Monday, 21 March 2011

English arrogance hands Scots victory at Baugé – On this day in Scottish Military History - 1421

Henry V has been immortalised by Shakespeare as the English King who led his under-dog army to victory at Azincourt. What is conveniently forgotten is that the battle fought in 1415 was part of an opportunistic campaign by Henry to grab land in northern France while the French king struggled to keep control of his mind, and the Duke of Burgundy.

Azincourt saved Normandy for England and allowed Henry to open a new phase of the Hundred Years War between England and France for control of large parts of northern and western France.

By 1418 France was struggling. They had lost the cream of their nobility at Azincourt, their king was mad and there were power struggles in France between the powerful Dukes. It fell to the Dauphin (later Charles VII) to ask Scotland for help.

Scots had been fighting for France since the twelfth century but this was to be the biggest expedition to date. Six thousand men under the command of John Steward, third Earl of Buchan and Archibald Douglas, Earl of Wigtown were to be sent to help fight the English.

Buchan was the son of the Duke of Albany, the regent of Scotland (King James I was a prisoner of the English). Albany had agreed to send the Scots army to France because Scotland needed a powerful friend to help protect her from Henry V’s land grabbing.

In September 1419 a fleet of ships from Castille and Aragón carried the force to France. Avoiding English ships they landed at La Rochelle and were soon put to use reinforcing French garrisons. Some were present at the Siege of Melun near Paris in 1420.

At first the French didn’t seem that impressed. The Scots were seen as a drain of resources rather than an asset but that was soon to change as the campaigning season of 1421 started.

The English started the campaign under Henry’s brother the Duke of Clarence who was a senior English royal; at the time Henry had no children and Clarence was the heir to the throne.

In early March 1421 Clarence and his army of about 5,000 English troops had marched from Bernay in eastern Normandy to attack Angers in the Loire valley. The town’s defences were too strong for the English and they moved eastwards to raid further into French Territory to justify their expedition before returning to Normany. At the same time the Scots moved west from their base at Tours to cut of the English from their Normandy base.

By 21st March the two armies were only a few miles apart. The Scots were at Le Vieil Baugé just outside Baugé. Nine roads converged at the town at the only bridge in the area over the River Couasnon, and it was an important position to hold.

As soon as he heard of the presence of the Scots at Baugé, after some Scots scouts were captured, Clarence made preparations to attack them. Baugé needed to be taken if the English wanted to reach the safety of Normandy and Clarence thought this was the ideal chance to catch the Scots napping.

Forgetting how the English fought their battles, with overwhelming support of their archers, Clarence quickly moved north with his mounted men-at-arms. He left his subordinate the Earl of Salisbury to round up his archers.

The Duke of Clarence had not been at the Battle of Azincourt and was seeking some glory as heir to the English throne. If he had been there he would have known how foolhardy he was being. With quite staggering arrogance he ignored all the advice to wait for his bowmen and rode on with 1,500 men towards Baugé.

His force started to stretch out along the road to Baugé but still he pushed on. Convinced that speed and surprise would count in his favour he allowed his numbers to dwindle.

When Buchan heard of the English advance he hurridly organised his army at Le Vieil Baugé. He had about 130 men in the town of Baugé under the command of Robert Stewart of Railstone to guard the bridge. There were also some French troops under Jean de la Croix on hand. The French and Scots in the town fought hard to deny Clarence the bridge for as long as possible to allow Buchan to form his army for battle.

Eventually they were over-run at the bridge but not before they had inflicted heavy casualties on the English.

Once the bridge was taken Clarence pushed on towards the main Scots army outside town. His numbers had been reduced further by the battle at the bridge and he had to leave men to guard the vital bridge but he still pushed on without waiting for his army.

There is a small rise between Baugé and Le Vieil Baugé and the Scots formed up behind it. As the English approached the Scots waited until the last moment before charging over the crest of the hill into the English knights.

The English knights stood no chance, the Scots were amongst them before they had a chance to charge and without the support of their archers the English were overwhelmed.

Clarence was one of the first to fall and many of his men soon followed. It was common for high ranking knights to be taken prisoner for ransom but the lower ranking men-at-arms were killed out of hand and in the vicious fighting which took place many earls and lords were slain too.

It is estimated the English lost 1,500 men at Baugé, the Scots about 200. It was one of biggest defeats of an English army at the hands of the Scots and it had been in the middle of France.

For the first time since Azincourt the English had been given a bloody nose and had lost the heir to their throne. The main bulk of their army had escaped back to Normandy but it was with their tail between their legs.

On hearing of the victory, Pope Martin V said that "the Scots are well-known as an antidote to the English".

The reputation of the Scots had changed. No longer were they seen as "Consumers of mutton and wine"; they were the fighting cocks of the French army. When the Dauphin became King Charles VII in 1422 his royal bodyguard was made up of Scotsmen. On top of that Buchan was later made Constable of France. That made him commander-in-chief of the French Forces and second only in rank to the King.

Thanks to the arrogance of an Englishman, 790 years ago today the Scots were the toast of France.

Note the small community of Le Vieil Baugé has two roads commemorating the battle. Rue de la Bataille and Chemin de la Bataille

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