Sad tidings bring I to you out of France, Of loss, of slaughter and discomfiture.
King Henry VI
And this same Wednesday was it told that Shirburgh is goon and we have not now a foote of londe in Normandie.
The Paston Letters
On 20 September 1435, less than a week after Bedford’s death, Charles VII and Philip of Burgundy signed the Treaty of Arras. In return for recognizing Charles as King of France, Philip received Macon, Auxerre and Ponthieu, together with the Somme towns and the royal lands north of that river (all territories which he already occupied). Charles ended his alliance with the Emperor and formally denied any part in the murder of Philip’s father, promising to punish the surviving assassins. He also agreed to erect a monument to the late Duke and have Masses said for his soul. In effect he abandoned what was left of the Armagnac party ; France was to be made whole, and later an edict ordered that anyone found guilty of using the names ‘Burgundian’ or ‘Armagnac’ should have his tongue pierced with a red-hot iron.
The Treaty was to prove a terrible mistake for the Burgundians—it meant not only the ruin of the dual monarchy but ultimately that of Burgundy too. Perhaps Philip thought Charles VII would be more dependent on him than Henry VI ; if so, he miscalculated, for Charles hated him. The two advisers who persuaded the Duke to abandon the English, Nicholas Rolin and Anthoine de Croy, were undoubtedly in Charles’s pay. One day Philip was to realize his blunder and marry his only (legitimate) son to an English princess.
England was shattered by Duke Philip’s betrayal. When Henry VI received a letter from him in which he was not addressed as Philip’s sovereign, the tears rolled down his cheeks. In London, mobs lynched Philip’s merchants and sang rude songs about the ‘false, forsworn Duke’. Counsellors like Cardinal Beaufort knew very well that the country could not continue the War against such odds, but did not see how to end it without enraging all England—the claim to the French throne might have been abandoned in exchange for Normandy and Guyenne in full sovereignty, if only Henry V had not made such a compromise morally impossible. The realism of Beaufort—the ‘luxury-loving prelate who was the favourite of the aristocracy’ as Perroy terms him—may have been preferred by certain magnates, but the House of Commons supported the Duke of Gloucester who led a War party. The ‘Good Duke Humphrey’, affable and charming, was also the darling of the London mob. Although frivolous and unstable, he had none the less fought at Agincourt and played an important role in the conquest of Normandy, and the ‘son, brother and uncle of Kings’ (as he signed himself) was both senior Prince of the Blood and heir presumptive. His position was made even stronger by Bedford’s death. But in 1435 Henry VI came of age at sixteen. He was completely under the thumb of the Beauforts and henceforward, despite loud protests, Gloucester had little influence on government policy.
The successor of Henry V and Bedford was a lanky, gangling, awkward youth with a pointed chin and mournful, worried eyes, weak in body and mind. Infinitely wellintentioned, gentle, pious and even saintly, he would have been far happier as an obscure monk. Detesting violence and cruelty, averse to any form of bloodshed, no man could have been less suited to late-medieval kingship. But he was as incapable of leading his country in peace as he was in war, for he had no understanding at all of politics or statecraft, and was a liability to the men who tried to govern for him.
The years from 1435 to 1450 constitute a protracted rearguard action by the English in France, and it is astonishing that they managed to hold on for so long after being deserted by the Burgundians. It took a reunited France to drive them out of the Ile de France completely, and when Charles VII at last rode into Rouen, Normandy had been English for thirty years—as though the German occupation of France had lasted until 1970. The English people now regarded Normandy and Calais almost as integral parts of their own country. When the end came it shocked all England and brought down the government of the day. The dynastic dispute had turned into a national struggle.
Soon after the Treaty of Arras there were risings all over Anglo-French territory. Dieppe, Fécamp and Harfleur fell to the enemy, Arques went up in flames. In February 1436 the Constable de Richemont with the Bastard of Orleans, Marshal de L‘Isle Adam and 5,000 men blockaded Paris, still held by the English, and contacted Burgundian supporters inside the city, which was once again threatened with famine. The English garrison under Lord Willoughby —the Bourgeois calls him the ‘Sire de Huillebit’—was weakened at Easter by 300 desertions, and the militia refused to man the walls. The starving Parisians began to riot, and on 13 April let down ladders to admit the Bastard with some picked troops who opened the gates. English archers were too late to stop them ; they had run through the empty streets, trying to cow the city by shooting at ominously shuttered windows, but when they found their way barred by chains and were fired on by cannon, they took refuge with the rest of the garrison in the Bastille. The houses of the English community were broken into and their contents plundered. The Constable replaced the city’s senior officials, though otherwise there was a general amnesty. Shortly afterwards Willoughby—a veteran of Harfleur and Agincourt—was allowed to withdraw with his men ‘by land and water’ to Rouen, departing amid hoots and catcalls.
The French, who began to refer to their foes as ‘English and Normans’, attacked up to the gates of Rouen. Yet Maine held, with a string of fortresses which shielded Normandy. King Charles, still poverty-stricken and as timid as ever, proved incapable of mounting an adequate offensive.
In July 1436 Burgundian troops began a siege of Calais. However, they failed to blockade it and the garrison’s sorties first demoralized the besiegers, then panicked them into flight by the end of the month. On 2 August Humphrey of Gloucester landed with a relief force and led a most effectivechevauchée against Burgundy, deep into Flanders, before returning in triumph to Calais. Many Flemish towns were encouraged to revolt against Philip, involving him in a struggle which continued until 1438. By then he was only too anxious to make peace with England, and in 1439 he concluded a truce—with commercial clauses—which lasted for many years.
If the English were unable to produce another Bedford or another Salisbury, they still possessed a formidable commander in the dashing Lord Talbot.
John, sixth Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford, Knight of the Garter and Count of Clermont, had been born about 1388. A scion of a long line of marcher lords on the Welsh border, he inherited a savage tradition and his first years as a soldier were spent fighting Owain Glyndr. In 1414 Henry V made him Lord Lieutenant in Ireland where he harried the wild kern amid their bogs and forests. Talbot’s French campaigns began in 1419 ; he was present at the siege of Melun in 1420 and at that of Meaux the following year, and later he fought at Verneuil. After a second term in Ireland he returned to France but, as has been seen, he was taken prisoner at Patay and spent four years in captivity. Since then ‘Old Talbot’ had caught the popular imagination with his string of victories. A portrait at Compton Wynyates shows an oddly modern face with strongly marked features beneath thick black hair. Impressive in manner, he was obviously afraid of nothing and his men worshipped him. While possessing an enviable grasp of strategy he had a curiously erratic sense of tactics. A master of the surprise attack, the raid and the skirmish, who knew just one order—‘Forward !‘—Talbot was really a dashing English version of du Guesclin, though without the Breton’s caution. Indeed he was defeated at the only two full-scale battles where he was in command. Nevertheless his opponents were terrified of him. The Irish lamented ‘there came not from the time of King Herod anyone so wicked in evil deeds’—and his name alone could make the French retreat.
In February 1436 Talbot was joined by the new Lieutenant-General of France—the enormously rich Duke of York, a young man of twenty-four whose small size and ugly features hardly matched his soaring ambition. If indecisive and a poor soldier, York was none the less an ally of Gloucester and a vigorous proponent of the War, and he co-operated with Talbot to such effect that the latter soon restored order in both Normandy and Maine. York himself managed to recover Dieppe and a number of towns in the Caux.
At the end of 1436 Poton de Xaintrailles and La Hire appeared in front of Rouen with 1,000 troops, but the citizens remained loyal and would not admit them. So they established themselves in the little town of Ris, ten miles away. Talbot, Sir Thomas Kyriell and 400 mounted men galloped from Rouen to Ris as soon as they learnt where the enemy was. They at once overran the French outposts on a small hill above the town and the fleeing survivors spread panic among their comrades ; when Talbot charged into the town there was no one to stop him, and he captured all the enemy baggage and some valuable prisoners. In January 1437 he and the young Earl of Salisbury took Ivry. The following month, despite bitter winter weather and deep snow and with only 400 men, Talbot recaptured Pontoise twelve miles from Paris, sending in troops disguised as peasants to open a gate to a storming-party camouflaged in white. The French garrison fled, led by Talbot’s former brother-in-arms, Marshal de L’Isle Adam. Talbot then appeared before Paris, where his men crossed the frozen moat and threatened to scale the city walls.
In the spring of 1437 the Earl of Warwick replaced the Duke of York as Lieutenant-General. Warwick was nearly sixty, at that time a ripe old age, but he still knew how to use Talbot. He sent him with 5,000 troops to relieve Le Crotoy on the north bank of the Somme estuary, which was besieged by twice that number of Burgundians. Talbot and his men waded across the famous ford of Blanche Taque a mile wide, although the water was chest-deep and the enemy had mounted cannon on the far bank. The Burgundians fled, abandoning their guns and baggage. Talbot also recovered Tancarville. Though Montereau, the last English fortress on the upper Seine, fell to the French in October, Paris was still so unsafe that when Charles made his joyeuse entrée he only dared stay there for three weeks.
In 1438 the French attacked Guyenne, the first serious invasion for nearly twenty years. At the same time the Castilian Rodrigo de Villandrando and his écorcheurs inflicted hideous devastation throughout the Guyennois countryside. Bordeaux was besieged but the enemy was short of cannon and soon retreated. Next year the Earl of Huntingdon recaptured all their gains.
Both sides again attempted to make peace. Significantly the King’s ships were laid up by the English and left to rot ; between 1437 and 1439 the derisory sum of £8 9s 7d was spent on them. Charles VII, for his part, was also discouraged ; he had only recovered the Ile de France and even then, to the east of Paris, Meaux held out in Champagne. In July 1439 a conference met between Calais and Gravelines, but the English still would not compromise over Henry’s title of King of France, and the War continued.
The great business of 1440 was the release of the Duke of Orleans who had been a prisoner in England since Agincourt. Henry V had told Bedford never to release him, so that his services would be lost to France ; and Gloucester was still fiercely opposed to letting him go, writing a long and angry ‘declaration’ to the King. Though most of the letter consisted of abuse of the Cardinal, his chief argument was that Orleans would become Regent and a most able one, as it was rumoured that Charles VII was ill. But Beaufort hoped Orleans might work for a general peace, and he may also have thought that the return of such a magnate would make France harder to govern. Moreover Orleans would fetch a valuable ransom—£40,000, one-third to be paid in advance. The money was collected by the Duchess of Burgundy who set up a fund and approached the entire French nobility; significantly King Charles did not contribute. Orleans was released in November 1440, promising to do his best to secure peace. The occasion was celebrated by a pontifical Mass on All Saints’ Day, from which Gloucester stormed out angrily. In the event Orleans’ political influence proved negligible and he retired to his châteaux to devote himself to his exquisite poetry and to good living. The English gained nothing apart from the ransom.
The War dragged on. The English had neglected to exploit Charles’s weakness when the magnates rebelled against him in the Praguerie earlier in 1440. Warwick had died in April 1439, worn out by anxiety. He was buried in the splendid chapel he had built at Warwick, no doubt paid for by monies won in France, where his superb effigy in its Italian armour may still be seen. After a brief tenure by the Earl of Somerset, the Duke of York began a second term as Lieutenant-General in July 1440. Talbot, who in a brilliant night-attack had repulsed a French attempt to take Avranches the previous December, besieged Harfleur in August 1440 with only 1,000 men and captured it in October.
In 1441 King Charles took Creil and Conflans, and in June laid siege to Pontoise which still threatened Paris. York and Talbot at once marched to relieve Pontoise with 3,000 men. Talbot, the real commander, manœuvred brilliantly, unexpectedly crossing the Oise on a pontoon bridge of portable leather boats and frightening Charles into abandoning first his headquarters at Maubuisson and then Pontoise. After marching and counter-marching, crossing and recrossing the Seine and the Oise, and only just failing to trap the French, Talbot relieved and revictualled Pontoise which he is said to have ‘refreshed’ five times. But as soon as Talbot returned to Normandy, Charles and his gunner, Maître Bureau, recommenced the siege in September, quickly breaching the wall with their cannon. Pontoise finally fell on 25 October; Lord Clinton, the garrison commander, survived to be ransomed but 500 of his men were put to the sword. The last English stronghold in the Ile de France had gone.
In the summer of 1442 King Charles invaded Guyenne. He captured the castle of Tartas and the towns of Saint-Sever and Dax, and took prisoner Sir Thomas Rempston, the Seneschal of Gascony. La Réole also fell, but its garrison held out in the citadel. However, the French failed to take Bayonne, let alone Bordeaux as they had hoped, although they menaced the capital until the end of the year. The English Council could not make up its mind whether to send reinforcements to Guyenne or to Normandy. Eventually Talbot was sent to the northern duchy with a new army of 2,500 troops, but Bordeaux was left to fend for itself.
Talbot had been in England where he had received an enthusiastic reception and was made an Earl. He had been a national hero for many years ; when he was captured at Patay in 1429 the fund for his ransom was widely subscribed. His triumphs in France were known throughout the land. Ordinary English people seem to have been surprisingly well informed about the progress of the War. Bishops were usually asked to pray for the success of major campaigns and then to hold services of thanksgiving or intercession (depending on the outcome); these were repeated at parish level and no doubt brought a certain amount of news. Great victories were celebrated by processions at St Paul’s and other cathedrals. There were proclamations read out in market-squares and at county courts. Then there were the ballads, such as that composed on the discomfiture of the Burgundians at Calais in 1436. Nor must ‘ale-house gossip’ be despised ; and a good deal of information must also have come via the retinues of the magnates, who kept open house. From the chroniclers it is clear that rumours were circulated by returned soldiers and were absorbed with avid interest.
The contemporary chroniclers’ pride in English victories is (by way of Holinshed) echoed by Shakespeare. He makes a French nobleman ask :
Dieu de batailles! whence have they this mettle?
Is not their climate foggy, raw and dull?
He boasts of his nation’s military superiority:
O noble English, that could entertain
With half their forces the full pride of France,
And let another half stand laughing by,
All out of work, and cold for action.
Indeed, King Henry V, despite anachronisms, accurately reflects how fifteenth-century Englishmen felt about the Hundred Years War.
In April 1443 Beaufort’s nephew, John Earl of Somerset, was made Captain General of France and Guyenne. It was a political appointment, as the Cardinal wanted to overshadow York. To add insult to injury the Council coolly asked York to ‘take patiens and forbere him for a tyme’ about the £20,000 he had spent on the War from his own pocket. Somerset, one of the most incompetent commanders of the entire War, landed at Cherbourg with 7,000 troops and led a seemingly aimless chevauchée through Maine and into Brittany. He refused to tell his plans to his captains, saying fatuously : ‘I will reveal my secret to no one. If my shirt knew my secret I would burn it.’ (Basin comments that even his shirt was incapable of divining something which did not exist.) His one positive action was to seize the Breton town of La Guerche, which he only returned to its Duke for a cash payment; it was not the best way of ensuring Brittany’s neutrality. After a few weeks he returned to England where he found himself a laughing-stock and was banished from court. He died shortly afterwards, some said by his own hand.
Yet the idea of a chevauchée was not altogether foolish. In 1435 that old vulture Sir John Fastolf, realizing that England could no longer afford the expense of long sieges, had proposed that two small armies of 750 men each under good generals should be sent onchevauchées every year from June to November, ‘burning and destroying all the lands as they pass, both house, corn, vines, and all trees that bearen fruit for man’s sustenance’, together with all livestock that could not be driven off. The object was to bring the enemy ‘thereby to an extreme famine’. However, his advice was not taken and English strategy generally continued to centre round holding and retaking strongpoints.
Fastolf’s career was one of the success stories of the Hundred Years War and is one of the best documented. He was born in 1380, the son of an esquire to Edward III. As a boy he was a page to the Duke of Norfolk. When he came of age in 1401 he inherited only a few farms near Caister and some tenements in Yarmouth, which gave him a total income of £46 a year. In 1409 he improved his finances by marrying Millicent Scrope, the elderly widow of a brother officer, but he gained more from the War, from offices, ransoms and loot. In 1413 he was made deputy constable of the castle and town of Bordeaux, in 1422 one of the King’s Counsellors in France, at a salary of £110, a post which he held until he left France in 1440. He was later Grand Master of the Duke of Bedford’s household. He held over twenty offices at various towns, including the Captaincy of Le Mans, the governorship of Maine and Anjou and finally the governorship of the Channel Islands. After his retirement from active service at the age of sixty, the Council continued to consult him on military matters (though like many other military advisers his advice does not seem to have been taken). His most spectacular coup, the capture of the Duke of Alençon at Verneuil in 1424, brought him prize-money worth £13,000 and with some of this he built his castle at Caister ; its tower had five stories of fine, large rooms with arcaded fireplaces and a summer and a winter hall with rich tapestry hangings. In 1445 his properties in Normandy were still worth £401 a year, though their value had been reduced by enemy raids ; they included ten castles, fifteen manoirs and an inn at Rouen. He foresaw the loss of Normandy and sold some of them. Even after losing the remainder, when he died in 1459 he was worth £1,450 a year from his English estates, nearly all of which had been purchased with his profits of war. The little Norfolk squire, who even at thirty-five had been only an esquire and household man to the Duke of Clarence, had become a Knight of the Garter, a French baron, and had he lived longer would almost certainly have become an English baron as well. In character he was typical of all too many English soldiers of the period. ‘Cruel and vengeable he hath been ever,’ wrote a contemporary who had crossed him, ‘and for the most part without pity or mercy.’
Both Fastolf and the humblest archer profited from the systematic sharing of loot, which was strictly enforced. Henry V’s ordinance of 1419 had confirmed the existing practice which continued until the very end of the War. ‘All maner of captaynes, knyghtes, squyres, men of armes, archers, what so euer they shall be bounde to paye the iijde parte of all theyre gaynes in warre faithfully, and wythout fraude, to theyre imediate captayne or maister, in payne of lesing the hooll.’ This applied to anyone accompanying the troops, ‘physiciens, surgens, barbors, marchauntes, and suche lyke’, who must hand in any plunder to a senior officer. A document survives which lists down to the smallest sum the profits of war made in the year 1443—1444 by the garrison of the fortified islet of Tombelaine, in the sea opposite Mont-Saint-Michel, ‘in the retinue of the high and powerful lord, my lord the ... Earl of Somerset, Captain of the said place’. The archer John Flourison (a Frenchman by his name) ‘took a horse; sold for 6 gold saluts ... took a prisoner ransomed for 12 gold saluts’, while the archer Roger Mill ‘won a sword sold for 37 shillings and 6 pence tournois’. The total of the archers’ profits was £28 17s 6d tournois (£3 4s 2d sterling), a third going to the men-at-arms ; of which third a third went to the captain, and of this captain’s third a further third went to the King. All was carefully registered by the garrison controller’s clerk and deputy, and then certified again by the controller himself under his seal.
By 1444 Cardinal Beaufort, grown very old, had withdrawn from politics. But his faction retained control, its leader being the Earl of Suffolk, whom Warwick had despised and whose régime was as harsh as it was incapable and corrupt, he and his greedy colleagues ruthlessly using their position to extort money, estates and commercial privilege, even employing their retinues to overawe law courts and seize desirable properties. Yet there was a better side to Suffolk ; he was a poet and even something of a mystic, loyal to his friends, and in his own incompetent way he tried to serve his King. After fighting in France for many years—with notable lack of distinction—he now agreed with the majority of the Council that England must make peace at all costs and would be lucky to retain Normandy and Guyenne.
Early in 1444, having first asked the Council for a formal indemnity from any blame, Suffolk led an embassy to a conference at Tours. The French were not prepared to make any concessions. In desperation Suffolk offered to surrender Maine in return for a two-year truce, presumably hoping to reach a lasting peace within that time ; he dared not make this clause public and so it was kept secret. He also betrothed King Henry to King Charles’s niece, the sixteen-year-old daughter of René of Anjou, titular King of Sicily.
News of the Truce of Tours was greeted with xenophobic fury throughout England. However, it was received very differently by the English in France—with ‘immense and indescribable joy’ according to Basin. This was the first break in hostilities since 1419, and after being ‘shut up for years behind town walls or in castles as though condemned to life imprisonment, living in fear and danger, they were marvellously happy at escaping from their long incarceration’, and ‘gave themselves up to dancing and feasting with yesterday’s enemies’. Basin’s description suggests what uncertain, claustrophobic and altogether terrifying lives the English must have led in Lancastrian France.
Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou were married in 1445. The beautiful foreign Queen, dark-haired and strong-willed, was hated from the very beginning, partly because she was a Frenchwoman and partly because of her support for Suffolk and her enmity towards the Duke of Gloucester. It was said that England had bought a Queen ‘not worth ten marks a year’, while in a contemporary English chronicler’s opinion : ‘Fro this tyme forward King Henry never profited ne went forward, but fortune began to turn fro him on al sides.’ Margaret speedily dominated her feeble, gullible husband, ensuring that he supported Suffolk, who was created a Duke in 1448. She also pressed Suffolk to honour his pledge to surrender Maine. News of the new Duke’s secret promise had, after all, leaked out, infuriating the English still further. They had reason to be angry; most of Maine was peaceful and apparently even loyal, while between its capital, Le Mans, and Alençon, the frontier made by the river Sarthe was held by a line of strong castles. But at the end of 1445 King Henry promised the French that he would give up Maine by the following April, the truce being extended until April 1447.
Before Maine could be surrendered, Gloucester and York would have to be muzzled. The former had already lost considerable prestige after the condemnation of his Duchess, Eleanor Cobham, in 1441 on a charge of trying to kill the King by witchcraft so that her husband could succeed to the throne. Moreover old Cardinal Beaufort had turned King Henry against his uncle. But Suffolk had to make sure. After circulating a rumour that Gloucester was about to rise in revolt, he arrested him without warning at Bury St Edmunds on 18 February 1447 : probably he died of a stroke brought on by rage, but public opinion believed that Suffolk had murdered the ‘Good Duke Humphrey’. The Duke of York, now heir presumptive to the throne, was recalled from France and sent to Ireland to keep him out of the way.
York was succeeded as Lieutenant-General at Rouen by the Duke of Somerset. On 16 March 1448, despite the unwillingness of their captains, Le Mans and the Maine fortresses were surrendered by specially appointed English commissioners. The truce between England and France was extended until April 1450.
Even in these last years the English behaved as though Normandy would stay in their hands permanently. Henry VI went on granting titles; as late as 1446 Sir William Bourchier, the Captain of Calais, was made Count of Eu. Perhaps there were fewer Englishmen in the duchy than might have been expected ; many settlers had intermarried and some had returned to England—at Harfleur in 1449 there were only 500 English compared with 10,000 put there by Henry V in 1416. But a generation of Normans had known no other government and were genuinely loyal to their English Duke ; there were Anglo-Normans now, just as for three centuries there had been Anglo-Gascons and Anglo-Irish. Indeed, Rouen may well have seemed more English than Dublin. The most solid symbol of Lancastrian rule was the beautiful gold salut, or Anglo-French crown, which continued to be struck until 1449.
England kept fewer troops than ever in the Norman garrisons. Moreover, arrears of pay caused mutinies and a stream of desertions which reduced the number still further : Henry VI’s annual revenue amounted to barely £30,000, when his household cost £24,000 a year and the Crown’s debts had grown to nearly £400,000.
By contrast, France’s finances were in good order. Charles VII’s officials had reintroduced the special taxes levied at the end of John II’s reign and were collecting them with a fair degree of success. Further, the rich merchant and tax-farmer, Jacques Coeur, was the King’s argentier—pay—master of the household—and could supply unlimited liquid cash. Indeed Coeur had amassed sufficient capital to finance campaigns on a truly vast scale.
Charles was already spending large sums on military reform, raising a standing army. In 1445 an edict established fifteen companies of 100 ‘lances’, each lance a unit of six men—a man-at-arms, two archers and three armed supernumeraries. By 1446 Charles had twenty such companies. Someone who saw them marvelled how ‘the men-at-arms were all armed with good cuirasses, armour for their limbs, swords and sallets [light helmets] and most of the sallets were adorned with silver’. The most radical innovation was that the troops were kept on in peace-time and not, as hitherto, dismissed at the end of every short period of hostilities. A real attempt was made to enforce some sort of discipline and to stop the men from living off the country and from levying the pâtis, and they were paid regularly every month. In 1448 another edict ordered the raising of 8,000 ‘franc-archers’ ; every parish had to contribute and equip a crossbowman or archer. Such troops were only paid in wartime but were exempt from taxes in time of peace. Charles also spent much money on artillery and acquired a remarkable master gunner, a Maître Jean Bureau, whom he commissioned to modernize his cannon. Previously the English system of indentured soldiers under contract had produced a professional fighting force infinitely superior to the undisciplined levies of France. But now the odds were in favour of the French with this new, full-time, properly paid army.
Above all the French King himself had at last matured. His natural astuteness and flexibility had been reinforced by an implacable determination. He became a good organizer and a subtle politician, ruthless and unscrupulous, with a nice talent for espionage and bribery—from the early 1440s he had in his pay carefully selected seigneurs in Normandy and Guyenne.
Despite the truce Somerset used the troops evacuated from Maine to seize two Breton fortresses. When King Charles remonstrated, he was told that Brittany was an English fief. Somerset, or perhaps Suffolk behind his back, then commissioned an Aragonese mercenary, François de Surienne (who rather surprisingly was a Knight of the Garter) to take his écorcheurs to seize and sack the prosperous Breton town of Fougères in March 1449. The truce had been broken, but what made the French particularly angry was the constant English pressure on the Duke of Brittany to abandon his alliance with France.
On 31 July 1449 Charles VII sent 30,000 troops into Normandy. They attacked from three directions—north, south and east. Instead of at least trying to concentrate his scattered handfuls of ill-paid, mutinous soldiers, Somerset left them in a score of garrisons and told them to hold on for as long as possible. Yet as he himself had reported that because of inadequate maintenance most English strongpoints ‘though they were stuffed with men and ordnance, they be so ruinous that they be unable to be defended’. In the north Pont-Audemer, Pont-l’Evêque and Lisieux had fallen by mid-August ; in the centre Verneuil, Mantes, Vernon and Argentan by early October; and in the south Coutances, Carentan, Saint-Lô and Valognes. Some commanders, especially the native Normans, opened their gates to the French without any attempt at resistance.
On 9 October Charles and the Bastard of Orleans (now Count of Dunois) encamped on the Seine only a few miles above Rouen. On 16 October the Bastard nearly rushed the walls, but Talbot managed to beat off the assault. However, the Rouennais had no intention of undergoing another siege like 1418 and rioted in the streets. Three days later a mob opened the gates and the entire English garrison took refuge in the citadel. Somerset had only 1,200 men, while ‘no corn, wood, meat or wine had been brought into the city for more than six weeks’ and he had no proper provisions. On 22 October Charles invested the citadel, digging trenches and erecting batteries. ‘Not a little alarmed‘, the Duke went out under a flag of truce to parley with the King, accompanied by forty knights and esquires and wearing ‘a long robe of blue figured velvet lined with sable fur and a hat of crimson velvet trimmed with sable’. Charles was unimpressed and sent him back. The French refused any terms which would not give them Talbot as a hostage. After twelve days of haggling, a surrender was agreed ; Somerset was allowed to retreat to Caen after handing over Talbot and promising to pay a large indemnity. Talbot had to watch glumly from a window as the French King made his ceremonial entry into Rouen, attended by his Garde Ecossaise. Shrewdly Charles issued an amnesty, pardoning the city’s clergy, nobles and burgesses. But all English houses, estates and movable goods were confiscated, the new French Seneschal receiving Somerset’s hôtel.
During the winter the French captured Harfleur, Honfleur and Fresnoy, Bureau’s excellent artillery battering down the walls. Bribery was another powerful weapon. Richard des Epaules, Captain of Longuy in Perche, received £450 tournois for surrendering his fortress, together with a confirmation of his captaincy—in Charles’s name. John Merbury, Captain of Gisors obtained £58 tournois for yielding Gisors. The Welshman John Edwards extracted no less than £4,500 tournois (£500 sterling) for La Roche Guyon. By the following spring the English retained little more than the Cherbourg peninsula.
The invasion of Normandy had taken all England by surprise. There was an outcry at the loss of Rouen. £10,000 was sent to Somerset, but no immediate reinforcements. In October 1449 Sir Thomas Kyriell KG, a former Captain of Gisors, began to assemble a force at Portsmouth. Billeted in the hospice called ‘God’s House’, the troops got completely out of control, drinking and robbing, so that because of mutinies and adverse winds Sir Thomas was unable to sail for several months.
Eventually Kyriell landed at Cherbourg on 15 March 1450, with a mere 2,500 men. Instead of marching to relieve Bayeux as ordered, he delayed in the Cotentin to besiege Valognes. (Later Sir John Fastolf was highly critical of this ‘negligently tarrying’, which allowed the French to bring up troops.) Sir Thomas then begged Somerset for more men. The Duke sent what he could—500 from Caen under Sir Robert Vere, 600 from Vire under Sir Henry Norbury and 800 from Bayeux under Sir Matthew Gough. The combined army, just over 4,000 strong and with Gough as second-in-command, finally began to march inland towards Bayeux on 12 April.
The Constable de Richemont and the Count of Clermont planned to intercept them. After Kyriell had crossed the river Vire, by a dangerous causeway four miles long over the estuary, on 14 April he camped in a valley near the little village of Formigny some ten miles from Bayeux. Inexplicably he stayed at his camp throughout the following morning. Early in the afternoon the English outposts suddenly sighted Clermont’s troops advancing down the road from Carentan to the north-west. Sir Thomas hastily formed up his troops—he had about 800 men-at-arms, the rest being archers—in a long line on top of a ridge above the valley, with three wedges of bowmen in the centre and on the wings who planted their stakes in front of them and dug small trenches with their daggers. (Ironically, it was the formation of Crécy and Agincourt.) Their rear was protected by a brook lined with trees and gardens.
Clermont, who himself had only 3,000 men, dismounted them and tried a probing frontal assault. It was easily repulsed, as were mounted charges on the wings. After a frustrating three hours the French brought up two culverins (small cannon) to make the English archers leave their positions. The bowmen did so with a vengeance, running forward and capturing both guns. If Kyriell had followed up now with his men-at-arms, he would have probably won the battle. But the French were allowed to rally. They then attacked the archers in the flank, recapturing their culverins and engaging the English in a general mêlée. The English might still have won—but then the Constable appeared from the south without warning, with 1,200 fresh troops. Clermont disengaged his men to prepare a final charge in conjunction with Richemont. Kyriell must have seen that they were doomed, but he reformed his own troops into a semi-circular line—though this prevented the archers from concentrating their fire—to receive a concerted attack from both the west and the south. The English were already weakened and when the assault came, despite a brave defiance, they were driven back to the brook where they were broken. Matthew Gough and a few men managed to cut their way out and reach Bayeux, but Kyriell was captured and most of his men were slain. Next morning the heralds counted 3,774 English dead. Formigny was the first decisive battle lost by the English since Bannockburn in 1314.
In June 1450, Caen was besieged. After three weeks of bombardment, Somerset surrendered—one of Bureau’s cannon-balls had smashed into a room occupied by the Duke’s wife and children, which no doubt helped to make up his mind. He was allowed to retire to Calais. Vire, Bayeux and Avranches had already fallen. Falaise surrendered on 21 July—in return for Talbot being set at liberty—and Domfront did so ten days later.
The last stand was made at Cherbourg by Thomas Gower, who commanded a garrison of a thousand men. Bureau mounted his batteries on the sand on the seaward side, waterproofing them with greased hides when the tide came in and returning after it had gone out to continue the cannonade. ‘The town received such a heavy battering from cannons and bombards that the like had never been seen before,’ says the anonymous continuator of Monstrelet’s chronicles. Gower fought with determination and many of the besiegers were killed, including the Admiral Prégent de Coëtivy. In England Sir John Fastolf was trying desperately to assemble a new army. But on 12 August 1450 Cherbourg surrendered. Save for the Channel Islands, the French had reconquered all Normandy.