Poole in Flames

galleyIt was a September morning, just before daybreak in the year 1405, when five war galleys, three Spanish, two French, slid silently into Poole harbour and crept forward through the darkness towards the sleeping town. In the crowded space below decks, crossbowmen and men-at-arms nervously checked their weapons. All were practised fighters, masters of the lightning terror raid and quick retreat. Their captain, Don Pero Niño, Count of Buelno, was a kinsman and subject of the King of Castile, a charismatic, bold, if sometimes rash leader and an excellent fighter. Commanding the French galleys was Messire Charles de Savoisy, a knight formally in the service of Charles VI of France but currently out of favour at court and seeking his fortune at sea. He usually provided a note of caution in their councils. Meeting at La Rochelle, the two leaders had decided to join forces and raid along the south coast of England. From Cornwall to Purbeck they had already left a trail of dead men and burnt towns behind them.

old-church-towerWord had spread and every man on board the galleys that morning knew that the town they were about to attack was the home of ‘Arripay’, the English pirate whose raids on Spanish coastal towns and attacks on shipping were notorious. The knowledge added a spice of revenge to their aggression. As the light began to come up, Poole came into view and the raiders noted the absence of defensive walls. The only building of note was ‘a fair tower with a round leaden roof shaped like a cup’. It looked like an easy target but Messire Charles warned of the shoals and sandbanks that would make it difficult for the ships to get close to shore and the many men-at-arms and bowmen that lived in the town. He refused to involve the French galleys in the attack.

Don Pero Niño had no such doubts. He ordered the ships to anchor a little distance from the town and launched the longboats to ferry men ashore. Speed was now essential. As soon as enough men were landed, they ran towards the houses, swords drawn, torches flaring. One minute, all was silent, the next, pandemonium broke out. Smoke and flames rose as the thatch roofs were fired. Men were rudely awakened and staggered to their doors to find a full-scale, deadly raid in progress. Alerted by the clamour, a messenger rode desperately away across the heath to summon help.

Rear wall of Town Cellars c. 1300

Rear wall of Town Cellars c. 1300

In the first surprise of the attack, the raiders had everything their own way. They were able to force entry to the houses, loot and burn and kill anyone who opposed them. Then the Poole men rallied and came rushing out to fight the raiders as they retired towards the boats, loaded with whatever plunder they had managed to seize. Messire Charles had been right to say that many Poole men were trained to arms. In fact some of them had probably taken part in such raids themselves. Seeing his men retreat, Pero Niño ordered more to land, led by his cousin, Fernando Niño. They took a stand just beyond the buildings and then, under orders to leave their plunder and destroy the town by fire, began to force the defenders slowly backwards. Overwhelmed, the Poole men took refuge in a large store building, which they defended fiercely until the Castilians forced an entrance and they had to escape by the back. Inside, the raiders found ‘all manner of arms, bolts, rigging, sails and all furnishings of ships-of-war’ and helped themselves to as much as they could carry, before setting the building ablaze.

As the raiders were boarding the galleys with their booty, reinforcements for the defenders arrived in the form of men-at-arms and longbowmen on foot and horseback. Setting up house doors as protection against the Castilian crossbow bolts, they quickly took a stand on higher ground near the boats and began to attack the raiders with volleys of arrows. Many were hit and some of the leather jerkins of the Castilians were ‘all stuck with arrows’. Seeing that the fight was in the balance, Pero Niño came ashore and managed to reach his standard bearer who was in some danger, as the raiders had retreated under the strong English attack.

Longbow versus crossbow (Froissart)

Longbow versus crossbow (Froissart)

It was now that Pero Niño’s leadership skills proved vital. Ordering the trumpets to be sounded, he rallied his men and advanced against the English with the shout of ‘Santiago! Santiago!’ (St. James) while the defenders also shouted for St. James, the patron saint of their church. The battle was fierce and many were killed or taken prisoner. As it raged, Messire Charles came shore with ‘many knights and gentlemen in armour’ to support the Castilians if needed. At last the English retreated a little distance, leaving the battleground so thickly strewn with arrows that it was impossible to walk without treading on them and men could pick them up in handfuls. The two sides had reached a stand off whereby the raiders broke off the fight and the defenders watched them board the boats without further attack.

Many men must have died that day but we only know the names of two of them, a Castilian of Messire Charles’ galley called Juan de Murcia, and on the English side, a brother of ‘ArriPay’ (Harry Paye), the Poole pirate. The raiders rested, treated their wounded and toasted a victory over the English before sailing on eastwards. The aftermath for the people of Poole was much more traumatic. They could say that they had acquitted themselves well but there were wounded to treat, dead men and women to mourn. The damage inflicted on their town was terrible and it would be many years before Poole would fully recover.

Plaque Civic Centre, Poole

Plaque Civic Centre, Poole

There is no record in the town archives about the raid of 1405. The above account is taken mainly from a Spanish chronicle on the life of Don Pero Niño by his standard bearer, Gutierre Diaz de Gamez (published in English as ‘The Unconquered Knight’). The chronicle leaves many questions unanswered, such as where the battle was fought, where the reinforcements came from, how many people were killed or captured and how serious was the damage to the town. The chronicle says that the town was ‘altogether burnt’ but this is unlikely to be true. The large store building mentioned is almost certainly the Town Cellars on the Quay, the back wall of which pre-dates the time of the raid and must have survived it. The fact that the defenders were able to escape from the back of the building suggests that the raiders did not necessarily penetrate very far into the streets of the town and the worst damage was probably concentrated near the shore. The reinforcements probably came from Canford, the manorial centre and one of the few places nearby where knights and fighting men might be found.

The front wall of the Town Cellars, rebuilt after the raid

The front wall of the Town Cellars, rebuilt after the raid

During the following century Poole did recover, rebuilt its damaged and burnt out buildings, constructed town defences, was created the Port of the Staple (customs port) for Dorset and went on to more prosperous times. Harry Paye, who was not at home at the time of the raid, lived to carry out several more raids of his own.

Jenny

 

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