Disorder and Defeat

Despite the pessimism in England, the war in France was going through one of its more successful phases. Having captured Creil on 20 June 1434 and installed an English garrison, Talbot advanced eight miles further up the Oise valley to besiege Xaintrailles’s nephew, Guillon de Ferrières, at Pont-Sainte-Maxence. Ferrières put up only a token resistance, surrendering after a few days, so Talbot moved on to clear up the remaining Armagnac fortresses in the vicinity, including Crépyen-Valois, which had to be taken by assault, and Clermont, where yet another member of La Hire’s family, his half-brother, the Bastard of Vignolles, had established himself. Talbot ended his campaign with a final flourish by flaunting his victorious army before the walls of Beauvais, but prudently withdrew without laying siege to this powerful Armagnac stronghold. Talbot’s actions had cleared the Armagnac garrisons from the area north of Paris and, in recognition of this, Bedford created him count of Clermont on 24 August.1

Arundel was also in the field that summer, capturing fortresses in the Mantes and Chartres regions to the west and south-west of Paris while lord Willoughby and a force of some five hundred English were assisting Jehan de Luxembourg in Picardy, among other places recapturing Saint-Valery for a second time, it having fallen to the Armagnacs through lack of an effective night-watch In June lord Scales, who was then captain of Domfront, launched an assault on Mont-Saint-Michel; the garrison drove them off, wounding Scales in the process, but this was just a preliminary skirmish before the siege began in earnest. Yet another bastille was built, this time at Saint-Jean-le-Thomas, between the existing bastilles of Granville and Genêts on the coast across the bay. Together with the garrisons at the bastilles of Ardevon (eighty men-at-arms and 240 archers) and Tombelaine (twentysix men-at-arms and seventy-eight archers) this represented a massive investment of money and men in the siege.2

Yet even the existing garrisons were finding it difficult to retain men. When Makyn of Langworth, the lieutenant of Tombelaine, gave his receipt for his garrison’s wages on 14 December 1433, he noted that 12l. 11s.t. (£732) had been deducted by the treasurer for men who were absent from the monthly musters and a further 150l.t. (£8750) for ten archers ‘who are of nations which, according to his contract, ought not to receive wages’. This meant that Langworth had recruited archers who were not English, Welsh, Irish or Gascon, indicating that he had had difficulty fulfilling his quotas from those nations. (The nationality of another archer called Pleuron was unclear, though his wages were paid ‘because he is said to be English’.)3

The non-payment of wages became a real issue as the siege of Mont-Saint-Michel dragged on. In July William Cresswell and three other Englishmen, who were among the extra one hundred men-at-arms and three hundred archers stationed by lord Scales at Ardevon, deserted because they had run out of money on which to live. They made their way to the Saint-Lô area, where they committed a number of petty thefts and extortions, though, if Cresswell’s pardon is to be believed, they took only as much money as they needed and when one of them robbed a countryman of his shoes he replaced them with his own, which were not as good. Eventually they were seized by the local people and taken before the vicomte of Coutances, who threw them all into prison. Perhaps recognising that this was a case of genuine necessity rather than wilful crime, Cresswell obtained his pardon on 19 August 1434 and was released. The authorities were certainly aware that wages were not being paid and the following month ordered the levying of local taxes which would enable the Ardevon garrison to be paid in full and for three months in advance.4

Cresswell and his friends were only a very minor manifestation of a problem that was spiralling out of control. There had always been problems with renegade soldiers, usually deserters from the expeditionary armies sent over from England, who found it easier and more profitable to prey on the civilian population living in the countryside than to serve in the field or in garrison. As early as October 1422, within weeks of Henry V’s death, Bedford had stamped his authority on such men by ordering all soldiers to attach themselves to a captain and forbidding them from pillaging, extorting or imprisoning civilians. On 1 August 1424 he ordered his officers in the Cotentin to stop deserters taking ship for England and to arrest all those living on the land or committing pillage, robbery or extortion. Similar orders were issued in May and August 1429 and again in May, June and December 1430.5

Individuals could be dealt with in this way, but the problems escalated when deserters banded together and, in imitation of Armagnac captains like La Hire, Xaintrailles and Loré, made their living by levying appâtis, taking hostages for ransom and seizing goods without payment. In July 1428 two hundred Welsh and Irish freebooters were apparently operating in the region of the river Touques and troops had to be commissioned to suppress them. Nine members of another Welsh band preying on the countryside round Valognes were arrested and imprisoned in June 1433.6

The summer of 1434, however, saw probably the largest company acting independently within the English kingdom. It was led by Richard Venables, a man-at-arms who had come to France in the earl of Salisbury’s expeditionary army of 1428 with a retinue of three men-at-arms and twelve archers. Perhaps having withdrawn from the siege of Mont-Saint-Michel, which was not far away, he set up his headquarters at the twelfthcentury fortified abbey of Savigny-le-Vieux, which lay on the disputed Norman-Breton border, halfway between Saint-Jamesde-Beuvron and Domfront. Within a short time, it was said, he had attracted up to twelve hundred men to his standard and for four months he waged a successful private war against the Armagnacs in the area.

The sires de Loré, Lohéac and Laval therefore decided to make a concerted attempt to destroy him. They attacked Savignyle-Vieux at dawn, killing and capturing two hundred of his men, but the remainder put up such a spirited resistance that after four hours they withdrew to Fougères. A short time afterwards, learning that Venables’s men had left the security of the abbey and were out in the field, Loré and Lohéac ambushed them and, though their leader escaped, he was said to have lost some three hundred of his band.7

Ironically, it was not the enemy which ended Venables’s career but his own side. His depredations against the local Norman population had brought an avalanche of complaints to the English authorities. Bedford had always been a stickler for discipline and he attached huge importance to the suppression of this illegal and oppressive operation. Instead of relying on local officials he sent the king’s secretary, Jean de Rinel, and other royal officers from Rouen on 3 September to apprehend Venables and disperse his men. The English esquire, Thomas Turyngham, who captured Venables, was given not the customary bounty of 6l.t. (£350) but 1000 saluts (£80,208) ‘as recompense for his great labour, travail and great diligence’.

Though Venables may have hoped that his unauthorised military actions against the Armagnacs would count in his favour, he was tried, sentenced and beheaded as a thief and a traitor. This exemplary punishment of one of their own by the English authorities was incomprehensible to the Armagnacs, who put it down to ‘envy, because they saw that he was a great entrepreneur in the conduct of the war’. Venables’s men were apparently pardoned on condition that they return home, as Norman captains were warned the following January that four hundred of them were on their way to the coast and they were not to be permitted to enter any town on the way there.8

Venables was operating illegally as a freelance captain but similar crimes against the local population were being committed by members of established garrisons. On 2 August 1434 probably the most shameful episode in the entire history of the English kingdom of France occurred when soldiers in English employment and pay massacred a large number of Normans at Vicques, a village between two English garrisons, Falaise, eight miles to the south-west, and Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives, some five miles to the north-west. Thebaill-is had always encouraged ordinary civilians to arm themselves according to their estate so that they could be used as a local militia to seek out and arrest wrong-doers and to protect their communities from pillaging by brigands and deserters. Though they were no match for professional soldiers, lacking their superior armour, weaponry and training, they performed an important, if subsidiary, military role.

On this occasion some two thousand of these militiamen had been called out to deal with English soldiers who, contrary to royal edicts, were pillaging and foraging in lower Normandy. They successfully drove them out of their towns, arresting some and killing others in the process. As the militia retired they were secretly followed, ambushed and slaughtered in a revenge attack by a group of English, Welsh and Norman soldiers led by Thomas Waterhouse and Roger Yker, the ‘chiefs, captains and instigators’ of the whole affair. Around twelve hundred were killed.9

The Waterhouse affair stretched the loyalties of the Norman population to breaking point, even though Bedford reacted swiftly to what official documents unhesitatingly labelled a ‘horrible murder’. A commission of inquiry was set up with orders to report to the council at Rouen and as a consequence four of the most important knights in the duchy, John Fastolf, grand-master of the regent’s household, John Salvein, bailli of Rouen, William Oldhall, bailli of Alençon, and Nicholas Burdet, lieutenant of Rouen castle, were sent to Falaise to apprehend the murderers. Waterhouse and several of his accomplices were arrested, tried and executed as traitors; not all of them were English, for at least one Norman, Jehan le Maçon, from Écorcheville, admitted numerous ‘larcenies, pillages and robberies’, as well as taking part in the murder of the ‘nobles and common people’ at Vicques, before his execution.10

The incident was clearly so serious that it had to be dealt with at the highest levels, but the four commissioners may also have been appointed because they were from outside the area and therefore above suspicion of involvement. The results of the inquiry certainly implicated members of the Falaise garrison. It is unclear whether Waterhouse and Yker were employed there (or indeed at Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives) or were unattached deserters, but at least three of those called to account were Englishmen in the garrison at Falaise. John Plummer and William Tintal were arrested and imprisoned at Caen and Bayeux respectively, rather than Falaise itself, where they no doubt had sympathisers. A further inquiry was launched into the conduct of Richard Porter, ‘so-called buyer for Falaise castle’, who had been accused of numerous ‘seizures, thefts and abuses’ against the king’s subjects. Some months later the under-age children of one of the victims of the ‘horrible murder’, who had gone to live with distant relatives, had to seek a royal injunction against Philippin le Cloutier, lieutenant of the vicomte of Falaise, to prevent him entering a judgement against them in their enforced absence. While not necessarily evidence of wrong-doing, this bears out the sense of popular grievance against royal officials at Falaise.11

Bedford followed up the inquiry into the Waterhouse affair by introducing a series of military reforms designed to prevent a recurrence of such abuses. He had already accepted some of the improvements introduced by the great council in 1430, including the idea of springing an unannounced duchy-wide muster and allowing garrison archers to pursue relevant military trades, such as being gunners or fletchers, so long as they remained in residence rather than migrate into the towns. (Captains had always been banned from employing those living or trading in the local town, even if they were Englishmen, for the simple reason that the garrison needed to be permanently up to strength. Many English archers set up taverns, often after marrying a Frenchwoman. The problem this could cause was graphically illustrated by one who had done so at Honfleur and was living there, instead of in the barracks, when La Hire attacked the suburbs: his house was burned down and both he and his son were taken prisoner, so he was absent from the muster on 26 September 1433.)12

Bedford’s reforms, introduced in October 1434, took these measures to their logical conclusion. For the first time the contracts for all captains would begin on the same day, 20 October, last for two years and contain identical terms. The obligation to employ only English, Welsh, Irish or Gascon archers was removed, but no more than an eighth of an entire garrison was to be French.

Another innovation was the inclusion in the same contract of both the regular garrison and the creue, an additional force of mounted soldiers which was always ready for service in the field. The creues had been introduced as a temporary measure in the crisis of 1429 but they had become an essential part of the military organisation, their flexibility and mobility enabling them to be sent out as armed escorts, field armies and siege reinforcements without compromising the strength of the regular garrison. Their virtues could also make them a liability, however, especially if they were owed wages and careering round the countryside. Bedford now ordered that they were to continue to be paid quarterly like the rest of the garrison when in residence, but monthly when they were in the field, so that they could buy their provisions regularly instead of having to make their wages last three months and thereby increase the temptation to pillage. A clause was also inserted into all captains’ contracts specifically prohibiting the recruitment by Norman garrisons of anyone involved in any way with the ‘horrible murder’ by Waterhouse and his accomplices.13

Bedford’s reforms were well intentioned but, as far as the local population were concerned, purely academic. In addition to the problem of unpaid soldiers preying on the countryside, civilians had to contend with enemy raids from Mont-Saint-Michel and Beauvais and also from Clermont, where La Hire had quickly re-established himself by the simple expedient of seizing its captain during a ‘friendly’ meeting and forcing him to hand it over at sword-point. They were also facing massive taxation. Bedford had personally attended the meeting of the estates-general at Vernon in September to plead for generous grants not only to pay the ordinary wage bill for the Norman garrisons, which had risen to 250,000l.t. (£14.58m) annually, but also to repay the costs incurred in the campaigns of the summer. In all, 344,000l.t. (£20.07m) was to be raised from the civilian population, plus further levies for local defences, such as the 22,000l.t. (£1.28m) imposed on lower Normandy to help build the new bastille at Saint-Jean-le-Thomas.14

These impositions fuelled the economic hardship of a country that, having suffered a run of long, hard winters, was now in the grip of the worst winter of the century. On 30 November (ironically the feast of Saint Andrew, patron saint of the Burgundians) ‘it began to freeze extraordinarily hard. This frost lasted a quarter of a year, less nine days, without ever thawing, and it snowed as well for forty days without stopping night or day.’ In England the Thames and its estuary froze, so that wine ships from Bordeaux had to be unloaded at Sandwich. In wealthy Arras the citizens amused themselves by competing to build the most elaborate snowmen, with subjects from the Danse Macabre to Jehanne d’Arc at the head of her men.15

In lower Normandy, and especially in the Cotentin, the peasantry starved. Guy de la Villette, vicomte of Rouen from 1434 to 1438, pointed out that many parishes were simply unable to pay the charges imposed on them: ‘because they are set in the middle of an area where the enemies and adversaries of the king pass through most often, and for this reason, the parishioners have fled, most of them no one knows where, the others are dead, so these parishes remain uninhabited and depopulated . . . the people are so impoverished that they can no longer afford to pay any levies’. The village of La Roche Tesson, near Saint-Lô, was a case in point. From a population of eighty inhabitants it had dropped to just three by July 1433, the rest having fled to Brittany, probably for fear of the consequences after the treasonable defection of their lord, Raoul Tesson, six months earlier.16

At the turn of the new year, 1435, the area between Falaise, Carentan and Bayeux erupted in the first popular uprising in the history of the English kingdom of France. The authorities were in no doubt that it had been instigated ‘by the false and evil persuasion’ of various nobles and the local officials responsible for organising the militias, but the fact remained that several thousand ordinary people took up arms, stormed the abbey of Saint-Étienne and laid siege to Caen. Messengers were dispatched in all haste to lord Scales at Domfront, begging him to come with all the might he could muster and a general call to arms was also issued from Rouen, where the earl of Arundel was put in charge of a second force and sent to Caen.17

Even before the relieving forces arrived, however, the garrison of Caen had repelled its besiegers, successfully ambushing them in the suburbs and killing large numbers, including Jean de Chantepie, one of their leaders. Disheartened by this failure, and no doubt suffering from exposure to the biting frosts and snow, the rest withdrew towards the abbey of Aunay-sur-Odon, halfway between Falaise and Saint-Lô. There they were met by Ambroise de Loré, who was under orders from the duke of Alençon to bring them to the abbey of Savigny-le-Vieux, the former headquarters of Richard Venables. The timing of the revolt and Loré’s intervention both suggest that the duke encouraged the uprising to divert English forces away from Mont-Saint-Michel so that he could launch an attack that would break the siege there.

The progress of the rebel army was carefully monitored as it made its way through Normandy and the English knew not only that the location of the assembly point with Alençon was at Savigny-le-Vieux but also that Ardevon was the intended target. Scales therefore took the decision to demolish Ardevon completely rather than let it fall into enemy hands and on 20 January 1435 the homeless garrison of 80 men-at-arms and 240 archers marched out to join him in the field.

Thwarted in this objective, Alençon laid siege to Avranches, where the size and disposition of his army were duly observed and reported to the English authorities by two women spies. Armed with this information, Scales joined forces with Arundel and set off to relieve Avranches. The news that they were on their way was sufficient to persuade Alençon to lift his siege and decamp but the whole bay region remained on high alert. Spies reported that Alençon intended to set up his headquarters permanently at Savigny-le-Vieux, so Hugh Spencer, bailli of the Cotentin, was sent to demolish it, pulling down the vaults and fortifications, so that it could not be used as a fortress again. In April 70 men-at-arms and 210 archers from Ardevon were transferred to the new bastille of Saint-Jean-le-Thomas with a brief to keep the depredations of the Mont-Saint-Michel garrison in check.18

While Alençon and his marshal, Loré, were breaking the siege of Mont-Saint-Michel and carrying the war to the English in the south-west of Normandy, La Hire was continuing to retake the fortresses in Picardy which he had lost to Talbot the previous year. Not only was Saint-Valery back in his hands but so was Rue on the opposite coast, endangering Le Crotoy and English access to the mouth of the river Somme, and enabling the Armagnacs to raid as far north as Étaples.

Arundel, who had overseen the dispersal of the Norman rebels back to their homes or into Breton exile, was therefore recalled and sent to recover Rue with a force of eight hundred men. When he reached Gournay, however, he learned that La Hire was refortifying an ancient castle at Gerberoy, just seven miles north-east of this important English garrison and only thirty-seven miles east of Rouen. To allow La Hire to extend his reach so much further from Beauvais could not be contemplated, so Arundel diverted his army as a matter of urgency, arriving with the vanguard at the castle at eight in the morning. While he waited for his foot soldiers and artillery train to arrive, he set about preparing his lodgings and defences ready to besiege Gerberoy. What he did not know was that both La Hire and Xaintrailles were in the castle with several hundred men at their disposal.

From their vantage point the two captains could see the main body of Arundel’s army approaching and this persuaded them that their only chance to avoid siege and capture was to launch an immediate assault. While some of the garrison sallied out on foot to attack and distract Arundel’s men, La Hire led a desperate sortie with his cavalry which intercepted the advancing column, catching the troops by surprise. They broke, scattered and fled, with La Hire in hot pursuit across the countryside.

He returned to find the tables had turned: Arundel had taken refuge in the enclosure he had begun to build and the besiegers were now the besieged. With only hedges to cover their backs and wooden stakes to protect their front, they were no match for the reunited Armagnac forces and were swiftly overwhelmed; a few were able to escape with their lives, but most were killed or taken prisoner. What turned a defeat into a disaster was the fact that Arundel himself was mortally wounded. A shot from a culverin, a medieval version of the musket, had shattered his leg above the ankle. He was captured and carried to Beauvais, where his leg was amputated in an attempt to save his life (he was, after all, worth a massive ransom), but he died of his injuries on 12 June 1435.19

Arundel’s death, at the age of twenty-seven, deprived the English of one of their youngest, most able and dedicated military leaders but it was not the end of his story. Contemporary chroniclers believed that, because he had died in enemy hands, his body had been buried in the Franciscan church at Beauvais. However, the will of Fulk Eyton, a Shropshire squire who died in 1454, proves that the earl’s bones were then in his possession: his executors were ordered to ensure that they were buried in the family chapel at Arundel, as the earl had wished, but only on condition that the current earl settle the debt he owed Eyton ‘for the bones of my lord John his brother, that I brought out of France; for the which carriage of bones, and out of the Frenchmen’s hands deliverance, he oweth me 1400 marks [£507,500]’.20

Eyton had personal links to the earl, holding the office of constable of Oswestry castle in the Welsh marches by his grant, but he was also a professional soldier and a hard-headed businessman who was not prepared to part with the bones till he had been ‘reimbursed’, probably at a profit to himself. When and how he acquired them are a mystery. He may have paid a ransom for the corpse before it was buried, in which case he would have had to perform the customary unpleasant task of having it quartered and boiling off the flesh so that the bones could be more easily transported back to England. Such an eventuality would mean that Eyton had effectively held the dead earl hostage, hanging on to the remains in vain for almost twenty years.

The alternative is that Eyton made his gruesome acquisition much later, probably in 1450 when he left France himself, though, as a respected English captain, it is possible he could have returned later with a commission to secure Arundel’s disinterment and repatriation. A later acquisition of the remains is likelier, for when the earl’s tomb at Arundel was opened in the mid-nineteenth century a six-foot-tall skeleton, intact except for a missing leg, was found, indicating that he had not been dismembered shortly after death.21

Arundel’s death was just the latest in a series of disasters to strike the English. The Armagnacs were turning the screw on Paris. The Bastard of Orléans recaptured Pont-Sainte-Maxence; and, most seriously of all, in the early hours of 1 June twelve hundred of his men surprised and captured Saint-Denis. In both cases the ‘English’ garrison was slaughtered without mercy, together with any English natives found in the town.22

The loss of Saint-Denis was especially significant, since even the English recognised its importance as the symbol of France. It was also on the outskirts of Paris itself. ‘The consequences were very bad,’ the citizen recorded in his journal:

Paris was now blockaded on all sides, no goods could be brought in by river or any other way. And they came every day right up to the gates of Paris; everyone belonging to the city that they found going in or out they killed, and the women and girls they took by force; they cut the corn all round Paris; no one stopped them. Afterwards they made a habit of cutting the throats of all whom they captured, working men or whatever they were, and used to leave their bodies lying in the middle of the road; women too.23

The military resurgence of the Armagnacs, and the increasingly brutal tactics they employed, were part and parcel of a campaign of terrorism which was planned to coincide with the renewal of peace talks. Pressure for these had been building on all parties for some time and the death in England of the Agincourt prisoner, Jean, duke of Bourbon, on 5 February 1434 had brought a new figure into the equation. The new duke, his son Charles, count of Clermont, was married to Philippe of Burgundy’s sister Agnès, though this had not prevented him waging war against his brother-in-law, nominally as Charles VII’s lieutenant, but actually in the hope of annexing the county of Charolais for himself. After a disastrous campaign in the summer of 1434, however, he agreed a three-month general truce with Burgundy in December. Of greater consequence was the fact that the two men agreed to meet again at Nevers in January 1435 for further discussions.24

The significance of this meeting was that it was no longer confined to Burgundy and Bourbon. Both men were also brothers-in-law to the constable of France, Arthur de Richemont, whose wife was Philippe’s sister Margaret, and he was also present. Richemont too had been in negotiation with Burgundy and in September had secured a six-month truce for north-eastern France between the Armagnacs and Burgundians. This family summit (with the notable absence of Bedford, whose remarriage had excluded him) was joined by Regnault de Chartres, archbishop of Reims. The presence of the archbishop, who was both Charles VII’s chancellor of France and a leading member of the peace party at his court, was an early indication that more was afoot than simply renewing truces.

And so it proved. After all the feasting and dancing to celebrate the family reunion, the heads of an agreement were drawn up. The parties all agreed to meet again to discuss a general peace on 1 July 1435 at Arras, in the Burgundian Low Countries, and Burgundy personally undertook to notify Henry VI and urge him to attend. If the English refused to accept Charles VII’s ‘reasonable offers’, Burgundy promised to break with them and join the man whom he now, for the very first time, called ‘King Charles’. His reward would be the gift to him of all the crown lands on either side of the Somme, including the county of Ponthieu. The pope would be asked to mediate and the general church council, meeting at Basle, would be asked to send representatives. Burgundy’s demands for an apology and compensation for his father’s murder, and for the punishment of those involved, which had always been the stumbling block in previous negotiations, were quietly dropped.25

It was left to an unnamed Burgundian knight to say what must have been in the minds of many who were present on that day. Speaking in a loud, clear voice that was meant to be heard, he remarked to no one in particular, ‘Between ourselves, we have been very badly advised to risk and put in peril our bodies and souls for the capricious whims of princes and great lords who, when it pleases them, are reconciled to each other, while . . . we are left impoverished and ruined.’26

The bitterness of the iconic unknown soldier was not entirely shared by the civilian population, which gave a hero’s welcome to Philippe of Burgundy when he arrived in Paris on 14 April promising peace for his time. The university did a presentation before him on the subject and a delegation of women appealed to the duchess to use her influence in the great cause. Having created an overwhelming sense of expectation that peace was nigh, Burgundy moved on to Arras, without having seen the one person whose opinion really mattered. Bedford had retired from Paris to Rouen on learning of the agreement reached at Nevers. He made no effort to return to Paris during the week that Burgundy was in residence and Burgundy did not seek him out. There was little point in doing so, for Bedford had made his position clear and nothing would move him from it. Until his nephew was of an age to be able to take responsibility for his own decision, Bedford would defend the English kingdom of France to his dying breath.27

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