“Thrast up agaynst the rayls” : the Death of Lord Admiral Edward Howard at Conquet, 1513
Justin Reay FSA FRHistS
As the boats moved closer to Prégent de Bidoux’s galleys anchored across the bay, Edward Howard adjusted the gilded shield on his fore-arm and raised his sword high in his right hand. With his left hand he felt for the smaller of his two whistles. He raised it to his lips and blew – two short blasts, one long rising call. As the hulls crashed together Howard let go of the whistle and grasped the shrouds of the Breton galley above him.
His men following, Howard pulled himself upwards, sprawled over the gunwale and dropped onto the forecastle deck. He glanced over the unmoving banks of rowers, taking in the advancing Breton pikemen and the long bronze snout of the basilisk gun still smoking next to him before he turned to look outboard at his fleet.
The English ships stood in the offing to windward, a curve of caravels and carracks, the fo’c’sles of the Gabriel Royal and the Katherine Fortileza standing high at the centre, and his flagship the Mary Rose towering higher still. A formidable force but too far off to help.
In the waters below him the row-barges of the English were being swept past the hulls of the enemy galleys, the ropes of their boarding hooks parting with the strain. He cried out to the boats now drifting away, “Come a-board again! Come a-board again!”, but it was too late and he knew he was lost.
He turned inboard and saw that his supporters were being cut down or forced overboard at the point of a pike. Howard was himself now thrust against the side-rails. He would sell his life dearly. And to make sure the enemy had no captured trophy to parade in triumph, he lifted the heavy chain from his shoulder, wound it around the long gold whistle it carried, the insignia of his pomp, and threw it in a high glittering arc into the sea.
Sir Edward Howard was Henry VIII’s first Lord Admiral of England, an effective if somewhat impetuous commander who in 1511 had captured the Scottish Navy’s main fleet led by the privateer Andrew Barton, and had inflicted much damage on French shipping and harbours in the summer of 1512. At the battle of St Mathieu that summer – perhaps the first naval action in which broadside cannon were used – Howard’s ship the Regent was accidentally set on fire while attacking and sinking the Breton flagship Cordelière.
In the spring of 1513, England – then briefly allied to Spain in the Holy League – was faced with an alliance between France, Brittany, Scotland and Denmark, and needed to crush the menace posed by the enemy fleets before they could join together and stop the “narrow seas” which kept England safe from invasion and enabled Henry to supply his armies on the continent.
Howard found the main Breton force running down the rugged and dangerous west coast of Brittany to join the French galleons and carracks under Admiral de Chillou, embarking an invasion force in the port of Brest guarded by a line of hulks tied together as a defence-boom. The Breton squadron comprised four foystes (two-masted rowing galleys) and six large lateen-rigged Mediterranean galleys, armed with a highly effective innovation, the large bronze Venetian guns mounted fore and aft which the English called “basilisks” after the mythical serpent whose very breath was fatal. For a few days the English and Bretons engaged in skirmishes, with losses and gains on each side, but at last the English, by now hungry and thirsty due to delays in the supply convoys, and with their morale shaken by the fire-power of the galleys, were close to leaving.
The Bretons’ commander, Prégent de Bidoux, a Gascon galley captain with a formidable reputation, had anchored his fighting galleys in shallow water in the crescent-shaped Anse de Blanc-Sablons across a promontory from Conquet. Strung together bows out, with hand-gunners and cross-bowmen on stone bulwarks beneath the steep cliffs around the bay giving supporting fire from the flanks, the galleys were in a strong defensive position.
As Sir Edward Etchyngham was to write to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey afterwards:
“no boote nor vessell couth comme unto them, but that they must comme betwene the bulwarkes, the which [were] soo thick with gonnes and crosbowis that the quarelles and gonstons came together as thick as it hade be haylstones.”[iii]
But the galleys posed a threat to the rear of the English fleet in any attack upon Brest, so they could not be bye-passed. On Sunday 24 April Howard decided to land 6000 men ashore at Conquet for a rearward attack on the galleys, but as the landing began the sails of the English supply convoy were seen in the offing and the captains of Howard fleet diverted their boats to the victualling ships. William Sabyn, the convoy commander, gave Howard a sharply-worded letter from King Henry which prompted him to mount one more seaward attempt on the Breton galleys, a hazardous cutting-out action.
Howard ordered the English fleet of 40 or so of Henry’s largest armed ships, including the Mary Rose and the Peter Pomegranate, to keep station in “The Trade”, the shipping passage near Ushant, to prevent the French ships at Brest from joining the Bretons. As they lay four miles off shore in the late afternoon of 25th April, Howard embarked archers, hand-gunners and pikemen into two “row-barges”, the Sweepstake under Captain Toley, its soldiers commanded by Sir Thomas Cheyne, and the Swallow, Captain Cooke, its armed men led by Howard’s second-in-command, the Lord Ferrers.
Now armed and manned and with two freighters loaded with soldiers in support, the little flotilla began the attack. The barges were rowed inshore right up to the hulls of the enemy under fire from the shoreward flanks, and from Prégent’s stem-mounted basilisks and the Breton arquebusiers stationed in the forecastles.
Howard’s boat was the first to reach an enemy ship, Prégent’s own galley, and he himself led the boarding party followed by Don Alphonso de Charrán, the Spanish military commander from the Sancho de Goza carrack.[iv]
This first wave of English, Spanish and Flemish soldiers was the only group to engage the Bretons hand-to-hand as the incoming tide swept the other boats past the galleys. The cable on the grappling iron from Howard’s barge did not hold and the men who had boarded the galley behind Howard were now alone.
We have several accounts of the action, differing slightlly in their interpretation of events, those from hear-say differing in fact, the eye-witnesses telling much the same tale but embellished for their audience.
Prégent’s account, in a letter written on board his galley at Conquet on the 28th April, states that he was attacked by 30 ships and between 25 and 30 “barks”. He says that as many as fifty soldiers “from an English gallease” boarded his galley and all but two were either killed on the spot by Breton soldiers or forced overboard by the long morrice pikes to drown, weighed down by their armour; of the two survivors one, a Fleming, soon died of his wounds. Amongst the dead was Howard, wounded, thrust overboard and drowned.
Prégent asserts that Howard’s body was taken out of the sea three days after the action, identified by the surviving English soldier as his Admiral by the “gilt targett” (a small gilded shield) on his arm. In his letter, Prégent states that he was arranging to have the body embalmed for later burial, keeping the heart himself as a mark of respect; he sent the Admiral’s fine clothes as a gift to the French King’s daughter and presented the Lord Admiral’s whistle to the Queen of France – it is significant that Prégent himself states this to be Howard’s silver whistle of command, not his “siflet d’honneur”, his badge of honour as Lord Admiral.[v]
The second eye-witness account is by the English Navy captain Edward Etchyngham, commander of the Germyne which stood close inshore during the action. In his letter to Wolsey two weeks later, he says much the same as Prégent about the action, differing only in the numbers of English boats and men in the attack. He states that Howard and four English captains embarked in two “galeys” (he meant row-barges) and two “crayres” (large inshore fishing boats hired as fleet victualling freighters), for no vessel of deeper draught could come up to the enemy because of the shallow water in the bay.[vi]
Etchyngham says that he saw Edward Howard leap aboard the forecastle of Prégent’s galley followed by Charrán and about 16 others. The cable attached to the boat’s “ancre” (grappling iron) was cut by Breton sailors or was let slip off the mooring post by English sailors, and the barge drifted away stranding Howard and his small band on the enemy galley’s deck. Under intense fire from the Bretons, the English boats replied with sakers (small bow-mounted cannon), hand-guns and long-bow arrows, with significant loss of life on both sides, but they could not get close enough to board.
From this point Etchyngham’s letter records the eye-witness accounts of two others involved in the action. One was a soldier in Howard’s group who was severely wounded but was picked out of the water by the English before he could succumb to the strong waters. He said that he saw the Admiral “thrast up agaynst the rayls of the galy with morris pikes”.
Charrán’s personal servant, whom the Spanish captain sent into the cabin of the row-barge for a handgun at the beginning of the boarding, completed the story as we know it. When the boy came back on deck with the gun he saw that the barge was drifting away from the galley. He said that the Admiral called to the boats to come alongside the enemy again, then he saw him wind the chain around his whistle before throwing it into the sea. That was the last he saw of the Lord Admiral.[vii]
Howard’s “whistle of honour”, a large object about a span (eight inches) long and an inch or two broad, looking somewhat like a short one-holed recorder, was more than just an instrument for communication. As with other Admiral’s whistles of the Henrician period, it was made of gold, richly chased and decorated with jewels. But as his badge of office as Lord Admiral of England it had a value beyond its intrinsic cost. So much so that in his will of April 1512, Howard bequeathed it to the King for the labour of supervising his legacy in the event of his death; Henry had himself given the whistle to Howard when installing him in this powerful position. The chain on which it hung was even more costly; Howard bequeathes it to his executor and “special trusty friend” Charles Brandon, later Duke of Suffolk, describing it as:
“… my rope of bowed nobles that I hang my great whistle by, containing ccc angels…”[viii]
This great chain was made of the largest English coins of the period, the nobles, also called ‘angels’ as they had an angel embossed on one side; these thick convex buttons of gold were each worth six shillings and sixpence halfpenny (33pence in modern UK money). Howard’s chain of 300 angels was worth £100, about half a million pounds sterling at today’s values.[ix] Unlike many wills of the period, Howard specified no particular place for his burial, stating: “My body to be buried where God will…”, a prescient intimation of his death in a foreign country in the service of his king.
The English were demoralised by the loss of their leader, the first and perhaps the only Lord Admiral of England to die in action.[x] The allied fleet left the Breton coast and returned to Plymouth where they could at last get proper food and provisions, ready to regroup for a successful campaign on sea and land later in the year, notably at the “battle of the spurs” at Thérouenne in August and the victory over the Scots at Flodden Field three weeks later.
King Henry was aghast at the English fleet’s failure to destroy the enemy threat but responded positively by strengthening facilities and organisation to enable firm management of the Navy’s logistics as well as its strategy.
The position of Lord Admiral was given to Edward Howard’s brother, Thomas, who commemorated the event in a tablet inscribed with the story in gold on parchment affixed to a very fine carved over-mantel, formerly in the great eating room of Thomas Howard’s house at Deptford and now, by a circuitous route, in the private south corridor at Arundel Castle.
In 1511 Edward Howard, with Thomas Howard and Charles Brandon, had attacked and captured part of the Scottish fleet, and beheaded the Scottish commander, the privateer Sir Andrew Barton. This was a very important event, which gave the English command of the seas off the northern coast of England, drove a wedge between France’s northern allies and her own naval forces, gave England’s fledgling navy two good fighting vessels, and began a precedent for robust naval action which was to the king’s taste, and fitted well with Edward Howard’s temperament. Howard was a natural sailor and an aggressive commander. He is recorded to have said that no man would be a good seaman unless he were resolute to the point of madness.
The action was recounted for many years afterwards, achieving a kind of legendary status which comes close to myth-making. The Ballad of Sir Andrew Barton, which gentlemen here of my advanced age will recall reciting at school, was just such a part of the myth. It is long, in highly romantic language with the sweet aroma of some Victorian poet harking back to a golden age of Bluff King Hal, but is in fact datable as far back as the seventeenth century when a version was first published – a copy was collected by Samuel Pepys in the 1670s – and may well have been adapted from earlier poems or broadside ballads. There are errors in the Pepys version – Lord Charles Howard for Edward Howard for example – which indicate a date well after the actions against the Great Armada of 1588, at which Charles Howard of Effingham, Edward’s posthumous nephew, was the English Lord Admiral.
Edward Howard’s desperate, futile sea-action at Conquet and his tragic, romantic death, dramatically discarding his great whistle of honour as his final act, was not so eulogised. No ballad remains of it, and the action hardly rates a footnote in most naval histories. It took place in a momentous year, followed by his brother’s successful attack on the French fleet at La Rochelle and the king’s first effective steps as a military leader on the continent. Yet the story was known for years, in France and in England, and the desperate heroism of the main actor was honoured, if with sadness, perhaps to be held as a warning against rashness.
© J M J Reay 2000-8
This essay was first given as a paper in the Naval Action as Story seminar at the ‘Cultures of War and Conflict Resolution Research Network : The Sea’ symposium at King’s College London, November 2009
[i] A biographical essay about Edward Howard, Lord Admiral of England, will be posted on this site shortly
[ii] Howard was made “admiral in chief” and also captain-general of the King’s armies overseas (“capitanem generalem armatae super mare”), in an indenture of 15 March 1512; Harleian MS 309 page 36, quoted in John Charnock, An History of Marine Architecture vol II, page 38; Howard’s Letters Patent as Lord Admiral of England were engrossed on 15 August 1512
[iii] letter from Sir Edward Etchyngham to Thomas Wolsey, from Hampton 5 May 1513, in Alfred Spont, The War with France 1512-13 pp145-150
[iv] the largest of 6 Spanish ships in the English fleet “hired by the King’s Grace”, Charnock ibid
[v] letter from Prégent de Bidoux, 28 April 1513, quoted and translated into English in Spont, op cit pp132-140
[vi] Etchyngham to Wolsey, Spont op cit page 147
[vii] Etchyngham to Wolsey, in Spont ibid
[viii] Will of Edward Howard, Knight, April 1512, printed in Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, Testamenta Vetusta, 1826, vol II pp 533-534
[ix] The relative lack of wage inflation in the centuries from c1500 to 1850 allows us to use pay rates rather than commodity prices to determine equivalent monetary values. The daily pay for a specialist soldier in the early modern period such as an archer – 6 old pence a day in action, roughly £5 over a campaigning year – compared to a modern infantry combat specialist paid at c.£25,000 a full year,gives a multiplier of 5000:1; a naval Lieutenant paid £140 a year between the 17th and 19th centuries, equating to today’s salary of c.£40,000 for that rank, gives the same multiplier. Other methods of determining equivalent monetary values between the late medieval period and today include costs of commodities, but that format is distorted by the significant relative reduction in the costs of common goods over the last two centuries.
[x] NAM Rodger, The Admiralty, note to list of Lords Admiral page 1