Authors: Sean McGlynn
It was John’s treatment of young Arthur that prompted William des Roches’s defection to Philip Augustus; he took Viscount Aimery de Thouars with him to the French side. The Bretons responded to the rumours of Arthur’s murder by going on the warpath; they took Angers while William and his rebel allies took control over most of the Loire’s counties, blocking the movements of John’s agents between Le Mans and Chinon. The citadel at Tours managed to hold out for John until 1204: abandoned by des Roches’s man, Hamelin de Roorta, Tours was placed under the command of Brandin, one of John’s mercenary captains; it was subsequently lost and partially regained. Loches and Chinon, under the mercenary captain Gerard d’Athée and Hubert de Burgh respectively, resisted until 1205. Vital as these strongholds were, they were isolated pockets of resistance in expanding enemy territory. John had even to send a mercenary force under Peter des Préaux to rescue his queen from Chinon. Chinon was a great administrative centre (David Carpenter has suggested that the loss of records was very significant) and an Angevin treasury; its fall was a deep psychological blow for John. This grim situation was entirely of his own doing. William des Roches was the most vacillating of vassals but, as Powicke observes, his actions were those of intelligent ambition. Had John kept him loyal he would have retained this vital region, which would have been ‘the most important guarantee against the loss of Normandy’.
His desertion marked a trend. The great majority of the Poitevin nobility had relations or friends taken prisoner by John at Mirebeau, and his cruel treatment of his captives lost him any residual goodwill. John’s talent for alienating those he needed had come to the fore. Fearful of being bogged down in Anjou, John sent out peace feelers to Philip; unsurprisingly, Philip rejected these. English sources blamed the disaster that was to follow on the mass desertions of the continental baronage, but with more skilled and energetic military leadership, John may have minimised even this great wave of treachery that was now unleashed; instead, he succumbed to fatalistic lethargy, allowing des Roches and his allies further successes in Anjou. The defections gathered momentum. Hugh de Gournay went over to Philip and delivered up John’s castle of Montfort, having let in French troops at night.
Count Robert of Alençon triggered further tergiversations with his change of allegiance to Philip; by 1203, John was bereft of important allies north of the Loire. But it was the military blows that struck the hardest. John’s castle at Vaudreuil had been stocked up with provisions and strengthened against the French King’s obvious designs on Normandy. Philip prepared for a lengthy siege of this strategic fort but, to everyone’s amazement, its English commanders, Robert Fitzwalter and Saer de Quincy, capitulated without a fight. Vaudreuil served two major purposes: an offensive one as a launching pad for expeditions into the Vexin; and a defensive one as an important satellite protection to Château Gaillard, itself the chief bulwark for Rouen and hence Normandy. With Vaudreuil and now also Conches in his hands, and the counties of the Loire increasingly under allied control, Philip was able to focus on the great but formidable prize of Normandy.
The marches of Normandy were the most heavily fortified areas of France. John was relying on their defences to absorb anything that Philip could throw at them. Normandy was of vital importance to both England and France. The French crown wished for access to the northern seaboard and for control of the mouth of the Seine, not least because Paris, the seat of the French government, lay up river and was vulnerable to attack. Normandy offered a different prospect to Philip than the regions of the Loire. Although there had been substantial ‘continental drift’ between England and Normandy, much Norman sentiment remained pro-English: many barons, including William Marshal, held territory both there and in England; the kingdom and the duchy were also bound by strong trading and commercial interests. The network of castle defences; the resources in men and money; the ease with which reinforcements could be sent unhindered across the Channel – all pointed to the belief that an energetic resistance would ensure Normandy’s safety.
But Philip had probed deep into the eastern regions of the duchy, and John was left placing his hopes on the garrison at Château Gaillard. Normandy’s fate hung on its defence.
The siege of Château Gaillard was the great set-piece of the struggle for Normandy. The castle itself was justly renowned by contemporaries as a marvellous feat of engineering. Sited on a dramatic crag overlooking the confluence of the rivers Gambon and, crucially, the Seine, this castle was the prized personal project of Richard the Lionheart. He had endured an interdiction on Normandy to build his ‘beautiful castle on the rock’, his ‘saucy castle’ as it is often called (’bold’ or even ‘hardy’ castle may be more accurate translations). It was constructed in one startling phase between 1196 and 1198, a remarkably short time. Richard spent more than £11,500 on it, more than on all his castles in England during his entire reign, an amount that came to more than twice Normandy’s total annual revenues. The castle was the heart of its own complex defence system that included the island fort of Île d’Andely, the new walled town of Petit-Andely, the fortifications of the original town of Andely, a stockade and outlying forts. It represented the apogee of castle-building and techniques, and it was with good reason that the writers of the age considered it impregnable. It was here that one of the most dramatic sieges – arguably
most dramatic siege – of the entire Middle Ages was carried out between the end of September, 1203 and March 1204.
The place of Château Gaillard in history has been immortalised by William the Breton’s hugely detailed, and therefore invaluable, accounts. He was an eyewitness to most of the events that occurred there and this is reflected in the space he devotes to it; other chroniclers, in comparison, barely mention the siege in more than passing.
Despite the epic qualities of the siege and its enormous consequence for the course of English history, its details have been largely overlooked by writers outside France, the last major published accounts of any note in English being those by Kate Norgate in 1887 and 1902, with my contributions on one aspect of the siege from the last few years.
What follows is based closely, but by no means exclusively, on William the Breton’s description of events, especially as laid down in his
(a source which requires some careful handling and which, due to its abstruse nature, has not been used by historians as much as William’s more straightforward chronicle).
Having descended down the Loire by boat, taking Saumur and Loudon along the way, King Philip of France returned to Normandy to invest Château Gaillard. He began by isolating it. With Vaudreuil already in his hands, in August he besieged another satellite fort of Radpont. This resisted for three weeks before surrendering in late September; a substantial garrison of 20 knights, 100 sergeants and 30 crossbowmen was taken prisoner. Philip then rested and reinforced his men before fully investing the defence complex at Château Gaillard. The flow of events was going his way. His soldiers had raised John’s siege of Alençon and regarrisoned Tours; William des Roches and Philip’s mercenary captain Cadoc had taken possession of Angers; by April 1203 Le Mans was in Philip’s hands; his allies were making advances throughout Anjou. Pushed out of Anjou and Touraine, John resorted to ravaging Brittany, possibly to draw enemy forces away from the pincer formation they had developed. But he achieved nothing. His army and resources were needed on two fronts, in the south-west and the north-east; it was in the north-east that Philip’s grip was hurting most.
The French army marched up to Petit-Andely and pitched camp on the bend of the river opposite the town. Philip, ever cautious and realistic, knew his objective was both daring and ambitious, and prepared for a lengthy siege. The castle was in the charge of Roger de Lacy, the Constable of Chester. Roger of Wendover describes this seasoned and ruthless soldier as ‘noble and warlike’ (both Richard and John rated him highly as a commander) and this was not just the view of the English chroniclers; the heroic defence that he and his garrison were to make become widely recognised. Roger was an Englishman with no landed interests in, or attachments to, Normandy; he stood to benefit only from the English king’s fortunes and was therefore completely loyal to John. Indeed, in 1199 de Lacy had hesitated in his support of John’s accession to the throne and had consequently fallen under the king’s suspicion; here was his chance to prove himself in his lord’s eyes. His first defensive measure was to destroy the bridge joining the left bank to the island, thereby denying the French both crossing and easy communication to the facing banks. Philip therefore had need to construct his own bridge, but this process was hampered by the defensive stockade across the Seine, which obstructed the transport of materials necessary for the bridge’s construction. Philip’s initial objective was to remove this obstacle.
For this task, he relied on what proved to be the first of a series of extraordinarily brave acts performed during the siege. While Philip’s siege machines and artillery gave covering fire to keep down the heads of the defenders (and hopefully at the same time inflict some useful damage on the defences), a group of young Frenchmen, possibly led by Galbert de Mantes, swam under a hail of fire to the stockade and hewed at it with axes. Given the river’s strong currents, the weight of the axes and the exertions of swimming and axe-wielding, it is likely that the fatalities suffered by this group were not only due to the barrage of missiles raining down on them from the castle, but were also due to drowning. Eventually they hacked a gap wide enough to allow large boats through. The passage thus created, though distinctly uncomfortable for those who had to pass through it under the eyes of the castle, was essential not only for the construction of the new bridge but also for the supply of the camp, including livestock and provisions, needed to sustain a long siege. It was Philip’s intention to starve the garrison out.
Philip immediately set about organising the building of the bridge. For this he assembled a number of broad, flat-bottomed barges and ferries that worked the Seine transporting commercial goods and livestock along and across it. These he had bound together to form a pontoon bridge. Strengthened by stakes, the bridge was able to support the erection of two tall, strong towers on four particularly large boats. These towers served the dual purpose of defending the bridge and directing arrows on the enemy walls. The bridge was a substantial piece in itself, and an early indication of the scale of engineering works necessarily brought to bear on the Angevin defences. With the bridge now complete, Philip led the greater part of his forces over the water and tightened the siege of the town. William the Breton, in a suitably overblown reference, likens Philip to Xerxes, the Persian King who famously crossed the Hellespont by similar means in the fifth century. The French pitched another camp and attacked the island fortress from both sides. Having fully bottled up the besieged, and having captured Château Gaillard’s satellite forts, the French were free to roam the Vexin at will, foraging and plundering the region’s fields and dwelling places to the extent that feeding his huge army provided no overwhelming logistical problems for Philip. The French King had clearly understood the need to neutralise not only the direct military threat posed by the satellite garrisons but also their capacity to hamper the essential task of foraging and provisioning to meet the insatiable demands of such a numerous besieging force. Philip, ever the master of poliorcetics, paid as much attention to the no-less important but prosaic details as to the grander, more militaristic ones. No doubt the booty from these operations kept the troops happy too and helped maintain morale: well fed and with opportunities to line their pockets, the French soldiers would have enjoyed higher spirits than their hemmed-in English counterparts; but they were lulled into a false sense of security.
John, never far from Rouen, was roused from his ineffectual meanderings into one of his periodical bursts of intelligent and focused activity. In the early phases of the Normandy campaign, he treated the flood of ill-tidings about the military situation with seeming equanimity. Roger of Wendover reports that John’s reaction to being told that the King of France had entered his territory, taken many of his castles and dragged off their commanders to prison ignominiously bound to the tails of horses, was to reply nonchalantly: ‘Let him be; whatever he takes from me now I will one day recover.’
Now, however, at the very end of August while staying in Rouen, he proposed a daring plan to raise the siege at Château Gaillard. No doubt hoping to emulate his spectacular success at Mirebeau, John devised a scheme involving a night attack on the French lines. In this plan hatched by the King and William Marshal, two English divisions were to make their way by land and river to Andelys. In the combined operation the land force would fall upon the camp while over 70 transport vessels, laden with provisions pillaged from the Channel Islands and protected by a flotilla of small war ships, would re-supply the garrison on the Isle and break the pontoon bridge. Secondary sources have too readily accepted the numbers William the Breton provides for this relief force. He puts the figures of the Angevin land troops at 300 knights, 3000 mounted sergeants and 4000 infantry, plus a mercenary force under the infamous
captain Lupescar; the naval element is said to have consisted of pirates under their commander, Alan, and 3000 Fleming soldiers. A total of perhaps 11,000 men is highly improbable: one modern estimate calculates that the French King had only around 2300–2600 paid troops on the Norman marches in 1203–4, and of these only 250 were knights, the rest being made up of infantry and crossbowmen.
William inflated the figures to create a sense of great odds pitted against the French. Nevertheless, it is clear that this was a major operation and one designed at least to match the French in military capacity. On receiving John’s orders, William Marshal immediately put the plan into motion.