The Siege of Orléans (1428–1429)

The turning point of the Hundred Years War.

Date: 1428 – 1429
Location: Orleans, France
Outcome: French victory-Decisive battle
Principal Combatants.
English Leadership: Thomas de Montacute, William de la Pole, duke of Suffol
English Strength: 5000 men
English Casualties: nearly a thousand killed, and 600 prisoners.
French Leadership: Jeanne d’Arc
French Strength: Town population of about 5,000 people
French Casualties: ?. 200 French prisoners were found in the complex and released

The Siege of Orléans (1428–1429) marked a turning point in the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. This was Jeanne d’Arc’s first major military victory and the first major French success to follow the crushing defeat at Agincourt in 1415. The outset of this siege marked the pinnacle of English power during the later stages of the war.

The city held strategic and symbolic significance to both sides of the conflict. The consensus among contemporaries was that the English regent, John Plantagenet, would succeed in realizing Henry V’s dream of conquering all of France if Orléans fell. For half a year the English appeared to be winning, but the siege collapsed nine days after Jeanne’s arrival.

Background

Hundred Years’ War

The siege of Orléans occurred during the Hundred Years’ War, contested between the ruling houses of France and England for supremacy over France. The conflict had begun in 1337 when England’s Edward III decided to press his claim to the French throne, a claim based in part on ancient inheritance from William the Conqueror and augmented by inheritance from strategic marriages.

Following a decisive victory at Agincourt in 1415, the English gained the upper hand in the conflict, occupying much of northern France. Under the Treaty of Troyes of 1420, England’s Henry V became regent of France. By this treaty, Henry married Catherine, the daughter of the current French king, Charles VI, and would then succeed to the French throne upon Charles’s death. The dauphin Charles, the son of Charles VI and presumptive heir prior to the treaty, was then disinherited.

Geography

Orléans is located on the Loire River in north-central France. During the time of this siege it was the northernmost city that remained loyal to the French crown. The English and their allies the Burgundians controlled the rest of northern France, including Paris. Orléans’s position on a major river made it the last obstacle to a campaign into central France. England already controlled France’s southwestern coast.

View of orleans restored in 1428-1429 by M.Juste Lisch, architect of the Government

Armagnac party

As the capital of the duchy of Orléans, this city held symbolic significance in early fifteenth century politics. The dukes of Orléans were at the head of a political faction known as the Armagnacs who rejected the Treaty of Troyes and supported the claims of France’s uncrowned king Charles VII. This faction had been active for two generations. As a result, the duke of Orléans was one of the very few combatants from Agincourt who remained a prisoner of the English fourteen years after the battle.

Under the customs of chivalry, a city that surrendered to an invading army without a struggle was entitled to lenient treatment from its new ruler. A city that resisted could expect a harsh occupation. Mass executions were not unknown in this type of situation. By late medieval reasoning, the city of Orléans had escalated the conflict and forced the use of violence upon the English, so a conquering lord would be just in exacting vengeance upon its citizens. The city’s association with the Armagnac party made it unlikely to be spared if it fell.

State of the conflict

After the brief fallout over Hainaut in 1425-26, English and Burgundian arms renewed their alliance and offensive on the Dauphin’s France in 1427. The Orléanais region southwest of Paris was of key importance, not only for controlling the Loire river, but also to smoothly connect the English area of operations in the west and the Burgundian area of operations in the east. French arms had been largely ineffective before the Anglo-Burgundian onslaught until the siege of Montargis in late 1427, when Étienne de Vignolles (“La Hire”) and John of Orléans, Count of Dunois (“the Bastard of Orléans”) managed to successfully force the siege to be lifted. The relief of Montargis, the first effective French action in years, emboldened sporadic uprisings in the thinly-garrisoned English-occupied region of Maine to the west, threatening to undo recent English gains.

However, the French failed to capitalize on the aftermath of Montargis, in large part because the French court was embroiled in an internal power struggle between the constable Arthur de Richemont and the chamberlain Georges de la Trémoille, a new favorite of the Dauphin Charles. John of Dunois, La Hire and Poton de Xaintrailles were partisans of La Trémoille, while Charles de Bourbon (Count of Clermont) (son of the imprisoned duke of Bourbon), the marshal Jean de Brosse (Sieur de Boussac) and John Stewart of Darnley (head of the Scottish auxiliary forces), were lined up with the constable. The inner French conflict had reached such a point that their partisans were fighting each other in the open field by mid-1428.

The English availed themselves of French paralysis to raise fresh reinforcements in England in early 1428, raising a new force of 2,700 men (450 men-at-arms and 2,250 longbowmen), brought over by Thomas Montacute (Earl of Salisbury). These were bolstered by new levies raised in Normandy and Paris, and joined by auxiliaries from Burgundy and vassal domains in Picardie and Champagne, to a total strength possibly as great as 10,000. At the council of war in the Spring of 1428, the English regent John Duke of Bedford determined the direction of English arms would be towards the west, to stomp out the fires in the Maine and lay siege to Angers. The city of Orléans was not originally on the menu – indeed, Bedford had secured a private deal with Dunois, whose attentions were focused on the Richemont-La Trémoille conflict, then raging violently in the Berri. As Charles, Duke of Orléans was at the time in English captivity, it would have been contrary to the customs of knightly war to seize the possessions of a prisoner. Bedford agreed to leave Orléans alone, but, for some reason, changed his mind shortly after the arrival of English reinforcements under Salisbury in July 1428. In a memorandum written in later years, Bedford expressed that the siege of Orléans “was taken in hand, God knoweth by what advice”, suggesting it was probably Salisbury’s idea, not his.

Plan of the city of Orléans drawn and engraved by C. Inselin Date 1600
Plan of the city of Orleans. Drawn and engraved by C. Inselin. Date: 1700
La campagne de la Loire 1429
Orleans 1429

Salisbury’s approach

Between July and October, the Earl of Salisbury swept through the countryside southwest of Paris – recovering Nogent-le-Roi, Rambouillet and the area around Chartres. Then, rather than continuing southwest to Angers, Salisbury turned abruptly southeast towards Orléans instead. Pressing towards the Loire, Salisbury seized Le Puiset and Janville (with some difficulty) in August. From there, rather than descending directly on Orléans from the north, Salisbury skipped over the city to seize the countryside west of it. He reached the Loire river at Meung-sur-Loire, which he promptly seized (a detachment of his men crossed the river then to plunder the abbey of Cléry). He pressed a little downriver, in the direction of Blois, to take the bridge and castle of Beaugency. Salisbury crossed the Loire at the point, and turned up to approach Orléans from the south. Salisbury arrived at Olivet, just one mile south of Orléans, on October 7.

In the meantime, an English detachment, under John de La Pole, had been sent to seize the regions upriver, east of Orléans: Jargeau fell on October 5, Châteauneuf-sur-Loire immediately after, while further upriver, the Burgundians took Sully-sur-Loire. Orléans was cut off and surrounded. Manning the defenses of Orléans, John of Dunois had watched the tightening English noose and took care to prepare the city for siege. Dunois correctly anticipated that the English would aim for the bridge, nearly ¼ mile (400 m) long, that led from the south shore of the Loire into the center of the city of Orléans on the north shore. The bridge passed over the riverine island of St. Antoine, an optimal location for Salisbury to position English cannon within range of Orléans city center.

At the southern end of the bridge was a turreted gatehouse, Les Tourelles, which stood in the river, connected by a drawbridge to the southern bank. Dunois rapidly erected a large earthwork bulwark (Boulevart) on the south shore itself, which he packed with the bulk of his troops, thus creating a large fortified complex to protect the bridge. Just across from the Boulevart was an Augustinian friary, which could be used as a flanking firing position on any approach to the bridge, although it seems Dunois decided not to make use of it. On his orders, the southern suburbs of Orléans were evacuated and all structures leveled to prevent giving the English cover.

Early stages of the siege

Assault on the Tourelles

The siege of Orléans formally began on 12 October 1428, and initiated with an artillery bombardment that began on October 17. The English assaulted the Boulevart on October 21, but the assaulters were held back by French missile fire, rope nets, scalding oil, hot coals and quicklime. The English decided against a new frontal attack, and set about mining the bulwark. The French countermined, fired the pit props and fell back to the Tourelles on October 23. But the Tourelles itself was taken by storm the next day, October 24. The departing French blew up some of the bridge arches to prevent a direct pursuit.

With the fall of the Tourelles, Orléans seemed doomed. But the timely arrival of the Marshal de Boussac with sizeable French reinforcements prevented the English from repairing and crossing the bridge and seizing Orléans right then. The English suffered another setback two days later, when the Earl of Salisbury was struck in the face by debris kicked up in cannon fire while supervising the installation of the Tourelles. English operations were suspended while Salisbury was carried off to Meung to recover, but after lingering for about a week, he died of his injuries.

The investment

The lull in English operations following Salisbury’s injury and death gave the citizens of Orléans time to knock out the remaining arches of the bridge on their end, disabling the possibility of a quick repair and direct assault. The new siege commander appointed by Bedford in mid-November, William de la Pole (Earl of Suffolk) resolved on surrounding the city and starving it into submission. He did not have enough men to invest the city with continuous trenchlines, so he set up a series of outworks, (bastides). Over the next few months, seven strongholds were set up on the north bank, and four on the south bank, with the small riverine isle of Charlemagne (west of Orléans) commanding the bridges connecting the two banks.

The establishment of the outworks was not without difficulty – the French garrison sallied out repeatedly to harass the builders, and systematically destroyed other buildings (notably, all the churches) in the suburbs to prevent them serving as shelter for the English during the winter months. By the Spring of 1429, the English outworks covered only the south and west of the city, with the northeast basically left open (nonetheless swarming with English patrols). Sizeable contingents of French men-at-arms could push aside the patrols and move in and out of the city, but the entry of any lighter-escorted provisions and supplies was firmly blocked, there and further afield.

On the south bank, the English center was the bridge complex (composed of the Tourelles-Boulevart and the now-fortified Augustins). Guarding the approach to the bridge from the east was the bastille of St. Jean-le-Blanc, while to the west of the bridge complex was the bastille of Champ de St. Privé. St. Privé also guarded the bridge to the island of Charlemagne (which had another bastille). On the north bank of the Loire river, on the other side of Charlemagne bridge, was the bastille of St. Laurent, the largest English bulwark and the nerve center of English operations. Above that were a series of smaller outworks, in order: the bastille de la Croiz Boisse, the bastille des Douze Pierres (nicknamed “London”), the bastille de Pressoir Aps (nicknamed “Rouen”) and, just north of the city, the bastille de St. Pouair (nicknamed “Paris”), all on top of the main roads. Then came the great northeastern gap, although its back was mostly covered by thick forest of the Bois d’Orléans. Finally, some 2 km east of the city, on the north bank, there was the isolated bastille of St. Loup.

Orléans’s position seemed gloomy. Although the French still held isolated citadels like Montargis to the northeast and Gien upriver, any relief would have to come from Blois, to the southwest, exactly where the English had concentrated their forces. Provisions convoys had to follow dangerous circuitous routes swinging around to reach the city from the northeast. Few made it through, and the city soon began to feel the pinch. Should Orléans fall, it would effectively make the recovery of the northern half of France all but impossible, and prove fatal to the Dauphin Charles’s bid for the crown. When the French Estates met at Chinon in September 1428, they pressed the Dauphin to make peace with Philip III of Burgundy “at any price”.

Orleans lorie and the islands in 1429. Map by M. Boucher de Molando
Card to serve a military intelligence facts followed the siege of Orleans. Date: 1833
New plan of the city of Orleans Date: 1800
Orleans and its surroundings during the siege of 1429

Jeanne’s arrival at Orléans

For years, vague prophecies had been circulating in France concerning an armored maiden who would rescue France. Many of these prophecies foretold that the armored maiden would come from the borders of Lorraine, where Domrémy, Jeanne’s birthplace, is located. As a result, when word reached the besieged citizens of Orléans concerning Jeanne’s journey to see the King, expectations and hopes were high.

Escorted by Baudricourt, Jeanne arrived in Chinon on March 6, 1429, and met with the skeptical La Trémoille. On March 9, she finally met the Dauphin Charles, although it would be a few days more before she had a private meeting where the Dauphin was finally convinced of her “powers” (or at least, her usefulness). Nonetheless, he insisted she first proceed to Poitiers to be examined by church authorities. With the clerical verdict that she posed no harm and could be safely taken on, Dauphin Charles finally accepted her services on March 22. She was provided with a suit of plate armor, a banner, a pageboy, and heralds.

Jeanne’s first mission was the join a convoy assembling at Blois, under the command of Marshals de Boussac and Gilles de Rais, bringing supplies to Orléans. It was from Blois that Jeanne dispatched her famous missives to the English siege commanders, calling herself “the Maiden” (La Pucelle), and ordering them, in the name of God, to “Begone, or I will make you go”.

The relief convoy, escorted by some 400-500 soldiers, finally left Blois on 27 or 28 April, in nearly religious processional array. Jeanne had insisted on approaching Orléans from the north (through the Beauce region), where English forces were concentrated, intent on fighting them immediately. But the commanders decided to take the convoy in a circuitous route around the south (through the Sologne region) without telling Jeanne, reaching the south bank of the Loire at Rully (near Chécy), some four miles east of the city. Orléans’ commander, John of Dunois, came out to meet them across the river. Jeanne was indignant at the deception and ordered an immediate attack on St. Jean-le-Blanc, the nearest English bastille on the south bank. But Dunois, supported by the Marshals, protested and with some effort, finally prevailed on her to allow the city to be resupplied before any assaults on anything. The provisions convoy approached the landing of Port Saint-Loup, across the river from the English bastille of Saint-Loup on the north bank. While French skirmishers kept the English garrison of Saint-Loup contained, a fleet of boats from Orléans sailed down to the landing to pick up the supplies, Jeanne and 200 soldiers. One of Jeanne’s reputed miracles was said to have taken place here: the wind which had brought the boats upriver suddenly reversed itself, allowing them to sail back to Orléans smoothly under the cover of darkness. Jeanne d’Arc entered Orléans in triumph, on April 29, around 8:00 PM, to much rejoicing. The rest of the convoy returned to Blois.

Lifting the siege

Over the next couple of days, to boost morale, Jeanne paraded periodically around the streets of Orléans, distributing food to the people and salaries to the garrison. Jeanne d’Arc also sent out messengers to the English bastions demanding their departure, which the English commanders greeted with jeers. Some even threatened to kill the messengers as “emissaries of a witch”.

Jeanne participated in discussion of tactics with John of Dunois and the other French commanders. The Journal du siege d’Orléans, as quoted in Pernoud, reports several heated discussions over the next week concerning military tactics between Jeanne and Jean de Dunois, the Bastard of Orléans, who directed the city’s defense.

Believing the garrison too small for any action, on May 1, Dunois left the city in the hands of La Hire and Jeanne and made his way personally to Blois to arrange for reinforcements. During this interlude, Jeanne went outside the city walls and scouted all of the English fortifications personally, at one point exchanging words with William Glasdale himself.

On May 3, Dunois’s reinforement convoy left Blois to head for Orléans. At the same time, other troop convoys set out from Montargis and Gien in the direction of Orléans. Dunois’s military convoy arrived via the Beauce district, on the north bank of the river, in the early morning of May 4, in full view of the English garrison at St. Laurent. English declined to challenge the convoy’s entry on account of its strength. Jeanne rode out to escort it in.

Map of the former Orleans bridge and its surroundings in 1834
Plan of the city of Orleans, including old monuments, remarkable houses
Plan de la ville d'Orléans. Date: 1773
Plan of the city of Orleans in 1648

Assault on St. Loup

At noon that same day (May 4, 1429), apparently to secure the entry of more provisions convoys, which had taken the usual circuitous route via the east, Dunois launched an attack on the easterly English bastille of St. Loup together with the Montargis-Gien troops. Jeanne nearly missed out on it, having been napping when the assault began, but she hurried to join in. The English garrison of 400 was heavily outnumbered by the 1,500 French assaulters. Hoping to divert the French away, the English commander, Lord John Talbot, launched an attack from St. Pouair, on the northern end of Orléans, but it was held back by a French sortie. After a few hours, St. Loup fell, with some 140 English killed and 40 prisoners taken. Some of the English defenders of St. Loup were captured in the ruins of a nearby church, their lives spared at Jeanne’s request. Hearing that St. Loup had fallen, Talbot retired the northern assault.

Assault on St. Loup

At noon that same day (May 4, 1429), apparently to secure the entry of more provisions convoys, which had taken the usual circuitous route via the east, Dunois launched an attack on the easterly English bastille of St. Loup together with the Montargis-Gien troops. Jeanne nearly missed out on it, having been napping when the assault began, but she hurried to join in. The English garrison of 400 was heavily outnumbered by the 1,500 French assaulters. Hoping to divert the French away, the English commander, Lord John Talbot, launched an attack from St. Pouair, on the northern end of Orléans, but it was held back by a French sortie. After a few hours, St. Loup fell, with some 140 English killed and 40 prisoners taken. Some of the English defenders of St. Loup were captured in the ruins of a nearby church, their lives spared at Jeanne’s request. Hearing that St. Loup had fallen, Talbot retired the northern assault.

Assault on the Augustines

The next day, May 5, was Ascension Day, and Jeanne urged an attack on the largest English outwork, the bastille of St. Laurent to the west. But the French captains, knowing its strength and that their men needed rest, prevailed on her to allow them to honor the feast-day in peace. Overnight, in a war council, it was decided that the best course of action was to clear the English bastions on the south bank, where the English were weakest.

The operation began in the early morning of May 6. The citizens of Orléans, inspired by Jeanne d’Arc, raised urban militias on her behalf and showed up at the gates, much to the distress of the professional commanders. Nonetheless, Jeanne prevailed upon the professionals to allow the militia to join. The French crossed the river from Orléans on boats and barges and landed on the island of St. Aignan, crossing over to the south bank via a makeshift pontoon bridge, landing on the stretch between the bridge complex and the bastille of St. Jean-le-Blanc. That plan had been to cut off and take St. Jean-le-Blanc from the west, but the English garrison commander, William Glasdale, sensing the intent of the French operation, had already hurriedly destroyed the St. Jean-le-Blanc outwork and concentrated his troops in the central Boulevart-Tourelles-Augustines complex.

Before the French had properly disembarked on the south bank, Jeanne d’Arc reportedly launched a precipitous attack on the strongpoint of the Boulevart. This nearly turned into a disaster, as the assault was exposed on the flanks to English fire from the Augustines. The assault broke off when there were cries that the English garrison of the bastille of St. Privé further west was rushing upriver to reinforce Glasdale and cut them off. Panic set in, and the French assaulters retreated from the Boulevart back to the landing grounds, dragging the bewildered Jeanne back with them. Seeing the “witch” on the run and the “spell” broken, Glasdale’s garrison burst out to give chase, but according to legend, Jeanne turned around on them alone, raised her holy standard and cried out “Ou Nom De” (“In the name of God”), which reportedly was sufficient to impress the English to halt their pursuit and return to the Boulevart. The fleeing French troops turned around and rallied to her.

Watching the turn of events, Gilles de Rais persuaded Jeanne to immediately resume the assault, but to direct the French soldiers not on the Boulevart, but rather on the detached bastille of the Augustins. After heavy fighting that lasted the entire day, the Augustins was finally taken just before nightfall.
With the Augustins in French hands, Glasdale’s garrison was blockaded in the Boulevart-Tourelles complex. That same night, what remained of the English garrison at St. Privé evacuated their outwork and went north of the river to join their comrades in St. Laurent. Glasdale was isolated, but he could count on a strong and well-esconsed English garrison of 700-800 troops.

Orleans and vicinity 1429
The bridge of Orleans on the last day of the English siege, sunday may 8, 1429
View of orleans restored in 1428-1429 by M.Juste Lisch, architect of the Government
Pont des Tourelles 1690

Assault on the Tourelles

15th C. depiction of Jeanne d’Arc leading an assault on an English fort at the siege of Orléans
Jeanne had been wounded in the foot in the assault on the Augustins, and taken back to Orléans overnight to recover, and as a result did not participate in the evening war council. The next morning, May 7, she was asked to sit out the final assault on the Boulevart-Tourelles, but she refused and roused to join the French camp on the south bank, much to the joy of the people of Orléans. The citizens raised more levies on her behalf and set about repairing the bridge with beams to enable a two-sided attack on the complex. Artillery was positioned on the island of Saint-Antoine.

The day was spent in a largely fruitless bombardment and attempts to undermine the foundations of the complex, by mining and burning barges. As evening was approaching, John of Dunois had decided to leave the final assault for the next day. Informed of the decision, Jeanne called for her horse and rode off for a period of quiet prayer, then returned to the camp, grabbed a ladder and launched the frontal assault on the Boulevart herself, reportedly calling out to her troops “Tout est vostre – et y entrez!” (“All is yours, – go in!”). The French soldiery rushed in after her, swarming up the ladders into the Boulevart. Jeanne was struck down early in the assault by a crossbow quarrel (others report a bodkin arrow) in the shoulder and was hurriedly taken away. Rumors of her death bolstered the English defenders and faltered French morale. But, according to reports, she pulled the bolt out herself and, despite her injury, soon re-appeared in the French lines, giving the assaulters renewed inspiration. (In his rehabilitation trial testimony, Jean Pasquerel, Jeanne’s confessor, stated that Jeanne herself had some type of premonition or foreknowledge of this event, stating the day before the attack that “tomorrow blood will flow from my body above my breast.”)

The French carried the day and forced the English out of the Boulevart and back into the last redoubt of the Tourelles. But the drawbridge connecting them gave way, and Glasdale himself fell into the river and perished. The French pressed on to storm the Tourelles itself, from both sides (the bridge now repaired). The Tourelles, half-burning, was finally taken in the evening.

English losses were heavy. Counting other actions on the day (notably the interception of reinforcements rushed to the defense), the English had suffered nearly a thousand killed, and 600 prisoners. 200 French prisoners were found in the complex and released.

End of the siege

With Boulevart-Tourelles taken, the English had lost the south bank of the Loire. There was little point of continuing the siege, as Orléans could now be easily re-supplied indefinitely. On the morning of May 8, the English troops on the north bank, under the command of William de la Pole (Earl of Suffolk) and Lord John Talbot, demolished their outworks and assembled in battle array in the field near St. Laurent. The French army under Dunois lined up before them. They stood facing each other immobile for about an hour, before the English withdrew from the field and marched off to join other English units in Meung, Beaugency and Jargeau. Some of the French commanders urged an attack to destroy the English army then and there. Jeanne d’Arc reportedly forbade it, on account of it being Sunday.

Aftermath

The English did not consider themselves beaten. Although they had suffered a setback and tremendous losses at Orléans itself, the surrounding perimeter of the Orleanais region – Beaugency, Meung, Janville, Jargeau – was still in their hands. Indeed, it was possible for the English to reorganize and resume the siege of Orléans itself soon after, this time perhaps with more success, as the bridge was now repaired, and thus more susceptible to being taken by assault. Suffolk’s priority that day (May 8) was to salvage what remained of English arms.

The French commanders realized as much, Jeanne less so. Leaving Orléans, she met the Dauphin Charles outside of Tours on May 13, to report her victory. She immediately called for a march northeast into Champagne, towards Rheims, but the French commanders knew they had to first clear the English out of their dangerous positions on the Loire.

The Loire Campaign began a couple of weeks later, after a period of rest and reinforcement. Volunteers of men and supplies swelled the French army, eager to serve under Jeanne d’Arc’s banner. Even the ostracized constable Arthur de Richemont was eventually permitted to join the campaign. After a series of brief sieges and battles at Jargeau (June 12), Meung (June 15) and Beaugency (June 17), the Loire was back in French hands. An English reinforcement army rushing from Paris under John Talbot was defeated at the Battle of Patay shortly after (June 18), the first significant field victory for French arms in years. The English commanders, the Earl of Suffolk and Lord Talbot, were taken prisoner in this campaign. Only thereafter did the French feel safe enough to accede to Jeanne’s request for a march on Rheims.

After some preparation, the march on Rheims began from Gien on June 29, the Dauphin Charles following Jeanne and the French army through the dangerous Burgundian-occupied territory of Champagne. Although Auxerre (July 1) closed its gates and refused them entry, Saint-Florentin (July 3) yielded, as did, after some resistance, Troyes (July 11) and Châlons-sur-Marne (July 15). They reached Rheims the next day and the Dauphin Charles, with Jeanne at his side, was finally consecrated as King Charles VII of France on July 17, 1429.

Text: From a wide range of sources