Detail of a miniature of the siege of Meaux and the death of the mayor of the town, at the beginning of chapter 77 of ‘John the Good’ book, with the signature of Richard duke of Gloucester, future Richard III, ‘Richard Gloucestre’.
Henry V marched out of Calais almost as soon as he landed, early in June 1421. His first step was to send a relief force to the beleaguered Exeter at Paris. He took his main army, even smaller in consequence, down to Montreuil, twenty-five miles south, to confer with the Duke of Burgundy. Here the king agreed to dispatch the bulk of his troops to Chartres to relieve the besieged Burgundians, while he himself went on to Paris with a handful of men. Duke Philip rode with him as far as Abbeville and en route they had a day’s boar-hunting by way of relaxation. One may be sure that it was suggested by the duke – nothing so frivolous would normally have occurred to Henry on campaign.
He entered Paris late in the evening on 4 July. He found the Duke of Exeter in control, more or less, though presumably very glad to see him. For not only had the capital been menaced by foes outside the walls but there had been considerable unrest within.
Much of the unrest had centred around l’Isle Adam. Chastellain (who almost certainly met the marshal) tells us that, after secret instructions from Henry before his departure from Paris the previous December, Exeter had him suddenly arrested and sent under strong guard to the Bastille – now the English headquarters. According to Chastellain, ‘when the rumour ran through the city that l’lsle Adam had been seized a large mob of common people took up hatchets and hammers [à hacques et à macques], planning to rescue him and remove him by force from English hands, but found themselves facing six score of English archers, all with bows strung, shooting at them . . . And so he was put in the Bastille and held in prison so long as the king his enemy lived who, had it not been for fear and favour of the Duke of Burgundy his master, would have had his head off.’
Henry’s appearance had a calming effect on the Parisians, since we hear of no more disturbances of this sort. He found time to visit his parents-in-law, Charles VI and Queen Isabeau, at the Hôtel de Saint-Pol and to hear Mass at Nôtre Dame. However, he left his French capital after spending only four days there.
The king then went to his old headquarters at Mantes. Here he conferred once more with the Duke of Burgundy before setting off to relieve Chartres. However, as he approached the city he was told that the dauphin had already abandoned the siege and was hastily retreating southwards into Touraine, on the unconvincing pretexts that he was running short of food, that the weather was bad, and that his men were deserting. The true reason was of course that he had heard of his supplanter’s return and was not going to risk a battle. King Henry thereupon marched on Dreux instead, some fifty miles west of Paris. This was the only substantial stronghold left to the dauphinists on this side of the capital, on the border between Normandy and the lie de France. It was invested on 18 July, the direction of the siege being entrusted to the Duke of Gloucester and the King of Scots. Despite a gallant defence by both its garrison and its townsmen, Dreux surrendered on 20 August, and at the news a whole string of lesser dauphinist strongpoints north and west of Chartres also opened their gates to the English.
The king then struck down towards the Loire, hoping to bring the enemy to battle but, says the First Life, ‘against him came no man, nor no enemy abode his coming’. He heard that the dauphin was assembling a big army near Beaugency on the north bank of the Loire. Accordingly, on about 8 September he stormed Beaugency (though its citadel held out), and then sent the Earl of Suffolk across the river with a small detachment to see if he could locate the enemy army or provoke it into action by inflicting as much damage as possible. However, the dauphin was not to be drawn. Henry then marched along the north bank of the Loire to Orleans nearby, burning its suburbs in which his men found much-needed provisions. He set up his camp outside but his army, by now probably numbering less than 3,000 men, was too small to besiege so large a city with any prospect of success. After resting his men for three days, he swung north-east towards Joigny.
What Jean Juvénal calls ‘a marvellous pestilence of stomach flux’ had broken out among the troops. Henry provided as many carts as he could for those who could not walk. Nevertheless, ‘Dead soldiers were found along the roads . . . and others [still alive] in the woods around Orleans by country folk who had gone there to hide and keep out of the way, and who killed many of them.’
In addition, so one gathers from the Croniques de Normandie, Henry had lost not only many men during his march from sickness but others who collapsed from hunger, besides having to abandon a great number of horses, carts and pack-mules through lack of fodder. He nonetheless kept on undaunted. One has to respect such a leader.
On 18 September he captured Nemours and on 22 September Villneuve-le-Roy on the River Yonne, which had been preventing supplies from Dijon reaching Paris. He also took another dauphinist stronghold, Rougemont, which he stormed with a speed that astounded its dazed defenders. Infuriated by the loss of a single English soldier durings its taking, he had it burnt and its entire garrison drowned in batches in the Yonne, including some who escaped but whom he caught later; sixty men in all. Jean Chartier observes of Henry that he was a very hard and cruel dispenser of justice. According to the king’s lights this was ‘justice’ – as defenders of a fortress taken by storm such men had no right to their lives in the military code of the period.
Describing the siege of Rougemont, Chastellain, who must have met many veterans who had fought against Henry or at his side, gives some idea of what it would have been like to face him. ‘The English king had them attacked most fiercely, assaulted lethally from every side, did not give them rest or respite, scarcely let them draw breath, harried them to death. If I do not describe the [castle’s] fortifications, which were the best possible, it is because they could not save them.’ Colonel Burne thinks the secret of Henry’s success as a soldier was ‘a double foundation of discipline and fervour’ – discipline unusual in field armies of the period, coupled with his ability to communicate a savage self-righteousness. (Something not seen in English troops until Cromwell’s New Model Army.) Burne also considers that his meticulous preparations before taking the field contributed a good deal; in advance of his last campaign, one in northern France which he did not live to fight, he arranged for the citizens of Amiens to provide food for his troops, even fixing the prices. Above all, he was undoubtedly a born leader of men, instilling in his men his own ferocious dynamism and dogged determination. It is unlikely that his heath was good, though we do not have precise details; more than one important meeting had to be postponed because he was unwell (such as the crucial encounter with Queen Isabeau in June 1419’. We know from Walsingham that the illness which killed him was of long standing. Yet he let nothing deter him. If a singularly gloomy man, as he showed at moments of triumph, he can at least never be accused of pessimism in battle. According to the Monk of St Denis he maintained extraordinary equanimity during both setbacks and triumphs. He used to tell troops who had been defeated, ‘You know, the fortunes of war tend to vary. If you want to make certain of winning, always keep your courage exactly the same regardless of what happens.’
The monk also tells us that Henry imposed the strictest discipline. As during the Agincourt campaign, he prohibited ‘the vile prostitutes’ under ferocious penalties from plying their trade in the English camp as they did in the French. On this topic the king remarked sententiously that ‘the pleasure of Venus all too often weakened and softened victorious Mars’. Admittedly, contrary to a popular misconception, venereal disease certainly existed during the fifteenth century. Yet the prohibition, together with restrictions on drinking when possible, may well have contributed to the high rate of desertion from his armies. (As Bacon observes, ‘I know not but martial men are given to love. I think it is but as they are given to wine, for perils commonly asked to be paid in pleasures.’) In a letter home one of Henry’s men longs to go ‘out of this unlusty soldier’s life into the life of England’.
Having cleared the Yonne valley the king marched north-west on as broad a front as his tiny army could manage, presumably to mop up any more pockets of resistance, besides inflicting as much devastation as possible. He divided it into three columns, the one to the east crossing the Seine at Pont-sur-Seine, the second to the west crossing at Nogent and the third continuing along the Yonne.
The men suffered considerable hardship. The three columns of weary English troops rejoined each other at Meaux, having successfully concealed that this was Henry’s real objective. Jean Juvénal tells us that its inhabitants had been so unwise as to send envoys to the king at Paris, complaining that he was waging total war on them and setting all the country round Meaux on fire. ‘To which he replied it was on purpose and that he would lay siege to them and take them, and as for the fires which they said he had started in the countryside, that was merely the custom of war, and war without fire was like sausages [andouilles] without mustard.’
The town of Meaux was the biggest dauphinist stronghold near the capital. On a bend of the Marne, it was divided by the river into two sections, the old town, and the market, which was protected on three sides by the river and on the fourth by a canal.
In addition, Meaux possessed unusually formidable defenders. Its captain was Guichard de Chissay, a brave and resourceful commander, who had excellent lieutenants in Louis de Gast and in the Bastard of Vaurus and his cousin Denis de Vaurus. The garrison was composed of a ferocious mixture of brigands and deserters, some of them English and even Irish, who knew they could expect no mercy if they fell into the king’s hands. The most desperate of them all was the Bastard of Vaurus, little better than a brigand chief, who had a well-deserved reputation for cruelty. Outside the town there was an elm-tree called the ‘Tree of Vaurus’ on which he hanged his victims, eighty of whose corpses were dangling from it in 1421; on one occasion he had had a pregnant girl tied there for the night – when she gave birth to a child, wolves came and ate both mother and infant.
By 6 October Henry had invested Meaux. Although he knew that the siege must be a long one, as usual he ignored the medieval convention of going into winter-quarters. Meaux was too valuable a prize. Not only would its capture remove a threat to Paris and please the Burgundians, but the many lesser dauphinist strongpoints which depended on it would be frightened into surrendering. He was undeterred by the small size of his army which by now numbered no more than 2,500 men. At least he had two fine captains with him, in the Duke of Exeter and the Earl of Warwick.
Remorselessly the king set about the reduction of Meaux. He divided his army into four, positioned east, west, north and south of the town. Warwick commanded the division to the south on the far side of the Marne, Henry building a pontoon bridge over the river. The king’s headquarters were about a mile from the town walls, at the abbey of St Faro. He had huts and dug-outs constructed to protect his troops against winter weather, and trenches to guard them against sorties by the garrison. Guns, siege engines, munitions and food were shipped upstream from Paris. He concentrated his artillery fire on carefully selected sections of the walls and gates.
For months the siege seemed to make no progress whatever. The abominable weather hampered the English severely. It rained steadily throughout December so that the Marne burst its banks, to sweep away the pontoon bridge and cut off Warwick against whom the garrison made sorties by boat. The river also flooded the besiegers’ huts and dug-outs, deprived their horses of forage and rendered the ground unfit for mining. Dysentery and other sicknesses afflicted the miserably cold and damp English. Food supplies broke down. There were many desertions and it has been estimated that by Christmas Henry’s army had dwindled by twenty per cent.
The king maintained discipline in his own imaginative way. When dauphinists ambushed and cut to pieces an English foraging party, one man escaped by running away. On being informed, Henry had a deep pit dug and ordered the deserter to be buried alive in it.
The writer known as ‘pseudo-Elmham’ preserves a rumour, possibly contemporary, that the king’s army never suffered so much harm during any of his sieges as in this one. Besides the epidemics and other hardships, the defenders fought unpleasantly well. Henry’s redoubtable uncle, Sir John Cornwall, had to be sent home in a state of shock, swearing that he would never again fight Christians, after his promising seventeen-year-old son had been killed by a cannonball taking his head clean off his shoulders. The king himself fell ill and a physician was summoned but he soon recovered. (We have no details of his malady.) Some captains advised him to abandon the siege. He was undoubtedly worried; in December he contemplated hiring German or Portuguese mercenaries. Yet nothing could shake his determination. By sheer strength of personality he prevented a collapse in morale, forcing his troops to hold on till the weather improved and the epidemics subsided. Inside Meaux they began to run short of food.
It was not only those engaged at Meaux, besiegers or besieged, who were suffering. The Bourgeois of Paris records:
The King of England spent Christmas and the Epiphany at the seige of Meaux; his men pillaged the entire Brie and, however hard they tried, no one was able to sow crops . . . most of those working the land ceased to do so, abandoned their wives and children and fled in despair, saying to each other, ‘What can we do? Let everything go to the Devil! It doesn’t matter what becomes of us. It serves one better to do evil rather than good, it’s better to act like Saracens instead of Christians, so let’s do all the harm we can. They can only catch and kill us! Because of misgovernment by traitors we’ve had to leave our wives and families and flee to the woods like hunted beasts.’
The Bourgeois laments that in Paris ‘God knows how much the poor suffered from cold and hunger!’ He tells how everywhere in the capital one heard people crying, ‘Alas! Alas! Most gentle living God, when are you going to put an end for us to this cruel misery, to this wretched existence, to this damnable war?’
Yet Henry’s heart is said to have been filled with great gladness and, according to Waurin, ‘throughout the kingdom [of England] there was perfect joy displayed, more than had been seen there for a long time.’ News had come of the birth of a son to Queen Catherine at Windsor in December. Now there was an heir in blood to the dual monarchy of England and France. No doubt in his pride as a father, and in his delusion that the hand of God was always benevolently evident in his destiny, it never occurred to him that the future Henry VI, bred from the diseased Valois stock, might be anything other than a great king. It would be another hundred years before a tale became current how he had foretold: ‘Henry born at Monmouth shall small time reign and get much, and Henry born at Windsor shall long reign and lose all, but as God wills so be it.’
Nevertheless the defenders of Meaux were holding their own, if only from desperation. One day early in 1422 some of them brought a donkey up onto the walls, beating it savagely until it brayed, and shouted down at the English that here was their king. They would live to regret it. Nothing could ever shake Henry’s determination, no display of confidence by the garrison, no amount of casualties or desertions, no bad weather, illness or shortage of food – not even the salt fish of the Lenten fast when it came. Although he lodged a mile from Meaux, either at the abbey of St Faro or at the castle of Ruthile, he was far too dedicated a soldier not to spend much of his time in the front line with his men in their waterlogged trenches and dug-outs, superintending the bombardment.