Christmas can have a strange effect on warfare. Unofficial truces, the exchange of gifts between those who, just the day before, were exchanging artillery shells, plus the joint singing of carols are just some examples of the things that have occurred in wars past. The Christmas cease-fire of 1914 during the First World War is perhaps the most famous of these unofficial truces. There have been others, such as the American Civil War when the two sides stopped fighting in some places to peacefully trade things like coffee and newspapers. These passive Christmases are not limited to just recent history. They have happened during Medieval warfare, as well. The Siege of Rouen in the fifteenth century provides us with one of these odd instances when Christmas inspired calm and charity at a time when starvation, death and destruction had ruled for many months.
By the time Henry V of England and his men arrived outside the fortified walls of Rouen in 1418 war between the French and English had been raging for more than 80 years. Despite the horror and the large loss of life that battles like Crecy, Poitier and Agincourt had brought with them, during the past 8 decades, the cruelty, carnage and butchery continued on. The Siege of Rouen had actually begun the previous year when the Duke of Exeter, acting as Henry’s emissary and following the rules of engagement, sent his heralds to Rouen. They went with banners unfurled to caution the citizens of Rouen, on pain of death, to surrender peacefully to Henry V. However, rather than opening the gates to allow the Duke’s party into the city, they responded with cannon fire, followed by a cavalry sortie against the Duke’s men. So a siege of Rouen it was to be in July of 1418.
Rouen was the capital of Normandy and one of Europe’s larger cities at the time. It was a beautiful place that boasted a cathedral and nearly 75 abbeys, convents and parish churches. It was also a very wealthy city, thanks to its weaving and luxury goods industries. Henry V himself expressed that Rouen was ‘the most notable place in France save Paris’. Prior to the siege it had a population in excess of 60,000. Those from the neighbouring suburbs and countryside who were seeking the refuge of the city’s walls helped to swell the size of Rouen’s citizenry, in anticipation of the siege.
The fortified walls of Rouen supported sixty towers and six barbicans, creating an imposing defensive structure. A large, deep, dry moat or ditch sat in front of the walls. In addition, the surrounding neighbourhoods were razed to the ground by the French to eliminate any cover for the besiegers. According to the chroniclers, “Neither stick nor stone was left standing.” The area was left as flat “…as the palm of a man’s hand.” 1 The garrison of about 4,000 soldiers, inside the walls, employed a combination of gunpowder weapons alongside older, catapult style engines.
In the month leading up to the siege of Rouen, Henry first took the town of Louviers. Its capture nearly turned disastrous when a French cannon struck the royal English tent during the fighting. This raised Henry’s ire and resulted in the hanging of eight French gunners. Next the English pushed on to the small, but extremely important Normandy town of Pont de l’Arche, just nine days before they reached Rouen. Pont de l’Arche represented the last piece of the puzzle for the English, in order to effectively besiege Rouen. Its bridge was situated on the Seine River between Paris and Rouen. Securing Pont de l’Arche now left Rouen completely isolated and vulnerable. Now the English controlled the Seine all the way west of Rouen to its mouth and by gaining control of Pont de l’Arche, it meant that they were also cut-off from Paris to the south-east.
Once at Rouen the English army set themselves up in four very strong encampments around its strongly fortified walls. These camps were connected by a series of trenches. As a direct attack on Rouen would have been very dangerous Henry, as he had done in past successes, relied heavily upon his artillery to do a lot of the difficult work. His army was bolstered by other forces like the 1,500 Irish soldiers, known as Kern, who were especially skilled with their knives and spears. They were fierce and ruthless fighters, who were contrasted by their bare feet, long hair and bright saffron coloured cloaks. They are worth mentioning for the terror they caused. They are said to have ridden back from their sorties carrying the severed heads and dead babies of the French.
While both armies practised less direct tactics such as intimidation, which included the hanging of prisoners in plain sight of each other, it was Henry who employed the most effective and certainly the most brutal weapon of the siege – starvation. French supply lines into Rouen were completely cut off and after just a couple of months the large stores of food and drink that had been brought in from the countryside, in expectation of the siege, began running very short for those inside Rouen’s walls. This resulted in both hyperinflation and the consumption of things not normally on the menu. Horseflesh was first, followed then by dogs and cats. When these were hard to come by rats and mice were next, at 30 and 6 pence apiece, respectively. A soldier in Henry’s army called John Page, who was in the contingent led by the Lord of Redesdale, Gilbert de Umfraville, wrote rather compassionately about the citizens of Rouen as he described the shocking situation of those within the city walls and later those without, in his poem ‘The Siege of Rouen’. Just a few of Page’s words help to bring the situation to life.
They died so fast on every day
That man could not all of them in earth lay.
Even if a child should otherwise be dead,
The mother would give it bread.
Nor would a child to its mother give.
Everyone tried himself to live
As long as he could last.
Love and kindness both were past.
That wasn’t all nor was it even the worst of the terror. Young girls were forced to sell themselves for mere scraps of rotten food and there was real talk of cannibalism amongst the people. 2 Inevitably and very quickly disease broke out as the bodies began to pile up within the walls of Rouen, bringing a swifter end to those already weakened by a serious lack of sustenance. The constable of Rouen, Guy le Bouteiller, remained obstinate throughout and at a time when he likely should have surrendered he took the decision to force 12,000 of Rouen’s citizens outside of the walls. Those who were expelled were referred to as the bouches inutiles or the useless mouths. These were the very old, the very young, women who were pregnant, plus the sick and the pathetic. The excuse for this was to try and save what was left of the food and supplies for the fighters and for the wealthy.
It’s difficult to imagine 12,000 poor souls, barely clinging to life, all stumbling out of Rouen. By then the rags they wore must have covered their bones more effectively than their thin grey skin. One after another with distended bellies and sunken, lifeless eyes they poured out, some with babies trying to suckle milk that had long since dried up, too weak to even whimper. As wretched as they were Henry V refused to allow them past the English lines. Literally caught between a rock and a hard place, there was no place for them to go but the dry ditch just outside the walls of Rouen. To make matters worse the days of late autumn and early winter brought with them relentless rain that year. There were rumours that French reinforcements would reach Rouen in November, but they never came. There the so called bouches inutiles remained for balance of the siege, barely living and many dying. John Page provides details of those bouches inutiles as they lay helplessly in the ditch outside Rouen.
And some were crooked in their knees,
And were now as lean as trees.
You saw a woman hold in her arm
Her own dead child, with nothing warm,
And babies suckling on the pap
Within a dead woman’s lap.
Winter was already a very difficult season in the Middle Ages. The cold, the snow and rain, along with the shortened days could make lives much more miserable. However, one of the few things that folk had to look forward to would have been the 12 days of feasting which was a part of the Festival of Christmas. There would have been little in the way of the usual celebrations for those living inside Rouen. The lavishly decorated halls, people dressed in their finest robes and the endless dining and drinking that the rich normally enjoyed would be missing that year. Rouen’s poor, who could usually look forward to some extra food along with merrymaking and a break from work, would see nothing of that in 1418.
The English were in a better position, but no siege was without its deprivation, discomfort and disease. They were able to keep themselves supplied, in large part at least, directly from London. Henry had written to the Mayor and Aldermen of that city requesting food, drink and supplies. These were brought across the channel in small boats to Harfleur, which was in English hands at the time. From Harfleur, they were sailed up the Seine to Rouen. Armed escorts protected these Victuallers, as they were called, during their travels. Robbing or simply helping oneself to the supplies were crimes punishable by death.
Henry’s headquarters were set up in a local charter house, which hadn’t been flattened by the French prior to the siege. While it wasn’t Westminster Hall, Henry and those close to him enjoyed at least some of things normal to those of their position at Christmas. It’s known that Henry dined on roasted porpoise as part of his Christmas celebrations. A boar’s head, brought into the dining area with a great deal of ceremony, plus swan and peacock were just some of the delicacies enjoyed by the wealthy.
On Christmas day in 1418 the fighting at Rouen was suspended between the two sides. Henry V wanted an opportunity to feed those who were still lying alive in the ditch outside of the walls. We can again look to John Page’s poem for a firsthand account.
That season of Christmas
I shall tell you of fair grace,
And the makings of our king
Of his goodness a great tokening,
He did send upon that Christmas day
His heroes dressed in rich array,
And said because of that high feast,
Both to most and to least,
Within the city and without,
They that lacked food and had gone without,
They should have meat and drink.
Rouen’s constable is said to have agreed to the truce rather reluctantly. He refused to allow any of Henry’s soldiers to bring the food and drink to the poor, presumably because they lay so close to the city walls. In the end, it was two priests and three men with them who were given clearance to bring the sustenance forward. However, even they were required to bring it to a specific spot ‘underneath the wall’ as John Page notes. The five men apparently did their job with some fanfare and the singing of hymns. It’s difficult to know just how many of the original 12,000, that had been expelled from Rouen, were still alive. Most of the dead would have died of starvation or disease, but there also must have been some that were the unintended victims of the weapons of warfare. John Page does provide a reasonable estimate of those still living, “That twelve were dead to one alive.” This would mean that there were about 1,000 still able to take the food on offer. This is corroborated by the fact that it only took five men to feed those who were still alive. Having said that, John Page and others have pointed to the fact that it wasn’t just those outside the walls who were fed, but also any inside the city’s gates were welcome to come and take nourishment at this spot, as well. This would have increased that number, but by how many is unclear.
History tends to be written by the victors which may give rise to a question or two regarding John Page’s poem. He devotes several lines to the praises sung by those poor souls of Rouen after being fed by the English.
Almighty God they said then,
Of tender hearts have been Englishmen,
Lo, here our own excellent king,
That left us so long standing
And never would we obey him too
With our will the homage due.
Of us now he (Henry) hath more compassion
Then hath our own nation
That God as thou art full of might,
Grant him grace to win his right.
It’s difficult to imagine that many of them had the strength to do so, despite their Christmas meal, but perhaps there were some muted praises and thanksgivings.
Interestingly, had Henry shown mercy to those citizens of Rouen at any time other than a Holy Day he would have appeared weak. It would have looked as if he had fed them because of the circumstances created by the French. However, because Christmas is one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar it was a time for Christians to practice charity. So by feeding those starving French citizens on Christmas Day, Henry was seen as fulfilling his responsibilities to God, rather than to the French. It appears that this act of charity helped to turn the French against their leaders, as just six days later those inside the walls of Rouen began talking about peace.
French diplomats were received at Henry’s headquarters on January 2, 1419. After many days and a lot of discussion, an agreement was reached between the two sides. All the while, those lying in the ditch outside Rouen continued to starve and to die.
On January 19, 1419 Rouen finally made its formal surrender to Henry V. In the end, the capitulation of that great city turned out to be a real turning point in Henry V’s take-over of Normandy. Indeed, fourteen of Rouen’s neighbouring castles and towns submitted to the English under the terms of the surrender. Henry’s usurpation of Rouen owed so much to the tactics that he employed against that city and especially to his calculated feeding at Christmas of those poor souls who should have meat and drink.
For her kind assistance: Catarina Costa Burfield
Brian read Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University. He currently researches the medicine of armies in the Middle Ages.