goods seized, people slaughtered. And it took place whilst many of Southampton’s population were at mass, with many others fleeing the inevitable slaughter.

Like all myths, there is an element of both truth and fantasy to this version of events. This stems from storytelling over the years, and inconsistencies within the written historical records from the time, and shortly afterwards.

The Hundred Years War

In 1336 England and France had gone to war. It was the beginning of a conflict over the French crown and the rights of the English in territories held in France that would continue until the loss of Normandy (1450) and Gascony (1453). England had engaged France though raids. A loose alliance of continental allies had been gathered in support of King Edward IIIs intended campaigns. And the French knew King Edward’s weakness: money. England’s allies were being paid for their support, and despite her continental lands, England had no large reserve of funds from which to draw.

Southampton c1338

Southampton was a major port in 1338. It had been trusted with valuable cargoes, such as 150 tuns of wine for the King, just weeks before the raid. The quays were alongside the walled town, some alongside the arcades, close to the Castle and others to the southern end of the town, by the Water Gate. Ditches are believed to have been dug around most of the land facing defences, providing a moat. Parts of the wall needed repair and were constantly requiring maintenance, as earth was used to support the walls in places.  Along with the Cinque Ports, it formed one of the key parts of the defence of the south coast. It was also one of the most probable ports from which any English force could set sail in support of campaigns in Normandy or Gascony. As a port that had major trading connections with allies and foes alike, it was both a commercially and militarily significant port. Southampton was also aware of her frailties, having been raided less than 20 years earlier during the Despenser Wars in the reign of Edward II.

Southampton Town Walls
Southampton Town Walls

Why did the French raid?

King Edward III was in Flanders in October 1338. There had just been a major sea battle, at Arnemuiden. The French had assaulted an English merchant fleet heading to Flanders. The English had a ship that was equipped with 3 cannon, the first time that an English vessel is recorded as having used artillery at sea. 3 cannons were not enough to stop the powerful French fleet though. Numbered at around 40 ships and commanded by Nicolas Behuchat and Hugues Quieret, it overwhelmed the English merchants.

“Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death”. —Collection des chroniques nationales françaises écrites en langue vulgaire du treizième au seizième siècle, avec notes et éclaircissements par J. A. Buchon, p.272.

This took place in late September 1338. It is clear that the French were targeting English trade, making Southampton, with her profitable export of wool, a potential target. Sinking of so many ships and the execution of so many sailors also risked the isolation of the English King and his men on the continent. Following up the success in the Battle of Arnemuiden could destroy the English capability to transport armies, and eliminate the source of income, exports of wool, that would finance the war. As with Portsmouth and, to a lesser degree, Porchester, Southampton was of direct military and commercial importance to the crown: and therefore of ongoing interest to the French.

What do we know about the attack?

The best-known version of events is that of Froissart, quoted at the beginning of this article. His is not the only account though, and others suggest that it was quite different to the popularised image of a raid on an undefended Southampton on a quiet Sunday morning.

On the one hand, there is an account attributed to King Edward III, a week after the event. This suggests that:

‘the enemy plundered and burned and then retired to their galleys without encountering any resistance from the men of those parts.’

King Edward, however, was hundreds of miles away, in Flanders, when Southampton was raided. The French suggested something rather different. The raid was commanded by Hue Quiéret, the Admiral of France. Two weeks after the attack on Southampton, he stated that a prize of 100 livres tournoi had been offered to the first to break through the walls of Southampton.

According to Quiéret, the first group to assail the town failed. They were repelled. Then Genoese sailors joined the assault, breaking through the town’s defences. Hardly the same as the defenders offering no resistance, or all being at mass as Froissart puts it.

Much of the remainder of the raid is hard to establish precisely. Sources talk of entering through a gate, but in the French and Latin versions of the same source, confuse matters by referencing a town-gate in one version and a port/harbour in the other. Consensus of opinion is that there was a raid through the West Quay area, via the arcades up towards St. Michael’s church. It is supported by evidence of that part of town seeing its defences improved, the trading gaps being closed, and a defensive earthwork included along the western part of the town’s defences.

A myth surrounding the raid is that the townspeople were at mass on a Sunday and simply did not react or ran away. Several things show this to be false. If there had been a dereliction of duty to defend the town, somebody would have been held to account for the failure. Nobody was. The men in charge of Southampton’s defences actually gained higher ranking positions and were tasked with overseeing improvements. Would Edward III reward cowards, or put them in charge of new, expensive defences? And for most people to have been at mass would have required it to be a Sunday, which, despite what Froissart says, it probably was not. Dating was written rather differently in 1338 to the way that it is now, and there has been a switch from the Julian to Gregorian Calendar. Yet, taking all of the changes into account, the first three written records of the raid, two of which are official crown sources, all have it taking place on the Monday.

How many people were involved in the raid?

The population of Southampton at the time was in the region of 5000. Records for 1338 do not show the number of men assigned to defensive duties. However, records for 1360 do exist. They show that the arrangement for defence of the walls was on the basis of the landholders adjacent to each section. They were responsible for providing a certain number of defenders. In 1360, this was ‘30 well-armed, 30 others armed, 30 archers, and others with clubs up to 200.’ The attacking force is recorded as 49 galleys. This is close to the number of French and Genoese ships said to have raided Portsmouth in March, the Channel Islands and having participated in the Battle of Arnemuiden. However, it is not entirely clear how many vessels were galleys and how many were smaller vessels.

Consequences of the raid

Large parts of Southampton were damaged in the raid. The attack saw the mercantile area to the south western corner of the town ransacked. There are accounts of Blood on the floor of St. Michael’s church. Excavations have found remains of bodies believed to be those of raiders and accounts show repairs being carried out to several key parts of the town, particularly to sluice gates.

The King was eager to see that Southampton could not be raided again so easily by the French and Genoese. On 20th March 1339, Stephen de Bitterle was commissioned to:

‘find all necessary timber, and governors were appointed with a special view to the fortification of the town and the reassurance of the inhabitants.’ Victoria County History of Hampshire.

This was followed by a writ of enclosure in 1340 and grants to the burgesses of the town from customs duties were issued into the mid-1350s. Work was still noted as needing to be done in the 1380s though.

The Hundred Years War website

Naval Planning in the Hundred Years War. Part One, an introduction to English considerations
Securing England’s Deep Water Ports. Naval Planning Part Two

English Port’s on the Continent. Naval Planning, Part Three

Naval Strategy, 1340

Dan Moorhouse

Dan Moorhouse graduated in History and Politics and has since undertaken postgraduate studies in Medieval History and Education. Dan is a member of the Royal Historical Society and has previously been a member of the Historical Association’s Secondary Education Committee. Dan’s early publishing was in the Secondary School History Education field. This included co-authoring the Becta Award shortlisted Dynamic Learning: Medicine Through Time series for Hodder Murray and contributing to the Bafta Award winning Smallpox Through Time documentary series by

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