Richard II was in many ways a tragic figure. As the younger son, he would not have been raised to be king, and, although his mother had considerable (and generally beneficial) influence on his early education and subsequent development, he had little contact with his father, who was frequently away on campaign, and his senior uncle, Gaunt, was unpopular in the country. This unpopularity was, of course, partly engendered through envy: the dukedom of Lancaster was immensely rich and in many aspects was independent of the central government. But Gaunt’s frequent quarrels with various bishops (usually over the question of sanctuary in churches), his obvious disdain for public opinion, and his lack of charisma (perhaps surprising given his genes) as a military commander did not help his reputation.
It was an unfortunate start to the reign that the truce negotiated in 1375 ran out only a few days after Richard’s accession. It was even more unfortunate that the French had used the brief peace to prepare for war, by embarking on a major ship-building programme based in Rouen, while the English, short of money, had been much less energetic. In the summer of 1377, French fleets, aided by the Castilian galleys of Enrique, raided the English Channel ports from Rye as far as Plymouth. They would land, loot what they could, set fire to anything that looked as if it might burn and set sail again. They landed on the Isle of Wight and extracted a ransom before departing; attacked Southampton, where they were bloodily repulsed by local forces under Sir John Arundel, a younger son of the third earl of Arundel; raided Poole; and tried (and failed) to effect a landing in Folkestone. On the continent, the French admiral Jean de Vienne blockaded Calais by sea while the duke of Burgundy laid siege on land. Fortunately for the Calais garrison, commanded by Sir Hugh Calveley, although some of the outer defences fell, bad weather and heavy rains made mining and the movement of siege engines impossible and the French withdrew, giving Sir Hugh an opportunity to sally out, attack Étaples further down the coast, and remove the large quantities of wine stored there. Meanwhile, in the Dordogne, the duke of Anjou was steadily reducing English-held towns. He captured the seneschal of Aquitaine, Sir Thomas Felton, father of the Sir William who had been killed in Spain, and threatened Bordeaux, only to have to turn back when he found pro-English forces in his rear. Brest was under siege, but was reinforced from England in January 1378, although English attempts to capture Saint-Malo and to initiate a campaign in Normandy failed.
Then, later in the year 1378, an opportunity to hit back at the French by proxy presented itself when Charles of Navarre re-entered the frame. Charles had once again fallen out with Charles V of France, for much the same reasons as Edward III had with French monarchs over Aquitaine: Charles of Navarre was a king in his own right, but also held Navarre as a vassal of the French king, and, when Charles of France declared Navarre forfeit, Charles of Navarre appealed to England. The council was very happy to support Charles of Navarre on the grounds that any enemy of France was a friend of England, and contracted to send 1,000 men for a period of four months, in exchange for the port of Cherbourg. This was agreed and the English duly occupied Cherbourg.
By the time the English army arrived in Navarre, however, delayed by bad weather and shortage of shipping, the situation had been resolved. Enrique of Castile had invaded Navarre on behalf of his French ally, but, when he heard that an English army had landed in Aquitaine and was on its way, he wisely withdrew. As the English troops, under Sir Thomas Trevet, who was at this time only in his late twenties but had fought for the Black Prince at Najera, were no longer required to defend Navarre, they embarked on a foray through Castile, reducing numerous Castilian towns, damaging Enrique’s reputation considerably and acquiring large quantities of booty before returning to England. Charles of Navarre, meanwhile, made his peace with the French, who retained the Navarrese lands in Normandy. While the tactical achievements of Trevet’s expedition were minor, the acquisition of Cherbourg was a major strategic gain: along with Brest, Bayonne, Bordeaux and Calais, England now had an outpost line of strongly fortified ports with which to counter French naval ambitions and which could serve as springboards for invasions of France.
Charles of France, having at least gained the Normandy possessions of Navarre, decided to try the same ploy in Brittany, and in 1379 declared that he was confiscating that duchy. This time he went too far and the Bretons, touchy about their independence and with no wish to be part of France, took up arms and demanded the return of Duke John from England. Having secured a promise of English military support, John returned to Brittany, where he was welcomed with acclamation at Saint-Malo. The English army to support him had been agreed at 2,000 men-at-arms supported by the same number of archers for four and a half months from 1 August, but, when the English council discovered that they could not afford to pay and transport so many, the size of the contingent was reduced to 650 of each arm.66 They were to be under the overall command of Sir John Arundel, the defender of Southampton, who had been part of the relieving force sent to Brest in 1377 and was in Cherbourg in 1378.
The troops duly mustered at Southampton, but the weather and problems in finding troop transports delayed their departure and Sir John is said to have billeted his immediate retinue in a convent, dismissing the mother superior’s protests that the presence of such a large number of young men might lead to ‘an unforgivable sin which would bring shame and disgrace to the nunnery’. The unforgivable sin duly occurred. Arundel did nothing to stop it (commanders of other units in the area managed to keep their men under control), and it extended to the soldiery looting the silver from a local church and generally behaving like their modern successors on a Saturday night in a garrison town. When ships were finally found, Arundel’s men took some of the nuns along with them, no doubt to sew on buttons during the journey, and divine retribution caught up with them when a violent storm raged in the Channel. Most of the ships carrying horses sank, either off the coast of Cornwall or off Ireland, and in an effort to lighten the troop-ships the men are said to have thrown most of the nuns overboard. When that had no effect, the ladies were followed by the accumulated plunder of Hampshire. Arundel’s own vessel ran aground off Ireland in December and he was drowned. Sir Hugh Calveley and most of the other captains survived.
While the French assault on what was left of English France had been halted, lack of coordination between the various expeditionary forces on land and at sea meant that much of the expenditure on men, ships and weapons was to no great purpose. When Edward III was alive, there was a strong king who made decisions, supported by an administration that could carry them out. Now rule was by committee, never a recipe for strong government, and, although decisions were made in the king’s name, they were too often a distillation of conflicting opinions resulting in weak compromise. Dissatisfaction with the way the war was being conducted and the tax burden imposed to pay for it eventually boiled over in 1381.
The catalyst was the decision in June 1380 to send another expedition to help the duke of Brittany. The king’s uncle, the twenty-six-year-old duke of Buckingham, would be in command with around 5,000 soldiers, probably 3,000 men-at-arms and 2,000 archers, all to be mounted. Given the difficulty of finding enough ships and the ever-present threat of storms in the Channel, the troops would be ferried by the most direct route from Dover and Sandwich to Calais, from where they would make a chevauchée to link up with Duke John at Rennes. On 24 June, the army marched from Calais, creating the usual swathe of destruction as it went across the Somme, to Rheims, south of Paris, and then to Rennes, but without meeting a single French army, Charles V having instructed his commanders that on no account were they to offer battle. Buckingham was now running short of money, and a request was sent back to England asking for sufficient funds to maintain the army throughout the winter and to continue campaigning in the spring. At home, the treasury was empty and, after much argument, it was decided by Parliament that the government’s demand for £150,000 – to cover the expenses of Buckingham’s army and the maintenance of the fortress ports (where the garrisons had not been paid for months), with possibly a little to be secreted for John of Gaunt’s ambitions in Spain and Portugal (he intended to pursue a claim to the throne of Castile by reason of being married to Pedro the Cruel’s daughter) – was too much. They would agree to find £100,000: two-thirds from the laity and one-third from the church. And then Charles V died, Duke John came to terms with his successor, and Buckingham’s army was left high and dry with no option but to go home. It was to be the last major English expedition of the fourteenth century.