Post-classical history

3 : Born to Be King

On 17 August 1424, eight thousand men stood ranked together on the plain outside the fortified town of Verneuil, in eastern Normandy, and braced themselves for the charge. Opposite them bristled a massive army, loyal to the dauphin – or, as he would have it, Charles VII of France. Charles himself was not present, but his distant cousin Jean, count of Aumale, a twenty-eight-year-old prince of the French blood who had been fighting the English since his teenage years, commanded between fourteen and sixteen thousand troops, all heavily armed and prepared to fight to the death. Above Aumale’s army blew flags and pennons representing men of various origins: Frenchmen stood shoulder to shoulder with six and a half thousand Scottish men-at-arms and archers and a contingent of Spaniards, all of whom were flanked, most menacingly, by two divisions of cavalry from Lombardy, a region of northern Italy famous for producing the finest armour and the most terrifying and stoutly protected mounted warriors in Europe. The juddering approach of these powerful and heavily shielded horses, together with the bright glint of the lances and breastplates of their riders, was enough to strike mortal fear into the hearts of any man who saw them. There may have been as many as two thousand of these galloping agents of death in the French army. The wide, unprotected plains of Verneuil were the perfect territory for them. It was a fearsome sight.1

The eight thousand men who prepared to confront these fearsome horsemen and the thousands of infantry they accompanied were an army of Englishmen and Normans under the command of John duke of Bedford. The regent of France led his army wearing a surcoat decorated with both the white cross of France and the red of England – a potent sign of the dual monarchy he represented. Over the top he wore the blue velvet robes of the Order of the Garter. Beside him in the field stood Thomas Montacute, earl of Salisbury, a grizzled veteran who, at thirty-six, was one of the most famous soldiers in Europe. They formed an impressive pair of leaders, but for all their personal honour and experience, they could not ignore the facts of the battlefield, which seemed overwhelmingly to favour the enemy.

Bedford and Salisbury’s men were arrayed to anticipate the danger that the cavalry, in particular, would pose. An armoured horse and rider charging at full speed could just as well knock a soldier to the ground and crush him as gore him with the thrust of a lance. The force of hundreds of cavalry arriving at the same time could scatter an army into terrified chaos before the hand-to-hand fighting even began. So just as at the battle of Agincourt, the English archers protected their lines by hammering sharp wooden stakes into the ground, as vicious obstacles to check the cavalry charge. The large body of English and Norman men-at-arms – dismounted knights who fought in armour with swords, axes and daggers – were grouped together in one huge division. Horses and baggage wagons were tied together behind them to create further defensive barricades. The rest was entrusted to God.

The battle began, as expected, with a charge of the Lombard cavalry, who hurtled towards Bedford and Salisbury’s centre. They collided with such force that they drove straight through the middle of the English line, splitting the entire army in two, emerging at the rear and proceeding to attack a lightly armoured reserve force who had been kept back to guard the baggage train. The reservists leapt on their horses and fled from the battlefield in fear. The Lombards gave murderous pursuit. Behind them, the French and Scottish men-at-arms waded towards the now broken line of English foot-soldiers and the chaotic one-to-one crowded fighting known as the mêlée began.

‘The battle was a bloody one; no one could tell who was winning,’ wrote a Parisian diarist, who was not an eyewitness at Verneuil, but managed to capture in one phrase the reality of so many medieval battles.2 As soon as the cavalry charge had passed, the duke of Bedford is said to have exhorted his troops to fight not for ‘winning or keeping worldly goods, but only to win worship in the right of England’.3 Thereafter he showed them the way, fighting manfully with a poleaxe, while Salisbury displayed the martial skill and bravery that had made him a hero of the French wars. It was a desperate fight, waged with violent intensity on both sides. At one point the English standard – the flag that marked the central position of the army – fell to the ground. Traditionally this was a sign that an army was defeated, but a Norman knight threw himself into the French lines and managed single-handedly to retrieve it.

The day was eventually won by this sort of courage: Bedford’s men simply ground their way to victory in hand-to-hand combat rather than by following any orders of tactical military brilliance. Noble-blooded men-at-arms fought alongside peasant-born archers, all devoted to the same cause. They managed to slaughter enough of the French and Scots to ensure that when the Lombards returned to the field following their rout of the English reserve, they found the battle already over, and English horsemen now thundering about a broken enemy, despatching anyone within reach as they tried to flee.

It had been a most extraordinary victory. Accounts of the battle credit Bedford with generalship at its purest and most inspirational. More than seven thousand French and Scots were massacred in the fields of Normandy that day. Some of the dauphin’s finest commanders were killed, including Aumale and the two Scottish leaders, the earls of Buchan and Douglas. Several others were taken prisoner. When Bedford returned to Paris to give thanks for his victory at Notre-Dame, the people of the city turned out dressed all in red and cheered him in the streets. He was received, said one writer, ‘as if he had been God’.4

The battle of Verneuil was the military high point of John duke of Bedford’s regency in France, and of English fortunes on the continent as a whole. For the duke’s reputation it was a triumph: he had won against the odds, seemingly through the sheer application of honour, bravery and personal skill. It was a fitting triumph for a man who would always strive above all other things to preserve the memory of his eldest brother, Henry V. Verneuil also fitted well with another of Bedford’s great devotions, to the cult of St George. (The portrait of the duke in the Bedford Hours, a sumptuously illustrated devotional text that he commissioned in 1423, shows him kneeling in fine embroidered robes before the solemn figure of his favourite saint, who wears full armour and the robes of the Order of the Garter.5) The victory seemed to give the Almighty’s own approval to the cause of the dual kingdom: a sign that all the lives and all the money that had been spent by the English pursuing the dreams of Henry V and his Plantagenet forebears had been justified.

If Verneuil was the apex of England’s military fortunes and of Bedford’s personal command, the years that followed comprised a slow and painful descent from glory, victory and supremacy. The occupiers sought with increasing futility to convince first the enemy, and then themselves, that the English kingdom of France was something that could be realistically maintained.

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It is not hard to understand why Henry V, on his deathbed, had recommended his brother for the regency of France. Tall, strong-limbed and physically imposing, with a large, beak-like nose, the duke was level-headed and conspicuously faithful. He was deeply pious and, although capable of severity and even cruelty to those who offended him, genuinely committed to fair governance and the provision of justice. He had a good understanding of the realities of occupation, and in Normandy in particular he strove to govern through the native institutions, employing Normans in positions of power and making sure that large numbers fought in the armies that defended their territory from Charles VII’s forces. Although Bedford lacked a major military victory until Verneuil, he was trusted and aided by experienced and tough English war captains such as Salisbury, Sir John Fastolf, Thomas, Lord Scales, Sir William Oldhall and John Talbot. Bedford was also personally invested in the wider politics of the French wars: he was married to Anne of Burgundy, the sister of England’s most important foreign ally, Duke Philip, and together the couple established a stunning court. It gathered in Bedford’s numerous houses in Paris, Rouen and elsewhere, all of which fairly groaned with the vast collections of art, books, treasure, tapestries and religious vestments to which Bedford had long devoted himself. As a later fifteenth-century chronicler would write, the duke physically ‘represented the person of the King of France and England’, and he made sure that he lived up to the image his position demanded.6

The position, however, was not a simple one. The English kingdom of France was on the face of it the fullest occupation of its sort in Europe for nearly four hundred years, since William the Conqueror had invaded and conquered Anglo-Saxon England in 1066. The Anglo-Burgundian alliance controlled nearly half the landmass of the realm, from the county of Flanders in the north to the duchy of Gascony in the south, and from the borders of Brittany in the west to the banks of the river Meuse in the east. A heavy garrison policy in Normandy had entrenched English rule across the duchy. In addition to the men who could be summoned from these garrisons to fight on the front line, a regular stream of hired soldiers contracted for six months or a year at a time swelled the English forces during campaigning season.

The twenty-one-year-old dauphin was exiled from the sacred heart of his own realm as the English flag flew over Rouen, the capital of Normandy, and the three holiest sites of French kingship: Reims, where French kings were consecrated; Paris, where they ruled; and St Denis, where they were laid to rest. Newly minted French coins bore the arms both of France and England, an angel resting a hand on each. Meanwhile, laws had been passed in Normandy forbidding any reference to the enemy as Frenchmen: those who opposed the English occupiers were only to be known by their factional name of Armagnacs, while Charles VII was to be described merely as ‘he who calls himself the dauphin’. Punishments for flouting the new rule, whether in speech or in writing, were severe: a fine of ten livres tournois (£583) would be levied for a first offence by a nobleman and a hundred sous (£292) for a commoner, with the tariff increased tenfold for a second offence, rising to confiscation of all goods for a third.7 These were vast sums, equal to many years’ income; if offenders could not pay they were to have their tongues pierced or their foreheads branded.

Yet English authority, dominant as it was, could not be described as universal. For as long as the dauphin was at large, there was an alternative centre of political power in France. Without a full military victory, Bedford could not claim full legitimacy for English rule – a state of affairs further undermined by the fact that Pope Martin V adamantly refused to endorse the treaty of Troyes, denying the full moral weight of the Church to Henry VI’s claim to the crown. There was a lean, dangerous Norman resistance movement: gangs of brigands roamed free, kidnapping, robbing, extorting, looting, burning property and taking – and sometimes torturing – hostages. These insurgents combined a basic self-help ethic and criminal instinct with the timeless righteous resentment of a conquered people. One band of thieves and robbers in Normandy, led by the brigand captain Jean de Hallé, did not baulk at kidnapping monks, or torturing women by forcing them to drink vast amounts of water until their stomachs and intestines ruptured. Hallé’s crew robbed for personal gain, but also wore uniforms and swore a general oath to ‘do everything in [their] power to damage and injure the English’.8

So as Bedford waged war to defend English authority, to pacify the population in the conquered lands and to attempt to push the Armagnacs further south below the banks of the river Loire, he also embarked upon a propaganda campaign designed to appeal to all Frenchmen living under the nominal rule of the young king across the water, who in French regnal terms was to be known as Henri II. Little did Bedford know that the means by which he carried out this campaign would be much imitated in England, many decades after his death.

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In 1425 a canon from Reims was forced to seek a pardon from the English regime for visiting the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris and vandalising a large bill-poster that had been hung on the wall by Bedford’s orders.9 The image he had damaged was a family tree illustrating King Henry VI’s descent from the ancient kings of both England and France. It had been placed there on the orders of the duke of Bedford, and it was one of many such posters which had been mass-produced and distributed about France in order to convince the common people that in Henry and his representative, Bedford, they had a ruler who was king not merely by right of conquest, but also by blood. Throughout the occupied territories, English genealogies were distributed as handbills or hung in churches and cathedrals to capture the eye and, it was hoped, the imagination of the common people.

We know what the Notre-Dame family tree probably looked like from a later copy, made on the order of John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury, during the 1440s.10 (See plate section.) It was both complicated and alluringly simple. At the top was a roundel showing Louis IX of France – St Louis as he had been known since his canonisation in 1297 – the pious and magnificent Capetian king who had reigned in the thirteenth century. Behind the roundel was a large teardrop-shaped background decorated with tiny fleurs-de-lis. Beneath Louis came his descendants, Philip III and Philip IV, followed by Philip IV’s four children, Louis X, Philip V, Charles IV and Isabella: the last generations in the house of Capet. Meanwhile, running down either side of the poster were two subsidiary lines of descent. On the left was the house of Valois, on the right the English royal house of Plantagenet, beginning with Edward I. On the English side, the table showed Philip IV’s daughter Isabella marrying Edward II of England in 1308. Following that union came an apparently direct line of descent from Isabella to Henry V. In neat symmetry on the French side, the title of the house of Valois was shown to descend from Philip VI to Catherine de Valois. Catherine meets Henry V at the bottom of the poster – their marriage under the treaty of Troyes depicted in neat, diagrammatic form – and from those two apparent scions of the royal houses, out popped the last image in the table: Henry VI himself, sitting regally upon a throne, with angels swooping down to place two crowns upon his head.

The message was clear: Henry VI was king of France because of who he was, not what his father’s armies had done. A claim staked out in blood was more permanent and sacred, and Henry’s emergence at the end of a lineage begun with the holy figure of St Louis implied that his very being was a source of unity rather than division. He was the true heir of France’s holiest ruler; his destiny to be the restorer of a divided house. And all of this was done not by conquest, but by rightful inheritance. The tidiness and symmetry of the genealogy and the historical story it told gave the poster an intrinsic, satisfying beauty.11

Posters like this were usually accompanied by a poem composed by one of Bedford’s clerks, Lawrence Calot, which outlined the claim in more detail.12 In England the poem was translated by the court poet John Lydgate, its content very little changed. To quote Lydgate’s version, the poem praised ‘Henry the sext, of age ny five yere renne, / Borne to be king of worthie reamys two’. It then made direct reference to the genealogy it accompanied, and proclaimed at great length Henry VI to be:

An heir of peace by just succession,

This figure maketh clear demonstration

[ … ]

That this Harry in the eighth degree

Is to saint Louis son and very heir

[ … ]

That this Harry standing in the line,

Through God’s hand and purveyance divine,

Is justly born, to void all variance,

For to be king of England and of France.

Like the dynastic diagram it commented upon, the poem – both Calot’s version and Lydgate’s translation – was rather elegant. It was also a total deception: fudging numerous genealogical facts and pointedly ignoring the French principle of Salic law, which dictated that the crown could never pass through a female. In a limited sense this did not matter: as punishment for his act of vandalism the clerk from Reims was forced to pay for two new copies of Henry’s doctored family tree. But in the broader scheme of politics, it mattered very much. It was not bloodstock that would decide who triumphed in France, but blood spilled on the battlefield.

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Although the duke of Bedford was forced to split his attention between England and France in order to keep order between his brother and his cousin, in the aftermath of Verneuil the war effort continued broadly successfully, so that by September 1428 the dauphin’s forces had been pushed back almost wholly beyond the river Loire. That month, English forces began a siege of the town of Orléans. It ought to have been a straightforward matter, but it proved to be the point from which the whole English position started to deflate, thanks to the improbable intervention of a young woman called Jehanne d’Arc (usually anglicised to Joan of Arc), nicknamed the Pucelle, or the Maid. The political confidence and propaganda value she offered the dauphin and his allies would prove to be worth more to the French cause than any number of dynastic handbills.

The army that besieged Orléans was commanded directly by Salisbury, with an authority that stood largely independent of Bedford’s. This arrangement had been made in England by the duke of Gloucester, who envisioned a much more aggressive foreign policy than most of the rest of the council, particularly Bedford and Beaufort. Bedford’s conservative strategy was to attack the relatively lightly defended town of Angers, but this advice was ignored as Salisbury and his large, well-equipped and handsomely paid-for army instead marched 150 miles further up the Loire to attack the far more difficult and prestigious target of Orléans.

Orléans was a large city, stoutly defended both by the geography of the Loire and a series of massive walls, gates and towers. Salisbury stormed the nearby countryside, cutting off Orléans from the neighbouring settlements of Jargeau, Meung and Beaugency. Then he besieged the town, firing on its walls with cannon and instructing his miners to dig below its fortifications. All seemed promising until, as a long siege through the winter months beckoned, disaster struck. Salisbury was surveying the town’s defences on 27 October when he was hit by debris thrown up by a stone cannonball fired across the river from the turrets of Orléans. Shards of flying masonry tore off half the flesh from his face: a mortal injury from which he took a full agonising week to die.

Salisbury’s death was a disaster. ‘[He] was a noble lord and a worthy warrior among all Christian men,’ wrote the author of the Brut Chronicle.13 The English were from this point committed to a lengthy siege, but had lost the only commander in their ranks who was capable of winning it. Salisbury was replaced by William de la Pole, the thirty-two-year-old earl of Suffolk – a valiant and experienced soldier, but not of the same stature as the man he replaced. The English attempted to rally under Suffolk, battering the walls of Orléans with guns and fortifying the countryside where they could to make it as inhospitable and dangerous as possible to any who might think of coming to the aid of the citizens. But there remained a basic shortage of men. The English could not storm the heavily defended city; indeed, they remained unable even to surround its entire circumference. Inside Orléans the townsmen settled in for a long winter siege. The English beyond the walls did what they could to prevent anyone passing in or out. The winter months ground by in a long, tedious and uncomfortable stalemate.

Then, at the end of February, Joan of Arc appeared. The seventeen-year-old, illiterate peasant girl had travelled from Domrémy in south-east France to the dauphin’s court at Chinon, disguised beneath drab, grey male clothes and a pudding-bowl haircut. She had been driven, she later said, by divine voices that had been guiding her actions since the age of thirteen.14 She believed it was her mission to raise an army, relieve the siege of Orléans and escort the dauphin to Reims in order to have him crowned king of France. At Chinon and Poitiers she was repeatedly interrogated by Charles’s clerics, who were puzzled by this curious, intrepid and determined countryside maid. In the end, they decided that there was little to be lost by testing her out. Joan was granted her wish. In late April she dressed in male armour and rode to Orléans aboard a white horse. Behind her was an army several thousand strong, with a group of priests by her side and armed with an ancient sword, later rumoured to be that of Charles Martel, the legendary eighth-century king of the Franks. They reached the city on 29 April and found the besieging forces’ lines weak and undersupplied.

When the English first heard about Joan they scoffed and screwed up their faces in disgust. A woman riding in male armour, with her hair cropped short, was nothing short of abominable: cross-dressing was forbidden by biblical law, and Joan’s appearance seemed to be yet another sign of the decadence and godlessness of the French. Joan had dictated letters to the English from the dauphin’s court some weeks before her arrival at Orléans, in which she warned Suffolk and his men to clear out of the occupied lands or lose their heads by her hand. At the time this had been treated as an absurdity, and Joan was dismissed as nothing more than an Armagnac whore. Yet now, here she was: armed to the teeth, bursting with godly zeal and backed by a substantial body of troops with which she aimed to drive the English away from the walls of Orléans and relieve the long and miserable siege.

On her arrival, Joan wasted little time. Her men attacked the English where their thinly spread lines were feeblest: to the east of the city, where a single small fortification was easily overwhelmed by a concerted French assault. With almost astonishing ease a hole was punched in the siege lines, and it remained open long enough for the radiant Joan to gallop into an overjoyed city, waving a white flag and resembling – to the citizens at least – a vision sent from heaven. She was given a townhouse for her lodgings and then, remarkably, began to direct relief operations from behind Orléans’s long-battered walls.

With Joan inside the town, and her army outside led by Jean count of Dunois – a man better known by his sobriquet ‘the bastard of Orléans’ – operations to relieve the town began in earnest. On 4 May the French army began to raid and burn English siege fortifications, starting at the weakest point in the east, the same spot where Joan had been spirited in behind the walls. In one day’s fighting, the bastard of Orléans’s men did enough damage to open a permanent route in and out of the town. This was a serious blow to Suffolk’s siege effort: six months of numbing boredom, during which the English had tried to starve their opponents into submission, was ended in twenty-four hours. The next day, Joan sent another message to the enemy to warn them that this was only the beginning. ‘You men of England, who have no right in this kingdom of France, the King of Heaven orders and commands you through me, Joan the Pucelle, to abandon your strongholds and go back to your own country,’ announced a note fired into the English camp by an archer on 5 May. ‘If not, I will make a war cry that will be remembered forever.’ Once again, the English laughed. But this time their laughter was decidedly less assured.

At dawn on 6 May, another Armagnac assault began, driven by a new zeal, which seemed almost visibly to radiate from the person of the Pucelle. As the English siege positions came under fierce attack, she rode around in the centre of the fighting, her white standard fluttering as blood sprayed up around her. At one point the blood was her own: an arrow fired from an English-held tower sliced through the flesh of one of her shoulders. God, however, was smiling upon his appointed agent, and Joan staggered on, almost oblivious to her wound, spurring the Frenchmen forward. Relieving troops and liberated citizens alike swarmed over the English positions, capturing them one by one, slaughtering enemies and sending waves of sheer panic through the living. At night, bells of celebration clanged and jangled from the churches of Orléans, rung with glee by men and women who knew that they were winning their freedom. Within three days the French had fully relieved Orléans, and the English were retreating up the Loire at such speed they were forced to abandon their cannon and heavy weaponry as they went.

The loss of Orléans began a serious collapse in the English position. Reinforcements were sent, but more strongholds began to fall along the Loire. On 18 June 1429 the confused English army was drawn into a battle at Patay, just north of Orléans, for which they were totally unprepared. They were annihilated by the French vanguard: more than two thousand men were killed and every captain save Fastolf was captured. In a matter of months, fortunes in occupied France had been dramatically reversed. The dauphin’s forces marched through Anglo-Burgundian territory, towns falling before them without a fight. On 16 July the dauphin entered Reims, and the following day he was anointed with holy oil and crowned King Charles VII, with Joan of Arc standing proudly by the altar. All the genealogical propaganda in the world could not obscure the fact that France now had a ceremonially anointed king – and that he was not called Henry.

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The dreadful news from France was described in the minutes of the English privy council as ‘diverse great and grievous adversities’. It demanded an urgent response.15 There was one obvious course of action. In the first week of November 1429, after a period of very hasty preparation, London and Westminster welcomed the young king, still only seven years old, to his English coronation.

The ceremony by which kings were crowned was one of the most important spectacles in English political life, and it had become increasingly elaborate over the centuries since the Norman Conquest. In 1423 a book outlining the order of service for crowning French kings had come into the duke of Bedford’s hands, and the English ceremonial had been upgraded once again to give it Frankish pomp. Events took place over several days. The first stage was Henry’s formal entry to the capital. ‘The Friday, the third of November, the King with his lords … rode from Kingston over London Bridge,’ wrote the author of the Brut Chronicle. ‘And the Mayor and the Aldermen, all in scarlet hoods, rode to meet the King.’ The citizens accompanied him to the Tower of London where, the next evening, Henry sat in splendour to receive thirty-two young noblemen, who were ritually washed and dubbed knights of the Order of the Bath. On Sunday he proceeded out of the Tower to parade before his subjects, and to make his way to Westminster Abbey for the coronation proper. He rode bareheaded through the cramped streets of the city accompanied by his great lords, who were dressed for the most part in gold. Inside Westminster Abbey a great scaffold had been erected, to allow a good view to the congregation. Henry’s mother Catherine and her ladies sat in pride of place near the altar, near the king’s cousin Pedro, prince of Portugal, who had returned in haste to the country he had visited earlier in the decade, in order to attend the ceremony.16

The earl of Warwick carried Henry into the church, then led him up the scaffold to his seat in the centre, from where he surveyed the crowds around him, according to Gregory’s chronicle, ‘sadly and wisely’. Henry Chichele, archbishop of Canterbury, addressed the assembled realm, telling them Henry had come before God and the Holy Church, ‘asking the crown of this realm by right and descent of heritage’. The congregation gave a roar, throwing their hands in the air and crying ‘ye, ye’, while young Henry walked before the great altar and prostrated himself for a long time before it.

What followed took hours. Throughout the ceremony bishops gave readings and sang anthems over the king’s body, while he was made to lie down, stand up, lie down and stand up again, as well as being undressed, redressed and paraded around in the most elaborate costumes: first girded with the spurs and swords of a warrior, then in a bishop’s robes and sandals, before finally being arrayed in gleaming cloth of gold, with Richard II’s crown placed on his head since the traditional crown of Edward the Confessor was deemed too weighty for a seven-year-old. At the heart of the ceremony was the anointing: the most mysterious and permanent part of kingship, a rite that could never be undone. Henry stood in his undershirt while his little body was touched systematically with a miraculous oil said once to have been given by the Virgin Mary to St Thomas Becket. Holy oil was poured from a golden eagle-shaped ampulla onto Henry’s breast ‘and the midst of his back, and his head, all across his two shoulders, his two elbows [and] his palms of his hands’.17 These were then dabbed with a soft white cotton cloth, while a white silken coif was placed on his head. It was to be worn for eight days, at the end of which a group of bishops would ceremonially clean Henry’s head with lukewarm white wine. (This was one of the least comfortable aspects of the coronation: Henry’s grandfather, Henry IV, had developed head lice after he was crowned in 1399.) After many hours of such solemn proceedings, capped by the celebration of the mass, the newly crowned king processed from the abbey to Westminster Hall for a feast in which every dish carried messages about the splendour of Henry’s dual kingship. The first course featured (edible) fritters decorated with fleurs-de-lis and a decorative ‘subtlety’ showing Henry being carried by St Edward the Confessor of England and St Louis of France – his two holiest royal ancestors. The second course saw more tarts dusted with fleurs-de-lis. The subtlety brought out with the third course featured Henry presented to the Virgin and Child by St George and St Denis. A poem accompanied its presentation, praising the young king, ‘Born by descent and title of right / Justly to reign in England and in France’. Then, as soon as the festivities at Westminster were over, preparations began to take the young king to his much-advertised second kingdom.

On St George’s Day, 23 April 1430, a massive expedition left the ports of Sandwich and Dover, bound for Calais. This was essentially a mobile court, complete with hundreds of servants, cooks, clergymen, clerks, soldiers, doctors, the king’s teachers, eight dukes and earls, and the king himself. After a short stay in Calais, the court moved slowly to Rouen, and bided their time until the route up the Seine to Paris was thought safe enough for the king to travel.

They would wait more than a year. After heavy fighting, aided by large numbers of soldiers sent from England at vast cost, a route was finally cleared. The process was helped immensely by the capture by Burgundian forces of Joan of Arc on 23 May 1430 during a skirmish outside the besieged town of Compiègne. Although she attempted several times to escape from prison, she was always recaptured. She was finally sold to the English and tried as a heretic, in deeply partisan proceedings underpinned by the occupiers’ desire for revenge on a woman who had humiliated them for many years. Just over a year after her capture Joan was burned to death in the market square at Rouen on 31 May 1431. Her ashes were scooped up and thrown in the Seine.

In early December Henry made his way north-east to Paris. It remained impossible to crown him in Reims, but the ceremony could just as well be held at the cathedral of Notre-Dame, where all Anglo-Burgundian France could gather with sufficient magnificence. The king entered the city beneath a giant azure canopy decorated with fleurs-de-lis, and rode along dirty streets sanitised by being draped with linen. One was turned into a river of wine, thronging with mermaids, while seasonal Christmas plays were performed on an outdoor stage by citizens in elaborate disguise. A giant lily spouted milk and wine for the crowds to drink. In a presentation to the king at the Châtelet (a seat of government on the right bank of the Seine), a pageant was displayed on a stage decked with gold, tapestries and the dual arms of England and France: a lookalike Henry VI sat centre stage in state, wearing a scarlet hood, while actors playing the dukes of Bedford and Burgundy held up to him more English and French arms, along with various documents advertising the king’s ‘rightwiseness’.18 All of this pageantry was highly amusing and agreeable even to the most sceptical observers. Yet there was heartbreak amid the festivities: Isabeau of Bavaria, widow of the mad king Charles VI, grandmother of the young king and mother of the dauphin, was present in the city, staying in the Hôtel St Pol. An eyewitness wrote: ‘When she saw the young king Henry, her daughter’s son, near her, he at once took off his hood and greeted her, and she immediately bowed very humbly towards him and then turned away in tears.’19

On a freezing Sunday 16 December 1431, Henry’s second coronation finally took place. Despite all the grandstanding, it did not strike observers as anything like as impressive an occasion as that which had taken place in Westminster. It was carried out in a hurry, and the Parisians felt peeved that Cardinal Beaufort performed the coronation, rather than a native bishop. Due to the crush of people, pickpocketing was rife. The hall prepared for the banquet was too small, and the food, wrote an eyewitness, was ‘shocking’. It had been cooked too far in advance and was not even considered suitable to be sent as leftovers to the city’s paupers.20

The court enjoyed Christmas in Paris, but Henry was whisked back to Rouen by the first week of the new year, and left Calais for Dover on 29 January 1432. It was noted that he left Paris without carrying out any of the usual bequests of a new king: releasing prisoners, cutting taxes and offering a few legal reforms. Henry was the first king ever to be anointed as ruler of the two realms. But it was very clear which one he preferred.

He returned to London on a bright, windy Thursday in March and was greeted with a now familiar scene. ‘He came to London, and there was worshipfully received of the citizens in white gowns and red hoods,’ wrote one chronicler.21 The sheer volume of public display and spectacle announcing the child’s all-conquering status was visually dazzling, technically impressive and very expensive. It also spoke to the seriousness with which Henry’s polity on both sides of the Channel took his claim to the dual monarchy, and how fervently they were willing to protect his father’s legacy. Yet at the same time, it demonstrated the hollowness of the two crowns. The louder the English shouted about Henry’s hereditary right to rule over France, the more obvious was their basic insecurity. As long as the dauphin lived, an anointed rival with a separate centre of political gravity and claim to rightful kingship, English propaganda was just that: parchments and pageantry inflicted on an increasingly uneasy populace.

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