1415: French prisoners at the Battle of Agincourt

4 comments October 25th, 2009 dogboy

This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand o’ tiptoe when the day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”

…And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3

In the world of Henry V, the Battle of Agincourt is a source of bursting pride for the English, a wellspring of superiority over the French and proof of the soul of those from the Isle. In spite of the inspiring speeches, the battle has passed into history as one of the enduring examples of a well-positioned army besting a much larger force.

Were it not for the story of the triumphant underdog, Agincourt would have fallen into international obscurity with much of the Hundred Years’ War, a simmering conflict for the French throne that spanned from 1337 to 1453. The notoriety of the Hundred Years’ War comes not from its intensity but from its longevity and breadth: an international conflict that swept up hundreds of wealthy European houses, it featured the first significant post-Roman standing armies, organized cavalry, and formative nationalism in both France and England.

The interminable war centered around the English crown’s claim to succession of the French throne — a claim events had overtaken by the end of the conflict in 1453 — and had already been going off and on for nearly eighty years as we lay our scene in 1415, with King Henry V of England initiating what would be known as the Lancastrian War.

Henry’s English and Welsh forces battered the French port of Harfleur starting in August 1415, which was the first holding to fall to the invading army. Almost immediately after taking control in late September of that year, the English king made a curious decision to march across Northern France from Harfleur to Calais, approximately 100 miles away.

As he tromped northeast, French troops shadowed his movements, and Henry made several attempts to shake them. After passing through Frévent, Henry turned his men north. He crossed the last major tributary of the Canche River south of Maisoncelle, hopeful that the exhausting trip was nearly through. His scouts, however, had hairy news for their king: the French force had cut the corner and was amassing north of their position. The way was blocked.

Archer? I Hardly Knew Her!

Agincourt (now spelled Azincourt) lay across a ploughed field from Tramecourt, making for a narrow defile not suited to maximizing the French force’s advantage in numbers and heavy cavalry.

Nevertheless, that advantage was considerable, or at least has conventionally been thought so, and it was in the face of desperately dwindling supplies that Henry was forced to initiate battle. The opposing French forces, ostensibly commanded by Constable Charles d’Albret, Comte de Dreux, and Marshal Boucicaut, Jean Le Maingre, allegedly outnumbered the British by at least 2 to 1 (estimates range as high as 6 to 1*).

The English drew up longbowmen in a wedge along the woods adjacent the field (map), and it was these positions that provided the decisive turn.

When the Gallic banners advanced, the English archers moved into firing range and dug in palings they had hastily manufactured from the local forest; this made a direct assault problematic while the woods prevented a flanking maneuver. French cavalry attempted to dislodge them with a concerted assault, but the defensive postures held, and the cavalry was turned away. All the while, the hail of arrows mowed down the flower of French chivalry, whose lines crumbled in panic and disorder.

As one contemporaneous account states**:

Before, however, the general attack commenced, numbers of the French were slain and severely wounded by the English bowmen. At length the English gained on them so much, and were so close, that excepting the front line, and such as had shortened their lances, the enemy could not raise their hands against them. The division under sir Clugnet de Brabant, of eight hundred men-at-arms, who were intended to break through the English archers, were reduced to seven score, who vainly attempted it. True it is, that sir William de Saveuses, who had been also ordered on this service, quitted his troop, thinking they would follow him, to attack the English, but he was shot dead from off his horse. The others had their horses so severely handled by the archers, that, smarting from pain, they galloped on the van division and threw it into the utmost confusion, breaking the line in many places. The horses were become unmanageable, so that horses and riders were tumbling on the ground, and the whole army was thrown into disorder, and forced back on some lands that had been just sown with corn. Others, from fear of death, fled; and this caused so universal a panic in the army that great part followed the example.

A confused chain of command in the French camp (the English, of course, were personally commanded by their sovereign) facilitated the rout.

Despite their military status, d’Albret and Boucicaut were outranked by several of the nobles heading the lines behind them, said nobles being prone to glory-seeking freelance charges as chivalrous as they were tactically unavailing. The Constable led the front line, followed by the Duke of Bar and the Duke of d’Alençon.

After the disastrous first charge, what remained of the second line moved in to join the fray. The French peasantry was massacred during the fight, and Constable d’Albret and the Duke of d’Alençon, along with the Duke of Orleans and Duke of Barant, along with several other nobles, fell during the assault, further disorganizing the French. (The highest-ranking English casualty was the Duke of York.)

With thousands of French dead, the third line, headed by the Count of Merle and Count of Falconberg, fell away before they entered the battle. While England’s longbows dominated the field, France’s bowmen never even participated in the battle, squeezed to the back by too many bluebloods demanding the right to charge.

Only 100-200 English are thought to have died this day; the death toll for the French was in the thousands, with hundreds more taken prisoner.


Uh-oh.

It is a portion of this lot summarily executed during the battle who offer this blog an excuse to survey the battlefield.

After a successful raid on the English supply van — the signal French achievement in the battle, and one that briefly threatened to knock out the monarch himself and turn the tide — Henry got worried that his oversized contingent of French prisoners was liable to get loose and wreak havoc in his rear. He issued the expedient but decidedly unseemly order to put his captives to death.†

Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this documentary, which among other things unpacks the longbow’s actual role in the victory, given that English arrows could not penetrate French knights’ plate armor.

The Battle of Agincourt has inspired innumerable interpreters, from Shakespeare to Star Trek.

Shakespeare’s classic Henry V is frequently staged, and has hit the silver screen multiply — here’s Laurence Olivier’s version of the stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech followed by the start of battle from the 1944 production addressed to the martial fervor of World War II.

There are plans to adapt Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt to film as well.

In the nonfiction world, Lt. Col Alfred Burne’s The Agincourt War focuses on the military side of the battle while Juliet Barker’s Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle and Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England.

The year after Agincourt, Henry V claimed all of Normandy, and in subsequent years forced the French to sign the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, which established the line of succession for Henry’s heirs to unify the crowns of the adversaries. Henry’s grand plan was foiled by his untimely death just two months after the death of King Charles VI of France, which left Henry VI — then less than a year old — as the heir to both English and French thrones.

The Dauphin Charles of France, officially disinherited by Troyes but still widely supported in France, swooped in to claim power in France, but internal dissent made his rule difficult; 30 years later (and after the intervention of Joan of Arc), Charles finally expelled the English from Aquitaine, and brought all France together not under the House of Lancaster but under the House of Valois.

* Accounts are sketchy in this regard. Some modern analysis puts the values at 4:3 for the French. However, contemporaneous accounts suggest a much heavier French advantage. Of course, people are notoriously bad at crowd estimation.

** Translation by Thomas Johnes.

† Shakespeare covers this notorious massacre as well, in Act 4, Scene 6 (the next scene opens with Englishmen horrified at the order, but the matter drops as they realize they’ve won the battle)

Alarum
But, hark! what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scatter’d men:
Then every soldier kill his prisoners:
Give the word through.

Part of the Daily Double: Agincourt.

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1415: Bardolph, Hal’s friend

5 comments October 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1415, on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, the young English King Henry V approved the execution of his onetime boon companion Bardolph in William Shakespeare’s Henry V.

The fictional Bardolph had been the ruddy-nosed friend of Henry’s in the Henry IV plays (Part 1, Part 2), where the hard-drinking, rabble-rousing young prince is a disappointment to the father who fears his heir will never merit the throne.

By Henry V, the boy has become the ruler, and launched an audacious incursion into France during the Hundred Years’ War.

Hal’s willingness to own the rough decisions of statecraft — in this case having his friend put to death further to his win-French-hearts-and-minds policy — is part of his coming of age as Henry V.

Whether that means Hal’s maturation into regal dignity or the corruption of his humanity by power is up to the reader.

KING

How now Fluellen, cam’st thou from the Bridge?

FLUELLEN

I, so please your Maiestie: The Duke of Exeter
ha’s very gallantly maintain’d the Pridge; the French is
gone off, looke you, and there is gallant and most praue
passages: marry, th’ athuersarie was haue possession of
the Pridge, but he is enforced to retyre, and the Duke of
Exeter is Master of the Pridge: I can tell your Maiestie,
the Duke is a praue man

KING

What men haue you lost, Fluellen?

FLUELLEN

The perdition of th’ athuersarie hath beene very
great, reasonnable great: marry for my part, I thinke the
Duke hath lost neuer a man, but one that is like to be executed
for robbing a Church, one Bardolph, if your Maiestie
know the man: his face is all bubukles and whelkes,
and knobs, and flames a fire, and his lippes blowes at his
nose, and it is like a coale of fire, sometimes plew, and
sometimes red, but his nose is executed, and his fire’s
out

KING

Wee would haue all such offendors so cut off:
and we giue expresse charge, that in our Marches through
the Countrey, there be nothing compell’d from the Villages;
nothing taken, but pay’d for: none of the French
vpbrayded or abused in disdainefull Language; for when
Leuitie and Crueltie play for a Kingdome, the gentler
Gamester is the soonest winner.

This is Laurence Olivier’s 1944 version of the scene, with the commoner Bardolph well off-camera:

… and Kenneth Branagh’s more pathos-laden 1989 interpretation, with the king wavering a moment as he locks eyes with his doomed subject, and flashing back to bygone scenes of conviviality before delivering his troop the stern lesson of his friend’s strangling:

Although Bardolph himself and his prior relationship with his sovereign are fiction, the action of the scene actually proceeds from reality. Shakespeare has (as is his wont) cribbed Holinshed, who relates that Henry’s army was under strict orders not to pillage the countryside, and observed that discipline to a man —

except one, which was, that a souldiour tooke a pix out of a church, for which he was apprehended, and the king not once remooved [i.e., he halted] till the box was restored, and the offendor strangled. The people of the countries thereabout, hearing of such zeale in him, to the maintenance of justice, ministered to his armie victuals, and other necessaries, although by open proclamation so to doo they were prohibited.*

* As quoted in the very apt 1992 “Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth and the Law of War” by Theodor Meron, American Journal of International Law, vol. 86, no. 1.

Part of the Daily Double: Agincourt.

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Daily Double: Agincourt

5 comments October 24th, 2009 Headsman

No medieval* battle in Christendom is better-known to the present-day hoi polloi than the Battle of Agincourt, that signal upset victory when young King Henry V and his invading English yeoman archers stunned a seemingly unbeatable force of French knights by outsmarting them like Belichik versus Martz.

This battle’s interpretive palimpsest — is it a parable of nascent capitalism? of national character? of technology? — has been much-bandied in the centuries since (and must weigh against England’s subsequent reversals in the Hundred Years’ War). This site’s interest is more parochial: the presence among the casualties of those who died by execution.

* If you want to call the early 15th century “medieval.” We stake no periodization claim.

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1409: Jean de Montagu

Add comment October 17th, 2009 Headsman

Six hundred years ago today, onetime royal favorite Jean de Montagu* was, at the instigation of his powerful noble rival, beheaded in Paris and his body hung up at Montfaucon.

Montagu (French link) was the 50-something scion of an ennobled notary — or else the illegitimate produce of King Charles V, whose ennobled notary had been induced to claim him. Regardless his blood, the lad made himself quite wealthy with a virtuous cycle of administrative acumen and political connection, winning a variety of honorary posts and riches aplenty he did not shy from displaying. Typical “New Money” type.

Sadly for Montagu, this cycle crested during the reign of Charles VI, also known as Charles the Mad for his bouts of illucidity.

“History,” wrote Barbara Tuchman, “never more cruelly demonstrated the vulnerability of a nation to the person of its chief of state than in the affliction of France beginning [with Charles’ first spell of insanity] in 1392.”

Charles the Mad’s erratic tenure would help bring French fortunes to the low ebb from which Joan of Arc would retrieve them.

Montagu’s period sob story was that his wealth earned him the enmity of nasty Duke of Burgundy John the Fearless,** who induced King Charles during one of the latter’s episodes to affix on Montagu responsibility for the crown’s financial shortfalls. Our day’s victim was arrested on October 7, 1409, tortured into a confession, and beheaded in Paris October 17.

Montagu’s surviving family had the verdict reversed within three years, which would have been a better deal for them had the family’s main branch not been wiped out three years after that at the Battle of Agincourt.

For the wider benefit of posterity, the beheaded lord also left a fair collection of endowed building projects in his lands in Marcoussis, including (French links all): the usual village church; a Celestine monastery; and a picturesque castle unfortunately devastated during the French Revolution but once resembling this:


Atmospheric old sketch from here; others here.

* Not to be confused with his (likewise beheaded) contemporary across the channel, John Montagu, Earl of Salisbury.

** John the Fearless had most recently been seen engineering the infamous murder of the king’s brother, and surviving by dint of his ransom potential the hecatomb of the last crusade.

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1450: William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk

2 comments May 2nd, 2009 Headsman

Henry VI, Part 2 — Act IV, Scene 1

The Coast of Kent.

[Alarum. Fight at sea. Ordnance goes off. Enter a Captain, a Master, a Master’s Mate, WALTER WHITMORE, and others; with them SUFFOLK, and others, prisoners.]

SUFFOLK.
Obscure and lowly swain, King Henry‘s blood,
The honourable blood of Lancaster,1
Must not be shed by such a jaded groom.
Hast thou not kiss’d thy hand and held my stirrup?
Bare-headed plodded by my foot-cloth mule
And thought thee happy when I shook my head?
How often hast thou waited at my cup,
Fed from my trencher, kneel’d down at the board,
When I have feasted with Queen Margaret?2
Remember it and let it make thee crest-fallen,
Ay, and allay thus thy abortive pride,
How in our voiding lobby hast thou stood
And duly waited for my coming forth.
This hand of mine hath writ in thy behalf,
And therefore shall it charm thy riotous tongue.

WHITMORE.
Speak, captain, shall I stab the forlorn swain?

CAPTAIN.
First let my words stab him, as he hath me.

SUFFOLK.
Base slave, thy words are blunt and so art thou.

CAPTAIN.
Convey him hence, and on our long-boat’s side
Strike off his head.

SUFFOLK.
Thou dar’st not, for thy own.

CAPTAIN.
Yes, Pole!

SUFFOLK.
Pole!

CAPTAIN.
Pool! Sir Pool! lord!
Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt
Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.
Now will I dam up this thy yawning mouth
For swallowing the treasure of the realm;3
Thy lips that kiss’d the queen shall sweep the ground;
And thou that smil’dst at good Duke Humphrey‘s death4
Against the senseless winds shalt grin in vain,
Who in contempt shall hiss at thee again.
And wedded be thou to the hags of hell,
For daring to affy a mighty lord
Unto the daughter of a worthless king,
Having neither subject, wealth, nor diadem.
By devilish policy art thou grown great
And, like ambitious Sylla, overgorg’d
With gobbets of thy mother’s bleeding heart.
By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France,
The false revolting Normans thorough thee
Disdain to call us lord, and Picardy
Hath slain their governors, surpris’d our forts,
And sent the ragged soldiers wounded home.5
The princely Warwick, and the Nevils all,
Whose dreadful swords were never drawn in vain,
As hating thee are rising up in arms;
And now the house of York, thrust from the crown
By shameful murther of a guiltless king6
And lofty proud encroaching tyranny,
Burns with revenging fire, whose hopeful colours
Advance our half-fac’d sun, striving to shine,
Under the which is writ ‘Invitis nubibus.’
The commons here in Kent are up in arms;7
And, to conclude, reproach and beggary
Is crept into the palace of our king,
And all by thee.–Away! convey him hence.

SUFFOLK.
O that I were a god, to shoot forth thunder
Upon these paltry, servile, abject drudges!
Small things make base men proud; this villain here,
Being captain of a pinnace, threatens more
Than Bargulus the strong Illyrian pirate.8
Drones suck not eagles’ blood but rob bee-hives.
It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Thy words move rage and not remorse in me.
I go of message from the queen to France;
I charge thee waft me safely cross the Channel.9

CAPTAIN.
Walter,–

WHITMORE.
Come, Suffolk, I must waft thee to thy death.

SUFFOLK.
Gelidus timor occupat artus; it is thee I fear.

WHITMORE.
Thou shalt have cause to fear before I leave thee.
What, are ye daunted now? now will ye stoop?

1 GENTLEMAN.
My gracious lord, entreat him, speak him fair.

SUFFOLK.
Suffolk’s imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Us’d to command, untaught to plead for favour.
Far be it we should honour such as these
With humble suit; no, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king,
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncover’d to the vulgar groom.
True nobility is exempt from fear;
More can I bear than you dare execute.

CAPTAIN.
Hale him away, and let him talk no more.

SUFFOLK.
Come, soldiers, show what cruelty ye can,
That this my death may never be forgot!
Great men oft die by vile bezonians:
A Roman sworder and banditto slave
Murther’d sweet Tully; Brutus’ bastard hand
Stabb’d Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.10

1 Shakespeare brackets Suffolk clearly into the political faction that would become the winning contestant in the War of the Roses and give rise to the Tudor dynasty that ruled England at the time of the play’s writing. Suffolk’s key ally, Somerset, was slain in 1455 at the first battle of the generation-long conflict.

2 Margaret of Anjou was wed to the feebleminded King Henry VI by William de la Pole’s offices. Shakespeare portrays Suffolk and Margaret as maybe a little too close. When Suffolk’s head is posthumously retrieved for her, she laments,

… who can cease to weep and look on this?
Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast;
But where’s the body that I should embrace?

3 William de la Pole had a serious popularity problem, on several scores (as we shall see). Endemic corruption that had dissipated the wealth of the crown during Henry VI’s reign was among the most explosive, and laid at his door because of his proximity to power (and because Suffolk had not failed to exploit the revenue opportunities afforded by his position).

4 Another grievance: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the popular uncle to the king and onetime Lord Protector, had been arrested for treason at the Suffolk-Beaufort faction’s instigation in 1447. He died shortly thereafter, which naturally gave rise to suspicions of assassination.

5 Perhaps most damaging of all for Suffolk, England’s foothold in northern France from which it had maintained itself during the Hundred Years’ War preceding, had suddenly collapsed in the 1440s. Maine was handed directly over to Charles VII — the price, critics charged, of the king’s marriage to Anjou. Then an ill-advised offensive had invited a French counterattack that rousted the English from Normandy and brought furious domestic recriminations for the debacle.

Incidentally, as a younger man, this day’s victim had been one of the commanders besieging Orleans when Joan of Arc famously relieved the city. He was captured by the Maid shortly thereafter, and eventually ransomed.

6 Again, a clear identification of the the factions taking shape for the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the standard-bearer of (obviously) the Yorkist cause in the coming conflict, had been Suffolk’s main rival at court, and is a key suspect in engineering Suffolk’s death. The guiltless king referred to is Richard II, overthrown a half-century before by Henry Bolingbroke which gave rise to the competing claims of legitimacy that would color the York-Lancaster contest.

7 Weeks after Suffolk’s death, Jack Cade’s rebellion erupted in Kent, an infamous affair whose dubious connection to York was great fodder for Tudor propaganda like, well, Henry VI, Part 2. Be that as it may, the Bard placed one of his immortal lines in the mouth of one of Cade’s peasants:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

8 This reference may be an anachronism. Pirates operating from Illyria — the uskoci (or uskoks) — plagued the Adriatic Sea in Shakespeare’s time.

9 As a royal minister, Suffolk was essentially immune from Parliament as long as the king backed him … unless he could be hit with a treason charge. Given his unpopularity, a great many mostly outlandish charges of treason were duly conjured early in 1450, and Suffolk had not the political support to repel them. Henry VI, still Suffolk’s supporter, exiled the noble to protect him from possible execution. He was intercepted as he left England for France, however, and what the House of Commons had wanted done by a bill of attainder was simply handled extrajudicially upon the seas instead.

10 The duke was beheaded (“within half a dozen strokes” of “a rusty sword”) upon one of the pirate vessel’s small boats.

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1343: Olivier III de Clisson, husband of the Lioness of Brittany

1 comment August 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1343, a noble widow’s career in piracy got its start where such ventures more usually end: the scaffold.

Olivier III de Clisson beheaded with his knights, in an illustration of Froissart.

Olivier III de Clisson, a powerful Breton noble nominally loyal to France, had been persuaded to ally with England’s Edward III in what nobody yet realized was the opening stage of the Hundred Years’ War.

Intriguing to advance a claim to the French throne, Edward knew right where to look. “Brittany was France’s Scotland, choleric, Celtic, stony, bred to opposition and resistance, and ready to use the English in its struggles against its overlord as the Scots used the French in theirs,” Barbara Tuchman wrote. And the Breton War of Succession was just the sort of pretext for meddling.

Clisson was one of the great lords of the region, and in the feudal era where liege relationships counted more than “nationality,” his alliance would swing a considerable network of retainers to the English cause.

He was hardly the only one, according to Jonathan Sumption’s The Hundred Years War:

The duchies of Brittany and Normandy seemed to [the French king Philip VI] to be seething with rebels, led by the very noblemen who had promised to serve him till his dying day. He was shocked and puzzled.

When Clisson’s (apparent) lord Philip VI got wind of the secret deal, he invited Olivier to a joust in Paris and had him arrested. Then, as knight follows day …

In the year of grace one thousand three hundred and forth-three, on Saturday, the second day of August, Olivier, lord of Clisson, knight, prisoner in the Chatelet of Paris for several treasons and other crimes perpetrated by him against the king and the crown of France, and for alliances that he made with the king of England, enemy of the king and kingdom of France, as the said Olivier … has confessed, was by judgement of the king given at Orleans drawn from the Chatelet of Paris to Les Halles … and there on a scaffold had his head cut off. And then from there his corpses was drawn to the gibbet of Paris and there hanged on the highest level;* and his head was sent to Nantes in Brittany to be put on a lance over the Sauvetout gate [as a sign of his treason]. (Cited here.)

That’s chivalry for you.

The unexpected turn came while Clisson’s headless corpse was clanking away on the gibbet: his warlike, 40-something wife Jeanne de Clisson vowed vengeance, sold off the Clisson estates to buy a small fleet, and turned privateer, murderously ravaging French shipping along the Breton coast and reportedly personally beheading aristocrats she could get her hands on.

After more than a decade of avenging Olivier, the “Lioness of Brittany” retired triumphantly to England to remarry the sort of British toff whose preference ran towards strong women.

Her son, also named Olivier de Clisson, returned to fight in the Hundred Years War on the side of England … and eventually defected back to the French.

* Meaning, at the imposing tiered gallows of Montfaucon.

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1358: Guillaume Cale, leader of the Jacquerie

June 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1358, 14th-century France’s most serious peasant uprising was crushed when its capable commander was lured into his enemies’ power and torturously put to death in Clermont.

The Jacquerie (English Wikipedia entry | French) sprang from the fertile farmlands north of Paris. It had a hundred fathers, no one of them self-evidently the decisive cause but many in debatable combinations and proportions conspiring to render a perfect storm of catastrophe for the despised villeins who sweated out their masters’ chivalrous living.

The Calamitous 14th Century, historian Barbara Tuchman subtitled her popular work on this period: France was buffeted by famine, the Black Death, and attendant social and economic shocks; the Hundred Years’ War opened, laying the countryside waste at the hands of crossing armies, and then marauding mercenaries during the downtime between battles, and then “friendly” forces pillaging for sustenance and pressing peasants into uncompensated labor. In 1356, the English captured France’s King John II at the Battle of Poitiers, opening a yawning gap in the country’s political authority and undermining the mounted nobility’s military prestige vis-a-vis the (smaller) yeoman army that had routed it.

We do not seem to have a certain record of what match was set to this tinderbox — the most suggestive proximate cause is a fresh tax for fortifying noble citadels in the area — but the conflagration singed the gentry’s beard. Froissart, who wrote a few years after the fact and from a distinctly hostile standpoint, captured the aristocracy’s view of rising:

[C]ertain people of the common villages, without any head or ruler, assembled together in Beauvoisin. In the beginning they passed not a hundred in number they said how the noblemen of the realm of France, knights and squires, shamed the realm, and that it should be a great wealth to destroy them all: and each of them said it was true, and said all with one voice: “Shame have he that cloth not his power to destroy all the gentlemen of the realm!”

Thus they gathered together without any other counsel, and without any armour saving with staves and knives, and so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and brake up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children great and small and brent his house. … And so they did to divers other castles and good houses; and they multiplied so that they were a six thousand, and ever as they went forward they increased, for such like as they were fell ever to them, so that every gentleman fled from them and took their wives and children with them, and fled ten or twenty leagues off to be in surety, and left their house void and their goods therein. These mischievous people thus assembled without captain or armour robbed, brent and slew all gentlemen that they could lay hands on, and forced and ravished ladies and damosels, and did such shameful deeds that no human creature ought to think on any such, and he that did most mischief was most praised with them and greatest master. I dare not write the horrible deeds that they did to ladies and damosels; among other they slew a knight and after did put him on a broach and roasted him at the fire in the sight of the lady his wife and his children; and after the lady had been enforced and ravished with a ten or twelve, they made her perforce to eat of her husband and after made her to die an evil death and all her children.

Froissart’s Chronicle is the most notable of the age and (calumniously) the most defining one on the event; it helped establish the word “jacquerie” as a synonym for bloodthirsty insurrection that would be pinned to countless riots and risings for centuries to come. Some other chronicles suggest more deliberate and purposeful (and less maniacal) organization by these original Jacques, and the trenchant “charge against these noble traitors, who have shirked on their duties to defend the kingdom, who desire to do nothing but devour the sustenance of the commoners.” (Source)

Interestingly, and seemingly contrary to the obvious reading of a downtrodden underclass driven to desperation, more recent scholarship has pointed out that the rising broke out in the best farmland, seemingly among the wealthiest of the rural third estate — artisans, proprietors, petty bureaucrats and clergy.

Leadership fell to this day’s victim, Guillaume Cale, also known by the folksy sobriquet “Jacques Bonhomme” (Goodman, or Goodfellow). A charismatic man of some fighting experience, he was able to marshal this mob into a creature of passable military capacity.

His short appearance on our stage also suggests a character of strategic vision not the less impressive for its failure to materialize.

Cale was a well-off farmer, like the backbone of his movement, and reached out to make common cause with the nearby Parisian bourgeoisie then in rebellious possession of their own city — a far more consequential challenge to authority that was soon to meet its own violent termination.

The terrorized nobility turned to Charles the Bad, King of Navarre at that time attempting to exploit the captivity of John II to hoist himself onto the throne of France. Even though Charles was also treating with the Parisian bourgeoisie in this endeavor, as Jonathan Sumption puts it in his authoritative The Hundred Years’ War: “The opportunity to present himself as the leader of the united nobility of France was not to be missed.”

Charles handled the rebels with efficiency, if not with honor. Tuchman relates:

[Charles of Navarre] invited Cale to parley, and upon this invitation from a king, Cale’s common sense apparently deserted him. Considering himself an opponent in war to whom the laws of chivalry applied, he went to the parley without a guard, whereupon his royal and noble opponent had him seized and thrown into chains. The capture of their leader by such easy and contemptuous treachery* drained the Jacques’ confidence and hope of success. When the nobles charged, the commoners succumbed … To consummate his victory, Charles of Navarre beheaded Guillaume Cale after reportedly crowning him, in wicked mockery, King of the Jacques with a circlet of red-hot iron.

The potentially tricky Battle of Mello turned into a butchery that shattered the Jacquerie, and relieved nobles gorged themselves for weeks to come on peasant blood — no less horribly than any depredation of the Jacquerie. “Our mortal foes, the English, would not have done what the nobles then did in our homeland,” wrote another 14th century scribe, Jean de Venette. (Cited by Robert Knecht; some additional Venette commentary on the Jacquerie is here, in French.)

If Cale’s decision to risk parley seems madness in retrospect, picture his situation. Sumption says the Jacquerie’s bands were already beginning to dissipate; Cale himself was known and surely in line for execution — practically the preordained denouement of every medieval peasant uprising — if he were to throw in the towel peaceably. He had no way forward but forward, and even supposing that Cale-commanded peasant lines would have held at the battle that particular day, his forces had no military prospects beyond a few more weeks.

The Jacques needed something — an exit strategy, perhaps, with the opportunity to return to life pardoned of reprisal and guaranteed against the next onerous levy; or, a cemented part in the alliance of Navarre and the Parisian bourgeoisie. To get that something, Guillaume Cale had to throw the dice, and what better odds would he get than in a pavilion face to face with the man who might become king of France? Staying in the field at the head of his ill-armed peasant horde must have looked the more improbable gamble.

Cale’s wager failed horribly this day, but from the luxurious vantage of centuries, the movement of people in those days shows the germ of an altogether more revolutionary future. Thierry‘s history of the Third Estate (available free at Google Books):

The destruction of the Jacques was followed almost immediately by the failure of the revolution of the bourgeoisie in Paris itself. Those two movements, different as they were, of the two great classes of the commonalty, terminated simultaneously — one to revive and carry all before it when its time should come; the other to leave nothing behind it but an odious name, and sad recollections.

The Tiers Etat, displaced from the dominant position which it had prematurely won, resumed its ordinary part of patient industry, less pretentious ambition, and slow but uninterrupted progress.

Update: Nice tangential follow-up from The Naked Philologist into a fantasy literature recommendation. Also see more about those jittery nobles.

* You’re supposed to think this is okay because chivalric codes written by nobles say nobles don’t have to keep oaths to commoners. Readers still appalled at Charles the Bad’s bad faith: enjoy the Schadenfreude of his bad end.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Language,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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