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Edward III: King of England, King of France Part 2

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In 1328 Edward III had claimed the French crown, but his claim was rejected. It was not forgotten. He spent most of the 1330s demonstrating to his barons that he was capable of ruling his own kingdom. He had to show that he was no longer influenced by his mother and that he was not like his father.

His first step was to punish very few of those who had rebelled against his father. Only two men were executed when Edward led the coup that won him his kingdom in 1330 – Roger Mortimer, his mother’s lover and the instigator of the rebellion, and Simon Bereford, Mortimer’s henchman. Edward had to be very careful when dealing with those who had helped to depose his father. He needed the support of his barons, many of whom had supported Isabella and Mortimer. He learned not to be vindictive and to punish only those he could not use.

Then he dealt with the humiliating and unpopular peace treaty with Scotland that had been made in his name. This was the ‘Shameful Peace’ negotiated by Queen Isabella and Mortimer in 1328. He did this by going to war against the Scots. This also served to show that he was a very good soldier. His first victory against the Scots was at Halidon Hill in 1333. This campaign was so successful that he was able to replace the Scottish king, the child, David II, with a claimant to the crown who pleased him more, despite the fact that his ten-year-old sister was married to the king. David was taken into exile in France. France and Scotland were allies and Philippe VI eagerly espoused the young king’s cause as another reason to take on and destroy Edward III.

As well as being king of England, Edward III was also duke of Aquitaine, the last remnants of the Plantagenet empire that had stretched from the border with Scotland in the north to the Pyrenees in the south and sprawled across France. His ancestors had ruled more of France than the king of France himself. All that remained of this in the 1330s was Aquitaine. Despite its diminution in size, the duchy was coveted by French kings. Most of the Atlantic ports on the French coast were in English hands. Due to its wine trade, Aquitaine was rich. In order to retain Aquitaine its duke was supposed to swear allegiance to the king of France and promise not to bear arms against him. The kings of England had never been happy about doing this and the situation had become even more difficult since Philippe had become king. Edward III could hardly pay homage to the man he later called ‘the usurper’.

Edward II had more or less banned tournaments. He did not take part himself and feared them as gathering points for those who opposed him. His son participated as much as he could and held tournaments to celebrate important occasions – the births and marriages of his children, St George’s day, victories over his enemies. He performed bravely in tournaments, demonstrating his valour to his barons. This was important, because tournaments were training grounds for soldiers.

In 1337 Philippe confiscated Gascony on the grounds that Edward III was giving refuge to his mortal enemy. Robert d’Artois was Philippe’s cousin and brother-in-law and had gone into exile in England after a quarrel with the king. Philippe demanded his return and Edward refused to comply.

By 1337 Edward III was ready to make his claim for the French crown with force and he did so, but it was really a sleight of hand designed to distract Philippe from Gascony. It wasn’t until 1340 that he began to call himself King of France. He adopted a new coat of arms, which showed the three lions of the king of England quartered with the fleur-de-lis of the king of France. The three lions have been the arms of the kings and queens of England since the late 12th century and have not changed since the reign of Richard I. Edward III was the first to add to them, but it has been done many times since.

The fleur-de-lis was first used by French kings as a symbol of saintliness on their coronation robes in the 12th century and it became part of the royal arms in the 13th century.

In 1359 Edward began a campaign in France that was designed to have him crowned king in Rheims cathedral. Although it failed to achieve its stated aim, it led to the Treaty of Brétigny, which increased the size of Aquitaine in return for Edward’s giving up his claim to the crown of France. Although his great-grandson, Henry V, took the claim seriously, eventually winning the crown for his son, Edward III was always more interested in safeguarding Aquitaine than in becoming king of France.

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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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Edward of Woodstock: The Black Prince

Black Prince received Aquitaine

Edward of Woodstock, first child of Edward III was not known as the Black Prince in his lifetime; the nickname was given to him in the sixteenth century. When he was alive he was known as Edward of Woodstock; the Prince of Wales; the Prince of Aquitaine; or simply the Prince.  He had many other titles.

He was born on 15th June 1330 to Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, who were 17 and 15 respectively.  I give their ages because, as we shall see from Edward of Woodstock’s own life, life in the fourteenth century was usually short, and marrying and having children early was usually necesary.

In 1330 Edward III was still trying to gain control of his kingdom after the rebellion against his father led by his mother, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer.  Edward had been crowned king, but did not rule. A son for his first born child was taken as a very good sign for his reign, which he began in his own right when he ousted Isabella and Mortimer in October of that year.

As his name indicates, the Prince was born at Woodstock, which was a favourite residence of the king and queen. More than one of the Prince’s siblings was born there. Titles and gifts were showered on the young prince and he was made Prince of Wales in 1343.

In the early years of war with France, Edward III had little success and began to lose the support of Parliament for his endeavours.  This changed in 1346.  Whether or not Edward III planned an invasion of France is not known, but he arrived at St-Vaast-La-Hogue on the Normandy coast on 11th July with a large army and marched east.

On 26th August he fought the French king (or the usurper, depending on your point of view), Philippe VI, at Crécy.  The Prince, at 16, was put in charge of the vanguard (the division at the front of the army).  This was a very responsible position.  Even if he didn’t have full control (he was supported by two of his father’s most trusted men), he had enough to demonstrate his not inconsiderable abilities as a soldier.  After the battle, the English army marched on to Calais, and the Prince spent the next year with his father besieging the town.

Two years later, with the Black Death raging in England, the Prince, along with 24 men who had fought with him at Crécy, was made a Knight of the Garter when the order was created.

In 1355 the Prince was sent to Aquitaine with an army.  From there he launched two lengthy and damaging raids on the French.  These were supposed to culminate in the invasion of France, but ended instead in the battle of Poitiers and the capture of the French king, Jean II, and much of the French nobility in September 1356.  The Prince was now widely-acknowledged as a great soldier.  At 26, however, the heir to the English crown was still unmarried.

The capture of Jean II led, eventually, to a peace treaty.  Aquitaine was increased in size and made a principality. The Prince was sent to rule it.  This had many advantages for Edward III.  It kept his heir out of England.  Edward III’s father had been deposed and murdered.  Although this probably played little part in his thinking, Edward was a great politician and the desire to ensure that he did not suffer his father’s fate was a strong motivation throughout his reign.  Settling the Prince in Aquitaine also meant that the French had the great soldier on their doorstep.  It was easier for him to fight them from Aquitaine then it was from England.  It also gave the Prince something to do.  The Prince was unlikely to become king in the near future and there was no war to keep him occupied.  The greatest advantage was that he would learn to rule, preparing him to be king. Aquitaine was to be run as a sovereign state and the Prince had almost complete authority, needing to refer very little to his father.

In 1361 he married his father’s cousin, Joan of Kent, an interesting woman who deserves, and will get, a post of her own, and set off in 1362 for Aquitaine. Their two sons were born there: Edward in 1365 and Richard in 1367.

Edward and Joan kept a flamboyant court which, in later years, was criticised for its excesses.  The court moved between Angoulême, where Edward was born, and Bordeaux, Richard’s birthplace.

Even during this period of peace with France the Prince still managed to find a battle to fight.  He went into Spain in 1367 to support Don Pedro, an ally of the English who had been deposed by his half-brother.  Once again the Prince knew victory, but this one left a bitter aftertaste.  The Prince became ill in Castile and he never recovered.  It took him nine more years to die, during which he was mostly bedridden and in almost constant pain.

Shortly after this the peace came to an end.  Possibly spurred on by the knowledge that the Prince was too ill to do much to stop them, the French made increasing incursions into Aquitaine.  English and Gascon armies opposed them, but most of the great captains from Crécy and Poitiers were dead and no one had risen to take their places. The armies found it more and more difficult to repel the French.

The Prince still had enough strength for one last stand.  In 1370 the town of Limoges surrendered to the French after a siege of three days.  He took the surrender as a personal betrayal, as the bishop who had charge of the town was his son’s godfather.  The Prince had himself carried to the town at the head of a large army.  His siege lasted five days and ended in a storm.  Many of the townspeople were killed as the Prince took his revenge.  Within the rules of siege warfare the Prince could have killed everyone in the town, but he limited the slaughter.  The town itself, however, was more or less destroyed by fire.  It was decades before Limoges was rebuilt.

This was another victory tinged with bitterness for the Prince.  He returned to Angoulême to discover that his oldest son was dead.

Acknowledging his inability to hold Aquitaine, the Prince returned to England in January 1371, leaving his brother, John of Gaunt, to govern the principality as his lieutenant.  He was so ill when he returned to England that it was some months before he arrived in London to meet his father.

The following year, after a great deal of rest had improved his health, he supported another attempt by Edward III to invade France, but it, too, was a failure.  Edward of Woodstock died four years later, a week short of his 46th birthday.

 

 

 

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Edward III and St George (and the Dragon)

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St George has been patron saint of England since the sixteenth century, but he began to share that position with earlier saints in the fourteenth century. Richard I adopted him as his personal patron in 1199, and Edward III made St George patron of the Order of the Garter. During the latter’s reign St George became closely associated with England, together with the royal saints – Edward and Edmund.

Edward III had the chapel at Windsor that was to be home to the Knights of the Garter extended and dedicated to the Virgin and St George. The Garter Knights were to meet there every 23rd April (the feast day of St George). On this day there would be a mass, a tournament and a feast in the saint’s honour. So important was this feast to the king that it was the most expensive feast of the year.

St George is believed to have been born at the end of the third century to Christian parents and was raised as a Christian. His father was a soldier and George followed in his footsteps. In 303 Emperor Diocletian decided to purge the army of Christians, arresting many and forcing others to sacrifice to pagan gods. George refused and was tortured before he was executed.

The story of the slaying of the dragon is thought to represent his martyrdom, as a result of which some influential pagans turned to Christ. In the story a dragon is terrorising a city by cutting it off from its water supply. The dragon can be placated by being offered a sheep. If no sheep is available, a virgin will do. The victims are chosen by lot and one day the princess is chosen. The king begs for her to be spared, but the princess is taken out to be sacrificed. St George happens to come by and offers to slay the dragon and save the princess. He protects himself with the sign of the Cross and kills the dragon.

The tales of St George were brought back to England by crusaders. The flag that is associated with him today, the Cross of St George (the flag of England) was used as an emblem by crusaders. It was not particularly linked with St George until the twelfth century. When Edward III chose St George as the patron saint of the Order of the Garter he adopted the Cross of St George for the royal standard.

Edward III had always been attracted to St George, the warrior saint. He owned a relic of the saint. His grandfather, Edward I, was personally devoted to St George and adopted him as his patron saint in wars with the Scots and the Welsh. Edward III was conscious of his grandfather’s military reputation and took St George as his own patron saint as a result.  Early in the Hundred Years War, “St George” became the war cry of English soldiers.

The chapel at Westminster was decorated with a picture of Edward III and Queen Philippa with St George and their children (they had 13), possibly emphasising the fecundity of Edward III thanks to his patron saint in contrast to the infertility of the Valois and Capetian kings of France, who were protected by St Denis. Philippe VI (the first Valois king of France) had only two sons who lived more than a few days. His heir’s health was fragile and Jean almost died in his childhood. The last three Capetian kings (Edward III’s uncles) had not managed a single legitimate heir between them.

The process of making St George’s Cross England’s national banner began in the 1330s. The association between the Knights of the Garter and St George gradually percolated through England, until he became more important than either St Edward or St Edmund. By the 1360s the English felt they had a saint on a par with (if not better than) the very powerful St Denis, patron saint of France.

 

 

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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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A Little Piece of England in France

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In the 1390s, when he was trying to make a peace that would end the Hundred Years’ War, Richard II suggested that Aquitaine be held by his uncle, John of Gaunt, brother of the Black Prince, on behalf of the French crown. Even though Gaunt had been his brother’s lieutenant in Aquitaine twenty years before, the idea that the duchy could be governed by a vassal of the Valois king did not go down well there. The Gascons ‘claimed that they had never been nor ever would be governed by any man other than the king of England or his heir’.

Aquitaine, an amorphous area of south west France that included the Atlantic ports of Bordeaux and Bayonne, first came to the English crown when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II in 1152, although he didn’t have his crown at that point. Eleanor had previously been married to Louis VII of France, but had not given him any sons, so he had their marriage annulled. She was twenty-eight (or possibly thirty) when she married the nineteen year old Henry. They had eight children of which two (Richard and John) became kings of England.

Henry was the first Plantagenet king of England. He was the son of the Empress Matilda whose own claim to the crown had led to a civil war with her cousin Stephen of Blois, which Stephen won. Henry eventually became the ruler of a large empire whose northern border was with Scotland and whose southern border was the Pyrenees. All the Atlantic coast and most of the northern coast of France was his. His empire stretched to the east until it encountered the land held personally by the king of France around Paris.

By 1215 most of this had been lost to the king of France. King John wasn’t called John Lackland for nothing. Despite losing most of his father’s empire he managed to hold onto Gascony, the most westerly part of Aquitaine. It was for this foothold in France that his descendants fought wars on and off for the next 250 years. Aquitaine was finally lost when Bordeaux surrendered to the French on 19th October 1453. This also marked the end of the Hundred Years’ War.

Aquitaine had much to offer the kings of England, mostly wine. The production of wine in England was in decline and wine that came from Aquitaine was, and still is, very much to the English taste.

Aquitaine was also host to many pilgrims. Three of the four overland routes to Santiago de Compostela went through it, including the main one from Paris, which went through Poitiers and Bordeaux.

For my purposes, it’s what was going on in Aquitaine in the fourteenth century that was important. Since Aquitaine was part of France the kings of France required the dukes of Aquitaine to pay them homage. This meant proclaiming that the king of France was lord of the duke of Aquitaine. The duke was also supposed promise to support the king of France against his enemies. This was not really viable when the duke was the king of England and the king of France was, more often than not, his enemy. Edward II sent his son, the future Edward III, in his place in 1325, making him duke of Aquitaine. This proved an ill-advised move as the young prince was kept in France by his mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. He only returned to England when they invaded it in September 1326, eventually deposing and murdering Edward II. In 1329 Edward III went to Amiens to pay homage to Philippe VI whom he was later to call a usurper when he made his own claim to the French crown.

Aquitaine wasn’t itself the cause of the Hundred Years War, but it was the loss of it that brought the war to an end. It was also the base from which the Black Prince led the chevauchées that caused so much harm to the treasury of the French king. These were essentially two great raids that took place in 1355 and 1356. The prince’s army moved very quickly and destroyed many towns and villages in south west France, before returning to Aquitaine. It was at the end of the second of these that the battle of Poitiers was fought during which the king of France was captured. He was taken to England and held for ransom. Aquitaine was made a principality in 1362 and the Black Prince became its prince. The principality was a mini-kingdom that received no financial support from England. It was, essentially, the Prince’s opportunity to be a king while his father was still alive.

For some years his reputation, and their own internal problems, prevented the French from carrying out anything more than desultory raids, but, as his health deteriorated after the battle of Nájera in 1367 so the attacks increased and were less easy to resist. Part of the point of the Prince’s chevauchées had been to show that the king of France was unable to protect his people. The French were now demonstrating that the Prince could not protect his and many turned to the king of France.

As we saw at the beginning, however, even twenty years later there was a lot of resistance towards the French king in Aquitaine, and it held out for another sixty years.

 

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