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A 15th century painting of the Battle of Sluys

5 most important medieval naval battles

The Battle of Sluys by Jean Froissart

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Warfare in the Middle Ages wasn’t just about land-based clashes of cavalry riders and infantrymen. Away from all those blood-drenched battlefields, equally decisive skirmishes took place on the high seas. Here are five medieval naval battles that you need to know.

1. The Battle of Dover 

A century and a half after the Norman Conquest, another invasion of England was mounted. This time, the would-be conqueror was Prince Louis of France, who in 1216 succeeded in taking London, proclaiming himself king of England. But English forces fought back with aplomb, and Louis needed reinforcements from across the Channel to continue his campaign. 

French troops, horses and even a siege catapult were packed onto French ships which headed England’s way on 24th August 1217. But they were met by an English fleet commanded by nobleman Hubert de Burgh, and the ensuing Battle of Dover (also known as the Battle of Sandwich) was a bloodbath.

Ships rammed into ships, sailors hacked into each other in close-quarters fighting, and one of the leaders of the French fleet was seized and beheaded by the furious English. The battle was a stunning victory for de Burgh, who proved himself the Admiral Nelson of his day and helped end Prince Louis’ hopes of making England his realm.

2. The Battle of Sluys 

The first major confrontation of the Hundred Years’ War was a naval battle. It took place on 24th June 1340 at the port of Sluys in the modern-day Netherlands, with England’s Edward III personally leading a fleet into battle against the French. Edward had defied the advice of some senior advisors by undertaking the expedition, saying ‘Those who are afraid can stay at home’. He was now determined to rendezvous with continental allies against the French, and the French were determined to stop him. 

To block the inlet, the French decided to lash their ships together in rows using ropes and chains. This was a catastrophic strategy, as it allowed the English to attack enemy ships a few at a time while the rest of the French fleet was trapped haplessly behind them.  

It was an all-out slaughter for the French – tens of thousands were killed or drowned, and the two French leaders were beheaded and hanged, respectively. The victory gave the English dominance of the Channel, and it was a major propaganda win so early in the Hundred Years’ War.

3. The Battle of Zonchio 

Between 1499 and 1503, the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice were mired in a war over contested territories. One of its pivotal episodes was the Battle of Zonchio, which unfolded over four days in the Ionian Sea.  

The protracted battle took place in August 1499 and saw the Venetian fleet hugely outnumbered by the Ottomans. What’s more, Antonio Grimani, the leader of the Venetian forces, was more a businessman than a naval commander, having never before overseen a large-scale naval battle fleet. 

The lack of decisive leadership from Grimani doomed the Venetians from the start. As cannons boomed, guns fired, arrows flew and smoke filled the air, the Venetian command structure broke down, with orders unheeded and their strategies in disarray. Grimani returned home in disgrace, but – being a canny political operator – went on to become the Doge of Venice.

4. The Battle of Malta 

Malta’s scenic Grand Harbour was the site of a major naval confrontation during the War of the Sicilian Vespers – a complex and long-running conflict between various European powers that took place in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.  

On 8th July 1283, the fleet of the Angevin Kingdom of Naples faced off against the fleet of the Kingdom of Aragon – the latter being commanded by Roger of Lauria, who has gone down as one of the greatest (and most ruthless) naval tacticians of the entire medieval period. Lauria certainly proved his worth in this battle, cunningly telling his men to take shelter within their upper decks and allow the Angevins to barrage them with their lances and arrows without replying in kind. 

Then, once the Angevins had used up much of their ammunition, Lauria signalled to attack, his men slamming crossbow bolts into the enemy forces. This paved the way for a close-quarters battle, with the Aragonians taking the upper hand and massacring thousands of Angevins. The defeat derailed the Angevin plans to invade Sicily and led to a further Lauria victory at the Battle of the Gulf of Naples the following year.

5. The Battle of Meloria 

The great rival republics of Genoa and Pisa were embroiled in armed conflict for large stretches of the medieval period. Things came to a head for Pisa with the Battle of Meloria, which took place in August 1284, and turned out to be a decisive loss for the republic. 

Their respective galleys met by the islet of Meloria in the Ligurian Sea. While an archbishop was blessing the Pisan fleet ahead of the battle, the cross on his staff fell off. It was an ominous sign, but the Pisans felt confident about victory, ramming their ships into the Genoese fleet.  

However, the Genoese had cleverly separated their galleys into two lines, with the second one strategically placed far enough in the distance to lull the Pisans into a false sense of security. When these extra ships sailed into the scene, it sealed the fate of the Pisans, who suffered thousands of casualties. The defeat signalled the terminal decline of Pisa as a maritime power.