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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 37: The end in Normandy: Years 1445 - 1450


The French side

King Charles VII, guided and advised by his very able Chief Minister, Charles d'Anjou, Compte de Maine, never had the slightest doubt what use he would make of the truce which was agreed during the negotiations for the marriage of King Henry VI and Margaret d'Anjou. They would recover, rearm, and then drive the English out of France. [page ] To their minds, there was every reasonable expectation that they could achieve this, and it only needed time to recover from the ravages of war and to make the necessary preparations for the final effort. The English may have been invincible at the time of Agincourt 1415, and the English longbowman was still very formidable on the battlefield. Since that date 30 years before, the French soldiers had learnt to fight wars with modern methods which owed nothing to the age of chivalry, and their commanders now knew how to defeat the English armies.

Time for recovery and preparation was vital, and the initial truce was due to expire in April 1446; 2 years was far too short a time for what needed to be done, but the French diplomacy, which was always much superior to that of the English, obtained extensions of the truce, first to 1st January 1448, then to 1st May 1448, and finally to 1st April 1450. This kept the ball firmly at the feet of King Charles VII. When he was ready, all he had to do was to wait for the current truce to expire, or to take advantage of some breach of its terms, of which there were bound to be several, and then re-commence hostilities. Any truce violations that took place before he was ready could be dealt with by protests, demands for restoration, and monetary compensation.

King Charles VII judged that the time to begin hostilities once more was March 1449 when the aggressive Aragonese mercenary in the English service, Francois de Suriennes, sacked the Breton town of Fougeres,  [page ] a gross act which followed some previous but lesser breaches of the terms of the truce. Charles had used the interval between 1445 and 1449 well. A financial genius, Jacques Couer, had replenished his Treasury. A national militia, the beginnings of the national army of France, had been established. Its ranks included many experienced soldiers, including the 'Free Companies', which he had suppressed by giving their members the choice between summary execution and service in the ranks of the French armies. John Bureau, the Master of the French Ordnance and his brother Gaspard, had re-stocked, re-furbished and improved the already efficient French siege- and field-artillery. Charles had in his service some excellent commanders, both senior and junior, who had been fighting the English all their lives, and also some younger men who were learning their trade from their elders. There was Arthur of Brittany, Compte de Richemont and Constable of France, Jean, Compte de Dunois, Jean, Duc d'Alencon, Charles, Duc de Bourbon, Pothon de Xaintrailles and many others. Among the younger men was Pierre de Breze who was to rise high in the French service. Pierre was a giant of a man, who had been a retainer of Rene, Buc de Bar, and who had a special regard for Rene's daughter, Queen Margaret of England. Later, he was to render her some valuable service.

With March 1449, the time had indeed come for Charles, who has become known to history as Charles the Well Served, to strike at his English enemies.

The English side

With the retirement from active politics of Cardinal Henry Beaufort in 1443 or 1444, and his death in 1447, the English government lost the services of the foremost intellect of the Council.

The Cardinal was immensely rich, having dealt astutely in wool and by some reports in silver as well. He was known to be acquisitive, and at least some proportion of his wealth had been acquired through some less legitimate and sometimes shady dealings which did him no credit. King Henry V, well aware that the Cardinal had an itchy palm, had forced him to disgorge some of his ill-gotten gains in the form of massive 'loans'. The Cardinal had been happy to make these as part of the price of making no formal enquiry into the accumulation of his wealth. During the reign of King Henry VI, he had made some large loans to the Crown of a size which suggest he can never have been repaid in full by an impecunious Treasury. At his death, he is reported to have been owed by the Crown the comparatively modest sum of 2, 043, which in its turn suggests that many of the 'loans' had been written off so that they were no longer owing. He was fortunate that his main enemy, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, did not possess the patience or acumen to persevere in the lengthy and tedious enquiries which would have been necessary to show that at least some of his wealth had been acquired by less than lawful means. Had he done so, Humphrey would not have hesitated from beginning impeachment proceedings which, even in a lax age, the Cardinal may have found difficult to answer. The Cardinal is said to have died on 11th April 1447, cursing death and in a fury because he could not take his wealth with him to the hereafter.

The Cardinal had dominated the Council for a quarter of a century and, his possible peculations and his fumbling and indecisive handling of the Congress of Arras 1435 and the Oye Conference 1439 [pages ] apart, he had been a great servant of the Crown. He had been completely devoted to the House of Lancaster, and had sacrificed his ambition to serve the Pope in Rome to its cause. Had he continued in office, there can be little doubt that he would have warned King Henry VI how his French adversaries would have made use of the period of the truce. Much of what King Charles VII was doing cannot have been done in secrecy, and it seems impossible to believe that, whatever its past failings may have been, the English intelligence gathering was so poor that it was unaware of the whirlwind for which he was preparing.

As the countries Chief Executive, King Henry VI should have appreciated the French preparations without the help of anyone else, and have invited the Council to consider means of countering them. Probably there was not much that could have been done. The English Crown was effectively bankrupt, and it was now difficult to persuade soldiers to enlist for service in France. There was a general weariness of the War, even if the public mood would not countenance the surrender of any French territory. It would have required a King of the very firmest character and vision to have made his subjects understand that there were but two alternatives; either they must reinforce the English troops in France on a massive scale, and themselves find the necessary money for this purpose, however reluctant they may have been to do so in the past, or the project of the Conquest of France would have to be abandoned.

King Henry VI presented neither alternative to his subjects. The beautiful utopian world in which he privately lived seemed to tempt no others to join it. Instead the World was full of evil, greed and cruelty with which he found himself unable to cope. Now he had a young and beautiful Queen who seemed to enjoy being involved in politics. He was increasingly content to leave things to her and his Ministers whilst he hid himself from the realities of a harsh and unforgiving world behind his books, his studies, and his devotions. From time to time, he could be induced to leave it for a brief while to play some part in public affairs, and to speak the words which others put into his mouth, before he retired once more into his refuge.

Queen Margaret did indeed throw herself with gusto into public affairs and, as she saw it, protected the King from the rough and tumble by doing his job for him. She and William de La Pole, now Duke of Suffolk, were far more concerned with protecting him from his political enemies and securing his position as the King's Chief Minister and favourite than they were about the military position in France. Two persons were seen as posing the most immediate threat, Edmund Beaufort, firstly Earl of Mortain, then Earl and Marquis of Dorset, and finally (in 1448) Duke of Somerset, and Richard, Duke of York. Edmund was regarded as the lesser danger of the two. However bravely he may have fought in France in days gone by, he was now effete and fond of the softer things of life. He was a charming and erudite man, but he had a reputation for laziness who would only bestir himself in his Epicurean interests. During this period he had a young family to whose well-being he was capable of sacrificing the Royal interests entrusted to his charge.

Life was pleasant in France during the truce, and it mattered little to Edmund that his garrisons were often hungry, usually unpaid, and generally demoralised by idleness. He saw no reason to press Suffolk for re-enforcement's from home, and if he had have done, his pleas would probably have fallen on deaf ears, and would have been regarded as distractions from the more serious business of domestic politics. Although the French preparations must have been known to him, he made no serious attempt to repair and strengthen the fortifications, many of which were in a ruinous state, of the towns and castles entrusted to his care in English held France.

Richard was a very different man. He was much harder of mind and body, and there was a air of purpose in all that he did. It was true that he possessed a degree of indecisiveness which he was to show on several occasions, but this may have been due to his innate sense of loyalty to his Sovereign, when he seems to have been prepared to pass over what could have been said to be a better claim to the Throne than that of King Henry VI himself. [page ] But for this indecisiveness, he could be described as a man of action in every sense of the word who, Margaret and Suffolk must have thought, could be ruthless when he saw the need for it. He was a much more dangerous man than the indolent and easy-going Edmund.

The immediate problem of neutralising these two so that thy could do no harm to Suffolk (and thus to the Queen herself), had occurred in 1445 when Richard's five-year commission as the King's Lieutenant-General of France and Normandy had expired. There was every expectation that it would be renewed, and some indications in that direction had already been given, so much so that it had already been announced in Rouen. To Richard's chagrin and dismay, the Queen's influence had ensured that this coveted post was given to Edmund. Richard was appointed as the King's Lieutenant of Ireland for the unusually long term of 10 years. The obvious intention was to get him out of the main-stream of affairs and into a backwater where there was enough to do to keep him extremely busy. He departed to Dublin fuming with rage and frustration, unaware that his new post was a blessing in disguise. Nobody could say that he had any responsibility for the eventual disaster in Normandy.

King Charles VII chooses his moment

To honour the undertaking given by Suffolk in 1445 that Maine should be surrendered to the French and all English garrisons there should be withdrawn from the province,  [page ] King Henry VI signed a promise, written in his own hand on 22nd December 1445, that the process of surrender and withdrawal would be completed by 1st November 1446. This lead to trouble for Suffolk, who was shouted at in the street and insulted by some of the Great Magnates. He appealed to the King for protection and in May 1446, King Henry VI issued a proclamation threatening condign punishment to Suffolk's 'calumniators' and to anybody who interfered with the process of withdrawal.

This did not mean that the process of surrender and withdrawal was completed by the promised date. The province had been promised to Edmund Beaufort in the past, and from his position as the King's Lieutenant-General of France, he did all he could to thwart the King's promise. The French sent an embassy to London in December 1446 to protest that the withdrawal had not even started, and the English sent an embassy to Tours in February 1447. The outcome was an extension of the truce until 1st January 1448, and Henry promised to cross the Channel to visit King Charles VII by 1st November 1447. In July 1447, Jean, Compte de Dunois himself visited London, and obtained a confirmation that the December 1445 undertaking would be honoured, even if it had not been honoured in time. The truce was further extended to 1st May 1448, and Henry promised that his proposed visit would take place before then.

The most important town, which was occupied by the largest English garrison, was Le Mans. During his visit, Dunois had persuaded King Henry VI to send orders to Matthew Gough and Fulk Eyton to receive Le Mans from Edmund Beaufort's Captain of the town, Osberne Mundeford, and to deliver it to King Charles VII. They were authorised to use force if it was necessary. They duly presented the King's order on 23rd September 1447 to Mundeford, who flatly refused to comply until he had received orders from Edmund. He pointed out that Le Mans was Edmund's property, and without his instructions he would not hand it over. King Henry VI then wrote to Edmund ordering him to send the necessary instructions to Mundeford. Edmund ignored them. A conference was held in which the English claimed that the compensation to the dispossessed English settlers should first be settled. The French replied that they had come to ensure compliance with an unconditional undertaking, not to haggle about money. The English prevaricated still further, and in January 1448 dispatched Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chichester and Sir Robert Roos to discuss preliminaries to peace and the forthcoming Royal visit. The French agreed to extend the truce until 1st January 1450, but their patience over Le Mans was now exhausted. In March 1448, Dunois appeared at the gates with an army. Not wishing to face a siege in which the French siege artillery would figure prominently, the garrison duly marched away.

The powerlessness of the English King to secure compliance with his orders by even the highest Royal officers, and to punish them for their disobedience, was plain for all to see. The French, not yet ready to re-commence hostilities, were happy enough to string the English along and to show the worthless nature of the English King's most solemn promises, whilst themselves keeping strictly to the terms of the truce. [They were not always meticulous in this respect. There had been re-fortification of some towns]

The sack of Fougeres 1449

The garrison of Le Mans was now homeless. No other garrison commander in Western Normandy would take them in; short of victuals and money to pay their own troops, they would not assume responsibility for so many extra men. Edmund Beaufort, although he always needed men himself, took no steps to include them into the Rouen garrison where he could have found a use for their services. Instead, they established themselves at St-James-de-Beuvron and Mortain on the Brittany border, where, contrary to the terms of the truce, they re-built the dismantled fortifications. They lived by plundering the neighbourhood for supplies. Urged on by Francis, Duke of Brittany, King Charles VII protested to Edmund Beaufort. Edmund simply replied from Rouen that the French themselves had broken the terms of the truce by re-fortifying Caux and Maine, and that he was referring the matter to Moleyns and Roos. These two had crossed into Brittany and were now not to be found. Charles then wrote to King Henry VI, who ordered Edmund Beaufort to attend to the matter and, above all, to avoid a rupture. A series of conferences took place which convinced the French that the English were intent on avoiding the issues.

A much more serious breach of the truce took place on 24th March 1449. Francois de Suriennes led an English force, partly the former Le Mans garrison but also others drawn from the troops in Normandy, to occupy and sack the prosperous wool town of Fougeres in Brittany. The booty was very considerable. The motive for the attack was not immediately clear,  [For some possible explanation, see page ] but it seemed impossible that de Suriennes would do this of his own initiative. He may have been an aggressive Aragonese mercenary, but he was now high in the Councils of the English and was one of Edmund Beauforts most senior commanders. He had recently been made a Knight of the Garter, the most senior order in the Chivalry of England.

At least the connivance of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and the King's Lieutenant-General of France, could be assumed, and King Charles VII readily did so.

King Charles VII re-commences hostilities

King Charles VII now considered that France had recovered sufficiently and had made enough preparation to start hostilities once again. He could either wait for the truce to expire in 9 months time or take advantage of this gross breach of the truce to start them immediately. He chose the latter course.

An immediate protest was made to Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, demanding the withdrawal of de Surienne's force, complete restoration of all that had been taken, and a huge indemnity. It drew forth an answer as prevaricating and unsatisfactory as Charles both expected and wanted. Somerset had known nothing of de Surienne's expedition, and it must have been planned in London without his knowledge. He was helpless in the matter. Whether Charles thought this was the lie it appeared to be or not is immaterial. He now had the reason to re-commence hostilities that he wanted, and gave orders for the muster of his troops.

Charles' campaign, when it started, went at a relentless pace. Normandy was attacked from three sides simultaneously. In the west, Francis, Duke of Brittany seized the western towns and castles and advanced up the Cotentin Peninsular. With the prior dispensation of Philip-the-Good, Duke of Burgundy, the Comptes des Eu and St Pol attacked from Artois in the east. Jean, Compte de Dunois, lead the main French army from the south. Cities, towns and castles fell in rapid succession. The French population was sick of the English domination, and opened their gates to welcome the French soldiers with open arms. In some places they turned out the English garrisons before the French armies even arrived. In others, they gave the French soldiers every assistance, and Pierre de Breze was lead by a patriotic miller along a dried up water-course into the very heart of Vernueil. At the beginning of October 1449, the French were in a position to assault Rouen, the heart of the English government in Normandy.

The incompetence, if not worse, of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and the King's Lieutenant-General of France, is worthy of the very highest censure. He had had ample warning of what to expect, but he totally failed to gather in his garrisons to form a substantial field force. Such a force, under a bold and resourceful leader, could have taken advantage of interior lines of communication and, with a possible local superiority in numbers, have defeated the invading armies in turn. It could even have been expected that the resounding defeat of one French force would have cooled the ardour of the other two. As it was, the English soldiers were left in their garrisons and their fortifications were reduced to rubble by the efficient French siege artillery one after the other.

The Rouen townsfolk were known to be disaffected towards their English rulers, but Somerset had a substantial garrison and a number of very able commanders. The siege began badly for the French, and an able commander would have taken advantage of their difficulties. Somerset seems to have been more concerned with the pleas of his Duchess, who lacked the resolution that other ladies freely showed, for the safety of herself and her young family, and he failed to take steps to hold the townsfolk in check. They rose, and compelled him to surrender the city at the end of October 1449. The price for Somerset's personal freedom was a high one; Caudebec, Tancarville, Honfleur, Arques and Montvilliers were to be surrendered, and eight hostages were to be given.

One of these was John Talbot, the veteran Earl of Shrewsbury.

Finally, 50, 000 saluts d'or were to be paid.

The momentum of the French assault continued. Chateau Gaillard, reputedly the strongest fortress in France, was soon in their hands, and Harfleur was bombarded into submission by the Bureau's guns. By the end of 1449, the English dominion in Normandy had been reduced to Cherbourg, Honfleur, which had refused to open its gates, and the area around Caen, Falaise and Bayeaux. The Christmas and New Year celebrations saw King Charles VII in a very content frame of mind; he could leave the rest until the campaigning season of 1450.

Final loss of Normandy 1450

Taken completely unawares by the French attack, and seeing the abysmally poor performance of Somerset in France, Suffolk gathered together, with some difficulty, 2, 500 men to reinforce the troops in France. He appointed Sir Thomas Kyrielle, a commander of immense experience in the War in France, to lead them. It was late in the year 1449 before the muster was complete, and then bad weather delayed their departure. The troops behaved very badly, and raided several south-coast towns where they committed a number of serious crimes. Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Chicester, was hastily despatched to pay them their out-standing wages in the hope that this would quieten them down. The unruly soldiers shouted in the Bishop's face that he was one of those responsible for the loss of Normandy, and beat him so severely that he died. In answer to the soldiers allegations, the Bishop was said to have made some accusations that the King's Chief Minister, who was none other than Suffolk himself, had embezzled large amounts of money intended to pay for the defence of Normandy. Georges Basin, Bishop of Lisieux and one of the contemporary chroniclers of the times, later wrote that Suffolk had pocketed the compensation intended for the dispossessed English settlers in Maine. It may have been this money to which Adam Moleyns was referring when in the process of being beaten to death. The Bishop's dying statements were later quoted during the impeachment of Suffolk with damning effect. [page ]

Landed at last in Cherbourg in March 1450, Kyrielle found that Francis, Duke of Brittany, had not pressed his operations up the Cotentin Peninsular. Finding the Francois de Suriennes had refused to leave Fougeres, Francis had turned back to oust him from the town. Honfleur had been bombarded into submission by Jean, Compte de Dunois, but there was some local respite in Kyrielle's immediate vicinity. He therefore marched in search of Somerset and, on 10th April 1450, wrested Valognes from its Breton garrison. He was aware that the Compte de Clermont was at Carentin with a strong force and, not wishing to engage him, made a skilful march across the Baie de Ravine at low tide. [The Compte was the eldest son of the Duc de Bourbon, and had himself been present at the battle of the Herrings 1429 see page ] Kyrielle advanced towards Formigny with the intention of joining up with Somerset before a pitched battle was attempted. The Compte set off in pursuit, sending word to Arthur of Brittany, who was at St Lo, to join him. Kyrielle, finding that the Compte was catching up with him, formed his troops in battle line just to the south of Formigny, adopting the dispositions which had served so well at Agincourt. The Compte, without waiting for Arthur, attacked him on his right flank. This attack was repulsed, with the capture of two of the French guns. At this moment Arthur, who had moved very quickly, appeared on Kyrielle's front. The combined French force renewed the attack, and overwhelmed Kyrielle's force. The English casualties were extremely heavy, and Kyrielle himself was taken prisoner. [The ability of the French to move quickly has already been referred to. Not much had changed when, four centuries later, this characteristic was one of Wellington's main problems in the Peninsular War 1808-1813] Some of the English, among them Matthew Gough, managed to make good their escape and carry the dreadful news to Somerset.

Small as the numbers on each side were, it was a defeat in a pitched battle which the French propaganda promoted as revenge for Agincourt 1415 and Vernueil 1424. Kyrielle's force was the last re-enforcement sent from England to Normandy. Much had been hoped for because, combined with the troops Somerset already had, the English could still have put a force of respectable size into the field. Its complete loss spelt the end for the English in Normandy.

The last days 1450

The French armies kept up their unrelenting attacks. May 1450 saw their capture of Vire, Bayeaux, Avranches, Briquebec, Valognes and St-Sauvuer,  In June, King Charles VII concentrated his forces for the siege of Caen.

Caen was an appenage of Richard, Duke of York, and its Captain was his retainer. He put up a spirited resistance in spite of the disaffection of the townsfolk who loudly proclaimed their preference for the French King. He had an unfriendly relationship with Somerset and his Duchess, and took no pains to conceal his contempt for both of them. Somerset ordered him to surrender the town when a French gun-stone hit the window of the Somerset children's nursery, and the the hysterical Duchess implored that the fighting should cease. The astonished Captain refused indignantly, and Somerset is said to have connived with some of the townsfolk to open the gates. This time the price of his own freedom was even higher; 300, 000 ecus d'or and the surrender of all the English siege- and field-artillery. For the time being, Somerset judged it unwise to show himself in England, and took refuge in Calais. The Captain made his way to Ireland, where he reported the loss to his master, Richard, Duke of York. Richard, without blaming the Captain, was infuriated at what he regarded as Somerset's cowardice.

The French armies moved quickly to finish their task by laying siege to Cherbourg. Its Captain, Thomas Gower, resisted courageously, and the French lost heavily in sickness and casualties. King Charles VII could ill afford the loss of the Admiral of France, Pregent de Coetivy, and the Chief Engineer of Military Fortifications, Tugdual de Kermoysan. The task was however completed successfully, and Cherbourg surrendered on 12th August 1450. As the Paston Letters truthfully put it:-

"and we have not now a foote of londe in Normandie"

[vol i pp139, dated 17th August 1450]

In Northern France, only Calais remained in English hands. In campaigns lasting less than 18 months, King Charles VII's armies had cleared the English out of their northern dominions in France except for this one city. Charles did not see that all of his work was yet completed. There were still the English dominions in the South, and to these he now turned his attention.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003