The Pirate War, 1402–1404 Part IV

In England lessons were being learned from the debacle at Plymouth. During October, as reports came in from Calais of Saint-Pol’s activities, coast-guards were mobilised in the maritime counties, regional commanders assigned to them and beacons prepared on cliff-tops for the first time in more than two decades. Two new admirals were appointed, the King’s half-brother Sir Thomas Beaufort for the east coast and Sir Thomas Berkeley for the south and west. Berkeley, who bore the brunt of the defence against Saint-Pol’s fleet, was a flamboyant soldier, a munificent patron of fighting men, and an enthusiast for the war at sea who had once commissioned his own war barge. He knew how to work with professional seamen and forged a strong relationship with Harry Pay, the notorious corsair of Poole. Berkeley proved to be one of the more effective sea commanders of the age. Over the winter of 1403–4 some 260 requisitioned merchantmen were put at his disposal. About a third of these were concentrated at Dartmouth to confront Saint-Pol at sea while the rest were assigned to the defence of individual harbours.

At the beginning of November 1403 Saint-Pol sailed from Harfleur. He did not make straight for England as he had been expected to do. Instead he took his fleet south across the Bay of Biscay and into the Gironde. There he blockaded the city of Bordeaux, while on land French troops attempted to choke off the flow of goods reaching Bordeaux through the river valleys. Further south the Count of Armagnac was reported to be raising money and troops to invade the valley of the Adour towards Bayonne. These concerted operations, together with the concurrent blockade of Calais, were conceived as a softening-up exercise for the campaign planned for the following spring. They were designed to force England’s three major coastal strongholds in France to run down their food stocks in advance of a French siege. Leaving most of his ships in the Gironde, Saint-Pol returned to Harfleur at about the end of the month. From here on 4 December he sailed for England with twenty-nine large armed barges carrying 1,500 men-at-arms in addition to their crews and some companies of crossbowmen. After two days at sea they arrived off the Hampshire coast on 6 December. Their objective was probably Southampton. But they were unable to penetrate the Solent because a large naval force was concentrated there waiting to escort the annual wine fleet to Bordeaux. So the French landed instead on the Isle of Wight. Several of Saint-Pol’s companions were dubbed as knights as they disembarked and gathered on the foreshore. But they found no one to do battle with. The inhabitants had abandoned their homes and fled to the security of Carisbrook castle or hidden in the densely wooded interior of the island. The invaders began to burn the villages of the coast and round up cattle. Eventually a priest came before them to discuss a ransom treaty. But the negotiations dragged on. By 9 December, before they were complete, the English had managed to collect enough troops for a counter-attack. Saint-Pol drew up his men in battle array. But as Berkeley’s ships began to appear off the coast, threatening his line of retreat, he thought better of it. Hastily abandoning his spoil Saint-Pol re-embarked his men.

For the next three weeks the whereabouts of Saint-Pol’s fleet was unknown. The English King’s ministers believed that a large army was waiting somewhere on the French coast in preparation for a fresh landing on a much larger scale. They sent six ships to scour the ocean for sightings and a spy to listen out for gossip in France, all without success. In the English counties the old Ricardian loyalists were stirred by the spectacle of a government in disarray and by the usual heady mix of rumour, garbled reports and fantasy. Maud de Vere Countess of Oxford, the widow of Richard II’s favourite of the 1380s, was convinced that Saint-Pol would land with an army at Harwich at the end of December and that he would be accompanied by the Duke of Orléans and Queen Isabelle. At her manor at Bentley in Suffolk she and her friends and household, according to the prosecution at her subsequent trial, were making ready to destroy the warning beacons set up on the coast and guide the invaders to Northampton where they were expected to join with the forces of the pseudo-Richard II.

A few days before Christmas 1403 a great council met at Westminster to take stock of the crisis. The assembly had been planned as a show of unity in the face of what seemed to be a concerted French attempt to provoke fresh rebellions in England and Wales. All of the peers and prelates present renewed their oaths of fealty to Henry IV and his descendants. They swore to ‘live and die with him against all persons in the world’. A group of French heralds, who were at Westminster on diplomatic business, were invited to attend as observers. A few days later, on 28 December, the King’s permanent councillors met in the London mansion of the Countess of Salisbury to review the defences of southern England. They called on a group of experienced shipmasters to advise them. The meeting decided to reinforce Berkeley’s fleet and man it with double crews so that they could operate in shifts. A smaller squadron was to be sent south to Guernsey to seek out Saint-Pol’s fleet in the inlets of Brittany. Ultimately Berkeley was expected to have 1,000 men-at-arms, 2,100 archers and 5,000 seamen under his command.

In fact, although the council did not know it, the danger had already passed. Baulked of their spoil on the Isle of Wight, Saint-Pol’s ships had looted their way down the coast of Normandy before stopping to winter at Barfleur. His commercial backers had wasted the money that they had invested in victuals and equipment and had taken hardly any spoil. They decided to cut their losses and abandon the venture. Saint-Pol himself was received with mockery and embarrassment when he appeared in Paris to join the celebrations at court over Christmas. Henry IV learned most of this in the new year. His own naval forces were temporarily stood down and a herald was sent to France with a sarcastic message expressing his disappointment that the Count had not stayed long enough in England for Henry to attend to him in person. Later, in February 1404, the Calais garrison wreaked revenge on Saint-Pol’s domains in Picardy, looting and burning them for four days before returning to Calais with so many cattle that it was necessary to build a large temporary stockade outside the walls in which to hold them. In the following month Sir Thomas Berkeley was commissioned to hold the Channel for another three months with 21 ships, 300 men-at-arms and 600 archers. The cost of these operations was prodigious. The council estimated that Berkeley’s fleet would cost nearly £15,000 over the winter. Much of this was borne in the first instance by Berkeley himself. He sold his Essex estates in order to help fund the venture.

The Count of Saint-Pol was a braggart with ample resources and strong political support but no clear idea of what he was trying to achieve apart from fame. By comparison Jean d’Espagne’s tiny force in Wales won no fame, for it was ignored by all the French chroniclers. Yet it made a significant contribution to the operations of Glendower and his captains over the winter of 1403–4. His men passed more than two months at Caernarvon, engaged in the siege of Edward I’s mighty fortress on the Menai Strait. They wasted much of Anglesey, from which Caernarvon was usually supplied. They captured the English sheriff as he was proceeding with a large armed escort on his rounds and sent him as a prisoner to Glendower. By January 1404 the garrison of Caernarvon was desperate. The Constable got a woman to carry a message through the siege lines (‘because no man dared to do it’). She reported that the French and Welsh had begun to assault the fortress with stone-throwers, wheeled shelters (or ‘sows’) and extensible ladders. The Welsh never took Caernarvon, even with French help. But the garrison of Harlech finally agreed in February to sell out unless relieved within a short time limit. The circumstances of its fall are not recorded but Jean d’Espagne’s ships and troops are known to have participated in the later stages of the siege. Towards the end of April, they were taking part in an extremely destructive Welsh raid into Shropshire which was said to have wasted a third of the county and provoked large-scale emigration from the region. Shortly afterwards Sir Thomas Berkeley arrived with a fleet fitted out in Bristol. His orders were to resupply the beleaguered garrisons of north and west Wales and expel the French squadron. In this he seems to have succeeded, for nothing more is heard of Jean d’Espagne. The probability is that after maintaining itself in Wales for seven months the French expeditionary force returned home in May 1404. They brought with them to France Glendower’s chancellor, Griffin Young, and his brother-in-law, John Hanmer. They were charged to make a formal alliance between the Welsh leader and the King of France.


At New Year 1404 the French royal princes gathered in Paris at a court without a King. Charles VI had been ‘absent’ since shortly before Christmas. It was the traditional season for exchanging gifts and planning the military operations of the coming year. The full council assembled on 7 January 1404 to consider the war with England. The Duke of Orléans did not attend. Ever changeable, headstrong but easily disheartened, Louis had by now abandoned his plans to invade Italy and paid off the army that he had assembled in the Rhône valley. But he was detained in Avignon by difficult discussions with Benedict XIII and did not return to Paris until the following month. However, the critical decisions had already been agreed in the previous summer and reflected Louis’ agenda. The next major conference with the English was due to open at Leulinghem on 1 March 1404 and according to the French reckoning their commitment to observe the truce would expire three weeks later on the 20th. The council decided that it would not be renewed. As soon as it expired they planned to make war on England on several fronts. The main military operations would be the long-planned campaigns against the remaining English possessions in Calais and Gascony. But a third army was now envisaged, to be sent to Wales to support Owen Glendower. According to Henry IV’s informants the council also resolved to send embassies in search of assistance to Scotland, Milan and Brittany in addition to the embassy of Charles de Savoisy which was already active in Aragon and Castile. To pay for all this activity the new taille agreed between the princes in July was now confirmed and fixed at 800,000 livres, the largest imposition of its kind since the tax had been devised in the 1380s. It would be collected, they decreed, at the end of April. These decisions were eventually ratified by the King when he recovered his faculties towards the end of January. The taille was duly proclaimed on 30 January. The three royal dukes present swore to see it spent exclusively on the war, apart from 200,000 livres which was earmarked for the King of Navarre in return for the cession to the Crown of the fortress-port of Cherbourg. The Duke of Orléans, they declared, would in due course swear the same oath.

Reports of the proceedings at the French council meeting had already reached England when, a week later, Parliament opened at Westminster. The Chancellor’s opening address was filled with foreboding. He recited the recent events in Wales and Scotland, the rebellion of the Percies, the assumption of power by the Duke of Orléans in France, the raiding fleet assembled by the Count of Saint-Pol and the threat to Calais and Gascony. The deliberations of both houses were overshadowed by reports coming in daily of ‘enemies and rebels’. The Commons believed that at any moment a fresh rebellion might break out, forcing a dissolution of Parliament as the King and the lords were called away to deal with it. They repeated for a third time since 1399 their oaths of fealty. But any impression of unity was undermined by the Commons’ brutal attack on the King’s management of his finances. They were convinced, as so many of their predecessors had been, that if properly husbanded the customs and the revenues of the royal demesne together with the treasure left by Richard II would be enough to fund the whole cost of the war in Wales, the defence of the Scottish border, the protection of the coast against French fleets and the suppression of internal rebellion. The King, they complained, had authorised profligate expenditure on grants to favourites and ‘various ladies’ and on repaying borrowings from his Italian bankers, while his castles went unrepaired and his troops unpaid. There was some truth in the accusation that Henry’s household expenditure was extravagant and that his grants were excessive. But the Commons’ concerns were exaggerated. Their belief that the cost of defence could be met without general taxation was completely unrealistic, just as it had been when they had uttered the same complaints in the 1370s and 1380s. In the event all that they were willing to vote by way of taxation was a tax on incomes from land amounting to just £12,000, less than a third of the value of a standard Parliamentary subsidy. Moreover the proceeds were required to be paid not to the treasury but to a special commission of war treasurers answerable to the Commons. The commission, comprising a clerk and three London businessmen, was charged to disburse the money exclusively on defence. This parsimony was borne of distrust of the King’s competence and of his servants’ honesty. But it left England perilously exposed to the most significant threat from France for two decades.

It was not that the Commons were under any illusions about the reality of the threat. Much of February was passed in drawing up a great remonstrance in the name of King, Lords and Commons, addressed to the ‘prelates, peers, lords spiritual and temporal and the whole community of France’. This was a long protest against the conduct of the French over the past year: the challenges of the Duke of Orléans and the Count of Saint-Pol, the attacks on England and Bordeaux over the winter, and the suspension of diplomatic contact since the previous autumn. If the truce broke down and more Christian blood was spilled, they declared, it would be France’s doing, not England’s. The document pointed out that the English ambassadors were at Calais waiting for the conference fixed for 1 March to open, but there had been no sign of a French embassy and the English delegation’s letters were still unanswered. Were they going to attend or not? Parliament’s remonstrance was intended as a direct appeal to the French political community, an attempt to sidestep the personal animosity to Henry IV among the royal princes which had undermined four years of frustrating and inconclusive diplomacy. The task of delivering it was entrusted to the Gloucestershire knight Sir John Cheyne, who had served on the King’s council and had been four times Speaker of the Commons. His instructions were to take it to Paris and deliver it in person to the French royal council. Henry IV, perhaps unrealistically, expected great things of Cheyne’s mission. He ordered the captains of the fortresses on the march of Calais to refrain from all hostilities during the two months which it was expected to take, except for those directed against the Count of Saint-Pol personally. But the herald sent to apply for a safe-conduct was turned back by the French captain of Boulogne and the Count of Saint-Pol threatened to arrest Cheyne if he caught him. Cheyne seems to have been able to hand over the remonstrance to Jean de Hangest at Calais in June but he himself never got further than the town gates.

By the time that Hangest received the English remonstrance it had been overtaken by events. At Saint-Malo a very large privateering expedition had been fitting out since the beginning of the year. Some 150 Breton ships were concentrated in the harbour and more were being made ready in the ports of Normandy. About 2,000 men-at-arms had been recruited to embark on them in addition to their crews and some companies of crossbowmen. The captains were Jean de Penhoet and Guillaume du Châtel, the two Breton noblemen who had led the raid on Plymouth the previous August. They had the explicit approval of the royal dukes. When the French delegation failed to appear at Calais on 1 March, Henry IV and his ministers assumed the worst. It was the first time that the French had broken off diplomatic contact completely or allowed the truce of 1396 to lapse. A French landing in England was declared to be imminent. The admirals were ordered to concentrate all available ships in the Downs off the Kent coast. Men-at-arms were summoned to London from across England to board them and coast-guards were arrayed to defend the beaches.

In the second week of April 1404 the Breton and Norman fleets put to sea and joined forces in the Channel before making for the Devon coast. They met with no resistance at sea. But the ships were sighted and the coast-guards were ready for them. On 15 April the French landed at Blackpool Sands, about two miles from Dartmouth. They found that a long line of trenches had been dug along the escarpment behind the beach. A large force of armed men was gathered behind them. Guillaume du Châtel landed with the first companies of men-at-arms. His instinct was to wait for his crossbowmen and the rest of the men-at-arms, who were still disembarking from the ships, and then to try to take the defenders by the flank. But he was talked out of this cautious tactic by his companions. Instead it was decided to mount a frontal assault on the defenders from the beach. It was an act of courageous folly. The men advanced into a hail of arrows, suffering heavy losses. Those who penetrated to the trenches were killed in large numbers as they tried to fight their way across. Many of their companions were drowned as they tried to wade ashore from the ships in full armour to join the mêlée. Others were massacred by furious local levies with no conception of the value of a man-at-arms taken alive. About 500 French died including Guillaume du Châtel himself. When it was all over a large part of the French force, including Jean de Penhoet, was still on board the ships. Seeing the fate of their companions, they turned about and made for home. Twenty knights and three lords were taken alive in addition to a large number of men of lesser rank. They included a Scottish knight, Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith, an unnamed Welsh squire and two of Guillaume du Châtel’s brothers, one of whom, Tanneguy, was destined to play a notorious part in the wars of the next generation. In due course the leading prisoners were sent under escort to London to be interrogated about future French plans. Guillaume himself was pulled out from among the dead and buried in Dartmouth Church. Some time afterwards, another brother wrote to the King from Brittany asking to be allowed to visit the place where he had fallen and to take his body home. ‘Men who get caught up in war’, he wrote, ‘may perchance be blessed by good fortune or cursed by bad, for none of us knows the inscrutable ways of the Lord.’


The Duke of Burgundy had approved the Breton expeditionary force. His retainers and servants were prominent in Guillaume du Châtel’s army and some had had their expenses paid by their master. But it was to be Philip’s last contribution to the war with England. In the spring of 1404 a severe epidemic of flu swept across northern Europe. Philip, who had left Paris early in March, was taken ill at Brussels on 16 April. He deteriorated fast. On 26 April he left for Arras in a litter, preceded by a team of sweepers to smooth the road as he passed. On the following day he died at an inn in the small town of Halle at the edge of the Flemish plain. Over the following six weeks the Duke’s embalmed remains, clothed in the habit of a Carthusian monk and encased in a lead coffin weighing a third of a ton, were carried slowly across the rough roads of north-eastern France, escorted by his sons, courtiers and servants and sixty liveried torch-bearers. On 16 June he was buried in the magnificent Carthusian monastery of Champmol outside Dijon which he had built to serve as the mausoleum of his family, in the great marble tomb surrounded by mourners in carved stone on which teams of sculptors had been working intermittently for more than two decades.

Philip of Burgundy had been born in 1342, five years after Edward III had declared war on France. His whole life had been overshadowed by the struggle with England. He had been at the forefront of France’s public life since the day, nearly half a century before, when he had been captured with his father John II on the battlefield of Poitiers. Widely regarded as France’s most experienced international statesman, he had succeeded in maintaining his grip on power for more than twenty years after the death of Charles V in 1380 by dint of sheer experience, eloquence and force of personality. Only in the last few months of his life was he displaced by a younger generation. In a number of ways Philip’s death marked a turning point. He had plundered the resources of the monarchy to create the germ of a great transnational state standing across France’s eastern and northern borders, as much German as French. He had been too close to the French court and administration, too intimate a member of the inner circle of the French royal family to perceive any difference between his own interests and those of France. His successors were inevitably more distant and objective, and in their time the divergent destinies of France and Burgundy became more obvious. A younger generation of French royal princes, of which the 32-year-old Duke of Orléans was the figurehead, was coming to power. They had not lived through the catastrophes of the mid-fourteenth century. They lacked Philip’s cautious ways, his wider grasp of European politics and his understanding of the limits of French power, and they did not share his historic respect for England.