SINCE BECOMING KING Hery VIII (r. 1509-47) had wanted to lock horns with France as a means of asserting his monarchical qualities against the traditional enemy. War was declared in 1512 and by March 1513 he had experienced the realities of conflict for one complete campaign season. There was much to reflect upon. The English army in Spain, which had been ineffectually supporting Ferdinand of Aragon, England's ally against France, had returned home in disgrace with nothing accomplished, but, more positively, at sea Admiral Sir Edward Howard (1476/7-1513) had terrorized French coastal shipping in his flagship Mary Rose, which had been in service since 1511. On August 10th, 1512, he had caught the French/Breton fleet carousing at anchor, and driven it back into Brest after severely damaging with gunfire the French flagship, Grand Louise, in the first engagement between ships. Unfortunately, the English warship Regent was destroyed alongside the Breton flagship, Cordeliere, when the latter's magazine exploded causing the loss of over 1,500 French and English lives. Nevertheless, Henry, well pleased with Howard's achievements, appointed him Lord Admiral of England, and ordered him to sail again to blockade the French fleet at Brest, thus enabling the King to cross the Channel unchallenged to lead his army into France.
The French had other ideas. In the late autumn of 1512, Louis XII ordered an experienced, professional galley commander, Pregent de Bidoux, to sail with a squadron of six galleys from the Mediterranean to reinforce his navy at Brest. His arrival altered the balance of power in the Channel for these modern galleys, the favoured weapon of war among the nations that bordered the Mediterranean, were deadly vessels. Fifty metres long, with 150 oarsmen manning some twenty-five oars on either side, each were armed with a large calibre, ship-sinking cannon, or basilisk, which was flanked by four lesser, but still significant guns. At a time when English naval tactics and weaponry were based on the discharge of weapons of 'shock and awe' alongside an enemy just prior to boarding, these galleys represented a revolution in maritime warfare from which the English, with their cumbersome sailing ships, were unable to benefit. Too fragile to ride out gales in the Channel, Bidoux's galleys were ideally suited to protect Brittany's havens and harbours, in support of the main fleet, where their short bursts of speed would be sufficient for them to attack the enemy's flank or halt the vital victuallers resupplying the enemy from English ports. Howard, with neither the experience of dealing with galleys, nor the knowledge of their presence, sailed into a trap.
On April 12th, 1513, the English, arrived off Berthaume Bay, just outside the narrow channel leading into the sheltered harbour of Brest into which the French, caught unawares, fled. Bidoux, however, was not with them. Having been driven back by storms from making a raid on Plymouth, he was sheltering at St Malo from where he put to he became aware of Howard's arrival off Brest. Howard, meanwhile, sent word Henry that:
... as for the galleys, we make great
way with them ... and, Sir, if there
come any other by day or night, the
boats and small vessels and rowbarges
and row-galleys shall lay them sharply
aboard, and ... if they came amongst
us, they shall not escape clean with
Five days later the galleys did come amongst them but the result was not as Howard had predicted. One English ship was sunk while another had several shots pass through her hull so that she could barely stay afloat. Bidoux, having thus announced his presence, retired to the adjacent Whitesand Bay where, in a common galley tactic, he moored his vessels stern to the shore, guns facing seaward, between two reinforced headlands.
Galleys had shorter victualling legs than other sailing vessels of the day. Their passage time was limited, especially by the need to water frequently, but also by the crowded and insanitary conditions onboard. …