Tag Archives: Henry V

The Medieval Antiseptic

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At the beginning of last year, I read a statement that honey was spread on wounds in the Middle Ages. That seemed an odd thing to do and there was no source given in the notes of the book. It didn’t even say what putting honey on wounds was supposed to achieve or whether that was a sensible thing to do.

I searched through some of my more likely books, but could find nothing about it at all. I have three books about medicine in the medieval and renaissance periods and none of them mentions honey in their index.

More recently I was reading the magazine produced by the gin club I’m in and there was an article about bees. Apparently honey is a good ingredient for some cocktails, but that wasn’t what I found interesting. Towards the end of the article it said that honey “naturally produces the antibacterial substance hydrogen peroxide in small amounts. In nature this protects the honey stores from bacteria…”. So there it was: an antiseptic that was used in the Middle Ages.

A few weeks after that, I was listening to a podcast I follow and the interviewee was talking about the stockpiling of honey during times of war in the Middle Ages, the inference being that it was taken on campaign to be used on wounded soldiers. She also spoke about a reference to honey being used by a doctor on a very important patient – Prince Henry, soon to be Henry V.

When he was Prince of Wales, Henry fought in the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. An arrow struck him in the face, penetrating six inches, and he was taken to Kenilworth Castle where John Bradmore, a court physician who was in prison under suspicion of counterfeiting coins, worked out a method for extracting it. Not surprisingly, other physicians were wary of removing the arrow, since the chances of killing the young prince were high. Given that counterfeiting was punished severely, Bradmore must have thought he had little to lose. He also had a plan.

I won’t go into the details of the plan and how it worked out; you might be eating. Suffice it to say that the arrow was removed and Henry survived. What matters is that Bradmore wrote a treatise about what he had done called Philomena, in which he recorded that he poured honey into the wound.

It has taken over eighteen months, and a variety of unexpected sources, but I now feel that I can refer to honey being used on wounds in my novels rather than to some unnamed ointment.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Dangers of a Medieval Siege

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The Hundred Years War wasn’t just about battles, it was also about sieges. It was more about sieges than battles, in fact. Early in the war the English proved that they could defeat the French in a pitched battle. This meant that the French avoided battles, and sieges became more important as the war went on. As a result Edward III’s strategy increasingly included sieges.

The first great siege of the war was a resounding success for him, even though it lasted almost a year. When it finally fell, Calais was a great prize, being on the northern coast of France and a very short distance from England. It was the last piece of France that the English surrendered when it was lost in 1558.

Sieges were difficult for besiegers and besieged alike. The besiegers needed a good supply line in order to keep an army outside a town. A siege could last several months.

The English struggled most with a siege, both as besiegers and besieged. If they were besieged there was less likelihood of an army arriving to rescue them. When they were the besiegers they rarely had enough supplies to carry out long sieges, nor the means to create a viable supply line. The siege of Calais in 1346-47 was the exception. Edward III’s navy was able both to cut off supplies to the besieged and to bring supplies to the besiegers.

The besieged had difficult decisions to make. If they surrendered this might mean that they would live. Usually this meant just that; they would be allowed to leave the town alive, taking with them whatever they could carry. They would not be allowed to return to their homes. For some this was little better than a death sentence.

If a garrison surrendered, it could be seen by their lord as a betrayal. When Limoges surrendered to the French after a mere 3 days in 1370, the Black Prince got off his sick bed and had himself carried to the town in order to exact his revenge. According to the chroniclers it was a terrible revenge, with thousands dying. By some this is seen as a stain on his chivalrous reputation; at the time it was regarded as heavy-handed justice. Froissart says that 3,000 people were killed, but it unlikely that it was more than 350, the majority of them civilians. This siege was also notable for the devastation wrought by the besiegers on the town, as they destroyed what they could not take with them and burned the town.

Few sieges in the Hundred Years War were this short. The siege at Calais in 1346-47 lasted eleven months. Orléans was besieged for seven months before it was relieved by an army led by Jeanne d’Arc in May 1429. The siege at Rouen in 1418-19 lasted a little less than six months. It was during this last that the inhabitants of the town expelled thousands of the poorest inhabitants to save food for the better off. Henry V refused to let them pass through the English lines, so they died in the ditch surrounding the town.

Sieges could lead to diseases on both sides. The dangers to the besieged are obvious. They were kept in an enclosed space until the food ran out. As the food they ate became older, staler and more rancid, the more prone they were to disease. The inhabitants of Rouen became so desperate they ate mice. The besiegers were rarely in more sanitary conditions. They, too, were confined to a small space for a long period of time, although they could be relieved. Henry V became ill during the siege at Meaux in 1422 and refused to leave until the town was beaten. He died on his way back to England. A large percentage of the besiegers in that instance died of dysentery and smallpox.

The besiegers were also exposed to attacks from the town’s inhabitants and any army that came to assist them. A town’s defences would be focused on keeping the besieging army so far from the town that they couldn’t make a conclusive attack. The defenders would fire burning arrows at the wooden siege engines and their attackers. When the besiegers did manage to get close enough to put their ladders against the walls, they had to contend with heavy objects and boiling water being dropped on them as well as arrows being fired at them.

Besieged cities could often be relieved by a friendly army arriving to fight off the besiegers, as at Orléans. Philippe VI tried to relieve Calais, but failed and gave up.

The besieging army often employed siege engines. At the beginning of the war these were mainly trebuchets, massive counterweight catapults. There is a frightening demonstration of one in the Secrets of the Castle DVD showing the distance a projectile could travel and the force with which it could strike its objective. Trebuchets were used to break down walls, or to throw things over them. In the siege at Caffa in the Crimea in 1346 (not part of the Hundred Years War) plague infested bodies were catapulted over the walls into the besieged town. Trebuchets could also hurl burning objects into the town.

During the course of the Hundred Years War trebuchets gradually gave way to cannon. At the battle of Crécy in 1346 they did little more than frighten the horses. By the end of the war they were one of the main siege weapons.

Blockades were the most effective way of winning a siege, but they took time. It was difficult to ensure that a town received no supplies so that it could be starved into surrender. Even a large army found it difficult to surround a town completely.

The quickest way to take a town was to storm it, as at Limoges, but fortifications became more effective and attacks of this nature became more difficult. Walls were made taller and thicker. Ditches were built outside the walls so that siege engines could not be brought close enough to be effective and means were developed to enable the defenders to shoot arrows whilst themselves being more or less invulnerable to attack. This is also illustrated in the Secrets of the Castle DVD.

During the siege of Rouen in 1418 the ditch outside the town not only prevented Henry V from entering the town, but became home, until they died, to the poor of the town who had been expelled.

Miners were used during many sieges. The walls of Limoges were weak and English miners built a mine beneath a tower and set fire to it, causing the tower and part of the wall to collapse.

Mining was a dangerous occupation in a siege. If the besieged became aware of a mine they could dug their way to it and fight the miners or flood the mine. In addition there were also the normal problems of mines that collapsed, killing the miners.

Just as soldiers made money from ransoming their captives so they also made money from sacking towns that surrendered. Anything and anyone within a conquered town was fair game.

When a siege began, no one could predict how it would end. The only thing that anyone knew was that many people would die.

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The Hundred Years War

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All of my books set in the fourteenth century are set in the context of the Hundred Years War, which, along with the Black Death, overshadowed the second half of the century.  It was actually a series of wars that lasted for more than a hundred years.

This is a very brief overview of the war. Lord Sumption’s projected five volume history of the Hundred Years War has only just reached 1422 after more than three thousand pages and four books. This post contains fewer than a thousand words, so covers much less than the tip of the iceberg. The war involved complex alliances and treacheries and its origins are not as clear as they might be.

As well as being King of England Edward III, through his Plantagenet forebears was also Duke of Aquitaine and his ancestors had ruled over a large amount of France. His mother, Isabella, was the sister of Charles IV, the last of the Capetian king of France. On Charles’s death, Philippe of the house of Valois became king. He was a cousin of Charles IV, whereas Edward III was his nephew. This was in 1328 when Edward III had other things on his mind. Although he had been crowned king of England in 1327, Edward was little more than a figurehead for his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer, who had had Edward’s father, Edward II, killed.

Realising that if they could kill one king, they could easily kill another, Edward III decided to make his move against them. In 1330 he managed to take Isabella and Mortimer prisoner. After Mortimer’s execution, Edward was occupied with establishing himself as king of England.

It wasn’t until 1337 that he was able to concentrate on his claim to the French throne after Philippe VI had confiscated Aquitaine. Edward III’s was not a frivolous claim; each of his mother’s brothers had been king of France. It is probable, however, that it was, at this point at least, a ploy to distract Philippe from the dispute over Aquitaine.

At the time France was the most sophisticated nation in Europe and was probably its wealthiest with the best armies. England was poor and found it difficult to keep the Scots on their side of the border. The idea that England could take on France and hope to win was laughable.  The first few years of the war seemed to support this view.

War was a costly business and Edward III needed Parliament to keep agreeing to fund it. His lack of success in the early years made it more difficult to retain their support, but his victory in the sea battle at Sluys in 1340 kept Parliament behind him and his victory at Crécy in 1346 turned everything around. This was followed by the taking of the town of Calais, giving the English a foothold on the northern French coast, making an invasion of France more viable. The victories at Crécy and Poitiers (1356) were enough to give the English a reputation for winning battles and the French thereafter avoided joining battle with them for several decades.

After the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360 there was peace for several years, although the fighting started again in Aquitaine in the late 1360s. This carried on until 1389. By this time Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, were both dead and Richard II, Edward III’s grandson, faced internal troubles. He lost interest in the war and agreed to a truce.

The peace lasted until 1415. Richard II had been deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, whose son, Henry V, used the madness of Charles VI as a way of making his crown more secure. There was civil war in France between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs. Both sides asked for Henry’s support. In the end he sided with the Burgundians. This enabled him to pursue the war in France. He had a decisive victory at Agincourt in 1415 and by 1419 it looked as if the English had won. Henry V married the daughter of Charles VI.  It was agreed that, on Charles’s death, the son of Henry V and Catherine would be crowned King of France, with Charles VI’s own son, the Dauphin, being declared illegitimate. Both Henry V and Charles VI died in 1422. Henry’s nine month old son was declared king of England and France. Despite the efforts of Henry’s brother, the Duke of Bedford, against the Dauphin, who was eventually crowned Charles VII with the help of Jeanne d’Arc, the French had more victories. Bedford died in 1435 and the alliance with the Burgundians also died.

When he came of age, Henry VI, pursued a policy of peace, which led to him losing all of Aquitaine. The final battle in the war was at Castillon in 1453 which led to the surrender of Bordeaux. By the end of the war England had lost all its possessions in France with the exception of Calais, which it held for another hundred years.

 

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