The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part II

Brittany was not an economic or maritime power on a level with Flanders, but shipowning was just as important to its people. Much of the population of the duchy was concentrated in the innumerable small harbours of its coastal fringe and drew their subsistence from the sea. Breton ships were actively engaged in the entrepôt trades in grain, wine and salt, trades which were heavily dependent on the great producing areas of Poitou and Gascony and the markets of England and Flanders. The Bretons were therefore just as vulnerable as the Flemings to the disruption of the sea lanes of the Channel and the North Sea. The surviving customs records suggest that Brittany’s trade with England fell by more than half during the maritime wars of 1402. No comparable assessment can be made of the impact on Brittany’s trade with Flanders but it must have been considerable. Flanders, as the author of the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye observed in the 1430s, was ‘the staple of their marchaundy, which marchaundy may not pass [that] way but by the coast of England’.

The political situation in Brittany was at this stage extremely uncertain. The duchy had been ruled since the 1340s by the house of Montfort, a baronial family from the Île de France which had succeeded in establishing itself in power only after a succession of civil wars and with English military support. Their rivals the counts of Penthièvre, who had been backed by the French Crown, had been defeated in the field and finally submitted in the treaty of Guérande, which brought an end to a quarter of a century of civil war in 1365. The outcome had eventually been acknowledged by the French Crown in 1381, when John IV de Montfort had submitted to Charles VI and renounced his former English connections. But the treaty did not put an end to the divisions of Brittany, any more than John IV’s submission put an end to the residual suspicion of his house among the politicians in Paris. The counts of Penthièvre, although they paid lip-service to the treaties and did homage to the Montfort dukes, had never recognised defeat. In the 1380s and 1390s, they had maintained a sullen resistance, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of violence. They were supported by a network of clients and allies dominated by Olivier de Clisson, former Constable of France and the most powerful territorial magnate in Brittany. Clisson, whose daughter Marguerite had married the head of the house of Penthièvre, had for many years been the animating spirit behind their opposition to the reigning dynasty.

John IV had died at Nantes in November 1399, leaving a ten-year-old son to succeed him as John V. The government was exercised on the child’s behalf by his mother Joan of Navarre, a beautiful and politically astute woman of thirty-one. In the short period of her rule Joan’s main concern was to protect her son from the venomous legacy of Brittany’s fourteenth-century civil wars. To this end she negotiated a historic reconciliation with Olivier de Clisson. He was now a venerable figure in his mid-sixties and age had dulled his former ambitions. On 23 March 1402 Joan had her son John, although still a minor, crowned as duke in Nantes cathedral, the first recorded occasion on which any duke of Brittany had received a formal coronation. Clisson himself appeared at the ceremony and marked the end of the ancient and destructive feud by knighting the young Duke in front of the high altar of the cathedral. According to a later, perhaps apocryphal story, his daughter had urged him to seize the chance to secure the duchy for her family. ‘Cruel, perverse woman,’ he is supposed to have replied, dismissing her from his presence with such fury that she broke her leg as she escaped down the stairs.

The timing of John V’s coronation had been carefully planned. As soon as the festivities were over Joan announced her intention of marrying Henry IV of England. After what must have been several months of secret negotiations she was married to him by proxy in a ceremony at the palace of Eltham on 3 April 1402. The couple were not complete strangers. They had met at least once in 1398, when she had accompanied her first husband on a brief visit to England. Joan probably married Henry for status and it may be for companionship. He was thirty-four years old, a widower for the past decade, a famous figure in the world of European chivalry and a king. Henry’s own motives are more difficult to divine. Brittany was important to England. It had long-standing commercial relations with the country. It also stood across the main sea and land routes to Gascony. It is natural to suppose that Henry IV hoped to renew England’s old alliance with the Breton duchy and perhaps even take control of the regency. But in the conditions of 1402 these ideas were hardly realistic. Joan’s declared intention was to resign the regency and join her new husband in England. The great ceremonies at Nantes suggest that the plan was to leave John V in Brittany as the nominal head of his government with Olivier de Clisson as regent for the brief period of eighteen months before he reached his majority. Clisson had already been put in possession of the newly enlarged and refortified citadel at Nantes which served as the centre of the ducal administration.

To the Duke of Burgundy, however, a Clisson regency in Brittany was hardly more welcome than an English one. Olivier de Clisson was a declared ally of Louis of Orléans. Indeed all the circumstantial evidence suggests that Louis had actively promoted a Clisson regency in the hope of adding the duchy of Brittany to his extensive network of alliances. Philip was determined to prevent it. Charles VI had relapsed into his old incapacity in July 1402 and, apart from a fortnight in early October, remained ‘absent’ for the next seven months. For the first time a major decision had to be made in Paris without reference to him. In the last week of August 1402 the Duke of Orléans returned to the capital from Coucy and procured the despatch in the King’s name of a testy letter to the baronage of Brittany urging them to get on with the business of appointing Clisson as regent. But Louis had underestimated the strength of the opposition to Clisson in Brittany itself, especially among the officials of the late duke and the noblemen who had served him against the house of Blois during the civil wars. They distrusted the ex-Constable and feared that once in power he would pursue the grudges accumulated over thirty years of dynastic conflict. They responded to the royal letters by pressing the Duke of Burgundy to intervene. For three weeks in September 1402 Philip called in all his favours among the princes and politicians about the King. There were prolonged discussions between Philip and the leading councillors and officers of the King in the castles of Melun and Corbeil and at Jean II de Montaigu’s mansion at Marcoussis until he finally got his way.

Towards the end of September Philip left for Brittany to take control of the duchy. He entered Nantes on 1 October 1402. He dazzled the duchess and the nobility by the magnificence of his suite and the grandeur of his manner, and showered them with gifts, banquets and flattery. On 19 October the Estates of Brittany gathered in the city. They agreed to appoint the Duke of Burgundy as guardian of the young John V and his three brothers Arthur, Gilles and Richard. Olivier de Clisson resisted these measures as best he could with the support of his kinsmen and allies. But a large majority of those present was against them. Clisson finally submitted with ill grace and surrendered Nantes castle to Philip’s officers. The Duke spent the next six weeks in Brittany dealing with the practical arrangements for the government of the duchy. The administration was placed under his control. The principal ducal castles were delivered up to his officers and garrisoned with French troops. Joan of Navarre was persuaded to surrender her dower lands in return for a money pension. In January 1403 she embarked with her two unmarried daughters on a fleet of English ships escorted by a magnificent cortège of noblemen sent out from England to fetch her. Philip of Burgundy had already left for Paris taking John V and two of his brothers with him.

The change of regime in Brittany had an immediate impact on the duchy’s relations with England. For as long as Joan of Navarre remained in Brittany open hostilities with England were avoided. There were many piratical incidents but both sides declared themselves willing in principle to make reparations for them. However, within weeks of Joan’s departure, Brittany found itself in the front line of the maritime war. Trade to English ports abruptly ceased in February 1403, possibly on the orders of the Duke of Burgundy’s officers. Breton seamen joined forces with those of other French ports and stepped up their attacks on English and Gascon shipping in the Bay of Biscay and the Channel. In the spring active steps were being taken to assemble a Breton fleet for operations against England itself.


The exclusion of Olivier de Clisson from the regency of Brittany was Philip of Burgundy’s last notable triumph over his nephew. Within a few months the Duke of Orléans had finally achieved the dominant position within the French government that he had craved ever since his brother’s first attack of insanity. Behind the closed doors of the Hôtel Saint-Pol and the princely mansions of the capital a great power struggle was in progress throughout the first half of 1403. Charles VI was ill again, as he had been for most of the past year. His recent relapses had been worse and longer than before. There were concerns for his life. Louis of Orléans’ influence in council visibly grew as Charles’s health deteriorated. He was the man of the future to whom the ambitious, the greedy and the simply realistic were inevitably drawn. The consensus was expressed by the clerk to the Parlement. He was no friend of Louis but thought that by right of birth and stature he was the ‘natural’ ruler of France in a way that could never be true of the King’s elderly uncles. There had been a trial of strength at the beginning of the year when Louis de Sancerre, the valiant old Constable and companion of Du Guesclin, resigned his office. The favoured candidate of the court was the Queen’s brother, Louis of Bavaria. But the Duke of Orléans succeeded in imposing his ally Charles d’Albret in spite of the fact that he was, in the words of an indignant contemporary, ‘lame, small, weak, and lacking in age, dignity or military experience’.

The Dukes of Berry and Burgundy could see the direction of events and moved to pre-empt it. On about 25 April 1403 the King enjoyed a partial recovery. On the following day there occurred what was described as a meeting of the royal council, although no notice of it appears to have been given and the only persons present were the King, his two uncles, and the clerk. It approved three new ordinances making radical changes to the arrangements for the government of the realm. They abrogated the ordinances of 1393, which had provided for the Duke of Orléans to become regent in the event of the King’s death, and provided instead that the Dauphin would succeed at once without a formal minority or regency. Until he was old enough to exercise his powers in person the government would be carried on in his name by the Queen with the support of the four royal dukes of Berry, Burgundy, Orléans and Bourbon and the rest of the royal council. Decisions of this body were to be made by the voices of the ‘larger and wiser number’. Similar arrangements were to apply while the King was alive but ‘absent’ or otherwise incapable of conducting affairs of state. Any letters of Charles VI purporting to modify these provisions were declared to be void. At the same time the King agreed to marry two of his children into Philip of Burgundy’s family. The Dauphin’s hand was promised to Margaret, daughter of Philip’s heir, John Count of Nevers, in spite of an earlier undertaking that he would marry a daughter of Louis of Orléans. The King’s daughter Michelle would marry the Count of Nevers’ eldest son Philip, who was destined to inherit the Burgundian empire after John’s death. These ordinances were aimed at diluting the influence of the Duke of Orléans and the Queen. They would have instituted a system of collective decision-making which the Duke of Burgundy could hope to control in his lifetime, while the marriage alliances would ensure that his heirs would succeed to his influence at the centre of affairs in the next two generations.

Louis of Orléans was out of Paris when the new ordinances were made but he returned as soon as he heard about them and set about turning the King round. On 7 May Charles was induced to confirm the rights granted to Louis under all earlier ordinances and to repeat his previous promise that the Dauphin should marry a daughter of the house of Orléans. Any past or future instrument prejudicing Louis’ rights was declared to be null and void. The pliable king can scarcely have been able to follow what was happening. Four days later, on the 11th, the King was made to issue a fresh ordinance at a meeting of the council at which only the Duke of Burgundy is recorded as being present. This declared that the letters procured by Louis on 7 May were inconsistent with those of 26 April, a state of affairs which was described as disruptive and intolerable. The letters of 7 May were accordingly to be treated as void. Who prevailed in this war of ordinance and counter-ordinance? In different ways both of the rivals did. Philip’s most significant gain was the double betrothal of Charles’s children to those of John of Nevers, which Charles refused to repudiate. But it was Louis who prevailed on the form of government in the King’s ‘absences’. None of the competing ordinances appears to have been put into effect or regarded as expressing the King’s will. They were all ignored by subsequent legislation, which treated the political arrangements made in 1393 as still in force.

What is clear is that from the summer of 1403 onwards the Duke of Orléans consistently got his way on critical issues which had hitherto divided the council. As always the most reliable indicator of the balance of power was the state of France’s relations with the Avignon Pope. On the night of 11 March, after five years in which he had been blockaded by his adversaries in the papal palace at Avignon, Benedict XIII had escaped heavily disguised and found his way to the castle of the counts of Provence at Châteaurenard. His escape had been organised by the Aragonese ambassador with the assistance of Robert de Braquemont, Louis of Orléans’ representative in the papal city. Protected by a large garrison, in territory that still recognised him, Benedict could now defy his enemies with impunity. In Paris Louis moved quickly to build upon his victory. On 15 May a council of the French Church gathered under the glazed eye of the King in the Hôtel Saint-Pol. It had been summoned before Benedict’s escape in order to endorse the policy of withholding recognition from both popes which the Dukes of Burgundy and Berry had pursued for the past decade. But by the time it met Louis of Orléans was very obviously in control. He came armed with various declarations which his agents had extracted from Benedict XIII, in which the obstinate old man promised to mend his autocratic ways, to submit the whole question of the papal succession to a council of the whole Latin Church within a year and meanwhile to moderate the burden of papal taxation on the French Church. The Pope had not the least intention of performing these undertakings if he could avoid it. But they made the desired impression on the council in Paris. On 28 May Louis summoned before him at the Hôtel Saint-Pol a carefully selected delegation of bishops who were loyal to him and to Benedict. They gave him a list of those who were in favour of restoring obedience to the Avignon Pope. Whether the names on the list were a majority we shall never know. Louis at once took them to his brother, who was recovering from his siesta in the cool darkness of the palace chapel. He presented him with the list. Charles agreed to recognise Benedict as Pope. Knowing the King’s vacillating temperament Louis seized a crucifix from the altar and called on his brother to back up his decision with an oath. A notary was produced from Louis’ entourage to record it. The proceedings were brought to an end with a sung Te Deum led by the King himself. The Dukes of Berry and Burgundy were not even consulted. When they learned that evening what had happened they were appalled. They did their best to change the King’s mind. But Charles was immovable. The decision was proclaimed from the steps of Notre-Dame on 30 May 1403.


The Duke of Orléans’ assumption of power in Paris quickly affected France’s already tense relations with England. At the end of March 1403 Louis wrote another deliberately offensive letter to Henry IV and sent his herald across the Channel to deliver it. Louis accused the English King of usurping Richard II’s crown and of deliberate cruelty and dishonesty towards Richard’s widow. He publicly challenged the suggestion made in Henry’s last letter that he had himself been one of the usurper’s chief accomplices. He had never, he said, intended to support a coup d’état but had only wanted to help Henry recover the heritage of his father. Henry wrote back a month later with a rebuke for writing in a manner unworthy of a royal prince. There followed a leaden point-by-point rebuttal in which he lost no opportunity to rub in their past alliance, revealing fresh details of their cordial relations since his accession. It was not so much a correspondence as an exchange of manifestos. Henry’s letter was delivered to the Duke of Orléans by Lancaster Herald at Coucy on 30 May 1403. Shortly after this, in June, planning began in Paris for the repudiation of the current truce and the reopening of the war with England. The French government envisaged simultaneous campaigns against English possessions in Calais and Gascony in the following spring. Three thousand men-at-arms and a thousand crossbowmen would be deployed on each front for five months plus a mobile reserve of 300 mounted men in Normandy and Picardy to fight off English coastal raids. In addition a large naval force was to be deployed off Calais to cut off supplies and reinforcements from England. A sailing fleet would be obtained by requisitioning and converting merchantmen in the French Atlantic provinces. In addition it was also proposed to acquire the use of ‘at least’ thirty war galleys of which ten were expected to be contributed by the King of Castile under the current naval treaty with France. Louis of Orléans addressed letters to many German princes and noblemen, calling on them to contribute troops to the campaign.

While this was going on in Paris the English and French ambassadors were meeting at Leulinghem for another round of negotiations on the confirmation and enforcement of the truce. The conference opened with the ill-tempered exchanges which had become normal on such occasions. Henry Bowet Bishop of Bath, who spoke for the English delegation, raised the question of the Duke of Orléans’ challenge of the previous year and his more recent letter of March. What did all this signify? To write such things hardly seemed to be consistent with the truce which they had come to Leulinghem to discuss. Who was in charge in Paris? Was the Duke of Orléans acting on his own account? Or with the authority of the King? Or of the royal council? Until they received an answer to these questions, sealed by the King or the royal princes, the English were not prepared to proceed with the business of the conference. The French delegation was led by the experienced but abrasive Jean de Hangest and the President of the Chambre des Comptes, Jean de Montaigu Bishop of Chartres. They were extremely guarded. The French King’s position, ‘or at least the position of his council’, Jean de Hangest replied, was that the truce of 1396 remained in force and that they would not be the ones to break it. All the royal princes were agreed upon that. The English asked for clarification. The French said they were unable to say more because of the incapacity of the King, who had relapsed into incoherence again at the beginning of the month. They thought that they might have a fuller answer in the following year, or earlier if he recovered earlier. Bowet’s bluff had been called. He did not walk out. The maintenance of the truce was too important to the English King. On 27 June 1403 the two sides agreed to republish the truce of 1396 and made new arrangements to deal with claims arising out of the fighting at sea. Another month was passed in quarrelling over the unpaid ransom of John II, the unreturned dowry of Isabelle of France, compensation for prizes taken at sea, the release of prisoners captured in the fighting, the perennial issue of the application of the truce to Scotland and the diplomatic stomach cramps of Jean de Hangest by which the French, as their English opposite numbers saw it, tried to drag out the proceedings whenever they seemed to be approaching some sort of conclusion. None of these questions was resolved.

The truth was that the French ambassadors at Leulinghem were looking over their shoulders at larger plans being made in Paris. In the margins of the conference the Bishop of Chartres and his colleagues were busy preparing a draft war budget. They costed the proposed military and naval operations against England at no less than 1,212,500 livres. This was an enormous sum. But it was not the limit of the Duke of Orléans’ ambitions. He was also contemplating a major campaign in northern Italy under his own command during the autumn and winter. His father-in-law Gian Galeazzo Visconti had died suddenly at the height of his powers in September 1402, leaving his domains to be governed by his widow as regent for their under-age son. Louis feared for the future of the duchy of Milan and his own county of Asti, which were threatened with internal disintegration and attack from outside by Florence, the papacy and Ruprecht’s Germany, all of them victims of Gian Galeazzo’s twenty-year career of conquest.

In the first half of July 1403 there was intense discussion between the royal dukes in Paris about how Louis’ multiple wars were to be financed. The whole subject was exceptionally sensitive and their deliberations were veiled in secrecy. What is clear is that they agreed in principle that when the time came there would be a heavy new taille. The Duke of Burgundy might have been expected to object. In the event he did not. Instead he seems to have abandoned his long-standing attachment to the truce with England and acquiesced in the imposition of a tax very like the one that he had gone to such lengths to veto in 1402. Why? Part of the answer is that his political position in Paris was weaker than it had been a year earlier. But the main reason appears to be that he was bought off. Having resigned himself to the loss of his political influence he exacted a large increase in his drawings from the French royal treasury as the price of his complaisance. He ultimately got an enlarged pension for the current year of 100,000 livres and another 120,000 livres by way of a one-off grant from the treasury reserve. Almost all of this money was paid over between October 1403 and April 1404. From a strictly financial point of view it was an outstanding bargain. Philip obtained more in these months from the French royal treasury than in any comparable period of his life.

It is obvious from the exchanges at Leulinghem that the English were profoundly suspicious of their French opposite numbers and doubted their good faith. They had good reason to, for the French government, while publicly adhering to the truce, was using the Bretons as surrogates to break it. During the summer of 1403 a fleet of armed merchantmen was assembled at Morlaix in north-western Brittany for service against the English: some thirty ships with 1,200 men-at-arms on board in addition to their crews. The scale of this venture and the identity of those involved leaves little doubt that it had the support of the French King’s council. The principal captains were the Admiral of Brittany, Jean de Penhoet, and the captain of the ducal fortress at Brest, Guillaume du Châtel, a chamberlain of the Duke of Orléans who had been foremost in the lists at Montendre the year before. The Morlaix fleet did a great deal of damage. On 8 July 1403 it surprised an English raiding force which was lying at anchor in the harbour at Saint-Matthieu. The English tried to escape but the Bretons split their force into two divisions and headed them off, uttering terrible cries as they closed with the opposing ships. The ensuing fight lasted for six hours until the English ran out of ammunition. By then 500 of their crews had been killed in the fight and another 500 thrown into the sea and drowned. A thousand more were captured and ransomed. Forty English ships were reported to have been captured. Fresh from landing their prizes and prisoners the Bretons sailed again at about the beginning of August against the west of England. There they lay off the harbours waiting to attack ships entering or leaving. They landed and burned settlements, killing many of the inhabitants and carrying off others for ransom. On 9 August 1403 these operations came to a violent close when they penetrated Plymouth Sound in the early afternoon and landed their men about a mile from the town. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham’s accusations of negligence may well have been justified, for nothing appears to have been done to interfere with the landings. The town was unwalled. The French approached it unobserved at nightfall and fell on it after dark, rapidly overwhelming the inhabitants. The whole night was passed in burning and looting. On the following morning they sailed away with many prisoners and several captured freighters as Sir Thomas Berkeley approached with the levies of the western counties. On their way home the Bretons landed on Guernsey and Jersey, causing more destruction and exacting heavy patis from the inhabitants. It was the worst coastal raid that England had suffered since the 1370s.


These events coincided with the gravest internal crisis of Henry IV’s reign. In the spring of 1403 the Percies, Henry Earl of Northumberland and his son Harry Hotspur, who had taken the leading part in the revolution which put Henry on the throne in 1399, resolved to break with him. Their reasons reveal much about the English King’s failings as a political manager. The Percies had been the dominant territorial magnates of the north for nearly a century. For most of the reign of Richard II they had enjoyed almost viceregal powers in the north as wardens of the east march, and in the aftermath of Henry IV’s coup of 1399 in the west march, Cheshire and north Wales as well. They owed their power in the region to personal factors which it was not easy for outsiders to match: their immense landholdings in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumberland, their possession of some of the principal private fortresses of the north, their familiarity with border society on both sides and the intense tribal loyalty which these highly successful warriors inspired among their tenants, allies and followers. In the words of the fifteenth-century chronicler of the region, himself a Percy retainer, they ‘have the hertes of the people by north and ever had’. They had become indispensable. When Richard II had briefly attempted at the end of his reign to exclude them from the wardenship, his nominee the Duke of Aumale had bluntly told him that it was impossible to govern the north without them.

In 1403 the Percies had a number of reasons to feel that their worth was not being recognised. One was Henry IV’s attempt to balance their power by promoting the interests of the Nevilles, the other great noble house of the north. Ralph Neville Earl of Westmorland was the King’s brother-in-law and had been close to him for many years. At the time of Henry’s accession Westmorland was one of the great territorial magnates of the north with important holdings on both sides of the Pennines. In the north-east, where the Percy interests were concentrated, his power was visibly growing. He was already much the largest landowner in the palatine county of Durham. Shortly after the King’s coronation he had been granted the immense honour of Richmond in Yorkshire, traditionally a possession of the Dukes of Brittany, which had previously been farmed or leased to the Percies. He acquired control of the border fortresses of Wark and Bamburgh in Northumberland, where the Percies had once been the sole military power. The removal of Hotspur in 1402 from the command of Roxburgh, the last surviving royal fortress in southern Scotland apart from Berwick, was a symbolic act. Roxburgh stood in territory where the Percies had ancient claims and large ambitions. Hotspur’s replacement was the Earl of Westmorland.

1 thought on “The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part II

  1. Pingback: The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part II – faujibratsden

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