On 10 February 1417 King Henry V ordered six wing feathers to be plucked from every goose in twenty English counties and sent to the Tower of London. A few months earlier he had, through parliament, prohibited the recently introduced practice of making clogs and wooden overshoes from ash instead of the traditional willow and alder.1 These two acts might seem unrelated – even trivial – but together they marked a significant escalation in rearmament. The feathers and ash were required to make the flights and shafts of arrows, hundreds of thousands of which were now urgently needed. For, less than two years after he had first led an army into France, Henry was about to launch a second invasion. And this time he intended to stay.

The campaign of 1415 had been a triumph. It began with the capture of Harfleur, a powerful and strategically significant town at the mouth of the river Seine whose port had not only threatened the security of the English coast and Channel shipping but also controlled access to the interior of France. Harfleur was now a second Calais, with an English garrison twelve hundred strong, commanded in person by the king’s own uncle, Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter.2 Though this was an important English success, it paled into insignificance beside the great victory which was the culmination of the campaign. On 25 October 1415 the king himself had led his small army into battle against an immensely superior French force at Agincourt and defeated it comprehensively. Thousands of Frenchmen were killed, including three royal dukes, eight counts and four of the most senior military officers of France; the dukes of Orléans and Bourbon, the counts of Richemont, Eu and Vendôme and the great chivalric hero Marshal Boucicaut were taken prisoner. By contrast, the English had lost only two noblemen, Edward, duke of York, and Michael, earl of Suffolk, a handful of men-at-arms and perhaps a hundred archers.3

The shock of Agincourt had reverberated throughout Europe. In Henry V’s own eyes, and indeed those of many of his contemporaries, victory on such a scale could only have been possible if God had been on his side. It therefore followed that Henry’s reason for undertaking the campaign – the refusal of the French to restore to him what he called his ‘just rights and inheritances’ in that realm – had divine approval and sanction. Quite what those ‘just rights and inheritances’ were, however, was a fluid concept which varied according to the king’s ambition and the strength of his political hand. At the very least they included an expansion of the duchy of Gascony, which had belonged to the English crown since the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, though its borders had been eroded and pushed back over the years by its French neighbours. These were relatively recent losses but the duchy of Normandy, which Henry V claimed by ‘inheritance’ from William the Conqueror, had been in French hands for over two hundred years, having been annexed by Philippe Auguste in 1204.

Even bolder was Henry’s demand that the crown of France itself should be handed over to him. It was, he said, also his by right of inheritance since his great-grandfather, Edward III, was the only surviving grandson and direct lineal descendant of Philippe IV of France. In 1328, however, the young Edward III had been unjustly deprived of this inheritance when the crown was seized by his French cousin who had established the new Valois dynasty of kings.4

The representative of that dynasty was now Charles VI, who had become king of France in 1380 as a child of eleven. Until 1388, when he came of age, he had been subject to the guardianship of his uncles but the strain of taking over the reins of government in person had proved too much for him. After only four years he lapsed into the first of what would become lengthening periods of intermittent madness in which he believed that he was made of glass and was afraid to sit down in case he shattered. At these times he was unable to recognise those closest to him, denied that he was married or had children, and was capable only of looking at picture books.5

The vacuum this created at the heart of France naturally drew in those ambitious for power themselves and in the ensuing struggle by the king’s uncles for control of the king’s person, and with it the regency, two fiercely opposed parties emerged: the Burgundians (led by the duke of Burgundy) and the Armagnacs (led by the duke of Orléans). An already bitter quarrel was further envenomed when John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, had his rival, Louis d’Orléans, assassinated in 1407. From that moment the two parties were irreconcilable and France was torn apart by civil war.

This situation had provided Henry V with the perfect opportunity to exploit their differences for his own ends. Both parties hated each other more than their traditional enemies, the English, so they were prepared to offer him concessions in order to secure his aid. Henry had negotiated simultaneously with them both, offering his military services to the highest bidder in an effort to secure his ‘just rights and inheritances’ by diplomatic means. When this had failed to achieve all he wanted, he went to war on his own account.

The Agincourt campaign had demonstrated that Burgundians and Armagnacs could not unite against a common enemy, even in the face of invasion and the loss of Harfleur. John the Fearless, whom the Armagnacs rightly suspected of having made a secret non-intervention pact with Henry V, had given the invaders a wide berth and been a notable absentee from the battle. It was not until ten days after the defeat that he finally mobilised the forces he had been ordered to raise to resist the English – only to lead them in an attempt to take Armagnac-held Paris. The people of that city, who were ardent supporters of the duke, were even said to have received the news of Agincourt with joy because they regarded it as a defeat for the Armagnacs rather than for France.6

The Armagnacs, however, were by no means crushed. They had lost some of their most important military leaders, including Charles, duke of Orléans, who suffered the indignity of spending his twenty-first birthday being paraded through the streets of London with the other prisoners of Harfleur and Agincourt. Many more had been killed in the battle. The dauphin, Louis de Guienne, an ardent supporter of the Armagnac cause, ought to have been a rallying point in place of his insane father, but he too died, in December 1415. His brother, the next heir to the throne, seventeen-year-old Jean de Touraine, was living in Hainault, where he had been brought up in the court of the duke of Burgundy’s sister and had married her daughter.

Yet the Armagnac cause was not completely lost. They still had Paris, the seat of government. The new dauphin might have been out of reach, but they had the king and could rule in his name. They had also found a replacement for Constable d’Albret, the chief military officer of France, who had fallen at Agincourt: Bernard, count of Armagnac, father-in-law of Charles d’Orléans and veteran of many campaigns against the English in Gascony. Able and ruthless as a soldier, but short on diplomatic skills, his leadership would ensure that France would remain as divided as it had been before the English invasion.

Henry was far too much of a realist ever to have imagined that the success of the Agincourt campaign would force the concessions he wanted from the French. Further military action would be needed, the only question being when that should take place. Even before he left France in November 1415, he had held a council at Calais to discuss whether ‘as ought to follow a great victory, he should go on to besiege neighbouring towns and castles’.7 It might have been advantageous to strike again while the French were still in disarray but Henry had in mind plans far more ambitious than merely the acquisition of a few strongholds. He had his sights set on nothing less than the conquest of the entire duchy of Normandy and the next eighteen months would be dedicated to the meticulous planning and preparation of that campaign.

His first priority was the security of Harfleur. Having suffered heavy bombardment during the English siege, its fortifications and large areas of the town were in a parlous state, offering little protection in the event of an attack. Though work was begun immediately to rectify this, the gates and ramparts were still being repaired in 1417 when orders were given to fill in the English mines under the walls.8 More importantly, unlike Calais, Harfleur had no surrounding occupied territory to provide a buffer against French attack and food and firewood for the inhabitants. The garrison’s soldiers risked their lives every time they ventured out for supplies, and on one disastrous occasion suffered heavy losses of both men and horses when they were ambushed by Bernard d’Armagnac at Valmont, twenty miles from Harfleur. Beaufort, who had led the expedition, only escaped by making for the coast and leading the survivors back at night along the sands.9

By the late spring of 1416 the situation of the garrison was becoming increasingly desperate as the Armagnacs tightened their siege by land and, with the aid of twenty galleys hired from Genoa, laid a blockade by sea to prevent English supply ships getting through. (One ship carrying corn which successfully ran the blockade did so only by the stratagem of flying the French flag.) Just when the French were convinced that Harfleur was on the point of surrender, relief arrived in the form of an English fleet under the command of the king’s brother John, duke of Bedford. On 15 August, in his first action in what would be a long and illustrious military career in France, Bedford launched an assault on the blockade and, after five or six hours of fighting at close quarters, succeeded in scattering the enemy ships, capturing some and sinking others. He then sailed triumphantly into Harfleur to reprovision the town.10

Bedford had won an important victory but another, of a different kind, was secured by his brother on the very same day. On 15 August 1416 Henry V and Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, signed the Treaty of Canterbury, committing themselves and their heirs to perpetual friendship and to support each other in the pursuit of their ‘just rights’ in France. The significance of the treaty was that for the previous six months Sigismund had dedicated himself to securing peace between England and France. His frustration at his failure and his conviction that French duplicity was entirely to blame were set out at length in the preamble for all to see. There could not have been a clearer or more public endorsement of Henry’s own oftstated view that the French were not to be trusted and, unlike himself, did not genuinely desire peace.11

The Treaty of Canterbury was formally ratified in the parliament that met at Westminster in October. The king’s uncle Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, gave a rousing opening speech as chancellor: Henry, he said, had generously tried to come to a good and peaceful agreement with his adversary, but the French were ‘full of pride’ and had ‘absolutely refused’ to reach a settlement.

For which reason our said sovereign lord is again of necessity obliged to have recourse to the issue of the sword if he wishes to achieve an end, peace and termination of his just aim and quarrel, thereby fulfilling the words of the wise man, who says, ‘Let us make wars so that we may have peace, for the end of war is peace.’12

Medieval English parliaments only met when summoned to do so by the king and Henry, a master of propaganda, ensured that this parliament was in session for the first anniversary of Agincourt, which was celebrated with a Te Deum in the royal chapel at Westminster. The House of Commons duly responded with a patriotic grant of a double subsidy – a tax of two-fifteenths on the value of movable goods rising to two-tenths for those living in towns – enabling the business to begin in earnest of stockpiling weapons and provisions, recruiting men-at-arms, archers, gunners, miners, carpenters and surgeons and hiring ships to carry them all across the Channel.13

By the end of July 1417 everything was in place. The duke of Bedford, reprising his role during the Agincourt campaign, had been appointed as the king’s lieutenant in England. (Bedford’s older brother Thomas, duke of Clarence, and his younger brother Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, would accompany the king to France.) Some fifteen hundred ships had been hired or forcibly pressed into service, including, despite their protestations, Venetian merchant vessels. The Genoese, however, whose mercenary principles were stronger than their alliance with France, had accepted £1667 (£875,175) to provide six transports. An army of around ten thousand fighting men, three-quarters of whom were archers, had been contracted to serve for a year and was mustered, reviewed and waiting to embark at Southampton.14

The only obstacle to their safe passage had been removed. John, earl of Huntingdon, a veteran of Agincourt though still only twenty-two, had been dispatched to destroy the nine Genoese galleys which had escaped Bedford’s defeat of the blockade of Harfleur. On 29 June he had won a decisive naval battle off Cap-de-la-Hève, capturing four of the ships, their French commander (a bastard brother of the duke of Bourbon) and a useful haul of treasure. ‘And so we know for certain,’ one Venetian chronicler noted, in words which demonstrated just how widely Henry V’s interpretation of events had come to be accepted in Europe, ‘that the wrath of God has brought these defeats upon the French because of their arrogance and pride.’15

On 30 July 1417 the great invasion fleet set sail for France. Its objective was known to no one except the king himself and a small group of his closest advisers, and even the king had changed his mind. In February he had sent troops under the command of two trusted knights, John Popham and John Pelham, to Harfleur, ordering them to stay there until his arrival.16 Perhaps he realised that this was too obvious a choice of destination. The French were certainly expecting him to land there and had appointed special commissioners to ‘repair and fill with provisions and munitions, the towns of Honfleur and Montivilliers, and the other towns, castles and fortresses of Normandy to enable them to resist English attacks’.17 The special emphasis on the two named towns reflected their strategic importance: Honfleur lay across the Seine from Harfleur and its capture would cut off the vital river supply line to Rouen; Montivilliers was just six miles from Harfleur and therefore, in the phrase that would be used repeatedly over the coming years, ‘held the frontier against the English’.

Despite their best efforts, the French were wrong-footed, just as they had been in 1415. On 1 August, almost exactly two years to the day since his last invasion, Henry landed at the mouth of the Touques, the river in the Calvados region of Normandy that now divides the fashionable resorts of Deauville and Trouville. The site was chosen for two reasons. The long, flat stretches of sandy beach enabled even a fleet the size of Henry’s to disembark its cargoes of men, horses, munitions and supplies within a single day, freeing some ships to return immediately to England to pick up those who had been left behind for lack of space.18

The second reason for choosing Touques was that it was less than ten miles from Honfleur – close enough to deceive the French into thinking that this was indeed Henry’s objective. Instead, after several days gathering intelligence, during which all the castles in the neighbourhood surrendered with unseemly haste and without striking a blow, the king led his army in the opposite direction, south-west towards Caen.

Before he left Touques, Henry issued a final challenge to the French, calling upon Charles VI in the name of the God ‘in whose hands are the rights of kings and princes’ to give him ‘in fact and in reality’ the crown and kingdom of France, his rightful inheritance which had so long been unjustly withheld.19 This was not mere bravado but the formal and legal requirement of the laws of war: before hostilities began in earnest, the enemy had to be offered one last chance to avoid the spilling of Christian blood. And since they had failed to respond to that request, the blame for the consequences would rest squarely on the shoulders of the French.

Henry had claimed the crown but, for the moment, his ambition was limited to a lesser prize. Even this was no easy task. The duchy of Normandy was prosperous, with a large number of towns or bonnes villes which were the local centres of trade and financial, judicial and military administration. The surrounding areas of open countryside, known as the plat pais, provided food, wine and fuel for their local town. They were also an important source of taxation and of manpower for the urbanbased military levies.

To conquer Normandy – and keep it – Henry needed to capture not only the castles and fortresses which were the traditional first line of defence but also the towns which would give him control of their wider administrative districts. The French, however, had learned the lesson of Edward III’s invasion in 1346, when the towns had been defenceless and at his mercy. Since then every urban centre of any importance had built great walls behind which the population of the neighbouring countryside as well as the townspeople could take refuge in times of danger. A sophisticated system of civilian defence – keeping watch on the walls at night and guarding the gates during the day – had also been introduced. In the larger towns this was supplemented by a local garrison of professional soldiers who manned a fortress within the walls which could hold out long after the town itself had surrendered.

The two most important towns in Normandy were Rouen and Caen. To attack Rouen, the regional centre of government, some forty miles up the Seine from Harfleur, would mean running the gauntlet of all the castles and fortified towns with which it was ring-fenced and the risk of being stranded deep in enemy territory. Caen, capital of lower Normandy, was less than twenty-five miles from the point of invasion but, more importantly, it lay just nine miles from the Channel with a navigable river leading into its heart. The English fleet could therefore keep up a regular supply of victuals and armaments, avoiding the need to plunder the surrounding countryside and further antagonise the population. In the event of dire necessity it could also quickly and easily evacuate the army back to England.

On 18 August 1417 Henry laid siege to Caen, ‘a strong town and a fair, and a royal castle therein’,20 in what was to become a model for the rest of his campaign and indeed the years of occupation which were to follow. Caen had walls seven feet thick, defended by thirty-two towers and twelve fortified gates, and it was encircled by the river and water-filled ditches. The castle had a massive square stone keep built by William the Conqueror, who had also founded the two great abbeys of Saint-Étienne and La Trinité as burial places for himself and his wife. Like so many other French abbeys, they were heavily fortified and as capable of withstanding siege as any castle. Unfortunately, as was also the case elsewhere, both abbeys lay outside the town walls. The nuns and monks had fled and the small castle garrison, wary of dispersing its strength, had been forced to abandon its defence at Henry’s approach.

The standard procedure for a medieval town threatened by siege was to clear away any building lying outside the town walls to prevent it giving shelter to the enemy. A pious reluctance to commit sacrilege and, more likely, the sheer impossibility of razing two vast stone structures within the short space of time available, meant that the necessary demolition of the two abbeys was not carried out. However, in a scenario that was to become familiar in the coming years, the mere threat of demolition provoked treason. At dead of night one of the monks crept into the English camp, found his way to Henry’s brother, the duke of Clarence, and offered to show him a way in. ‘It is especially suitable for you to save our abbey’, an English chronicler reported him to have said, ‘seeing that you are descended from the line of kings who founded, built and endowed it.’ With the monk’s aid, the duke and his men scaled an unprotected part of the abbey walls and gained possession of Saint-Étienne, giving the king a bird’s-eye view of the town and enabling him to train his cannon from the roof and towers of the monastery. La Trinité on the other side of Caen was also taken and artillery stationed there.21

Having duly summoned the town to surrender (an important formality before the attack could take place legitimately) but been refused, Henry ordered the bombardment to begin. Two weeks of continuous shelling by gunners working in shifts throughout the day and night damaged the walls sufficiently to enable a full-scale assault to be launched. This was a relatively rare occurrence in medieval warfare, though Caen was unfortunate to have suffered the same fate and its consequences before, when Edward III sacked the town in 1346. According to the laws of war, the town’s refusal to capitulate meant that its inhabitants and their property were at the mercy of its attackers. And very little mercy was shown.

The king and Clarence attacked simultaneously from opposite ends of the town. Henry’s men were kept at bay by a vigorous defence in which one knight, who fell from a scaling ladder, was burned alive ‘by those inhuman French scum’ but Clarence’s company forced their way through a breach and made their way through the streets towards the king, killing all in their path, shouting ‘à Clarence, à Clarence, Saint George!’ and sparing neither man nor child. Though the king had ordered that women and clergy were to be spared, the streets were said to have run with blood. Once victory was assured, the town was turned over to the soldiers to pillage at will, only churches being spared at the king’s insistence.22

The brutal sack of Caen was an exemplary punishment authorised by the Bible23 and meted out in accordance with the laws of war by a king who believed he was simply carrying out God’s will. It was designed to teach ‘his’ subjects in the duchy of Normandy the penalty of ‘rebellion’, as he termed any act of resistance, and the lesson was not lost on the Normans. Five days after the fall of Caen, the castle garrison came to terms: if Charles VI, the dauphin or the count of Armagnac did not come to their aid in the meantime, they agreed to surrender on 19 September, together with fourteen other towns and villages in the vicinity, including the important town and castle of Bayeux.24

No relief was forthcoming. For, just days before the English invasion, the duke of Burgundy had begun his own military operations against the Armagnacs in a campaign designed to secure him the mastery of Paris. Advancing on two fronts, from his lands in Burgundy and in Flanders and Picardy, he had captured many of the towns along the Oise and lower Seine valleys, cutting off the principal supply lines from Normandy and Picardy and gradually encircling Paris. As he drew closer to the city, the count of Armagnac was faced with the choice of resisting the English invasion in far-off Normandy or defending his own seat of power. Naturally he chose the latter and recalled his men-at-arms from the frontiers of the duchy for the defence of Paris. ‘And so it was’, wrote the Burgundian chronicler Monstrelet, ‘that the king of England . . . had an even greater advantage in his campaign of subjugation, having no impediment and no danger at all.’ The way now lay open for Henry to expand his conquest into the heart of Normandy.25

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!