Tag Archives: Hundred Years War

Medieval Crossbows

Battle_of_Crecy_(crossbowmen)

In my current work in progress two English soldiers enter a French castle and discover that the soldiers from the castle garrison are pointing crossbows at them. Surely that was right, I thought. The French used the crossbow, the devil’s own weapon (its use against Christians had been prohibited by the papacy in the twelfth century), and the English used the honest longbow.  The novel is set in 1357, more than ten years after the superiority of the longbow had been demonstrated at the battle of Crécy. Perhaps the French now used longbows, as well.

Things were, of course, not that straightforward. A crossbow was an expensive weapon and the men who were expert with them were well-rewarded. They were elite troops and no medieval king’s personal retinue was complete without them. Often they were foreign mercenaries, so that they wouldn’t get any ideas about rebelling against the king. Most of the crossbowmen used by English kings came from Gascony, in south-west France. For centuries the kings of England were Gascony’s dukes. Some kings were handy with the crossbow themselves, most notably Richard I, who, somewhat ironically, died as the result of being shot in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt. He was also reputed to be pretty accurate with the longbow.

The production of crossbows was limited to a few towns in Europe, the most famous of which was Genoa. Genoa was famed not only for the crossbows it produced, but also for the mercenaries it exported. These mercenaries were very popular with the kings of France who used them both as crossbowmen and as sailors.

Despite its elite status, the crossbow was easy to use and it did not need much skill or experience to shoot one, although it needed both to shoot one well.  A longbow was a much simpler mechanism, but required practice and skill if it was to be used effectively.

It was only in the fourteenth century that the longbow came into the ascendancy in England. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the crossbow was the main projectile weapon used by English soldiers, but in Wales, the Marches and Ireland the longbow was the preferred weapon. By the end of the thirteenth century it was beginning to predominate in the rest of the kingdom. On the Continent the crossbow continued to be the main weapon.

Using a crossbow was not very demanding physically, but using a longbow was. The crossbow was a machine which could be improved so that it would shoot with greater force or for longer distances, and it would have no impact on the man using it. Even a small improvement to a longbow meant that the archer had to be stronger, and there was a physical limit on this. When the skeletons of archers were discovered in the wreck of the Mary Rose (sunk in the Solent in 1545) they were deformed. Drawing huge bows over a long period of time had damaged their bodies.

Crossbowmen needed a lot of equipment as well as support staff. They had to wear armour, as loading a crossbow took some time, and the soldier was very exposed when he was loading it. Their armour was not necessarily plate armour. Some of them managed with aketons (padded garments), mail coats and bascinets (basic helmets).  They also needed someone to carry and hold their pavise (a large shield protecting the whole body). The man holding the pavise usually carried a spear to protect the crossbowman should the enemy come too close. This meant that they could not change position easily. Archers, on the other hand, wore hardly any armour at all and took cover behind bushes, trees and in ditches.

Crossbow bolts were shorter, thicker and heavier than arrows. This was to enable them to withstand the pressure when they were released. They travelled faster than arrows and could pierce mail.

When Edward III fought the battle of Sluys in 1340 he used both crossbowmen and archers to defeat the French. Six years later he had refined his strategy.

The first real test for the longbow against the crossbow came in August 1346 at the battle of Crécy. Philippe VI employed Genoese mercenaries. As usual, they were sent to face the enemy first and they were cut down by English and Welsh archers. In his account of the battle, written within the two years following it, Villani says that the archers fired three arrows for each bolt shot from a crossbow. Villani was a merchant based in Florence who wrote down information received from merchants who had been in northern France at the time. It is possible that his account is partially based on information from participants in the battle. When they tried to retreat, the Genoese were forced forward, trampled or killed by the cavalry behind them who believed that they had betrayed the French. Two thousand of them died, according to the chroniclers.

There are still arguments today about why the crossbowmen performed so badly. One reason was that their pavises had not arrived at the battlefield, so they were exposed to the arrows, but it’s said that the bolts they fired didn’t even reach the front line of the English army. It seems incredible that professional soldiers should fail in such a simple thing as getting the range right.

Even when the English stopped favouring the crossbow in battle, they still used it in sieges, where the speed with which bolts could be shot did not matter.  Crossbows were useful for both attackers and defenders because of the force and accuracy of the bolts.

A crossbow was also useful in hunting. It could be loaded before the beginning of the hunt so that there would be no noise to alert the hunted animal just before it was fired.

In this video the rates of fire of a crossbow and a longbow are compared.

 

References:

The Great Warbow – Matthew Strickland, Robert Hardy

Edward III and the Triumph of England – Richard Barber

The Battle of Crécy – Andrew Ayton, Philip Preston

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The Holy Roman Empire

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The Holy Roman Empire must have seemed very remote from England in the fourteenth century. It was centred around the many German states and would not normally have been expected to be interested in anything affecting England. This situation changed in the 1330s.

The empire lasted from 962 until Napoleon dissolved it in 1806, although many consider Charlemagne (crowned in 800) to be the first emperor. The Holy Roman Empire was considered to be a Christian extension of the Roman empire. The term ‘Holy Roman Empire’ dates only from the thirteenth century, however.

Geographically, the empire covered kingdoms and duchies in modern Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Switzerland, parts of eastern France, parts of western Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Croatia and northern Italy. The borders changed almost constantly, however, and not all of this territory was included all the time.The empire had reached its maximum size in the thirteenth century and territory was lost during the fourteenth century.

Emperors were elected and the first three Hanoverian kings of Great Britain, George I, George II and George III were electors, which meant they had a vote in the election of the emperor. Although the emperor was elected, in practice a small number of royal houses dominated the line of emperors and most emperors were descendants of earlier emperors.

The chances are that you’ve only ever heard of one emperor: Charles V, the nephew of Katherine of Aragon. In 1527, when Henry VIII was trying to divorce Katherine, her nephew captured the pope and would not allow him to grant the divorce. Charles’ son, Philip II, married Henry’s daughter Mary.

The empire did not have a capital as such, but was administered from the beginning of the fourteenth century from Aachen, which had been Charlemagne’s capital. From 1328 to 1347 it was administered from Munich and, from 1355 from Prague.

It was not unusual for the emperor to be at odds with the pope, in fact it was unusual if he was not. There was an almost constant power struggle between the popes and the emperors. Their powers were meant in some ways to be complementary, but in others to act as a balance between the temporal and the spiritual. This was rarely the case in reality. It was not until the eleventh century that the popes achieved some kind of equality. In 1077 Pope Gregory VII made the excommunicated emperor, Henry IV, wait outside the castle walls of Canossa for three days. Henry had come barefoot to ask the pope’s forgiveness. What should have been a formality, since the emperor had already humbled himself, became a battle of wills, which the pope won. The balance did not last long, however, as successive popes tried to gain more secular power and were increasingly resisted by kings and emperors. This came to a head during the ‘Babylonian Exile’ when the papacy had its capital in Avignon and came under the sway of the kings of France. Other kings (particularly Edward III) found it difficult to trust the pope when he was not impartial.

In the thirteenth century Italy was riven by division following interference in Italy by the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his successors in the first half of the century. The Italian city states were either Guelphs (pro-papal) or Ghibellines (pro-imperial) and they continued to go to war with one another on this basis long after the political divisions meant anything.

Because the emperors could only be crowned by the pope and they were usually quarrelling with the pope, or even excommunicated, there was often a delay between their election and their coronation.

There were three emperors in the fourteenth century: Henry VII – elected 1308 (crowned 1312)-1313; Louis IV (Louis of Bavaria) – elected 1314 (crowned 1348) – 1347 and Charles IV – elected 1346 and 1349 (crowned 1355) – 1378. None of them was terribly effective as emperor.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century Philip IV of France wanted his brother to be made emperor, but the electors felt that the French king already had too much influence and Henry of Luxembourg was elected. Like his predecessors, Henry meddled in Italian affairs without really understanding them. Henry died of malaria, as did so many from northern Europe who took their armies into Italy.

Louis was allied with Italian enemies of the pope, of whom there were many after the papacy moved to Avignon and the popes became little more than puppets of the French kings. In theory the emperor could do nothing until his election had been confirmed by the pope, but Louis acted without papal authority. He gave shelter to scholars who spoke out against John XXII. In 1328 he invaded Italy and had himself crowned (not by the pope). He also installed an anti-pope in Rome. John XXII excommunicated both Louis and his pope, declaring that there was no emperor. For many years before the outbreak of the Hundred Years War the French had been encroaching on the westernmost territory of the empire and it was not a surprise that, in 1337, Edward III found a willing ally in Louis in his war against the French. Edward III was made a Vicar of the Empire, with powers to act on the emperor’s behalf.

Charles was elected while his predecessor was still alive. This is not surprising, as Louis was considered a heretic and was an excommunicate. Charles was primarily king of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. For most of his reign he did what he could to benefit his kingdom and neglected the German states.

 

 

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Edward III: King of England, King of France Part One

Edward III and the garter

 

All of my novels set in the fourteenth century take place during the Hundred Years War and the war itself influences the stories. In The Traitor’s Daughter Hugh and Alais meet during a French raid on Southampton. Richard in His Ransom is taken prisoner at Poitiers and sent to England until his ransom can be raised, and thus meets Rosamunde. In The Winter Love Henry finds Eleanor in order to fulfil a promise to a brother-in-arms who fell at Poitiers. All, except the first, take place later in the war in the 1350s. The events in The Traitor’s Daughter occur when the war had barely begun in 1338. The war was, to all intents and purposes, to support Edward III’s claim to the French throne, which was made and denied in 1328. Why did it take almost 10 years for Edward to make his claim with force? First, we’ll look at the basis of Edward’s claim to the French crown.

Edward III’s mother Isabella was the daughter of Philippe IV of France. When Philippe died in 1314, the eldest of Isabella’s three brothers, Louis, became king, but a scandal perpetrated by Isabella had an effect on the continuing succession.

In 1313 Isabella had been visiting her family in France and gave purses to her sisters-in-law and her brothers. Later she saw two of the purses being carried by two Norman knights. The conclusion that she came to was that her brothers’ wives were involved in adulterous affairs with the men and she told her father. The two women were tried and imprisoned for life, while their lovers were executed.  There was a papal interregnum at the time, so the marriages could not be annulled. Louis’ wife was one of the two and she died shortly after being imprisoned. Rumours were rife that she had been murdered, since he remarried within days. He died a few months later, leaving the succession in doubt, since his wife was pregnant. His heir was born five months after Louis’ death, but lived for only five days.

Despite the claims of Louis’ daughter, Jeanne, to the crown, Isabella’s middle brother, Philippe, became king (Philippe V). Philippe said that his niece was too young (she was four), that she was illegitimate (she was the daughter of Louis’ first wife) and, most important for his nephew, Edward of Windsor, that women could not inherit the French crown. It was not a foregone conclusion that Jeanne would not become queen, however. If she had been an adult or married, she would have been able to gather some support. As it was, such support as she had drifted away quickly. Philippe had a forceful personality and a large army. He had himself crowned as soon as he could.

Although Philippe’s wife had been implicated in the scandal along with his sisters-in-law, she was acquitted of adultery, and was his queen throughout his reign. They had daughters, but no sons, and when Philippe died, his younger brother Charles became king. Given what had happened with Jeanne, there was no suggestion that any of Philippe’s daughters should become queen. What was still undecided was whether or not the crown could be inherited through the female line.

Charles IV had three wives, but only managed to produce one daughter.  When Charles died in 1328 it seemed obvious to Edward III and his mother that he, as the closest in line to his grandfather, Philippe IV, should become king of France. Isabella pushed her son forward, but her cousin Philippe de Valois was crowned king.

The main reason why the French rejected Edward III’s claim was, of course, because he was English. With a French mother, he probably saw himself as more French than English. French was his mother tongue, as it was for all his barons; he was Duke of Aquitaine; and his ancestors had controlled more of France than the king of France. The French, however, saw him as English. Unlike Philippe de Valois, he had played no part in French politics and had no influence in the country, other than in Aquitaine.

There were other disadvantages for Edward, mainly in the form of his mother. She was a scandal and had rebelled against the rightful king of England, her husband. Since she controlled her young son (he was only 16), she would have power in France and there were fears that she might use it in the same way that she had in England. It was decided, therefore, that if a woman could not inherit the crown, the crown could not pass through her to her son.

Phillippe de Valois, on the other hand, was a grown man in his 30s. He was fully French and he was in France, which Edward was not. Unfortunately, for the French, he was a dreadful soldier and Edward III was a great one, although this was not obvious in 1328.

Before he could consider winning France, Edward had to win England. Although he wrested control from his mother and her lover in 1330, it was several more years before he was able to start making good his claim to the French crown.

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How to Conduct a Legal Siege

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Medieval sieges were conducted (sometimes) in accordance with rules based on five verses in the book of Deuteronomy, “But if it [the town] makes no peace with you, then you shall besiege it. And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not the cities of the nations here. But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction.”

A siege had to begin with a formal challenge. This would take the form of a missile of some kind being fired at the gates of the town or castle. At the beginning of the siege the besiegers had to demand the surrender of the town or castle and they had to offer terms for surrender. Sometimes the head of the garrison would ask leave to consult his lord, who was elsewhere. Sometimes this was permitted, sometimes not.

Once it had begun there were three ways a siege could end:

  • Negotiated agreement
  • Storm
  • Unconditional surrender, by either side

 

NEGOTIATED AGREEMENT

Sieges were expensive for those doing the besieging. They tied up a large number of soldiers whose interest in the siege waned the longer it went on. The supplies usually had to be brought long distances, often through hostile territory. Since the besieging army was in one place for months, there was always the chance that the enemy might send an army large enough to destroy them. Negotiating a surrender was usually the best option. Some garrisons were bought off by the besiegers so that they would surrender. Sometimes the parties agreed that a town would surrender if no relief army arrived before a certain time.

It was a balancing act for the besieged between holding out to the bitter end and suffering starvation and illness and being sacked if no relief arrived, and surrendering early and incurring the wrath of their lord. The leaders of garrisons that surrendered to the enemy could suffer terrible punishments from their lords, even if they were allowed to live.

Being a messenger or even a negotiator could be hazardous. It was not unknown for messengers bringing bad new to be killed by their own side, so taking messages to the enemy was even more precarious. Messengers and negotiators were often taken prisoner or  killed as they went between the town and the besiegers.

Given what could happen if a siege continued to the bitter end, it’s not surprising that most ended with a negotiated agreement.

 

STORM

A storm was the taking of the town or castle by force. This could be by scaling the walls, breaking down the gates or walls by mining or siege engines, or by a small force finding a way in and opening the gates for the rest of the army. If the siege ended with a storm the attackers had complete control over the defeated. They could be enslaved, killed, raped and their homes and property seized. The defeated could expect no mercy.

The town could be sacked if it didn’t surrender and was successfully stormed. This happened at Limoges in 1370 where the town, which had surrendered to the French after three days, was held by the Black Prince to have committed treason. When the English and Gascon army arrived they successfully stormed the town after five days. The Black Prince would have been justified in killing all the inhabitants, but only about 300 were killed, about ten percent of the population. At Limoges there was no surrender and no negotiated agreement. What happened at Limoges was not exceptional.

Once the besiegers were inside after a storm, murder, rape and assault were the norm. Defending soldiers could often retreat to and hold the castle keep, so the civilians were usually the ones punished by the attackers.

In a siege the nobility and the garrison might come off well, as their chivalric code usually protected them, but the civilians suffered, because they were worth nothing in terms of ransoms. The poor were usually butchered. Knights would normally only surrender to another knight for fear of being killed by commoners. Such fears were not misplaced.

The chivalric code protected non-combatants, but it was difficult in a siege to differentiate between those who fought and those who did not. There are tales of besieging soldiers being killed by women throwing things from the walls onto them. Everyone within a besieged town could be considered a combatant, whether they fought or not. They had either enabled the siege to continue by feeding the defenders and assisting them in other ways, or by not attacking them.

 

UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER

Those surrendering unconditionally were expected to come out of the town barefoot, sometimes with ashes on their heads.  Edward III’s siege of Calais was one that ended with an unconditional surrender by those inside the town.

There was a great sense of what was honourable and what was not. The breaking of one’s word was not. If a town or castle did not surrender when they said they would do so, hostages who had been given could be killed. This would usually take place close to the town walls so that its inhabitants could see their executions. It was not unusual for these to be slow and humiliating.

A town was surrendered by handing over the keys to the besiegers. Truces were generally recognised. If there was a truce, people from the town could leave it, as long as they returned at the agreed time. Hostages could be taken to ensure that the truce was kept.

Some besieging armies preferred the besieged not to surrender, so that they could make money from looting. Towns tended to be centres of wealth and plunder was a strong motivation for a medieval soldier.

Sometimes the army doing the besieging simply gave up. This might be because a relief army for the town or castle arrived and the besiegers either didn’t want to take the risk of fighting them or did fight them and were defeated. The besiegers might run out of supplies, or they might lose so many men through disease that continuing the siege was untenable.

Although there were rules about how to conduct a siege, they were interpreted with a great deal of flexibility and violence was frequently used against the besieged to ensure that the next town would surrender quickly.

 

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The Siege of Calais and the Mercy of Edward III

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The siege at Calais, following the victory at Crécy, was one of Edward III’s greatest successes. I’ve been doing some reading about it, because one of the characters in the series of novels that I’m researching at the moment has her origins in Calais. She survives the siege, but the course of her life is changed by it.

The siege was the first great siege of the Hundred Years War. It lasted for eleven months, from 4th September 1346 to 3rd August 1347. Any hope that Edward might have of invading France and preventing France from invading England lay in having more than one place from which to attack the French king. Aquitaine was a long way from England by sea; the coast around Calais was much nearer. Edward’s attempt to invade France in 1356 was only conceivable because he was able to launch attacks from Calais, Brittany (where he had allies) and Aquitaine. In the event the invasion plans went awry, but they would have been unthinkable without Calais.

Calais had been Edward III’s aim from the start of the campaign. He had landed with his army in Normandy and marched east along the northern coast. Philippe VI gathered an army in the expectation that he would defeat the English soundly. Edward was trying to avoid the French army when they met at Crécy on 26th August. After the surprising English victory Philippe hardly knew what to do. He assumed that the English would head for their Flemish allies and disbanded his own army. It was some time before he realised his mistake and then it proved difficult to recall the army. So devastating had the defeat been, that some French nobles went over to Edward III. They were unwilling to support a king who had shown himself unable to protect his subjects.

Calais was not an important port, since its income was assumed to come from fishing. This assessment was later discovered to be incorrect. It was heavily fortified, because it was only a few miles from the border with Flanders. At this point in the war Flanders was allied with England. Calais had double walls and a ditch. The walls were very high and the town was mostly surrounded by the sea. Its other sides were protected by sand and marsh over which it was impossible to move heavy siege engines. The ground was also too soft to allow mining.

The English army started to arrive outside Calais on 4th September and reinforcements arrived by sea a couple of days later. They built a temporary town of tents and wooden buildings. Over the course of the siege it gained streets and a regular market. This town was larger than any English provincial town and had similar requirements for provisions. The town was called Villeneuve la Hardie (the bold, new town). It had a population of about 30,000 and Flemish merchants flocked to it.

At the beginning the supplies came overland from Flanders. The route was well-guarded to ensure that the supplies got through. Later, supplies also came from England in hundreds of ships which had been requisitioned for the purpose.

By the end of September the camp was considered safe enough to allow Queen Philippa to come from England to stay with her husband. She had had her tenth child in July, but Margaret was left behind. Isabella and Joan, the two oldest princesses, later joined their parents.

In October the Scots took advantage of Edward’s absence and raided the north of England. They were the allies of France and did this at Philippe’s instigation. They were defeated at the battle of Neville’s Cross and King David II was taken prisoner. He was the first of Edward III’s collection of kings.

As Edward III arrived at the town, 1,700 poor people were expelled by the garrison. Edward let them through. Since it was impossible to storm Calais, the inhabitants had to be starved out. This meant that the town had to be blockaded. Initially this was unsuccessful and the town received supplies late in the autumn and in March of the following year. Eventually, however, in April 1347, the English blockade was so effective that supplies were cut off entirely. 700 English ships were positioned in the Channel ensuring that English supplies could get through and French supplies could not.

The autumn was wet and the English had to move their town as the marshes became wetter. They started to become ill and desertion was rife. Many were wounded in attempts to scale the walls. One innovative approach to this involved fishing boats being fitted with scaling ladders. They sailed close to the walls so that soldiers could ascend the ladders up the walls of the town. These attempts failed.

At the end of the year Philippe IV’s contract with some Genoese galleys came to an end and they sailed away. They had caused a great deal of damage to English shipping. Once they were gone it was possible for the English to gain control of the sea.

During the siege there were occasional raids on smaller, less well-defended French towns to keep the army from boredom and the king threw a great feast at Christmas.

During May both sides expected a French army to turn up any day, but it didn’t. The food in the town ran out at the beginning of summer and the wells started to dry up. Even small boats could not get past the English blockade. There was another attempt to get a convoy carrying food to Calais, but many of the ships were sunk by the English and all the cargo was thrown overboard in an attempt to escape.

It was common in the last days of a siege for those who could not defend the town to be expelled and in July 500 such children, women and the infirm were sent out of Calais, relying on the mercy of the besiegers. It was not incumbent on the besiegers to spare them, however, and Edward III was notoriously lacking in mercy. They were not allowed to pass through the English lines and remained in the ditch, where they died of starvation.

Since the English had complete control of the sea, they started to bring in more troops. By the time Philippe arrived on 27th July, Edward had 5,300 men-at-arms, 6,500 infantry and 20,000 archers. It was the largest English army that had been sent abroad at that point and it was another 200 years before a greater one arrived in Europe. Edward’s Flemish allies had another 20,000 men. When Philippe arrived it was obvious that his own army was much smaller.

Philippe set up his camp at Sangatte, a hill 6 miles from Calais, and his banners were visible to the defenders of the town. They must have thought they were saved, but they were not. All approaches to the town were under English control. Philippe could not approach along the beach because there were palisades (fences made of wooden stakes) along the beach. The beach was also protected by the fleet of English ships, which contained archers and cannon. If he tried to cross the river, he would fail, as the bridge was held by the English. Beyond the bridge were earthworks and trenches.

By the evening of the 29th July Philippe knew that he wasn’t going to be able to relieve Calais. His scouts had reported to him that the town could not be helped. Despite this, he stayed and there were skirmishes between the two armies. A tower that guarded the marshes was attacked and taken. All the English soldiers in the tower were killed, but many Frenchmen lost their lives as well.

Philippe stayed within sight of Calais for a week, trying to work out how to defeat the English. In the end he decided to negotiate, but Edward wasn’t interested in what Philippe offered. On 31st July Philippe proposed that the English come out of the area around Calais and fight in a mutually acceptable location. It was a proposal that Edward III could neither accept nor refuse. Edward was in such a strong position that he could not accept it. Calais was all but his. His reputation, however, was such that he could not turn it down. Edward gave safe conduct to the French knights who were to discuss the location of the battle with his own representatives. Later, Philippe denied that this had happened, since the meeting never took place. The defenders of the town, initially cheered by the army’s arrival, were depressed by its inability to achieve anything. That night (1st August) they signalled that they were going to surrender. The French army burned its camp that same night and departed.

The town sent a message to Edward that they wanted to discuss terms. He refused, saying that they had held out against him for too long and they were all his to ransom or kill as he pleased.  His advisers pointed out that this would be a dangerous precedent to set, since it might be used against them in the future. He would doubtless expect them to hold out as long as they could in a similar situation, but they would not do so if they thought they could be killed.

The king was convinced and agreed to spare the people, except 6, who would be executed as an example. Those spared would neither have liberty nor their possessions.

Calais surrendered on 3rd August, eleven months after the beginning of the siege. As commanded by the king, 6 burghers of Calais left the town in their shirtsleeves with nooses around their necks and carrying the keys of the town. They were the prominent men of the town, including the richest man of the town.  The whole army was assembled to watch their execution. The king, the queen and the king’s counsellors sat on a dais ready to receive the men. The burghers threw themselves in front of the king and begged for mercy. The king called for the executioner. The king’s advisers protested, but only the queen, by then obviously pregnant with her eleventh child, could persuade him to mercy.

The army entered the town and raised the king’s standard. The inhabitants were forced out and the king went into the town.

The troops were given all movable property as booty. Everything was cleared from all the houses and sorted centrally. Calais proved to be a richer town than expected; it had been a centre for piracy for some time.

A few of the French garrison were held for ransom and sent to England. The townspeople were given food and most of them were sent away. They proved Edward’s point that Philippe could not protect his subjects almost as well as the taking of Calais itself. Philippe allowed them to settle in whichever towns they wanted and gave money and appointments to some.

Calais became an English colony, as Edward called on English merchants to populate it.  It was the last English possession to be lost in France, when it fell to the French during the reign of Mary I in 1558.

 

 

 

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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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The Englishman’s Wine

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There has long been a trading connection between Aquitaine and the south of England. It dates back at least to the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II in 1152. Eleanor was duchess of Aquitaine in her own right and the duchy was inherited by her descendants, the Plantagenet kings of England. The boundaries of the duchy ebbed and flowed over four centuries, with King John losing a great deal of land in the thirteenth century and Edward III regaining it in the fourteenth. It was very briefly a principality (1362-1372) ruled by Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, as a sovereign state.

By the fourteenth century the people of Aquitaine preferred English rule to French rule. They spoke the langue d’oc, the language of the south west, rather than the langue d’oil spoken in Paris and the north east. It wasn’t just in the matter of language that they had little in common with the French. The English king, as duke of Aquitaine, was their natural lord, not the French king. In the Hundred Years’ War Bordeaux was the last town to surrender to the French in 1453. It was this event that brought the war to an end.

Wine has always been important to the region. Gascony (the area to the east and south of Bordeaux) and England had been trading partners for centuries and England was the main market for wine from Gascony and wine was the base of the Gascon economy. An annual wine fleet carried wine from Bordeaux to Bristol and Southampton. Even during times of peace, the ships had pirates to contend with, often from Castile, home to the best sailors in Europe, and Brittany, around which every ship from Bordeaux to England had to pass. When the region came under the French crown it suffered a great deal economically as access to the English market was cut off.

England had produced its own wine from Roman times, but climate change meant that production declined and England had to rely more heavily on imports from the twelfth century on. It was very convenient that this was about the same time that the English crown gained Aquitaine.

One of the towns in England to which Bordeaux exported wine was Southampton. The picture at the top of the post is the Medieval Merchant’s House in French Street. As you can see from the barrel, this was the home of a wine merchant. There are vaults below the house where the wine was stored and the shop opened out onto the street where customers could be served. The vaults are stone, which was necessary to keep the wine cool. The house was built by Jean Fortin, a great importer of wine. It was near the quay, which was just the other side of the wall at the back of the house. This is the house that I used as the model for the home of Edward, the wine merchant, in The Winter Love, who imported wine from Gascony.

Much of the wine that came into the town was for the royal household, which explains Edward III’s anger and disgust when the town was raided by the French in 1338 and his wine was destroyed. The wine merchants gave wine to the king as a tax and this wine was stored in the town. Edward III was so angry that he accused the burgesses of conspiring with the French and letting them into the town.

 In 1368 a statute was created in England banning English merchants from Bordeaux and Gascony in an attempt to reorganise the wine trade. The Black Prince, who was at that time Prince of Aquitaine, had it repealed as soon as possible, as it was damaging the principality’s wine trade.

Today the Bordeaux region is the largest wine-growing area of France and the English are still great imbibers of the wines of the region. In England we even have a special name for red Bordeaux wine: claret. This was originally a dark rosé and was the most commonly imported wine up until the 1700s.

 

 

 

 

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Soldiers for Hire

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Following on from last week’s post about paid soldiers, this week I’m looking at the ultimate paid soldier:  the mercenary.

Some great soldiers became mercenaries in the fourteenth century, including Bertrand du Guesclin, who later became Constable of France and was buried near his king in St-Denis. It was du Guesclin who led the Great Company and was also the leader of the mercenaries who fought against the Black Prince at the battle of Nájera in 1367. One of his companions in that army was the English knight Sir Hugh Calvely, who changed sides and proved very useful to the Black Prince by securing the route through Navarre to Castile for the English and Gascon army. Robert Knolles was another sometime mercenary greatly valued by the Prince and his father, although his lowly origins sometimes caused problems for the nobles who served under him.

Mercenaries were used from the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War and the crossbowmen who formed the first wave of the French attack against the English army at Crécy were Genoese mercenaries. The English also used mercenaries in their garrisons in Brittany in the 1340s and 1350s, although they learned the hard way that mercenaries were difficult to control.

It was in peacetime that mercenaries became a real problem. King Jean II was captured at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. This led to a series of peace negotiations culminating in the treaty of Brétigny in 1360.With much of the French nobility dead or captured and the king a prisoner in London, it was almost impossible for the French to continue the war.

Men who were used to being paid to fight didn’t have anything to return to in England. Soldiers at a loose end joined together to form the free (not controlled by kings or governments) companies. They made money in two ways. One was a form of protection money. They would threaten towns and villages and allow themselves to be paid not to attack them. The money they collected was called a patis. The other was to be paid to fight on behalf of a lord, king or, in the case of Italy, city state.

After the Jacquerie, the French peasants’ revolt in 1358, the Dauphin (the heir to the French crown) had internal problems to deal with as well. This meant that there were thousands of soldiers in France with nothing to do and no way to earn money. Mostly these were English soldiers, but there were also French soldiers who thought that hiring themselves out would increase their wealth and social standing.

The best known of the free companies was the Great Company. It was made up of ever-changing smaller bands of mercenaries. It was originally formed out of some small Gascon groups, and the Gascons remained as its core, which goes a long way to explaining why Aquitaine was rarely troubled by them. Not surprisingly the free companies tended to be unstable. They were made up of the worst kinds of men from all social classes except the nobility. Many of them were criminals and thieves on the run from justice. All were self-seeking and ambitious. Interestingly it was the English groups that were the most stable. This was possibly because they had become used to fighting together in various campaigns, were better disciplined and tended to trust one another.

The bands of mercenaries became a great menace and Charles V used them creatively by hiring the Great Company to aid his ally Enrique de Trastámara in Castile when the king, Don Pedro, gave his support to Edward III. Du Guesclin led a band of French and English mercenaries into Spain to help depose Don Pedro. Most of the English mercenaries in the Great Company fought against their captain when they joined the Black Prince to fight on the side of Don Pedro.

One of the most famous and most successful English mercenaries was Sir John Hawkwood, who spent most of his career in Italy. One of the reasons why the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon at the beginning of the fourteenth century was the incessant fighting in the north of Italy, which made it dangerous for the pope to remain in Rome. There was much work there for mercenaries. Hawkwood was completely ruthless and fought for most of the Italian states before ending up in Florence in 1380. Although he was known as Sir John, he was probably not made a knight by Edward III or by the Black Prince.

He was part of du Guesclin’s Great Company that attacked Avignon in 1361, but he later joined the army Innocent VI hired in order to move the papacy back to Rome. This became the White Company, which he eventually commanded. The White Company did in Italy what the Great Company was doing in France. It didn’t take long for the White Company to become known for its brutality. Eventually Hawkwood became commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces in the 1390s. At the end of his life he wanted to return to England, but died before he could do so.

Hawkwood was the orchestrator of more than one atrocity and had a reputation for brutality. Despite this, unlike many other mercenary captains, some of whom were killed by their own men, he died in his bed in 1394. At his death he was very wealthy, owning property and even a castle in Tuscany.

Avignon and, therefore, the pope, was forced to pay to rid itself of  mercenaries four times: in 1357, 1361, 1365 and 1368. By 1368 the pope had returned to Rome, but Provence was still perceived to be a place of wealth compared to France, which had been stripped bare by thirty years of war.

Whilst a mercenary might hope to become very rich, his fate was more likely to be that of the Genoese crossbowmen at Crécy who were either killed by the English and Welsh archers or trampled by the advancing knights behind them.

Fighting as a mercenary does not seem to have harmed the careers of the captains, as many of them returned to fight for their kings when hostilities began again in earnest in the 1370s. Being a mercenary wasn’t seen as incompatible with chivalry. Some praised knights for taking the opportunity to gain experience, but for many towns and villages in France their presence meant that there was never peace.

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The Indentured Soldier

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 During the fourteenth century soldiers were becoming more professional. That is, they were paid to fight, whereas they had previously provided their services as part of their feudal duty to their lord. By the 1330s the English army (in reality a number of small, temporary armies) was a wholly paid force, although some still fought from a sense of feudal obligation to the king.

Most of these men were indentured. An indenture was the legal contract between the soldier and the man he served under. The contract was written out twice on one piece of paper. It was cut into two in such a way that the jagged edges would fit together.  It was from the supposed  teeth-like nature of the edges that the document got its name. The soldier got one piece and the captain the other. If there was ever a dispute about what was owed to whom the two pieces could be joined to show that they had once formed a single document. Obviously there was the temptation for the party with the most to lose simply to destroy his half of the document, but that could be managed by having a third copy kept by a lawyer so that there could be no dispute.

Indentures had been in use since the end of the thirteenth century. They described the pay, the equipment provided by or to the soldier and the rules governing any booty that was taken. Usually the soldier had to share it with his captain and the king. Some contracts even specified where in the hierarchy the soldier could take his meals.

Just as the soldier entered into a contract with his captain, so the captain entered into a contract with the king. He promised to bring a certain number of soldiers of each type in his retinue – archers, men-at-arms, knights. A retinue could be smaller than ten men or larger than two thousand. All of this would be written out in the indenture. An indenture specified the length of service and where it was to be given. If the service was abroad the contract would give details about how the soldier was to get there.

The indenture for a knight would often include an allowance of hay for his horses as well as stabling. Sometimes an agreement would be made that any horses lost by the knight would be replaced by his commander. These indentures also talked about how any ransom for captured prisoners would be split between the two of them.

Interestingly, indentures were not used where the king led the campaign. He would be there in person to oversee the administration of his army. They became more widely used from the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, as there were often two or three campaigns going on at the same time in different parts of France and the king couldn’t lead them all. Wages were still paid, even if there were no indentures setting out the terms.

The system of indenture meant that some men became professional soldiers and fought in campaign after campaign rather than return to working the land or to other occupations. In turn, this improved the quality of the soldiers available to the king, making his armies more effective. This goes some way to explaining why English armies tended to be smaller than French ones. Soldiers, as well as their commanders, would fight together over years of different campaigns, enabling them to work together and to fight as a single unit. Their equipment was checked frequently and, in the cases of archers’ arrows, provided by the crown. This meant that the equipment tended to become standardised. Whilst not necessarily improving the quality of the equipment, this did improve the armies’ efficiency.

Even at the end of the fourteenth century many found it repugnant that men were paid to fight for their king and mourned the passing of the old values, but it provided the king with a reliable method of recruiting soldiers to fight in France and Scotland.

In some ways the logical outcome of the indenture system was the formation of the groups of mercenaries who roamed France terrorising towns and villages during times of peace, particularly in the 1360s. If a man was to be paid to be a soldier, why shouldn’t he serve any man who would pay him?

 

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