Biographies & Memoirs


The Fall of Caen

Down goeth the wall; in and upon them then!

A fifteenth-century translation
of Vegetius’s De Re Militari

‘This storm of war raised up against us by the people of England’

Jean Chartier, Chronique de Charles VII

By March 1417 the king was gathering ships and troops. As before, many vessels were hired from the Low Countries; in addition a number of Venetian merchantmen were commandeered and, despite having lost so many carracks to the English, the Genoese also supplied some boats. Henry left London for Southampton at the end of April. There were the same massive preparations as in 1415. The assembly of men, livestock, food, tools, and weaponry, was, if anything, on a larger scale than before. The Brut of Englandspeaks of ‘guns, trebuchets, engines, sows, bastilles, bridges of leather, scaling ladders, mauls, spades, shovels, picks, pavises, bows and arrows, bowstrings, shafts and pipes full of arrows’ and that ‘thither come to him ships laden with gunpowder’.1 (Trebuchets were rock-throwing catapults, sows and bastilles were armoured shelters for attacking walls and siege-towers, while pavises were standing shields for protecting archers as they shot.) Probably as many as 12,000 men-at-arms and bowmen mustered, with perhaps 30,000 supernumaries – miners, engineers, armourers, farriers, gunners, masons (to make gunstones) etc. The fleet in which they were to embark numbered not less than 1,500 sail. The invasion was delayed until the late summer, till Lord Huntingdon had eliminated any danger from the Genoese carracks in France’s service; even then, the Earl of March was ordered to ‘skim the sea’ and guard against any further naval threat, though none would be forthcoming. The king had a healthy respect for warships. The embarkation began on 23 July. On 30 July his second armada set out for France. His own ship was distinguished by a mainsail of purple silk which bore the royal arms.

Henry intended not just to invade but to conquer Normandy – a full-scale Norman Conquest in reverse. The duchy was to be another Guyenne. Territory would be held by occupying strongholds – cities, towns or châteaux – at strategic key points. It was essential to reduce every one of these in the areas invaded since even a small enemy garrison behind the lines could, if led by a skilled commander, disrupt communications and supplies. The king must have had maps of a sort, although none have survived – otherwise he could never have planned the forthcoming campaigns with such brilliant precision.

As a soldier Henry V is generally thought of as the victor of Agincourt, who used archers to mow down the French chivalry. Yet he was first and foremost an artilleryman whose campaigns in France were spent in siege warfare as they had been in Wales. The impact of his cannon on the French was comparable to that of Guderian’s tanks in 1940. After the ravages of Edward III and the Black Prince, cities and towns throughout northern France – hitherto often largely unwalled, as at Caen – had fortified themselves massively, though only against stone-throwing catapults, sappers and scaling ladders. Just at the moment when the tide turned against the English in France during the 1370s the revolution in gunnery began. Previously cannon had only been able to fire stone or metal balls which weighed three pounds at most and were of negligible importance in siegecraft – suddenly it became possible to discharge missiles of up to 800 pounds. The English had employed the new weaponry to devastating effect in Wales. A treatise on war, dedicated to Lord Berkeley in 1408, speaks of ‘great guns that nowadays shoot stones of so great piece that no wall may withstand them as hath been well showed both in the north country and in the wars of Wales.’ The use of such artillery for sieges had not yet been experienced in France – as Henry was almost certainly aware. English bows might be evaded successfully, as the great French leader Bertrand du Guesclin had shown when fighting the Black Prince in Aquitaine, but not English siege guns.

If his victory at Agincourt had settled nothing with regard to his claim to the French throne, it at least meant that Henry could be sure the French would never again dare face him in a head-on battle. On this certainty he based his plan for conquest. Essentially a strategist, he knew the importance of time and timing, how to make the most use of very limited manpower; it has been estimated that during his reign England’s total effective fighting force was no more than 15,000 men. His method was to capture as quickly as possible a line of strongholds facing the direction from which the French counterattack would come. He would then overrun the territory behind the line by taking every enemy town and fortress which it contained. Since the French would not dare to penetrate his line of strongholds to relieve them, he could bombard, mine, and blockade them into surrender at his leisure – there was no need for costly assaults. The process was completed by installing small English garrisons in the captured towns and castles, often only a bare handful of men. He could then extend the area of conquered territory by seizing another line of French strongholds further forward. A network of spies, operating at first apparently from Calais, seems to have been sent out to discover enemy troop movements and objectives. All this was accompanied by a ceaseless diplomatic offensive. In Jean Chartier’s words, Henry was truly a ‘subtil conquérant’.2

The French must have been aware of the military build up across the Channel, and the imminent arrival of an armada. They were deeply apprehensive, just as the English would be when awaiting the Spanish armada in 1588, but since their defeats by Bedford and Huntingdon they had no ships left to intercept the invasion fleet. Understandably, they expected the English to land at Harfleur, though a few thought they might land somewhere in the vicinity of Boulogne. Again as before, Henry kept his destination secret until the very last minute. Instead of Harfleur and the north bank of the Seine, it was the mouth of the little river Touques (between the modern resorts of Deauville and Trouville), landing on the south bank. A small enemy force of 500 horses was quickly brushed aside. After disembarking the king had Mass said in thanksgiving, dubbed forty-six new knights and appointed Clarence the army’s official commander-in-chief. He then set up camp and dispatched Huntingdon and Salisbury to capture the castles of Bonneville and Auvillers – the two nearest strongpoints, both of which surrendered almost at once – and sent a scouting party up the Touques to reconnoitre. His overall strategy was to overrun Lower Normandy (Normandy south of the Seine) and his first objective was its capital, Caen, the duchy’s second city. Within three days of landing Clarence had advanced up the Touques and taken the town of Lisieux, inspiring such terror that its entire population fled, leaving only two aged cripples behind. By 14 August Clarence had occupied the suburbs of Caen.

Thomas Basin is a particularly useful source of information about the English invasion. A Norman, born at Caudebec in 1412, he studied in Paris during the English occupation and was appointed Bishop of Lisieux in 1442, being nearly forty before he became a subject of the French king and having worked as an English official. He wrote a history of Charles VII and of his son and successor, Louis XI, being commissioned by the latter to report on the poverty in the provinces devastated by the war and to suggest ways of relieving it. He records of 1417:

It is not easy to convey what terror was inspired among the inhabitants [of Normandy] by the name of Englishman alone – fear so sudden that nobody, or almost nobody, thought that there was any safety other than in flight. If in most of the towns and fortresses those captains who had garrisons had not shut the gates, and if the inhabitants had not been restrained by force as well as by fear, it is beyond question that many would have been left totally deserted as certainly happened in some places. Indeed the people, unnerved by a long period of peace and order, simple as they were, generally thought that the English were not men like everyone else but wild beasts, gigantic and ferocious, who were going to throw themselves on them and then devour them.3

The experience of Basin and his own family in that year must have been one shared by very many Norman families, rich and poor. Basin’s father was a prosperous bourgeois of Caudebec. On the approach of the English in 1417 he fled to Vernon with his wife and children but was driven out of there by the plague and famine which was brought by the influx of refugees. They then sought shelter in Rouen, then at Falaise, before returning to Rouen. They escaped from here before it was cut off by the English, fleeing to Nantes in Brittany. In 1419 the Basin family returned to Caudebec. However, the neighbourhood had became so dangerous by 1431 that the elder Basin again took refuge in Rouen where he died a pauper. These constant flights before the enemy with what possessions could be carried (if one was lucky) on pack-horses or in carts paralleled those of the French in 1940 during the German invasion. The difference was that there was far more danger for the population from English troops in the fifteenth century than from German in the twentieth. Off the battlefield medieval troops had very little discipline. In any case, despite issuing orders that women and clergy were not to be molested, Henry wanted to cow the Normans during the opening stages of his campaign.

The Normans had already been given a taste of the invaders’ savagery on several occasions in the recent past. English raiders had devastated part of the Pays de Caux in 1403, burnt Fécamp in 1410, and again laid waste the Pays de Caux in 1413. Since the occupation of Harfleur in 1415 the garrison there had launched a series of minor but vicious raids into Normandy. Norman fishermen and merchants went in terror of English privateers, especially since the ‘King’s Ships’ had wrested control of the Channel from the French. The Monk of St Denis confirms Basin: ‘Everyone thought of nothing else but finding refuge in a place with strong fortifications, as if trying to escape from a storm of lightning.’4

The new dauphin, Charles, was known to be at Rouen so the English kept a wary eye on him – presumably through spies as well as scouts – while they marched towards Caen. However, the dauphin was distracted by the knowledge that the Duke of Burgundy had seized Troyes at the end of June and was now advancing in the direction of Paris. Since the dauphin’s advisers and all the experts considered Caen impregnable he decided to return to the capital to face what appeared to be the more immediate danger. No doubt his military council were somewhat surprised that Henry had not gone to besiege Rouen straight away – the obvious if potentially disastrous course for an invader.

The king planned instead to cut Normandy in two by marching from north to south across it, to force neutrality on Anjou and then, having cut the Seine above Rouen – depriving the city of its communications with Paris – to besiege the Norman capital. Caen, the principal city of western Normandy, was the keystone of the first stage of the operation. Once captured it would provide a perfectly sited base for the conquest of western Normandy from which to launch the second stage. In addition it had a large port, easily reached from England. The plan was undoubtedly Henry’s brainchild.

By 18 August the king had joined forces with Clarence’s advance guard and invested Caen. It was a rich city, its wealth based on cloth manufacture and its very active river port. The population may have been as large as 40,000. It was famous for its splendid churches – there were over forty – and known throughout Normandy as ‘the city of churches’. (The battle of 1944 sent much of old Caen up in flames, the destruction being compounded by modern development and nightmarish industrial estates, yet a surprising amount of the medieval city survives.) It was completely cut off. However, the dauphin’s advisers had not been entirely unjustified in supposing it to be a difficult city to attack. The lower half, or new town, was protected by the many-branched River Orne, which made it virtually an island; while the upper half, or old town, was perched on a steep hill below a great citadel. There were strong new walls and many stout bastions, all in good repair, reinforced by ditches filled with stakes and wolf-traps.

Fortunately, the Duke of Clarence had galloped into the suburbs a fortnight earlier and captured two key strongpoints just outside the fortifications before the defenders were able to demolish them, the Abbaye-aux-Hommes and the Abbaye-aux-Dames. At first he had left them in peace. However, when he was asleep in a little garden – lying on the grass in his armour, his head on a stone – a monk, desperate to save his monastery, was brought in and explained that the Abbaye-aux-Hommes was being pulled down. Clarence immediately had ladders brought and in the darkness scaled the monastery’s walls. He also seized the other abbey.

In consequence the people of Caen, who had trusted in their new ramparts, were soon to learn that they were already out of date. The Abbaye-aux-Hommes (founded by William the Conqueror who, ironically, was buried here) still stands, only 600 yards to the west of the site of the city walls. Henry installed both his headquarters and his heaviest guns behind the monastery’s own thick walls; from here the latter hurled their huge gunstones at the ramparts, concentrating on a single spot low down in the masonry. The towers and roofs of the abbey became gun platforms for light culverins which were able to fire over the walls down into the city, ably supported by archers. On the east side of the city the Abbaye-aux-Dames (founded by the Conqueror’s queen) provided another massive gun emplacement even closer to the walls. From both positions cannon were pushed still nearer, behind earthworks and timber screens. A ferocious bombardment ceaselessly battered the city, both night and day. The English guns were so big that the windows of the Abbaye-aux-Hommes shattered at the first discharge. The Monk of St Denis heard that ‘they threw enormous stones with a noise like thunder amid fearsome clouds of black smoke, so that one might have thought they were being vomited forth by hell.’ He adds that smaller cannon were sending over a ‘hail of leaden balls’.5 These fired with surprising rapidity – a primitive cartridge consisting of a box, filled with powder and topped by a bullet, being inserted into the breech.

The bombardment was then concentrated on the new town, which could only fire back ineffectually using small guns mounted on the ramparts. Besides stone shot, the English bombards fired hollow iron balls filled with flaming tow; the former demolished entire stone houses, scattering lethal splinters – several churches were destroyed – while the latter set many wooden buildings on fire. In addition the English mined, tunnelling beneath the walls, though this was not so effective; the defenders placed large bowls of water on the ramparts, detecting the mines by the ripples, and counter-mined, tunnelling down to attack the English underground.

Soon there were several breaches. During the night, when safe from arrow fire, the citizens blocked them with stones, baulks of timber and sandbags, digging trenches behind them filled with stakes. The king called on the defenders to surrender or expect no quarter but was answered defiantly.

The Earl of March arrived at the beginning of September with reinforcements. He had landed at St Vaast and then marched down through the rich Cotentin, burning, slaying and looting. His arrival made the king decide to storm the city.

On the morning of 4 September, after hearing three Masses, the king ordered a general assault on the lower part of the town. He was rumoured to have had an encouraging vision of a fiery cross. The first onslaught was beaten back with the help of showers of burning oil, powdered quicklime and scalding water, as well as volleys of crossbow bolts and stones. One young Englishman, Sir Edmund Spring-house, fell into a ditch behind one of the breaches and was burnt alive by the French, who hurled bales of burning straw down on to him, infuriating his comrades. Henry sent in a second and a third wave of men-at-arms, who climbed down into the breaches and then up to engage the enemy hand to hand. The defenders heard an uproar behind them, panicked and gave ground. Clarence had attacked simultaneously from the opposite side of the new town. A man named Harry Ingles clambered over the rubble and led the duke’s men-at-arms as they hacked their way in towards the town centre. The royal brothers met in the middle of it, joining forces to mop up what was left of the defence. If the chronicles are to believed, the victors then herded all the population they could find, civilian as well as military, regardless of sex, into the market place where, on Henry’s orders, they massacred at least 2,000 of them. Blood ran in streams along the streets. The king ordered the killing to stop after coming across the body of a headless woman with a baby in her lap still sucking at her breast. Instead he sent his men through the streets, crying ‘Havoc!’ to loot and rape. (Anything of value, however, had to be surrendered to his officials.) Crowds knelt in the street as Henry passed, begging for mercy. On 5 September under his signet he wrote the usual amiable letter to the mayor and aldermen of London: ‘God of his high grace sent unto our hands our town of Caen, by assault and with right little death of our people… we and our host been in good prosperity and health.’ One of the greatest historians of the king, Waugh, has written: ‘It is humiliating to our pride in a national hero to read the language of those who suffered under his heavy hand, for when the broken spirit of the French began to revive, the foul massacre of Caen was ever foremost in their minds.’ (This may be an honest enough admission on Waugh’s part but is also a good example of the bias in Henry’s favour which still afflicts English historians.)6


The old town and the citadel surrendered sixteen days later. The citadel could probably have held out for many months, but its garrison’s spirit had been broken by the almost contemptuous ease with which Henry had smashed his way through the new town’s supposedly impregnable walls. They can have had little faith in the ability of a relieving force to overcome so terrible an opponent. Moreover, with shrewdly calculated moderation, he offered surprisingly generous terms. The men were allowed to march off with their arms and keep up to 2,000 gold crowns, the women to retain their jewellery.

The fall of Caen, together with the butchery of its citizens, was widely reported. In Venice, Antonio Morosini received letters ‘from divers parts’ informing him that the king had ‘ordered his subjects – barons and knights, and all his men-at-arms – to kill and cut to pieces everyone they found, from the age of twelve upwards, without sparing anybody … no one had ever heard of such infamy [nequicia] being committed’.7 More importantly, as he must have intended, Henry had struck fear into all Normandy. The Monk of St Denis reports that ‘by taking the town of Caen, the King of England had inspired such terror in the Normans that they had lost all courage’.8 Furthermore, he now had a base from which to conquer Lower Normandy where he could be swiftly reinforced from England, since his ships were able to sail straight up the Orne to Caen. Its marble quarries provided him with good gunstones. As at Harfleur, his behaviour was that of a conqueror who intended to stay for good. The citadel – a large square white donjon with four towers at the angles, very like the Tower of London – became one of his favourite personal residences. In his usual pious way he at once installed a lavishly furnished chapel royal in it. He also confiscated many of the best houses in the city, earmarking them for English settlers. Not less than 500 burgesses – perhaps as many as 2,000 – left rather than stay under English rule.

The French, still split disastrously into Armagnacs and Burgundians, and crippled by their interminable civil war, were incapable of uniting against the English exploitation of the situation. However, the Burgundians appeared to be winning. Henry watched Duke John’s progress with considerable unease. Although technically an ally of the English, the duke was a Valois and a Frenchman and, should he succeed in capturing Paris and the central government, it was only too likely he would turn on the invaders.

The king therefore concentrated on conquering as much of western Normandy as possible, ignoring the approach of winter. No doubt the Normans expected him to wait for the spring, as was the custom, and give them a breathing space. They were due for an unpleasant surprise. Henry struck southwards in the direction of Rouen, his object being to cut off first Lower Normandy and then Upper from any hope of rescue by either Burgundians or Armagnacs.

Meanwhile Huntingdon and Gloucester were charged with overrunning the western half of the duchy – a task which they performed with efficiency and zest. Other English troops – there cannot have been very many of them – struck south into Maine and the duchy of Alençon. The Monk of St Denis records that they brought ‘fire and blood and made everything fall to them, by force of arms, by menace and by terror’, storming all the châteaux.9 ‘There was no resistance, save for a few poor companions who held out in the woods’,10 we learn from Jean Juvénal des Ursins. (The phrase ‘povres compaignons’, which appears so often in Juvénal’s writings, seems to mean those fighting for the Armagnac – later dauphinist – cause.) He tells us that ‘whenever the English caught them, some they haled off to fortresses, others they threw into the river’. Those thrown in the river would have been bound, since drowning was one of the English methods of disposing of unwanted prisoners who could not pay ransoms, no doubt developed during the Welsh wars. On occasion, as will be seen, Henry himself used it.

In December the king laid siege to Falaise, the birthplace and favourite stronghold of his ancestor, William the Conqueror. Situated on a great crag above the town, its citadel was all but impregnable. It had a most distinguished and gallant soldier as its garrison commander, the Sieur Olivier de Mauny, Charles VI’s standard bearer and Keeper of the Oriflamme – the battle banner of France. Very soon, bitter, freezing weather set in – ‘winter with great cold grieved both man and beast’ The First Life tells us – but the kinghad turf and timber huts built, tents being insufficient. These he surrounded by trenches and a stockade, and ‘which, when it was made, seemed not a worse town than that within the walls’. As at Caen his artillery fired ceaselessly, night and day, demolishing houses, churches, and the tower which contained the town clock. He kept Christmas in his shanty town, all but blown down by hail storms, ‘And notwithstanding that the sharp winter afflicted both the parties marvellously sore, for all the waters in the valleys were frozen and congealed in such manner that it seemed rather to be crystal or any hard stone than water.’11 Using gunstones two feet in diameter he finally smashed a breach in the walls on 2 January – the eighth day of Christmas – whereupon the town surrendered.

Even so the citadel of Falaise, on its tall cliff, still remained well out of reach of his cannon, while it proved impossible to tunnel into the rock on which it rested. So, instead, he pushed his leather ‘sows’, or shelters, up to the foot of the ramparts on the townward side, setting his engineers to work beneath their shelter. The quality of the siege equipment he had brought from England proved its worth and the engineers were able to demolish the masonry in safety with picks and crowbars. On 16 February 1418 the citadel too surrendered. Among the prisoners was a Welshman, Edward ap Gruffydd, who had plainly not forgiven the English for what they had done in Wales. Henry had him hanged, drawn and quartered, the quarters being stuck up at the gates of Caen, Lisieux, Verneuil and Alençon. He had succeeded in taking one of the strongest fortresses in all France, the Verdun of its day. It was truly a shattering blow to Norman morale. Everywhere towns and castles began to surrender to the English king’s troops. It was not simply for fear of his terrifying capability as a soldier: Pierre de Fenin, sometime squire and pantler to Charles VI, explains that Normandy ‘saw no hope of rescue because of the dissension which then existed among the lords of France’.

The Monk of St Denis says that his pen cannot convey what extreme irritation Henry’s ‘bragging’ caused the French. When briefly restored to lucidity, Charles VI was ‘sore afflicted in contemplating the cause for the enemy’s arrogance, it being above all the implacable hatred which divided the [French] host’. He tells us that many strong castles in Normandy surrendered to the English king ‘by dint of promises rather than naked force. For on his word as a prince he guaranteed, to everybody who yielded, exemption from taxes, freedom to concentrate on farming or commerce, and the re-establishment of privileges as they had been in the time of St Louis, late king of France, on the one condition that they wore a red cross of St George on their shoulder. At the same time he abused the right of kings to punish disobedience. Anyone who rejected his summons [to surrender] and who fell into his hands bearing arms was put to death as guilty of lèse-majesté, having first seen him loot and plunder their possessions. If they were young people, not yet old enough to carry arms, or aged men, they had to suffer cruel tortures before being chased into exile. Even mothers were reduced to leaving the country with their children, with the exception of those who resigned themselves to marrying Englishmen.’12

However, the monk also gives us a glimpse of what it was like to meet King Henry, and implies that he must have had considerable charm. ‘French prisoners who came home to arrange their ransoms, and who had got to know the king’s character when in captivity, said that this prince whose exterior and conversation gave every indication of pride and who was generally supposed to be very vindictive, nonetheless behaved in a way worthy of a king and while showing himself pitiless towards rebels treated with the utmost tact those who obeyed him and was anxious they should be shown respect and kindness. He knew how many princes have extended their domains by that sort of behaviour.’13

The impression of graciousness is supported by the monk’s account of the reports of Henry which French ambassadors brought back the following year. They praised his affability, his courtesy, and his generosity, and told how he had loaded them with expensive presents. They told the monk that, ‘He was a prince of distinguished appearance and commanding stature; and although his expression seemed to hint at pride he nevertheless made it a point of honour to treat everybody of no matter what rank or degree with the utmost affability. Always avoiding the long-winded speeches and lectures to which people are ordinarily so prone, he would go straight to the point and confine himself to saying “it’s impossible” or “it must be done”. When he had spoken these simple words he considered himself obliged to do whatever it was as though he had sworn before Christ and His saints. A scrupulous dispenser of justice, he knew how to exalt the lowly and abase the mighty.’14

By the spring of 1418 the king had achieved his first strategic objective, having overrun all Lower Normandy, from Evreux to Cherbourg. The conquered territory was administered by four reliable bailiffs – Sir John Radcliffe at Evreux, Sir John Popham atCaen, Sir Rowland Lenthall at Alençon and Sir John Assheton at Cherbourg. The administrative centre was Caen, where an English chancellor for the duchy of Normandy was installed, and where the chambre des comptes was given an English president; soon a mint would be established at what was to become the second capital of the new Guyenne. He used the stick-and-carrot method – which he had found so effective with the Welsh – to tame his new subjects, alternately terrorizing and wooing the Normans. Anyone with an income of less the £60 a year who would take an oath of loyalty to the king-duke was (on payment of 10d) given a ‘certificate of allegiance’.

According to Tito Livio of Forli, Henry V’s near-contemporary biographer, the king spent the whole of Lent and Easter in prayer, fasting, vigils and almsgiving.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!