Battle of La Rochelle
The naval Battle of La Rochelle took place on 22 and 23 June 1372 between a Castilian fleet commanded by the Castilian Almirant Ambrosio Boccanegra and an English convoy commanded by John Hastings, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. The Castilian fleet had been sent to attack the English at La Rochelle, which was being besieged by French forces. Besides Boccanegra, other Castilian commanders were Cabeza de Vaca, Fernando de Peón and the Basque Ruy Díaz de Rojas.
Pembroke had been dispatched to the town with a small retinue of 160 soldiers and instructions to recruit an army of 3,000 soldiers around Aquitaine. The strength of the Castilian fleet is estimated as between the 12 galleys given by the Castilian chronicler and naval captain López de Ayala and the 40 sailing ships and 13 barges mentioned by the French chronicler Jean Froissart, while the English convoy probably consisted of 20 vessels, of which just 3 were escort warships with towers; the other 17 are believed to have been small barges of about 50 tons.
The Castilians used their superior number of ships and fighting men to overwhelm the English. The victory was complete and the entire convoy was captured. On his return to the Iberian Peninsula, Boccanegra seized four additional English ships. However, the English recovery was swift, and the following year saw a resurgence of English naval power along the French coast.
In 1372 the English monarch Edward III planned an important campaign in Aquitaine under the newly appointed lieutenant of the Duchy, the Earl of Pembroke. He contracted to serve a year in the duchy with a retinue of 24 knights 55 squires and 80 archers besides another companies led by Sir Hugh Calveley and Sir John Devereux, who finally did not serve or did not appear. Pembroke received instructions to recruit a host of 500 knight, 1,500 squires and 1,500 archers after his arrival in France. One of Edward's clerks, John Wilton, was appointed to accompany the Earl with a large amount of money to pay the troops.
The Earl of Pembroke, his retinue and Wilton embarked at Plymouth aboard a transport fleet which was unprepared for serious engagement. The Castilian chronicler Pero López de Ayala estimated that this fleet had 36 ships,whereas the chronicler of the French court estimated it to be 35. Jean Froissart, in one of his two descriptions of the battle, put the English force on 'perhaps' 14 ships. A fleet of 20 vessels is considered a creditable force. As most of them were small transports, Sir Philip Courtenay, the Admiral of the West, was detached to escort them with 3 ships with large tonnage and towers utilizable by archers.
The English rule in Aquitaine was by then under threat. Since 1370 large parts of the region had fallen under French rule and in 1372 Bertrand du Guesclin lay siege at La Rochelle. To respond to the demands of the Franco-Castilian alliance of 1368, the king of Castile, Henry II of Trastámara, dispatched a fleet to Aquitaine under Ambrosio Boccanegra, who was seconded by Cabeza de Vaca, Fernando de Peón and Rui Díaz de Rojas. The size of this fleet is also uncertain. According to López de Ayala, is was composed of 12 galleys. Froissart, in his first relation, mentioned 40 sailing ships and 13 barges, but later reduced this numbers to 13 galleys. Quatre Premiers Valois and Chronique des Pays-Bas mention respectively 20 and 22 galleys.
On 22 June the English convoy arrived at La Rochelle and the battle began as Pembroke's ships approached the harbour. This lay at the head of an inlet which was partially unnavigable at low water. The first Castilian attacks met strong resistance. The English, despite the inferiority of their numbers, defended themselves well. At dusk, when the tide rose, the two fleets separated. Though they had lost two or four vessels, according to Froissart, the English were not yet defeated. Pembroke then withdrew some way from land, while Boccanegra anchored in front of La Rochelle. The Chronicle Quatre Premiers Valois, unlike López de Ayala and Froissart, implies that only some skirmishes took place on the first day, as Boccanegra would have ordered his galleys to withdraw, reserving them for the main action. According to this chronicle, the anchoring sites were reversed: the English off the town and the Castilians on the open sea.
Froissart described a discussion between Pembroke and his men during the night of 22–23 June regarding how to escape the trap. An attempt to escape under the cover of the night was dismissed due to the fear of the Castilian galleys, as well as another to enter La Rochelle because of the low draft of the passage. In the end, the low tide left the English ships aground. When the fight resumed on the morning of the 23rd, the Castilians managed to set fire to some of them by spraying oil on their decks and rigging and then igniting it with flaming arrows. Many of the English were killed or burned alive, while other surrendered, among them Pembroke. The Castilian naval historian Cesáreo Fernández Duro claims that the English prisoners amounted to 400 knights and 8,000 soldiers, without counting the slain. Estimates in English chronicles speak of about 1,500 casualties, 800 deaths and between 160 and 400 prisoners. The whole fleet was destroyed or captured and £12,000 fell into Castilian hands. The English defeat appeared inevitable because of the major inequality in strength.
The battle of La Rochelle was the first important English naval defeat of the Hundred Years' War. Its effect upon the course of the war was significant: La Rochelle was lost on the 7th of September. Its capture was followed during the second half of the year by nearly all of Poitou, Angoumois and Saintonge, which Bertrand du Guesclin cleared of English garrisons. Some authors claim that the battle cost England its naval supremacy along the French coast, but others disagree, though asserting that England's naval policy had become misguided. The projected resources to support John of Gaunt's claims to the Castilian throne were largely suspended, while a great expedition under Edward III himself had to be suspended because of contrary winds.
Within a year the English fleet had been rebuilt through the efforts of fourteen different towns. In April 1373 a powerful force under William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, set sail for Portugal. It was commanded by Admirals Neville and Courtenay, and divided in two divisions, the first consisting of 15 ships and 9 barges, and the second, 12 ships and 9 barges, in all 44 fighting vessels. Other ships and barges joined the large concentration and, by July, Salisbury had 56 ships crewed by 2,500 sailors and an army of 2,600 soldiers. This campaign of 1373 was successful, seeing, amongst other events, the burning of a Castilian merchant convoy at Saint-Malo.
- Fernández Duro 1894, p. 130
- Sherborne/Tuck 1994, p. 42
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- Harriss 2006, p. 410
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