17 August 1424, John, Duke of Bedford, Henry V’s younger brother, won a surprising victory over a Franco-Scottish army twice the size of his own in one of the bloodiest battles of the Hundred Years’ War at Verneuil.
“… there a horrible spectacle too see on the battlefield, the corpses in high, tightly packed heaps, especially where the Scots had fought. No prisoners were taken among them, and the heaps held the bodies of the dead English soldiers all mixed up with theirs.” (Thomas Basin, Bishop of Lisieux)
One of the most persistent myths about the Middle Ages is the weight of plate armour and the movement restrictions inflicted on its pitiable knightly wearer. Poor things couldn’t mount their horses without the help of at least two squires or a crane and were as good as dead when they fell off since they couldn’t raise on their own and all that. The notion is basically nonsense. Mail was worn since the Iron Age to protect warriors from sword slashes, axe blows and spear thrusts. It was always more or less useless against an arrow shot at close range from the compound bows, the ones the peoples of the Eurasian steppes and the Middle East used. But that’s what shields were for. With the advent of new fighting techniques like using the lance from horseback couched under the arm instead of just stabbing or throwing the thing, feet placed stable in stirrups and adding the weight of the charger to the punch, something had to be done in terms of defensive arms and protection. Along with the ability to manufacture longer and heavier swords that were easily able to cleave through mail, it was, in the west, still a concern of a comparatively small warrior elite. Hand-and-a-half swords, war horses and a full suit of mail armour were unbelievably expensive, but when commoners discovered easily produced and deadly ranged weapons like crossbows and longbows and learned to fight in formation with pikes, things were about to change. Since the High Middle Ages, more and more pieces of steel plate were added to suits of mail to further protect vital zones. The late 14th century finally saw the arrival of the iconic full plate armour. Weighing between 30 to 50 pounds, field armour was individually fitted to its wearer with intricate, overlapping parts that allowed for almost full mobility, on horseback and on foot, fighting, climbing walls, athletics and what not. In close combat, special moves and special weapons developed, like war hammers and pollaxes with their spikes, concentrating energy to a single, small focus that might penetrate the steel plates or, at least, cause blunt trauma when the hammer or axe heads hit, but at least crossbow bolts and even bodkin-headed arrows shot from a longbow usually would not pierce it. Nonetheless, an energy level of about 80 joules, almost 200 pounds concentrated in the punch of an arrowhead, designed to smash through armour, delivered at a rate of up to 10 arrows per minute in volleys known as “arrow storms”, flattened anything else, less-well armoured men and war horses, and would, of course, find sooner or later, armour joints and slits in helmets and break a charge of knights, even if they wore suits of Gothic plate armour made by the famous workshops in Milan or Nuremburg. But not if the heavies closed in fast and the archers did not have the time to shoot their volleys, as it happened at Verneuil.
|mid-15th to early 16th century suits of Gothic and Maximilian plate armour, on display at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna*|
The Battle King had died in 1422 at the age of 35, all of a sudden, from dysentery. His son, Henry VI, now King of England and France after his father’s victory at Agincourt, was not yet three years old and affairs on the continent were managed by his uncle John, Duke of Bedford. Young Henry’s other uncle, the Dauphin, son of mad Charles VI and recognised as King of France everyplace where no English troops stood, saw an opportunity to pay House Lancaster back, reminded the Scots of their Auld Alliance, and they almost fell over themselves to fight the hated English and sent 6,000 men under the Earl of Buchan to support him. Unfortunately, most of them perished at Cravant in 1423, but 6,000 fresh volunteers arrived a year later, led by Buchan again, along with Archibald, Earl of Douglas and joined the Dauphin’s cause. The latter hired 2,000 Milanese and other Lombard mercenaries, horsemen armoured with the best their workshops at home could provide and together with 8,000 local Dauphinists, the French were ready to strike at Bedford in Normandy. They took the town of Verneuil on the Norman border on 15 August and two days later, Bedford arrived with 8,000 men. The Franco-Scottish army met them on a plain a mile north of the town and while the English archers were still busy driving their customary wooden stakes into the hard, sun-baked ground, the Milanese charged. They closed in on the archers before they could properly shoot their volleys and the arrows that flew simply glanced off the superb Italian plate and did not even penetrate at point-blank range. The English right wing was trampled down and slaughtered, but the mercenaries simply rode on to the English baggage train at the back to plunder. Even so, the battle seemed lost, but Bedford rallied his men-at-arms and knights, fighting on foot as usual, drove back the French infantry to Verneuil while Salisbury on the left wing fought a hard fight against the Scots, left alone by the Dauphinist’s other Lombard mercenary cavalry contingent who had joined the Milanese in plundering. With the French driven from the field, Bedford had his hands free to support Salisbury against the Scots who made a desperate last stand but were finally slaughtered. Bedford’s remaining archers chased the Italian mercenaries who had absolutely no mind to lose their expensive destriers or get their valuable armour dented by English arrows and quitted the field. The Battle of Verneuil was over and Bedford had won another, surprising major victory against the odds. It would be the last one. Verneuil was one of the bloodiest battles of the Hundred Years’ War, with 4,000 Scots, 2,000 French and 1,600 English dead, but while it proved to be a temporary setback for Charles the Dauphin, the tables began to turn when the English were forced to abandon the Siege of Orleans, the key to southern France, mainly by the efforts of a young girl with a vision from Domrémy in Lorraine.
|Left standing at Verneuil but was finally crowned as King Charles VII, the Dauphin of France |
(Portrait by Jean Fouquet, c 1450)
* photo taken by Stephan Brunker and found on https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plattenpanzer#/media/File:Kampfgruppe.jpg)
And more about the Battle of Verneuil on: