During the mid-sixteenth-century siege of Boulogne, a French commander determined to disprove the long-held belief that Englishmen were superior soldiers.
In the late summer of 1544, a battle-scarred band of French veterans was marching north from Italy. These old soldiers of Piedmont had but recently triumphed in the bloody April 11 encounter at Cérisoles over the forces of the Hapsburg emperor, Charles V. Yet theirs was not to be a peaceful homecoming. Charles’ ally Henry VIII of England had invaded France, striking from his base in Calais into Picardy. After a two-month siege, Boulogne had fallen to his cannons. The Frenchmen marching from Italy would soon be meeting the English in battle. Among them was a 43-year-old Gascon captain, Blaise de Monluc. The prospect of facing the English, the ancient enemy and victor at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, daunted many. Monluc recalled hearing the lore of old, that one Englishman would always beat two Frenchmen; that the English would never run nor yield. Proud and brave, he resolved to one day test this “mystery of the English,” but before he got his chance, fate had much in store for the captain.
Born into a family of impoverished gentry, Monluc had first taken up arms in 1520, serving as a cavalryman in the company of the famous Pierre du Terrail, the chevalier de Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche (without fear and without reproach). Finding life as a cavalryman too expensive, he soon became an officer of foot and slowly gained a reputation in some hard campaigning. He had joined his king, Francis I, in captivity after the disastrous defeat at Pavia, Italy, in 1525 but because he had no great treasure was released without ransom. Two years later, in an ill-fated expedition to Naples, Monluc was fortunate to survive two serious wounds and avoid the outbreak of plague that killed thousands of his comrades. In 1535 he led a hazardous raid to destroy the mills at Auriol, which were feeding the imperialist army that had invaded Provence.
At Cérisoles Monluc made his name, leading eight hundred French and Italian arquebusiers against the imperialist vanguard in a skillfully conducted, free-flowing skirmish. It was “a pretty sight for anyone in a safe place,” recalled another French officer, Martin du Bellay, for “they played off on each other all the ruses and stratagems of petty war.” Later, as the great pike columns closed on one another, Monluc spotted the vulnerable flank of the imperialist Landsknechte (German infantry) and led his Gascons into a furious melee. He was lucky to survive, as he later acknowledged, saying, “I was never in my life so active and light as that day and it stood me well so to be, for above three times I was beaten down to my knees.” He was knighted on the battlefield and soon after promoted to the senior rank of “camp-master.” In that capacity he would face the English.
Henry VIII had led the English invasion in person. His army of forty-two thousand was an intriguing mix of the old and the new. Henry drew the bulk of his manpower from England and Wales: bow- and billmen (the bill was a fearsome polearm, originally derived from the agricultural billhook). Troops were usually raised either via the shire levy, the militia to which all able-bodied men of the shires between the ages of sixteen and sixty belonged, or along quasi-feudal lines, in the personal retinues of lords and gentlemen. Others, “soldier adventurers,” were directly recruited, called to arms by the beating of drums on the streets of London. The king could also draw on the highly militarized population of the volatile Anglo-Scottish border country—troops such as the wonderfully named North Tyndell Theiffs, 400 light cavalrymen recorded in the Northumberland muster lists of 1538. Alongside these traditional soldiers of English armies were the foreign mercenaries. Henry was an important player in the international market for mercenaries, with a particular interest in purchasing the services of soldiers at the cutting edge of the modern military profession: Italian and Spanish arquebusiers, German Reiter heavy cavalry, Landsknechte pikemen. Such men comprised almost a quarter of the English army in 1544.
Henry’s most formidable arm was perhaps his modern artillery train. Fascinated by cannons, he not only imported many guns but also employed some of Europe’s most renowned gun founders, including the Frenchman Peter Baude and the Italian Arcanus brothers, to manufacture artillery and train Englishmen in their art. Soon there was a thriving industry supplying Henry with iron and bronze pieces. As early as 1513, the Venetian ambassador reported to the doge that the English had “cannon enough to conquer Hell.” Henry, while encouraging Englishmen to maintain their traditional skills as archers, also made sure that his army was provided with gunpowder small arms. These had made little impact on English warfare to date. The three hundred “Flemings armed with hand-guns” who had accompanied Edward IV on his return to England in 1471 had been enough of a novelty to attract comment in contemporary sources. During Henry’s reign, however, the arquebus and similar hand-held firearms became commonplace. At his death in 1547, England’s royal armories contained sixtyseven hundred “demi-hakes or hand-gonnes” as well as 275 “shorte gonnes for horsemen” (probably wheel-lock pistols).
Yet much was traditional about the equipment of Henry’s army too. In 1544 the longbow was still the standard missile weapon. Its chief virtue was its rate of fire. Henry Barrett, an English militia captain, wrote in 1562, “Longe bowes sharpe and manyefolde hailshotte may not be indured.” They were often used in conjunction with the arquebuses, the rapid-firing bowmen covering the hard-hitting handgunners as they reloaded. Giovacchio de Comiano, an Italian captain serving Henry VIII at Boulogne, described how the English formed up in battle: archers and arquebusiers on the wings of blocks of pikemen, halberdiers, and billmen, each block interspersed with more “shot,” the contemporary term for soldiers armed primarily with missile weapons.
Nonetheless, it is possible to detect in the 1540s the first stirring of the great Elizabethan debate over the place of archery in the English way of war. One of the longbow’s most trenchant critics, Humfrey Barwick, had been a young soldier during the Boulogne campaign of 1544-46. He would later recall: “I did never see or hear, of any thing by them [archers] don with their long bowes, to any great effect. But many have I seene lye dead in divers skirmishes and incounters.” The efficiency of an archer depended on regular practice, but Henry found it necessary to repeatedly reissue statutes that reminded Englishmen of their obligations to train with their bows and shun football, bowling, tennis, and dicing. Still, between 1522 and 1557, the proportion of able-bodied Englishmen who could be designated as archers in the muster roles of the levy fell from one in three to one in four. There was also a problem with the supply of high-quality bow staves. In 1547 Bishop Tunstall complained that “we doo fynde in our countre greate lack of bowes and arrowes, and specially of bowes, whereof there is almost none in the countree of ewe.”
Contrast the talk Monluc heard in the French camp of the Britons’ martial prowess with the widespread contemporary fears within England itself of martial decline. Some blamed the unwillingness of Englishmen to train with their arms, unlike the Swiss, whose regular military exercises were “the gretyst cause of theyr grete fame in dedys of arms.” For others, martial decline was a product of social conflicts, with land enclosure forcing honest farmers, the backbone of English armies, from the soil to make way for sheep.
Henry drew his army from a nation in a state of widespread social and economic upheaval. In the 1540s some tenants refused to follow their lords to war, denying the ancient obligation of military service. Many gentry protested that inflation had crippled their households. They could no longer afford to employ, let alone arm and equip, large numbers of retainers. Although Henry managed to raise an impressive army, it was plagued by desertion and malingering during campaigns.
Yet this apparently brittle instrument of war had fought well enough in the opening campaigns. The presence of the king in person was a powerful motivating factor, and the English had, in late July 1544, quickly taken the lower town of Boulogne and a nearby fortified Roman lighthouse, the Tour de l’Odre. They constructed an elaborate network of trenches, siege works, and raised gun positions from which Henry’s cannons battered the surviving fortifications, eventually creating viable breaches. On September 1, English troops stormed the upper town, trapping the French defenders in the citadel. English sappers soon mined this, the final French bastion. The garrison’s inevitable capitulation came shortly afterward. But
Henry’s triumphant entry into Boulogne on September 18 was spoiled by news that Emperor Charles V had made a separate peace with Francis I, abandoning his English ally. Henry was determined to hold his prize. Although he returned to England at the end of September, he left Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, with instructions to abandon an unsuccessful siege against Montreuil and to defend Boulogne. To Henry’s fury, Norfolk disobeyed his orders and withdrew to Calais, leaving just four thousand men (thirty-five hundred English and five hundred Spanish and Italian mercenaries) to hold the recently captured town.
Norfolk felt the king’s instructions to refortify Boulogne were impractical and that Calais itself was in danger. But his actions simply bottled up the English army in Calais, where its numbers swiftly dwindled, chiefly due to plague, desertion, and the withdrawal of imperial auxiliaries and mercenaries from the fight. The dauphin (the future Henri II of France), in contrast, had some fifty thousand men in the field; most of these were now massing outside Boulogne.
Among them were Monluc and his fellows, hardened veterans of the Great Italian Wars and part of one of the most formidable military organizations in sixteenth-century Europe. The French had made significantly greater strides than the English toward creating standing, professional military forces. Charles VII’s reforms of 1439 and 1445 had created companies of equal size, armed and equipped in a uniform manner. The state directly employed soldiers, and the fifteen compagnies d’ordonnance existed on a permanent footing. Other formations, such as Monluc’s veterans, spent so many years under arms that they were in effect regular soldiers.
Henry VIII periodically raised bodies of household troops on a semipermanent basis, such as the “Gentlemen Pensioners,” a unit of heavy cavalry mustered in 1539. However, England’s progress toward a professional military establishment was tentative compared with the French.
The French army was a well-balanced force of cavalry, infantry, and artillery. The gendarmes of the heavy cavalry were the elite corps: lance armed and resplendent in plumes, surcoats, and plate armor. These were supplemented by archers, originally raised as mounted bowmen in the late fifteenth century but who had since developed into true cavalry, more lightly armored than the gendarme but capable of shock action. Heavy cavalry was supported by an active and numerous light cavalry arm: cheveaux légers and stradiots (mercenaries from the Balkans).
By the 1540s, French troopers were also adopting firearms. Some gendarmes now carried wheel-lock pistols, which would eventually supplant lances. In 1543 Pietro Strozzi, an Italian condottiere (mercenary captain), had also raised a unit of mounted handgunners, arquebusier-à-cheval, providing the French army with mobile firepower. While the English had an excellent light cavalry arm in their “border horse,” they struggled to raise significant forces of heavy cavalry, men-at-arms, and demilancers. In the 1544 campaign, the French had a clear superiority in the art of maneuver, and the English would consequently avoid giving open battle.
The fighting largely took place around fortifications and earthworks, primarily by the infantry and gunners. As formidable as Henry VIII’s artillery train was, the French could match it. Their gunners boasted an impressive record in recent conflicts. When Charles VIII had invaded Italy in 1494, igniting the Great Italian Wars, he brought an awe-inspiring number of cannons. While their actual capacity to batter castles and fortifications into submission has probably been exaggerated, the boldness and audacity with which the French handled their cannons frequently daunted Italian garrisons to such an extent that they surrendered.
Besides their utility in siege work, the French cannons were light and mobile enough to serve as field artillery. Contemporaries such as Niccolò Machiavelli had often been dismissive of artillery as a battlefield weapon, judging it ponderous and cumbersome. Yet the French had demonstrated that the gunner could play a decisive role in action. At Ravenna in 1512, cannons blasted a path for a successful French assault into an entrenched Spanish position. At Marignano in 1515, French cavalry had charged to halt enemy pike columns, after which devastating artillery fire ravaged the stalled pikemen. Given the strength of French cavalry and the excellence of French gunners, it would have been heartening for the English if they could have counted on their ability to best the French infantry. Even in this regard, however, they could be not be complacent. Over half the French infantry were mercenaries, predominantly Swiss, German, and Italian. The Swiss had won their martial reputation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in wars against the Hapsburgs and later Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy. By the early sixteenth century, most regarded the Swiss as the finest foot soldiers in Europe.
Terrifying evidence of both their ferocity and their discipline can be found in a 1444 Zurich Kriegsordnung (war ordinance), which prohibited Swiss soldiers from breaking ranks to cut out the hearts of fallen enemies. They fought, for the most part, with the pike in dense columns (which often proved surprisingly quick and maneuverable on the battlefield), supported by smaller numbers of arquebus-armed skirmishers and men armed with halberds and two-handed swords, who could hack their way forward in the close press of “push of pikes.” In this style of warfare they had many imitators but no equals, although their bitter rivals, the German Landsknechte, came close.
Attempts were made to modernize the organization and equipment of the native French infantry and raise it to the standard of the mercenary contingents. In 1531 Francis I formed four six-thousand-strong legions—named for Normandy, Languedoc, Champagne, and Picardy—drilled by Swiss officers. In peacetime Francis only maintained a cadre, with the occasional full mustering to test the formation’s readiness. Although they were never, in practice, proficient enough to lessen the French crown’s dependency on foreign hirelings, they continued to serve throughout the sixteenth century. The best of the indigenous French infantry were those who had volunteered for service in Italy and had been fighting on and off for years, such as Monluc’s company. When Monluc first joined his company in 1521, they still carried crossbows. The first arquebusiers joined them in 1523—six deserters from the Spanish army (Gascon mercenaries whom Monluc was pleased to have in his own unit). The English noted that the defending garrison was still using crossbows during the siege of Boulogne in 1544. By then, however, Monluc and his comrades had long since abandoned the old weapon; French arquebusiers would confront the English longbows.
Although Monluc and his comrades were disappointed that Boulogne had fallen to the English before their arrival, they planned for its swift recapture. As they approached the town, the French found the depleted garrison in some disorder. Most of the English cannons were still outside the walls of the town. They had piled up munitions, armor, food, and barrels of wine haphazardly in the lower town, where the walls were still breached in several places.
Spies reported that the citadel at the heart of Boulogne contained only enough food and munitions to support a garrison for a week. If the town could be seized by some daring coup de main, the citadel would be forced to capitulate soon after. At dawn one morning Monluc and his immediate commander, Jean de Taix, led a reconnaissance toward the English positions. Passing within three hundred paces of the Tour de l’Odre, they had pushed up through the tents and pavilions that marked the English siege lines and into the artillery park. They saw no more than three or four English sentries, and even when the alarm finally was raised they withdrew without difficulty. The defense of Boulogne’s battered walls seemed lackadaisical. The dauphin and his younger brother, Charles, duke of Orléans, agreed on a plan to occupy the lower town by delivering a camisado, a surprise attack, during the night of October 9, 1544.
The assault would be led by twenty-three companies, probably in excess of four thousand men, comprising French troops, including Monluc’s company, and the Italians in French service under Pier Maria Rossi, count of San Secondo. They would be supported by a further six thousand soldiers, Landsknechte commanded by Philip Francis, the Rhinegrave count of Salm, and Swiss infantry, led by a Monsieur Dampierre. Once they took and held the breaches and the assault had passed into lower Boulogne, the dauphin would bring up the rest of the army.
The daring plan promised much, but its outcome proved to be a bitter disappointment to Monluc. The opportunity to best the English slipped by him during the confused fighting in the twisting, rain-lashed streets of Boulogne.
Initially all went according to plan. The attackers swept through the breaches. These points of entry were defended by a handful of English and Spanish soldiers; not only were they hopelessly outnumbered but they could ignite and fire neither cannon nor arquebus, for rain was falling in torrents. The bulk of the attacking force used three main breaches. Monluc, though, had worked along the line of the wall and entered by a fourth. This was unguarded, and he passed into the town without meeting any opposition at all. He made his way to a large centrally located church, where he expected to rally with the other captains. At first he saw only one, running back toward the breaches, and called out to him but got no response. Eventually, two Italians and their companies joined him, and from them he learned that the camisado was faltering.
A small body of English soldiers, perhaps only two hundred or so, counterattacked from the citadel and retook the breaches. Jean de Taix, commanding the French troops, was wounded by an arrow (whatever else their relative merits, the longbow was less susceptible to the weather than the matchlock arquebus) and was forced to withdraw. No one knew what had become of Count Pier Maria Rossi.
The attacking French companies had initially stacked their colors outside the church, each defended by about twenty men. The rest, officers and men, then scattered. News that the English were closing the breaches behind them caused some to panic and flee the town. Others, oblivious to the dangerous situation developing, were plundering the copious supplies the English had stored in the lower town. Taking charge of the Italians and rallying about fifty or sixty of the looters to his colors, Monluc attempted to regain the initiative.
Many members of the garrison, caught by surprise in the initial attack, had barricaded themselves in local dwellings; the Gascon now set about clearing them out. It was brutal work. Few were armed (Monluc speculated that they might be pioneers), and he later recounted how “above two hundred of them were slain in the houses.”
Yet Monluc was now beginning to realize how disorganized the assault had become. He was pondering his next move when, as he later wrote, “all on a sudden there came a great number of English full drive directly upon us.” The events of the next few moments testify to the confusion of the night’s fighting. In the dark, narrow streets, men strained to see through the driving rain and identify the men they encountered. Responding to their challenges, Monluc yelled, “Friend, friend!” to the English, but his ruse only caused a momentary pause in their advance. Having failed to halt them by guile, Monluc then called out to the Italians, “Stand by me!” and led his men full tilt up the street toward the oncoming English. His boldness took them by surprise, and they faced about and retreated toward the citadel. The French pursued them, until they rallied behind a hail of longbow arrows. Then came the English countercharge, forcing Monluc and his men back down to the church square. There, he in turn rallied, letting the English close before he sprang once more on them and drove them away again. As Monluc’s private battle ebbed and flowed up and down the streets of Boulogne, the weather worsened. According to one account, “there fell such a furious storm of rain that it seemed as if God Almighty had been disposed to drown us all.”
The camisado’s failure was now manifest. Monluc would later argue, with some reason, that had the Swiss and Landsknechte infantry been hurled at the slender English force that had recaptured the breaches, they would have quickly triumphed and the town would have fallen. Instead, the Rhinegrave and Dampierre had been ordered to halt at Tour de l’Odre and had advanced no farther. In retrospect, it is not difficult to understand why. All was confusion ahead of them; de Taix had been carried past, severely injured, and groups of soldiers from the first wave of the attack had been streaming back with news that the breaches had been retaken by the English, whose numbers could not be accurately gauged. The rain and darkness prevented anyone from gaining a clear idea of what was happening in the town. Monluc himself was initially reported killed. In fact, he was still alive and had reluctantly decided to lead the last of the French troops out of Boulogne. The breach through which he had gained such an easy entry was now guarded and had to be forced. Ever mindful of his duty and his honor, he was the last to leave, wading knee-deep through a swollen rivulet while longbowmen fired at him from the banks. His luck held; three arrows embedded themselves in his buckler (small shield), and a fourth drilled through his mailed sleeve, “which for my part of the booty I carried home to my quarters,” he later joked.
For Monluc the root cause of the failure was the panic that had overcome the attackers in the darkness and rain, as word of the English counterattack had spread: “When a man is once possessed with fear and loses his judgment, as all men in a fright do, he knows not what to do,” a report on the battle declared. Monluc staunchly defended his own conduct when taunted by the duke of Orléans and took some reassurance from the dauphin’s expressions of confidence in him and recognition of his service in being “the last captain that came out of the town, and above an hour after the rest.” Nevertheless, his reverse was a matter of considerable regret. He believed that in the street fighting he had gotten the better of the English. He spoke of his enemies with near contempt, saying, “I discovered them to be men of very little heart and believe them to be better at sea than by land.” The night’s events, however, had not gone far in demonstrating the validity of this proposition to the rest of the French army. The mystery of the English remained intact at daybreak.
There is much to criticize about the English defense of Boulogne that night. Gross negligence led to disorganization and lack of preparation for an attack. Although a sentry was later hanged for sleeping at his post and failing to give warning of the camisado, he was likely a mere scapegoat. The garrison’s commander, John Dudley, Lord Lisle, must bear much of the actual responsibility for failing to put the town’s defenses in order. Monluc, who called him “Doudellet” in his memoirs, was particularly scathing of Dudley’s conduct.
Yet a bold counterattack had quickly been delivered on the night of the camisado. Sir Thomas Poynings and his two hundred men had plunged into the darkness against an unknown but clearly large number of enemy soldiers who had already entered the town. By recapturing the breaches, Poynings had, at one stroke, delivered a crippling blow to the camisado. This was not, in all fairness, the action of “men of very little heart.”
Denied a swift victory, the French settled down to a war of emplacement around Boulogne. The English reinforced the garrison, and both sides energetically set to work with the spade and pick, throwing up new earthworks and fortifications. Meanwhile, Francis I cast about for some way to carry the war to England itself, and he settled on the idea of a seaborne strike at the south coast of the enemy kingdom. By early July 1545, he had amassed a formidable armada, some 250 ships, under the command of Admiral Claude D’Annebaut, and assigned a large force of troops, including Monluc and his Gascons, to accompany them on their expedition. It would prove to be another frustrating endeavor. England was vulnerable. Henry’s fleet mustered only some 120 vessels. He had been deserted by his Hapsburg ally. His armed forces were overstretched, committed to holding Boulogne on the Continent and to fighting in an escalating conflict with France’s ally, Scotland, in the north. Yet for the French, D’Annebaut’s armada was to be another opportunity lost.
Clashes at sea with elements of the English fleet were largely inconclusive. Raiding forces were put ashore on the Isle of Wight on July 16, and in early August on the mainland coast near Brighton and Newhaven. But these were met by the local shire levies and, in the words of the chronicler Edward Hall, “to their greate loose and payne driven again to their Galies.” The only setback to befall the English was the sinking of Henry’s warship Mary Rose, which had foundered in the Solent, off Portsmouth, on July 19, with the loss of some five hundred men (the decks had been crammed with soldiers).
The French tried to claim that their gunfire had sunk the ship. It was more likely that the overloaded ship heeled over when caught by a sudden gust of wind, allowing water to rush in through open gunports. Overall, the French fleet could claim no great successes. By mid-August, Monluc was back in the earthworks around Boulogne. His brief career as a marine had made little impression on him, and he commented to his compatriots, “our business lies more properly by land than by water, where I do not know that our nation has ever obtained any great victories.”
Fighting around Boulogne had now entered a fascinating phase: It was an engineer’s war. Both French and English constructed new artillery fortifications of the advanced pattern: wide, low-profile walls protected by mutually supporting angled artillery bastions; deep defensive ditches and outlying casements; trace italienne detached bastions and ravelins to defend all approaches to the works. The skill with which plats for such fortifications were devised, ground was surveyed and mapped, and the fortifications swiftly constructed, largely of earth, testifies to highly competent, professional military engineers on both sides.
The most impressive of the new earthworks was the French Fort D’Outreau, designed by an Italian, Antonio Mellone. It lay across the Liane River from Boulogne and was over two thousand feet in circumference. The rival armies fought no major battles there, but fighting swirled around the earthworks; patrols and raiding parties constantly skirmished (contemporaries called it bickering) in the no man’s land that separated the rival positions. Having apparently recovered from the malaise that had enervated them in the late summer of 1544, the English were now fighting aggressively. Monluc recalled, “There was hardly a day passed that the English did not come to tickle us…and would commonly brave our people up to our very cannon.”
Much to Monluc’s annoyance, the boldness with which the English closed on their enemies was serving to reaffirm their ancient martial reputation within the French lines. The French had some successes. An outlying English fort in Terre d’Oye, the area from which the English drew much of their supplies, had been stormed soon after Monluc’s return to Boulogne. Combined with his memories of the street fighting on the night of the camisado, this convinced Monluc that the time had come to test the mystery of the English for the last time. He had already formulated his own theory as to why they appeared so reckless in the field. He told de Taix that “they all carried arms of little reach and therefore were necessitated to come up close to us to loose their arrows, which otherwise would do no execution.” Monluc now planned to “lay them an ambuscade” and then all would see “whether a Gascon be not as good as an Englishman.” His moment had finally come, but even now his plans almost went disastrously awry.
With an old soldier’s eye for ground, Monluc had noticed a dried-up watercourse between the French and English positions, in which he could conceal a small body of men. He selected 120 soldiers—arquebusiers, pikemen, and halberdiers—and hid them in this cover. He then sent a small detachment under a young Navarrese captain, Jean d’Echauz, to bicker with the English among a group of houses on the banks of the Liane River. The plan was for d’Echauz and his men to act as bait; he was to retire before the English, tempting them into a charge. As the English heedlessly advanced, Monluc and his ambush party would strike from the hollow in which they hid. They hoped to send those not killed or captured scuttling back to their own fortifications, in full view of the French army. It was a simple plan, but it was almost undone by ill fortune. D’Echauz was performing his part admirably when an arquebus ball struck him in the arm, and he had to be carried from the field. Leaderless and disordered, his detachment looked as if a brisk English charge would overwhelm them. To rescue these men, Monluc was forced to spring his trap prematurely.
Monluc now realized, to his alarm, that he was not just dealing with the longbowmen he held in such little regard. He later recorded that the English force, which he estimated at between two and three hundred strong, was accompanied by Italian arquebusiers, “which made me heartily repent that I had made my ambuscado no stronger.” Still, there was no going back now if he was to save the remnants of d’Echauz’s gallant little band. He had given his own arquebusiers clear instructions: Close to within bowshot of the English, deliver a single volley, then clasp hands to swords and fall upon them pell-mell, alongside the pikemen and halberdiers. The closerange volley rang out, and the Gascons ran on to within two pike lengths of the enemy. It was the decisive moment.
To Monluc’s immense satisfaction, the English turned and beat a hasty retreat back to their fort. It was a small victory, but Monluc felt it was psychologically significant. On his return to camp, de Taix greeted him cheerfully: “I shall never again have so good an opinion of the English as I have had heretofore.” To which the proud Gascon replied, “You must know that the English who anciently used to beat the French were half Gascons, for they married into Gascony, and so bred good soldiers; but now that race is worn out and they are no more the same men they were.”
So had Blaise de Monluc tested the mystery of the English. The campaign, however, concluded in anticlimax. The fighting dragged on into 1546. The English suffered a stinging reverse in January when Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, and twenty-five hundred men of the Boulogne garrison ambushed a French supply column, only to be driven off with heavy losses by its forty-five-hundred-strong escort. But the French could make no headway against Boulogne itself, and the Cross of St. George continued to fly defiantly above its ramparts. By the Treaty of Camp, on June 7, 1546, the French accepted that the English should hold the captured town for an additional eight years and receive a substantial financial “indemnity” for their troubles, before granting possession once more to France. For Henry VIII, this was a most satisfactory outcome. He had no interest in keeping Boulogne; to capture and hold the town and to force France to make a humiliating financial settlement for its return won him the international prestige that was so often the objective of his bellicose foreign policy.
In early 1547, those two great rivals Henry VIII and Francis I died within a few weeks of each other. In England Edward Seymour, earl of Somerset and regent to the boy king Edward VI, unwisely pursued Henry’s aggressive policy toward Scotland, invading that country in September 1547. Early the next year, France intervened. French auxiliaries arrived in strength and, with their Scottish allies, fought the English to a standstill. Conflict resumed around Boulogne too.
As Somerset struggled with the demands of a war on two fronts, English logistical arrangements collapsed. Troops went hungry, ragged, and unpaid. In 1549 the social, economic, and religious tensions that had been building up within England itself exploded in a series of popular revolts across the West Country and East Anglia. By 1550, the English war effort was unsustainable. Somerset withdrew troops from Scotland and returned Boulogne to France four years early, reducing the indemnity from eight hundred thousand to four hundred thousand crowns.
That outcome, perhaps, tells us most about England’s capacity to wage war in the sixteenth century. Leaving aside Monluc’s partisan theories about the paucity of Gascon blood still flowing in English veins as the root cause of their difficulties, the real problem was the overambition of the English Tudor state. Sixteenth-century England was simply a smaller and less wealthy kingdom than France. Without powerful allies, the English were hard put to fight against such an enemy, especially when, as was so often the case, war with France meant war with Scotland too.
As for English yeoman-soldiers, they fought well enough in defense of their own country, against the Scots at Flodden in 1513 and Solway Moss in 1542, and against the French on the Isle of Wight in 1545. Beyond England’s borders, they were more mercurial in temperament. When well fed, well paid, and well led, they served their sovereign admirably. Hungry, poor, and badly directed, they lapsed into the state of apathy that had almost caused the loss of Boulogne in the autumn of 1544. By late 1549, when it was proving impossible to adequately sustain English armies in the field, the garrisons in Scotland were simply picked off one by one. Perhaps the mystery of the English was best understood by Venetian diplomat Sebastian Giustinian, who wrote that Henry’s soldiers “insist on being paid monthly, and did not choose to suffer any hardship; but when they have their comforts they will do battle daily, with a courage, vigour and valour that defies exaggeration.”
Although the 1540s are perhaps a neglected period in the literature of warfare, that era was something of a watershed in English military history. As both Monluc and some English soldiers had noted, the longbow no longer dominated the battlefield as it once had. Henceforth, the bow tended to play a secondary role to the gun, and its replacement was a slow process.
By 1547, arquebusiers were being paid eight pence a day, twopence more than bowmen were. This inevitably hastened the decay of archery, since—as Lord Cobham pointed out to the earl of Somerset—“all men covet the highest pay.” Yet the bow remained a popular weapon with many men of the shire levy for a surprisingly long time.
Only in 1595 did the privy council of Elizabeth I formally prohibit the use of the longbow by the “trained bands,” the elite, regularly drilled militia units. Even then, some Englishmen of the levy continued to carry the longbow well into the seventeenth century. The royalist army of Charles I would contain a few bowmen in 1643. Equally important as the gradual demise of the bow and the rise of the gun were advances in military engineering and architecture. The influence of the trace italienne was evident in the later phases of Henry’s coastal fortification program and in the modernization of the defenses of important garrison towns such as Berwick-upon-Tweed. Most significant, trace italienne–style fortifications would dominate much of the fighting during Somerset’s campaigns in Scotland, 1547-1550.
For France, the campaigns around Boulogne in the 1540s were of less significance. The fighting against the English was a mere episode in a century of bloody strife. Perhaps the career of Blaise de Monluc himself best illustrates this fact. Enjoying the patronage of his new king, Henri II, Monluc was by 1548 back fighting in Piedmont. In 1553 he was rewarded for his service with the governorship of Alba. His most famous military exploit of all was to come the next year, when he commanded the garrison of Siena against besieging imperialist forces. Although he was ultimately forced by starvation and disease to surrender, Monluc’s stalwart resistance won him further honors in France, including promotion to colonel-general of infantry. He quickly returned to the field, serving with continued distinction, once again in Piedmont (1555-57) and at the storming of Thionville in 1558.
The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis of 1559 brought an end to the dynastic conflict between the houses of Hapsburg and Valois. Monluc found himself unemployed. Tragically for France, that situation was short-lived. Soon the country was torn apart by religious strife and civil war. After the briefest of flirtations with local Huguenots in southwest France, Monluc committed himself to the Catholic cause. As the royal lieutenant in Guienne, he proved to be not just an able soldier but also a ruthless and oppressive enemy of the Huguenots, once declaring that “one hanged man is worth a hundred killed in battle.”
Yet his brutality attracted hostile comment at court, just as his amassing of considerable wealth attracted accusations of corruption. Monluc was unequal to the complex intrigues of court politics, and by 1570 his fall from grace seemed imminent. He was, however, a frontline soldier to the last. His career was finally ended not by his political enemies but by a humble arquebusier. Monluc, age 69, was leading an assault into a breach in the walls of the fortress of Rabastens when he was shot in the face at point-blank range.
His wound, although serious, did not kill him. Rabastens fell soon after, and Monluc ordered its garrison and most of their womenfolk put to the sword. “Do not think,” he later wrote, “that I caused this slaughter to be made out of revenge for the wound I received as to strike terror into the country, that they might not dare to make head against our army.”
Yet the circumstances of his wounding clearly angered him. With his shattered face held together by a mask, Monluc was forced into an unwelcome retirement during which he penned a famous denunciation of the gun: “Would to heaven that this accursed engine had never been invented, I had not received those wounds which I now languish under, neither had so many valiant men been slain for the most part by the most pitiful fellows and the greatest cowards; poltroons that had not dared to look those men in the face at hand, which at a distance they laid dead with their confounded bullets.”
His enforced inactivity did, however, allow Monluc to take up the pen and answer his critics. His Commentaries did much to restore his reputation, and in 1574 he was named marshal of France. He died in 1577.
Gervase Phillips, a member of the Department of History at Manchester Metropolitan University, England, is the author of The Anglo-Scots Wars, 1513-1550: A Military History (The Boydell Press, 1999).
Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.