BATTLE OF CASTILLON, (1453)

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Fought on 17 July 1453 near the town of Castillon in eastern GASCONY, the Battle of Castillon ended the HUNDRED YEARS WAR and stripped the English of all French holdings except the town of CALAIS.

After the French conquest of NORMANDY in 1450, CHARLES VII focused his military resources on Gascony, the last English-held province in France. As an army of seven thousand entered the province, other French forces besieged the fortresses protecting BORDEAUX, the Gascon capital, while a joint French, Spanish, and Breton fleet blockaded the mouth of the Gironde to prevent the English from relieving the city. Isolated and outnumbered, the English garrison in Bordeaux surrendered on 30 June 1451. A severe blow to English national pride, the loss of Bordeaux was reversed in 1452, thanks to the English sympathies of the Gascon people and the military skill of John TALBOT, earl of Shrewsbury, who led an army of three thousand ashore on 17 October. Within months of reentering Bordeaux on 23 October, Shrewsbury had largely restored Gascony to English control.

Respected and feared in France, Shrewsbury was the most famous English commander of the war’s last decades. By the summer of 1453, three French armies were converging on Gascony. Although reinforcements brought by his son raised his strength to over five thousand, Shrewsbury was still heavily outnumbered by the combined French forces, and his only option was to wait in Bordeaux until an opportunity arose to fall upon one army before the others could support it. However, when a French force of nine thousand laid siege to Castillon about thirty miles east of Bordeaux, Shrewsbury, against his better judgment, yielded to the pleas of representatives from both Castillon and Bordeaux and marched to the relief of the town on 16 July.

Early next morning, Shrewsbury arrived at Castillon with his mounted contingents, and led an immediate and successful assault on the French ARCHERS holding the Priory of St. Laurent. The surviving archers fled to the fortified French camp east of the priory, thereby alerting the main army of Shrewsbury’s arrival. Although the French army was commanded by committee, the camp and been laid out by Charles VII’s ordinance officer, Jean BUREAU. Designed to maximize the opportunity for oblique and enfilading fire from the French ARTILLERY, which may have numbered almost three hundred guns of all sizes, Bureau’s camp was protected on three sides by a ditch and palisaded rampart and on the fourth side by the steep bank of the River Lidoire.

Upon receiving reports that the enemy was retreating, Shrewsbury reversed an earlier decision to wait for the rest of his army to arrive and attacked immediately with the twelve hundred men he had at hand. The reports proved inaccurate, and when the French guns opened fire, the dismounted English suffered severe casualties. Shrewsbury, who wore no ARMOR to honor the pledge he had made when last released from French custody, pressed the attack, believing the arrival of his remaining troops would secure victory. However, as reinforcements came up, they suffered the same fate as the initial attackers, and the eventual arrival of French reserves broke the English attack and sent the survivors streaming back to Bordeaux.

The death of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury at the battle of Castillon from Vigilles de Charles VII by Martial d’Auvergne (1484)

With both Shrewsbury and his son dead on the field, the English position in Gascony quickly collapsed and the French entered Bordeaux to stay on 19 October 1453. After three hundred years, English rule in Gascony, like the Hundred Years War itself, was over. In England, news of the battle may have triggered HENRY VI’s mental collapse, for the king’s illness descended upon him in early August, about the time he would have learned of the disaster.
Further Reading: Pollard, A. J. John Talbot and the War in France, 1427–1453. London: Royal Historical Society, 1983.

French Artillery

ln France, as elsewhere, individual towns soon had large numbers of guns – in 1358, for example, Laon already had 12 and had just ordered 43 more, while Arras in 1369 had 38 guns; early cannon were, after all, not particularly expensive (we read in French accounts of guns costing only 3 francs, 2 1/2 ecus, and so on, equivalent to about 3s. or 3s. 4d.), and they could even be cheaper than the powder necessary to fire them! By the first half of the 15th century many individual barons too had their own artillery, such as the 7 ‘great culverins of metal’ which Gaston IV, Comte de Foix, took with him on campaign in 1450. The crown, on the other hand, had little artillery of its own before the 15th century and normally obtained what it required for a specific enterprise by temporarily ‘borrowing’ guns from the towns. Summonses issued after the fall of Harfleur in 1415, for example, specify to the provincial baillis that ‘you will likewise enjoin … that all cannon, engines of war, and other offensive or defensive weapons that can be spared from the principal towns, be sent to our aid without delay, which we promise to restore at the end of the war(i. e., the campaign).’

The French seem always to have had heavier guns than the English (as early as the siege of St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte in 1375, for example, they had guns that could fire 100 lb stone shot, one of them weighing more than a ton), but they only began to put this advantage to good use in the 1430s under the guidance of Jean Bureau, Master of the Artillery, and his brother Gaspard. Jean first served as a gunner for the English, but he took service with King Charles VII in 1434 and master-minded siege technology during the reconquest of occupied France from the English thereafter, his most notable successes being the capture of Meaux in 1439, Pontoise in 1441, Harfleur in 1449 (where together with Gaspard he founded 16 guns on site) and Caen and Cherbourg in 1450. In addition Jean was effectively commander of the French forces at the Battle of Castillon in 1453. His brother was Master of the Artillery in tum; in 1458 his permanent bande comprised a keeper ofthe artillery, a master gunner, a master carter, and 30 cannoneers, and in 1463 he had as many as 9 bombards and 32 smaller guns in and around Paris under Louis XI.

By the late-15th century the French royal artillery train was generally accepted as being the most formidable in Europe.

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