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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

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THE SIEGE OF ORLEANS

[199] YOU have already heard a little about Charles when he was the dauphin, but listen now to what an old chronicler writes of him after he had become king.

"Charles VII.," he says, "was a handsome prince, and compassionate toward poor folk; but he did not readily put on his harness, and he had no heart for war if he could do without it." By "harness" the chronicler meant "armour."

It was the greatest pity in the world that Charles VII. had "no heart for war," for war was inevitable if the English were to be turned out of the country, and Charles was ever to claim his true inheritance as King of France.

But as in truth he had "no heart for war," the King of Bourges wandered aimlessly about France, with only a few attendants, sometimes fleeing before the English, sometimes forced to fight them with what army he could collect from his loyal subjects in the south.

It was not only the English who stood in Charles's way, but their allies the Burgundians, without whose help the English would have been too weak to hold France for their baby-king.

Queen Isabelle, the dauphin's mother, had, you remember, also joined the Burgundians, and she did nothing to help her son's cause.

Charles was in a miserable condition. Sometimes he had not even enough money to pay for a pair of boots. He was so unhappy that he often dreamed that he could not really be the king's son, and the true heir to the throne, [200] and almost he would make up his mind to flee to Spain, and think no more about the kingdom he had lost.

While Charles idled and dreamed, the English were active and wide awake. In October 1428 they determined to besiege Orleans, on the banks of the river Loire, which was, after Paris and Rouen, the most important city in the kingdom. It would indeed be a bitter blow to the cause of Charles VII. should he lose Orleans. For it was the key to the south, and should it be taken by the English, the Royalist party would almost certainly be overthrown.

When the Duke of Bedford ordered the Earl of Salisbury, who had come from England with reinforcements, to lay siege to Orleans, the French were without allies, without any great leader.

But the citizens in Orleans were all loyal, and determined to defend their city. They had a garrison of about twelve thousand men, and the reckless soldier, La Hire, as well as the brave Dunois, of whom you will hear more, hastened to the help of the besieged town. Of the stout La Hire it is told that, one day as he was hurrying to a battlefield, he met a priest and begged to be absolved from his sins. But when the priest bade him confess. La Hire refused, saying his sins were many and his time was short. So without further remonstrance the priest gave the rough captain the absolution he desired.

La Hire then folded his hands and prayed: "God, I pray Thee to do for La Hire this day as much as Thou wouldst have La Hire do for Thee if he were God and Thou wert La Hire." Then the bold soldier went happily away to his wars.

Meanwhile, the English had stormed and taken a strong fortress called the Tournelles, which commanded one of the bridges across the Loire leading into the city. Here Sir William Glansdale, who was in charge of the Tournelles, placed his guns, so as to control both the bridge and the city.

[201] The Earl of Salisbury, wishing to see the surrounding country, climbed to the top of the fortress. As he stood there, Glansdale by his side, a shot from the city wounded the earl, and soon afterwards he died.

While the Tournelles was the principal fortress, and would have to be taken before the city could be reached, there were thirteen other forts built round the besieged town.

At times the garrison in Orleans was confident enough to sally out and attack the foe. Hearing in February 1429 that the Duke of Bedford was sending provisions from Paris to the English army, the French made up their mind to seize the fresh supply of food before it reached the camp. Among the provisions, I must tell you, were large numbers of barrels filled with herrings.

The English soldiers were warned that they would be attacked, so they halted at a place called Bouvray, placed the wagons with the provisions close together, and hurriedly put round them a paling made of stakes. The French, led by Dunois, the Bastard of Orleans, as he was called, fired at the enclosure, but the English never stirred.

Then the French, reckless as ever, attacked the little camp. This was what the English had hoped they would do. At close quarters they were more than a match for their foes, and the French were soon beaten and flying in all directions. Dunois was wounded as well as two or three hundred of his men.

This fight was called not only the Battle of Bouvray, but more often the Battle of the Herrings, for the barrels had been shattered, and the fish which they had held was strewn on the ground.

The citizens of Orleans were discouraged by this defeat. Moreover, to add to their distress, the Archbishop of Rheims who had been with them, as well as many nobles, now left the city.

In their despair the people offered to give up the town [202] to the Duke of Burgundy on condition that the Duke of Bedford with his English army would withdraw.

The Duke of Burgundy was already growing tired of his English alliance, and would have accepted the citizens' offer, but Bedford was indignant when the duke asked him to raise the siege. "I do not care to beat the bushes for another to get the birds,"he said.

This answer made the Duke of Burgundy so angry that he at once withdrew his forces, so that the English suffered greatly by the quarrel between the two dukes.

Had the citizens of Orleans but known the feeling in the English camp, they might have made a great effort and forced the besiegers to withdraw. For the soldiers were tired after a winter spent more or less in the trenches, and they knew that without the Burgundian troops they could not take Orleans, although they might still be able to prolong the siege.

To add to the gloom in the English camp, strange rumours now reached them of one calling herself Joan the Maid, who had promised the French king that she would raise the siege of Orleans.


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