Battle of Cocherel, 16th May 1364
The Battle of Cocherel was fought between the armies loyal to the Kings of France and Navarre. The commanders on the day were Bertrand du Guesclin for the French and Jean de Grailly as Captal of the Navarrese, with support from an English contingent led by Sir John Jouel. Charles II of Navarre had a claim to the Duchy of Brittany which was being denied. He took to arms to force his claim. The battle was a French victory but disputes over Brittany were to continue for years to come, with the Navarrese playing a role in the Hundred Years War as allies of the English as a consequence.
Both sides had sought a decisive battle to settle the conflict. On 14th May 1364 they met, near the village of Cocherel in Normandy. The armies both enjoyed strong defensive positions and for two days sat facing each other, reluctant to leave the safety of their positions. The captains of each army assessed the strengths and weaknesses of their own and the enemy’s positions. Finally, on the 16th, a move was made.
Bertrand du Guesclin’s Plan
Froissart’s Chronicles tells us that Bertrand du Guesclin made a decision:
“My lords,” said he, “we perceive that our enemies are very eager to fight us, and have a great wish for it; but, however violent they may be, they will not descend from their strong position, unless by a plan which I shall propose to you. We will make dispositions, as if for a retreat, not intending to fight this day, (our men, indeed, are severely afflicted by the great heat); and order our servants, baggage, horses, &c. to cross the bridge and river, and retire to our quarters: we will, at the same time, keep close to them, watching attentively the enemy’s motions. If they really wish to fight us, they will descend the hill, and follow us into the plain. As soon as we shall perceive their motions, if they act as I think they will, we shall be ready armed to wheel about, and thus shall have them more to our advantage.”
And so, the decision was made to lure the Navarrese out from their defensive positions. The French used the tactic of a fake retreat to lure their foe into a weaker position. Du Guesclin had also determined how to then entrap the enemy.
Such ruses were not uncommon. Froissart notes that the trick was identified by the Captal, with the English forces in his force deciding that engaging in battle was the right thing to do at this time. It is worthy of note here that Froissart was in the pay of the English, so it is unlikely that he would attribute blame for what was about to happen unless he had heard it from a good source.
Sir John Jouel’s error
From Froissart’s Chronicles:
“When sir John Jouel (who was an expert and valiant knight, and eager to engage with the French) saw the manner of their retreat, he said to the Captal, “My lord, my lord, let us now descend boldly: do you not see how the French are running away?” — “Ha,” replied the Captal, “they are only doing so out of malice, and to draw us down.”
“Sir John Jouel upon this advanced forward (for he was very desirous of fighting), crying out, “St. George!” and said to his battalion, “March: those that love me let them follow me, for I am going to engage.” He then drew his sword, and, with it in his hand, marched at the head of his battalion. He and his company were almost down the hill before the Captal moved: but when he found this to be so, and that sir John Jouel meant to fight without him, he considered it as a great presumption, and said to those around them, “Come, let us descend the hill speedily, for sir John Jouel shall not fight without me.” The company of the Captal advanced forwards, with him at their head, his sword in his hand. When the French, who had been watching them all the time, saw them descend and enter the plain, they were mightily rejoiced, and said, “See now, what we have been waiting for all this day has come to pass!” They then faced about, with a thorough good will to meet their enemies, crying out, “Notre Dame Guesclin!” They dressed their banners in front of the Navarrois, and began to form under them from all parts and on foot. On the side of the Navarrois, sir John Jouel advanced, sword in hand, most valiantly, and drew up his battalion opposite to that of the Bretons, which was commanded by sir Bertrand du Guesclin, and performed many gallant deeds of arms; for he was a bold knight; but he found there one that was too able a match for him. The knights and squires then spread themselves over the plain and began to fight with all sorts of weapons, just as they could lay hands upon them; and each party met the other with great courage.”
The Battle of Cocherel
The battle itself is also described by Froissart. In it he makes one obvious mistake, the date he gives is incorrect, that it was the 16th of May is borne out by other sources: See Trial by Fire, Johnathan Sumption for a series of references relating to this.
“I will now speak of this battle, and how it was stiffly maintained. At the commencement of the conflict, when sir John Jouel had descended the hill, he was followed by all as closely as they could, and even by the Captal and his company, who thought they should have gained the day; but it turned out otherwise. When they perceived that the French had wheeled about in good order, they immediately found they had been deceived. However, like determined men, they were not panic-struck at the discovery, but were resolved to recover it by their gallantry in the combat.
They retreated a little, then assembled together, and after that they opened the ranks to give room to their archers, who were in their rear, to make use of their bows. When the archers were advanced in front, they extended themselves, and began to exert themselves handsomely in shooting; but the French were so strongly armed and shielded against their arrows, they were but little hurt by them, if at all, and for this did not fight the less valiantly, but intermixed themselves with the English and Navarrois, as did the English with them, equally eager in the combat. There was much hacking and cutting of each other, with lances and battle-axes, seizing each other by main strength and wrestling. They took and ransomed prisoners from each alternately, and were so much intermixed together, that they engaged man to man, and behaved with a degree of valour scarcely to be credited but by eye-witnesses. You may easily imagine that, in such a crowd and so situated, numbers were thrown down, wounded and killed: for neither side spared the other. The French had need not to sleep on their bridles; for they had opposed to them men of ability and determined enterprise. Each, therefore, loyally agreed, not only to defend himself and his post vigorously, but to take every advantage that should offer: if they had not done so, they must have been defeated. In truth, I must say, that the Bretons and Gascons were good men, and performed many gallant feats of arms.
I wish now to speak of the thirty who had been selected to attack the Captal. They had been excellently mounted, on the best horses of the army, and attentive to nothing but their orders (as, being so charged, they were bound to do): they advanced in a close body towards the Captal, who was using his battle-axe manfully, and gave such deadly strokes with it that none dared approach him. They pushed through the crowd by the strength of their horses, as well as by the help of some Gascons who had accompanied them.
These thirty men, who, as you have seen, were so well mounted, and who knew well what they were to do, neither looking to the risk nor danger, made up directly to the Captal and surrounded him. They all fell upon him, and carried him off by dint of force, quitting the spot directly. This created great confusion, and all the battalions drew thitherward; for the Captal’s men were like to madmen, shouting out, “Rescue, rescue the Captal!” All this, nevertheless, was of no service or help to them; for, in fact, the Captal was carried off in the manner I have related, and placed in safety. However, at the moment this happened, it was not truly known which side had the best of the battle. In this grand bustle and confusion, whilst the Navarrois and English, like madmen, were following the Captal, who had been captured before their eyes, sir Aymon de Pommiers, sir Petiton de Courton, the souldich de la Trane, and the company of the lord d’Albret, determined unanimously to make for the banner of the Captal, which was fixed in a bush, and which served as a standard for the Navarrois.
The attack and defence were equally sharp and vigorous; for it was guarded by good men: particularly by sir Bascon de Marneil and sir Geoffry de Roussillon: many were wounded, killed, unhorsed, and rescued. The Navarrois, at last, who were near this bush and about the banner, were broken in upon and forced to retreat. Sir Bascon de Marneil with several others were slain. Sir Geoffry de Roussillon was made prisoner by sir Aymon de Pommiers. The banner of the Captal was immediately seized: and those who defended it were either killed, taken, or had retreated so far that there was no news of them. Whilst the banner of the Captal was thus conquered, torn and dragged upon the ground by the Gascons, the Bretons, the French, the Picards, the Normans and Burgundians were most valiantly fighting in another part of the field; and well it behoved them so to do, for the Navarrois had made them retreat. Among the French, there was already killed the viscount de Beaumont; the more the pity, for he was a young knight well formed to do great things. His people, to their great sorrow, had carried him out of the battle, and guarded him, as I have heard related, by those of both sides. No one had ever seen a battle, with the like number of combatants, so well fought as this was; for they were all on foot, and combated hand to hand, intermixing with each other, and striving for victory with the arms they used, and, in particular, with those battle-axes which gave such astonishingly fatal blows.
Sir Petiton de Courton and the souldich de la Trane were sorely wounded, insomuch that they could do no service during the remainder of the day. Sir John Jouel, by whom the combat began, and who had most courageously attacked and fought the French, performed, that day, many very gallant feats of arms, and never deigned once to retreat. He had been engaged so far in the battle that he was grievously wounded in several parts of the head and body, and at last made prisoner by a squire of Brittany under sir Bertrand du Guesclin: he was then carried out of the crowd. At length, the French gained the field; but on their side there were killed the grand master of the cross-bows, sir Louis de Havenquerque, and many others. On the side of the Navarrois, the lord de Saulx and numbers of his people were slain. Sir John Jouel died in the course of the day. There were made prisoners, sir William de Graville, sir Peter de Sequainville, sir Geoffry de Roussillon, sir Bertrand du Franc, and several more. Few of the Navarrois escaped being slain or taken. This battle was fought in Normandy, pretty near to Cocherel, on a Thursday, the 24th day of May, 1364.”
Battlefield tactics at Cocherel
As had been predicted by the Captal, the French had indeed used a ruse. Once the English dominated advance against the retreating French army had moved away from the surety of the strong defensive position, the French wheeled around, drew up and manoeuvred men to hem in the English. Archers were used to soften up the tight formation into which the English army had now adopted. These appear to have been rather ineffective, resulting in a clash of arms.
Du Guesclin had anticipated that at some point the two forces would meet head-on. As the English / Navarrese force was smaller, it could be forced into retreat itself: which, from an unplanned battlefield position, was a vulnerability. Du Guesclin also knew that positions of weakness in the enemy formation would appear as the battle took place. With this in mind, he had handpicked a band of 30 knights. Mounted, armoured and highly skilled, this squadron of knights were tasked with breaking the line at a chosen moment and capturing the enemy commanders. That is exactly what happened. The chaos of the two sides clashing presented the opening for Du Guesclin’s plan to be put into effect and it worked.
The Captal’s dilemma
The action of John Jouel as the French begin their ruse is critical to the battle. He was not the overall commander of the army, that was the Captal. Yet, upon seeing the French retreat, he decides to give chase. Granted, he identifies that it was a trap before his cavalry reached the French, but by then his insubordination had left the Captal with a stark choice of either leaving him and the English contingent to be annihilated or committing the full army. Neither were options that the Captal had wanted, a more preferable option would have been to observe the French and determine a strategy once they had made good with the retreat.
It is also noticeable in accounts other than Froissart that the ruse could be spotted reasonably easily. The manner in which the French retreated left the men-at-arms and most of their horses in close formation along with elements of the baggage train. They had left their defences intact and the strongest element of their force was in place to form an extremely formidable obstacle. Those in retreat were the ‘followers’ of the armed camp and lightly or unarmed elements of the army: ie the archers. An experienced warrior such as the Captal could identify that chasing down the ‘retreat’ would be met with a strong wedge and outflanking movement by either the archers, a mounted reserve, or both.
The Online Froissart – Cocherel search results
Today in Basque History: The Battle of Cocherel
Image by Paul de Sémant – https://www.meisterdrucke.us/artist/Paul-de-Semant.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84021294
By Jean Cuvelier Chanson de Bertrand du Guesclin – , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11261277