By Tim Venning
Henry V of England. Great Leader? War criminal?
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
30 August 1422: What if Henry V did not die early?
The political and military initiatives seemed to lie with Henry V in the summer of 1422. He was the son-in-law and, as of the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, designated heir of the feeble Charles VI of France; he was also allied to Charles’ powerful cousin Duke Philip of Burgundy, the greatest feudatory of the French realm. Henry was ‘mopping up’ the remaining towns in the Isle de France and Champagne that had not accepted the new order. Henry V also had full military control of Normandy and a ‘corridor’ up the Seine to Paris, with the uneasy or unreliable support of some of the semi-autonomous local French regions’ feudal lords (such as Brittany); the royal Court was under his control with the weak King now being, in effect, a puppet of Duke Philip.
Conclusion of the Treaty of Troyes. Henry V, you have won half of France, heirship of the crown of France, and a princess of France in marriage.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Henry had achieved remarkable success in seven years of campaigning in France, even allowing for his crushing victory at Agincourt (1415) that had wiped out many of the leading French nobles and demoralised the larger French army. It showed that the Lancastrian line’s usurpation in 1399 and regicide in 1400 had not brought Divine Vengeance on them at their first international battle, and thus gave the lie to the claims of their Mortimer rivals who had tried to overthrow Henry in the Southampton plot of July 1415.
As chance would have it, Henry (aged 34 or 35) died suddenly on 30 August 1422, having fallen ill with chronic dysentery at the minor siege of the town of Meaux, east of Paris. This was one of the few local strongholds holding out in the region and it was of no major significance.
It has been seen as surprising that he was spending time on this siege rather than using his time more productively in a march on the main ‘enemy’ region resisting him nearest to Paris, on the upper Loire. His main bodies of English troops were only contracted to serve in the royal army for a limited period, not for the duration of the war. Keeping them longer than they were contracted for tended to complaints and desertions. Perhaps he was keen to clear out the last resistance in this region to impress his nearby Burgundian allies.
Charles VI of France, who outlived Henry V.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In the event, his health failed and he was evacuated downriver by barge to the French King Charles VI’s impressive chateau outside Paris at Vincennes. Here he died, leaving one child, the future Henry VI, aged just ten months and the youngest ever English or British king. (The youngest Scots sovereign was Mary Stuart, who acceded in 1542 aged one week).
Henry V unexpectedly predeceased the ailing and sporadically mentally infirm Charles VI (aged 54), whose afflictions over the past decades had left France in the grip of vicious Court in-fighting over who was too govern for him. By a final irony, Charles’ genetic ailments were probably transmitted to Henry VI (through Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles and wife of Henry V) and duly ruined English unity too, though Henry VI’s mental illness took a different form.
Catherine of Valois. The root cause of the Wars of the Roses?
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Charles had two reasonably competent elder sons, Dauphins Louis and John, but they had both died at an early age. The heirship to France went to his third son Charles (VII), born 1403, who was a nervous, hesitant, physically uninspiring figure who was far from a charismatic military leader. Indeed, he rarely campaigned in person in the 1420s and 1430s, relying heavily on his generals.
Worse, rumour had it that he was not his father’s son, with scandalous stories about the louche goings-on at the court of his mother, Isabella of Bavaria. The English were able to use this in 1420 when Henry forced Charles VI to disinherit his heir and pass the throne, via his daughter Catherine, to Henry instead.
There remains some doubt over how legally definitive the so-called ‘Salic Law’, banning inheritance by or through a female, was in France by around 1400, but it was the generally followed custom, though not as ‘ancient and immutable’ as later claimed. In 1328, the death without male heirs of King Charles IV had led to both his sister Isabella (Queen of England and mother of Edward III, the person on whom Henry V based his claim), and Charles of Navarre (the son of the daughter of Charles’ late brother Louis X) being passed over for the throne. It had gone to Philip of Valois (King Philip VI), Charles’ cousin. From Philip, it had passed down to Charles VI in 1380.
English royals had challenged this, aggressively so when Philip VI started backing their Scots foes’ resistance to a takeover of Scotland by Edward’s nominee Edward Balliol in 1334.
Henry V had already spent most of the campaigning season of 1422 bogged down in minor sieges aimed at securing full control of the southeastern approaches to Paris, while the Dauphinist cause remained unchallenged in the Loire valley. The Dauphinists had won a surprise victory at Bauge in 1421, which showed that they still had an effective military capability. The defeated English commander, Thomas of Clarence, Henry’s brother, was killed, thus removing a useful and experienced commander from campaigning in France, and removing him as a factor in English politics.
In the long-term, this was disastrous for English unity as neither of Henry’s remaining brothers, the Dukes John of Bedford and Humphrey of Gloucester, would have legitimate children, thus the heirship to Henry’s son Henry VI passed to his cousin the Duke of York. This was the proximate cause of the start of the Wars of the Roses.
Henry had military reasons for concentrating on the Meaux campaign rather than proceeding south straight to the Loire to confront the Dauphin Charles in 1422, and of course he had no idea that his health was declining. But the way in which the defiance of walled towns was holding up his army unbeaten in the field and negating the English advantages in 1422 was ominously reminiscent of the similar frustration that had met Edward III as his unbeaten armies ravaged their way across France in 1359-73.
Lacking the ability to bring sieges to a quick end – which later in the 15th Century would be provided by improvements in cannons – the advantage lay with the defenders. This would have been so even when Henry V had succeeded to the French throne, and could only have been countered by breaking the will to resist of the defenders. Being a military genius, or at any rate an inspiring and highly adaptable commander, on the battlefield was not enough to win a major war, especially in a country which was much larger and better resourced than Henry’s. France was far more decentralised and was riven with factional feuds at the top, with the addition of uninspiring leadership, but swallowing it up was still a tall order.
Henry had no support base among its local nobility and gentry, except as his father’s son in the English-ruled Duchy of Aquitaine (held by his family since Henry II’s marriage in 1152). The shrunken Aquitaine lands were, however, far from Henry’s Normandy – and he did not seek to expand them in the Treaty of Troyes with Charles VI in 1420, even though he had a legal claim to do this. Was this an oversight or because of a lack of men to defend them? Would conquest have been impossible even if Henry, often rated one of England’s “best” kings for martial ability and determination, had kept up his health and energy for another decade or two?
He did not lack for ruthlessness, as shown by his refusal to let civilian townsmen be evacuated from Rouen during his siege in 1419. Rather than let them through his lines, he let them starve in front of his men until the French let them back into Rouen – meaning that the city ran out of food quicker and so had to surrender.
The English army in France was, crucially, smaller than the Dauphinist one loyal to Charles VI’s disinherited heir in the years after 1420. However, the Dauphin Charles was seen not as a unifying figure for French resistance but as the titular head of one contentious Court faction, the ‘Armagnacs’ (originally headed by Count of Armagnac, father-in-law of his late elder brother). Their many foes would be unlikely to back him, and he had not yet secured the backing of the next legal male heir to France after himself, his cousin Duke Louis of Anjou – though neither had Henry.
Large numbers of English soldiers were tied down garrisoning strongpoints in Normandy, which Henry had conquered in 1417-19, but where brigandage and plots to betray towns continued. In the vital 1424 campaign, for example, Henry’s brother the Duke of Bedford only had around 1800 men-at-arms and 8000 archers even after denuding Norman garrisons – and he could only summon around 1600 reinforcements from England. These were enough to defeat the enemy in battle, but not for long-term conquest.
The Morning at Agincourt, by John Gilbert.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Unless an army had enough horses for all its armed men, it could only proceed at the pace of its cumbersome wagon-trains and non-horsed archers, on poor and often muddy roads. (1) They had to try and neutralise a state that was well over twice the size of England, with financial resources to match – provided the local nobles could coerce men and money out of the war-weary peasantry and townsmen.
Would even the charismatic Henry V have had the extra goodwill or prestige to enable his recruiters to acquire many more men? Technically the Treaty of Troyes (1420) which named him as ally and heir to Charles VI kept the two realms separate, probably at the insistence of English nobles and gentry who opposed high taxes being raised to fund an overseas war. England and its Parliament were not legally required to provide men or money to ‘France’, ie, the lands in that country prepared to accept the treaty and back Henry, not the Dauphin, as the next king.
It was possible to raise new taxes through a ‘national’ French meeting of a full ‘estates general’ for those areas under English control in Paris. However, this would only show how limited such support was, and taxing still debateable ravaged areas like Champagne would encourage defections. That applied to Paris as well – and in English-run France as well as in England, there had been an expectation that the Treaty of Troyes would bring peace and time for an exhausted country to recover from the ravages of war. This had not happened, but the failure in itself brought unwillingness on the part of elites in both countries to pay for more fighting or provide more recruits – soldiers were usually raised from the rural farming classes and such men would thus be taken away from their prime role of growing crops and staving off famine. The English regime in Paris, under Henry or Bedford, would need to have shown that it was winning to gain even grudging backing, and how would it achieve this without much larger funding?
Henry was safe for the moment from the fear that the Burgundians would change sides. This was because the Dauphin’s followers had murdered Duke Philip’s father Duke John in a suddenly violent truce meeting on the Seine bridge at Montereau, south of Paris, in 1419. It seems the Dauphin’s follows suspected them of underhand dealings or even planning to kill the Dauphin.
According to them, the English had “entered France through the hole in the Duke of Burgundy’s skull” as the possibility of a Dauphinist-Burgundian reconciliation collapsed – though Duke Philip did not rush to sign up as Henry’s ally, auctioning his help for steeper terms.
Against the English and the trade-rich Burgundian conglomeration of states (which were still legally parts of France or the Holy Roman Empire) the Dauphin, a young man with no military experience or charisma, could call on a small mercenary force of 2000 Scots knights and 6000 men-at-arms to help his larger but unwieldy and demoralised feudal army of nobles and their tenants in 1424. His ‘parlement’ (tax-raising assembly) at Borges granted him an impressive ‘war-chest’ of 58 million livres. He thus had more money than either Bedford did or Henry would have done had he been in command.
However, the Scots were the only part of the Dauphin’s army with lengthy military experience and high morale. Their co-commander, Earl John of Buchan, had defeated the Highlanders and Islesmen at the Battle of Harlaw near Aberdeen back in 1411. The other Scots general, the veteran Earl of Douglas, was a poor or unlucky commander who earned the unenviable title of “The Tyneman” (“The Loser”) because he repeatedly ended up on the losing side in battle after battle. But he was a brave officer at the head of highly experienced Borders volunteers, who were used to fighting the English and were experienced at guerrilla warfare and raids. They would not be a pushover, unlike the inexperienced French rural levies at Agincourt in 1415, so Henry (as with Bedford in real life) would be lucky to secure another major victory in 1423-24. His best chance would be to shower them with arrows from a distance, the usual English winning tactic.
But the English had a major problem. Recruits summoned from England were only on short term contracts (six months for the 1424 campaign) so had to be used quickly, not ‘bogged down’ at sieges, and there was fierce resistance to any notion of longer contracts than was normal. Once the contracts expired, desertions were likely.
However, it was not inevitable that the English would fail to destroy their larger and better-resourced enemy. Henry V didn’t set himself an impossible task, and he did have options other than negotiating a truce and dividing up France with his opponents. A smaller power can overwhelm a larger one, given military superiority, a lethal concentration of force, and the psychological advantage of being believed invincible. Destruction or co-option of the enemy leadership is also vital.
The lack of a competent enemy leader can paralyse resistance, and as of 1420-22, the Dauphin lacked any military experience and showed no keenness to leave his residence at Chinon Castle on the middle Loire (once the birthplace of Henry II of England) to inspire his troops. His best commanders, with the exception of the Earl of Buchan (who was killed in battle with Bedford in 1424), were those experienced at ‘hit-and-run’ ambushes, minor clashes, and sieges, but not at open warfare.
A much larger power could be overwhelmed by a smaller power. This could provide a template for an English victory over the larger and better resourced power of Valois France.
One such example was Alexander the Great’s conquest of the massively larger Persian empire. This was achieved by a combination of relentless application of force, tactical superiority by a brilliant and ruthless commander, an endless round of victories, and the destruction of the defender’s small ‘high command’.
More recently, from the perspective of 1420, Henry V would have known that the application of a sizeable bloc of skilled archers, adequately protected from cavalry charges, had enabled Edward III and his eldest son to defeat the larger French royal army time after time and to range at will across France, which was repeated by independent bands of mercenary companies.
A skilled and highly mobile smaller army with superior weaponry, morale, and generalship was to enable successive Swedish armies under Gustavus Adolphus, Charles X, and Charles XII to rampage across Europe (particularly Poland) through the 17th Century. Their enemies had the advantage of size and of larger armies which, like that of Valois France in 1420-22, could withdraw into safe territory after a defeat and regroup.
The marches of Edward III into Champagne and Burgundy in 1360 and of John of Gaunt to Aquitaine in 1373 were just as impressive signs of the defence’s fearful, battle-avoiding retreat as when Charles XII crossed Belorussia into Russian-ruled Ukraine in 1708-09.
The same tactic of avoiding battle and waiting for the enemy’s supply lines to become overstretched was used by Kutuzov against Napoleon in Russia in 1812.
None of these invading commanders were able to use their local superiority to win a long war far from home; and the adherence of impressed or calculating vassals of the invaded regime and the seizure of towns and supplies was crucial. Could Henry ever achieve this?
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Tim Venning has written a series of books for SLP on Ancient Rome, starting with Caesars of the Bosphorus.
(1). Logistics of pre-modern armies are discussed in The Nitpicker's Guide to Ancient Military, by David Flin.