Eustace the Monk- Sorcerer, Monk, Pirate, Admiral and Legend
Born in 1170 near Boulogne, France, Eustace was the younger son of Baudoin Busket, a lord of the county of Boulogne. His upbringing was typical until he traveled to Toledo, Spain as a youth where he is rumored to have studied black magic. According to the contemporary work, Histoire des Ducs de Normandie, “No one would believe the marvels he accomplished, nor those which happened to him many times.” Returning home to France, Eustace gave up his magic and joined a Benedictine monastery at St. Samer Abbey near Calais. However, history was not done with this young man yet.
According to a romance biography written about Eustace in 1225 by an unknown poet from Picardy, Eustace left the monastery in 1190 to avenge his father, who was murdered by Hainfrois de Heresinghen. The two agreed to duel through surrogates, and Eustace’s champion lost. By the rules of trial by combat, Heresinghen was acquitted of all charges. It is not known whether this was a based on truth, but other evidence does show that his father did die some time around 1190. After his father’s death, Eustace decided not to go back to the monastery and became the seneschal and bailiff of the count of Boulogne, Renaud de Dammartin. There was a quarrel between the two some time in 1204 as Eustace fled to the Forest of Boulonnais. The biography states Heresighen stirred up a plot to discredit Eustace by accusing him of embezzling funds from the Count. The Count seized Eustace’s property and burned his land and declared him an outlaw. Eustace retaliated by raiding the Count’s property, including burning down two newly built mills. This war of revenge waged against the Count from the Forest of Boulonnais is thought to be one of the inspirations for the legend of Robin Hood.
Now officially an outlaw, Eustace found this sort of life suited him. He and his brothers established bases on several of the Channel Islands, including the Castle Cornet in Guernsey, and began a career of piracy. From 1205 and 1212, Eustace lived off the rich pickings of French ships in the English Channel and the Straits of Dover as well as selling his sword to the highest bidder. At one point, Eustace commanded as many as 30 ships under the flag of King John of England. He was said to have built a great palace in London and sent his daughter to keep company with the daughters of the nobles of England.
In 1212, something changed. The biography points to Eustace’s mortal enemy of the Count of Boulogne, Renaud de Dammartin, changing his allegiance to King John and poisoning the King’s mind against Eustace. The Annals of Dunstable reports, “… There came… the count of Bloulogne. And the king Of France took all the ships of England which came to his land; and therefore the king of England took many towns of the of the Cinque Ports. And then Eustace, the pirate, called the Monk, fled from us to the king of France with five galleys because the count of Boulogne laid snares for him.” No matter the reason, Eustace changed his coat and began working for King Philip II of France against King John. He was described as “endowed with a diabolical ingenuity in working havoc among his former friends the English.”
Civil war was raging in England and Prince Louis had been invited by some of the barons to come over and be king instead of John. Eustace threw his support to the rebel barons and provided transport to Prince Louis in 1216. He also lent his fleet to bringing much needed reinforcements to Louis in England. This is where he met his defeat. King John had died in October 1216, and the rebel barons were losing much of their support as John’s nine year old son, Henry, took the crown. Prince Louis and the rebels lost an important battle forcing them to retreat to London. Eustace and Robert de Courtenai sailed from Calais on August 24, 1217 with 70 ships loaded with knights and treasure to reprovision them. Eustace was an admiral, but de Courtenai was in command of the fleet over him. This proved to be their undoing. The English assembled a fleet of forty ships under the command of Hubert de Burgh. The ships met off the coast of Sandwich in what should have been a victory. The English ships were smaller than the French as well as outnumbered. De Burgh feinted and de Courtenai took the bait despite urging from Eustace. De Courtenai ordered the French fleet to attack and lost the wind, leaving them vulnerable to the English counterattack. To keep the French from boarding the English ships, they covered the decks in powdered lime. The wind picked up the lime and blinded the French troops.
The knights were slaughtered and de Courtenai was taken for ransom. Eustace knew he was in trouble because he was hated in the crews of the English ships, his former allies. He hid in the ship’s bilge, and when found offered exorbitant sums of money for his freedom. Some stories take this as high 10,000 marks. Eustace was given the choice of his execution site- the ship’s rail or the side of the trebuchet. History does not say which he chose. However, it is recorded a man named Stephan Crabbe did the honors of relieving Eustace of his head. His biography ends with the words, “No man can live long who spends his days doing ill.”
The Battle of Sandwich was lost by the French and eventually Prince Louis had to return to France renouncing the throne of England. Eustace’s brother’s kept their Channel Island bases for a time, but then disappeared into the mists of history.
Sources available on request