As Admiral Edward Howard and his twenty-five vessel fleet rounded St. Mathieu, Brittany at around 11 o’clock, the English fleet led by the 1000 tonne Regent laid eyes upon the unprepared navies of Brittany and France. Howard had already escorted a convoy carrying English soldiers from Dorset down the coast of Brittany between 3-6 June 1512, and had then attacked the Breton coast initiating wide spread damage, and enabling him (according to Lorenzo Pasqualigo the Venetian consul in London) to capture 40 small Breton vessels.
In the Channel there were 30 large ships armed by Englishmen, which do not allow so much as a French fishing boat to put to sea without taking it. (1)
Howard retreated from Brittany in late July after a great deal of success in order to return to Portsmouth for supplies, a short visit from the king, and the reinforcement of five additional ships including the Sovereign and the newly refurbished Regent. When Howard returned to Brest on the morning of the 10th he surely would have been unsurprised that the French had reassembled a force of twenty-two ships to defend the Breton coast. N. Rodger deems this French force as ‘rather, two ill co-ordinated fleets, French and Breton.’(2) The French fleet was under the command of the Vice-Admiral René de Clermont in the 790 tonne Louise. To the English fortune, Clermont was ill-prepared for an early English arrival (expecting them several days later) and thus the force was caught in the midst of celebrating the Feast of St. Lawrence, which resulted in several officers being on land. Meanwhile, the captain of the Cordeliére, Hervé de Porzmoguer had invited his family, together with some three hundred of the local gentry and their wives to a party onboard his ship. The captain realised on the sight of the English flag that he had no choice but to fight with his passengers onboard.
Howard, catching the French off-guard, swiftly targeted the Louise in the Mary Rose and destroyed her mainmasts through its newly incorporated heavy cannons, causing even greater panic amongst Clermont’s men. In a state of panic (according to English accounts) de Clemont began to flee east towards Brest, his fleet soon followed leaving only the Breton Cordeliére and Nef de Dieppe (which was only 336 tonnes dispersed) whose brave captains refused to captivate. Some French accounts dictate that de Clement’s flagship actually remained with these two ships in order to provide cover whilst his ships retreated. However, either way the Louise soon left the field of battle, making it a fair accusation by one of his captains, Rigault de Berquetot that the vice-admiral was in fact a coward.
Abandoned by the majority of the fleet, the Breton ships refused to surrender, despite the Nef de Dieppe being confronted by no fewer than five English ships. In fact, the Nef de Dieppe was later reinforced and able to successfully escape (accounts convey that the ship astonishingly sustained itself until reinforcements arrived at 19.00). Of more significance however, was the events surrounding the Cordeliére for the mighty ship received several blows from the English fleet, including from the Mary James (which was far inferior at just 300 tonnes). This was until the newly refurbished Regent (which was the largest ship amongst both fleets) under Sir Thomas Knyvet engaged with the Breton ship. Knyvet, who was determined to use traditional naval tactics, successfully grappled the Cordeliére in attempt to board the ship and conquer it through sword and pike. In reaction, the French ship dropped her anchor and swung with the tide in order to take advantage of the weather. This was important in naval warfare where boarding was involved for it meant that any gun smoke from both handguns and artillery would drift towards the English rather than the French, establishing a clear hindrance for the English side. Yet, Knyvet was little aware that this act would lead the Regent to doom, for an explosion suddenly erupted within the Cordeliére which soon spread onto the English warship. Both vessels ceased their aggressive action, and instead of fighting the enemies, fought the flames in attempt to spare their own lives. This was unfortunately ineffective for the explosion resulted in both ships eventually plummeting to the bottom of the sea, alongside their captains and approaching 1,500 men.
News of the events soon reached England, where it was dealt with sensitively. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey wrote to Richard Foxe, the Bishop of Winchester:
the Regent captured the great carrick of Brest; but both, fouling, were burnt, and most part of the crew in them. Sir Thos. Knyvet and Sir John Carewe slain. Begs he will keep the news secret.(3)
It is uncertain what actually caused the explosion. Some accounts claim that it was an accident, caused by a random shot that landed in one of the Cordeliére magazines, whilst others claim that it was purposely implemented by Primauguet in an act of desperation.
Yet, in this writer’s opinion, it is not the tragedy of this day that results in it standing out as a significant day in history. The destruction of the Regent and the Cordeliére was a clear indication that the traditional naval tactic of grappling, boarding and capturing a ship was no longer the most superior form of warfare to initiate on the sea. The fact that on 30th April 1513 the English fleet returned to Plymouth reporting the death of Admiral Edward Howard, who was killed in a failed boarding attempt at a French galley, is another key example conveying that naval tactics required alteration; the creation of gunports and heavy muzzle-loaded artillery during the early sixteenth-century provided a path for this alteration. The Battle of St. Mathieu on 10th August 1512 stands out, for it is not only believed to be the first naval engagement where artillery had a significant role (as shown by the Mary Rose removing the Louise’s main masts), but it also stands as a pivotal point in maritime history. The tragedy of the Regent-Cordeliére marked a turning point where artillery began to take the foreground over grappling tactics, English tactics used against the Spanish Armada in 1588 illustrate that boarding was a distant technique for Elizabethan sailors. Naval vessels had altered from ships with men upon them into becoming true men-of-war.
By Benjamin Redding
A current MA Religious, Social and Cultural History 1500-1750 student whose MA dissertation will focus upon contrasting the naval expansion policies of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
(1)Lorenzo Pasqualigo to Alvise and Francesco Pasqualigo, 17 June 1512, R. Brown (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume II ( Institute of Historical Research, 1867).
(2) N. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649 (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 170.
(3) Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to Richard Foxe, 26 August 1512, R. H. Brodie (ed.), Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, volume I, part I(London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1920).
'Early Tudor developments, 1485-1520' in D. Loades, The Tudor Navy: An Administrative, Political and Military History (Great Britain: Ashgate, 1992), p. 36-74.
'Disaster off Brittany' in G. Moorhouse, Great Harry’s Navy: How Henry VIII Gave England Sea Power (Great Britain: Phoenix, 2006), p. 71-88.
'Departed Dreams, Operations 1509-1523' in N. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649 (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 164-176.