Sandwich, one of the Cinque Ports, was the scene of a great naval battle, in which were employed weapons and tactics not of this earth.
Herbert Wells, pioneer of science-fiction, was a Kentishman (at least by contemporary reckoning – his birthplace of Bromley has since been swallowed by Greater London), which is appropriate, for one of the earliest stories to involve invisibility is set in Kent, or rather just off the Kentish coast. It occurred during the first Barons’ War, when King John’s opponents amongst the English nobility invited the heir to the throne of France, Louis, to liberate them from their tyrannical ruler by invading their country and seizing the Crown. John’s death in 1216, passing the throne to his nine-year-old son Henry III, rendered the French invasion superfluous but Prince Louis still wanted to finish what he started. An attempt to capture Dover Castle failed, forcing him to retreat to London and appeal to his homeland for supplies and reinforcements. A fleet was dispatched but was waylaid by the English off Sandwich.
The year was 1217. The day was the twenty-fourth of August, the feast of Saint Bartholomew, to which intercessor the citizens of Sandwich poured out their prayers. They had good reason to feel apprehensive. An earlier French raid had left them with only three ships to pit against a whole fleet. Worse than that, however, was the terror inspired by the name of the French commander.
Eustace was a former inmate of Saumur Abbey but the death of his father, a landed nobleman, had drawn him into public affairs. Neither the contemplative life nor the respectable life, however, suited him and he became a pirate, marauding the English Channel and offering his services to anyone willing to pay for them. He had worked for King John in the past but now the English had been out-bidden by the French whose fleet Eustace was leading to London.
He was still known as “Eustace the Monk” with conscious irony. In France the man had led the dissolute life of an outlaw and the stories of his atrocities were legion. Mutilation of his enemies (or their servants) was not beneath him and neither was bisexuality when he needed to get his way with a guard or two. Worst of all, however, was the rumour that his ecclesiastical education had not been entirely wasted. He could read Latin and Latin, as everyone knew, was magic. The right words, uttered in the right way, could turn bread and wine into flesh and blood, cancel sins or banish a ghost – but they could perform less beneficent works as well, and Eustace had mastered the diabolical arts to aid his piratical enterprises. The citizenry shook their clasped hands and kissed their beads with trembling lips, as they begged God and Saint Bartholomew to spare them from whatever masterpiece of darkness the Devil’s coenobite had contrived.
Their prayers were answered in the person of Stephen Crabbe, a seasoned sailor and former pupil of Eustace in witchcraft. He re-assured the people of the town that he was familiar with their foes’ sorcery, so they gave him command of their three ships and he sailed out to meet the French.
To the alarm of the English sailors, the French seemed to have no flagship. They could see the position in the sea that the flagship would normally have taken but it was not there. Crabbe seemed unconcerned by this but he did, at regular intervals, raise a blue crystal to his face and observe the French through it. At his direction, the English ships turned against the wind and the topmen opened barrels of quicklime. The yellow powder blew across the ocean, blinding the French crews. The English boarded their enemies’ ships and began fighting hand-to-hand.
Crabbe, meanwhile, with that strange blue crystal constantly before his face, directed his own ship towards what appeared to be empty space and, drawing his sword, let forth a war-cry. He leapt into the air and, to the breathless astonishment of his sailors, he stayed there, slashing and parrying with no one and jumping about, ten feet above the surface of the sea. He was still watching his movements through the blue crystal, forcing him to fight whomsoever he was fighting with one hand, until, with a glorious huzzah, he sliced his sword through the air and threw the crystal aside.
The French flagship materialized around him, as did the decapitated body of Eustace the Monk, whose head, his face still twisted with rage, tumbled over the side of the ship and splashed into the sea. The headless torso staggered back and forth for a few moments and then crumpled into defeat on the deck.
Stephen Crabbe, flush with victory, had forgotten the presence of Eustace’s crewmen. They dashed upon him to avenge their fallen master and the English, whose shoulders triumph was tapping, could only watch as their valiant and cunning commander disappeared under a mêlée of swords and Frenchmen.
Victory had turned to defeat – only to turn back into victory again. A tempest crashed down from Heaven and overturned the French ships, though leaving the English unharmed, who saw Saint Bartholomew himself in the midst of the storming fury. In gratitude, the English built a chapel and chantry in his name but the apostle’s intervention was not entirely to their advantage: the storm caused the silting up of the Stour, putting Sandwich two miles from the coast and terminating its maritime importance.
The most extraordinary thing about the above story is that it really did happen, although not entirely in the manner described. The French fleet, going to London to relieve Prince Louis, was tricked into sailing towards Sandwich by a few fishing boats, who deliberately sailed towards the French and then scurried back to port, temptingly. The novel deployment of quicklime is factual as well but the English actually had nearly forty ships and the legend also distorts the true roles of the participants. The commander of the English fleet was not Stephen Crabbe but Hubert de Burgh, Justiciar of the Realm, Earl of Kent and mastermind of the fishing-boat ruse. His lieutenants were Philip d’Aubigny and Richard FitzRoy, John’s bastard son.
The real commander of the French fleet was Robert of Courtenay, son (and successor) of the Latin Emperor of Constantinople. Eustace was, however, his lieutenant and had actually tried to dissuade him from pursuing Hubert de Burgh, correctly suspecting a trap. Eustace was much feared by sailors in the English Channel. The attribution of magic powers was a dignity routinely accorded to feared and seemingly invincible enemies.
The fates of the two protagonists were also altered for literary effect. In reality, Eustace was captured alive and beheaded on the rail of his ship by Stephen Crabbe, a native of Winchelsea and a fellow privateer who had served under Eustace in the past. Rather than dying in the hour of victory (a romantic cliché), Crabbe was still in the Crown’s employ in 1225.
Although contemporary accounts of the battle are perfectly sober, a more fantastical version was told around a hundred years after the event by John of Canterbury in his Polistorie. It became part of Sandwich folklore and subsequent generations have adjusted it even further, using it to explain how the former seaside town had become landlocked (actually the result of natural processes).
What is true, however, is that a chapel was built, attached to the pre-extant hospital of Saint Bartholomew, in commemoration of the battle. To this day, on that saint’s feast, children of the town run around the chapel, to be rewarded with biscuits and buns, remembering the day when divine intervention saved their town and their country from that most abominable and diabolical of foes: the French.