Henry V’s Armada I


Henry’s preparations for his grand design, the invasion and conquest of France, are further evidence of the many-sided genius he had displayed in Wales and in ruling England during his father’s illness. He solved with ease countless problems of logistics and organization. He also showed himself to be a skilled and ruthless diplomat.

Almost from the moment he succeeded to the crown, he was making ready for war with France. As early as May 1413 he had ordered that no bows or guns were to be sold to the Scots or to other foreigners. Throughout 1413–14 he was buying bows, bow strings and arrows, while guns were being founded at the Tower and at Bristol, and gun powder and gunstones manufactured in large quantities. He also purchased, or had manufactured, siege towers, scaling ladders, battering rams and other tools for demolishing and breaching walls, and collapsible pontoon bridges. Timber, rope, mattocks, picks and shovels were stockpiled, together with every other conceivable necessity for siege warfare – from calthrops to iron chains, from sea-coal to wood-ash. In October 1414, 10,000 gunstones costing £66 13s 4d were delivered to the Tower.

Yet at the same time the king was negotiating with the French. Full-scale civil war had broken out between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs. The Duke of Burgundy sought military assistance from England – understandably the Armagnacs tried to outbid the duke at the English court.

Although the king wanted war, he was careful to give every appearance of taking seriously the negotiations which took place in 1413–15. At this stage his aims were probably limited to recovering Aquitaine as it had been under the Black Prince, after the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360. This included not just Guyenne, Poitou and the Limousin but almost all France between the Loire and the Pyrenees west of the Massif Central – amounting to a third of the realm. Had he obtained it through diplomacy there is little doubt that he would have demanded more territory, which would inevitably have led to conflict.

The first thing Henry needed for an invasion was money. He made every effort to improve the collection of revenue and see that it was spent to maximum effect. He increased the yield from Crown lands and such dues as marriage fees and wardships. The excellent relations he had established with the Commons when Prince of Wales stood him in good stead – they were impressed by his businesslike ways and trusted him. They approved his right to regain his ‘inheritance’ in France in the Parliament of November 1414, while urging him to exhaust every diplomatic possibility before going to war. One reason for their co-operation was satisfaction with his proclamation of a general pardon. Even so he had to borrow. He did not possess the enormous credit facilities extended to his great-grandfather Edward III by the Florentine banking houses. His only source of credit was his revenue and his personal valuables – and only the revenue of the year in hand, since he refused to anticipate future revenue.

Commissioners were sent all over England to raise loans from prelates and religious orders, from noblemen and country gentlemen, from city corporations and from merchants great and small – Dick Whittington, the London merchant (and sometime mayor) advanced some £2,000, while large numbers of tradesmen lent sums as small as 10d. The biggest creditor was Bishop Beaufort who contributed not less than £35,630 in the course of his nephew’s reign. Nevertheless the king still had to pledge all his jewellery and not just his ‘little jewels’ as in the past but the very vestments from the Chapel Royal, even his crowns: of the ‘Harry Crown’ Sir John Colvyl held a fleur-de-lys with rubies, sapphires and pearls; John Pudsey, esquire, a pinnacle with sapphires, a square ruby and six pearls; Maurice Brune a pinnacle similarly ornamented; and John Staundish another pinnacle likewise ornamented. He was to go on borrowing throughout his reign, though most loans would be paid back in full.

In August 1414, after having manoeuvred the Duke of Burgundy into offering neutrality should he attempt to make himself King of France, Henry sent an embassy to Paris led by Richard Courtenay, Bishop of Norwich. First the embassy demanded the French crown and kingdom for its master, then it lowered its terms to Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Poitou and the lands between Flanders and the Somme, and Aquitaine as it had been in 1360. This amounted to all western France. They also demanded the still unpaid ransom of King John II (who had been taken prisoner at Poitiers in 1356), most of Provence, and the hand of Charles VI’s daughter, Catherine, with a dowry of two million crowns. In response, the Armagnac Duke of Berry – effectively Regent of France since Charles had gone off his head again – offered most, though not all, of Aquitaine and a dowry of 600,000 crowns. His terms were rejected. The following month the Armagnacs again made peace with the Burgundians, and Henry had to reassess his bargaining position.

In February 1415 Bishop Courtenay led another embassy to Paris, asking this time merely for Aquitaine in full sovereignty and a dowry of only a million crowns. The French refused to improve their previous offer apart from raising the dowry to 800,000 crowns. These were generous terms yet they were rejected once more. The original version of Shakespeare’s story of the tennis balls probably dates from the embassy’s return, that the haughty French ‘said foolishly to them that as Henry was but a young man they would send to him little balls to play with and soft cushions to rest on until he should have grown to a man’s strength’. (This is from the almost contemporary chronicle of Canon John Strecche, who had many informed friends at Court.) The tale may well have been a piece of propaganda, invented and put about by Henry’s agents.

By June the king was at Winchester, ready to receive one final despairing embassy from the French before launching his invasion. He received the envoys at the bishop’s palace on the 30 June, giving every appearance of taking them seriously. He was in cloth of gold from top to toe and leant against a table – flanked by the royal dukes on one side, by the Chancellor, Beaufort, and various prelates on the other. During the ensuing negotiations the French offered to add the Limousin to their previous offer, to no avail. Their leader Guillaume Boisratier, Archbishop of Bourges, lost his temper when Henry said that if Charles VI did not meet his ‘just’ demands he would be responsible for a ‘deluge of Christian blood’. ‘Sire,’ retorted the prelate, ‘the King of France our sovereign lord is true King of France, and regarding those things to which you say you have a right you have no lordship, not even to the kingdom of England which belongs to the true heirs of King Richard. Nor with you can our sovereign lord safely treat.’ At this Henry stormed out of the conference chamber.

The Chancellor, Beaufort, then read out a prepared document. The gist was that if Charles VI refused to hand over the Angevin empire immediately, Henry would come and take it by the sword, and the crown of France with it, that he had been driven to this course by Charles’s delays and refusal to do him ‘justice’. The archbishop answered that the English were mistaken if they thought that the French had offered concessions out of fear and the English king might come when he liked to be defeated, killed or taken prisoner.

On 6 July 1415 Henry declared war formally, a war for which he had been preparing for over two years. He called on God to witness that it was the fault of Charles VI, for refusing to do him ‘justice’. The author of the Gesta tells us the king had copies made of ‘pacts and covenants entered into between the most serene prince the King of England Henry IV, his father, and certain of the great princes of France on the subject of his divine right and claim to the duchy of Aquitaine’ and sent transcripts to the Council of the Church at Constance, to the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and to other monarchs, ‘that all Christendom might know what great acts of injustice the French in their duplicity had inflicted on him, and that, as it were reluctantly and against his will, he was being compelled to raise his standard against rebels.’

An army of over 10,000 men assembled at Southampton. It consisted of 2,000 men-at-arms and nearly 8,000 archers, with a few un-armoured lancers and knifemen. They were supported by armourers, smiths, farriers, surgeons, cooks, chaplains, engineers, carpenters and masons. There was a team of miners – to tunnel beneath the enemy’s walls – and sixty-five gunners under four Dutch master-gunners. There were bowyers and fletchers to make and replace bows and arrows. There was even a royal band, consisting of trumpeters, fiddlers and pipers, led by the king’s master-minstrel, Mr John Stiff.

Just as later English armies included colonial contingents, many of Henry’s troops were Welshmen though we do not know the exact number. The most notable were Davy Gam Daffyd ap Llewellyn of Brecon, who had served under him against Glyn Dŵr and who was later killed at Agincourt, and Davy Howell – probably the man mentioned in Cambridge’s confession – whom Henry was later to appoint captain of the castle of Pont d’Ouve, near Carentan. Another who distinguished himself was Gruffydd Dŵn who would also fight at Agincourt, and stay on in France after the king’s death. (Gruffydd had no less than seventy-seven Welshmen under his command when he was captain of Tancarville in 1438). Having fought against the Welsh for years and having employed them to crush their fellow countrymen Henry – who probably understood a little of their language – knew all about their courage, their ferocity and their propensity to commit atrocities. Wales contained all too many penniless minor gentry with ancient pedigrees and fiendish pride, who had no hope of finding gainful employment. Military service in France solved their financial problems while deflecting them from rising against the English again. Those who could afford it fought as men-at-arms though most served as archers, bringing their great knives with them (they wore these behind their backs, dangling from the base of the spine, which gave rise to the legend that the ‘English had tails’). A few Welsh gentlemen, Owain’s irreconcilable veterans, were to fight by the side of the French at Agincourt.

All troops, whether English or Welsh, had been recruited by the indenture system, captains being commissioned to hire specified numbers of men at a stipulated rate. Normally the captain advanced the first pay-packets, after which he was refunded by the Exchequer which from then on supplied the cash for future pay. The Duke of Clarence brought 240 men-at-arms and 720 archers, the Duke of York and the Earl of Dorset, 100 men-at-arms and 300 archers each, the Earl of Salisbury forty men-at-arms and eighty archers. Lesser men brought smaller retinues, John Fastolf bringing ten men-at-arms and thirty archers, while two of the royal surgeons had only six archers between them. A duke was obliged to bring fifty horses, a knight six, and a man-at-arms four. Every horse was to have a groom, though generally grooms came from among the archers. A duke was paid 13s 4d a day, an earl 6s 8d, a baron 4s, a knight 2s, a man-at-arms 1s and an archer 6d. Save for the very great – who often ended up out of pocket – this was good money. (We know from the income tax returns of 1436 that the average income of a great nobleman was £865, of a well-to-do knight £208, of a minor gentleman or merchant from £15 to £19, and a ploughman might earn perhaps £4 a year.) There was also the prospect of ransoms and loot – men of all classes must have remembered how their grandfathers had made fortunes during Edward III’s campaigns in France. The king was mercilessly strict in his insistence on a full complement at the muster; when the Duke of Gloucester was found to be two men-at-arms short, he was punished by receiving no pay for a year and having in consequence to find his troops’ pay from his own resources. For in Wales Henry had begun to develop an efficient system of ‘muster and review’, and was determined that he was not going to be charged for non-existent soldiers, known as ‘dead souls’.

The king was fortunate in possessing a ready-made reservoir of corps commanders in his nobility. G. L. Harriss has calculated that ‘of the seventeen members of the upper nobility in 1413, eleven were within the age-bracket eighteen to thirty-two, the age when the fighting man was at his peak. Henry himself was twenty-six – exactly in the middle’. Many had already served with him in Wales against Glyn Dŵr, including Lord Salisbury and Lord Warwick and Sir John Holland (not yet restored to his father’s earldom of Huntingdon) and such greybeards as the Duke of York who was over forty. The latter had a good name as a soldier. So did the Duke of Clarence, who had earned it in Ireland and during his French expedition of 1412. Furthermore the king was clearly an excellent trainer of good officers.

For his rank and file, Henry had a substantial nucleus of veterans who had fought for him – or against him – in Wales. The captains, and in consequence their men too, came from all over the kingdom. McFarlane believed that all those who fought in the wars in France were ‘gentlemen by birth and their servants’ but this was not invariably the case. (Even if of gentle blood, many of those who were later promoted captains had joined as penniless adventurers.) The ‘servants’ were often tenants rather than house or estate staff, while there is evidence that a fair number of tradesmen – butchers, fishmongers, barbers, dyers – left their shops and went and fought in France.


One may ask what was their motive. The answer can only be loot. McFarlane has produced countless examples of Englishmen from all classes who did well out of ‘spoils won in France’. Admittedly M. M. Postan, after equally extensive research, was able to cite almost as many instances of Englishmen who were impoverished as a result of campaigning in France. This was usually through arrears to pay or from being captured and having to pay a heavy ransom. Yet one may guess with some certainty that, however it turned out in the end, most of the troops who took part hoped – indeed expected – to win rather than lose and that French plunder was the prospect which drew them like a magnet to serve in the war across the Channel.

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