Post-classical history

Chapter Eighty-Eight


The Taking of France

Between 1401 and 1420, the king of England finally seizes France

IN ENGLAND, Henry IV sat on the throne. He had claimed the crown of England in every possible way: “first, by conquest,” says Froissart, “second, from being heir to it; and third, from the pure and free resignation which King Richard had made of it. . . . [And] Parliament [too] declared that it was their will he should be king.”1

There was, in all this, a faint air of protesting too much. Henry derived his right to rule from his father, John of Gaunt; John, the oldest surviving son of Edward III at the time of the king’s death, could have claimed to be rightful king in the place of his dead brother’s son Richard. But he had never made this claim. And since five sons of Edward III had grown to adulthood, there were plenty of other royal cousins in England who could make a similar claim to the throne. The strongest claim belonged to Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March; his mother Philippa was the only daughter of Edward’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp. Like the Black Prince, Lionel had died before his father, but Philippa was still senior to Henry IV. She had been Richard II’s heiress, and after her death in 1382, her claim had passed to her son.

The upshot was that Henry IV, although popular with his people, was vulnerable to challenge. And the first years of his rule were particularly tumultuous. Wales had been part of the English empire for over a century, but now a wealthy Welsh farmer named Owain Glyndwr took advantage of Henry’s insecure crown and called his countrymen to follow him to independence. Early in 1401, he began to lead attacks on the English living in the north of Wales. Henry sent his oldest son, Prince Hal, at the head of a reprisal force, but Owain continued to inflict “considerable losses on the English.”2

And then Henry IV began to make missteps.

Rumors of Richard II’s survival had already begun to circulate, despite all of his efforts. He was not making much headway against the Welsh, and the Scots had taken the opportunity to mount invasions in the north as well. Meanwhile, Edmund Mortimer, who (despite being deprived of his putative crown) had been loyally fighting for the English cause against the Welsh, was taken prisoner in a battle with Owain Glyndwr. Mortimer’s brother-in-law Henry Percy, who had been leading the resistance to the Scots, offered to ransom him out of Owain Glyndwr’s hands. But Henry IV refused to allow it.

This removed Edmund Mortimer, his potential rival, from the English scene. But both Mortimer and Henry Percy, who until this point had been supporters of Henry IV, were indignant. Owain Glyndwr seized on the indignation. He set Mortimer free, gave him his own daughter Catherine as wife, and made an alliance with both Mortimer and Percy: they would help him gain independence from England, and he would in turn help put Mortimer on the English throne.

Henry IV had accidentally turned the Welsh revolt into a civil war, and the revolt he had created boiled along for another decade. Henry Percy, nicknamed “Hotspur” because of his tendency to act first and think later, was killed almost immediately; in the middle of a savage battle fought against the royal forces at Shrewsbury, in July of 1403, he lifted the faceplate of his helmet to get a breath of air and was at once struck through the palate by a random arrow. Mortimer survived until 1409, when he was trapped at Harlech Castle by an English siege; starving and possibly ill with plague, he died in January before the siege could be lifted. His wife, Owain’s daughter, and their four children were at Harlech as well. After the castle surrendered, they were taken to the Tower of London, where Catherine, her only son, and two of her daughters all died of illness.3

Owain Glyndwr’s revolt outlived them all. It was still dragging on when Henry IV died, in March of 1413, after five years of a horrible illness that featured “festering of the flesh, dehydration of the eyes, and rupture of the internal organs”: possibly, some form of leprosy.4

CHARLES VI did not have a good decade either.

He was more often out of his wits than in them, and in the absence of any royal control, his favorite brother, Louis of Orleans, and his uncle, the seventy-year-old Duke of Burgundy, were feuding. Both hoped to control the mad king, and through him, France.

In 1404, the Duke of Burgundy died and his part of the feud devolved to his son and heir John, newly returned from the Battle of Nicopolis and ransomed from Turkish captivity. The new Duke rapidly gained both power and popularity. He managed to arrange a match between his eleven-year-old daughter and the young Dauphin Louis, Charles VI’s son and heir (despite his fits, Charles had been married since the age of seventeen, and by 1404 his wife Isabeau had borne him eight children). “A very heavy tax was about this time imposed on all the inhabitants throughout France, by the king and his council at Paris,” writes the chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet, “but the Duke of Burgundy would not consent that it should be levied—which conduct gained him universal popularity throughout the kingdom.”5

This only intensified the Duke of Orleans’s “deep hatred” for his cousin, and over the next three years the two men jockeyed unceasingly for power: ingratiating themselves with the people of Paris by way of public grants and tax breaks, demanding special favors from the king, insisting on the command of various expeditions against France’s foes.

In 1407, on the Feast of Saint Clement—November 23—the Duke of Orleans was ambushed in the streets of Paris, late at night, by a gang of armed men. He was knocked off his horse and beaten to death in the street so savagely that, the next morning, his servants went back to scrape up the brain matter that had been scattered across the stones so that it could be buried with him; they also found his right hand, which had been severed in the attack.6

The ambushers had been hired by the Duke of Burgundy, which soon became clear when several of them bragged about the murder. “This was the cause of most disastrous quarrels,” says Monstrelet, “which lasted a very long time, insomuch that the kingdom was nearly ruined and overturned.” Fearing arrest, the Duke of Burgundy fled from Paris and made his way back to his own domains. But even with the truth of the assassination out, he remained popular. “The Parisians [had not been] well pleased with the Duke of Orleans,” Monstrelet adds, “for they had learnt that he was the author of all the heavy taxes that oppressed them, and began to say among themselves in secret, ‘The knotty stick is smoothed.’”7

Early in the spring, the Duke of Burgundy boldly returned to Paris and, with the help of the noted theologian Jehan Petit, mounted a public defense. The killing, he and Petit argued, was not murder, but tyrannicide, and so was both ethical and justified. Jehan Petit offered a syllogism to defend it (along with four hours of detailed supporting argumentation):

The major: It is permissible and meritorious to kill a tyrant.
The minor: The duke of Orleans was a tyrant.
The conclusion: Therefore the duke of Burgundy did well to kill him.8

Aristotle’s rules of thought had found yet another use.

Charles VI, anxious to keep the peace in Paris, granted his cousin a free pardon the very next day. The indignant supporters of the Duke of Orleans, led by his wife, at once formed an anti-Burgundy faction, uniting behind his son and heir: fourteen-year-old Charles, the new Duke of Orleans. The houses of Orleans and Burgundy appeared poised to throw the country into civil war.9

In 1410, young Charles married the daughter of the Count of Armagnac, and the Count became the leader of the anti-Burgundy party. From this point on, the partisans of the House of Orleans were known as the Armagnacs; they were from the west and the south and numbered among themselves the Dukes of Berry and Bourbon, and the Constable of France. The Burgundy party was from the north and the east.

Equally balanced in power, both parties hoped for the support of the new English king to break the stalemate.

HENRY V was crowned at Westminster on April 9, 1413, in the middle of a freak snowstorm that buried animals and houses and killed scores of men caught out unawares. Some Londoners muttered that the blizzard was a sign: the new king would be “a man of cold deeds, and severe.”10

He was twenty-seven years old, wound-scarred and experienced from his years fighting against the Mortimers and the Welsh. Almost at once, two sets of envoys arrived at the English court, one from the Armagnac party (which now counted Charles VI himself among its adherents) and one from the Duke of Burgundy, both asking to be “strengthened” in their struggle against the other party.11

Henry V was willing to help with the struggle. He offered to drive a bargain with the Armagnac party; he would defeat the Duke of Burgundy, in exchange for the crown of France, marriage with the king’s daughter Catherine, and a dowry of two million crowns.*

This was not so much an offer as an incitement to war. “And so,” says the Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, “hopes of peace were completely put to sleep.” The family struggle of the Valois had opened the door to English invasion.12

By the summer of 1415, Henry V had organized the ships, men, war machines, armaments and provisions needed to renew the war with France. He landed in Normandy on August 15 with nearly fifteen hundred ships behind him; they blockaded the coast while he laid siege to the coastal fortress town of Harfleur by land. His army, says Monstrelet, contained six thousand foot soldiers and twenty-three thousand archers; the force of archers probably numbered closer to ten thousand but the English longbows continued to be the most deadly weapon that the English kings had at their command. Harfleur held out for a month, with the English bombarding the walls with cannon by day and mining beneath them by night. Finally, the town surrendered; but in the meantime, dysentery had swept through the English tents. Thousands died; many more were forced to return to England. By the time he had accepted Harfleur’s surrender, Henry V had lost a good part of his army. He decided to march on towards Calais with the remnant: eight thousand archers and foot soldiers, “a great many of whom were [still] hampered by the dysentery.”13

The French response had been slowed by disagreement between the king’s counselors, and the unwillingness of the Burgundian and Armagnac parties to fight side by side. The army that finally came out to meet the advancing English troops was almost entirely Armagnac; the Duke of Burgundy had promised to come, but had not yet kept his word.14

On October 24, the two armies came in sight of each other, near the wood of Agincourt. That night they camped within earshot: the French “refreshed and with full stomachs,” the English badly outnumbered (at least three to one), “exhausted, weak, worn out with hunger and lack[ing] even supplies of water.”15


88.1 The Battle of Agincourt

The next morning, the French offered to carry out further negotiations, but Henry V ordered his men to begin the charge. The first volley from the English archers, coordinated into a single devastating hail, brought down the entire French front line; the horses behind, many of them wounded, wheeled and charged back into the massed ranks. Others slipped in the mud—the field where they fought was newly planted with grain—and trapped their knights. The English foot soldiers drove forward with “swords, hatchets, mallets, and bill-hooks,” slaughtering thousands. “Thus perished almost all the flower of French chivalry,” Walsingham writes. Among the captives taken alive was the Duke of Orleans himself.16

Perhaps eight thousand French soldiers died; the total may have been higher. English chronicles insisted that Henry V lost only twenty-seven men, but Enguerrand de Monstrelet offers the more realistic sixteen hundred. Either way, it was a shattering defeat for the French, a soul-fulfilling victory for the English.17

Spectacular though it was, the triumph at Agincourt did not give Henry the French crown. His weakened and weary men were in no shape to continue campaigning, so rather than attempting to push on to Paris, Henry V took his prisoners and his men to Calais and set sail for home, where he was hailed in London as the “King of England and of France.”

In the wake of Agincourt, the Count of Armagnac became Constable of France, but his high-handedness made him increasingly hated in Paris; not long after, he was murdered in a riot along with scores of other Armagnac cronies. Meanwhile, the Duke of Burgundy had opened secret negotiations with the English king, willing to entertain the idea of accepting the Lancaster king in place of the flawed and irrational Charles VI. He had begun to make strides towards a compromise agreement when he was assassinated by Armagnac thugs.18

In 1417, Henry V returned, a fresh army with him, and started to fight his way through Normandy. Rouen fell on January 19, 1419; it had been in French hands for two centuries, ever since the disastrous reign of King John, and its loss cut the heart out of the French resistance.19

By the end of 1419, the new Duke of Burgundy—Philip the Good, aged twenty-three—had managed to talk Charles VI into a compromise. He would remain on the throne of France, but Henry would become France’s regent. Henry, not the teenaged Dauphin, would become the king’s heir; and he would marry Catherine, guaranteeing that Charles VI’s grandchildren would still rule France.20

Charles VI, weary, ill, incoherent, agreed. The Treaty of Troyes, finalized in May of 1420, brought an end to “all manner of dissensions and wars” between the two countries. Two weeks later, Henry and Catherine were married in Troyes. After a single day’s honeymoon, Henry V went back to war. The Treaty of Troyes had promised him France, but after decades of incompetent and self-serving government, Charles VI controlled very little of the country. He had given it to his rival; but now Henry had to conquer it.


*At this time, the income of a fairly well-to-do knight was around 150 crowns per year, so the dowry was the equivalent of over thirteen thousand years of middle-class income.

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