Post-classical history

I

BEGINNINGS
1420–1437

‘We were in perfect health.’

KING HENRY VI (aged seventeen months)

1 : King of All the World

She was married in a soldier’s wedding. Shortly before midday on Trinity Sunday in June of 1420, a large band of musicians struck up a triumphant tune as the elegant parish church of St Jean-au-Marché in Troyes filled with splendidly dressed lords, knights and noble ladies, gathered to observe the union of two great families who had long been set against one another. The archbishop of Sens conducted the solemn proceedings in the traditional French fashion as Catherine de Valois, youngest daughter of the mad king of France, Charles VI, and his long-suffering wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, was wedded to Henry V, king of England.

Catherine was eighteen years old. She had delicate features, a small, prim mouth and round eyes above high cheekbones. Her slender neck bent very slightly to one side, but this was a lone blemish upon the fine figure of a princess in the flush of youth. The man she was about to marry was a battle-hardened warrior. He had pursed lips and a long nose, characteristic of the line of Plantagenet kings from whom he was descended. His dark, slightly protruding eyes bore a close resemblance to those of his father, Henry IV. His hair was cropped fashionably short and his face was drawn and clean-shaven, showing scars including one deep mark dating back to a battle fought when he was just sixteen, when an arrowhead had lodged deep in his cheek, just to the right of his nose, and had to be cut out by a battlefield surgeon. At thirty-three, Henry V was the finest warrior among the European rulers of his day. His appearance on his wedding day was appropriately grand. ‘Great pomp and magnificence were displayed by him and his princes, as if he were at that moment king of all the world,’ wrote the high-born and well-connected French chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet.1

The war-torn countryside around Troyes, the ancient capital of the French county of Champagne, nearly one hundred miles south-east of Paris, had been bristling for a fortnight with English soldiers. Henry had arrived in town on 20 May, accompanied by two of his three brothers, Thomas duke of Clarence and John duke of Bedford, a large number of his aristocratic war captains and some sixteen hundred other men, mostly archers. There was no room for them within the town walls, so most of Henry’s regular men had been quartered in nearby villages. The king himself was staying in the western half of town at a smart hotel in the marketplace called La Couronne (‘The Crown’). From this base he conducted himself in high majesty during negotiations for a final peace between the warring realms of England and France.

In the seven years that had passed since his father’s death in 1413, Henry V had settled an anxious realm. His father’s reign had been beset by crises, many of them stemming from the fact that in 1399 he had deposed the ruling king, Richard II, and subsequently had him murdered following an attempt to rescue him from jail. This was the violent beginning to an unstable reign.

Richard had not been a popular king, but Henry IV’s usurpation had triggered a crisis of legitimacy. He had suffered long-running financial problems, a massive insurgency in Wales under Owain Glyndwr and a series of northern rebellions, during one of which the archbishop of York was beheaded for treason. He had been very ill for long stretches of his reign, which had led to clashes with his sons – particularly the young Henry – as they strove to exercise royal authority on his behalf. For all that Henry IV had tried to govern as a mighty and authoritative king, he had found himself reliant on the men who had helped him acquire the throne in the first place: principally his retainers from the duchy of Lancaster, which had been his private landholding before he was crowned. This caused a long-running split in English politics, which only his death could remedy. It came, after his final illness, in the Jerusalem Chamber of the abbot’s house in Westminster on 20 March 1413.

The accession of Henry V – king by right, rather than conquest – reunited England under an undisputed leader. Henry was a vigorous, charismatic, confident king: an accomplished general and an intelligent politician. His reign was notable for success in almost every area of government and warfare. Early on he made significant gestures of reconciliation, offering forgiveness to rebels of his father’s reign, and exhuming Richard II from his burial place in King’s Langley, Hertfordshire, and transferring his remains to the tomb Richard had commissioned, alongside his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, in Westminster Abbey. The central mission of his reign was to harness his close relations with his leading nobles to lead a war against France. In this he had been wildly successful: in less than two years of fighting Henry had pushed English power further into the continent than at any time since the rule of Richard the Lionheart more than two centuries before.

Catherine’s marriage to this energetic young warrior-king represented the culmination of this audacious foreign policy. Kings of England had been fighting their French cousins for centuries, but only rarely with real success. Since 1337 the two kingdoms had been engaged in a period of particularly bitter hostility, which we now call the Hundred Years War. Many territorial claims, counter-claims and squabbles were folded into this complex and long-running dispute. Underpinning them all was a claim first made by Henry’s great-grandfather, Edward III, to be the rightful king of both realms. Not even Edward, a superb campaigner and wily politician, had managed to realise this aim, but in marrying Catherine, Henry was about to come tantalisingly close. With the treaty of Troyes, sealed in the city’s cathedral on 21 May, Henry had not only secured for himself a French bride. He also became, as he announced in a letter he dictated, ‘Henry by the Grace of God, King of England, Heir and Regent of the Realm of France, and Lord of Ireland’.2 The treaty of Troyes redirected the French succession, disinheriting Catherine’s seventeen-year-old brother Charles, the last surviving son of Charles VI and Queen Isabeau, in favour of Henry and his future children. The French crown would pass for the first time into English hands.

*

The treaty of Troyes and the royal marriage that followed were made possible by the woeful condition of the French crown. For nearly thirty years Charles VI had been suffering from a combination of paranoia, delusion, schizophrenia and severe depression, which came in bouts lasting for months at a time. He suffered his first attack while leading an army through the countryside near Le Mans on a hot day in August 1392. Dehydrated, highly stressed by a recent assassination attempt on one of his close friends, and frightened by a local madman who had shouted out that he faced treachery on the road ahead, he had been overcome by a violent fit and had attacked his companions with his sword, killing five of them in an hour-long rampage.3 It took him nearly six weeks to recover, and from this point his life was dogged by psychotic episodes.

Physicians at the time blamed Charles’s mental abnormality on an excess of black bile, the ‘wet’ or melancholic humour which was thought to make men susceptible to stress and illness. It was also speculated that his weak constitution was inherited: Charles’s mother, Jeanne de Bourbon, had suffered a complete nervous breakdown following the birth of her seventh child, Isabelle. 4 Whatever the diagnosis, the political effects of the king’s condition were catastrophic. Incapacitating bouts of madness returned every year or so, crippling him physically and mentally. He would forget his own name and the fact that he was a king with a wife and children. He treated the queen with suspicion and hostility and tried to destroy plates and windows bearing her arms. At times he trembled and screamed that he felt as though a thousand sharp iron spikes were piercing his flesh. He would run wildly about the royal residence in Paris, known as the Hôtel St Pol, until he collapsed from exhaustion, worrying his servants so much that they walled up most of the palace doors to stop him from escaping and embarrassing himself in the street. He refused to bathe, change his clothes or sleep at regular intervals for months on end; on at least one occasion when servants broke into his chambers to attempt to wash and change him they found him mangy with the pox and covered in his own faeces. A regency council was established to rule France during his increasingly frequent periods of indisposition. Yet even when Charles was deemed sane enough to rule, his authority was debilitated by the fact that he might at any moment relapse into lunacy.

The madness of King Charles had caused a power vacuum in France. All medieval crowns relied on a sane and stable head beneath them, and Charles VI’s derangement was responsible for – or at the very least severely exacerbated – a period of violent unrest and civil war which erupted in 1407 between two powerful and ruthless groups of French noblemen and their supporters. The initial protagonists were Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and Louis de Valois, duke of Orléans, who was the king’s brother. They quarrelled over land, personal differences and – above all – their relative influence over the regency council. When Louis of Orléans was stabbed to death in the streets of Paris on 23 November 1407 by fifteen masked men loyal to Philip the Bold’s son and heir John the Fearless, murder and treachery became the defining characteristics of French politics. Louis’s eldest son, Charles, built an alliance with his father-in-law, Bernard count of Armagnac, and France swiftly divided into two rival power blocs as the leading men of the realm split their allegiance between the warring parties. The stand-off between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs had begun.

Henry V had played the two sides of the French civil war against one another with startling success. In 1412 he signed a treaty with the Armagnacs, offering them his support in return for a recognition of English lordship over several important territories in south-west France: Poitou, Angoulême and Périgord, all of which had ancient connections to the English crown. The treaty did not last long. By 1415 Henry had increased his demands to include English sovereignty over Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine and Brittany. This was no arbitrary clutch of estates: he was claiming the lands once controlled by his twelfth-century Plantagenet ancestors, Henry II and Richard the Lionheart. When the Armagnacs refused, Henry invaded Normandy and besieged and conquered Harfleur, the port town at the mouth of the Seine. He then raided his way across the French countryside before finally engaging an enormous French army at Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day, Friday 25 October 1415.

The two armies met on a ploughed field, the mud beneath their feet thickened by heavy rain. Despite the size of the French army, which was perhaps six times as large as Henry’s, superior tactics and outstanding generalship gave the English the advantage. Henry relied heavily on the use of longbows, which were capable of causing havoc on a crowded battlefield. The king protected his archers from cavalry attacks by driving sharpened stakes into the ground around them. And the bowmen repaid him: firing volley after volley through the air towards the French and their horses, and the men-at-arms who attempted to cross the battlefield on foot. Numerical advantage meant nothing when the sky rained arrows, and a terrific slaughter ensued. In the words of one eyewitness, ‘the living fell on the dead, and others falling on the living were killed in turn.’ The deaths were disastrously one-sided: more than 10,000 Frenchmen were killed for the loss of perhaps as few as 150 English.5

To prevent any threat of the enemy regrouping, Henry ordered thousands of prisoners and casualties to be killed when the battle was over, with only the highest-ranking spared for ransom. Yet despite this unchivalrous and ruthless command, he had won an astonishing victory, and was hailed as a hero. When the news of Agincourt reached England, wild parties broke out, and when Henry returned to London following the battle he was greeted like a new Alexander. Girls and boys dressed as angels with golden face-paint sang ‘Hail flower of England, knight of Christendom’, and huge mock-castles were erected in the streets. ‘It is not recorded’, wrote one admiring chronicler, ‘that any king of England ever accomplished so much in so short a time and returned to his own realm with so great and glorious a triumph.’6

In the years that followed Agincourt, Henry returned to France to make even more spectacular gains. In July 1417 he launched a systematic conquest of Normandy, landing in the mouth of the river Touques, before besieging and brutally sacking Caen, followed by the important military towns of Exmes, Sées, Argentan, Alençon, Falaise, Avranches and Cherbourg, along with every significant town and castle in between.7 Rouen, the capital of the duchy, was besieged and starved inhumanly into submission between July 1418 and January 1419: refugees cast out of the city were refused passage through the English lines and simply left to die of hunger in no-man’s land. By the late summer Henry had become the first English king effectively in command of Normandy since his ancestor King John had been chased out by Philip II of France in 1204. Paris lay within his sights.

With the English menacing their way down the Seine towards the French capital, all of France descended into terrified chaos. Had the Burgundians and Armagnacs been able to resolve their differences and oppose Henry as one, the realm might have been saved. They could not. At a crisis meeting held between the factions on a bridge in the town of Montereau on 10 September 1419, John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy – who had claimed control of the king, queen and court – was murdered by an Armagnac loyalist who smashed his face and head with an axe. (Many years later the duke’s skull was kept as a curiosity by the Carthusian monks at Dijon; the prior of the monastery, showing the skull to the visiting King François I, explained that it was through the hole in his cranium that the English had entered France.) Queen Isabeau and the Burgundians now viewed any other end to the war as preferable to making peace with the detested and treacherous Armagnacs. They sued for peace with Henry, offering him the greatest gift in their possession: the French crown.8 Charles VI was so far gone that he was quite unfit to take part in the negotiations pertaining to the future of his own crown. The peace was sealed in the cathedral of Troyes on 21 May 1420. Its very first clause provided for the marriage of the princess Catherine and Henry V, king of England and now ‘Heir and Regent of the Realm of France’.

Catherine’s marriage was therefore momentous for both royal houses. French princesses had married Plantagenet kings before: indeed, it was the union between Edward II of England and Isabella of France in 1308 that had mingled rival royal blood sufficiently to provoke the Hundred Years War in the first place. Never before, however, had an English and a French dynasty come together with the specific aim of settling their two crowns on a single king, as would now be the case whenever the merciful death of the poor, demented, fifty-one-year-old Charles finally came.

The ceremony had its moments of splendour. One later chronicler recorded that on their betrothal Henry had given Catherine a beautiful and priceless ring as a token of his esteem.9 He certainly gave a generous cash gift of two hundred nobles to the church in which they were married. French protocol was followed, so a procession would have made its way on the night of the wedding to the couple’s chamber, where the archbishop blessed the royal bed and gave them soup and wine for their supper.10

When Henry’s English guests wrote newsletters home, they referred to the celebrations in only the most cursory fashion. There were more important matters at hand. Immediately after the couple were married, the king told the knights in his company that they would be leaving Troyes directly the next day to lay siege to Sens, a day’s march to the west, where Catherine’s brother Charles, now a pretender to the throne, was ensconced with his Armagnac supporters. There would be no ceremonial jousting held to mark the royal wedding. According to a Parisian diarist of the times, Henry told his men that fighting for real at Sens was of infinitely greater value than the mock-battle of the tournament field: ‘We may all tilt and joust and prove our daring and worth, for there is no finer act of courage in the world than to punish evildoers so that poor people can live.’11

As Henry and his followers marched off to pursue their long and bloody war, Catherine was allowed to travel with her mother and father. She spent the winter watching her husband’s men move from town to town, laying sieges and either starving or slaughtering their enemies into submission. On 1 December 1420 she watched as her father accompanied Henry on his first formal entry into Paris, where the treaty of Troyes was formalised and the official process of disinheriting her brother – referred to in official English documents as ‘Charles, bearing himself for the Dauphin’ – was completed.12 Two months later Catherine set sail from Calais for Dover, leaving behind the country of her birth to begin a new life across the sea. She landed on 1 February 1421 and immediately prepared for her coronation.

*

The England in which Catherine arrived early in 1421 was a strong, stable realm, more politically united under Henry’s leadership than perhaps at any time in its history.13 During the long centuries of Plantagenet rule, English kings had steadily increased the scope of their power, governing in (usually) fruitful consultation with their great magnates, barons, the commons in parliament and the Church. England was unmistakeably a war state, taxed hard to pay for adventure overseas, but in the aftermath of Agincourt and the steady succession of victories that followed, the realm endured its financial burdens buoyed by a strong sense of triumph. Although Thomas Walsingham, a monastic chronicler based in St Albans, Hertfordshire, wrote that the year preceding Catherine’s arrival had been one ‘in which there had been a desperate shortage and want of money … even among the ordinary people scarcely enough pennies remained for them to be able to lay up sufficient supplies of corn’, he noted that it was also ‘a year of fertile crops and a rich harvest of fruit’.14

The most common medieval analogy for a state was the literal body politic, with the king as the head. ‘When the head is infirm, the body is infirm. Where a virtuous king does not rule, the people are unsound and lack good morals,’ wrote the contemporary poet and moralist John Gower.15 In this respect, England and France could not have been more different. Henry was without doubt a virtuous – perhaps even a virtuoso – king and his realm had accordingly flourished. He had enjoyed a thorough political education in adolescence that in adulthood manifested itself in strong and capable kingship based confidently on his birthright. He was personally charismatic, liked and trusted by his leading nobles, and successful enough in war to create a tight-knit military fraternity. He had three loyal and able brothers: Thomas duke of Clarence, John duke of Bedford and Humphrey duke of Gloucester, all of whom were of great value both in governing the realm and in pursuing the war abroad. Henry met with the approval of the English Church for his vigour in hunting out Lollards, a heretical sect who followed the teachings of the scholar John Wycliffe and held unorthodox views about the dogma of the Catholic Church and the validity of her teachings. He taxed his realm relentlessly, but his personal household expenses were markedly frugal, his exchequer competently run and his war debts relatively controlled. He pleased the people in the shires of England with a tough but impartial drive to re-establish the rule of royal law and stamp out the disorder that had bedevilled his father’s reign. Criminals were often drafted into military service, where their violent instincts could be safely satisfied pillaging and burning among the villages of France.16

May gracious God now save our king,

His people and his well-willing;

Give him good live and good ending,

That we with mirth may safely sing,

Deo gracias! [Thanks be to God!]17

So went a popular song of the time – and with good reason, for the prosperous kingdom of England reflected all the virtue of its mighty ruler.

Catherine’s place in her new realm was established immediately on her arrival. The French chronicler Monstrelet heard that she was ‘received as if she had been an angel of God’.18 The nineteen-year-old queen was provided with a personal staff of her husband’s choosing. The information that reached Walsingham from court was that the queen’s household consisted almost entirely of noble Englishwomen. ‘Nor did any Frenchman remain in her service except for three women of good birth and two maidservants.’19 On 24 February she was crowned at the church of St Peter in Westminster, and celebrated with a feast attended by most of the English nobility and James I, king of Scotland, a long-term captive at the English court. ( James had been seized by pirates off the English coast in 1406 when he was twelve and had inherited the crown during his captivity, over the course of which he also received a full education and was generally treated as an honoured guest.) The feast was a showcase for English cuisine. Since it was Lent, no meat was served, but the tables groaned with eels, trout, salmon, lampreys, halibut, shrimps and prawns, great crabs and lobsters, whelks, jellies decorated with fleurs-de-lis, sweet porridges and creams. The ‘subtleties’ – non-edible but visually extraordinary dishes that announced each course of the meal – featured pelicans, panthers, and a man riding on the back of a tiger. In each subtlety the new queen was represented as St Catherine with her wheel, defending the honour of the Church.20

After the coronation, Catherine left Westminster and joined the king on a tour of the midlands. She travelled through Hertford, Bedford and Northampton on her way to Leicester, where she celebrated Easter with Henry. She found England a profitable and hospitable country. ‘From the cities thus visited the king and queen received precious gifts of gold and silver from the citizens and prelates of each town,’ wrote the chronicler John Strecche.21 But Henry did not tarry long in England. Shortly after Easter he received news that his eldest brother, the duke of Clarence, his deputy and lieutenant in France, had died fighting in Normandy. The war would not wait, and in June 1421 the king and queen crossed the channel again for Calais. Catherine was three months pregnant.

*

The queen’s condition meant that she did not stay long in France. She left Henry campaigning against her brother and returned to England to give birth to a rival heir to the French crown. For good fortune on the perilous journey through childbirth Catherine brought with her a treasured relic: the foreskin of the Holy Infant, which was known to be a valuable aid to women in labour.22 With its help she delivered a healthy baby boy in the royal palace at Windsor on 6 December, the feast day of St Nicholas. Every bell in London was rung at once to celebrate the news, and Te Deums were sung in the city’s churches.23 Inevitably, the child was named after his father. But the two Henries were never to meet.

Henry V’s heroic victories on the battlefield had enabled him to manufacture a situation in which he could claim to be the rightful king of two realms. The task of turning this into a political reality, however, strained every fibre of his formidable being. His intervention in French politics had deepened the rift between the Burgundians and Armagnacs, since to the latter the war now appeared to be nothing less than a struggle for existence. Forces loyal to the dauphin dug in, garrisoning castles wherever they could, determined to resist Henry at any cost. Conquest, it was clear, would be a slow and increasingly draining endeavour.

From October all through the winter of 1421–2, Henry led an operation to besiege Meaux, a small town a few miles north-east of Paris. Meaux was heavily fortified and its defenders put up a fierce resistance. The siege began late in the year, lasted for more than six months, and was a miserable experience for both sides: the garrison was slowly starved while the besiegers outside suffered the horrible privations of winter warfare. It was a long and ugly way to fight a war, but if Henry was to force the whole of France to observe his rights under the treaty of Troyes, he would have to break the most entrenched of the resistance to his rule.

Towards the end of May, Catherine returned to France to visit her husband, leaving her baby son at home in England, under the care of his nurses. She spent a few weeks at his side, along with her parents. But it was clear as summer arrived that not all was well with the king. At some point, probably in the squalor of the siege of Meaux, Henry V had contracted dysentery. The ‘bloody flux’, which brought the agonies of intestinal damage and severe dehydration to the sufferer, was very often fatal, and Henry knew it. He was an experienced soldier and would have seen many of his men suffering the same fate. Henry was cogent and pragmatic enough as the illness worsened to make a detailed will, outlining his wishes for the political settlements in England and France after his death. He died in the royal castle at Vincennes between two and three o’clock in the morning on 31 August, a little more than two weeks short of his thirty-sixth birthday. With the same bewildering swiftness that had characterised his life’s every action, England’s extraordinary warrior-king was gone. At home a baby not quite nine months old was set to inherit the crown, the youngest person ever to become king of England.

If the new king were to live beyond infancy – and of this there was no guarantee – England would now face the longest royal minority in its history. Precedent was not promising. Three English kings since the Norman Conquest had inherited the crown as children, and all had endured very difficult times. Henry III was nine years old when he became king in 1216, and in his early years he was dominated by overbearing ministers who used royal power to enrich themselves and their followers. Edward III had been thrust upon the throne at fourteen in 1327 after the forced abdication of his father, Edward II, and for the next three years power had been greedily and murderously wielded by his mother, Isabella of France, and her feckless lover, Roger Mortimer, until they were deposed in a bloody palace coup. Richard II was the most recent king to have inherited the crown as a child, in 1377, when he was ten years old. An attempt had then been made to govern as if the boy-king was a competent adult. It was a dismal failure. Within four years of his accession England’s government had almost been brought down by the Peasants’ Revolt – the great popular rebellion of 1381 – and Richard’s subsequent path to adulthood was beset by political faction and upheaval. He bore the psychological scars to his death.24 The book of Ecclesiastes expressed perfectly England’s experience of immature monarchs: ‘Woe unto thee, O land, when thy king is a child …!’25

Matters grew even more complicated when, on 21 October 1422, Charles VI died. He was fifty-three and probably died from causes connected to his longstanding illness. The infant Henry of Windsor was now not merely the new king of England. He was also, under the terms of the treaty of Troyes, the heir to the English kingdom of France, a political entity that was still the subject of a furious war. The French king’s body was laid to rest in the mausoleum at the abbey church in St Denis. His queen Isabeau would continue to live in the Hôtel St Pol in what was now effectively occupied Paris. Once a powerful, if controversial, force in guiding the realm during her husband’s bouts of lunacy, her political days were now over. The English spread scurrilous (and most likely false) stories of her outrageous promiscuity and claimed, all too conveniently, that the dauphin was not really the son of Charles VI. As far as the conquerors from across the sea were concerned, the death of the mad king left them in charge of France. At Charles VI’s funeral, Henry V’s eldest surviving brother, John duke of Bedford, had the sword of state carried before him, a gesture intended to demonstrate that he was now, as his nephew’s representative, the effective power in the realm.

Yet for all the grandstanding and triumphalism, there was no getting away from the truth, which was that the first king of the dual kingdom was a tiny, helpless baby. An unprecedented and extremely delicate military situation would have to be managed for nearly two decades without a competent hand to guide the way. Only disaster, surely, could await.

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