History Lives: The French Raid on Southampton, 1338

This is one in a series of History Lives: a piece of creative writing based on historical accuracy which aims to put the reader in the shoes of the people that experienced it first-hand. If you'd like to find more in this series, visit the History Lives index page. 

The hush of the sea laps calmly onto the muddy silt, the sweet sting of salt on the air. Along the edges of the town, men stand nervously in the mid-afternoon chill, squinting their eyes into the distance to ready themselves for what they know is coming. The warning went up an hour ago, torches lit at regular points along the town's coast, summoning men to gather what weapons and tools they could at short notice and stand in defence of their town. A clamber of church bells pealed in a warning to the town to ready themselves for attack. Local townspeople of all trades, lined up with archers and some wearing armour - a hundred and fifty of them, all eyes fixed intently on the menacing ships floating into view on the water beyond. Their sails were set against a grey, cloudy late afternoon autumn sky; it would soon be dark. 

But this was not a full scale military invasion. Eight galley ships, led by the French Admiral and consisting of French and Genoese navy, with one thing on their mind: focused devastation. 

The English king, Edward III, had been embarking on a war with France, and this expedition aimed to damage the royal coffers financially, hinder Southampton's revenues as an important trading centre and exert bullying tactics, to show the young 25-year old, bearded king the force of the combined French and Italian navy. They had done the same just months before in Portsmouth, another completely undefended - but important - port town of Edward's. 

The large wooden galleys containing around 300 men each, their sails ballooning in the wind, came to a stop just outside the western end of the town. Out poured thousands of raiders, stumbling up onto the narrow, uphill streets of Bugle Street, Cuckoo Lane and the Western end of the town, where there were gaps in the town's defensive walls. They clashed with locals at first, a rain of arrows falling onto them from above, but on seeing that the odds were against them many dropped their weapons with a clatter and fled. Raiders violently smashed wooden doors to the Merchant's storerooms that lined the western town, stealing wine, wool and other goods. Some carried what they could back to the ships - others, the vast majority - ran into the town, killing and violating the townspeople where they went. The language of the French and Genoese - and some Spanish - mingled in the tense air with locals' screams, shouts and pleas for mercy. Dogs barked. Children cried. The dull thump and crack of wooden doors being broken down and the tinny crackle of broken glass filled the town over the familiar screech of the odd seagull.

The Norman church of St Michael, its steeple proud and resolute against the grimy sky, contrasted with the chaos of the scene within. The heavy wooden doors of the church had been locked. Inside, the town's wealthiest inhabitants prayed with common men, women and children who had fled there, hoping the raiders would bend to the ancient custom of sanctuary. Some mentally added up their worth - money, silver and jewels - in case it could be used to bargain for their lives, others kneeling and praying within the whitewashed walls, amidst wooden pews, tombs and images of Christ. Mothers in plain, ankle-length tunics, their long hair braided on the top of their heads and covered by linen hoods, calmed the cries from frightened children, shushing them and trying not to show them the fear within their own eyes. But despite their prayers, they were not to be saved. The raiders broke into the church, where the people were now trapped, killing indiscriminately. They had come to cause destruction to this internationally-important port town and they would leave satisfied. 

As darkness fell, the raid continued: some townspeople had run to neighbouring areas to try and escape the rampage inflicted near the port. Messengers rode, galloping fiercely out of the town for help, but it would be slow to arrive. Casualties had fallen on both sides, but the raiders that still stood continued to loot warehouses, homes, churches and ale houses. They took silver and money, and anything else they thought worth taking, including some unlucky captive Southampton locals and - in one bitter display of arrogance - the town's seals, that were used in tax collection.

In the early hours of the morning, with what was left of families in disarray among the town, smoke choked the chilly air as the burning started. Reinforcements from neighbouring garrisons had finally started to arrive and, trapped by the ebb and flow of the tides, the raiders needed to create a diversion to escape. Some fought with the soldiers, and lost their lives - and others set about burning buildings, one a small alehouse on Bugle Street. They set fire to the churches and looted the vaults of the castle, which was not strongly defended. Another house on French Street is stacked inside with wooden doors, barrels and cloth and then set alight, the crackling of the flame casting a flickering, jumping shadow on the surrounding buildings. A booming crash and a fountain of tiny golden and copper splinters signal the building's collapse inside. 

Amongst the chaos, troops arriving into Southampton from nearby towns and villages in the early morning sun set their attempts on putting out the fire to save as many buildings as possible, to prevent its spread. But the warehouses were empty. Gallons of wine had been taken, along with vast quantities of expensive wool. Townspeople were dead, their lifeless bodies lying in the street with those of raiders'. Pieces of broken barrels, boxes and wood littered the dusty streets, along with streaks of blood. And eight galleys sailed effortlessly through the calm, murky sea, their heavy loads full and their puffed sails heading for France. 

This account is partly fictional, as we can only glean the events from tiny snippets of sources what actually did happen on that day in 1338, the rest being padded out from imagination. But I wanted to give you a sense of what it may have been like during the raid on Southampton on this October evening and the subsequent morning, as if you were there yourself. I've used events that exist in the historical record, and made the effort to be as true to accuracy as possible, with a distance of 700 years. There is some debate about when and how the events happened, but this narrative is based on the essay The French Raid of Southampton by AD Morton. You can find out more about the Raid on this post, Tracking The French Raid on Southampton in 1338. 

For more events in this series, visit the History Lives index page.