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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

THE THREE HUNDRED YEARS WAR – PART 2: the just cause  



This is the second of three articles charting the course of continual Anglo-French conflict from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. In the first article, I wrote about the rise and fall of the Angevin Empire, culminating in the Treaty of Paris (1259). This article picks up my narrative after the death of Henry III in 1272 and culminates in the Treaty of Bretigny (1360). The caveats to my work mentioned in the first article 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 Paris resolved some practical issues between King Henry III and King Louis IX, but failed to address the combustible problem of English vassalage, which was the cause of their conflict. King Henry surrendered his hereditary claims to Normandy, Poitou (northern Aquitaine) and other places, in return for the retention of Gascony (southern Aquitaine). He also bound himself and his successors to give ‘liege homage’ to the French king for Gascony. By this, Henry and his successors had an irrevocable obligation to give fealty and service (including military service) to the French kings. Predictably, this condition was abhorrent to the Plantagenet kings as it was incompatible with their own sovereignty. The Treaty of Paris went well beyond Henry’s ducal authority in Gascony; it fettered his royal prerogative to make treaties, war or peace as he thought best. It was peace settlement born of the concurrence of French strength and English weakness and it could not last.


Things were hardly much different during the reign of Edward I. His focus was on the conquest of Wales and Scotland, though not simultaneously. That is not to say he was unmindful of his family’s inherited rights in Normandy and Poitou, but Edward I was a realist. He did only so much as was necessary to maintain the status quo in Gascony. He did dutiful homage to Phillip III in 1272 and to Phillip IV in 1285; however, on each occasion he took considerable care over the wording of his oaths so as to leave some scope for evading the worst of his feudal obligations.[1] Neither was he prepared to accept continual French breaches of the treaty that threatened his feudal rights. He raised the matter with Phillip in 1285 and obtained some redress in the form of a fresh treaty in 1286. Unfortunately, the peace was never wholehearted on either side. The habitual violence that accompanied any meeting of English and French mariners not only continued unabated, it got worse. On the 15 May 1293 a ‘great sea battle’ took place off the coast of Brittany. Norman ships flying ‘bausons of red sendal’ (no quarter) attacked an Anglo-Gascon flotilla sailing from the Cinque Ports. In a vicious hand-to-hand fight, the Normans were defeated and the survivors taken prisoner together with their ships and cargoes. For good measure, the Gascon sailors sacked La Rochelle on their way home.[2]


Phillip IV was furious. He commanded the offenders to be delivered to him for punishment and ordered the French prisoners to be released along with their ships and cargoes. He also extended his right to hear Gascon appeals and dispatched troops to the Gascon border.[3] Unfortunately, Edward misjudged Phillip’s intention. Edward was already committed to fighting Welsh and Scottish nationalists; the last thing he needed was a war with Phillip. He was, therefore, genuinely prepared to compromise sovereign to sovereign. Phillip IV, however, was intent on exploiting the situation to his advantage. By treating this as a feudal dispute between a disobedient vassal and his suzerain, he was able to seize Gascony for the French Crown and humiliate his rival; whereupon Edward renounced his homage and prepared to send troops to Gascony. It was only a gesture as there were insufficient English troops and loyal Gascons to retake Gascony. The best he could do was to prevent Phillip overrunning Gascony altogether.[4] By 1303 Phillip was under pressure from Flemish rebels in Flanders. He was, more or less, driven to restoring Gascony to the English Crown for the sake of a general peace. [5] The quid-pro-quo for such a peace was a double marriage between King Edward and Marguerite, Phillip’s half-sister, and also between Edward of Caernarvon (Edward’s son) and Princess Isabella, Phillip’s daughter. Nevertheless, despite the joinder of two royal families, disputations over English Gascony continued to flourish during the reign of King Edward II.[6]


King Edward II’s royal deficiencies are too well documented to doubt.[7] It is probably true that his domestic troubles were largely self-inflicted, but it is misleading to suggest that he was entirely responsible for the political and diplomatic problems that resulted in war with France. He inherited the thorny issue of homage, which neither his grandfather nor his father had managed to solve and which was problematic on both sides of the Channel. The Capetian kings found it difficult to enforce their feudal rights against a sovereign king and the Plantagenet’s found it intensely painful to swear allegiance to a foreign potentate. Edward was particularly unlucky in that during his reign four different kings ruled France: Phillip IV, Louis X, Phillip V and Charles IV. Edward II’s policy was always to evade giving homage if possible and if it was not possible, to delay the ceremony for as long as he could. He did homage to Phillip IV fairly quickly, but prevaricated over his oath to Louis X. He eventually acknowledged Louis as his landlord but did not swear liege fealty. He also managed to delay giving homage to Phillip V until it was rendered unnecessary by Phillip’s premature death. The other great problem Edward faced was his marriage to Isabella. It was meant to bolster the peace of 1303, but actually, it made things worse by highlighting Edward’s subservience to his father-in-law. It also raised the great, though latent, question of the French succession, of which more anon.


Providentially, an Anglo-French entente prevailed during much of Edward’s reign. Despite the inflammable question of homage and the repeated encroachments of French royal officials in Gascony, there was no serious threat to the peace of 1303 prior to 1322.[8] In January of that year, Charles IV ascended the French throne and once again Edward was expected to swear fealty to a French king. Unfortunately, the fateful confluence of political and diplomatic dramas that played out during the winter of 1323-1324 set in motion a sequence of events leading to the loss of Gascony and the War of Saint-Sardos (1324-25). Charles thoughtfully waited until August 1323 before inviting Edward to appear at Amiens 4 to do homage for Gascony between the 2 February and 15 April 132. Edward excused his attendance on the grounds that the political situation in England was too dangerous for him to leave the country. That letter was dispatched by envoy to France sometime ‘just before’ the 22 November 1323. Coincidentally on that day, Edward was informed of a serious incident in the small Gascon village of Saint-Sardos during which a French sergeant was murdered by one of Edward’s vassals. Although the question of homage and the affair of Saint-Sardos are separate matters, they both touch on Edward’s rights and obligations as Duke of Aquitaine. To understand how this interrelationship led to catastrophe, it is necessary to follow the chronology.


Unknown to Edward, Charles IV commissioned the building of a royal bastide (fortress) at Saint-Sardos. On the 15 October 1323, a sergeant sent by the French seneschal of Périgueux laid claim to the land by erecting a stake carrying the royal arms of France. However, the local Gascons opposed this claim. They feared that the privileges habitually granted to bastides would damage the local economy. Raymond-Bernard, Lord of the castle of Montpezat took matters into his own hands. He attacked Saint-Sardos, hanged the sergeant from the royal stake he had just erected and burned the village to the ground. On being informed of this, Edward immediately wrote a letter of abject apology to Charles assuring him that he personally had nothing to do with the incident and promising to punish the offenders. This letter was sent post haste after the envoy already en route to Paris with a request for the deferral of the homage ceremony. The envoy arrived at Paris on the 27 November with both letters. By then, however, the affair of Saint-Sardos had become a full-blown international incident. Anglophobia was running high in Paris aggravated by the refusal of Edward’s Gascon vassals to cooperate with the subsequent investigation. Charles even took the precaution of issuing a warning order for troops to muster at Toulouse for possible service in Gascony. Even so and despite his misgivings, Charles accommodated Edward on the question of homage, which was put back to the 1 July 1324. He also accepted Edward’s protestation of innocence in the Saint-Sardos affair.[9] However, he summoned Raymond-Bernard, Ralph Basset (Edward’s seneschal) and others to appear before him on the 24 January1224. Their failure to attend on that day resulted in the accused being outlawed and their possessions seized by the French Crown. The French seneschals of Toulouse and Périgueux were ordered to take possession of the castle of Montpezat by force if necessary.


It is surely no exaggeration to say that the ‘War of Saint-Sardos’, which had such dire consequences for Edward, was started by mistake. He made three serious errors in his dealings with Charles. First, he never kept his promise to punish the offenders if they were guilty, which they assuredly were; nor did he deliver them over to French justice. Second, his continual attempts to defer giving homage created the suspicion (probably justified) that he was simply trying to avoid his feudal duty. Edward’s third and most serious blunder was to think he could get himself out of his difficulty by negotiating as an equal with the French king. Instead of accepting responsibility as a vassal of the French king, Edward tried to argue the toss with him. He sent another embassage to Paris charged with three tasks (in order of priority): i) secure a further postponement of the homage ceremony; ii) ‘mention’ Edward’s concern about the number of Gascon appeals pending on the French Parlement;[10] iii) in the matter of Saint-Sardos, they were to ‘suggest’ that this was perhaps best left to the two monarchs to discuss when they met for Edward’s homage. Charles, who was already on the verge of confiscating and occupying Aquitaine, was astonished by Edward’s impertinent suggestion that a king should compromise with a subject on the performance of his public duty. It was tantamount to treason.[11] He therefore presented the English ambassadors with stark choice: they must promise that the guilty officials would be given up, Montpezat would be surrendered and Edward would pay homage on the 1 July 1324 or face war.[12] Their courage failing, the ambassadors duly made the promise demanded, which they must have realised would not be honoured. When French officials next came to take possession of Montpezat they were again sent away empty-handed.


What followed had elements of farce that would be laughable were the situation not so serious. Edward sent yet another embassage to Paris led this time by the earl of Pembroke with instructions to secure a delay to the homage ceremony on Edward’s promise to surrender Montpezat. However Pembroke died of a heart attack while in France: it was a catastrophe. The remainder of the embassage reached Amiens on the 1 July but the king was not there. He had gone to Anet-sur-Marne and had already declared Aquitaine forfeit once it was obvious Edward would not appear. Once the English envoys reached him of the 5 July, he told them brusquely that owing to Edward’s failure to make amends for the crime of Saint-Sardos, he could not take his protestations of innocence seriously and ” because he found no man for Gascony or Ponthieu on the appointed day he had taken them into his hands before [the envoys] arrived.[13] Edward was now at war with Charles.


  • Charles of Valois invaded Aquitaine with a French army in August. He quickly overran most of English-held Gascony and arrived before the castle of La Réole, which surrendered on the 22 September 1324. A six-month truce was agreed whereby the English were confined to Bordeaux, Bayonne and a small strip of coast between Saintes and the eastern marches. English authority everywhere else was quickly expunged. As winter turned to spring, the French began preparations to renew the war. Edward was now in an impossible position. The political opposition in England was so hostile to his government that he dare not leave the realm either to give homage or (unlikely) to defend Gascony in person. Outmaneuvered by his artful opponent, Edward was forced send his wife Isabella and afterwards his son Edward of Windsor to France to negotiate the details of a peace treaty, the outcome of which could hardly have been worse for Edward. He lost virtually all of Gascony, had to pay French reparation costs in full and must still do homage for the pitiful remnants of Gascony. Rage though he might, Edward had no choice but to accept these terms. The Treaty was signed on 23 June 1325. Edward had lost control of Gascony, his wife and his heir. Once young Edward arrived in France, his mother and her lover Mortimer used him as a tool to depose his father. The end was inevitable. Mortimer and Isabella landed in Suffolk on the 24 September 1326. King Edward II, deserted by his friends, was deposed within four months.


‘It is as it is’[14]

Edward of Windsor was a noble and high-spirited youth with a warlike disposition quite unlike his father, but he was still a minor when he ascended the English throne. The direction of the realm, therefore, was taken into the hands of his mother and Sir Roger Mortimer. They exploited his youth and inexperience to arrogate royal authority for their personal aggrandizement and to suppress opposition to their injustices. It was, however, their incompetence in the direction of foreign policy that was most damaging to the Crown and to the kingdom. For three generations the raison d’etre of Plantagenet foreign policy was the subjugation of the British Isles under English dominion and the full restoration of Aquitaine in sovereignty to the English crown. In 1327, Edward III had no choice but to accept the fait accompli of a patched-up truce with Charles IV, whereby the French king undertook to restore the remnant of Gascony granted to Edward II, on condition that the English pay 50,000 marks in addition to £60,000 already pledged to the French Crown.


Charles IV died without male issue in February 1328. For the first time in three centuries there was no male heir to the French throne. Ironically, Charles’ nearest male blood relative was his nephew the king of England whose title came through his mother. The only other male candidate was Phillip of Valois, a nephew of Phillip V and second cousin to Charles IV. The line of succession could not be settled immediately, however, since Charles’ widow was seven months pregnant when he died. If she gave birth to a boy, he would succeed his father. If it were a girl, the baby would never wear the French crown. The choice in that eventuality was between Edward and Phillip. The prospect of a ‘foreign’ ruler horrified the French and despite the strength of Edward’s genealogy there were political reasons for not choosing him as the next French king. He was a foreigner and a minor, and his accession would give far too much power to his mother, whose wicked conduct towards her royal husband had alienated the French against her. Conversely, Phillip of Valois was a man of considerable political substance, an experienced man of affairs and the son of a French hero, and thereby “…entitled to a place at the centre of French political life, while his rival was by birth no more than Phillip the Fair’s grandson, an outsider to all but genealogists.”[15]


The so-called Salic law that they had in France has been the subject of scholarly debate and controversy. To Edouard Perroy, it was a ‘museum piece’ unearthed by Valois lawyers to strengthen their master’s royal claim. “ It so happened that by a stroke of luck unique to history this long line of kings from Hugh Capet at the close of the tenth century to Phillip the Fair at the dawning of the fourteenth always left at every generation one of more sons capable of succeeding them. Hereditary succession by the male line was on record in fact. It did not exist in law, since no precedent had enabled it to be formulated explicitly as a rule. The kings themselves consistently recoiled from the task, quite simple though it was, of decreeing how their inheritance was to devolve in future.” [16] Lately, Jonathan Sumption has argued that it was a rule ‘of recent origin, of doubtful legality, and, moreover, a rule of force rather than principle’. It was also contrary to civil inheritance law in France and elsewhere in Christendom at that time. Indeed, women were known to have inherited the throne in lands ruled by cadet branches of the Capetian dynasty.


The Salic law first appeared in 1316, when Phillip V succeeded to the throne instead of the infant daughter of his brother. It was far from obvious to his contemporaries that Phillip should succeed to the throne and there does not appear to have been any reason for him doing so beyond the presence of his armed supporters and his forceful personality. But even so, he had to buy-out his niece’s claim and bribe doubters with his use of patrimony. By contrast, when Philip died in 1322, his own daughter was pushed aside in favour of Charles IV without demure: ‘ practice was now law.’[17] It is reasonable to infer from Sumption’s analysis that in the event of a problematic or disputed succession political expediency was a more influential factor than strict hereditary right. The situation in 1328 was, however, different to that in 1316 and in 1322. In 1328, the legal issue was not whether a woman could succeed to the throne, but whether she could transmit a right of succession to her son. This was to the French no more than a legal quibble that was rendered academic by overwhelmingly sound political reasons for rejecting Edward, who did not have the support of any of the princes of the blood royal nor anybody else with influence. The Chronicler Saint-Denis summed-up the French view of the legal issue: ‘the mother had no claim, neither did the son’. Despite the difficulties, Isabella had no choice but to press her son’s claim lest it go by default. Whilst Edward’s legal right was not thereby diminished, it did mean war à outrance if he tried to enforce it. And the English were in no position to go to war for the Kingdom of France. Edward III was still in the power of Isabella and Mortimer, and there was a serious risk of civil war, which precluded any possibility of sending a military expedition to France. Queen Isabella, therefore, relinquished her son’s claim and recognized Phillip Valois as king of France. It should be noted, however, that Isabella gave way to superior force and not because she thought the French were right. Nor should we assume that English indifference was due to anything other than their preoccupation with the threat of civil war at home.[18]


In the autumn of 1328, Phillip summoned Edward do homage in person for Gascony. Isabella’s tactless defiance to this summons (‘’The son of a king will never do homage to the son of a count.”) infuriated Phillip who sequestered Gascon revenues in reprisal and repeated his summons. In February 1329, the threat of civil war in England was so grave that Phillip’s demand was put to Parliament for advice. The nature of the debate and what was said is unknown to us as the Parliamentary Roll is not extant. However, the editors’ note in my edition of PROME is quite clear. In 1328 when Edward’s claim to the French throne was first raised, Phillip of Valois had just succeeded to the throne ‘and his position was still insecure. Now [in 1329] the situation had changed. Edward had no choice but to obey the summons in the same way his father had’. Jonathan Sumption relies on chronicle sources for his assertion that Parliaments advise was unequivocally that Edward’s claim to the French throne was unsustainable and it was his duty to do homage for Gascony.[19] Be that as it may, Edward III dutifully travelled to Amiens and on the 6 June 1329 and gave homage in the usual form (‘Homage de foi et de bouche’) That is, he “…paid homage with words and a kiss only without putting his hands between the hands of the King of France.” [20] And he declined to do more until he had returned to England and taken further advice. Thus, Edward acknowledged Phillip as his landlord but not as his sovereign. To the modern historian Michael Packe this seemed more like defiance than homage.[21]


Edward was back in England by the 11 June; within weeks, he received a demand from Phillip to acknowledge ‘liege’ fealty by the 28 July 1330 or lose the rest of Gascony.[22] Queen Isabella and Mortimer prevaricated to gain time for the Gascon defences to be strengthened. Negotiations were started but broke down; by August Edward was in default and faced the complete loss of Gascony. Parliament met in November to debate the defence of the Gascony; but, this was overtaken by the fall of Isabella and Mortimer, which dominated proceedings. Nothing, therefore, was done to strengthen the Gascon defences or to resolve the problem of Edward’s homage. By the end of December frustrated French ambassadors arrived in England to seek Edward’s answer. By now, Edward had entered on his adult personal rule and he was anxious to placate Phillip and prevent the loss of Gascony. Negotiations were relatively successful due to Edward’s conciliatory approach and his policy of giving way to French demands whenever possible. A settlement was reached on the 9 March and ratified by Edward before the end of the month. Edward’s acknowledged that his earlier homage include the word ‘liege’.

Edward was in no position to resist Phillip’s demand, but the significance of this new oath was not lost on him or his advisors. The obligation to provide military service as and whenever required touched the fault line of Anglo-French relations. The Plantagenet kings neither could nor would ever accept the full consequences of their fealty to the French kings. To them, homage was a ritual to be avoided if possible and got through if that was unavoidable. Indeed, the words of their previous oaths were deliberately ambiguous to fudge this issue. Liege homage went much further than simply providing troops. It placed an intolerable constraint on Edward’s sovereign prerogative. He might for example be required to take the part of France — seen by the English as their natural enemy — against (say) the Flemings or Germans who were regarded as England’s natural allies. It also damaged England’s commercial interests. The king therefore travelled incognito to France, where he met Phillip at Pont-Sainte-Maxeme sometime between the 12 and 16 April 1331. Both men were eager for a permanent resolution of the Aquitaine problem, though for different reasons. Edward wanted to re-focus English attention on the conquest of Scotland, whereas Phillip was fixated on a crusade to the Holy Land. Edward’s conciliatory approach had him gained him some relief but not much. He was forgiven for his ‘dilatoriness on the matter of the oath’ and relieved of an obligation to repeat the ceremony. Phillip also authorized a joint judicial commission to examine and then to effect ‘a mutual restoration of Aquitaine territories seized by force since the war of Saint–Sardos’; he also lifted the banishment of Gascons involved in the war. But that was as far as he would go. The clock could not be turned back. The lands confiscated in 1325 would not be returned the English Crown. Phillip did not preclude the possibility that Edward could sue for their return, but he retained absolute discretion to do what he thought proper. It was not an equitable settlement. It resolved some minor grievances of the recent past, but it did not address the deeper, fundamental issues that dated to the Treaty of Paris 1259. Phillip saw no reason to concede what the law did not demand of him.


Edward’s diplomacy had achieved nothing so far. His Gascon inheritances remained diminished by French occupation, and the giving of liege fealty to Phillip had further weakened his authority. Yet despite that, he had no choice but to continue negotiating with the French king, since the only other options were war or surrender, both of which were unthinkable.[23] Edward could not contemplate war with France until he had subdued the Scots, and the idea of abandoning his claim to Aquitaine or submitting it to arbitration were anathema to him and to his subjects.[24] It is, nonetheless, questionable whether diplomacy had any further usefulness, as neither Edward nor Phillip seems to have been well served by it. The process itself was cumbrous and unlikely to produce the ‘imaginative compromise’ that was required.[25] In the early fourteenth there was no regular, arrangements in England and France for managing international relationships. Ad hoc embassages were dispatched as events or circumstances demanded. The ambassadors who led these embassies were accompanied by large stately retinues and lived in magnificent style very much in the public gaze. They moved slowly (‘a dignified pace’) taking time to proclaim their master’s wealth and power for the benefit of foreigners and their rulers. Necessarily, their instructions were given in advance and more often than not, they were overtaken by events. In which case, new instructions had to be taken causing yet more delay as a messenger was dispatched post haste to take new orders.


Furthermore, those charged with conducting talks were rarely professional diplomats. Usually they were bishops or high status members of the lay nobility, lacking the diplomatic expertise and skills required to achieve success. Those charged with advising the ambassadors also had shortcomings. For the most part they were lawyers and antiquarians, ‘students of precedent and form’. They possessed expert knowledge of ‘the ancient and complex territorial dispute between England and France’, but were consumed by process and detail. They did not always see the issues and problems as political in nature, requiring political solution. Except on those rare and obvious occasions when legal form was beside the point, they tended to regard the problems in legal terms entailing a detailed forensic analysis and a legal solution. They were, in fact, obsessed with arguing about process rather than outcome, and also with minutiae. As the talk continued ‘their slow, sinuous but familiar path neither king saw the dangerous drift towards war’. [26] I am not sure that last sentence, which comes from Perroy, is altogether fair. Personally, I am not convinced that either king allowed the situation to drift aimlessly towards war. I believe that war was unavoidable. The fundamental problem of English vassalage was unsolvable by diplomatic means as the relative positions of the English and French were so utterly opposed. Ideally, the English crown would hold all of Aquitaine in full sovereignty; whereas, the French could not countenance the cession of the least part of sovereign French territory to a foreign power, nor could Phillip concede or moderate any of his strict feudal rights over Aquitaine.


Edward was playing for time. By keeping the talks going and by not giving Phillip any excuse to confiscate what was left of Gascony or to intervene in Scotland, Edward was better able to prepare for the reckoning with Phillip, which he knew must come. To which end, he instructed his commissioners in the joint Anglo-French judicial commission to continue their conciliatory line in the talks. He was even prepared to commit to joining Phillip’s crusade in return for the restoration of Gascony ante bellum the War of Saint-Sardos[27]. This moderate approach seemed to have borne fruit by the spring of 1334. After one particular day of talks, the English ambassadors were convinced that an equitable settlement of the Aquitaine problem had been achieved. However, as they arrived back at their lodgings, they were told to return to the French court, where their hopes of peace were dashed by Phillip’s proclamation that the settlement just agreed must include the Scots.[28] So there it was at last: Edward could not have a settlement on Gascony without abandoning his conquest of Scotland. He risked further confiscation of Gascony and the involvement of French soldiers north of the Tweed, and possibly even an invasion of England from the north. Phillip’s intervention in Scotland marked the moment of no return in the drift towards the Hundred Years War. The Scottish question rankled with Phillip no less than Edward; it was a distraction that imperiled the crusade, which he was committed to leading in the Holy Land. The French were bound to Scotland by an alliance that Phillip for honour’s sake could not ignore,[29] even at the cost of postponing the crusade.[30] In the summer of 1335, therefore, as the English army was assembling on the Scottish border, the French Royal Council committed to sending a seaborne force of six thousand soldiers to Scotland to restore the throne to Robert Bruce’s heir, David II.


An open breach between the two foremost kings of Christendom was bound to disrupt the crusade. In the hope of preventing such disruption, Phillip wrote to Edward on the 7 July 1335 ‘inviting him to submit his dispute with David II to the ‘impartial arbitration’ of the Pope and Phillip himself.[31] It is, I think inconceivable, that Phillip could have made such a crass suggestion unintentionally. He must surely have realised how that would simply inflame the situation. Scotland was to Edward at this time what Gascony was to Phillip: non negotiable. Edward’s reply was instant and unequivocal. ‘There was no danger of the Scottish problem endangering the proposed crusade, since Edward would soon pacify the rebellious Scots effectively and permanently. Furthermore, Phillip should not interfere in a domestic matter between Edward and his Scottish subjects. Finally, the idea of arbitration was obnoxious to Edward who was dealing with his own subjects and vassals. It was as complete a rebuff as could have been drafted.’ Desperate Papal efforts to broker a permanent peace were brushed aside by the parties. In March 1336, therefore, at a private meeting with Phillip, Pope Benedict XII cancelled the crusade.[32] It was a blow to Phillip’s hopes and his pride, but even more damaging to Edward as it removed his best bargaining lever for obtaining concessions and freed the French fleet for redeployment from the Mediterranean to Norman ports, where it could be used against the English.


Edward was in a difficult position. The war in Scotland was going badly. It was taking longer and costing more to subdue the Scottish nationalists than he had expected, and the English gains of 1335 were threatened by a French plan to raise and equip a force of 26,000 men for service in Scotland, and possibly also in England. In the Channel, the French were sinking English ships, killing their sailors and damaging their commerce with Flanders. French raids on the English east and south coast ports were increasing and causing much alarm among the civilian population. The redeployment of the French fleet to the Channel merely added to English concerns since it was seen as the prelude to a full-on French invasion, which the inhabitants of the southeast were arming themselves to resist. For all practical purposes, Phillip was treating Edward and his subjects as enemies wherever he found them. Things were hardly any better for the English in Gascony. Phillip’s plan to seize the remains of the duchy was well advanced. His officials, who were there already, were brazenly enforcing French royal authority at the expense of ducal authority. Also, the ‘flurry’ of litigation in the royal French courts that was emanating from Edward’s truculent Gascon vassals was undermining ducal authority. Phillip had already rejected out of hand Edward’s last proposals for a peaceful settlement of their differences, when on the 30 April he proclaimed the arriéve-ban summoning all able-bodied Frenchmen of military age for war service with the Crown.


As it happened, however, the casus belli for war was not Phillip’s threat to England or French piracy in the Channel, but Edward’s position as a peer of France. His refusal to extradite Robert of Artois a French outlaw who had taken refuge in the English court after being condemned as a traitor in France gave Phillip the excuse to confiscate what was left of Edward’s French inheritance,[33] which he did by proclamation on the 24 May 1337, ’…on account of the many excesses, rebellions and acts of disobedience committed against our royal majesty by the king of England, duke of Aquitaine.[34] To ensure there was no misunderstanding, Phillip did not send his demand for Artois’ extradition through diplomatic channels (i.e. sovereign to sovereign); he sent it to the English Seneschal of Gascony who was instructed to deal with the Master of the Royal Archers when he arrived in Gascony for the purpose. This was an unequivocal ‘sovereign to subject’ communication and tantamount to a declaration of war. Phillip’s actions found Edward at a considerable military disadvantage. He could not conquer Scotland and defend Gascony at the same time. Neither did he have the ships to challenge French naval supremacy in the Channel and the Atlantic, and his financial problems seemed insurmountable.


Edward’s solution to all these difficulties was to broaden the war. In 1337 and 1338 he set out to create an anti-Phillip coalition. The Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig IV and a cluster of German princes who had cause to fear Phillip’s territorial ambition agreed to fight on Edward’s part for gold. The Flemings were forced to join this coalition by Edward’s embargo on the export of wool and leather to Flanders.[35] They suspected (probably correctly) that Edward was using them. To maintain the coalition and to convince the unreliable Flemings that Phillip was not their lawful suzerain, Edward with the consent of the English parliament resurrected his claim to be the legitimate King of France. In a public challenge to Phillip dated the 3 October 1337, Edward claimed the French crown on the ground of his closer degree of kinship to Charles IV. ” Wherefore we give you notice that we will claim and conquer or heritage of France by the armed force of us and ours, and from this day forward we and ours challenge you and yours and we rescind the pledge of homage we gave you without good cause.” [36]  Henceforth, Phillip and his French subjects were treated as enemies of Edward. In 1338, he travelled to Antwerp to cement his alliance. There, he found his allies “…slippery, timid and tepid. They were hesitant and dilatory, and not much was achieved”.[37] It would be wrong, nevertheless, to describe the period 1337 to 1340 as a ‘phony war’ (as Christopher Allmand does). [38] The fighting may have been desultory and indecisive but it was bloody nonetheless, and both sides were guilty of atrocities and cruelty. Furthermore, the economic impact on northern Europe was considerable.[39]


Edward’s coalition depended on his ability to pay his allies and to lead an English army on campaign in the Low Countries: by 1340 he could do neither. His debts far exceeded any subsidy from Parliament and the Crown’s feudal revenues. The German’s, would fight only so long as English gold lasted and the Flemings were unreliable allies anyway. It was this crisis that prompted Edward to take the next logical step. On the 26 January 1340 he formally assumed the title ‘King of France’ and received the recognition of those Flemings who did not side with the Count of Flanders on Phillip’s side.[40] In the same month, he held his first French ‘court’ in Ghent to which his new vassals were summoned to swear their allegiance to him as ‘the successor to St Louis and Phillip the Fair’. He styled himself ‘King of England and of France’, quartered his royal arms with those of France and dated his documents ‘in the fourteenth year of our reign in England and in the first in France.’[41] It was a remarkable and dramatic escalation of the conflict, which transformed its fundamental nature, astounded the Church and the secular rulers of Christendom, and has been the source of scholarly muddle ever since.


There are three questions that historians find difficult to answer conclusively. First, did Edward have a legitimate and superior title to the French throne? Second, was his claim at this time based on principle or expediency? And finally, was it the cause of the Hundred Years War? I will deal with the last question first since it is the most straightforward. The simplistic view taken by Edward’s sternest critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that his claim was the cause of the Hundred Years War flies in the face of the facts as we now know them and of common sense. Phillip’s confiscation of Gascony marked the moment war became inevitable. The occupation of Gascony by French soldiers soon afterwards marked the start of hostilities. These acts took place months before Edward wrote to Phillip claiming the French throne and years before he assumed the title of King of France. As Ian Mortimer is quick to point out, Edward’s dynastic claim was a symptom of the conflict, not its cause.[42]


The issue of legitimacy, however, is more problematic. The objection to a woman succeeding to the French throne was hardly relevant to Edward’s claim for obvious reasons. His claim was sui generis in that it turned on the question of whether a woman could transmit such a title to her son. The French lords answered that question with a resounding no. Although the English bowed to superior force, there is no suggestion they accepted the French interpretation of the ‘rules’ of succession. It could be argued that by giving homage to Phillip in 1329, Edward effectively renounced his claim to the French Crown, The counter argument put forward at the time by his advisors is that Edward could not be held to an oath given while he was still a minor and furthermore an oath he was coerced into giving. It is arguable, as Jonathan Sumption suggests, whether that argument is weakened by Edward’s liege homage’ of 1331.[43] Personally, I do not think that Edward’s claim — such as it was — is emasculated by his concession in 1331. In the first place, he made no concession about the legitimacy of his title or that he accepted the legitimacy of the French lords’ decision. He simply bowed to superior force. To do otherwise was folly. It would commit him to a war he could not win at that time. He saw the risk of confiscation and war clearly, which he sensibly decided to prevent by making a limited concession that his oath of 1329 was liege fealty. Moreover, I can see no rational reason for Edward to pursue a claim, which he and everyone else knew was false. I must now turn to the question of motive.


We can be sure that Edward’s reason for pressing his title at this point was expediency. He was seeking to gain a tactical advantage. No doubt if the throne fell into his hands he might think again, but at this time he showed no genuine desire to rule two kingdoms. His war aim was to recover all of English Gascony in full sovereignty, plus of course any other lands he managed to conquer during the war. But, by turning his dispute into a dynastic one, Edward shed the feudal straitjacket that cast him as nothing more than a disloyal and disobedient vassal’, and dispensed with the tiresome duty of swearing fealty to the French crown. Thereafter he referred to his opponent as ‘Phillip of Valois who calls himself the king of France’, with whom he was able to treat on equal terms. Nevertheless, if Edward wanted to steady his allies and influence the neutrals, he could not afford to put forward spurious claim; there must be some legal and moral legitimacy to his claim no matter how ambiguous or arguable it was.


Before I turn to the immediate events leading up to the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360, I must write a little about the course of the war by way of context.[44]   After 1340 Edward abandoned his foreign coalition, preferring instead to rely on his seasoned English and Welsh troops. A war of succession, which broke out in Brittany during 1341 gave him the pretext to bring his army to France on behalf of one of the parties. Not unnaturally, King Phillip took the part of the other side. What started as a ducal dispute soon became an international war between England and France. The English established their military supremacy with hard fought victories at Morlaix (1342), Auberoche (1345) and Crecy (1346). The battle of Crecy was a triumph for the discipline and professionalism of Edward’s infantry over the élan of Phillip’s mounted knights. King Phillip fled the field with his royal and political reputations in tatters. The flower of French chivalry was humbled and soon after the English captured Calais, which they held for two hundred years. But the war was not continuous; it was interrupted by the pestilence of the Black Death, which temporarily disorganized, social, economic and military activity in England and France.[45] Furthermore, the nature of English and of French society was such that neither side was able to maintain a large standing army in the field for a long time. And, there was also the papal policy of consistently offering mediation. All these factors, coupled with the death of Phillip in 1350 unsettled French society. Opposition to the Valois line was increasing; factionalism was breaking down political unity, stirred up by Charles of Navarre (known as Charles the Bad) who was another claimant to the French throne. It is possible that he and Edward were planning to destroy the Valois line and divide France between them.[46]


Even the fact that King John (who had succeeded his father in 1350) came to terms with Charles of Navarre at Nantes In1354 was insufficient to overcome the French disadvantage. Most royal councilors were by this time receptive to the notion of peace with Edward even at the price of French territory. Contact between ambassadors was ongoing and the French prepared for the ‘worst of surrenders’.[47] Edward agreed in principle to trade his claim to the French throne for territory. All that remained to be agreed was the extent of the land to be yielded to him. This was finalized at the Treaty of Guines (1354). In exchange for renouncing his claim to the French throne, Edward was to receive in full sovereignty: that part of Aquitaine known as Gascony (anti bellum the war of St-Sardos), Poitou, Limousine, Maine, Anjou and Touraine. Edward was delighted. He had achieved almost all his war aims, though he dared not say so too loudly. The terms agreed were highly controversial and could not be published straight away lest the fragile peace be endangered.[48] Edward’s fears were soon realised. On hearing the agreement, the opposition of the French lords hardened. In the autumn of 1354, King John was persuaded to repudiate the Treaty of Guines. The temporary truce was revoked and the war resumed. As far as Edward was concerned no other course was possible now.


The chevauchée that Edward Prince of Wales led from Bordeaux to the Languedoc in the autumn of 1355 marked the opening of a new chapter in the Hundred Years War. The English raiders inflicted terrible havoc and destruction on the French civil population and their property, as they rode from Bordeaux to the shores of the Mediterranean and back, laden down with booty and unmolested by a French army, which stood idly by and watched. Militarily, the raid achieved little; no ground was taken, no castles were captured, and no battle was fought. The value of the raid, however, lay in its effect on French morale. King John’s authority was challenged in his own back yard and he was shown to be powerless to protect his people from English depredations. The shock wave was felt in Paris, where plots, coups and counter-coups widened the division between the King and the Dauphin and between the various political factions: worse was expected in 1356.


It was the presence of Henry Duke of Lancaster with a small English Army in Brittany, and Prince Edward with his larger Anglo-Gascon force in Gascony that created a problem for John and an opportunity for Edward in 1355/56. Despite his military successes, a decisive war-winning campaign had thus far eluded King Edward. Perhaps this was an opportunity to put that right. It seems that in the spring of 1356 he conceived a plan to lead a third English army in France. It was anticipated that after the king had linked-up with Lancaster’s force, they advance from the west and rendezvous ‘somewhere on the Loire’ with Prince Edward’s army coming up from the south. We must be careful not to attribute to this some sort of strategic masterstroke by Edward, since it was in fact nothing more than a vague pipe dream. It was a plan that required three English medieval armies manoeuvring on exterior lines, without maps, active communications, active intelligence, relying on extempore logistics and in enemy territory, to co-ordinate their movements so as to combine their strength for a decisive battle against an outnumbered foe. There was simply too much that could go wrong, and indeed did go wrong before it even started! Edward’s efforts to raise another army for service in France came to nought owing to the threat posed by the Aragonese Galley Fleet that was spotted off the coast of Kent. Instructions were sent to Lancaster and to Prince Edward to rendezvous on the Loire. In the event, however, no junction between the English armies was achieved owing to the movements of the enemy and the English failure to synchronize their movements. Prince Edward reached the Loire to find that he was alone. Worse still he did not know at that point where the French army was. In fact it was only a few miles away in an good position to cut the Anglo-Gascons’ line of communication from Bordeaux. Edward waited for three days for news of Lancaster that never came. It was only when he realised that the French were threatening his rear that he ordered an immediate retreat. There is some dispute as to whether the prince was retreating or actually manoeuvring to bring the French to battle near Poitiers. It is a purely academic argument since a battle did tale place on the 19 September 1356, which was an even more astounding English success than Crecy. The French army was destroyed; King John and his son Phillip along with scores of French nobles were captured. The irony of Poitiers is that it gave Edward the decisive victory that he craved. King John was held captive in London (albeit highly honoured), and France descended into anarchy and revolution in his absence. Even so, it still took Edward four years to consecrate Poitiers with a permanent peace treaty.


While John was a prisoner in London, Edward tried twice to force terms on the French. The first Treaty of London (1358) ceded the following territory to Edward in full sovereignty: Guines, Saintoge, Poitou, Limousine, Quercy, Rouerget, Bigone, Ponthieu, and Calais. John’s ransom was put at 4,000,000 ecus payable by installments. Though this was less that Edward had demanded at Guines, these were still tough terms for the French to accept. They were ceding sovereignty of about a quarter of sovereign French territory. However, such was the anarchy in France that even the hawkish Dauphin accepted this humiliation as the price for peace. The return of Charles of Navarre to France and further fighting in Normandy forced the French nation to it knees. They were unable to pay the first installment of John’s ransom. The opportunistic Edward saw the opportunity to get even more from the beleaguered John by changing the terms of the peace already agreed in principle. The second Treaty of London was much severer than the first. Edward tinkered with the ransom and the installment plan, but his new territorial demand was astonishing; all that was ceded in 1358 plus all the land between the Loire and the Channel together with Anjou, Maine, Tournai, Normandy and the coastal region between Calais and the Somme, all in full sovereignty. It return, Edward renounced his claim to the French crown. If ratified, this treaty would destroy France. It shows, the depth of John’s desperation to go home that he should have agreed, however reluctantly, to such severe terms. Unsurprisingly, the Dauphin and the Estates General rejected this treaty, which they said was neither tolerable not practicable. It was obvious now that if King Edward III wanted to restore the ‘Angevin Empire’, he was going to have to conquer it. Even he realised that that was not feasible despite the obvious French difficulties.[49]


The Treaty of Bretigny was more than just an agreement between King Edward and King John, it was meant to secure a general and a permanent peace in Christendom.[50] The conference opened on the 1 May 1360 in the wake of Edward’s failed attempt to force his terms on the French. “Sixteen French ambassadors, twenty-two English ones, three papal legates and an observer sent by the king of Navarre, all with their [bodyguards, staffs and servants]. The chief negotiators were all veterans of past occasions of this sort.[51] The English constrained by events took a more conciliatory line than hitherto and did not maintain their territorial demands of 1359. Once this was known, negotiations did not take long. By the 3 May, the essential details were agreed in substantially the same terms as those of the first Treaty of London. Edward was to hold in free sovereignty all the provinces to the southwest that had once belonged to the Angevins, ‘in the same manner as the king of France and his ancestors held them’. In addition to Gascony, this meant Poitou, Saintoge, Angoumois, Perigold, Limousine, Quercy and Rouerget together with certain (unspecified) territories bordering on Gascony. In the north he was to get Ponthieu, Calais and the town of Montreuil in Picardy. In return, Edward would renounce his claim to the French throne. The detail remained to be settled, of course, and as might have been anticipated the devil was indeed in the detail. The treaty ratified by the English Parliament did not include the so-called ‘renunciation clause’. That was put aside in a separate document for discussion later. Sadly, neither Edward nor John complied with their obligations under the treaty. Though the next decade was peaceful this failure to enforce the terms of the agreement on both sides was to dominate Anglo-French diplomacy for the next half-century. But that, as they say is another story.

[1] M Prestwich – Edward I (Yale 1997) p.314: Maurice Powicke – The Thirteenth Century (Oxford 1988, 2nd edition) pp.290-292; Powicke’s analysis of the Gascon question (pp.270-318) is a useful introduction to the real politick of Anglo-French relations in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. See also, Marc Morris – Edward I: a great and terrible king (Windmill 2009) p.204

[2] Powicke pp. 644-645, points out that this was not an isolated incident, though it was the most serious thus far. Powicke is in no doubt that the Cinque Port flotilla were sent to avenge some earlier French outrage.

[3] Powicke pp. 648-649; Morris pp. 264-265: both these authors explore Phillips motive and his means for recovering English lands in France

[4] Edouard Perroy – The Hundred Years War (Eyres & Spottiswoode 1965 -English trans) p.65, provides a useful analysis of Edward’s military, political and fiscal problems at home and in France at this time. Peroy asserts that the conquest of Gascony was relatively easy for Phillip’s troops: “three short summer campaigns in 1294,1295 and 1296 sufficed to enable Charles Valois to occupy the whole of Aquitaine”: Perroy exaggerates, though not by much..

[5] Powicke pp.649-688; summarizes the complex web of diplomacy between the monarchs and princes of northwest Europe at this time. It is a good introduction to the problems faced by Edward and Phillip in achieving their own foreign policy objectives

[6] Powicke p.654; Powicke also gives a fascinating insight into the legal argument between English and French lawyers over the feudal status of Gascony (pp.650-653). His penetrating analysis is worth quoting at length: “It was impossible to break from the past. The status of Gascony had become involved in a network of juristic learning; the boundaries were not clearly fixed, old disputes had not been settled. In Edward II’s reign all sorts of thorny difficulties survived to become even more complicated…The duty of the duke to take an oath of fealty as well as to do homage in person was disputed. The marriage between Edward of Caernarvon and Isabella raised the great problem of the French succession. The treaty of 1303 was but an incident, a breathing space in the interminable wrangle which the Treaty of [Paris] 1259 had produced.

[7] Kathryn Warner – Edward II: an unconventional king (Amberley 2014) pp.14-16 contains a helpful summary of Edward II’s historical reputation. See also May McKisack – The Fourteenth Century: 1307-1399 (Oxford 1959) pp.107 for a damming and unsurpassed assessment of Edward’s character faults.

[8] Jonathan Sumption – The Hundred Years War 1: Trial by Battle (Faber and Faber 1990 edition) pp. 86-91.

[9] Sumption (battle) p.92; see also Warner p.177. Warner make the point that at this time Edward was angry with Charles for not extraditing the English traitor Roger Mortimer who had been at the French court. The question is: did Edward’s anger cloud his judgement about the Saint-Sardos affair?

[10] Sumption (Battle) pp.86-90; refers to the ‘mosaic of competing jurisdictions’ which existed in Gascony. The boundaries were still undefined and ancient disputes were still unresolved. Edward’s litigious Gascon vassals were as much to blame as anybody for this state of affairs, since they were determined to exploit the dual jurisdiction to their best advantage in local inter-family feuds. It became a frequent device to bypass ducal control in order to gain an advantage over opponents. This situation was a source of genuine grievance for the English, since the pronouncements of the French Parlement left them defenceless against the continual French encroachment into the land and affairs of Gascony, except for retaliation. The problem was not that this would lead to war, everybody accepted that; the real danger was that war would come at a time of the French king’s choosing.

[11] Sumption (Battle) p.93

[12] Sumption (Battle) p.94; Peroy passim; Charles IV is also known to history as Charles the Fair. There is no doubt that he did not try to take advantage of Edward’s domestic troubles. Neither does the evidence support an inference that the Capetian monarchs had a deliberate policy to disinherit the Plantagenets. In this instance and in others since 1259, it is much more likely that the French employed a policy of strict enforcement of their feudal rights backed-up by brutal punishment for the slightest infringement. However, I believe there is merit in Peroy’s opinion (p.65) that Charles was being unreasonable to Edward’s ambassadors (‘he would not listen to reason’). Their instructions did not authorise them to make the promise requested and it would have been treasonable for them to diminish the Crown estate by promising parts of it to a foreign potentate. Besides, any promises made under these circumstances of duress, is unenforceable.

[13] Sumption (Battle) p.95; Warner pp. 178-179

[14] Mortimer (Perfect King) pp. 200-201; ‘it is as it is’ seems to have been Edward’s personal motto, which was first seen in public at a tournament in 1342 embroidered on all of Edward’s heraldic devices. Nobody is really sure what it means: is it fatalistic (things cannot be changed)? Or is it celebratory (things are as they should be). It might even have been a reference the immutability of his title to the French throne. Mortimer discusses these possibilities and others.

[15] Sumption (Battle) p.107

[16] Sumption pp. (Battle) 68-69; Perroy p.71; both of these superb historians analyses this issues involved and come to the same conclusion. Sumption’s analysis is, as one would expect, of almost judicial clarity and objectivity. Perroy’s analysis though more emotional is equally effective.

[17] Sumption (Battle) ibid; this section is based entirely on Sumption’s own work

[18] Sumption (Battle) p.109: asserts that the fact Edward was passed over for the French crown was a matter of indifference to his English subjects. It was, he suggests, ‘only the Queen Mother who felt strongly about the issue’. However, see McKisack p.111 who argues convincingly that ‘contemporary feudal practice and the prevailing uncertainty about the law of succession made it almost inevitable in these circumstances that a claim should be proffered on behalf of Edward III a direct descendant of Phillip IV through his mother. Failure to make such a claim would be tantamount to letting it go be default and Isabella’s overtures for alliances with Gelderland, Brabant and Castile suggests that she might have had some notion of taking action at a later date.

[19] Sumption (Battle) ppp109-110: Sumption cites a number chronicles sources to which I do not have access: Foedera convetiones, literae et acta publica – ed T Rymer, ne A Clarke et al 7 Volumes (1826-29) pp.775, 783, 784, 789; Lettres d’état enregistrées au Parlement de Paris sous le régne de Philippe de Valois, ABSHF, xxxiv (1897), 193-267, xxxv (1898) 177-249; Annales Londinieses, W Stubbs (ed) – Chronicles of the reign of Edward I and Edward II (1882) PP. 247-249. See also

Chris Givern-Wilson (Gen Ed) – The Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England 1275-1504 (Boydell 2005); Vol IV – 1327-1348 (Seymour Phillips and Mark Ormrod (Eds) p. 96 (PROME): There are two circumstantial points that are worth considering when discussing the lords’ advice. First, Edward was still a minor in the power of his mother and Sir Roger Mortimer, and accordingly he did all that was asked of him as Duke of Aquitaine when swearing fealty to Phillip. Second, the advice was given ‘against a background of barely suppressed tension’ caused by the earl of Lancaster’s rebellion, which was only suppressed at the cost of Mortimer’s complete domination of the government. I am confused by the significant difference between the note in PROME and Sumption’s conclusion from the chronicles. Was Edward required to do homage because his claim was unsustainable in law, or because it was unsustainable (unenforceable) in fact? See also John Joliffe Froissart’s Chronicles (Harvill 1967) pp. 53 -54 and Ian Mortimer – The Greatest Traitor (Vintage 2010) p.221.

[20] Geoffrey Brereton (editor and translator) – Jean Froissart Chronicles (Penguin 1978) p.55; see also, John Jolliffe (editor and translator) – Froissart’s Chronicles (Harvill 1967) pp. 53-66; which contains a more detailed account of the homage ceremony.

[21] Michael Packe – Edward III (Law Book Company 1983) p.44

[22] McKisack p.112; Perroy pp.82-84: the French drew attention to the ambiguity of the first oath even though it was the same oath sworn by Henry III in 1259, by Edward I in 1274 and again in 1286, and by Edward II in 1308 and 1320. Perroy speculates whether Phillip’s ‘brusque’ demand was the prelude to another confiscation. It is noteworthy that by the time of Phillip’s demand for ‘liege’ fealty the French were already in occupation of the Agenais and Saintonge

[23] PROME Vol 4 pp.154-155; Edward sought Parliaments advice in September 1331. He asked the lords whether they thought he should go to war to recover his rights. Parliament offered him three options: arbitration, negotiation or war. Arbitration and war being too risky, the lords advised further negotiations in the form proposed by King Phillip himself ballasted if possible by a diplomatic marriage settlement.

[24] Sumption (Battle) p.119; see also PROME V4 pp. 153-156

[25] Sumption (Battle) pp146 & 152-184 passim; Mortimer pp.124-126; Sumption charts the course of Anglo-French diplomacy in detail, which I can only summarise.

[26] Perroy pp.88-89; see also Sumption (Battle) pp118-122

[27] Perroy pp. ibid; suggests that Phillip was keen to take the Cross following a suggestion from Edward. It is clear, however, that Edward had no intention to go on a Holy Crusade while Scotland was unconquered; Sumption (Battle) p.155, considers Edward’s promise to go on Crusade was ‘indistinct and probably dishonest’.

[28] Perroy ibid

[29] Perroy ibid; Sumption (Battle) pp.123-151 passim; Mortimer (Perfect King) pp.95-96 & 453.n42

[30] Perroy p.88; ‘Phillip of Valois felt that it lay neither with his interests nor his duty to abandon his Scottish ally’

[31] Sumption (Battle) pp.152-184

[32] Sumption (Battle) ibid the Papal Legate produced a draft compromise meant to disengage Phillip from the ‘British conflict’ so that he could concentrate on the Holy Crusade. It was futile gesture; Phillip regarded the attempted mediation as impertinence since this was not a dispute between sovereign kings but between a sovereign and his vassal on a subject that touched the authority of the French crown.

[33] Sumption (Battle) pp.172-174; Sumption argues that strictly speaking Edward’s refusal to extradite Artois was not grounds for confiscating Gascony since Edward was self-evidently acting in his sovereign capacity as king of England to make an alliance with whomever he chooses. However, such considerations counted for little with the French who feared such an alliance might threaten their interests. See also Christopher Allmand- The Hundred Years War (Cambridge 2001 revised edition) p.12, who takes a different line. He suggests that by sheltering Artois, a traitor and Phillip’s enemy, Edward was guilt of breaking his oath of fealty to Phillip. It is a classic illustration of the conflict of interests placed on the English king/French duke that was created by the Treaty of Paris 1259 and was the root cause of Anglo-French discord

[34] McKisack p.115

[35] Sumption (Battle) p.189; Edward’s embargo on the export of Wool, though it damaged the English economy, had catastrophic consequences for the Flemish economy. Most of the population worked in the cloth-making industry and were entirely dependent on English wool for their livelihood, ‘there being virtually no other raw material’. The embargo coupled with a poor harvest ensured that many textile workers went hungry during the winter. In 1337, public order in Ghent and Bruges broke down.

[36] Brereton pp. 59-60

[37] Alfred H. Burne – The Crecy War: 1337-1360 (Greenhill Books 1990 edition) p.24

[38] Allmand p.14; see also Perroy pp.95-105

[39] Sumption (Battle) Chp7, 8, 9 contains the best and most thorough account of the diplomatic, financial and military activity between 1337 and 1340; Perroy ibid provides the best summary of events during that period.

[40] Sumption (Battle) ibid; Perroy ibid; Mortimer (Perfect King) pp.136, 137, 144, 148 & 162-165

[41] Sumption (Battle) pp291-296; Perroy ibid; Mortimer (Perfect King) p.144: Edward’s title seemed more a matter of convenience depending on who or what it was intended for. He did, for example style himself as king of England and of France in one document and as king of France and of England in another.

[42] Mortimer (Perfect King) p.135; see also Perroy pp. 95-97; Allmand pp. 7-12 contains a useful discussion on the causes of the war and provides some interesting alternative general interpretations of the cause and nature of the war.

[43] Sumption (Battle) pp. 294-295

[44] For those interested in the military history, Jonathan Sumption’s uncompleted ‘History of the Hundred Years War’ in four volumes is the definitive English account (The fifth and final volume is awaited.). The best general introduction remains Edouard Perroy’s superb History (English translation 1959). It is also still worth referring to Alfred Burn’s two-volume military history The Crecy War’ and ‘The Agincourt War ’(1955)

[45] A general truce was agreed in 1347 and repeatedly extended.

[46] Allmand p.17

[47] Jonathan Sumption – The Hundred Years War 2: Trial by Fire (Faber and Faber 1999 edition) pp.132-133.

[48] Sumption 2 (Fire) p.133: the terms agreed at Guines were better than Edward managed to get at Bretigny in 1360, when John was his prisoner and an English army stood at the gates of Paris.

[49] Sumption (Fire) ibid

[50] Perroy p178

[51] Sumption (Fire) ibid

Henry VI: saint or sinner?

A gentle and devotional life

About seventy years ago, the historian John Harvey wrote this in an essay about King Henry VI: “The life and death, and the thwarting of his noble designs are one (sic) of the sorriest tragedies of English history. He was a victim of forces outside his control, for whose existence he was not responsible, but set in motion by his grandfather’s crime and his father’s one-sided ambition. Inheriting the love of justice of his Plantagenet forefathers and the a artistic culture and melancholia of Charles VI of France, his character was in sharp contrast with that of his age, possessed in marked degree by his wife. In his charity, his love of art and his spirit he was a true Plantagenet, though a paradoxical one…. He saw the world as a place of brief sojourn in which to do good, to learn courtesy and to seek God. There was nothing political in his martyrdom; except as the shadow of a name, and the crowned and anointed husband of Margaret, he represented no threat to anybody in the world. Yet the callous and sacrilegious hand that struck him down, though it ended a gentle and devotional life on earth, ensured that Henry’s virtues and lasting benefits should be perpetually bought to the mind of oblivious posterity” [1]


Harvey took this version of Henry’s life and death from a tract entitled ‘A Compilation of the Meekness and Good Life of King Henry VI’, which is attributed to John Blacman and was published in 1510.[2] The tract is in fact a collection of anecdotes of Henry’s religious devotions from the recollection of one of his chaplains and other intimates of his personal life. The aim of the collection is to present Henry as a holy saint whose ‘kingdom’ was not worldly. He performed a miracle of loaves (but not fishes) for his troops and endured hunger, thirst, mocking, abuse and other hardships in his life including wounding in his side by a dagger. He foretold his own death but was not believed. And he suffered a violent death so that others might live in peace. Blacman’s depiction of Henry as an exemplar of Christian virtue, though not of this world was also the standard Tudor view echoed by Henry VII’s historian Polydore Vergil: “ King Henry was a man of mild and plain-dealing disposition who preferred peace before war, quietness before troubles, honesty before utility and leisure before business: and to be short, there was not in this world a more honest and a more holy creature. There was in him honest shamed-facedness, modesty, innocency and perfect patience taking all human chances, miseries and all afflictions in his life in good part as though he had justly by some offence deserved the same. And he ruled his own affections that he might more easily rule his own subjects; he gapped not after riches nor thirsted for honours and worldly estimation but was careful only for his souls sake; such things as tended to the salvation thereof he only esteemed for good; and that very wisely; such again as procured loss thereof he only accounted evil.[3]


To set against this Tudor narrative of the martyred Henry, we have his known failings as a king. Henry is mainly remembered as the king who lost the Hundred Years War and during whose rule the Wars of the Roses started. Indeed The late Bertram Wolffe thought that Henry as such an insubstantial and unsuccessful king that writing his biography was a long and dispiriting task. I do not deny that Henry was a weak and ineffective king. That judgement was made in his lifetime and has not been seriously challenged since. However, I do think that John Harvey may have an arguable point about Henry’s culpability. Was he wholly to blame for the calamities of his reign, or was he the victim of circumstances? That is the question I wish to discuss in this article; first, by setting Henry’s reign in the context of events from his accession until his mental breakdown in 1453; second, by discussing his performance in three key policy areas: maintenance of the dual monarchy, royal finances and the rule of law.


Divided opinions

Until the twentieth century, studies of Henry were dominated by the story of an innocent king at the mercy of greedy and violent nobles. However, modern biographies challenge that simple narrative and in doing so have broadened our understanding of the complexities of Henry’s reign. In 1981, two contrasting studies of Henry VI appeared almost simultaneously. The first was by Bertram Wolffe; whose, unforgiving verdict of King Henry goes well beyond the accusation that he was incompetent.[4] Wolffe judges Henry by what he did as revealed in the government records, and he completely rejects the notion of the mild, martyred king. In its place he describes an actively malign king, whose piety was too ostentatious to be virtuous, and whose nature was too unforgiving and vindictive to be saintly. He was also a poor judge of character, prone to interfering, and lacking in judgement and proportionality. He disregarded his royal oath and he was wilful. In essence the inconsistencies and failures of English foreign policy were due to Henry’s capricious changes of mind and his susceptibility to improper influences. Thus Wolffe rejects the whole idea that the loss of France was due to the divided opinion of the English aristocracy.[5] He does not doubt that Henry’s failures as a king left the establishment of Eton College and of King’s College Cambridge as his sole achievements.


Also in 1981, Ralph Griffith’s published his evaluation of Henry’s reign. It is a nuanced and detailed assessment of Henry’s performance as monarch and his qualities as a man. Griffiths recognises the military and fiscal difficulties that dogged Henry’s rule, and the factionalism of the nobility, which would have tested even a high performing and confident king. The essence of Griffiths’ evaluation of Henry is best put in his own words: “Henry VI was in reality a well-intentioned man with aspirations that were laudable enough, in an age when king’s could not rule by good intentions alone. He had an interest in the realities of government with the aim of realising those aspirations, especially in education, relations with Valois France, and the reward of friends and servants. Other of his qualities were obstacles to effective kingship. He was extravagant, credulous, over merciful and compassionate to those at fault yet fearful suspicious of those rumoured to be doing him harm. These are not the qualities of a shrewd and balanced judge of men and politics. Henry also lacked the foresight, prudence and calculation that make a king’s actions responsible ones; he showed little sagacity, subtlety or discrimination in his administrative actions and none of the political astuteness necessary to achieve an acceptable balance among his subjects competing interests — as contemporaries recognised who stressed his simplicity. Not that he was uneducated or unintelligent but he was the least experienced of English medieval kings at his succession and never shook off his youthful dependence on others in the routine and detail of affairs…With his naively defective judgement, Henry’s advisors were too often unworthy of his confidence.[6] Griffiths’ explains this last sentence later in his book. “Those contemporaries who …[observed]...Henry VI as a boy were agreed that he grew into a personable, intelligent and even precocious youth. His years as a minor between the ages of one and fifteen were naturally of considerable importance to his education as a monarch of two realms. His relatives had already created for him an atmosphere of political bitterness, even personal hatred, and after Bedford’s death, both (Humphrey duke of) Gloucester and (Henry) Beaufort (bishop of Winchester) strove to be the single most dominant influence on him as he grew older. They would be reluctant to allow him the exercise of free will as an adult king. The end result of these intense personal pressures was to accustom Henry to dependence, to being told what to do. Even after Gloucester and Beaufort had receded into the background he found other pillars on which to lean: the earl of Suffolk. Archbishop Kemp, the duke of Somerset and finally, when he was least able to fend for himself, the Queen.”[7] In Griffiths’ view, therefore, Henry is far less culpable for the disasters of his reign than those relatives and other advisors who instead of supporting the king betrayed his trust in them.


John Watts’ appraisal of Henry, which first appeared in 1999, is the antithesis of Wolf’s ‘active’ king.[8] He also questions Griffiths’ negative assessment of Henry’s relatives and advisors. Watts argues simpliciter that Henry was so passive that he created difficulties for the nobility, who in their own interactions tried to compensate for a king who was chronically unable to exercise royal authority, and was especially ‘incapable of giving judgements, managing the counsel of his advisors and making policy appear his own.’ This depiction of Henry as a simpleton is not a new one. In the opinion of at least one anonymous fifteenth century commentator, Henry was simple and easily led: “In the same time the realm of England was out of all good governance as it had been before, for the king was simple and led by covetous counsel and owed more than he was worth. His debts increased daily but payment there was none. All the possessions and lordships that pertained to the crown the king had given away, some to lords and some to other simple persons so that he had almost nothing left. For these misgovernances and for many others, the hearts of the people were turned away from them that had the land in governance and their blessings were turned to curses” [9]


Watts contends that what others describe as “‘the king’s unfair and unwise distribution of patronage and the opportunistic behaviour of his household servants’, should be judged in the context of ‘how this [patronage] was turned into power in the localities or why the nobility who might have been expected to resist the king’s agents did nothing until the 1450’s.[10] His own explanation is that: “The England of the 1440’s was governed by a very extensive network of men, including most of the old nobility; their difficulties stemmed more from lack of co-ordination and lack of authority than from partisanship.” Central to this thinking is late twentieth century research carried out by Christine Carpenter, Anthony Pollard, Helen Castor and others into the dynamics of local politics and relationships in the fifteenth century. These several studies suggest a different and more complex regional dynamic from the factional politics of the greater nobility.[11]


Local cooperation between landowners, merchants, farmers, artisans and labourers, coupled with the complex inter-relationships of the gentry forged by their arranged marriages, were the bonds that held English society together. The importance of these local transactions, whether they were commercial, legal, social, successional or familial, is that often they transcended the politicking of the great nobles. In view of Henry’s inability or unwillingness to govern and on the basis that ‘something had to be done’, it is argued that rather than fleecing Henry, his closest advisors were in fact trying to maintain the everyday cohesion of national and local life from collapsing into anarchy. This is an important new hypothesis; since even though the English nobility were a turbulent and quarrelsome bunch, their relationship with the king was based on mutual cooperation and benefit.[12] In the absence of a national police force or standing army, or civil service the king relied on the nobility to enforce his law, his peace and his policies through their network of local officials and law officers. In return, the king was expected to provided the national leadership that ensured “…an outward calm for the defence and surety of the realm”.[13]


Professor Christine Carpenter in her own leading study of this period holds the view that Henry was so deficient in kingly qualities that whilst he might be allowed to approve some insignificant grants and pardons, though not necessarily as an act of personal rule, he was hardly likely to be allowed to formulate foreign policy for the war in France, which “…was absolutely central to the domestic politics of England…It is scarcely conceivable that they would have allowed the king to dictate policy on which their very lives depended when they seem to have been able to dictate to the king on everything else that mattered.” [14] However, she does not deny the possibility that Henry’s wishes may be seen in some of his ‘over-generous grants and pardons and in the foreign policy of the 1440’s’, which may be the result of Henry’s genuine desire for peace rather than an example of his capriciousness.


It seems, therefore, that though modern scholars agree that Henry was in the general sense incompetent, there is less certainty about whether he was culpable for the deficiencies of his reign. In considering that question, it is important to bear in mind that Henry VI is unique among English monarchs. He was not only born to the purple, but also surrounded with the divinity of kingship from the cradle. The untimely death of his father Henry V bought baby Henry to the throne of two kingdoms before he was a year old. He is the only English king to have presided at his first parliament sitting on his mother’s lap. Consequently, his character and his performance can only be judged in a regal context and by bearing in mind that in respect of both his kingdoms he never had the benefit of growing-up under the wing of his father from whom he might have learned the art of kingship.



The English had high expectations of Henry. He was, after all, the only son of a successful warrior king. They expected him to rule in the common interest and they recognised his absolute, personal and inalienable authority to do so. There was no conflict between these principles if the king was competent. Ideally, such a king was prudent and took representative advice before acting. He made sound decisions and implemented them efficiently. Sir John Fortescue in his treatise on fifteenth century governance noted with smug pride that though in theory English kings had the powers of a tyrant, they generally ruled responsibly ‘in the common weal’.


Much depended on the vigour and personality of the king. He was expected to devise his own foreign and domestic policies, conduct affairs of state, make peace or declare war, lead the army against enemies foreign and domestic, dispense justice, and live off his income from crown lands and feudal dues. In theory, baby Henry was expected to do all these things from the moment he ascended the throne. In practice, of course, that was impossible. Henry could neither walk nor talk, nor control his bodily functions, nor even chew his own food much less govern his realms. This practical problem was complicated by the established constitutional doctrine, which held that the person of the king and the institution of king (the Crown) were indivisible. Royal authority, therefore, rested solely in the king’s person from the very instant of his accession. No other person could exercise royal authority on behalf of the king under any circumstances; to do so, was treason.[15] In 1422, therefore, the king’s true subjects were wondering how their baby king could rule them if he was physically and intellectually incapable of exercising his authority.


‘The king’s tender years’

On his deathbed, Henry V entrusted the governance of England to his youngest brother Humphrey duke of Gloucester, signifying that the duke should have the principal safekeeping and defence ’of his beloved son’ (tutela et defensionem nostril carissimi filii principales).[16] These words implied that duke Humphrey was to have the powers of a regent answerable only to the king and then only after Henry reached his majority. It was a settlement that recognised the indivisibility of the person and office of king, and devolved royal authority to the regent. However, when the matter came before the lords in parliament in 1422 they disregarded Henry V’s will and rejected Gloucester’s claim to be regent[17]: they did so again in 1428.[18] Distrusting Gloucester’s motives and preferring a conciliar minority rule to his autocratic regency, the lords determined on legal advice that exceptionally during Henry’s minority the indivisible estate of the king was incomplete since it lacked will or reason, which must perforce be supplied by the lords of the King’s Council, who would exercise the king’s authority collectively, whether assembled in Parliament, in the king’s continual council or in the Great Council, until the king was able to assume his personal rule.[19] John duke of Bedford the heir presumptive was appointed to the specially created and limited position of Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm, and chief councillor to the king. Gloucester was allowed to hold that position only during Bedford’s absences abroad. Professor Watts regards this as a paradox in which the lords are both the king’s servants and his representatives, but in reality, it was a practicable solution to a practical problem. It was a settlement that prevented a non-regal autocracy, whilst enabling the realm to be governed during the king’s incapacity. It did not transfer royal authority to the lords and its legitimacy was founded squarely on the English lords’ collective responsibility. Moreover, this constitutional model stood the test of time. It was used again when Henry was incapacitated by mental illness in 1453, and also in 1483 when the child king Edward V succeeded to the throne. I am labouring these points now because of their importance in understanding the nature of Henry’s reign.


A minority council was therefore appointed to govern the kingdom collectively during the protectorship and throughout the king’s minority.[20] From the start, the council’s work was undermined by two long-term problems. First, a conflict of interests between the king’s relatives Gloucester and Beaufort soon became apparent. Gloucester, acting head of the council vice his absent elder brother, was overly ambitious and used his position to influence the direction of policy. Beaufort, the king’s Chancellor, was wealthy and used his wealth to promote his own policies. Their differences, which were personal as well as political, were irreconcilable. And their disgraceful behaviour did much to bring the council into disrepute. Second, many of the minority councillors exploited loopholes in the council’s financial regulations and abused their authority for their aggrandisement. There can be little doubt that Henry’s relatives and his venal councillors set a very poor example for the impressionable king. Even so, it is unlikely that Henry’s inadequacies were apparent when he was a child, since his involvement in affairs of state was notional.


A personable, intelligent and precocious youth

Henry’s transition from child king to adult king was a complex, and for some an arcane process. Unfortunately, a definitive appreciation of those events is hardly possible due to an academic disagreement between historians about what really happened and why. The undeniable facts that can be elucidated from the minutes and archives of government are straightforward. On the 1 October 1435, two months before his fourteenth birthday, Henry attended his first council meeting. Gloucester and Beaufort were also present since it was a strategically important gathering to appoint a new captain for the Calais garrison. Evidence of Henry’s subsequent attendances at minority council meetings and also at the less frequent but larger assemblies of his Great Council can be gleaned from the minutes of those meetings. In addition, petitions and warrants signed by the king signify that he regularly exercised his royal prerogative in matters of grace from at least the 28 July 1436, which was well before his fifteenth birthday. [21] For example, between the 7 November 1436 and the end of the month, he signed twenty-seven petitions and warrants.[22] Nor was Henry’s involvement in government restricted to matters of grace. There is evidence that he played a significant part in substantive foreign policy decisions such as the Duke of Orleans peace mission to France.[23] Despite the council’s natural concern about the liberality of Henry’s grants,[24] there was no obvious reason at this stage and on this evidence for anybody to think that Henry would not make a satisfactory king. He was young and could reasonably be expected to become more prudent as he gained experience and wisdom.


Following a meeting of the great Council, which lasted from the 12 to the 14 of November 1437, Henry declared the formal ending of his minority and assumption of his personal rule; he was not yet sixteen and the youngest English king since the Conquest to do so.[25] All the existing councillors were reappointed on oath to ‘counsel (Henry) well and truly and to keep his secrets, and to put forward their whole labours and diligence for his worship’.[26] Their terms and conditions of service were changed. Payment was now at the king’s discretion. The most contentious part of Henry’s declaration was the description of his future relationship with the new council, which was set out in a series of detailed ‘ordinances’ taken partly from those established for the council by Henry’s grandfather in 1406.[27] As far as I can see, the core of the declaration amounts to this: i) Henry’s prerogative on matters of grace is unfettered. ii) The council will continue to discuss ‘weighty matters’ moved before them, though no decision will be made or action taken without the king’s ‘advice’. iii) The council will continue to discuss and dispose of routine matters unless the council is divided or unable to make a judgement; in which case, the matter will be referred to the king for judgement. So much for the facts, I now turn to the debate about their meaning.


Professor Griffiths considers Henry’s declaration to have been no more than “…an announcement that Henry VI would take a prominent part in affairs henceforth, though without jettisoning the councillors who had served him during his youth.”[28] He dismisses the idea put forward by Watts et al that it was prompted by conciliar apprehension; neither does he accept that it was an attempt to restrain the king. It was, he argues, a material restraint on the council’s power vis-à-vis royal authority, as all matters of grace were in the king’s prerogative. “Pardons were his to give, all collations and benefits his to bestow, royal offices his to fill and anything pertaining to the Crown estates, bounty or favour were reserved to him”. [29] Moreover, though matters of weight might be discussed in council, nothing could be moved without reference to the king. Even routine matters must be referred to the king if the council were divided or unable to make a decision. Griffiths’ further suggests that the outcome was no more than Henry’s personal assumption of powers delegated to the council in 1422. The vagueness of the term ‘great weight or charge’ is an indication of Henry’s intention to intervene in anything important. Griffiths does not see this as a forceful return to personal rule or a wilful thrusting aside of wise councillors. Even less is the council attempting to preserve its authority by ‘ encircling the king with restrictions devised thirty years before’. “Henry’s declaration...[heralded]…the re-establishment, after fifteen years of conciliar government, of traditional royal rule in which the king’s councillors had an acknowledged part. Perhaps the only surprising feature was that it was published so soon in the young king’s life.”[30]


Bertram Wolffe’s conclusion is not materially different from that of Griffiths on this issue. Though, he is more vigorous in his assertion that, as far as could be judged in 1437, Henry possessed some kingly qualities such as physical strength, piety and ambition, and that there was a reasonable chance that wisdom and judgement would follow in due course. Henry was keen to assume the reins of power “just as soon, if not sooner than his advisors approved“.[31] Wolffe came to this conclusion after a careful and thorough analysis of the official record, minutes, petitions, warrants commissions and ‘the workings of government’, which demonstrate that Henry was not merely a cipher authorising everything and anything they put before him. In Wolffe’s opinion there were no grounds for the minority council to cling to their powers once the king determined he had come of age. The ordinances of 1437, though based on those of 1406, indicate that the council was shedding power, not increasing it. I do not think that either Wolffe or Griffiths is arguing that Henry was not an ineffectual adult king, or that his incapacity was not an important factor in the catastrophes of his reign. Their point is that these things were not necessarily obvious in 1437.


Professor Watts takes a completely different line.[32] For reasons I have already touched on, he argues that Henry insufficiencies were apparent before 1437. He rejects the notion that between 1435 and 1437 Henry was initiating his personal rule. The impetus for that, he argues, was coming from the council who managed his exercise of favour: “from grants made by the king and council in 1435-36 to grants made by the king alone but only during pleasure in 1436-37 and finally grants made for life from the spring of 1437 onwards.”[33] Watts adds that the council and wider nobility were worried that Henry was both unable and unwilling to rule the kingdom independently. He writes: “…if he had been behind the events of 1436, the whole tiresome process of recognition, definition and tentative restriction could have been avoided. The king would have begun to exercise his free will over the full range of royal responsibility, while counsellors, those of 1422 and others, advised him[34]


The emerging problems of 1437 were twofold. First, it was next to impossible to prevent individual petitioners seeking patronage from the young king, whose largess was well known. Second, the effective formulation of state foreign and justicial policy depended on active royal leadership and authority; in the absence of these two prerequisite, the effective management of the realm could only be achieved if the various factional groupings and vested interests reconciled their differences in a common approach. It was for these reasons, Watts suggests, that the council devised the 1437 declaration. “ [Since] the impetus for royal activity came from below…It was for the political community, if they could not bind the king, to define and govern the exercise of royal power.” [35]


The Suffolk years

The period between 1437 and 1450 saw the gradual but inexorable erosion of conciliar government and the establishment of an oligarchy based on the royal household and headed by William De La Pole earl (later duke) of Suffolk. As Steward of the King’s Household he had unrestricted access to the king and unrestrained influence over him.[36] As a result of this centralisation of government and the staff changes introduced by the council, state affairs were increasingly determined by only a small number of royal advisors, usually comprising Beaufort, Suffolk and their henchmen. Further administrative ordinances in 1444 aimed at streamlining administrative procedures and tightening the purse strings further reduced the number of royal advisors to, sometimes, not more than one or two. Finally, the deaths of Beaufort and Gloucester in 1447 consolidated Suffolk’s dominating position as the king’s chief advisor — sometimes his only advisor.[37]


Regardless of whether their motive was benign or malign, it is questionable whether the shift in power promoted by Suffolk’s and his affiliates was in the national interest. Even if the bulk of the English nobility acquiesced in the establishment of an oligarchy that pretended to be a monarchy, and even if the nature of the Henry’s incapacity was so desperate that ‘something had to be done’, Suffolk’s effort to prop up a non-functioning king by acting as his proxy was as reckless as it was treasonable.[38] It reduced the royal household to the status of a ‘faction’ and was the cause of such angst that it led eventually to civil war. If for whatever reason, the king lacked the will or reason to exercise his authority, then his royal estate was incomplete. In which case, the only proper course open to the lords was to resurrect the protectorship and the conciliar regime ratified by parliament in 1422.[39] Though this solution was not perfect, it had the dual benefits of legitimacy and utility. By thus broadening the government’s base and unblocking the king’s access to advice from the wider nobility there was a better prospect of consensual government during the king’s disability. Suffolk’s perseverance with the pretence that Henry was a functioning king damaged the Crown and fuelled public suspicions that he was acting in bad faith. Even professor Watts concedes that “Towards the end of the decade the court actually began to resemble the small body of household intimates and administrators depicted by its critics.”[40]


Of all the problems facing the English at this time, the most pressing were maintenance of the dual monarchy and Crown finances. These two problems were inextricably linked and could not be resolved separately. Moreover, an acceptable solution was more difficult to achieve owing to a conflict between the king’s peaceful ambition for his realms and the aspirations of his English subjects, for whom the conquest of France was a matter of national pride, prestige and power. Nevertheless, the key drivers that convinced Beaufort and the council (except Gloucester) of the need for peace were practical and not moral. The war was going badly for English arms. They were on the defensive everywhere. The conquest of the isle de France was no longer achievable or affordable. The burgeoning cost of defending the dual monarchy was pushing the Crown towards bankruptcy.


Negotiations for a permanent peace treaty began under Beaufort in 1437 and dragged on until 1444, when Suffolk agreed a temporary truce, which was only secured at the cost of two major English concessions. Henry was to marry a minor French princess, Margaret daughter of Renee of Anjou, Lorraine and Bar, and titular king of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem. From the English point of view, it was an inauspicious choice for their queen. Though Margaret was related to Charles VII, she was not an heiress and her family were not important in diplomatic terms. Besides, the attitude towards her in England was likely to be suspicious, it not downright hostile. The second — and secret — English concession was the surrender of Maine, which Suffolk is supposed to have promised to Charles verbally. Henry confirmed the promise secretly in writing in 1445, at the entreaty of his French wife. The English, when they finally heard of this concession were naturally suspicious that Margaret aided by Suffolk had put undue pressure on the king. The English army refused to cooperate and Maine was not actually ceded to the French until 1448.


There was a third problem, which though not quite as pressing as the other two was important and getting worse. There is evidence of clashes between local gentry and also between national magnates in the north, in the midlands, in south wales, in the west and in the Home Counties.[41] The use of private armies to resolve local grievances and disputes alienated lords and commoners alike. Their resentment was aggravated by the belief that the king’s ministers and servants condoned this anarchy. These problems were about to come to a head and would change the course of history.


Annus horribilis

The year I have called annus horribilis began on the 6 November 1449 with the hasty recall of Parliament. Such was the magnitude of the emergency at home and abroad that only nine weeks after the dissolution of parliament in July, another was summoned in September. The members of parliament who assembled at Westminster on the 6 November 1449 had the crisis in Normandy and misgovernment at home uppermost in their minds, and they were looking for the culprits.[42] As the king’s most influential counsellor, it was Suffolk who bore the brunt of their resentment. His fall from power was triggered by his attempt to block a complaint by Lord Cromwell against William Tailboys from going before the King’s Council.[43] The infuriated Cromwell drew the matter to the attention of the Commons who included it in a list of charges they were compiling against Suffolk. Meanwhile, during the parliamentary recess, English sailors murdered the much-hated Adam Moleyns bishop of Chichester. As he lay dying, Moleyns ‘confessed’ to Suffolk’s many misdeeds. Following this, Suffolk felt it necessary to make a statement answering Moleyns allegations and the many ‘…slanders and misconceptions running throughout the land’.


The Lords’ refusal to commit Suffolk for trial on the basis that there were no specific charges provided the Common with the opportunity to present a formal petition (indictment) containing eight specific articles (counts) of high treason against the duke. The most serious charge was that Suffolk conspired with Charles Valois to destroy Henry and put his own son, John De La Pole, on the English throne. The other charges amounted in general terms to examples of his treason by aiding and abetting the king’s enemies. However, after Suffolk was called to answer the charges, the king put the whole matter in abeyance. Whereupon, the Commons presented Henry with a second petition containing eighteen articles setting out the details of Suffolk’s corruption (including Cromwell’s complaint) and financial mismanagement. For which “…offences, misprisions, faithless acts and false deceits specified“ the Commons “accused and impeached” Suffolk.[44] Henry tried to delay the proceedings but was unable to stop Suffolk’s impeachment. In a desperate attempt to save his most important advisor from a traitor’s death, Henry exercised his prerogative to declare the first indictment for high treason ‘neither declared nor charged’. In other words, he was simply not prepared to accept it. On the second indictment of misprision, he exercised his prerogative for clemency by banishing Suffolk for five years. Nevertheless, Henry’s effort to save Suffolk was unavailing. On the 1 May 1450, somewhere in the English Channel off the Kent coast, Suffolk’s ship was intercepted by a small flotilla, which included the Nicholas of the Tower. The Captain and crew of the Nicholas boarded Suffolk’s ship and ignoring his royal safe-conduct tried, convicted and executed him with a rusty sword. His headless body was dumped on the shore by Dover.[45]


Suffolk’s death did not alleviate England’s crisis in 1450 but it did pave the way for the Commons to petition Henry for a resumption of Crown lands alienated since the beginning of his reign, and the termination of all annuities, corrodes and pensions.[46] This Act would enable Henry to resume his economic and hereditary rights to all Crown properties, offices and custom taxes he gave as patronage. It was strongly resisted and there is no record in the Parliamentary Roll that Henry assented to it. However, without Suffolk to stiffen the king’s sinews it was passed into law; albeit, with 186 individual exceptions granted by Henry, which rendered it ineffective.[47] The Commons also made supplication to the king about purveyance abuses. They were concerned that money allocated for the defence of the realm was being used to pay the royal household’s subsistence expenses: this had to stop. It was the price Henry had to pay for the life of Suffolk and for obtaining a tax subsidy from the Commons.[48]


Charles VII invaded Normandy in 1449 and drove the English out. The English garrison were deficient in all the basic necessities of fifteenth century siege warfare except fighting spirit.[49] The professional French army was superior in numbers, leadership, tactics, arms, equipment and organisation. This situation is all the more discreditable since the English politicians were warned in good time by the English commander, Edmund Beaufort duke of Somerset, that the French were amassing a large army on the Normandy border and that the Duchy was defenceless without a large reinforcement of men and equipment. Measures were hastily put in hand to recruit and equip a force under the command of Sir Thomas Kyriell for service in France, but it was too little too late. On the 15 April 1450 the small English field army under Kyriell’s command was overwhelmed at Formigny near Bayeux; though outnumbered, they fought hard until virtually the last man.[50] The loss of Normandy was regarded as a national disgrace by most of the king’s subjects. There was also a general feeling that the heart of government was corrupt, and doubts that royal authority was being exercised properly.


Anybody looking for a connection between local and national politics need look no further than the rebellion that began in Kent in May 1450, and spread through the Home Counties and beyond during the summer. Jack Cade’s rebellion was short, sharp and brutal. Inevitably, the rebels were crushed and their leader killed. However, while it lasted, the rebellion shook the Lancastrian regime to its very core. The king fled from London, his household panicked and gave-up a few defenceless scapegoats to the rebels, and four hundred royal soldiers were defeated in the Kent Weald. Cade occupied London and in a series of quasi-judicial tribunals meted out rough justice to those whom he regarded as traitors. The rebellion was supported by a broad cross section of English society from powerful landowners to rural peasants. And they had put their grievances in writing. The ‘Complaints of the Poor Commons of Kent’ and “The Articles of a Captain of Kent’ are distinguished by their intelligent articulation of local and national grievances and for their proposals for reform. The rebels’ grievances are neatly summarised: “…the king had false counsel for his laws are lost, his merchandise is lost, his commons destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, himself so poor that he may not have [pay for] his meat or drink…[51] It is clear that the rebels did not blame the king for this misgovernment; they, blamed his advisors.


Although Cade’s rebellion did not produce instant results, it was the catalyst for Richard duke of York’s intervention in English politics as a champion for reform. York did not hold a formal constitutional position within England. He was not a member of the king’s inner circle, nor did he have a natural line of communication to the king. He was, however, the king’s heir presumptive and the senior royal duke, and as such, neither the king nor his inner circle of advisors could ignore York. He served as the King’s Lieutenant in Normandy (twice) and also in Ireland, where he proved himself to be a brave soldier and an excellent administrator: in fact, the quintessential ‘good lord’. His sudden return from Ireland (where he had been sent by the king for ten years in 1447) in September 1450 still troubles scholars: was it due to private grievance or public right? Interesting though that question is, it is irrelevant for my purpose. My point is simply that York’s intervention, for whatever reason, was bound to change the whole nature of English politics, which it did. His criticisms of the government were essentially the same as those of Cade’s rebels. He did not question the king’s competence and embellished his own comments with the suggestion that Henry was the innocent victim of evil councillors. It was a situation from which York — the king’s true and loyal subject — would recue him; thus, allowing him to rule properly as he always intended. It is difficult to regard this approach as anything other than a tactic intended to prevent the imputation of treason against York. It was also an approach guaranteed to antagonize the duke of Somerset who had succeeded Suffolk as Henry’s chief advisor.


The hostility between York and Somerset, which had been an undercurrent in English politics from the late 1440’s, became dominant in 1451. Their mutual dislike matured into personal and intense hatred that expressed itself through the medium of opposing Lancastrian and Yorkist factions. And there was worst to come: soon Gascony would be lost, leaving Calais as the last remnant of the first English overseas empire. At home the violent disturbances and aristocratic lawlessness continued, together with real or imagined conspiracies against the king. There was and is a suspicion that York was behind these plots, for which the evidence is ambiguous to say the least. However, it is unlikely that he condoned efforts by his supporters to remove the king. He wanted to rescue Henry from the clutches of his evil advisors, not replace him. The problem with York’s simplistic approach is that it ignored the much profounder question of the king’s fitness to rule, which nobody — least of all York — was prepared to consider at this stage. More worrying from York’s perspective was the fact that whilst his power and influence waned, Somerset’s waxed. By 1452, York was politically isolated. The bulk of the unaligned lords regarded him as an incorrigible troublemaker with no constitutional legitimacy to challenge the king’s choice of advisors. The pretence that Henry was a fit to rule England persisted until he was deposed in 1461.


The king was ill. We know nothing about the illness except that it caused mental collapse and it was kept secret until after the birth of his heir on the 18 October 1453. Just prior to the birth, a Great Council meeting was called, from which York was excluded. Nevertheless, in Somerset’s absence on business, a group of non-aligned lords sent for York. Their decision was made on the grounds of his legitimate right to be involved in the discussion about the governance of the realm. It was their hope was that the dukes of York and Somerset would be able to work together and with the Great Council in the public interest: some hope! The mental collapse of Henry and the appointment of York as Lord protector and Defender of the Realm marks the end of this narrative. It is doubtful whether Henry ever recovered from this collapse and nobody even pretends that he was an independent functioning monarch thereafter. After Somerset’s death at St Albans in 1455, Henry was helpless and in the grip of his wife. After York’s death at Wakefield in 1460, Henry was deposed.


‘Chide him for faults, and do it reverently’

Personally, I doubt the historical significance of the various interpretations of Henry’s reign. Whether he was a malicious interventionist (Wolffe), a well-meaning duffer (Griffiths) or an inert simpleton (Watts et al) matters not in reality, since the outcome was the same on each case. Henry was a bad king. In fact, it is hard to imagine a man less suited to rule the kingdoms he inherited by an accident of birth. He did not look or behave like a king. Plainly he was incompetent and often disinterested in the minutiae of government. He failed to exercise royal authority properly and lacked the force of personality to uphold the king’s justice in his English kingdom. His shortcomings created a vacuum at the heart of government, which some of his overly ambitious subjects were quick to occupy and keen to exploit to the detriment of the common interest. It is unsurprising therefore that by the middle decade of his reign many of Henry’s English subjects were offended by the losses in France, oppressed for the want of royal justice at home and impoverished by the burden of taxation. These things are all matters of historical record and a blot on his rule. Nonetheless, despite his faults, Henry’s critics tend to underestimate contemporary evidence of the almost insuperable problems he faced from the moment of his accession, which would have tested even his renowned father. For all his heroic stature, Henry V’s legacy to his baby son was not a happy one.

Any hope the English had of conquering Valois France went to the grave with Henry V in 1422. Any realistic hope they had of preserving Henry VI’s sovereignty over his French possessions disappeared with the death of John duke of Bedford in 1435 and the defection of Burgundy from their English alliance that same year. Militarily and diplomatically, the tide had turned irretrievably against the English while Henry VI was still a minor. Their tactics were outmoded, their army was outmatched and the cost of the war was becoming unsustainable: none of this was Henry’s fault. Nonetheless, the subsequent failure to negotiate a realistic and workable peace treaty with Charles VII did bear his hallmark. Henry’s negotiating position was unrealistic. He thought that Charles would stop fighting and allow him to retain sovereignty of his French inheritance: that was a Lancastrian ‘red line’. It was one thing for Henry to be ejected from his French inheritance by the fortunes of war but he could never concede that he was not the king of France by right. In reality, of course, Henry had no leverage over Charles who was winning the war anyway. Besides, he regarded it as a war of liberation and could not allow Henry to retain his possessions except as a vassal of the French king: that was the Valois ‘red line’.


The truce with Charles VII that was agreed in 1444 and then extended, was broken by the Duke of Somerset, who enraged the Duke of Brittany by attacking his territory. It is unclear whether Somerset was ‘encouraged’ by the king to do that, but it seems likely. Even if Henry was dealt a bad hand, he played it badly. His pacifist nature was unsuited to the task of defending his French realm in the face of a warlike and implacable foe, and his lack of judgement showed in the promotion of commanders whose only qualification for the task was that they were his favourites. Henry was also hampered by a lack of money to pay for the war and the normal expenses of government.


The Crown’s financial difficulties began soon after the battle of Agincourt. The lay and clerical subsidies granted by parliament for 1415-1416 raised £216,868. However, the overall costs of maintaining Harfleur, negotiating with the Duke of Burgundy, the naval expedition of 1416 and fitting out a flotilla for service in 1417 came to £256,885. The deficit of £40,017 was made-up from loans at commercial rates and the ransom payments of French prisoners. These figures do not include expenses incurred during the Agincourt campaign, but not yet met.[52] By the end of Henry V’s reign, the English exchequer had a deficit of £30,000 and outstanding debts of £25,000 due mainly to war costs.


It was Henry V’s policy after 1418 to transfer the burden of the war to Normandy. The Duchy was supposed to pay for itself and also contribute money to the general war effort. However, the first complete financial accounts for the Norman Estates shows that all but 5,000 livre (li)[53] of Norman revenue was spent on the administration and defence of the Duchy; nor did finances improve over time. In fact, they deteriorated even further during Henry VI’s minority. In 1423, for example, the accounts show that of the 90,000(li) granted to Bedford by the Norman Estates, only 29,000(li) was available for defence. Between 1419 and 1435, the Norman estates met twenty four times and made impositions totalling 3,150,000(li). Even so, this revenue fell short of costs. The idea that Normandy could be self-funding was illusory; their treasury could only just about cover its own administrative costs if they did not also have to pay for military operations. Moreover, these financial demands alienated the Normans against their English overlords and demonstrated that without an English subsidy the Duchy was, more or less, defenceless.[54]


Whilst there is no doubt that Henry VI’s foolish generosity did not improve Crown finances, there is convincing evidence that even had he been judicious and thrifty with the grant of patronage, his means were barely sufficient for his needs. The inherited costs of defending his French inheritance, the expansion of the royal household, the costs of his marriage and the Queens household expenses were more than the Crown could bear without tax subsidies from parliament and the convocation. Significantly, during Henry’s minority neither parliament not the convocation gave generous subsidies; furthermore, the revenue raised was unpredictable. Exemptions given to poor towns and villages reduced the amount raised, as did fraud and administrative incompetence. The alternative of individual taxation was so unpopular that it was only imposed twice (1428 and 1436). Even then, the revenue raised was erratic due to resistance, fraud and administrative incompetence. It seems that the Crown was expected to manage cash flow and income by borrowing, using the Crown Jewels as security.[55]


So appalled was Ralph Lord Cromwell by the state of public finances in 1433 that he presented to parliament a highly detailed and precise analysis delineating to the last farthing the Crown’s insolvency. Having just succeeded Lord Hungerford as Treasurer, Cromwell was keen to highlight the problems he had inherited and to impose some fiscal discipline on the government by, for instance, vetting all requests for expenditure and patronage. The demands placed on the royal purse during the king’s minority were many: the royal household, the Queen’s household, Calais, France, Ireland, Scotland, Aquitaine, Fronsac, grants of Henry V’s will, and prisoner expenses etc. In summary, ordinary expenditure exceeded income by £47,887. 7s. 4d farthing, to which must be added provision for the repayment of debts totalling £164,814. 11s.1d halfpenny.[56] To control debt, Parliament set an arbitrary annual limit on Crown borrowing, which could now be secured against tax revenue. These measures under Cromwell’s capable stewardship delayed the inevitable but could not prevent it. By 1449, Cromwell had moved on from the Treasury and the Lancastrian regime was bankrupt. When Parliament met again later that year, the main thrust of the Commons’ criticisms was the belief that corruption and fraud were partly responsible for the crown’s bankruptcy. Their priority now was to put Henry’s finances on a sustainable basis.[57]


The aristocratic violence and lawlessness, and the corruption in high places that so oppressed Henry VI’s subjects were not unique to his reign. In fact, the preservation of law and order was a recurrent problem for most, if not all, medieval English monarchs. Late medieval England had an unenviable reputation among the rest of Christendom for lawlessness. While studying the legal records for 1348, the historian L O Pike was so shocked by what he found that he described that part of Edward III’s reign as a period of widespread depravity. E G Kimball, studying the Shropshire Peace Rolls for 1400-1414 concluded that ‘serious crime was not being punished in Shropshire or for that matter anywhere in England’. There are many scholarly studies and records of late medieval crime, none of which has identified even a few consecutive years of effective law enforcement between 1290 and 1485.[58] Neither is this simply a question of policing, since such lawlessness touched on the general lack of public confidence in the integrity of royal justice and the corrupt exercise of power that pre-dated Henry VI’s reign.[59]


The reasons for such pervasive criminality are many and complex, and are such that I cannot hope to address them all in this essay. However, there is a combination of circumstances that are part systemic and part behavioural, which I should explore in the context of Henry VI’s reign. The failure of successive medieval kings to outlaw ‘livery and maintenance’, coupled with the collapse of royal justice encouraged the lords and gentry to take grievances into their own hands.[60] The result during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the creation of ‘over mighty subjects’ with their affinities, which very often included organised criminal gangs of violent men with a penchant for feuding and ignoring the law of property.[61] This undesirable situation was further aggravated by the king’s reliance on local magnates and gentry to administer, dispense and enforce the king’s justice. Chief among these royal officials were the permanent county Sheriff’s who were each had judicial and administrative responsibilities for overseeing and dispensing justice in their county. They presided in the Shire Courts and also framed and selected indictments for hearing in the king’s courts. Moreover they were also responsible for selecting and empaneling jurors to sit on Grand Juries and Trial Juries in the various courts within their bailiwick. Unfortunately, owing to the system of livery and maintenance, Sheriffs were themselves more often than not in the service of a lord and, therefore, were hardly likely to be impartial judges or administrators in any cases involving their lord or members of his family and affinity.[62]


Aristocratic lawlessness was a problem, even for strong monarchs such as Edward I and Edward III. A parliamentary petition of 1331 complained that gangs of men were “kidnapping for ransom and killing the king’s lieges, churchmen and royal judges…” [63] Edward tackled the problem with his customary vigour, which, nevertheless brought only temporary success. By 1443 even Edward had to admit that the law of the land was not well kept; it was a problem that only got worse during the king’s absence at the wars. Although Henry VI inherited a situation that was not of his own making, it is hard to refute professor Bellamy’s assertion that the criminality was worse in the fifteenth century than it had been during the fourteenth. Crime had not actually increased but it was more pernicious during Henry’s reign. I don’t think anybody can seriously dispute that this was due primarily to Henry’s lack of kingly qualities as previously discussed


My final point is about Henry’s mental health during his adult years prior to 1453, when we know he had some form of mental breakdown, which lasted until 1455 at least. The precise nature of his mental collapse cannot now be known. There is no evidence that Henry suffered mental ill-health prior to 1453, but the inference that he had inherited his grandfather’s (Charles VI) ‘melancholia’ is almost irresistible. It would explain his detachment from temporal affairs and the comments about him made by some of his subjects. It is not impossible, therefore, that he suffered from a mental illness: I put it no higher[64].

[1] John Harvey – The Plantagenets (T Batsford Ltd 1948): I have quoted from the 1967 Fontana edition (p.169)

[2] M R James [Ed] – Henry the Sixth: a reprint of John Blacman’s memoirs (Cambridge 1919): Blacman was a precentor at Eton College (1445-52) and subsequently of King’s Hall Cambridge. There is no evidence that he is the unnamed author who writes in the first person, since his name does not appear in the list of Henry’s chaplains or clerks. It is possible that the tract was simply found among his papers after death.

[3] Sir Henry Ellis [Ed] – Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History: comprising the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III (Camden Soc 1844) pp. 70-71

[4] Bertram Wolffe – Henry VI (Yale 2001 edition)

[5] Wolffe; pp.12-18 and passim

[6] RA Griffiths – The Reign of Henry VI (Sutton Publishing 1998 edition) pp.253-254

[7] Griffiths pp.231

[8] John Watts – Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (Cambridge 1999)

[9] Griffiths p.2 note 5: Griffiths cites JS Davies [Ed] – An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI (Camden Soc 1856) p.79

[10] Wolffe pp. xxiv-xxv; introduction by John Watts

[11] Watts chs.5-7; Christine Carpenter – The Wars of the Roses: politics and constitution in England 1437-1509 (Cambridge 1997) passim; Christine Carpenter – Locality and Polity: a study of Warwickshire landed society 1401-1499 (Cambridge 2009; AJ Pollard – North Eastern England during the Wars of the Roses: lay society war and politics (Oxford 1990); Helen Castor- The King, the Crown, and the Duchy of Lancaster: public authority and private power (Oxford 2000).

[12] JR Lander – Government and Community 1450-1509 (Edward Arnold 1980) p.3

[13] Lander pp. 33-34; Lander is here quoting the words of Robert Stillington in 1468, when he was Lord Chancellor to Edward IV.

[14] Carpenter (WOTR) p.90

[15] Chris Givern-Wilson [General Ed] The Parliamentary Rolls Of Medieval England (Boydell 2005), Vol 10 (Anne Curry ed) PROME ibid; SB Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge 1936) pp. 35-37; by the fifteenth century the courts had declared that the royal prerogative ‘ must be intact in the king’s person alone’ (p.35, citing VYB. SEIV, 118-23 [App No 48]).

[16] PROME Vol 10 p.6; citing P Strong and F Strong – ‘The Last Will and Codicils of Henry V, (EHR, 96 [1981] 99) et al.

[17] PROME Vol 10 pp. 3 and 23-24; ‘it was not the English custom’, they said

[18] PROME Vol 10, pp. 347-348, items 24-27

[19] PROME ibid; Chrimes p.37

[20] JF Baldwin – The King’s Council in England during the Middle Ages (Oxford 1913) p.169; Henry VI’s first minority council comprised a representative body of twenty-one men, all of whom had served as councillors to his late father. The original list is as follows: the duke of Bedford (protector), the duke of Gloucester (protector in Bedford’s absence), the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of Durham (Chancellor), William Kinewelmersh (Treasurer), John Stafford (Keeper of the Privy Seal), the bishops of London, Winchester, Norwich and Worcester, the duke of Exeter, the earls of March, Warwick, Northumberland, Westmorland and the Earl Marshall, Lord Fitzhugh (Chamberlain), Ralph Cromwell, Walter Hungerford, John Tiptoft and Walter Beauchamp, knights. In the absence of any specific instructions from parliament, the council defined its own terms of reference, which were intended to safeguard their superiority under the king by nullifying the autocratic ambitions of Bedford and Gloucester (p.172).

[21] Wolffe pp.87-88; Griffiths pp. 275-278 and Watts pp.127-131: Henry’s first recorded grant of patronage was to his uncle Cardinal Beaufort at Canterbury in July 1436. The king was in Kent to witness the embarkation of English reinforcements for the Calais garrison.

[22] Wolffe p.188: see also Watts p.130, Griffiths p.275 and Baldwin p.184. Baldwin notes: “already in1435-36 the king’s personal intervention in the matter of favours may be observed, as in his own boyish hand the royal signature appears upon various bills ‘R.H. nous avons graunte’.”

[23] Wolffe p.90: in the autumn of 1437, the council was divided on whether the king should pay Orleans’ expenses for his peace mission to France. They were worried that it might be construed as a concession and encourage Charles Valois to make further demands. The matter was put to Henry for a decision. He decided to pay the duke’s expenses from taxation.

[24] Baldwin; ibid

[25] Henry III was eighteen when he assumed his personal rule. Edward III was twenty before he shook off Mortimer’s yoke. The more problematic Richard was twenty-two before he ended his minority.

[26] Baldwin; ibid: the eighteen councillors were as follows: the duke of Gloucester, Cardinal Beaufort, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of Lincoln and St David’s, the earls of Huntingdon, Stafford, Salisbury, Northumberland, Suffolk and Devon, Lord Hungerford, Lord Tiptoft, the bishop of Bath (Chancellor), Lord Cromwell (Treasurer), William Lindwood (Keeper of the Privy Seal), William Phillip (Chamberlain), John Stourton (knight of the household) and Robert Rolleston (Keeper of the Wardrobe)

[27] PROME Vol 8 pp.321, 323 and 337-67: contains a useful analysis and details of the 1406 ordinances. They appear to have little relevance to the circumstances of 1437, since in 1406 a concerned parliament was seeking to restrain the king’s autocratic tendencies by increasing the council’s powers: arguably, that was not the case in 1437.

[28] Griffiths p.276

[29] Griffiths pp.274-278: see also Wolffe pp.87-92

[30] Griffiths p.277

[31] Wolffe p.92

[32] Watts chps. 4-7; see also Carpenter chps.1- 5, passim, which makes many of the same points

[33] Watts p.30, notes 27-30

[34] Watts p.132: this is a reference to Suffolk’s successful attempt to secure his personal hegemony of the council and of the royal household.

[35] Watts p.133

[36] Baldwin pp.190-191″ Suffolk did not frequently show himself in council but with excessive disregard of his enemies carried his policy with the king independently of colleagues.

[37] Griffiths pp. 284-286; Baldwin ibid; the Council Ordinances of 1444 were only intended to improve the government’s administrative efficiency. However, Henry’s more unscrupulous officials used the ordinances to consolidate the move of government from the council to the household.

[38] Watts chps 5 & 6, pp.181-254; contains detailed and complex arguments in defence of Suffolk’s actions. Put briefly, Watts’ argues that Suffolk’s service to the king forced him to exercise royal authority because the king was incapable of doing so. The real problem he suggests was not venal counselors but a useless king. Such a narrative suggests that England was governed by a group of aristocrats who abandoned the rule of law in favour of the edict ‘might is right’. The image of these royal officials and court favourites disposing of power, wealth and privilege among themselves in order to maintain a privileged status quo and regardless of the rights of others, whether noble or commoners is unedifying to say the least. It brought royal justice into disrepute and was the cause of the social unrest that erupted with catastrophic consequences in the summer of 1450. Watts’ detailed analysis of the working of government and interesting tables and statistics on attendances are meant to support his contention that between 1435 and 1445 Suffolk was acting with the tacit consent of almost all of the English nobility. That may be so, but it doesn’t make Suffolk’s ‘rule’ legitimate nor does it explain why Watts seems to think that such criminal behaviour was in the national interest. By ‘the later 1440’s, even Watt’s acknowledges the lords’ support for Suffolk’s policy was falling away and in any event was ‘insufficiently visible to the rest of political society’.

[39] That is exactly what happened in the 1454 and 1455 when Henry’s metal health collapsed. One wonders whether Henry was of sound mind earlier than this. Did he inherit his maternal grandfather’s ‘melancholia’?

[40] Watts P.240

[41] Griffiths Chapter 20, p.562-609, contains a detailed analysis of the lawlessness and aristocratic violence during Henry’s reign; see also Wolffe pp.106-125; IMW Harvey – Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford 1991) Chp.2; and RL Storey – The end of the House of Lancaster (Sutton 1999 2nd Edition) passim for further extensive details of lawlessness

[42] PROME Vol 12, PP 72,73 & 159

[43] Roger Virgoe – William Tailboys and Lord Cromwell: crime and punishment in Lancastrian England (Bulletin of John Ryland’s Library 55, 1972-71973) pp. 459-482; the first charges brought against Suffolk were that he plotted with William Tailboys to murder Lord Cromwell on the 28 November 1449 at Westminster. Even though the incident might have been exaggerated, the fact that this offence was included in Parliament’s second petition for Suffolk’s impeachment is an indication of its seriousness.

[44] PROME Vol 12, pp. 75,76, 93-105 & 154-156 appendix1, article1; this is easily the most comprehensive account of Suffolk’s impeachment with the detailed petitions and and proof, and Suffolk’s own response. See also EF Jacob – The Fifteenth Century (Oxford 1987) pp. 492-495 for an excellent summary of these events.

[45] James Gairdner (ed) – The Paston Letters 1422-1509 (Cambridge Library edition 2010) six volumes, Vol 2 pp.146-147. This letter from William Lomer to John Paston is dated the 5 May; it contains a vivid and detailed account of Suffolk’s death at the hands of the hands of the Captain and crew of HMS Nicholas at Tower. This being a royal ship, it is inconceivable that they acted independently. It is impossible for obvious reasons that they either the king or the queen were behind this murder. However, the Duke of York is a suspect; though there is no evidence.

[46] PROME ibid

[47] PROME ibid; Wolffe p.230; Harvey p.189.

[48] PROME p.78

[49] Alfred H Burne – The Agincourt War (Greenhill Books 1991 edition) chp18 pp. 306-330: contains a useful summary of this campaign with a common sense assessment of numbers and tactics etc. Colonel Burne would, he wrote, gladly have passed over the loss of Normandy in silence since it was such a discreditable period in English history, for which he blamed Suffolk whom he described as ‘shuffling’, even ‘shifty’.

[50] Burne pp. 318-322

[51] Harvey ibid

[52] Jacob pp.202-220, & 255; Jacob provides a useful analysis, with tables, of the monetary grants made to Henry V from 1415 until the end of his reign. This information is extrapolated from the English and Norman exchequer records of the time and includes the detailed costs of in defending and administering Normandy.

[53] Livre: ‘old French currency equivalent to a pound of silver.’ (SOED)

[54] Jacob ibid

[55] Griffiths pp. 376-394 contains a detailed analysis of the crown’s financial problems and the measures taken to overcome them. Griffiths also provides useful tables of taxation trends and prominent Crown creditors.

[56] PROME Vol 11 pp.69, 70 and 102-113; Cromwell’s lengthy schedule is in the form of a petition to the king, which provides a fascinating and detailed description of the Crown’s estate and sources of income in 1433, together with its expenditure and indebtedness. See also Griffiths pp.107-122 for a instructive discussion of these financial problems and some very useful tables of taxation, loans etc. during the minority. It is clear from the evidence and Griffiths’ analysis that parliament underestimated the cost of the war and overestimated the ability of the French territories to pay for it. One consequence of borrowing was that any imbalance between unpaid debts and taxation would inevitably lead to bankruptcy. Significantly, in 1433 the Crown’s indebtedness was two-and-a-half times greater than its annual revenues.

[57] PROME Vol 12, p.77

[58] John Bellamy – Crime and Public Order in England in the Late Middle Ages (Routledge 1973) pp.4-6 citing LO Pike – A History of Crime in England (London 1873-73) i p.297; EG Kimball – The Shropshire Peace Rolls 1400-1414 (Shrewsbury 1959) p.45; RH Hilton – A Medieval Society (London 1966) p.258, who from an analysis of the Assize Rolls for the reign of Edward I formed the opinion that the sanctions of common law were ineffective in curbing violence and corruption; GO Sayles (Ed) – Select Cases in the Court of King’s Bench, Edward II (Selden Society,74 1955) p.iii. See also PROME 1275-1504 all volumes, which contain hundreds of petitions attesting to the lawlessness and corruption of the Middle Ages. Finally, there is also a mass of unpublished material in the National Archives as described in Bellamy’s bibliography (pp. 205-206). “Every verdict seems unfavourable” (Bellamy p.4).

[59] Bellamy passim

[60] Livery and maintenance was the practice whereby individual lords recruited large numbers of retainers who were personally loyal to them and wore their livery. These men were expected to respond to calls for military and other services in return for their lord’s protection (‘maintain their part’) in litigation and/or any other disputes they were involved in, and their preferment on matters of patronage Prime examples of these over-mighty subjects during Henry VI’s reign were the dukes of York and Somerset, and the earls of Suffolk and Warwick. Livery and maintenance continued to plague the monarchy until Henry VII outlawed it.

[61] Bellamy pp.1-36 and 69-88

[62] A Harding – The Law Courts of Medieval England (Geo Allen and Unwin 1973) pp.51-53; see also Bellamy passim; from the twelfth century, civil and criminal cases in the country were dealt with under the general eyre. This was an itinerant system of justice introduced by Henry II, whereby professional judges and legal administrator’s from the curia regis (the King’s Court) accompanied the king during his progress around the kingdom and paid prolonged visits to individual counties. Their jurisdiction was wide-ranging and superior to that of the Hundred and Shire courts. The king’s judges were entitled to hear all pleas presented to them and not just those from a special group. Furthermore, their hearings were very thorough by medieval standards. More particularly, these judges were authorised to investigate any and all excesses, misdeeds, taking of bribes and other dishonest practices of sheriff’s and bailiffs, and to review the work of previous eyres. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the demands placed on the general eyre were too great for the limited number of professional judges available and the system fell into abeyance during the thirteenth century. It was a pity as the misconduct of the sheriffs’ was no longer monitored and corrected.

[63] Bellamy p.6; PROME Vol 4, pp. 164 and 166

[64] Wolffe pp.152-153; Griffiths pp. 715-718; Watts pp.301-325 passim and Storey p136 note 13

Tales of a Ricardian Traveler – Gruyères Castle

If we thought that Richard III had a horrific end to his life, just take a look at the death of Charles the Bold.


Lady on Horseback Lady on Horseback, mid-15th c., British Museum

It is tempting to think that the British Isles contain all the sites associated with Richard III’s life. Of course, that’s not true. Richard lived abroad twice, first in 1461 and again in 1470-1. On both occasions, he had fled England in order to save his life and wound up living in lands controlled by the Duke of Burgundy.  The Duke, a descendant of a junior branch of the French royal house of Valois, maintained the most glamorous and sophisticated court in all of Europe.  So powerful were the Valois-Burgundian dukes that when Edward IV became king, he betrothed his sister Margaret to the heir of that duchy.

Charles the Bold Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1433-1477). His third marriage was to Margaret of York, Edward IV’s and Richard III’s sister. He would be the last of the Valois dukes of Burgundy.

Margaret’s intended husband…

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The contemporaries of Henry VIII


HenryVIII220px-Francis1-1 ivan the terrible

Francois I of France died in the first quarter of 1547, after a reign of over thirty years, leaving only one legitimate son, Henri II. Whilst thought of as a cultured monarch, a patron of the arts and a linguistic reformer, he took an ambiguous approach to religious reform, (in which his sister Marguerite de Navarre took an interest). He organised several heresy executions (at the Place Maubert in 1523, in Paris in 1540 and at Merindol in 1545). The male line of the House of Valois became extinct in 1589, after his three grandsons had reigned.

Ivan IV of Russia was born in 1530 and is thus more a contemporary of Henry’s children. He succeeded his father as Grand Duke of Moscow in infancy and was made the first Tsar in January 1547, weeks before Henry VIII’s death and months before Francois I’s. He is also recorded as a patron of the arts but was increasingly mentally afflicted as his life progressed and was thus responsible for many deaths, including that of his elder son. Ivan, thereby known as “the Terrible”, is thought to have contracted seven marriages although he annulled three as the Russian Orthodox Church had a lifetime limit of four spouses. Like Henry and Francois, he died in his fifties and was succeeded by his son, Feodor I. In fact Ivan left two sons but Feodor was predeceased both by his daughter and his half-brother, ending the Rurik dynasty proper in 1598.

Although Henry VIII and Francois I were both descended from Charles V (and may have shared a mistress (Mary Boleyn), Ivan IV was not as closely related to either.

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