King Henry VI and Communicating News – The siege of Calais in 1436

The Hundred Years War between England and France lasted between 1337 and 1453. It was one of the major conflicts of the middle ages. How did Worcester’s monks find out what was happening? Receive a series of letters from the King himself, naturally.

In one of the monastic registers of Worcester Cathedral there are a number of letters from King Henry VI. From what I can see so far they are an unusual little collection in that a group of so many letters from other kings don’t appear in the register, and yet they must have been sent. Perhaps one particular monk scribe had an interest in news and major events in this reign. The letters also show how Henry VI informed his people, and rallied the nation in 1436.

King Henry VI was only a few months old when his father died. A council ruled the country on his behalf. However, by around 1436, the teenage King was deemed to be very close to take up his responsibilities. This must have seemed fortuitous, because major events were occurring in France that required leadership.

 

The English King Henry VI being crowned King of France in Paris in 1431. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

The Duke of Burgundy withdrew from his alliance with the English in 1435. The powerful Burgundian army had been vital in helping the English maintain their position. However, dissatisfaction with the English led the Duke of Burgundy to break the alliance and plan to besiege the English garrison at Calais. The King needed to rally the nation and raise an army to rescue the soon-to-be besieged city.

 

The first of the Henry VI letters to do with the Burgundian siege of Calais in 1436. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

On 26th March 1436 King Henry VI wrote to the monks of Worcester, telling them about this. He explained that his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, was captain of Calais, and that his great uncle the Cardinal and the King’s other councillors had provided men and provisions to help. Nevertheless it would be a great siege, and the Burgundians had many “engines” of war. It is known that the Burgundians developed a formidable artillery train. So King Henry was writing to exhort the monks to get ready as many “persons defensible for war” (i.e. soldiers) in eight days and be prepared to send them where they were needed. They were also to inform the local sheriff how many men had been provided. Clearly this was a letter sent out widely to lords across England[1].

Following this in the monks’ register is an undated letter presumably also sent by the Royal government or King to the Prior and Convent of Worcester. Today we might call it propaganda news. It is a list of five measures that the Duke of Burgundy had agreed to in order to get the towns of Flanders to support him. These were mainly economic and political measures against England. As a result, the town of Ghent had raised 15,000 men, the other towns of Flanders had raised a further 15,000 men, and more towns in the region had raised another 60,000 men[2]. The Burgundians and their allies had also raised a naval force of 400 ships, armed for war.

 

A detail view of two of the Henry VI letters in the Worcester Liber Albus. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

The next letter in the register is dated 15th June. The King wrote that Calais was “the towne yn the worlde moost nedefull for this our” realm. By this he probably referred to the wool and cloth exports that went to the continent, and to the port as an English military foothold in France. He again pleaded with his subjects to ready men to help him in his struggle against (as he phrased it) the man who called himself the Duke of Burgundy. Two weeks later on 30th June, the King wrote from Westminster to the monks[3]. He was going to Canterbury and made a fresh appeal for as many men as could be raised to attend him there. They were to gather at Canterbury on Mary Magdalene’s day (22nd July) to sail across the Channel. The monks were also to encourage all the notable persons nearby to come to the muster.

Further to this, in a postscript, was news from the King that the fortress of Oye had been captured, and that its garrison had been slain by the Burgundians. The Burgundians were expected to besiege Calais on 2nd July. Henry reported a request by the King’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester had asked for the King to send over an army. The King was writing yet again to appeal that all men who were able to help should assemble at Sandwich in readiness to go to the rescue of Calais[4].

 

An eighteenth century depiction of Henry VI when he was older. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

After this it looks as if the letters from the King cease to be copied into the register until March of the following year[5]. It is known from other sources that the arrival of the English relief army at the end of July disheartened the Burgundians who quickly retreated. The constant appeals for men in these few letters would suggest that recruiting was proving difficult for a campaign in France. Certainly if the country was already supporting an army to continue fighting the French, this new threat might have been a problem. Perhaps there are more groups of similar letters to find amongst the monks’ administrative registers, which will shed light on other moments in medieval history.

 

David Morrison

 

Bibliography/ Further reading:

Christine Carpenter, The Wars of the Roses- Politics and the Constitution in England c.1437-1509, Cambridge University Press, 1997

Robert Douglas Smith and Kelly DeVries, The Artillery of the Dukes of Burgundy 1363-1477, The Boydell Press 2005

A.J. Pollard, John Talbot and the War in France 1427-1453, Pen and Sword Military 2005

John Watts, Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship, Cambridge University Press 1999

 

[1] Liber Albus WCM A5 folio 451r

[2] Liber Albus WCM A5 folio 451v

[3] Liber Albus vol. 2 WCM A5 folio 452r

[4] Liber Albus vol. 2 WCM A5 folio 452v.

[5] Liber Albus vol. 2 WCM A5 folio 467r

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