Eustace The Monk

Famous French Corsairs:

Eustace The Monk - (c. 1170 – 24 August 1217)

One of the first and most notable French "corsairs”, was Eustace The Monk, who served England and later France during the First Barons’ War.

The Romance of Eustace the Monk, originally written in the Picard dialect in 1284, is a verse drama which tells the story of one of the 13th century’s most colourful characters. The episodic tale of Eustace’s adventures is clearly fictional, but Eustace really did exist, and his history is quite extraordinary.

Eustace’s fictional account, written in classic picaresque style, has sections with titles such as ‘Eustace disguises himself as a mackerel seller’ and ‘Eustace pretends to be a bird’, but the final pay-off line probably approaches the real truth about the monkish anti-hero. As Eustace meets his gruesome end, the unknown author of the romance writes: ‘No one can live for a long time who has bad intentions all his days.’

The actual Eustace, was the son of ‘Baduins Buskes’, a peer of Boulogne, who is ofren referred to as “i.chevaliers de Boulenois”.

In early accounts of Eustace’s life it is reported that he studied the black arts, so successfully in Toledo, that no one in France could equal him. While most likely more of an exaggeration than the truth, the chronicler of the Histoire des Ducs de Normandie in Eustace’s own day claimed, “No one would believe the marvels he accomplished, nor those which happened to him many times.”

He is generally described as a Benedictine monk in the Abbey of Samer, and the anonymous Chronicle of Laon, speaks of Eustace as from “a black monk becoming a demoniac”. While most likely the accounts of his dark life as a demonic “Black Monk” is purely apocryphal, it is known that he gained a reputation for using bad language and gambling.

It appears that his shift toward the "darkside" began about 1190, when Eustace’s father was murdered. Matthew Paris and several other chroniclers state that Eustace left the monastery to demand justice from the Count of Boulogne against the murder of his father and to pursue Hainfrois de Heresinghen, the alleged murderer.

The two men ultimately fought a duel, but they both took the less than courageous precaution of nominated champions to represent them. Hainfrois’ man won the day, and as a result his master, the alleged murder was declared innocent.

Eustace, after losing the appeal, went into the service of Count Renaud de Dammartin, of Boulogne, in the capacity of seneschal. It is believed, that Hainfrois de Hersinghen, who had slain Eustace’s father, convinced the Count at length to turn against Eustace. The two quarrelled and, Count Renaud de Dammartin, accused of mishandling his stewardship.

Eustace appealed his plight to a court of peers, and claimed his innocence, but eventually he took fright and fled. Thereupon, the count delcared that his flight was an admission of guilt and seized his property, declared him an outlaw and burned his fields; Eustace in return swore that this wrong would cost  the Count “ten thousands marks”.

Eustace had fled into the Forest of Boulonnais and began to wage a war of revenge against the Count. He engaged in a series of Guerrilla like attacks against the count in retribution, in a "Robin Hood" like manner. 

When the Count eventually allied himself with France, Eustace feared persecution and retribution by the state, and left for England, to join the service of King John.

John gave Eustace command of thirty ships at the start of his assignment. This employment involved Eustace and his brothers raiding the Normandy coast and establishing bases in the Channel Islands (he and his men held Castle Cornet in Guernsey for a considerable period) as an English privateer.

“John very early in his reign asserted the dominion of England over the sea, by enacting, that if any of the commanders of his fleets should meet with ships of a foreign nation at sea, the matters of which refused to strike the royal flag, such ships, if taken, should be deemed lawful prizes, even though they belonged to a state in amity with England”

[The Naval History Of Britain; from the earliest times to the rise of parliament in 1779. Vol. 1 By Frederic Hervey. (1779) P.89]

According to the Histoire des Ducs de Normandie, Eustace had done so well that John granted him the Channel islands, and a “palais” and plot of land in Winchelsea.

But Eustace the Monk, wasn’t satisified just with the rewards from the Normandy raids, and he began to set his sights on both sides, raiding not only the French shipping but English coastal villages, and King John briefly outlawed him, but soon afterwards issued a pardon because he needed his services.

Although John needed Eustaces’ help, in 1212,Eustace's old enemy Renaud de Dammartin, broke with the king of France and allied himself with John and in doing so turned John's mind against Eustace. This forced Eustace to flee to France, and a passage from the Annals of Dunstaple (1212) reads:

“… There came… the count of Bloulogne. And the king Of France took all the ships of England which came to his land; and therefore the king of England took many towns of the of the Cinque Ports. And then Eustace, the pirate, called the Monk, fled from us to the king of France with five galleys because the count of Boulogne laid snares for him.” Annales Monastici, iii. 34

The first barons’ war was a civil war that broke out in England in 1215 over the failure of King John to honour the terms of the Magna Carta. The Barons of the Cinque-Ports offered the throne to Prince Louis, son of Philip II Augustus of France. Eustace supported the rebel barons and under a French license, ferried Prince Louis of France across the Channel to help them in 1216.

King John died in October 1216, and with his death the rebels lost much of their support, as the supporters of the nine year old Henry III gained ground. Henry III, was a king at only ten years of age, and as such, the Earle of Pembroke was appointed regent during the kings minority. The Earl fought a decisive battle against the rebellion and forced the retreat of Louis of France to London. Louis needed reinforcements and new supplies in his London stronghold, and the French made several abortive attempts to re-supply him, as one account describes: “one night the French came before Dover where they were to proceed at anchor; and on the morrow when they thought to proceed to the mouth of the Thames, a storm arose with a rough sea and drove them back upon Bolougne and Flanders and caused them great distress”

The French fleet was finally able to sail in fair weather from Calais on St Bartholomew's Day (August 24) 1217, led by Eustace the Monk and Robert de Courtenai. Though the ships were equipped by Eustace the Monk, command of the knights and soldiers was held by Robert of Courtenai.

Eustace's own vessel, the Great Ship of Bayonne led the French squadron, and on it was loaded a treasure destined for Louis from his father Phillip. Ironically, Robert de Courtenai held the top command while Eustace served as his deputy. Ralph de la Tourniele and William des Barres were third and fourth in command, respectively. All told, there were 36 knights on the flagship. The next three troopships were commanded by Mikius de Harnes, William V of Saint-Omer, and the Mayor of Boulogne. Altogether, the first four ships, including the flagship, contained between 100 and 125 knights. Men-at-arms manned the remaining six troopships. There were 70 smaller vessels which carried supplies. All eleven troopships were overloaded, particularly the flagship which carried a large trebuchet and horses destined for Prince Louis.

Serving as Louis’ admiral, Eustace is described as being as formidable foe, being “endowed with a diabolical ingenuity in working havoc among his former friends the English.” Eustace the Monk, is renowned for leading the French navy, in the Battle Of Sandwich, in 1217. The conflict is notable as it involves the first known example of English sailing tactics being used in a large scale naval battle.

Due to the delays experienced by the French in sailing from Calais, the English had been given time to prepare for the invasion, assembling a fleet of about forty sail from the Cinque Ports, under the command of Hubert de Burgh, governor of Dover-castle in Sandwich, Kent.

Eustace eventually met the English off the coast of Sandwich. Not only were they outnumbered, the English ships were generally smaller than the French, except for a substantial cog (ship) provided by the Earl of Pembroke, who was persuaded to stay ashore. But, the English on this occasion, supplied their defect in number of ships and men, by superior address, and a more skilful management of their force.

The English, who had recovered Sandwich from Louis' forces, determined to let the French armada pass by before attacking. When the French sailed past Sandwich, de Burgh's fleet issued from the port after the French fleet, which sailed in close order toward the Thames estuary,  and held the windward position at first. De Burgh's ship, which was in the lead, lunged at the French in a feint attack, but veered away when threatened. Against the advice of his admiral Eustace, the overconfident Robert of Courtenay ordered the French to attack and pursuit De Burgh. As the French shortened sail, the English ships gained the windward position and attacked. Meanwhile, de Burgh's flagship sailed independently to attack the French from the rear, eventually capturing two French vessels. The main thrust of the English fleet first attacked the French transports, and by gaining wind of them, ran them down, and sunk the vessels with all on board; whilst, with their long bows, they galled the enemy in their ships of war. To prevent the French from boarding them, they strewed large quantities of lime upon their decks, and with the wind blowing fresh, it carried full force in the faces of their enemies who were blinded not able to maintain the fight.

Early in the battle, the French flagship had engaged Richard Fitz-John's ship. As more English ships came up, they joined the fight against the flagship, while the other French ships maintained their tight formation, but failed to assist their flagship that was now being besieged.

Pembroke's cog and Fitz-John's ship grappled Eustace's flagship, one on each side. After a one-sided melee, Robert of Courtenai and the French knights were captured for ransom, while the French sailors and common soldiers were massacred. Eustace, dragged from his hiding place in the bilge, offered to pay 10,000 marks as ransom. Though his very high price was tempting, Fitz-John and the other English leaders considered Eustace a turncoat and a pirate because of his previous employment by King John, in the service of England. Marked for execution by the enraged English, Eustace was tied down and a man named Stephen Crabbe struck off his head with one blow.

The French fleet was soundly defeated, and with their flagship taken, the French fleet headed back to Calais. Encouraged, the English attacked, using ramming, grappling, and rigging-cutting to disable the enemy vessels. The nine surviving troopships got away, but most of the smaller vessels fell prey to the English mariners. As few as 15 ships escaped from the rampaging English. The French troopships owed their deliverance to their train of supply vessels because the English turned aside to plunder the smaller craft. The French sailors were slaughtered or thrown into the Channel, except for two or three men on each captured vessel who were spared.

The defeat at sea was decisive, for Louis was then immediately besieged in London, whilst the English fleet blocked up the Thames. In this situation reduced to extremity, he entered a treaty with the earl of Pembroke, where he renounced all his rights to the kingdom of England.