Post-classical history

September

Sunday 1st

EXPLANATIONS OF HOW and why people fell ill were confused in 1415. Sometimes astrological predictions were put forward for contagious diseases – planetary alignments leading to a miasma, or a polluted environment, which in turn led to pollutants entering the body through the pores of the skin and upsetting the balance of the four humours. Sometimes a miasma was associated with a particularly noxious smell. Alternatively diseases were attributed to God’s will: either as punishment for a sinful act – as in the diseases heaped upon Henry IV for ordering the judicial murder of the archbishop of York – or as a means of attaining redemption from such sins. In the latter case, God was supposed to have visited sufferings on people so that they might atone for their behaviour and, through dying an agonising death, repent by bearing it well and thereby enter Paradise.

In the case of dysentery, people realised that large camps of soldiers attracted diseases, and that men chose to assemble large armies, so therefore the astrological explanation did not apply. Obviously God’s will did apply, and it could be understood that, through disease, God sought to demonstrate to men that He did not approve of some sieges. In that sense, however much Henry claimed to be fighting a just war, and acting as an agent of God’s will, the appearance of dysentery in the camp could be seen as a sign that God did not, after all, approve of Henry’s war or his cause. Those who were loyal to Henry therefore looked for other explanations, and hit on other polluting factors. One contemporary chronicler, John Strecche, presumably writing on the basis of information sent back by combatants, pointed to the eating of unripe grapes and bad shellfish as the cause. Another writer, Thomas Walsingham, gave a vivid explanation for the causes of the stomach diseases and dysentery. He claimed

These deaths were caused by eating fruit, the cold nights, and the foetid smell from the bodies of different animals that they had killed throughout the English lines but which they had not covered with turf or soil, or had thrown into the waters of the river so they were forced to endure their decaying stench.1

Certainly the presence of rotting animals cannot have helped, especially considering it was an uncommonly hot summer.2 The sixteen-year-old Lord Fitzwalter, serving in the company of the duke of Clarence, became one of the first casualties of the siege, dying today.3

Another factor contributing to the hardship of the besiegers was that they were beginning to run short of food. Although Henry had ordered that each man bring sufficient food for three months, in reality supplies had only lasted three weeks. In London today one Richard Bokeland was ordered to provide two ships to convey victuals, including fish, to the army at Harfleur. And over the next two days 700 marks was assigned to Richard Whittington to repay him for his expenses in maintaining the siege of Harfleur, and two men from Henley were ordered to provide one hundred quarters of wheat for the king’s household at the siege.4

*

For those in the town, things were even harder. They had even less food, could not sleep for the fear and the noise of the incessant destruction, and water-borne diseases were beginning to spread within the town too. Knowing this, Henry sent a herald about this time to invite Raoul de Gaucourt and the other leaders in Harfleur to discuss terms. They came, under safe conduct, and met the king. Henry attempted with ‘sweet words’ to persuade them to surrender the town. He had his title to the throne of France repeated to them too, and his claim to the duchy of Normandy. But Henry had underestimated the townsmen’s resolve. De Gaucourt insisted that the king of France would not leave the town to fend for itself for long but would soon arrive with an army. So he refused Henry’s invitation. Instead of surrendering, he sent a messenger to the dauphin urging that he send an army as soon as possible to relieve the town.5

*

The dauphin left Paris this morning and journeyed to St Denis, the royal abbey just north of the city. Here he prayed for victory. He also sent out letters to the dukes of Orléans and Burgundy, and the count of Nevers (brother of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy) requiring each of them to send five hundred men-at-arms and three hundred archers. John the Fearless was requested not to come in person but to send his son, Philip, count of Charolais, in his place. This was no doubt intended to avoid the risk of the duke leading an army that might suddenly turn and fight against the dauphin, on the side of the English. Nevertheless, John was bound to take offence.

Tuesday 3rd

Henry wrote a letter to the mayor and jurats of Bordeaux telling them that he and his company were in the best of health, for which ‘in all humility, we give thanks to our lord God the Almighty, hoping that by His grace, He will give us in pursuit of our right, the fulfilment of our desire and undertaking, to His pleasure, and for the honour and comfort of us and you …’ With God’s help, he said, the enemy would be less capable of doing harm to his Gascon subjects in future, alluding to the danger of Norman ships attacking the Gascon wine trade. He asked them to assist Sir John Tiptoft in guarding against any French assault in Gascony. As for himself, he stated he was in need of wine and other victuals, which he asked them to send straightaway, promising payment in full on delivery.6

At the same time, Dr Jean Bordiu, archdeacon of Médoc, who was with the king at Harfleur, wrote a more detailed letter to the Jurade. He noted that the king himself had just written, and gave much more detail regarding the real state of affairs at Harfleur. He stated that, although the fields were still providing the army with sufficient corn, they could not be expected to meet the future requirements of the army, especially as more men were coming from England ‘every day’. This alerts us to the fact that reinforcements were arriving – a fact that is supported by careful analysis of the accounts relating to some of the companies with Henry.7 Bordiu mentioned that Henry had asked for more wine to be sent; in this respect he specified that the king required between five hundred and seven hundred tuns. And he urged the townsmen to look to this with diligence, stating that Henry wished to come in person to Bordeaux before he returned to England.

Bordiu went on to say that, ‘with the help of the Holy Spirit’, he expected the town to fall within eight days. This was because the defences on the landward side and on two flanks had now been ‘well and truly breached’. The town within the walls was ‘totally destroyed’. The English had now managed to cut off the water supply below Montivilliers, thereby diverting the River Lézarde, draining the flooded area and cutting off the town’s water supply. When the town finally fell, the king was not going to enter it but ‘stay in the field’ meaning he meant to continue his planned march through France. On this Bordiu was quite specific: ‘he intends to go to Montivilliers, and from there to Dieppe, afterwards to Rouen and then to Paris’.8

Much of this was wishful thinking. Regardless of how long the town held out, it was now surrounded by thick, stinking mud, suffused with inedible fish and animal entrails, bones and excrement … It could only grow more dangerous – especially as the English troops had to trudge through it to get closer to the breach in the walls. The dysentery was not going to go away, and the town would require a substantial workforce to rebuild it as well as to maintain it. And the food was running out. About this time Henry issued an order, via his brother the regent in England, to the constable of Dover Castle and the warden of the Cinque Ports, to send each and every fisherman with his boat and tackle to Harfleur, there to provide fish for the king’s army.9 The chances of Henry marching on Paris in the near future were non-existent.

*

The messenger who had left Harfleur two days earlier had travelled through the night to Paris, and then on to St Denis, to convey de Gaucourt’s plea for help to the dauphin. At first the dauphin was reluctant to receive him, having other business to attend to; but after the urgency of the situation had been established, the messenger was granted an audience.10 He can have left the dauphin in no doubt as to the conditions in the town, and pleaded for a relieving army. If none was forthcoming then the town would soon have to surrender, to the detriment of the throne of France.11 The dauphin was able to say that a large army was already gathering: the summons of 28 August and the letters to the royal dukes of 1 September would result in a large force assembling at Rouen. If the town could hold out for a little while longer, the French would drive the English into the sea.

There was just one problem. Henry had declared that, after he had taken Harfleur, he would march on to Rouen. We do not know if this news was publicly being circulated – it only appears in the letters sent to Bordeaux. But if the French did know, then it would have soon become apparent that both sides were going to converge on the same town.

Saturday 7th

The letter from Richard Courtenay to Jean Fusoris, carried by Raoul le Gay and confiscated in Montivilliers, arrived in Paris yesterday. On receipt, Fusoris was arrested and thrown into the prison known as the Little Châtelet. He was taken out today and led before the president of the parlement, Jean de Vailly, and charged with high treason.12 Poor Fusoris had been duped by Courtenay. His presence in England that summer, coupled with the incriminating evidence supplied by Raoul le Gay, did not help his case. The old astrologer-clockmaker must have been in fear of his life from the moment the men-at-arms knocked on his door.

*

In London, Richard Gurmyn, the baker accused of Lollardy in the trial of John Claydon, was led before the authorities in St Paul’s. His trial probably took much the same form as Claydon’s, involving the declaration that he was a manifest heretic. The sentence of burning was inevitable. Some protested that he had taken advantage of the king’s offer of a pardon, made on 9 December 1414. Thomas Falconer, however was having none of it. When the church authorities turned over Gurmyn to him for punishment he did not allow any time for the guilty man to locate his letters of pardon – if indeed he had them. Nor did he bother writing another letter to Henry. He simply had the pyre built at Smithfield, had Gurmyn dragged there, and burned him to death.13

Tuesday 10th

In Paris, the old king attended a solemn procession and Mass in the cathedral of Notre Dame, praying for victory ‘with the help of God and the intercession of the saints’. When this had finished he travelled to the abbey of St Denis and there heard another Mass. The relics of the patron saint were exhibited, and the king was handed the sacred war banner of France, the Oriflamme, which he then passed to the similarly aged Guillaume Martel, seigneur de Bacqueville. With that symbolic gesture, France was now at war. If the banner was unfurled on a battlefield, it was an instruction to the French to take no prisoners.14

*

In London, it was John Claydon’s turn to face the wrath of the pyre. No pardon was forthcoming from France. Indeed, Falconer’s letter had probably only recently been received. His friend Gurmyn had gone before him, and that perhaps gave him strength. Claydon was taken out of prison and put into the barrel, which was surrounded by faggots, and made to endure the agony of the killing flames. He had probably never even heard of Jan Hus. Yet he shared the same fate – for daring to seek spiritual consolation in a book.15

*

As Claydon screamed his last, one of the king’s best friends, Richard Courtenay, fell ill. It was the men around the king who were suffering most now from the dysentery. His tent was positioned close to the king’s, and sometimes during the siege Courtenay had shared the king’s own quarters. It must have been personally worrying for Henry to see one of his closest friends taken ill with the fever. It must also have been deeply psychologically disturbing to realise that, if God felt inclined to smite Bishop Courtenay with what men called ‘the bloody flux’, the king and all his army might die before the rubble and foetid muddy ditches of the town that had been Harfleur.16

Bordiu had predicted the town would fall within eight days. This was the eighth day.

Wednesday 11th

In Constance, Jerome’s nerve failed. Rather than face the terrible fate of being burnt, he chose to recant and publicly assent to his faith in the Catholic Church. To this end he had written a confession in his own hand, which he read out at a special session of the council to judge his case. However, the form of his confession was not considered explicit or full enough, so he was required to rewrite it more explicitly. The date of 23 September was assigned for him to read this revised confession, which included his abjuration of the doctrines of John Wycliffe and his friend Jan Hus. On that day he would go so far as to approve of the burning of Jan Hus.17

This is the last time Jerome will appear in this narrative; but it is worth noting that, on 26 May 1416, he withdrew his recantation and his renunciation of his faith in the teachings of Wycliffe and Hus. He stood up for himself, revoked his earlier confession and boldly declared himself to be a follower of Hus. He was burnt four days later and died in great agony, for he endured the flames much longer than Hus had done, screaming terribly throughout the ordeal. His bones and ashes were broken up and dumped in the Rhine, like those of his friend.18

Friday 13th

Another messenger from de Gaucourt reached the dauphin. This man was called Joven Lescot, and he had originally been smuggled out of the town in order to solicit aid from the constable, Charles d’Albret, who was then at Rouen. D’Albret had sent him with the Montjoye herald to the dauphin, who was at Vernon-sur-Seine. The message he delivered was similar to that of the earlier messenger, only more desperate. Again the dauphin promised that his father the king would soon be riding at the head of an army – but that is all he seems to have done directly to respond to the appeal for help.19

Sunday 15th

A month and a day after the army landed in France, Bishop Courtenay died of dysentery – dehydrated and feverish, excreting bloody diarrhoea. Henry was with him in his tent when he passed away, and closed his friend’s eyes with his own hands. So, this was God’s judgment on him, his ambitions and his expedition. Henry knew that many people in the outside world would see it that way. And he had lost a great friend, which must have affected his thinking. His judgment was so askew that, wiping the feet of the dead man, he ordered that the bishop be taken to Westminster Abbey to be buried among the kings of England. It was not an appropriate resting place for a bishop of Norwich, but Henry could not see that. Grief, worry and pressure were clouding his mind. The monks of Westminster did as they were asked, of course; they could hardly refuse their king and patron; so the body of Bishop Richard Courtenay was taken to the royal sanctuary at Westminster Abbey and laid to rest. There it remains to this day, in the same grave – and in the same coffin – as Henry V himself.

Just when the king was at this low ebb, the men of Harfleur rallied to drag him down further. The watchmen and guards on the main barbican outside the Porte Leure made a sally against the English guard, and set fire to the English defences. From his position at Graville, Henry would have left Courtenay’s tent to see the smoke of the burning faggots drifting down the valley and the enemy troops attacking his own soldiers. Later, inspecting the lines, he would perhaps have heard how the Frenchmen were shouting insults at the English for being so half-awake and lazy.20

At about the same time, there were barges and galleys in the Seine, attempting to break through the English maritime blockade of the town. There seems to have been an attempt to break out from the town, timed to coincide with an attack from the river. De Gaucourt’s messengers to the dauphin and d’Albret were not only getting information out of the town but somehow they were getting information back in. Although Henry had sent the ships from Flanders home long ago, and had also sent back many English ships, those that remained with him held their defences, and when the sortie from Harfleur retreated, so too did the barges and galleys.21

At Southampton, in the wake of the earl of Cambridge’s plot, when Henry had been urged to cancel his expedition, he had shown the necessary resolve of a great leader. Others might have seen the death of a close friend – and a bishop at that – as a sign that God was against him; Henry seems to have seen it rather as a personal test. Through such sacrifices he was being tempted to seek terms, or shelter, or retreat. But, of course, this was Henry V – and this is one part of the popular legend that is true: he would never give in. Tenacious in the extreme, this setback simply caused him to order an all-out attack on the barbican of the Porte Leure the following day.

In preparation for the assault, Henry ordered that faggots be prepared to fill in the defensive ditches in front of the barbican. This was done through the night. From references to his watchfulness at night, one gets the impression that, as the men moved silently through the darkness, carrying the bundles of sticks, the king was watching, surveying, calculating and praying.

Monday 16th

It was Henry’s twenty-ninth birthday. No celebrations were likely. All he wanted was revenge for the previous day’s torments.

The onslaught on the barbican in front of the Porte Leure was led by the young and ‘high-spirited’ John Holland, earl of Huntingdon, supported by his father-in-law Sir John Cornwaille and the newly-knighted Sir William Porter, as well as Sir Gilbert Umfraville, John Steward and Sir William Bourchier.22 These were the same men who had commanded the first reconnaissance of the shore at Harfleur on landing, and so may have formed a recognised crack squadron within the English army. In the afternoon a contingent of Frenchmen sallied out, trying to build on their success of the previous day. But Holland and his men met them head-on. Then, by shooting burning arrows, flinging torches and laying incendiary powders, they managed to set enough of the barbican on fire to force the defenders back to the main gate. Amid the burning parts of the barbican, shattered by cannon, the first English troops entered, and torched the rest of the defensive enclosure. Some Frenchmen were still there in the smoke, trying to beat down the flames; they were set upon by the English. Most realised their dire situation and fled inside the walls, blocking the entrance behind them with timber, stones, earth and dung.23

The English, having taken the barbican, now worked to put the fires out. It was a struggle: it took two days to extinguish the blaze. The smoke rose in thick pungent wafts from the dung for another two weeks.

Tuesday 17th

Chroniclers differ in their explanations as to how negotiations began for the surrender of Harfleur. The eyewitness who wrote the Gesta claims that the English approached Raoul de Gaucourt, acting captain of the town, threatening the full application of the law of Deuteronomy – death for all the inhabitants, including women and children – but he spurned the offer, prompting Henry to order an all-out assault for the following day.24 This plan to storm the town is also mentioned in a letter that Henry himself later wrote to the citizens of London, but the townsmen decided to negotiate again this same night. Thomas Walsingham wrote that on the night of the 17th a man-at-arms was sent over the walls to the camp of Thomas, duke of Clarence. He entreated the duke to send word to his brother, the king, begging that a truce be called.25

Both sources may be right. The townsmen may have first approached Thomas, rather than the king himself. By this reckoning, Henry sent messengers to demand the surrender of the town in the morning and, on being refused, organised a massive onslaught. His trumpeters proclaimed that all the seamen should join with the soldiers in a combined land-and-sea attack on the town. Henry had decided he could not wait any longer: the whole army would mount the walls that lay in patched ruins around the town. To facilitate this, towards dusk he ordered all the guns to start firing, blasting the remaining houses and walls with stones, and to continue all night. In this situation, knowing the fate that awaited them the next day, it would have been quite understandable if the men of Harfleur had decided that enough was enough and sent the man-at-arms to parley with Thomas, duke of Clarence. Thomas then told his brother. After this, Henry sent out Thomas Beaufort, and the elderly warriors, Lord Fitzhugh and Sir Thomas Erpingham, to negotiate with the townsmen in the middle of the night.

The above vacillation on the part of the defenders suggests that they were now utterly desperate. But why did they first refuse to negotiate, and subsequently plead for peace, on the same day? There are several possible explanations. The first is that they learned over the course of the day that Henry was planning an all-out attack, and decided that it was better to surrender and hope for mercy than to fight to the death. (This is the explanation Henry himself gave in his letter of 22 September.) Another possibility is that Henry had so far refused to consider anything but an unconditional surrender whereas the duke of Clarence, who may well have himself been sick with dysentery by now, was known to be more amenable. The fact that de Gaucourt was now severely sick with dysentery himself probably sapped some of his fighting spirit.26 The position of the dauphin may have also been a factor. Two weeks earlier the men of Harfleur had entertained hopes of a French army coming to relieve them. But as yet the troops had not assembled in sufficient numbers, and neither the king nor the dauphin was at Rouen. The king was still at Poissy, where he ate dinner, before moving on to Meulan that afternoon.27 The dauphin was at Vernon. If the defenders had received confirmation of the lack of any approaching army during the course of the day, then they may well have despaired of their cause. If the French king did not move to help them, why should they risk their wives’ and children’s lives for his sake?

Wednesday 18th

It was full moon. In the early hours, Thomas Beaufort, Lord Fitzhugh and Sir Thomas Erpingham returned to Henry and passed on the terms offered by the townsmen. They begged the king of England, out of charity, to suspend the attacks on their town until the Sunday of Michaelmas (29 September).28 If the king or the dauphin had not come with a relieving army by then, they would surrender the town.

Picture the king hearing these words, with the glow of a warming fire on his cheeks. It was at last the offer of a capitulation that he had wanted for so many weeks. But even Michaelmas was too long a delay, and if the French army caught him here, at the walls of Harfleur he would be trapped. Henry’s strategy was to take the town and then move his army away from the place as quickly as possible, drawing the French royal forces away from Harfleur, and thereby allowing his men to rebuild it. So he told his uncle and the other two envoys to return to the town and tell de Gaucourt that, if the town was not surrendered when daylight came, there would be no further discussion of the matter.

The men of Harfleur, who had held out heroically, were at the end of their strength. De Gaucourt himself later admitted that they were on their knees due to sickness and starvation.29 Their town was in ruins, and many of the townspeople had been killed. So they urged the English envoys to go back again to the king and to beg him for a truce to last until Sunday, 22 September, the feast of St Maurice. To guarantee their offer, they promised to send an embassy of lords, knights, esquires and burgesses of the town, today, at one o’clock in the afternoon. Twenty-four men would be hostages of the English. If a French army had not arrived by early afternoon on Sunday 22nd, the town would be surrendered unconditionally. The people of the town as well as the hostages – their bodies as well as their possessions – would be at Henry’s command, to do with as he wished. The sole proviso was that they should be allowed to send messengers to the king and the dauphin to inform them of this deadline.

When the three envoys reported to Henry in the early hours, he knew he had won. The French army was still assembling, the French king and the dauphin were not yet at Rouen; there was no chance of them sending a relieving army so soon. And by accepting the surrender now, having threatened them all with death, he could show mercy in the hour of his triumph, exactly as Edward III had done at the siege of Calais, sparing the lives of the six burghers who came, with ropes around their necks and carrying the keys of the town. So he agreed. The cannon fell silent.

*

Lying on his bed in his pavilion, Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, was breathing his last. The man who had seen his father impeached by the enemies of Richard II, who had worked for so many years to recover his family dignities, and had done so, and had written his will in June, died from the dysentery that was now rife in the English camp. Two of his sons were with him: his twenty-year-old heir, Michael, and his younger son, William, who was also sick. In accordance with the earl’s wishes, his body would be taken home to be buried in the church at Wingfield, Suffolk. Or at least his bones would.

Medieval armies often carried with them a large cauldron. When an important man, like the earl of Suffolk, died on campaign, and if it was impossible to embalm his body and send it home intact, his heart was cut out and preserved, and his body was dismembered and boiled for a long time, so that the flesh was stripped from the bones, like so much meat. The bones were then gathered and sent back with the heart for burial. Boiling and removing the flesh and cooked organs from a man’s ribcage and skull must have been one of the most unpleasant duties of a soldier on campaign – short of actually killing people.

*

At one o’clock this afternoon, two processions approached each other beneath the walls of Harfleur. That from the English side, which had come down from Graville, was led by the bishop of Bangor, with the thirty-two chaplains of the king’s chapel singing behind him. With them came the English envoys, and clerks with the indentures drawn up for the surrender of the town, accompanied by many other lords, knights and esquires. From the town came Raoul d’Anquetonville and twelve other seigneurs, and twenty-four other knights and esquires, accompanied by a large number of Harfleur’s leading citizens.

When they met, just outside the Porte Leure, the commanders of the town swore on the consecrated host that they would abide by the terms of the agreement. Proctors on behalf of the king (who was not present) did likewise. The terms were read and sealed, and the French half of the agreement handed over. When this formality was complete, the twenty-four knights and esquires submitted themselves as hostages; following this they were invited into a royal tent nearby where they were given food and drink. After the meal, they were each assigned to a different lord, so they might be honourably treated while the French envoys went to seek a relieving army. Guillaume de Léon, seigneur de Hacqueville, was chosen to ride to the dauphin, and set off immediately with twelve men-at-arms.30

De Léon’s mission was bound to be in vain. It was likely to take him at least fifteen hours in the saddle to reach the dauphin at Vernon, which was more than 75 miles away by road. He did not have time to ride on to see King Charles at Meulan if he wanted to be back in time for the deadline of three o’clock on 22 September.

*

In Paris, the deadline for gathering the new tax was fast approaching; but little money had come in. The sheriffs and collectors of taxes were ordered to hasten their collections. This did nothing to endear the administration to the people of Paris, who now began to speak about inviting John the Fearless back to the city to take charge of the government. In country areas, it was said, men and women and their children were retreating into the woods with their possessions and living there like savages rather than await the royal tax collectors, whom they feared more than the English. We may doubt that this was actually the case, just as we may doubt the story that some Frenchmen turned to brigandage as a result of the taxation; but as these stories come from a contemporary local source, they are indicative of how bitterly this new tax was viewed by the Parisians.31

Friday 20th

De Léon probably arrived at Vernon either late the previous evening or early this morning. He delivered his message. In reply he was told curtly that the army had not yet gathered, and could not reach Harfleur in time. His journey had been in vain. The French were abandoning the people of Harfleur to their fate.

De Léon mounted his horse and rode back to Harfleur, to tell the townsmen the sad news.

*

King Charles was now at Mantes.32 The previous day he had been at Meulan, from where a letter was sent out today, in his name and that of the council, to various places in Northern France. The text addressed to the bailiff of Amiens reads as follows:

Whereas by our letters we have commanded you to make proclamation throughout your bailiwick, for all nobles and armed men experienced in war immediately to join our very dear and well-beloved son [the dauphin], whom we have nominated our captain-general of the kingdom. It is now some time since we have marched against our adversary of England who has, with a large army, invaded our province of Normandy and taken our town of Harfleur, owing to the neglect and delay of you and others in not punctually obeying our orders; for, from want of succour, our noble and loyal subjects within Harfleur, having made a most vigorous defence, were forced to surrender it to the enemy. And as the preservation and defence of our kingdom is the concern of all, we call on our good and faithful subjects for aid, and are determined to regain those parts of which the enemy may be in possession, and to drive them out of our kingdom in disgrace and confusion, by the blessing of God, the holy Virgin Mary, and with the assistance of our kindred and loyal subjects.

You will therefore by these letters strictly command everyone within your jurisdiction, on the duty they owe us, to lose no time in arming themselves and in hastening to join [the dauphin] … In addition to the above, you will likewise ensure that all cannon, engines of war, and other offensive or defensive weapons that can be spared from the principal towns be sent to our aid without delay, which we promise to restore at the end of the war. You will use every possible diligence in seeing to the execution of these our commands; and should there be any neglect on your part, which God forbid, we will punish you in such wise that you shall serve as an example to all others who offend in a similar manner …33

The French government was in a state of panic. They had already started to blame minor officials for allowing the English to seize Harfleur, even though there were still two days left before the siege would be over. They had also received information that John the Fearless had written to his Picard vassals urging them not to obey ‘the command of any other lord, whoever he might be’, which was the reason why these men had failed to muster.34 So now they saw fit to blame John the Fearless personally. This pattern of creating scapegoats and blaming political adversaries for the failures would continue for years. Burgundians blamed Armagnacs, and Armagnacs blamed Burgundians. And still the king and the dauphin had no real knowledge as to whether the dukes of Orléans and Burgundy were going to send sufficient men to help fight the English. According to the chronicler Monstrelet, messengers were sent out again today to the two dukes with further letters repeating the order for them each to send five hundred men-at-arms immediately. The government was without money, short of armed men, short of leadership, and short of a strategy. It did not bode well for those who were setting out to muster at Rouen, let alone the starving men, women and children sheltering in the ruins of Harfleur.

Saturday 21st: the Feast of St Matthew

In Wales, about this time, and in some unknown location, Owen Glendower died. The great Welsh patriot who had evaded Henry and all his soldiers in life now evaded him in death. Few men knew where he was, and those who did know were not going to say. They were not even going to announce his death; his burial place would forever remain a closely guarded secret. He would live on in the hearts of his countrymen – defeated by the English but unbowed and unrepentant in striving to make an independent princedom of Wales.

Glendower’s achievement ultimately had not been the independence of Wales. It had not even been to the benefit of most Welshmen. Hundreds of families on both sides of the border had been impoverished by the war: the English through the many harassments of Glendower’s men; the Welsh through the reprisal attacks of Henry and his men as well as the annual expeditions of Henry’s father. Extreme anti-Welsh legislation had been passed in parliament as a result of constant pressure from the English representatives, so that no Welshman could marry an English wife, or own property in England, or even sue an Englishman in an English court. Even now there were swathes of the country where ruined farms and barns lay burnt out, and no income was generated, and no tithes were paid. Glendower’s real achievement was symbolic: a sense that resistance against the English landlords and parliament was not only possible but might lead to a better and prouder, more confident Wales. Since the beginning of his rebellion in 1400, he had never been caught; he had suffered through the loss of sons, brothers and friends in battle; but he had reigned as Prince Owain IV, and he had presided over a Welsh parliament, and he had inspired people. That inspiration would outlive him by centuries. In that respect he had much in common with Henry himself.

Eventually news did filter through to the English. No further mention is made of Glendower in English sources; royal commissioners were henceforth directed to negotiate with his son. Contemporary Welsh chroniclers began to refer to 1415 as the year in which the Welsh rebellion finally came to an end.35

Sunday 22nd: the Feast of St Maurice

The date set for the surrender of Harfleur was not an arbitrary one, plucked out of thin air. St Maurice might not have been a saint familiar to everyone at Harfleur, and his was not one of the major feasts; but what he symbolised was relevant. He had been a Roman soldier who had refused to kill Christians, and had been martyred as a result. That mercifulness towards Christians was exactly what Henry V wanted to stress now. It was a religious propaganda exercise: Henry had promised to destroy the inhabitants in line with Deuteronomic law; but by showing mercy and sparing their lives he was associating himself with the values of a saint and a follower of Christ’s teaching.

At eight o’clock Guillaume de Léon, the seigneur de Hacqueville, returned to tell the townsmen the bad news. There would be no relieving army. At one o’clock the ailing Raoul de Gaucourt, together with Jean d’Estouteville and the other commanders, Lyonnet de Braquemont, Olivier de Braquemont, Jean Bufreuil and Roland de Gérault, and all those who had previously sworn to observe the terms of the truce, walked out of the ruins of the Porte Leure and through the still-smoking remains of its barbican. They followed the English heralds along the road and up the nearby hill to where the great pavilion of Henry V had been placed. There was a throne in front of it, and all the lords of England who were sufficiently healthy were seated in a circle, wearing rich robes. Sir Gilbert Umphraville stood to the right of the seated king, bearing Henry’s crowned helm on a staff. As the twenty-four hostages were near at hand, they too were invited to join their countrymen in the formal surrender, making the total of Frenchmen present about sixty-six.36 According to Adam Usk, those who had come from the town wore ropes around their necks in emulation of the burghers of Calais.

At this stage, the Earl Marshal was still well enough to conduct his official duties, so it fell to him formally to receive the men of the town. He announced on the king’s behalf that the men of Harfleur and their fellow Frenchmen had resisted Henry, king of England and France, and therefore had tried to withhold a part of his inheritance, so they were liable to be put to death en masse. However, as they had surrendered of their own free will, albeit tardily, he assured them that, ‘they should not depart entirely without mercy, although he [the king] might wish to modify this after further consideration’.37

All the while the Earl Marshal was speaking, Henry was staring fixedly ahead – making a point of not even looking at those who had dared to defy his will.38 Once again the king’s fierce pride was in evidence. Given this personal feeling on the king’s part, we should not assume that he had always intended to let the men, women and children of Harfleur survive. His great uncle, Edward the Black Prince, had spared no one when he had attacked Limoges in 1370 – killing women and children as well as men, in line with the full Deuteronomic sentence. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind what happened at Limoges in order to understand Henry’s clemency on this occasion and his cold-hearted lack of it on others. As Froissart described the sack of Limoges,

On the next day, in line with the prince’s order, a large section of the wall was blown up, filling in the ditch at the place where it fell. The English were pleased to see this happen, for they were all prepared, armed and drawn up in their ranks, ready to enter the town when the moment should come. The foot soldiers were able to enter this way with ease: on entering they ran to the gate, cut the supporting bars, and knocked it down, together with the barriers. And all this was done so suddenly that the townspeople were not expecting it. Then [the Black Prince], the duke of Lancaster [John of Gaunt], the earl of Cambridge, the earl of Pembroke, Sir Guiscard d’Angle and all the others, together with their men rushed in … all prepared to do harm and ransack the town, and to kill men, women and children; for this is what they had been ordered to do. This was a most terrible thing: men, women and children threw themselves on their knees before the prince crying ‘Mercy, gentle sires, have mercy!’ But he was so enraged by hatred that he heard none of them; thus none – neither man nor woman – was heeded. All were put to the sword … wherever they were found … men and women who were in no way guilty … More than three thousand persons, men, women and children, were put to death there that day.39

Nor can this be dismissed as an extreme form of retribution in war, from which Henry wished to distance himself. Just as his father had done, Henry lauded the Black Prince as a great warrior and a firm believer in the Holy Trinity. And Henry himself was more than capable of ordering just such a massacre. He did so two years later, in 1417, at Caen, after his men forced their way into the town. On that occasion he ordered that no priests or women were to be killed; but all their menfolk were to be slaughtered. Eighteen hundred men were put to death.

When de Gaucourt, d’Estouteville and the others had handed the keys of the town to the Earl Marshal, Henry told them that their lives would be spared. He ordered two standards – the royal standard and another standard bearing the cross of St George – to be hoisted over the gates, and appointed Thomas Beaufort lieutenant of the town. He invited the prisoners to dine with him. Later, he had his secretary write a letter in French about the success of the siege to the mayor of London.

Very dear, trusted and well-beloved. We greet you, letting you know for your consolation that we are personally in very good health, thanks be to God who grants this to us. After our arrival on this side, we came before our town of Harfleur on Saturday the 17th day of August last past, and laid siege thereto, in the manner described before now in our other letters sent to you. And by the good diligence of our faithful lieges at this time in our company, and the strength and position of our cannon and our other ordnance, the people within the town urgently tried to negotiate divers agreements with us; yet notwithstanding this, we decided to make an assault upon the town on Wednesday 18 September; but those within the town had realised this, and made great efforts to confer with us, over and above their earlier attempts. And to avoid the effusion of blood on both sides, we inclined to their offer. Thereupon we answered them, and sent to them the final terms of our intent; to which they agreed, and for this we do render thanks to God, for we thought that they would not have so readily assented to the said final terms.

On the same Wednesday there came out of the said town the seigneurs de Gaucourt, d’Estouteville, de Hacqueville, and other lords and knights who had governance of the town, and delivered hostages; and all the lords and knights as well as the hostages (of whom some are lords and knights and some notable burgesses), swore upon the body of Our Saviour that they would deliver our town to us and submit the persons and goods therein to our grace unconditionally, if they should not have been rescued, by one o’clock on the following Sunday, by battle given to us by our adversary of France or his eldest son, the dauphin. Thereupon we gave our letters of safe conduct to the said seigneur de Hacqueville and twelve other men to go to our said adversary and his son to inform them of the treaty so made. The seigneur de Hacqueville and others of his company returned today at eight o’clock in the aforenoon into our said town without any rescue being offered by our said adversary, his son, or any other party. And the keys of the town were then fully delivered and put in our hands; and all those within were submitted to our grace without any condition, as above stated, praised be our Creator for the same. And we have put in our said town our very dear uncle the earl of Dorset [Thomas Beaufort] and have made him captain thereof with a sufficient staff of people of both ranks. And we will that you render humble thanks to our Lord Almighty for this news, and do hope by the divine power and the good labour and diligence of the people on this side to do our duty still further in gaining our right in these parts; and we do desire also that, by way of those passing between us, you will certify us from time to time as to news regarding yourselves. And may our Lord have you in His holy keeping. Given under our signet in our said town of Harfleur, 22 September.40

Monday 23rd

Henry had apparently not wanted initially to enter the town of Harfleur. Presumably he felt it was beneath his dignity to confront the wreckage of the homes of merchants, families and clergymen. However, he needed to enter the city, if only to gauge the scale of the destruction for himself. Only by seeing the place with his own eyes could he assess how many men he would have to leave in order to guard and rebuild it. And only by seeing the town for himself would he understand its future strategic potential.

The gates, surmounted with the royal banner and the flag of St George, were thrown open to receive their new lord. The envoys and commissioners riding with Henry entered the town; but Henry dismounted right in front of the Porte Leure. He took off his shoes and socks and walked barefoot through the streets to the parish church of St Martin. Buildings on either side of the main street were smashed: timbers at odd angles, stone walls crumbled into the road. When he saw the church of St Martin, he could see for himself that his ordinances against damage to church property had not stopped his cannon wrecking it. The steeple and tower had collapsed, and the bells within had crashed to the ground.

Henry walked around the town with his closest friends. After surveying the damage, he ordered all the women and children to be rounded up, and all the poor too. As for the men: those who were prepared to swear fealty to Henry as their liege lord could stay in Harfleur. Those who were not would be imprisoned and ransomed for as large a sum as they could pay. The clergy were also gathered together. They would learn their fate on the following day.

According to Monstrelet, the two towers on either side of the water gate refused to surrender, holding out for a further ten days. This is unlikely – the English sources do not mention it – but it does suggest that there were disagreements within the town about whether or not to surrender.41 These too could have contributed to the vacillation of the night of the 17th, which saw the first serious discussions. Either way, the defenders had acquitted themselves with great honour. They certainly did not deserve to be blamed for the fall of the town, when the rest of France had failed to come to their aid.

Tuesday 24th

Where the women, children, priests and paupers who had been gathered spent the night is not known; presumably they had been lodged in secure barns, halls or other large buildings. Today they were greeted by armed guards and led through the gates of the town. Given 5 sous each to buy food, the women were told they were free to go wherever they wished, taking their clothes and as much as they could carry in their arms. There were said to be about two thousand of them, including their children. Many – fifteen hundred according to one source – were accompanied in a convoy by the English guards to Lillebonne, where they were handed over to Marshal Boucicaut and placed under his protection. Their menfolk, including their teenage sons, had to remain behind. One French chronicle notes that the women from Harfleur – whether those handed over to Boucicaut or those who went their own way – were systematically rounded up, robbed and raped by French soldiers. Other French chroniclers attest to how badly the French troops treated their own countrymen and women; however, it is possible that this story of pillage and rape was just another result of the culture of blame and incrimination that developed in France over the subsequent months.42

Of course, all the English sources point to the expulsion of the women from Harfleur as an act of mercy by the king, as they considered he had every right to ‘enjoy’ or slaughter them all. Such an attitude overlooks the actual degree of misery that these people must have endured, and how little the people of Harfleur had done to deserve such treatment. For a full month they had suffered from a lack of sleep and food; they had lived in fear that the English siege engines would destroy their homes and families. Then, at the end, after a month of hellish torment, they were driven away from their homes and husbands and sons, losing all they owned. And it needs to be remembered that in medieval times, it was a far worse fate to be driven out of your hometown than it would be today. It did not just mean you lost your friends and family – you also lost those who would defend you physically and those who would defend your good name. For many of the women forced to walk to Lillebonne, life can hardly have seemed to have improved since the end of the siege. What lay before them was hardship, penury, alienation from their husbands, and the unknown. ‘It was pitiful to see and hear the sorrow of these poor people, thus driven away from their dwellings and property,’ wrote Monstrelet. The eyewitness who wrote the Gesta agreed, noting that the women left ‘amid much lamentation and grief, and tears for the loss of their customary habitation’.43

Henry’s plan was to turn Harfleur into a military base. All the town records were burnt in the square, thereby removing any knowledge of who owned what.44 The houses needed to be repaired and then granted out to those who had followed Henry. Other Englishmen would follow in due course, invited to settle in the town. Burghers who did not swear loyalty were told they would be shipped across to England, where they might be ransomed, if they were lucky enough to have wealthy friends.45 Those who did swear fealty were allowed to remain in the town but they were not allowed to own property. Young men were conscripted into the defence of the town – though presumably this was just to serve as boys and pages.

The first and main object was to make Harfleur defensible once more. As the boys would be of little use and even the men who swore fealty were bound to be of dubious loyalty, Henry needed to give the town a significant garrison. In this he had an important decision to make: did he make the town his headquarters for the winter, and keep his whole army there? Or should he leave a garrison there while he himself led the army through France, as he had planned and as Bordiu had stated in his letter of 3 September? The French king’s letter, requiring that siege engines be brought up to Rouen, clearly anticipated that Henry would remain there through the winter. Bordiu’s letter stating that Henry intended not to enter Harfleur but to remain in the field, suggests the plan was still to march through France, presumably to Calais. It was a tricky problem. If he remained in Harfleur he would be trapped, and he could expect no mercy from the French king. If he left the town then he would be compromising the security of both the town and the army, for Harfleur itself would require a large contingent of men to defend it, and so many men were ill with dysentery – perhaps as many as two thousand men were incapable of fighting – that he did not have enough men or supplies to stuff the town with defenders. If he wished to march on Rouen as he had announced, he would be taking an enormous risk, marching against the forces of a larger and richer kingdom, with no escape route.

*

John the Fearless had been at Argilly for over a month now. Four days ago, on the 20th, the ambassadors of the French government, led by the duke of Lorraine, had arrived. Their mission was to try to persuade John to send men to help the dauphin in his struggle against the English and, at the same time, to keep John away from Paris. With Paris in a heightened state of anxiety, and experiencing a particular cynicism with regard to the government, the appearance of John the Fearless in the city threatened to cause mayhem, if not an insurrection.

Today the ambassadors were given three letters, one of which had been written by John the Fearless himself. Of course, the duke revelled in the chance to cause more upset in Paris, and saw the slight to himself in the earlier letters as being the perfect excuse to push the dauphin into a corner. John professed his deepest loyalty to the kingdom of France but complained bitterly about the request that he remain at home, and not come to the rescue of France in her hour of need. Was he not the dauphin’s father-in-law? Why had all the other lords of Northern France been summoned and he had not? It was nothing more than an attempt to belittle him, and to undermine his honour, which ‘he valued higher than everything else in the world’. Instead of the paltry five hundred men-at-arms he had been asked to send, he would attend in person with a far larger number, as it was his duty to save the kingdom in its current peril.46

Another of the letters that went back with the duke of Lorraine was written by vassals of John the Fearless on behalf of their lord. They complained that John had not been given command of his own men. This was most unfitting; the men of Burgundy saw their prime loyalty being to the duke of Burgundy, not the king of France. The lords also supported the tenor of the duke’s own letter. How come the dauphin required so few troops? Why had there been such a delay in requesting them from the duke of Burgundy? Why had the duke himself been asked not to fight for the kingdom? Had not the seriousness of the English threat been registered by the government?

For the envoys who had to carry these letters back to the dauphin, the menace of John the Fearless must have seemed as dangerous as that of Henry V. And although the duke’s own letter seemed to suggest he was wholeheartedly on the side of the French, they could not be sure he would not switch at the last moment and side with the English. They could not be certain that he would not simply take his soldiers and ride into Paris, betraying both the king of France and the king of England. The only thing they could be certain of was that no one could trust him.

As it happened, John the Fearless had already started to gather his forces together. He might have spent four days arguing against the king’s order of 1 September to send more troops, but in fact he had issued orders to his marshals on 15 September to start gathering the men required.

Wednesday 25th

The losses to the English army did not end with the fall of Harfleur. In fact it seems likely that the majority of the casualties from the siege died after its capitulation. The end of September saw several prominent men expire. Today, Sir John Chidiock, Lord Fitzpayn, succumbed.47 His is just one of the many names that do not appear noted in the chronicles as casualties of Henry’s campaign; those writing such works had no wish to commemorate anything but the glory of Henry’s victories and the paucity of the English casualties. As a result, many men who gave their lives for Henry were simply ignored. References to their deaths made for uncomfortable reading.

Thursday 26th

As noted several times already, Henry repeatedly followed the pattern of Edward III’s Crécy campaign of 1346. Now he chose to enact another of Edward’s wartime measures: a challenge to a duel. Edward III had first offered to fight a duel with his rival King Philip of France – with the prize being the kingdom of France – in 1340.48 The idea was that the king could parade his courage and his Christian virtues – offering to fight alone to avoid shedding Christian blood – while at the same time being very sure that his rival would not actually meet him in battle. Today he issued a challenge to the dauphin, to be carried to him at Vernon by the English herald William Bruges and Raoul de Gaucourt.49

Henry by the grace of God, king of England and of France, and lord of Ireland, to the high and puissant prince, the dauphin, our cousin, eldest son of the most puissant prince, our cousin and adversary of France. From the reverence of God and to avoid the effusion of human blood we have, in many times and in many ways, sought peace; and although we have not been able to obtain it, our desire to possess it increases more and more. And well considering that the effects of our wars are the deaths of men, destruction of countries, lamentations of women and children, and so many general evils that every good Christian must lament it and have pity, and us especially, whom this matter particularly concerns, we are minded to seek diligently all possible means to avoid the above-mentioned evils, and to acquire the approbation of God and the praise of the world.

Whereas we have considered and reflected that, as it has pleased God to visit our said cousin your father with infirmity, in us and you lies the remedy. And so everyone may know that we do not prevent it, we offer to place our quarrel at the will of God between our person and yours. And if it should appear to you that you cannot accept this offer on account of the interest that you think our said cousin your father has in it, we declare that if you are willing to accept it and to do what we propose, it pleases us to permit that our said cousin shall enjoy that which he has at present for the term of his life, out of reverence for God and considering he [King Charles] is a sacred person, whatever it may please God to see happen between us and you, as it shall be agreed between his council, ours and yours. Thus, if God shall give us the victory, the crown of France with its appurtenances shall be immediately rendered to us as our right, without difficulty, after his decease; and that all the lords and estates of the kingdom of France shall be bound to accept this, as shall be agreed between us. For it is better for us, cousin, to decide this war forever between our two persons than to suffer the unbelievers by means of our quarrels to destroy Christianity, our mother the Holy Church to remain in division, and the people of God to destroy one another …50

Here we see all the familiar arguments: that really all Henry wanted was peace, that he was simply doing God’s will, and that the unification of England and France was desirable in the eyes of God as it would help heal the schism in the Church. Perhaps the most interesting line it contains is the overt statement that Henry sought ‘the approbation of God and the praise of the world’, which seems a neat summing up of what truly motivated him.

Bruges and de Gaucourt were told to inform the dauphin that Henry would wait for eight days at Harfleur for the reply. The implication was that he would not wait much longer than that before leaving. But then where would he go?

*

Sir William Butler of Warrington died today.51 He had been made a Knight of the Bath at Henry IV’s coronation, alongside Henry V’s three brothers. Thus, although he does not figure prominently in this book, he was a man whom the king had known for many years and whose loss would have mattered to him personally. Henry ordered that Sir William’s body should be dismembered and boiled, and sent home in the same ship that was carrying the bones of the earl of Suffolk. There was also the matter of who was going to take charge of his retinue. Butler had led a party of fifty Lancashire archers to Harfleur, in addition to his own retinue of four men-at-arms and twelve archers.52 His death was a strategic blow to Henry, as well as a personal loss.

Friday 27th

Another knight, Sir John Southworth, died today. Coming straight after the deaths of Sir John Chidiock and Sir William Butler, it causes us to ask how many Englishmen were sick at this point? And how many men had actually died or were dying?

When Henry had landed on 14 August, he had had a minimum of 11,248 fighting men, of whom 2,266 were men-at-arms. In addition there were the servants, pages and support staff, resulting in at least 15,000 men with the king, excluding mariners. As shown in Appendix Three, the long-accepted method of assessing the proportion of sick men is based on the assumption that the whole army was equally infected, and all at the highest rate. This has normally been followed by historians in their keenness to justify the long-established figure of just 5,900 Englishmen at Agincourt, with the implication that the magnitude of the victory was as great as English legend and Henry V’s propaganda claims. A less nationalistic and more considered approach – using the lists of those invalided back to England – allows us to establish an accurate minimum of 1,693 for those sent home. Unfortunately these lists are incomplete, and we do not know how many names might be missing. However, as we know the army was divided into three battles – under the command of the king, Clarence and York – we can estimate casualty rates in all three areas where the English army was camped. This gives us a level of infection of about 17% across the whole army. The total number of men sent home was very probably between 1,693 and 2,550, of whom between 1,330 and 1,900 were fighting men, with the greatest concentration among the men situated in close proximity to the king.

As for the number of deaths, there were actually very few deaths at Harfleur. One chronicler, Monstrelet, states that two thousand Englishmen died at Harfleur but it seems that, writing thirty years later, he confused two thousand ‘lost’ (i.e. invalided home) with two thousand dead. A close examination of the surviving accounts shows there is only evidence for thirty-seven English deaths, including those who died from attack as well as disease. Probably fewer than fifty Englishmen perished at Harfleur.

*

Raoul de Gaucourt was given leave to depart today, possibly in the company of William Bruges. But what was Henry to do with the other knights and men of honour who had surrendered at Harfleur?

He decided to release them temporarily, after they had sworn an oath to present themselves at Calais at Martinmas (11 November). There they were to surrender themselves to the king himself or his lieutenant, or a specially appointed deputy. Sixty knights (including de Gaucourt) and more than two hundred other gentlemen were thus released in the expectation that they would voluntarily give themselves up into custody in just over six weeks’ time.53 If a battle had already taken place, he told them, they were simply to pay their ransoms. If no battle had taken place, they were to submit themselves to imprisonment.

*

The people of Paris were in confusion. Some did not believe that Harfleur had yet fallen. Others thought that there must have been some betrayal – that it had been sold to the English. Others said that Henry had already admitted this publicly. And still more were in despair that the royal family was dealing with the war so badly. They bitterly resented the new taxation, and openly sang songs in praise of the duke of Burgundy.54

Around this time a Frenchman called Colin de la Vallée, one of the Burgundian faction who had been exiled from Paris, wrote a letter to his wife telling her to meet him at a certain town on 20 October, and to bring with her twenty crowns, for John the Fearless was planning to be there by that time with a large army. Not having the money, she went to a friend to borrow it. Unfortunately she left the letter with the said friend, who was an Armagnac supporter. In no time at all the streets of Paris were seething with this news about an intended Burgundian rising. The gates were barricaded, and everyone in Paris was preparing for the city to be attacked – not by Henry V but by John the Fearless.

Saturday 28th: the Feast of St Wenceslas

St Wenceslas was the patron saint of Bohemia. At Sternberg today, fifty-four noblemen of ‘the famous marquesdom of Moravia’ in the kingdom of Bohemia put their seals to a savage attack on the council of Constance for the illegal burning of Jan Hus. They refused to accept that Hus had been anything other than a good man, or that the charges against him had been anything but false and malicious. ‘And being thus unmercifully condemned, you have slain him with a most shameful and cruel death, to the perpetual shame and infamy of our kingdom of Bohemia … in reproach and contempt of us.’55

It was a particularly nationalistic letter, but, in reading it, we can see how Hus’s misguided and stubborn but conscientious refusal to conform had unleashed forces that were set to wrench apart the whole of Christendom.

We declare unto your fatherhoods and to all faithful Christians … that any man of whatever estate, pre-eminence, degree, condition or religion who says that in the kingdom of Bohemia heresies have sprung up that have infected us and other faithful Christians … lies falsely upon his head as a wicked traitor and betrayer of the said kingdom …

Henry V and his advisors, and the French king and his, might all have been trying to bring about a Catholic kingship, in which heresy was treason and treason a religious crime as well as a secular one. John the Fearless might have been doing his best to separate the two at Constance, making a clear distinction between treason and heresy. But the Hussites in Bohemia had taken things a stage further, creating a form of nationalist kingship in which one could argue that, if a religious act was popular, and was not treasonable, it was not heresy. Jan Hus’s death was going to have a profound effect on the development of Europe. Today’s letter gives a hint as to why he was already widely regarded as a martyr.

*

Henry’s decision to send the sick back to England was forced upon him. To leave them at Harfleur would have been counter-productive, in respect to both the likelihood of infecting others and their consumption of food and other resources. To take them with him on a march across France would have been impossible. As the sick were returning without their horses and stores, they required relatively few ships – perhaps twenty large vessels sufficed. The ships from Holland had returned to their own country shortly after the landing, and a number of English ships had returned to their ports on 12 September, but enough remained for the task.

The sailing started today. The earl of Arundel was put aboard a vessel with a guard of five healthy men-at-arms and many of his sick followers. One of his men-at-arms died in the process. Other important lords who were carried on board the ships included Thomas, duke of Clarence; Edmund Mortimer, earl of March; and John Mowbray, the Earl Marshal. A significant proportion of the high-ranking lords who had undertaken to come to France had been lost. A total of twelve dukes and earls had mustered at Southampton in July: two earls were now dead (Suffolk and Cambridge) so, with a further three earls and a duke lost to ill-health, Henry had lost half of the original contingent of magnates. Furthermore, Henry had decided to leave his uncle Thomas Beaufort, earl of Dorset, in charge at Harfleur, and to send the earl of Warwick directly to Calais by ship, to defend the town and receive the prisoners.56 At a time when rank meant so much in terms of the structures of command, Henry was running out of leaders. Apart from Beaufort, there were only four members of the pre-campaign royal council with him: his youngest brother, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester; the duke of York; Lord Fitzhugh; and Sir Thomas Erpingham.

Sunday 29th: Michaelmas

In England, the regent John, duke of Bedford, sent out a writ to all the sheriffs, prelates and lords proroguing parliament from 21 October to 4 November.57 He had received a message from Henry, who seems to have expressed a desire to be present at the said parliament. Henry had allowed himself five weeks to make the journey back to Westminster.

What was his strategy at this juncture? He had appointed his uncle Thomas Beaufort lieutenant of Harfleur, so clearly he did not intend to stay there to command personally. This accords with the information about his intended march through Montivilliers, Dieppe, Rouen and Paris, mentioned in Bordiu’s letter of 3 September. It also tallies with his letter to the dauphin challenging him to a duel, which stated that he was going to stay at Harfleur for eight days – implying that he was going to leave shortly afterwards. Clearly he never intended wintering in the town but was planning to march through France. But where was he heading? Rouen and Paris, as Bordiu stated – or Calais?

As we have seen, and as Henry knew, the French army was gathering in Rouen. To attack it would be risking disaster. English longbow armies were most successful when they managed to force an enemy to attack them when they themselves were in a static position; then they cut down the troops charging towards them, using the first fallen ranks as a means to slow up the ranks behind while they shot at them. Henry might have gone looking for a fight, and tried to attract the French to attack him near Rouen but, had he done so, he would have had no escape plan, being too deep within Normandy. If the French failed to be drawn into the attack, they could slowly strangle his army by withholding supplies – besieging the English in the field, as it were. And they could call up more and more men; Henry could not call up reinforcements. Thus there was a good strategic reason why he was not intending to head to Rouen. This part of Bordiu’s letter was probably deliberate misinformation, in case it fell into French hands. By the time it arrived in Bordeaux, it would not have mattered what it said about Henry’s strategy.

Calais, on the other hand, did offer an escape route, for it was a port. Henry had been fortifying and provisioning the town all year for this very reason. For his troops to embark anywhere else, he would have needed to arrange for a fleet to go to that place, and wait there in fear of being attacked. He would then have to lead his men to the waiting ships, and make sure that they all embarked without being attacked by a following French army. Disembarking had taken three whole days before; it was a risky operation. Thus Calais was his only realistic option – it was his only safe port of embarkation. All the English-held alternatives were in Gascony, hundreds of miles to the south. In addition de Gaucourt, d’Estouteville and the other French prisoners from Harfleur had been instructed to make their way to Calais, and to surrender there to Henry in person or, if he was not there – if he had already departed for England, for example – then a specially appointed deputy. This deputy would have had to be someone of high status, probably the earl of Warwick (the lieutenant of Calais), who was sent directly there by ship.58 There is no doubt that Henry was sticking steadfastly to the plan to march to Calais that he had developed many months earlier.

Although it seems clear that marching to Calais was, and always had been, his intended strategy, we have to ask whether this destination was chosen in order to attract the attention of the French army gathering at Rouen. In short, did he intend to do battle? Answering this question is a developmental process. As Henry proceeded towards Calais, he could have expected his circumstances to change. So it is worth attempting to answer this difficult question at various stages, including the outset, to see whether the answer changed as the march altered course and ran into difficulties.

The answer at this initial juncture is yes. He did intend to fight the French. There are several reasons for this conclusion. First, Henry wanted a battle because his religious outlook demanded it. He had come to France to put God’s will to the test, and that could only properly be done by a conflict in which he might lose his life. Second, he had come with an army that was too large for just a siege; it was an army designed to fight a pitched battle. Although he had lost many men, he still had the majority, and so could stick to his original plan. Third, he was determined to follow a path previously trodden by Edward III’s army to Blanchetaque, a point at which the River Somme could be forded. Edward III’s march, which culminated in the battle of Crécy, had been chosen specifically to encourage the French to attack the English in Ponthieu. Henry, having sent Raoul de Gaucourt with William Bruges to deliver the challenge to the dauphin, knew that the dauphin would have learnt from de Gaucourt that the English were marching to Calais. He had even told him roughly the time he was going to depart – after eight days. Telling all 260 gentlemen prisoners to meet him in Calais was similarly a guarantee that the French would know where he was going. He was thus encouraging the French to come after him and attack him. In his instructions to the 260 prisoners he even referred overtly to the likelihood of a battle. Thus he was not just following Edward III’s route, he was adopting similar tactics.59

A fourth reason can be seen in the personal nature of Henry’s decision to march to Calais. It is clear from several sources that the majority of the leaders still with the army at this point were strongly opposed to the idea of the march precisely because a battle would be too dangerous. One source claims that even the warlike duke of Clarence was in favour of bringing the campaign to an end – a division with Henry that perhaps led to his departure from the English army as much as his suffering from dysentery.60 Leaving this aside, another well-informed chronicler, writing some time after 1446, stated that ‘the majority of the councillors were of the opinion that a decision should be made not to march on’, due to the shortage of fighting men following the ravages of dysentery.61 The author of the Gesta wrote very much the same thing:

although a large majority of the royal council advised against such a proposal as it would be highly dangerous for him in this way to send his small force, daily growing smaller, against the multitude of the French which, constantly growing larger, would surely enclose them on every side like sheep in folds, our king – relying on divine grace and the justice of his cause, piously reflecting that victory consists not in a multitude but with Him … who bestows victory upon whom He wills, whether they be many or few – with God affording him His leadership, as it is believed, did nevertheless decide to make that march.62

The later source gives a similar justification for the decision, stating that Henry said ‘he would rather throw himself and his men on the mercy of God in determining the outcome of events, not shirking the dangers, than offer himself to the enemy as grounds for elevating their pride, diminishing the reputation of his honour by flight’.63 From these accounts it is clear that Henry went against the consensus and took what his councillors considered to be a great gamble – deliberately risking a battle. This contrasts with his considerable aversion to taking any risks in the course of landing in August. What made him switch from being so risk-averse then to being so risk-taking now? It can only have been a defiance of the very risk that so worried his council – a chance to do battle. Thus his decision to march to Calais was not just a testing of God’s will, and it was not just a strategic calculation based on Edward III’s success in 1346, it was also a matter of pride.

The above motivations – religious fanaticism, a confident strategy based on a historical precedent, and pride – are not particularly edifying. Looking at Henry at the end of September, one would hardly call him a great man. He had obtained one small town – a key target – but had destroyed it in the process. He had lost a good proportion of his fighting force and left the remainder perilously situated in a hostile kingdom with a large army gathering in the field. As far as any reckoning of God’s judgment went at the moment, his cause had been cast into doubt by the death of Bishop Courtenay and the sicknesses of his brother and heir, Thomas, and his great friend, the earl of Arundel. The dissent revealed by the earl of Cambridge’s plot had not added to his glory, nor had the continued activities of the Lollards. Yet it was at this moment that he stepped out from the clouds of fallibility and made the decision that made him, and changed him, and altered the balance of European politics in England’s favour. Through it he set himself on the path ‘to acquire the approbation of God and the praise of the world’. If Henry had shown any sign of greatness up until this point, it was as an organiser and a man convinced of his own infallibility, arranging for the circumstances of this march to be as promising as possible. But in going against the council’s decision now he showed that he was far more than just an organiser and a facilitator. It must have taken complete determination – after all the delays, and after losing so many men to dysentery – to give the order to march on. And in so doing he took on all the responsibility, and all the danger. He knew that he was himself a far greater prize than the ruins of Harfleur – he knew the French would think they could retake the town any time and so they were bound to come after him. Then Henry and his army would lead the enemy away from the near-defenceless Harfleur, like a lioness leading a predator away from her cubs.

At this moment in time, we can see Henry V throwing everything behind his faith. This is the moment when, having mapped out a path to greatness, he actually set foot on it. Like Jan Hus, he was prepared to die in pursuit of what he believed he had to do. Historians have sometimes called this ‘the madness of unreasoning pietism’; but they forget that, if a man truly believes God is on his side, no reasoning is necessary – or even possible. For him, God really is on his side, and it would be madness to pretend otherwise.

That is what is so frightening about Henry V at the end of September 1415.

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