Carolingian Miniscule – Lower case, not lower class

n our last day of cycling around the battlefileds of Agincourt, Waterloo and Harfeur, we took advantage of a break in the weather and decided to cycle along the Somme to a small town of Corbie. We know that this was where Henry V managed to break free from the race against the Feench along the Somme, allowing him to head north to the meeting at Agincourt.

owever, we had no idea that when we arrived there we would discover that Corbie has an even more important place in Western Euopean culture than we ever expected. The route to Corbie lies along the Somme river and its canal. The whole way is along a cycle path and provided us with some of the most enjoyable, quiet and picturesque cycling we have had in the last 11 years.

n arriving in the town, we drew up by the abbey church and started to ask around about the town and its history. It turns out the abbey was founded in about 660 as part of a Benedictine Monastery by the then French royal family, the Merovingians. Above all, Corbie was renowned for its monastery library and for its scriptorium and was recognized as an important center for the transmission of the works of Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Over two hundred manuscripts from the great library at Corbie are known to survive.

he great innovation however from the scriptorium at Corbie was the clear and legible text known as Carolingian minuscule which was developed in about 780. Carolingian miniscule was created partly under the patronage of the Emperor Charlemagne (hence Carolingian), but the monks a Corbie played a central role in finalising and diseminating the results. Carolingian minuscule was uniform, with rounded shapes with clearly distinguishable shapes and above all it was legible. Clear capital letters and spaces between words – something we now take for granted – became standard in Carolingian minuscule.

ower case text that we write every day are in fact the results of Carolingian miniscule.
Without Corbie Abbey, we would all still be writing capital letters everywhere and no spaces between words. So thank you Corbie.

The gathering storm

We have spent today avoiding a code-Orange storm. Amiens has been on lock-down with everyone expecting an inundation of biblical proportions and enduring 30C and high humidity. Tours of the cathedral cancelled to avoid lightening strikes on the roof, street cleaning hurridly completed, warning notices in the streets. The only choice for us was to stay put in Amiens and take a closer look at the cathedral.

Time for a break from the cycling, some reflection and an opportunity to take stock. As we toured around the cathedral, I cogitated on the majesty of the building that Henry V prayed in before his final march to Agincourt. Running through his mind must have been the tactics for the battle while still trying to focus on his prayers.

The forest of columns make the cathedral feel like a safe place to shelter from a storm and must have provided some sort of comfort to Henry as he tried again and again to focus. Perhaps thinking of St James of Compostella would help.


Or maybe a quiet prayer in the Lady Chapel in the apse.

It was hopeless, everytime Henry tried to focus the vision of the ins and outs of his decisions loomed large in his mind. The lonely responsibility of being the general in sole charge of the placement and execution of the batle ahead, the nagging advisors that he would ignore and yet worry about whether he should have heeded their advice, the real motives in the minds of the French, even the lay of the land and how to maximise the value of his long-bowmen between any woods.

Still: Dieu Le Veut and the storm will eventually break.

P.S. The storm never came, Amiens was spared the apocolypse and Henry won.
P.P.S Thanks to PhoenixMcAwesome for the video

Why – Dieu le veut

Today was the culmination of our journey from Harfleur, after following Hery’s route for two days we at last arrived at the battlefield of Agincourt. The battlefield today is almost lost in the arable surroundings or wheat and maze fields.

The 4000 English knights and archers were drawn up to the south with about 20 000 French forces drawn up to the north. The two sides were out of bow shot and they waited.

Henry, after waiting for four hours, lost patience and ordered his men to advance to the middle of the battle field within long-bow reach. The archers advanced and drove their six foot sharpened stakes into the ground in front of them as protectiuon against the Frence cavalry and then started firing arrows onto the French lines. Unable to resist further, the French charged into the the mud and the killing fields.

Funneled by the woods to the left and right and unablke to outflank the English, wave after wave of the French men-at-arms were slaughtered.

At this point, Henry ordered the archers to advance into the melee and slaughter any men-at-arms left stuck in the mud. The English victory was complete. The King and some 200 French noblemen were captured and probably about 6000 French soldiers killed. Noone knows the exact figure. The bodies were piled into grave pits that today have been grown over as small copses.

Of course, mother nature has gently smoothed over the scars and left the site of the slaughter as fertile but annoymous fields.

On a rise to the west of the battlefield, is a small track that may well be the route taken by Henry V in leaving the Agincourt for Calais with his prisoner King Jean. This also makes a great place to overview the battlefield and a chance for a fun bit of off-piste cycling.

So the key question for me has to be, why. Why were people driven to such extremes of obedience and violence when anybody I know would think twice before charging, repeatedly, into a rain of 50 000 long-bow arrows a minute. Perhaps the answer, as so often, showed itself later that day after our return to Amiens.

In the square just to the east of the Cathedral is a striking statue.

Although there is no name on the plinth, the moto on the side gives the game away: “Dieu le veut” (God wills it). This is Peter d’Amiens, perhaps better known as Peter the Hermit. He was the notorious inspiration behind the call to arms for the First Crusade. It was his haranguing across France of peasants and nobles alike that launched the peoples crusade in 1096 turning Pope Urban II’s edict of 1095 into a violent and popular reality.

Perhaps that is what drove the brave men on both sides of the conflict at Agincourt: Dieu le veu.

Jean d’Artois – A fellow traveller with an Irish connection

Yesterday, we travelled the stretch from Harfleur to Fécamp and Valmont. Today we picked up the route from the town of Eu in Picardie. The coutryside here is one of gentle rolling hills mostly sown with wheat. Currently the farmers are busy baleing the straw for bedding. Something that Henry’s men would no doubt have taken full advantage of.

Eu is the home of the Artois family, Counts of Eu who, as we will see, turned out to be fellow travellers along this route, although for very different reasons.

The town of Eu is dominated by the rather grand 12C church of St Lawrence right at the top of the hill.

As the town surrendered in late 1415 and provided food to Henry as he passed, the church is in an excellent state of preservation and proudly shows the heritage of the town and in particular of the Counts of Artois.

One inhabitant here is of particular note: Jean of Artois.

Born in 1321, he is the son of Robert of Artois and the great-grand son of Saint Louis, King of France through his mother Jeanne de Valois. However, in 1356 he crossed paths with the Black Prince (the one who strenuously denied sacking Honfleur after the battle of Poitier). During that battle, in 1356, Jean d’Artois was captured together with the King of France and 200 other nobles by the English and was emprissoned in the tower of London. Very kingly, the regent of France gave away Jean’s Counship while he was away, although the people of Eu never lost hope and wrote their prayers for his safe returm on the columns in the church. A sort of 14C yellow ribbon.

Nonetheless, on returning to France two years later, he managed to get his countship back and no doubt thought that he could now enjoy a well earned retirement. Oh the fates are not so kind. Louis, the son of the French King, also captured at Poitier, broke his parole and was thrown into the Tower of London. To keep him company, Louis suggested that Jean d’Artois join him in the tower. Dutiful servant that he was, Jean of course agreed and sailed back to Engand where he spent six more years in the Tower waiting to be ransomed.

As a side note, a small consoilation to Jean in all of this time was St Lawrence. The former Bishop of Dublin who in 1150 was visiting Eu, fell ill and died. The locals seeing a good opportunity immediately had him canonised and turned his tomb into a popular (and profitable) pilgrim destination. This is how the irishman Lawrence O’Toole became the patron saint of Eu and now lies alongside Jean.

The Battle of Valmont – “Tell your master that Englishmen do not surrender”

Having accepted the surrender of Harfleur in Sep 1415, Henry garrisoned the town with 900 men-at-arms and 1500 archers. Harfleur today is a quiet suburb of Le Havre, with little to show for the vists by Henry. However, the church still stands and the altar where Henry prayed in thanks for this victory is still there as it was in 1415, although minus all the stained glass blown out when the nearby exposives factory expolded.

Henry V continued his long march towards victory at Agincourt and his return to England via Calais through the counrtyside north of Harfleur. His army was not the first army however to march through this area. About half way to Fécamp, he came across the remains of the Roman occupation at Lillibonne.

His last stop before arriving at Fécamp was the Abbey of Valmont. Still today a thriving convent, beautifully restored with much of the 15th century church still intact.

Finally he reached Fécamp and gave thanks at the church both for his safe arrival and the resupply opportunities that the harbour there would bring.

This was of course only half of the story. A few months later, on March 9th 1416, the Earl of Dorset marched out of Harfleur with 1100 of his troops looking for food and other goodies.

He looted and burnt several villages, reaching as far as Cany-Barville. The English then turned for home. They were intercepted near Valmont by the French led by the Duke of D’Armangac. The English had time to form a fighting line, placing their horses, cows and baggage to the rear, before the French launched a mounted attack. The French cavalry broke through the thin English line but, instead of turning to finish the English, charged on to loot the baggage and steal horses and cows. This allowed Dorset, who had been wounded, to rally his men and lead them to a small hedged garden nearby, which they defended till nightfall. The French withdrew to Valmont for the night, rather than stay in the field, and this allowed Dorset to lead his men off under the cover of darkness to take shelter in woods at Les Loges. English casualties at this stage of the battle were estimated at 160 killed.

The following day, the English struck out for the coast. They moved down onto the beach and began the long march across the shingle (pebbles) to Harfleur. However, as they neared Harfleur, they saw that a French force was awaiting them on the cliffs above.

The English deployed in line and the French attacked down the steep slope. The French were disordered by the descent and were defeated, leaving many dead. As the English looted the corpses, the main French army came up. This force did not attack, instead forming up on the high ground, forcing the English to attack. This they successfully did, forcing the French back. The retreating French then found themselves attacked in the flank by the sallying garrison of Harfleur and retreat turned to rout. The French are said to have lost 200 men killed and 800 captured in this action. D’Armangnac later had a further 50 hanged for fleeing from the battle.

The battle of Valmont was remembered afterwards by English chroniclers for an act of defiance. At some point in the battle, D’Armangnac is said to have offered Dorset terms of surrender. Men-at-arms would be made prisoner but archers would have their right hands cut off. Dorset is said to have replied to the French herald “Tell your master that Englishmen do not surrender”.

(With thanks to Wikipedia for the backgound on the Battle of Valmont and my blatant plagarism of their text)

Au bord de la Seine – In the footsteps of Henry V

Having landed at Tocques in 1417 and besieging and sacking Honfleur, Henry V made his way towards Paris along the banks of the Seine. It seemed only fitting therefore that we follow in his footsteps for our cycle ride today, heading out from Honfleur, we headed east along the south bank of the Seine.

Today the first great monument is the Pont de Normandie. Hanging suspended in mid-air high above our heads. Of course, for Henry and his army, crossing the Seine at this point was only a dream.

Venturing a little further inland towards Foulbec, Henry rested at the Abbey of Greetain (built 1050) whose out-house also still stands by the side of the road showing the original timbers and carvings as well as the beautifully restored brick and stonework.

From there, we crossed the rich countryside that Henry needed to feed his troops.

Even his favourite royal treat, swans. Further along, the banks become wooded and dangerous places offering shelter for ambushes and other traps.

Of course, the real advantage for Henry of following the Seine was re-supply. Boats from England could sail across and restock the soldiers with food and weapons.

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

All in all, a find day was had by all. Great weather, good company and a real purpose to our ride.

Black Prince issues strenuous denial – We did not sack Honfleur

Late last night, the official spokesman for the Black Prince issued the following statement:

Despite what some historians may have been speculating, after winning the Battle of Poitier in 1396, the Prince’s responsibilities were clear. On leaving the battle-field of Poitiers and before making up his mind to return to England, the Black Prince concluded on the 14th March, 1357 a truce of two years with the regency ruling France during the captivity of her King. The English army, with its many prisoners and rich booty, did not venture to attack any fortress on their way to Bordeaux; it was honour enough to take back in safety the caputured King Jean of France and his son, and all the gold and silver and jewels they had won. They therefore proceeded by slow marches, as they were heavily laden. They met with no resistance. The whole country was subdued by terror, and the men-at-arms retreated into the fortresses. At no time did they turn north to lay siege on Honfleur.

Your correspondents recieved this information with some dismay and concern. The whole purpose of this section of the cycle tour was to mark the 618th anniversarty of the sacking of Honfleur. How could we continue to justify our stay if there was no anniversary to celebrate.

However, all was not lost. A chance encounter with Lord Orange of Deauville was an opportunity to learn of the celebrations held every year in Honfleur on the night of August 8th to mark the sacking of the town by King Henry V in 1417 as documented in the town charter from that year:

The mouth of the Touques is at Deauville where Henry V landed:

Lord Salisbury besieged the town for 5 days, before the walls eventually crumbled and the inhabitants surrendered. A careful observer can still see the damage left on the buidings near the harbour showing the marks of that terrible siege:

The celebrations in the town every August 8th take the form of setting light to the restauants and bars around the harbour. A beautiful sight and a fitting reminder of the courage and profligacy of the age:

Travelling and getting there

One of the inevitable costs of trying to cycle in a number of places is the need to transfer our base every few days. After two nights based in the town Waterloo and a great day cycling through the battlefield, we up-ed sticks and headed for Honfleur.

Our route took us south out of Belgium and then west along Autoroute 29 via Mons and Amiens. Made all the easier by a new little gadget stuck to the windscreen that allows the car to go straight through the tele-charge lane with no queues.

Once a small Norman fishing port accros the Siene from Le Havre, Honfleur is now a bustling rather quaint harbour town full of tourists. What a contrast after the quiet “strip” town of Waterloo. What a joy in terms of the 139 restaurants and 57 bars that now await us.

The port is no longer teaming with fishing boats however, but rather with well healed sailing yachts. Very picturesque, if not exactly authentic.

Tomorrow will be a ride down the coast to Deauville in search of a SIM card for Jay’s hungry iPad. But that’s another story for another day.