Though the Siege of Rouen officially concluded on 19 January 1419, the conflict in which it took place, the Hundred Years’ War, had been under way for almost as long as its name indicates. Technically, the seeds for the Hundred Years’ War were sown when Duke William II of Normandy conquered Britain in 1066. He became the King of England while he retained control of his lands in Normandy, effectively making himself and any future English kings dependent on the French king for the retention of Normandy. For several hundred years the arrangement worked quite well, but in 1337 Edward III of England refused to pay homage to Philip VI of France. In response, Philip moved to confiscate Edward’s lands in Aquitaine, and Edward retaliated by claiming that he was the rightful King of France. Thus, in 1337, the so-called Hundred Years’ War began.
In reality the term Hundred Years’ War is somewhat inaccurate. There was no hundred-year long war fought between England and France over who had the legitimate claim to France’s throne. The period is more aptly described as a series of three major ‘phases,’ all separated by a different truce. The first phase is known as the Edwardian Era War. It lasted from 1337 to 1360 and consisted of a series of intermittent, separate conflicts all stemming from Edward III’s attempt to retain Aquitaine and seize the French throne. The Treaty of Brétigny in 1360 brought a nine-year peace, but Charles V of France began the second phase of the war, known as the Caroline War, in 1369. Charles used the defiance of Edward, the Black Prince, as a pretext for restarting the conflict, but the second phase was much shorter than the first, ending in 1389 with a series of truces. The third and final phase of the war began in 1415 when King Henry V of England invaded Normandy with the hope of exploiting the rivalry in the French royal family.
In August of 1415, Henry V set sail for France with an armed force of about 10,000 men. His first major victory came at the Battle of Agincourt in October of 1415, but shortly after the triumph Henry returned to England to bask in the glory of his accomplishment. He knew that the show of superiority at Agincourt would signal his power to the surrounding European nations, and over the following several years Henry continued to gradually expand his control in Normandy. His second campaign to France resulted in the capture of Caen after a month-long siege that ended with the English forces storming the city walls and proving too powerful for the French defense. Henry’s army used the victory at Caen as a launching point for their conquest of Normandy, which over the following two years saw fortresses, towns, and castles across the Norman countryside surrender.
The Siege of Rouen proved to be one of the most difficult parts of Henry’s campaign to overtake Normandy. Though Rouen had endured several periods of civil unrest over the years leading up to the Lancastrian War, it remained one of the largest cities in France with its 70,000 inhabitants. As Henry’s forces felled town after town in the countryside surrounding Rouen, the city appealed for reinforcements. Having learned their lesson from the fall of Caen, the French leaders were more amenable to the idea of lending support to Rouen. Furthermore, soldiers from the Norman countryside fled to Rouen as their own towns were destroyed. Thus, as Henry’s army closed in on the city, Rouen’s defensive force had swelled to almost 25,000 men, a substantial number. The approaching English army, however, numbered almost twice that, at roughly 45,000 men. The Siege of Rouen began in earnest in late July of 1418.
The account of the Siege of Rouen has been preserved for us in the accounts of two men in Henry V’s army. One, the Chronicon Henrici Quinti, is a chronicle of Henry V’s actions during the Lancastrian War, and the second is a poem called Sege of Roan. Both accounts tell of a strong fortified city that mounted a stout defense as the English army sought to breach the walls. Initially the Frenchman inside Rouen’s walls were able to rain a hail of missiles and arrows down upon the advancing English forces, but before long Henry knew that a waiting game would be his most effective strategy. He wisely called for naval reinforcements who were able to secure the French shipping route along the Seine, and within three weeks of the siege’s beginning Rouen began to run out of food. A 19th century historian writing in The Story of Rouen put it this way: “[Henry] knew that death and disease were on his side, and that against inevitable starvation no city in the world could stand for long.” The same history continues:
By the end of September all the meat had disappeared, every horse and every donkey had been eaten, and wheaten bread was sold at a sovereign a loaf. The horrors of starvation need not any further be revealed; but by the first days of December they had a peculiarly terrible result. To save their own lives, and keep enough miserable fodder for the soldiers to stand upright behind the walls, the burgesses of Rouen had to turn out of the town all the refugees who had fled for safety to her walls from other cities taken by the English. Some fifteen thousand of them, men, women and children, tottered out of the gates and made feebly for the English lines.
The pitiful hoard attempted to force their way through the English line that encircled their barren city, but Henry took no pity upon them and commanded his line to remain firm. Having failed in their attempt, the 15,000 starving peasants were forced to live in the city’s ditch. Near unto death, they banded together to make one final attempt at breaking through, and on Christmas Day 1418, Henry V took a momentary pity on them and ordered his priests to bestow a gift of food on the starving peasants. In reality, his single act of kindness was pointless, for the next day he picked up with the starvation siege again. By New Year’s Day 1419, 50,000 of Rouen’s inhabitants had died of starvation and the city leaders sent out an envoy to parley with the English. For several days the ambassadors of each side argued their case. When the French ambassadors returned to Rouen on 13 January, they had signed an agreement that bound them to surrender within six days if no reinforcements had arrived.
Six days came and went, and on 19 January 1419 the Siege of Rouen ended with the city’s surrender. The siege had lasted almost six months. Henry V entered the suffering city the next day in order to sit on the throne and receive the keys to the city, a show of power that the starving citizens were happy to grant him if only they could get some food. His army had again conquered a historically strong Norman city. As if defeat were not enough of punishment, Henry set the city’s ransom at 300,000 crowns, a substantial debt from which the city would take decades to fully recover. Henry’s army, however, was buoyed by the victory and continued their conquest of Normandy. At the conclusion of their campaign, they had conquered all of Normandy with the exception of Mont St. Michel. Henry V’s successes in France, however, would be the high point of English success during the Hundred Years’ War, as Joan of Arc’s rise to leadership in 1429 helped turn the tide against the English.