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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 32: The Duchess of Burgundy's peace moves 1438 - 1439


A commercial proposal

John of Gaunt's daughter, Phillipa of Lancaster, had married John 1 of Portugal following Gaunt's campaigns in Spain and Portugal in the 1380's [page ]. Their daughter Isabella had passed through London in 1429 on her way to her marriage with Philip-the-Good. Whilst in London she had been royally entertained as befitted the descendant of John of Gaunt and the affianced of one who was, in those days, still a trusted ally. She had made many friends at the English court and still carried many fond memories of her time there.

In 1438, in spite of the state of war between England and Burgundy, she suggested to her friends at the English Court that a commercial truce should be made between England and Flanders. Her offer to negotiate such an agreement was readily accepted.

From the start, it was clear to both sides that the negotiations for a commercial truce were intended to broaden into attempts to conclude a peace settlement, certainly with Burgundy alone if necessary, and possibly with France as well. Philip-the-Good, Duke of Burgundy, had not given up his hopes or his efforts to reach a general peace. He was under considerable pressure from the Flanders merchants to bring to an end a conflict which was damaging their trade, and there was a general lack of enthusiasm within his own dominions for a conflict with England. Philip's problem lay in getting the negotiations started. He himself was not exactly personna grata with the English Court, and he recollected without much pleasure the bad treatment of his envoys, the attempts to suborn his own subjects from their allegiance to him, the further attempts to form a coalition against him, and the piratical attacks on Flemish ships. [Pages ] Any correspondence from him was likely to be contemptuously rejected, and he had no wish to risk a further rebuff. In an age which set little faith in the competence of women, he thought that approaches by his strong-minded, intelligent and very able Duchess, with her relationship to the English King and her many friends at his Court, were likely to bear more fruit.

And so it proved. There were, very belatedly, some members of the Council who were beginning to recognise that the war in France would never be won, and the sooner it was brought to an end the better. Among these was Cardinal Henry Beaufort who had never had much enthusiasm for it even when things were going well. When they had started to go badly, he had not made his opposition to its continuance as forceful as perhaps he should have done. With the coronation of King Henry VI in Paris in 1431 [page ] he had seen a further difficulty; to him, the renunciation of the Crown of France was an impossibility, and he had so expressed himself in strong terms to Philip-the-Good at the Congress of Arras in 1435. [page ] Now even the Cardinal, and some others, were beginning to understand that it would never sit securely on the head of an English King, whatever the Treaty of Troyes 1420 might say. Was it a practical proposition to continue the struggle for it any longer?

Whatever doubts the Cardinal and others on the Council may have entertained, there was at least one member of that body who had no doubts whatever, the Cardinal's old tormentor, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Humphrey had not mellowed over the years, and remained as aggressive as ever where the French were concerned. [Humphrey's character and outlook are described on page ] Not quite 50, he felt as strong as ever, and at the peak of his powers. Already he had gained a great influence over the young King Henry VI, and was chiefly responsible for guiding him away from any sensible course. Humphrey had retained his popularity with the people, and the popular feeling, incited by the 'good Duke Humphrey' whenever he felt it was necessary, was a factor which could not be ignored.

The Cardinal on the other hand was beginning to feel his age. By now in his mid-60s, he was not an enthusiastic envoy to send to any peace conference. He had recently expressed once again his desire to go to Rome to serve the Pope and thus spend the years that still remained to him. He had decided, with much reluctance, that he could not do this, but must remain at his post on the Council to counter Humphrey's malign and unhelpful influence. In this he was not always successful, and at times, he seemed unwilling even to try.

The English instructions

Nevertheless, it was the Cardinal who was chosen to head the English envoys. He had to endure some taunts from Humphrey and his cronies that he was only interested in increasing his already vast wealth by concluding a favourable treaty for the wool trade, in which he was greatly concerned, before he went to Calais in January 1439 to meet Isabella and arrange the preliminaries. The two had a cordial meeting, and soon induced the French to attend a peace conference in July 1439 in the neighbourhood of Calais rather than Cherbourg, which was the French preference. The Duke of Orleans, the only remaining Agincourt prisoner, was to be brought to the meeting place so that his advice should be readily available.

The Council now had to address itself to the instructions to be given to the English envoys. The most difficult point was the renunciation of the Crown of France, because unless this was agreed to there would be no point in attending any peace conference. There was much heated argument before it was agreed that the Cardinal alone should be authorised to agree to the renunciation, but with the proviso that all other points should first be settled satisfactorily, and that this was the only outstanding point on which the conference would otherwise founder. As the instructions put it:-

"If......the difficulte of accorde......rested oonly in the leving of the name and coronne of France.......rather thanne the thyng falle to rupture."

This might tend to show that the Cardinal had won the argument and that Humphrey had lost it, but this would be too simple a reading of the situation. Humphrey still had many tricks up his sleeve, and he had in fact conceded nothing.

As a result of his doings, the English envoys were instructed to demand the cession of the whole of France as:-

"the moost reasonable mene of peas, "

and this demand was written into their credentials,  which were addressed in a purposely insulting manner to 'Charles of Valois.'

At the time these instructions were given, this demand was quite meaningless, and was, as Humphrey had probably foreseen and intended, a possible trap for the English envoys. At the best, the French envoys could be expected to regard it as a mere opening ploy to which they need pay little attention, apart from making some acid remarks that 'Charles of Valois' was in reality King Charles VII of France, and that the military position, previously weighted in England's favour, was now weighted heavily in that of France. That being so, the Treaty of Troyes 1420 was now a dead letter. It did however open the way for the French, if they felt so disposed, to see the hole the English had dug for themselves and to push them into it, and this was the course which they took. The envoys were however given a 'fall back' position, which represented the least the English were prepared to accept in settlement:-

1). There should be a partition of France, with the minimum cession to England of the Bretigny Dominion, Normandy and Maine besides confirming her existing possessions. She was to have complete sovereignty over these territories.

2). There should be a matrimonial alliance between the English King and 'a daughter of France', with a dowry of 1 million scutes (about 366, 000)

3). The French should pay 100, 000 English marks (about 66, 666) ransom for Charles, Duc de Orleans

4). If peace could not be concluded, there should be a lengthy truce.

The Oye Conference 1439

Thus there were ample instructions for the English envoys to seek a peace settlement if they wanted one and handled the negotiations skilfully. Cardinal Henry Beaufort, John Kemp, Archbishop of York, John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Stafford, and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford crossed The Channel to Calais, taking the Duc de Orleans with them. [The Duke, to his intense annoyance, did not attend the conference, being left in Calais throughout] On 6th July 1439, after some preliminary courtesies, they met the French envoys at Oye half-way between Calais and Gravelines. Isabella presided in one of the tents and pavilions which had been erected for the occasion. They did not always keep out the rain, and on one day, they leaked so abominably that the envoys, French and English alike, were soaked to the skin. The French envoys, Renaud de Chartres, Archbishop of Rheims,  [Renaud had led the French envoys at the Congress of Arras in 1435 page ] the Compte de Vendome, and Jean, Compte de Dunois immediately protested at the style of the English credentials. The English had some objections of their own to those of the French. Isabella cut the wrangling short by getting both sides to agree to some modifications, and on 10th July 1439, the serious business began.

The Archbishop of York began, as he had to do, with the demand for the cession of the whole of France to the English, although in agreeing that lands south of the River Loire should remain French, he was repeating the English position at the start of the Congress of Arras 1435.

[page ] The Archbishop of Rheims pointed out that this demand was preposterous and indeed laughable in view of the present military position, and if the English were not prepared to discuss renunciation of the French Crown, then there was no point in continuing with the conference. The French envoys then followed this with two demands; the English King would have to do homage to King Charles VII for any French lands ceded to him, and that dispossessed owners should be allowed to return to their property once again. As the French envoys well knew, the English neither could nor would agree to such demands.

The English having obligingly dug a hole for them-selves, and the French having pushed them into it, Isabella formed the view by 18th July that a long truce was all that could be hoped for, and said so to both sides. The French seemed amenable provided the Duc de Orleans was released, and the English King refrained from using the title of King of France during the currency of the truce. They then gave a glimpse of their own instructions, which in turn represented the maximum they could accept. The English could keep their existing possessions in France, Calais, Gascony and Guienne, and Normandy (minus Mont-St-Michel) would be added to them.

Up to this point, the English, bound by their instructions, had handled the negotiations very badly. They were now to make a series of three further mistakes, and the first one was the most fundamental error of the three. They did not have to persist in the demand for the whole of France, and their instructions allowed them to settle for less than this. Once again, it was only to be expected that the French envoys would leave talk of conceding territory to a late stage, as indeed they had done, but now at last they had begun to show some flexibility. The English should have stayed at the negotiating table to see what further territorial concessions they could persuade the French to accept. Had they done this, there was a reasonable hope that they would have got all, or nearly all, the territory contemplated by the 'fall back' part of their instructions. The marriage would have been agreed, and the Duc de Orleans would have to be released at an early date in any case, although a lengthy haggle over money on both issues might not have been easily resolved. They had considerable bargaining counters. The French were most anxious, as they had revealed, to secure the release of the Duke and the renunciation of the French Crown. That being so, there was the realistic hope that the French would drop the demand for homage, and would agree that the dispossessed owners should receive compensation for their losses rather than the return of their property.

The English envoys then made their second mistake, which was to lay the suggestion for a truce, with the French conditions, before King Henry VI to seek his agreement. They knew Henry had no mind of his own, and would be guided by Humphrey and others of like mind not to accept it.

The third mistake was to send the Archbishop of York to explain the truce plan to Henry. Cardinal Beaufort should have gone himself, because only he had the standing and the strength of character, when he was disposed to use it, to combat the malign influence of Humphrey over the young King.

The Cardinal was ageing rapidly, and felt that he could not undertake a hazardous and uncomfortable journey over the Channel and on to London, there to conduct an acrimonious meeting, and thence to return to Calais. A younger man should do all this.

As could have been foreseen, Humphrey had no difficulty in persuading the young King to reject the suggestion for a truce, saying he would rather die than accept such terms. A letter was sent to Calais accordingly, but a memorandum, which can only have come from Humphrey, was attached to it. This stated that King Henry VI would not abandon the style and title of France even for a time; that he would do no homage to any man for any thing; that it was impossible to agree to reinstate the dispossessed.

So the Oye conference ended in failure as the Congress of Arras 1435 had done before it, and for the same reasons. The English diplomacy was just not equal to that of the French, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was able to thwart any moves to bring this hideous and pointless war to a close. The Cardinal was spared the humiliation of explaining the failure to the French envoys. They had rightly anticipated the inevitable and had already departed, leaving their deputies to receive the news. He still had to give the tidings to a deeply humiliated Isabella, although she had the consolation of a commercial truce; this at any rate was signed.

As Isabella went home, she must have pondered whether the English would ever learn to negotiate with the skill of the French, to deal in good faith, and to acquire a sense of realism. She could not have known for certain the contents of the English instructions, because these would not have been shown to her. She must have guessed that the English had authority to accept less than 'the whole of France', and the French had given an opening to negotiation on this point. Why did the English not use it? The answer may well have come to her that they were too scared of Humphrey, whose ambition to conquer the whole of France was well known. They had shown themselves willing to stand up to him and defeat him on other matters, but where the conquest of France was concerned, Archbishops, Dukes and Earls dared not cross him. Not even Cardinal Henry Beaufort was always willing to stand up to him, but then he had a personal problem with the renunciation of the French Crown, which she supposed was also within the instructions. He just could not bring himself to do it. But then, she thought, the trouble with the Cardinal was that he was getting too old. He was no longer the man he once was.


The corn which was required to feed the population - wheat, oats, barley, beans and peas - and such of the livestock which was not slaughtered and salted down to provide meat for the winter months, was normally grown in abundance in both England and France. The populations of both countries had been decimated by the Black Death in the 1340s. There was no reliable census in either country, but there seems no reason to doubt the estimates of three million in England and five million in France during the mid 15th-century. Much of the arable land in England had been turned over to the less labour intensive activity of grazing sheep for their wool because of the lack of the men needed to till the land, but in spite of this, there was still an abundance of corn for all purposes. In general, people were adequately fed.

The position in France was less happy because of the presence of marauding armies. The soldiers, whilst producing nothing themselves, still had to be fed. If they could not pay for their food, they took it anyway. In this respect, the French soldiers had the name of being even less scrupulous with their fellow-countrymen than their English counter-parts. But France is a large country, the numbers of soldiers were very small, and their presence tended to be a local problem. Where there were no soldiers fighting battles, trampling the crops, pillaging, marching across the countryside and being a general nuisance, there was usually enough to eat. This is not to say that people did not go hungry in France. There was a perennial problem with feeding the cities, particularly Paris, and some provinces were deliberately laid waste, such as Caux. There was no method of bringing food from areas of plenty to those of want, and any attempt to do so would have been foiled by an inadequate transport system.

All this depended on the harvest being at least a moderately good one, and this in turn depended on the weather. The summer of 1437 gave the promise of a good harvest, but the autumn was very wet. Day after day, the rain fell in torrents, and the crops standing ready for cutting and gathering had no chance to dry sufficiently. In the end, they simply rotted in the fields. This meant that there was real want during the winter and this lasted into 1438.

As 1437 turned into 1438, people looked to the new year for hope as they sowed their fields. 1438 turned out to be a very wet year as well. Day after day the rain fell remorselessly, relentlessly and without ceasing from a thick blanket of cloud. Men prayed in the churches for the sun to break through and dry out the crops so that they could save at least something. It was not to be, and this crop too rotted and was lost. After the failure of two harvests in succession, a disaster shared by France and England alike, there was what men called the worst famine since the dreadful years of 1315 and 1316. In England, the price of wheat rose from its previously stable price of 4/= a quarter to 6/=, then to 8/= and 10/=, and in some places even to 13/= and 16/=. The highest point was reached in 1439 when it rose to 20/= a quarter, or five times its previous price. These were famine prices which few could afford to pay, and in both countries people went hungry and even starved. As the London Chronicles put it for 1439:-

"Also this yere was so grete derthe of corn that men were fayn to ete rye bred and barly, the whiche nevere ett non before; and rather thanne fayle, bred mad of benes, peses, ......and wel were hym that might hav ynowe thereof."

In other words, they could think themselves very lucky to eat bread made even from these unappetising products.

In Paris, the citizens were no strangers to the shortage of food; it had never been plentiful throughout the War in France. Now the City's position was truly wretched. Bourgeois, Chartier and Bouvier record that, besides diseases stemming from hunger and starvation, small-pox was a scourge which killed many. Wolves from the surrounding countryside roamed the streets after dark in search of prey. This was usually street dogs, but if these were not to be had, human-beings would meet the purpose. They became such a menace that anyone who killed a wolf and produced its head to the City authorities was paid 20 livres.

[This was not the total of the City's troubles. The citizens were impoverished by taxation. During his visit in November 1437, King Charles VII had taken the opportunity to raise the costs of the siege of Montereau from the citizens]

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003