Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The End of the French Adventure

Steve Muhlberger

We have now come to the reign of Henry V, the hero-king so beloved of English patriots. He is often portrayed as the greatest of English monarchs, and everyone has heard of his great victory of Agincourt.  Rather than praise or criticize him, I want to look beyond personalities to examine the last phase of the Hundred Years' War, which he initiated.

It strikes me that it is remarkably like the first phase, Edward III's war. It began with some dramatic and popular, though expensive, victories, climaxed with a favorable peace treaty, and ended with the a slow crumbling of the English position and near-total defeat.

But Henry V gained a great deal from the war. he died before all the consequences of his aggressive policies had come home to roost, and has been kindly treated by history since.

When Henry came to the throne, he thought he could make peace in the kingdom, since he was not a usurper himself.  Pardons were handed out and the young Earl of March, his most dangerous possible rival, and now an adult, was given full control of his estates.

Nonetheless, there was one dangerous revolt among the peerage in favor of the Earl of March (who was not directly involved), and later a religiously motivated attempt at revolution.

It was not until Henry had won success in France that the country settled down.

Right from the beginning, Henry took an aggressive stance towards France. Since the failure of John of Gaunt's expedition of 1373, forty years before, no English leader had had the resources or inclination to do more than protect his Gascon inheritance.  Henry, however, was almost obsessed with his legal claim to the French throne.

He was in a good position to try to enforce it.

In France, the king, Charles VI was intermittently insane, and two junior branches of the French royal family were struggling to control his government.

Henry looked for an alliance or some other arrangement that would advance his interests. Henry may well have come to some secret agreement with Burgundy, but the main purpose of the negotiations was to keep the Armagnacs and Burgundians apart so that Henry could take exploit their division, and in that, they were a great success.

Henry's first and most famous campaign was launched in the year 1415. In August, a large and expensive army, financed by extraordinary borrowing and double taxation, was landed in Normandy. Henry besieged the port of Harfleur, and after a month, took it.  Henry decided to march through upper Normandy to his city of Calais, as a demonstration of both his might and his right to rule the land.

The march almost ended in disaster. Rain slowed down the army, disease began to take its toll, and superior French forces (representing the Armagnac party and its allies) got between Henry and Calais. The French nobles were exultant, and decided to attack at once, despite the cautious advice of their commanders, who knew this was dangerous.

They were right to hold back. At Agincourt, the French army was destroyed while throwing itself against archers and a strong defensive line of dismounted knights. As at Poitiers, French leaders were killed or captured, weakening further the government of an already divided kingdom.

Agincourt made Henry's reputation, both in 1415 and ever since.

The commons in parliament fell over themselves in the rush to reward him. They voted him new taxes, a life grant of a subsidy on wool, and agreed to accelerate the collection of taxes already voted. After Agincourt, no one ever raised the issue of the legitimacy of Henry's dynasty.

Yet Agincourt was a limited victory. Henry was in a favorable position, but it depended almost entirely on the feud between Armagnacs and Burgundians. Henry was able to gain the neutrality, and possibly the future support, of the dukes of Burgundy and Brittany. Some of his Agincourt captives also were willing to treat with him in the hopes of winning their freedom.

It was not until 1417 that Henry was ready to invade Normandy, and not until
January of 1419 that he took its capital, Rouen. Henry's great accomplishments in the campaign were not military, but diplomatic and financial. His negotiators kept both French parties off balance, while his administrators kept money and supplies coming to his Norman army, enabling it to stay in the field long enough to do its job.

When Rouen fell, Henry moved with his customary thoroughness to nail down the territory he had taken. He guaranteed Norman customs and the property of all who submitted to his rule. Frenchmen were used in many lesser governmental posts, although the greater ones were held by Englishmen. Henry did his best to win the hearts, or at least the acquiescence, of his new subjects. At the same time, he planted an English nobility on the confiscated estates of those nobles who had fled or who continued to resist. Henry was trying to establish a party whose loyalty to him was unquestioned, and a permanent connection between the duchy and England.

 Negotiations were opened with the Burgundian party, but the duke and the queen, now in his party, were afraid to accept the stiff terms that Henry offered. So the duke opened negotiations with the Dauphin and the Armagnacs. The two party leaders met personally and unity seemed to have returned. At the second meeting, however, some insane Armagnac assassinated the duke. The new duke of Burgundy, Philip, swore revenge on the dauphin.

On Christmas Day, 1419, the Duke of Burgundy and the reluctant queen of France agreed to an English alliance on Henry's terms. The Treaty of Troyes:

Henry's task was still incomplete. Following his early victories he had committed himself to realizing his claim to the crown of France. The treaty of Troyes was only one step along the way to this goal, and not a step that guaranteed success. Further diplomatic and military measures would be necessary.

The Treaty of Troyes which purported to be a treaty of peace between England and France, gave Henry's English subjects two excuses to reduce their support for the war effort.

Thus it was really no business of the English ruling class to look after French affairs. Henry, as king-to-be of France, was supposed to use his loyal French subjects and the French territories under his rule to subdue the French rebels against his authority and the territory they held.

It was a convenient theory for English taxpayers, but not one that reflected reality. France was still unconquered, and Henry had few enthusiastic supporters on the other side of the channel.

While Henry still lived he was able to use his prestige to raise men in England, and to convince many rich men to lend him money. But on campaign in 1422 he  caught dysentery  and died in September.

He was never king of France. The mad old king, Charles VI, outlived the young hero by two months. Charles VI's successor, in the eyes of England and the Burgundians, was a year-old infant, Henry VI of England.

It is often conjectured that if Henry V had lived longer, he would have won his wars, and united the crowns of England and France permanently. I think this rather doubtful, considering the size of the job and the fragility of his French support, but it is not impossible. That both of his kingdoms were now in the hands of a minor put the Lancastrian cause, if we may call it that, at a grave disadvantage.

Henry VI's realms were divided.
Henry V's brother John, Duke of Bedford, became regent in France.
His brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, led a regency council for England. The only unifying links between Lancastrian England and Lancastrian France was the person of the young king and a provision that when Bedford was in England he should be regent there, too.

But when he was fighting in France, Bedford had no power in England, no way of guaranteeing that English resources would be directed to where they were needed. In fact, the English political community, speaking as a whole, did little for the French war for six years.

Despite these problems, the Duke of Bedford's armies continued to make steady, if slow progress.
By 1428, the English were besieging Orleans, a key position for the Dauphin's defense of the Loire river.

At this crisis, a  girl named Jeanne Darc, Joan of Arc, appeared. By claiming a divine mission she put heart in the Dauphin's army and led a relieving force that broke the seige of Orleans in May of 1429. In June she defeated the English army and captured its commander, the earl of Salisbury. In July she accomplished her greatest coup. She led a force into Champagne, took the city of Rheims, and in Rheims cathedral, the traditional site of French coronations, had the Dauphin crowned as Charles VII of France.

It was a fantastic propaganda victory. Charles went from being a rather down on his luck prince to rightful king of France in the eyes of most of his countrymen.

The fall of Joan of Arc was as dramatic as her rise: she went from these victories to being captured by the Burgundians and English, and the latter burned her on trumped up charges of witchcraft while her king did nothing to save her. But she made a permanent difference in the way the war went. She had revived the morale of the Dauphin's party and at the same time given the Lancastrian cause a military and ideological check.

The Lancastrian government did not collapse, but despite a renewed English effort (including a coronation of young Henry VI in Paris), the momentum had been lost.

In 1435, two further setbacks took place.

Henry VI never again had a lieutenant in France to match his uncle. Henry VI, or rather his deputies, since he was never much of a warrior, held onto parts of northern France for fifteen years after Bedford's death. In that time his government never regained the initiative.

His French subjects in Normandy and elsewhere became distinctly cooler to his cause. Partly this resulted from the military insecurity of those areas. To reestablish their authority, English commanders increasingly turned to terrorism against supposedly friendly populations, which weakened English rule further. To add insult to injury, heavy war taxes were extracted in Normandy so that the English parliament would not have to be asked for subsidies. To the Normans and others, the English slowly ceased to be tolerable; they were increasingly seen as oppressive, tyrannical foreigners.

The English attempts to restore their position through diplomacy were equally unavailing.  The English gained nothing from a long series of negotiations.  For one thing, they could not decide what they wanted.  The matter of the kingship (which both Henry and Charles insisted on) stood in the way of a treaty that might have allowed Henry to keep the territory he still held.

By the early 1440s, English policy was in great disarray. Henry VI allowed his English government to be controlled by a small clique, led by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. The unpopularity of the governing group made effective action in France impossible. But Suffolk was desperate for something good to happen. He knew that defeat in France would finish his government, so he was willing to try anything that might stave it off.

In 1443 he arranged a marriage between Henry and a rather poor French royal princess, Margaret of Anjou. Then Suffolk and Queen Margaret came up with the idea that if Maine, a strategic district on the boundary of Normandy, was surrendered to the French, a permanent peace might be arranged. Margaret's father, the titular count of Anjou was the overlord of Maine.

The arrangements for this surrender were made as secretly as possible, but news leaked out. Suffolk was vilified, especially by Humphrey of Gloucester, the king's aged uncle, who was arrested and died or was murdered soon afterwards.

Increasingly unpopular as he and his policy were, Suffolk went ahead with the cession of Maine anyway -- the alternative was a war he could not win. Handing over Maine did nothing to end the war.

Charles VII soon found an excuse to invade Normandy, in spring of 1449. Nothing effective was done to halt the French advance. Indeed, civil war broke out in England.

The total paralysis of the king's government allowed the French to invade and take Gascony. There were attempts to relieve and even retake Gascony. But by 1451-52, Gascony, the last remnant of Eleanor of Aquitaine's heritage, was lost to her English descendants forever.  Henry VI held onto only one piece of his second kingdom -- the great fortified city of Calais, which  remained in English hands until 1558.

As a practical matter, most English people had been uninvolved in their king's French empire. Nevertheless, they saw its loss as a disgrace. The collapse of Henry's overseas empire was a blow to the government's prestige, as military defeat usually is. The drain of warfare, which had been increasingly financed from England, combined with his minister's peculation, had left Henry broke, too.

As in King John's time, as in the years after the Bretigny peace fell apart, the authority of the government was in doubt. It should come as no surprise then, that the 1450s, like the 1210s and the 1380s, saw the kingdom plunged into fratricidal warfare.


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Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.