A closer look at our county's less pleasant encounters with our near neighbours

The English and the French slug it out in battle during the so-called 100 Years War that actually lasted considerably longer: 1337 to 1453. This painting is attributed to Frenchman Jean Froissart who also penned a contemporary history of the conflict.
The English and the French slug it out in battle during the so-called 100 Years War that actually lasted considerably longer: 1337 to 1453. This painting is attributed to Frenchman Jean Froissart who also penned a contemporary history of the conflict.

There was considerable British media joy when the England Ladies beat the French at football last Sunday for the first time in ages.

Enjoying the sporting discomfort of our Gallic neighbours has long been a national pastime. It’s just something we do.

Not just in sport. I have a sister-in-law, Esmerelda, who is French and lives with husband Graham and their two sons, Tony and Tom, in the Seine Valley not far from Monet’s house at Giverny. Whenever we meet up there’s inevitable banter concerning Anglo-French relations and mutual history.

I was particularly pleased some time ago to present “Es” with a book, “1000 Years of Annoying the French”, a lighthearted tome recounting our two country’s often stormy dealings down the centuries. With an Englishman the author it’s no surprise that the French get the blame for everything from the burning of Joan of Arc to the advent of champagne being possible only because skilled British glass-makers invented a bottle able to contain all that fizz.

I’m pleased to say that Esmerelda accepted the book with good grace though I suspect she’s never read it. Anyway, this French flavour in the sporting news prompted me to investigate some of our county’s less pleasant encounters with the near neighbours.

Now you could say that these began with a knock-out blow for France in 1066 when the Normans won the Battle of Hastings and conquered England. The fact is though that the Normans didn’t consider themselves French. They were descended from the Vikings, deriving their very name from “Norsemen”. Indeed the Normans were engaged in almost constant war with France and even after he was crowned King of England, William returned to Normandy for lengthy sojourns interrupted by battles with the troublesome French.

From 1360 and 1376 we have records of multiple Gallic incursions against Rye, Hastings and Winchelsea. This was the time of the Hundred Years War. In 1377 a large French fleet allied with ships from Spanish Castile ranged along the whole of England’s south coast. On 27th August the enemy razed Rottingdean. Lewes Priory’s John de Charlieu was in charge of local forces and he hurried to Rottingdean to confront the raiders.

Unfortunately for Prior Charlieu, the Rottingdean attack was just a feint to draw him away from the invader’s main target, Lewes itself. They first sacked Seaford before sailing up the Ouse, a much wider river in those days.

Noted local historian, Dr Graham Mayhew, has researched a contemporary source known as “Froissart’s Chronicles” to weave the following account of what happened next.

Anchoring just south of Lewes Priory’s walls in the “marsh ... as close to land as possible”, the enemy greatly outnumbered the English. In fierce fighting on ground just east of the Priory’s walls (where the former Lewes County Grammar School for Boys stands in Mountfield Road) “many French were wounded with arrows”.

Over 200 English “who defended themselves very well considering their numbers, for they were few compared to the French” were slain and the “prosperous small town of Lewes” was set ablaze, “together with several marshland villages nearby”. The Priory itself was spared destruction but the Prior and two knights, Sir John Falvesley and Sir Thomas Cheyne, were captured and taken to France. The Prior was imprisoned for over a year before the huge ransom demanded for his release could be raised.

Winchelsea attracted more French attention in 1380, 1386 and 1418 plus there appear to have been two other attacks made on dates unknown.

In 1514 a French privateer called Prior John attacked Brighthelmstone (Brighton) and looted and burnt most of the village. English reinforcements arrived just in time to loose a shower of arrows on the invaders as they rowed back to their ships. One arrow struck Prior John in the eye but he survived the trauma, and as a gesture of thanks, later presented a wax image of his face, complete with arrow in eye, to a church in Boulogne.

In 1545 the French Admiral Claude d'Annabant undertook yet another raid against England’s south coast. This was the occasion when Henry VIII's flagship “Mary Rose” capsized soon after leaving Portsmouth harbour en route to do battle. The French went on to attack Meeching (now Newhaven) before some 1,500 of them came ashore in Seaford Bay. They were busily setting light to cottages when prominent Lewes landowner Nicholas Pelham turned up with a hastily gathered band of local militia.

The French were “met with such manful resistance… they were fain to betake themselves to their ships and galleys and to retire with considerable loss to their own side”. Pelham was duly feted as a hero and was later knighted. The spot where the skirmish took place was named “The Buckle” to honour the Pelham family symbol.

When Sir Nicholas died in 1559 a memorial was placed in St. Michael's Church in Lewes containing the verse: “What time the Frenche sought to have sack't Sea Foord, This Pelham did Repel'em back aboord”. Bravo!

Finally, apropos of nothing more than the fact that he was French, I was tickled by a story concerning haughty General Charles de Gaulle. In 1966 he decided to take France out of the NATO alliance and requested that all American military personnel must promptly vacate French soil. US President, Lyndon Johnson, asked his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, to enquire of de Gaulle if his instructions included “all those Americans buried in it?”