Geoffroy d’Harcourt of Château de Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, was born into a life of great privilege and great danger at the beginning of the 14th century.
With one leg damaged at birth he could not expect to be a knight, as a Harcourt his loyalty should never have been in question, but Geoffroy was as complex and as passionate as the times he lived in.
A charter for Normandy freedom
Geoffroy was born into a Normandy that had for more than a century been a part of France. Each Norman knight would be expected to pay the King of France his dues, however long memories of an independent Normandy stayed with them.
Of course the Norman knights under French rule were no push-over as Louis X discovered in 1314. Louis X wanted to exert his control over wealthy Flanders so tried to raise taxes to pay for an army. His lords reacted as people always do to taxes, but with the advantage of large armies and lots of weapons to back up their discontent.
In severe danger of an expensive and dangerous civil war, Louis X agreed to put into law remarkable freedoms for the region. The ‘Charte aux Normands’ of 1315 granted Norman lords great financial, judicial and military powers. Now no-one from Normandy could be bought before a court outside the province, effectively giving Normandy its freedom.
Louis X was dead by 1316 but the charter, with various amendments and additions, was accepted by French kings for four hundred years and there are still pockets of Normandy who think it should be law today.
Growing up in the vast Harcourt fortification on the Cotentin region of Normandy, Geoffroy was overcoming the disability that had given him the nickname de Boiteux ‘the Lame’. The church may not take someone they saw as a sick man, but he was proving himself a worthy fighter. Age around 20 in 1326 Geoffroy, like his fully able brothers before him, was knighted.
Normandy’s loyalty was not questioned when the next King of France, Charles IV, died without a direct heir in 1328, although King Edward III of England, son of Charles’s sister Isabella, was a possible heir. Rather than be ruled by Edward, the French barons, prelates and the University of Paris quickly got together and decided that males whose right to inheritance came through their mother could not inherit the French throne. They crowned Charles’ cousin Philip.
Edward of England took this surprisingly well; although it was noticed during the traditional visit to pay homage to the new king, Edward missed out a bit of the ceremony. The bit when he should have promised fidelity to the French ruler… At this time England was seen as a feudal vassal of France. There would be trouble ahead.
It didn’t help that Philip’s soldiers carried out occasional raids on England’s southerly towns and he was particularly friendly with the troublesome Scots. When Philip decided to take Edward’s lands in Aquetaine and Ponthieu in 1337 war was inevitable.
Edward duly took himself and around 1500 soldiers over to Europe and bought (with borrowed cash) a few thousand more. In case Philip didn’t get the hint, Edward’s army then set about looting and burning on a vast scale, making it quite clear to the French their King did not know how to defend them.
Geoffroy, loyal knight
Late in the autumn of 1339 the two kings agreed to meet for battle at Buironfosse. Geoffroy, now an experienced knight with his own army was loyally in support of the French King. Even though he couldn’t stand the barely royal southerner who preferred debate to fighting.
At Buironfosse the French army greatly outnumbered those led by Edward III. A time was agreed for the battle to begin and both sides settled for a pre-rampage snooze.
The next day, 20 October, as both armies were equipping for the fight, a hare is said to have jumped up from the long grass between them. A huddle of French horses nearby saw movement and reared up. To Geoffroy’s horror he was forced to watch as, thinking an attack had begun, French troops run away in disorderly panic. The day did not improve for Geoffroy as the French King insisted on keeping his army safely within their fortification.
Eventually, after hurling some fruity insults and whatever else they found to hand, the English give up trying to start a proper fight and marched over into Belgium where Edward declared himself King of England, and France.
Philip VI, the official King of France was delighted to avoid a messy battle. Geoffroy returned to his castle at Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte in disgust.
Noble love unrequited
Back in his own battlements Geoffroy’s thoughts eventually turned from opportunities lost to an opportunity well within his grasp. An advantageous marriage.
Geoffroy’s noble if battle scarred head had been turned by a Normandy girl with an impressive inheritance who was as good as she was beautiful. Jeanne Bacon’s family were as old and respected as the grand Harcourts. An only child, Jeanne would inherit extensive lands towards Bayeux. Geoffroy paid tribute to her family and to his joy, was accepted by them as her suitor.
Unfortunately Jeanne was less impressed than her family with Geoffrey. A lifetime of combat would have aged him, and his conversation after years in the company of soldiers was probably a little rough around the edges.
Jeanne the lovely young heiress confided her concerns to the family priest. The priest mentioned an equally appropriate if younger man; his nephew. Did the priest realise how terrible the consequences of his suggestion would be? It was the 14th century; he must have had some idea.
So Jeanne turned down grizzled limping Geoffroy and married Guillaume Bertrand, Sire de Bricquebec, son of Robert Bertrand the Marshal of France and royal friend.
Humiliated, Geoffroy did not take the rejection well. It did not help that Guillaume was a Tankerville, the Harcourts and Tankerville’s had despised each other for so long they had probably forgotten why. Now they had a good reason again. In his fury Geoffreoy turns his back completely on the French King.
Dangerous talk of a glorious past
The long winters of Cotentin are fine times to sit by a roaring fire and set the world to rights over a glass of something potent and warming. This is what Geoffroy did, with old friends and allies through the chilly months that spanned 1343/4. They talked of a glorious past when Normandy bred kings and it was agreed Geoffroy should be appointed Duke of Normandy by the admirable Edward III of England.
Word reached King Philip VI. This was just too much rebellion too close to home. By flaunting their loyalty to an English King who made clear his desire to take France, they threatened the safety of his monarchy. Battle shy Philip sent in the troops to occupy the castle at Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte. Geoffroy escaped but his faithful friends Jean Tesson, Guillaume Bacon and Richard de Percy were captured.
Determined to make an example of the conspirators, King Philip ordered their execution. On 3 April 1344 their heads were cut off and sent to Saint-Lô to be displayed in the market while their bodies hung by their feet on the gallows in Paris. Their lands, and Geoffroy’s, were confiscated.
Geoffroy travelled secretly to his mother’s property in Brabant, near Brussels.
Talk of rebellion in the Cotentin was very hushed indeed. For now.
Loyalty, but to a different king
Early in 1345 Geoffroy sailed to England. He was a powerful lord to have as an ally and welcomed warmly by Edward III.
Frossart, the 14th century chronicler who lived through these times, described Geoffroy as “a valiant knight of great courage and great council”. The two old soldiers got on extremely well. So well that Edward gave his visitor lands to match those confiscated in Normandy, and shared his plans to invade France. Edward listened with keen interest as Geoffroy told him he would find support in Cotentin if he landed on the west coast of Normandy.
So in 1346 that is exactly what Edward did, arriving with an army of 15,000. He marched them east, with a detour across the lands of a certain Jeanne de Bacon, plundering what they needed or wanted along the way.
Lets meet, at Crécy
Philip, concerned but confident, met them at Crécy. The French army was bigger and armed with vicious crossbows, but the English (with Norman, Welsh and allied) troops were armed with the new quick to load longbows and the rather nifty new cannons. The scattered spikey caltraps across the field to painfully damage the hooves of French knight’s horses. Geoffroy was given responsibility for the safety of Edward’s 16 year old son (who history calls the Black Prince).
Thanks to speedy arrow reloading and strategic use of their infantry, the battle on 26 August 1346 was a resounding victory for Edward. He lost less than 400 men, while Philip lost most of his noblemen and thousands of soldiers. Edward and his army marched on to besiege Calais, capturing it soundly in 1346. The English would cheerfully hold the port for the next 200 years.
The battle would be just one of many in what became the 100 Year War but for Geoffroy, Crécy would haunt him. While he fought for England, his own brother was slain and his nephew Jean V Harcourt horribly injured, fighting for France.
For France! Again
Distraught at his brother’s death he somehow managed to convince Philip VI (who was now rather short of warrior knights) that he had made a horrible mistake and would from now on be loyal to France. The weak and weakened Philip forgave him. A few months later Philip appointed Geoffroy captain-sovereign of Rouen and Caen, with the authority to levy taxes and troops.
Unimpressed by this change of allegiance, Edward III confiscated his property in England.
Geoffroy was not an easy person to rule as was made very clear on Epiphany in 1355. Philip VI’s son John was now king of France. England was still a threat so King John II sent his son, Charles Duke of Normandy, off to Rouen. Here the young Charles summoned his vassals for a bit of team building. The vassals’ leader was Geoffroy.
Charles was not unreasonable to expect some nice homage and respect from the Norman knights. What he got was battle hardened Geoffroy introduced himself by brandishing the ‘Charte aux Normands’ and proclaiming:
“Natural lord, here is the charter to the Normans, if you will swear and observe what is in them, I am ready to give you tribute”.
Charles was fairly sure this was the wrong way around. If anyone should be giving ultimatums, it was him. However, like his grandfather, Charles is a very political creature who needed Geoffrey alongside. He acquiesced.
The unpleasantness of an insecure king
His father John II was rather more abrasive, he was also a little unnerved by just how well his son was getting on with the powerful Norman knights. One, the Count of Évreux was also King of Navarre and a very real threat to his throne.
It was the Middle Ages so John II did what any insecure king would do. He organised a bloody ambush. A banquet was arranged for the Norman knights in Rouen on 5 April 1356. Once they were assembled, the knives came out. Geoffroy’s nephew John V Harcourt and a few other Norman knights were beheaded, their bodies hung on gallows in the town. To John’s annoyance, Geoffroy got away. A garrison was sent to his castle in Normandy.
and back to England
With all loyalty for France destroyed, Geoffroy offered his fealty to Edward III of England. It was accepted. Edward took advantage of France’s instability and Geoffroy’s renewed friendship to invade the Cotentin again in June 1356.
Geoffroy was now probably 50 years old. The King of England called him cousin as they battled across his homeland. But it was not a tidy invasion. They were still fighting as winter fell across Normandy. The end came one November day.
An honourable end?
It happened near Coutances. Geoffroy was leading an army of 700 against a similar number of French troops. After a bitter fight Geoffroy’s archers were finally out of arrows. Apparently defeated, they chose to surrender. Preferring death to capture but now on foot Geoffroy used his battle axe. Wildly outnumbered he carried on the fight until two Frenchmen on horseback attacked him with spears together. They forced him, in agony but still roaring for battle, to the ground. French foot soldiers leapt forward, plunging their blades under his armour as he struggled.
Reports say in his final moments Geoffroy made the sign of the cross and said “Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, thank you to the honourable death that you sent me”. Then this great Norman warrior, Geoffroy comte de Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, died, for England.
He left the castle at Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte to Edward III. It would be an English stronghold for nearly 100 years.
This history is correct according to the sources we have access to. If anything looks wrong to you, please let us know. Thank you.