Longsword by David Pilling

Saturday, 11 June 2016

John Page, soldier and poet and...?

Before I head away from the land of the internet for a week - on a research trip to Chester and its surroundings, which should be fun - I thought I would provide some context for John Page, the (somewhat reluctant) hero of my current trilogy, Soldier of Fortune.


Page is based on a real-life Englishman of the real name, of whom almost nothing is known. The only enduring mark he left on history was a poem, 'The Siege of Rouen', an eyewitness narrative account set to verse of Henry V's siege of Rouen in 1418-19. The poem is unique in English verse in that it provides a first-hand account of contemporary warfare, and has been summarised as 'a complex mix of patriotism and compassion, verse chronicle and historical romance.' 

Only a single version of the poem survives, inside a version of the Middle English 'Brut' chronicle. Page's intent was to flatter the king and his nobles, principally the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Exeter, whom he describes in glowing terms as men of 'great renown.' Apart from sucking up to royalty, Page's account is invaluable for its description of siege tactics and the brutality of 15th century warfare. He begins by describing the siege of Rouen as an epic event, greater than the sieges of Jerusalem or Troy:

'And no more solemn siege was set.
Since Jerusalem or Troy were got...'

Page was exaggerating, but the siege and eventual capture of Rouen was perhaps Henry V's greatest victory, of more long-term significance than his more famous triumph at Agincourt in 1415. Rouen was the ducal capital of Normandy, Henry's ancestral homeland, and its capture gave the English a solid foothold in northern France. The king, who had cut his teeth fighting in Wales, was an expert in siege warfare: the city was surrounded on all sides by a network of ditches and trenches, while bands of Irish knife-men were sent out to scour the countryside for enemy troops, prevent supplies reaching the town and destroy French villages. 

The poet doesn't shy away from the grim realities of the siege and the appalling conditions faced by the people trapped inside. As winter came on and food ran low he describes the citizens forced to feed on some less than choice delicacies: 'horses, dogs, casts, mice, rats and other things not belonging to human kind...'


Siege of Rouen
French chroniclers accused Henry of refusing to allow the poorer citizens, ejected from the city as useless mouths, to pass through his siege lines. His hard-heartedness condemned the citizens to starve in the ditch below the walls, and there are horrifying accounts of babies being winched up to the ramparts in baskets to be baptised, then lowered again to die. Page admits that the city was starved into surrender - 'hunger breaks the stone walls' - but gives a different account of Henry's actions. According to him, Henry allowed his captains and private soldiers to take food to the citizens in the ditch if they wished, but refused any personal responsibility for their plight. "Who put them there?" he demanded of a party of French ambassadors when they begged him to allow the citizens through, "if the French wish to torment each other, it is none of my affair." The hard truth was that Henry had come to Normandy presenting himself as the scourge of the French nation, sent by God to chastise a corrupt people. He regarded the ejection of the citizens of Rouen as a deliberate ploy by the French to challenge his claim, and he could not afford to show mercy without being perceived as weak. 

The poet himself is a shadowy figure. We know nothing of him save the little he chooses to tell us. His reason for being present at the siege - 'at that siege with the king I lay' - is unknown, and the poem reveals nothing of his status or background. One theory is that he can be identified with a John Page who was Prior of Barnwell at the time, though it is unclear why the Prior of Barnwell should have been present at a siege in Normandy. 'John Page' was a fairly common name and the muster rolls listed on the Medieval Soldier Database reveal nine archers of that name serving in Henry V's army between 1415-17: one served under the Duke of Gloucester in the Normandy expedition that culminated in the siege of Rouen. Hence it could be that the poet was one of these archers - a very unusual archer, literate and with a taste for poetry, who penned his work for the ages and then vanished back into the faceless throng, lost to history forever.


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