A further 1,900 troops had arrived from England in the spring but before launching a major new offensive it had been necessary to capture a number of enemy strongholds. Among them was the town of Montargis, sixty miles south-east of Paris, which dominated the Yonne valley. It occupied an extremely strong position on a headland completely surrounded by the rivers Loing and Vernisson, while the approach was criss-crossed by canals which hindered the besiegers. It had a resolute garrison under the Sieur de La Faille who was well liked by the townsmen. Lord Warwick pitched his camp on the road from Paris, on both sides of the river, and possessed a good supply line. He had brought only 5,000 men but he had an adequate artillery train and on 15 July began a methodical bombardment of the town. Nevertheless, after six weeks he had made little progress. He could hardly have expected that the Dauphinists could produce a commander capable of taking him by surprise.
John, Bastard of Orleans (popularly known later as the ‘bon et brave Dunois’ from his county of that name) was the left-handed son of the Duke of Orleans who had been murdered in 1407. A penniless adventurer, the Bastard became a professional soldier and fought at Baugé and Verneuil. He was now twenty-four years old. In September 1427 he and another good soldier, La Hire, were sent to reinforce Montargis with 1,600 troops. The Bastard had obviously studied the battle at Cravant, and a messenger from him reached the town with a plan of concerted action. Suddenly the Bastard and his men appeared in full view of the English on the road south of the town. Warwick’s troops rushed to attack them, whereupon the townsmen opened the sluice-gates and the ensuing flood carried away the wooden bridge over the river, cutting the English forces in two and drowning many. At the same time the defenders sallied out to attack them from the rear. Warwick lost a thousand men, the rest fleeing in panic and abandoning their artillery.
On the same day as the débâcle at Montargis, Sir John Fastolf and a small force were defeated at Ambrières in Maine, and all Maine rose in revolt. The Regent, coldly determined, at once recommenced the siege of Montargis and began to put down the rising in Maine. He showed himself no less merciless than his brother: the town of La Gravelle did not honour its promise to surrender by a given date, so he beheaded the hostages which it had given as a surety. Lord Talbot was also beginning to show his quality. When La Hire seized Le Mans, Talbot retook it and rescued the garrison with only 300 men, going on to capture Laval which was one of the keys to Maine. By the spring of 1428 the situation had been restored and the way was now open for the long-hoped-for offensive.
But the English were still bedevilled by lack of money. Although taxed to the hilt the conquered territories could not provide enough, while in England Parliament had shown itself unco-operative despite Bedford’s pleas. In July 1427 he had sent Salisbury home to beg the Council for help, and eventually the Earl obtained £24,000, though he had to lend part of it from his own resources. He sailed from Sandwich in June 1428 with 450 men-at-arms, 2,250 archers, ten miners, over seventy masons, carpenters and bowmakers and a new artillery train. Meanwhile the Regent had been assembling troops and supplies. Salisbury marched into Paris in July. He and the Regent differed over the objectives of the forthcoming campaign—the former wished to capture Orleans, the key to the Loire and from whence he could strike over the river into the Dauphinist heartland ; Bedford, on the other hand, wanted Angers which would give the English complete control of Anjou and enable them to link up their northern territories with Guyenne. Moreover the Regent had scruples about attacking Orleans ; to do so was to breach a treaty, and as its feudal lord the Duke of Orleans was a prisoner in England, the assault would be against all the rules of chivalry. Salisbury prevailed, but Bedford seems to have kept his misgivings ; some years afterwards he wrote to his nephew Henry VI how the Plantagenet cause had prospered everywhere in France until the siege of Orleans, ‘takyn in hand God knoweth by what avys’.
The Earl began his offensive in mid-August, capturing more than forty towns and fortresses, ‘somme wonne be assault and somme otherwyse’ as he put it. They included the towns on the Loire nearest to Orleans—Beaugency and Meung downstream and Jargeau upstream. On 12 October he invested Orleans. On the northern bank of the Loire, the city must have presented a daunting spectacle. Its thirty-foot-high walls were so long that the English were unable to surround them with siege works and had to rely on patrols. Inside there were more defenders than the besiegers outside—2,400 troops and 3,000 militia, commanded by the same Sieur de Gaucourt who had been at Harfleur ; they had 71 guns mounted on the walls, some firing stone shot weighing nearly 200 lbs and far outnumbering the English artillery. Nor were the English troops, who had dwindled to 4,000, of the best quality; they had been looting and deserting ever since they landed and had sacked an especially holy shrine at Cléry. As for Burgundians, Salisbury had a mere 150, hired from the Duke. The Earl had no hope of blockading the city with so few men, and the defenders could obtain supplies and reinforcements without difficulty. Not in the least deterred, ‘mad-brain’d Salisbury’ decided to batter his way over the main bridge across the river, a structure 350 metres wide which stretched from the south bank to the centre of the city. It was defended on the bank by an earthwork and then by two massive towers over the first arch, known as the Tourelles. A bombardment followed by an assault was unsuccessful, but when the towers’ garrison realized that miners had tunnelled beneath the foundations they fled in panic, demolishing two arches of the bridge behind them.
Salisbury climbed up on to the third floor of the Tourelles to have a closer view of Orleans and decide where to attack next, ‘looking very attentively on all sides to see and devise in what way he might surround and subdue it’. An apocryphal story says that an English captain, Sir William Glasdale, said to the Earl: ‘My Lord, you see your city.’ Suddenly a schoolboy set off a small bombard on the walls whose gunners had left it during dinner. Salisbury heard the report and ducked. The gunstone came through the window, killing a gentleman next to him, and an iron bar flew off, hitting Salisbury’s visor and slicing away half his face. To the genuine sorrow of his men ‘who both feared and loved him’, after a week’s agony he died at Meung on 27 October, his last words being to beg his officers to continue the siege. Wavrin believed that had Salisbury lived another three months he would have taken Orleans. His death was a calamity for the English.
The Earl of Suffolk took over the command. This great-grandson of Edward III’s moneylender was a very different man from Salisbury. Although a veteran of Harfleur who had seen many campaigns, he was an unimaginative and unenterprising soldier, averse to taking risks, and above all unlucky. He continued the siege, after a fashion ; a garrison was left in the Tourelles under Glasdale while Suffolk and the rest of the troops went into winter quarters in nearby towns. However, Lord Talbot and Lord Scales brought them back on 1 December, surrounding the city with a line of sixty stockaded earthworks, known as bastilles, linked by communication trenches. As a blockade it was hardly adequate, for there was a wide gap to the north-east. In any case the defenders inside the city had plenty of food, and were reinforced by the Bastard of Orleans, La Hire, Poton de Xaintrailles and 500 fresh troops. But the English hung on grimly during the winter. The courtesies of chivalry were scrupulously observed. On Christmas Day Suffolk sent some figs to the Bastard and received a fur coat in exchange while the city lent the besiegers an orchestra.
We know the names of Sir William Glasdale’s garrison in the Tourelles, and they sound astonishingly modern and ordinary—they would not have been out of place at Torres Vedras or Tobruk. Among them were Thomas Jolly, Bill Martin, Davy Johnson, Walter Parker, Matthew Thornton, George Ludlow, Patrick Hall, William Vaughan, Thomas Sand, Dick Hawke, John Langham, William Arnold, George Blackwell, and John Reid from Redesdale.
On 12 February 1429 Sir John Fastolf, who was taking a convoy of Lenten food—herrings and lentils—from Paris to the English at Orleans, learnt at Rouvray near Janville that he was about to be attacked by a Dauphinist force of 4,000 men under the Count of Clermont. Fastolf, who only had 500 English archers and 1,000 Parisian militia (probably crossbowmen) immediately halted and laagered his wagons, leaving two narrow entrances fortified by the pointed stakes of his archers. Clermont had some small cannon and began to use them on the laager with considerable effect. But then a Scots detachment under Sir John Stewart of Darnley insisted on attacking on foot, and the French men-at-arms joined them, though remaining on horseback. They were bloodily repulsed by arrow-fire, whereupon Fastolf mounted his archers (who almost certainly carried lances) and charged out to complete the enemy’s rout, killing about 500—mainly Scots. Fastolf lost only four men, apart from some wagoners who had tried to run away. It was heartening that the Parisians should have shown themselves so loyal. The Regent had a service of thanksgiving held in Paris and paid special honour to the militia men.
By the spring of 1429, the English were still no nearer capturing Orleans. In April Bedford begged the Council for more men and was sent only 100 men-at-arms. The Dauphinists then made a shrewd diplomatic move by ceding Orleans to the Duke of Burgundy, on the pretext that its lord the Duke of Orleans was a prisoner in England. Philip was eager to accept but Bedford, although concerned at putting the alliance with him at risk, refused to agree. Angrily Philip ordered Burgundian troops to leave the siege. By 15 April the Regent was again writing to the Council, deploring the low morale of his army, pleading for reinforcements and warning that without military or financial assistance he would be force to raise the siege.
The walls were still unbreached. Suffolk held on, without much hope. He had forgotten to put chain-booms across the Loire, so the enemy were able to use the river for moving troops and supplies. On 29 April barges laden with food sailed from Chézy only five miles upstream and, while the English were distracted by a mock assault on one of their earthworks, got through to the city. Next day, accompanied by a small escort, the leader of an army of relief rode into Orleans on a black charger, carrying a small battle-axe. She was Joan of Arc.
‘The Witch of Orleans’
The relief of the siege of Orleans by a French army under Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was the decisive event of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between the French and the English. The course of the war had to that point constantly shifted. On October 25, 1415, King Henry V of England defeated the French in the Battle of Agincourt. Five years later French king Charles VI agreed to the Treaty of Troyes whereby his daughter Catherine was to marry Henry V. Charles VI also repudiated the dauphin, his son Charles, as illegitimate and acknowledged Henry as his heir. Henry V then campaigned successfully against French forces loyal to the dauphin until his untimely death in August 1422 reopened the matter of succession. The
English named Henry’s nine-month-old son as king of France and England. Charles VI died that October, and many French supported his son Charles, the former dauphin, as the rightful king. Charles, however, was weak, degenerate, vacillating, and utterly incapable of leadership.
In these circumstances the regent for the young Henry VI, the Duke of Bedford, allied England with the powerful Duchy of Burgundy and on July 21, 1423, defeated the French at Cravant, establishing English rule over all of France north of the Loire River. On August 17, 1524, Bedford annihilated a French force at Ver-neuil. In the autumn of 1428 English-Burgundian forces launched an offensive to secure the crossing of the Loire River at Orleans to campaign in Armagnac, the heart of Charles’s territory.
Orleans was a large city and one of the strongest fortresses in France. Three of its four sides were strongly walled and moated, and its southern side rested on the Loire. The city walls were well defended by numerous catapults and 71 large cannon, and stocks of food had been gathered. Jean Dunois, Comte de Longueville, commanded the city’s garrison of about 2,400 soldiers and 3,000 armed citizens.
English troops under the Earl of Salisbury arrived at Orleans on October 12, 1428. Because he had only about 5,000 men, Salisbury was not able to invest Orleans completely. Nonetheless, on October 24 the English seized the fortified bridge across the Loire, although Salisbury was mortally wounded in the attack. In December William Pole, Earl of Suffolk, took over command of siege operations. The English constructed a number of small forts to protect the bridge as well as their encampments.
Although the French in Orleans mounted several forays and were able to secure limited supplies, by early 1429 the situation in the city was desperate, with the defenders close to starvation. Orleans was now the symbol of French resistance and nationalism. Charles was considering flight abroad, but the situation was not as bleak as it appeared. French peasants were rising against the English, and only a leader was lacking.
That person appeared in the young illiterate peasant girl, Jeanne d’Arc. She informed Charles that she had been sent by God to raise the siege of Orleans and to lead him to Reims to be crowned king of France. Charles allowed Jeanne, dressed in full armor, to lead (as chef de guerre) a relief army of up to 4,000 men and a convoy of supplies to Orleans. The Duc d’Alengon had actual command.
Jeanne’s fame quickly spread far and wide, and her faith in her divine mission inspired the French. As the relief force approached Orleans, Jeanne sent a letter to Suffolk demanding surrender. Not surprisingly, he refused. Jeanne then demanded that the army circle around and approach the city from the north. The other leaders agreed; the French army was ferried to the north bank of the Loire and entered the city through a north gate on April 29.
Jeanne urged an attack on the English from the city, assuring the men of God’s protection. On May 1 Jeanne awoke to learn that a French attack against the English at Fort St. Loup had begun without her and was not going well. She rode out in full armor and rallied the attackers, who were then victorious. All the English defenders were killed, while the French lost only two dead. Jeanne then insisted that the soldiers confess their sins and ban all prostitutes from the army and promised the men that they would be victorious in five days. Another appeal to the English to surrender met with derisive shouts.
On May 5 Jeanne led an attack out of the south gate of the city. The French avoided the bridge over the Loire, which the English had captured at the beginning of the siege. The French crossed through shallow water to an island in the middle of the river and from there used a boat bridge to gain the south bank. The French captured the English fort at St. Jean le Blanc and then moved against a large fort at Les Augustins, close to the bridge. The battle was costly to both sides, but Jeanne led a charge that left the French in possession of the fort.
The next day, May 6, Jeanne’s troops assaulted Les Tournelles, the towers at the southern end of the bridge. Jeanne was hit by an arrow and carried from the field, but the wound was not major; by late afternoon she had rejoined the battle. On May 7 a French knight took Jeanne’s banner to lead an attack on the towers. She tried to stop him, but the mere sight of the banner caused the French soldiers to follow it. Jeanne then joined the battle.
Using scaling ladders, the French assaulted the walls, with Jeanne in the thick of the fight. The 400-500 English defenders attempted to flee on the bridge, but it was soon on fire and collapsed. On May 8 the remaining English forces abandoned the siege and departed.
In his official pronouncements Charles took full credit for the victory, but the French people attributed it to Jeanne and flocked to join her. In successive battles, most notably at Patay on June 19, the French routed the English from their Loire strongholds. In July the French took Reims from the Burgundians, and there, on July 16, Charles was anointed king, with Jeanne in attendance in full armor and with banner in hand. The moral effect of this coronation was vast. Given the circumstances, few could doubt that Charles VII was the legitimate ruler of France.
Jeanne called for an immediate advance on Paris. Charles, however, wanted only to return to the Loire. Jeanne’s attempt to capture Paris failed, and Charles signed a truce with the Duke of Burgundy. Charles ordered Jeanne to cease fighting and had her army disbanded. In May 1430 Jeanne was taken prisoner by the Burgundians. When Charles refused to ransom her, Duke Philip of Burgundy sold Jeanne to the English, who put her on trial at Rouen for heresy and sorcery and executed her in May 1431.
Although the Hundred Years’ War continued for another two decades, the relief of the siege of Orleans was the turning point in the long war. Jeanne’s death checked for a time the uprising of French nationality, but peace between France and Burgundy in 1435, Charles VII’s effective advisers (he became known as “Charles the Well-Served”), and military reforms in France that provided for a standing army and infantry militia finally brought the expulsion of the English. The Hundred Years’ War ended with the fall of Bordeaux to the French in 1453.
Gies, Frances. Jean of Arc: The Legend and the Reality. New York: Harper and Row, 1981. Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years’ War: The English in France, 1337-1453. New York: Atheneum, 1978.
Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years’ War: Trial by Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.
Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. New York: Knopf, 1981.