SIEGE OF HARFLEUR II

Medieval Prints by Graham Turner
Reproduced in full colour on good quality art paper from Graham Turner’s Medieval paintings, featuring not only the dramatic battles of the Wars of the Roses and 100 Years War, but also more peaceful scenes from this turbulent period of history. Dimensions shown indicate the overall size, including a white border containing the title and any descriptive text.

The siege that followed was literally a textbook one, based principally on the ancient classical treatise on military tactics by Vegetius, De Rei Militari, which dated from the fourth century but had been translated and glossed by every medieval writer on the subject, including the fourteenth-century Egidius Romanus, known to the English as Master Giles, and Henry V’s own contemporaries, Christine de Pizan and Thomas Hoccleve. Following standard military practice, Henry ordered that the suburbs of Harfleur should be burnt and cleared, so that he could bring his cannon and siege engines within range of the walls. As the chaplain proudly pointed out, the king “did not allow his eyelids to close in sleep,” but laboured day and night to get his artillery in position. Many “great engines” to assault the town were constructed on site, as were “cunning instruments” for the protection of his own forces. Hordes of carpenters were employed in erecting huge wooden screens to protect the guns and catapults from enemy assault: an ingenious pulley-based device, operated from behind, allowed the gun crews to raise the base of the screen to set the gun’s projectory and fire it. The gunners themselves were protected by trenches built either side of their cannon and by ramparts, hastily constructed from the excavated earth thrown over bundles of sticks.

Once the assault on Harfleur began, it was devastating. For days on end, the seventy-eight gunners kept up an incessant bombardment; they worked in shifts, as soon as one team tired, another immediately taking its place, so that there was no respite for the besieged during the hours of daylight. The English cannon and catapults were trained on the main points of resistance—the bastion guarding the Leure gate, the towers and the walls—and as the ten thousand gun-stones they had brought with them did their deadly work, the fortifications of Harfleur gradually crumbled. The noise was terrible: the explosion of cannon-fire, the thud of gun-stones crashing into their targets, the splintering of timber defences and the rumble of falling masonry. One of the cannons, the monk of St Denis was told, was the biggest anyone had ever seen before. When it was fired, it discharged huge blocks as big as millstones with so much black smoke and such a terrifying report “that they seemed to issue forth from the fires of hell.”

In the face of this overwhelming assault, de Gaucourt and his men fought back with courage and determination, keeping up a retaliatory bombardment using guns, catapults, and crossbows as long as the bastion, towers and walls remained defensible. (One English man-at-arms, Thomas Hostell, was “smitten with a springolt [that is, a crossbow bolt] through the head, losing one eye and having his cheek bone broken,” though this injury did not prevent him from continuing to fight.) When it was no longer possible to defend the broken remnants of fortifications, the French doggedly fought on, “from inside the ruins also, from behind screens, and through shattered openings in the walls, and from other places where shelter would not have been thought possible.”

At night, when the guns were silent, the siege engines still and the English slept, there was no rest for the besieged, who laboured to repair their defences as best they could. Under de Gaucourt’s direction, and presumably with the aid of the civilian population, the crumbling walls were shored up with timber props, bundles of sticks and tubs packed with earth, dung, sand or stones. The lanes and streets inside the walls were also covered with a thick layer of clay, earth and dung to soften the impact of gun-stones falling or shattering inside the town and causing death or injury to the besieged. There was neither time nor energy to spare for repairing the civilian buildings, which suffered terribly under the bombardment. The parish church, St Martin’s, lost both its steeple and its bells. Many “really fine buildings,” as the chaplain noted with regret, even those almost in the middle of the town, were completely destroyed or so badly damaged that they were on the point of collapse.

While the artillery wreaked its devastation from the air, Henry’s Welsh miners were hard at work burrowing under the fortifications of Harfleur. The greatest efforts were made on the Rouen side of the town, where Clarence was in command, because at this point there was no moat to be crossed. Here the walls were protected only by a double ditch, the depth of the inner one being an unknown quantity, as no spy or scout had been able to get close enough to investigate.

Military mining had been introduced to Europe from the east during the Crusades in the thirteenth century. It involved digging a tunnel, or a web of tunnels, under the weakest point of a fortification, which was usually a corner or a gatehouse. The walls and roof of the tunnels, like those in a conventional mine, would be shored up with timber props which, at the right moment, would be set alight to make the tunnel collapse. Unlike a conventional mine, where those digging for coal or metal ores had to follow a seam and could work on their hands and knees if necessary, military mines had to be large enough to be able to bring down tons of masonry. This meant that they were usually wide and tall enough to take at least a man standing upright, and in some cases must have resulted in the creation of a vast underground chamber.

The most effective way of preventing a successful mining operation was for the besieged to counter-mine, or dig their own tunnels beneath and into the enemy mines to make them collapse before they reached the walls. Where the sheer weight of earth failed to do this, brushwood and incendiary devices were dropped or thrown in to set the props alight, smoke out the miners and bring down the tunnels. (Christine de Pizan even recommended placing large tubs of boiling water or urine at the entrance to the mine, which could be emptied on the unfortunate miners to scald or maim them.) Occasionally, mine and counter-mine would meet, providing the opportunity for a curious subterranean version of the feat of arms, which, given the difficulties to be overcome, was highly prized by chivalrous knights and esquires as a demonstration of exceptional personal valour. In the narrow and gloomy confines of the mine, lit only by the flickering flames of torches, two men-at-arms would fight with whatever weapons they had to hand—swords, daggers, axes and maces—until one of them conceded defeat or an impasse was reached. One cannot imagine men of the calibre of Sir John Cornewaille and Raoul de Gaucourt neglecting such an opportunity to distinguish themselves, and the chroniclers report that there were daily encounters in the mine: “And who most manly fought in the same, supposed himselfe to have achieved greate victorie. And so that mine that was begun for the sudden invasion of the Towne was changed into the exercise of knightlie acts.” So dangerous and prestigious was such combat held to be that those who fought an encounter of this kind were judged to share a special bond and could become brothers-in-arms, even though they came from opposing sides. The most spectacular instance on record took place during the long siege of Melun in 1420, when Henry V himself is said to have fought the captain of the garrison, the sire de Barbazan, on horseback within the mines. When Melun finally fell, Henry announced his intention to execute Barbazan as a rebel. Barbazan responded by invoking the law of arms, claiming that they were brothers-in-arms because they had fought together in the mine, and that his life should therefore be spared. Henry accepted the validity of this claim and did indeed refrain from executing him.

Despite the English efforts, the French successfully thwarted every attempt to undermine their walls. Henry V had ordered a “sow” to be made, this being a protective mobile shelter under which the miners could take cover as they did their work. All the military textbooks recommended that mining should be conducted out of sight of the enemy, but this was impossible at Harfleur because of the lie of the land. As soon as the French saw that the sow was in place and that a mine was in progress, they took retaliatory measures, digging counter-mines and employing “other technical skills” that were evidently superior to those of the less experienced Welsh miners. Two attempts to undermine the walls were foiled and a third failed to achieve its objective. The only compensation for this lack of success was that the operation had been a useful diversion and forced the French to divide their forces in the town’s defence.

Clarence was also forced to abandon his attempt to fill in the ditches below the Rouen gate walls. For this purpose, he had been gathering bundles of wood and piling them up in front of the ditches. He then discovered that the French had also been busy, stockpiling barrels of flammable powders, oils and fats on the walls. They were only waiting for the English to begin crossing the ditches before setting fire to the barrels and flinging them onto the ready-made bonfires below so as to burn Clarence’s men alive. But this threat did not prevent his men from taking possession of the outer ditch. Having advanced to this new position, Clarence appointed masters-of-works to supervise the digging of a trench, a section of which every man-at-arms and archer in his force was assigned to complete. The excavated soil thrown up on the front facing the enemy was further fortified with a palisade made of tree trunks and stakes, from behind which the gunners and archers could operate in comparative safety. Shielded behind their new defences, the English were now in range and able to drive the defenders off the walls with a barrage of missiles and gun-stones.

Although these operations were all carried out under Clarence’s orders, the king himself was in direct control and issuing the commands that his brother obeyed. It was a situation fraught with difficulties, not least because every message carried between the two divisions of the army had to be taken either by boat across the flooded Lézarde valley or by land on the long detour round the valley head. This was a problem that demanded an urgent solution and Henry had applied himself to finding one. According to Master Jean de Bordiu, one of the most senior clerks in the royal household, “Our king cut off the water supply before Montivilliers, which they had retained so that it could not run into the sea.” Though this rather mysterious phrase is open to interpretation, it suggests that Henry dammed the Lézarde higher up the valley, closer to Montivilliers, which was less than three miles away from Harfleur. This would have had two effects. First, it would have deprived the people of Harfleur of their main supply of fresh water, which was a priority of any besieging army hoping to make life on the inside increasingly wretched. Second, it must also have led to the draining of the flooded fields above the town. No chronicler mentions such engineering works, or, indeed, that the flood waters created by closing the sluices at Harfleur gradually evaporated or drained away during the course of the siege, but it is difficult to find any other explanation for de Bordiu’s explicit statement.

Henry was indefatigable in his personal supervision of the siege. No one, not even his brother, knew when or where he would appear next. “The Kinge daylie and nightlie in his owne person visited and searched the watches, orders, and stacions of everie part of his hoast, and whome he founde dilligent he praised and thanked, and the negligent he corrected and chasticed.” Jehan Waurin, the fifteen-year-old illegitimate son of the seneschal of Flanders, believed that “King Henry, who was very cunning, often went around the town in disguise to identify the weakest and most suitable place by which he could take it.” Whether true or not, the circulation of such stories was a tribute to the power of the king’s character and a highly effective way of keeping his men up to the mark. (They also would inspire Shakespeare’s “little touch of Harry in the night” scene.) This was increasingly important as the siege entered its third week and the battering inflicted on Harfleur had not yet forced its surrender.

Henry, however, was convinced that its fall was imminent. On 3 September Master Jean de Bordiu, who was well placed to know the king’s plans, wrote to the citizens of his native Bordeaux in English Aquitaine:

Please know that the town of Harfleur, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, will be in the king’s hands before 8 days at most. For now it is well and truly breached on the landward side and on two flanks, and everything destroyed inside . . . And when he has taken it, I have heard it is not his intention to enter the town but to stay in the field. In a short while after the capture of the town, he intends to go to Montivilliers, and thence to Dieppe, afterwards to Rouen, and then to Paris.

On the same day, Henry himself also wrote to Bordeaux, cheerfully informing the citizens that “ourselves and all those of our company [are] in good health and disposition.”

For this, in all humility, we give thanks to our lord God the Almighty, hoping that, by His grace, He will give us, in pursuit of our right, the fulfilment of our desire and undertaking, to His pleasure, and for the honour and comfort of us and you, and of all our other faithful lieges and subjects. To this end we shall do our duty, so that, with God’s help, our enemies will be henceforward less powerful to cause you trouble and harm than they have been in the past.

Henry had underestimated the determination and ingenuity of de Gaucourt and his men. Harfleur would not fall in eight days, but in eighteen. And those ten extra days were to wreak havoc in the English army and force the king to change his plans.

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