Protecting Merchant Shipping in the Hundred Years War

Protection of Merchant Shipping

The English treasury relied on duties charged on goods coming through English ports. It was the subsidies on items such as wool, granted by parliament, which were the primary source of income for the crown. Each of England’s main ports had customs officials, with other ports having mechanisms for the collection of taxes.

Protecting these ports had always been important. They had huge economic significance and were also of military importance. Prior to the Hundred Years War there had been the risk of piracy at sea, some opportunistic raids, smuggling, and some had witnessed naval assaults as recently as the Despenser Wars.

Naval Considerations: Part One an Introduction to Maritime matters c1336, Part Two  Defending England’s Deep Water Ports, Part Three England’s continental ports, Part Four Planning for Naval Superiority in the Hundred Years War, Part Five Protecting Merchant Shipping

Keeping maritime trade routes open was a priority from the outset of the wars with France. Edward III entered conflict with France at a time when England’s finances were not in decent shape. Along with loans and customs duties, he also intended to utilise goods, especially wool, as a form of payment for his continental allies.

It was this trade that saw the war spark into life. The Battle of Arnemuiden saw the French fleet intercept an English Wool shipment that was intended to pay Edward’s allies. The French victory was quickly followed up with raids on major ports. Exploiting weaknesses in England’s navy and coastal defences, they raided Southampton weeks later, destroying much of the infrastructure at the port. Other raids followed, all aimed at causing as much damage as possible to the English merchant fleet.

Battle of Arnemuiden
Battle of Arnemuiden

The damage to merchant shipping is made clear by the losses by no less than the King himself because of the October 1338 raid on Southampton:

“To the treasurer and barons of the exchequer. Order to allow Michael Mynyot, late the king’s butler, 192 tuns of wine, as the king lately caused a certain number of tuns of wine to be purveyed by him at Southampton, and part to be laded in ships there to be taken to the king to parts beyond the sea; and afterwards at his suit showing that a quantity of the wine had been plundered and consumed by alien enemies who invaded the town and stayed some time there and that part of the wine remained after the departure of the enemies and was carried away by the men of the town, the king appointed Edmund de la Beche, the abbot of King’s Beaulieu, and Robert Daundele to take an inquisition on the matter by men of co. Southampton, and by the inquisition taken by Edmund and Robert, it is found that on Monday after Michaelmas last Michael had 194 tuns of red wine at that town, purveyed for the king’s use by Peter Pageham, supplying his place, whereof 152 tuns were loaded in a ship called ‘la Nicholas’ of Great Yarmouth, to be taken to the king, and that 42 tuns were in divers houses of the town and that the said wine was plundered by the king’s enemies who invaded the town on that day and burned it on the following Tuesday, except two tuns of the wine, which remained in the town after their departure and came into the hands of Robert Rypon, Peter’s serjeant; and now Michael has besought the king to order the lost tuns to be allowed to him”. CCR Edward III 1339 – 1341 p 143

Protecting the fleet, like the ports, became a priority. Some cargoes such as wine were brought in convoys. This was a longstanding arrangement designed to ward off pirates and to enable some assistance at sea to any ailing vessel. Throughout the Hundred Years War, this arrangement continued. At times when the French, or her allies, presented a risk to ships in the west, these vessels were at times accompanied by warships, carried fighting men, and to protect their interests ship owners increasingly turned to purchases or loans of cannon as the technology became more widely available. Records from ports show that arms were loaned to merchants, with gunpowder based weapons becoming more prevalent in the 15th century.

Aerial view of the Port of the Moon in 1899
Aerial view of the Port of the Moon in 1899


Trade with Bordeaux was also aided at times by land conquests. As has already been shown, the addition of ports in Brittany was of immense value, as was any truce in Poitou. It meant that the coastline from Mont-Saint-Michel to Bordeaux was in friendly hands, significantly reducing the risk of being attacked at sea by French warships. This, however, was not always the case, as control of these lands fluctuated and French and Castillian vessels dominated the Bay of Biscay for large periods of the conflict. Safety in numbers, and additional military support at sea, was the only practical solution to this: though chance also played a role, the enemy had to sight the convoys to engage them which could be averted through sailing further off the coast and hoping that the fleet was not observed.

The other major route for English merchant vessels were to the north of French territories. This was one of the main reasons why Edward III was eager to take and hold the port of Calais. It had military value, but also enabled English ships to dock at a port with strong defences. The location was ideal. Calais, situated in the Straights of Dover, could be accessed quickly by vessels departing from London, or any of the ports along the English coastline in this stretch of water. Vessels crossing at this part of the Channel could see both coasts for most of the journey on a bright day. So too could they see any enemy vessel. Evasive actions could be taken. Support could be sent from either side of the channel. If the English maintained naval dominance of this stretch of water, which they did for most of the war, then trade via Calais was able to continue with few interruptions.

This link could also be used to channel funds into the treasury and metals into the mint. The revenues that the treasury earned via the Calais Staple could simply be used to maintain and improve defences or invest in warships and maritime military technologies. This simple method of paying for the cost of dominating this busy waterway was exploited to its fullest. At various times, the rules stated that all wool exports south of the Humber had to be delivered via Calais. It increased tax revenue in doing so. When the treasury was short of precious metals with which to strike new coins, a regulation was introduced that required payments to be made in coins, rather than credit, at Calais, thus providing the Calais Mint with an ongoing source of metals to melt down and convert into English currency.

The use of Calais was not without its problems. The monopoly created friction with Flemish merchants who at times were forced to dock in Calais rather than their home ports. It increased their costs, reduced their profits, and became a diplomatic problem on occasions. The balancing act was reasonably successfully maintained from the capture of Calais throughout the wars with France.

Other English merchants also faced threats because of the Hundred Years War. Scotland was an ally of the French for much of the conflict. English merchants sailing to northern Europe faced the risk of being intercepted by Scottish vessels. This risk led to Newcastle and Hull becoming important points of departure. It allowed, where possible, for ships to travel in groups rather than alone. And as both ports had well equipped fortifications, it allowed for them to be used as a safe haven, or as a place where merchants could procure or loan weapons for the protection of their ships.

What may appear to be extraordinary is that throughout the entire period of 1337 to 1453 there was no centralised plan for the protection of merchant shipping routes. Most ships were reliant upon their captains’ initiatives, or locally designed schemes, to improve security for commercial merchant shipping. Perhaps ironically, this began to change almost as soon as the French had proven victorious in Normandy and continued to do so following the fall of Bordeaux in 1453: In 1454 Richard duke of York petitioned for ‘substantial provision [to be] made in all haste possible for the keeping of the sea… so that your subjects may have free passage to and from the said town of Calais’. It was followed by alterations to the way that the Calais Garrison and fleet was financed, stabilising a situation that had seen payments being late and the garrison mutinying.

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

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