An Englishman at the Siege of Guînes (1558)

In January 1558, a small force of English, Spanish, and Burgundian soldiers garrisoned at Guînes castle attempted to hold off a French besieging army. Calais had fallen earlier in the year, constituting a major English defeat – Guînes was the last bastion of English power in the Pale of Calais, a region that they had held for more than two centuries. By 1558 the Hapsburg-Valois War (1551-1559) saw the English, under the reign of Phillip II of Spain and Mary I, once again drawn into conflict with their longstanding rivals from across the channel. Amongst the soldiers garrisoned at Guînes was the young soldier-poet Thomas Churchyard.[i] His defence of the town was recorded in his 1579 General Reheresal of Warre or Churchyard’s Choise, a collection of military accounts and memoirs from the past four decades that showcased exemplary English military conduct.[ii] Churchyard’s Choise contributed to a burgeoning genre of printed military news, treatises, and histories, an industry that was largely restricted to London due to overarching state regulation.[iii] Thus, Paternoster Row and St Paul’s Churchyard became a hub of commercial activity which sated a public appetite for literary consumption. Churchyard’s 1579 account of his service at Guînes provides an insight into how contemporary reports of war could be contested within London’s literary milieu and sheds light on how a culture obsessed with honour and reputation came to terms with defeat and surrender.         

Anonymous, Siege of Guînes (1558), depicting encampments and French forces breaching the walls, The Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 721026.

The Siege

The loss of Calais and Guînes was a devastating blow to English strategic interests on the continent and was felt more widely in popular culture. Churchyard begins his account by acknowledging that the defeat was still being discussed despite occurring over twenty years prior: ‘by some fortune or misshape (let the blame faule where it ought) we lost Callice, and Gines … sondrie reports hath been raised thereof, by those that never knewe, or understood the matter’. Churchyard’s motivations are clear, he sought to challenge contemporary accounts and revise the narrative surrounding the loss of Guînes, presenting the English surrender in a more favourable light. Amending the story of this famous English defeat served to further Churchyard’s own sense of honour, whilst bolstering the image of the English military. His account would show the ‘verie trothe’ of the matter, his own martial experience thus imparting greater veracity and credibility.

Anonymous, A View of the Keep and Part of the Walls of the Castle of Guines, France (1540?) The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii.f.12.

Churchyard discusses his own role in the defence of Guînes with a distinctly rich level of detail.[iv] He makes it clear that the English were proactive and took the fight to the French, meeting the initial enemy probe with ‘a hotte and stout skirmish’. In one successful ambush he managed to take prisoners and even acquired ‘a couple of faire horses’ from a contingent of French soldiers ‘that came from the spoil of Callice’ – a hollow reprisal. The English were eventually forced back to the castle under increasingly heavy ‘great canon’ fire. At this point the account appears vivid in its reports of casualties. Commander Harry Palmer had his leg broken by shot, a wound he would later die of, and ‘master Waikes’ had his head taken off by shot whilst ‘slepyng vnder a greate tree’, a fate shared by Churchyard’s captain. He paints a picture of utter carnage and destruction in which his men are being indiscriminately killed and maimed by modern weapons of war; the level of detail and palpable sense of peril serves to illustrate the hardships endured by the garrison.

Anonymous, A Coloured Plan of “the towne and castle of Guynes” (1541), The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii.f.23.

A series of French assaults ensued and Churchyard places himself at the centre of the narrative. The defenders take heavy losses and Churchyard is hit: ‘Captain Lambert was crossed with a greate shot, and myne arnour with the breaking of a greate peece, was stricken flat vpon my bodie, but being unbraced I might continue the service’.[v] The initial assault is repelled, despite the garrison being heavily outnumbered, and Churchyard comments on how the assault was ‘so terribly handled by the Frenche’. Further assaults continue ‘into the very darcke night, with as much crueltie as could be devised’. The French are depicted as a hoard, unskilled but numerous, whilst the English are depicted as well-drilled and motivated yet hopelessly outnumbered:

‘alwaies when the enemies first men did wax feeble with labour, there was a seconde and newe relief of fresh bandes to continue the assault … it seemed by the fight the bloodie broile hath no ende, nor season to take breath in’.[vi]

The French eventually took the castle court and sent two thousand men to attack the isolated bulwark. The defenders were forced to leap into the dikes below or face certain death, whilst Churchyard and a few of his men managed to escape to the remaining fortified positions. Terms of surrender began to be discussed.   

Richard Lee, The Town and Harbour of Calais (1535), The British Library, Cotton Augustus I.ii f.70.

The Surrender

Churchyard once again places himself at the centre of these negotiations. He states that he was chosen by the captains to parley with the French commanders, a task that involved a perilous journey to the French camp: ‘I must wade over water in which lay  … great bordes, full of long spikes of iron … I was taught daintily to tread’.[vii] The French took pot-shots at him in the dark, yet he arrived safely. Churchyard defiantly addressed the French command, expressing his desire that his men be permitted to retreat orderly with ‘bag and baggage’, retaining the valuables that the French sought to loot: ‘our soldiers had sworne, rather to dye in their defence, then not to marche awaie like men of warr’. The Duke of Guise remined Churchyard of his hopeless position: ‘there was no hope to be had, but to become all captives and prisoners of the French king: not so sir, I answered, and that should the nexte assault make trial thereof’. Seemingly moved by Churchyard’s determination, the French nobles agreed to his terms on the condition that the officers would become prisoners. The besieging troops became furious when hearing the news, threatening to cut Churchyard’s throat if the castle was not yielded and attempted to breach the castle gate. Order was restored and Churchyard describes the fate of his men:

‘looke what promesse Mounsier Degwise made, it was so well kept and obserued, that our soldiours marched awaie with all their wealthe, money, and weapons: and greate wealth was by them borne from Gines … the bandes that parted either sicke or sounde, hurte or whole, were honestly conueighed, and truely dealte withal.’

The surrender itself is presented positively, the English common soldiers walked away with their weapons and wealth as if they were victors. The officers are imprisoned yet treated respectably, whilst Churchyard commends the honour of Guise as a worthy foe.[viii] He stresses the distinguished military service of the English and their allies, stating that the English took 800 casualties whilst ‘the enemie confessed that thei had loste over fower thousand’.  Churchyard ends his account by revising contemporary reports of the defeat:

‘I think our peace was not so dishonourable, as some reporte: for succour had wee no hope of: the next assault had overthrowen … we lost eight hundredth men, in these assaultes and services, which did their dutie so well’.

Front of Thomas Churchyard, A generall rehearsall of warres (London, 1579), printed by Edward White ‘dwelling at the little North-doore of S. Paules Churche, at the figure of the Gunne’.

Concluding Remarks

Churchyard’s account provides the modern reader with an insight into the world of Elizabethan martial culture. We see Churchyard attempting to preserve his own sense of honour whilst describing a difficult moment in his military career, one which he describes as an ‘uncomfortable discourse’. He places himself at the heart of the events and shifts the focus of the account onto the hardships that he and his men endured, the stout defence they put up, the military superiority of the English, the insurmountable odds against them, and eventually the intransigent negotiating that saved his men’s honour. Within Churchyard’s writing, we can observe a genuine admiration for the service of his comrades and a lamentation on those that were killed, yet we also detect pride in his determination to refute the reports that had been circulating in London concerning the defeat. Churchyard may have lost Guînes in 1558, yet in London he was still battling for his honour over twenty years later.

[i] For the life and works of Thomas Churchyard, and particularly his analysis of the Siege of Guînes, see Matthew Woodcock, Thomas Churchyard: Pen, Sword, and Ego (Oxford, 2016), pp.101-105.

[ii] Thomas Churchyard, A generall rehearsall of warres, called Churchyardes choise wherein is fiue hundred seuerall seruices of land and sea as seiges, battailes, skirmiches, and encounters … (London, 1579)

[iii] During this period the Stationers’ Company regulated the printing industry and permitted presses to be operated in London, as well as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. See, Cyprian Blagden, The Stationers Company: A History, 1403-1959 (London, 1960)

[iv] Churchyard’s account reads more like the genre of military memoir in contrast to the more terse or matter-of-fact reports that litter Churchyard’s Choise, a feature noted by Matthew Woodcock, Pen, Sword, and Ego, p.102.


[vi] A common trope in contemporary English military literature, the small size of English expeditionary forces and the theme of ‘God’s will’ or ‘righteous cause’ overwhelming a numerically superior enemy feature heavily in Churchyard’s Choise.

[vii] Matthew Woodcock has noted that the account of the negotiations of surrender at Guînes is presented differently in both Richard Grafton’s Chronicle at large (1559) and the account of Arthur Grey, son of Lord Grey, commander of the Guînes garrison. Woodcock notes that Churchyard replaces Grey as the heroic negotiator, Pen, Sword, and Ego, p.104.   

[viii] Churchyard treats nobility with exceptional reverence in Churchyard’s Choise. His descriptions of nobles, whether friend or foe, are often complimentary and he reports honourable deeds done by them in and off the field of battle. This courtesy even extends to the notorious Spanish general the Duke of Alva, who Churchyard commends as trustworthy and ‘faithfull’ in his dealings with William Morgan.

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