Elizabeth Castle - the raid of 1406

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Elizabeth Castle:
The raid of 1406


Plan of the battle from the 1923 Annual Bulletin article

By Norman Rybot, 1934: This episode had no permanent results; but having been chronicled by an actual participant gifted with an observant eye and the power of being able to set down in writing what he saw, gives us a rare glimpse of the Islet and the Island in 1406 [1]

Don Pero Nino

Don Pero Nino, the hero of this adventure, was a Castilian captain of galleys. Born about 1378, he saw service against the Barbary Corsairs in 1403. In 1405 he joined forces with the French Admiral Charles de Savoisy and raided the south coast of England, pillaging Falmouth and Portsmouth and burning Poole. After wintering in Norman ports, he and the French Admiral resumed their offensive in the Channel. Parting company in the autumn, Nino headed for home accompanied by nine Norman whalers. Somewhere off the coasts of the Cotentin they fell in with a large fleet of Frenchmen en route to load up with salt at the isle of Batz in Brittany. The leaders of this fleet came came abord Nino's galley and suggested it were a pity to leave the neighbourhood without paying a visit to the rich island of Jersey where much honour and a reasonable amount of booty awaited a man of enterprise such as himself.

The suggestion seemed eminently sound to Nino; but being a commander who tempered valour with discretion, he decided to proceed to the nearest French port and advertise for a few lusty allies. His call to arms met with an immediate response. Crowds of venturesome warriors flocked down to the concentration, notable among whom was Hector de Pontbriand. And so, with a small army of Castilian, Breton and Norman adventurers all thirsting for loot and glory, he set sail for Jersey.

They arrived in St Aubin's Bay during the afternoon of 7 October. Gutierre Diaz de Gamez, the banner bearer and chronicler of Pero Nino, now gives us to understand that there were certain elements among the shipmen whose want of discipline was only equalled by their want of intellect. These "men of scanty brain" as he calls them, strictly against orders, went ashore to gather shellfish, for the tide was low.

The Jerseymen, who had for hours watched the approach of the fleet, made the most of this opportunity and charging down the sands drove the shipmen helter-skelter to their boats, killing or capturing the laggards.

This easy victory, says de Gamez, misled the Jerseymen as to the real metal of their opponents and was the direct cause of the next day's disaster. Seeing that it was now inadvisable to attempt a landing in force, Nino decided to occupy the Island and elaborate a plan of action for the following day. As there were only a few poor monks and a church in the Islet, and no Marculf to perform the necessary miracle, the occupation met with no opposition. Nino at once placed piquets and sentries along the northern end of the Islet and dismissed the remainder of his men to their bivouacs. The officers were assembled to discuss the situation. A plan of action was adopted and everyone settled down for the night.

Dawn attack

At dawn on the following morning, that is to say rather before 6.30, all was ready for the great adventure. The "Bridge" [2] was clear. The tide was a neap tide, due to reach its lowest limit at about 8 o'clock. The invaders had plenty of time to effect an orderly advance on a narrow front, their flanks being protected for part of the distance by rough shingle and the sea.

Nino was now placing his men on what the old Chinese Book of War calls "Death Ground". He had ordered his fleet to leave the proximity of the shore and anchor well out in the bay, retaining only his three galleys at hand in case of need. In these, however, he placed a few archers with orders to shoot down deserters mercilessly.

Before issuing from the northern end of the Islet he inspected his troops and satisfied himself that every officer and man fully understood the orders which had been promulgated the night before. The advance then commenced. His opponents meanwhile had had the whole night in which to concentrate on the dunes of St Helier, for it was obvious that Nino would have to launch his attack at that point. They had also time to withdraw their non-combatants to the shelter of Gorey Castle, Grosnez Castle and the great Earthwork at Trinity and to prepare those strongholds for a determined defence. In this breathing-space the islanders were fortunate, for as a rule raids descended on the island with but a few hours warning.

Only 33 years previously the brutal Bertrand du Guesclin had suddenly fallen upon them and with his accustomed ferocity had burnt up the countryside, slaughtered the people and forced the defiant garrison of Gorey Castle to purchase their freedom at a heavy cost.

Now, however, they were able to mass their men at a spot where every tactical advantage lay in their hands. They had but to stand firm on the crests of the sand hills and overwhelm their adversaries with a storm of arrows as they foiled upwards, and then, at the critical moment, to charge either or both flanks of their enemy with their 200 horsemen.

Unfortunately the skirmish on the sands of the previous evening had given them a false estimate of the enemy and, as we shall see, they cast all their advantages to the winds and suffered a crushing defeat.

Troop numbers

As far as numbers are concerned, the Jersey commander probably mobilised as many as 1,500 foot soldiers and 200 horsemen. De Gamez's estimate of 3,000 would give the island a population of about 20,000 persons, which is excessive.

Their discipline was poor. As individuals they were, no doubt, hardy and brave; but they had no knowledge of concerted action or of orderly mass movement. Nino's force on the other hand was a compact body of some 1,100 fighting men. It was officered by men of experience who were working on a well considered plan.

On issuing from the Islet, Nino, addressing his troops, summed up the situation thus: "My friends, you are now in the country of your enemies. See, there they are in battle array awaiting you. Many they are, but you have the better of them in valour and in strength. Behind you is the ocean.To flee is to perish in the waters.To surrender is to die at the hands of the pitiless English. Let each of you therefore play the man and fight for victory, honour and glory. Behold, how rich their land is. There it lies for valiant hearts to tonquer. In the name of Saint James our Patron, stand to it like heroes."

Confident in victory, with the banner of St George waving over them, the Jerseymen on the dunes eagerly awaited the order to charge.

And then the advance began. In front went the wall of great shields or pavises manned by archers and crossbowmen, and supported By light-armed skirmishers or pillards, the wall was marshalled into two sections, each of sixty shields. It covered the front and flanks of the "battle". Each section was commanded by a chosen man-at-arms. Forty paces behind the pavisade came the main body or "battle". It was composed of about one thousand heavily armed men, Casrillians, Normans and Brctons, all afoot under their respective knights, whose positions were marked by their own personal standards.

In the midst of the leaders was Nino in full armour, but helmetless. By his side de Gamez carried his banner. Thus they came step by step over the Bridge, the pavisade advancing and halting and the " batttle " conforming to the movement.

Horsemen's advance

The engagement opened with an advance of the Jersey horsemen. Led by an English knight they threatened half-heartedly to envelope the left flank of the invaders ; but being received with a hail of quarrels from the pavisade, withdrew back to their own advancing first line.

When Nino saw this force surge forward to the attack, he caused his trumpets to sound and advanced his whole force slightly to meet it. The movement seems to have been carried out with precision and a moment later the English were on them. Their advance rapidly lost all sense of cohesion and degenerated as it drew near into a sort of dervish charge. Horse and foot intermingled came hurtling down the sands in mad uproar. Ranks were broken and formations lost. A shouting and infuriated mob rolled like a vast wave towards the pavisade, broke upon it and recoiled, stricken by a storm of quarrels, darts and stones. Then the pillards rushed out to capture riderless horses and slash at the fallen.

The first onslaught had failed, but now came on the second line in good array. This was composed of the " battle," a thousand well-ordered men-at-arms, fairly under control in serried ranks. This force burst through the already shaken pavisade and brought the rival "battles" face to face.

Such was the fury of the onslaught that for a few terrible moments Nino thought that all was lost. But let us quote the eyewitness: "When the battles met, some fine spear-thrusts were exchanged and many fell on both sides. Then dropping their lances, the combatants took to their axes and swords and a fierce melee commenced. There could be seen helms stricken from breastplates ; here, body-armour broken from limbs, or weapons falling from dying hands. Men grappled body to bodv or staggered about slashing at each other with their daggers. Many sank senseless on the sands, while others vainly strove to rise, with blood gushing from their wounds."

The combat was so furious and the melee such, that even the victors could scarce stand upright. So brave indeed were both sides and so desperately did they fight, that had not Nino kept his head, in every sense of the words, few would have survived to tell the tale.

Nino, however, observing that the banner of St George still waved above the Jersey centre, though many a knight's standard had already fallen, decided to make a supreme effort to overwhelm it. "As long," cried he "as that banner flies, so long will the English refuse defeat. We must capture it or perish." By some means he detached Hector de Pontbriand and fifty men-at-arms from the "battle" and entrusted to them this desperate business. De Gamez, too, was in the thick of it, for he said: "Here were some fine cavaliers " who met the sudden stroke without flinching. But down went the banner of St. George and down went " The King's Receiver." '* I saw him fall dying at my feet," writes de Gamez. And that settled the issue of the combat.

For now the English wavered and broke. Tearing away in a wild " sauve qui peut " they cast offhelms, harness and shields in order to flee the quicker. So exhausted were the victorious men-at-arms that pursuit was not possible. Wounded, dying, gasping and groaning, they remained rooted to the spot amid the debris of the struggle. Only the shipmen, the pillards and the archers went forward into the country pillaging and burning fearlessly.

Nino now reformed his main body and occupied the line of dunes. Then mounting a number of knights on captured horses he rode off to round up the wild men who had gone a-pillaging. Meanwhile the galleys were able to approach on the rising tide, and on Nine's return the weary force was embarked in them and ferried back to the Islet, where, de Gamez says, food was being cooked against their arrival. The remainder of the day was spent in recuperating from the excitement and fatigues of the morning. Wounds and contusions were tended and the dead buried.

The leaders again held a council of war and plans for the morrow were settled.

Early on 9 Octoher Nino and his men evactuated the Islet and left the poor monks to resume the quiet routine which had been so suddenly and so rudely shattered. The invaders now marched off inland. There was no more fighting. A delegation of island notables met Nino within sight of the "ville" or great earthwork [3], and after a good deal of haggling accepted his terms.

Nino returned to the neighbourhood of the "Bridge" in the afternoon with his hostages, his gold, his booty, and his glory. And as night descended on the island he had ravaged, he was once again out at sea, heading for Brest.

Further articles

Notes and references

  1. It is not at all clear why the writer has associated this account with Elizabeth Castle, which was not built until two centuries later. References to the 'islet' are presumably to the rocks on which the castle was eventually built, but at the time they were just that - rocks - and although all or some of the invaders may have camped on the rocks before they were able to access the beach as the tide fell, it seems most unlikely that any battle involving some 3,000 men on both sides could have taken place other than on the beach. Rybot briefly identifies the eye-witness participant as the standard-bearer 'de Gamez'. He was Gutierre Diaz de Gamez (1379-1449) whose biography of Nino, Le Victorial was published in 1436. The work re-emerged in the 19th century and was translated into French and republished in 1867, and again in 1904. It was probably also the source for an article on the attack on Jersey by Edmund Toulmin Nicolle which was published in the Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise in 1923
  2. This is presumably a reference to the causeway which now connects the castle to the shore at West Park. It is most unlikely that it existed in any form before work started on the construction of the castle in 1594.
  3. This location has not been identified
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