Posts Tagged ‘July 17’

The Very Arch of Triumph

Posted in General, On This Day on July 19th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment


July 17, 1453:  The Last Battle of the Hundred Years’ War

Joan of Arc did not win the Hundred Years War.  She simply broke England’s winning streak.  The psychotic, transvestite peasant  (1412-1431) saved Orleans and the Loire Valley; but half of France–including Paris–remained the eastern shires of Britain.  You know that her winning streak didn’t last either, and the war would continue for another 22 years.  Yet Joan left a legacy that would lead her country to victory:  “Don’t be chivalrous; be French!”

For the first 90 years or so of the War–at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt–the French army demonstrated all the dramatic valor and magnificent etiquette demanded in chivalry.  If the English dared you to a make full-frontal assault, uphill, how could a true knight refuse?  War was just a very large duel.  However, as the French never seemed to learn, a duel between their armor and English arrows had a very predictable outcome.  The French lost battles and most of their country, but not their sense of propriety.

Of course, Joan couldn’t understand such sensitive refinement.  Her conduct toward the English would be rude and underhanded: in short, instinctively French.  The peasant had no regard for English convenience.  If the English invited a frontal assault, she had neither the honor or courtesy to oblige them.

(In the first half of the Hundred Years War, France’s only successful commander also displayed such an appalling breech of chivalry.  Bertrand du Guesclin (1320-1380)  had the excuse of being Breton rather than real French.  Resorting to ambushes and surprise attacks, du Guesclin was practically a brigand.  He also regained northern France.  Early in his career he had tried the French form of warfare, which explains how he was captured twice by the English.  Since he wasn’t a French noble, he did learn from his mistakes.)

At the battle of Patay, Joan’s culminating triumph in the Loire Valley, the French attacked before the English were ready.  Beyond this shameless breach of etiquette was the further humiliation that a smaller French force had triumphed over a larger English army.  Now it was the English commander, the Earl of Shrewsbury, being held for ransom and of course the French overcharged for him.

While Joan ended up the victim of French gratitude (the English might have exchanged her for the Earl of Shrewsbury), she remained a model for military conduct.  Province by province, the French harassed, cheated and annoyed the English out of France.  Paris was regained in 1435.  Northern France was liberated by 1450, and the Earl of Shrewsbury was captured again.  Normandy was won when an English army was caught while crossing a river; try working a longbow while standing waist-deep in water.  By 1451, the French had conquered Gascony, the southwestern province that the English had held since Eleanor of Aquitaine.  The war seemed to be over, with the English only retaining the token enclave of Calais.

But the English could not believe that they had really lost.  Hadn’t they won all the really prestigious battles?  (All those lost skirmishes hardly counted.)  Furthermore, even if they had no right to the Loire Valley, and only a distant claim to Normandy, the English felt that Gascony was rightfully theirs.  Ironically, the Gascons agreed.  After three centuries of English rule, they felt loyalty to London and the Plantagenets, not to Paris and the Valois.  So, when an English army landed at Bordeaux in 1452, Gascony rose against the French and welcomed their British liberators.

The English commander was–can you believe it–the Earl of Shrewsbury.  He had regained his freedom with another ransom and with the added vow that he would never wear armor to fight France.  The French might have assumed his permanent pacifism; however, the Earl had become as conniving as the French.  He could still fight the French; he just couldn’t wear armor.  Shrewsbury had 6000 men and Gascon sympathy to hold the province against the full force of France.  The French response began with a 10,000 man siege of  the Gascon town of Castillon.  Shrewsbury rushed to the town’s defense.  Believing that he had caught the French by surprise, he attacked even without waiting for all his troops to arrive.  Leading only his advance guard, Shrewsbury was outnumbered six to one, but didn’t he have the element of surprise?    Not really, since the French had assembled their artillery and archers behind a fortified encampment to meet the English charge.  The rest of the English army arrived in time to be overrun by the French cavalry.  More than half of the English force was either killed or captured, and Shrewsbury learned a fatal disadvantage in fighting without armor.

Castillon was the last battle of the Hundred Years War, and Gascony learned to become French.