The Battle of Castillon, fought on July 17, 1453, was the last battle of the Hundred Years” War. It pitted the English army on one side against the Franco-Breton army on the other. It was also the first documented battle in which artillery proved to be the decisive factor.
The rapid campaign of reconquest culminated on June 30, 1451 when the French entered the Gascon capital of Bordeaux victorious. The English star in the conflict seemed about to fade and the protracted Hundred Years” War was drawing to a close. However, after three hundred years of English domination, the inhabitants of the city now considered themselves – and in fact were – English. Consequently, they sent an embassy to England and demanded that King Henry VI reconquer the city. They were dissatisfied because the new French overlords intended to regulate trade and levy unusually high taxes to finance the war effort.
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Landing and capture
On October 17, 1452 Talbot landed near Bordeaux, commanding a force of over 3,000 men-at-arms and a group of experienced archers.
Seeing the English force approaching, the inhabitants mutinied against the French garrison defending the city, and forcibly expelled them, then opened the gates of the wall to their “compatriots”. The Gascon fraction of the population followed the example of the others and welcomed the invading army. Most of the villages around Guiana did the same.
The supposedly easy French reconquest threatened to be complicated by a serious error of strategic information: Charles VII had believed that Talbot was on his way to capture Normandy. Instead, the English had appeared at Bordeaux.
Throughout the winter, Charles VII of France decided to act: he assembled his armies and prepared them for a punitive campaign to recapture Bordeaux. When spring arrived, Charles advanced towards the city, dividing his force into three separate corps that made the approach march from three different directions: from the northeast, east and southeast. The king himself commanded the rear reserve.
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Reinforcements and change of plans
Faced with the serious problem posed by the enemy army that stalked him, Talbot asked for and obtained reinforcements. He was given another 3,000 men under the command of his son, the lord of Lisle, which, however, were still insufficient to deal with the thousands and thousands of Frenchmen crouching on the borders of Gascony. Many Gascons (perhaps as many as 3,000) also joined Talbot.
John Bureau, head of the Gallic army, ordered his eastern army to lay siege to the nearby town of Castillon (today Castillion-la-Bataille), on the banks of the Dordogne River, forcing Talbot to abandon his original plan, which was to make himself strong in Bordeaux and resist a siege there. Faced with the news, the English commander had to leave the city and go to Castillon to try to raise the siege.
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As was often the case in the Hundred Years” War, the French army did not have a single command. The nominal command was held by Jean de Blois, Count of Périgord, Viscount of Limoges and Count of Penthievre. Blois was Breton.
With him were the chiefs Juan de Bueil and Santiago de Chabannes. Above them all (except for the political authority held by Blois) commanded the experienced military engineer Juan de Bureau, who was accompanied by his brother Gaspar as chief of artillery. As was usual in those days, the chief engineer directed the sieges and sieges. Blois and the others, as befitted the nobility, would command the heavy cavalry.
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John Bureau, fearful of Talbot, ordered 7000 of his nearly 10,000 soldiers to fortify the area around Castillon: he had them dig a deep moat, protect the ramparts with a multitude of sharpened stakes and placed 300 cannons on the parapet. This attitude is inexplicable because it is extremely defensive. Bureau enjoyed an enormous numerical superiority that some historians estimate at 6 to 1; however, he did not attempt to attack Talbot or make the slightest effort to force the entry into Castillon.
The Bureau brothers had been in the region for the campaign of 1451, and knew it like the back of their hand. This explains why they ordered their men to dig the trenches and ditches directly in their proper places, on a dry bank of the Lidore River, a tributary of the Dordogne. The French defensive lines can still be seen today marked on the ground from an airplane or by aerial photography.
In addition to cannons, the French defenders had at their disposal quantities of handguns, which had been supplied by a Genoese mercenary named Guiribaut. He commanded the men who would use them.
The artillery sections constituted the main fraction of the French army. Their personnel has been estimated at 6,000 men, although certain military historians raise that figure up to 9,000 artillerymen. The cavalry consisted of a thousand Bretons located a kilometer and a half from the main camp.
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Convinced that he must leave Bordeaux to help defend Castillon, Talbot once again displayed his well-known aggressiveness and swiftness of decision. He left the city in the early morning of July 16 leading an advanced force of horsemen, followed by a large mass of men-at-arms on foot. With the latter group moved his artillery. His total forces on leaving Bordeaux consisted of approximately 6,000 English troops supported by the aforementioned 3,000 Gascons.
Arriving at Libourne (a town on the banks of the Dordogne) at nightfall, Talbot”s advance party, consisting of 500 mounted men-at-arms and 800 archers on foot, continued forward on a forced march by night, crossing Saint Emilion and approaching the French camp.
Talbot arrived near the enemy camp at dawn the next day (July 17, 1453). He discovered Roualt”s force – which had abandoned the priory – hiding in a wood north of St. Lawrence and opposite the French camp, and engaged it in a lightning skirmish that surprised it and culminated in numerous French dead. The survivors fled through the woods and took refuge in Bureau”s camp. This favorable action bolstered the morale of the English troops.
After a forced march of more than 50 kilometers, it was imperative to give his men time for rest and food. While the soldiers were sleeping or eating breakfast, a messenger who had managed to escape from the city informed Talbot that the French army had taken to flight and that hundreds of horsemen were abandoning the fortifications and fleeing. Looking into the distance, the English commander could see a huge cloud of dust dispersing on the horizon.
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The British horsemen forded the Lidoire about 600 meters west of the French camp. The Anglo-German forces did not advance against the enemy directly from the west, but surrounded the camp with intentions of attacking the longer axis of the camp, concentrating on the banks above the river on the south side.
Discovering to his surprise that the parapets were defended by thousands of archers armed to the teeth and over 300 guns, Talbot began to think he may have underestimated the French defenses, but, without losing his cool, he ordered to attack with ferocity. The French artillerymen were expecting just that.
The Englishman had his men dismount and storm the defenses to the cry of “By Talbot! By St. George!”. The French cannons opened fire. The slaughter was appalling, yet many Englishmen and Gascons managed to reach the palisade and climb over the parapet. One Englishman, Thomas Evrigham, was even able to plant his flag on the wall, paying for his feat with his life.
While the guns swept the English with enfilade fire, in various parts of the front the fighting degenerated into hand-to-hand combat. At this point the main English force arrived on the battlefield, these being a total of 4,000 men, completely insufficient in the face of the number of French. The French field defense could handle them perfectly well, especially since the English artillery had lagged behind and never managed to reach the battlefield.
Although the fire was deadly, the British managed to fight for almost an hour or so until noon. At that point, Talbot noticed that his infantrymen were beginning to fall back. What was happening was that a large cavalry force sent by the Duke of Brittany was approaching from the right flank (although some later historians claim it was from the left flank). The French archers, who had taken refuge behind the palisade after having been defeated in the forest early in the morning, now came out and launched a cloud of arrows against the English, who were forced to fight on two fronts: they were trapped between the French in front and the Bretons on the flank.
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Caught between two large enemy forces, the English had to open up and retreat, being immediately pursued by the main Bureau force. In rapid retreat, they forded the Dordogne at Pas de Rauzan, at which point Talbot”s horse was shot and killed (an episode captured by the painter Larivière in the painting illustrating this article, although Talbot was not wearing armor that day and his horse was white), trapping the commander under his corpse. In these circumstances, his coat of arms was recognized by a French soldier named Michel Perunin, who, attacking him with his battle axe, killed him instantly. Talbot”s son also perished trying to defend his father.
The rest of the fleeing Anglo-Gascon army was killed or captured by the pursuing troops.