Authors: Sean McGlynn
Finding what precious little cover they could on the steep, barren and rocky gradients around the fortress, the people tried to protect themselves from both the elements and the artillery barrages by harbouring in the shallow fissures and clefts in the rock face. These offered little shelter from the wet and cold of winter. William was astonished by the harshness of those within the fortress: it was not surprising that the enemy should prevent the group passing through their own lines; but that they should be condemned to ‘a wretched and miserable existence’ by the inhumanity of their own friends and relations was truly shocking to him. These poor people had sought refuge for themselves and their goods in the strongest castle in Christendom, only to be ejected and abandoned by their own side. All they had with which to sustain themselves were wild herbs, rarely to be found in winter, and the waters of the nearby river.
William catalogues the horrors that these people were driven to by deprivation and starvation. A chicken that had come out of the castle was fought over by the strongest of them and consumed with its feathers, bones, eggs and excrement. A baby that had just been delivered was snatched from its mother by ravenous men who ripped up the infant and devoured the parts. The starving wretches feasted on the dogs that de Lacy had kicked out of the castle. He did not want these animals to consume even the scraps of the garrison’s food, and he was probably moved by a belated compassion for the plight of the people whom he had defended at the start of the siege. According to William these dogs were skinned with bare hands, although use was undoubtedly made of any arrows that had fallen into no man’s land. When these dogs had been eaten, so too were their skins. William wrote that all feelings of shame were suppressed in the fight for survival. For three long, bitter cold months the desperate souls were tormented by hunger, existing in a nether-world where many ‘neither lived nor died; being unable to hold onto life, they could not quite lose it’. In fact, at least half perished from starvation and hunger. But for the waters of the Seine, all would have died.
King Philip returned to the siege in February 1204 and witnessed the horrible results of his earlier orders. When the emaciated survivors saw the resplendent sight of the French monarch, given to corpulence and regally attired, crossing the bridge to the island fort, they called out for mercy and for a release from their slow death. William, always ready to praise Philip, rejoices in the king’s clemency when he commands that the wretches be released and fed. William witnessed amongst the ragged band a man still resolutely clutching onto a dog tail. When told to throw the tail away the man refused: ‘I shall only part with this tail that has kept me alive for so long when I am full on bread.’ There was, however, further tragedy in the ending to this episode, which adds veracity to William’s eye-witness account: deprived for so long of proper food and nourishment, most of the survivors gorged themselves on their first real meal with fatal consequences. Some historians have sensed hyperbole in all this. However, even in medieval times, it was known by some people, the writer Wofram von Eschenbach incuded, that it was dangerous for starved people ‘to gorge on empty stomachs’. At Belrepeire, his hero Parzival, having raised the siege there, fed its famished inhabitants while being aware of this danger, ‘so he gave them enough food and no more’. Numerous attested accounts from history reveal an authenticity to William’s writing at Château Gaillard.
With this pitiful chapter of the siege concluded, the more familiar business of war was resumed.
Historians have had relatively little to say on these events, yet they lay bare the commonplace reality of warfare rather than the glamorous but rare spectacle of battle: the non-combatant was as much at risk as the knight, and frequently perhaps even more so. William’s graphic account may give the impression of being artificial and sensationalist, but it actually bears close similarities with other chroniclers’ harrowing descriptions of different sieges. The situation at Château Gaillard was repeated twice during the Hundred Years War. At the siege of Calais in 1346–7 Edward III allowed the 1700 poor sent out by the garrison to pass through his lines, even giving them food and money. But then he sealed the investment and left 500 to die from appalling hardships in no-man’s-land. Those that were left behind suffered agonies from hunger. A message for help from the besieged was intercepted by the English: it read that dogs, rats and cats were being eaten, and nothing remained but to eat each other. Henry V’s siege of Rouen during 1418–19 was almost an exact repetition of Château Gaillard, similarly lasting six months over Christmas. The besieged were soon short of food. The eyewitness chronicler John Page informs us:
They ate up dogs, they ate up cats,
They ate up mice, horses and rats.
Here a rat cost 30 pence, a mouse sixpence; those in the town were fortunate enough to add vegetable peelings and dock roots to their meagre fare. Those expelled from the town and denied access through the besieging lines of the English endured the winter starving in the ditch surrounding the walls. Some 5000 were said to have died of hunger or from exposure in the winter downpours. Starving children, their parents dead, begged for food; an infant was seen trying to suckle from its dead mother; there were ten or twelve dead to everyone alive; and there were rumours of cannibalism.
The heart-rending scenes depicted by William the Breton at Château Gaillard were repeated throughout the Middle Ages on various scales.
The motivation for Philip’s response to the outcasts at the siege was clear enough: he was using hunger as a weapon. All the sources attest to the presumed impregnability of the fortress, and Philip believed that it could only be taken by blockade and starvation. As William, a seasoned observer of war wrote, ‘it is cruel hunger alone that conquers the invincible.’ The chronicler and French royal biographer Rigord declared that Philip’s intention was to take the castle by ‘hunger and want…in order to spare the blood of men’. But this is either naïve or disingenuous, attempting it as it does to portray a compassionate king: the unmitigated suffering of the non-combatants involved little actual blood-letting. Such a policy of starvation took its toll at Château Gaillard. The English chroniclers believed it to be the principal reason for the fall of the castle: Ralph of Coggeshall wrote of the garrison’s shortage of victuals; Roger of Wendover thought that Roger de Lacy made a gallant but doomed sortie so that he might die by arms rather than of hunger.
The role of hunger as a significant military weapon will be seen again later when we investigate the siege of Rochester in 1215; here we shall limit ourselves to focusing on why it was that the non-combatants were made to suffer so terribly.
From Philip’s point of view, the situation was straightforward. First, by forbidding the outcasts to make the short walk to safety he hoped to oblige the garrison to take them back into the castle and so exhaust the garrison’s stores many times faster than would otherwise have been the case. This was especially desirable as we may assume that these people brought foodstuffs with them into the fortress, thereby unwittingly providing more victuals for the soldiers there and increasing their ability to hold out even longer. Starving the garrison out by the burden of extra numbers would facilitate an early surrender at relatively little cost in blood and treasure for the French. Secondly, showing mercy meant revealing a potentially fatal weakness. If King Philip let ‘the useless mouths’ through his lines then other towns and castles would also expel their non-combatants whenever Philip might besiege them; in this way their stores would last longer and the siege would be protracted, probably without success for the besieging forces. Philip Augustus did not earn his reputation as a castle-breaker by displaying any such weakness. Finally, the fate of those outside the walls reminded those within the castle of what awaited them should the blockade run its full course: the victims offered the besiegers an opportunity to apply some psychological pressure.
Roger de Lacy’s motivations on the English side are more complex and, as this episode has been largely neglected by historians, never fully examined. Why should such a renowned and respected warrior (one chronicler describes him as ‘vir magnificus et bellicosus’) resort to such cruel tactics against his own people? For a medieval commander to be successful required a degree of ruthlessness that affronts modern sensibilities. Obviously, de Lacy wanted to preserve his food supplies long enough to maintain a lengthy resistance; and such was the strength of the castle under his command he could hope to hold out as long as his stores did. Those that were not of use to the castle’s defence were therefore thrown out. To have accepted them back in would have been as much a sign of weakness as any leniency that Philip might have displayed; it would also have utterly defeated the military objective of defending the fortress – and according to the anonymous writer of Béthune, de Lacy had vowed that he would only come out of the castle dragged by his heels.
De Lacy has been blamed for his ‘terrible blunder’ in allowing the townsfolk to enter the castle in the first place, only to force them out later. But this overlooks the basic feudal obligation of a lord to protect his vassals. A more practical concern was that if a lord failed in his duty, his people might actively seek another lord they deemed more capable of protecting them: the thirteenth-century
asserts ‘We should serve our lords for they protect us; if not, justice does not oblige us to serve them.’
Furthermore, at the time when he accepted the refugees into the castle, it was more than probable that a fortress as important as Château Gaillard would be quickly relieved. We have already seen how King John had sent out an expeditionary force to raise the siege, and it was only after its failure that de Lacy sent out the non-combatants.
Historians have made little of a letter sent by King John to de Lacy, and have not made any possible connection between it and de Lacy’s expulsion of the non-combatants. This might be of something of an oversight as the letter clearly implies that no more help would be forthcoming, and that de Lacy must look to his own devices:
We thank you for your good and faithful service, and desire that, as much as in you lies, you will persevere in the fidelity and homage which you owe to us; that you may receive a worthy reward of praise from God and from ourself, and from all who know your faithfulness. If however – which God forbid! – you should find yourself in such straits that you can hold out no longer, then do whatsoever our trusty and well-beloved Peter des Préaux, William of Mortimer, and Hugh of Wells our clerk, shall bid you in our name.
The letter, though undated, seems to have been written in early November in nearby Rouen, capital of Normandy.
It is possible that de Lacy received this letter before removing the townsfolk from the fortress, and perhaps only took this extreme measure when he knew the garrison had been left to fend for itself. He did have the option of surrender at this point, and the letter appears to accept such a possibility. But the letter is ambiguous on this score: John does, after all, express his wish for de Lacy to ‘persevere’. The charge of holding a lord’s castle was a heavy one, especially when the castle was as important as Château Gaillard and the lord was King John. Medieval chronicles bear witness to the fate of the commanders who were too ready to capitulate. The Duke of Norfolk wrote in 1453: ‘it has been seen in many realms and many lordships that for the loss of towns or castle without siege, the captains that have lost them have been dead and beheaded, and their goods lost.’
William the Breton and some modern French historians have condemned de Lacy for his ‘cruel and pitiless decision’ in expelling the refugees, but to do so ignores the exigencies of war and the situation in which the castellan found himself. If such large numbers were kept within the castle precincts – unfed, but at least with the benefit of shelter from the winter – they may have risen up against the garrison who denied them food and overwhelmed them by sheer weight of numbers.
They may also have been driven away from the foot of the castle walls to minimise the chances of the outcasts effectively doing the work of the enemy through covering a surprise night attack by scaling the walls. Lowly
, the non-professional element in armies, had achieved something similar when they scaled the walls of Tours in 1189. It is interesting to note that only after their three months of deprivation did Philip judge this group as ‘unable to harm anyone’; but William the Breton had drawn the same conclusion when they were first ejected, describing them as ‘inutile bello’. At least by sending the people out de Lacy could hope that there was a chance the French would allow them to pass through as they had done with the first two groups.
Some French historians have equally been too quick to follow William the Breton in praising Philip’s show of mercy when, on his return to the siege, he was so moved by the plight of the outcasts he relented on his earlier instructions and ordered that they be freed and fed. William makes the most of this humanitarian gesture of the French king, who was ‘always responsive to supplicants, because he was born to have compassion for unfortunates and to always spare them’; he was ‘moved by the lamentations … of those who had already suffered too much’. Philip Augustus was moved probably as much by military considerations as by charitable ones: he feared ‘the not improbable outbreak of a pestilence which might easily spread to his own entrenchments’.
This was an ever present fear at siege camps, where numbers could be decimated by the spread of disease. In the siege camp at Avignon in 1226, ‘There arose from the corpses of the men and horses which were dying in all directions, a number of large, black flies, which made their way inside the tents, pavilions and awnings, and affected the provisions and drink, and being unable to drive them away from their cups and plates, caused sudden death amongst them.’
It was during this siege that Roger of Wendover suggests that Philip’s own son, Louis VIII, died from the dysentery that had spread through the besieging camp. More important to the French King than the alleviation of the suffering of the non-combatants was the need to keep his forces at full strength to press home the siege.