The Battle of Mello was the decisive and largest engagement of the Peasant Jacquerie of 1358, a rebellion of peasants in the Beauvais region of France, which caused an enormous amount of damage to this wealthy region at the height of the Hundred Years' War with England. The battle was in fact two separate engagements; a major battle at Mello and a smaller one at the nearby town of Meaux, which the battle is also sometimes named after.
The rebellion in the Beauvais was a major part of the Peasant Jacquerie which exploded into life in the spring and summer of 1358. Although the head of the rebellion was centred on Paris, the body was focused in the region to the north-east, and there peasants, frustrated by the failures of the nobility to protect them from English raiders and heavy taxation had risen up, forming village councils to rule regions and small armed forces of young men to maintain order. These peasant bands also attacked surrounding noble houses, many of which were only occupied by women and children, the men being with the armies fighting the English. The occupants were frequently massacred, the houses looted and burnt in an orgy of violence which shocked France and ravaged this once prosperous region.
The nobles’ response was furious. Aristocracy from across France united together and formed an army in Normandy which was joined by English and foreign mercenaries, sensing payment and a chance to loot the defeated peasants. This army moved into the Beauvais, preparing to strike at the peasants who had set up camp at the plateau above Mello near Silly-le-Long. The peasants had arrived there three days before, many ragged bands united under a leader from Paris. Another army, 800-strong under Jean Vaillant and Pierre Gilles, was dispatched to Meaux, where they besieged the castle of Marché which contained Lady Jeanne de Bourbon, the wife of the Dauphin Charles and his daughter Jeanne, along with a large number of nobles returning from crusading with the Teutonic Knights, including Count Gaston Phoebus and Lord Jean III de Grailly.
The armies were composed very differently: the peasant army under the leadership of Guillaume Cale numbered several thousand Beauvais peasants with a core of 400 Parisians, sent by Etienne Marcel, the leader of the Paris commune following a simultaneous uprising in the city. The force was poorly armed and untrained, though a few mercenaries and members of the lesser nobility provided limited leadership. The motives of the latter for joining the uprising were mixed. Some were subsequently to claim that they acted under duress, while others may have been convinced that the Jacquerie were acting on behalf of the imprisoned king.
Opposed to the peasants was a smaller force of French nobles eked out by English mercenaries, routiers and a few Royal troops. They were led by a pretender to the throne of France, King Charles II of Navarre, who brought a substantial body of his own men with him. The noble-led army was between 1,500 and 2,500 strong, the peasants probably double this size.
On the morning of the 10 June 1358, the peasant army was lined up on the hillside near Mello, archers in the front rank, infantry behind them and cavalry forming an emergency reserve. The position was a strong one and the force of nobles, being weaker in numbers than their opponents, would have had difficulties in breaking through the peasant army's lines had the situation remained the same. However, Charles of Navarre had a plan to deal with the peasant leader Guillaume Cale before hostilities began, thus cutting the head off his opponent's army. A message was dispatched inviting Cale for treaty talks with the leader of the noble army, inviting the rebels to disperse unharmed. Cale was offered safe-passage through the noble-led army for the talks and foolishly agreed. Once he entered the noble lines he was seized and thrown in irons. That evening he was tortured to death and the remnants of his army were scattered. The medieval codes of chivalry did not apparently apply to peasant leaders.
With their leader gone, the peasant army’s morale plummeted and their line fell apart, allowing a cavalry charge to break through their centre. This caused the peasants to break into a shapeless mass. This mass was then systematically exterminated, the charge led by Charles of Navarre. Significantly, even against such inferior opposition, the main body of the French noble army fought on foot demonstrating that they had learnt the lesson of the ineffectiveness of cavalry against archers in a secure position taught at the Battle of Crécy twelve years before. Many of the peasants were hunted down and killed on the spot, or later in great mass executions by beheading, hanging or even more violent deaths.
The second engagement of the battle was fought simultaneously in the nearby town of Meaux, where the garrison of the castle of Marché was preparing for an assault. Realising that the peasant army was not prepared for a conventional battle in the streets of the town, the two dozen soldiers in the keep sallied out on horseback. The peasant army had been feasting with the sympathetic townsfolk the night before, and were still hazy from their excesses when the cavalry hit their packed ranks. The Parisian forces fought hardest before breaking, but within minutes the entire army was nothing but a panicked rabble blocking every street away from the castle. They were joined by the town’s populace, who also feared vengeance for their support of the peasants, and the cavalry simply hacked their way through the masses, killing dozens if not hundreds of people for the loss of just one of their own. When the peasants had been driven out the entire town was razed to the ground as punishment for disloyalty.
Refugees from the Jacquerie army and Meaux spread out across the countryside where they were exterminated along with thousands of other peasants, many innocent of any involvement in the rebellion, by the vengeful nobles and their mercenary allies. Villages were burnt, crops destroyed and families executed, reducing a valuable farming area into a wasteland as revenge for the peasant’s attempt to reverse the social order. The Beauvais and many unaffected surrounding areas were thus blighted for decades to come. The Paris Jacquerie collapsed without the support of the food producing peasants in the countryside, and the entire area was within noble control again by the end of the year.
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