Today it is my pleasure to welcome author Nathen Amin to the blog. Nathen has stopped by on the last day of his blog tour with an extract from his wonderful new book, House of Beaufort, focusing on the Siege of Rouen which took place between July 1418 and January 1419 as part of Henry V’s attempt to conquer Normandy, and ultimately claim the French throne.
The Siege of Rouen (Extract from House of Beaufort by Nathen Amin)
By the summer of 1418, the king’s army was camped outside the gates of Rouen, the final obstacle in reconquering the duchy. Although the city was the second largest in France, it had suffered from the intermittent civil war between the Armagnac and Burgundian factions and had been brutally occupied by both forces. Now, it was to be harassed once more, this time by the English.
In mid-July, King Henry dispatched his uncle Thomas Beaufort to seek the city’s surrender, accompanied by ‘a fayre manye of men of arms and archers’. The duke of Exeter had spent the first few months of the year in England but on 3 March received a summons from his nephew requesting his services once again in France. By May, the duke was back on Norman soil, attended by a force of 500 men-at-arms and 1,500 archers, and on 1 July was appointed Count of Harcourt after capturing the town’s castle. He was also given custody of Lillebonne Castle, situated halfway between Harfleur and Rouen and timely motivation for the exhausting task that lay ahead.
According to the Brut Chronicle, upon arriving outside Rouen, Exeter set up camp and ‘displayed his banner’ before sending ‘herodes into the toun, and bade them to yeld it’. If they chose not to submit, then the duke promised they would ‘deie an harde and sharped deth, and withoute eny mercy or grace’. A small skirmish occurred when ‘a grete meny of men at arms, both on horsbak and eke on foot’ emerged from the town, although Exeter’s resilient force managed to ‘ovirthew an hep of them’, capturing thirty prisoners in the process . It was clear the Rouennais were not going to yield to the duke, who promptly departed south to Pont-de-l’Arche to inform his king. An unimpressed Henry V swiftly mobilised the remainder of his troops and returned to Rouen alongside his uncle.
The siege began in earnest on 29 July 1418, with the city well defended by large numbers of crossbowmen and artillery weaponry. English siege equipment, which had proved effective throughout the campaign, was rendered useless as Henry’s soldiers could not get within range of the city walls to create any discernible damage. Since brute force was not an option, the king resolved to starve the citizens into surrender. Henry spread his commanders around the city to block any attempts by French relief forces bringing supplies, with himself based in the east and his brother Clarence in the west. Exeter was positioned ‘on the north syde, before the Port Denys’, and the three chief commanders were capably supported by John Mowbray, earl of Norfolk, James Butler, earl of Ormond, the lords Harrington, Talbot, Roos, Willoughby and Fitzhugh, and Sir John Cornwallis.
The English expected the Rouennais to surrender after a token resistance, whilst those within the walls stubbornly awaited the arrival of a French army to come to their rescue. Neither occurred. Although outbreaks of dysentery and disease afflicted both Rouen and the English camp, commanders of both sides refused to back down. At one stage, an Englishman known as Sir John le Blanc, Governor of Harfleur and a member of Exeter’s retinue, challenged a French captain named Langnon, the bastard of D’Arly, to a jousting duel. Langnon agreed to the contest and emerged from the beyond the walls with around thirty companions. Although the intention of both men was to run the joust three times, Langnon ferociously unhorsed his adversary at the first attempt, who was then dragged into the city where he succumbed to his injuries. The Frenchman was urged by the English to return le Blanc’s lifeless body, for which he was begrudgingly paid four hundred nobles, possibly from the purse of a presumably demoralised Exeter himself.
By December, the citizens of Rouen were feeling the effect of the siege, having consumed most of their provisions. By Christmas they had ‘nothir bred, ale, nor wyne’ and were forced to survive on horsemeat and the flesh of dogs, mice, rats and cats. The city’s despairing commanders ordered all women and children, along with any old or sick men, to be evicted from Rouen at once as they were deemed to be of no military value. Considering many of those expelled were related to soldiers left behind, it seems likely the commanders intended for them to be honourably received into English hands as prisoners of war, to be fed and watered until the siege was over. They had not counted on the ruthless disposition of the English king.
Although several of King Henry’s soldiers initially endeavoured to feed the evictees from their own rations, he dispatched orders that no assistance was to be provided to the pleading masses. His command was adhered to, and the beleaguered citizens were left to starve in ditches halfway between the English and the city walls, slowly perishing in full view of both camps. It was an utterly brutal decision and intended to demotivate the watching garrison of Rouen, who could only look on shamefacedly as those they had expelled screamed for help that was not forthcoming.
A chilling insight into the horrors of the siege is found in a lengthy poem written by John Page, an English soldier present during the sustained attack. Page’s compassionate poem barely conceals the anguish he experienced during the winter of 1418, or the significant pity he felt for the innocent women and children of Rouen. In one resonating couplet, Page records how he witnessed a starving, orphaned ‘chylde of two yere or three, go a boute to begge hyt brede, fadyr and modyr bothe were dede’, whilst he also came across ‘women holdyn in hyr armys, dede chyldryn in hyr barmys (bosoms)’. After the citizens were expelled, a despondent Page noted how ‘women with their children in their arms’ were begging the soldiers to ‘have marcy uppon us, ye Englysche men’.
There could be no mercy until the English king was placated, and as Rouen could not withstand the tenacious monarch indefinitely, dialogue was finally opened between the two parties after Christmas. The city accepted terms of surrender on 19 January 1419 when, after six months of ‘toilsome siege and many assaults’, Thomas Beaufort was handed the keys to Rouen. The duke galloped into the city, ‘a valiant captain mounted on a goodly courser’, to formally seek the submission of the council. Trumpets, clarions and pipes heralded the duke’s arrival, with his English soldiers, perhaps charged with adrenaline, provocatively shouting ‘St George! St George!’ as they passed through the gates. Page reported the inhabitants were but ‘bonys and skyn’ and beheld their conquerors with great fear, prompting some of the residents to nervously ransom their lives ‘for fifty thousand pounds in gold’. Money was not enough to save a commander named Alain Blanchard; he was promptly executed for having hanged English prisoners from the walls in preceding months.
One can only wonder at the horror which greeted the duke as he rode through the disease-plagued, death-infested streets. Rotting corpses littered the roads, with Page confirming ‘in everyche strete lay dede’ whilst those who had only just survived the ordeal, ‘dyde faster than cartys myght cary away’. The stench alone must have overwhelmed Exeter and his men, forced to navigate their way through grim pandemonium. Even so, Thomas had a duty to perform, and so the duke ‘to the castelle fyrste he roode’ and ‘ryche baners up he set’, including those of St George and the arms of France and England. As the flags fluttered in the wind, their presence above the city represented not only a hard-fought English victory over Rouen, but also the duchy of Normandy.
With Exeter having secured the city, the king followed his uncle into Rouen the following afternoon, and whilst ‘the bells of all the churches were rung’, the surviving ecclesiastical figures emerged to greet the intimidating figure that had reduced their places of worship to rubble. Alongside his commanders, Henry offered thanksgiving in the cathedral before settling into his new lodgings within the castle. His nobles dispersed into the city to find accommodation in any buildings English cannons had failed to destroy.
Exeter finally had the opportunity to rest his weary body, and to reflect on events of previous months, particularly the waste of life that had occurred on both sides of Rouen’s walls. Tragic losses had not been limited to the Normans, for death had also struck at the heart of the Beaufort family. Accompanying his stepfather Clarence on the campaign had been the seventeen-year-old Henry Beaufort, 2nd Earl of Somerset, heir of John Beaufort, and Exeter’s nephew. Information about the youngster’s life is scarce, although his upbringing was overseen by Clarence and partly funded by his namesake uncle, the bishop of Winchester.
Likewise, young Henry’s death is also poorly documented, although later inquisitions in the summer of 1425 place the date of his demise to 25 November 1418, just as the siege of Rouen reached its climax. It’s unclear whether the cause was warfare or disease, or if his uncle Exeter was present at the time having been posted near to the Clarence forces in which the teenage earl served. There is no record of what happened to Henry’s body, whilst his earldom passed to his brother John who became the third Beaufort to hold the Somerset title within a decade. At what point Bishop Beaufort, or the boy’s mother Margaret Holland, became aware of his demise is also uncertain, as is his final resting place. This Henry Beaufort remains an enigma, something of a lost Beaufort, and his death was a sad consequence of the fall of Rouen.
Nathen Amin grew up in the heart of Carmarthenshire and has long had an interest in history. He has a degree in Business and Journalism and runs the Henry Tudor Society. He has an active social media presence promoting historical sites in Wales. He now lives in York.
And here’s the links to catch up with the rest of Nathen’s blog tour.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be available from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.
©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly