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MILITARY HISTORY DATABASE

BATTLE OF CASTILLON
(17 July 1453)

Painting by Larivière of the Battle of Castillon, highlighting the moment Talbot's horse falls. Errors in the work are that the earl was not wearing armor and his horse was white. (Painting is in the Galerie des Batailles, Château de Versailles.)

DIRECTORY
Preliminaries First Phase Second Phase
Battle Map
Summary and Analysis

Preliminaries

Strategic:
After the reconquest of Normandy in 1450, Charles VII sent his lieutenant general, comte de Dunois, with a large French army to reconquer Guyenne in 1451. The English had relied considerably on the loyality of a large number of Gascons in their long association with the English king for the regional defense against attacks by the French king. The English deployed few troops in the region and the pro-English Gascons (whose number was lessening as French fortunes were dramatically changing in the north) were unable to resist the military onslaught of the royal army. Guyenne was regained in remarkably short time. The successful campaign of reconquest ended with the 30 June 1451 French entrance into the regional capital, Bordeaux.
Unhappy with the new French regime, particularly with constraints on the lucrative trade with England, the merchant-oriented leaders of Bordeaux sent a delegation to London and convinced the English king, Henry VI, to send an army. The famous veteran, John Talbot, now in his mid-seventies, was appointed to lead the expedition of 3,000 men that landed in Guyenne 17 October 1452. Immediately, the citizens of Bordeaux opened their gates to Talbot, ejecting the surprised French garrison. Many towns in Guyenne quickly followed in reasserting their loyalty to the English, and Charles VII's 1451 reconquest was undone.
Strategically, the French had been surprised. They had believed that the English expedition was going to be sent to Normandy. It was not until mid-summer of 1453, that Charles VII assembled an invasion force for Guyenne. Three French armies approached western Guyenne, the Bordelais: one from the northeast, one from the east, and one from southeast. Charles VII followed with a reserve army.
Talbot's son, Lord de Lisle, arrived in Bordeaux with additional English troops, that brought the English contingent to nearly 6,000. As usual, the English counted on augmenting their army with loyal Gascons, a potential to assemble more men than any royal invasion army. So the separate French armies advanced carefully.

Operational:
In mid-July, the French army from the east besieged the town of Castillon, on the Dordogne River. This French force had more than one commander. Overall, titular command was vested in the senior nobleman, Jean de Blois, comte de Perigord and vicomte de Limoges -- a Breton and also comte de Penthièvre. Other leaders present who would help relate the story later were Jean de Bueil and Jacques de Chabannes. However, the most significant leader was the famous French 'siege engineer' [such a title was not used then], Jean Bureau, along with his brother, the master of artillery [this title was used, but never held by Jean], Gaspard. As was the practice, the 'siege engineer' directed the military siege operations. The noblemen commanders remained with, and led the heavy cavalry, as was their particular expertise.
One of the most distinctive features of this battle is the configuration of the French siege camp. The Bureau brothers had been in the 1451 campaign and knew the region. This may explain why in a short time, the 700 French workmen had made a trench lined field fortification based upon a dry ancient river bed leading off the Lidore tributary of the Dordogne. For a long time, the irregular outline of the perimeter of the French camp puzzled historians.
Another distinctive feature of the French camp was its composition. It reportedly contained 300 guns, far more siege cannon or bombards than could be expected to be with a moving invading force. Though the exact breakdown between artillery pieces and handguns is not known, there is little doubt that a significant number of the weapons were handguns and that they were probably supervised by the Genoise mercenary, Guiribaut. The French camp was essentially an artillery park. It contained at least 6,000 men, and the figure is sometimes estimated as 9,000. The cavalry of 1,000 Breton men-at-arms was located 1.5 km to the north of the camp, on a rise called 'Horable'.
It is not known whether the irregular outline of the French camp was entirely by default of the dry river bed, or was it at least augmented to optimize the enfilade fire of the gunners against attacking troops. The camp was beyond artillery range of the town of Castillon, and no effort was made to establish closer siege lines or to isolate the town. There is little doubt that Bureau had prepared the camp primarily to engage a relief force. A thousand French archers, under Joachim Rouault, were placed as an outpost in the Priory of St. Laurent, north of Castillon and at a point where any relief force from Bordeaux might be coming.

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First Phase

Though he would rather have waited until the French forces drew closer to Bordeaux, Talbot was persuaded to go to the rescue of Castillon. With his noted aggressiveness and daring, Talbot departed Bordeaux the early morning of 16 July. He led an advanced contingent of mounted troops, to be followed by more dismounted elements and artillery. His total force at Bordeaux was at least 6,000, and certainly larger (by about 3,000) due to additional Gascon contingents joining at the last moment. After reaching Libourne, on the Dordogne River, at sundown, Talbot's mounted force of about 500 men-at-arms and 800 archers continued with a night march, passing through St. Emilion. By dawn on the 17th the advance guard of the English-Gascon force reached the woods immediately north of the Priory of St. Lorent. In a sudden assault, Talbot's force surprised the French archers, killing some and dispersing the others, who fled to the main French camp.
After the nearly 30-mile forced march, Talbot gave his troops a well deserved rest. Some of the English pursued the fleeing French archers up to the French camp. As Talbot's men rested and ate in the early morning, a messenger from Castillon reported that the French were retreating. French horses and carts were seen riding hastily from the camp. True to his instincts, Talbot recognized the value of striking the French as the latter were attempting to withdraw. Though cautioned against the haste, at least before all of the English-Gascon infantry arrived, Talbot decided to attack immediately, before the prize escaped.

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Second Phase

Talbot's mounted force forded the Lidoire, 600 yards to the west of the French camp. The English-Gascons did not advance upon the French directly from the west, but rather swung around so as to attack the longer axis of the camp embankments from the south. As he approached the French, it is possible that the veteran Talbot realized he had greatly miss judged the situation. But nothing in his experience could have allowed him to recognize the grave danger of confronting a wall of gunfire. This time it was Talbot who was surprised. The French gunners were waiting for him to be right where he was.
Talbot directed his troops to dismount for the attack, while he remained astride his white cob. The assault was launched with the battle-cry of "Talbot! St. George!" Those English-Gascons who managed to survive the massed gunfire struggled through the moat and up to mount the parapet. Reportedly Thomas Evringham managed to plant his banner on the top of the parapet, paying for the glory with his life. The French cannon pounded the attackers with enfilade fire at point-blank ranges, maiming more than they killed. The attack met with hand-to-hand fighting at several points. The seriously out-numbered English-Gascons were augmented piecemeal, as the following dismounted force arrived on the scene. There may have been close to 4,000 of Talbot's force eventually on the battlefield -- still a seriously insufficient number to assault successfully this prepared field defense. Talbot's artillery never did arrive in time. As bad as the galling gunfire was for the English-Gascons, they managed to maintain the struggle for about an hour, approaching the mid-day.
At this point the Breton cavalry struck the flank* of the English-Gascons. The French archers rushed forth from the camp walls, behind which they had retreated earlier in the day, and took full advantage of the enemy now in rout. While his beaten army sought refuge by fording the Dordogne at the Pas de Rauzan, Talbot was left pinned beneath his horse that had been felled by a cannon shot. A French archer, Michel Perunin, got his name in the history annals by finishing the earl off with an axe-blow to the head. Talbot's son was also killed. Some English-Gascons escaped to Castillon; others were pursued to nearby towns.


* There is a question whether the Breton cavalry came around the eastern or the western (as shown in map below) flank of the French camp. English historians appear to follow the map in Burne's Agincourt War (showing the eastern approach). French accounts show the western approach, based upon work of Henri Bardon, a regional historian. There are no known contemporary maps.

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SUMMARY
and
ANALYSIS

STRENGTHS:
French commander(s): Jean Bureau with 4,000-6,000 men, and
Jean de Blois Penthièvre with 1,000 men = 5,000-7,000 men

English commander (s): John Talbot with 2,500-4,000(?) men.
CASUALTIES:
French: est 100(-).
English: 4,000(-), mostly captured wounded.

Talbot's defeat left no field army in Guyenne to support the English cause. The Gascon towns quickly surrendered as the French artillery approached. When Bordeaux again surrendered to Charles VII (10 October), the real combat portion of the Hundred Years' War was over.
The battle is one of the first battles in Western Europe where guns certainly decide the issue. The only prior examples would be in the Hussite Wars (1420-33), the battles of which were very much like Castillon (1453). The tactical scheme of a mass of missile weapons firing from prepared defensive positions was really an expansion of the English longbow tactic. However, a certain competence level had to be obtained before effectively employing new weapons in a vulnerable position defense. How familiar was Jean Bureau with the tactics of Jan Ziska, the Hussite commander? There is certainly evidence of the German improvements in gunpowder weaponry, especially the smaller guns, being quickly assimilated into Charles VII's army. Why not the method of employment?
One might conclude from the earlier battle of Formigny (1450) that the guns of this era had longer effective range than the longbow, so that, if properly directed, they should prevail in a position-to-position battle. Therefore, this was not an option for Talbot. Noted, too, is the continued role of cavalry in ensuring a decisive outcome of such battles. Otherwise, the defeated could merely withdraw -- be 'repulsed'. Also to note, is that this missile tactic is essentially a defensive tactic that requires an opponent to make the assault in order to be effective.
Hundred Years War, la guerre de cent ans

Aerial oblique photo of Castillon battlefield today, looking toward the west at top. Dordogne River to the left, Castillon-la-Battaille at the top, a thick row of trees marks the Lidoire tributary, just left of the road. Even a partial trace of the French camp entrenchments continues to be reflected in the field boundaries in the center of the photo. (Photo taken from J. Barthe's La victoire de Castillon).

BATTLEFIELD
TODAY

Talbot's monumentTypical of how the battle has been remembered in many French accounts is the only monument at the site of the battle is one to the fallen English commander, Talbot. The existing statue is on the spot where a chapel, "Notre Dame de Talbot" had been erected by the French soon after the battle -- later to be called "La Tombe de Talbot" and later destroyed in the Revolution. Over time, Talbot's remains were moved. First, all but the skull were reburied in Falaise. His skull was removed to England, followed by the rest of his remains in 1493.

Pas de RauzanThere is still visible the eastern end of the long island in the Dordogne, which was the Pas de Rauzan ford over which the English attempted to escape. Talbot's Moument is several meters northeast of this spot, off the road to the north, along a small walkway and behind a farm house.

SOURCES

Léon Drouyn's Battaille de Castillon ... (1863). Henri Ribadeau's La Conquête de la Guyenne (1866). Jean Barthe's La victoire de Castillon. H. Bardon's "La Bataille de Castillon." Jean Chartier's Chronique de Charles VII. Chronique de Matthieu d'Escoucy. Thomas Basin's Histoire de France. Alfred H. Burne's The Agincourt War. "Lettre sur la bataille de Castillon en Périgord, 19 juillet 1453," Bibliothèque de l'école des Chartes, 2ème série, vol. III, p.245. Charles Oman's The Art of War in the Middle Ages.

Bibliography for the Hundred Years' War

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OVERVIEW
of
The Hundred Years'War
Read report [in English] on Battle of Castillon Spectacle 2000

Visit French website of l'Association "La Bataille de Castillon".

Battle of Castillon Spectacle 2003
celebrates the
550th Anniversary of the event
.

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This page was last updated 12 May 2003.
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