"Battle of the Herrings:" English Convoy Guards Defeat French/Scottish Attackers

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"Battle of the Herrings:" English Convoy Guards Defeat French/Scottish Attackers

"Battle of the Herrings," artist unknown
Image from "Les Vigiles de Charles VII" by Martial d'Auvergne, written c.1477-84
Held by Bibliothèque Nationale [National Library], Paris, France
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: February 12, 1429

My first few postings of this new year have been devoted to modern military stories. Today, we return to my historical "confort zone:" mediaeval times to be precise. This rather small battle took place during the Hundred Years' War between England and France (1337-1453).


Orléans is located on the Loire River in north-central France. During the time of this siege, it was the northernmost city that remained loyal to the French crown. The English and their allies, the Burgundians, controlled the rest of northern France, including Paris. Orléans's position on a major river made it the last obstacle to an English campaign into central France. England already controlled France's southwestern coast.

French city of Orléans circa 1428-29, at the time of the siege
French city of Orléans circa 1428-29, at the time of the siege

An internal power struggle had paralyzed the French royal court, which translated into a lack of major military action against the Anglo-Burgundians. The English availed themselves of French paralysis to raise fresh reinforcements in England in early 1428, recruiting a new force of 2,700 men (450 men-at-arms and 2,250 longbowmen), brought over by Thomas Montacute, the Earl of Salisbury. These were bolstered by new levies raised in Normandy and Paris, and joined by auxiliaries from Burgundy and vassal domains in Picardie and Champagne, to a total strength possibly as great as 10,000.

In the spring of 1428, the English leadership in France held a council of war to determine the direction of the war. As part of that strategy, Orléans was not originally targeted by the English. However, in July of that year, when the new recruits from Britain arrived, apparently the Earl of Salisbury persuade the English leadership to attack the city. [Because of its location and the bridge over the Loire which controlled trade routes, Orléans was one of the three richest cities in France, likely another reason why it was eventually targeted by the English.]

The leadership of Orléans anticipated the onslaught of the English, putting up what they hoped would be sufficient food and other necessities to withstand an encirclement. With the city itself located on the northern bank of the Loire River, its major link to areas south of the city was accomplished by a ¼ mile-long stone bridge. To prevent the enemy from just leisurely waltzing into the city, portions of the bridge were ordered to be destroyed. In addition, a defense tower was built on an island in the river which carried the span.

On October 12, 1428, the English began the siege of the French city of Orléans. The English did not have enough troops to fully encompass the city, so they built a number of fortified strongpoints to basically blockade the city. This blockade was not fully effective, as it allowed some Franch reinforcements and supplies to enter the city at intervals. However, English patrols to the north and northeast of the city were particularly effective in staunching the flow of supplies into the city. Early in the new year of 1429, the citizens of the city began to feel the pinch.

Major fortifications around Orléans during the siege of 1428-9
Major fortifications around Orléans during the siege of 1428-9

Prelude to the Battle

The French began organizing a relief force to raise the siege, using the nearby city of Blois as its headquarters. The commander of this force was Charles de Bourbon, the count of Clermont. There was also a sizeable contingent of Scottish troops gathered there as well. [The Scots had formed an alliance with the French in 1295 during the early stages of the Scottish War of Independence.] These allies were commanded by Sir John Stewart of Darnley; this Scottish soldier had been captured by the English in battle, lost an eye, and was ransomed by the French Dauphin.

In late January to early February, the English high commanded organized a supply convoy to bring additional supplies to the besieging forces which surrounded Orléans. The supply train consisted of some 300 wagons and carts, carrying crossbow bolts, arrows, cannons and cannonballs, but also special Lenten victuals: dozens of barrels of herring. As Lent was approaching (Ash Wednesday that year was February 18, with Easter falling on March 29), the English soldiers needed to refrain from eating meat. The convoy was under the command of Sir John Fastolf, apparently an accomplished soldier (and nothing like the bumpkin Falstaff created by Shakespeare in his late sixteenth and early seventeenth century plays).

The convoy reached the town of Rouvray on the evening of February 11, where the men and horses rested, before pushing on for Orléans the next morning. French cavalry patrols were sighted during the morning. When more and larger bands of French horsemen began appearing later in the day, Fastolf decided to make a stand a few miles south of the town of Rouvray. More French units began to appear and began organizing themselves for an assault on the English caravan.

Map of Central France, showing locations of Paris and Orléans and the battlefield; Image courtesy of http://www.xenophongroup.com/montjoie/rouvray.htm
Map of Central France, showing locations of Paris and Orléans and the battlefield
Image courtesy of http://www.xenophongroup.com/montjoie/rouvray.htm

English Convoy Force

Fastolf's men were outnumbered and outclassed, but he decided to form the wagons and carts into a wagenburg, or laager as a makeshit fortification. [Fastolf may have had knowledge of the on-going Hussite Wars in central Europe. The wagenburg was a combined defensive-offensive weapon which the Hussites used to great advantage against the Holy Roman Empire.] The immediate area south of Rouvray was a flat, almost featureless plain. He formed the wagons on the road connecting Rouvray and Janville into a circular bulwark, with two entrances – probably at either end. To keep the French cavalry from charging his impromptu fort, Fastolf directed his men to surround the laager with sharpened stakes (a tactic the English used to great effect at the battle of Agincourt 14 years previously. [Readers wishing to read my earlier posts on that battle may go to Battle of Agincourt: Original "Band of Brothers" Triumph over French and Battle of Agincourt -- Part II.] To add some bulk to the circle of wagons, Fastolf ordered the barrels of herring placed in front of and between the wagons.

Fastolf then dispersed his infantry, probably about 1000 French militiamen who had been recruited in the vicinity of Paris (which was then controlled by the English), around the perimeter of the wagenburg. The balance of the English force consisted of about 400-500 English and Welsh longbowmen and some crossbowmen as well. He placed these missile troops at the southern entrance to his enclosure, facing the French and Scots who were deploying for an assault.

Franco-Scottish Force

The size of the attacking army is another "guess-timate" by mediaeval scholars. The best agreed upon number is 3000-4000, mostly French knights and men-at arms. The Scottish contingent consisted of about 400 knights and men-at-arms, all mounted. In addition, the French brought along an unknown number of small-caliber artillery pieces, probably culverins. [Gunpowder technology was just beginning to be understood, and its integration into the military theory of the time was still something of a mystery.] The French and their allies were determined to stop the English cavalcade from reaching Orléans. Besides, a French victory would raise the morale of the inhabitants of Orléans, enduring the fifth month of the siege.

Mid-fifteenth century bronze culverin (possibly similar to those used by French); Currently on display in the Musée de Morat, Morat, Switzerland
Mid-fifteenth century bronze culverin (possibly similar to those used by French)
Currently on display in the Musée de Morat, Morat, Switzerland

"Battle of the Herrings"

Sometime around mid- to late morning the French force was ready. Its commander, Charles de Bourbon had arranged his men and prepared to attack the English. To soften the wagenburg a bit, he ordered his artillery forward. Once in position, the French gunners began bombarding the impromptu fortification. Despite the slow rate of fire, the bombardment was effective. In addition, the artillery had set up out of range of the English bowmen, so the French were not threatened. English commander Fastolf could see he was outnumbered, so he took no actions to attack the Franch artillery.

There is no mention of how long the bombardment of the English positions lasted, but the Scottish commander Sir John Stewart was growing impatient. Finally, he ordered his Scotsmen to dismounted, and they moved forward to assault the English. As a result of this insubordination, Charles de Bourbon ordered the artillery to cease fire, so as not to hit their Scottish comrades.

Realizing that the French barrage had slackened, and the Scots were advancing to attack, Fastolf ordered his archers to concentrate on the approaching enemy. As a result, the Scots suffered huge casualties. Seeing that the French were slow to support their allies, Fastolf made a gamble. He ordered some of his soldiers to sally out their fortifications to attack the disordered Scots. At about this time, some of the French chivalry began to advance to attack the English position. As the French and Scots formations became mixed and further disordered, nearly the entire English force issued out of their positions and attacked their foe.

Attacked in the flanks and rear, the French and Scots formations lost all cohesion, and panic set in. They began to desert the field in droves, and eventually only the English were left on the field, with several hundred dead and wounded.

"Battle of the Herrings, February 12, 1429 (English in red, Franco-Scots in blue); Image courtesy of http://lefleurdelystoo.blogspot.com/2011/03/battle-of-herrings-12-february-1429.html
"Battle of the Herrings, February 12, 1429 (English in red, Franco-Scots in blue)
Image courtesy of http://lefleurdelystoo.blogspot.com/2011/03/battle-of-herrings-12-february-1429.html


Casualties are again a matter of conjecture. The Franco-Scottish force may have lost between 400-600 men, while the English losses were thought to be very light. Later that afternoon, the English supply caravan resumed it journey, arriving at the English siege lines around Orléans a few days later. Among the Scottish dead was their leader, Sir John Stewart.

Footnote #1: Many of the lower-class Frenchmen of this time period had no great love for the monarchy or the nobility, thereby had no real allegiance to the grand concept of "France." Therefore it should come as little surprise that the English recruited Frenchmen for their militia in areas under control of les god dammes (one of the many colorful expressions the French used for the English).

Footnote #2: This battle – little more than a skirmish – would likely have been forgotten in the wider context of the Hundred Years' War. However, it tied into the legend of Joan of Arc. She was in the town of Vaucouleurs, trying to convince a supporter of the French Dauphin to allow her to see the uncrowned king of France. Supposedly, she told Robert de Baudricourt that the French had lost a battle near Orléans on the very day of the battle. When messengers arrived at Vaucouleurs several days later to report on the fight, De Baudricourt felt Joan could only have known about the battle through divine help. Shortly afterwards, Joan was presented to the Dauphin, and the rest is history.

Footnote #3: Many of the barrels of herring were destroyed by the French artillery bombardment. The field of battle was littered with herrings, thus giving the fight its odd name.

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