The siege of Rouen, July 1418–January 1419 Part I

Early in June 1418 Henry V joined his army at Bec-Hellouin and advanced to the Eure. On 8 June the English crossed the river and laid siege to Louviers from both banks. Louviers was the last walled town of the Eure before it flowed into the Seine. It was a place of some strength, defended by a circuit of high modern walls and a triple line of ditches and manned by a Burgundian garrison. But their resistance lasted little more than a week. The English filled in the moat, undermined the walls and battered the town with artillery. The defenders launched several courageous sorties in an attempt to silence the English batteries. They made effective use of their own artillery, shooting projectiles into the English lines, one of which narrowly missed the King. But by the middle of June several breaches had been made and the besiegers began to prepare an assault. The townsmen, terrified of a sack, forced the garrison to negotiate a conditional surrender agreement. Its terms allowed a brief interval for relief. But with the government in chaos in Paris there was no prospect of that. Louviers punctually opened its gates on 23 June and submitted to the English King’s mercy. But Henry was not merciful. The surrender of Louviers opened a new and harsher phase of the English conquest. He refused to pardon the captain of the town, who had previously been captain of Bayeux and had sworn not to serve against him again. He hanged eight gunners of the garrison in retaliation for the casualties that they had inflicted. He imposed an indemnity of 8,000 écus on the inhabitants.

One of the men who was present to witness the scene was Cardinal Orsini. He had come into the English camp under safe-conduct to explore the possibilities of a negotiated peace. Orsini disapproved of Henry’s brutality (he protested against the execution of the gunners), and he was taken aback by the King’s obvious determination to press on with the conquest of Normandy. His report must have made gloomy reading when he returned to Paris. Henry had told him that his victories represented the will of God, who had sent him into France to chastise its sinful inhabitants. The visible disintegration of the country under its current rulers was proof of the justice of his claims. The Cardinal concluded that the King’s military position was so strong that for the moment any attempt at negotiation was doomed. The advance of the English seemed to be unstoppable. On 27 June the first contingents of Henry’s army reached the Seine at Pont-de-l’Arche.

Pont-de-l’Arche was a walled town on the south bank of the Seine. It was important mainly for its famous stone bridge of twenty-four arches, the only one between Rouen and Vernon. The bridge was fortified at both ends. It was defended by the river gate on the town side and by a great circular keep built on an island by the opposite bank of the river. The whole had been constructed by Philip Augustus in 1209 as part of a scheme of fortification designed to secure control of the lower valley of the Seine after the expulsion of the Angevin kings of England. When the English appeared before Pont-de-l’Arche in June 1418 the defence of Upper Normandy was in disarray. Robert de Braquemont had struggled on as royal lieutenant in the province even though he had been stripped of his office as Admiral of France by the triumphant Burgundians and many of the towns and garrisons for which he was responsible had repudiated the government which had appointed him. Braquemont was a good strategist. He realised that the only hope of holding Normandy was to keep the English south of the Seine, a broad, fast-flowing river which was the only practicable line of defence. He had therefore made no attempt to rescue Louviers and concentrated all his efforts on saving Pont-de-l’Arche. He had been remarkably successful in uniting the Normans of both allegiances behind this enterprise. At the beginning of June he had persuaded twenty-five walled towns of Normandy to enter into a treaty under which they had agreed to a limited measure of military cooperation regardless of party allegiance. He had also succeeded in raising a substantial field army from the towns and nobility of the province. About 1,000 men had been put into Pont-de-l’Arche under the command of Jean Malet de Graville, a firm Orléanist then at the outset of a long and famous military career. In addition there were about 2,000 men stationed on the north bank to stop the English trying to bridge the river or cross it by boat, and another 800 held in reserve ten miles away at the castle of Étrepagny. Braquemont’s reward was to be dismissed just as the English were approaching the town and denounced as a traitor in the streets of Paris.

He was replaced by an ardent Burgundian partisan, the lord of Chastellux, one of the Burgundian captains responsible for the capture of Paris, who had recently been made a Marshal of France by a grateful Queen. He arrived to take command just in time to witness the collapse of the French position on the Seine. In the early hours of 4 July 1418 the English succeeded in crossing the river. They had occupied a large island in the middle of the stream opposite the suburban abbey of Bonport, where they concentrated a large force under the command of Sir John Cornwall. About half a mile upstream another English force set up a noisy diversion. While the French moved the bulk of their forces along the riverbank to confront them, Cornwall silently crossed from the island in eight small boats assembled from wicker frames and animal skins. He was accompanied by his fifteen-year-old son and about sixty men. They brought with them a single horse and some small artillery pieces. There was a fight at the water’s edge, where a small number of French troops had been left to guard the bank. The alarm went up. But it was too late. By the time that the rest of the French force had returned to meet the new threat another 1,000 English had made the crossing in relays. When the sun rose Cornwall had established a secure bridgehead on the right bank. The Duke of Clarence crossed the river during the morning with another 4,000 men, about half the army. A strong French counter-attack was beaten off. The English could now invest both ends of the bridge and seal off the town. Their engineers began to assemble a pontoon bridge made of timber and hide which had been manufactured in sections in England and brought to the siege lines from Harfleur.

Chastellux’s army broke up before his eyes. Most of the men had been drawn from the garrisons of Rouen and other towns. With the English across the Seine their first priority was to defend their own walls. Inside Pont-de-l’Arche Jean Malet and his garrison recognised defeat. They sent parlementaires into the English camp and two days after the crossing, on 6 July, a conditional surrender was agreed. They promised to submit on 20 July unless by then the place had been relieved by the King of France or the Dauphin in person. Malet sent messengers to the Duke of Burgundy, accompanied by a delegation from the city of Rouen, bearing the terms of the surrender agreement and a desperate appeal for relief. With them rode an English herald. His mission was to call on John the Fearless to declare whether he intended to honour his treaty of neutrality with Henry V.

On 11 July 1418, they found John the Fearless at Provins, preoccupied with the preparations for his return to Paris. Everything there was in confusion. The Queen’s administration was in the process of being transferred from Troyes. All the principal officers of state and many senior officials and judges in Paris were being replaced by creatures of the Duke of Burgundy in the face of sullen obstruction from the civil service. The Parlement, which been in the forefront of the resistance, had been suspended and remained closed for six weeks while its personnel were purged. For the moment the operations of government were paralysed. On 14 July the Duke of Burgundy entered Paris with much ceremony by the Porte Saint-Antoine. He was accompanied by Isabelle of Bavaria in a golden litter and by all the leading Burgundian captains. They were escorted through the streets by 3,000 men-at-arms, 1,500 crossbowmen and 1,200 prominent citizens in uniform blue robes who had gone out to meet them at the bridge of Charenton. The procession made its way slowly across the city in the bright sunshine through streets strewn with flowers and lined with enthusiastic Parisians wearing St Andrew’s crosses. The air was filled with cheers and a deafening cacophony of trumpets and horns. Charles VI received them at the Louvre. He graciously welcomed the man who had murdered his brother. He kissed his estranged Queen. The crowd crammed into the great hall of St Louis wept. Then, spurning the traditional wine and spices proffered by the King, the Duke of Burgundy promptly left with the Queen to attend to more important business.

On the following day, 15 July, the Queen presided over a crisis meeting of the council. The main item of business was the situation on the Norman front. The representatives of Rouen and Pont-de-l’Arche were present. They were joined by messengers sent by the Bastard of Alençon from Domfront. After a siege of three months he had agreed to surrender the fortress to the Earl of Warwick on 22 July unless he was relieved. The Normans pressed for action. They wanted both Pont-de-l’Arche and Domfront relieved, Rouen reinforced and the English sieges at Cherbourg and Honfleur broken up. It was an impossible demand. But, ignoring the difficulties, the council went through the motions of complying. They ordered the immediate recruitment of an army of 15,000 men. They proposed to find 2,000 men-at-arms and 1,000 crossbowmen from the troops with John the Fearless in Paris and to support them with 12,000 infantry levies recruited in Paris and the towns of Upper Normandy. The English herald was sent back to Pont-de-l’Arche with a defiant message from John the Fearless declaring that when the time came he would confront Henry V in battle. The Duke of Burgundy’s dealings with the English had always been opportunistic. Now that he had won control of the King and the government it was in his interest to present himself as the defender of France against her ancient enemy. But John could not fight the English and the Armagnacs at once. Even if it had been possible to raise the troops and lead them to Pont-de-l’Arche within the five days that remained, there was no prospect of an army consisting mainly of raw urban infantry overcoming the experienced professional troops of the King of England. In the event the council’s plans proved impossible to execute. Pont-de-l’Arche surrendered on 20 July and Domfront two days later. Shortly afterwards the Duke of Exeter appeared before the walls of Rouen with a herald to reconnoitre the defences and summon the place to surrender. The response was a powerful cavalry sortie from the gates which resulted in the death of many of Exeter’s company. At about midnight on 29 July Henry V arrived with the bulk of his army outside the city.

Rouen was the largest French city which the English had besieged since the outset of the war eighty years earlier. Its thirty-five parishes were home to a permanent population of between 20,000 and 25,000 people. Its defences were outwardly imposing, ‘a prowde araye … welle hyt was ordaynyd for warre’, wrote John Page, an English soldier, probably an archer, whose account of the siege in doggerel verse is the most vivid of the contemporary narratives. Rouen was enclosed by a high wall nearly four miles in circumference, pierced by five fortified gates on the landward side and protected by a deep dry ditch. Most of these works dated from the beginning of the thirteenth century. On the north side, the city was dominated by the great citadel which Philip Augustus had built after 1204 to mark his conquest of the Norman capital from the Angevin kings of England. Since then a sprawling suburb had grown up north-east of the citadel to house the textile workshops and the tenements in which the industrial population worked and lived. These districts had recently been enclosed by a major extension of the walls. But there remained eight unprotected suburban parishes beyond the walls, all of which had been systematically demolished as the English approached, along with the Benedictine priory of St Gervais on the west and the Clos des Galées, the naval arsenal on the opposite side of the river. The towers and gates bristled with guns overlooking the desolate wasteland which the demolition teams had left around the city. A long fortified bridge constructed partly of stone and partly of timber linked the city to a heavily manned fort on the south bank. The task of organising the defence of the place had fallen to Guy Le Bouteillier and a group of Burgundian captains sent in haste from Paris. They commanded a professional garrison of between 1,200 and 1,600 men. But the main burden of the defence fell upon the 10,000 or so able-bodied male inhabitants. Guy Le Bouteillier installed himself in the citadel with part of the garrison. The rest were assigned to sectors of the city, each corresponding to one of the gates and each with its own commander. A mounted reserve was created to go to the aid of any sector in difficulties.

Henry V set up his headquarters in an abandoned Carthusian monastery by the Paris road, about half a mile east of the walls. At the outset a number of critical decisions were made. The King decided not to attempt an assault. Given the number of the defenders and the density of the streets and lanes within the walls it would have been a costly and uncertain business. He also seems to have resolved to make only limited use of his artillery. Although cannon were sited in front of all the gates and the city walls were overlooked on the north and east by high ground offering ideal vantage points, there is no evidence in any contemporary account of the siege of the kind of heavy artillery bombardment which the English had employed at Harfleur, Caen or Falaise, and no evidence of major damage to the city. The reason for this apparently surprising omission was that Henry wanted Rouen as much for its political as its military value. He intended it to serve as the capital of an English duchy of Normandy. The destruction of its walls and public buildings would have undermined this scheme and weakened the city in the face of a French counter-attack. So the English planned to starve the city into submission instead. Its sheer size made it vulnerable to famine. The harvest was not yet in. Too late, the municipal authorities had ordered every citizen to lay in supplies for ten months. The effect was simply to create a run on the shops and markets. An attempt had been made to reduce the numbers of ‘useless mouths’ by ordering out the old and infirm, the poor, and some of the women and clergy. But the response had been patchy and the magistrates’ efforts were largely frustrated by the great tide of refugees flooding into the city from the suburbs and surrounding country.

In the first few days after his arrival Henry set up a tight blockade. Working under the guns of the defenders and suffering heavy casualties from sorties, his men dug a deep trench and a bank the whole way round the walls on the landward side. The siege operations, like the defence, were divided into sectors corresponding to the gates of the city. The King himself took command of the eastern sector in front of the Porte Saint-Hilaire. The Earl of Salisbury occupied the marshy ground between the King’s sector and the river outside the Porte Martinville. The Duke of Clarence was posted in the ruins of the abbey of St Gervais on the west. The Duke of Exeter guarded the northern sector and Sir Thomas Mowbray and Sir John Cornwall were encamped outside the citadel. Access to the city by water was completely blocked. A large force commanded by the Earl of Huntingdon stood on the south bank opposite the quays of the city. The fort at the south end of the bridge was surrounded. Heavy chains were stretched across the river upstream and down and a timber bridge was constructed a short distance away. Barges filled with soldiers patrolled the stream on both sides. Eighty miles downstream where the Seine flowed into the sea, a fleet of galleys supplied by the King of Portugal blockaded the river mouth.

The first priority for the English after they had completed the blockade of Rouen was to secure their own communications. The English had an unhappy experience of major sieges. The few that they had undertaken in the previous century, at Tournai (1340), Rennes (1356), Reims (1359) and Nantes (1381–2) had all had to be abandoned because they could not feed their army. The lesson had been learned by 1418. A large-scale victualling operation was organised. This involved shipping supplies from southern England into Harfleur, which was turned into a great depot for the storage of supplies for the army. From there victuals were trans-shipped onto barges to be carried up the Seine.

The French held two garrisoned towns on the north bank of the Seine, at Quillebeuf and Caudebec, where they had stationed armed ships to block the passage of the river. These places had to be reduced if the English army was not to starve. Quillebeuf was besieged shortly after the investment of the city. Its garrison was annihilated in a battle beneath the walls on 16 August. But Caudebec proved to be tougher. The Earl of Warwick, who had recently arrived with his company from Domfront, was sent to deal with it. The place held out valiantly while no fewer than 100 victualling barges were held up in the Seine waiting to pass its walls. Eventually an English herald went into the town and negotiated an agreement with its defenders. They undertook to surrender if and when Rouen was captured. In the meantime they would allow free passage to English shipping travelling between Rouen and the sea. Upstream of the city the main problem was the occupation of the Mont Sainte-Catherine by a large French garrison based in the fortified monastery at the summit. Possession of this great hill east of the city was vital to the English in order to secure their communications with Pont-de-l’Arche and to protect their rear from any relief force approaching from the east. The garrison of the monastery successfully beat off a determined night attack in the first few days of the siege. But they had limited stocks of food, and after holding out for a month they were finally forced to surrender on 1 September.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.