In April of that pivotal year 1432,
with Henry VI of England finally crowned in Paris and the ashes of Joan
of Arc still smouldering in Rouen, the
fields around La Bréchoire were the site of a skirmish between a small
force led by the great John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford and glorious victor
of Verneuil, and a raggle-taggle army under the Guernsey-born soldier of fortune,
Philippe-Raymond de Machon.
Exactly what the
Regent was doing in this part of France so soon after the death of his beloved
wife, Anne of Burgundy, has never been satisfactorily established. Indeed some
authorities still maintain that he was, albeit briefly, in England at this time.
We now know that he did not in fact return to Westminster with young King Henry.
He stayed on because he was engaged in a mission of the highest importance,
accompanied by Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Mortain and uncle of the heir to the
Scottish throne - probably the richest young man in England. The party also
included Bedford's chamberlain, Richard Woodville the Younger, the young Thomas
Malory (the 'Ill-formed'), famous to future generations as the author of Le
Morte Darthur, his mentor Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick and governor
of Paris, the most brilliant musician of the age, John Dunstaple (pace
Dufay), and the mysterious Portuguese physician known as Rolandus Scriptoris.
This much we know, through a letter recently uncovered in the Norfolk county
library written by William Paston ('William I') to his wife Agnes dated 15 May
1432. (Paston may have heard the details of the incident from the veteran of
Agincourt, Sir John Fastolf, whose home was in Caister, near Yarmouth.)
Another member of this noble
party, about whom we have surprisingly detailed knowledge, thanks to the tireless
efforts of the Yorkshire Historical Society, was the lutenist Robert de Ainslie
(or Ainsley or Anesley). The first mention of a de Ainslie comes in an account
of manorial rentals for the village of Feribye (now Ferriby, near Hull, East
Yorkshire) in Beverley wapontake as a wait, or community musician in 1425. This
suggests that he was in his first year of independent service, and hence about
17 or 18 years of age. A 'Roberte de Ainslie' is recorded as a lutemaker and
singer in 1431 in Westminster, and accounts from that year show one instrument
(probably a theorbo) made for 'Gm. Dufay Ital.'. If this was indeed Guillaume
Dufay (c.1400-1474) then Ainslie's reputation must have been high indeed. An
accounting ledger of Richard Beauchamp refers to a prize of five florins made
to 'luteniste R. d. Anesley' following a banquet in York (?1430) at which he
apparently sang and played for several hours. Recent research suggests that
Ainsley was in France in 1432, possibly as performer or instrument-keeper.
One is bound to
wonder what this distinguished group was doing outside
English-controlled territory, and - apparently - heading in the wrong
Henry, now crowned king
of both his realms, had returned to England in February with his uncle, Duke
Humphrey, Lord Protector of England, Bedford's only surviving brother. One possibility
is that Bedford was travelling to Guienne from Nantes, after a meeting with
Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of that city, to renew the Treaty of Amiens with
Jean V, Duke of Brittany. (The Duke's eight-year-old son Gilles, was despached
as ambassador to Westminster the following month, and was indeed brought up
with young King Harry himself.) A visit to the Breton court from the most powerful
man in France would have been marked by tilting, feasting and the exchange of
priceless gifts - although, sadly, no records of this seem to have survived.
If Bedford had received presents to bring to King Henry, he would surely have
been anxious to get to a port controlled by the English as soon as possible.
If so, why was he in the vicinity of La Bréchoire?
Weighed down with magnificent
gifts from the wealthy Bretons, he would have been under risk of attack from
John, the Bastard of Orleans and the 'Dauphin' Charles VII (who had declared
himself King of France at Rheims in 1429), although the presence in England
of the prince-poet Charles of Orleans (hostage of the Earl of Suffolk) may have
allowed the English party to move freely Through these potentially hostile lands.
At any rate, Bedford's entourage would surely have known the position of the
Bastard's armies and would have felt relatively secure in the middle of the
French countryside. However they were cautious, and they chose a route well
away from the coast and the major towns of the region. Unluckily for them, this
played into the hands of their ruthless attackers.