Monday, May 16, 2016

Right Policy
Bad Execution
Part I

Capture of Jean II at the Battle of Poitiers 1358 during the
Hundred Years War

In past history there is little that is more frustrating than politicians pursuing correct and / or sensible policy by inept and sometimes disastrous methods.

In previous postings I discussed various aspects of the Hundred Years war including the foolish and counterproductive efforts at political influence of Humphrey the Duke of  Gloucester.1 Now Humphrey was adamantly opposed to the peace policy of the government of Henry VI. However his opposition had little constructive in it and all Humphrey proposed was a redoubling of the war effort in order to get all of England's "rights" in France. That Humphrey's views were totally unrealistic and fantasy laden was obvious at the time and even more obvious now. Sadly the greater realism of Humphrey's opponents did not also translate into greater skill or realism in executing this more realistic policy.

Before I go into how the execution was muffed I will explain just why a peace policy was the most rational policy that could be pursued by the English government.

For a time after the Treaty of Troyes (1420)2 it look has if all France would come under the domination of the English King Henry V. This was not to be, Henry V died in 1422 followed closely by the death of the mad French king Charles VI. Henry V was succeeded by his not yet one year old son Henry VI. Despite Henry V's death things continued to go well for the English militarily and it looked like the Dual monarchy of England and France would force Charles VII, (Son of Charles VI), to submit.

Well things went wrong eventually. The bottom line was that right from the start English efforts to conquer France didn't have a great likelihood of success. France was far more wealthy and populous than England.3 Only a civil war among the French had given the English an opening, by having the French war among themselves and one faction supporting the English claim to the French throne.4

Sadly for the English what French support they had was grudging and half hearted and based almost entirely on Burgundian animosity against the Armagnacs. Practically speaking there was little deep support among the Burgundian faction for the English claim to the French throne.5

Added to this is the fact that even during the later part of the reign of Henry V support in England for the fiscal and military effort to force Armagnac France to submit to the English claim to the French throne was drying up. Has the English nobility and tax payers became more reluctant to make the effort. Even during the years of success in the early part of the reign of Henry VI support from England was grudging and limited. There was just so much the English kingdom would pay for a war of conquest.

Basically the thing that enabled the English to do so well in this time period was the disorganization and ineptitude of the French regime of Charles VII. English power in France was actually fairly fragile. So in 1429 when Jeanne d'Arc arrived and managed to galvanise the French the conquest was reversed and Charles VII crowned king of France at Rheims the English dream of forcing France to accept Henry VI has king of France was revealed to be a pipe dream whose success depended far too much on the ineptitude and lack of effort of the French than on English strength. Once that changed all hope of forcing all the French to accept Henry VI has king of France vanished.

It was only after 1429 that the English began to seriously discuss seeking peace sadly their peace efforts were seriously undermined by events that inhibited the possibility of compromise.

For example the English, even the peace party upheld much of the infamous Treaty of Troyes despite it's dubious legality.6 Further after Jeanne d'Arc arranged Charles VII's coronation at Rheims, (July 1429), traditional place of the coronation of French kings, Henry VI's advisers arranged the coronation of Henry VI has king of France in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in December of 1431. This committed the English even further is pressing Henry VI's claim to the French throne, and at a time when it was rather obvious that the claim could not be made good for all of France and when much of the area that had been conquered by the English before 1429 had reverted back to French control. That did not bode well for future peace efforts.

Further it became very clear in the 1430's that English policy was caught between the blades of a scissor. On one hand the resurgent French made the English attempt to have the English king made the one and only king of France an absurd idea and also an impossible one. Secondly in the 1430's far greater efforts both fiscally and militarily were required to defend English held territory in France. But despite those efforts, which were far greater than those of the 1420's territory was still lost to the resurgent French, including the loss of Paris in 1436 and the Burgundians recognizing Charles VII has king of France in 1435, ending the French civil war. Further despite the greater need for financial and military help from England to hold onto what was left of English possessions in France the English nobility and gentry was increasingly unwilling to contribute fiscally or militarily to the war effort. Yet at the same time the nobility and gentry did not want anything significant given away to the French in terms of English claims in France.

In other words the English political classes that dominated the state wanted to eat their cake and have it too. They didn't want to make the sacrifices required in order to have any chance of retaining English conquests in France and yet exploded at even the hint of surrendering anything to the French. They sought any excuse to explain why the war was going badly, corruption, treason etc., and very willingly screamed betrayal at the least sign of "capitulation", but balked at sending more money and / or men. They were largely completely oblivious to the fact that despite the resurgence the French were still unable to fully make their predominance in wealth and population felt on the battlefield and that to a large extent was why the English were able to hold on.7

The result was that Henry VI's advisers were considerably hampered in their ability to negotiate a peace of any kind. In fact Henry VI and his advisers were caught between a war that was in fact unwinnable in any realistic sense and a political class in England that was adamant in demanding England's "rights" in France and also so very unwilling to accept the concessions required for peace but at the same time very unwilling to make the required fiscal and military sacrifices required to have much of a chance of successfully fighting the war in France. Thus  Henry VI and his advisers were damned if they did and damned if they didn't when it came to the war with France.8

This being the case Henry VI and his advisers had their work cut out for themselves when trying to make peace.

Realistically the best the English could have hoped for after the tide had turned was to hold Normandy and Gascony in full sovereignty, i.e., not held under the feudal sovereignty of the French king. Now not surprisingly the French were not very willing to accept what was in effect a partition of the French kingdom and the best they would offer the English was to allow them to hold Normandy and Gascony under the Feudal sovereignty of the French king.9 Given that was the first even a possibility? Well actually it was but only if the English were willing to give up the claim to the French throne and use that has a bargaining counter and they had to combine that with a renewed military effort to defend Gascony and Normandy from the resurgent French such that any French effort at re-conquest would seem hopeless.

Here everything started to come unglued for it was not just the English Nobility and Gentry that was adamantly opposed to surrendering the claim to the French throne, but Henry VI and his advisers! Thus the peace party no less than the war party in England was opposed to giving up this claim. This at once handicapped peace negotiations and has the English military situation got worst the clinging to this aim by the English, including the peace negotiators, became a serious obstacle to peace or even a long truce. Why? Because upholding the English claim to the French throne and Henry VI's title has King of France was quite correctly viewed by Charles VII of France has an attack on the legitimacy of his own claim. The fact that over the years the English claim became more and more absurd and threadbare did not lesson the annoyance of the French at the nature of the claim.10

If the peace maker's rigid adherence to this dubious claim didn't help but hinder negotiations for peace there was the dissolute way negotiations were conducted to say nothing of the over all domestic atmosphere.

First if Henry VI and his advisers had a realistic view of the need for peace, sadly the atmosphere around Henry VI's government was not conducive for such undertaking. Basically Henry VI and his government was much taken with faction fighting and corruption. It made people think that the only things Henry VI's advisers were out for was their own advantage and produced the widespread opinion that many of Henry VI's advisers were perfectly willing to betray English interests to get ahead personally. The result - dark motives were suspected and cries of treason and treachery widespread. The actual corruption at Henry VI's court served to fuel belief that dark forces were working to destroy English "rights" in France but also served as a convenient way for the war party to avoid having to pay for in military and fiscal terms for an increased effort in France in defence of those "rights". Instead they could argue that eliminate corruption, remove treacherous etc., men from office run the war better and an increase in the fiscal and military effort would not be needed. Thus quite deliberately saving the pocket books of the war party.

Further in their actual negotiations with the French The English came across has both a little too desperate for peace and stubbornly wedded to insupportable positions like the claim to the French throne. Thus the English negotiators came across has both weak and pig headed. Not a good combination.

Of course the war party didn't help by it's embrace of utterly, by then, unrealistic aims and its general unwillingness to pay for in fiscal and military terms for what even trying to attain those aims would cost. It basically offered utterly pie in the sky policy aims and balked at paying the cost for such aims. It's criticism of the peace policy was in the end entirely destructive and offered no constructive alternative.11

Faced with a unreasonable war party the peace party of Henry VI and his advisers continued to implement their peace policy in an inept fashion while at the same time clinging to utterly unreasonable positions like Henry VI being King of France.

Thus stubbornness was combined with a feckless, almost pleading posture, when it came to engaging with the French for peace.

Thus during the negotiations that lead to the Truce of Tours, (1444), the English only very reluctantly discussed the issue of Henry VI claim to the French crown but did so only at the last minute when they offered to implicitly withdraw the claim. Given the refusal to discuss the issue at all during the great majority of the conference and the refusal to make explicit the renunciation of the claim to the French crown, not surprisingly the French didn't think the offer was sincere. Subsequent English behavior would seem to indicate the French were right. While being adamant on one issue the English allowed allowed themselves to be maneuvered into accepting a short truce of only a few years, which was to the advantage of the French. Then to top it all off instead of using the truce as an opportunity to strengthen militarily their position in Normandy and Gascony things were instead allowed to run down and the war party which largely rejected the Truce of Tours has a sell out refused to pay for any measures that might strengthen England's position in France.12

The whole English strategy of making peace was both too stubborn and too weak with quite predictable results. The English peace negotiaters did not accept that they were in effect coming across has sublicants asking for peace from a stronger party and they basically by more or less refusing to discuss the issue, Henry VI claim to the French throne, threw away one of their best bargaining bits.

Thus in the end it was very much the right policy executed in a fatally inept fashion.

Perhaps at another time I will discuss more of the details about how the English Peace party muffed it..

1. See Here.

2. The Treaty of Troyes made Henry V heir to the French throne, however most of France rejected the treaty. For more on the Treaty of Troyes see Here.

3. At least 3 time and likely 4-5 times more populous and in terms of wealth the contrast was even greater. See Seward, Desmond, The Hundred Years War, Penguin Books, London, 1978, pp 24-26.

4. The Burgundians versus the Armagnacs. See Seward, pp. 143-152, Sumption, Jonathan, Cursed Kings: The Hundred Years War IV, Faber & Faber, London, 2015, pp. 234-277, 468-529.

5. Seward, pp. 192-197, Barker, Juliet, Conquest, Little Brown, London, 2009, pp. 84-90, 224-229, Sumption, pp. 695-696.

6. Among other things Charles VI was insane at the time he agreed to it. See Allmand, Christopher, The Hundred Years War, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, p.31, Sumption, pp. 699-700, Seward, pp. 181-182. For the decline of English interest in fiscally and militarily supporting the English cause in France see Ormrod, W. M., The Domestic Response to the Hundred Years War, in Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War, Ed. Curry, Anne & Hughes, Michael, The Boydell Press, Bury St. Edmunds Suffolk, pp. 83-101,  and Griffiths, R. A., The Reign of King Henry VI, Second Edition, Sutton Pub., 1998, pp. 107-122, 376-394.

7. Seward, pp. 226-227.

8. See Ormond and Griffiths, pp. 443-454.

9.  Griffiths, pp. 198-200, 446-450, 491-492. Barker, pp. 268-273, Seward, pp.  I note that in negotiating the Truce of Tours, the English were willing to implicitly abandon the claim to the French crown but it appears that it wasn't meant seriously; see Griffiths.

10. IBID, and Griffiths pp. 480-492, Seward, pp. 244-245.

11. For the corruption of Henry VI court and government see Griffiths pp. 68-105, 295-375. For the reluctance of the English to pay for the war see above and Ormond.

12. Seward, pp. 246-248, Barker, 365-369. 

Pierre Cloutier

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