Eustace the Monk

Today is the 801st anniversary of the Battle of Sandwich, fought off the coast of Kent between the English and French navies. It also marks the day the English finally captured and killed one of their biggest characters of his age, Eustace the monk.

Eustace had been born around 1170, somewhere near Boulogne any in France. He trained as a knight, but through his extensive travels also learnt the skills of seamanship. But his life was to take an unexpected turn when he turned his back on the military life and entered a Benedictine monastery. Records do not recall any reason for this sudden about-face in Eustace’s life, but it is clear that it had little to do with the reformation of his character. Many un-monastic acts are attributed to him: encouraging his brothers to eat when they should have been fasting, cursing during the services and urging them to “fart in the cloister”. Eustace left the monastery, but the short stay earned him the epitaph by which he would be known for the rest of his life. He next took up a job in the court of the Count of Boulogne, but was soon accused of financial misdeeds and fled into the countryside where he set himself up as a bandit. He and his men pursued a life of thievery and violence. In 1206, seeing a unique opportunity, he allied himself English King, John, who was involved in a struggle with the French about control of the Duchy of Normandy. Eustace was given command of a flotilla in the channel and set about wreaking havoc in French shipping. The pirates seized the island of Sark and used this as a base to launch their raids. But Eustace soon started attacking ships of other nations including those of his ally, the King of England. In1214 King John ordered a raid on Sark and although many of Eustace’s men were captured, Eustace himself escaped. By 1215  Eustace appeared again, this time at the French court. King Philip Augustus recognised the value of Eustace’s experience and his knowledge of the English. He was appointed as the French Admiral and played a major part in the French invasion of England in 1216.

A medieval manuscript showing Eustace in a sea battle ( Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

When this invasion faltered, the following spring,  it was Eustace who broke through the English blockade to rescue Prince Louis, the king’s son, who was trapped in the town of Rye. Eustace was able to reunite the prince with the remainder of his army. The campaign continued to go badly for the French and by May, the Prince found himself trapped once again, this time in London. Reinforcements and much-needed supplies were gathered in France and Eustace set sail for England. However, on the 24th August, this large French fleet was intercepted by the English navy off of Sandwich and heavily defeated. It is recorded that Eustace died on the deck of his ship fighting the English.

Eustace the monk would be well remembered but not for his holy monastic life!

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