Post-classical history


The End: ‘A Dismal Fight’ 1450—1453


... a dismal fight
Betwixt the stout Lord Talbot and the French.

King Henry VI

Is this the scourge of France?
Is this the Talbot, so much fear’d abroad,
That with his name the mothers still their babes?
I see report is fabulous and false.

King Henry VI

Talbot’s expedition to Guyenne of 1452—1453 was a final effort by an exhausted England. The campaign demonstrated a revolution in military technology, French cannon proving more effective than English bows. Fittingly, of the two commanders the Frenchman was a self-made man and an artisan, the Englishman a great noble and preux chevalier.

The English could scarcely believe they had lost Normandy. But refugees were swarming across the Channel. Some of the officials found new posts in England, among them a few Normans—such as Raoul le Sage, Seigneur of Saint-Pierre, and the Abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel—while several became royal ‘secretaries of the French tongue’, employed for correspondence with France. Others were not so lucky. Those who suffered most were the soldiers. Sir Andrew Ogard MP3 did his best to help troops from his captaincy of Caen ; in his will of 1454 he wrote how they ‘came out of Normandy in great necessity as starving beggars’. The chronicler Robert Bate records how a large sum was raised to ship these men to Bordeaux ‘to save and keep the King’s right there’, but the money was embezzled so they had to stay and ‘became thieves and murderers in various places of this land’. It was not only the troops who suffered. In 1452 some ‘churchmen, nobles, soldiers and others’ from Maine petitioned Henry VI for relief; they had had to abandon ‘their many benefices, lands, lordships, estates and pensions’ in Maine and then during the conquest of Normandy had lost the movable goods upon which they and their families depended and ‘at this moment the majority of them are utterly ruined and in a state of beggary’. A note written on the document says that the petition was not granted, adding sombrely that many petitioners had been reduced to destitution, that ‘some for grief became ill and died; others were imprisoned for theft and condemned to death by law ; while others still remain, as rebels, in the Kingdom of France’.

As soon as the French had invaded Normandy a rumour had spread throughout England that the duchy had been sold by Suffolk and his government. In January 1450 the Bishop of Chichester, Adam Moleyns—the former Privy Seal and a close friend of Suffolk—was murdered at Portsmouth by Kyriell’s troops when bringing them their pay, lynched as a traitor who had betrayed Normandy to the French. Before Moleyns died he seems to have said something implicating Suffolk. On 28 January the House of Commons accused the Duke of selling the realm to the French. In February they charged him with taking money for Orleans’s release, plotting a French invasion, accepting bribes to stop reinforcements reaching Normandy and Guyenne, and selling secrets of English defences in France ; in March he was impeached for treasonable relations with the French, corruption and mismanagement. King Henry tried to save him by banishing him, but when Suffolk attempted to flee to Calais in April he was intercepted by a ship called the Nicholas(possibly on the orders of the Duke of York); on 2 May he was taken into a dinghy and made to lay his neck on the gunwale, then his head was hacked off with six strokes of a rusty sword.

At the end of May, before Cherbourg had fallen, Jack Cade (or ‘John Amend-all’), a reputed Irishman and undoubted murderer who had served very briefly in Normandy, raised the men of Kent in a peculiarly ugly rebellion. One of their grievances was the betrayal in France, Sir John Fastolf being unfairly accused of running down the garrisons. If there were other reasons, notably corrupt and extortionate government, the loss of Normandy was the spark. This rising, joined by a surprising number of local gentry and even by parish constables, was a far more dangerous affair than the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The rebels reached Blackheath, then retreated before royal troops, but when the King withdrew to Kenilworth they came back, entering London on 3 July, freeing the prisoners in the Marshalsea and storming the Tower of London. There they found the Treasurer, Lord Saye and Sele, whom they dragged off to a tavern in the Cheap where they beheaded him. Many of Cade’s followers were disillusioned by the looting, and after a fierce battle on London Bridge with government troops under ‘the good old Lord Scales’ and Sir Matthew Gough—fresh from Normandy—which lasted throughout the night of 5 July, the rebels fled from the capital. Cade was pursued to Sussex where he was caught and killed.

The Duke of Somerset was summoned from Calais to restore order. He was soon accused of being responsible for losing Normandy and spent a brief period in the Tower, but was saved by Queen Margaret who restored him to power. However, his government was too insecure and distracted to ward off new disasters in France. For Charles VII was now turning his attentions to Guyenne.

Here such peace had prevailed in recent years that between 1445—1449 Guyenne exported more wine to England than ever before. To begin with the French invasion met with little success; Guyenne had belonged to the Plantagenets for 300 years, not a mere thirty, and by and large the Guyennois remained loyal to the English Duke and his distant rule. Nevertheless, as soon as he had conquered Normandy, Charles held a council of war at Tours and although it was so late in the year decided on immediate invasion. The Count of Foix came down the valley of the river Adour to take fifteen towns round Bayonne, while the Count of Penthièvre, who had brought a strong artillery-train, took Bergerac in October, and Bazas. Penthièvre then advanced on Bordeaux, routing the city militia at Blanquefort in November before retiring to winter quarters. The English tried to assemble an army of relief under Lord Rivers, but it never set sail.

In April 1451 the Bastard of Orleans also invaded Guyenne, bringing with him Maître Bureau and an even more imposing artillery-train. He advanced on Bordeaux. He quickly took Blaye, Fronsac and Saint-Emilion, isolating the ducal capital, which he invested. Despite a brave defence by the Captal de Buch, Gaston de Foix KG, Bordeaux surrendered on 30 June. By the end of July only Bayonne held out for the Plantagenets, and that too fell on 20 August. Bribery contributed a good deal to the speed of the French conquest ; Bergerac is said to have been betrayed by its Captain, Maurigon de Bideron—who also sold the castle of Biron—and the English Mayor of Bordeaux, Gadifer Shorthose, received a pension for his disloyal services.

However, although some Gascon nobles at first welcomed the French, the Guyennois quickly began to hate their new masters. The northern French administrators and tax men proved harsh and efficient, contemptuous of the old ways, while Charles’s troops behaved as unpleasantly as the English soldiers had in Normandy. In 1452 secret envoys reached London and promised the Duke of Somerset that Bordeaux would rise for him if he sent an army.

Somerset was overjoyed. The Commons had already accused him of causing the loss of Normandy, and when Guyenne had gone too there was uproar; the Duke of York had marched on London with an army and Somerset only retained power by the skin of his teeth. The recovery of Guyenne could well win him some desperately needed popularity.

The English still believed that one Englishman was worth two Frenchmen, and their hero Talbot shared this view. As has been seen, he was made a hostage in 1449 and was thus the one English commander in Normandy whose reputation had remained intact. Although an old man in his seventies by now—the French thought he was in his eighties—he was as vigorous as ever, retaining all his pugnacity and magnetism. The natural choice to lead the expedition, he was appointed the King’s Lieutenant in Guyenne in September 1452. Yet the great Lord Talbot was now to meet his match.

If the French had no paladin of equal distinction, they did possess a technocrat—Maître Jean Bureau. Bishop Basin, who almost certainly met the great gunner, describes him as ‘a man of humble origins and small stature, but of purpose and daring’. Bureau was a native of Champagne who came to Paris to become a lawyer and who is known to have been a legal official at the Chatelet in the days of the Duke of Bedford. In 1434 he left what was still the Anglo-French capital to enter the service of Charles VII, who appointed him Receiver of Paris two years later and promoted him to be Treasurer of France in 1443. It may seem odd that a lawyer and civil servant should also be a professional artillery expert, but during the fifteenth century master gunners were usually civilian specialists under contract who, like Bureau, founded their own cannon. According to Basin, Bureau had first served as a gunner with the English, and no doubt he and his brother Gaspard (who worked with him) were originally attracted to the profession largely by commercial considerations. However, they served Charles VII with outstanding success. Long before the Norman campaign, the Bureau brothers’ guns had proved their worth—at Montereau in 1437, at Meaux in 1439, at Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1440 and at Pontoise in 1441. In Jean Bureau one discerns a perfectionist with a methodical, mathematical mind, a brilliant administrator and an imaginative technician who knew how to get the best out of his primitive weapons.

During the fifteenth century the tools of the Bureau brothers’ difficult and dangerous trade had slowly improved. The most important innovation was the powder mill, invented about 1429. Before then gunpowder had had to be mixed on the field, but now the new ‘corned’ powder-grains no longer disintegrated into their three separate components of sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal. The new powder increased velocity enormously. There had also been advances in casting cannon, in bronze, brass and, more rarely iron, even if the weapons were still apt to burst. (During the siege of Cherbourg it was a matter for congratulation that only four blew up.)

Moreover a cheap and reasonably effective manual firearm had been developed. These batons-à-feu or handguns were confusingly called culverins like the cannon of that name. They had barrels of brass or bronze, and straight wooden stocks and—mounted on a rest—were aimed from the chest instead of from the shoulder. They fired a lead bullet, using a special explosive powder twice as expensive as that for bigger guns. The firing mechanism was a ‘serpentine’, an S-shaped attachment of which one end acted as a trigger and the other held the match. (A serpentine was also a type of small cannon.) Although half the price of steel crossbows, such guns were not often used in the field as they were too cumbersome. However, mounted on a rampart they could be effective enough in siege warfare.

On 17 October 1452 Talbot landed in the Médoc with 3,000 troops. The French knew about the expedition but expected it to land in Normandy, so in consequence they had no proper army in Guyenne. As promised, the Bordelais rose against the Seneschal, Oliver de Coetivy, turned out the French garrison and opened the gates. The English marched in on 21 October. All western Guyenne now rose and the few towns and castles garrisoned by the French were speedily overrun. Charles VII, taken completely by surprise, left Talbot in peace but spent the winter organizing a counter-attack for the following year. Before the end of the winter 3,000 more men reached Talbot, under his fourth and favourite son, Viscount Lisle.

By the spring of 1453 King Charles was ready. Three French armies invaded Guyenne, from the north-east, the east, and the south-east, all making for Bordeaux. Talbot’s strategy was to wait and try to engage each one separately. In July the French army which was advancing from the east laid siege to the town of Castillon near Libourne on the Dordogne, about thirty miles up-river from Bordeaux. Talbot was inclined to leave the townsmen of Castillon to their fate, but they pleaded with him so eloquently that he reluctantly agreed to come and save them.

The enemy army in question consisted of about 9,000 troops. It had no designated commander and its senior officers were far from united. However in matters of gunnery they wisely deferred to Jean Bureau, who obviously had some sort of ascendancy over them. As was customary in siege warfare, he had built a fortified artillery park just out of range of Castillon’s guns, his actual batteries being probably much nearer and connected to the park by communication trenches. This was not a revolutionary exercise in military engineering as has been suggested, but a routine precaution against sorties by the townsmen or relief forces. The actual park, which was constructed by 700 pioneers, consisted of a deep trench with a wall of earth behind it which was strengthened by tree-trunks ; its most remarkable feature was the irregular, wavy line of the ditch and earthwork, which enabled the guns to enfilade any attackers. Bureau knew all about cross-fire. The park was about half a mile long and about 200 yards wide, lying parallel to the river Dordogne which was less than a mile away, while one side was completely protected by the Lidoire, a tributary of the Dordogne.

Bureau had brought 300 cannon with him, mainly culverins. It seems extremely likely that these were handguns. (Perhaps chroniclers were confused by ‘culverins with serpentines’ and heard ‘culverins and serpentines’ instead.) If so, the English military supremacy which had begun with bows was about to be ended by small arms. The guns were mounted on the earth wall.

On 16 July Talbot rode out from Bordeaux with his entire army, which included a Guyennois contingent and may have been as many as 10,000 men. He covered 20 miles, reaching Libourne by sunset though outdistancing his infantry and retaining only 500 men-at-arms and 800 mounted archers. At daybreak the following day he and his little force suddenly emerged from the woods near Castillon and annihilated a French detachment in a nearby priory. He then learnt of the artillery park and, after sending Sir Thomas Evringham to examine it and refreshing his men with a cask of wine, settled down to wait for the rest of his troops to catch up with him. But a messenger came from Castillon to say that the French were running; in fact the townsmen had seen a cloud of dust raised by the horses of enemy supernumeraries who had been sent away. Thinking the entire enemy army was in full retreat, Talbot at once led his men in an attack on the park. The only man to remain mounted, the veteran warrior, seventy-five years of age, must have been a striking figure in a gown of crimson satin, with a purple bonnet over his snowy hair. He had been forced to swear not to wear ‘harness’ (armour) against the French when they released him from his captivity in Normandy.


The English and Gascons charged the French camp, shouting ‘Talbot! St George!’ Some managed to cross the ditch and a few scaled the earthworks, including the standard-bearer Sir Thomas Evringham who was at once shot dead. The enemy guns fired into the English at point-blank range—because of the enfilade one shot killed no less than six men. Despite impossible odds the assault lasted for nearly an hour, small detachments of Talbot’s other troops coming up to join in the fight. Then a thousand Bretons appeared unexpectedly on the far side of the Lidoire, attacking the English from the south and crashing into their right flank. According to Monstrelet’s continuator, the Bretons ‘fell upon them and trampled all their banners underfoot’. But the issue was never in doubt—even without the Bretons, Bureau’s guns would have broken the English. They began to run towards the Dordogne behind them, while Talbot and his son tried desperately to rally some men to cover their retreat over a ford, the Pas de Rozan. But the old hero was a good target and his horse was brought down by a gunshot, pinning him underneath ; a French archer called Michel Perunin finished him off with an axe. A few English got away though most were killed, including Lord Lisle; the pursuit continuing as far as Saint-Emilion. The English army had been completely destroyed.

By the end of September Bordeaux alone held out against the French. The city was closely besieged and the Gironde blockaded. The Bordelais could hope for no relief from Somerset’s feeble government; even the English survivors from Castillon thought only of going home. On 19 October 1453 the capital of Guyenne surrendered unconditionally, trusting—somewhat optimistically—to the mercy of King Charles. One of his first acts was to make Maître Jean Bureau Mayor of Bordeaux for life. But nobody seems to have realized that the Hundred Years War was over.

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