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THE THREE HUNDRED YEARS WAR – PART 3 : the dogs of war


This is the third of three articles charting the course of continual Anglo-French conflict from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. The first, covered the rise and fall of the Angevin Empire, and the Treaty of Paris (1259). The second, continued my narrative from the accession of Edward I until the Treaty of Bretigny (1360). In this article, I conclude with the campaigns of Henry V and the Treaty of Troyes (1420). The caveats to my work mentioned previously remain: i) I write from an English perspective; ii) I have omitted any historical events and matters that are not strictly relevant to my subject; iii) this is not a military history; iv) I make no claim to original research or a new interpretation. Since the facts I rely on are well known and relatively uncontroversial, I have used only those sources, and books readily available to the general public.


The Treaty of Bretigny, which was agreed between the plenipotentiaries of England and France during the spring of 1360 was meant to end the war between their two kingdoms, or so the English thought. King Edward III had agreed in principle to renounce his claim to the French throne in exchange for sovereignty of all the French lands he had inherited as a vassal and many of those he had subsequently gained by conquest. All that remained during the summer, therefore, was for the two kings to renounce their respective titles. The so-called ‘renunciation clause’ was complex and far-reaching, and the devil was in the detail. In fact, so difficult was it to agree the details, the renunciations clause had to be removed from the body of the treaty document, to be dealt with in a separately in another document, in due course. It was an omission that bedeviled Anglo-French relations for the next fifty years.

The Treaty of Bretigny bought nine years of relative peace between the Houses of Valois and Plantagenet, but it did not bring peace to the French people. Like the earlier treaties, it resolved some minor grievances without addressing the fundamental question of sovereignty that was driving Anglo-French conflict. Edward’s failure to press for the implementation of the renunciation clause ensured that at some point in the future sovereignty would be a casus belli. Whether this failure was an early indication of Edward’s failing powers or simply Plantagenet hubris we cannot be certain. After all, Edward had stopped calling himself the king of France and King John of France was not actually claiming any feudal jurisdiction in the English held lands. Edward may have believed that by not actually renouncing his title he could keep the defeated French compliant to the peace. The French, not unnaturally, were loath to consummate an international treaty that ceded so much of their sovereign territory to a foreign power. They were, however, in a weak position: King John was a prisoner in London, their Treasury was empty, the nobles were divided and the peasants were war-weary. Yet for all that, they never accepted the  peace willingly. As soon as they could, they made their feelings known. In 1363, at the instigation of the Dauphin, the French Estates denounced the Treaty of Bretigny. It was, of course, a purely symbolic gesture since they were in no position to antagonize the English by not observing the peace.

King John died in 1364 still a prisoner in England. His successor Charles V embarked on a plan to eradicate the English presence from France.[1] By adopting a mixture of diplomacy, bribery and limited force against English sympathisers (never against England directly), Charles was able to extend his royal authority in Brittany, Burgundy and Flanders; thus, isolating the English from potential allies. Edward’s apparent indifference to Charles’ activities facilitated French ambition, which included dabbling in a foreign succession dispute that triggered a resumption of the Hundred Years War. England and France were drawn in on opposite sides in a wrangle over the Castilian throne. Charles VI’s aim of putting a French puppet on the Castilian throne was scotched by the Prince of Wales’ victory at the battle of Najera in 1367. but it did not stop the fighting. By 1369 the Prince of Wales needed money to finance another campaign in Spain. Although, the Gascon Estates voted the Prince Edward a hearth tax to be paid by all of King Edward III’s Gascon subjects, not everyone agreed to pay. John of Armagnac and Arnaud Amanieu, Lord of Albret did not to allow the tax to be collected in their provinces, citing ancient privilege. Dissatisfied with the Prince’s response and without waiting for the outcome of an inquiry ordered by King Edward, they took their case to the French king as overlord. [2] Charles was well aware that to hear this appeal would be a breach of the Treaty of Bretigny justifying a resumption of the war, but it was a risk he was prepared to take. Charles believed that France was stronger than it had been in 1360 and that England was weaker. But even so, it was necessary for obvious reasons to give the whole matter mature consideration and observe the legal proprieties. He therefore took legal opinion from French and Neapolitan jurists, who advised him that owing to the non-performance of the ‘renunciation clause’ he was still the suzerain in Aquitaine with jurisdiction to hear the appeals, and had a moral and legal duty to protect his subjects from the discretion of a ‘disloyal vassal’. Moreover, the lawyers also counseled that the peace of Bretigny was hardly threatened since all ‘the Plantagenet’ had to do was his duty and submit to ‘his master’s judgement. The rest of the treaty would therefore remain in force; but if it were broken that would be the fault of the English king.

Charles waited for a month or so until all his preparations were complete before summoning the Prince of Wales to present himself before the French Parlement to answer the charge that he had denied justice to the Gascon Lords. [3] The Black Prince did not his mince words in reply. “We would willingly attend on the appointed day” he wrote “since the king of France commands it, but it will be with our helmet on and sixty thousand men at our back.”[4] He was, in fact, so angry that he threw the French messenger into prison. Predictably, he did not present himself in Paris on the appointed day. Equally predictably, Charles confiscated Aquitaine. King Edward tried to open negotiations with Charles, as he was anxious to prevent war and to preserve his conquests. But it was to no avail, Charles was determined on war and ignored Edward’s missives. Edward therefore resumed his title as the King of France. The war was on again.

The 1370s was a bad decade for the English. They were ill prepared for the resumption of war in France and distracted by a political crisis at home. The decline and subsequent deaths of England’s greatest heroes King Edward and the Prince of Wales had a detrimental effect on the conduct of the war and on English political stability. After an abortive effort to lead an expedition to France in 1372, King Edward withdrew from public life and into the bed of his concubine Alice Perrers. It is difficult to gauge Edward’s contribution to the conduct of the war thereafter due to his physical and mental decline: perhaps not much. Although the Prince of Wales commanded public respect, he was now too ill to fight or to take the reins of power from his ailing father[5]. Edward’s other sons were of no account. John Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), a man of limitless ambition and limited ability was far too engrossed in his own royal ambition in Spain to provide the type of leadership the English needed. In any case he lacked the prestige accorded to redoubtable and successful warriors. Edmund of Langley was simply not up to the job and Thomas of Woodstock was too young. By the middle of the decade, practically all of the English possessions in France were lost.

By 1375 signs of war weariness were apparent in both kingdoms. King Edward declined into senility, the Prince of Wales lay dying and the English were still coming to terms with the economic and social consequences of the plague; the social discontent in England is therefore unsurprising. The situation in France was as bad, if not actually worse. There, the populace had endured the violence of war for more than forty years. Even during the so-called’ periods of truce, violence was never far away owing to the depredations of marauding bands of unemployed soldiers who, when not engaged in crime, sold their services to the feuding French nobility. Things were especially hard for those who were unlucky enough to be in the path of an Anglo-Gascon chevauchée. King Charles V had achieved much during his reign by undoing the Bretigny agreement, but he had re-kindled a war that he lacked the resources to win. The exhaustion of the two kingdoms forced a truce that lasted for thirty-five years.

The problems of the past did not disappear with the accession of Richard II (a minor) in 1377 and Charles VI (also a minor) in 1380. However, the change of monarchs did provide some scope for a negotiated end to the war. King Richard was not involved in the English victories in France and was by nature pacifistic. Neither was there any appetite among the English polity to resume the fighting. Richard continued to hold the provocative title of ‘King of England and France’, but his references to Charles VI were conciliatory. Rather than calling Charles ‘our adversary of France’, he referred to him as ‘our cousin France’ or ‘our father France’. Richard’s obvious deference to and his admiration for Charles grated with his English subjects. Though they might not want war,  Richard’s pro-French policy culminating in his marriage to a French princess and a strengthening of the truce was unpopular. The political situation was further aggravated by the fact that Richard and Charles were not ordinary kings. Charles was periodically mad necessitating rule by a Regent during his incapacity and leading to a factional power struggle in France. Richard was probably mad and bad to such an extent that in the last year of the fourteenth century Parliament pronounced him to be ‘useless, unfit and insufficient for the government of the realm’.

Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s eldest son, seized the English throne from his cousin on the 30 September 1399. Richard was incarcerated in Pontefract Castle, where he died a few months later.[6]Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. Shakespeare’s phrase may seem hackneyed but it is still an apt comment on the woes that befell King Henry IV. He was continually troubled by plots to kill him or rebellions to depose him. His political enemies, many of whom were his erstwhile supporters, had no qualms about accepting French gold and soldiers in their efforts to overthrow the Lancastrian regime.[7] Despite the existence of a truce, the French sought to exploit English weakness by stirring the pot of their fractured politics. Charles VI never recognized Henry as England’s rightful king. In fact, he assembled a fleet and an army to invade southern England in Richard’s name. He changed his mind, however, and confirmed continuance of the truce once he heard that Richard was already dead.[8]

The political instability in England was matched if not exceeded by the anarchy  in France. During Charles VI’s minority and his periodic bouts of madness, a Regency Council governed France. Two powerful factions vied for leadership of the Council. It was a situation that was bound to promote a destructive rivalry between Louis Duke of Orleans and Phillip Duke of Burgundy who held the reins of government alternately during Charles’ incapacity, and sought to influence him during his lucid periods. Although the dukes’ rivalry was fueled by personal hatred, it did not escalate into civil war until the first decade of the fifteenth century.[9] Duke Phillip’s death in 1404 and Duke Louis’ murder at the hands of Burgundians in 1407 had a profound affect on Anglo-French relations. The Duke of Orleans was the principal agitator for a war with England that would drive them out of France altogether. He had already (in 1406) attacked English castles in Gascony and promised aid to the earl of Northumberland in his rebellion against King Henry. Orleans was resolved to continue hostilities against the English in flagrant breach of the truce. His death therefore relieved Henry of his fears for Gascony and scotched French support for Northumberland’s rebels. However, Louis’ murder plunged France into open civil war between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, in which both sides sought military assistance from the English (whilst no doubt holding their noses).

Now it so happened that Henry Prince of Wales the king’s eldest son and the leader of his Council was keen to lead an expedition to France in support of the Burgundians; in fact, he had already began the necessary preparations. The quid pro quo for the Plantagenets was possession of some Flemish castles and a dynastic marriage between the Prince of Wales and Anne of Burgundy. King Henry, however, was against such an alliance. He believed that exploiting division in France served his best interests and that this was best achieved by supporting the rebel Armagnacs. Henry must also have realised the necessity of avoiding any fighting between his Gascon and English subjects; not, could he have been oblivious to the damage an alliance with Burgundy might do to his wider interests in Brittany, Aragón and Navarre. In any case, he disliked the Duke of Burgundy, who still refused to recognize his authority as king of England. Henry therefore cancelled the Burgundian expedition, summoned Parliament and dismissed the Prince of Wales as leader of the Council. Prince Henry was replaced in his father’s trust by his brother Thomas of Lancaster and relegated to the political sidelines.

Unfortunately, the Prince’s negotiations with Burgundy were too far advanced to ignore. Despite his declared preference, Henry did not prevent the English expeditionary force led by the earl of Arundel embarking for Flanders; where, in November 1411 English archers were the decisive factor in a notable Anglo-Burgundian victory against the Armagnacs. By 1412, both sides were clamouring for an English alliance. Their cause being desperate, the Armagnacs offered the most. They acknowledged Henry as king of England and promised sovereignty of all Aquitaine together with suitable marriages to  girls of royal blood. It promised Henry everything he could have desired. Henry duly signed the Treaty of Bourges (1412) with the Armagnac faction and declared his intention to lead an English army personally to France. Thus was England drawn inexorably into the French civil war: it was unlikely to end well.

On the 10 August 1412, Thomas, now the Duke of Clarence, disembarked 1000 men-at-arms and 3000 archers on the Cotentin Peninsular. But it was a trap: the Armagnacs had betrayed Henry. The French factions had resolved their differences, forgiven each other and identified the English as their common enemy. Clarence’s force was not merely unwelcome they were treated as invaders. Nonetheless, Clarence reacted boldly and swiftly to the new situation. He attacked the Armagnacs for their treachery, sacked the Duke of Berry’s lands, demanded compensation and cut a swathe of death and destruction across France all the way to Gascony. He arrived back in England just in time for his father’s funeral.

‘France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe, or break it all to pieces’[10]

For more than fifty years the Treaty of Bretigny had dominated Anglo-French relations. The focus was exclusively on territories in southwest France. Neither side gave any thought to the other parts of the Plantagenet inheritance. However, no sooner was King Henry V crowned than he renewed the Plantagenet claim to the French Crown. He also demanded implementation of the Treaty of Bretigny and raised the further question of England’s ancient rights to Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine, Provence, Nogent and Beaufort. He backed away from these demands only twice: in 1415 and again in 1416 for tactical reasons.[11] The fact is that, without prejudice to his claim to the French throne, Henry always sought the effective restoration of the Angevin Empire in full sovereignty and he was determined to get his way. In the words of Dr Maurice Keen, these were not new issues ‘but old issues newly raised’ since they had not been discussed since the peace of Bretigny. From the beginning of his reign, therefore, Henry directed his energy, and that of his government and his subjects to preparing for war.

Dr Gerald Harriss suggests that Henry used war as an instrument of policy rather that profit.[12] He was, I think, distinguishing between Henry’s foreign policy and that of his great-grandfather on two points, the first being a question of principle. Whereas Edward III was prepared to trade his claim to the French throne for territorial concessions, Henry was not; though, he might pretend to negotiate if it suited his purpose. The choice he offered the French was blunt, either they surrender to all his demands or go to war.[13] During the summer of 1415, he wrote to Charles VI clarifying that while he might have been prepared to bargain over the size of Princess Catherine’s dowry[14] and his territorial inheritance, he could not in conscience abandon his claim to the French throne. Diplomacy was, of course, necessary for appearance sake, but Henry never took the negotiations seriously. He was keen to maintain and exploit French disunity by playing the Armagnacs and Burgundians off against each other. Every time it appeared that Anglo-French diplomats might have  agreed a compromise, Henry returned to his original demands. It was everything or it was war. Never at any time did he halt his military preparation. In any case, the idea of war with France was not unpopular in England. It was a unifying influence after the political instability of his father’s reign. By 1415, the whole kingdom was united behind Henry’s ‘just’ demands.

The second point of difference between Henry and Edward III was in the execution of policy and especially in the type of war each king waged. Henry eschewed the plundering ‘tip and run’ chevauchées so prevalent in the fourteenth century, in favour of a more methodical conquest of territory. It is a moot point whether chevauchées had any military value beyond enriching the English warrior class with ransom money and booty. French historians tend to the view that they were not only heartless but also aimless, producing no military benefit for the damage and suffering they caused. Modern English speaking historians take a different view. They argue that chevauchées were part of a strategic plan to provoke the French to battle or at least to weaken their resources and morale. Although Edward III’s strategy delivered notable victories at Crecy and Poitiers, it did not actually enlarge English holdings in France or subdue French resistance to English authority. So that at the first opportunity, they had reneged on the treaty and won back practically all that they had lost. In contrast, Henry prepared an army that was well officered and equipped for siege or open warfare. In addition to the mounted knights, men-at-arms and the ubiquitous Anglo-Welsh archers, Henry assembled a modern (by fifteenth century standards) artillery train with gunners, combat engineers and artisans. It was a crack professional ‘all arms’ force well able to seize, hold and consolidate territory and towns in France. [15] Henry was also more ambitious than his great grandfather. He knew he needed to defeat the French in battle, but if he claimed to be the king of France, he must act like the king of France. He could not possible countenance inflicting pain and suffering on those whom he claimed were his French subjects. English march discipline was therefore generally good. That said, of course, some of his actions during his campaigns demonstrated his mercilessness towards French rebels who opposed him, not excluding defenceless civilians. It is notable, nonetheless, that by fifteenth century standards, even the French regarded Henry as a just and honourable man, and likely to make a better king than Charles VI or his son. If we judge these different strategies by results, then it is a notable fact that Henry’s strategy — albeit facilitated by French division and incompetence — succeeded for a time in putting an Englishman on the French throne.

Henry V led three expeditions to France during his reign: in 1415, from 1417 until the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 and from 1421 until his death in 1422. The invasion of 1415 should be viewed in the context of the diplomacy that preceded it, which touched on the core problems of Anglo-French relations. Henry could no more moderate his claim to be the rightful king of France or his demand for the restoration of his Angevin inheritance in full sovereignty, than Charles VI could agree to them. The restoration of the ‘Angevin Empire’ would pose an existential threat to the Valois dynasty and to France as a sovereign kingdom. Henry’s seeming obduracy was fueled by his burning sense of injustice at French perfidy, which had deprived him of his just rights. Besides, Henry had already entreated divine justice for his cause and God’s judgement can only be known after trial by combat. Whatever hopes Henry may or may not have had for the campaign of 1415 (and I am not going to speculate about that), he was surely, at the very least, intent on proving the justice of his cause to the Roman Church and the secular rulers of Christendom.

Henry’s victory at Agincourt on the 25 October 1415 is regarded as one of the greatest military triumphs in English history. It elevated England’s martial reputation to the first rank of military men and it bought Henry great renown in the courts of Christendom, and a popularity and authority at home unknown since the heyday of Edward III’s reign. A small English army, ravaged by illness and trapped by a larger enemy force had in a single day destroyed the flower of French chivalry: it was a miracle. However. The campaign that preceded the battle can hardly be said to have presaged such success. The only tangible strategic gain from the whole campaign was the capture of Harfleur; the siege of which took longer and cost more in the lives of his men than Henry could have anticipated. Though combat losses were relatively few, the men succumbed to dysentery in their thousands, bivouacked as they were in the low-lying marshes surrounding Harfleur. By the time the town was taken, Henry had barely half of his original force fit for service. The losses suffered changed the nature of Henry’s campaign. It is questionable whether his decision to march north to Calais was an act of bravado, or a gambler’s attempt to avoid battle.[16]

Even so,Henry could not afford to rest on his laurels.  It was from Harfleur that he  intended to launch a second expedition during the summer of 1416. His plan  was, however, dislocated by a conjunction of military and diplomatic developments during the first half of the year that demanded his attention. First, and most worrying, was a French military resurgence. Far from being cowed by the loss of Harfleur and their crushing defeat at Agincourt, the French led by the warlike Duke of Armagnac moved to recapture Harfleur as soon as possible. The town’s defences, which were virtually destroyed in the siege, had not been fully repaired. Moreover, blockaded as they were by a Franco-Genoese fleet in the estuary and by Armagnac’s army on the landward side, the English garrison was cut off from their sources of resupply and reinforcement. By the summer of 1416, the situation was dire. The men were starving and trapped in the Town. Instead of preparing for a second expedition, therefore, Henry’s energy was necessarily diverted to preparing a relief force for the strategically important port of Harfleur.

Contemporaneously with the problem of Harfleur, Henry had also to deal with a diplomatic initiative led by Sigismund of Luxembourg King of the Romans and Holy Roman Emperor elect. He had been sent by the Council of Constance to secure a permanent Anglo-French peace as a precursor to ending the papal schism.[17] Sigismund began his talks in Paris with the French Regency Council who were in the grip of the hawkish Armagnacs and therefore decidedly lukewarm about a compromise peace.  The problem was that nothing could be achieved in France without an accommodation with John the Fearless Duke of Burgundy. In late spring, therefore, Sigismund moved to England to speak to Henry. He brought with him William of Bavaria as joint mediator and representative of the French Crown. William was the Dauphin’s father-in-law and cousin to the French Queen Isabella. It was also hoped to involve the Dukes of Bourbon and of Orleans, both of whom were already in London as Henry’s prisoners since Agincourt. By these means Sigismund and Queen Isabella hoped to bypass the Duke of Armagnac who was an obstacle to peace. Meanwhile, in England Henry was in continual touch with the Duke of Burgundy and his representative. Although he did not get active Burgundian assistance, a truce was agreed and extended to ensure their neutrality for the time being. Henry had assured the Duke that he would not break the truce by agreeing anything with the Duke’s enemies that was contrary to Burgundian interests.[18]

The ‘conference of London began on the 28 May 1416. Although Henry suspected that the French delegates were prevaricating in the hope that Harfleur would be retaken, he could not ignore this effort to achieve a diplomatic solution. The only thing of substance to emerge from the discussions was a proposal for an Anglo-French truce of three years to allow time for a properly informed peace conference to take place. Under this agreement, the siege of Harfleur would be lifted and the town would be surrendered to the neutral control of agreed mediators pending the outcome of the peace conference. Henry was so worried by the situation in Harfleur that he was minded to accept the truce even though it would prevent him from following up his success at Agincourt for three years. However, the French lords in London could not agree to the truce without first taking instructions from the Regent’s Council in Paris. Henry was furious: he declared publicly that the duplicitous French were scheming against peace, and proclaimed his intention to send a relief force to Harfleur forthwith. Faced with the complete collapse of the conference, the French moved urgently to put the proposal to Paris.  Under pressure from Armagnac (now Constable of France), the Council denounced the proposal for a truce; however, it was decided that they would  draw out the talks until Harfleur was recaptured, by pretending that the truce might be acceptable.  Henry was not fooled, he began fitting-out a force to relieve Harfleur.[19]

By now, however, Sigismund’s Anglophile sympathies were public knowledge. On the 15 August in the City of Canterbury he gave Henry everything he could reasonably have expected from the recent diplomatic manoeuvring. Sigismund and Henry signed a ‘perpetual alliance’, which not only approved of Henry’s war to recover “…our crown and realm of France and our other rights and inheritances” but promised to “…help and support Henry, his heirs and successors in the possession or retention of the said rights, lands and domains.” [20]  The Treaty of Canterbury gave Henry international recognition of the justice of his cause and the promise of help to recover and hold his ‘just rights’ if needed. Not that Henry needed much help; on the same day that the Treaty was signed, Henry’s brother John Duke of Bedford routed the Franco-Genoese fleet off the Seine Estuary in perhaps the most significant naval engagement of Hundred Years War. The battle, which lasted for seven hours was hard-fought but ended in bloody ruin for the Franco-Genoese fleet that lost at least three carracks and countless lesser vessels. It was the enemy who fled as Bedford and his tired men sailed into the estuary. Armagnac lost no time in abandoning the siege.

Despite the euphoria of these successes, Henry knew that the key to his success lay in his ability to secure a rapport with John the Fearless. No doubt, the Duke was a fascinated bystander of the diplomatic manoeuvering during the summer. And It may not have surprised him to be invited to join the Emperor Sigismund and Henry in a ‘next steps’ conference to be held in Calais. I think it is fair to say that by this stage Henry was resolved to wage war in France beginning in 1417, and that the conference was being used to arrange an accommodation with John the Fearless that ensured that the French remained divided by civil war. Sigismund may still have harboured hopes of an Anglo-French peace but at this stage that was an unrealistic hope. Sigismund and John were not the best of friend. However, it suited Henry’s purpose to use the conference to reconcile the Emperor and the Duke. John was suspicious and would not come to Calais without taking an English hostage as security for his safety. The Duke of Gloucester fulfilled that role admirably. Moreover, John’s whole approach to the conference was equivocal. He would not give Henry active assistance nor even recognize his claim to the French throne unless and until it was certain that Henry would win, in which case he would come openly to Henry’s side. He also insisted that his refusal to help must not be construed as though he was acting contrary to Henry’s best interest. It was such a vague and valueless promise that historians wonder why Henry accepted it without demur. He was taking a risk, but it was a calculated one. He didn’t actually need John’s active participation but he did need his ‘benign neutrality’. Such was the antipathy between Armagnacs and Burgundians that there was little or no chance of them combining their forces against the English invader at this time. Once the Calais conference broke up, Henry returned to England for the opening of Parliament on the 19 November. At the same time he sent an embassy to France to extend the truce agreed in the summer. It was disingenuous of him, since his mind was clearly set on war. The purpose of summoning parliament was to provide the money and support he needed for his next expedition. He was given a subsidy of two tenths and fifteenths. It was a generous subsidy but not unconditional. Three quarters of the tax would be collected in February 1417 and the remainder in November 1417. Meanwhile no further grants would be made under any circumstances.[21]

The aim of Henry’s second expedition to France was to conquer Normandy — town-by-town, castle-by-castle if need be — and restore it to the English Crown in full sovereignty, and with the king of England as its duke. He realised it would take longer and cost more in blood and money than any English expedition since the 1350’s, but it was necessary. His plan had two overlapping elements. First, he must win the fighting so as to impose his authority in Normandy, and elsewhere in France if the opportunity presented itself. He was greatly aided in this by the French civil war. A combination of the Duke of Burgundy’s campaign north east of the Seine to restore his hegemony in Paris, and the penury and maladministration of the royal government in Paris had deprived Charles VI of an effective field army able to defend Normandy.[22] France’s only substantial defence of its west coast was a naval flotilla deployed in the Seine Estuary to oppose a possible English landing at Harfleur. The defence of Normandy itself relied solely on the separate garrisons deployed there in towns and castles. Second, Henry needed to administer his conquests wisely and efficiently. He could not allow funds to be raised by looting his Norman subjects. Some form of taxation would be required but arranged in such a way as did not alienate his Norman subjects. He also understood that fear was no substitute for genuine authority and so he invoked the rich Anglo-Norman history of the past as a means of securing acceptance. To this end he also appealed to Norman separatism and their well-known antipathy to government from far-away Paris. Finally. A crucial piece of Henry’s settlement plan was the grant of land and titles to his English soldiers and administrators ‘a sort of Norman Conquest in reverse’.[23]

Henry’s intention to mount a triple assault on the French heartland simultaneously from England, Germany and Burgundy’s domains proved impracticable as the Holy Roman Empire would not declare war on France.[24] Neither could Henry rely absolutely on Burgundian cooperation. There is little doubt that Henry and John the Fearless had agreed to concert their actions. However, they were fighting for different things and there was always the risk of a conflict of interests that might be awkward if, for example, the Burgundians advanced into Normandy or Henry’s troops strayed too close to Paris.[25] Henry embarked for Normandy on the 23 June 1417. On the 29 June a French flotilla guarding the Seine Estuary was routed, enabling Henry to disembark his army at Touques about ten miles south of Harfleur. By this time, Burgundy was advancing from the north issuing ‘inflammatory manifestos’ enroute The French who faced fighting on two fronts and were heavily outnumbered deployed their only field army to defend Paris, leaving the Normans to their own devices. By the 4 September Henry had invested, captured and sacked the town of Caen, as a brutal example to others who might resist his will. He then overran southern Normandy as far as Alencon and Belléme (in Perche). The speed with which the Norman submitted was astonishing. Falaise fell in February 1418, the Cotentin Peninsular was overrun by the spring (only Cherbourg held out), by July Henry had established a bridgehead across the Seine at Ponte-de-l’Arche between Rouen and Paris and by the end of July Rouen was under siege. Henry progress had so alarmed the French government that they swallowed their pride and opened negotiations with Henry. His demands, however, were unchanged: the hand of Princess Catherine, restoration of his Angevin inheritance circa 1200 in full sovereignty and his claim to the French throne ‘firmly and emphatically stated’.

The year of 1419 was to prove decisive for Henry’s aspirations in almost every respect. In January Rouen the capital of Normandy fell to his troops. A powerful English army was now entrenched seventy-five miles from Paris. According to an anonymous Paston correspondent, Henry’s army had already captured 7 cities, 31 Towns, 81 castles, and 6 abbeys in Normandy.[26] The threat to French sovereignty from the English king was now so grave that John the Fearless was on the point of abandoning his ‘benign neutrality’ and joining the Armagnacs and the Dauphin in a unified opposition against the English. But it all went disastrously wrong for French hopes on the 10 September 1419. The Dauphin’s men murdered the Duke of Burgundy on the bridge of Montereau during a conference, which he had attended in the hope of healing French divisions.[27] It was a treacherous act of supreme stupidity, which fatally divided French opinion and ended any chance of unity. The Queen, the Burgundians and those Frenchmen not living under the Dauphin’s control set themselves against the Dauphin’s succession. He was regarded as ‘the tool of a vulgar clique of extremist politicians and was either a murderer or manipulated by murderers’. He could not be allowed succeed to the French throne. It was this that drove the Burgundians into an alliance with Henry. Even so, dealing with the English was not regarded by anybody in France as the ideal solution but only as the ‘least worst’ option. It offered peace and the best opportunity of ending Armagnac hegemony. Besides, there was no guarantee that the Armagnac regime would not themselves seek an accommodation with King Henry against the Queen and the Burgundians. Even in their extremity, it seems that the French factions were more intent in continuing their blood feud than uniting against France’s natural enemy. The gash in the duke of Burgundy’s head caused by the assassins axe was indeed ‘the hole by which the English entered France.’[28] Henry quickly recognized John’s murder as an opportunity to achieve all of his aspirations. With the duke dead, the Dauphin discredited and the only other Valois candidate imprisoner in England, Henry had a realistic chance of succeeding to the French throne. [29] There was no prospect of French unity and given that neither side in the civil war was strong enough to resist him on there own he could dictate his own terms.

The Treaty of Troyes ranks alongside the Treaty of Bretigny as the most important treaties of the Hundred Years War, though they were quite different. Bretigny was intended to regulate a feudal dispute. Troyes was a dynastic settlement. Its core purpose was to settle the French succession on Henry V who would marry Princess Catherine of France so that their heirs and descendants would be the legitimate successors to the French throne. It was a revolutionary solution to the problem of Anglo-French conflict that had seemed intractable. Whereas Bretigny had floundered on the vagueness of the ‘renunciation clause’, which proved to be unenforceable, Troyes was clear, comprehensive and authoritative. It took the form of a series of letters notionally emanating from Charles VI covering the succession, Catherine’s marriage to Henry, Henry’s Regency, separation of the two kingdoms and some technical land matters. All that remained were the several legal and political obstacles.

The Plantagenet claim to the French throne had already been rejected by the French owing to the Salic law. To overcome this, Henry dropped his claim and invoked the royal authority of Charles VI to ‘take Henry as his son in consideration of his marriage to Princess Catherine’, and to nominate Henry as heir apparent to the French throne. Charles’ natural son Charles Count of Ponthieu, Duke of Touraine and Berry (the Dauphin) was thereby disinherited. Though there were some misgivings about this, it was ratified on the grounds that the Dauphin was guilty of treason (les majeste) and therefore barred from the succession. This judgement was confirmed by the Lit de Justice in 1421. Thus were the dual questions of sovereignty and cession rendered otiose. Normandy, Aquitaine and all the other territories claimed by the English would remain within the sovereign French kingdom as part of the Crown Estates. Moreover Henry who was appointed Regent during Charles’ incapacity swore to govern wisely, to respect French customs, law and language, not to ‘Anglicize’ the French civil service and to keep his two kingdoms separate. In return, Henry extracted oaths of loyalty from the French polity at large. Finally, to ensure legitimacy (after all Charles VI was mad) the Treaty provided that its terms must by ratified by the ‘Estates’ of both kingdoms: as indeed they were.

It is a tribute to Henry’s political acumen and the skill and professionalism of his diplomatic corps that Troyes was the only treaty during the Hundred Years War to address all the objections of both sides. It did not, nevertheless, meet with universal approval in France or in England. The fact that it was accepted by a ‘sufficient body of Frenchmen’ to ensure peace was due entirely to the real-politick of the situation. But the point was not lost on Frenchmen that Henry had only been able to drive such a hard bargain due to their division.

Although with hindsight we know that the Treaty of Troyes marked the summit of English achievement during their French wars. However, at the time it was still considered to be work in progress by Henry who spent the rest of his life fighting those who would not accept his dominion. The modern historical consensus is that even if he had lived longer his chances of subduing the whole French kingdom were at best slim. The problems were both political and practical. Politically, the French would never willingly accept a foreign monarch imposed on them. Gerald Harris captures the real situation perfectly: “The task [Henry] had set himself was far more difficult and longer than that in England. He had exploited and deepened divisions he now had to heal; neither did he possess the intuitive understanding of his new subjects, or their natural loyalty, which underlay his leadership of the English nation. If he commanded the respect of some Frenchmen and met their longing for peace, others would always hate and repudiate him as a usurper.”[30] Moreover, the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, which was the cornerstone of Troyes settlement, was ‘thoroughly unnatural’.[31] Despite the political machinations of their duke, the Burgundians were loyal Frenchmen. They bowed to real politick in 1420 but had no long-term interest in replacing the House of Valois with the House of Plantagenet, especially if a credible Valois Dauphin should emerge to lead them. The wonder is that it took them until 1435 to unite with their fellow Frenchmen to drive the English out of France.

It was impracticable for England to subjugate a whole kingdom as large, as populace and as rich as France. Their resources were simply not equal to the task. The strain was already beginning to tell in 1419. The truculence of Parliament concerning the cost of war, the complaints about the escalating cost of maintaining Normandy, which fell on the English, and the cooling of English ardour for restoration of the king’s rights all suggest the onset of war weariness. It is possible that by 1420, Henry’s ambition did not match that of his subjects. Finally: even if we accept that the Treaty might have been durable during Henry’s life, it had no chance of surviving long after his death on the 31 August 1422.

[1] Edouard Perroy – The Hundred Years War (Eyre & Spottiswoode 1965-English translation) pp141-155: Charles V was much more politically astute than his father. Perroy takes the view that during the 1370’s he ‘dominated both kingdoms’, being both wise and realistic. This was in stark contrast to the leadership in England.

[2] Jonathan Sumption – The Hundred Years War Volume 2: trial by fire (Faber and Faber 2001 edition) pp.540-585: those hoping for a comprehensive analysis of event from 1366 to 1369 need look no further than this chapter of Lord Sumption’s definitive history of the Hundred Years War. See also Perroy pp158-160: Lord Albret was betrothed to the French Queen’s youngest sister. I cannot escape the suspicion that the Gascon lords and Charles were conspiring to create a situation whereby Charles could bring the question of Aquitaine sovereignty to the fore and to his advantage.

[3] Sumption (Vol 2) ibid: Perroy p.160: Charles VI manufactured a ‘quasi rebellion’ against the English in Gascony by encouraging upwards of 900 appellants to bring their grievances to the French Parlement in Paris. His aim was to justify his interference in the affairs of Aquitaine and lay the blame on King Edward for any adverse consequences.

[4] John Jolliffe (editor & translator) – Froissart’s Chronicles (Harvill Press 1967) p.209

[5] The Black Prince had fought his last campaign in 1370.

[6] Ian Mortimer – The Fears of Henry IV (Vintage 2008) pp.210-217: scholars are divided about how Richard died and whether Henry IV was complicit in his death. Mortimer summarizes the evidence and concludes that Richard was probably killed at Henry’s command. Nigel Saul – Richard II (Yale 1999 edition) pp. 424-427: also rehearses the various versions of Richard’s end, but offers no opinion of his own.

[7] Mortimer (Fears): pp.284-285 and passim: John Barratt – War for the Throne: the battle of Shrewsbury 1403 (Pen and Sword 2010) pp. 113-115; the Epiphany rising in January 1400, was followed by the Percy’s rebellion of 1403 and Owen Glendower’s rebellion in Wales. In 1404, the French landed troops at Dartmouth at the invitation of Margaret Countess of Oxford, to support an uprising in the name of King Richard. In the same year, they were involved in a plot to raise rebellion in Essex and the Count of St Pol invaded the Isle of Wight. The Percy’s rebelled again in 1408. These rebellions were all crushed relatively quickly with the exception of Glendower’s rebellion, which lasted until 1410.

[8] Mortimer (Fears) pp.210-217: there is confusion about how Charles could have known that Richard was dead by early January 1400, since it was not official announced until late February 1400. Mortimer hypothesises that somehow a French spy discovered that King Henry had ordered one of his knights to ‘dispose of Richard if the Epiphany rebels looked like freeing him’. The spy assumed that Richard was ‘disposed of’ immediately. However, Henry was merely taking a precaution against the possibility that Richard might be freed. In fact, Richard was not murdered until February once the fuss had died down.

[9] The Duke of Orleans was the leader of a group that included the Count of Armagnac and his Gascons. Consequently, they were known as ‘the Armagnacs’. The opposing faction led by the Duke of Burgundy was called the Burgundians.

[10] William Shakespeare – Henry V Act 1 Scene 2

[11] GL Harriss (Editor) – Henry V: the practice of kingship (Alan Sutton 1993 edition) pp.186-187: Henry indicated a willingness to negotiate on his terms for peace in 1415 and 1416 only because he was anxious to demonstrate ‘his moderation’ to the Council of Constance and to Sigismund who were attempting to broker a permanent Anglo-French peace. See also Jonathan Sumption – The Hundred Years War Volume 4: cursed kings (Faber and Faber 2016 edition) p.658, who offers a different opinion. He believes that Henry’s claim to the French throne was ‘a mere bargaining counter to be exchanged for an acceptable territorial concession’.

[12] Harriss p.204

[13] Perroy pp. 236-238: professor Perroy’s point that Henry’s diplomacy was intended to force the French to surrender to his demands or go to a war is well made.

[14] By this time, a dynastic marriage to Charles’ daughter Catherine was a key component of Henry’s diplomatic strategy.

[15] Christopher Allmand – Henry V (Yale 1997 edition) pp.66-73; Christopher Hibbert – Agincourt (Pan 1964) p.73; Juliet Barker- Agincourt (Abacus 2015 edition) pp. 54-69 & 147-149; Sumption (Vol 4) Chps 9 and 10

[16] Allmand pp.78-85; Sumption (Vol 4) pp.431-442; Ian Mortimer – 1415: Henry V’s year of glory (Vintage 2009) pp.383-387; Juliet Barker – Agincourt (Abacus 2015 edition) Chp 12 passim; Christopher Hibbert – Agincourt (Pan 1968) pp.71-77 and Anne Curry – Henry V (Penguin 2018) pp.72-73: each of these historians discusses Henry options after the fall of Harfleur in the context of his original intention. The various scenarios put forward though plausible are perforce speculative and based on reasoning rather than evidence. Henry kept his original plan to himself and it has not come down to us. The only contemporary mention of his intention is an a letter written on the 3 September 1415 (that is during the siege) to the Mayor and Jura of Bordeaux by one Dr Jean Bordui, archdeacon of Medoc and one of Henry’s Gascon clerks with him at Harfleur. “ I have heard it is not his intention to enter the town but to stay in the field. In [a] short while after the capture of the town, he intends to go to Montivilliers and then to Dieppe, and afterwards to Rouen and then Paris.“ This is not, of course, proof of Henry’s intention since we do not know Bordui’s source. He might have heard this from the king, in which case it has evidential value, or he might have heard it from a third-party, in which case it is gossip. I do not think, however, that it is deliberate misinformation ‘in case the letter should fall into French hands’ (Mortimer p.384). The whole purpose of disinformation is that it should fall into enemy hands. If the letter was not intended to be seen by the enemy and is not actually seen by them, the only people it could possibly deceive  are Henry’s allies. Why would Bordui do that?

[17] Sumption (Vol 4) Ch12 pp.468-529

[18] Sumption (Vol 4) P.499: an Anglo-Flemish trade truce in April 1416 had ensured the neutrality of Flanders in the Anglo-French war, but it did not make Burgundy neutral in respect of his other domains. It was therefore agreed between Henry and the Duke that in the event of an English invasion of France, Henry’s troops would not enter the Duke of Burgundy’s domains. In return the Duke would not let any of his subjects fight against the English.

[19] Sumption (Vol 4) pp.493-497: Chris Givern-Wilson (Gen Ed) – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England 1275-1504 (Boydell 2005); Vol 9 Chris Givern-Wilson (ed) – Henry V 1413-1422 p.178 (PROME): “the French full of pride and thinking nothing of the said defeat [at Agincourt], and weakness have absolutely refused to reach an agreement

[20] PROME Vol 4 pp186-187; It is clear from the Parliamentary ratification of the Treaty of Canterbury that Henry believed his diplomatic and military successes were due to divine intervention: God really was on Henry’s side (he thought).

[21] PROME Vol 4 pp. 175, 180, 181: ‘the shoe was beginning to pinch’

[22] Sumption (Vol 4) p.529: by the summer of 1417, the French position was hopeless. In the north Burgundy had raised an army of around 11,000 men aimed at overthrowing the French government in Paris and restoring the Burgundian regency. Henry had assembled an army of roughly 11,000 men in England. The only available French field force (the combined troops of the Dauphin and the Constable) amounted to perhaps 5,000, and their priority was the defence of Paris.

[23] Anne Curry – Henry V (Penguin 2018) pp.82: Henry confirmed Norman rights and privileges so long as they accepted his rule.

[24] Sumption (Vol 4) pp.517: the Empire’s priority was to end the papal schism, which could not be achieved without French support.

[25] John the Fearless was intent on overthrowing the Armagnac government in Paris. He had already tacitly acknowledged that depending on the circumstances at the time he might be prepared to acknowledge Henry as king of France; however, Henry could not rely on that since John undoubtedly had his own agenda.

[26] James Gairdner – The Paston Letters: 1422-1509 Volume 2 (Cambridge 2010 edition) pp.5-8 [1]: this is the earliest document in the published Paston collection. Although it is undated, the content suggests it was written between 1419 and 1420.

[27] Sumption (Vol 4) pp. 643-659: this contains a detailed account of the circumstances pertaining to the murder of the duke John.

[28] Sumption (Vol 4) p.654 note 34: this remark was made in 1521 to Francis I as he viewed John’s broken skull, during a visit to the Carthusian monastery at Champmol where John was re-buried.

[29] Sumption (Vol 4) p. 658: Sumption’s proposition that until the murder of John the Fearless, Henry’s claim to the French throne was nothing more than a bargaining counter to be exchanged for suitable territorial concessions is misleading since it is based on the false premise that Henry’s negotiations in 1415 and 1416 were genuine attempts at achieving a diplomatic solution. It is clear from his letter to Charles VI in 1415 that his claim to the French throne was not ‘a bargaining counter’. Moreover, one can also infer from his conduct during diplomacy that it was for him merely a policy tool to achieve his foreign policy aims by misleading the French, keeping them divided and ensuring they were blamed for the breakdown of talks.

[30] Harriss p.205

[31] Allmand p. 146

Shadow King: the Life and Death of Henry VI

Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI by Lauren Johnson

Head of Zeus Publications, 2020, paperback, 700 pages, £12.00
ISBN 978-1784-979645

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Henry VI has gone down in history as one of England’s worst kings. Not for being cruel or despotic; on the contrary, his nature was kindly and pliant, peace-loving and deeply devout – qualities that made him likeable as a person but hopeless as a monarch, a faint wavering shadow of his shrewd, martial father. His life would have been very different, and he may have become a better ruler, had he grown to manhood under the guidance of Henry V, this perfect model of the medieval warrior-statesman. Instead, by the latter’s untimely death in 1422 with his French kingdom far from pacified, the infant Henry only received the dire legacy of an unwinnable war, and perpetual bitter conflict between members of his family over the implementation of the late king’s will and their respective powers on the minority council.

Such is the context for the opening chapters of Lauren Johnson’s sympathetic new study, which sets out to ‘explore Henry VI as an evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation. In short, to consider him as a man.’ Recently released in paperback, Shadow King is a handsome volume, illustrated with 24 colour plates, family trees of the Houses of Lancaster, Beaufort and York, and three helpful maps, (France 1415 – 53; Wars of the Roses battles 1455 – 71; and 15th century noble landholding in England and Wales).

The well-referenced text falls into logical sections: Henry’s minority 1422 – 37; adult rule to 1453, including his marriage to Margaret of Anjou; political and mental breakdown, culminating in his deposition by Edward IV at Towton in 1461; his fugitive years, short-lived re-adeption, and eventual fate in the Tower of London. A brief ‘Afterlife’ and epilogue conclude the sad, strange stories of this unfortunate king and his queen, followed by two appendices, ‘Where did Henry VI die?’ and ‘Key Characters’, 68 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Stylistically, some passages read like an historical novel: ‘The inky waters of the River Thames rippled and slid beneath the wherrymen’s oars. In places the peaks of the waves glistened, light falling from the windows of Winchester Palace as bursts of laughter and music echoed out.’ (Page 45). Such imaginative touches bring the text to life for many readers, although my own preference is for Johnson’s straight prose, which I found admirably clear and refreshing. Why gild the lily?

As for content, I particularly enjoyed the first two sections. Johnson makes excellent use of some seldom-used sources to paint a convincing, detailed picture of Henry’s early life. Her exposition of the complex political situations in England and France, (riven by its own civil war between the Armagnacs and Burgundians), and the equally complex personal war between Henry’s kinsmen, is lucid and easy to follow; and she offers some perceptive analyses of the likely effects on an impressionable child of having to perform the rituals of royalty surrounded by such constant conflict and tension. Theoretically wielding absolute power but practically powerless to control his feuding councillors, it’s no wonder that Henry grew up hating discord, and wishing only to please and appease the people closest to him, emotionally or literally.

However, as the story moved into more familiar territory, I felt some disappointment. Plainly no fan of Richard, Duke of York, Johnson gives short shrift to his justifiable reasons for expecting a primary place on Henry’s council/in his confidence, and justifiable chagrin at being passed over for lesser men. York’s assumption of pre-eminence was based on his royal pedigree: descended from the second and fifth sons of Edward III via his mother and father respectively, he was one of England’s wealthiest magnates with a claim to the throne arguably stronger than Henry’s. This was not lost upon the king’s beloved Beaufort kin, a legitimated line sprung from John, Duke of Lancaster’s affair with Kathryn Swynford, who, (along with sundry other jealous rivals), persistently undermined York in Henry’s malleable affections. Had Henry managed to keep his powerful cousin on-side, the Wars of the Roses might never have happened; instead, he progressively alienated York, and wounded his pride, by showing an unfair and obvious partiality for the base-born Beauforts . It seems a shame that Johnson doesn’t extend her even-handed approach to Duke Richard, or treat him as another ‘evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation’ who, no less than Henry VI, deserves to be viewed ‘as a man’ trying to do his best for his country, his family and himself.

I was also disappointed by the brief, conventional accounts of the battles of Wakefield and Towton, the great Lancastrian victory followed shortly by the catastrophic defeat which cost Henry his crown, changing his life – and the course of English history – forever. In a work of this magnitude, it’s inevitable that some areas will be less well researched than others; nonetheless, for such a crucial episode, it was frustrating to see some old Wakefield myths perpetuated and enlarged. Like other commentators unfamiliar with the place, Johnson describes Sandal Castle as ‘majestic’ when, as castles go, it’s quite small (Sandal would fit inside the truly majestic Pontefract Castle several times over) and utilitarian. Interestingly, the ‘meagre’ household expenditure of £4 6s 7d for the Christmas – New Year period is cited to show that the castle was poorly provisioned, whereas to me it says precisely the opposite: it was already so well provisioned that little further spending was required. (I say ‘little,’ but the sum in question represents around 18 months – three years’ pay for a labourer, or six months’ pay for a liveried archer – it’s all relative!). This debatable interpretation is then used to present a version of the battle of Wakefield which simply doesn’t make sense: York, Salisbury, Rutland and their men, driven by hunger to hunt in the deer-park ‘north of the River Calder,’ ambushed by the Lancastrian army and slaughtered. Said deer park wasn’t just north of the river – it was the Outwood, some three miles north of Sandal and two miles north of Wakefield city, with its chantry chapel of St Mary perched on the Calder bridge; an unnecessarily long way to go when Sandal Castle had its own deer-park to the south, literally on its threshold, and miles of nearby river for fishing and wild-fowl hunting. (For my personal take on the battle, see this article ) I also found her treatment of Towton somewhat superficial, and lacking reference to more recent studies such as those by George Goodwin and Tim Sutherland.

Suffice to say, if I wasn’t such a pro-Yorkist anorak about this period in Wars of the Roses history, these criticisms wouldn’t have occurred, and I would have read the whole book with the same relish as I devoured the earlier sections! So, on the whole, I’m happy to recommend Shadow King as a worthwhile read, an enthralling tragedy which left me moved and thoughtful, and which will make a valuable addition to my bookshelves.

Joan of Arc and Les Soldats

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A doodle of Joan of Arc drawn by Clement de Fauquemberque of the Parliament of Paris.  The only contemporary drawing we have of her.



Today marks the 587th anniversary of the death of Joan of Arc, burned at the stake at Rouen, France.  As the flames engulfed her, she clutched a cross made of sticks to her bosom, fashioned by an ordinary English solder.  “Jesus!”  was her last word.  She was 19 years old.  In 1920, almost 500 years after her death, she was finally canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Everyone in the West knows Joan’s story from the novels of Mark Twain to Thomas Keneally, from filmmakers Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson to Otto Preminger, from playwrights George Bernard Shaw to Jean Anouillh.  In recent years, she has been taken up by multiple video games based on the Hundred Years War.  One of her greatest biographers is undoubtedly the French medievalist Regine Pernoud who has written 3 highly readable, deeply researched books on the subject, relying on the Latin transcripts of her trial and rehabilitation trial of 1455-56 to bring Joan into 21th Century relief.

While everyone knows the story of the peasant girl called by Sts. Catherine, Margaret and Michael the Archangel to rid France of the English and their Burgundian enablers, and crown the dauphin Charles Valois king, not many people know her companions-in-arms.  The most famous captains of the French army during the latter part of the 100 Years War were Jean Dunois, The Bastard of Orleans, Etienne de Vignolles nicknamed “La Hire” (The Anger) and Gilles De Rais, the Marshal of France.  Along with several others, these are the men who rode into battle with her, camped with her and lifted the siege of the city of Orleans that led to Charles’ coronation.  These two events would lead to the end of one of the most brutal European civil wars.


Jean Dunois called The Bastard was born in Paris in 1402.  He was the illegitimate son of Louis d’Orleans, Duke of Orleans and a long time supporter and campaigner for the House of Valois (the Armagnac Party) in the 100 Years War.  Prior to meeting Joan, he fought as a Captain with Etienne de Vignolles in various engagements at Le Mans, Baugé, Cravant, Verneuil and the Siege of Montargis.  Like most Armagnac commanders, he was captured by the Burgundians and held for 2 years (his own father being held for 25 years after Agincourt) before the actions at the Siege of Orleans.

Undoubtedly, his fame has been secured through his association with Joan, his public devotion to her and his steadfastness in warfare.  Using the sometimes limited man power and short bursts of violence that characterized this war, he engaged with some success the legendary English commanders of fact and fiction:  Sir William Glasdale (Classidas), Sir John Falstaff (Fastolf), Thomas, Lord Scales, William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk (Suffort) and Sir John Talbot.


jean dunois

Jean Dunois the Bastard of Orleans

From the above portrait alone, it is easy to see why the Bastard has been presented in film and stagecraft as the silky, handsome negotiator between Joan and the dubious and profane officers of the French forces.  During the Christmas seasons, with his typical elan and ingrained sense of chivalry, he had his minstrels play for the English and on one occasion delivered fish to Talbot for his evening meal.  Some historians have argued that it was this lassitude on the part of the French aristocracy that prolonged the war against the despised “goddams”; nevertheless, Dunois was a brave and wily adversary against the English.

In March of 1429, the French army was encamped at Orleans along the south bank of the Loire River far from the English situated on the north by the gatehouse Les Tourelles.  The French commanders were expecting to meet a spiritual adviser* and instead were greeted by an impatient warrior who immediately tore up their battle plans, accusing them of  traitorous deception.  She demanded to know why the army was on the “wrong side” of the river and did not cross over and engage the enemy.  Gently remonstrating, Dunois suggested they wait for better weather and a more friendly wind direction.  Joan was having none of it:  “In God’s name, the counsel of the Lord your God is wise and safer than yours.  You thought to deceive me and it is yourself above all whom you deceive, for I bring you better succor than has reached you from any soldier or any city; it is succor from the King of Heaven.  (He) has taken pity on the town of Orleans, and will not suffer that the enemies have the bodies of the lord of Orleans and his town.”  At that moment, in one of many weird circumstances that would baffle Joan’s friends and enrage her enemies, the wind switched direction, allowing the French captains to raise sail and cross over into the city. Dunois later described his feelings:   “It seems to me, that Joan in battle and in warfare, was rather of God than of men.”  He became her fervent friend and defender.

In the days to come, Joan, protected by Dunois, attempted to speak to the English and warn them to retreat.  A message sent by arrow towards the fortified gatehouse predicted that William Glasdale, the commander of the remaining bridge over the Loire, would die a watery death if he did not decamp.  Instead, Glasdale rained down angry curses on her head, calling her “cowgirl,” “witch,” and “bitch.”    The Bastard relates:  The moment she was there the English trembled with terror; and the (French) King’s men regained their courage and began to climb, delivering their assault against the bulwark and not meeting with the least resistance.  Then that bulwark was taken, and the English who were in it had fled.  But they were all killed, among the rest Classidas and the other principal English captains of this bastille, who intended to retire into the bridge tower but fell in the river and were drowned.  This Classidas had been the man who had spoken most foully and in the basest and most infamous language against the Maid.

Glasdale’s body was not recovered.

It was recorded that Joan cried tears of rage and sorrow over the senseless loss of English lives that day.  She attempted to nurse the dying and had the last rites administered to many of the soldiers.  This sudden and unexpected loss led the English to completely abandon the Loire Valley although Joan and Dunois followed in hot pursuit.  They fought several more skirmishes before they escorted Charles VII to his coronation on July 17, 1429.

After her capture at Compiegne, Dunois led an unsuccessful bid to free her. Despite this failure, he continued to fight against the English for the remaining years of the war.  It is unclear if he was at her rehabilitation trial or wrote a lengthy document testifying to her saintliness and patriotism.  His testimony is well worth reading and is one of the few direct accounts we have the Siege of Orleans and Joan’s participation in it.

He married twice, was  honored in his own lifetime, and died in 1468 at the age of 66.


Beautiful medieval image of the Siege of Orleans.  Les Tourelles (the gatehouse) is clearly shown.



la_hire_et_potron_xaintrailles_01la hire

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Three fascinating presentations of La Hire from the medieval period to today – although he seems to be morphing into Falstaff!  (This last is from a video game where La Hire is a popular character.  There is no contemporary image of him.

Etienne de Vignolles was also known as “La Hire”.  There is controversy whether his nickname means  “The Anger” or “The Prickly One” or “The Hedgehog” but one thing is clear:  it was a byword for fear and terror not only to the English “goddams” but to the people of France as well.  La Hire brought Total War to the countryside long before William Tecumsah Sherman made the concept infamous.

In the wake of the Black Death, the 100 Years War was one of devastating consequence to the rural medieval society.   Unlike the War of the Roses in England, plundering, murder, rapine, torched homes, farms and cattle were considered justifiable acts to these French guerrilla forces.   Up until he met and was influenced by Joan of Arc, La Hire was very much a man of his time and place.  It is no wonder that he became a prime villain in violent 21st Century video games:  “War and Warriors:  Joan of Arc,” “Age of Empires 2:  The Age of Kings” and “Blade Storm:  the Hundred Years War.”  In the latter, he appears as an amusing Hulk-like ogre when, in fact, he may have been a much smaller man.   What history does relate is that he cursed so badly during military councils that a shocked Joan immediately set out to put a stop to it.  She forced him to the sacrament of Confession and encouraged him to replace foul language with prayer.  She banned excessive brutality and cracked down on camp followers who were purposefully ignored by military leaders.  She went so far as to smack her sword against a whore’s buttocks and chase her from the field.  La Hire supported her in these reforms.  He cursed out of earshot and long after The Maid’s death, he prayed before a battle, kneeling upon the ground and intoning a witty supplication:  May God do for La Hire what God would have La Hire do for Him if God were La Hire and La Hire were God.

Etienne de Vignolles was born in southern France in 1390 and was not of high birth.  He was apparently a lifelong soldier, who may have began his career at Agincourt.  He rose through the ranks to become commander of the French forces and was instrumental in lifting the Siege of Orleans.  As part of that campaign and prior to Joan’s arrival, La Hire was in charge of provisioning the army.  This led to the failed Battle of the Herrings in which he warred against Sir John Fastolf.

We do not know exactly why or when he converted  from reprobate and skeptic to true believer in the Maid.  All we do know, is that he eventually came to believe that she was a surprisingly good strategist and tactician in warfare and was open to all her advice.  (Joan, as always, maintained that any plans she put forward came directly from Michael the Archangel.)  After her capture, he attempted two separate rescue attempts at Rouen.  During the second, he too, was captured by Burgundians and imprisoned.  In typical fashion, he was back in action by 1432, several years after Joan’s death.  He died, perhaps killed by that most notorious illness of the soldier great or poor – dysentery – in southern France at the age of 53.  His image is said to be the Jack of Hearts figure on the French deck of cards.  In examining his signature, he appears to have been almost as illiterate as Joan:

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gilles de rais

An early 19th century depiction of Gilles de Rais.  There are no contemporary portraits.  Perhaps they were all destroyed.


Gilles de Rais Laval, Baron and Marshall of France, is probably the most famous (or infamous) of Joan’s companions.  He inspired the French fairy tale “Bluebeard” – the story of a man who dyed his beard blue and murdered his wives.  We do know that in reality Gilles de Rais did not murder his rich wife (he simply kidnapped her) instead concentrating on torturing and murdering over 100 children at his castles in Champtoché  and Machecoul over a period of 10 years.  For these crimes – as well as the crime of heresy – he was executed at Nantes in 1440.

This aristocratic and immensely wealthy Breton was born in either 1404 or 1405, the son of two rich clansmen, Guy de Laval and Marie de Craon.  Orphaned at about 10 years of age, he was nevertheless cocooned in excessive luxury and indolence by his maternal grandfather and swaddled in affection by his doting nurse.  His excellent private education was in military matters and Catholic morals.  The latter didn’t leave much of an impression but his training was such that in that era of indifferent cruelty he became a highly effective soldier.  He was considered a brilliant and handsome young man by most who knew him.  He spoke and wrote fluent Latin and was a patron of the arts.

By 1427, well into his military career, he had personally raised 5 companies of knights beautifully clad and richly paid to fight for the Armagnac Party.  He employed salaried spies to scour the countryside for information to be used against the English and Burgundian enemies.  His vast choir of young boys must have raised amused suspicion among the more cynical soldiers but it was reported to be the finest in all the kingdom.

According to British author, Jean Benedetti, who took much of his information from “The Chronicles of the Siege of Orleans” by the eminent 19th century French historian Jules Quicherat, Gilles was with Dunois and Vignolles at Orleans while waiting for the arrival of Joan in the spring of 1429.  At a hastily gathered council, it was decided that Gilles would travel to the town of Blois to meet with representatives of the King and raise further provisions for the army.  He, therefore, missed her magnificent entrance into the town on her white charger with her raised banner of fleurs de lis on one side and the Archangel Michael on the other.  When one of the many banners decorating the town accidentally caught fire and risked a chance of spreading, she gallantly rode forth and snuffed it out with her gauntlet.  The crowd went wild in jubilation.

Once he returned, Gilles twice rescued Joan from various sticky situations during the Siege and helped her to safety when she was struck with an arrow above her breast.  He offered a bit of necromancy in an attempt to heal her which she hastily declined.  From there, he accompanied her in all her campaigns as well as attending the Coronation.  He was with her again at the failed Siege of Paris when she was struck in the thigh by a bolt from a crossbow.  She was dragged screaming from the fight.  Exhausted by the war, and secretly plotting to buy peace at any cost, Charles VII declared the battle lost and entreated Joan to withdraw.  She would not return to battle until the following year when she rode to relieve to city of Compiegne.  Wearing a long tunic over her suit of white armor, a Burgundian soldier grabbed it and pulled her from her horse.  She was then sold to the English and imprisoned to await trial and execution on charges of heresy and witchcraft.

For all his help in securing the crown for Charles, Gilles de Rais was showered with many honors, including being created the Marshall of France.  Having secured his throne, Charles now retreated into safety and security leaving Joan abandoned to her many enemies and Gilles de Rais to his dark fate.  He retired from the army and returned to his many properties, beginning his descent into madness and vast criminality .

He indulged in wild extravagance – the building of homes and chapels (one ironically named The Chapel of the Holy Innocents), lavish theatrical events, experiments in alchemy and black magic, acquisition of fine clothing as well as furniture and paintings – all of which began to erode his vast fortune.  His family, the Montmorency-Lavals, were forced to appeal to the King and the Pope to put a stop to his expenditures; a royal edict was issued in which no one was allowed to enter into a contract with him.  Then the children of the towns of Champtoché and Machecoul and various other areas began disappearing.  Mothers, who had allowed their children to work in the kitchens on the estates of Gilles De Rais had suspicions but feared retribution from this most powerful prince.   Hungry, homeless children who wandered the landscape were particularly vulnerable to Gilles’ henchmen.  Kidnapped, they were taken into hidden rooms in the castles where they were subjected to beastly sexual torture before being killed by stabbing and beheading and their bodies thrown into fire.

In the late 1430s, the Bishop of Nantes Jean de Malestroit began to investigate the accusations against Gilles brought by both the nobility and commoners.  In July of 1440, the Bishop issued a summons against him and he was arrested at the castle at Machecoul and imprisoned at Nantes.  He was tried by both an ecclesiastical and secular court on charges of property theft, murder and heresy.  During the testimony, the flustered and horrified scribes switched from impersonal Latin to vernacular French to better describe his awful crimes.  Gilles, meanwhile, alternated between pitiable submission to the courts and loud arrogance and denunciation of the proceedings.  It was only when shown the instruments of torture that would be used to extract a confession, he realized the jig was up.  He swiftly admitted guilt and gave a long, grisly recitation of his crimes.  He endured excommunication and reconciliation with the Church and was condemned to die by hanging and fire.  He met his fate with notable calm.

From there, he would pass from mortal man to the Bluebeard of French children’s nightmares.


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*Joan was said to fulfill a prophecy that “France would be ruined through a woman and afterwards restored by a virgin.”  The woman in question has often been said to be the profligate and conniving mother of Charles VII, Isabeau of Bavaria.  Charles VII doubted his royal parentage because of his mother’s promiscuous behavior and her open questioning of his legitimacy.  It is said that the famous secret Joan revealed to him at Chinon was that she knew he prayed to God to reveal who his father was.  Joan assured him that he was the true son of the mad King Charles VI.  The dauphin cried at the revelation and allowed Joan to escort the army to Orleans.


The Retrial of Joan of Arc, the Evidence for Her Vindication by Regine Pernoud

Joan of Arc by Herself and Her Witnesses by Regine Pernoud

Joan of Arc Her Story by Regine Pernoud and Marie-Veronique Clin

The Real Bluebeard The Life of Gilles de Rais by Jean Benedetti – an excellent and painful study of the Marshall of France.

The Maid and The Queen by Nancy Goldstone

Suggested reading:

All of the above.

Blood Red, Sister Rose by Thomas Keneally.  The great Australian novelist’s story of Joan’s military career.

Falstaff by Robert Nye.  The poet’s brilliant and libidinous novel of John Falstaff and his poignant and brief encounter with La Pucelle.










jean dunois



When the English ruled the Bastille….!

Historical reconstruction showing the moat below the walls of Paris (left), the Bastille and the Porte Saint-Antoine (right) in 1420

Historical reconstruction showing the moat below the walls of Paris (left), the Bastille and the Porte Saint-Antoine (right) in 1420

We all know about the storming of the Bastille on 14th July, 1789, resulting in the continued annual celebration of the occasion throughout France. But the Bastille was a medieval fortress, and we, the English, had a hand in its history. In fact, we were the reason it was built in the first place.

During the Hundred Years’ War, there was a perceived threat to Paris, especially from the east, where it was vulnerable to English attack. After France was defeated at the Battle of Poitiers, and King John II was captured and imprisoned in England, it was decided by the Provost of Parish, Étienne Marcel, that the Paris defences had to be considerably strengthened.

Among these new defences were two fortified gates, each flanked by high stone towers. These gateways were of a type known as a “bastille”. But the capital’s defences were still deemed unsatisfactory, and it was decided that a much larger fortification should be built to protect the city’s eastern flank at the Porte Saint-Antoine. “Work began in 1370 with another pair of towers being built behind the first bastille, followed by two towers to the north, and finally two towers to the south. The fortress was probably not finished by the time Charles V died in 1380, and was completed by his son, Charles VI. The resulting structure became known simply as the Bastille, with the eight irregularly built towers and linking curtain walls.” The whole was encircled by ditches that were syphoned from the Seine.

View of the porte Saint-Antoine and the Bastille (detail from Turgot's 1739 map of Paris)

View of the porte Saint-Antoine and the Bastille (detail from Turgot’s 1739 map of Paris)

The 15th century saw more danger from the English, culminating in the capture of Paris by Henry V of England in 1420, and the garrisoning of the Bastille. This was the state of affairs for sixteen years. The Bastille had already been used as a prison by the French, and the English continued to use it this way.

Henry V

Henry V

Paris was eventually retaken by Charles VII in 1436, but was then seized by the Burgundians in 1464. Which leads to the obvious conclusion that for all its power and strength, it was less a defender of Paris than a stronghold for its enemies!

Its eventual downfall came during the French Revolution, and it is for this that the great fortress is really known now. Of course, the sneaky English might say the French burned the place down before it was lost again to the Rostbifs across La Manche! No, no, my French friends, I’m only joking…. Happy Bastille Day!

The Storming of the Bastille - de Launay 1740-1789

The Storming of the Bastille – de Launay 1740-1789

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