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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · History · #2315488
Pirate or maritime hero? The underestimated admiral who seized the salt fleet of the Hansa
         "Lord High Admiral Suffolk, what is your opinion of the situation in France?" asked King Henry VI. The King was seated upon his throne in the Tower of London in the Audience Chamber of the Wakefield Tower.

         Suffolk, a tall fifty-two-year-old ex-soldier from the wars in France under Henry V, had the visage and bearing of a military man. He considered the King's question in the slow, deliberate fashion he had cultivated over many years. He hoped this implied wisdom in his words.

         "Your Majesty, we have fought endless battles in that country, and yet the war never seems to end. This is a time for diplomacy and the truce established by your marriage and the Concession of Marne still holds. All my twenty-two years in army service have taught me is that peace is better than war."

         The King nodded and gripped the hand of his wife, Margaret of Anjou, who sat beside him. She smiled and then her eyes returned to the Earl of Suffolk. Her beauty was a 'natural miracle' and Suffolk could not help but smile back at her. Henry was overjoyed by his marriage to her, which Suffolk helped to arrange, but it had been less popular in the country as a whole coming as it did with the loss of Marne. The difficulties of the situation in France were aggravated by the rise of the populist 'witch' Joan of Arc and her ceaseless campaigns against English control on the other side of the channel.

         It was Richard Duke of York who contradicted Suffolk's advice, though Suffolk noted he did it more diplomatically than he would have done years before. York knew full well that his position at court was still a precarious one.
"Is His Majesty clear that the advantages of appeasement in France have yielded any benefit to the crown? Aside from a comely bride, that is." York bowed reverently toward the Queen.

         Margaret of Anjou bristled at the apparent compliment, which from York's lips sounded more like an insult and was, as York considered her too high a cost for the lost lands. The King also knew his wife's hostility toward York.

         The King just grunted in reply and dismissed York's comment with a wave of his hand.
"Aren't you meant to be preparing for Ireland right now? I gave you the Lieutenancy over there. Suffolk, what other threats exist on the high seas to our royal realm?"

         "A large fleet of German traders, the Bay Fleet, has been spotted in the channel, your Majesty. I have dispatched my subordinate, Robert Wennington, to intercept them and demand they pay a tax for the passage of our waters. But our navy is small and its vessels are undersized by comparison to the ships of the Hanseatic League 1. They will ignore his protestations. We have to perform the challenge, however, so that they are clear on how we regard their frequent and arrogant intrusions. Wennington has performed well in combat against the French, is a skilled seaman and may prove innovative in his engagement with the Hansa."

         Henry considered this for a moment, "The Hanseatic League has financed a great many wars and our economy is dependent on the sale of English wool to them. They control much of our trade from the Stalhof 2 by the Thames, and the costs of importing materials necessary for shipbuilding have concerned our Royal Person for many years. We have no leverage over these people and they are a continual thorn in my side. They have threatened to bankrupt us if we challenge the status quo."

         Suffolk replied, "True, your Majesty, but Wennington stands little chance of actually winning any battle here and his real purpose is simply to make your Majesty's displeasure clear to the League. I will inform you of the outcome of the engagement when Wennington returns."

*Sailing* *Sailing* *Sailing*

         Admiral Robert Wennington was more of a privateer than the kind of commander most national fleets were led by. Any ship that was not English was 'free game' in these waters. He saw the great Bay Fleet carrying salt to the Northern German towns as a great big fat prize but was outnumbered and outgunned by them. His fleet of nine fast, well-crewed, but undergunned vessels was near Guernsey when they spotted the German fleet.

         Wennington was a stocky, well-built man with the hardened, weathered appearance of a veteran sailor. Though an admiral he wore similar clothes to his men while at sea. There was no uniform on the ships of the English navy. Most wore a thick woolen shirt with knee breaches. Only Wennington's leather, fur-lined hat, and the quality of the weave of his clothes gave an air of authority and distinguished him from the mariners around him. He turned to his chief advisor, John Hopkins, also a veteran seaman with decades of experience.

         " So John, they have a hundred and ten ships, including the fifty from the Low Countries, almost all of them larger than ours, and we have only nine, how are we going to play this one?"

         John Hopkins' eyes twinkled through the maze of cracks and lines that was his weathered face.
"I served on a League ship as a boy, as did many on board today. You know these Hansa folk care only about one thing, the profits they get from their cargo. The one thing they will not risk is their cargo. They are also arrogant enough to believe that they can lose a battle and win a war because of sheer buying power."

         "So I need to find a way to threaten the safety of their cargoes, to obtain their surrender and they will probably comply, trusting that the League will bail them out later." Wennington scratched his head.

         Hopkins nodded and continued, "Exactly, but we are outgunned and we do not want to sink all their ships because the whole point is to capture their cargo for ourselves."

         "So a full frontal assault on them is likely to be counterproductive because they outgun us. Using fire ships would probably result in the loss of the cargo for capture. Umm... I have it." Wennington's eyes brightened. "We will ram their lead ship and sink it, we will threaten the same with the other ships and demand their surrender."

         Hopkins smiled, "Yes! To ram a ship like this, you need to come on it from the side. In this way, the hard planking of the bow of the ship will penetrate the thin side planking, causing a breach. We can use HMS Falcon for this, it is fast and its bow is built for such a purpose. Their ships are in a line formation, which is a mistake. Our ships are more maneuverable so we can address each ship in turn. If we ram the first one and then approach the next with guns blazing I believe we can obtain their surrender one by one."

*Sailing* *Sailing* *Sailing*

         Wennington's invitation to court came from the King himself.

         Wennington knew that his commander, the Duke of Suffolk, was in big trouble right now because of the losses in France. Wennington, by contrast, was the hero of the hour having won the naval battle off Guernsey and captured the Bay Fleet with all its cargo.

         He was ushered into the King's audience chamber where his boss Suffolk, the Duke of York Richard Plantagenet and King Henry VI were in attendance. Suffolk looked sallow like a man who spent too much time in the shade of castles and mansions and Wennington noticed that he had chubby fingers. His sword he concluded was mainly ornamental. Queen Margaret studied Wennington with some interest. The rumors about her beauty had not done her justice and Wennington wondered if maybe she was worth the loss of the French lands to the King himself. What would I give up for such a prize he wondered to himself.

         The King interrupted his thoughts, "So Admiral Wennington, the Lord High Admiral told me of your victory. Please tell us the story," asked the King.

         Wennington was still flushed with the victory in the channel and his heart swelled to twice its normal size at this request to brag of his accomplishments before Suffolk and the King,

         "Well your Majesty, by the Lord High Admiral's commands, we tried diplomacy sending a boat to discuss terms. We asked they pay the tax to your Royal Majesty. But they insulted your Royal Person by replying that we should "shyte" in your name instead. Well, such an insult to Your Majesty could not of course be tolerated and so we devised a plan of attack. We rammed the first ship in the side and it started taking in water and then we proceeded to sail to the next and the next, guns blazing. Our English seamen are far more experienced in out-of-the-ordinary situations where flexibility is more important than standard procedure and the seamen of the German fleet had no capacity for innovation by way of reply. Fearing for their cargo they surrendered quickly. We captured 110 ships and we have unloaded their cargo, your Majesty. We have enough salt now, in the Kingdom for the next ten years and all the warehouses in the south of England are bursting with it. Your Majesty has the finest navy in the world, now supplemented by some of the best ships of the Hanseatic League and the Low Countries currently moored in the Isle of Wight."

         King Henry VI clapped his hands together and the Duke of York also seemed immensely pleased by the turn of events. Only Suffolk scowled at his subordinate. That disturbed Wennington as he thought that his victory could only be interpreted in positive terms by his superior.

         The Duke of York's next words opened Wennington's eyes to the reason for Suffolk's scowl and the larger issues at play here.
"Your Majesty it was this kind of spirit that won your father the battle of Agincourt and which generals like Talbot still have today. Your servants are like caged lions waiting to be released against the French enemy. Is diplomacy the best way forward when we have such men as this in Your Kingdom?"

         The King nodded but added diplomatically, "We have the League's salt, this does not need to get violent, but now I have the leverage I was looking for in trade negotiations with those Stalhof brigands, where is the problem here?"

         Suffolk interjected, "Our economy is dependent on the wool trade with Germany. If we are now in a trade war they can cut off our markets in Europe and our farmers and the poor laborers will suffer the consequence of that mistake. They have other sources of salt and will recover their stocks in time whereas we need other goods to build our ships and equip our armies. We should return their ships with their cargo after extracting some tax."

         York shook his head and Wennington watched as he almost seemed to shake his fist at Suffolk, "What are you, a tired old lady afraid to fight? Hypocrite! What do you care about farmers and paupers? Can't you see what Admiral Wennington has demonstrated here? These ships will help us against the French and the salt is fairly won in battle."

         Henry seemed anxious to appease both of his angry Lords and unite them with a common plan.
"We will give back most of the ships but keep the best ones for our navy. Admiral, please pick out the ten best ships and crew them for me. The cargo we will keep until we obtain better terms of trade from the League."

         Suffolk scowled at Wennington and suddenly he was afraid. But the King, Queen, and York were all beaming at him, so perhaps he need not fear for his future after all.


1  The Hanseatic League was a trade league of mainly North German towns that was immensely powerful in the 15th century.
2  The Steelyard or Stahlhof was the outpost of the Hanseatic League in London.

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