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

Illustration of the Siege of Rouen illustration from A Short History of the English People, by John Richard Green, illustrated edition, Volume II, Macmillan and Co, London, New York, 1893.

The negotiations were awkward from the start. They were punctuated by repeated wrangling about procedure. The two sides argued about their powers; about who should begin; about the order in which the issues should be discussed; about that old bone of contention, whether the proceedings should be in Latin or French. There were long sulky silences, in which the two sides glared at each other both refusing to speak. Once they got down to the substance of the matter a measure of common ground emerged. But the exchanges were ill-tempered throughout and were not helped by the acerbic manner of both the principal spokesmen. The English delegates made it clear that they would not consider anything less than the territories ceded by the ‘Great Peace’ of 1360 plus Normandy. The Brétigny territories, they pointed out, had already been offered to them by the Armagnac princes in 1412 and in 1415 and Normandy was theirs by right of conquest. The question was how much more the Dauphin was willing to offer in return for armed support against the Duke of Burgundy. The opening demand of the English was for Touraine, Anjou, Maine, Flanders and the old domains of Henry of Lancaster in Champagne. After much bluffing the French admitted that they were authorised to concede the Brétigny territories and the whole of Normandy with the important exception of the city and bailliage of Rouen. They were also willing to discuss the sharing out of the Duke of Burgundy’s domains in Flanders and Artois once they were conquered. This offer, which was in fact not far from the English side’s expectations, they professed to regard as ‘void, useless and virtually null’. But the English declined to give any indication of their irreducible minimum.

The Dauphin was evidently dismayed by his ambassadors’ interim report, which reached him after the first week. He wrote a personal letter to Henry V to ask him to be more reasonable. Peace was surely possible if the two of them combined to confront the ‘horrible evil, cruelty and deceit of the Duke of Burgundy against the nobility and monarchy of France from which you are yourself descended’. By the time this missive was received more fundamental difficulties had arisen. The main one was the feudal status of the ceded territories, the issue which had bedevilled every previous Anglo-French conference since the 1340s. Philip Morgan put the question directly. Was the Dauphin offering to cede the Brétigny provinces and Normandy in full sovereignty or were Henry and his descendants to hold them as vassals of the Kings of France? Norry ought to have been ready for this question, but he was not. He deferred his answer until the following day and when it came it was no answer. It was a difficult question, he said. He would prefer to discuss other matters first. He had gone as far as his instructions would allow. The matter would be better thrashed out at a personal meeting with the Dauphin. He assumed that Henry V, as a just man, would be willing to hold them on the same basis as his forebears. Philip Morgan’s reply was uncompromising. As rightful King of France he had no reason to accept any superior but God in those parts of France that he held. This provoked uproar. The delegates of both sides rose from their seats and, all talking at once, rehearsed all the old arguments.

Shouting above the hubbub the English put the question. If the negotiations continued was there any prospect of the Dauphin accepting Henry’s demand for full sovereignty? The French, according to the English record, seemed to have ‘some difficulty’ in answering, but eventually said that they thought that there was. Would the Dauphin be in a position to deliver, Morgan asked, bearing in mind that he was a minor and that his father was still alive? There followed a long argument about the Dauphin’s powers, the extent of the territory under his control and the amount of support which he enjoyed among the French princes. It seemed, said Norry in conclusion, that there was little prospect of agreement. Their safe-conducts were about to expire and they saw no point in continuing. The final session was held on the following day, 24 November. The French proposed a short truce until February 1419 for further discussions. Only if they put all their proposals in writing, said Morgan; but unless they had something better to offer than he had heard so far there would be no point. Thereupon the Dauphin’s ambassadors got up and walked out.

The English King was unconcerned. His bargaining power was bound to increase over the following weeks as the noose tightened around Rouen. Henry maintained just enough contact with the Dauphin’s court to avoid a final breakdown. He replied to the Dauphin’s letter with a suggestion that discussions should be resumed once Rouen had fallen. He received the Dauphin’s ambassador Louis de Chalon at his headquarters within days of his departure from Alençon, and suggested that another Dauphinist embassy should be sent to confer with him in person. Meanwhile he had already turned to the Burgundians to find out what they were willing to offer. Guillaume de Champdivers, the usual intermediary between John the Fearless and the English King, had visited his headquarters to lay the ground. Another conference had been set up for December to hear the proposals of the Burgundian side.

Outside the beleaguered city Henry V was preparing for battle with the Duke of Burgundy’s relief army. The garrisons of Lower Normandy had been stripped to the bone to increase his numbers. The long siege of Cherbourg had finally come to an end when the Duke of Gloucester’s miners succeeded in undermining a section of the walls. The starving garrison surrendered at the end of September, releasing several hundred troops to join the King at Rouen. More men arrived from England and 500 from Ireland, whose wild appearance, primitive-looking weapons and diminutive ponies astonished the defenders of the city. The English were digging themselves in. They cut trenches across the approaches from Paris and armed them with palisades, timber towers and artillery. They stationed men in the forests east of Rouen to stop the enemy from approaching unseen. They sent spies to watch the progress of the Duke of Burgundy in the Île de France.

On 24 November 1418 John the Fearless had about 4,000 troops in Paris according to English reports. Unable to feed them there and perhaps afraid of provoking riots among the citizens, he led them out of the city, accompanied by the Queen, and encamped twenty miles away outside Pontoise. The sick King was brought along in Isabelle’s baggage train for fear that others might take control of him in her absence. They remained at Pontoise for five weeks while John the Fearless addressed urgent appeals in the King’s name to the councillors in Paris to find reinforcements, to the treasurers to find money and to the defenders of Rouen to hold out against increasingly hopeless odds. They were offered mendacious promises of imminent relief which were read out in the market-place of Rouen. All the time the Dauphinist offensive continued unabated in the Duke’s rear. Their garrisons around Paris raided up to the suburbs and across the Île de France, frustrating all attempts to bring victuals to the troops encamped at Pontoise. Further south the Dauphin took advantage of the Duke of Burgundy’s preoccupations to march on Tours and lay siege to the only surviving Burgundian garrison in the Loire valley.

From Pontoise Philippe de Morvilliers and other Burgundian councillors, accompanied by the papal legate Cardinal Orsini, rode ahead towards Rouen to confer with the English. They clung to the hope of some negotiated solution that might save the Duke from the humiliation of losing France’s second city without striking a blow for its defence. Henry V’s delegates met them at Pont-de-l’Arche. Theirs were familiar faces. Richard Beauchamp Earl of Warwick was a veteran of earlier negotiations with the Burgundians going back to 1411, ‘a man of impressive bearing, exceptional judgment and great military experience, with a practised and accomplished eloquence on any subject,’ wrote an admiring contemporary. With him sat Henry’s steward Sir Walter Hungerford and the abrasive Philip Morgan, both of whom who had also been at the conference with the Dauphinists at Alençon, and Morgan’s fellow Welshman the lawyer Henry Ware. Henry V had no desire to hurry things along before Rouen fell. The talks were stalled for several days by another argument about the use of French, a language which the English King claimed that his commissioners ‘cannot write and hardly speak or understand’. This may have been true of some of them although Warwick certainly spoke excellent French. The discussions eventually proceeded in a mixture of English and French with documents being translated into Latin. But the message was no more palatable for being understood. The English expressed interest in a marriage alliance. Henry V declared himself to be delighted by the portrait of Catherine of France which was brought to him by the cardinal. But he wanted a dowry of a million écus along with the provinces of the south-west ceded at Brétigny plus Normandy, all to be held in full sovereignty. Unlike the Dauphin’s men, who had been willing to concede very similar territorial demands and even contemplated the possibility of giving way on sovereignty, the Burgundians dismissed the English claims out of hand. The King was incapacitated, they said. The Duke had no authority to alienate his heritage. About ten days before Christmas the conference broke up. The cardinal returned to Pontoise to report the failure of his mission. Then he gave up his peace mission as a lost cause and left for Italy.

Inside Rouen the defenders were reduced to the last extremes of privation and distress. People were eating roots and vermin. Cats were reported to be changing hands at 18 blancs and a quarter of a horse at 100 sous. No grain was to be had at all. By Christmas about 200 people a day were dying of starvation. Their bodies were thrown into great open grave-pits in the cemetery of St Mary Magdalen and then, when it was full, piled up in the streets. Disease began to spread through the city. Order broke down. People fought in the streets over morsels of food. The captain of the garrison turned to desperate measures. He organised a suicidal sortie from several gates at once with all the forces that could be spared, apparently with the intention of breaking through the English lines. At one of the gates the drawbridge collapsed beneath the weight of the horsemen, propelling them into the ditch. The rest were thrown back from the English siege lines with heavy losses. Shortly before Christmas the defenders rounded up several thousand ‘useless mouths’, mostly women and children and the poor and indigent, and pushed them out of the gates, hoping to save food and cast upon the English the moral responsibility for feeding them. But the English drove the wretches back with volleys of arrows, forcing them to cower in the ditch beneath the walls where many of them died of starvation or exposure.

The Duke of Burgundy’s army had by now exhausted the supplies available around Pontoise. After the failure of the negotiations at Pont-de-l’Arche John the Fearless decided to lead his troops north to the Beauvaisis where the rest of the army was supposed to muster at the end of December. The new plan was to march on Rouen from the east in the new year while another force approached to reprovision the city by water from the west. The Burgundian Admiral of France Charles of Lens was sent with a team of men to requisition ships along the coast of Picardy. They planned to load the holds with food and fill the decks with men-at-arms and archers and then force their way up the Seine and past the English siege works. A final appeal for support was sent to the Dauphin. He not only rejected it but forbade all those of his allegiance to join the army of relief. As a result none of the military nobility of France appeared at Beauvais except for the Duke’s own subjects and retainers in Picardy and Artois.

On 29 December the Duke of Burgundy entered Beauvais with the troops who had been with him at Pontoise. The rest of his army was waiting for him outside the town but in pitifully small numbers. John had a series of fraught meetings with his principal captains. In the midst of the discussions a delegation from Rouen appeared. They had made their way through the English lines at great risk to themselves with up-to-date reports of conditions in the city and an ultimatum. This was the last appeal that they would make to him for protection, they declared. Unless the city was relieved in a matter of days they would renounce their allegiance and submit to the King of England. John the Fearless was embarrassed and apologetic. To his infinite dismay, he told them, he did not yet have the strength to relieve Rouen. But before long, he said, reinforcements would arrive and the position would change. They asked him how long. By 8 January, he replied. The delegates of Rouen left to report back to the defenders of the city. But it soon became clear that the Duke had been too sanguine. Shortly after the men of Rouen had left a runner reached Beauvais with the news that the Dauphin had captured Tours. This was followed by persistent reports that he was marching on the bridge-town of La Charité-sur-Loire and threatening to invade the Nivernais and Burgundy. In the new year John was closeted with most of the senior officers of the financial departments from Paris. Their reports were dismal. On about 3 January 1419 he decided to abandon the relief of Rouen. The English were too strong, the Dauphin too threatening, the treasury empty. So the Duke of Burgundy disbanded his army and sent a runner to Rouen with a secret message advising the townsmen to sue for the best terms they could get.

By the time that this message reached the defenders of Rouen they had already given up hope and decided for themselves to negotiate with the besiegers. Late on 31 December 1418 a knight of the garrison appeared at the land gate at the southern end of the Seine bridge and called for a knight or baron to come forward from the English lines. The Yorkshire knight Sir Gilbert Umfraville appeared. They asked him to arrange for a delegation of twelve men to come before the King. The meeting took place on New Year’s Day at the Charterhouse by the Paris road. The Frenchmen began by trying to get relief to the wretched people in the ditch beneath the walls. ‘Fellows, who put them there?’ Henry answered. Then they asked to be allowed to negotiate a conditional surrender. They had been charged to defend the city by the King of France whose subjects they were, they said. They were willing to become subjects of the King of England but would need to give due notice to the Duke of Burgundy. Henry, in his most uncompromising mood, told them that their city was his by rights and they had kept him out of it. The Duke of Burgundy was well aware of the situation and had no need of more messages. They would have to choose between death or unconditional surrender.

There was a large element of ritual and theatre about such occasions. In fact these brutal exchanges were the prelude to a long and painful negotiation about the terms of surrender. On the following morning two large pavilions were erected outside the Porte Saint-Hilaire. There the abbot of the Norman abbey of Saint-Georges de Boscherville and an official of the cathedral, supported by twenty-two representatives of the garrison and citizens, haggled for two weeks with a commission led by the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury. The townsmen crowded onto the walls to watch. The English soldiers stood about in groups in no-man’s-land as the heralds of both sides, ‘dressed like lords’ in coats of arms and gold braid, passed from tent to tent with messages. Henry’s terms were bleak, and after a week he threatened to bring the talks to an end unless they were accepted. Inside the city a bitter dispute was in progress between the professional garrison, who were determined to hold out for terms that would salve their honour, and the mass of the population, who wanted to bring an end to the siege at any price. The garrison was blamed for the failure of the defence. Guy Le Bouteillier was even accused of having sabotaged the recent catastrophic sortie from the gates. A tempestuous meeting at the hôtel de ville broke up inconclusively, some declaring that they would rather die fighting than surrender while others plotted to kill the captains of the garrison unless they opened the gates. Eventually, on about 9 January 1419, the defenders resolved to demolish a large section of their walls and set fire to the city at several points unless the English King moderated his terms. Henry, who wanted to take the city intact, finally yielded. He appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Chichele, who had recently arrived from England, to mediate with the clergy of the city. It was Chichele who finally reached agreement with the defenders on 13 January 1419.

The terms were harsh although not as harsh as they might have been. The town and castle were to be surrendered intact on 19 January 1419 unless by noon on that day they had been relieved by a French army commanded by Charles VI or the Duke of Burgundy in person. If the French army appeared the garrison and the inhabitants would have to witness the clash of arms from the walls without intervening. The remaining terms reflected Henry V’s determination to revive the twelfth-century English duchy of Normandy. Before the surrender the ‘useless mouths’ in the city ditches were to be taken back and fed. The city was to be cleaned up and all corpses buried outside the walls. Once Henry had taken possession, the city would retain all the privileges granted to it in times past, whether by his forebears the dukes of Normandy or by the kings of France. The inhabitants might retain their property in Normandy but only if they were willing to enter the English King’s allegiance. As for the garrison, non-Normans could depart under safe-conduct leaving nothing behind them, but native Normans had the choice of submission to their new master or imprisonment. The King exacted a heavy price for nearly six months of defiance by those whom he called his subjects. Rouen was to pay the largest indemnity ever exacted from a French city: 300,000 écus, the first instalment of which was to be handed over within three days of the surrender, the rest a month later. In addition all horses and war material were to be surrendered and the King was to be allowed a site of his choice in the city or its suburbs on which to build a palace. Eighty hostages were delivered up as security for the performance of these terms.

The interval allowed for the French to relieve Rouen was a perfunctory formality. By the time the captain’s messenger reached the Queen and the Duke of Burgundy they had already released their troops and left Beauvais. The Duke did not dare to show his face in Paris. He withdrew to Provins in Champagne until the spring, blaming the Dauphin for the disaster. For his part the Dauphin was not sorry to watch his rival’s humiliation. On about 15 January 1419 his representatives arrived at Louviers and received a safe-conduct to come before Henry V at Rouen. They came with proposals for a summit meeting between Henry V and the Dauphin to resolve the issues which had been too delicate for their ambassadors to broach at Alençon. They must have been present in the English camp to witness the surrender of the city on the 19th. In the Charterhouse Guy Le Bouteillier, who had directed the defence of the city for the past year, knelt before Henry V and delivered up the keys. The King handed them to his uncle Thomas Beaufort Duke of Exeter, whom he had appointed captain of the town. Later in the afternoon the banner of St George was hoisted above the citadel. Almost all the indigenous population of the city swore the oath of allegiance to Henry V, as they had warned John the Fearless they would. One of them was Guy Le Bouteillier himself, the first important layman to submit to the English King. He was to become one of the most loyal adjutants of the English government in Normandy.

‘If Rouen cannot defend itself what city can?’ asked the masters of the University of Paris. The doomsayers who had predicted that the fall of Rouen would be followed by the collapse of resistance throughout Normandy were swiftly proved right. No one wished to suffer the fate of Caen or Rouen. The nagging fear that the French King’s officers would return and punish them as traitors faded as the English occupation began to look as if it would endure. Caudebec surrendered automatically in accordance with the terms already agreed with the Earl of Warwick. The garrison of Montivilliers, the largest in the Pays de Caux, opened its gates to the English captain of Harfleur and marched away. The submission of these places was the signal for a wholesale desertion of the French cause. A number of task forces were detached from the English army and sent to overawe the regions which had not yet submitted. There was very little resistance in any of them. The seaports of the Pays de Caux, Fécamp, Dieppe and Eu, surrendered to the English one after the other in the month following the fall of Rouen. Honfleur, the last port of Normandy still holding out for Charles VI, was blockaded from land and sea by the Earl of Salisbury and entered into a conditional surrender agreement on 25 February. By the end of March all the walled places of the Seine were in English hands except for the fortress of La Roche-Guyon, dominating the river from its great man-made cliff at the edge of the Vexin, and Richard Coeur-de-Lion’s mighty Château-Gaillard at Les Andelys. North of the Seine only Gisors still held out and south of it only Ivry. The English had already penetrated upriver into the Île de France. Vernon, Mantes and Meulan were abandoned by their garrisons as they approached for want of stores to withstand a siege. Abbeville, Beauvais and Pontoise became frontier towns. The English were within twenty miles of Paris. Their raiding parties penetrated as far as Saint-Cloud, within sight of the city walls. ‘And now, blessed be God,’ wrote an Englishman with the army to a friend in London, ‘a man may ride from Brittany through the whole duchy of Normandy … and in a short time, I expect, all the way to Calais.’

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