French Raid on Plymouth

In 1339 the French utilised a strategy that had worked incredibly well for them in 1338. They set out to raid English ports and coastal areas. Following the devastation caused by the raids on Portsmouth and Southampton a year earlier, they were confident that they would be able to cause considerable damage to shipping, goods, and morale. On 20th May 1339, the French fleet entered Plymouth Sound. The French Raid on Plymouth resulted in damage to ships and buildings.

Fear of a French Invasion

In 1339 the English feared an invasion by the French. Squadrons of galleys that operated around the French coast, along with Italian ones that France hired, were making their way to Normandy. An army was being gathered near French ports. England feared the worst.

Defence of the Coast

England already had many of its military assets deployed. The Council now needed to prepare for the defence of the coast. Planning for the defence of the coast was placed in the hands of the Earl of Huntingdon. As Constable of Dover, he was given oversight of the coastal defences with other nobles given commands of various parts of the coast.

Militarisation of the Solent

Large garrisons were quickly established at the main ports. Those around the Solent saw a massive military presence with large garrisons being established at Southampton, Portsmouth, Porchester and on the Isle of Wight. Hampshire was seen as the most likely landing site for the expected invasion, and so as well as defending the ports, most things of value were transported inland to Winchester.

The defences were soon tested. A large French raiding party sailed into Southampton Water on 15th May 1339. The temporary earthworks and the number of defenders made landing too perilous. They soon moved on. They chose to sail in a westerly direction, around Lands End and into the Bristol Channel, where they sank several English vessels.

French Raid on Plymouth, 20th May 1339

After attacking shipping in the Bristol channel the French fleet turned around and on 20th May were off the coast at Plymouth. Plymouth in 1339 was not as significant a port as it later became. It was, however, used as a haven in storms and times of raiding.

Surprise attack in Plymouth Sound

The French arrival caught several ships by surprise, and they found themselves trapped in the Sound. The French-Italian fleet seized these, sinking them and killing the crews. They then landed on the shore and began ransacking the houses. An English force under the Earl of Devon engaged them in a skirmish, which resulted in the raiders returning to their ships and sailing off.

The raids illustrated that shipping remained vulnerable to raids from France and her allies. Defences along the whole southern coastline would need to be improved to minimise the risk. This would be an expensive task both financially and in terms of manpower.

Further attempts to Raid Plymouth

In August 1340 French ships sailed into Plymouth Sound but opted to sail on. This fleet did land on the Isle of Wight, and once again at Portsmouth.

From 1343 the port of Plymouth saw more use for military purposes. This was due to the English involvement in the war of Breton Succession, which made Plymouth an ideal port of embarkation for campaigns there, or further south in Gascony.

Map of Plymouth and Plymouth Sound. There is no map of Plymouth at the time of the french Raid of 1339. This map shows Plymouth after some fortifications had been constructed.
Map of Plymouth and Plymouth Sound. There is no map of Plymouth at the time of the French Raid of 1339. This map shows Plymouth after some fortifications had been constructed.

Links related to the French Raid on Plymouth of May 1339

French Raid on Southampton, 1339

Naval Considerations in the Hundred Years War, context

English ports on the Continent

Defending England’s Deepwater ports

Maritime Logistics in the Hundred Years War

Defending merchant shipping

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 A former teacher, Dan now concentrates on research and writing, predominantly in Medieval English history. Books by Dan Moorhouse On this day in the Wars of the Roses On this day in the Hundred Years War

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.