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The Reign of Henry VI page 11

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The indignation of the people in England at these alarming reverses compelled Suffolk to send some forces to Normandy, but in no proportion to the need. Sir Thomas Kyriel landed at Cherbourg with about 3,000 men, and, collecting about as many more, advanced towards Caen, to which the regent Somerset had retreated. But he was met on the way, near Fourmigni, by the Earl of Clermont. He gave battle with the ancient confidence in the superior valour of his countrymen, but after a severe contest of three hours, he was attacked by a second army, under Richemont, the constable, which took him in the flank and rear. The numbers were now utterly overwhelming, independent of the freshness o1 the new troops, and the surprise. Some of his ranks broke and fled, and others remained fighting hardily till they were cut down or made prisoners, The exultation of the French over this victory was excessive. It was the first which they had won for two generations in the open field, and they spread the tidings all over France with an alacrity which told like lightning. The moral effect was immense. It was clear that the prediction of the inspired maid was drawing near its fulfilment; the English were about to be driven out of France. The terror which had surrounded them - a shadow of death and dismay - was now gone. Avranches, Bayeux, and Valogne immediately opened their gates; the regent was besieged in Caen, and compelled to surrender. Cherbourg alone remained; that was soon after taken, and within twelve months the whole of the beautiful country of Normandy, which had been won by the valour of Henry V., with its seven bishoprics and hundred fortified towns, was lost to England for ever.

Charles VII, encouraged by his success, inspired with ever augmenting confidence by the marvellous turn which affairs had taken, no longer appeared the same prince who, before the days of the Maid of Orleans, wasted his years in indolence and vice, surrounded himself by the worst and most ferocious of men, drove from him the able, and disgusted the wise; he was now prompt, active, far-seeing, and indefatigable in knitting up the national forces, physical and moral, into an irresistible potency. No sooner was Normandy his own than he turned vigorously upon Guienne, a province far more English in its people and its feelings; a region which had belonged to England from the days of its heiress, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Henry II. But the present miserable condition of England, where a factious nobility were quarrelling, seeking each others' destruction, instead of the good of the nation, and where a feeble king was guided by a self-willed and un-English queen, gave the people of Guienne no hope of effectual aid in their struggle. The mass of the inhabitants was discouraged, and the nobles, fearing to forfeit their estates by opposition to the French invaders, were prepared to submit on the first arrival of the enemy. Charles sent on before him the brave and experienced Count Dunois and the Count Penthievre; and immediately after the submission of Normandy he followed with a large army. There was no opposition from the castles, the nobles came over to him at once; and the towns only held out till they had stipulated for their charters and privileges. Charles promised everything, and the gates flew open. The English, no longer the proud and insolent race of the days of the Black Prince, retired before the advancing French, and took refuge in Bordeaux. The enemy was not long in following. Castillon, St. Emilion, Libourne, Rions, were successively carried by assault, and now the armies of France were swarming round the walls of Bordeaux, that large and flourishing city, which had witnessed such festive and military magnificence in the proud days of the Edwards, and over whose towers the flag of England had waved for three hundred years. Here the last remains of the ancient lion spirit blazed up. The English commander assembled the troops which had collected thither from the various quarters of the evacuated country, and followed by the mayor and 10,000 citizens, who dreaded the fiscal impositions of the rapacious French court, made a determined sally on the enemy. But they were gallantly received. The Sieur d'Orval with his cavalry charged furiously upon the undisciplined citizens, who gave way, and carried confusion through the whole body of the soldiery. There was a terrible slaughter, the French made a great number of prisoners, and the English were glad to make good their retreat into the city. There, however, they held out till he advancing winter compelled the enemy to draw off. At any other period the winter would have been seized upon by the English Government to send out a sufficient army to recover the lost honour of the nation. Bordeaux would, in the days of the Edwards or the last Henry, have been glutted with troops and stores. There would have been a spirit burning through the whole British army, with the ardour of a furnace, to wipe off past disgrace, and snatch fresh honours; but that time and spirit were gone. Imbecility sat enthroned in London, and the reign of England beyond the Channel was over for ever.

The campaign of 1452 was opened with some show of spirit. The people of Guienne, already groaning under le load of taxation which Charles, consulting his necessity rather than his word, had laid upon them - had dispatched a deputation to London, entreating that an army might be sent to their relief, and offering to renew their allegiance. The brave Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who had so long fought in France, was sent over with 4,000 men, and his son, Lord Lisle, followed with as many more. Talbot was now eighty years of age, but full of a spirit and activity which seemed to know no decay. He very soon recovered Bordelais and Chatillon. In the spring of 1453 he opened the campaign by the capture of Fronsac, where the French army, under Loheac and Jalenges, advanced against him, and Count Penthievre invested Chatillon. Hastening to relieve that town, Talbot fell upon the French lines very early in the morning, and created such confusion that he ordered a general assault on the camp, the entrenchments of which were lined with 300 pieces of cannon. While dashing forward on this formidable battery, his troops were attacked in the rear by another body of French which came up. Talbot had his horse killed under him. His leg was broken in the fall, and he was dispatched with a spear as he lay on the ground. His son fell in the vain endeavour to rescue his father; and the army, on learning the death of its commander, dispersed in every direction. A thousand men, who had already penetrated into the camp, were made prisoners.

Charles, who now arrived, took the command of his victorious army, and led it to the gates of Bordeaux. That city, with Fronsac and Bayonne, still held out; but famine at length compelled them to surrender. Bayonne was the last to yield, but the Count Gaston de Foix besieging it with a large army of Basques and Bearnese, it was compelled to open its gates. And thus, in the autumn of 1453, closed all the English dreams of empire in France, and the possession of the last fragments of the territories which came to us with the Norman conquest, except Calais, and a strip of marshy land around it. In that dream of a century what oceans of blood have been spilled, what crimes and horrors perpetrated! And that was the finale? The predictions of Joan of Arc and of Henry V. had received their full and distinct accomplishment, that in a very few years the English would be driven out of France, and that Henry of Windsor should lose all that his father had acquired. This loss, however, great as it was, was only the beginning of losses to Henry; he had yet to lose everything.

It is not to be supposed that this disgraceful termination of our French dominion, this melancholy antithesis to the glories of Crecy and Azincourt, were borne with indifference by the people of England. With Bedford and Talbot the military genius of the nation seemed to have disappeared. Somerset, who was ambitious of ruling at home, had shown in his character of Regent of France only a faculty for sitting still in fortified towns, so long as the enemy was not very urgent to drive him out. At the head of the Government now stood Suffolk and the queen; and, while their administration afforded no support to our commanders abroad, their folly and despotism at home incensed the whole nation. As loss after loss was proclaimed, the public exasperation had increased. The cession of Maine and Anjou had excited the deepest indignation; but when month after month had brought only news of the invasion of Normandy and the loss of town after town, the whole population appeared stung to madness. Every one was indignantly deploring the fallen glory of England, and demanding vengeance on the minister who had so traitorously relinquished the first firm hold on our French possessions. Suffolk was denounced as the queen's minion, as a man who was so besotted by the charms of a foreign woman as to sacrifice for his pleasure, and to her relations, our fairest inheritance. On his head they plied, not only his fair share of those transactions, but the full odium of the release of the Duke of Orleans, contrary to the solemn injunction of the sagacious Henry Y.; the murder of the popular Duke of Gloucester; the deplorable emptiness of the state coffers, and all the consequent defeats and disasters.

To calm the public mind and to take measures for the defence of Normandy, a Parliament was summoned, but scarcely did it meet when the news of the fall of Rouen arrived, adding fresh fury to the popular wrath, and confusion to the counsels of the Government. Stormy debates and altercations continued in Parliament for six weeks, whilst succour should have been dispatched to our army in Normandy. When at length Sir Thomas Kyriel was sent with a small force to relieve Somerset, it was, as we have seen, only to be defeated and dispersed on its very first landing. In the midst of the ever-growing irritation of the people, and the bitterness of the opposition from these causes, the Duke of Suffolk was accused of an attempt to cut off his most formidable enemies by actual assassination. A notorious outlaw, William Tailbois, was discovered lurking near the door of the council chamber, accompanied by several armed ruffians. Lord Cromwell, the leader of the opposition in Parliament and in the council, accused Tailbois of an intention to murder him> and the man was committed to the Tower, and condemned to pay a fine of 3,000 to Lord Cromwell. Suffolk most unwisely defended Tailbois to the utmost of his power, and thus, in public opinion, identified himself with him in the attempt.

Soon after, the Bishop of Chichester, keeper of the privy seal, who had been employed to complete the surrender of Maine to the French, was sent to Portsmouth to pay the soldiers and sailors about to embark for Guienne their then stipulated amount. No sooner did the people hear his name than, crying, "That is the traitor who delivered Maine to the French!" they rose en masse, and seized him. In appealing to them to spare his life, he was reported to have bade the populace reflect that it was not he, but Suffolk, who had sold that province to France; that he himself was but the humble instrument employed to personally deliver what he had 110 power to keep; that it was Suffolk who was the traitor, and that he had boasted that he was as powerful in the French as in the English Government.

This explanation did riot save the prelate's life, but it raised the fury of the people to the culminating point against Suffolk. They now, in their undiscriminating resentment, not only accused him of what was justly attributable to him, but of all sorts of impossible crimes. He was not only represented as insolent and rapacious, being the open paramour of the queen, and thus keeping the king as a mere puppet in his hands; as having not only murdered Gloucester and seized his possessions; but as having obtained exorbitant grants from the crown, embezzled the public money, perverted justice, screened notorious offenders, supported iniquitous causes, and filled the offices of state with his vilest creatures. The powerful party which prosecuted the revenge of Gloucester's injuries, and now allied itself to the ambitious Duke of York, were the more numerously backed by the nobility, who regarded Suffolk with envy, as a man who, being but the grandson of a merchant, had risen over their heads, and made himself all but monarch.

This universal clamour against him compelled him to rise in his place immediately on the opening of Parliament, and endeavour to defend himself. He alluded to the report, industriously circulated, that he intended to marry his son to a daughter of Somerset, and through that alliance to aspire to the crown. He treated the rumour as most ridiculous, as no doubt it was, reminding the House of the deaths of his father and three brothers in the service of the country, at Azincourt, Jargeau, &c., and of his own long and severe service there. But his appeal had no other result than to induce the Commons to demand that, as on his own showing he lay under suspicions of treason, he should be impeached and committed to the Tower, in order to his trial. They asserted that he had invited the King of France to come over and make himself master of this country, and had furnished the castle of Wallingford with stores and provisions for the purpose of aiding him.

Probably Suffolk had made some such preparation in anticipation of some popular outbreak - an event which ere long took place; but the idea of his deliberate betrayal of his country to France was too absurd for anything but a party cry. It did its work, however. On that ludicrous charge he was committed to the Tower; and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had shown himself a servile partisan of Suffolk, and presided at the scandalous trial of Gloucester's wife, surrendered the seals of the chancellorship in trepidation.

In the course of the trial the Commons appear to have grown sensible of the futility of the bulk of these charges against the favourite, and a month after its commencement concentrated the force of their complaints on the waste and embezzlement of the public revenue, and the odious means to which he had resorted for its replenishment. This was an accusation which would be echoed by every class and person almost in the nation. It was a very sore subject indeed. During the minority of the king, the rapacity of the courtiers had been, as usual in such cases, unbounded. The king's uncles had been utterly helpless to restrain it. It had crippled the resources for the war, and consequently led to its opprobrious termination. The royal demesnes were dissipated, and there was a debt against the king of 372,000, equal to nearly 4,000,000 of present money. This the Parliament protested that it neither could nor would pay. The consequence of this bankruptcy of the crown was, that all the old horrors and outrages of purveyance, in direct breach of Magna Charta, had been renewed. The country groaned under a system of universal robbery, which the public endured with an impatience and an outcry which menaced revolution; and all these offences were now, as is wont in such impeachments, heaped on the devoted head of Suffolk.

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Pictures for The Reign of Henry VI page 11

The Seal of Henry VI
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