Second to last and we’re going back to the Hundred’s Years War.
Name: The Siege of Orleans
The War: The final phase of the Hundred’s Years War.
When: 12 October 1428 – 8 May 1429
Where: Orleans and the surrounding area, central France.
Forces/Commanders: 5’000 men of the English Army under Thomas Montacue, the Earl of Salisbury, then William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk, against circa 9’000 men of the French Army under Jean de Dunois, Gilles de Rais and Joan of Arc.
“…the Maiden lets you know that here, in eight days, she has chased the English out of all the places they held on the river Loire by attack or other means: they are dead or prisoners or discouraged in battle. Believe what you have heard about the earl of Suffolk, the lord la Pole and his brother, the lord Talbot, the lord Scales, and Sir Fastolf; many more knights and captains than these are defeated.”
-Letter from Joan to the citizens of Tournai
“…the struggle by which the unconscious heroine of France, in the beginning of the fifteenth century, rescued her country from becoming a second Ireland under the yoke of the triumphant English”
-Edward Creasy, The 15 Decisive Battles of the World
In 1428, England and France had been at war for most of the previous 92 years.
The war, begun for numerous territorial and dynastic reasons, had gone much better for England, who had won crucial victories at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. The last of those, one of the most famous victories of the period, had delivered a huge amount of the country into English hands. A treaty signed in the aftermath of Agincourt, at Troyes, had seemingly put an end to the fighting, as it made the English King Henry V the regent of France, set to inherit the crown upon the death of Charles VI. Henry never lived to see this however, the claim passing to his son and namesake, Henry VI.
Of course, there was resistance to this, from those who supported the claim of Charles VI’s son, the uncrowned Charles VII. This faction, called the Armagnac’s, were committed to continuing the war against the English, and were centred in the stronghold of Orleans, at the head of the Loire River Valley.
The English forces in the area held Paris and most of the other towns and fortresses on the Loire River, but Orleans remained a major obstacle to them. It was the most northern point of the country still held by the French, and prevented any large scale assault into the centre and south. Aside from its impressive fortifications and ample supplies, Orleans also benefitted from a number of well defended positions in the immediate areas, including small forts and monasteries.
The army that the English sent up against Orleans, a mixture of Knights, Men-at-Arms, mercenaries and common soldiers, trapped several thousand French inside. The English army was commanded by Thomas Montacue, the Earl of Salisbury, a seasoned campaigner, who invested the walls of Orleans in October 1428.
The Armagnac faction was well aware of Orleans importance, and had no intention of letting it go. In so doing, they risked a slaughter, the contemporary rules of warfare allowing for no mercy for cities that choose to resist a siege and were then defeated. Orleans, as the chief city of the Armagnac’s, would suffer severely in the event of its fall. This, if nothing else, helps explain the ferocity of the resistance over the next six months.
Shortly after the start of the siege, the English had partly cut supply lines into the city and set up the rudimentary cannon of the period to bombard the walls. The Augustins Monastery outside the walls was taken, then the Tourelles gatehouse. The quarter mile bridge leading over the Loire into the city was partially thrown down by the defenders, stopping the English from gaining a quick victory.
Soon after, the Earl of Salisbury was injured by debris from cannon fire, dying a week later. Command of the siege became disputed, eventually falling into the hands of William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk.
The English soon had established a series of fortifications around the city, placing most of their force to the south, around the monastery and gatehouse. The rest of the investment came from temporary forts and occupied buildings scattered around, such as Saint Loup, a structure two km to the east.
The scattered nature of these positions and the limited number of attackers meant that the city was still able to attempt resupply, though it was a dangerous process. The standard pattern of the siege emerged: cannon shot on the walls, too thick to really be decisive, limited attacks due to strong fortifications of the city, and skirmishes on supply convoys. This lasted throughout the winter months and into Spring of 1429, as Orleans situation grew more desperate, the Armagnac faction lacking the military force to really attempt to lift the siege from outside. That being said, events were taking place in other parts of France that would soon have a pivotal effect in Orleans.
Before all that though, the largest military engagement of the campaign to date took place on the 12th February, outside the small nearby town of Rouvray. There, an English supply convoy, mostly carrying quantities of fish, was attacked by a combined force of French and Scottish troops. The outnumbered English, commanded by the (in)famous Sir John Falstoff, circled the wagons and placed sharpened spikes all around to prevent a cavalry charge from the allied force. A planned French artillery bombardment could have gained victory, but the Scottish soldiers ignored orders and attacked the English head on. Thrown back with heavy losses, the Allies were soon routed by a surprise English counter-attack. The defeat was seen as a catastrophic disaster within Orleans, severely testing their limited morale. “The Battle of the Herrings” was a resounding success for the English, who received more supplies to see them through the Lenten season. But things, stunningly, were about to change.
The actual sequence of events at the time is murky and our knowledge is based largely on hearsay. For a few years around the time, vague rumours and prophecies were being bandied around in France, that an armed maiden from the Lorraine region, would arise and lead the French to victory. Such things could not be said to be so surprising in those desperate, religious times. The French believed it, for what little that was worth to the war effort.
Only, it came true. In late 1428, a young girl named Joan, from the village of Domremy, Lorraine, arrived at the local garrison, petitioning the commander, Robert de Baudicourt, to be allowed to travel to Chinon where the Armagnac royal court was situated. She claimed to have received a visitation from angels, telling her to lead the French forces to victory over the English invader. Undeterred by the rejection she received, she tried again in early 1429, this time gaining attention by predicting a major military reversal around Orleans – just before news arrived of the Battle of the Herrings.
Suitably impressed, de Baudicourt gave her escort to Chinon, where she met with Charles VII. After a religious “examination”, he declared her to be the genuine article, and she was armed, horsed, and placed at the head of a relief army being assembled in Blois.
By modern standards, meeting a teenage girl claiming to receive visions from angels and making her a military commander, may seem like insanity. But it is important to view such things from the viewpoint of the times. The Armagnac’s were desperate, on the verge of total defeat. They had suffered setback and after setback, and all rational options had been tried and discarded. Turning to religious options, in the form of a girl who seemed to tick all the boxes of the popular “Maid of Lorraine” belief, may have been seen as the very last card the Armagnac’s could play. The regime was near collapse after all, so Charles had little to lose.
Joan marched off with the relief army, her presence sweeping many peasants into the ranks, caught up in a religious and nationalistic fervour. This relief force, while small, began to tip the balance back towards the French. The war was no longer seen as a mere dynastic clash, but as a fight for the soul of the country. Arriving in the region in late April, Joan was able to enter the city (while the actual army stayed to the south), to great welcome, but the siege was not razed.
What followed was a period of division between Joan and the eldest military commander in the city, Jean d’Orleans, the Count of Dunois, famously nicknamed “the bastard of Orleans.” He favoured the defensive posture that the French had taken following the disaster of the Herrings battle.
Joan disagreed, having written letters to the English warning of their destruction at her hand if they did not withdraw from France immediately. She pressed for a renewed offensive against the English positions. The two bickered in councils and soon Dunois left Orleans to travel to Blois, in search of more reinforcements to his stretched army.
In his absence, Joan took her chance. It remains disputed what exact form her involvement took in the following fights, whether she actively directed forces or was more of a passive standard bearer, but her very presence was electric.
On the 4th May, French forces sallied out of the city, and led by Joan, stormed and captured the fortress of St Loup, leaving a hundred English dead. The French position was strengthened immeasurably, with more stable communications with other forces being one of the most tangible results. The following day, Joan also captured the fortress at St Jean le Blanc, which had been deserted by the English.
In the mean time, Dunois had returned, and attempted to reassert control of the military situation. When Joan pressed for continuing assaults on the English positions around the city, he refused, and ordered the gates of the city locked and guarded to prevent Joan from marching out. However, the situation was no longer under his control. The maiden rallied the townspeople of the city, left it with the help of the Mayor, and launched a barely planned assault on the Augustins position. Following a bitter fight that lasted most of the day, the monastery fell. In little less than a week, Joan had changed the strategic situation entirely, the primary English fortification of the Tourelles now being badly isolated.
The military commanders, following this unexpected success, again voted to await further reinforcements before continued action. Again, Joan ignored them, and attacked the Tourelles head on with most of the army on 7th June, the force now following her wholeheartedly. The position was well defended however, and the opening assault failed, French attempts to undermine the structure and attack it through burning barges on the river coming to naught. Joan herself took an arrow in the shoulder, but survived, much to the disappointment of the English, who now regarded the young girl as a witch.
Dunois pressed upon Joan to abandon the attack and wait for more forces to arrive that could further put the situation in their favour. Joan refused, and after several hours praying, attacked again, this time successfully, killing or capturing all of the English inside. The siege was, more or less, over, the English no longer having the numbers of the positions to enforce a blockade.
The following day, what remained of the English made a show of attempted strength, arranging itself in battle formation. The French responded with their own formation. After a stand off that lasted roughly an hour, Joan prominently displayed amongst the now resolved and buoyant French, the English turned and marched off. Joan had saved Orleans, and possibly France itself.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
Gigantic. Joan, named co-commander of all of France’s armies in the aftermath, and followed up her victory with the Loire campaign, where the river valley was cleared of all English forces through constant battle and a series of quick sieges. This culminated in the French triumph and English disaster of Patay, a battle that was almost the reverse of Agincourt in its result and make-up.
The English reeled, falling back to Paris. Joan’s army retook the city of Rheims, where Charles VII was officially coroneted as per tradition. Her apparent divine favour and sweeping victories made Joan a heroine of the country. However, she then, perhaps, took a step too far, launching an aborted attempt to capture Paris from the English, an operation that was called off in early September. Despite this setback, Joan had reconquered a huge chunk of English controlled territory, in many cases through the peaceful surrender of garrisons and towns, who would not face the maiden in battle.
Soon after however, Joan was undone, captured by troops of Burgundy while attempting to raise a siege of Compiegne. Sold off to the English, she was tried for heresy, and despite effecting a famously clever defence, she was found guilty and burned at the stake as a witch in May 1431. In years to come, she would be exonerated of the charges and canonised.
The fighting in France was subdued for several years afterward, neither side strong enough to defeat the other. After a diplomatic deal with Burgundy removed them from the War, Charles was able to finally retake Paris, and over the next few decades, the rest of the country still under English rule was retaken, a state of affairs often blamed on Henry VI’s weak leadership which would see England torn apart by Civil War. Castillon, in 1453, is considered the last major engagement of the war, with only Calais and the surrounding area remaining in British hands.
The Siege of Orleans was the major fight of the latter Hundred Years, and its result paved the way for the resurgence of France.
Little of anything new, though the siege provides a key example of two major points: the importance of total investment when undertaking a siege action and the fickle nature of morale.
The English, due to their quite small numbers, could not completely cut off the city, and as a result, the siege dragged on far longer than it should have. In fact, it is likely that, if Joan intervention had not materialised, it would have lasted for an indefinite amount of time. Since Orleans could still be partly supplied, only a risky assault would have taken the city quickly, and England lacked the men to do that.
On morale, at the start, the English had almost a monopoly on the concept. But, by what can almost be viewed as a twist of fate, within a few months they had not only lost a huge proportion of their territory, but had taken a hammering in the morale war, the esprit de corps of the conflict transferring decisively to the French. And all because of a peasant girl who claimed to be sent messages from angels. Morale is, indeed, fickle and difficult to control. Joan is an example of the random nature of what can affect it, especially in wartime, not to mention the effect that such things as religious belief and superstition can have on a desperate force.
The Loire campaign and Joan’s part in it was the major factor in the culmination of the conflict, and the historical fallout can only be seen as gigantic. From being in a position where their total dominance of the country seemed inevitable, the English were thrown back. France became French again.
If the result had been different, if Joan had never turned up or been ignored, if the English were able to cut the city off completely, then the fall of the Armagnac faction could only have been delayed a short while. The Hundred Years War would have trundled on for a while, but French resistance was piecemeal and un-coordinated. English victory was a very probably possibility.
With that, many historical events are altered. English culture and customs were already taking hold in the north, and with continued dominance, this would have solidified. Many places in France considered themselves English. France would have become just an extension of England, as Scotland and Ireland would become.
With victory across the water, the brewing civil conflict in England could have been reduced or averted completely. England would have been one of the major power of Europe, a Kingdom whose territory was gigantic. It would have had a greater effect on central European and Italian politics as a result.
Moreover, France, the France we know in terms of territory, customs, culture, would not have existed. The rivalry with England that would last into the 19th century would not have taken the same format.
In National Consciousness
Orleans is readily identified with the French legend that is Joan of Arc, a woman who became a national icon and patron saint. Statues and monuments to her dot the country, especially in Lorraine.
Her story has fascinated many, and in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, her life became a part of the new birth of nationalism in France, thanks largely to the writings of Phillipe de Charmettes. She was also popular within Catholic communities, making her a rallying figure for the new nation.
The symbol of the Free French during the Second World War, the Cross of Lorraine, was inspired by Joan. Her fight against the English was also used in propaganda images by Vichy France.
The house in Orleans that she used during the siege is now a museum in her memory, one of the only monuments to the siege inside the city.
Though not really a feminist herself, she has become a major figure for the historical feminist movement, as a low born peasant girl who rose to greatness.
Several ships of the French Navy, including two 19th century frigates and, more recently, a helicopter cruiser, have been named after her.
Joan’s life has been the subject of hundreds of paintings, songs, plays, books, video games and films in which the siege of Orleans is featured prominently as her first military victory. Some of the more notable may include Shakspere’s Henry VI, where she is a villain, Tchaikovsky’s opera The Maid of Orleans, and more recently, The Messenger, a Hollywood adaptation starring Milla Jovovich.
Orleans helped create the modern France, and Joan was the integral part of that process.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.