Henry V’s victory at Agincourt in 1415 dealt a major blow to his French enemies. However, the war in France was very far from won.
In this article, we’ll look at how Henry V sought to exploit his triumph at Agincourt to win the French throne. A hard-fought struggle still lay ahead. However, ongoing divisions amongst the French and Henry’s ruthless ambition would bring him tantalisingly close to realising his dream.
If you missed our previous articles on Henry V’s early life and the battle of Agincourt, you could catch up with them here:
By the end of 1415, Henry’s army may have been victorious, but it was also exhausted, and dysentery ridden after a long campaign. Whilst Henry had inflicted a devastating defeat on the French, the only other achievement of his invasion was the capture of the port of Harfleur. It provided a foothold for future campaigning in Normandy, but no more than that.
Henry and his army returned to England in the late autumn of 1415. There he enjoyed a triumphal victory procession in the capital and celebrated Christmas in grand style. However, in the new year his focus returned to France. Before he could resume his campaigning, he would first need to raise the necessary finances. Fortunately for him his victory had bought him considerable political capital in parliament, making the task a lot easier.
Meanwhile the French were still distracted by the ongoing civil war between the Armagnac faction that controlled the court and their Burgundian rivals. Agincourt had taken a particularly heavy toll on the Armagnacs. This presented John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, with an opportunity that was too good to miss. He wasted no time in raising his own army in an effort to secure Paris for his cause.
Despite the ongoing chaos, the French mustered enough strength to attempt to re-take the port of Harfleur before Henry could return. Early in 1416 the French and their Genoese allies assembled a fleet of ships to blockade the port. At the same time another French army, commanded by Count Bernard of Armagnac, advanced to besiege it by land.
Henry responded by sending a relief force, commanded by his uncle, Thomas Beaufort, Earl of Dorset.
Dorset landed successfully and immediately launched a raid into Normandy. However, he was soon intercepted by Count Bernard at Valmont. The English found themselves outnumbered and caught somewhat unawares but still managed to form a hasty defence. Unlike at Agincourt, this time the French knights broke the English line. If they’d pressed home their advantage, Dorset’s army would have been lost. But they didn’t. Instead, the knights rode through the English and made straight for the baggage train at the rear. Dorset was able to salvage his army and slip away whilst the French were distracted with looting.
The following day, Dorset continued to withdraw along the coast, heading for Harfleur. He almost made it but, to his dismay, the French recovered their discipline well enough to intercept him once more. Unfortunately for the French, the English were marching along the beach and, to reach them, they had to descend a steep slope. Doing so meant they were disorganised by the time they reached the beach and easily defeated by the waiting English. Harfleur’s garrison then sallied forth to aid Dorset, catching the French off guard. The result was a somewhat embarrassing French rout.
Dorset made it successfully to Harfleur. But the danger had not yet passed.
Battle at Sea
Despite Dorset’s efforts, Harfleur remained under threat, not least from the blockading fleet. The most potent ships in the fleet were eight Genoese carracks, larger and superior to the vast majority of ships the English possessed. For a time, the Franco-Genoese fleet enjoyed a free rein, even raiding Portsmouth and Southampton.
Finally, in mid-August, Henry’s brother John, Duke of Bedford, set sail with an English fleet to break the blockade. The English fleet was significantly larger but only three of Henry’s ships were anything like as formidable as the Genoese carracks.
Battle was joined on 15th August 1416. The chronicler of the Deeds of Henry V recorded details of the action, describing how the two fleets clashed in the mouth of the river Seine. They proceeded to grapple each other and:
“…following an exchange of missiles, iron gads [spears], stones and other weapons of offence, the fury of the combatants had reached boiling point.”Gesta Henrici Quinti, (The Deeds of Henry the Fifth)
The English found it particularly difficult to board the carracks. Their high sides were difficult to scale, and the English found themselves constantly driven back by missile fire. The fighting was hard and lasted for over seven hours, but the result was a decisive English victory.
England now controlled the channel. Harfleur was safe.
Calm before the storm
The latter part of 1416 and early 1417 saw a lull in the fighting. Tentative attempts were made at peace negations, but these resulted in nothing concrete. Henry used the time to muster his financial and military resources for a renewed campaign. He also pursued diplomatic efforts to ensure France remained detached from any would-be allies. In this, he enjoyed some success, even managing to broker a short-term alliance with the Holy Roman Empire.
Meanwhile the French continued to be beset by instability. The French king, Charles VI, suffered from serious mental health problems and was generally unfit to rule. His heir, Dauphin Louis, was still quite young and largely under the influence of whichever court faction happened to hold the upper hand. Further instability followed when Louis died, shortly after Agincourt. John, the next eldest son, became dauphin at the age of just 17, only to die little more than a year later, in April 1417. The king’s next oldest son, Charles, now became dauphin at the tender age of 14.
The youth of Dauphin Charles and the incapacity of the king enabled the Armagnac faction to dominate the court. Power now lay entirely in the hands of Bertrand, Count of Armagnac.
Henry began assembling a fresh army in the spring of 1417. By the summer everything was ready, and he set sail for Normandy on 30th July. He disembarked at Deauville, a small town just south of Harfleur.
To control France, Henry knew he would first need to control Paris. However, it would be foolhardy to march on Paris without first securing control of Normandy. To do this he would need to take its major strongholds – such as Caen and the heavily fortified city of Rouen.
He wasted no time. Within a couple of weeks his army arrived outside Caen. The next stage of Henry’s war had begun in earnest.
The siege of Caen
The siege of Caen began on 14th August 1417. For the next two weeks the English bombarded the city with artillery. One of the cannons used was so large that when it fired, the blast wave shattered the windows of a nearby Abbey. Yet, despite the bombardment and several attempts to mine the walls, Caen held on.
The garrison commander, Guillaume de Montenay, was invited to surrender, but refused. So, on 4th September, the final assault was launched. The fighting was fierce but eventually men led by the king’s brother, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, broke through the defences. Soon the city’s gates were flung open, and the main army poured in.
Henry ordered that women and priests should not be killed and that churches should not be plundered. However, everything and everyone else were fair game.
The city was sacked as Henry himself rode through the streets, inciting rape and pillage, crying ‘Havoc! Havoc!’’ A Venetian chronicler tells us Henry ordered every male aged over 12 to be killed. Whether this was true or not, the English herded over 1800 men and boys into the market square and massacred them.
Eventually Henry, riding through the streets, encountered the body of a headless woman, her baby still suckling at her breast. It was too much, even for him. Finally, he ordered an end to the killing.
The Scourge of God
By modern standards the sack of Caen and the massacre of so many people would rightly be regarded as an appalling atrocity. By medieval standards, however, it was not unusual.
It was the accepted convention of the day that if a besieged city refused to surrender, it would be at the mercy of the attacking army. Often this meant that, if it were taken by force, it would be sacked, women would be raped, and civilians killed.
The French had done the same to their own people during their ongoing civil war. Only a few years earlier, in 1414, an Armagnac army had taken the Burgundian held city of Soissons. Soissons was then subjected to rape, pillage and civilian killings just as Caen was three years later. French chroniclers ruefully remarked that there was no crime committed by the English in France that had not already been committed by the French themselves.
Caen showed just how ruthless Henry was prepared to be in pursuit of his ambitions. A Dominican friar later asked Henry how he could justify what had happened at Caen. Henry’s justification was truly unnerving:
“I am the scourge of God sent to punish the people of God for their sins.”Henry V
The Fall of Paris
You might be forgiven for thinking that the fall of Caen would have served to encourage the rival French factions to set aside their differences.
The truth was that the Armagnac-Burgundian rivalry was as bitter as ever. Many of the leading nobles on both sides hated each other more than they hated the English. Various abortive attempts had been made to settle their differences and unite against Henry, but none had come to anything tangible.
Ever since Agincourt, the Armagnac faction had been gravely weakened. They had nevertheless managed to retain control of the court. However, the Duke of Burgundy had not been idle. For some time now he had been attempting to seize control of Paris from the Armagnacs. Finally, on 29th May 1418, he succeeded. With the support of forces inside the city, in particular the craftsmen and the university, his captain, Jean de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, took the city. The dauphin fled but the French king, and with him the court, fell into the duke’s hands.
Not long after this, several known Armagnacs, including Count Bernard of Armagnac himself, were massacred by a mob of Parisian citizens.
Normandy’s last stronghold
Whilst all this had been going on, Henry had been busy. His campaign to conquer Normandy was proceeding apace. By the summer of 1418, he was finally ready to lay siege to Rouen.
Rouen was the key to Normandy. It had been the main French military garrison and base of operations in the region throughout the conflict. If it fell, Normandy would fall. If Normandy fell, the way would be open for Henry to march on Paris itself.
However, Rouen was an altogether different prospect to Caen or Harfleur. Ever since the English had first invaded in 1415, the French had been building up its defences. By the time Henry’s army arrived at its gates on 29th July 1418, it had no fewer than 60 defensive towers, each containing three cannons. Each of the six city gates were heavily defended by barbicans and the walls manned by a garrison of 4000 men, most of whom were armed with crossbows.
Undeterred, Henry surrounded the city with four armed camps and began the process of wearing down its defences.
The siege of Rouen
The defenders at Rouen had every reason to believe that they could hold out for a long time. It should have easily bought them enough time for a relief force to come to their aid. However, the defenders of Rouen were Armagnacs and the political power that now controlled the French court was the Duke of Burgundy. The duke did nothing overt to help Henry but neither did he come to Rouen’s aid.
What remained of the Armagnac faction had fled south with the dauphin earlier that summer. They were in no position to help.
However, the city’s defences were strong and could not easily be breached by force. Henry therefore settled in for a long siege, hoping to starve the city into surrender.
Weeks passed, then months. Slowly but surely the city began to starve. People began resorting to eating horses, cats, dogs and even mice. Still no help arrived. With the situation turning desperate, the commander of the garrison took the decision to eject 12,000 of the poorest citizens from the city. This would allow the remaining defenders to eke out their provisions for longer and spare the poorer civilians from starvation.
‘There men might see great pity’
If anyone had doubted Henry’s ruthlessness before Rouen, none doubted it afterwards.
Henry refused to allow the 12,000 starving commoners to cross the siege line. They would be forced to remain in the ditch between the city walls and the encircling English until the city surrendered. Furthermore, Henry issued strict orders to his soldiers that the starving commoners should not be fed under any circumstances. The defenders on the walls were forced to watch their citizens starve until such time as they yielded to Henry’s will.
It was a brutal decision, even by medieval standards. Even some of the English soldiers were shocked by what they saw. One English soldier, a man called John Page, was moved to poetry:
“There men might see a great pity,
A child of two year or three
Go about, and beg for bread,
For father and mother both lay dead,
And under them the water stood,
And yet they lay crying after food.
Some starved to the death,
And some stopped both eyes and breath,
And some crooked in the knees,
And as lean as any trees,
And women holding in their arm
A dead child, and nothing warm,
And children sucking on the pap,
Upon a dead woman’s lap.”John Page, Rouen, 1418
At the gates of Paris
In the end Rouen held out until the end of the year. At this point, with no sign of any relief, the garrison commander entered negotiations with Henry for the surrender of the city.
Rouen finally surrendered on 19th January 1419. Henry V was now master of Normandy.
Surely now the French would finally set aside their differences and unite against him?
Certainly, both factions were now desperately worried about Henry V’s next move. The campaigning would enter a lull over the winter months but come better weather there was every chance that Henry would march on Paris.
Negotiations now began in earnest. The Duke of Burgundy and Dauphin Charles met three times in July 1419 in an attempt to reach an agreement. All the while Henry’s army was edging closer.
The talks had to be temporarily called off because the English captured Poissy on 31st July. Now Henry was within striking distance of the city. The Duke of Burgundy and the French court were forced to flee south-east to Troyes.
With Henry at the gates of Paris, one final attempt was made to end the feud. A meeting was arranged for 10th September. There it was hoped the dauphin and the duke would, at last, reach an accord.
The meeting took place on a bridge over the river Seine, at Montereau. However, it was a tense affair. Neither side trusted the other.
This was a feud that had been bitterly fought since 1407, when the Duke of Burgundy had arranged the assassination of the Duke of Orleans on the streets of Paris. Orleans had been the dauphin’s uncle.
Such was the paranoia that carpenters had to construct an enclosed space in the middle of the bridge. Each side could access this area via a single door. It was agreed that the dauphin and the duke would meet there, each with an entourage of ten men.
The appointed time arrived, and the two men and their retainers entered the enclosed space. The duke bowed. The dauphin reacted coldly. The duke stood. The duke placed his hand on his sword hilt.
Tanneguy du Chastel, a staunch Armagnac in the dauphin’s entourage, cried treason. Shouting ‘Kill! Kill!’ he launched himself at the duke, stabbing him multiple times. The dauphin looked on impassively as his uncle’s murderer died.
Henry V triumphant
John the Fearless’ son, Philip, was now the new duke of Burgundy. Unsurprisingly, he was in no mood to have anything to do with the dauphin or the Armagnacs. Philip may have controlled Paris and the king, but Henry V and his army were at the gates.
Fortunately for Henry, Philip was so enraged by his father’s assassination that he was far more inclined to make peace with the English than the dauphin.
Henry entered negotiations with Burgundy almost immediately and, within a few months, the two sides had reached a mutually acceptable agreement.
Charles VI would remain king of France. Burgundy and England would become formal allies. Henry V would marry the French king’s daughter, Katherine of Valois. When the old French king died, it was agreed, Henry V would become king of France. In the meantime, Henry would act as regent for the mentally incapacitated Charles with Burgundy’s support.
The details were formalised in the Treaty of Troyes and sealed with Henry’s marriage to Katherine on 2nd June 1420.
The dauphin and the Armagnac faction were now in a desperate situation but far from defeated. A great many French people did not fancy the prospect of an English king, especially after the events at Caen and Rouen. And, despite all the setbacks, the Armagnacs still controlled much of the south.
In the latter part of 1420 Henry set about the task of securing the area around Paris. By the end of November, he’d taken the fortress at Montereau-Fault-Yonne and Melun.
That winter Henry returned to England. He was sufficiently confident in the situation that he remained there during 1421. The task of continuing the war against the Armagnacs would be delegated to his brother, Thomas, Duke of Clarence.
Early the following spring Clarence turned his attention to Anjou and Maine, leading a series of raids against Armagnac forces there.
Desperate times had called for desperate measures. By 1421 the dauphin had been forced to supplement his forces with a large contingent of Scots mercenaries led by the earls of Buchan and Wigton. These joined with a French force led by Gilbert Motier de La Fayette in an effort to intercept Clarence.
On 22nd March 1421, somewhere near Vieil-Baugé, the two armies met. The Franco-Scots force had a slight numeric advantage, numbering 5,000 to Clarence’s 4,000.
However, the English army was dispersed, with many of the English soldiers engaged in plundering the surrounding countryside. Clarence was no Henry V and, rashly decided to attack the French before he was able recall all his men. The result was a disaster. In the end Clarence pressed home his attack with little more than 1,500 men. Heavily outnumbered, the English were comprehensively defeated. Clarence himself was killed in the fighting.
It was left to Thomas Montagu, Earl of Salisbury, to salvage what he could from the disaster. Thanks to his leadership at least a semblance of an English army managed to escape.
The disaster at Baugé was not the only challenge that Henry faced in 1421. Since Henry had become regent of France, parliament had become increasingly reluctant to supply additional finance. If his French subjects were in rebellion, parliament argued, Henry’s loyal French subjects (and not his English) should pay the bills for any war. The money was now, well and truly, running out.
Heir to the throne
Despite the setbacks, Henry reacted with his usual energy and drive to restore the situation. Not long after Baugé, Henry returned to France to resume personal command of the campaign.
Over that summer he redoubled his efforts to secure the region around Paris. He besieged and captured Dreux, to the west and secured Chartres to the south-west. By the end of the year his forces were laying siege to Meaux.
The year would end with one final piece of good news for Henry. His wife Katherine gave birth to a son and heir on 6th December. The boy would grow up to become Henry VI.
The last campaign
Despite the resistance of parliament, Henry managed to scrimp together enough money to continue campaigning in 1422. It was becoming increasingly difficult, and his debts were mounting. No doubt, finding the money to continue the war in 1423 would prove even more challenging. But, for now, Henry had what he needed.
1422 began as 1421 had ended, with Henry’s army prosecuting the siege of Meaux. The siege was to prove a long and difficult affair and Henry’s army suffered casualties from outbreaks of dysentery and smallpox. Finally, on 10th May 1422, the town fell.
Henry was once again victorious. However, he had fallen ill during the siege, probably with dysentery. Later in the summer he became so weak that he fell off his horse whilst riding on the road to Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire. His health would not recover.
As the summer wore on, he became increasingly debilitated. Finally, on 31st August 1422, Henry V died at Bois de Vincennes. He was only 35 years old.
Henry’s sudden death left an enormous void at the heart of English political life. Both his friends and his enemies, for all their differences, were in no doubt that Henry V had been a great war leader. His ambition, energy and ability had been the critical driving force behind English successes in France.
There can be no denying that Henry was a ruthless man. His actions in France would be counted as atrocities today. However, in the context of medieval Europe, they were certainly regarded as extreme and cruel, but could nevertheless be justified within the conventions of the time. However, his success in war made him a man to be greatly admired. Even the French chroniclers, whilst critical of his cruelty, admired his piety, his bravery and his military prowess. Success in war counted for much.
At the time of his death, Henry had stood within reach of becoming the undisputed king of both England and France. Had he lived, who knows what else his ruthless drive and ambition might have achieved. But it was not to be.
It would have taken a truly exceptional man to have successfully lived up to the formidable reputation of a king like Henry V. But Henry’s successor was not a man but a baby. Instead of a warrior king, England was now ruled by an infant, not yet two years old. Little Henry was no doubt blissfully unaware of the great burden he’d just acquired. He’d not only inherited his father’s crown, but also to his French empire, his war and his debts.
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References and further reading
Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle – Juliet Barker, Abacus, 2006
Henry V: The Conscience of a King Paperback – Malcolm Vale, Yale, Dec. 2022
Henry V (The English Monarchs Series) Paperback – Christopher Allmand, Yale, Illustrated, 23 Oct. 1997
History Extra: Henry V – the cruel king
National Archive – Battle of the Seine
Siege of Rouen Poem – British History Online
Henry V portrait: pre-1626, unknown artist
Battle of Sluys: Illustration, Froissant Chronicle
John the Fearless assassination: Abrégé de la Chronique d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet Maître de la Chronique d’Angleterre enlumineur Bruges vers 1470-1480
Siège de Rouen (1418-1419) Miniature du manuscrit de Martial d’Auvergne Les Vigiles de Charles VII vers 148, BnF Manuscrit Français 5054 folio 19 verso
Marriage of Henry V and Katherine of France: A Chronicle of England – Page 373 – James WE Doyle 1864