by Martin AyresAddress to SAMHS Jhb branch on 13th July 2006
The Hundred Years War between England and France had begun in 1337 when Edward Ill of England laid claim to the French Crown. Already in control of half of what would later become France as we know it, he started off with winning a sea battle at Sluys and then the battle of Crecy in 1346. His son, the Black Prince, continued the war and won the battle of Poitiers on 19th September 1356. This had humbled the great French noble army and the war seemed to be over. But the French had not given up and Charles, the French monarch, had a new secret weapon; his new Constable of France, Duguesclin.
Early in 1368, the Estates in Aquitaine reluctantly gave the Black Prince his taxes to cover his Spanish expenses, but everywhere there was resentment. Appeals to the king of France, led to him pronouncing continued sovereignty over the principality; conflict was inevitable. Nevertheless, Charles delayed sufficiently for the discontent to come to the boil. This was helped by bribes and promises spread liberally throughout the principality, by the Duke of Anjou, Charles brother. War was finally declared against the Black Prince in 1369.
King Edward III was now entering old age and no longer a force in the conflict. His queen, Phillipa had died and he had not taken up with Alice Perrers yet. The Black Prince was now a chronic invalid and the power in England was held by John of Gaunt, Edward's fourth son.
He was an earnest but uninspiring warlord, being committed to outdated military methods. Doggedly, regardless of the new boundaries and French methods, Gaunt pursued his father's old strategy of circular raids into Northern France while Aquitaine crumbled, piece by piece, into Charles's lap. 5 times he took his forces on these "war raids" which can be described briefly as follows.
The first, mounted from Calais late in 1369, involved a march to Harfleur and back through Artois and Picardy. The force was light, supplies short and Charles disdained to move against it. The second raid started in Calais and went towards Brittany via Arras and Troyes. It ended in disaster as Duguesclin, seeing the highborn nobles fretting against the command of a commoner, attacked. The English were scattered by the French Constable and their rearguard wiped out near Le Mans.
In 1373, John of Gaunt launched a great raid into France, plunging deep into the heartland with 10 000 men. Duguesclin waited and, when autumn came with no battle, Gaunt made the mistake of heading south towards Guienne. His forces were cut off in the central Highlands in winter and their plight became desperate. With supplied denied them and strongholds barred against them, Gaunt lost half his force before arriving on the plain of the Dordogne. This was followed by two more equally fruitless raids in 1375, by the Earl of Cambridge to Brittany and the Earl of Buckingham to Maine and Rennes.
Meanwhile the French had made dramatic gains in the south. By a combination of diplomacy and well chosen sieges, the Duke of Anjou and Duguesclin recovered several territories with little loss. During 1370, Agenais and most of Limosin submitted to the French crown. Two years later they swept towards Poitou and Saintonge. La Rochelle surrendered later that year. An English fleet was overwhelmed. All together, in 5 years, the French had regained all of the lands given away in the Treaty of Bretigny and what remained of Guienne was in serious danger. In the north, Abbeville and Ponthieu had also been regained.
So the unwarlike Charles had engineered a great reversal of fortune, which questioned many of the cherished military procedures of the war so far. The war raids were, at last, shown to be strategic failures; the primacy of the set-piece battle was also challenged. It had been shown, since Crecy and Poitiers, that much gain could be made without recourse to pitched battle. Above all, Duguesclin's methods had witnessed a general retreat from those aspects of warfare, best described as chivalric. For the first time, the French had devised a system of campaigning that was based on realism rather that the maintenance of knightly glory and self-esteem. On orders not always pleasing to their vanity, French captains shut themselves up in citadels bristling with the newly skilled archers of the communes and fought only when the issue was beyond doubt. They used stratagems, took advantage of fraud and treachery. In short, they began to treat war as a business, not a mere sport for gentlemen. It's success stifled criticism and discouraged the humanitarian spirit which underlay chivalry. The later merciless atrocities of the War Of The Roses were presaged by the trends of Duguesclin's day.
Examples abound on both sides. The Black Prince, carried on a litter, sacked Limoge in 1370 and slaughtered thousands as punishment for the town's pro-French activities. War-weariness now led to several truces, which preceded a longer peace. The Treaty of Bruge lasted from 1375 till 1377 when both Edward and his son, the Black Prince, died. Charles and Duguesclin died three years later. Their successors, Richard II and Charles VI, finally set a thirty year truce, in 1396. The sword was sheathed until another generation drew it again.
I will not speak of the Peasants Revolt in England, in the fourth year of Richard II's reign nor of the later Wycliffe rising which resulted in an estimated 28,000 deaths. Richard's lack of kingship led to his overthrow in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt. On Richard's death, Henry IV became the first Lancastrian monarch.
Meanwhile, in France, the death of his son-in-law, Richard II, did not greatly concern Charles VI, but the growing enmity between the Dukes of Orleans and Burgundy did. These rivals occasionally broke the Peace of Paris by raiding English coastal towns and even, by actually joining together for a while, futilely attempted to take Guienne and Calais. But their cooperation did not last long and the Duke D'Orleans was murdered by agents of Burgundy shortly afterwards and civil war gripped France.
So the truce held; indeed it suited both monarchs to keep it so. Henry was troubled by the Scots and the Welsh while Charles, possibly due to the civil war as well as the flaunting of her lovers by his coarse wife, Isabella of Bavaria, suffered from bouts of insanity. And then, upon Henry IV's death in 1413, there arose a man to menace France - Henry V.
A man of precocious military ability, he had commanded English forces at the age of sixteen, defeating the rebel Percys at Shrewsbury. By twenty he was a veteran of war against the Welsh. Apart from military victories, he gave England two things rare in the Middle Ages, strong leadership and positive government. In the nine years of his reign, he was to raise the influence of his Kingdom to paramountcy in Christendom. But he was no romantic hero. Long nosed and lantern jawed, Henry affected a style of formal piety scarcely embellished by his other traits such as political unscrupulousness, cruelty, cunning and covetousness. Harsh to his subjects he was pitiless to his enemies. Like Edward III, he married improvidence with overweening ambition in foreign enterprise, a field in which his policies proved as short sighted as Edward's.
From his accession, he was determined to attack France, calculating not only to exploit her own troubles but to divert his unruly nobles to another country. As a preliminary, he demanded the long forgotten arrears of King John's ransom. He even asked for the hand of one of Charles' daughters, with a suitable dowry. The demands increased with every embassy. Soon the price of his friendship with the Orleanists or Burgundians was unacceptable. Nor had Henry expected them to for, during these negotiations, he had steadily advanced his invasion plans, raising and equipping a force of 12 000 troops. By the spring of 1415, he was ready and declared war on France in April (map 3).
Henry had some brilliant commanders; his brothers the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester, his cousin the Duke of York, the earls of Dorset, March, Suffolk, Arundel and others, the Bishops of Norwich and Bangor as well as nineteen fighting barons. And he also had professional soldiers to take with him. His troops were paid according to a sliding scale; Dukes at 13s 4d per day, earls 6s 8d, barons 4s, knights 2s, other men-at-arms 1s, archers 6d. The bill for the army was a large one, as it contained 2000 nobles and knights and some 8 000 archers, not to mention the sailors and other non-combatants mustered in his support. There were also herds of cattle embarked to provide meat on the hoof. He had pawned the crown jewels to provide collateral for his campaign.
Henry's force headed for Harfluer on 11 August 1415. Meanwhile, ignorant of Henry's destination, Charles D'Albret, the Constable of France, mustered at Rouen while the Marshall, Boucicaut watched the coast at Honfluer. It was on 14th that Henry dropped anchor on the north of the Seine estuary, just a few miles from the Marshall.
Harfluer commanded the mouth of the Seine and was one of the most important ports in France. It was also handy for England and was the gateway to Normandy. It was Henry's plan to conquer France methodically, in detail, bastion by bastion, town by town. Harfluer was first but not the easiest. Its commander, the lord of Estouteville had a small garrison, but the fortifications were considerable. There was a strong wall with more than two dozen guard towers and a wet moat. Moreover, the approaches were extensively covered by marshes. The defenders had made the most of their advantages by destroying bridges and damming streams to flood large areas. Heavy timber barbicans guarded the town's gates; from the ramparts crossbowmen and artillerists kept a sharp lookout, while quick lime and hot oil were held in readiness. Henry depended on some large artillery pieces of his own; the three largest known as the London, the Messenger and the king's Daughter. These, together with possibly 9 others, as well as other artillery (4) were primitive but capable of causing considerable damage to masonry. Following a weeklong bombardment, the defenders' will and ability to resist the siege was significantly curtailed. The timber redoubts were destroyed by fire and the walls and some of the town were severely damaged. After six weeks, the port surrendered. But they had delayed Henry far longer that he had planned and had caused food shortages and disease among the besiegers. Henry had sent for provisions to stop the former but could do little about the latter. He also had to impose some strict discipline to stop disorder among some of his troops. He even banned prostitutes visiting the camp under pain of having limbs broken.
Dysentery had spread rapidly through his army, killing hundreds of the lower ranks as well as the Bishop of Norwich and Richard Courtney, one of his advisors. The Duke of Clarence and Earls of Suffolk, March and Arundel had been invalided home. Henry now had less that 8 000 effectives and had to change his original plans. Despite opposition from his council, Henry decided to march across Normandy to Calais. It was a bold move but he had no other course if he did not wish to give his enemies a political victory after his proclamations and forecasts.
He knew the French were as far from Calais as he was and thought that a lighter force could outmarch a large, unwieldy French army overburdened with the chivalry. His route was to hug the coast and cross the Somme estuary at Abbeville (map 4). They would carry their food with them to stop foraging. They set out in the first week of October. They advanced in three sections; the vanguard commanded by Sir John Cornwall and Sir Gilbert Umfraville, the main body with the King, his brother Gloucester and John Holland and the rearguard under York and the Earl of Oxford. And the news of his discipline allowed some towns not only to let them pass unmolested, but they even sold them provisions. But, despite covering over half the required distance in one week, it was near the Somme that the march turned sour. The ford at Abbeville was studded with sharp stakes and was defended by a French division as large as the English force. Henry was forced to march inland to find a crossing point and their provisions began to run out. There was also the fear that the French army may be nearer than expected. Things were beginning to look very ominous and morale dropped and indiscipline started.
Then a small French force of knights got amongst the archers before they could draw their bows. Afterwards, all archers carried a sharpened stake on Henry's orders. In the opposition army, the news of his march had galvanised the French Lords. The small English army looked ripe for destruction. Suddenly the Dukes of Orleans, Bourbon, Bar, Brittany and Alencon joined the army and they marched to intercept.
Numbers recorded seem exaggerated at 60,000 but many were untrained peasants. In men-at-arms alone, D'Albret outnumbered the English by about three to one. Trained militia flocked to the colours and the numbers became so great that an offer by Paris to send 6 000 men was turned down.
By 13th October, both D'Albret and Boucicaut were across to the northern bank of the Somme and marching parallel the English on the southern bank. Henry needed a miracle to steal a march on the French - and he got it.
Near Peronne, the river bent north before turning south again. Henry could cut across the arc of the river and gain two days on the French host that was forced to follow the line of the river. He reached Bethencourt to find an undefended crossing. Crossing on 19th the English headed northwest towards Calais, now 150 kms away. It was on the Sunday that the French Heralds arrived with a formal battle challenge. The weather turned then and the next four days were extremely wet.
Finally, on 24th the French crossed the English army's path. The scouts brought the news that a great French army was waiting between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt, about 20 - 30 000 strong. Henry offered a huge price to buy his army out of trouble but in vain. The French had him where they wanted him and were bent on total destruction and a possible end to the war.
The two armies spent the night in very different moods. The English had marched for 17 days, under pressure, the last few in pouring rain (5). They were wet, hungry and cold and faced defeat on the morrow. In addition, most had dysentery, and most archers had discarded their soiled breeches. The French too had marched hard. But their excitement had conquered tiredness. They were in festive mood and diced for the prisoners they would take the next day.
At first light on 25th October, both hosts took up their battle stations. The rectangular clearing between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt presented an ideal field for the contest: there being no hills, gulleys or hedges, simply a flat arena in which the two could meet head on without distraction (Map 5).
The English filled the southern end of the rectangle, with three divisions abreast. The men-at-arms flanked by forward-inclined archers, thus presenting a point of archers between central and outer formations with an oblique arm of archers at each shoulder of the army. There were approximately 900 men-at-arms and 2500 archers, a much larger proportion of common soldiers than normal.
By contrast the main element of the French host was its splendidly attired chivalry and stoutly armoured men-at-arms. So profuse was the nobility of France at Agincourt that there seemed to one observer more standards in a single line of D'Albret's host than there were lances in the whole of Henry's.
The French, about 4 times the numbers of the English, filled the wider end of the rectangle, both in width and depth. Three divisions were set one behind the other, each spanning the defile and about 5 or 6 men deep. The rear division was mounted, the two front divisions deployed on foot. Crossbowmen were between the three divisions, while separate bodies of cavalry were on the flanks. There were also several cannon in the host, but the mass of troops around them rendered them useless.
But the formal deployment of the French army was not to last. All of the nobles wanted to be in the front, the place of honour. Apart from D'Albret himself, the ostensible divisional leaders as Boucicaut and the dukes of Orleans and Bourbon all insisted on a place in the van, together with a bevy of counts and their formidable retinues.
For four hours the two armies looked at each other. Appearing to taunt the starving English, many French were eating and drinking. Henry decided to initiate a move and, against all military tenets, the smaller force advanced towards the greater.
It was about 11 am when the order to advance was given. Each man knelt, took a lump of soil in his teeth, made a sign of the cross on the ground, kissed it and then they all went forward to the shouts of "Jesus, Mary and St George".
Everybody in the English army was afoot. Henry led the central division, York the right and Lord Camoys led the left. At extreme bowshot, the line halted, the archers hammered in their stakes, placed arrows to waxed strings and the air was darkened by their arrows.
D'Albret's tactics of controlled response demanded a missile counter, but three factors precluded this. In the first place, it is doubtful if the French bowmen were as numerous as their English counterparts. Secondly, had they been, the disadvantages of the crossbow would have ensured inferior firepower. Lastly, the crush of chivalry at the French front, seriously restricted the operation.
With no chance of winning a missile duel, D'Albret was obliged to resort to direct attack. In any case, the French Lords, provoked by the arrow storm and by the close proximity of their foe, could not be held back. While the cavalry groups on the wings launched themselves at the English archers, the great mass of dismounted knights lurched into motion, banners waving, trumpets blaring (6).
The horsemen met a swift rebuff by the pointed stakes hammered into the ground in front of the English archers (7). Those cavalry not dispatched in front of these stakes, careered into their dismounted comrades as their wounded horses proved unmanageable, causing confusion and some casualties.
Pressing on across the muddy and now horse-churned field, the dismounted knights continued forward. But the narrowing of the gap between the woods caused some compression and consequent congestion. This was not helped by the endeavours of the French nobility to attack the English men-at-arms and not the common archers
Soon too tightly packed to fight effectively, the French in the front were pushed forward by those behind, many being flung to the ground and trampled into the clinging mud. Many suffocated, being unable to rise from the mud as they were trampled face down. Others were killed by the English as they lay gasping for breath. One chronicler present at the battle said that more Frenchmen died in the melee "through press than our own men could have slain".
Observing the French disorder, the archers threw down their bows and joined in the slaughter. Grabbing their weapons, these yeomen met with little resistance as they sallied forth to kill and maim their noble opponents on the flanks of the French host. Incredibly, the battle was won within half an hour of hand to hand fighting. With both foot formations committed and defeated; the remaining cavalry, deterred by the mounds of dead and wounded, began to disperse.
French casualties were huge, with D'Albret, the Dukes of Alencon, Brabant and Bar killed; Orleans, Bourbon and Boucicaut captured. On the English side, the Duke of York was killed, too portly and encumbered to rise when fallen, he had suffocated. Gloucester had been wounded in the chest and dragged back as his brother, the king stood guard over him.
By midday, the English army had largely diverted its efforts from fighting to seeking prisoners worth ransoming. The piles of dead were turned over, the living sorted from the corpses, helmets prised open and armour unriveted. Gradually, those who could walk were marshalled by their captors.
But Henry, seeing some French cavalry making as if to charge and hearing that some local peasants had plundered his pack train, peremptorily ordered that all prisoners, except his own, be put to death. Stopping any disobedience by promising to hang anybody who refused his order, Henry watched as countless prisoners were butchered. However, as soon as it was seen that the threat was a false alarm, the slaughter was stopped. Some sources claimed that the victims of this slaughter of prisoners were more numerous than those nobles killed in the battle.
The true losses on both sides are unknown as only the nobles were recorded. Modern estimates of French casualties vary between 8000 and 10000 including almost 100 Lords and 1500 lesser noblemen. On the English side these estimates vary between 150 and 500, mostly wounded.
The English dead, with the exception of important personages such as York, were burned in a barn. York's body was boiled and his bones extracted for conveyance home.
Agincourt, the last great pitched battle of the Hundred Years War between representative armies of the French and English Kingdoms, closed the chapter of warfare opened at Crecy. If Poitiers demonstrated the reluctance of the military class to learn from experience, the new French upset was a lesson impossible to ignore.
The days of French chivalry was numbered. Socially, it's decadence was increasingly emphasised by contempory writers. Militarily it had suffered a stunning blow, not only in losses but in the humiliation of the defeat at Agincourt by an army composed largely of vulgar bowmen. The future would show what lessons the French leaders learned and how the war would continue.
Agincourt announced the hour of the common soldier. Skill and valour, acknowledged by the French author and diplomat Alain Chartier, were not exclusive to the knightly class. It was an idea pondered by, not least, the citizen volunteers rejected before the battle. Nationalism was beginning to stir in the French people, but they lacked credible leaders.
In England, the same dawning of patriotism responded to victory. The exploits of the men of Agincourt excited the English and Henry's plans for the systematic conquest of France could now go ahead.
For a while, organised resistance was minimal. The French King was demented, The Orleanist faction had almost been wiped out at Agincourt while the Burgundians still held aloof from the fight. The rest were not inspired by the nominal leadership of the Dauphin.
Normandy fell without a battle, but many sieges (map 6). Even worse for the French, the Dauphin senselessly murdered John of Burgandy and the Burgundian faction joined the English. From now on the French faced Anglo-French armies in the field. The war increasingly devolved on French politics. Then Henry V died in 1422, within a few years of Agincourt.
The King, having begun the arduous task of reducing in detail those provinces where his title was still denied, had caught a fever at Meaux. He died in August and two months later, Charles also died leaving the French crown contested between the Dauphin and Henry IV of England, an infant.
The war continued with victories by the Anglo-Burgundian armies at Cravant in 1423 and Verneuil in 1424. But these victories were not so easily won, the French were learning, showing less impetuosity and more forethought than before.
Then in 1428, Bedford, the English military leader, reached Orleans, key to the French crown. And it was there that another major factor in this war began her short career - Joan of Arc (9). As a militarist, she was poorly qualified. But as a symbol of the spirit of a rejuvenated France, she was superbly cast.
Born in Champagne, her family were well-to-do farmers uprooted by war. The mystic visions she claimed were not dismissed in an age where prophets and seers abounded in the councils of powerful men. It was her profound belief that she was to be instrumental in evicting the English from France.
The Dauphin, beguiled by her assurances that his enthronement in Rhiems would soon follow, thought her worthy of his attention. Accordingly, in spring 1429, she was allowed to accompany the Duke Alen‡on, himself only young, with an army of 4000 men to relieve Orleans (map 7).
She immediately made her presence felt. Swearing was prohibited, prostitutes driven from the army, mass and confessions made obligatory for the troops. While remarkably akin to those prohibitions of Henry V, the broader appeal of Joan was unique. Entering Orleans ahead of the main relieving army late in April, she quickly heartened the occupants.
Six months of siege had left the citizens demoralised and fearful of treachery. In fact their besiegers were in no better position. Inferior in numbers to Alen‡on's force, And beset by sickness and desertions, Bedford was incapable of maintaining a close blockade.
Joan provided the confidence for the local militia to drive the besiegers off. In a series of dashing sorties, the English posts were demolished and the siege raised. Surprised and elated by their own success, the French swept one after another of the enemy's garrisons from the Loire.
On 19th June, an Anglo-French army of reinforcement under Shrewsbury, was defeated and routed in a matter of minutes at Patay. The French had charged upon the English and their allies before they could deploy to meet the charge. Since Agincourt, the English had expected their foes to hesitate, now they were transformed and the English were confounded.
Thus the legend of Joan of Arc was born. The Dauphin gave her the credit for Patay, although she had not arrived until the action was over. Although she was pictured commanding French forces, she was in an advisory not executive position.
The French were inspired by her, the English had a newfound respect for her armies. In July she accompanied the Dauphin the Reims for his coronation, it was a military promenade that the Anglo- French did not oppose.
From Reims, the newly anointed Charles VII took Laon, entered Soissons and advanced to Brie. No longer did English troops expect to fight outnumbered and win. Everywhere, submissions and protestations of loyalty met the new French King. Confidently he marched on Paris whose pro-Burgundian burgesses still controlled the city. Joan went with him.
The campaign was a failure. Joan advised forcing of the bastions by escalade but this miscarried as the army did not have the necessary equipment. Joan's star was beginning to wane, she was not delivering victory every time anymore.
In 1430, the King remained in the south, short of money. Joan continued to operate in the north with loyalist bands, but her presence did not bring them luck. And Charles' ministers and captains shifted from grudging tolerance of their King's unorthodox advisor, to open hostility.
To greedy and self-interested knights, Joan's appeal to duty and self-sacrifice, as well as her influence over the common troops, seemed malignant. To the clergy, her usurpation of ecclesiastic prerogatives was as great a threat. There was little gloom in established circles when she was captured by Burgundians near CompiŠgne and sold to Bedford.
She was tried by French clerics of the opposing faction and burnt as a heretic at Rouen in May 1431 (10). Her body was burnt three times in that one day.
By now the northern insurrection, though prolonged, was irreversible. The key factor was the desertion of the English alliance by the Burgundians. They finally made terms with the French king in 1435. The following year, the burger militia of Paris refused to oppose Charles and the small English garrison surrendered. Bedford was spared the miserable news by his own death.
But with low resources and an exhausted realm, Charles could not take final advantage and free his nation. On the other side, stubborn pride kept the war alive.
Neither country could afford to keep large numbers of troops in the field. Between 1444 and 1448, a truce was made possible by an English peace party led by the earl of Suffolk which was accompanied by reduced demands and the marriage of Henry VI to the French princess Margaret of Anjou.
Fighting broke out again in 1449 but the end was near. French arms were in the ascendant both numerically and technically. They had a professional army of mounted troops and bowmen, backed by paid militia. Up to 30,000 men were available to campaign in Normandy, half infantry and half cavalry. In addition there was a strong siege train.
The English were scattered in small garrisons, with no supporting field army (map 8). Their defeat was inevitable. By 1450, they were hemmed in around Bayeux and Caen, and a scratch force was sent to help. A small subsidiary French force met them at Formigny (map 9). After suffering sporadic cannon fire, the English archers charged to defeat by a smaller force, now supported by another French force attacking a flank. Caught between these two attackers, the English were massacred. 500 archers fought to the death in a nearby orchard. The commander, Kryriel was captured. Within a few weeks the English capitulated and Normandy was French again.
It took another three years before the war stopped. An English army was sent to prevent Guienne going the way of Normandy. At Castillon (map 10), its vanguard torn apart by entrenched cannon, the last English / Gascon army perished wholesale. They held Calais for another hundred years but the English attempts to take France had come to an ignominious end.
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