Verneuil: A Second Agincourt I

As the new campaigning season opened in the late spring of 1424, both sides made preparations for a major offensive. The dauphin had a war chest of a million livres (£58.33m) granted him by the estates-general of the kingdom of Bourges, and the backing of a new Scottish army, ‘two thousand knights and esquires, six thousand good archers and two thousand Scots with axes’, commanded by the elderly earl of Douglas and his eldest son. The dauphin’s declared intention was to fight his way to Reims so that he could be crowned in the cathedral, the place where for centuries kings of France had received their coronation.

Bedford’s plans were equally ambitious: to wipe out the remaining Armagnac garrisons on the frontiers of Normandy and then secure the border by extending the conquest south into the counties of Anjou, Maine and Dreux. On 3 March 1424 Le Crotoy was handed over in accordance with the terms of capitulation agreed the previous year. Twelve days later Compiègne agreed to surrender. The town had been captured some months earlier in a daring raid by the Armagnac captain Étienne de Vignolles, better known as La Hire, who had taken advantage of thick fog and an inadequate night-watch to take it by surprise from the Burgundians. The siege to recapture it had dragged on until Bedford, uncharacteristically losing patience, took Guillaume Remon, captain of neighbouring Passy-en-Valois, under whom many of the garrison of Compiègne had fought, and paraded him before the town with a halter round his neck, threatening to hang him if they did not surrender, but release him if they did.

Though this produced the desired effect, it cost Sir John Fastolf a considerable amount of money because Remon was his prisoner and he thereby lost not only Remon’s ransom but also those of a group of merchants from Hainault and Brabant whom Remon had captured bringing food to sell in Paris. Fastolf was not a man to allow his loss to go unchallenged. He sued the merchants, unsuccessfully, in the parlement of Paris and complained to Bedford for nine long years until the regent finally succumbed and gave him lands in compensation.

The garrison of Compiègne was allowed to withdraw with its arms intact – an unfortunate error of judgement as its soldiers avenged themselves by seizing the castle of Gaillon, eighty miles away in Normandy. Two months and eight hundred men were required to recover it and this time no mercy was shown: the Armagnacs were put to the sword and the castle itself demolished to prevent its being retaken.

While Scales besieged Gaillon, the earl of Suffolk was dispatched to retake Ivry, a tenth-century fortress on a hilltop overlooking the Eure valley. In August 1423 Géraud de la Pallière had scaled the walls and taken it by surprise, installing an Armagnac garrison of four hundred men-at-arms who had raided far and wide, pillaging, robbing and terrorising the countryside without check. The captain of Ivry, Pierre Glé, a Norman and one of the richest lords of the region, absconded rather than face prosecution for his failure to safeguard the castle, and all his goods, lands and possessions were confiscated to the crown. He was eventually persuaded to throw himself on Bedford’s mercy and was duly pardoned in March 1424 on the grounds that he was guilty only of negligence and had had no knowledge of, or part in, the treason which led to the castle’s seizure.

Besieged for just three weeks, Pallière agreed to surrender on 15 August 1424 if no assistance was forthcoming from the dauphin in the meantime. This was, as we have seen, the standard form of capitulation: the suspension of hostilities was usually the prelude to an orderly handover. This time it would be different. The dauphin had gathered a formidable army at Tours: French troops from Anjou and Maine commanded nominally by the fifteen-year-old duke of Alençon but in reality by the highly experienced Jean d’Harcourt, count of Aumâle, captain of Mont-Saint-Michel lieutenant and captain-general of Normandy; at least ten thousand Scots led by the earls of Buchan and Douglas; and the dauphin’s latest acquisition, two thousand heavy cavalry hired from Milan, a city famed throughout Europe for the skill of its armourers. If anything could withstand English arrows it was Milanese steel. Together, according to Bedford’s own estimate, the dauphin’s army numbered some fourteen thousand men.

Bedford had also recently received reinforcements, the earl of Warwick, lord Willoughby and Sir William Oldhall having brought sixteen hundred men on six-month contracts from England in April and May. He had issued a general call to arms in Normandy, summoning all those holding lands from the crown and accustomed to bear arms ‘of whatever nationality they might be’ to meet him at Vernon on 3 July. About two thousand men were also taken from Norman garrisons, an exercise which revealed that some enterprising soldiers from the army recently arrived from England, who had already received their wages until November, had left their captains and enrolled on garrison duty ‘to defraud and deceive us and take double wages’. A clampdown was immediately put in place but Bedford was left with fewer men than he had anticipated for his approaching showdown with the dauphin’s forces. Even after he was joined by a Burgundian contingent, led by the sire de l’Isle-Adam, the chronicler Jehan Waurin, who served in this army, reckoned that Bedford had only eighteen hundred men-at-arms and eight thousand archers at his disposal.

Bedford led his troops in person to Ivry, arriving on 14 August, the day before the fortress would have to surrender if not relieved. He deployed his men ready for battle but the Armagnac forces did not come. They were thirty miles away to the southwest at Verneuil, which, on 15 August 1424, they captured by an ingenious ploy. Knowing that everyone was waiting for the outcome of the battle for Ivry, they took some of the Scots who could speak English, tied them up, splashed them with blood and set them backwards on their horses, as if they were prisoners. As they were paraded before the town they cried out in English, bewailing their fate and the utter destruction of ‘their’ army before Ivry. The terrified townspeople were then presented with the sire de Torcy in a similar condition, who confirmed that all was lost. What they did not know was that he had just deserted the English cause and sworn allegiance to the dauphin. Convinced that there was no point in holding out, the citizens opened their gates and the dauphin’s men took control of the town.

Bedford set out for Verneuil immediately after accepting the surrender of Ivry. He arrived on 17 August 1424 to find the massed forces of the dauphin’s army waiting for him in the flat fields to the north of the town. The site had been chosen to give the greatest advantage to the Milanese cavalry, whose heavily armoured men and horses were to ride down the English archers before they could launch their deadly storm of arrows. Both armies deployed in the traditional manner for battle. Regardless of rank, everyone dismounted to fight on foot, apart from the Milanese on the French wings. The English archers were arrayed opposite the Milanese and, repeating the anti-cavalry tactics used so successfully at Agincourt, each one was protected by a stake driven into the earth in front of him, its sharpened end pointing towards the enemy. All the English horses were tied together so that they could not run away and placed with the wagons at the rear of the army, forming a barrier to protect it from attack.

The battle began at about four in the afternoon with a devastating charge by the Milanese, who swept the archers before them, drove straight through the army and then, instead of regrouping to strike again from behind, proceeded to pillage the baggage in the wagons. The English, demonstrating the discipline for which they were justly renowned, rallied and began a counterattack against the advancing men-at-arms. Contemporary chroniclers make no mention of the English using their longbows but, given the sheer number of archers present and their ability to shoot a minimum of ten aimed arrows a minute, it seems impossible that their capacity to inflict such destruction was not used.

As at Agincourt, however, it was the archers’ willingness to engage at close quarters once their arrows had run out that proved the turning point in the battle. Bedford had given the order that there was to be no quarter and, inspired by his personal example, and that of the earls of Salisbury and Suffolk, who were with him, the English fought doggedly on, pushing the French line back into the Scots behind them and slaughtering all in their path. The dauphin, who had not accompanied his troops to the battlefield, now reaped the consequences of his signal failure of leadership.

It was a victory to match Agincourt. Despite his inferior numbers and the disadvantage of not choosing the field, Bedford completely routed the dauphin’s forces. Seven thousand, two hundred and sixty-two French and Scottish soldiers lay dead, among them some of the dauphin’s most effective military commanders, the count of Aumâle and the earls of Douglas and Buchan. The young duke of Alençon, newly married to the daughter of Agincourt’s most famous prisoner, Charles d’Orléans, was himself a captive, together with Pierre, the bastard of Alençon, and Marshal Lafayette. The English, according to Bedford, had lost two men-at-arms and a ‘very few’ archers.

The victory at Verneuil secured Bedford’s reputation and the English conquest. The Scottish army, upon which the dauphin depended so heavily, was all but annihilated and would not be replaced. The king of Scotland, an English prisoner since 1406, had been released in April 1424, married off to a Beaufort and signed a seven-year truce with England which would prevent further mass recruitment of his subjects into the dauphin’s service.

The dauphin could not shrug off this defeat as he had that at Cravant. Abandoning his plans for a coronation at Reims and also, to all appearances, for the recovery of his kingdom, he settled into a life of luxury and indolence in his kingdom of Bourges, leaving those still committed to his cause leaderless and without hope. Bedford, however, returned to Paris to a hero’s welcome: the crowds wore red and shouted ‘Noël!’ as he passed and when he went to give thanks at Notre Dame ‘he was received as if he had been God . . . in short, more honour was never done at a Roman triumph than was done that day to him and his wife.’

Bedford’s captains pushed home their advantage by seizing the military initiative from the disheartened Armagnacs. By October Salisbury and Suffolk had retaken Senonches, Nogent-le-Rotrou and other frontier fortresses in the south-east and La Hire agreed to evacuate his remaining strongholds in the spring. Guise, the last northern Armagnac outpost, had fallen to Sir Thomas Rempston and Jehan de Luxembourg after a five-month siege. In the south-west the earl of Salisbury joined lords Fastolf and Scales in extending English control over Maine and into Anjou, a year-long campaign designed to both secure the border of Normandy and reward those who had missed out on the profits of the first wave of conquest.

The only failure in the immediate aftermath of Verneuil was, once again, at Mont-Saint-Michel. Earlier in the year Thomas Burgh, captain of Avranches, had tried to instigate a plot within the garrison. On 24 June, Jean, bishop of Julin, who had been imposed by the English as a deputy on the bishop of Avranches, whose loyalty was suspect, paid a visit to the abbey on the pretext of diocesan business. It was clearly a spying mission, for just two weeks later Henry Meudrac, a Norman esquire who had served in the garrison for at least three years, signed an agreement to deliver Mont-Saint-Michel to Burgh. For this he was to receive 1750l.t. (£102,083), a sum so large that the payment had to be specially authorised by both Bedford and the council in Rouen. Two days later, on 10 July, Meudrac received his payment and handed over his nephew, Raoulin, as a hostage for the performance of his part of the bargain. Meudrac either had a change of heart or failed in his attempt, for Mont-Saint-Michel was not betrayed to the English and his nephew was still in English service as a man-at-arms at Avranches eleven years later.

While Burgh waited for his scheming to bear fruit, Bedford resorted to more conventional means. On 26 August, Nicholas Burdet, the bailli of the Cotentin, whom Bedford had knighted on the field of Verneuil, was commissioned to begin another siege of Mont-Saint-Michel. Robert Jolivet, the abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel, was appointed to advise and assist him and Bertrand Entwhistle, lieutenant of the earl of Suffolk in his capacity as admiral of Normandy, took charge of the sea blockade.

Burdet began by building a new wooden fortress, complete with drawbridge, two and a half miles away from the island on the southern coast at Ardevon. Intended to last only for the duration of the siege, Ardevon would remain in service for ten years, housing a garrison of up to 40 men-at-arms and 120 archers in what must have been extremely basic and uncomfortable conditions.

Despite all these efforts, the siege proved as fruitless as its predecessors, dragging on for ten months before it was abandoned in June 1425. Although the defenders had lost their captain, Aumâle, at Verneuil, they secured two major coups, capturing Burdet himself and inflicting a naval defeat which allowed the garrison to resupply and precipitated the decision to withdraw.

One of the consequences of the victory at Verneuil was that many people who had hitherto refrained from accepting the English occupation and the Treaty of Troyes now decided that resistance was futile. The weeks and months following the battle saw a flood of applications for pardon. Nicolas le Jendre, for instance, had been in English obedience since May 1419 but had gone to live at Ivry when it was captured by the Armagnacs, ostensibly because his priory was outside the walls and the supply of alms from pilgrims upon which he depended had dried up. Once inside Ivry, he had been elected abbot of Saint-Germain-de-la-Truite and was duly summoned to Évreux for consecration by his diocesan bishop. When he was told he must also take the oath of loyalty, le Jendre refused, fearing, he said, retribution from the Ivry garrison. Nevertheless, he had returned to Ivry, remaining there until he learned that the English were coming to lay siege to the place. He then fled the English kingdom altogether, returning only after the battle to sue for pardon and belatedly take his oath.

Many other inhabitants of Ivry received the benefit of the doubt and were pardoned for colluding with the Armagnacs by supplying goods or even fighting in their service. The inhabitants of Verneuil also won a general pardon for opening their gates to the enemy which Bedford actually signed ‘in the army before Verneuil’ the day after the battle.

The pardon records also reveal what the chroniclers do not. When the Milanese smashed their way through the English ranks, a number of ‘varlets, pages and others of feeble courage’ ran away, spreading the news that the battle was lost. These rumours, confirming those that must already have been swirling about as a result of the Armagnac ploy to capture Verneuil, prompted an attempt to cause an uprising in Normandy. The rebels were quick to submit once they had discovered their mistake but not before they had robbed and murdered some of those who had fled the battlefield.

Altogether more serious than these opportunistic acts of violence was the discovery – three years later – that there had been a plot to betray Rouen to the dauphin on the eve of Verneuil. A Franciscan friar, Étienne Charlot, was told by the dauphin that he had resolved to be crowned at Reims and invade Normandy because he had been personally approached by certain loyal citizens of Rouen ‘wearing disguises’. Their leader was Richard Mites, a wealthy merchant who had signed the capitulation of Rouen in 1419 and profited from the conquest by becoming a supplier to the English regime and farmer of the town’s revenues.

Mites had sought and obtained the expert opinion of Jehan Salvart, master-mason for the king’s works in the Rouen bailliage, and Alexandre de Berneval, master-mason for the town’s works, on how best to neutralise the castle, if Rouen itself ‘was taken by storm and it was necessary to make a new oath and change allegiance’. Salvart and Berneval were working in the castle at the time. They conferred, and Salvart pointed out where the walls could be mined and cannon placed to break down the bridges and the gate so that the English garrison could be prevented from getting out of the castle.

Why the plot was not put into action is not known but it seems likely that it was aborted when Bedford unexpectedly snatched victory from the Armagnacs at Verneuil. Mites fled to the kingdom of Bourges and his property was confiscated as being that of a traitor, but Salvart and Berneval were among those arrested and imprisoned. Salvart was tried and condemned to be beheaded as a traitor, but received a last-minute reprieve when he was literally at the place of execution. He and Berneval were both pardoned after a spell of imprisonment and, remarkably, within a year were back in their original posts.