Key Point: This fight would destroy the last of England's armies in France. As a result, France would be fully united and the 100 Years War would soon draw to an end.
In the fall of 1447, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was not a happy man. He was lieutenant general of France and Guyenne, a kind of viceroy who oversaw English possessions in France, and he was also a powerful and rapacious feudal magnate in his own right. King Henry VI had recently written him, ordering the duke to abide by the terms of an Anglo-French truce and give up the province of Maine, including particularly the key city of Le Mans. Somerset was reluctant to give the French such an important prize—and such an important source of revenue. He had been promised Maine in the past, and he wasn’t about to surrender it to an upstart French king. Somerset dragged his feet, stalling for time by requesting a conference to settle the matter.
The French were rapidly losing patience, and in March 1448 a large army under John, Count of Dunois, appeared before the gates of Le Mans. Nicknamed the “Bastard of Orleans” because of his illegitimate birth, Dunois had won his spurs under the legendary Joan of Arc. Now he was one of France’s most formidable commanders, and he had a large siege train equipped with the latest in artillery. Faced with a choice between surrender or siege, the English chose the former. The garrison marched out—only to find that no one would take them in. Most of the major towns in English-occupied France had large contingents of men-at-arms to enforce their rule, but each garrison greedily guarded its prerogatives. Local French townsmen were supposed to feed each garrison, and if the Le Mans garrison was added to the rolls, there might be shortages. The now-homeless English were left to their own devices.
Somerset’s preoccupation with feudal acquisitions and his own basic incompetence proved to be his undoing. His capital was at Rouen, in Normandy, the very heart of English-occupied France. The English presence in the conquered territories was shrinking, and every man was needed if France was to be held. The Le Mans garrison could have bolstered Rouen’s defenses. Instead, Somerset abandoned Le Mans, leaving the soldiers to their own devices. To survive, they established themselves at Saint-James-de-Beuvron and Mortain, two dismantled fortresses on the border of Brittany. The English soldiers repaired the battlements and used the towns as bases to plunder the countryside.
Francis, Duke of Brittany, protested. Although very much under English dominance, he was nominally independent and was forging ties with the French king, Charles VII. The homeless English soldiers, who had become little better than brigands, attacked and sacked the Breton town of Fougeres, an important center of the province. Somerset disclaimed all responsibility, but there was a good chance that he had some connection in the affair—perhaps even shared in the spoils. It was hard for Charles VII to believe that the leader of the sack, Francois de Suriennes, did not have at least Somerset’s tacit permission. After all, Suriennes was one of the duke’s senior commanders.
French grievances began to mount, and Charles VII grew tired of Somerset’s delays and prevarications. Perhaps there was some method to Somerset’s incompetence and lack of control over subordinates, the French monarch wondered. Perhaps those English soldiers had been purposely refused a home so that they would ultimately sack Fougeres and scare the Duke of Brittany into renewed loyalty to England. In any case, enough was enough. Charles decided to end English duplicity with an invasion of Normandy. The invasion, begun in July 1449, started the last phase of the Hundred Years’ War.
The concluding chapter of the off-and-on war traced its roots to the ambitions of another English king, Henry V, 35 years earlier. Young, bellicose, relentless, and rapacious, Henry wished to renew England’s dormant claims to the throne of France. The time seemed right, because the current French monarch, King Charles VI, was prone to intermittent fits of madness. Charles lived in a twilight world of mental illness, at one point refusing to bathe, shave, or change clothes for months on end; another time he believed that he was made entirely of glass. In the absence of a strong ruler, feudal magnates vied for power and France descended into political chaos.
The Empire of Henry V
In 1415, Henry V invaded France and took Harfleur after a brief siege. He then decided that the English Army would go on a chevaunchee, or extended raid, across northern France. But autumn rains drenched the invaders and rations grew short as they marched toward Calais. Sickness spread through the ranks, and dysentery laid many low. The French Army caught up with the English near the village of Agincourt. The English flanks were protected on each side by woods, but the French were confident of victory. They had around 30,000 men, while the English had around 6,000 diseased-wracked longbowmen and men-at-arms. Recklessly charging the English ranks, the heavily armored French nobles were decimated by showers of arrows launched by skilled longbowmen. Mired in the mud and pelted by hundreds of lethal shafts, the bunched-up French knights and men-at-arms died by the thousands.
Agincourt became more than just a victory against great odds—it became an English national epic, commemorated by story and song throughout the ages. The longbowmen, in particular, came to be celebrated for their steely performance at Agincourt. And indeed, the idea of a common archer bringing down the flower of French chivalry was something unique in medieval history.
In the years following Agincourt, Henry went from triumph to triumph. He signed an important alliance with Philip the Good, the ruler of Burgundy, a powerful state on the eastern flanks of France. By 1420, much of northern France was under English rule. Henry capped his battlefield successes with victory on the diplomatic front. The Treaty of Troyes made the English king the heir to the French throne after Charles VI’s passing. Sad, demented Charles hardly knew where he was, much less the details of the treaty that disinherited his son, the Dauphin, in favor of Henry V. The pact was negotiated by Charles’s queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, who also granted Henry the hand of their daughter, Catherine of Valois.
Henry’s actions were those of a feudal lord seeking to gain more lands and revenues. There was no thought as to the culture, language, and traditions of the subject peoples. Peasant serfs were mere pawns in the larger game of dynastic chess. Henry meant to make his conquest of France permanent. If he succeeded, he would equal if not surpass the old empire of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart. But the king’s calculations did not take into account the unsanitary conditions of the 15th century. In 1422, Henry contracted dysentery at the height of his power. Dehydration and death soon followed. Ironically, mad King Charles died a couple of months later, creating a dual monarchy under Henry’s nine-month-old son, Henry VI.
Joan of Arc: Awakening the Spirit of French Nationalism
For the next few years, it seemed as though the late king’s dynastic dreams would continue without him. John, Duke of Bedford, became primary regent for his royal nephew. Bedford was a good soldier, and English fortunes in France flourished. By 1429, virtually all of northern France was under English or Burgundian rule. Regions south of the Loire River, however, were still loyal to the Dauphin, who considered himself Charles VII.
The strategic city of Orleans was the dam that blocked English progress in the south. Once Orleans fell, English and Burgundian armies could flood into the region, taking control of all of France. Orleans was put under siege, and the fate of France hung in the balance. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Joan of Arc appeared on the scene. A 17-year-old peasant girl, Joan claimed that she was an instrument of God, sent to deliver France from the English and to see the Dauphin crowned king. Under her divine inspiration, the French miraculously lifted the siege of Orleans, and Joan did indeed see Charles VII crowned king at Reims before she was captured and eventually burned at the stake as a heretic and witch by her English and Burgundian enemies in 1431.
Joan had good strategic sense for a medieval saint. She recognized that the English had to be expelled from all of France. The Maid would accept no compromise. The “goddams”—a popular common term for the English, due to their habitual use of profanity—must go back to their island home. Prolonged truces that allowed them to control large territories inside France only prolonged the agony.
Joan also awakened something that was rare in the 15th century: a spirit of nationalism. France was a patchwork of feudal holdings, and most of its people were illiterate peasants. But there was also a growing sense of a French national identity, a feeling that the English were foreign invaders who were exploiting someone else’s homeland. Henry V’s dream of a great empire in which France would be incorporated into England died with the English defeat at Orleans. Yet the dream died hard, and the English were not going to leave without a protracted struggle. Normandy had been English until 1204, when it had been lost. Its possession seemed a coming home, not a conquest, to most Englishmen. England had its own national spirit, and English honor and prestige were at stake.