It was a scorching hot July in 1465 and Louis XI had been king of France for four years. The French aristocrats didn’t think King Louis XI acted like a king. He didn’t preside over a traditional court like his predecessors. He constantly rode around his kingdom in shabby clothes on horseback, sometimes hunting, sometimes working, sometimes both at once. But most importantly, the nobles didn’t like his diplomacy and intrigue. He was obviously trying to consolidate his authority by bringing together all the noble’s fiefs. They decided to band together to fight the king to hold on to their power. They named their confederation the “League of the Public Weal” and gathered their armies together.
Charles, Count of Charolais, who would later become Duke of Burgundy, had agreed to join his forces with Francis II, Duke of Brittany. They were united along with King Louis’ own brother, Charles, Duke of Berry. From the south, they were joined by the Bastard Count of Armagnac, the Duke of Nemours and the Duke of Bourbon. Charles had a host of maybe as many as twenty-five thousand along with the finest artillery in Europe. He had besieged Paris with little success from July 5th through 10th. The Parisians were united in their support for the King and the Duke of Brittany had failed to rendezvous with Charles, much to his consternation. On July 13th, the Burgundian forces were at Châteaudun about twenty five miles north of Beaugency.
On July 14th, Louis was at Beaugency on the north bank of the Loire, marshaling his forces. He received word Charles was at Châteaudun, blocking his entry to Paris and that Armagnac, Nemours and Bourbon were to the south and advancing. Louis decided to drive his troops north to Étampes and he was joined there by the Count of Maine, Admiral Montauban and the Seneschal of Normandy, Pierre de Brezé. The next day Louis held an assembly and listened to the arguments for and against fighting. In the end he decided to go forward but he didn’t want to be blamed for openly seeking war. His plan was to proceed to Paris and if the Burgundians were in his way, he would fight. Scouts brought word to Louis an advance guard of the Burgundian army under the Count of St. Pol was occupying the small village of Montlhéry, halfway between Paris and Étampes. The castle was still held for the King and Charles’ troops were at Longjumeau, three and a half miles behind the village. Louis brought his troops closer, ten miles south.
The next morning Louis held another war council and decided to give Brezé the honor of leading the advance guard. In the meantime, the Count of Maine received a herald from the Count of St. Pol. Louis announced to his men that Brezé would lead the attack from the right, Louis himself would attack from the middle and the Count of Maine was to attack from the left. He frankly declared that Charles’ troops were fortifying themselves on the Montlhéry plain, digging ditches and embankments, setting up a laager of baggage wagons and arraying his artillery. They far outnumbered the royal army.
Brezé moved his troops forward. About eleven o’clock, Louis left the Paris road, turning to make his way up the hill to Montlhéry castle. He surveyed the scene. On the left about a mile away was the host of Charles. On the right, the Count of St. Pol had about eight thousand men. In the center were the troops of the Bastard of Burgundy, half-brother of Charles. Set up as a screen for the Burgundians, there was a band of five hundred English archers behind sharpened stakes for protection against a cavalry charge. At the center rear was a semicircle of carts. Behind the host was the forest of Séguiny. Between the two armies was an expansive field of wheat, oats and beans. The heat was unbearable and the fields were powdery dry because of the July drought.
Louis was in a superb defensive position on the ridge of Montlhéry. At the bottom of the slope behind a great ditch and hedge, Brezé arrayed his forces facing the Count of St. Pol. Louis’ troops which consisted of his Scots guard, his regiment from the Dauphiné and professional men at arms, were drawn up with their backs to the castle between Brezé’s men and the village. The Count of Maine was along the ridge above the village. Louis with his army of fourteen thousand men was ready to go on the offense against some twenty-five thousand Burgundians who were blocking his way to Paris. Louis sent heralds to Paris asking his marshal to bring all his men to attack the Burgundian rear. Louis calculated they could arrive by middle afternoon.
Charles began by firing his artillery. Louis’ meager cannons were positioned on the slope and at first were firing over the heads of the enemy. They were quickly moved into better spots and began taking a toll. Around noon, the King’s army began to appear on the ridge and Charles’ men awaited word to attack. Word never came. On both sides, a few errant knights rode into the wheat, engaging in feats of arms, entertaining both armies. About two o’clock, expecting the Parisian troops, Louis rode up and down the ranks, issuing orders and promising rewards. He urged the Count of Maine to display the valor for which the House of Anjou was known. The Count promised his loyalty.
By this time the Burgundians had begun a disorderly advance. Charles had decided to move his troops closer to the royal army and then the Count of St. Pol would lead the assault. They moved through the thick wheat to about seven hundred yards from the ridge and paused, all tangled in the grain in front of Brezé’s forces. The foot archers moved forward. Then St. Pol’s mounted crossbowmen rode forward. The archers went up to the hedge, running up and down, discharging arrows.
Brezé signaled to his men to move up the slope away from the hedge. St. Pol believed they were taking flight and sent messengers to the Burgundians with the good news. Some of the Burgundian men of arms rode diagonally across the field toward St. Pol. Brezé’s trumpets signaled and his cavalry wheeled round both sides of the hedge, brushing away the mounted crossbowmen. Again the trumpets sounded and lances swung down. With the outnumbered French attacking, St. Pol’s men drove forward crushing the foot archers. The Burgundians wanted to join in and spurred forward from the battle center riding down the English mercenaries. The two flanks from the hedge met in the center of St. Pol’s advancing troops, Brezé in the lead. The waves of horsemen crashed simultaneously. Brezé hurtled forward, hacking as he went deep into the Burgundians. He fell to the ground, dead.
The charge of the French had ripped a hole in St. Pol’s line and the Burgundian cavalry were in confusion. Brezé’s men, enraged by his death, rode savagely into the gap hacking away with spear, sword and axe. The Burgundians couldn’t handle their ferocity and wheeled their horses around and fled the field, entering the Séguiny forest or going up the road toward Paris. St. Pol’s wing disintegrated and he and his men were swept up in the rout. Some of the French pursued the men fleeing the scene and some assailed the Burgundian flank. The huge mélée created an immense cloud of dust and wheat particles.
With the Burgundians fleeing, confusion in the center and the afternoon wearing on, Louis was expecting the marshal from Paris to arrive any minute to attack the Burgundians rear. He signaled the royal trumpets to sound and Louis himself led the charge of his wing. The French moved forward with some of the King’s lances on the right peeling off to attack some of the Burgundians in mid-plain. Louis aimed straight for the center of the enemy. The first wave of attack by the French knocked the enemy ranks flat. The French were looking for booty in the laager of wagons. Louis called for his men to reform their ranks and made his way back to the ridge. It was time to unleash the Count of Maine to finish the rout.
Louis urged Maine to attack. Maine sounded his trumpets and his troops moved down the slope on either side of the village and into the village with their lances in attack position. When they reached the bottom of the village, Maine and his captains slowed. Commands were issued and the lances were raised. With Charles’ forces coming forward, Maine’s troops turned their horses with their backs to the enemy and galloped away to the south. Charles moved forward with his own men to pursue Maine but the rest of his army moved toward the ranks of the center battle.
Louis and his men headed for the center battle position and started thrusting and slashing. The artillery from both sides was cutting swathes through the ranks with cannonballs. Unexpectedly, Louis’ horse was pierced by a lance, possibly by the Bastard of Burgundy. Both Louis and the horse rolled to the ground. The Burgundians shouted the King was dead and the French began to falter. Louis’ Scots guard surrounded him and got him to his feet. A fresh horse was brought to him and he mounted it and shouted that he was alive, barely being heard over the din. But enough men heard and closed in the ranks. The fighting was savage and brutal.
Louis went forward fighting with the Scots against a surge of Burgundians. He then drew back to survey the field. No sign of the marshal from Paris. He plunged back into the fight. The French were holding a solid line. The Burgundians faltered and some began to fall back to the laager. The only organized fight on the field in the center started moving toward the ridge. All the French troops returned from the fighting or the pursuit of the fugitives and took up a position on the ridge. It was nearly seven o’clock and there was no sign of the marshal from Paris. Louis, exhausted, went to the castle to get something to eat and then returned to his men.
In the meantime, Charles returned from his pursuit of Maine’s troops to find the castle guarded by Louis’ Scots instead of in the Burgundians possession. There was no victory banner being flown on the field. Some of the last French men of arms, who hadn’t made it to the ridge yet, charged Charles. The French were outnumbered but they slashed through. One of the French chopped at Charles’ damaged gorget with his sword and managed to slash his neck. Blood was streaming out but he still defended himself. One of the Frenchmen grabbed his shoulders and urged him to surrender. Charles still fought until one or two of his men managed to release him. The Frenchmen then fled to the ridge.
Charles refused to give up the fight and joined the Bastard of Burgundy at the laager. The Count of St. Pol emerged from the woods and wagons were drawn together to protect Charles’ forces. All the forces were suspended motionless across the field with only the cannons booming. Louis realized the troops from Paris were not coming and the Bretons could be on their way to join Charles. Darkness was falling.
Louis ordered his men to light fires along the ridge and in the village. He had his captains gather the wounded into the wagons and ordered them to marshal the exhausted troops to march. Louis had no fear of the Burgundians pursuing his army. His eight thousand men had battered three times their number of Burgundians. They all moved in the dark down the road to the east for ten miles. Around midnight, Louis ordered his men to rest in the town of Corbeil on the Seine River. They would continue on to Paris leaving Charles and his army in Montlhéry. Both Louis and Charles claimed victory.
Sources: “Louis XI: The Universal Spider” by Paul Murray Kendall based on eyewitness accounts by Jean Pierre Panigarola, chronicler to King Louis and Philippe de Commines, chronicler to Charles, Count of Charolais (later Charles the Bold)