1421: a troubled royal Christmas

As the festive season draws to a close and a New Year commences, in today’s blog Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 section, looks back at the news met by Henry V during the Christmas of 1421-2.

King Henry V spent the Christmas season of 1421-2 in France, as he had done for every one of the preceding four Christmases. It had been left to his eldest surviving brother, John, duke of Bedford, as regent of England to preside over the Parliament that had sat at Westminster for about three weeks from 1 December. It had been an odd assembly – readily forthcoming with a grant of taxation and heavily preoccupied with the state of the coinage.

Abbey of St-Faron, where Henry V spent Christmas 1421, National Library of France

King Henry himself was preoccupied with the siege of the fortified city of Meaux on the river Marne. Under the terms of the treaty of Troyes, agreed in May 1420, Henry had been recognised as heir to the mentally unstable Charles VI of France, but the agreement had excluded Charles’s sole surviving son, the 17-year-old Dauphin Charles. Unsurprisingly, the Dauphin had refused to accept his disinheritance, and he was supported in this by many who preferred to see a native Frenchman on the throne of France, or who for one reason or another believed the treaty of Troyes to be invalid. 

Remaining architecture of Medieval Meaux: Le Passage (walkway between the cathedral and the episcopal palace), Philippe Rouzet via Map-France

About 30 miles east of Paris, Meaux was perhaps the strategically most important Dauphinist stronghold in the heart of France, and the English laid siege to it in early October 1421. Leaving the day to day conduct of the siege to his commanders in the field, Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, and Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, Henry V established himself first at Rutel to the west of Meaux, and subsequently at the abbey of Saint-Faron to the north. Here he spent Christmas, and embarked on a major round of diplomatic activity, seeking the support of the Emperor Sigismund and the princes of the Empire for his cause.       

If amidst all of this the King found time for personal contemplations, he might have reflected (as his successor would do 600 years later) that ‘life … consists of final partings as well as first meetings’. In the spring of the year, he had been devastated by the news of the death of his brother Thomas, duke of Clarence, at the battle of Baugé. Of his three brothers, Thomas had been the one to whom he had been closest, and contemporary chroniclers emphasized the intensity of the King’s grief. December had brought further tragedy to the royal family. Prominent members of the English army were Henry’s uncle by marriage, Sir John Cornwall, husband of his paternal aunt Elizabeth, and their only son, the King’s 17-year-old first cousin, John. Probably as a result of a tragic accident rather than reckless behaviour – the contemporary chronicler Jean Juvénal des Ursins was at pains to emphasize his prudence and good conduct – the younger man was struck and killed by a cannon ball one day that December. The King’s undoubted grief at the news of his young cousin’s death was perhaps tempered by the far more welcome news that back in England his wife, Katherine of Valois, had given birth to a son, the future Henry VI. The King would never set eyes on the boy, who was born at Windsor castle, but his birth gave some welcome stability to the still fragile Lancastrian dynasty.

Tomb of Elizabeth of Lancaster, wife of Sir John Cornwall, in St Mary’s Church Burford (Shropshire), Mike Searle via Wikimedia Commons

If the King could at least rejoice at the news of the birth of his heir, Sir John Cornwall had no such consolation. Cornwall was a colourful figure, the circumstances of whose birth had captured the popular imagination. His mother, a niece of the duke of Brittany, had been dispatched across the Channel by her husband when heavily pregnant, so that their son might be born in England. The birth had, however, occurred before they reached dry land, just off St. Michael’s Mount on the Cornish coast. His birth on the green waves of the Channel was said to have earned Sir John the soubriquet of ‘Grenecornewayle’, or ‘The Green Knight’. A dashing figure, the young Sir John purportedly caught the eye of Henry IV’s sister at a tournament at York in July 1400, and had married her before the end of the same year. He went on to fight in Henry V’s great victory at Agincourt, and went on to serve with distinction throughout Henry’s wars. The death of his only legitimate son, however,  affected him badly. According to Jean Juvénal, he was heard to complain openly that the King who had led them across the Channel to recover his rightful inheritance, the duchy of Normandy, was now actively seeking to deprive another man, the Dauphin, of his birthright. At the earliest opportunity, he withdrew from the army and returned to England, where he would live to survive his son for more than 20 years.


Further reading:

Christopher Allmand, Henry V (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1992)

Jean Juvénal des Ursins, Histore de Charles VI., roy de France (Paris, 1841)

Read more about the reign of Henry VI in our recently published House of Commons 1422-1461 volumes, edited by Dr Linda Clark. Find out more here.

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