Mediation Blog: Mediation in the Middle Ages

Monday 4 March 2024

Blog by David Watkinson of the Garden Court Mediation Team.

Two years ago, David wrote about mediation in the Anglo-Saxon period. Now, he considers mediation in a different historical context and highlights some comparisons between mediation then and now.

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In March 2022, I wrote one of these blogs about mediation in the Anglo-Saxon period. Now, I am moving forward into the Middle Ages, specifically to a serious attempt at settling the dispute between England and France known to both as the Hundred Years War (La Guerre de Cent Ans) 1337-1453. Spoiler Alert! The attempt failed. But how it happened and broke down has, I hope, some interest for those involved in mediations today. For what follows, I am wholly indebted to the fifth and final volume of Jonathan Sumption’s history of that conflict, “Triumph and Illusion” (Faber 2023)

The background/Arras 1435

The scene was Arras, in northern France, now close to the border with Belgium. Following the famous victory of Henry V at Agincourt (1415) and further conquests, particularly in Normandy, by the Treaty of Troyes (1420), Henry was to become King of France on the death of the weak-minded Charles VI, by-passing his son, the Dauphin. Unexpectedly, Henry died in 1422 before Charles who died later the same year. So it was that Henry’s son, also Henry (VI), scarce a year old, was proclaimed King of France in Paris, after Charles’ burial. In France, he ruled through a Regent, the Duke of Bedford. Resistance to the English clustered round the Dauphin, known to his supporters as Charles VII who established his own base at Bourges.

Aided by disunity amongst the French, particularly the adherence of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, the most powerful of them all, and whose lands were strategically placed, the English pressed forward. In 1429, they were poised to split Dauphinist France in two by capturing the city of Orleans. The extraordinary inspiration given to the demoralised French by Joan of Arc (called by herself and Shakespeare Joan La Pucelle) lifted the siege and put the English on the back foot. By 1431, however, Joan had been burned at the stake as a heretic after capture by the Burgundians. The war wavered to and fro and by 1434 all sides were anxiously surveying the costs thus far and continuing in addition to the destruction of land and property. Finally, the initiative came from Philip. The prospect of agreement over his claims seemed favourable but he wanted a comprehensive settlement including the English. Agreement was reached to meet at Arras and to invite Pope Martin V to appoint a mediator.

That role fell on Cardinal Nicolo Albergati – described by Sumption as “perhaps the most experienced peacemaker in Europe”. Indeed, the Pope had appointed him a papal legate to bring about peace between the parties as long ago as 1430. He was to sit with a representative of the Council of Basel but Albergati was the principal figure.

The Mediation Itself

An impressive array of Dukes, Counts, Archbishops and their attendants, heralds, trumpeters, secretaries, chaplains and soldiers was assembled on all sides. However, both the English and the French parties were given strict instructions before departure. The English were to make no concessions about Henry VI’s status or rights as King of France. The French were to make no concessions as to that status themselves. The English were to press for a long truce with flexibility as to the precise length. The French could make large territorial concessions so long as the English did homage to Charles for any lands conceded.

By the time sessions finally got under way in the first week in August, the mediators had made decisions as to procedure. They had decided the way forward was to keep the English and French delegations apart. There were no joint sessions. Instead the parties were to appear separately before the mediators to be informed about the other side’s proposals and make their comments which would then be relayed to the other side by the mediators. Indeed they hardly fraternised outside these sessions, being lodged in different parts of the town and made a point of attending Mass in two different churches.

Initially also, the English and the French adopted very different approaches before the mediators. Reminiscent of the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the English asserted their rights, as they saw them, by relying on law, precedent and treaties including those which one or other of the parties had repudiated. There was nothing to be gained by debating Henry VI’s right to the French Crown because that had been conferred by God.  Charles should surrender the land he had usurped (ie France) and in return he would be granted a reasonable estate and sufficient titles to confirm his status. The French, contrariwise, demanded possession of the disputed land (ie France) and compensation for war damage.

After a week they moved away from these positions. The English proposed a truce of 20/30 years and a marriage alliance between Henry and a French princess. At first the French responded that they would not agree to a truce but only to a permanent peace. At the mediators urging, the French altered this approach and offered to confirm Henry’s possession  of Guyenne in the south-west (broadly the region of Bordeaux) and to restore possession of Perigord (lost to England some 60 years before). Two conditions were that Henry would do homage to Charles for these lands and renounce his claim to the French throne. Over the following days the French offered yet more land in the south. The English demanded Normandy. Again, pressed by the mediators, the French offered the whole of Lower Normandy except for some strategic locations such as Mont-Saint-Michel. The English demanded all of France north of the Loire. When informed of that the French delegation laughed and left the room.

When they returned two days later it was to announce that no further proposals would be made unless the English agreed to renounce Henry’s claim to the throne of France. But the English stuck to the line that they had not come to Arras to deprive Henry of “his” Crown or make him subordinate to another monarch. Notwithstanding that the French then conceded the whole of Normandy.

Albergati finally gave his own opinion to the English delegation. The English claim to the throne of France was much weaker than that of Charles whose ancestors had long occupied it. The English should be satisfied with the throne of England (and presumably the territorial deal).

The English having been so informed, the French summed up their offer: – confirming the territorial concessions already made to the English, subject to  homage being done for them, except  for Paris and Maine, then occupied by the English, to be surrendered to the French, in exchange the  English renunciation of the claim to the throne of France and the French landowners dispossessed by the English to be allowed to reclaim their lands. However, the renunciation and acts of homage were to be deferred until Henry achieved his majority (21 – seven years to go) and the implementation of all other terms suspended until that time.

The mediators recommended acceptance.

The English said they would report these proposals to the King’s Council in London. They departed on the 6th September.

Four days later, Philip made a separate peace with Charles.

In early October, heralds arrived in London bearing the French offers in writing. They were told by the Lord Chancellor no more than that the letters had been received and that they were free to go.


Thereafter, in fits and starts, the English were driven from the lands they had occupied and, in many cases, comfortably settled in. Finally, (1453) only Calais was left in English hands and remained so until 1558. Although it was not until 1801 that George III voluntarily dropped “King of France” from the titles of the (by then) British monarchy. (Had he acted similarly in relation to the American colonies at an earlier stage it might have saved a lot of bother).

And the Lessons

The pattern of events at Arras may well seem familiar to those who mediate today. First the adoption of apparently irreconcilable positions. Secondly, the realisation that compromises have to be made if settlement is to be achieved. Third, the succession of offers made on the basis of expanding compromised positions. Lastly the breakdown as one party fixates on the point that must not be conceded even though important potential gains are then lost.

Might the lesson be that it is best to come to a mediation prepared to make concessions and not to draw red lines. That mediation failed but would any modern day mediation have fared better when even the authority of the Pope could not prevail?

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