Norman and Medieval (1001-1500)

King Henry V and the French Throne

Henry’s remarkable success against the French in battle is well known, but it is not generally realised how close he came to uniting the kingdoms of England and France. His victories had given him control of two thirds of France, plus the guarantee of him succeeding to the French throne on the death of the mad King Charles. If Henry could have lived a few short weeks longer he would have achieved this grand ambition.

Those interested in Medieval history will know of Henry’s great victory at Agincourt (or Azincourt to give it its proper name), but this was not the end of his ambition in France.

With the French in a violent civil war and power struggle between Louis of Orleans, brother of the mad French king Charles and his cousin John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, Henry, with the help of Burgundy, invaded France to assert his claim to the French throne through his great grandfather Edward III of England.

His destruction of the French army at Agincourt had thrown France into chaos and Henry wasted no time in exploiting the situation. He began the rebuilding of the port of Harfleur and soon shipped in immigrants to anglicise the town. In January 1416 the Earl of Dorset arrived with a force of 900 men at arms and 1,500 bowmen and in March led them on a raid towards the Somme. Marching back and loaded with plunder, his force was intercepted at Valmont by a French army of some 5,000 under the command of the new Constable of France, Bernard, Count of Armagnac.

Dorset deployed his small force in a single line in the hedges and ditches, supported by archers. The Count, having learned nothing from the lesson of Agincourt, threw his cavalry against the English line and many were duly brought down by the arrow storm and the English men at arms. Some French riders, having broken the English line, made no attempt to exploit their success, but rode on to plunder the baggage train in the rear, enabling the English to withdraw to a small orchard and slip away when darkness fell.

At dawn the English set off along the beach and had reached Cap de le Havre, only 10 miles from Harfleur when the French advanced guard appeared on the dunes above the beach and charged down on them. The English, strung out along the shore, turned and greeted the French with an arrow storm and then charged with axe and sword, destroying them with this aggressive response. They began stripping the dead for plunder when the main French force arrived on the dunes. So confident now were the English of their superiority that they simply charged up the dunes, scrambling on all fours to get at the French, who simply turned and fled.

Henry formed an alliance with John Duke of Burgundy who saw in the English king, an opportunity to defeat his Armagnac rivals. Thus assured, Henry set sail for France in August 1417 with a force of some 12,000 men and landed on August 1st near Trouville, leaving his brother, John, Duke of Bedford in charge of England. Securing his base, Henry set out with all his forces to besiege Caen which fell after some very violent fighting on the 4th of September. The English, furious at their losses, rampaged through the town pillaging and burning.

Duke John of Burgundy took this opportunity to attack and occupy Armagnac lands north of Paris and around Chartres. In May 1418 the citizens of Paris rose against the hated Armagnacs and murdered their leader Duke Bernard. John of Burgundy then entered the city and allied himself with Queen Isabella, who ruled France in the name of her demented husband. John ordered his forces to contain any further English advances. English and Burgundian forces clashed at Pont de l’Arch with the English easily brushing aside their opponents and besieging the fortified walls of Rouen.

So thick were the walls that Henry could make no headway and the siege dragged on until 1419. During the winter of 1418, in an attempt to conserve their food supplies, the defenders expelled some 12,000 people, the so called bouches inultiles, “useless mouths”. Henry refused to let them pass through his lines and most of them died from cold and hunger between the walls and the English forces. An Englishman, John Page recorded, “Here and there were children of two or three begging for bread and starving, their parents dead… there were ten or twelve dead for everyone alive, many dying quietly and lying between the lines as if asleep”.

It is not clear why Henry refused to help these starving people, but his ruthlessness in war was well known as witnessed by his massacre of prisoners at Agincourt. It must be presumed that he wanted to instil fear in the French and signal that he would go to any length to achieve his aims.

With Burgundy controlling the mad king and Queen Isabella and Armagnac controlling the Dauphin, the French seemed unable to form any opposition to the advancing English, but did attempt a truce between themselves, which the Dauphin immediately reneged on and contacted the English with an offer proposing an alliance against Burgundy which the English rejected. The Dauphin finally met John of Burgundy on the 10th of September 1419 at Montereau. The meeting was stormy and following a scuffle, one of the Dauphin’s knights killed Duke John with a battleaxe. Duke John’s skull may still be seen at his ancestral home at Dijon and it is said that, through the hole in it, “the English came to France”. The new Duke Philip of Burgundy immediately threw in his lot with Henry who continued his inexorable advance on Paris.

It only remained for Henry to negotiate with King Charles and Queen Isabella and at the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 Henry became heir to the throne of France. The Dauphin was declared a bastard and a rebel and Henry was betrothed to the king’s daughter Catherine. Henry was named Regent of France while retaining all his lands in Normandy by right of conquest, plus all his ancestral territories in Aquitaine.

Henry swore to uphold all rights and customs in France and on the 14th of June 1420, married the French princess. In July the English parliament endorsed the treaty.

Henry’s entrance into Paris with his new queen, his father in law, King Charles and the mighty Duke of Burgundy marked the high point of his ambition. The dispossessed Dauphin rallied forces and many skirmishes and small battles took place in the succeeding months. It was during a siege of Meaux that dysentery broke out among the besiegers and Henry himself was taken ill.

On the 6th of December Henry received news of the birth of his son, the future Henry VI, heir to the two kingdoms that his father had worked so hard to unite. Henry’s condition worsened and on the 31st August 1422, Henry died. Within a month, the mad French king was dead. If Henry had survived a few weeks longer he would have been anointed king of both countries, a prize for which he had fought so long.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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