Sunday, 17 May 2015

Chevauchée, or great great.....uncle, what were you up to in the summer of 1432?




Figure 1. A monument at the base of the castle walls at St Céneri recording the many sieges. [1]

 As a small boy my parents would drag my brother and I off to nearby castles in order to run off our excess energy wherever and whenever we were on holiday. Brought up and learning to read on Ladybird books about Warwick the King Maker, and King Henry V, I have been fixated on castles ever since.

For most of my life I have often wondered what it would have been like to have lived in castles, or indeed to have taken part in the events surrounding these castles. However the ability to learn these details had always seemed beyond my grasp: it always seemed to me to be something that I could only ever have imagine in a general sense, but that it would never actually be possible for me to say in which castle, or when my ancestors had been present if at all.

I had to assume that they would forever remain lost in the mists of time, peasants who had left no trace in history.

Of course history is largely written by the winners, and in general only features the "big people" and my forebears would almost certainly have only been bit players in those events all those centuries ago.

However with the recent incredible increase in access now possible through the internet to archives, and especially thanks to the work of Doctor Anne Curry and her colleagues, it has sudden become possible to locate even my forebears in more than 55 Medieval documents encompassing literally hundreds of events from 1371 until 1444, covering about 10 individuals, most of whom are either direct forebears of mine, or who are ancestral brothers, uncles, cousins or otherwise closely related to my Nowell's from Wakefield, the villages of Read, Nether Harwood and nearby in the Ribble Valley.


Figure 2. The Medieval Chapel of St Céneri [2]

A few years ago Dr Anne Curry a Professor of Medieval history at the Southampton University, former editor of the  Journal of Medieval History, and a specialist in the Hundred's Years' War  published her seminal book on the Battle of Agincourt which contained an incredible list of the names of those who took part in the battle on the English side. I had looked through the list with awe not imagining that such lists could have survived at this time.

Brought up at school on films like the 1940's film of Shakespeare's Henry V, I was well aware that...

"men back in English now safe in their beds will curse themselves for not having been here, and think less of their own manhood when they listen to the stories of those who fought with us here on St. Crispin’s Day."

Having long considered that I would be amongst those accursed, I had been completely unaware that Gilbert Nowell an esquire had been on that field on the eve of St Crispin's Day.

Also unknown to me until recently, was that in 2009, Anne Curry and her colleagues at Southampton had embarked on a much larger project called "The Soldier in later Medieval England"[3], to transcribe and analyse records from 1369 up to 1453.

Stumbling on this amazing resource in recent days, I am now happily campaigning my way around the archives and back lanes of France, if only electronically, in the footsteps of these men, surprised to find that I can locate them at many of the key events of those years.




Figure 3. Output from the Medieval Soldier database showing the record of John Nowell's service at the Siege of St Severin.[4]

I have started collecting information about many of these campaigns, however it is already clear that many of these sieges and battles will take months of work to study and collate.

Starting therefore with a relatively small action, chosen more or less at random, the first challenge was to locate St Severin, which when you turn to Google and Google maps takes you to many locations of churches named after this well known saint, almost all of which evidently don't fit.  However, all was not lost because Enguerrand de Monstrelet, a contemporary chronicler writes in his Chronicle [5]

In this same year of 1434 ,[6] the lord Willoughby [7], accompanied by Mathagon, [8] and some other captains, and from eight hundred to a thousand combatants, laid siege to a very strong place in the country of Maine called St. Severin, about two leagues distant from Alençon, which was held by the French.  The governor was a gallant knight, named sir Antony de Loreuil, who, on arrival of the enemy, made a vigorous defence: nevertheless, the English surrounded the place on all sides, and remained there about six weeks.

While this was going forward, the lord de Bueil, sir William Blesset, the lord de la Varenne, and other French captains, assembled about fourteen hundred fighting men, with the intent to force the enemy to raise their siege. They remained for some days at Beaumont le Vicomte, [9] where part of them were quartered, and the remainder at Vivien, [10] four leagues distant from St. Severin.  While at Beaumont they called a council of all the chief captains, to consider how they should act; when, after much noise and debating, they determined to attempt withdrawing the besieged the back way out of the town. The captains now returned to their different quarters, and established good guards around them during the night, both of horse and foot. The lord de Beuil was, on this expedition, lieutenant for the lord Charles d’Anjou, and had the charge of his banner.

This same night a detachment of the English, having had intelligence of the advance of the French, took the field, and marched in silence until they came near to the town of Vivien, whither they sent scouts to reconnoitre the state of the French, who, having twice entered Vivien, brought word they were in tolerable good order. The English then made an attack on their quarters about day-break, and easily defeated them without much loss. Many were taken and killed: among the last was a valiant man from Amiens, but originally from Auvergne, called John de Bellay. When the business was over, the English took the field with their prisoners; but the lords de Bueil and de la Varenne, who were in Beaumont, hearing of this discomfiture from the runaways, made instant preparations to pursue the English, who no sooner saw them than they rejoiced, thinking to defeat them as they had done the others. – and each party met gallantly. Many valorous acts were done on both sides; but, in the end, the English lost the day, partly from the prisoners whom they had taken at Vivien joining the French. A valiant knight named Arthur [11] was slain, and Mathagon made prisoner, -- but the bastard of Salisbury [12] fled. Four hundred, or more, of the English were killed or taken, and the French left masters of the field, very joyful for their victory. When the English who had remained at the siege of St. Severin heard of the ill success of their companions, they raised the siege, and retreated to the garrisons whence they had come.

Monstrelet places "St. Severin, about two leagues distant from Alençon" and as a league was about 3 miles or 9.6 kilometres this accords well with 11.8 kilometres given on Google Earth to Saint Céneri.
Starting out with John Nowell's commanding officer Robert Willoughby who was aged 47 at the time of the siege and subsequent encounter battle, who was the son of William Willoughby, 5th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, and his first wife, Lucy le Strange, daughter of Roger le Strange, 5th Baron Strange of Knockin in Shropshire. This immediately struck me as significant as it was the title of the Stanley family.  My Nowell ancestors campaigned closely with the Stanleys from 1496 onwards right through the English Civil War, when my Great x 6 Grandfather Roger Nowell had commanded the defence of Lathom House in 1648, and who was later the first governor of Lord Stanley's castles on the Isle of Man following the Restoration in 1660. Perhaps the relationship with the Stanley's who were one of Lancashire's premier landowners goes back further than I had previously thought.
Willoughby was a highly experienced officer who had fought at Agincourt and very many other of the significant actions since then. [13]

At this point in the past history would have ended for us, with only the names and deeds of the Lords and senior personalities recorded, and we would have had absolutely no idea who had taken part in these actions, however thanks to the recent transcriptions and the happy accident that the papers have survived in the Bibliothéque Nationale Collection Clairambault we can now see even the names of the archers and foot soldiers, the men in the trenches.

If you go to the "Soldier in Later Medieval Website" and go to the database tab, and then select the garrison database, input "Severin" and select "location" for you get 1341 entries.


Figure 4. Screen shot for the garrison database for Severin, showing the start of the 1341 entries.

The list is absolutely fascinating as it illustrates the polyglot nature of the men who served in these forces. A considerable number of whom appear to be from the north west of England like the Nowell's, as they have names I can recognise from my wider research. There is perhaps unsurprisingly also a very strong contingent from Wales, as well as a large number of men from France. Some of the other names look German and even Scandinavian. I will try to track down men some of these over the coming months.


Figure 5. An example of one of the muster rolls transcribed by the project. Not necessarily of the ones discussed here.


Figure 6. An indenture, showing one of the lists from the period, which were drawn up in two identical columns, and then cut in two with a wavy line so that officials could by matching up the cut ensure that one of them was not a forgery. [14]

What do we know about John Nowell?

While it is not possible to be absolutely sure that it is the same man, a John Nowell, archer was in William Swinburne's contingent under Humphrey Duke of Gloucester in 1417, as was Robert Nowell, although Robert was in Richard Beauchamp, Lord Abergavenny's band of archers.

Although he may have remained in France, we cannot rule out his having returned to England.  He next appears to have served in France at the Siege of La Ferte-Bernard in 1426, and he may have been the same man who was in William Minors contingent of archers at the Siege of Louviers on the 20th of June 1431.

What became of John Nowell, we will probably never know, however he appears to have survived the serious defeat at Vivions, and therefore it is very possible that he was one of the men who had remained behind in the siege works.  A John Nowell appears in the contingents of Christopher Fretevault and John Kendal in an list dated 30th November 1437 at Mantes, and also in 1441 under  Sir John Cressy and Richard Duke of York on another expedition to France.

This latter campaign with Richard Duke of York (1411 to 1460) may help identify John Nowell's connection to the wider Nowell family. The Nowell's of Read in modern Lancashire were cattle breeders and very probably drovers who owned land along the prime droving route from Pendle and Read where their primary holdings were to a cluster of villages situated around and south of Wakefield on the route to the Great North Road. Roger Nowell, one of my 12 x great grandfather's "of Arksey" whose will is dated 14th June 1486 clearly shows that he is the same Roger Nowell who also owned Read and who as gave on the 20th of January 20th 1483, lands had belonged to Thurstan Banastre, his uncle in Wakefield, Stanley, Sandall and elsewhere in the County of York to the Wardens of Wakefield Church for the foundation of a Chantry to pray for the soul of Richard Duke of York who had been killed twenty three years earlier in 1460 as his force left Sandal Castle by a much larger force of Lancastrians.

Much of the land the Nowell's used to graze their store cattle and three year old oxen on route to East Anglia or Smithfield was rented in the Wakefield area from Richard Duke of York.

The Nowell's had been engaged in droving for at least 100 years by 1432. They had established younger sons at Castle Donnington, Thorpe by Balne, South Mimms and Enfield as well as in the City, all holding land at significant points along the 270 mile cattle route south to Smithfield. Walking long distances on campaign can have presented them with few difficulties as they must have been conditioned to the marches by the long droves that they had been undertaking.

Rogers father was called Alexander Nowell, and he also appears in the Protection lists in July 1437, and his great grandfather was called John Nowell, who had taken out a protection on the 14th of May 1415, in order to serve with Henry V in France. The pedigrees that survive for the Nowell's drawn up in the 19th Century by Churston and Whittaker concentrate on the older sons, and can be shown to miss out many younger brothers, or younger sons of younger sons. The same few Christian names were used again and again in every generation. It was generally the "spares", and not the heirs who went to France as archers.

Thurstan Banastre, uncle to Roger Nowell, was son and heir to John Banastre. The same garrison database includes 42 entries for Banastre during this same period, with John, Richard and Robert Banastre's also appearing in Robert Willoughby's garrison at Pont de l'Arche in 1430.

As for Baron de Eresby, Robert Willoughby, he died aged 67 in 1452, knowing that Normandy had been lost to the French. He was buried in a monastic College at Mettingham which he had acquired through his wife Cecilly's family. I expect he had a few lives on his conscience, and would need some prayers to ease his path through purgatory.


Figure 7. Entrance to Mettingham Castle and College, buried place of Robert Lord, Willoughby [15]


Figure 8. An extract from Google Maps showing the locations of Saint Céneri, Beaumont and Vivoin

We have already seen how Enguerrand de Monstrelet has described how a council of all the chief captains, to consider how they should act; when, after much noise and debating, they determined to attempt withdrawing the besieged the back way out of the town."

By going to Beaumont-sur-Sarthe on Google Earth it is possible to locate the old town square, and its nearby Motte that was probably the forward operating base that lords de Bueil and de la Varenne had used in their approach march as they attempted to break the siege of Saint Céneri.


Figure 9. Beaumont-sur-Sarthe market place. The motte is under the trees in the background.

Do those houses still contain the timber frames of the houses that looked out over the French troops as they hurriedly formed up to rush off and rescue their colleagues. Perhaps the fugitives from Vivoin has come running in the three kilometres, shouting their warnings, as they arrived into this market place?

I am uncertain where the English had started out from to besiege Saint Céneri, however I have been able to establish that quite a few of those in the English contingent has been in the garrison of Alençon where the database shows English garrisons present in 1431 and in 1435.

It is about 27 kilometres from the Alençon or northern side of Saint Céneri, where I am presuming the main English siege camp would have been situated to Vivoins.


Figure 10. The possible routes from Saint Céneri to Vivoin.

There are several possible routes, and the route I have selected would have taken the English further away from the main French camp at Beaumont and have had the advantage of placing the River Sarthe between the two forces. We have no evidence to confirm that this route was the one used, but it fits the timing well.

Monstrelet wrote:
This same night a detachment of the English, having had intelligence of the advance of the French, took the field, and marched in silence until they came near to the town of Vivien, whither they sent scouts to reconnoitre the state of the French, who, having twice entered Vivien, brought word they were in tolerable good order."

 Google suggests that this march would have taken five and a half hours to walk. In practise given that the approach march was done in the dark, and in the probable presence of the enemy, this must have been eight to ten hours of very tense marching.



Figure 11.  The Priory of St-Hippolye, Vivoins.

The village of Vivions must have been of considerable importance in 1432.  There still remain with the town, the magnificent buildings that once formed the Priory of St-Hippolye.  It doesn't appear that the town had any real defences, compared with Beaumont, for instance with it's castle mount. I expect it was the combination of a lack of any obvious defence, and the probable presence of pillage that had encouraged the English to mount the raid. As can be seen from the following picture, the Priory was a substantial building, much of which is probably old enough to have been present in 1432, and to have witnessed the raid. One wonders where the tithe barn was?

Armies have always lived on their stomachs, pay was often years in arrears, and starving out your enemy was the primary way to win a siege, only it was often the besiegers, living in crude huts built out of branches, turf and grass, and not the besieged, tucked up as they were behind the walls of a castle, with a cellar full of food and drink who suffered most.


Figure 12. The former Priory Buildings at Vivoins.

The English must have realised that they only had limited time available in which to remain in Vivoins before the French forces in Beaumont and very probably Fresnay-sur-Sarthe would act to cut off their retreat. However buoyed up by their mornings success, and quite possibly loaded down with recently plundered food and drink, they set off to return to Saint Céneri.




Figure 13.  The French counterattack.

A lesson no doubt relearnt by every generation of soldier is that counter attacks are most successful when mounted as soon as is possible after the enemy has taken the position.  The French commanders, Lords de Bueil and de la Varenne, appear to have been highly experienced and effective officers, and they had their troops underway quite possibly even before the English had started their return march.

As is often the case with Medieval battlefields, it is not clear where this counterattack took place. However by inspection of Figure 13, from Google Earth there appears to have been a Route d'Or that crossed the Sarthe which was closer to Beaumont than it was to Vivoin, and where it would be possible for a fast moving French unit to get across the most obvious of the English return routes.

The Route d'Or is believed to have been a Roman Road, and the even today the bridge is described as a Roman Bridge. It is unlikely that today's bridge is the same one that was used in 1432, but it is possible that the Medieval bridge was in part at least Roman.
It is clear that the French attack was not an ambush as the over confident English are recorded to have been able to see them coming. I believe the French almost certainly marched to Juillé.



Figure 14. The Rue de Belevent, D27Bis

I have not been able to locate older maps of the area, however it looks very likely that the road in Figure 14 leaving Vivoins was the one the English would have taken. Medieval soldiers preferred to use ridge routes when moving at speed, as they could see into the distance, and this would lessen the chance of their being surprised. This Medieval approach differs from that of later 20th Century soldiers who are taught to avoid moving along ridge lines at all costs in order to prevent their being "skylined" and then being shelled. This was a threat the Medieval soldier did not have to fear.

The road rises towards Juillé almost all of the way.  As can be seen in Figure 14, 15 and 16 ;the views to the side of the road are good towards the River Sarthe, and have probably little changed over the past 583 years. Beaumont is to the left of both of these images.  The road from Beaumont over the Roman Bridge that crossed the River Sarthe to Juillé runs from left to right beyond the horizon behind the trees. At this point the English troops who had been marching or in action since last light the previous day must have been starting to feel really tired after the night march and adrenaline rush of the assault. We have no idea at what time the encounter battle took place, but it was probably in the middle of the morning, three or four hours after the village had fallen.



Figure 15. Mid way to Juillé

The column of weary English laden with plunder, quite possibly driving stolen livestock, was also trying to herd a number of despondent French captives, some of whom were quite possibly wounded. They all faced a minimum of six or seven hours of further of footslogging to reach safety.

The French from Beaumont furious over the raid, and fresh were already reaching the river crossing.


Figure 16. Reaching Juillé.

At this point about 500 metres from the cross roads and the nearest houses, the village first comes into sight for the English to the left of Figure 16: today and quite possibly then the view is interrupted by trees. The vanguard of the French were probably streaming up from the horizon to the left of the photo. These may only have been the mounted scouts and officers at first, and they probably appeared to be little threat to the English column.


Figure 17. An overview of the probable battlefield

The English (in red) coming up the lane would have crossed the ridge shown in Figure 16 in yellow, and it would have been at this point that they would have first been aware that they were facing appreciable numbers of French who were probably streaming up the two routes shown in blue.  The dotted red line shows the intended route of the English back to their camp.

The Google Earth image is interesting in that it clearly shows that the road network has changed considerably since the Medieval period. Earlier tracks persist as crop marks. There was probably a scramble on the part of the long straggling English column to get past the French force that was attacking into their flank. The lack of time from the moment that the French first became visible in significant numbers to the English situated at most about 500 metres away from the French didn't allow time enough for the archers to form up.

The French prisoners must have realised that it was now, or never, if they were to avoid many weary uncomfortable months in a dungeon, and have to turned on their captors. Perhaps less concerned than at Agincourt the English don't seem to have time (or possibly the will) to have killed their prisoners. Presumably the next couple of hours must have been pandemonium. In Medieval battles the casualties tended not to be that high during the actual fighting, often less than 10%.

It was during the pursuit that the real damage would have occurred. The mounted men like the bastard of Salisbury probably got away relatively easily. Many of the men at arms and some of the archers may also have had horses, but many would have been on foot. It was about 20 kilometres up the old Roman road back to Alençon, which is where I expect most of the fugitives must have made their way. It was closer than their former camp that they had left about 24 hours before.

Many must have been cut down along the road, and it must have been a really tough night for the wounded or lost.


Figure 18.  Alençon Castle.

The fugitives must have been hugely relieved as well and much more secure once they were safely back inside the gates of the Chateau at Alençon.

The men left behind at Saint Céneri probably only numbered between 200 and 300. They must have spent an anxious day, hoping that the French garrison was not aware of just how few of them there were left in the bulwarks and trenches.




Figure 18. The church at Saint Céneri

The relief on the faces of the defenders at St Severin must have been enormous when they realised that the English were slipping away from the siege lines. Presumably it was the French forces fresh from their victory who first clattered into the town over this beautiful old bridge.






Figure 19. The former Castle was located in the area of the highest trees. 


Figure 20. Google Earth Image showing the area around Saint Céneri

Figure 19 and 20 show the same area, and from them it is possible to approximately locate the position of the former castle.

History sadly does not seemed to have recorded where the English siege lines were at Saint Céneri, however given the villages location in the bottom of a steep valley and in the bend of the river, the English must presumably have been trying to take the hills that over looked the castle, like the one this photo was taken from.

I believe that the castle was located inside the ellipse in blue. With the castle and village secured by the bend of the River it formed a very strong position. The description by Monstrelet of how the French relief force had planned to withdraw the garrison by the back way, begins to make sense, if the English were occupying the mouth of the promontory somewhere close to the positions shown in red.

Presumably with local knowledge they expected the garrison to be aware of a place where they could slip through the river at a shallow spot and away into the wooded valley sides. With about two kilometres of river bank to patrol around the extent of the huge river bend, it would have been almost impossible for the English to have patrolled it, especially at night with only about 1,300 men to man the defences.

Although Saint Céneri had lived to fight another day, this was certainly not the last time the English would attack the castle. There were other sieges in 1434 and 1439.

I have never been to Saint Céneri, but it is certainly high on the list of places I would like to visit in future, although I do promise not to bring a cannon.

If you are aware of other records that cover these events, in French or English, I would be very pleased to hear from you. [balmer.nicholas@gmail.com] If you can trace your ancestors back to these events, and can tell me anything about any of the other men who stood shoulder to shoulder with John Nowell, I would love to hear from you.

I would also like to say a big thank you to Anne Curry to all those who worked on The Soldier in Later Medieval England project. You have added immensely to my knowledge of these events, and I will have many happy hours and days researching into all those other locations and events you have recorded.

[1] Picture courtesy of http://a133.idata.over-blog.com/4/34/42/48/Notre-terroir/11-04-23-Chateau-Saint-Ceneri-3.JPG [2] http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint-C%C3%A9neri-le-G%C3%A9rei#/media/File:Chapelle_St-C%C3%A9neri-le_G%C3%A9rei.JPG.[3] http://www.medievalsoldier.org/ [4] http://www.medievalsoldier.org/search_garrison.php [5] The Chronicles of Enguerrand de Monstrelet: Containing an Account of the by Enguerrand de Monstrelet, Bon-Joseph Dacier, volume 1, page 631. [6] Thought to be in error for 1432 given elsewhere. Interestingly the local authorities who installed the monument give a date of 1434. Can anybody tell me which is correct, or were there more than one siege in this volatile frontier zone?
[7] Robert Willoughby. [8] Believed to be Matthew Gough who is known to have been captured after the siege. See http://yba.llgc.org.uk/en/s-GOUG-MAT-1390.html for this man, who played a very important role in the events leading up to the loss of the first English "Empire" in Normandy. [9] Believed to be Beaumont-sur-Sarthe [10] Spelt Vivoin today. [11] John Arthur, Knight in the database. [12] Footnote says John, bastard son of the great earl of Salisbury, to whom in his will he bequeathed fifty marks. See Dugdale. [13] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Willoughby,_6th_Baron_Willoughby_de_Eresby [14] From http://historyspot.org.uk/sites/default/files/field/attachments/digital_history_medieval_soldier.pdf [15] Entrance to Mettingham Castle - geograph.org.uk - 984718 by Graham Horn. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -