The Battle of the Herrings

The Battle of the Herrings was a military action near the town of Rouvray in France, just north of Orléans, which took place on 12 February 1429 during the siege of Orléans. The immediate cause of the battle was an attempt by French forces, led by Charles of Bourbon, Count of Clermont, to intercept and divert a supply convoy headed for English forces.

Date: 12 Feb 1429
Location: France
Outcome: English victory
Principal Combatants.
English Leadership: William de la Pole
English Strength: 2.200
English Casualties:
French Leadership: JComte de Clermont
French Strength: 4,000
French Casualties:

The Battle of the Herrings was a military action near the town of Rouvray in France, just north of Orléans, which took place on 12 February 1429 during the siege of Orléans. The immediate cause of the battle was an attempt by French forces, led by Charles of Bourbon, Count of Clermont, to intercept and divert a supply convoy headed for English forces.

The English had been laying siege to the town of Orléans since the previous October. The French were assisted by a Scottish force led by the Constable of the Scottish army, Sir John Stewart of Darnley. There are two places called Rouvray in the region in question. In his biography of Sir John Fastolf, Stephen Cooper gives reasons why the battle probably took place near Rouvray-Sainte-Croix, rather than Rouvray-Saint-Denis.

This supply convoy was led by Sir John Fastolf and had been outfitted in Paris, whence it had departed some time earlier. According to Regine Pernoud, this convoy consisted of “some 300 carts and wagons, carrying crossbow shafts, cannons and cannonballs but also barrels of herring.” The latter were being sent since the meatless Lenten days were approaching. It was the presence of this stock of fish which would give the somewhat unusual name to the battle.

The Battle of the Herrings. 12 Feb 1429
The Battle of the Herrings. 12 Feb 1429
The Battle of the Herrings. 12 Feb 1429
Journée des Harengs (From Les Vigiles de Charles VII by Martial d'Auvergne, written c.1477-84, held by Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.)

The battle

The field of battle was an almost featureless, flat plain. The French army, numbering between 3000 and 4000, confronted the much smaller English force who had set up defensive positions by drawing up the supply wagons into a makeshift fortification. The entire defensive formation was then further protected by the placement of sharpened spikes all around to prevent the French cavalry from charging, a tactic which had been employed, with great success, at the Battle of Agincourt. The French attack began with a bombardment using gunpowder artillery, a relatively new weapon for the time and one whose proper usage was not well understood.

The 400-strong Scottish infantry, contrary to the orders of the Count of Clermont (Pernoud states that “Clermont sent message after message forbidding any attack”) went on the attack against the English formation. This, according to deVries, forced the premature cessation of the artillery bombardment out of fear of striking their own forces. The Scots were not well protected by armour and great damage was visited upon them by the English archers and crossbowmen who were shooting from behind the protection of their wagon fort.

At this point, the English, seeing that the remaining French forces were slow to join the Scots in the attack (Pernoud quotes the Journal du siege d’Orléans to the effect that the remaining French forces “came on in a cowardly fashion, and did not join up with the constable and the other foot soldiers”), decided themselves to go on a counterattack. They struck the rear and flanks of the disorganized French/Scottish forces and put them to flight.

Pernoud states that the combined French/Scottish forces lost about 400 men, including Stewart, the leader of the Scots. Among the wounded was Jean de Dunois, known also as the Bastard of Orléans, who barely escaped with his life and who would later play such a crucial role, along with Jeanne d’Arc, in the lifting of the siege of Orléans and the French Loire campaign which followed.

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Aftermath and significance

While it is generally felt today that the Battle of the Herrings was lost because of the failure to continue the artillery bombardment to its full effect, such was not the view at the time, at least in the besieged city of Orléans. Within the city walls, as can be seen from the passage in the Journal du siege, the Count of Clermont was generally blamed for the disaster, being considered a coward and held in disdain. Soon thereafter, Clermont, together with the wounded Count Dunois, left Orléans together with about 2000 soldiers. Morale within the city and among its leaders was at a low point, so much so that consideration was given to surrendering the city.

The Battle of the Herrings was the most significant military action during the siege of Orléans from its inception in October 1428 until the appearance on the scene, in May of the following year, of Jeanne d’Arc. Even so, it was, to all appearances, a rather minor engagement and, were it not for the context in which it occurred, would most likely have been relegated to the merest of footnotes in military history or even forgotten altogether.

But not only was it part of one of the most famous siege actions in history, the story also gained currency that it played a pivotal role in convincing Robert de Baudricourt in Vaucouleurs, to accede to Jeanne’s demand for support and safe conduct to Chinon. For it was on the very day (12 February 1429) of the battle that Jeanne met with de Baudricourt for the final time. According to the story, recounted in several places (for example, in Sackville-West), Jeanne gave out the information that “the Dauphin’s arms had that day suffered a great reverse near Orléans”. When, several days later, news of the military setback near Rouvrey did in fact reach Vaucouleurs, de Baudricourt, according to the story, relented and agreed to sponsor her journey to the Dauphin in Chinon. Jeanne finally left Vaucouleurs for Chinon on 23 February 1429.