Reiver by David Pilling

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Battle of Poitiers, 19th September 1356

By some miracle, I've actually managed to catch an anniversary date. This one is for The Battle of Poitiers, fought on this day in 1356 between an English army led by Edward of Woodstock - later known as The Black Prince - and a French army led by King Jean II of France.

As anyone with a passing knowledge of the period knows, Poitiers was one of those smashing English victories that looked impressive on the day, but had less long-term effect on the course of the war. In some ways a chivalrous affair, with many pretty speeches uttered and a large number of noble French prisoners captured rather than slaughtered, it's difficult to drag such a famous battle out of the realms of cliché and make it come alive for a reader. Still, I'll have a go.  

The Battle of Poitiers

In 1356 Prince Edward landed in France with a small army and started to ravage the surrounding countryside from his base in Aquitaine. These 'chevauchée' tactics, invented by his father Edward III, essentially consisted of obliterating everything within a certain area - burning, looting, slaughtering, and practicing all the other chivalrous techniques of the era. The idea was to strip anything of value, rob the enemy of his ability to subsist off the land, and terrify the local populace into surrender. It generally worked well for the English, and Edward's army met with little resistance as it carved a fire-blackened path of death and destruction, all the way to the Loire River at Tours.  

At this point it started to rain. Frustrated in their desire to burn the castle and town, Edward and his fellow arsonists were obliged to lay siege. This gave King John II of France time to bring his army down from Normandy to Chartres, dismissing thousands of his slow-moving peasant infantry on the way. The key was speed, for John wanted to trap the crafty English before they could get away. . 

Tomb effigy of the Black Prince

Being gentlemen, both parties held negotiations before gearing up to slaughter each other. Little came of them, though one French noble named Geoffrey de Charny suggested a chivalrous alternative to fighting a battle:

"Lords," (saideth Geoffrey), "since it is so that this treaty pleases you no more, I make offer that we fight you, a hundred against a hundred, choosing each one from his own side. And know well, whichever hundred be discomfited, all the others, know for sure, shall quit the field and let the quarrel be."

Such challenges were not unusual - the famous Combat of the Thirty in Brittany, in which thirty Anglo-Breton knights and thirty French knights chivalrously murdered each other on a fair open field, took place just a few years earlier - but on this occasion everyone dismissed it as a daft idea. The talking ended, and all was set for a big fight in a muddy field. 

As usual, sources disagree on the actual numbers of the armies, but it seems likely that the English had about five thousand men, as opposed to twice or even three times the number of French. The famous chronicler Jean Froissart lists the names of the lords who fought on both sides, and it sounds a pretty formidable gathering. Froissart claims there were twenty-six earls and dukes on King John's side, though like many medieval writers he has a tendency to exaggerate. What is clear is that the English were in a tight spot. 

Prince Edward was as capable a soldier as his father, and arranged his dismounted archers and men-at-arms behind a series of dykes and hedgerows. He clearly intended to fight a defensive battle, as at Crécy a decade earlier, and hoped that the French would charge forward in their usual dashing style and break their teeth on his defences. 

It was at this point, with the massed ranks of the French host advancing in a huge glittering tide, that an English soldier nervously remarked that things weren't looking great. Edward turned on the man and spat: "Fool! Thou liest, if thou sayest that we can be conquered as long as I live!"

No-one ever accused the Plantagenets of lacking confidence. 

Some sources suggest that Edward cleverly provoked the French into attacking by ordering his baggage train to move away from the English army, tricking the French into thinking that their enemies were trying to scarper. Whatever the reason, the French had learned little from Crécy and came on in the same old style, mounted knights to the fore. 

The English (and Welsh) longbowmen poured volleys of arrows at them, but apparently the arrows had little effect, pinging off the heavy French armour or breaking on impact. Frustrated, the archers switched to shooting at the flanks of the French horses. This worked like a charm. Hundreds of the poor beasts were mowed down, throwing their riders and halting the French charge in its tracks. 

Despite the falling horses and the arrows whizzing about his head, the Dauphin bravely led his men on to the hedges to close with the Earl of Salisbury's division. The heavily-armed French tried to batter their way through, hacking and stabbing with sawn-off lances, broadswords, glaives and other murderous tools, and the English archers and men-at-arms responded with interest. Two hours of toe-to-toe bludgeoning followed, at the end of which the French were forced to retreat, leaving scores of dead and wounded strewn in heaps behind them. 

Sadly for the French, it was at this point that everything started to fall apart. Their army was arranged into three divisions, and the second wave under the Duke of Orléans was supposed to go in after the failure of the first. Instead, seeing their comrades retreat, the Duke's men panicked and started to flee. 

Only the third French division remained intact. This was led by the King in person, and large enough to take on the English by itself. Ignoring the ruins of the rest of his army, King John ordered his men forward. By this time the English archers were running low on arrows. One more push might just be enough to send the accursed 'goddams' (contemporary French slang for the English invaders) scrambling back to Albion

The capture of King John 

Prince Edward had no intention of allowing the French a second wind. He was still outnumbered, and his men were exhausted after hours of heavy fighting, but he had deliberately kept back a reserve of cavalry led by the Captal de Buch. While the French were in disarray, he sent these men to work their way around the edges of the battlefield and hit the enemy in flank and rear. At the same time, Edward put himself at the head of his weary, bloodied, mud-spattered knights, and ordered them to charge. Not many generals could scrape together a rabble of exhausted men and goad them on to one last effort against overwhelming numbers, but Edward was one of the bravest and best soldiers his dynasty managed to produce, and hauled his troops up by their boot-straps. 

A frontal attack from the English was the last thing King John expected, and his men were stunned as the goddams came streaming out from behind their half-wrecked barriers and charged his division. At the same time the Captal de Buch's cavalry burst from the surrounding woods and got busy with lance and sword. 

To his credit, King John refused to yield, and kept on fighting even as the remains of his army were gutted. His son, Prince Philip, fought beside him, yelling "Guard to the left, father! Guard to the right!" as the English knights and their allies swarmed around the French banner, every one of them eager to capture the king. 

At last, with every French knight around him taken prisoner or killed - Geoffrey de Charny was cut down while he tried to defend the royal banner - John was obliged to yield. There was a scrum of knights desperate to take his sword and accept his surrender, but he chose to give himself up to one Sir Denis Morbeke, a delightfully chivalrous character who had previously fled France on a charge of murder. John gave this knight his gauntlet. With that, the battle was over save for the usual chivalrous cutting of throats and stripping of the dead. 

Shortly afterwards, Prince Edward wrote a letter to his father in London modestly claiming to have 'discomfited' the French and captured the King of France and his son. The subsequent joy in England was unrestrained. With the destruction of another French army and the capture of King John, Edward III's reign had reached its glittering peak. He now had two kings in custody - the King of Scots was already a prisoner - and his armies and navies reigned supreme on land and sea. It was all a far cry from the sorry depths that England had fallen into during the reign of his father, Edward II. Nothing would be quite so good for for him, or the English cause in France, after this point. 

As for the French, they eventually recovered their fortunes, but the immediate aftermath of Poitiers was miserable. The country now lay open to the ravages of the English and the bands of savage mercenaries known as the Free Companies . As a French chronicler stated:

"...From that time on all went wrong with the kingdom and the state was undone. Thieves and robbers rose up everywhere in the land. The nobles despised and hated all others and took no thought for the mutual usefulness and profit of lord and men. They subjected and despoiled the peasants and the men of the villages. In no wise did they defend their country from enemies. Rather did they trample it underfoot, robbing and pillaging the peasants..." 

Sounds like fun, eh? Happy Anniversary! 


Sunday, 8 September 2013

Happy Birthday...

...though I nearly missed it, to John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, born on this day in 1442. Oxford was an extraordinary survivor, and without him the Tudor dynasty might have never been established. His life reads like some improbable adventure story, especially between the years 1471-85, which is why I have devoted this rather long blog post to him.

John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford

In an era of shifting loyalties and even shiftier personalities, Oxford stood out for his deathless loyalty to the House of Lancaster, even when the Lancastrian cause was all but dead and buried. Born the second son of the 12th Earl, another John, he was just twenty when his father and elder brother Aubrey were convicted of high treason and executed at Tower Hill within six days of each other. Both men had been convicted of plotting against the Yorkist King Edward IV, and their deaths may explain Oxford's unwavering commitment to bringing down the Yorkist regime.

For the time being he had no choice but to grin and bear it. Throughout the 1460s he kept up a reasonably convincing pretense of loyalty to a king he loathed, and was allowed to inherit his attainted father's titles and lands. In 1465 he was made a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Edward's queen, Elizabeth Woodville, but in 1468 was committed to the Tower on suspicion of conspiring against the king. He probably only saved his head by dishing the dirt on two of his co-conspirators, who were sent to the block instead of him. A pretty unsavoury act, you might think, but the line between survival and the chop was often a mere hair's breadth in those days. Oxford had no intention of going the same way as so many of his peers.

He was released from the Tower and received a pardon in 1469, but King Edward would have done better to separate Oxford's body and soul when he had the chance. By July of that year Oxford had joined the disaffected rebels led by the Earl of Warwick - later known as The Kingmaker - and took part in the Edgecote campaign. He then fled overseas to join Henry VI's exiled Queen, Margaret of Anjou, and her son Prince Edward. In 1470 he joined Warwick and Clarence's invasion of England, which sent Edward IV fleeing into exile and restored Henry VI.

Edward IV

Alas, poor Henry. His wits were completely gone by this point, and he apparently had to be tied to his horse to prevent him sliding off when he was shown to the people. Mad or not, he was still the rightful anointed King of England to many, including Oxford. When Edward IV invaded England to reclaim his crown (England was pretty much Invasion City) he was confronted by an army commanded by Warwick. Cue the Battle of Barnet.

Oxford was in charge of the Lancastrian right wing. Frothing to get at the enemy, he led his men in a blood-and-thunder charge through thick mist directly at the opposing division. Depending on which source you believe, the Yorkists were either led by Lord Hastings or the teenage Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Whichever was in command, he could do little to prevent his division being smashed to bits by the ferocity of Oxford's charge.

Sadly, Oxford's victorious men got carried away and pursued the fleeing Yorkists for miles, or else got lost in the mist. Their commander managed to scrape together a few hundred of them and led them back to the field. Warwick's men, alarmed by the sudden appearance of troops behind them, mistook Oxford's livery badge, a star with streams, for King Edward's sun in splendour - or "Sunne in Splendour" for Sharon Penman fans - and loosed arrows at them. Panic swiftly spread through the Lancastrian ranks, and soon Warwick's army was scampering in all directions. The Kingmaker was caught and disposed of with a knife to the eye while trying to escape, while Oxford fled north with two of his brothers and just a few men for company.

A few days later the last remaining Lancastrian army was shattered at Tewkesbury. Prince Edward was slaughtered on the field, his mother packed off back to Anjou, and poor mad Henry died in the Tower of a lethal fit of depression induced by a club to the back of his head. The fat lady had sung until she was hoarse for Lancaster, and surely it made sense for any surviving loyalists to make their peace with the triumphant Edward IV.

Not Oxford. Undaunted by these catastrophes, he made his way to France from Scotland, got together a bunch of ships and turned to piracy, preying on Yorkist shipping in the Channel. From lord of the manor to Long John Silver. In England his lands were seized and his loyal wife, Margaret, subjected to great hardships, even being obliged to make her living as a seamstress for a while. Fancy a noblewoman having to work for a living, eh?

St Michael's Mount in Cornwall

Tired of playing pirate, in 1473 Oxford tried to land at St Osyth in Essex, but was repelled. A few months later he popped up in Cornwall, where he seized the remote fortress of St Michael's Mount and dared the Yorkists to prise him out. A brave gesture, but pretty futile by this point: the capture of one pipsqueak of a fortress in Cornwall wasn't likely to cause Edward IV many sleepless nights. Even so, Oxford held the Mount against repeated assaults until February 1474. At last, deserted by most of his men and injured by an arrow-wound to his face, he was compelled to surrender, and carted off to prison at Hammes Castle near Calais.

Oxford was a prisoner for ten years. During that time his widowed mother was forced to sell her lands for about half their annual value to Richard of Gloucester - that's Saint Dickon of Middleham, by the way - and his old ally, the Duke of Clarence, executed by King Edward after one nefarious antic too many. It may have been Clarence's death that prompted Oxford to make an attempt at either suicide or escape: in 1478 he escaped his prison, scaled the walls of the castle and hurled himself into the moat, breaking both his legs. The guards fished him out before he could drown, and carried him back to pokey.

So now the Lancastrian cause consisted of a few scattered malcontents, one nobleman languishing in custody with busted legs, and an obscure quarter-Welsh exile named Henry Tudor. A pretty hopeless cause, but everything changed when Edward IV caught a chill while out boating and died unexpectedly in 1483. Much shenanigans ensued, the precise details of which will be squabbled over (probably via Facebook) until Doomsday, but the upshot was that the dead king's youngest brother, Richard of Gloucester, emerged from the scrum with the crown and the 'III' after his name.

Richard III

Whatever you make of Richard, his vile usurpation/rightful accession acted as a magical kiss of life to the ailing Lancastrian patient. His brief two-year reign was beset with rebellions and conspiracies, most of them focusing on the pretender across the Channel, Henry Tudor, he of the Welsh blood and extraordinarily dubious claim to the throne. Henry's first attempt at an invasion in 1483 fizzled out, but his cause was boosted when Oxford suddenly appeared at his court in Brittany.

The subtle earl, plenty more than just a bone-headed soldier, had spent the years since his accident cultivating the friendship of his gaoler at Hammes, Sir James Blount. When Richard III gave orders for Oxford to be transferred to England, Blount instead released his prisoner and rode with him to join Tudor. Henry was apparently "ravished with joy incredible" at acquiring Oxford for an ally, and the cherry on the cake was when Oxford rode straight back to Hammes and fetched the garrison to join the steadily growing rebel army.

Along with Henry's uncle Jasper, Oxford was the most experienced soldier at Henry's command, and was part of the ragbag army of exiles and French mercenaries that landed at Milford Haven in 1485 and marched to the fateful meeting with Richard III's forces at Bosworth.

Oxford commanded Henry's vanguard at the battle. Determined to make up for his mistakes at Barnet, he employed some clever tactics, ordering his men to stay within ten feet of their standards and maneuvering to keep the sun and the wind behind him as he advanced up the hill to meet Richard's vanguard. The Yorkists, led by the Duke of Norfolk, broke their teeth on Oxford's well-ordered lines. At some point Norfolk himself was slain, possibly in single combat with Oxford himself. Shortly afterwards Richard launched his famous last charge, to meet with glory and death just a sword's-length from Henry Tudor.

With the accession of Henry VII, the wheel of fate had turned again for Oxford. He was restored to all his estates and titles and loaded down with important offices, including Lord Admiral. Bosworth was not to be his last fight, and he led the line again for King Henry at Stoke and Blackheath, but he would never again be reduced to poverty, piracy or prison. In the fullness of time he died, full of years and honours, at Castle Hedingham in 1513. Highly thought of by his peers, the last word on him goes to the Countess of Surrey, who wrote:

"I have found my lord of Oxford a singular very good and kind lord to my lord and me, and steadfast in his promise...for him I dreaded most and yet as hitherto I find him best."

"Steadfast in his promise" serves as a fine epitaph for John de Vere, a man who never wavered from the oath he swore to his king.