A New King of France

On the same day that the battle of Patay was lost the council in England granted Cardinal Beaufort permission to recruit 500 men-at-arms and 2500 archers. The councillors were so out of touch with the pace of events in France that this was not a belated response to Bedford’s repeated requests for aid, but a new initiative to raise an army for the cardinal to lead on a crusade against the Hussite heretics of Bohemia.1

As a result troops were already assembling at the southern ports when news of Patay arrived, and Beaufort was faced with the unenviable choice of betraying either his papal commission or his family and country. Dynastic loyalty proving stronger, he agreed to divert his army to France, thereby forfeiting papal favour and with it any chance of taking the place on the world stage he had schemed and worked so long to achieve. The council agreed to take over financial responsibility for the army, which was mobilised so swiftly that, on 25 July 1429, just five weeks after Patay, it marched into Paris with the cardinal at its head.2

Galvanised by the successes of his army, and goaded by Jehanne, the dauphin had finally been persuaded to take to the field in person. Though some of his advisers had argued for a strike into Normandy, Jehanne’s determination to go to Reims overrode all their objections. The dauphin issued the usual summons to all the nobility and major towns to attend his coronation ‘on pain of forfeiture of body and goods’ while the Pucelle ordered all ‘good and loyal Frenchmen . . . to be ready to come to the consecration of the gentle King Charles at Reims, where we shall shortly be; and come before us when you hear that we are approaching’.3

The march to Reims turned into something of a triumphal progress. With no hope of a relieving army coming to their rescue, terrified of Armagnac reprisals and mesmerised by the Pucelle’s reputation, the Burgundian towns needed little persuasion to make their submission. Only Troyes, where the treaty laying the foundations of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance had been signed in 1420, made a half-hearted attempt at resistance. As the enemy approached, the townsmen sent a Franciscan friar to meet Jehanne, ‘saying that they questioned whether [she] was not a thing sent from God’. Brother Richard had recently been expelled from the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris for preaching that the Antichrist had been born, the end of the world was at hand and that the year 1430 ‘would see the greatest wonders that had ever happened’. His five- and six-hour sermons had daily attracted a crowd of six thousand in Paris, whipping up a frenzy of weeping and penitence, but their potentially subversive nature had resulted in his expulsion by the city authorities. Now, as he approached Jehanne, he made the sign of the cross and sprinkled holy water, fearing that she was the devil incarnate. He was soon won over to the extent that he attached himself to her entourage and followed her in the months to come.4

On 16 July 1429 the dauphin was welcomed into the city of Reims. The Burgundian garrison had withdrawn, the townsmen had opened the gates and the crowds lined the streets to greet him with cries of ‘Noël!’ The next day he made his way to the cathedral of Notre Dame, where he was knighted by the duke of Alençon and crowned Charles VII, king of France, by Regnault de Chartres, archbishop of Reims and chancellor of France. He was unable to wear the traditional coronation regalia, including the crown, because they were in English hands at the abbey of Saint-Denis, near Paris. He was, however, anointed with the holy oil which, according to legend, an angel in the form of a dove had brought to Saint-Rémi so that he could baptise Clovis: the phial containing the oil was preserved in the abbey of Saint-Rémi at Reims. The significance of the anointing was that it was a holy sacrament of the church, literally making the king God’s anointed, and conferring the ability to cure scrofula. Only a few days later Charles would publicly demonstrate his new status by making the customary pilgrimage to Saint-Marcoul-de-Corbény to touch for the king’s evil, as it was popularly known.5

Jehanne and her precious standard were accorded a place of honour at the altar in the cathedral among the nobles of church and state, the royal captains, councillors and officials who witnessed the coronation. When she was asked at her trial why her standard had been preferred above those of the other captains, she replied, ‘It had borne the burden, it was quite right that it receive the honour.’ Not all of the twelve lay and ecclesiastical peers customarily summoned to attend were present, the most notable absentee being the duke of Burgundy. Also absent was Arthur de Richemont, who as constable of France should have played an important role in the ceremony, but, despite his role at Patay, his banishment had not yet been revoked and he was excluded on the new king’s orders. Two people were present who could never have imagined that they would ever attend the coronation of ‘the most Christian king’. The Reims account books reveal that the Pucelle’s parents were there and that they were provided with accommodation in an inn at the city’s expense. What they made of their daughter’s triumph can only be guessed.6

The coronation was an emotional moment for all those who had fought for almost a decade to overturn the Treaty of Troyes: the disinherited heir had reclaimed his birthright, increasing the pressure on those whose loyalties were ambivalent to acknowledge him as their duly crowned king. For the followers of Jehanne it proved that her mission was divinely inspired: she had done the impossible and fulfilled her second mission. Now they all looked to her to achieve the third: to drive the English out of France.

On the very day of the coronation Jehanne dictated a letter to the duke of Burgundy reproaching him for not responding to her summons to attend the ceremony and urging him to make ‘a firm and lasting peace’ with Charles VII:

Prince of Burgundy, I pray, beg, and very humbly request, rather than demand, that you no longer wage war on the holy kingdom of France, and swiftly and in a short time withdraw your people who are in some places and fortresses in this holy kingdom . . . And I would have you know . . . that you will not win any battle against loyal Frenchmen, and that all those who wage war against the holy kingdom of France, wage war against King Jesus, King of Heaven and of all the world.7

This was a change from the usual belligerent tone of Jehanne’s letters and it reflected the fact that, far from taking advantage of the momentum she had created to launch an attack, Charles and his advisers had decided to use the coronation to make another attempt to detach the duke of Burgundy from his English alliance. They have been almost universally criticised for this, by both contemporaries and historians, who condemn the negotiations as signs of indecision and weakness on Charles’s part, treachery on that of Georges de la Trémoïlle (whose brother, Jean, was the duke’s chamberlain and councillor) and ultimately a betrayal of the Pucelle. Viewed objectively, however, the unpalatable fact is that a final peace could not be achieved unless and until Burgundy changed allegiance. And the coronation, following so quickly on the military successes in the Loire valley, was as good a point as any to offer Burgundy the olive branch.

No one was more aware of this than Bedford. On Sunday 10 July 1429, in a carefully choreographed show of unity, Philippe of Burgundy was formally welcomed into Paris and treated to a general procession and a sermon at Notre Dame. Later he was escorted to the palais, where the leading citizens and royal officers had gathered in force, to hear the reading out of a ‘charter or letter’ which recounted in detail how the duke’s father, ‘desiring and longing for this kingdom’s pacification’, had humbled himself to go to Montereau ‘and there on his knees before the dauphin he was treacherously murdered as all men know’. The reading had the desired effect: ‘there was a great uproar and some who had been closely allied to the Armagnacs began instead to hate and detest them.’ In the face of the supernatural hysteria surrounding the Pucelle, it was a sober and timely reminder of the earthly origins of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance. Whether Burgundy was a party to the reading, or had it sprung upon him by Bedford, he had no choice but to endorse the message. Similarly, when both dukes then called for a show of hands from all who would be loyal and true to them, the outcome was entirely predictable.8

Bedford did not rely solely on propaganda to bolster his position: he also immediately ordered Burgundy to be paid 20,000l.t. (£1.17m) from the revenues of Normandy to raise troops in Burgundy, Picardy and Flanders. (The treasury auditors, relying on protocol rather than responding to the crisis, initially refused to approve the payment on the grounds that the Burgundian troops could not be mustered and reviewed to prove that the money had been properly spent. Bedford had to force it through and pawn his own jewels as security for further payments.)9

Bedford had also made extensive military preparations of his own. In Normandy the siege of Mont-Saint-Michel was suspended and the soldiers returned to their garrisons. Pontorson, where the captured lord Scales had been captain, was demolished and its defenders reallocated to Avranches and Tombelaine. Financial measures were also taken to provide for the payment of soldiers’ wages and extra security for castles and the port of Harfleur. Throughout lower Normandy the baill-is were ordered to recruit and muster reinforcements for each garrison, the necessary numbers and ratios of men-at-arms to archers being determined by the king’s council in the duchy.10

In Paris a strict twenty-four-hour watch was enforced, the walls were strengthened and the ditches outside them were cleared of the rubbish that always accumulated in peacetime. Wooden barriers were erected inside and outside the city and the armoury at the Bastille was plundered for weapons. Large numbers of cannon and other artillery were mounted on the walls and one contractor alone supplied 1176 gun-stones for those on the gates. The defence of the city was committed to the sire de l’Isle-Adam, who had enjoyed enormous popular support in Paris since leading the Burgundian coup in 1418: in an important gesture of solidarity, he was appointed captain of Paris jointly by Bedford and Burgundy.11

The great frustration for Bedford was that he had realised the threat posed by the Pucelle almost as soon as she appeared on the scene, in particular her boast that she would take the dauphin to Reims for his coronation, which had drawn attention to the fact that his seven-year-old nephew was also as yet uncrowned and therefore unconsecrated. When Bedford wrote to the English council in April 1429 requesting reinforcements, he had also urged that Henry should be crowned and sent to France as soon as possible: a second coronation could then take place at Reims so that all the French nobility would be obliged to give their homage and fealty to the new king in person, binding them more closely to the English regime.12

On 16 July, the day the dauphin entered Reims, Bedford dispatched Garter king-of-arms to London with specific instructions to inform the council that the dauphin was in the field, that several places had fallen to him without a fight and that he was expected to arrive in Reims that very day, where the inhabitants would open the gates to him and he would be crowned. His coronation would, Bedford predicted, be followed by an assault on Paris. Once again Bedford pleaded that his nephew should be crowned and sent to France ‘in all possible haste’ with another army.13

As town after town offered up its keys to Charles VII – Soissons, Laon, Senlis, Compiègne, Beauvais – the Armagnacs were gradually building up a semicircle of fortified towns on the eastern side of Paris, causing panic in the city. It was Bedford’s decisive action that saved the day. On 25 August he returned to Paris from Normandy, where he had been gathering his forces; with him rode Cardinal Beaufort and the 2500 Englishmen who had been diverted from the Hussite crusade, and l’Isle-Adam, with seven hundred Picards recruited by Burgundy with English money.14

A few days later Bedford took to the field, protecting Paris by circling round and keeping his army between the city and the advancing Armagnacs. On 7 August he was at Montereau-sur-Yonne and seized the opportunity to issue a challenge to ‘Charles of Valois, who are accustomed to name yourself dauphin of Vienne, and now without cause entitle yourself king’. Since this was not just a personal invitation to choose a site for battle but a public exercise in propaganda which would be circulated round Europe, he sought to reclaim the moral high ground which Charles, with Jehanne at his side, had so effectively usurped.

The murder of Jean, duke of Burgundy, was committed ‘through your fault and connivance’, Bedford informed Charles. ‘Because of the peace that you broke, violated and betrayed’ all Frenchmen had been ‘absolved and acquitted from all oaths of fealty and of subjection, as your letters patent, signed in your hand and by your seal, can clearly reveal’. Charles’s treachery and duplicity were self-evident in his current campaign:

. . . leading the simple people to believe that you are coming to give them peace and security, which is not the fact, nor can it be done by the means that you have pursued and are now following. And you are seducing and abusing ignorant people, and you are aided by superstitious and damnable persons, such as a woman of disorderly and infamous life, dressed in man’s clothes, and of immoral conduct, together with an apostate and seditious mendicant friar, as we have been informed. Both of them are, according to holy scripture, abominable to God.15

For all his righteous appeal to the judgement of God in battle, Bedford was not prepared to risk everything on a single engagement. There were several skirmishes between outlying forces but the nearest they came to a pitched battle was on 15 August, when the two armies met at Montépilloy, five miles east of Senlis. Bedford had seen the Armagnac army approaching and placed his men in a strong defensive position between it and Senlis, with the river to their rear. Both sides expected battle the next day but overnight the English dug themselves in, surrounding their camp with stakes and ditches and setting their carts and wagons along their front. Alençon drew up his battle lines and Jehanne, who was in the van with her standard, tried to provoke the English into combat by offering to withdraw until they could put themselves into battle order. They resisted the temptation and, since their position was too strong to attack, there was stalemate. After a stand-off that lasted all day, both sides withdrew, with only some desultory skirmishing to show for their encounter.16

After Senlis and Beauvais made their submissions to Charles VII, Jehanne and the hawks among his councillors argued for an attack on Paris itself. Charles, however, was reluctant, possibly because he feared overreaching himself but certainly, at least in part, because he still hoped to persuade Burgundy to join him. The day after Montépilloy, Regnault de Chartres and Raoul de Gaucourt were received at Arras, charged with offering the duke spiritual reparation and financial compensation for the murder of his father, territorial concessions and the promise that the duke would not have to pay personal homage to Charles for all the lands he held in France.

These were generous terms for a peace between them, especially as most of the towns taken in the current campaign were Burgundian, but neither carrot nor stick was enough to persuade the duke to change alliance. Philippe still demanded that Charles should formally apologise for the murder and hand over the murderers, both of which he refused to do. Nevertheless, the negotiations did achieve an important step forward: a four-month truce covering all territory north of the Seine between Honfleur at the river mouth and Nogent-sur-Seine to the east of Paris. Although it excluded all towns on the Seine, and specifically Paris, it protected Normandy from attack and left the door open for further concessions.17

Though not in the main arena of war, Normandy was also in turmoil, necessitating Bedford’s immediate return. An Armagnac army had laid siege to Évreux, forcing it to agree to surrender on 27 August unless relieved in the meantime. Bedford hastily threw together what men he could spare, including the marines from his warship on the Seine, and, leaving Paris under l’Isle-Adam’s command, dashed across country to Évreux, arriving on the very day it was due to surrender. This Herculean effort saved the town, allowing Bedford to withdraw to Vernon, which lay halfway between the capital and Rouen. From this point he was well placed to return to Paris, if need be, but also to deal with the problems in the duchy.18

The Cotentin peninsula had always had a high incidence of highway robberies and numerous brigands operated in the woods. The previous year major efforts had been made to improve the safety of travellers by clearing the trees and shrubs, which provided cover for robbers, from either side of the main road between Carentan and Saint-Lô. The road was still so dangerous that in August 1429 a pair of messengers had to be sent between the two towns because no one could be found who was willing to travel alone.19

The flat, heavily wooded terrain also lent itself to covert operations by soldiers from Mont-Saint-Michel, which had recently become more frequent because the English had not been able to renew the siege and were preoccupied elsewhere. Detachments from the garrison had raided deep into the Cotentin. Saint-Lô had been attacked several times and as its captain, the earl of Suffolk, was still an enemy prisoner, Bedford appointed in his stead a Norman lord, Raoul Tesson, with an extra company of forty archers or crossbowmen, to improve its defences.20

More sinister was a carefully planned raid in August 1429 in which two groups of Armagnac soldiers joined forces to launch a night attack on Carentan. They set fire to the lodgings of the gatekeepers, killed some of the guards and escaped with a large amount of booty. This might be dismissed as simple opportunism, except for the fact that in the same month Jean Burnel, the Norman vicomte of Carentan, was pardoned for a compromising correspondence with a member of the garrison of Mont-Saint-Michel. Burnel had accepted a safe-conduct from the garrison captain, but for fear of this coming to the knowledge of the English, he had requested that it should be kept at Mont-Saint-Michel until he sent for it, and he referred to it by a code name in his letters. Although the pardon does not detail the content of the correspondence, the implication has to be that Burnel was required to earn his safe-conduct, perhaps by betraying Carentan. That was certainly how the bailli interpreted it, arresting and imprisoning Burnel, and his lieutenant at Saint-Lô, and confiscating all their lands and goods.21

Plots to deliver towns to the Armagnacs were on the increase in this period, no doubt inspired by the Pucelle’s victories and Charles VII’s coronation. Again the proximity of Mont-Saint-Michel seems to have been a factor. An attempt to take Vire that year failed, though a man from Domfront, who had sold the town and castle to the enemy, advising where they could enter at night, was captured and executed. In the best tradition of medieval romance it was a wandering minstrel, Phélippot le Cat, who, inspired by ballads of the Pucelle which were already in circulation, plotted to deliver Cherbourg to the garrison of Mont-Saint-Michel and was beheaded for his pains on the day of Charles VII’s coronation. In upper Normandy successful plots by their inhabitants resulted in both Étrépagny and Torcy falling into Armagnac hands.22

August seems to have been a significant month, for Ambroise de Loré was then apparently in touch with traitors in Rouen, though plans to take the town fell through. At the same time a group of wealthy conspirators in Louviers fled when their plot was discovered: they escaped with their lives, but their property and goods were seized and distributed to loyalists. In a bizarre twist to this story the captain of Louviers, Guillotin de Lansac, and some of his men were in Rouen to receive the garrison’s overdue wages when ‘certain news’ arrived that the enemy was preparing to take Louviers ‘by treason, assault or otherwise’. Lansac refused to leave until the wages were paid, and the treasurer despairingly noted in his accounts that he scraped together an advance of 80l.t. (£4667) ‘because it was necessary that he should return in all haste’. An agreement signed at the end of the month arranged for Lansac to be paid the additional wages due to him for the reinforcements placed at Louviers out of the receipts from the forfeitures of the conspirators. Despite the failure of this plot, Louviers remained in English hands only until December 1429, when it was surprised and taken by La Hire.23

The greatest threat, however, was to Paris, the capital of the English kingdom of France. On 26 August Alençon and Jehanne had captured Saint-Denis, to the north of the city, with such ease that its townsmen would later be heavily fined for their failure to resist. With Saint-Denis as their base, they had raided right up to the gates of Paris, though Charles VII, mindful of the possibility of alliance with Burgundy, had distanced himself, quite literally, from their actions.24

Bedford responded to this crisis by issuing a general call to arms for the relief of Paris, backing it up with an extraordinary personal plea to his officers which, unusually, was written in English:

We pray you heartily and also charge and command you straitly, upon pain of all that you may forfeit . . . that you come unto us in all haste possible . . . And do not fail in this, as you love the preservation of this land, and as you will answer to my lord and us for it in time coming. And know for certain that it never lay in our power, since we had the regency of France, so well as it does now, both of lordships, lands and other, to reward men. The which thing we promise you faithfully to do generously to all that come to us at this time.25

Before the army had time to gather, the Pucelle launched her assault on Paris. She chose to do so on 8 September, the church festival celebrating the birth of the Virgin Mary. She had ‘summoned’ Gilles de Rais and Raoul de Gaucourt to her assistance and together they made a concerted attack on the Saint-Honoré gate.

Jehanne, as always, was in the forefront of the action. The citizen of Paris, who was probably a priest, gave a graphic description in his journal of this ‘creature in the form of a woman, whom they called the Maid – what it was, God only knows’ standing on the edge of the moat with her standard. ‘Surrender to us quickly, in Jesus’ name!’ she shouted to the Parisians: ‘if you don’t surrender before nightfall we shall come in by force whether you like it or not and you will all be killed.’ ‘Shall we, you bloody tart?’ a crossbowman responded and shot her through the leg. Another crossbowman shot her standard-bearer through the foot and, when he lifted his visor so that he could see to take the bolt out, he was shot between the eyes and killed.

A constant bombardment from the Parisian walls kept the attackers at bay and a hoped-for revolt within the city did not take place. It was not until ten or eleven o’clock at night that the assault ceased. Gaucourt, recognising that the day was lost, went out under cover of darkness to rescue Jehanne from the ditch where she had lain for hours, immobilised but her spirit untamed, as she urged her men on; ignoring her protestations, he carried her off to safety. The next day, though she and Alençon were desperate to resume the assault, they were forbidden to do so and ordered back to join their king at Saint-Denis. A day later men were sent under safe-conduct to collect their dead and the herald who came with them stated on oath to the captain of Paris that they had suffered at least fifteen hundred casualties, of which a good five hundred or more were dead or mortally wounded.26

The failure to take Paris marked the end of Charles VII’s coronation campaign. He had probably realised that such an attempt was futile and he had no wish to break the fragile bridges he had built with Burgundy. He therefore retreated to the kingdom of Bourges and on 21 September 1429 he ordered his army to disband. More importantly, the failure to take Paris both sowed the first seeds of doubt about the Pucelle’s invincibility among her supporters and endangered her position as the messianic heroine who would save France. She had served her purpose but she had already fatally demonstrated that she was not only fallible but unpredictable and uncontrollable: her future role was already in question.27

Alençon may have wanted her to accompany him on a campaign to recover his lost duchy of Anjou but Charles’s councillors, fearful of her influence over him, were now anxious to keep them apart. They wanted to keep Jehanne occupied but their options were limited by the truces with Burgundy. In the county of Nevers, however, there were several royal enclaves controlled by a mercenary captain, Perrinet Gressart, who was in the happy position of receiving wages from both Burgundy and Bedford. Since the latter paid more promptly and in full, Gressart was more inclined to obey English orders than Burgundian, though he was not above playing them off against each other when it suited him. The only two fixed principles to which he adhered were his hatred of the Armagnacs and, more importantly, his determination to keep La Charité-sur-Loire, which he had captured by surprise at Christmas 1423 and regarded as his personal fiefdom. Dominated by a vast stone abbey built by the Cluniacs in 1059, and surrounded by heavily fortified walls, La Charité was just thirty miles from Bourges and controlled a major bridge over the Loire.

Gressart had long been a thorn in the flesh of the Armagnacs, raiding deep into their territory to pillage and levy appâtis, ignoring truces and waging war for his personal gain rather than any political cause. He had even had the audacity to blockade Charles VII at Bourges and to take prisoner an Armagnac embassy, led by his bitterest enemy, Georges de la Trémoïlle, whom he had terrified by threatening to hand him over to the English, thus securing a princely ransom of 14,000 écus (£1.02m).28

Since Gressart’s fortresses could be considered English, they were not covered by the truces between the Armagnacs and Burgundians and were therefore a legitimate target for attack. La Trémoïlle’s half-brother, Charles d’Albret, was appointed lieutenant-general for this campaign and the Pucelle was dispatched to aid him. They began well enough, with a siege followed by an all-out assault which won Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier, an outpost thirty miles south of La Charité held by Gressart’s nephew, François de Surienne.

At the end of November 1429 they laid siege to La Charité itself. Despite Jehanne’s presence, like so many before and after them, they would find the place impregnable. They attempted an assault but it was repelled. Struggling in the depths of winter, having to beg gunpowder, saltpetre, sulphur, arrows, heavy crossbows and other military supplies from neighbouring towns, and running out of money and food, they were only able to maintain the siege for a month. Just before Christmas they withdrew, ‘shamefully’ abandoning their huge cannon, known as bombards, which the resourceful Gressart promptly acquired. The reason why they were left behind is indicated by the fact that when Gressart made a present to the duke of Burgundy of one of them, ‘the Shepherdess’, a bombard from Orléans named after the Pucelle which she had also used at Jargeau, it had to be dismantled into two pieces. Even then it required a team of seven horses to pull one and twenty-nine the other, and the bridges and roads had to be strengthened as they passed. Such logistical demands could not be fulfilled when breaking up a siege.29

The mercenary had successfully seen off the Pucelle, whose reputation was further tarnished by this failure. Her king was not ungrateful for what she had achieved. In December 1429, for instance, he raised her to the ranks of the nobility and, in a unique homage to her sex, the grant was made hereditary in either the male or female lines. Nevertheless, for the next few months she would remain at Charles’s court, excluded from his councils and possibly even his presence. Unemployed and increasingly sidelined, she chafed at her inability to return to her mission. Since her king would not allow her to fight against the English, she toyed with the idea of leading a crusade against the Hussite heretics of Bohemia. ‘Like the Saracens you have blighted the true religion and worship’, she wrote to them on 23 March 1430:

What rage or madness consumes you? . . . As far as I am concerned, to tell you frankly, if I was not occupied with these English wars, I would have come to see you a long time ago. But if I do not learn that you have reformed yourselves, I might leave the English and set off against you, so that, by the sword if I cannot do it any other way, I may eliminate your mad and obscene superstition and remove either your heresy or your lives.30

It was all mere bombast. She no longer had either the means or the moral authority to make good her threats. Her usefulness was apparently at an end.

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