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The Battle of the Solent

The Battle of the Solent, on 19th July 1545, is one of those events in history that had the potential to be very important, but is pretty much unknown. Indeed, many people who live near the Solent probably would never have heard of this battle on their doorstep if it weren’t for the loss of the Mary Rose, and her recovery in 1982.

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Prelude to the battle

At this point in history, England was involved in the Italian War (1542–1546). Henry VIII aligned himself with Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire against King Francis I of France.

In 1544, Henry VIII launched a military campaign in France, capturing Boulogne. This action further escalated tensions between England and France. In response, the French sought to strike back at England by planning an invasion, hoping to divert English military resources away from their campaigns in France and possibly even force Henry VIII to make peace on unfavourable terms. They chose to attack the coastal town of Portsmouth, where Henry’s navy was based.

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After a rocky start, when the flagship of Admiral Claude d’Annebault was destroyed in a fire while anchored on the Seine, then his replacement ran aground outside Le Havre and started to leak, the French finally launched their invasion in 1545, arriving off the coast of the Isle of Wight on 18th July.

They had superior numbers – over 200 ships carrying 30,000 soldiers, much larger than the later Spanish Armada, compared to the 80 ships of the English fleet.

Leading that fleet was John Dudley, Viscount Lisle and Lord Admiral of the the king’s fleet, who had also been Governor of Boulogne after it’s capture. He lead from his flagship the Henry Grace à Dieu, on which Henry VIII dined the night before battle began. It was during this dinner that Henry gave command of the Mary Rose to Vice Admiral George Carew.

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The battle

Little damage was done in the early stages of the Battle of the Solent, the calm weather meant that the English were unable to come out of the shelter of the Solent, and the French were unable to navigate the shallow waters. Galleys, long low row-able vessels with forward-mounted guns were able to get close and harass the immobile English, but there’s no mention of them causing much damage. Even a French eyewitness who claims one holed the Mary Rose seems to have no confirmation, from other eyewitnesses or from the hull of the Mary Rose itself.

It was later afternoon when the wind picked up, and the English ships were finally able to make their move. The Mary Rose was apparently the first to make her move, firing guns on one side before turning to fire those on the other side. It was during this manoeuvre that whatever went wrong happened, and the Mary Rose heeled over, taking her crew to the seabed

After the Mary Rose sank

After the the loss of the Mary Rose, the wind died down, leaving the English fleet unable to engage the French. However, the English were  able to use the tides and currents to get the rest of the fleet into position, preventing the French fleet from positioning their larger ships. As Lisle had the home advantage of access to supplies and reinforcements, he was prepared to stand his ground and take a defensive position, creating a deadlock. The French attempted to find an advantage at sea, but were thwarted at every step by Lisle’s skill, as well as the local weather and underwater geography.

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The invasion of the Isle of Wight

The invasion of the Isle of Wight didn’t seem to be going well either. While the attacking troops had been deployed at several points along the coast to divide the defending forces, they didn’t, for some reason, venture inland or regroup.  While they did gain some ground, especially around Bonchurch, the assaults elsewhere went less well. The troops who landed at Sandown decided to attack a newly built fort, which resulted in a hasty retreat after the death of the French commanders, while at Bembridge the assault had been badly organised, and an ambush by the defending English had caused panic amongst the French troops.

The attack on Bonchurch went pretty much unopposed, but the invaders encountered English forces as they moved inland. The island’s defenders gave stiff resistance, but were eventually forced to retreat and regroup.

It’s claimed that during this retreat, one of the defenders, Captain Robert Fischer, a portly gentleman struggling to escape up the steep hills surrounding the town, cried out “£100 for a horse!”, which according to legend may have been his last words. Obviously when Shakespeare later used this as the inspiration for the (almost) last words of Richard III, inflation had turned £100 into a kingdom.

The French retreat

The French were left with a decision to make. Should they stay at their anchorage point, which was exposed to the elements and unable to get into a decent fighting position, but supporting their troops on the Isle of Wight, or should they cut their losses and leave. The French commanders concluded that the only way they could hold the Isle of Wight would be to build three large forts, a construction job that would take three months in unfriendly territory with limited supplies and more enemy troops on the way.

D’Annebault was also having naval problems. Supplies were running low, illness was taking its toll on his crews, and his flagship, La Maistresse, was still taking on water. As this was his second flagship of the campaign, the first having been destroyed before leaving harbour, it wasn’t in his best interests to lose another.

It was decided on the 22nd of July, only three days after the sinking of the Mary Rose, to abandon the invasion. The troops on the Isle of Wight were recalled, and the French fleet departed.

This wasn’t their last act though, as a day later they attacked the town of Seaford, 40 miles east of Solent. Some 1,500 troops landed and attacked a nearby village, more with the intent to pillage than for any military purpose, but they fell foul of the local militia and their longbows, and were repelled with deadly force. D’Annebault decided to cut his losses, and headed back to France. The invasion was over, the English had won, and the attempt to recover the Mary Rose could begin.