Previous page Page 2 of 2  
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
To the 14th century
15th century
     Armagnacs and Burgundians
     Rouen and Troyes
     The king of Bourges
     Formigny and Castillon
     The final pay-off

Bookmark and Share
Lancastrians, Armagnacs and Burgundians: 1407-15

In the early 15th century the political context in both England and France is radically different from the circumstances fifty years earlier at the time of the treaty of Brétigny. In England the new Lancastrian dynasty is more vigorous and belligerent than its predecessors. This is particularly the case after a young king, Henry V, inherits the throne in 1413.

In France civil war breaks out in 1407 between two lines within the royal family - the Armagnacs (supporting the legitimate line of the mad king Charles VI and his son the dauphin) and their rivals, the Burgundians. Henry V, availing himself of the disarray in France, brings a fleet into the estuary of the Seine in August 1415.


Harfleur, a port and stronghold on the north bank of the Seine estuary, falls to the English after a siege of five weeks. Henry then makes the profoundly medieval gesture of sending a challenge to the French dauphin to meet him within eight days in single combat to decide the great issue between their two kingdoms.

The dauphin does not respond. In early October Henry marches north, intending to assert his presence in France and then to return to England from Calais. But by the time he has crossed the Somme, the dauphin has assembled a French army to challenge him. They meet near the village of Agincourt.


Battle of Agincourt: 1415

Henry has at most 1000 men-at-arms and 5000 archers. The French outnumber him by perhaps three to one. But Henry compensates for this by taking up a position, at dawn on St Crispin's day (October 25), on a narrow front between two woods where the French advantage in numbers will be lessened.

His forces are arranged in a favourite English formation. Bowmen, provided with stakes which they can plant in the ground to form an instant palisade, are ranged on each wing in front of the men-at-arms (who are fighting on foot). Enemy cavalry or infantry, moving forward, are exposed to rains of arrows from either flank before they can clash with their opposite numbers.


At Agincourt the wet ploughed land combines with the narrow front to handicap the heavily armed French. They fall in large numbers (some 1500 mounted knights and 4500 other men-at-arms) to the more mobile English - whose rapid discharge of arrows from their longbows is followed by close work with axe and sword. The reports suggest that there are relatively few English casualties.

Henry V and his army continue on their way to the safe haven of Calais, reaching it four days later. Henry crosses to Dover on November 16 and is received in London amid magnificent pageantry.


Rouen and Troyes: 1417-1420

Henry V returns to France in 1417 and begins a systematic campaign to capture one by one the towns and castles of Normandy. His eventual target is Rouen, the capital city of the duchy. The siege begins in July 1418. By January 1419 Rouen has been starved into submission and Henry makes a triumphal entry into the city of his Norman ancestors.

This notable success prompts immediate offers of negotiation. But with whom? At Agincourt Henry has defeated a French army led by the dauphin, representing his mad father Charles VI and the Armagnac cause. When Rouen falls, the French civil war between Armagnacs and Burgundians has become more complex.


By this time the mad king and his heir are on opposite sides of the struggle. Charles VI's queen, Isabella of Bavaria, has brought her incapacitated husband into the camp of the Burgundians. From 1418 they control Paris, after an uprising in the city ejects the Armagnacs. The dauphin, son of Charles VI and Isabella, escapes with the Armagnacs to Bourges where he declares himself to be regent of France.

This hollow boast is mocked by the treaty of Troyes, agreed in 1420 between Isabella and her Burgundian ally (the new duke, Philip the Good) on one side and Henry V of England on the other.


The treaty of Troyes, extraordinarily advantageous to the English cause, is agreed with only one of the two sides in France's civil war. Under its terms Henry V is to be the acknowledged heir of the French king, Charles VI, to the exclusion of the dauphin. Within two weeks of the treaty Henry marries Catherine, daughter of the king of France.

In 1421 the couple have a son, also christened Henry. Before the infant is a year old, both his father and his maternal grandfather have died. For the second time in the Hundred Years' War a king of England has a valid claim to the crown of France. The boy is crowned Henry VI of England at Westminster in 1429, and Henry II of France in Paris in 1431.


The king of Bourges: 1422-1437

Meanwhile the dauphin, the rightful king by descent, proclaims himself Charles VII of France. But he is confined south of the Loire, with Paris in the hands of his enemies (the English and Burgundians in alliance). Charles is known mockingly as the king of Bourges, where he maintains his court.

There is political impasse and desultory warfare until a dramatic development in 1429. For six months the English have been besieging Orléans, an important town on the Loire commanding the route south towards Bourges. In April a French force arrives to raise the siege. It is unusual in that it is led by a young peasant girl, Joan of Arc.


Inspired by Joan, the French drive the English north from Orléans. The raising of the siege proves the turning point in the long war. Joan leads Charles VII to Reims, where his consecration in 1429 brings him for the first time the undivided allegiance of the French people. Even the death of Joan at English hands, in 1431, does nothing to stem the new surge of national enthusiasm and success.

The duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, acknowledges the trend when he makes peace with Charles VII in 1435 at Arras. This treaty ends the civil war. In 1437 the king enters Paris, now once again the capital. The French kingdom is almost back to normal.


After this satisfactory resolution of the civil war against the Burgundians, Charles VII's reign sees an almost equally complete resolution of the much longer conflict with England.

The two large areas of France still in English hands are Aquitaine (reduced to Guienne but never entirely recovered for the French king) and Normandy (recovered in 1204, lost again to Henry V in 1419). Charles brings them both securely into the kingdom, and does so very largely thanks to his reforms of France's antiquated approach to warfare. His professional army and his artillery win him Normandy after a victory at Formigny in 1450, and Aquitaine after an engagement at Castillon three years later.


The guns of Formigny and Castillon: 1450-1453

Inconclusive references in contemporary documents suggest that guns of some kind may have featured on Europe's battlefields as early as Crécy in 1346. But the first engagement in which they play a decisive role is at Formigny in 1450.

The English enter the field with a slightly larger force than the French, perhaps 3500 men against 3000. For much of the battle the English bowmen achieve their now customary success. But considerable damage is done to the English force by two small cannons, or culverins, in the French position.


Recognizing the importance of these guns, the English make an effort to capture them. They succeed briefly in doing so. But the French win back their cannons, and with them win the day.

The same pattern is repeated three years later at Castillon. On this occasion the French have several cannons in a defensive position. The English make a frontal assault, suffering considerable losses in men and even more in confidence. It is the last battle of the Hundred Years War, which in itself is the last great medieval conflict. The centuries of the archer give way to those of the gunner.


The final pay-off: 1475

An English attempt to revive the agonisingly long Hundred Years' War is bought off with a bribe. Edward IV makes one last attempt to claim rather more of France than the tiny pale of Calais, all that now remains in English hands. He lands at Calais in 1475 with a large army. The French king, Louis XI, marches north with an equally large force. They confront each other across the Somme. But neither has much stomach for a fight.

The two kings meet at Picquigny and agree a seven-year truce. Edward IV will withdraw from France in return for an immediate payment of 75,000 gold crowns and a further annual sweetener of 50,000 gold crowns for as long as both kings live.


The sums are small (by comparison with the ransom paid for John II a century earlier) and the arrangement holds until both kings die in 1483.

No more is heard of this long dispute, apart from an obsessive English affection for tiny Calais and a strange custom of the English royal family to include 'king of France' among their titles (until as late as 1801). No final treaty is ever signed, nor needs to be. The war lingered on past its time, a late example of the patchwork quilt of medieval disputes deriving from dowries and feudal grants. The great conflicts of the future will be between clearly defined nation states, of which France and England are two early examples.


Previous page Page 2 of 2  
Up to top of page THE HUNDRED YEARS' WAR