John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford
(miniature from Bedford Hours)
The Battle of Verneuil (occasionally ‘Vernuil’) was a strategically important battle of the Hundred Years’ War, fought on 17 August 1424 near Verneuil in Normandy and a significant English victory.
The death of Henry V put new heart into the dauphin and his supporters. Ambroise de Loré and Jean, sire de Coulances, launched a raid into lower Normandy, attacking and pillaging the town of Bernay, which was abandoned by its garrison on their approach, and inflicting a heavy defeat on those sent to pursue them. On 30 October 1422, just six days after the death of his father, the dauphin had himself proclaimed king Charles VII at Mehun-sur-Yèvre, and began negotiations with the Scots and Castilians for a new army, eight thousand strong, to be brought from Scotland to expel the English from France in the new year.
In Paris a plot to betray the city to the dauphin was discovered. A priest walking in his garden outside the city walls early one morning observed the wife of the royal armourer in secret conversation with some men-at-arms. He reported his suspicions to the guards at the gate, she was arrested, found to be carrying letters from the dauphin to his supporters in Paris and, together with her fellow conspirators, was put to death by drowning. Not long afterwards Meulan was betrayed to the Armagnacs, who placed a strong garrison in the fortress at the bridge which disrupted supply lines to Paris and raided far and wide.
Throughout all these trials Bedford kept his nerve. He ordered all soldiers to return to their captains immediately and Norman subjects to assemble in arms at Domfront. Pilgrimages to Mont-Saint-Michel – often a cover for illicit dealings with the enemy garrison there – were prohibited. Suspected Armagnacs in Paris were rounded up and imprisoned and everyone in the city, ‘citizens, householders, carters, shepherds, cowmen, abbey pig-keepers, chambermaids, and the very monks’, was required to take the oath of allegiance to Bedford as regent. Meulan was besieged and, after holding out for two months, capitulated on 1 March 1423.
Bedford now decided to take the war to the enemy. The Norman estates-general and clergy, responding to an impassioned plea from Robert Jolivet, had each granted taxes worth 50,000l.t. (£2.92m) for the defence of the duchy and the recovery of Mont-Saint-Michel, Ivry and other places. In May, John Mowbray, the earl marshal, brought over the first contingent of an English army, totalling 380 men-at-arms and 1140 archers, which had been recruited for six months’ service in the field. With these additional resources at his disposal Bedford was able to wage war on several fronts.
The earl of Salisbury, appointed governor of Champagne and Brie, began the systematic reduction of the remaining Armagnac strongholds between Paris and Chartres. In Picardy the earl of Suffolk, admiral of Normandy, and Sir Ralph Bouteiller, bailli of Caux, jointly began a blockade by sea and land of Le Crotoy. This great fortress, guarding the north bank of the entrance to the bay of the Somme, was a haven for Breton pirates and its garrison, commanded by Jacques d’Harcourt, made regular sorties into Normandy and the Burgundian-controlled Low Countries to rob, pillage and take prisoners for ransom. An attack had long been expected, so Le Crotoy was well stocked with artillery and supplies, but its capture was a priority. Bedford had ordered three large new guns to be forged at Rouen and withdrawn fifteen hundred men from garrisons throughout Normandy to serve at the siege.
Harcourt held out for nearly four months, agreeing in October to surrender Le Crotoy on 3 March 1424, but only on condition that Bedford would come there on each of the first three days of March prepared to meet him in personal combat. Whoever ended in possession of the field, either through victory or by the other’s failure to attend, would also win Le Crotoy. Challenges of this kind were not uncommon in chivalric circles, and the more valuable the prize the greater the honour bestowed on the participants, but it was very unusual for the fate of a major fortress to depend on one. Perhaps this was just a chivalric flourish, for Harcourt left Le Crotoy long before the encounter was due to take place and did not return, so no further combat was necessary.
The third front opened up by Bedford in 1423 was in southwest Normandy, where Mont-Saint-Michel stood alone in its defiance. In February the English began to fortify Tombelaine, a priory set on a rocky islet 459 feet high out in the bay halfway between Mont-Saint-Michel and the Norman coast. The previous summer the prior had sent more than 3000 pounds of lead to Mont-Saint-Michel for safe-keeping ‘because of the uncertainty caused by the wars’; ironically the monks there had purloined it for their own defences. With a permanent garrison of thirty men-at-arms and ninety mounted archers, Tombelaine would now become one of the most important English fortresses holding the frontier against Mont-Saint-Michel and keeping the raiding activities of its garrison in check.
On 30 July 1423 Bedford charged Sir John de la Pole, captain of neighbouring Avranches, with the task of recovering Mont-Saint-Michel ‘by all ways and means possible . . . by force of arms, by amicable means or otherwise’. Pole was given power to call up the feudal levies and draw on the garrisons of Caen and Cotentin but, before he began his siege in earnest, his attention was fatally distracted by the prospect of easier pickings elsewhere. The dauphin’s army, under the command of the earl of Buchan, constable of France, had laid siege to the Burgundian town of Cravant, 115 miles south-east of Paris. A combined Anglo-Burgundian force, some four thousand strong, had been sent to relieve it and on 31 July won a decisive victory. The Scots, who were in the forefront of the fighting, suffered heavy casualties and among the many prisoners was Buchan himself, who was blinded in one eye, and John Stewart, constable of the Scottish army in France. (The dauphin was callously dismissive of the defeat: ‘almost none of the nobles of our kingdom [were] there,’ he wrote, ‘but only Scots, Spaniards and other foreign soldiers, accustomed to live off the country, so that the harm is not so great.’)
Perhaps hoping to take advantage of the situation, while the enemy was regrouping far away on the other side of France, Sir John de la Pole decided to lead the forces he had gathered for the siege of Mont-Saint-Michel on a strike into Anjou. Like Clarence before him, he got as far as Angers and, like Clarence, he was caught in an ambush on returning with his plunder. On 26 September 1423 Ambroise de Loré, Jean, sire de Coulances, and Louis de Tromagon intercepted him near Laval with a small band of mounted men-at-arms and lured him to La Brossinière, where Jean d’Harcourt, count of Aumâle, was waiting with the main body of the army on foot.
Caught between the two French forces, with no artillery and impeded by the thousands of cattle they were driving back to Normandy, the English were slaughtered. Only a handful escaped, among them Pole himself, who was taken prisoner. His folly exposed the weakness of the English military administration, for many of the Norman garrisons which had contributed to his army were now themselves under-strength and vulnerable. Aumâle pressed home his victory, laying siege to Avranches and, boldly striking through the heart of Normandy, spent several days plundering the suburbs of Saint-Lô. He withdrew from Avranches only on learning of the approach of an English relieving force.
As early as 4 June Bedford had complained to Jolivet that the campaigns had bled his treasury dry and he had nothing left to pay the wages of the Norman garrisons. The estates-general met at Vernon in July and granted another levy of 60,000l.t. (£3.5m) but it needed a further meeting – the third of the year – to raise sufficient funds to meet his needs. This last meeting, in December at Caen, was significant for several reasons. It granted 200,000l.t. (£11.67m), plus a tax of a tenth on the clergy, but, in an implicit reproof to Pole’s diversion of money and men away from their intended purpose, the proceeds were specifically designated for the payment of Norman garrison wages, the sieges of Mont-Saint-Michel Ivry, Dreux, Gaillon, Nogent-le-Rotrou, Senonches and Beaumont-le-Vicomte, and the extirpation of brigandage.
The subject of brigandage is a fascinating one but it is fraught with difficulties. Did its inclusion on the agenda for the first time since the English invasion mean that the problem had recently grown worse? Or had it only become a priority because the war of conquest was over and there was a greater degree of security across the duchy? Were the brigands simply criminals, taking advantage of the instability of the times to rob, steal and kidnap for their own ends? Or were they, as some French historians believe, a medieval French Resistance, committing acts of sabotage to undermine and eventually expel the English regime?
This confusion was apparent even to contemporaries. The Caen meeting of the estates-general addressed the question of how to deal with captured brigands, ruling that they must all be examined by the judiciary to determine whether they were malefactors who should be punished within the judicial system or prisoners of war who should be returned to their captors for ransom.
It was not always easy to make such nice distinctions. The Norman records rarely note the execution of a mere ‘brigand’, preferring to use sweeping catch-all phrases, most commonly ‘traitor, brigand, enemy and adversary of the king’ but sometimes adding ‘thief’, ‘highwayman’ or ‘murderer’. ‘Enemy and adversary of the king’ was the administration’s description of all those who bore arms against Henry V or Henry VI, including Armagnac supporters and prisoners of war, but also outlaws in the literal sense of those who had, like brigands, put themselves outside the king’s law by committing capital offences. The term ‘traitor’, however, was only used in the specific legal context of someone who had sworn the English oath of allegiance and then broken it.
Convicted brigands who had not taken the oath were normally executed by hanging like common thieves. A much harsher fate awaited those who had taken the oath: as traitors they were drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, beheaded and quartered, their dismembered bodies then being put on public display. An even more unpleasant fate awaited women who aided and abetted brigands: since it was considered indecent to expose their nakedness by dismembering them, the customary punishment was to bury them alive at the foot of the gibbet. At least three instances are recorded during the English occupation: Thomasse Raoul at Caen in 1424, Jehanne la Hardie at Falaise in 1435 and Thassine de Foullon at Coutances in 1447. The Falaise executioner was paid 28s. 4d.t. (£82.64) for la Hardie’s execution: 5s.t. for bringing her to the gibbet, 10s.t. for digging the ditch, 10s.t. for burying her and 3s. 4d.t. for two pairs of gloves.
After the fall of Rouen, Henry V had made restoring order to Normandy a priority. To encourage the arrest of brigands, on 10 May 1419 he introduced a bounty system. Anyone bringing to justice a brigand who was subsequently tried, convicted and executed was awarded 6l.t. (£350) the equivalent of thirteen days’ pay for an English man-at-arms or twenty-seven for an archer. (No bounty was payable if the brigand was pardoned or imprisoned, even if convicted.) The captor was also allowed to keep all the goods of the convicted man, except for his clothes, which traditionally went to the executioner. Bounty-hunting could therefore be a very profitable business: in 1424 the captain of Carentan and one of his soldiers captured a single brigand carrying 113l. 12s. 6d.t. (£6628) in cash and seven silver cups which they shared between them.
This was an unusual case, but soldiers out on patrol could usefully add to their ordinary wages by bringing in brigands: the marshal and some his men from the Saint-Lô garrison shared 72l.t. (£4200) for capturing twelve brigands, eleven of whom were beheaded as traitors and the twelfth, a Breton who had never taken the oath of allegiance, hanged.
Many of those arrested for brigandage were, or had been, members of enemy garrisons. Henriet Pellevillain, for instance, left the Armagnac garrison at Nogent-le-Rotrou in February 1423 and, with four other men, took up residence in the forest of Brotonne, which lies in a loop of the Seine halfway between Pont-Audemer and Caudebec. The forest had long been a notorious haunt of brigands: as early as January 1408 mounted troops had been sent there to root out gangs operating in the area. Pellevillain’s men preyed on merchants travelling by road and river to Rouen, kidnapping them and holding them to ransom. Their downfall came when, in their most daring exploit, they went to Caudebec with a trumpeter, seized a number of people in broad daylight and escaped back to the forest with their hostages.
Was this real-life Robin Hood a partisan or a robber? There is no evidence to suggest that his activities benefited anyone other than himself and his group and they were operating far from their base at Nogent-le-Rotrou. The involvement of the trumpeter, however, suggests an operation with legitimate military overtones, as do the facts that Pellevillain had never taken the English oath of obedience and, from the age of twenty, had been actively in the dauphin’s service. These were extenuating circumstances which explain why he was allowed to sue for pardon and not simply hanged as a highwayman.
After Nogent-le-Rotrou was captured by the earl of Salisbury in October 1424, another notorious gang from the same garrison also operated out of the forest of Brotonne. Their leader, Guillaume de Hallé, had served in the garrison for three years. During that time he had been taken prisoner on a raid near the English stronghold of La-Ferté-Frênel, some forty miles away. His father, who still lived near Pont-Audemer, had paid his ransom and pledged that his son would not rejoin the enemy if released. Hallé took the oath of allegiance and was set free but then became captain of a large band of brigands, whose profile and activities are recorded in the pardons some of them received in the spring of 1426.
The gang consisted almost entirely of young men in their late teens and twenties, many of whom came from around Pont-Audemer and were involved in the leather-working industry. Huet de Quesnoy, a shoemaker, was known locally as the captain’s recruiting agent, intermediary and enforcer: he threatened to kill and burn down the houses of anyone who failed to respond to Hallé’s demands for weapons, food, drink and shelter. Guillaume Bouchier claimed that such threats had compelled him not only to take the gang supplies but also to join them in their kidnapping expeditions. Eighteen-year-old Jeannin Beaudouyn’s excuse was that he was in love with Yolette, widow of Jean de Hallé, Guillaume’s brigand brother: she had taken him to meet the captain and he had forced him to marry her and join his company. Seventeen-year-old Colin du Quemin had become a member only for his own protection, he said, because Beaudouyn had discovered that Yolette was also sleeping with him and wanted to kill him. A more convincing reason for joining was given by Laurens Hue, an impoverished apprentice shoemaker with an epileptic wife, who confessed he was persuaded by the prospect of earning more than half as much again as a brigand.
Hallé’s band were responsible for the usual brigand catalogue of kidnappings, extortions, murders and arson, even raiding as far afield as Harfleur in their quest for victims. No one was safe from their violence. One woman, who refused to reveal where her absent husband was, suffered what seems to be the earliest recorded example of waterboarding: Hallé personally ‘tortured her on a bench, forcing her to drink a vast amount of water, causing her serious injury and pain’.