It was a nice irony that the stronghold which was sold to the English in 1418 should be sold back to the French in 1450, for there was nothing inevitable about Cherbourg’s fall. It had held out before, and it could have done so again. After all, Calais would spend another century in English hands. The difference was that Calais was crucial to the English economy and its survival was ensured by the financial support and political muscle of the powerful mercantile lobby in England. Nowhere in the English kingdom of France, not even Rouen, had ever matched Calais’s financial importance to the crown and the realm. Individuals had won – and lost – great estates and fortunes in France but the cost to the public purse of defending these private interests far outweighed any benefits they brought to the wider English economy.
The reconquest of Normandy had taken just one year and six days, ‘which is a great miracle and a very great marvel’, wrote one French chronicler.
Also it clearly seems that Our Lord gave it his blessing: for never before was so great a country conquered in so small a space of time, nor with less loss to the people and soldiers, nor with less killing of people and soldiers, nor with less destruction and damage to the countryside; which is greatly to the honour and praise of the king, princes and other lords . . . and of all others who accompanied them in recovering the said duchy.’1
The reconquest was achieved in exactly the same way as the original conquest. Charles VII had belatedly adopted his greatest adversary’s methods: his troops were trained and disciplined, he had invested heavily in the latest artillery, he had a deep war chest to finance his campaigns and he had taken to the field in person. Like Henry V, he used a mixture of threat of violence and promise of pardon to secure the submission of the towns and fortresses, and he was not above using bribery to secure a swift and painless surrender.
That he was able to achieve so much in such a short time was also due to the disintegration of the English administration: despite warnings from Suffolk, Beaufort and many others, both England and Normandy had been lulled into a false sense of security by the truce. When war came they were unprepared, disorganised and did not have either the will or the means to resist. And, just like the French in 1417, they had no one to whom they could turn for incisive and charismatic leadership. Henry VI, the least martial of kings, had neither the desire nor the ability to lead the defence of the duchy in person. Years of factional infighting among his advisers had seen the role of lieutenant-general politicised and emasculated: not one of the appointees had enjoyed the talents or powers of Bedford and as a consequence had been unable to rally the two nations to unite against a common foe. Henry V had met with greater opposition in his original conquest because there had always been hope of assistance; the Norman towns and garrisons in the last days of the English kingdom of France knew that no one would come to their rescue. They therefore chose to submit voluntarily rather than be forced to do so.
Henry V had invaded France as an independent power acting unilaterally and exploiting the French civil wars for his own benefit. The fatal flaw in his creation of an English kingdom of France was the Treaty of Troyes, which drew him into those wars, turning him into a Burgundian partisan and committing him to an unsustainable war to conquer the rest of France. When Burgundy withdrew from the alliance the English cause was left high and dry. The fact that Normandy remained in English hands for another fifteen years owed as much to French failure as to English success. Had Charles heeded some of his advisers, the duchy might have been reconquered in the wake of Jehanne d’Arc’s victories and his own coronation: it certainly came perilously close to being lost in 1436 after the death of Bedford and the Treaty of Arras.
Had Henry V been content with just the conquest of Normandy, the outcome might also have been different. His land settlement there could have made the duchy capable of defending itself from its own resources as well as providing the security necessary for agriculture and trade to prosper. An English king as duke of Normandy would certainly have been more acceptable to the French than an English king of France: Gascony had, after all, provided just such a model for almost three hundred years. Though Gascony belonged to the English crown by right of inheritance rather than conquest, there was a common heritage between the Normans and the English which Henry had identified and started to build upon.
The land settlement and the establishment of permanent garrisons, each with its own quota of Englishmen, encouraged intermarriage at every level of society, creating a new bond between conquered and conquerors. When the end came there must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people who had to make the bewildering decision whether to stay in France or return to England. Many who had employment and families in France chose to stay, among them Bedford’s embroiderer, Thomas Bridon, whose daughter had married a Frenchman and whose grandson took up his trade and represented him in the Rouen embroiderers’ guild. Both the constable, Richemont, and the new seneschal of Normandy, Pierre de Brézé, were happy to employ skilled English and Welsh soldiers in their armies. And in an early example of a traditional English occupation, the duke of Alençon even had an English valet in the 1450s.2
On the other hand, many Frenchmen who had worked for the English chose to go into voluntary exile with their employers: men such as Gervase le Vulre, a royal secretary, who was still employed by the crown thirty years after leaving France; or the unnamedmanuscript illuminator who followed Fastolf from Paris to Normandy to England so that he could continue to enjoy his patronage; or even John de Labowley and Hermon the page, who were each bequeathed 20s. (£525) in Fulk Eyton’s will in 1454 ‘for they both came with me out of Normandy’.3
There was nevertheless a steady stream of English refugees pouring into London ‘in right poor array, piteous to see’: not just dispossessed landowners, expelled soldiers and Englishmen returning home, but men with French wives and children who had never set foot in England before. Thomas Gower, for instance, brought his Alençon-born wife, whom he had had the foresight to have naturalised as an English subject in 1433, as well as the son whose freedom had been purchased by the surrender of Cherbourg. The fortunate exiles came with all their worldly goods piled into carts, but many arrived destitute with nothing but the clothes upon their backs, having lost their homes and livelihood.4
For them, as for many Englishmen, the personal cost was unbearably high: for every Cornewaille or Fastolf who had reaped great wealth, there was a John More, who was left a pauper after being captured seven times, or a John Kyriell, who was still a French prisoner twenty years after the loss of Normandy because neither he nor his brother could afford his ransom.5 Though few paid so heavy a price as Suffolk, who lost his father, four brothers and ultimately his own life to the cause, decades of constant warfare saw thousands of fathers, brothers and sons from both sides meet violent and untimely ends.
The England to which the refugees returned was more like the France they had left than the peaceful, prosperous and ordered realm Henry V had ruled. Jack Cade’s rebellion had erupted in May 1450, prompted in part by anger at Suffolk and the ‘traitors’ by whom ‘the realm of France was lost . . . and our true lords, knights and esquires, and many a good yeoman . . . lost and sold ere they went’. The murders of Suffolk and Moleyns were swiftly followed by those of their closest associates: lord Saye and Sele, the former treasurer, was beheaded in the street at the behest of the mob, and William Aiscough, bishop of Salisbury, who had married Henry VI to the ‘she-wolf of France’, was dragged from the altar while celebrating mass and stoned to death. Matthew Gough, who had survived so many daring exploits in France, was killed trying to capture London Bridge from the rebels.6
The terrible irony was that the first and last holder of the two crowns of France and England had not inherited his English father’s abilities but his French grandfather’s madness. He was unable to prevent the bitter quarrel between Beaufort and York, occasioned by the loss of Normandy, spiralling into faction and out of control. When the English Achilles, the sixty-six-year-old Talbot, was killed on the field of Castillon in 1453, and Gascony also fell to Charles VII, the news tipped Henry over the edge. Physically helpless and mentally uncomprehending, he became a pawn in the struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York, and England was set on the path to civil war. The last two lieutenants-general of Normandy were killed fighting each other instead of the French, and Henry VI, the last Lancastrian monarch, was murdered in the Tower in 1471 on his successor’s orders, just as the last Plantagenet king, Richard II, had been assassinated at the command of Henry’s own grandfather in 1400.7 For Henry VI the greatest tragedy was that his desire for peace in France fuelled violent conflict and civil war in England and ultimately led to his losing the crowns of both kingdoms.