The medieval moment when England emerged from France

  • Themes: History

During the early years of the 13th century, Prince Louis, son of Philip II of France, tried to take the crown of England from a troubled and unpopular King John. The war that followed marked a crucial moment in the creation of a distinctive English identity.

The Battle of Sandwich on 24 August 1217.
The Battle of Sandwich on 24 August 1217. Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

1217: The Battles that Saved England, Catherine Hanley, Osprey, £25

Everyone’s heard of William the Conqueror’s invasion of 1066, but this wasn’t the only time during the medieval period that England suffered a major invasion. In 1215-16 Prince Louis, son of Philip II of France, brought forces across the English Channel in an attempt to wrest the throne from King John. This attack initiated a war that raged across the country for well over a year, with many of the key encounters taking place in 1217 (hence the title). In 1217: The Battles that saved England, Hanley offers a lively examination of this epic contest, while considering its broader historical implications.

The conflict was close fought and could have gone either way. Its roots lay in the discontent felt by many of England’s barons towards their king and the outbreak of rebellion in 1215. This was also the moment when they compelled John to sign Magna Carta, although the pope declared the document invalid almost immediately afterwards. Seeking supporters, the rebel barons approached Prince Louis of France offering him the throne and – being an ambitious and capable young man – he gladly accepted, sending a first wave of troops to England in the last weeks of 1215.

Louis himself arrived in May of the following year, reaching London which was already under rebel rule.  Confronted by this escalating crisis, John responded by ravaging his rebel lords’ lands in the Midlands and the north, while Louis began a long but ultimately unsuccessful siege of Dover castle. Then in October 1216 John decisively advanced the royalist cause by dying and thereby enabling his child-son Henry III to become king. No longer fighting for a tyrant, but for an innocent child ruler, the royalists began to strengthen their hand in the war of words.

In the new year, Louis returned to France seeking reinforcements, while the royalists defeated the French and rebel forces at Lincoln. A key factor determining this battle’s outcome was the determined resistance shown by the castellan of Lincoln castle, Nicola de la Haye, who held out until royalist forces could arrive.  This battle played a crucial part in the unravelling of Louis’ position, although the killer blow – ending his ambitions – was a naval encounter known as the Battle of Sandwich (August 1217). This defeat concluded with the capture or destruction of the reinforcements Louis planned to use to reinvigorate his campaign. The following month Louis made peace with the royalist leader William Marshal.

This book therefore handles a pivotal moment in the history of English-French relations, one which deserves to be better known. The cut-and-thrust of the action is ably described by Hanley who offers an insightful commentary on the evolving military situation. In particular she focuses attention on three key battles, the siege of Dover, the Battle of Lincoln, and the naval battle of Sandwich. These were all turning points in the broader war, but they also provide an opportunity for Hanley to offer expert commentary on these very different types of military encounter. Perhaps the most notable of the three is the naval encounter at Sandwich. Major naval battles were far rarer than sieges or even land battles during this era, and this clash has the conspicuous advantage of being well supplied with reasonably detailed sources. On this occasion we learn how the royalist forces secured victory firstly by securing the weather-gauge (achieved by manoeuvring into a position up-wind of their opponents) then, second, swooping down upon the French and unleashing huge quantities of powdered lime, which drifted downwind as a fog causing horrendous injuries.

Hanley offers an exciting and engaging survey to this political crisis, but she also goes further to show how the battles of 1217 reflected broader and deeper changes taking place at this time. One of these is the emerging concept of Englishness. Before this conflict, the aristocracies in the kingdom of England and the kingdom of France formed part of a broader inter-married, and inter-related ruling class. This remained broadly true after the conflict as well, but Hanley demonstrates that the war marked a shift in perception, beginning as a struggle between royalists and rebels, but increasingly becoming viewed and presented as between the English and the French.

Another major shift was the war’s impact on the practice of royal succession. Previously ambitious dynasts seeking the throne could advance their claims by various means. These might include the election by the aristocracy (part of Prince Louis’ claim) or popular acclaim. During this war, however, as Hanley shows, heredity became and remained the overriding principle – a new king needed to be the eldest legitimate son of the previous monarch.

In and among the wars, raids, councils, arguments, and disputes that fill this book, there are also many fascinating individuals whose lives shed light on many aspects of life during this era. We meet Willikin of the Weald, a local man from the south-east of England who rallied a band of archers to resist the invading French knights. He enjoyed considerable success in his guerilla-style tactics and played a significant role in wearing-down Prince Louis’ position. Historians have wondered if he was the original template for later stories about Robin Hood that emerged in later centuries. We meet Nicola de la Haye, the castellan who successfully resisted a French and rebel army despite losing her son, Richard, soon after the commencement of the siege.   We also meet the monk-turned-warrior Eustace the Monk, who fought for the highest bidder and committed many outrages on both sides of the channel. Then we also meet King John. Hanley does not seek here to try and rehabilitate John’s memory; rather she sticks to the long-held view that he was an odious and unpredictable tyrant.

Overall, there is much to praise here. Hanley has a wonderful turn-of-phrase and offers a vivid depiction of the unfolding events. Sticking close to the primary sources and drawing attention to many fascinating points of detail and asides, this is an exciting and fast-paced history that will be of particular interest to anyone wishing to find out more about medieval warfare or the kingdom of England’s development during this tumultuous era.


Nicholas Morton