The Loire, frontier of the Hundred Years War (1419-1440)

The Loire, frontier of the Hundred Years War (1419-1440)

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Far from the big battles (often French defeats), the devastating English rides of the Black Prince, or the struggles for the big cities (Orléans, Paris, ...), there is a region in France which was the little-known but decisive theater of the Hundred Years War, and the conflict between Armagnacs and Burgundians. Located on the banks of the Loire, respectively on the margins of the Duchy of Berry and the Duchy of Burgundy, the Sancerrois and the Nivernais have seen the greatest characters of the conflict pass and clash, from Charles VII to the Duke of Bedford, passing through by Jean sans Peur and Joan of Arc, defeated in La Charité-sur-Loire by a curious individual, Perrinet Gressart. For twenty years, at the beginning of the 15th century, the Loire was thus a real frontier of the Hundred Years War.

The county of Sancerre (14th-15th century)

The Sancerrois has been part of the royal domain since the 13th century. The history of the Counts of Sancerre is directly linked to the battles of the Hundred Years War. In fact, Count Louis II was killed at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. His son John III succeeded him, who was taken prisoner with the King of France John the Good at the Battle of Poitiers (1356). He remains one of the hostages guarantors of the king following the Treaty of Brétigny (1360).

Meanwhile, the Englishman Robert Knolles ravaged the Loire Valley as far as Cours-les-Barres, some fifty kilometers south of Sancerre. Taking advantage of the instability of the region, armed bands looted the monastery of Saint-Satur, very close to Sancerre, in 1361. Three years later, Large Companies led by the Englishman John Aymery occupied La Charité-sur-Loire and in turn try a helping hand against Sancerre. Count John III, returned from captivity, pushes them back. It was probably at the time of John III that the Tour des Fiefs (still visible today) was built in Sancerre.

The count has only two daughters, and it is the eldest, Marguerite, who succeeds him as countess of Sancerre on her death in 1402. By marriage with Béraud II, dauphin of Auvergne, Marguerite transmits the county to the house of Auvergne. The first count of Sancerre of this new house is Béraud III, from 1419. It is the moment of the beginning of the Armagnacs civil war against Burgundians, and the Sancerrois logically finds himself in the first camp.

The county of Nevers (14th-15th century)

The history of Nivernais is a little more complex. In the 14th century, the county of Nevers was under the domination of the Counts of Flanders, a region at this decisive period in the rivalry between France and England. Count Louis II of Nevers (Louis I of Flanders) was killed in Crécy in 1346, like the count of Sancerre (and many others). His son Louis III, who succeeded him, then paid homage to the King of France, Philippe VI de Valois. In 1347, apparently on the advice of the king, Louis III married Marguerite de Brabant. The King of England, Edward III, was angry with him for having chosen allegiance to the King of France, and if Louis III was not present in Poitiers, he had to endure the English rides of the late 1350s, with in particular the siege by the English of Nevers and Auxerre. In 1369, he married his daughter Marguerite to the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe le Bold, who helped him drive the English from Nivernais in the early 1370s.

This decision is fundamental for the county of Nevers, which at the end of the 14th century came under the domination of the Duchy of Burgundy. The son of Philippe le Bold, Jean, was count of Nevers at thirteen years old, in 1384. Twelve years later, the young count took part in a crusade against the Turks, destroyed in Nicopolis, where he captured. However, it was during this expedition that he was nicknamed "Jean sans Peur".... On his return to the Nivernais, the count fortifies Nevers; it is from this period that the Porte du Croux dates. In 1404, Jean succeeded his father as Duke of Burgundy. The county of Nevers fell to his brother Philippe, who took part in the fighting in the north of France alongside Jean, while the Armagnacs civil war against Burgundians broke out. But in 1415, Philippe de Nevers was killed at the Battle of Agincourt. His sons Charles and Jean being too young, it was their mother, Bonne d'Artois, but even more the Duke of Burgundy, who decided the fate of the Nivernais, which at this time became a decisive region for the war, even more so when the Duchy of Burgundy chose the English camp in 1419, following the assassination of Jean sans Peur. His son, Philippe le Bon, married Bonne d'Artois and obtained the tutelage of his sons, and of the county.

Armagnacs, Burgundians and English for control of the Loire

From 1419 a fundamental phase of the Hundred Years War is set up, in which the conflict between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians mingles. And the Loire alone is a determining strategic element, in particular the region from Gien to Nevers.

In previous years already, the Sancerre and Nivernaise banks of the Loire have experienced some attacks, in particular by truck drivers and brigands, from one camp as from the other. A few anecdotes show a continuing and growing tension, and a region which suffers the brunt of the disasters of war. Let us cite the example of the monks of Saint-Satur, between Sancerre and Cosne-sur-Loire, whose monastery was looted by English truckers in 1420 (after the looting of 1361). The monks are ransomed, but as no one can (or will) pay, most are sent to Cosne and drowned in the Loire. Only eight escaped and took refuge in Sancerre.
But the Loire quickly became the main center of attention of Dauphin Charles, future Charles VII, then “King of Bourges”, in Berry, on the Sancerre side. He absolutely insisted on taking the Anglo-Burgundian places on the right bank of the river. In 1422, he came to lay siege to Cosne, held by the Lord of Reuillon. The latter tricks by promising to deliver the city if he has not received reinforcements before mid-August. But he knows that the Duke of Burgundy and the King of England, Henry V, are on their way. The English sovereign, ill, must return to Vincennes, but Philip the Good approaches, accompanied by the Duke of Bedford; the Dauphin then preferred to retire to La Charité-sur-Loire, which he had recently occupied. The English counter-attacked by crossing the Loire and laying siege to Sancerre, from which Charles had launched his attack on Cosne; the city is only saved by the announcement of the death of Henri V, who decides the English to turn back. The Dauphin has meanwhile returned to Bourges, and a curious character, Perrinet Gressart, took the opportunity to take La Charité-sur-Loire, a strategic place because of its bridge over the Loire, the only one in the region with those further south and less protected, from Decize and Nevers.

Perrinet Gressart master of La Charité-sur-Loire

Of uncertain origin, Perrinet Gressart would have participated in Azincourt on the English side. He is above all a mercenary who became known from 1417 by capturing and ransoming Louis de Bourbon, 15 years old, half-brother of Bonne d'Artois, Countess of Nevers! The Duke of Burgundy, Jean sans Peur, must intervene in person. Two years later, the mercenary plundered the priory of La Charité-sur-Loire, and at the request of the clerics, he was excommunicated by the Council of Constance. This does not seem to move him and he continues his mercenary / plunderer activities in the region, serving the English and Burgundians, but especially himself.

If he occupied La Charité for a while, he did not seem to be present during the capture of the city by the future Charles VII in 1421. On the other hand, it was he who took it over a year later (or in 1423), and makes it the headquarters of its raids in the region. He managed to put the population on his side, and set up other points of support, notably in Passy-les-Tours. The fortifications of La Charité, partly destroyed under Charles V (the town had been held in the 1370s by two English captains hostile to the king), were renovated by Perrinet Gressart.

Burgundians and English try in vain to persuade him to hand over the city to them, whose bridge has an inestimable strategic value. The Earl of Suffolk even goes so far as to move to convince him. The mercenary is not more understanding towards the other camp: in 1425, he captures the adviser of the Dauphin, Georges de La Trémoille, who was on his way to Burgundy to negotiate! The ransom was not paid until March 1426, and Perrinet Gressart strongly threatened the negotiations between Armagnacs and Burgundians. The same year, he strengthened his position by getting his hands on La Motte-Josserand, near Cosne, a town that his men already controlled. It was not until the Treaty of Corbigny (February 26, 1427) that Perrinet Gressart agreed to hand over La Charité to the prior, and fell back to La Motte-Josserand. But in fact, he is still the master of the region, as the following episode proves.

Joan of Arc against Perrinet Gressart

In 1427, the Duke of Bedford besieged Montargis to launch an offensive on the Loire and Berry. But on September 5, the English were pushed back by Jean d'Orléans, known as “Dunois”, and “La Hire”. Once king, Charles VII concentrated his armies in Gien and near Bourbonnais and Decize. The city of La Charité-sur-Loire is more than ever the center of its attention, thanks to its bridge.On the English side, we continue to try to seduce Perrinet Gressart. Owning the city is essential for them on the road to Bourges. Thanks to the Duke of Bedford, the mercenary obtained from the young King Henry VI possessions in Normandy; he thus becomes a vassal of the King of England! This does not mean that he delivers La Charité to the English ...
In Charles VII's camp, the decision to attack La Charité is partly linked to Joan of Arc's problems with the king's entourage. Indeed, after the failure in Paris in September 1429, the Maid saw her aura grow pale at court. The advisers around La Trémoille then seem to manage to get her away from Charles VII by asking him to take the city on the Loire, whereas she would have preferred to attack Normandy or L'Île-de -France. She will be accompanied by Charles d'Albret. The idea seems incongruous because the period, the winter of 1429, is not at war. Jeanne had to ask for help from several cities, including Orleans and Riom, to finance her expedition.
Joan of Arc took Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier on November 5, and Moulins-sur-Allier on November 9, 1429. Then she laid siege to La Charité-sur-Loire. The place is obviously defended by Perrinet Gressart. Little is known about the details, but we know that there were only two assaults, the besiegers being hampered by the mud, which made it difficult to use artillery. Perrinet Gressart would also have accomplished a ruse to rout the troops on foot of Charles d'Albret. The siege is abandoned before Christmas, and Jeanne returns to Jargeau, near Orleans. Even if all the sources do not confirm it, it would have left part of its artillery, which Perrinet Gressart does not hesitate to add to its booty.
The news is causing a stir. Jeanne was criticized by La Trémoille and the other advisers of the king, but it was above all the Count of Nevers and the Duke of Burgundy who protested. In fact, negotiations continued between Charles VII and Burgundy, and the attack on La Charité, a town normally from Nivernais and Burgundy, was very badly taken. La Trémoille must then state that only Perrinet Gressart was targeted.

The Treaty of Arras and peace between the kingdom of France and Burgundy

Joan's failure in front of La Charité-sur-Loire does not ultimately call into question the rapprochement between France and the Duchy of Burgundy. The Maid captured and then killed by the English, negotiations continued in the following years.
Charles de Nevers obtains a truce between the Duke of Bourbon and the Duke of Burgundy, and the feast is celebrated in Nevers, in 1435. Indeed, despite Perrinet Gressart, the Count of Nevers has always been able to maintain a certain neutrality in conflicts, whether between Charles VII and the English, or between Armagnacs and Burgundians. It was in Nevers that the foundations for the peace of Arras were laid.

The Treaty of Arras was signed on September 20, 1435, and marked the end of the civil war between Armagnacs and Burgundians. Freed from the tutelage of Philippe le Bon, the Count of Nevers, Charles, pledges allegiance to the King of France and helps him get rid of the gang leaders in the Nivernais.

The most dangerous of them, Perrinet Gressart, is not easy to dislodge, however. This one still holds under its control Cosne, Decize, and of course La Charité-sur-Loire. The Count of Nevers and Charles VII then decide to buy it rather than fight it! The mercenary thus becomes captain of La Charité, of La Tour de Cosne, and captain general of Nivernais; he receives the enormous sum of 22,000 golden salutes! All the same, Charles VII had to go to La Charité in person in 1440 for the city to be handed over to him ... Perrinet Gressart died, very rich, in La Motte-Josserand, in 1442.

As for the counties of Nevers and Sancerre, the end of the Hundred Years War does not resolve everything for them. In particular the Nivernais, still in the orbit of the Duchy of Burgundy, whose conflict with France resumed under Louis XI ...


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