The hot tempered Charles, Duke of Burgundy was on the rampage. He had joined forces with other disaffected French noblemen and they were fighting their feudal overlord, King Louis XI. Charles had taken his army into France and was besieging towns and accepting their surrender. He had taken Nesle, Montdidier and Roye, harshly punishing them. His army then headed towards Beauvais on the Thérain River. He thought the people of Beauvais had heard of his wrath and treatment of the other towns and hoped they would surrender out of sheer terror. But he underestimated them to his detriment.
The town of Beauvais was well fortified but had no artillery. After the fall of Roye, some of the garrison had taken refuge in Beauvais. The Captain of Beauvais, Louis de Balagny and his lieutenant Jean Lagoy were there to fight for King Louis with a few archers. Two weeks after the fall of Roye, the unsuspecting people of Beauvais were under attack. On June 27, workmen who were repairing the roof of the cathedral spotted the Burgundians coming and raised the alarm.
Philippe, Lord de Crèvecoeur, one of the ablest of Charles’ men came with the vanguard of the Burgundian army. One of the suburbs was taken by Jacques Montmartin who commanded one hundred of the Duke’s lancers and three hundred archers. Crèvecoeur made an attack on another quarter of the city but he didn’t have enough ladders and the ones he did have were too short. He attacked the Porte de Bresle and the Porte de Limaçon. He had cannon but could only shoot them twice before he ran out of ammunition. The cannon did make a huge hole in the Bresle gate.
The Burgundians made a rush into the gap. The citizens fought madly from the walls with swords, their bodies, stones and lead. Archery and crossbow fire rained down on the enemy. The boldest were the women and children, bringing munitions to the men in a steady stream. Some women inserted themselves into the hand to hand combat. Others brought lighted torches that were thrown into the faces of the men climbing the walls. They threw so many torches, the gate caught fire. At some point during this attack, a woman named Jeanne Laisné came forward, wielding a hatchet. She wrested the Burgundian flag from a soldier who was trying to plant it on the wall.
While the Burgundians were in hand to hand combat in the breach with the French, Crèvecoeur sent a message to Charles that if he arrived with his army, they could take the town. The Duke finally arrived and expected to defeat the town as soon as the fire went out. A demand for surrender was declined.
About eight o’clock on the night of June 27th, two hundred lances of the standing army from the garrison at Noyon rode into the south gate. They left their horses with the women and threw themselves into the fight to defend the town. Darkness fell and the fighting stopped. Charles set up camp beside the town. In the afternoon of June 28, Marshal Roualt arrived with one hundred lances and they began to repair the breaches in the walls. The following day, Antoine de Chabannes and John Salazar, friends of King Louis, arrived with two hundred lances. Other leading nobles with their contingents arrived. Soon, trains of wagons with food, munitions and engineering equipment arrived from Paris and Rouen. The King sent more detachments of troops along with his thanks to the citizens and soldiers of the town.
The townspeople kept the gate afire for a week, keeping the enemy at bay. The Duke considered attacking another portion of the town with his whole army and he probably could have gotten through but a small rivulet dissuaded him from pursuing this plan. The Duke was in a high passion now and brought out his artillery, firing the cannon continuously. A breach was made but a bridge was needed to storm the gap. The bridge was built and the Duke was ready to attack even though his officers disagreed with him. As the men stormed across the bridge, Lord Despiris was crushed in the middle and died. Some men managed to get to the walls but couldn’t make any headway. The Duke ordered another assault then realized it would be fruitless and called the men back.
The cannon hammered the town, smashing streets and houses as well as the walls. Louis learned after two weeks a quarter of the town had been destroyed. The Beauvais citizens fought valiantly. They were ingenious with the types of missiles they threw at the Burgundians. Every point attacked had a defender. They used huge stones, pots of boiling water, burning torches, any unpleasant thing to throw in the face of the soldiers scaling the walls. Heavy rains fell but this seemed to work in favor of the town. Duke Charles was forced to move camp. There were skirmishes and mimicked assaults on the Burgundian encampment, killing men which Charles couldn’t afford to lose.
At three o’clock in the morning on July 22, the furious Duke of Burgundy raised the siege and headed west toward Normandy, burning and pillaging villages and fields for miles around the city. Beauvais had held on. About one hundred and twenty were killed and one thousand wounded. The Duke had lost about three thousand men, including about twenty lords. Charles had suffered a terrible humiliation.
Louis had marched on the Duke of Brittany and if Charles had come to Brittany’s rescue, they might have beaten Louis. But much time was wasted on Beauvais. Louis understood well the value of the defenders of Beauvais. He granted privileges and a reduction in taxes to the town. He honored the women and children who had sacrificed their lives in the fighting. An annual procession was started and the women were allowed to march in front of the men for their ingenuity in using the boiling water and other weapons. In gratitude for what they had done, Louis allowed the women, no matter what their rank, to wear whatever clothing they pleased, suspending the sumptuary laws which were common at the time.
Louis awarded one woman in particular for her bravery in confronting the Burgundian soldier with the flag. Louis gave Jeanne Laisné a cash reward and she and her descendants were exempted from paying taxes forever. To this day, the town of Beauvais honors the siege and Jeanne Laisné, now called Jeanne Hachette with a procession through the town in memory of their victory against the army of the Duke of Burgundy. And the women lead the parade.
Resources: “The Universal Spider Louis XI” by Paul Murray Kendall, “Charles the Bold” by Ruth Putnam, “The Memoirs of Philip de Commines, Lord of Argenton, Volume 1”