He was employing more cannon than ever before – bombards, culverins and serpentines – more guns of all shapes and sizes arrived every day. Some may be seen at the Musée Militaire in the Invalides at Paris. He also had ribaudequins which were battle carts mounting several small cannon side by side, fired simultaneously and intended for close-quarters fighting. It was not easy to transport the bigger guns, some of which were enormous; most came by boat from Rouen and were then brought up by ox-carts to the siege-lines to be mounted in specially constructed wooden firing frames. The rough tubes which formed their barrels were rarely, if ever, straight, so that accuracy was impossible. Gunpowder was crudely mixed and unreliable. Considerable skill was needed to load; gunners filled the firing chambers three-fifths full of powder, leaving a fifth as an air pocket and a final fifth for the elm-wood tampon on which the gunstone rested, with a ratio of one part powder to nine parts stone. Barrels had to be swabbed out meticulously after each discharge. It was difficult to calculate trajectories with such weapons. Even so, at short range a barrage of gunstones could do terrible damage, battering down ramparts and smashing through house walls and roofs inside a city, as well as demoralizing a beleaguered garrison. When such bombardments continued ceaselessly by day and by night, regardless of expense, as they did during all Henry V’s sieges, the effect was horrific. The king’s passion for artillery had never flagged since his first use of it against the Welsh at Aberystwyth.
As the siege dragged on, the garrison began to feel that they would have more hope of surviving if the defence was conducted by an unusually experienced and skilful commander. They sent to a famous dauphinist captain, Guy de Nesle, Sieur d’Offrémont, who agreed to come and take over. Early on 9 March, accompanied by an escort of 100 men-at-arms, he made his way in the darkness with great daring through the sleeping English lines to a pre-arranged spot below the ramparts. Here the garrison let down ladders to a plank over the moat. The man in front of Guy on the ladder dropped a box of salt herrings he was carrying which fell onto Guy, knocking him off the ladder into the moat; he clutched at two lances held down to him but, no doubt in full plate armour, was too heavy to pull out. His frenzied splashing aroused the English sentries and he was taken prisoner.
Guy’s failure dismayed the garrison of Meaux so much that they withdrew from the town the same day to the market which they thought would be easier to defend. They broke down the connecting bridge over the canal and took the remaining food with them; it would last longer if there were no non-combatants to feed. Henry rode in immediately and before evening his guns were firing from the town into the market. He then used a portable drawbridge, mounted on a siege tower on wheels, to straddle the gap made by the defenders in the bridge joining the town to the market. Next he bombarded the fortified mill-towers so that the Earl of Worcester’s men-at-arms could charge over the drawbridge and storm the towers. The assault was successful, though Warwick’s cousin, the Earl of Worcester, lost his life when a stone was dropped on his head from the battlements. Now the English had a foothold on the market island, while the garrison was no longer able to grind its corn into flour.
All this time Henry’s attitude to paperwork remained as Napoleonic as ever. A stream of edicts, ordinances and letters, including answers to petitions from England, went out from his headquarters beside Meaux during the siege, possibly the most gruelling experience of his life. Even during the worst months he was constantly sending orders and instructions dealing with a truly immense range of affairs. The supply of munitions naturally ranked high among these. On 18 March 1422 he wrote to his officials: ‘We will and charge you that, in all the haste ye may, ye send unto our cofferer to Rouen all the gunstones that been at our towns of Caen and Harfleur, with all the saltpetre, coal and brimstone that is at Harfleur.’ An order for iron is in the same letter, an order which occurs frequently in his correspondence. A special official, the King’s Clerk of Ordnance, was attached to his headquarters, having responsibility for communications with the artillery depot at Caen and the royal arsenal at Rouen; the Norman administration had been given military duties by Henry, the civilian vicomtes being charged with supplying garrisons with cannon. The king insisted on efficiency – his letters always end with a variant of ‘faileth not in no wise’.
He was obsessed by the problem of supplies. Buying arrows was just one aspect. He purchased 150,000 arrows in England in 1418, a figure which had risen to nearly half a million by 1421; in addition the arsenal at Rouen seems to have manufactured them and in 1420 his commissioners were instructed to press-gang fletchers (arrow makers) to work there without pay. Then there was the question of finding enough remounts, which he appears to have contemplated solving with a huge royal stud. (In April 1421 a commission was issued to a John Longe to travel through England looking for ‘destriers, coursers and other horses suitable for the king’s stud’ and purchasing their use. Weapons, transport, food, finance, military discipline, law and order, diplomacy, affairs in England, all received his meticulous attention.
Meanwhile at Meaux, English cannon had been mounted on a small island in the Marne, protected by earthworks and shelters of heavy timber, from where they battered the adjoining market relentlessly at close range. Warwick contrived to erect a ‘sow’ (a mobile leather shelter on wheels) on the tiny strip of land between its walls and the water, using it to capture an outwork where he mounted a forward battery. Hungerford used wooden bridges to bring guns nearer the wall at another side. Landing on the island, sappers started a mine. At Easter, Henry allowed a truce, launching a general assault shortly afterwards. It was beaten back. But the defenders were beginning to despair. What finally broke their spirit was the sight of a floating siege tower, higher than the market’s walls, carried on two barges and designed for men to attack the rampart tops from the Marne side over a drawbridge. (It was never used, though the king, nothing if not a professional, had it tested after the place had fallen.) At the end of April the garrison in the market sent envoys to negotiate a surrender.
On 10 May Meaux surrendered after a resistance of seven months. It had only fallen because of Henry’s brilliant siegecraft and sheer technical expertise, as a siege it was a genuine masterpiece, as has often been claimed. After the city had finally surrendered he observed the conventions of medieval warfare in leaving its defenders their lives – though nothing else – save for twelve who were specifically excluded from mercy by the articles of surrender. The Bastard of Vaurus and his cousin had their right hands stricken off, were dragged on hurdles through what was left of the streets of Meaux, then beheaded and hanged from their own infamous tree; the bastard’s head was displayed on a lance stuck in the ground beside it, his body at the foot, and his banner thrown over it – the ultimate heraldic symbol of derision. A trumpeter called Orace, ‘one that blew and sounded an horn during the siege’, was taken to Paris for an agonizing public execution in punishment for some unrecorded insult to the king. Louis de Gast was also taken to Paris for execution. Their heads were stuck on lances and put on show at Les Halles.
Almost at once Henry sent 100 particularly valuable prisoners to the Louvre, roped in fours, for shipment to Normandy and thence to England to await ransoming. A few days later he sent another 150. According to the Bourgeois of Paris, probably a spectator, these were chained in twos by the legs, and ‘piled up like pigs’; they were given only a little black bread and water.18 We learn from Jean Juvénal that they were incarcerated in prisons all over Paris, including the Châtelet – a place of ill omen and terrible memory for Armagnacs. There was no organization for feeding such large numbers of prisoners and, according to Jean Juvénal, many died of starvation – some tearing flesh from their comrades’ bodies with their teeth before their own death. Presumably they were not worth much money. The Bishop of Meaux received somewhat better treatment before being taken away to await ransom in England, where he was to die. In all, as many as 800 of those who had surrendered were shipped over the Channel; it is likely that the majority never returned to France, ending their days in semi-slavery as indentured servants. In addition, ‘All the bourgeois and anyone else in the market was forced to hand over any valuable goods they possessed,’ says Jean Juvénal. ‘Those who disobeyed were treated very savagely, and everything contributed to King Henry’s profit. There was more than this. After the bourgeois had lost all they had, several of them were made to buy back their own houses. Through such confiscation the king extorted and amassed large sums of money.’ Bullion, jewels and every conceivable sort of valuable – including an entire legal library – was stored for the time being in special depots at Meaux, together with armour, weapons and other munitions, to await the pleasure of a monarch who had made plunder a fine art.
One prisoner who was very lucky indeed to escape with his life was Dom Philippe de Gamaches, Abbot of St Faro, the nearby monastery which had been Henry’s headquarters throughout the siege. Dom Philippe, a former monk of St Denis, together with three other monks from that abbey, had put on armour and taken up swords to fight the English. The chronicler monk of St Denis – who presumably knew them – tells us that the Bishop of Beauvais had given them all permission ‘to fight for the country’ [‘pugnareque pro patria’]. The bishop was none other than Jean Juvénal des Ursins. Fortunately for Philippe, his brother was dauphinist captain of Compiègne; he purchased the abbot’s life by handing the town over to the English – Henry had intended to drown him.
Baugé was avenged. Moreover a whole string of dauphinist fortresses surrendered in consequence, including Grépy-en-Valois and Offremont – the castle of the Guy de Nesle who had fallen into the moat at Meaux. Henry rode through the countryside receiving the surrender of each stronghold in person, mopping up any local resistance.
Then he celebrated by going to Paris to meet his queen. Monstrelet says that he and his brothers greeted Catherine ‘as though she had been an angel from heaven’. The son and heir who was the cause of so much congratulation had been left behind in England. The reunion took place at the great castle of Bois-de-Vincennes just outside Paris.
Today Vincennes may seem gloomy, a soulless barrack of a place. It has unhappy memories; the Due d’Enghien was shot in the moat in 1804 as was Mata Hari in 1917, it was General Gamelin’s headquarters in June 1940 after which foreign troops occupied it again for four years. Yet Henry’s fondness for Vincennes is understandable. Originally a hunting lodge, being in the woods it was ideally situated for the king’s favourite relaxation – if ever he had time. Catherine’s grandfather, the great King Charles V, had completed the donjon during the 1370s and it was here that Henry lived; his bedroom may still be seen. There were three mighty gatehouses and six tall towers, all linked by curtain walls, and providing enviable accommodation for his high ranking-officers. A hunting scene in the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry shows the fortress-palace in the background, much as it must have looked at this time, and one can see why the Monk of St Denis calls it ‘the most delectable of all the castles of the king of France’. Moreover Vincennes was only three miles from Paris – close enough to overawe the capital if need be, and sufficiently far away to avoid any danger from the mob or dauphinist plots.
At the Louvre, says The First English Life, echoing Monstrelet’s chronicle, ‘on the proper day of Pentecost the King of England and his queen sat together at their table in the open hall at dinner, marvellously glorious, and pompously crowned with rich and precious diadems; dukes also, prelates of the church and other great estates of England and of France, were sat every man in his degree in the same hall where the king and queen kept their estate. The feast was marvellously rich and abundant in sumptuous delicate meats and drinks.’ Unfortunately the splendid effect was somewhat tarnished by no food or drink being offered to the crowds of spectators, as had always been the custom in former days under the Valois monarchs.
The Brut of England records with relish, ‘But as for the King of France he held none other estate nor rule but was almost left alone.’ Charles VI stayed forlornly at the Hôtel de St-Pol, deserted by his nobles since, so Monstrelet informs us, ‘he was managed as the King of England pleased . . . which caused much sorrow in the hearts of all loyal Frenchmen.’ Chastellain comments indignantly that Henry, this ‘tyrant king’, despite promising to honour his father-in-law of France as long as he lived, had made ‘a figurehead [un ydole] of him, a cipher who could do nothing’. Chastellain too says that the spectacle brought tears into the eyes of the Parisians.
Henry spent two days in early June at the Hôtel de Nesle, where he watched a cycle of mystery plays about the martyrdom of his patron, St George. These were staged by Parisians who hoped to ingratiate themselves with the heir and regent of France, their future sovereign. Shortly afterwards he and Catherine, taking with them King Charles and Queen Isabeau, left the capital for Senlis.
A week later a Parisian armourer, who had once been an armourer to Charles VI, together with his wife and their neighbour, a baker, were caught plotting to let the dauphinists into Paris. A strong force of the enemy were standing by in readiness near Compiègne. The civil authority beheaded the armourer and the baker, and drowned the woman.