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History All Conflicts / Battles / Military History

Battle Of Bonchurch

REF NR: 538

In 1545 many islanders were filled with insecurity as they looked out across the Channel towards France. The threat of invasion from the 30,000 troops and 200 French warships moored there was very real. Vigilance was the watch word and guards were ever ready to light the invasion beacons, as if lit, it was hoped that support would come from all over the south coast to assist and repel any invasion.  


By July 18th, their worst fears had materialised as the massive armada dropped anchor stretching from St. Helens to Culver. The beacons were swiftly lit as it was now imminent that the French would be coming ashore and bloody battles would ensue.


The Primary Naval Engagement (Battle of the Solent)

During the opening gambits of July 18th, the French tried to tease the English navy out of the safety of Portsmouth and shallow waters of the Spithead. They began running galleys in towards the English, to repel those pushed out from Portsmouth resulting in the flagships the Mary Rose and the Henri Grace A Dieu engaging in a fierce artillery duel with the French fleet. 


Pictured: Mary Rose

July 19th was to prove a bitter day for the English. Just off Southsea, the Mary Rose was already badly holed and taking on water. It had been hit by the French and was now manouevring. Her lower gun ports were still open and began to run awash with even more water making her very unstable. This led very quickly to her keeling over to an unrecoverable angle - sinking with the loss of 650+ souls. During this time the Henri Grace A Dieu also began to suffer badly by French galley attacks and was only really saved by a force of English row barges taking on the attackers in hand-to-hand fighting. Gradually the two sides parted with no major advantage to either having been won.


Pictured: Henri Grace A Dieu

The French then decided to back off from directly attacking the Portsmouth fleet, even though it was their primary goal. British navy defences were leaving the French at a disadvantage, as it was forcing them to fight too close inshore. It was decided to sack the island and burn the towns and villages in front of Henry VIII's eyes as he looked down on them from the heights of Portsmouth. The French reasoned that that this may well galvanise Henry into coming forward and fighting on more open terms of engagement, as the French would then be far better placed to bring their superior forces to bear. 



The Battle of Bonchurch

As far as the French commanders were concerned a fairly simple invasion of the island to achieve their goal was a foregone conclusion, as they were not expecting much resistance from the small militia presence and farming community.


However they had not accounted for the prowess of the island’s commanders and their men.  Sir Richard Worlsey (Appludurcombe House) assisted by Sir Edward Bellingham and his staff, were in command of 6,000 men from the island, Hampshire and Wiltshire militia. Initially on the day of the invasion they were spread across the Wight in various garrison posts.


With 850+ Wilshire militia guarding the western forts, there were some 250 labourers who were still building Henry VIII's device fort at Sandown then known as Sandown Castle. As the day moved on, Worsley rapidly deployed two major companies of men. 3,000 under C.T. Wiherby at the base of Brading Down and 2800+ at a similar position on Boniface down.


Thus the stage was now set for the invasion. D’Annebault, the French admiral, launched a three pronged attack across the south-west from Bonchurch, through to Sandown on up to St. Helens. At the same time seeing the approaches, the English began to advance towards the enemy.


An Italian mercenary called Pietro Strozzi sacked the fort at St. Helens, killing all and forcing the English repelling militia back across St. Helens, Nettlestone and into Seaview - burning everything in his path to the ground. 


Pictured: Yaverland To Seaview Map


Colonel General Le Seigneur de Tais, leading the southern French large force, landed at Bonchurch and began to work inland. His force eventually came face-to-face with the Hampshire company who were in a strong defensive position and fierce fighting broke out. The colonel was relentless in his approach, keeping his force pushing forward time and time again until the British line broke and they had to retreat.


At Sandown the French attack was led by Marsay and Pierrebom - two galley captains. They pushed forward directly to try and take the half-built Sandown Castle. This by all accounts was a mistake, as if they had moved further up towards Culver they could have come ashore and mounted the low cliffs at Yaverland. There they would have had superb open countryside to deploy into - allowing for easy splitting of the English forces by moving south to annihilate the Hampshire militia or north and west to take Ryde and Newport.


Thankfully both Worsley and Bellingham recognised the danger and pushed the main army rapidly to the beachhead at fort street. A bitter and frantic battle ensued with the French pinned down on the beachhead fighting spread from the castle to Yaverland. The welsh bows and pikemen proved devastating to the French and when both commanders fell back injured, the army leaderless broke up and were forced back into their boats to escape. The French landing forces were beaten and left major armour and arms strewn across the battlefield ready to be picked up and used against them in the next battle.  



On the Run

D’Annebault’s plan was now in tatters. The second wave troops landed without orders and just plundered their way across to Yaverland and beyond burning, moving without a commander or any great purpose. Worsley and Bellingham gave chase forcing the French back from Yaverland and onto the side of Culver. They rallied a series of horse cavalry and charged the French on the down. Seeing cavalry approaching, the French then broke and ran for Bembridge.


The French were now in complete disarray and so D’Annebault recalled du Tais from Bonchurch to assist, managing to force the English again back to the Yar, securing Bembridge and Culver. The English regrouped and again attacked - pushing the French this time into the sea, driving them once and for all from the island at Bembridge Ledge. 

During the next few days, the French fleet remained at rest. By this time D’Annebault had reconsidered the occupation of the island as not being worthwhile - meaning the imminent danger had now passed.


There was one last notable event, when Pierre de Blacas (a galley commander) went ashore with some men to get some badly needed fresh water. They were quickly set upon.  They begged to be held for ransom, as they would have been worth a fairly large purse. Sadly the British were in no mood for mercy, slaying them all. 


The Rout

Not long after the French pulled up anchor and sailed east along the Channel, they attacked Shoreham in Sussex before giving up completely and sailing back to France.


Peace was totally restored the following year with the Treaty of Ardres.