Tuesday, 22 March 2011

John Stewart, Constable of France - Who's Who in Scottish Military History

Between 1060 and 1626 there were forty-four Constables of France. This was the premier appointment of the five Great Officers of the Crown of France.

In Medieval France this was a rank one step down from the King, and the holder of the title was also the commander-in-chief of the army of France.

To be given this title was a very great honour and during a period of crisis for France the title was given to a Scotsman.

John Stewart, 3rd Earl of Buchan, had been in France for four years when Charles the Bold, Duke of Lorraine renounced the title of Constable of France in January 1424 and it was offered to the man from Scotland.

Fifteenth Century France was not the country we know today. The English held Normandy and the North including Paris, and also Aquitaine along the West coast around Bordeaux. In the East the English allies, the Burgundians, held large tracts of land and were frequently at odds with their countrymen.

In 1415 the cream of French nobility had been killed at Azincourt by English archers and in 1418 the French had asked Buchan's father, the 1st Duke of Albany for help. Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany, was acting as Regent in Scotland whilst the young King James I was held prisoner by the English. Scotland was too weak to fight England directly but by helping France with 6,000 Scottish soldiers she would gain a strong ally.

John Stewart had been born around 1380 and had always been a pawn in his father's political scheming. His appointment to the French expedition was just another extension of that. He had shown no great talent before going to France and was probably seen as expendable by his father. Certainly he was not being groomed as the successor to his father's role and he was now more useful keeping the Scots in with the French.

At first Buchan's troops were not seen as much of a bonus for the hard pressed French. They were described as "consumers of mutton and wine" and were used as garrison troops in French castles. After Azincourt the French were happier to sit in their castles and make the English besiege them rather than face the English longbows.

Buchan's finest hour came on 22nd March 1421. At Le Vieil Baugé in Anjou his Scots troops destroyed an English invasion force and killed the heir to the English throne.

The fortunes of the Scots in France immediately changed. The war-weary French now knew they could count on the Scots to help them as the Scotsmen had proved their willingness to fight the English. In 1422 The death of mad King Charles VI allowed Charles VII to take the throne. Charles VII as the Dauphin had been the one who had asked Albany for the contingent of Scots.

Charles had great faith in the Scots and in return the Scots flocked to France. It wasn't just anti-Englishness which drove them to France, great fortunes from ransoms were to be made if you captured an English or Burgundian knight.

Unfortunately for Charles, Henry VI of England also had a legitimate claim to the throne of France and a new round of fighting took place starting in 1423. In the summer the English and Burgundians raised a force of 4,000 men and marched into France. The Scots combined with French to take them on and a force of about 8,000 men under Buchan's command marched east.

Unfortunately Buchan misjudged his tactics and let the outnumbered English take the advantage when they met at Cravant. Once the English bowmen opened their devastating fire the rest of their army advanced across the shallow River Yonne. An attack over a bridge split the Scot-French force and the French troops abandoned the battlefield. The Scots had nothing to lose, the English considered them traitors and dealt with Scots prisoners savagely, and so they fought on. Now outnumbered the Scots were overwhelmed by the English-Burgundians and Buchan was captured. He was lucky, 3,000 Scots had died at the battle.

He was also lucky that there were valuable English prisoners from previous campaigns to be exchanged and he was not a prisoner for long.

Charles VII was eager to have more Scotsmen on his side, they at least would stand and fight the English. Buchan returned home for another 6,000 Scottish soldiers to make up for the men lost at Cravant. He also recruited his father-in-law to lead them, The 4th Earl of Douglas.

The Duke of Lorraine renounced his title of Constable of France in early 1424 and the King of France knew who he wanted for the post. He wanted the man who commanded his shock troops, the Scotsman John Stewart.

Buchan may have been the King's favourite but his appointment was not met with joy by the French nobles. The upstart Scotsman had come from nowhere to be appointed as the King's number two and to add to that the Earl of Douglas was made Lieutenant-General and Duke of Touraine when he landed in France.

Douglas was the first foreigner and also the first non-royal to be given a dukedom and it further strained relations between the Scots and the French nobles.

The Scotsman were eager to prove their worth and soon moved north to attack the English and relieve the besieged Ivry, near Le Mans.

When Ivry fell to the English the Scots and French pressed on; they wanted a battle. The older French were reluctant. They knew they couldn't defeat the English in open battle and could remember the carnage at Azincourt. The Scots and younger Frenchmen were determined to fight. Buchan who had been beaten by the English at Cravant, and Douglas who had been beaten by them at Homildon Hill should have known better but they still insisted on a battle.

At Verneuil in August 1424 the two armies met. It was to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Hundred Years War. The English archers took their toll but it was no one-sided battle like Azincourt, and although the English won the day they lost 1,600 killed.

The English had attacked and driven the French from the field and eventually surrounded the Scots. At Verneuil the Scots died in their thousands and amongst them was the new Constable of France.

Buchan had only held the title for a few months but he and his fellow countrymen had been held in high esteem by the French king and had shown themselves to be trusted allies. Thanks to the courage and tenacity of Buchan and his men the Scots would continue to fight in France against their auld enemy for many years to come.

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