Richard the Lionheart Lands in Outremer

French King Philip Augustus of France and Richard the Lionheart disputing the direction of the Third Crusade.

The Siege of Acre was the first major confrontation of the Third Crusade.

Richard the Lionheart and his fleet arrived in the Holy Land in early June 1191. He first attempted to dock in Tyre, but he found that Philip had left orders for the soldiers not to allow the English to come to land. Philip and his current ally, Conrad of Montferrat, did not want to take the chance that Richard would treat Tyre as he had Cyprus. Sailing onward the next day, Richard turned south.

Before long, his fleet encountered a strange vessel. Though the ship appeared French and flew the French flag, its occupants did not understand European naval communication, nor did they speak the French language. As a few men from Richard’s fleet sailed toward the vessel, the ship drew up for battle and began to bombard the soldiers with its arrows and guns. Realizing the true situation, Richard ordered an attack. His galleys rammed the enemy ship, which soon began to sink. Those of its crew who were not killed were taken prisoner. From them, Richard gleaned valuable information.

The ship had been transporting soldiers to Acre, a city located on the coast at the extreme north of modern-day Israel. There, the crusaders had been fighting to take the well-defended city since August 1189, when Guy de Lusignan, the weak king of Jerusalem, made a poor tactical decision in beginning the siege. Philip’s arrival in April with the French reinforcements and supplies had improved the situation of the attackers, but Guy had sent messages to Richard while the king was delayed on Cyprus asking him to come quickly. Now Richard finally made his way to Acre.

On June 8, Richard’s fleet sailed into the harbor at Acre. The crusaders celebrated and cheered with fanfare and trumpets. The Muslim defenders in the city saw their hopes of survival growing slimmer and slimmer. Richard, with his bold and daring persona and talent as a military leader, quickly began to take control of the campaign. One method he used to gain power was to offer the men fighting for him a greater sum per month than Philip offered his soldiers, thereby gaining the allegiance of many of the crusaders at Acre. As a result, Richard had plenty of men to guard the most important of weapons, the siege machines. Philip’s weapons, on the other hand, were repeatedly subjected to attack and suffered great damage due to the lack of guards.

Political turmoil and rivalry between the crusading forces continually influenced the European rulers’ decisions. When both Richard and Philip fell ill, it was Philip who recovered first. He used this time to his advantage, trying to take back command over the invading force. Without Richard’s agreement, Philip went ahead with a plan to assault Acre’s walls directly. Unfortunately for Philip, this move resulted in disaster for his army, and the control of the field was left even more firmly in Richard’s hands.

Richard, starting to recover, ordered the beginning of a highly effective catapult barrage of the city walls. He also oversaw the construction of military mines; tunnels dug under the walls. These tunnels would then be collapsed with the intent of bringing down a section of the wall. Between the catapult and mines, Richard’s men made a significant breach in the wall. However, it wasn’t enough for the army to break through into the city. The rubble of the walls provided excellent terrain for the defenders to fight against any direct onslaught. Richard, always clever and resourceful in war, made a new proclamation to his men. Anyone brave enough to sneak up and take a stone from the wall would receive a gold piece. This proved not to be enough of an inducement for such a high-risk, foolhardy task, so Richard upped the price. At last, his soldiers began to risk their necks to steal the wall itself. Not surprisingly, this plan resulted in extremely high casualties—more than the army could consistently sustain. Richard would need yet another plan if he intended to take the city. He began to plot for a final, decisive assault.

On July 4, Richard and Philip jointly refused a proposal of surrender from the battered city’s defenders. The kings began their attack two days later, on July 6. Less than a week passed before the defenders again offered terms for their surrender. The first time, they had done so without the agreement of their commander, Saladin, who was stationed with his troops outside the city. This time, even Saladin agreed to let Acre’s defenders barter for surrender. The English and French kings turned down this second offer as well, demanding more. At last, the defenders offered, in addition to relinquishing the city, to give the crusaders the relics from the True Cross previously captured by Saladin, pay a huge sum, release Christian prisoners, and leave behind their weapons and goods. Finally, the European leaders agreed to the terms. Before long, the banners of Richard and Philip were raised over the city as their soldiers celebrated. Duke Leopold of Austria, who had also taken part in the siege, attempted to raise his banner as well. Richard, incensed by this seeming attempt to encroach on his glory, did not stop his men from tearing down and vandalizing the banner—a serious insult to the duke, who would not soon forget it.

Despite this minor conflict, the evacuation of the defending forces occurred peacefully. Richard and Philip gave orders that the enemy soldiers should not be mistreated, and the men left the city in an organized fashion. The next issue confronting the leaders of the crusading force was the management of the conquered city. There were hostages who had to be guarded and property that had to be doled out between invading leaders. Churches were re-dedicated by Cardinal Alard of Verona. Nobles were rewarded for their services, though some were not content with what they received and returned home to Europe. Richard and Philip had to make decisions about the rights of businesses and merchants—decisions that would severely impact the economic future of Acre. Beyond these necessities, Richard was constantly involved in diplomatic negotiations with Saladin and other rulers.

As July neared its end, another notable change came to the leadership of the crusade. King Philip announced that he desired to return to Europe. There may have been any number of motivations for Philip’s actions. He had already fought and would receive the benefits of being a crusader—benefits both to his kingly reputation and in the obligations the Church would now owe him. He would also be able to return before Richard, putting Philip at an advantage on European soil. Moreover, Philip had never had the same level of passion for military might and the strategy of warfare that Richard had. In any case, Richard met this declaration of Philip’s intentions with relative indifference. Though King Richard would lose an ally on the battlefront, he would now be the only king on the crusade; with no competition for control, Richard could arrange every aspect of the war as he saw fit. After a variety of negotiations, settling remaining issues between the two kings and the effects of their conquests, Philip departed on the last day of July.

Richard now took complete command of the troops in the Holy Land. The results were soon unpleasantly bloody. Richard entered negotiations with Saladin since it was not Saladin who had made the official peace agreement at Acre. Saladin agreed to honor the terms of the agreement in full. This included payment of money and exchanges of prisoners and hostages from the two sides; Saladin requested that this should be done over a period of three different meetings.

At the first meeting, on August 11, a disagreement broke out. Richard’s men claimed that Saladin should have delivered not just a certain number of prisoners, but specific prisoners. Saladin did not agree that this had been part of their terms. Richard, impatient, waited three more days as negotiations dragged on with no promise of a conclusion. Then he ordered action. The Muslim prisoners were brought outside Acre’s city walls in chains—over 2,000 men. Richard next commanded his men to slaughter the prisoners. This decision, shocking to his contemporaries and utterly opposed to the ideas of honor in the practices of war made popular through song and poetry, goes entirely against the picture that Richard sometimes seems to have adapted for himself of the chivalrous knight. In addition, his decision meant that the number of his men who were prisoners of Saladin would die in exchange. But the exchange of prisoners had now been dealt with, and Richard was ready and eager to take his troops to new battles. On August 22, Richard led his forces south, leaving the city of Acre with its victories, conflicts, and tragedies behind.

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Alaric’s Sack of Rome AD 410


Alaric I was the Christian King of the Visigoths from AD 395 until his death in 410. He emerged on the scene as leader of a motley band of Goths who invaded Thrace in AD 391 but was halted by the half-Vandal Roman general Stilicho. Alaric then joined the Roman army, serving under the Gothic general Gainas. In AD 394, he led a 20,000-strong Gothic army which helped Theodosius subdue the usurper Flavius Eugenius at the Battle of Frigidus. Alaric’s was something of a Pyrrhic victory; he lost a quarter of his troops. To add insult to injury, Theodosius was distinctly unimpressed with Alaric’s contribution to his war effort, so Alaric left the army and was elected reiks (tribal leader or king) of the Visigoths in AD 395. That same year, Theodosius died of heart failure; the empire was divided between his two sons: Flavius Arcadius in the east and Flavius Honorius in the west. Arcadius showed no interest in empire building, while Honorius was still a minor – Theodosius had appointed Flavius Stilicho magister equitum and guardian of Honorius. Honorius cemented the bond by marrying Stilicho’s daughter, Maria. A disappointed and angry Alaric was passed over in his hoped-for permanent command of a Roman army. Alaric was one of those educated and clever Goths who became career Romans, excelling in the Roman military hierarchy, taking sides when necessary, winning all or losing all. Alaric was different, though, because his aspirations to get close to Rome were that much higher than was typical for a barbarian.

Hoping to win his permanent Roman command, Alaric marched on Constantinople with an army which snowballed in size as he progressed, in much the same way as Fritigern’s had before him. But Constantinople was too daunting a challenge and the Romans blocked him anyway. He then moved on Greece, where he sacked the more vulnerable Piraeus and devastated Corinth, Megara, Argos and Sparta. Athens capitulated and was spared devastation. To prevent further death and destruction, Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum in Illyricum. Alaric had finally got the command he craved.

In AD 401, Alaric invaded Italy and laid siege to Milan, but he was later defeated by Stilicho, first at Pollentia (modern Pollenza) and then, accused of violating the treaty signed after Pollentia, at the Battle of Verona the following year. Amongst Stilicho’s prisoners were Alaric’s wife and children, and ten year’s worth of pillaged booty. Honorius moved the western capital from Rome to Ravenna, believing it to be more secure against attacks from the Goths.

Alaric, as it happened, was something of a Romanophile and, as we have seen, entertained hopes of getting closer to the city – militarily and politically. His military command helped him to achieve this. Invasion would assist him further. He even encouraged use of the Latinized name Alaricus. It was because of Alaric’s subsequent invasion that the capital city was transferred from Mediolanum (Milan) to Ravenna (it had been moved from Rome to Mediolanum in AD 286); Legio XX (Valeria Victrix) was recalled from Britannia. Alaric and Stilicho became allies of sorts.

Tensions between Roman west and east had risen sharply: Stilicho proposed using Alaric’s army to realize Honorius’ claim to the prefecture of Illyricum. Alaric, now in Noricum, threatened that he would only refrain from war with Rome if he was paid the extortionate sum of 4,000lb of gold in compensation. The Roman Senate consented to pay, under pressure from Stilicho, who did not want to add to his list of belligerent enemies. There was trouble in Gaul with Constantine, who had crossed the Channel from Britannia, and with the Vandals, Sueves and Alans who had crossed the Rhine and invaded.

In AD 408, Arcadius died after a short illness. Stilicho and Honorius squabbled over who should travel east to settle the succession of the Eastern Empire. There were rumours abroad that Stilicho wanted to place his son, Eucherius, on the eastern throne. When his first wife Maria died, Stilicho insisted that the emperor marry his younger daughter, Thermantia. But Honorius had had enough. Soon after, Olympius, his stooge, provoked a mutiny of the army during which most of Stilicho’s people were killed; Olympius persuaded Honorius that Stilicho was an enemy of the state and was appointed magister officium. Stilicho took refuge in a church in Ravenna but, faithful to Honorius to the end, was arrested and executed; his son was also slain. Honorius inflamed the Roman people to massacre tens of thousands of wives and children of Goths serving in the Roman army. Unsurprisingly, this atrocity led to around 30,000 Gothic soldiers defecting to Alaric, joining him on his march on Rome over the Julian Alps to avenge their murdered families. Honorius had rejected Alaric’s demand for a sum of gold and an exchange of prisoners. En route, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and laid waste to the lands along the Adriatic. In September AD 408, Alaric was menancingly encamped ouside the walls of Rome whence he began his siege of the city and blockaded the Tiber. The hunt was on for scapegoats and one of the victims was Stilicho’s widow, Serena, strangled in an act of post-mortem justice.

Alaric’s greatest ally was starvation. It was not long before the Senate capitulated, agreeing in exchange for food to send an envoy to Honorius in Ravenna to urge peace. Alaric agreed, but not before the Senate’s failed attempt to unsettle Alaric; their flaccid threats were met with derision and a loud guffaw when the Goth retorted: ‘The thicker the hay, the easier it’s cut down!’ The Romans eventually agreed a huge ransom of 5,000lb of gold, 30,000lb of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, 3,000 pounds of pepper and 40,000 Gothic slaves. According to Gibbon, ‘the Senate presumed to ask, in modest and suppliant tone, “If such, O king! are your demands, what do you intend to leave us?” “Your lives,” replied the haughty conqueror.’ Prodigious as it may seem, the ransom was probably not beyond the deep pockets of some of Rome’s more affluent senators. They made little contribution – the bill was paid by the official ransacking of pagan temples.

As we have seen, Alaric had hopes of insinuating himself into the Roman political machine and winning land within the Roman borders. The Senate sent envoys, including Pope Innocent I, to Ravenna to encourage the emperor to make a deal with the Goths. Alaric was much more conciliatory this time and went to Ariminum, where he discussed terms with Honorius’ diplomats. He demanded, quite reasonably, the provinces of Rhaetia and Noricum as a homeland for the Visigoths – a strip of territory 200 miles long and 150 miles wide between the Danube and the Gulf of Venice. He also demanded grain and – prize of them all – the rank of magisterium utriusque militae, commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army, just as Stilicho had been. Jovius, leader of the imperial delegation, agreed, but predictably, Honorius refused to see the longterm picture and declined. He did not want another barbarian in the imperial hierarchy, and he subsequently tried to infiltrate a unit of Illyrian soldiers into Rome. The army was intercepted by Alaric and, infuriated by these insults, he just as predictably reacted by besieging Rome a second time, this time destroying the Roman granaries at Portus for good measure. Starvation loomed again: the high price of relief this time was permission from the Senate for Alaric to install a rival emperor to Honorius – the Greek Priscus Attalus, prefect of the city (praefectus urbi), something of a star in Rome. Alaric took Galla Placidia, Honorius’ sister, prisoner. Usurpers were always a sure way to concentrate the mind of an emperor.

Alaric had Attalus make him magister utriusque militium, and his brother-in-law Ataulf, who had arrived with reinforcements, was given the rank of comes domesticorum equitum. They then marched on Ravenna to overthrow Honorius and place Attalus on the imperial throne.

Victory was in Alaric’s grasp: Honorius was on the point of surrender when an army from the Eastern Empire arrived to defend Ravenna. Heraclian, who was governor of Africa, turned off Rome’s grain supply, threatening the city with more famine. Jerome rumoured cannibalism within the walls. Alaric wanted to send a modest Gothic force of 500 men to invade Africa and secure food for Rome, but perversely Attalus vetoed this, fearing that the Goths would seize Africa for themselves. Attalus marched on Ravenna with Alaric and succeeded in getting Honorius to propose some form of power-sharing arrangement – a clear indication of the legitimate emperor’s feebleness. Attalus stubbornly insisted that Honorius be deposed and go into exile on an island. This was not in Alaric’s script, so he had the reactionary and ineffective Attalus deposed and reopened negotiations with Honorius.

This time he was confounded by the inconvenient emergence on the scene of the malevolent Gothic general Sarus. He was of the Amalis, a clan which harboured eternal hostility against Alaric’s people. His intervention at this critical juncture may be explained by the possibility that he now felt threatened by Alaric. Sensing duplicity on the part of Honorius, an outraged Alaric thundered south with his army and stormed through the Porta Salaria to threaten the very existence of the city. Some say that Alaric bribed elderly senators inside with the promise of Goth slave boys if they opened the gates to him. In any event, Rome was taken. Jerome lamented: ‘My voice sticks in my throat, and, as I dictate, sobs choke me. The City which had taken the whole world has itself been taken.’ Alaric, a Christian, was busy desecrating a Christian city with his Christian Goths.

It seems that the storming of Rome in AD 410 was not nearly as catastrophic and horrendous as it might have been. Indeed, it goes down as one of the most benign and least destructive of pivotal sackings in history. There are stories of clemency, churches (for example, the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul) being saved; the sparing of those seeking sanctuary therein, even to the extent of escorting holy women there to safety, for example one Marcella, before systematically looting their homes; pots of gold and silver and other liturgical vessels remaining untouched because they ‘belonged to St Peter’; and a matrona appealing successfully to the better nature of a Goth who was on the point of raping her. One nun was given help returning gold and silver, God’s gold and silver, to her church; she had concealed it from the looters. Nevertheless, it was still a disaster of the first order, with three days of unrelenting looting and rapine. Casualties included the mausoleums of Augustus and Hadrian, where the ashes of many Roman emperors and their families and friends were scattered to the four winds. The Goths also removed a huge silver ciborium weighing 2,025lb, a gift from the Emperor Constantine, from the Lateran Palace. Most of the vandalism occurred around the Salarian Gate, where the old senate house and Gardens of Sallust were wrecked along with the Basilicas Aemilia and Julia.

The taking of movables apart, most of Rome’s magnificent buildings escaped unscathed, in direct contrast to the Gaulish sack of Rome in 390 BC, where only the Capitol survived. So why is it that Alaric’s assault was seemingly so half-hearted and fails to live up to the stereotype we have of Goths running rampage in an orgy of unremitting rape and pillage? We have already noted that Alaric was anxious to ingratiate himself with Rome and win some sort of military and political standing there. Alaric was a civilized man; he acted with restraint and patience time and time again when confounded by events over which he had little control, by a stubborn Honorius and implacable Stilicho. He was astute enough to opt for short-term compromise in his long-term mission to settle the Goths. Alaric sacked Rome reluctantly because he had to satisfy, to some extent at least, the appetite and expectation of his army for booty, but more as a signal to Honorius, hoping that the emperor would install and accommodate him in some capacity or other. He used his assault on the city as a gambling counter, in the belief that Honorius would be persuaded to bring him into his circle by the threat that was posed to his city. Alaric, however, misread the situation completely: Rome was no longer Honorius’ city – Ravenna was. To a pragmatic Honorius, Rome was political history, no longer the powerful hub it had been for centuries. So Alaric got nowhere and Rome was more or less saved from destruction. Alaric had failed: he might possess Rome but he was no nearer winning for himself the inside position within the Roman establishment. He had no permanent imperial command and now he would be excluded from the imperial court forever. Just as importantly, the Goths were still a displaced people with nowhere to go and nowhere to call home. It was not until AD 417 that the Visigoths were able to found an autonomous kingdom of their own within the boundaries of the Western Empire. Alaric’s fervid ambition to find for the Goths a permanent, sustainable homeland was finally realized.

After Rome, Alaric headed into Calabria with designs on invading Africa, the bread-basket of Rome, and of Italy. His plans were thrown into confusion by a storm which smashed his fleet; many of his troops drowned. Alaric himself died soon after in Cosenza. According to Jordanes, his body and some precious spoils were buried under the river bed of the Busento in accordance with the funerary practices of the Visigoths. The stream was temporarily dammed while his grave was dug; the river was then restored to its natural course. The prisoners who did the work were put to death so that the location of the king’s final resting place remained as much a secret as possible. Alaric’s brother-in-law Ataulf succeeded him; he married Honorius’ sister Galla Placidia three years later.

Rome soon responded; there was the same old grain shortages within two years of the sacking and the returning Gallic nobleman Rutilius Namatianus seeing what he described as an ordo renascendi – a brave new world. Two years after the death of Alaric, Ataulf led the Visigoths into south-western Gaul, where, in AD 418, Honorius was forced to recognize their kingdom at Toulouse. In AD 423, Honorius died and was succeeded by Valentinian III, though still a child at the time. The Vandals invaded North Africa, defeated the Romans and, in AD 439, took Carthage, which Genseric, their leader, made his capital. In AD 451, Attila and the Huns, already so powerful that they were paid an annual tribute by Rome, invaded Gaul with the Vandals. They were defeated at the Battle of Châlons by the Visigoths under Flavius Aetius, military commander of the West. In AD 455, on the death of Valentinian III, the Vandals walked into an undefended Rome, which they plundered at liberty for two weeks. If Alaric’s sack was restrained, this was even more so, despite the length of time spent plundering. The Vandals did, though, make off with treasures from the Temple of Peace and lifted the gilded bronze tiles from the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. This outrage gives us the word ‘vandalism’. They took Licinia Eudoxia (AD 422–462) and her daughters hostage; she was the Roman empress daughter of Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Her husbands included the Western Emperors Valentinian III and Petronius Maximus.

Rome had held sway in the Mediterranean region for 600 years or so. The city had remained unmolested for 800 years. Alaric’s sacking exposed the Western Roman Empire’s increasing vulnerability and military fragility. The political and cultural shock waves must have been overwhelming to all those who viewed Rome as the Eternal City. Rome was home to the richest senatorial noble families and the centre of their civilized, cultured world; to pagans it was the sacred origin of the empire, and to Christians the seat of the heir of Saint Peter, Pope Innocent I, the leading bishop of the West. Jerome summed it up for many when he asked, ‘If Rome can perish, what can be safe?’ To many Romans, the destruction of their city was seen as divine retribution for rejecting the traditional pagan gods for Christianity. This provided the impetus for Saint Augustine to write The City of God, questioning the role of the pagan gods as history-makers. Non-Christians clung to the belief that Rome had succumbed because the old gods had withdrawn their protection. But Augustine was far from convinced. Where were the gods when the Romans could not break the siege of Veii? Where were the gods when the Gauls sacked Rome under Brennus? These were just two of the leading questions he asked. Orosius too, in his History Against the Pagans, proved that Rome suffered many disasters before the coming of Christ. On a more mundane level, Stilicho’s military failings were also blamed. Perhaps Alaric’s greatest legacy was that he, through the disaster he visited on the city of Rome and on the Romans, was the man who made it possible for the Goths to make history, whereas before they were mere participants in other people’s histories.

The British in Manila

Lieutenant Colonel William Draper, an officer of the 79th Foot (one of the regular regiments that had fought at the Battle of Wandiwash), had been on leave in England in the winter of 1761–62 when he suggested an expedition against the Philippines to Anson and Ligonier. Reasons similar to those that had made them choose Havana as a target disposed them to listen to Draper’s proposal. Manila was the center of trade and administration for the Spanish Philippines and perhaps even more important in the Pacific than Havana in the Atlantic. Nor was conquest an impossible goal, for although the Spanish had built the fort of Cavite to protect the harbor and had enclosed the city’s core within a bastioned wall, they had clearly believed that Manila’s best source of security was its remoteness. That the Philippines took six to eight months to reach from Europe, in fact, only made the expedition more attractive to Ligonier and Anson, for Draper assured them that all the troops he would need were already in India, just six or eight weeks’ sail from the archipelago. Since Spain communicated with the colony via Mexico on the Manila galleon, there was good reason to hope that the invaders might arrive before the garrison even knew that Spain and Great Britain were at war.

Soon after the declaration of war, therefore, the ministers decided in favor of the venture. In February, Draper left Britain with a temporary commission as brigadier general and authority to raise an expeditionary force of two regular battalions and five hundred East India Company troops. By the end of June he had reached Madras. Once there, however, nothing went as planned, and the would-be conqueror of Manila found that the local authorities were willing to release only one redcoat regiment (his own 79th Foot), and a company of Royal Artillery. Draper therefore recruited what men he could—two companies of French deserters and several hundred Asian recruits (“such a Banditti,” he grumbled, as had “never assembled since the time of Spartacus”)—and sailed from Madras at the end of July.

When Draper’s little flotilla of warships and transports entered Manila Bay on September 22, the Manila galleon had yet to arrive. Thus the British sailed unchallenged past the guns of Cavite, landed near Manila, and attacked the city on the twenty-sixth, before the Spanish commander had heard that a state of war existed between their monarch and his own. Despite the tiny number of troops Draper had at his disposal (only about two thousand, including a battalion of sailors pressed into service), and despite the onset of the monsoon, which repeatedly held up siege operations, the British managed to breach the wall and storm the city on October 5. Manila surrendered later that day. Five days later the fort of Cavite capitulated, and on October 30 Spanish authorities throughout the archipelago made their formal submission. The booty captured exceeded $4,000,000—more than £1,300,000 sterling—in value.

There could have been no more conclusive demonstration of the global reach that the army and navy had acquired during the Seven Years’ War. In the whole military history of Europe nothing quite compared to it. Even as the government faced unprecedented postwar challenges—as Wilkes railed against the ministers and the London crowds roared back their approval—the conquest seemed to affirm Britain’s essential invincibility. Even more than Havana, Draper’s feat was the crowning accomplishment of Britain’s most glorious war, and in it the British people for one last shining moment saw reflected all their nation’s glory. What they did not see (and perhaps would not have understood if they had) was the significance of what happened once the conquerors ran the Union Jack up Manila’s flagstaff.

Unlike Canada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Havana, the people of the Philippines did not turn out en masse to trade with the British. Instead the East India Company, to which Draper turned over the task of governing in November 1762, never did establish control over the archipelago, or indeed over any territory outside the immediate vicinity of Manila itself. Don Simón de Anda, a junior judge of the royal Audencia (supreme court), managed to slip out of the city during the siege and escape to the province of Pampanga, on the north shore of Manila Bay. There, in the town of Bacolor, thirty-five miles from Manila, he established a provisional government and began to organize an army. The highest officers of the Spanish colonial administration hesitated to join him, but thousands of Filipinos did not. Soon Anda’s guerrilla army mustered ten thousand men, and even though more than seven thousand of them lacked arms more formidable than bows and arrows, they still denied the British control over anything outside of Manila and Cavite. Despite news that a treaty had been signed, Anda refused to agree to a truce until orders arrived from London in March 1764, restoring the archipelago to Spanish control. Even then he would not order his men to lay down their arms until the new Spanish governor arrived. On the last day of May 1764, Anda led a column of native soldiers into Manila to receive the city from its British rulers. Any casual bystander would have concluded that he was witnessing a British surrender.

Administering Manila from November 2, 1762, to May 31, 1764, cost the East India Company over £200,000 sterling above its (modest) share of the booty and its (negligible) profits on trade. The conquest of Manila differed from other British overseas victories, therefore, insofar as the occupants of the colony refused to be subdued either by force or by commerce. Anyone paying attention to the history of Great Britain’s occupation of the Philippines at the moment it ended might well have pondered its implied lessons in the relationship between arms and trade, loyalty and empire. In the Philippine episode more than any other of the Seven Years’ War, the principles of imperial dominion stood out with unmistakable clarity. Military power—particularly naval power—could gain an empire, but force alone could never control colonial dependencies. Only the voluntary allegiance, or at least the acquiescence, of the colonists could do that. Flags and governors and even garrisons were, in the end, only the empire’s symbols. Trade and loyalty were its integuments, and when colonial populations that refused their allegiance also declined to trade, the empire’s dominion extended not a yard beyond the range of its cannons.

Dorchester Heights – 1776


That Dorchester Heights could decide the whole outcome at Boston had been apparent to the British from the beginning. Their initial plan, agreed to on June 15, had been to seize the high ground on both the Charlestown and Dorchester peninsulas. But then the rebels had made their surprise move at Charlestown, digging in overnight on Bunker Hill, and it had taken the bloodbath of June 17 to remove them. The morning after the battle, in a council of war at the Province House, headquarters of the commander-in-chief, Thomas Gage, it was proposed by Major General Henry Clinton to move immediately on Dorchester. Possession of the heights was “absolutely necessary for the security of Boston, as they lay directly on our water communications and more seriously annoyed the port of Boston than those of Charlestown,” Clinton later wrote, adding that he expected to lead the assault. “I foresaw the consequence, and gave it formally as my opinion at the time, that if the King’s troops should be ever driven from Boston, it would be by rebel batteries raised on those heights.”

But while Gage had kept Bunker Hill heavily armed with cannon and manned by five hundred troops, he had done nothing about Dorchester. Nor had General Howe since taking charge after Gage’s departure for home in October. Nor, indeed, had the Americans. Dorchester Heights remained a kind of high, windblown no-man’s-land, neither side unmindful of its strategic importance, but neither side daring to seize and fortify it.

Among those Loyalists in Boston who had closest contact with the British command, it was commonly understood that Dorchester was the key and commonly questioned why nothing was being done. “It had often been wished,” wrote Justice Peter Oliver, one of the most prominent Loyalists, “that this hill had had proper attention paid to it; and it had been repeatedly mentioned that it was of the last necessity to secure such a position; but the general answers were that there was no danger from it, and that it was to be wished that the rebels would take possession of it, as they could be dislodged.”

Of greater and more immediate interest to the British command was the prospect of abandoning Boston altogether, of packing up and sailing away. As things stood, it was clearly no place to launch an offensive operation. New York should be made the “seat of war,” Gage had stressed in correspondence with the administration in London, and Howe and the others were of the same opinion.

Brigadier General James Grant had said months earlier that Boston should be abandoned while there was still time. “We cannot remain during the winter in this place, as our situation must go on worse and that of the rebels better every day,” Grant had insisted in a long letter from Boston to Edward Harvey, Adjutant General of the British army in London, on August 11.

Grant, a grossly fat, highly opinionated Scot, who had served in the French and Indian War, had an extremely low opinion of Americans. (It was he who had boasted to Parliament that with 5,000 men he could march from one end of the American continent to the other.) The only step that made sense, he wrote, was to burn Boston and move on to New York. Besides, he wanted to turn the fleet loose to burn every principle town along the New England coast. “Lenity is out of the question.”

Such were the delays in communication across the ocean that by the time General Howe received orders from London to “abandon Boston before winter” and “remove the troops to New York,” it was too late—winter had arrived. Besides, there were too few ships at hand to transport the army and the hundreds of Loyalists about whom Howe was greatly concerned, knowing what their fate could be if they were left behind.

Seeing no reasonable alternative, Howe would wait for spring when he could depart at a time and under conditions of his own choosing. He expected no trouble from the Americans. “We are not under the least apprehension of an attack on this place from the rebels by surprise or otherwise,” he assured his superiors in London and further stressed the point at a meeting with his general staff on December 3. Should, however, the rebels make a move on Dorchester, then, Howe affirmed, “We must go at it with our whole force.”

Quite unlike the man in command of the army encircling the town, the British commander was not impatient for action. On the contrary, William Howe had little inclination ever to rush things. Further, it was taken as a matter of course among professional soldiers that winter was no season for campaigning.

And so the British army settled in for a long Boston winter, seeing to their comforts as best they could under the circumstances.

The notable exception was Major General John Burgoyne, “Gentleman Johnny,” an officer of distinguished record and occasional playwright who had added welcome color to the social life of the British officers and their ladies. Impatient with “supineness,” as he said, and ambitious for a command of his own, Burgoyne had sailed for England in early December.

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Winter in America was a trial British soldiers could never get used to, any more than they could adjust to the incessant clamor of frogs on spring nights or American mosquitoes or the absence of decent beer. The harsh winter winds and driving snows of the bay area inflicted misery indiscriminately on both armies, of course, but for the King’s men, unaccustomed to such a climate, the punishment was all but unbearable. A young Irish nobleman, Captain Francis Lord Rawdon, wrote of the suffering of his men encamped on Bunker Hill in early December, their tents “so shattered” they could as well have slept on the open ground—“and we hear with some envy of several little balls and concerts which our brethren have had in Boston.” Soldiers froze to death standing watch. Even when the troops moved to winter quarters a few weeks later, keeping warm seemed nearly impossible.

The open sea remained the only lifeline for fuel and food for the town, but with the severity of storms on the North Atlantic, and American privateers operating offshore in increasing numbers despite the weather, fewer and fewer supply ships were getting through. (“The rebels have the impudence to fit out privateers,” wrote an indignant British officer, snug in his quarters, but the day would come, he knew, when “we shall give the scoundrels a hearty thrashing and put an end to this business.”)

British Admiral Samuel Graves, whose responsibility it was to patrol the coastline against privateers, described snowstorms at sea between Cape Ann and Cape Cod as defying the most resolute of men.

This sort of storm is so severe that it cannot even be looked against, and by the snow freezing as fast as it falls, baffles all resistance—for the blocks become choked, the tackle encrusted, the ropes and sails quite congealed, and the whole ship before long one cake of ice…. Indeed, if the severity of the winters be such in this climate that the sentinel on shore is frequently found frozen to death upon his post, though relieved every half hour, the reader may frame some idea of what the seamen of a watch, especially in small vessels, must suffer.

With firewood selling for $20 a cord in Boston, more and more trees were cut down, including the old elm at the corner of Essex and Orange streets, known as the Liberty Tree, which provided fourteen cords. A hundred or more houses were pulled apart. Old barns, old wharves, and derelict ships were chopped up, almost anything that would burn. On orders from General Howe, Old North Church was demolished for firewood.

Only a fraction of Boston’s former, peacetime population remained, thousands having long since fled the town. But others, Loyalists, had sought refuge there, and Loyalists were conspicuous, if not necessarily more numerous than those inhabitants who had chosen to stay in the hope of protecting their property, or because they were too poor or helpless to do anything else. A few, like the town’s selectmen, had been forbidden to leave. In all, there were now about 4,000 civilians under siege, at least half of whom were women and children, and they, too, no less than the redcoat army, were hurting from shortages of all kinds, the poor inevitably suffering most.

Food remained extremely scarce and dear. Young Lord Rawdon described his famished troops as looking like skeletons. Even inferior cuts of horse meat brought good prices. To put a stop to increasing instances of plunder by the troops, Howe initiated punishments more severe even than the standard for the British army. In fact, the new year of 1776 began in Boston with the public whipping of a soldier and his wife who had been caught with stolen goods.

For the British officers, however—the “redcoat gentry,” as Washington called them—life was not entirely unpleasant. They had appropriated Old South Church for a riding ring—Old South Church being odious to them because town meetings had been held there. (Pews were torn out, dirt spread on the floor. According to the diary of Deacon Timothy Newell, one particularly beautiful, hand-carved pew was taken away to serve as a hog sty.) Evening entertainments were numerous. “We have plays, assemblies, and balls, and live as if we were in a place of plenty,” wrote an officer. “In the midst of these horrors of war, we endeavor as much as possible to forget them,” explained the wife of another officer in a letter to a friend at home.

Writing again to General Harvey, James Grant said, “We must get through a disagreeable winter the best way we can. I do all in my power to keep the ball up—I have all ranks of officers at dinner, give them good wine, laugh at the Yankees and turn them into ridicule when an opportunity offers.”

Boston having no theater, Faneuil Hall, sacred to Boston patriots as “the cradle of liberty,” was converted on General Howe’s wish into a “very elegant playhouse” for amateur productions of Shakespeare and original farces, with officers and favored Loyalists taking parts. Sally Flucker, the sister of Henry Knox’s wife, Lucy Flucker, for example, took a lead part in a production of Maid of the Oaks, a satire by General Burgoyne.

On the evening of January 8, uniformed officers and their ladies packed Faneuil Hall for what was expected to be the event of the season, a performance of a musical farce said also to have been written by Burgoyne. Titled The Blockade, it was off to a rollicking start from the moment the curtain rose. A ridiculous figure, supposed to be George Washington, stumbled on stage wearing an oversized wig and dragging a rusty sword. At the same moment, across the bay, Connecticut soldiers led by Major Thomas Knowlton launched a surprise attack on Charlestown, and the British responded with a thunderous cannon barrage. With the roar of the guns, which the audience at Faneuil Hall took to be part of the show, another comic figure, a Yankee sergeant in farmer garb, rushed on stage to say the rebels were “at it tooth and nail over in Charlestown.” The audience roared with laughter and “clapped prodigiously,” sure that this, too, was part of the fun.

But soon finding their mistake [wrote an eyewitness] a general scene of confusion ensued. They immediately hurried out of the house to their alarm posts, some skipping over the orchestra, trampling on the fiddles, and, in short, everyone making his most speedy retreat, the actors (who were all officers) calling out for water to get the paint and smut off their faces, women fainting, etc.

Reportedly, it was General Howe himself who shouted, “Turn out! Turn out!”

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The British Commander, an easy-going, affable man who had never been averse to taking his pleasures when he could, was openly enjoying himself through the winter with his own elegant dinners, extended evenings at the faro table, and conspicuously in the company of a stunning young woman about whom there was much talk. The lady, who was to become known as Billy Howe’s Cleopatra, was Elizabeth Lloyd Loring, the wife of Joshua Loring, Jr., a member of a prominent Loyalist family whom Howe had hired to run the commissary for rebel prisoners. In the words of a contemporary Loyalist chronicler of the war, “Joshua had a handsome wife. The general…was fond of her. Joshua had no objections. He fingered the cash, the general enjoyed madam.”

William Howe had been a professional soldier from the time he finished school at Eton and at age seventeen received a commission in the Duke of Cumberland’s Light Dragoons. Two older brothers had also chosen military careers and distinguished themselves. The oldest, George Augustus Lord Howe, had fought and died in America in the French and Indian War and was remembered in New England as one of the bravest, best-loved British officers of the time. The other brother, Richard—Admiral Lord Howe—had begun his career in the Royal Navy at fourteen. Like William, he was a member of Parliament and much admired by the King.

The Howe brothers belonged to one of England’s most eminent families. They were rich, accomplished, and extremely well connected. Their mother, still a force in London society, was said to be the illegitimate daughter of King George I. Both men were staunch Whigs and had a decided resemblance, a rather gloomy, dark look, with dark eyes, heavy lids, and a swarthy complexion. But the general was the taller, at about six feet, the heavier, and a man of fewer words. In Parliament he rarely spoke. To Horace Walpole, Billy Howe was “one of those brave silent brothers [who] was reckoned sensible, though so silent that nobody knew whether he was or not.” Nor was it clear how much real heart the general had for the war in America, given his earlier comments about having no wish to serve in it.

William Howe’s ability and courage were indisputable. As a heroic young lieutenant colonel in the French and Indian War, he had led a detachment of light infantry up the steep embankments of Quebec in the first light of dawn to make way for the army of General James Wolfe to defeat the French under Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe had called William Howe the best officer in the King’s service. At Bunker Hill, assuring his troops he would not ask them “to go a step further than where I go myself,” he had marched in the front line. When the men fell back, after the slaughter of the first assault, he led them up the hill twice again. After one blinding volley during the third assault, he had been the only man in the front line still standing.

But for all his raw courage in the heat and tumult of war, Billy Howe could be, in the intervals between actions, slow-moving, procrastinating, negligent in preparing for action, interested more in his own creature comforts and pleasures.

That he had been stunned by the terrible cost of British victory at Bunker Hill there is no question. “The success is too dearly bought,” he had written to his brother the admiral. Still, he was a soldier, a gifted strategist, and a fighter. He liked to tell his troops, “I do not in the least doubt but that you will behave like Englishmen and as becomes good soldiers,” and he expected no less of himself. He would be a good soldier always, whenever put to the test. He meant business, and at forty-five, or approximately the same age as George Washington, he had far greater experience than Washington, a far more impressive record, not to mention better-trained, better-equipped troops, and ships of the Royal Navy riding at anchor in the harbor.

He also had the ostensible advantage of experienced subordinate officers, professionals all, several of whom had marked ability. When, in the previous spring, Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne had sailed from England for the war in America, they truly represented the pick of the King’s officers. All three were men of proven courage and commitment to duty. Like Howe, Clinton and Burgoyne were well-connected, well-schooled aristocrats, and, as major generals, at the threshold of the peak years of their careers. Clinton, Howe’s second-in-command, was the least impressive in appearance, a short, fat, colorless man who could be shy and petulant. But he had a keen military mind and the advantage of knowing Americans from boyhood. He had grown up in New York, where his father, Admiral George Clinton, served as governor from 1741 to 1751.

Among those of lesser rank, an outstanding example was John Montresor, an officer of engineers whose years of service and experience would seem to make a mockery of the very idea that someone like Nathanael Greene could be a major general. Montresor, too, had served in the French and Indian War, in the Braddock campaign and at Wolfe’s siege of Quebec. In 1760, at age twenty-four, he had led a winter expedition overland from Quebec to New England, and at the war’s end worked on fortifications from Boston to Detroit to New York City, where he bought an island, Montresor’s Island, in the East River. He was resourceful, energetic, probably the best engineer in the British army, and with experience in America to equal any.

But it was also true that Howe and Clinton disliked one another and did not work well together, and that John Montresor, who was not an aristocrat, was still, at nearly forty, only a captain. If the desperate American need for leaders had thrust young men like Nathanael Greene into positions beyond their experience, the British military system, wherein commissions were bought and aristocrats given preference, denied many men of ability roles they should have played. Had Captain John Montresor been a major general, the outcome of the struggle might have been quite different.

Howe’s sources of intelligence, furthermore, were pitiful, virtually nonexistent. As near at hand as the rebels were, the British commander knew almost nothing of their true situation, their perilously thin lines, their lack of gunpowder. Bunker Hill had taught Howe not to underestimate his foe. Still, he had no doubt that the “present unfavorable appearance of things” could be rectified readily enough. All that was wanting was a “proper army” of 20,000.

In mid-January, on orders from London, General Clinton and a small fleet sailed away southward to see what advantage might be gained in the Carolinas, thus reducing the British force at Boston by 1,500 men. And, as pleased as Howe may have been to see Clinton leave, Clinton had at least served as an antidote to Howe’s “supineness.”

Oddly, Howe seems to have had no interest in the man who led the army aligned against him. In all that he and others of the British command wrote at the time, officially and privately, George Washington was rarely ever mentioned except in passing. There was no apparent consideration of what manner of man he was, what his state of mind, his strengths and weaknesses, might be. Or what he might be up to, given the working of his mind. Perhaps this was indifference, perhaps the measure of an overreaching sense of superiority. Washington, by contrast, was constantly trying to fathom Howe’s intentions, his next move. Strange it was that the British commander-in-chief, known for his chronic gambling, seemed to give no thought to how his American opponent might play his hand.

Fall Of Constantinople – Ottoman Superguns

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Ottoman superguns

It is not without some irony that bombards, all but abandoned as obsolete by most European powers by 1453, played a critical role that year in the fall of Constantinople, the last Christian stronghold in the East. For centuries the Byzantine capital’s great walls and defenders had repulsed invaders, including an earlier 1422 attempt by Sultan Murad II (r. 1421–1451). Although Murad had employed bombards against the city, they were rather ineffective, and he subsequently withdrew. His successor, however, Mohammad II, sometimes known as Mehmed II (b. 1432; r. 1444–1446, 1451– 1481), and also known as Muhammad the Conqueror, possessed an innate appreciation for artillery and its use in siege craft.

Muhammad, lacking technical experts among his own subjects, subsequently obtained the services of Christian gun founders to design and build cannons especially suited for the siege. Among these was reportedly a famed Hungarian cannon maker known as Urban. Urban (or Orban) had previously been hired by the Byzantines but had deserted their cause after they failed to meet his fees. Muhammad, unlike the Byzantines, appreciated Urban’s considerable, although mercenary, talents and “welcomed him with open arms, treated him honorably and provided him with food and clothing; and then he gave him an allowance so generous, that a quarter of the sum would have sufficed to keep him in Constantinople” (De Vries, X 356).

Urban quickly established a gun foundry at Adrianople where he oversaw the casting of both a number of large iron and bronze guns. These included at least one huge bombard of cast iron reinforced with iron hoops and with a removable, screw-on breech. Typical of such large breechloading cannons, the gun was fitted with slots around the breech’s circumference to accept stout wooden beams. For loading and unloading, these beams were inserted in the slots to act as a capstan and provide the leverage to unscrew the heavy powder chamber. Weighing more than 19 tons, the gun was capable of firing stone balls weighing from approximately 800 to 875 pounds. The sheer size of the bombard, known as Basilica, required forty-two days and a team of sixty oxen and a thousand men to traverse the 120 miles to its firing site at Constantinople.

Muhammad began preparations for the siege in February and ordered the positioning of fourteen artillery batteries around the city. As a further preparation, he ordered his navy, also equipped with artillery, to cut Constantinople off from the sea. For his part, the Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI (b. 1409; r. 1449–1453), did possess some artillery, but it was for the most part obsolete and numerically insufficient to reply to Muhammad’s forces. The Byzantines had long lost the technological superiority they had held in previous centuries, and they soon found themselves reckoning with their shortsightedness in snubbing Urban the Hungarian.

Muhammad began the bombardment of the city on 6 April 1453. With a keen eye for the city’s weaknesses, he concentrated his guns against its most vulnerable points, including the Gate of St. Romanus, where they affected a breach on 11 April. His success was short lived, however, as the defenders counterattacked and repaired the damage. Muhammad also faced other setbacks when Urban was killed when a cannon he was supervising exploded, and when his giant bombard cracked after a few days of firing, necessitating repairs. The sultan, however, proved his own resourcefulness in the use of artillery and made much better use of his smaller guns—weapons that were capable of a much higher rate of fire than Basilica’s three rounds a day and were also more maneuverable. These included eleven bombards capable of firing 500-pound shot and fifty guns firing 200-pound balls.

The Ottoman barrage continued day and night, wearing down both the city’s walls and its defenders. A witness described its effect:

And the stone, borne with tremendous force and velocity, hit the wall, which it immediately shook and knocked down, and was itself broken into many fragments and scattered, hurling the pieces everywhere and killing those who happened to be nearby. Sometimes it demolished a whole section, and sometimes a half-section, and sometimes a larger or smaller section of tower or turret or battlement. And there was no part of the wall strong enough or resistant enough or thick enough to be able to withstand it, or to wholly resist such force and such a blow of the stone cannon-ball. (ibid., X 357–358)

Finally, on 29 May 1453, the walls on either side of the St. Romanus Gate collapsed, and the Turks stormed the city. The Emperor Constantine fought valiantly in the defense of his city, but he was killed as overwhelming numbers of Turkish troops rampaged through the city for three days, killing, looting, and raping. With the fall of its capital, the Byzantine Empire collapsed, and with it the last vestiges of the Roman Empire.

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Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as his capital in 323. He occupied the former city of Byzantium, which for centuries controlled the straits separating Asia and Europe. It lies on the Sea of Marmara, flanked to northeast by the Bosphorus and to the southwest by the Dardanelles, two narrow passages linking the Mediterranean and the Black seas. The only direct route from Europe into Asia Minor is at Constantinople, so it has been an extremely strategic possession for land and naval warfare and trade.

Constantinople became the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. It not only was the political capital of much of the Mediterranean and Middle East, but also the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church, rival to the power of the pope in Rome for the souls of Christians everywhere. In the end it was that religious rivalry that spelled Constantinople’s doom.

In the seventh century Muhammad the Prophet founded Islam. By coincidence (or divine intervention) he appeared in Arabia just as the two major Middle Eastern powers, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, had fought each other to an exhausted standstill. He therefore conquered a massive amount of land hand in hand with the spread of his faith. Both Persia and the Byzantines suffered major territorial losses as well as major losses of converts to Islam, who found it less oppressive than the ultraconservative Orthodox Church.

For seven hundred years the forces of Islam and Orthodoxy struggled, with both sides trading ascendancy. By the fifteenth century, however, the Byzantine Empire had shrunk to almost nothing: Constantinople and a handful of Aegean islands. An earlier Islamic threat to the city resulted in the Crusades in the twelfth century, but that too ended in further alienating the Catholic and Orthodox churches. When in 1452 Sultan Mohammed II, son of Murad II, decided to attack Constantinople, European responses to pleas for help were almost nonexistent. England and France were just winding down the very costly Hundred Years War; Germanic and Spanish princes and kings offered aid but sent none. Genoa and Venice, however, did not want to see Constantinople fall into the hands of Arab merchants, and Rome promised aid if the Orthodox Church would submit to papal will. The emperor did all that he could to prepare for the siege. Envoys were sent to Venice, Genoa, the Pope, the Western emperor, the kings of Hungary and Aragon , with the message that, unless immediate military help was provided, the days of Constantinople were numbered. The response was unimpressive. Some Italians, embarrassed at their government’s impotence, came as volunteers. Reluctantly Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus agreed to Rome’s demand, but it netted him a mere 200 archers for his meager defenses as well as the hostility of his people; many claimed they preferred Turkish domination to Roman.

In the spring of 1452 Mohammed II sent 1,000 masons to the Bosphorus to build a fort to protect his army while crossing the straits. Constantine could do little more than lodge a protest. Among his populace were a mere 5,000 native and 2,000 foreign soldiers. The Venetian colony in Constantinople and many citizens in Pera, opposite Constantinople, also stayed, as did Orhan, the Ottoman pretender with his Turks. Some 30,000 to 40,000 civilians who rendered valuable service by repairing the 18-mile-long walls of the city before and during the siege. He had tradition on his side, however, for the triple walls that blocked the city from the landward side had survived twenty sieges, even though at this point they were not in good repair. As of January 1453, he also had the services of Italian soldier of fortune Giovanni Giustiniani, who brought 700 knights and archers. Giustiniani was well known in Europe for his talents in defending walled cities. Mohammed also had some European assistance in the form of a cannon maker named Urban from Hungary, who provided the Muslim army with seventy cannon, including the “Basilica,” a 27-feet-long canon that fired stone balls weighing upwards of 600 pounds. It could only fire seven times a day, but did significant damage to anything it struck.

As part of the Ottoman military preparations, some 16 large and 60 light galleys, 20 horse-ships and several smaller vessels were constructed in the Ottoman arsenal of Gallipoli. The sultan’s army of 80,000 to 100,000 men was assembled in Edirne, the Ottoman capita l, In the Edirne foundry some 60 new guns of various calibres were cast. Some of them threw shots of 240, 300 and 360 kg (530-793 lb), The largest bombard that the Hungarian master Urban made for the sultan fired, according to the somewhat contradictory testimonies of contemporaries, stone balls of 400 to 600 kg (800-1,322 lb), It was transported to Constantinople by 60 oxen.

A single wall that ran the circumference of the city’s seaward sides defended the rest of Constantinople. Mohammed sent his men across the Bosphorus north of the city, so the southern approach to the Mediterranean was open. A chain boom protected the primary harbor, the Golden Horn, across its mouth supported by twenty-six galleys. Thus, if anyone sent relief, the route was open.

Mohammed II arrived on 6 April 1453. He led 70,000 regular troops and 20,000 irregulars called Bashi-Bazouks, whose sole pay was the loot they might gain if and when the city fell. The premier troops were the Janissaries, slave soldiers taken captive in their youth from Christian families and raised in a military atmosphere to serve the sultans. They were heavily armored and highly skilled, and at this time they were beginning to use personal firearms. Mohammed first seized the town of Pera, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. At first this action was little more than symbolic, but it had serious ramifications later. He then deployed his forces on the city’s western face and began the siege. A single wall near the imperial palace protected the northern end of the city. It was there, the Blachernae, that Constantine placed most of his men.

For twelve days the Muslim cannon pounded the city walls, and on 18 April Mohammed decided that had softened up the defenses sufficiently. The Byzantines easily defended a narrow breach in the walls, killing 200 attackers and driving off the rest without loss to themselves. On the 20th, four ships approached from the south: three Genoese transports with men and supplies from Rome and a Byzantine ship hauling corn from Sicily. After a hard fight with the Muslim fleet they broke through, cleared the boom, and entered the Golden Horn. Mohammed decided he had to control the harbor. He could not pass the chain boom, so he ordered ships dragged overland, through the town of Pera, to the harbor. It was a monumental engineering feat and on 22 April thirty Turkish ships were in the Golden Horn. An agent of the sultan betrayed the Byzantine counterattack, which managed to destroy only a single Turkish ship. In spite of this Turkish accomplishment, it had little effect on the siege.

Mohammed continued his cannonade against the walls. By 6 May it had opened a breach at the Gate of St. Romanus, where the Lycus River enters the city. Giustaniani built a new wall just behind the breach, rather than trying to repair the wall while under fire. The Turks attacked on 7 May but their 25,000 men were thrown back after three hours of fighting. On the 12th another force assaulted a breach in the wall at Blachernae; only quick reinforcement by Constantine and the Imperial Guard stemmed the tide. Mohammed then tried mining the walls. Constantine’s engineer Johannes Grant managed to locate each of the mining attempts and either undermine the mines or destroy the attackers inside with explosives, flooding, or the incendiary Greek fire. None of the fourteen mines succeeded.

Mohammed then determined to scale the walls. His men built a siege tower and rolled it into place before the Charisius Gate, the northernmost opening in the city walls. Muslim artillery fire had destroyed one of the defending towers, and the siege tower was able to provide covering fire for Turks filling in the moat. Constantine’s call for volunteers to attack the siege tower produced spectacular results. The sally surprised the Turkish guards and the Byzantines broke pots of Greek fire on the wooden siege tower. Meanwhile, their compatriots spent the night rebuilding the city wall and its destroyed tower. The next morning Mohammed saw the charred remains of his assault machine smoldering before the newly rebuilt tower in the city wall.

In both camps officers debated the progress of the siege. The defenders were exhausted and running out of supplies. In Mohammed’s camp, some factions wanted to end the siege before a rumored rescue fleet could arrive. The sultan favored those who counseled continuation and decided to launch one more attempt before withdrawing. As the most serious damage to the walls had been inflicted along the Lycus River entrance to the city, it was there he proposed to launch his final assault. Constantine learned of the plan from a spy, but could his dwindling force survive another battle? The Bashi-Bazouks began hurling themselves against the Byzantine defenses at 0200 on 29 May. For two hours the Byzantines slew them with arrows and firearms, but grew increasingly tired in the process. With the first attack repulsed, Mohammed threw in a second wave before the defenders could recover. Even though these were regular troops with better discipline and equipment, the narrow breach provided the defenders with less area to cover and they threw back that assault as well.

After another two hours of fighting the Byzantine troops could barely stand. Mohammed sent in the third wave, made up of Janissaries. Constantine’s exhausted troops managed to repulse them as well. During this fighting, a small band of Turks discovered a small open gate and rushed a handful of men through before it could be closed. They occupied a tower near the Blachinae and raised the sultan’s banner, and the rumor quickly spread that the northern flank had been broken. At the same moment, Giovanni Giustiniani was severely wounded. Hearing of his evacuation, coupled with the report from the north quarter, the defenders began to fall back. Mohammed quickly exploited his advantage. Another assault by fresh Janissaries cleared the space between the walls and seized the Adrianople Gate. Attackers began to pour through.

Constantine XI led his remaining troops into the Turkish onslaught, dying for his city and his empire. Almost all his co-defenders as well as a huge portion of the civilian population joined him, for the Turks went berserk. Mohammed II limited very little of the pillage, reserving the best buildings for himself and banning their destruction. He claimed and protected the Church of St. Sophia, and within a week the Hagia Sophia was hosting Muslim services. Thirty ships of a Venetian fleet sailing to Constantine’s relief saw the Turkish flags flying over the city, turned around, and sailed home.

The looting finally subsided and the bulk of the population that was not killed, possibly 50,000 people, were enslaved. The bastion of Eastern Christianity fell after more than 1,100 years as Constantine the Great’s city. Mohammed II proceeded to conquer Greece and most of the Balkans during the remaining twenty-eight years of his reign.

Western Europe, which had done so little to assist Constantinople, was shocked that it fell after so many centuries of standing against everyone. In Rome, the Catholic Church was dismayed that they would now have no Eastern Christians to convert, for they were all rapidly becoming Muslim. The Eastern Orthodox Church survived, however, for Mohammed allowed a patriarch to preside over the Church. It remained a viable religion, now far from the reach of the Catholic Church’s influence. As such, its survival encouraged others who resented the Catholic Church. Within sixty years Martin Luther led a major protest against the Church, starting the Reformation.

The trading centers of Genoa and Venice feared having to deal with hard-bargaining Arab merchants who now controlled all products coming from the Far East. The major cities of eastern Europe began to fear the Turkish hordes approaching their gates, and for the next 450 years Austria and the Holy Roman Empire carried on the European/Christian struggle against the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks established themselves as the premier Middle Eastern Muslim power, controlling at their height almost as much as had the Byzantine Empire: the Balkans, the Middle East, much of North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean.

The flood of refugees from southeastern Europe, especially Greece, brought thousands of scholars to Italy, further enhancing the peninsula’s Renaissance. Italian merchants, shocked at the prices the Muslims charged for spices and silks from the East, began to search for other ways to get those goods. Certainly the age of European exploration came much sooner because of Constantinople’s fall.

 

 

SIEGE OF HARFLEUR I

Visiting Harfleur today, it is almost impossible to believe that this quiet little backwater was once one of the most important ports in northern Europe. Virtually nothing remains of the town Henry V saw on that August day in 1415; it is now merely a suburb of Le Havre, the port founded by François I in 1517 when Harfleur’s own waters silted up. The great walls that were once its pride and glory have been replaced by a labyrinthine road system of flyovers and roundabouts that are almost as impenetrable as its medieval fortifications. The salt marshes on its seaward side have became a vast industrial wasteland of smoking chimneys, oil terminals and container ports; the valley above the town, through which the river Lézarde flowed to join the Seine, is now an industrial estate and retail park linking it to Montivilliers. The lazy loops of the river itself were “redressed” by French engineers in the 1830s and replaced with rectilinear canals and quays; the fortifications that made the harbour one of the wonders of medieval Europe were demolished in the nineteenth century and the harbour itself filled in. Even the great church of St Martin, rebuilt in celebration after the English were expelled in 1435, with a delicate spire that can still be seen for miles around, is a sad and decaying historic monument for which the key literally cannot be found.

And yet the heart of the town remains defiantly picturesque: a medieval jewel lost in the swamp of Le Havre. Though Henry V’s own guns destroyed almost every building within the walls, much of the rebuilding that took place in the fifteenth century remains. Half-timbered houses crowd the narrow cobbled streets and little squares that still echo to the sound of footsteps; the more important public buildings, including the library and priory museum, though heavily restored, sport militaristic towers; and here and there, half hidden in the undergrowth, one can still find impressive vestiges of the massive walls and gates.

French contemporaries were justifiably proud of the medieval town of Harfleur. For the monk of St Denis, sheltered in his convent outside Paris, it was “the most admirable port in Normandy, sending out ships to all corners of the world and bringing back every type of foreign merchandise to provision and enrich the whole kingdom.” Enguerrand de Monstrelet, a military man, recognised its strategic importance. For him, as for Henry V, it was “the key to the sea of all Normandy.” Lying on the north bank of the tidal Seine estuary, Harfleur controlled the access to France’s most important inland waterway. Some forty miles up river, travelling as the crow flies, lay the ancient city of Rouen, where the first dukes of Normandy were buried in the tenth century and the Capetian kings of France established their royal naval yard in 1294. Around eighty miles further up river lay Paris itself, capital city, royal residence and administrative centre, with the Seine flowing through its heart. If the English could capture Harfleur, they could establish a stranglehold on military and commercial traffic using the Seine and block one of the main arteries of France.

There was a second strategic purpose to be achieved in capturing the town. Of all the places on the northern coast of France, Harfleur posed the greatest threat to English interests. In recent years it had become the base of choice for attacking the south coast of England: Don Pero Niño, the “unconquered knight,” had retreated to its safety with his prisoners and plunder after raiding the coast of Cornwall in 1400, and Louis d’Orléans had gathered an invasion fleet there in 1404. French troops sent to aid Owain Glyn Dŵr’s revolt in Wales and the Scots in their campaigns against the English had all sailed from Harfleur. In England the town had also acquired the reputation of being a nest of pirates: many of the attacks on merchant shipping in the Channel had been carried out by French and Italian vessels which took refuge within its harbour and found a ready market for their prizes there. For all these reasons, Henry V had identified Harfleur as the target for his invasion. Its capture would serve a dual purpose, increasing the safety and security of English shipping and establishing another bridgehead, like Calais, for any future campaign in France.

Harfleur’s strategic importance had ensured that it enjoyed the best protection that medieval military might could devise. Great stone walls, some two and a half miles in circumference and fortified at intervals with twenty-four watch towers, encircled the whole town and its famous harbour. These were relatively modern fortifications, built between 1344 and 1361, and the plan was polygonal, with semicircular flanking towers at each angle, which were harder to demolish by cannonade or undermining than traditional square towers. The walls themselves were thicker at their base than at the top, sloping outwards so as to deflect shots from guns and catapults back into the enemy, and the many towers provided vantage points from which flanking fire could be rained on anyone approaching the walls. There were only three gates, guarding the entrances into the town from Montivilliers to the north, Rouen to the south-east and Leure to the south-west. A remnant of one of the towers at the Rouen gate, which also commanded the harbour, or clos-aux-galées as it was known to the French, is the sole survivor today. Though a ruin, its former might is still readily apparent in the depth of its great stone walls, strengthened by arches inside, the absence of any flat external surface and the many small embrasures, at varying heights, for crossbows and guns. Each of the three gates was protected by a bastion (a fortification projecting beyond the line of the walls), a portcullis and a drawbridge over a water-filled moat; these permanent defences had also been strengthened against missile attack by thick tree trunks, driven into the ground and lashed together on the outside, and earth and timber shoring up the walls on the inside.

The defence of Harfleur had been entrusted by Charles VI to Jean, sire d’Estouteville, who held the honorary office of grand butler of France. He had with him a garrison of some one hundred men-at-arms, which, even with civilian assistance, was not a large enough force to be able to offer any prolonged resistance to a determined English assault. Nevertheless, all the natural advantages of the site had been exploited to the full. The town lay about a mile from the Seine, at the head of the tributary valley of the river Lézarde. The southern approach was protected by the ebb and flow of the Seine tides over treacherous salt marshes. The waters of the Lézarde, which entered Harfleur midway between the gates of Leure and Montivilliers, had been partially diverted along a series of ditches and culverts to create a great moat which encircled more than half the town, from the north-east to the south-west, and defended it against attack from the upper reaches of the valley. Controlled by sluices, the river waters powered two mills for grinding corn, which lay just within the walls, and then flowed down a series of culverts through the middle of the town before broadening out to form the harbour and joining the Seine. The great advantage of these sluices from a defence point of view was that they could be closed completely. When this happened, the Lézarde was effectively dammed at its entrance to the town and therefore burst its banks, flooding the entire valley bottom to the depth of a man’s thighs. Forewarned that the English were landing close by, the men of Harfleur broke all the bridges across the river and closed the sluices, creating a vast lake to protect the northern side of the town.

The clos-aux-galées was probably even more strongly fortified than the town. It was created in the 1360s by constructing a massive wall, more than six and a half feet thick and standing fifty feet high above ground and thirty-six feet below, around a loop in the Lézarde to the south of the town. This was then flooded to create a twelve-acre harbour that was both commercial port and royal military arsenal. Protected to the north by the town walls and on either side by its own higher wall, surmounted by defensive turrets, its seaward entrance was guarded by two massive towers, with chains strung between them to prevent unauthorised access. When the English invasion threatened, the French had taken emergency measures to provide additional defences, planting great sharpened stakes around the entrance and under the walls facing the sea, so that, when the tide was up and enemy ships could sail right up to the walls to launch an attack, they ran the risk of being driven onto the stakes and foundering.

The story of the siege of Harfleur might have been very different had it not been for the courage and resourcefulness of one man. Raoul, sire de Gaucourt, was a French version of Sir John Cornewaille, and, like him, a medieval chivalric hero whom the modern world has forgotten. He came from a noble Picard family with a long and distinguished record of service to the crown. Like his father before him, he was deeply attached to the Armagnac cause and had strong personal connections with Charles d’Orléans, Charles d’Albret and Marshal Boucicaut. More importantly, de Gaucourt was a man who aspired to live out the knightly ideal. He was knighted on the field of Nicopolis as a twenty-six-year-old crusader against the Turks, and, with Boucicaut, was captured and put to ransom in that disastrous battle. In 1400 he was one of the fourteen founding members of Boucicaut’s short-lived knightly Order of the White Lady on a Green Shield, who swore “to guard and defend the honour, estate, goods, reputation and praise of all ladies and maidens of noble line” and to fight à outrance against their oppressors. Nine years later, when Boucicaut was governor of Genoa, de Gaucourt led a small French army to his assistance. The two men campaigned together in Italy throughout the summer of 1409, besieging and capturing Milan, and when Boucicaut made his triumphal entry into the city, de Gaucourt was at his side. In the armed struggle between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, de Gaucourt distinguished himself in 1411 by capturing the bridge of St Cloud on behalf of Charles d’Orléans, but was later defeated in battle at the same place by a combined English and Burgundian force. As the chamberlain of Charles d’Orléans, he played a prominent role in the negotiations that led to the withdrawal of the duke of Clarence’s army from France in 1412 and served as captain of several Armagnac castles.

On 1 January 1415, de Gaucourt was one of sixteen knights and esquires who were chosen by Jean, duke of Bourbon, to be the founding members of another new order of chivalry, the Order of the Fer du Prisonnier, or Prisoner’s Shackle. Like Boucicaut’s order, the duke of Bourbon’s was intended to uphold the honour of women of good birth: the golden shackle, with its chain, being a symbolic representation of the bonds of love, which fettered the knight to his mistress, rather than a reference to criminal activity. In accordance with the order’s constitution, de Gaucourt swore to wear a golden shackle and chain on his left leg every Sunday for two years, “in the expectation that, within that period, we may find an equal number of knights and esquires, of worth and ability, all of them men without reproach, who will wish to fight us all together on foot to the end, each to be armed with what armour he will, together with a lance, axe, sword and dagger at least, and with clubs of whatever length he may choose.” The arms of all the members of the order were to be hung in a chapel where, throughout the two years, a candle would burn, day and night, within another golden shackle used as a candlestick, before an image of Our Lady of Paris. If the challenge was accomplished, then the candle was to be endowed in perpetuity, together with daily masses, and each member would donate to the chapel his shackle and a picture of himself in the arms he wore that day. Anyone who forgot to wear the shackle on the designated Sundays had to pay a fine of four hundred shillings to charity for each offence.

De Gaucourt’s membership of this order raises the interesting possibility that he was wearing his golden shackle on Sunday 18 August, as he performed the far more serious challenge of leading three hundred men-at-arms to the relief of Harfleur. Constable d’Albret and Marshal Boucicaut had not been entirely idle during the English landing. As soon as it became clear that Harfleur was Henry V’s objective, they sent a stream of supplies, including weapons, cannon and ammunition, to reinforce the town. They must also have decided that they needed an experienced and trustworthy knight to take charge of the defences, which is why Raoul de Gaucourt was chosen for the task. Whether he came from Honfleur or Caudebec, the only route he could take into the town was through the Rouen gate on the eastern side. Time was of the essence. He had to get there before the English. His arrival, only the day after Henry laid siege to the western side of Harfleur, is an indication of the desperate pace of his dash across Normandy. Fortunately for his mission, the flooded fields that denied him access to Harfleur from the Montivilliers road also protected him, for the moment, from the English troops encamped on the hillside before the Leure gate. They could only watch helplessly as de Gaucourt coolly rode unopposed down the other side of the valley and into the town. It was not often that Henry V was outmanoeuvred and, as de Gaucourt was to discover to his cost, the king was not a man to forgive or forget such actions.

Henry’s inability to prevent de Gaucourt and his men getting into Harfleur demonstrated that it was imperative that no further reinforcements should reach the town by the Rouen road. He now entrusted this important task to his brother the duke of Clarence, whom the chaplain described as “a knight no less renowned for the practice of war than for personal courage.” In this instance, he proved himself worthy of both Henry’s confidence and the chaplain’s praise. Under cover of night, he led a large force of men and an artillery train on a difficult ten-mile detour that took them above, up and around the flooded Lézarde valley. During their march they even managed to intercept more reinforcements arriving from Rouen and captured “certain carts and wagons belonging to the enemy, with a great quantity of guns and powder-barrels and missiles and catapults.” At dawn the following day, to the consternation of the besieged, Clarence and his men appeared on the opposite hillside above the town, facing Henry and his troops.

While all these preparations were being made to lay siege to Harfleur by land, the seaward side was not neglected. Most of the merchant ships that had transported the army to France were allowed to go home after completing their disembarkation, though some returned again, bearing further supplies and reinforcements, including the men who had been left behind when the fleet first sailed. The fighting ships and the royal fleet were not released from service but moved in to blockade Harfleur, barring all access from the Seine or the sea; a number of small boats, carried overland and taking up position on the flooded Lézarde, did the same from the north. Trapped between the two armies to west and east, and blockaded by water to north and south, Harfleur was now completely encircled.

Before the great guns began their bombardment, Henry, punctilious as ever, gave the people of the town one last chance to surrender. He sent one of his heralds to proclaim that in accordance with the twentieth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy (which Henry had already quoted to Charles VI in his letter of 28 July), he offered them peace—if they would open their gates to him freely and without coercion, and, “as was their duty,” restore to him the town, “which was a noble and hereditary portion of his crown of England and of his duchy of Normandy.” If this offer was refused and Harfleur was captured by force, Deuteronomy authorised Henry to exact a terrible vengeance: “you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and every thing else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you.” Though de Gaucourt and d’Estouteville knew as well as Henry what the consequences of their refusal to surrender would be, their duty and honour would not allow them to do anything other than reject his offer out of hand, and defy him to do his worst.

SIEGE OF HARFLEUR II

Medieval Prints by Graham Turner
Reproduced in full colour on good quality art paper from Graham Turner’s Medieval paintings, featuring not only the dramatic battles of the Wars of the Roses and 100 Years War, but also more peaceful scenes from this turbulent period of history. Dimensions shown indicate the overall size, including a white border containing the title and any descriptive text.

The siege that followed was literally a textbook one, based principally on the ancient classical treatise on military tactics by Vegetius, De Rei Militari, which dated from the fourth century but had been translated and glossed by every medieval writer on the subject, including the fourteenth-century Egidius Romanus, known to the English as Master Giles, and Henry V’s own contemporaries, Christine de Pizan and Thomas Hoccleve. Following standard military practice, Henry ordered that the suburbs of Harfleur should be burnt and cleared, so that he could bring his cannon and siege engines within range of the walls. As the chaplain proudly pointed out, the king “did not allow his eyelids to close in sleep,” but laboured day and night to get his artillery in position. Many “great engines” to assault the town were constructed on site, as were “cunning instruments” for the protection of his own forces. Hordes of carpenters were employed in erecting huge wooden screens to protect the guns and catapults from enemy assault: an ingenious pulley-based device, operated from behind, allowed the gun crews to raise the base of the screen to set the gun’s projectory and fire it. The gunners themselves were protected by trenches built either side of their cannon and by ramparts, hastily constructed from the excavated earth thrown over bundles of sticks.

Once the assault on Harfleur began, it was devastating. For days on end, the seventy-eight gunners kept up an incessant bombardment; they worked in shifts, as soon as one team tired, another immediately taking its place, so that there was no respite for the besieged during the hours of daylight. The English cannon and catapults were trained on the main points of resistance—the bastion guarding the Leure gate, the towers and the walls—and as the ten thousand gun-stones they had brought with them did their deadly work, the fortifications of Harfleur gradually crumbled. The noise was terrible: the explosion of cannon-fire, the thud of gun-stones crashing into their targets, the splintering of timber defences and the rumble of falling masonry. One of the cannons, the monk of St Denis was told, was the biggest anyone had ever seen before. When it was fired, it discharged huge blocks as big as millstones with so much black smoke and such a terrifying report “that they seemed to issue forth from the fires of hell.”

In the face of this overwhelming assault, de Gaucourt and his men fought back with courage and determination, keeping up a retaliatory bombardment using guns, catapults, and crossbows as long as the bastion, towers and walls remained defensible. (One English man-at-arms, Thomas Hostell, was “smitten with a springolt [that is, a crossbow bolt] through the head, losing one eye and having his cheek bone broken,” though this injury did not prevent him from continuing to fight.) When it was no longer possible to defend the broken remnants of fortifications, the French doggedly fought on, “from inside the ruins also, from behind screens, and through shattered openings in the walls, and from other places where shelter would not have been thought possible.”

At night, when the guns were silent, the siege engines still and the English slept, there was no rest for the besieged, who laboured to repair their defences as best they could. Under de Gaucourt’s direction, and presumably with the aid of the civilian population, the crumbling walls were shored up with timber props, bundles of sticks and tubs packed with earth, dung, sand or stones. The lanes and streets inside the walls were also covered with a thick layer of clay, earth and dung to soften the impact of gun-stones falling or shattering inside the town and causing death or injury to the besieged. There was neither time nor energy to spare for repairing the civilian buildings, which suffered terribly under the bombardment. The parish church, St Martin’s, lost both its steeple and its bells. Many “really fine buildings,” as the chaplain noted with regret, even those almost in the middle of the town, were completely destroyed or so badly damaged that they were on the point of collapse.

While the artillery wreaked its devastation from the air, Henry’s Welsh miners were hard at work burrowing under the fortifications of Harfleur. The greatest efforts were made on the Rouen side of the town, where Clarence was in command, because at this point there was no moat to be crossed. Here the walls were protected only by a double ditch, the depth of the inner one being an unknown quantity, as no spy or scout had been able to get close enough to investigate.

Military mining had been introduced to Europe from the east during the Crusades in the thirteenth century. It involved digging a tunnel, or a web of tunnels, under the weakest point of a fortification, which was usually a corner or a gatehouse. The walls and roof of the tunnels, like those in a conventional mine, would be shored up with timber props which, at the right moment, would be set alight to make the tunnel collapse. Unlike a conventional mine, where those digging for coal or metal ores had to follow a seam and could work on their hands and knees if necessary, military mines had to be large enough to be able to bring down tons of masonry. This meant that they were usually wide and tall enough to take at least a man standing upright, and in some cases must have resulted in the creation of a vast underground chamber.

The most effective way of preventing a successful mining operation was for the besieged to counter-mine, or dig their own tunnels beneath and into the enemy mines to make them collapse before they reached the walls. Where the sheer weight of earth failed to do this, brushwood and incendiary devices were dropped or thrown in to set the props alight, smoke out the miners and bring down the tunnels. (Christine de Pizan even recommended placing large tubs of boiling water or urine at the entrance to the mine, which could be emptied on the unfortunate miners to scald or maim them.) Occasionally, mine and counter-mine would meet, providing the opportunity for a curious subterranean version of the feat of arms, which, given the difficulties to be overcome, was highly prized by chivalrous knights and esquires as a demonstration of exceptional personal valour. In the narrow and gloomy confines of the mine, lit only by the flickering flames of torches, two men-at-arms would fight with whatever weapons they had to hand—swords, daggers, axes and maces—until one of them conceded defeat or an impasse was reached. One cannot imagine men of the calibre of Sir John Cornewaille and Raoul de Gaucourt neglecting such an opportunity to distinguish themselves, and the chroniclers report that there were daily encounters in the mine: “And who most manly fought in the same, supposed himselfe to have achieved greate victorie. And so that mine that was begun for the sudden invasion of the Towne was changed into the exercise of knightlie acts.” So dangerous and prestigious was such combat held to be that those who fought an encounter of this kind were judged to share a special bond and could become brothers-in-arms, even though they came from opposing sides. The most spectacular instance on record took place during the long siege of Melun in 1420, when Henry V himself is said to have fought the captain of the garrison, the sire de Barbazan, on horseback within the mines. When Melun finally fell, Henry announced his intention to execute Barbazan as a rebel. Barbazan responded by invoking the law of arms, claiming that they were brothers-in-arms because they had fought together in the mine, and that his life should therefore be spared. Henry accepted the validity of this claim and did indeed refrain from executing him.

Despite the English efforts, the French successfully thwarted every attempt to undermine their walls. Henry V had ordered a “sow” to be made, this being a protective mobile shelter under which the miners could take cover as they did their work. All the military textbooks recommended that mining should be conducted out of sight of the enemy, but this was impossible at Harfleur because of the lie of the land. As soon as the French saw that the sow was in place and that a mine was in progress, they took retaliatory measures, digging counter-mines and employing “other technical skills” that were evidently superior to those of the less experienced Welsh miners. Two attempts to undermine the walls were foiled and a third failed to achieve its objective. The only compensation for this lack of success was that the operation had been a useful diversion and forced the French to divide their forces in the town’s defence.

Clarence was also forced to abandon his attempt to fill in the ditches below the Rouen gate walls. For this purpose, he had been gathering bundles of wood and piling them up in front of the ditches. He then discovered that the French had also been busy, stockpiling barrels of flammable powders, oils and fats on the walls. They were only waiting for the English to begin crossing the ditches before setting fire to the barrels and flinging them onto the ready-made bonfires below so as to burn Clarence’s men alive. But this threat did not prevent his men from taking possession of the outer ditch. Having advanced to this new position, Clarence appointed masters-of-works to supervise the digging of a trench, a section of which every man-at-arms and archer in his force was assigned to complete. The excavated soil thrown up on the front facing the enemy was further fortified with a palisade made of tree trunks and stakes, from behind which the gunners and archers could operate in comparative safety. Shielded behind their new defences, the English were now in range and able to drive the defenders off the walls with a barrage of missiles and gun-stones.

Although these operations were all carried out under Clarence’s orders, the king himself was in direct control and issuing the commands that his brother obeyed. It was a situation fraught with difficulties, not least because every message carried between the two divisions of the army had to be taken either by boat across the flooded Lézarde valley or by land on the long detour round the valley head. This was a problem that demanded an urgent solution and Henry had applied himself to finding one. According to Master Jean de Bordiu, one of the most senior clerks in the royal household, “Our king cut off the water supply before Montivilliers, which they had retained so that it could not run into the sea.” Though this rather mysterious phrase is open to interpretation, it suggests that Henry dammed the Lézarde higher up the valley, closer to Montivilliers, which was less than three miles away from Harfleur. This would have had two effects. First, it would have deprived the people of Harfleur of their main supply of fresh water, which was a priority of any besieging army hoping to make life on the inside increasingly wretched. Second, it must also have led to the draining of the flooded fields above the town. No chronicler mentions such engineering works, or, indeed, that the flood waters created by closing the sluices at Harfleur gradually evaporated or drained away during the course of the siege, but it is difficult to find any other explanation for de Bordiu’s explicit statement.

Henry was indefatigable in his personal supervision of the siege. No one, not even his brother, knew when or where he would appear next. “The Kinge daylie and nightlie in his owne person visited and searched the watches, orders, and stacions of everie part of his hoast, and whome he founde dilligent he praised and thanked, and the negligent he corrected and chasticed.” Jehan Waurin, the fifteen-year-old illegitimate son of the seneschal of Flanders, believed that “King Henry, who was very cunning, often went around the town in disguise to identify the weakest and most suitable place by which he could take it.” Whether true or not, the circulation of such stories was a tribute to the power of the king’s character and a highly effective way of keeping his men up to the mark. (They also would inspire Shakespeare’s “little touch of Harry in the night” scene.) This was increasingly important as the siege entered its third week and the battering inflicted on Harfleur had not yet forced its surrender.

Henry, however, was convinced that its fall was imminent. On 3 September Master Jean de Bordiu, who was well placed to know the king’s plans, wrote to the citizens of his native Bordeaux in English Aquitaine:

Please know that the town of Harfleur, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, will be in the king’s hands before 8 days at most. For now it is well and truly breached on the landward side and on two flanks, and everything destroyed inside . . . And when he has taken it, I have heard it is not his intention to enter the town but to stay in the field. In a short while after the capture of the town, he intends to go to Montivilliers, and thence to Dieppe, afterwards to Rouen, and then to Paris.

On the same day, Henry himself also wrote to Bordeaux, cheerfully informing the citizens that “ourselves and all those of our company [are] in good health and disposition.”

For this, in all humility, we give thanks to our lord God the Almighty, hoping that, by His grace, He will give us, in pursuit of our right, the fulfilment of our desire and undertaking, to His pleasure, and for the honour and comfort of us and you, and of all our other faithful lieges and subjects. To this end we shall do our duty, so that, with God’s help, our enemies will be henceforward less powerful to cause you trouble and harm than they have been in the past.

Henry had underestimated the determination and ingenuity of de Gaucourt and his men. Harfleur would not fall in eight days, but in eighteen. And those ten extra days were to wreak havoc in the English army and force the king to change his plans.