Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War Part II

Household of John, Duke of Berry

The defence was directed from Bourges by the Duke of Berry. The Duke was no soldier but he was assisted by experienced captains including Charles d’Albret, John Duke of Bourbon and that bold fighter Raoul lord of Gaucourt. Bourges was filled with refugees of the Parisian proscriptions of the past year. For a man with Jean de Berry’s commitment to the dynasty, armed confrontation with what was ostensibly a royal army commanded by the King and the Dauphin in person was a terrible experience, perhaps the worst crisis in a long life devoted to the avoidance of discord and the pursuit of comfort and beauty. He took the only line that he could take, that he was not resisting the King but only the Duke of Burgundy. Even at this late stage he put out feelers in the hope of finding a way out which would not put him at the mercy of his terrible nephew. The chronicler of Saint-Denis, who was in the King’s entourage, believed that Charles and many of those around him would have welcomed these approaches had it not been for the unbending attitude of John the Fearless. But John, determined to stick to the policy of unconditional surrender, pressed on regardless. The army quickly overran the outlying garrisons which had been stationed on the eastern and southern approaches to Bourges. The first sustained confrontation occurred at Dun-le-Roi, the last garrisoned fortress before the city. Dun was defended by a garrison of 400 Gascon and Italian routiers under the command of one of the Duke of Bourbon’s bastard half-brothers. But it was an old fortress with high walls and vulnerable to artillery fire. The great bombard Griette, which had destroyed the gatehouse of Ham the year before, was hauled up. It took twenty men to move it, and the detonations could be heard four miles away ‘like reverberations from hell’. On the first day a direct hit demolished a large part of a tower. On the second it breached another tower in two places and brought down a considerable section of wall. The garrison was instructed by the Duke of Berry to submit and withdrew amid screams of abuse from the massed ranks of Burgundians outside. As John the Fearless marched on to Bourges a herald went ahead to call on the city to surrender. The Duke of Berry replied that he would willingly surrender to the King or the Dauphin but not to those whom they had about them. John the Fearless arrived before Bourges on 11 June 1412 to find the walls manned and banners flying from every tower.

Siege of Bourges

Bourges was a substantial walled city in the centre of the vast plain of Berry. Viewed from the south, the direction from which the Burgundian army approached, its skyline owed much to Jean de Berry’s forty-year tenure. There was the western gable of the cathedral with its great rose window and its clock, both commissioned by the Duke; the immense hall and palace dominating the upper town, still incomplete in 1412, today buried beneath the Préfecture of the Cher; the two-storey Sainte-Chapelle, even larger than its famous archetype in Paris, where the Duke intended to be buried, today gone like the palace. The city was defended by a complete circuit of walls dating from the end of the twelfth century, reinforced with a tall circular keep, five powerful gateways and more than forty towers. On the west side the walls stood over the River Yèvre and its tributary the Auron. Two fortified bridges crossed the rivers, giving access to an expanse of marshland and to the open country beyond. In June 1412 these ancient but still formidable defences were manned by about 1,500 men-at-arms and some 400 archers including sizeable contingents of Gascon and English mercenaries. The situation of Bourges made a complete blockade hard to achieve. The besieging army would have been divided by the bogs and watercourses of the Yèvre and the Auron, inviting defeat in detail by sorties from the town. In practice it could be taken only by assault from the plain on the east and south sides. It was there that the Duke of Burgundy set up his camp and sited his artillery. Shortly gaping holes began to appear in the walls and turrets. Huge balls of cut stone were hurled into the city, demolishing whole houses, smashing timber buildings like matchwood and creating wide fissures in stone structures. Over the following weeks the Duke of Berry had to move his headquarters seven times to escape the devastation. Morale among the terrified inhabitants was low. The professional soldiers bore up better but they were mainly interested in their pay, which was greatly in arrears. The Duke of Berry, whose revenues had been severely reduced by the loss of Languedoc and Poitou, had already been reduced to pawning the jewels of his palace chapel. As the siege continued he was obliged to raid the treasuries of the city’s churches, selling the precious stones from the reliquaries and melting down their silver mounts to be minted into coins for the garrison.

The besiegers were in no better case. Their difficulties began almost as soon as they arrived. The garrison had mounted cannon and large fixed catapults on the walls. They inflicted heavy casualties and forced the besiegers to withdraw their siege lines out of range. But by placing their lines further back they exposed themselves to murderous sorties from the gates across the open ground east of the city. The besiegers tried to construct pontoon bridges across the rivers in the hope of closing off access to the city by the west and north. But the soft ground made the engineers’ task impossible and the attempt had to be abandoned. Meanwhile the besiegers’ supply situation deteriorated. The weather was terrible for men working in the open. Torrential rain throughout the spring was followed by a long heatwave in late June and July. The streams and wells dried up. Water had to be fetched over great distances. Within days the army had eaten all the cattle to be found in the region and stripped the fields and trees bare for twenty miles around. The purveyors had to bring in supplies from the Nivernais and Burgundy via the bridge of La Charité in heavily defended convoys. Cash from the treasurers in Paris came by the same route. Even so the convoys were frequently attacked by sortie parties from the city or by the powerful Armagnac garrisons at Sancerre and Gien to the north. The supply situation eased somewhat after the capture of Sancerre at the end of June but food remained scarce and dear throughout the siege.

In addition to his logistical problems the Duke of Burgundy was encountering mounting political ones. Unlike the Burgundian army of 1411, which had been recruited entirely from his own domains and those of his allies, the army of 1412 had been brought together by the King’s officers. Its members had been found in every province of northern and western France. Not all of them were devoted to John’s cause. A number of captains were there only out of respect for the authority of the Crown. Many of them resented John the Fearless’s rejection of compromise, his use of the King as a cipher and his determination to drive the wretched monarch beyond his physical endurance. Their views were shared by a number of people in the royal household. The Armagnacs were well aware of these difficulties. They were kept informed by well-placed friends in the enemy camp. Shortly after the beginning of the siege one of the King’s private secretaries, Geoffroy de Villon, began to send messages into the city suggesting that a sortie might succeed in capturing the King and the Dauphin and bringing them into Bourges. A number of soldiers and body servants of the King were in on the plot. They spread rumours about the camp of a truce in order to lower the guard of the watch. Raoul de Gaucourt then led a sortie by more than a thousand men, about half the garrison. They left by the bridges on the open west side and made their way to the encampment of the vanguard where the King and the Dauphin were. There was a pitched battle at the edge of the encampment in which Gaucourt lost a quarter of his strength before being driven back to the city. The role of Geoffroy de Villon was discovered by interrogating prisoners captured in the raid. He and two squires involved were beheaded a few days later. But this example did not end the divisions in the royal army. Shortly afterwards some 200 men switched sides and fled for gates of the city where arrangements had been made to admit them.

All of the Duke of Burgundy’s problems came to a head in the second week of July 1412. Dysentery had begun to spread through the camp as the heat intensified. Shortly a serious epidemic took hold. In the space of a few weeks some 2,000 men died of disease. Youth and fitness were no defence. The victims included some of the army’s leading captains, among them the King of Navarre’s brother Pierre Count of Mortain and the Duke of Brittany’s young brother Gilles. The survivors sickened amid the stench of rotting corpses. Panic set in. Desertions added to the Burgundians’ losses. The King and the Duke of Burgundy were forced to withdraw from their encampment outside the city walls and to establish a new base several miles back where the air was thought to be healthier. In these conditions doubts about the wisdom of the Duke of Burgundy’s inflexible strategy resurfaced. Demands for a compromise were openly voiced among the noblemen about the King. To the fury of the Duke the Dauphin himself was won over to their view. He directed that the artillery should avoid hitting Jean de Berry’s palace. When John questioned this order he protested that the war had lasted too long. The defenders of Bourges were ‘his uncle, his cousins and his closest kin by whom he might one day be well served in his affairs’. It was the first recorded breach between the Dauphin and his father-in-law. John the Fearless had angry words with the Duke of Bar, whom he suspected of putting him up to it. The Duke of Bar, whose brother was fighting for the Armagnacs, was notoriously ambivalent about John’s cause. All of these problems were now complicated by the prospect of English military intervention.

English Intervention

Henry IV’s ministers had begun to prepare the expeditionary force at the beginning of May 1412, even before final agreement had been reached with the Armagnac ambassadors. The recruitment of companies and the requisitioning of ships were practised routines which generally took between two and three months. The original plan was to land the army in France early in July. However, the ink had hardly dried on the treaty before the preparations were engulfed by a fresh political crisis which delayed it by several weeks. The problem arose out of ill-feeling between the Prince of Wales and his father and brother. Henry IV had originally intended to take command himself, accompanied by the Prince with a separate force of his own. The Prince, however, made no secret of the fact that he regarded himself as bound in honour to the Duke of Burgundy. He had opposed the treaty with the Armagnacs and he remained in contact with the John the Fearless after it had been made. Partly for this reason and partly to save money, he had been given only a minor role with a retinue so small as to be insulting. After what was evidently a bruising negotiation the Prince’s retinue was eventually increased. However, all of these arrangements had to be revisited when it became clear that Henry IV was physically incapable of commanding an army. His health rapidly deteriorated during the summer. He could no longer either walk or ride. His council, profoundly suspicious of the Prince, was appalled by the prospect of his taking command in his father’s place. They advised the King to appoint Thomas of Lancaster instead. This provoked a damaging row. The Prince was furious at being supplanted by his younger brother and appears to have pressed for the cancellation of an expedition that he had never liked anyway. At the same time the government was having difficulty finding the money to pay the shipping costs and the troops’ advances. Henry’s ministers put it about that the Prince and his friends were actively obstructing their preparations. This may well have been true. The same reports reached the ear of Jean de Kernezn, who was now for practical purposes the Duke of Burgundy’s resident agent in England and had excellent sources of information in the households of the Prince and his stepmother Joan of Navarre. Jacques Legrand, who had stayed behind in London to represent the interests of the Armagnac princes, lobbied for the project with mounting desperation.

For some time the future of the expedition hung in the balance. Writing to the Duke of Burgundy on 31 May 1412, the Earl of Arundel thought that the outcome was still uncertain. But by 10 June the King had settled the issue. The council succeeded in borrowing part of the money from the City of London and raised the rest by a campaign of forced loans. The expedition was confirmed and Thomas of Lancaster was formally appointed to command it. He was also made Lieutenant in Guyenne and charged with the task of taking possession of the provinces which the Armagnacs had promised to restore once they had disposed of the Duke of Burgundy. To give him the status required for these important functions Thomas was raised to the peerage as Duke of Clarence. The King’s cousin the Duke of York and his half-brother Sir Thomas Beaufort (who now became Earl of Dorset) were nominated as the new Duke’s lieutenants. The Prince of Wales was excluded altogether. He took this very badly. He withdrew in high dudgeon to his estates in the Midlands to confer with his supporters and to discuss the wider implications. There were worrying signs of a broader assault on his position by his father’s councillors. An investigation was launched into his stewardship of the finances of Calais which concluded that he had retained large sums due to the garrison. There were even rumours that they were pressing the King to disinherit him, presumably in favour of Thomas. Whether there was any truth in these rumours is unclear but the Prince and his friends believed them and resolved upon a show of strength. On 17 June Henry of Monmouth issued an extraordinary public manifesto from Coventry in which he presented a highly tendentious account of recent events, denied the accusations that had been made against him and protested his support for the campaign in France. His father’s councillors were denounced as ‘sons of iniquity, disciples of dissension, supporters of schism, disseminators of ill-feeling and fomentors of discord’. At the end of June the Prince appeared in London accompanied by a great number of prominent friends and an intimidating personal retinue to demand the punishment of his detractors. He probably hoped to pressure his father into replacing his councillors. If so he was disappointed. The King fobbed him off with a promise to refer the matter to the next Parliament and in the end the issue was dropped.

Reports of these events reached France garbled and late. The Duke of Burgundy was of course aware of the Armagnac mission to London from Jacques Legrand’s intercepted papers. But the first that he knew about its outcome was in the middle of June when a copy of a letter from Henry IV to the Four Members of Flanders was brought to him at Bourges. The letter, written from Westminster shortly before the treaty was finalised, referred to the offers that the Armagnacs had made to him and informed the Four Members of his plans for military operations in conjunction with the Armagnac princes. Invoking the Anglo-Flemish truce Henry called on the Flemings to withhold all assistance from the Duke of Burgundy in his military enterprises in France. A few days later one of the Prince of Wales’s chaplains arrived in the Burgundian camp at Bourges bearing an apologetic letter from his master reporting what had happened and telling John that he was unable in the circumstances to take their current negotiations any further. The details were filled in by Jean de Kernezn. His report, addressed to Charles VI from England, must have reached the camp at Bourges in early July. ‘Make speed to complete your operations,’ he wrote, ‘for the English army is assembling and their fleet is ready to sail for France.’

The arrival of an English army outside Bourges would have transformed the military balance. The Duke of Anjou and the Count of Penthièvre, who were John the Fearless’s principal allies among the higher nobility, were on their way to reinforce him with about 2,500 men. Even so the combined forces of the English, the garrison of Bourges and the troops of Arthur de Richemont and Charles of Orléans would have outnumbered them. In a pitched battle the formidable corps of 3,000 longbowmen would probably have been decisive. The Duke of Burgundy was forced to abandon his policy of unconditional surrender and settle with the Duke of Berry before the English arrived. A short truce was agreed. The Dukes of Berry and Burgundy met in a carefully prepared enclosure in an atmosphere redolent of mutual distrust. The two sides were separated by a timber barrier. The Duke of Berry appeared in chain mail and helmet, sword and axe in hand. ‘I admit that I have done wrong,’ he is reported to have said to his nephew, his eyes full of tears, ‘but you have unquestionably done worse.’ As he left he added: ‘In your father’s time we never needed a barrier between us like this.’ ‘It is not my doing,’ John replied. The negotiations which followed extended over several days and divided both sides. Among the Armagnacs in the city there was the familiar division between those who were mainly concerned to recover their confiscated property and their lost status in government and those whose main purpose was to avenge the murder of Louis of Orléans. There were some who wanted to hang on until the English arrived. Others thought that reliance on these dangerous auxiliaries was shameful and preferred to do without their help. The Duke of Berry’s chancellor, who must have known the truth, denied point-blank that there was any agreement with the English. Some of the defenders, determined to wreck the negotiations, ignored the truce and led sorties into the Burgundian camp while the negotiations were in progress. As for the Burgundians there were many things to set them against each other. Some agreed with the Dauphin and the Duke of Bar that the war had lasted too long. Some wondered whether the capture of Bourges was still feasible. Some were fanatics who were determined to insist on unconditional surrender. Some had received grants of property confiscated from the Armagnacs which they were unwilling to surrender as part of any deal with them.

In the end the Duke of Burgundy prevailed by sheer obduracy and force of personality. On 12 July his staff sent a document into the town containing a summary of the terms that he would accept. It was a short and partisan document which gave John everything that he wanted except for the public humiliation of the Duke of Berry. Both sides bound themselves to adhere to the ‘hollow peace’ of Chartres. The Armagnacs were to surrender Bourges and to open all their other garrisoned fortresses to the King’s officers. They were also to renounce ‘any treaty or alliance that they are said to have made with the English’ and any other alliance directed against the Duke of Burgundy. In return the Duke of Burgundy and his allies promised very little. They would to do their best, they said, to persuade Charles VI to restore the offices and property of which the Armagnacs had been despoiled. The defenders of Bourges were given until three o’clock on the following afternoon, 13 July, to accept. As the appointed hour approached Charles VI stood in front of the walls in full armour in the burning heat, the Oriflamme flying from a lance beside him and his entire army drawn up in lines across the plain at his back. Inside the city the Armagnac princes were still arguing about the terms. Finally they decided to reject them. But the Duke of Berry was as determined as John the Fearless. He sent a message to the King accepting them. It was the King’s last public appearance for three months. At some time in the next few hours, as the heralds passed through the camp announcing the cease-fire, the King relapsed into his old illness after his longest and most active period of lucidity for many years. Yet even in this period of relative coherence Charles had contributed little to the decision to fight the Duke of Berry and nothing to the decision to make peace with him. His only function now was to dignify the grubby decisions of other men. That at least he had done.

For the Duke of Burgundy it was a remarkable outcome considering the weakness of his position just a week earlier. On 16 July 1412 the Duke of Berry presented the keys of the city to the Dauphin. The formalities were completed in the hamlet of Argenvières on the banks of the Loire opposite La Charité, where the Duke of Burgundy had withdrawn with the King and the Dauphin to escape the foetid air around Bourges. Here, a week later on 22 July, the Armagnac leaders who had been present at the siege swore the customary oaths to observe the terms of peace. They were joined by emissaries from Charles of Orléans and his brothers, who undertook on their behalf to be bound by them as well. They then set about burying as best they could their embarrassing treaty with the English. A letter was issued in the King’s name annulling it and commanding the Armagnac princes to renounce it. The Dukes of Berry and Bourbon and Charles d’Albret then sealed letters to Henry IV and the Prince of Wales citing the King’s command and declaring that they considered themselves to be released.