| Agincourt |
By Juliet Barker
Genre: Non Fiction
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The last letter that Henry V sent to Charles VI of France before he launched the Agincourt campaign was an ultimatum, its opening lines, which in most medieval correspondence were an opportunity for flowery compliments, characteristically abrupt and to the point. "To the most serene prince Charles, our cousin and adversary of France, Henry by the grace of God king of England and France. To give to each that which is his own is a work of inspiration and of wise counsel." Henry had done everything in his power to procure peace between the two realms, he declared, but he did not lack the courage to fight to the death for justice. His just rights and inheritances had been seized from him by violence and withheld for too long: it was his duty to recover them. Since he could not obtain justice by peaceable means, he would have to resort to force of arms. "By the bowels of Jesus Christ," he pleaded, "Friend, render what you owe."
Henry V was undoubtedly an opportunist, in the sense that he was remarkably clever at identifying the chance to turn something to his own advantage. Was he also an opportunist in the more negative sense of the word, a man prepared to put expediency before principle? Had he really been deprived of his "just rights and inheritances"? If so, what were they and was it necessary for him to go to war to win them back? To answer those questions, we have to go back almost exactly 350 years before the Agincourt campaign, to another, even more momentous invasion.
In 1066, at the battle of Hastings in southeast England, the Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons and crowned their own duke, William the Conqueror, as king of England. Though the kingdom continued to be governed separately and independently from Normandy, socially, culturally and, to a much lesser extent, politically, England effectively became part of the continent for the next one and a half centuries. William and his Anglo-Norman aristocracy held lands and office on both sides of the Channel and were equally at home in either place. French became the dominant language in England, though Latin remained the choice of official documents and the Church, and Anglo-Saxon lingered on in vernacular speech, particularly among the illiterate. Cathedrals and castles were built as the visible symbols of a newly powerful and dynamic system of lordship in Church and state.
The new technique of fighting which had won the battle of Hastings for the Normans was also adopted in England; instead of standing or riding and hurling the lance overarm, these new warriors, the knights, charged on horseback with the lance tucked beneath the arm, so that the weight of both horse and rider was behind the blow and the weapon was reusable. Though it required discipline and training, giving rise to the birth of tournaments and the cult of chivalry, a charge by massed ranks of knights with their lances couched in this way was irresistible. Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess who witnessed its devastating effect during the First Crusade, claimed that it could "make a hole in the wall of Babylon."
Intimately connected with these military developments was the arrival - via William the Conqueror - of the feudal system of land tenure, which provided the knights to do the fighting by creating a chain of dependent lordships with the king at its head. Immediately beneath him in the hierarchy were his tenants-in-chief, each of whom had to perform a personal act of homage, acknowledging that he was the king's vassal, or liege man, and that he owed him certain services. The most important of these was the obligation to provide a certain number of knights for the royal army whenever called upon to do so. In order to fulfil this duty, the tenants-in-chief granted parcels of their own land to dependent knights upon the same conditions, so that a further relationship of lord and vassal was created. Though it quickly became the accepted practice that the eldest son of a tenant succeeded his father, this was not an automatic right and it had to be paid for by a fine. If the heir was under twenty-one, the lands returned to the lord for the period of his minority, but a vassal of any age could be deprived of his lands permanently if he committed an act contrary to his lord's interests. The feudal system underpinned the entire structure of Anglo-Norman society, just as it did in France, and if abused it could cause serious tension.
The cracks took some time to show. Pressure began to build in the twelfth century. The marriage in 1152 of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine created a huge Angevin empire, which covered almost half of modern France as well as England and Wales. It encompassed Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou, Maine, Touraine and Poitou - virtually all of western France apart from Brittany. Such an extensive, wealthy and powerful lordship was a threat, politically and militarily, to the authority and prestige of an increasingly ambitious French monarchy, which launched a series of invasions and conquests. Over time, virtually all of the Angevin inheritance was lost, including Normandy itself in 1204. All that then remained in English hands was the duchy of Aquitaine, a narrow strip of sparsely populated, wine-producing land on the western seaboard of France. Otherwise known as Gascony, or Guienne, it had no exceptional value, except for the strategic importance of its principal ports of Bordeaux and Bayonne, but it was a constant source of friction between the French and English monarchies.
The status of the duchy increasingly became the subject of dispute. The French claimed that the duke of Aquitaine was a peer of France, that he held his duchy as a vassal of the French crown and that he therefore had to pay personal homage for it to the king of France - in other words, that a classic feudal relationship existed, binding the English king-duke by ties of loyalty to serve the French king in times of war and, more importantly, establishing a superior lordship to which his Gascon subjects could appeal over his head. This was unacceptable to the dignity of the kings of England, who counter-claimed that they held the duchy in full sovereignty and recognized no superior authority but that of God. The Gascons, not unnaturally, exploited the situation to their own advantage, relying on their duke to defend them against repeated French invasions and yet appealing against him to the ultimate court of France, the Paris Parlement, whenever they felt threatened by his authority. A situation that had long been smouldering burst into flame in 1337 when Philippe VI of France exercised his feudal authority to declare that Edward III was a disobedient vassal and that Aquitaine was duly confiscated. This had happened twice before, in 1294 and 1324, resulting each time in a brief and inconclusive war. The difference this time was that Edward III's response was to challenge the legitimacy not of the king's decision, but of the king himself. He assumed the arms and title of king of France as his own and adopted the motto "Dieu et mon droit," for God and my right, the right being his claim to the French crown. It was a move that transformed a relatively small-scale feudal conflict into a major dynastic dispute.
Edward III was able to claim the throne by right of inheritance from his grandfather, Philippe IV of France, but he owed it to a Templar curse. Philippe IV was ambitious, quarrelsome and always chronically short of money. Expedients such as expelling the Jews from France and confiscating their debts made temporary contributions towards replenishing his coffers and whetted his appetite for bigger game. His choice of his next victim was as bold as his action was ruthless. The Knights Templar was the oldest military order in Christendom, founded in 1119 to defend the fledgling Crusader states in the Holy Land. It was also one of the richest of all religious orders; the generosity of the pious had enabled it to amass enormous wealth in lands, property and goods throughout Europe, but especially in France. The raison d'être for these powerful monk-knights had disappeared, however, when the city of Acre, the last Christian outpost in the Holy Land, fell to the Saracens in 1291. Philippe acted swiftly and without warning: on a single night he seized the Temple treasury in Paris and ordered the arrest of every Templar in the country. With the aid of a reluctant but compliant pope (a French puppet whom he had installed under his thumb at Avignon), he set about the total destruction of the order. Its members were accused individually and collectively of sorcery, heresy, blasphemy and sexual perversion. As there was no evidence to support the charges, proof was obtained by confessions extorted from hapless Templars. Many died as they were tortured; some committed suicide; more than half of the 122 who admitted their supposed crimes later courageously withdrew their confessions and were burnt alive as relapsed heretics. Among this last group was Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the order, who was burnt at the stake before the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in March 1314. As the flames consumed him, de Molay's last act was to defy his persecutors. He proclaimed the innocence of the Templars, cursed the king and his descendants to the thirteenth generation and prophesied that king and pope would join him before the throne of judgement within a year. The prophecy was spectacularly fulfilled. Eight months later, both Philippe IV (aged forty-six) and his tool Clement V (aged fifty) were indeed dead, and within fourteen years so were the three sons and grandson who succeeded Philippe. The ancient line of Capetian monarchs died with them.
In 1328, therefore, the throne of France stood empty and there was no obvious candidate to succeed. Those with the strongest claim, because they were Philippe IV's direct descendants, were his grandchildren Jeanne, the daughter of his eldest son, and Edward III, the son of his daughter Isabelle. In practice, however, neither was acceptable to the French: Jeanne because she was a woman and Edward because he was king of England. The unfortunate Jeanne had been deprived of her inheritance once before. When her brother had died, she had been only four years old and her uncle had seized the throne; ironically, a few years later, exactly the same fate would befall his own young daughters. Since no one wanted a minor sovereign, let alone a female one, the precedent set by these usurpations of 1316 and 1321 was later justified and legitimised by the invention of the Salic Law, which declared that women could not succeed to the crown of France. Nicely dressed up with an entirely spurious ancestry dating back to the eighth century and Carolingian times, the new law was applied retrospectively. It therefore excluded Jeanne permanently, but it made no mention of whether the right to succeed could be passed down through the female line. Edward III could therefore still legitimately claim to be the rightful heir. In 1328, however, his rights were purely academic. At the age of sixteen, he was still a minor and a powerless pawn in the hands of his mother, Queen Isabelle, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, a notorious pair who had compelled his father, Edward II, to abdicate and then procured his murder.
In any case, Edward III was pre-empted by yet another coup. Philippe IV's nephew, the preferred candidate of the French, seized the moment and was crowned Philippe VI. It was thus the Valois dynasty, not the Plantagenets, who replaced the Capetians as kings of France. There was nothing unusual in this sequence of events. It was a drama that had been played out all over Europe many times before and one on which the curtain would rise many times again. But on this particular occasion, the consequences were to extend far beyond anything that any of those immediately involved could have imagined. Edward III's decision to enforce his claim by force of arms launched the Hundred Years War, a conflict that would last for five generations, cause untold deaths and destruction, and embroil France, England and most of their neighbours as well. Even if Edward III's claim to the French throne was only revived as a cynical counter-ploy for the confiscation of his duchy of Aquitaine, it was sufficiently valid to convince many Frenchmen, as well as Englishmen, of the justice of his cause. Undoubtedly some of them were "persuaded" purely out of self-interest.
Until Henry V came on the scene, the closest the English came to achieving their objectives was the Treaty of Brétigny. This was drawn up in 1360 when, as a result of Edward III's spectacular victories at the battles of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), France was in turmoil and its king, Jean II, a prisoner in English hands. In return for Edward III renouncing his claims to the French throne, Normandy, Anjou and Maine, the French agreed that he should hold Aquitaine, Poitou, Ponthieu, Gu?nes and Calais (captured by the English in 1347) in full sovereignty; Edward was also to receive an enormous ransom of three million gold crowns for the release of Jean II. The treaty was a diplomatic triumph for the English, but it had an Achilles heel. A clause regarding the reciprocal renunciation of claims to the crown of France and to sovereignty over Aquitaine was taken out of the final text and put into a separate document, which was to be ratified only after certain territories had been placed in English hands. Despite the clear intention of both kings that the terms of the treaty should be fulfilled, formal written ratifi- cation of this second document never took place. As a consequence, Bolognese lawyers acting for Jean II's successor were able to argue that the treaty was null and void. It was a lesson Edward's great-grandson, Henry V, would take to heart: his embassies would always include experts in the civil law to ensure that any future agreements were legally watertight.
Whether Edward III and his successors, particularly Henry V, were sincere in their belief that they were the rightful kings of France, or were simply using the claim as a lever with which to extract more practical concessions, has been the subject of much unresolved debate. Edward III muddied the waters by performing homage (kneeling before the French king and acknowledging his allegiance to him in a formal public ceremony) for Aquitaine to Philippe VI in 1329, and even at Brétigny he was prepared to accept considerably less than he had originally demanded. Pragmatism was preferable to the unattainable. Indeed, until 1419, when Henry V began to achieve the impossible, the utmost extent of English ambition was the restoration of the old Angevin empire. Edward III's grandson Richard II, who succeeded him in 1377, had no use for the title of king of France, except as an empty verbal flourish on official documents, seals and coins. He was determined to obtain peace and to that end he was even prepared to make concessions on Aquitaine, proposing to separate the duchy from the crown by giving it to his uncle John of Gaunt. This would have ended the problem of an English king having to perform homage to a French one (no one in England would object to a duke, even a royal one, doing so) and would have ensured that the duchy remained under English influence. The Gascons, however, would have none of it. They wanted to remain a crown possession, believing that it would need the full resources of the English king to prevent Aquitaine from being annexed by the French. The most Richard was able to achieve was a truce which was to last for twenty-eight years, until 1426, cemented by his own marriage to Isabelle, the six-year-old daughter of Charles VI of France. (Richard was then a twenty-nine-year-old widower.)
Had Richard survived and had children by Isabelle, peace with France might have been a genuine option, but in 1399 he was deposed in a military coup by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, and died in prison suspiciously soon afterwards. As the son of John of Gaunt and grandson of Edward III, Henry IV inherited the claim to the French throne, but he had neither the means nor the leisure to pursue it. His first priority was to establish his rule in England in the face of repeated conspiracies and rebellions. Nevertheless, it was clear from the start that there would be no long-lasting peace. The French refused to recognize Henry as king of England, and the king of France's brother Louis, duke of Orléans, twice challenged him to a personal duel over his usurpation. French forces invaded Aquitaine and threatened Calais and there were tit-for-tat raids on either side of the Channel in which undefended towns were burnt and plundered and enemy shipping was seized.
Henry IV's usurpation also sealed the fate of Richard II's poor child-widow. Like so many medieval women bought and sold into marriage as hostages for political alliances, she had served her purpose and, at ten years of age, was now redundant. Henry toyed with the idea of marrying her to one of his own sons (raising the interesting possibility that the wife of the future Henry V could have been the older sister of the woman who eventually did become his queen), but there was more to be gained from keeping the English princes available on the international marriage market. Isabelle was therefore sent back to France, where she was promptly betrothed to her cousin Charles, son and heir of Louis d'Orléans; married for the second time at sixteen, she died, aged nineteen, shortly after giving birth to his daughter.
Louis d'Orléans took advantage of Henry's preoccupation with his domestic problems to invade Aquitaine in alliance with Jean, count of Alençon, and two disaffected Gascons, Bernard, count of Armagnac, and Charles d'Albret, who, as constable of France, held the highest military office in that kingdom. Though they failed to take the principal towns, they succeeded in annexing large areas of the duchy and there was every possibility that English rule in Aquitaine would come to a premature end. It was at this juncture that an event took place which was to transform the fortunes of both England and France. In November 1407 Louis d'Orléans was assassinated. His murderer was his cousin John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, one of the richest, most powerful and, in an age not noted for the delicacy of its morals, most unscrupulous of all the princes of France.
The murder was the culmination of a bitter personal feud between the two dukes, both of whom had been ambitious to fill the vacuum at the heart of power in France caused by the intermittent madness of Charles VI. Louis, as we have seen, had married his eldest son to Charles's daughter Isabelle; John the Fearless secured a double alliance, marrying his only son to another of Charles's daughters, and his own daughter Margaret of Burgundy to the dauphin. Nevertheless, for some years before his murder, Louis d'Orléans had possessed the upper hand, controlling the king's person, diverting royal revenues into his own pocket and, it was said, enjoying the queen too. ("Monsieur le duc d'Orléans is young and likes playing dice and whoring," a contemporary remarked.) John the Fearless was determined to acquire these benefits, including, so it was said, the queen's favors, for himself. When his political machinations failed to achieve the desired objects, he resorted to murder, hiring a band of assassins who ambushed the duke one evening as he made his way home through the streets of Paris after visiting the queen. They struck him from his horse, cut off the hand with which he tried to stave off their blows and split his head in two, spilling his brains on the pavement.
The action was so blatant and the murderer himself so shockingly unrepentant that the remaining French princes were reduced to paralysis. The duchess of Orléans demanded justice, but the only person in a position to enforce punishment against so powerful a magnate was the king and he was incapable. The dauphin, who might have acted in his father's place, was son-inlaw of the murderer and, in any case, a child of ten. As there was no one willing or able to take a stand against him, John the Fearless was literally able to get away with murder. He swept unopposed into Paris and by the end of 1409 he was king of France in all but name.
This monopoly of power would not go unchallenged for long; Burgundy had removed one opponent only for another, more fearsome, to rise in his place. Charles d'Orléans had been a day short of his thirteenth birthday when his father was assassinated. Though he had then been compelled to swear publicly on the Gospels in the cathedral of Chartres that he would forgive the murder, revenge was never far from his thoughts and actions. Within two years he had signed a military pact with Bernard, count of Armagnac, and within three he had not only engineered an anti-Burgundian alliance with the dukes of Berry, Bourbon and Brittany and the counts of Armagnac, Alençon and Clermont but also led their combined armies to the gates of Paris to remove the king and the dauphin from John the Fearless's control. This was merely a preliminary skirmish in what was to become a major civil war, pitting the Burgundians and their allies against the Orléanists or Armagnacs, as they were called by their contemporaries after Charles d'Orléans married the count's daughter in 1410. The two sides were irreconcilable. This was not just a struggle for power but a bitter personal quarrel in which nothing less than the trial and punishment (preferably by death) of John the Fearless would satisfy the Armagnacs for the murder of Louis d'Orléans; such an outcome was, of course, unthinkable to the Burgundians. Their hatred of each other was so great that in their search for allies, both sides were prepared to overlook their shared dislike of the English. Indeed, they were even prepared to buy the support of the king of England at the price of recognising his "just rights and inheritances," including, eventually, his title to the throne of France.
Such an opportunity was irresistible to the English, though deciding which party to aid was more difficult. In 1411, when the duke of Burgundy formally sought English assistance for the first time, Henry IV and his council were by no means unanimous in their opinion. Alliance with the Armagnacs offered the possibility of regaining through negotiation those areas of Aquitaine which had been lost to Louis d'Orléans, Charles d'Albret and the counts of Armagnac and Alençon in 1403-7. On the other hand, alliance with John the Fearless, whose Burgundian dominions included the Low Countries, might achieve the same object (though by military means) and would certainly give additional protection and advantages to vital English trading interests in Flanders, Brabant and Hainault.
The decision was complicated by the fact that Henry IV, like Charles VI of France, was not in a position to exercise personal rule. Though he was not insane, like Charles, he had suffered many bouts of debilitating illness since 1405. What was actually wrong with him is a subject of speculation and it says much for the medieval frame of mind that whatever the diagnoses, contemporaries all agreed that his sickness was a divine punishment for having usurped the throne. The king himself seems to have thought so too, beginning his will with the self-abasing words, "I, Henry, sinful wretch" and referring to "the life I have mispended." As a result of his incapacity, his eldest son, the future Henry V, had gradually come to assume a dominant role on the royal council. In the light of his later campaigns in France, it is significant that in 1411 it was his decision to intervene on behalf of the duke of Burgundy.
Exactly what John the Fearless offered as an inducement is not clear, though Armagnac propaganda was quick to suggest that he had promised to hand over four of the main Flemish ports to the English, which would have been an attractive proposal if it were true. All that is known for certain is that negotiations were begun for a marriage between Prince Henry and one of the duke's daughters, and in October 1411 one of the prince's most trusted lieutenants, Thomas, earl of Arundel, was dispatched with a substantial army to France. These English forces played an important part in the successful campaign to lift the Armagnac blockade of Paris, participated in the Burgundian victory at the battle of St Cloud, and before the end of the year had entered Paris with a triumphant John the Fearless.
Having achieved so much militarily, it might have been thought that the English would reap the diplomatic and political benefits of their alliance with the duke. Yet before Arundel's expedition had even returned home, Henry IV's council had performed a quite astonishing volte-face and thrown in their lot with the Armagnacs. There were two reasons for this. The first was that the increasingly desperate Armagnac princes now made a better offer than the duke of Burgundy: they agreed to reconquer, with their own troops and at their own expense, the whole duchy of Aquitaine as defined by the Treaty of Brétigny, to hand it over to Henry IV in full sovereignty and to do homage to him for the lands they themselves held there. In return, the English were to send an army, four thousand strong, at French expense, to help them defeat the duke of Burgundy and bring him to justice.
The magnitude of what was on offer might well have been sufficient temptation to persuade the English to change their alliance, but there was a second reason that influenced the decision. Prince Henry's domination of the royal council had come to an abrupt end in the winter of 1411 because, it would seem, the ailing Henry IV now suspected the loyalty and ambition of his eldest son. Colourful tales were certainly in circulation. According to one contemporary chronicler, the dying king told his confessor that he repented his usurpation but could not undo it because "my children will not suffer that the kingship goes out of our lineage." Another story, which was later taken up by Shakespeare, was first reported by the Burgundian chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet in the 1440s. The prince, he said, had removed the crown from beside his father's bed, thinking that Henry IV was already dead, only to be caught redhanded when his father awoke from sleep and challenged him for being presumptuous. Whether or not such incidents actually took place (and it is difficult to see how either chronicler could have obtained his information), they were anecdotal versions of an undoubted truth, which was that in 1412 the prince felt compelled to issue an open letter protesting his innocence and loyalty in the face of rumours that he was plotting to seize the throne.
Was there any substance to these rumours? Henry IV's prolonged ill-health had already prompted the suggestion that he should abdicate in favor of his eldest son and he clearly resented Prince Henry's popularity and influence at court, in Parliament and in the country. The prince, for his part, may have feared that, one way or another, he might be disinherited in favor of his next brother Thomas, for whom their father appears to have had a decided preference. Thomas, supported by Henry IV's oldest friend and ally Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, now replaced Prince Henry as the key figure on the royal council, effectively excluding the heir to the throne from government and completely overturning his policies. Henry's natural place as leader of the military expedition to France on behalf of the Armagnacs was first allotted to him, then taken away and given to his brother; shortly afterwards, Thomas was created duke of Clarence and appointed the king's lieutenant in Aquitaine, even though Henry had been duke of Aquitaine since his father's coronation. To add insult to these not insignificant injuries, Henry was also falsely accused of having misappropriated the wages of the Calais garrison.
In the circumstances, it is not surprising that the prince suspected that there was an orchestrated campaign at court to undermine him and perhaps settle the succession on Clarence. Rumours that he had been plotting to seize the throne may have been deliberately circulated as part of that campaign, and the fact that the prince felt the need to deny them at all, let alone publicly and in writing, suggests that he was fully alive to the seriousness of his situation. In his open letter, he demanded that his father should seek out the troublemakers, dismiss them from office and punish them, all of which Henry IV agreed to do, but did not. Yet despite all the provocation, Prince Henry did not resort to violence. Always a patient man, he had no need to grasp by force what would eventually come to him in the course of nature. In the meantime, he could do nothing but await with trepidation the outcome of his brother's expedition to France. A brilliant success would enhance Clarence's reputation and might threaten his own position further; an abject failure might vindicate his own decision to side with the Burgundians but would have serious repercussions at home and abroad.
Clarence sailed from Southampton on 10 August 1412 with one thousand men-at-arms and three thousand archers and landed at St-Vaast-la-Hougue in Normandy. Among his commanders were three members of the extended royal family who were to play a leading role in the Agincourt campaign three years later: his father's cousin Edward, duke of York; his father's half-brother Sir Thomas Beaufort, newly created earl of Dorset; and his uncle by marriage Sir John Cornewaille, who was one of the greatest knights of his generation. Such a prestigious army should have carried all before it, but Clarence was never the luckiest of leaders. Even before he set foot on French soil, the Armagnacs and Burgundians had secretly come to terms with each other and there was no need for his services. By the time he learnt that the Armagnac princes had unilaterally renounced their alliance it was too late; he was already at Blois, their appointed rendezvous, and he angrily demanded that they honour their obligation. To buy him off the Armagnacs had to agree to pay a total of 210,000 gold crowns, offering as immediate security plate, jewels and seven hostages, including Charles d'Orléans' unfortunate twelve-year-old brother, Jean, count of Angoulême, who was to remain a prisoner in English hands, forgotten and unredeemed, until 1445. Clarence then marched his army, unopposed and living off the land, to Aquitaine, where he spent the winter negotiating alliances with the local Armagnac leaders and preparing for the possibility of another campaign the following spring.
Clarence's expedition was not the military and political triumph he and his father had hoped for, but neither was it a complete disaster. He had failed to realize English ambitions for the restoration of a larger Aquitaine and it would prove well-nigh impossible to extract the sums promised by the Armagnac leaders. On the other hand, he had demonstrated the weakness of a divided France and that it was possible for an English army to march unscathed and without resistance from Normandy to Aquitaine. If nothing else, he had provided his more able brother with a model for the Agincourt campaign.
Excerpted from Agincourt , by Juliet Barker . Copyright (c) 2005 by Juliet Barker . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top