King Henry V of England leads his army at the siege of Harfleur in 1415.
The problem was dysentery, the scourge of every army on campaign, which was known to the English as “the bloody flux” because its main symptom is bloody diarrhoea.
All the conditions for an outbreak were present at Harfleur, both within the beleaguered town and in the besieging armies. The weather was hot and humid and the salt marshes and standing water of the flooded fields in the valley bottom were breeding grounds for bacteria and insects. If Henry had indeed succeeded in damming the higher reaches of the Lézarde, this may well have contributed to the problem by reducing the amount of running fresh water available to his own men. The marshy nature of the land also made it more difficult safely to dispose of not only human and animal faeces but also detritus, such as animal carcasses, which was the inevitable consequence of feeding so many troops. Trenches were dug for privies and burial pits for other waste, but these could not be sealed and the problem of sanitation would only increase the longer the siege went on. Nor should it be forgotten that the many thousands of horses in the army, each needing to drink four gallons a day, would probably have contributed to the contamination of the water; we know that many of them, too, died of murrain, an infectious disease.
The physicians and surgeons in the king’s army were not unaware of the dangers of diseases associated with campaigning. The king’s personal physician, Nicholas Colnet, possessed a copy of Bernard Gordon’s influential and popular treatise, Lilium Medicinae, which set out the following highly relevant and practical advice:
But if the physician is in an army, then the King’s tent and the tents of the physicians and surgeons should be on higher ground, facing a favourable wind; on no account should the tent be at a lower level where all the refuse gathers. Good fresh air, without any stench of corpses or any other things, should be chosen. In summer, the tent should face south and the physicians should carefully take into account everything that might bring sickness on the army and eliminate it as far as possible; such things are heat, rain, rotting corpses, diseases, nuts, cabbages, trees, plants, reptiles, swamps, and such like.
In accordance with this advice, the king and his brother had pitched their tents on the hillsides above Harfleur. What neither they nor anyone else in the army could do, even if they had understood how the disease was transmitted, was avoid all contact with those who were infected.
Exactly when the first cases of dysentery appeared in the English army (or in Harfleur) is not recorded. The presence of the disease only comes to the chroniclers’ attention on 15 September, when its most prominent victim died. Richard Courtenay, bishop of Norwich, was a man who, despite his profession, had put his extraordinary abilities wholly at the service of his king rather than his God. A doctor of civil and canon law, twice elected chancellor of the University of Oxford, of which he was a generous and learned patron, diplomat, financier and a constant companion and advisor to Henry V, the only thing he had never found time to do was to visit his diocese, where John Leicester, archbishop of Smyrna, lived in his palace and performed his ecclesiastical duties for him. For the English chaplain (who was unaware of the bishop’s spying activities), Courtenay was “a man of noble birth, imposing stature, and superior intelligence, distinguished no less for his gifts of great eloquence and learning than for other noble endowments of nature, . . . regarded as agreeable above all others to members of the king’s retinue and councils.” He was also, the chaplain said, “the most loving and dearest” of the king’s friends, which is perhaps a more remarkable epitaph, since there were few men who could claim such a relationship with Henry V. That it was justified is indicated by the fact that the king himself attended his deathbed, bathed his feet for him and closed Courtenay’s eyes when he died. Courtenay was just thirty-five years old. His body was sent back to England where, on the king’s personal command, he was buried among the royal tombs behind the high altar in Westminster Abbey.
Three days later, on 18 September, the king lost another devoted servant to the same disease. Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, “a knight of the most excellent and kindly reputation,” was fifty-four years old, had accompanied Henry’s father on crusade to Prussia, and after he became king served him in all his expeditions “by See and by Lande.” The war in France which brought about his premature end would also claim the lives of four of his five sons. His eldest son Michael, who was not yet twenty-one and was also in the army at Harfleur, was killed at Agincourt. Joan of Arc proved to be the nemesis of the rest. Alexander met his death at the battle of Jargeau on 12 June 1429, and in the same battle his three remaining brothers were taken prisoner; two of them, John and Thomas, died in captivity. The de la Poles paid a high price for their loyalty to the Lancastrian kings of England.
On 15 September, the same day that Richard Courtenay died, a second serious setback occurred. Either because Courtenay’s death had distracted them or, more likely, because they had simply relaxed their guard after almost a month of siege, the men besieging the Leure gate fell victim to a surprise attack by the French. Remarkably, those responsible for this dereliction of duty included Sir John Holland, Sir John Cornewaille and his brother-in-arms Sir William Porter, who had all shared the privilege of being the first to land at Chef-de-Caux. Seizing the moment, the French made a desperate sally out of the gate and managed to set fire to the English defences before being driven back with heavy losses. (It is tempting to think that Raoul de Gaucourt was behind this doomed but gallant gesture, not least because it took place on a Sunday, the day when he wore his golden prisoner’s shackle and chivalric deeds were uppermost in his mind.) Though the attack had inflicted only minor damage in military terms, it was a significant morale-booster for the beleaguered garrison, who taunted their foes as being only half-awake, lazy and failing to keep a better watch.
There could be only one response to such insults. The following morning, Holland and Cornewaille began an all-out assault on the gate. Arrows, wrapped in tow, dipped in pitch and set alight, were rained upon the fortified position to drive those guarding it away and wreak further destruction. Under cover of night, at Henry V’s command, the ditch separating the English from the gate had been filled with bundles of sticks, so that they could now cross over, torch the gun-shattered remnants of the outer walls and attack the French defenders. Holland’s standard was carried into the centre of the bastion and his men streamed in after it. The French put up a fierce resistance in the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, but eventually, exhausted by their futile attempts to put out the flames, surrounded by smoke and conflagration and overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers, they were forced to abandon their position and retreat behind the town walls. Even now they did not give up their efforts, but swiftly blocked the entrance behind them with timber, stone, earth and dung, so that the English, having gained the bastion, were still unable to enter the town. It took them several days to extinguish the flames, but the remains of the shattered fortification continued to smoke for another fortnight.
Evidently hoping that this success would have broken the spirit of the French, Henry sent a herald into Harfleur the next morning, 17 September, with a safe-conduct for de Gaucourt and a group of representatives of the town council, so that they could come into the English camp to discuss terms. Henry was at his most charming and persuasive: he greeted them in person and advised them, in his kindliest manner, to surrender the town. He reminded them that Harfleur was part of the duchy of Normandy, which had belonged to the English crown by right since ancient times, and of the fate that would befall them if they continued to resist him. De Gaucourt was exhausted, half-starved, suffering from dysentery himself and staring death in the face, but he still had his pride and his sense of duty. He refused to surrender. Defiantly, he informed Henry that he had not received his office as captain of the town from him and did not recognise his authority: he knew that the king of France would not allow the siege of Harfleur to continue much longer and that any day he would arrive at the head of his army to drive the English away.
It is impossible to know whether de Gaucourt believed these proud words himself. He may have had a blindly optimistic faith that his king would not allow such an important place as Harfleur to fall without striking a blow in its defence. On the other hand, a man of his military experience must have known that, in tactical terms, it was probably better to allow Harfleur to fall and recapture it after the English had left, rather than risk everything on the unpredictable outcome of a pitched battle.
Cut off from the outside world by the besieging armies, it must have been difficult for de Gaucourt to get any intelligence, let alone up to date information, about what efforts were being made on his behalf. Constable d’Albret and Marshal Boucicaut had now, apparently, united their forces at Rouen. There they had spent huge sumspurchasing a small boat, filling it with food and other necessaries and entrusting it to one Jehan Lescot, a local mariner, with instructions that he should take it to the relief of Harfleur. Astonishingly, Lescot (who may have been a pirate and was highly paid for his services) succeeded in getting through the English blockade not once, but twice, for de Gaucourt later arranged for him to escape in secret from the town, so that he could report back to d’Albret on conditions there. D’Albret also sent Robin de Hellande, the bailli of Rouen, to Paris, entrusted with verbal messages to the king, dauphin and council “touching the descent and arrival of the English and the provisions that ought to be made against them, for the salvation of the said town of Harfleur and of the countryside around it.”
De Gaucourt may also have been aware that in addition to d’Albret and Boucicaut, some of the local nobility—among them the young seneschal of Hainault, who had once been so eager to test his valour against Englishmen in jousting challenges—had raised their own troops to resist the English. Frustrated by the failure of any officially organised resistance, they had determined to take matters into their own hands, continually harrying the English troops, especially those camped with Clarence before the Rouen gate, and attacking any small groups of Englishmen they found scouting or foraging away from the army. One force of some five hundred or six hundred local knights, led by the sire de Lille Adam and Jacques de Brimeu, decided to make a grand gesture. The plan was that a small party would ride within sight of the enemy camp so that the English would raise the alarm and then give chase on horseback, leaving their archers behind. When they had been drawn sufficiently far away from the main army, they would be ambushed and slaughtered by de Lille Adam and de Brimeu. Unfortunately for the French, de Lille Adam made his move too early and was seen by the English men-at-arms. Realising it was a trap, they immediately abandoned the chase and returned to the safety of their camp. The disaster was compounded by the capture of both de Lille Adam and Brimeu.
While the local nobility did what they could to resist and harry the English invaders, the princes of the blood royal seemed incapable of decisive action. It was not until 28 August, a week and a half after the siege of Harfleur had begun, that the king’s council at last issued the general call to arms in defence of the country, which it was the duty of every man capable of bearing weapons to obey. The king’s letters authorising the proclamation of the summons in every town and at every public meeting were sent out to the baillis and seneschals of each district with instructions that the muster should take place at Rouen. Letters were also sent directly to towns such as Verdun, Tournai and Amiens, which had their own city militias, ordering them to send assistance to Harfleur. Fifty crossbowmen did indeed belatedly leave Tournai on 17 September, but they did not get as far as Harfleur and returned home two months later, never having encountered the English at all. On 1 September embassies were sent to both Charles d’Orléans and John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, requesting them to send five hundred men-at-arms each. It was a measure of how deep the rift between them remained, despite the peace that had been celebrated only a few months previously, that both dukes were asked not to come in person with their troops.
On 1 September the dauphin set out with his household from Paris, arriving a couple of days later at Vernon, just over halfway to Rouen, where he remained for the rest of the month. Charles VI himself was not capable of leading his army into war, but on 10 September he made a personal pilgrimage to the great royal abbey of St Denis and there collected the sacred oriflamme from the high altar. It was then entrusted to Guillaume Martel, sire de Bacqueville, who took the customary oath as its bearer, before setting off to join the king’s army gathering at Rouen. A citizen of Paris was sufficiently stirred by these events to note the preparations and departures in his journal. It was perhaps indicative of the general mood in Paris that it was not the plight of his fellows in far-off Harfleur which stirred his indignation, but the tax imposed to finance the campaign. It was, he complained, the heaviest ever seen.
As the situation in Harfleur became increasingly desperate, de Gaucourt sent message after message to the dauphin, pleading for assistance. “Your humble subjects, so closely besieged and reduced to great distress by the English, beg your highness that you will make haste to send them help to raise the siege, so that they are not compelled to surrender this most renowned and valuable port and thus bring shame on the majesty of the king.” The dauphin was either embarrassed by these pleas, or simply indifferent to them, for the messengers found it almost impossible to gain admittance to his presence. When they did, they were fobbed off with assurances that “our father the king will deal with these things at an opportune moment.” All they could do was report back that a vast army, forty thousand strong, it was claimed, was gathering at Rouen. What they could not do was say whether it would arrive in time to save the courageous defenders of Harfleur, or merely to avenge them.