SPAIN had been raised to greatness by Cardinal Ximenes and for a century she overtopped all rivals on the continent Through the genius of an even greater Cardinal, Richelieu, France had risen during the second quarter of the seventeenth century into the foremost rank of European powers. Two great powers contending for the mastery were thus brought face to face; and it was inevitable that before long there should be a collision between them and a decisive conflict for supremacy. Richelieu determined to strike the first blow, and he seized his opportunity skilfully. He had brought all France into obedience. He had swept out of his path all who hampered him, princes, nobles, Marshals of France; and in 1640, collecting the French armies into one great host at Amiens, he burst upon the Spanish frontier hoping at one blow to crush and stun the enemy. The Spaniards in Flanders had indeed anticipated an attack, though they utterly mistook the point of danger. They expected the French army at Bethune or Doullens or Douai, and Richelieu’s generals by their movements and dispositions before actual fighting began fostered this belief. The Spanish armies were commanded by the brother of King Philip IV. of Spain, the Cardinal-Infant, then of about thirty-seven years of age, an officer who had seen much real service. The chief of his staff, Don Philip de Silva, acted under him as General of the forces in Artois. Count Issenbourg served under Don Philip as Governor of the town and fortress of Arras. An old decayed town of little military importance, a fortress of a former age, antiquated in design, with crumbling walls and ruined works, Arras lay in a poor posture of defence, and no serious resistance seemed possible. Its very antiquity, however, appealed to that strange romance which lay deep down in Richelieu’s terribly practical nature. Caesar had sat down before these walls; why should not Louis and his minister do so too? Richelieu ordered the siege in May, 1640. The Spaniards had denuded Arras of troops; drafts were made upon the garrison to strengthen Bethune and Doullens and Douai, no one in the Spanish service dreaming of an immediate attack on the old town of the Atrebates. But at two o’clock in the afternoon of the 15th of June, 1640, the sentinels on the old towers of Mont St. Eloi (a famous monastery six miles from the walls, once the home of the great Celtic scholar Alcuin), saw the brilliant army of Marshal de Chatillon advancing in splendour and pride from one side, while a few minutes later they saw from the other side the hosts of the famous Marshal de Meilleraye, deploying and emerging into sight on the road from Cambrai. Bells were tolled; trumpets sounded; the alarm rang through the city. Arras was invested.

At that moment the town was without ramparts or earthworks or other defences that could resist attack; and there was no responsible commander within the walls. The younger French generals (among others D’Enghien, afterwards the illustrious Conde) were for an instant assault; but cooler counsels prevailed, and Arras was allowed breathing time. A council was formed in the town, consisting of prominent citizens and a few soldiers, one being “Don Eugenio O’Neill, Irish Colonel, a chief of great experience.” Councils are not suitable for martial undertakings. Less than ever are they so when as in Arras local patriotism reaches the point of wild fanaticism. The town and the townsmen were the only objects of the civilians’ care; but soldiers have at times to consider whether, with a view to the wider interests of the campaign, the town itself should not be immolated, even though one stone should not be left upon another. This difference of aim affects conduct from the first moment of investment. The scientific soldier acts with reference to the main purposes of the whole war, the townsmen would fain precipitate themselves at once upon the enemy, putting all to the hazard of one rash hour. These difficulties tore the council at Arras asunder, and nothing was heard but mutual charges and recriminations. Before five days had passed, however, a sealed packet arrived from Don Philip de Silva addressed to Don Eugenio O’Neill in which he stated that His Eminence, the Cardinal-Infant, was graciously pleased to assign the command of the town to O’Neill, and he further nominated a council including among others Baron d’Erre, the Governor of the town, to assist Don Eugenio in the direction of the defence.

Steps were at once taken by the new commander to put the town in a better condition. It was too late to send away the surplus population. But the buildings in the suburbs which had been allowed to stand, were at once doomed to demolition. Churches, monasteries, academies, and private mansions were destroyed, and nothing left outside the walls which could offer shelter to the enemy. Some “persons of rank” wished to leave; but O’Neill sternly refused; all should stand or fall together. Iron discipline is very trying to townsmen accustomed to democratic rule; and there was from the outset considerable friction between Owen and the citizens. It was really the most difficult part of his task to bring turbulent and brave townsmen to understand that there is a time when inactivity is a supreme martial virtue, and when raw valour may be deadly. Here with 1,500 men Owen was holding in check an army of over 30,000 French, led by three marshals (Meilleraye, Chatillon, and Chaulnes), and inspired by the superintending genius of Richelieu. Each day was a gain in the game of war. The French had taken with them provisions for a month. The armies of Spain and Lorraine were round them on most points of the compass; and now when the news of the investment spread, these armies were strengthened by drafts from garrisons, and by the whole military force of Flanders which rose like one man to liberate beloved Arras. The French generals were superb soldiers. In three weeks they had completed a double line of fortifications round their camps, and at regular distances forts and redoubts strengthened these defences. These works ran round Arras in a circumference of fifteen miles. Meilleraye’s headquarters were fixed at Sailly, between Douai and Cambrai, protected by a marsh and by the river Scarpe, which winds slowly in the plain near Arras. Chatillon and Chaulnes were at Bray, outside Mont St. Eloi. And a grisly soldier of fortune, named Rantzau, who had accompanied Oxenstiern when the famous Swedish Chancellor visited Richelieu in 1634, and was now in the French service, was in charge of Croats and other irregulars who were ready for the hottest work of the war. Trenches were dug round every encampment twelve feet wide and ten feet deep, and the French sat down in a great entrenched circular camp, using the outlying heights as points of strength.

From these heights, indeed, the enemy commanded the whole circumference of the town. Arras itself lies on a low mound which is lifted from the bottom of a hollow or basin, the basin itself being surrounded by a series of heights which form an almost regular circle, enclosing it with a kind of cup-like rim. The town on its low mound surrounded by walls forms an inner ring of defence of about two miles in ambit, and from the walls a slope of half a mile falls downwards into the hollow. A gentle ascent of about two miles or so leads up on all sides to the encircling range of heights where the great outer ring of French offensive works lay in an ambit of ” five leagues.” The French had Swedes, Dutch, Croats, and Swiss in their ranks; while the garrison consisted of Italians, Spaniards, Flemings, Croats, and about four hundred Irishmen of “Tyrone’s regiment.” O’Neill was harassed by the foolish patriots of the town, who asked him to make sallies; the men of Arras never feared death, they said, and they were ready to face any enemy. Partly by genial raillery and partly by stern command, Owen abated their unruliness. They were quite welcome, he told them, to march out whenever they pleased, and whatever happened would be serviceable to the arms of the king. For if you succeed,” he reasoned, “you will have clearly promoted the king’s interest; while if you are all killed you will have lightened the burden of useless mouths (inutiles bouches) which the town has now to bear.” But would he order the soldiers to support them? “Oh, certainly not, every soldier is needed for some work. He cannot be exposed madly.” He paid little heed to noisy complaints against the soldiers, and although the sternest of disciplinarians, he found excuses from any lapse from duty reported by the jealous citizens. Rantzau’s Croats had nearly captured one gate where a sentry, fatigued by long watching, did not see the enemy until they had reached the counterscarp. A deputation came from the Hotel de Ville to the Grande Place, near which, hard by the gate of San Michel, the general had his headquarters. He listened carefully, silently. They pressed him to speak. “Yes,” said he reflectively, “it is a pity we soldiers have not learned to do without sleep.” The townsmen soon ceased their complainings as they found the mettle of the man with whom they had to deal; and the soldiers more than ever loved and honoured their commander.

Sallies were speedily made under his direction on the night of the 20th of June. Rantzau had been carousing — was “quite drunk,” says the outspoken chronicler; suddenly he found himself surrounded by soldiers from the garrison and by the troopers of Lamboy (most dashing of Spanish cavalry officers), and yelling out meaningless words, “cursing terribly,” he was of small help to his poor soldiers, whose bodies lay in scores on the plain, cut down in a fight in which they and their kin far away in Croat villages had little interest or concern. Vigilant Meilleraye hurled his horse against the assailants; rescued Rantzau, after his arm had been cut off by a sword-stroke, and drove away the Spaniards, who retreated doggedly to camp and town. Next night new sallies were made which were repulsed by Chatillon and the light cavalry. Lamboy at all times hung menacing on the flank of the French, swift as the storm in movement and in attack. He had fixed his camp at Sailly, eight miles from Arras and five miles away from the French outposts. There with 8,000 dashing cavaliers he held his watch, ever ready to swoop down and to destroy. With 2,000 picked sabres he tried to break in to Arras. He was met by Meilleraye, ever vigilant, ever ready. Lamboy and his men fought like lions; but they were overcome, forced back, pent up, and to all appearance lost; when a sally from the garrison, admirably conducted, saved them at the critical moment, and Meilleraye was chased back headlong to his lines. In the closing days of June the Spaniards massed and concentrated their troops for a mighty effort. The Cardinal-Infant at the head of the stately regulars of Spain, the Duke of Lorraine with his own quota and German auxiliaries, Ludovic and his Croats, and all the added strength of Flanders, moved majestically in converging lines until they pitched their tents within sight of the French entrenchments. The lines were examined. The positions were reconnoitred. It was decided after debate that an attack involved too much peril. They determined to besiege the besiegers, and so established a gigantic blockade, cutting off all ingress and egress from the French.

The French, so surrounded, never lost heart. Food was growing visibly scarce and actual famine threatened them; but never for an instant was there heard one murmur or one complaint from all that mighty host marshalled under the French lilies. The great Richelieu knew well the imminency of the peril. He dispatched convoys of food. Meilleraye, tireless and watchful, took 1,500 horsemen and galloped away at midnight to meet and escort the convoy. Bucquoy (whose father had defended Arras bravely in 1597) had been sent with an equal force on the Spanish side to protect their convoy coming from Cambrai; and without design or pre-arrangement both forces met, and after a terrible fight victory remained with the French. This relieved the besiegers immensely. They had food for some days, and their ammunition was plenty. On July 1st Meilleraye pushed the lines nearer to Arras, and the circle narrowed to a circumference of about ten miles. The Spaniards thought this a fit opportunity for a main assault; but the French repulsed them with awful carnage. On the 4th the trenches were opened, and one of the most terrible bombardments of the 17th century began. The church of St. Lawrence stood nearly half a mile outside the line of the city walls. In clearing the suburbs this church was left standing, although O’Neill had given orders for its demolition. Seeing it standing, he ordered men to occupy it and strengthen it by outworks, and in some of the sallies it gave valuable shelter and protection. Now, however, the indefatigable Meilleraye formed a redoubt in front of it, and poured shot and shell into the building. A mine exploded and shattered the whole building, and the French rushed to the attack. They only found seven Irish musketeers, all the rest having retreated; and these brave men held at bay 300 French and Swiss until the cannons were ordered to play upon them, whereupon they surrendered. This church was now made one of Meilleraye’s strong posts. He pushed his works nearer and nearer, until by the 7th of July only 150 yards intervened between his lines and the half-moon protecting the gate of St. Nicholas. But outside, like a circumambient fate, hung the Spaniards, and the town showed no sign of yielding. To make an assault in the presence of the Spanish army would be madness, yet what was to be done? A council of war was held in Meilleraye’s tent. The three marshals could come to no decision, and it was determined to submit the matter to Richelieu for his direction. The answer of the great Minister is preserved, and it is a valuable illustration of the fact that men of real genius know their own limits at least in practical affairs, and leave special work to specialists: —

“I am not a soldier, nor capable of giving advice on such a question, though I never could see why any one should quit lines to fight enemies in the open. The king has given you three the command of his armies because he believes you capable. It matters little to him whether you stay in your lines or issue out of them. But your business is war and mine is to govern France; and if you fail in taking Arras I shall take your heads.”

The marshals now, indeed, set vigorously to work. Four batteries incessantly thundered on the devoted city. Owen had much to do to hold in the turbulent and ebullient multitude, eager and daring, but as foolhardy as they were brave; and a man grown grey in the wars of the time must surely have smiled when boys twelve years old came clamouring for arms (as their admiring panegyrist says), and declaring their readiness to sweep away the “accursed French.” A sally was made on the 18th July. The citizens gathered in great strength at the gate of St. Nicholas, near which the French batteries were now planted. The citizens bravely stormed the works, and destroyed much of the half-moon which the enemy had captured. They were oppressed and overpowered with numbers, and retreating flung away their muskets ”because they had no powder,” they said, “and therefore they flung them at the enemy.” The great gate of St. Michel, close to Owen’s quarters, was blown up next day by the French engineers, and the Irish garrison there barely escaped with their lives. All round the terrible circle of fire and iron was closing in. Public buildings and private habitations came crashing in ruin as the guns thundered. The Chapel de Ste. Chandelle was tumbled to the ground; the great belfry of the cathedral was shattered; hospitals, mills, and factories were destroyed, and every street and square was ploughed with the infernal hail. Yet the citizens bore up bravely. They shouted out pleasantries; they sang exulting songs: —

“Les Frangois prendront Arras,
Quand ce chat prendra ces rats.”[1]

A few small convoys came to the French and saved them from utter famine. Important relief reached them at the close of the month.

“The enemy, informed by their spies that our convoy was coming by the road to Ancre, hurried their troops to intercept our relief. A number of waggons soon came in sight, moving along, as it seemed, slowly and ponderously. The waggoners turned the horses’ heads when they saw the enemy, who at once gave chase. But the waggons were light, and rushed swiftly back to Corbie. While the enemy wasted time chasing empty waggons, 600 well-stored ones, full of sound provisions, and accompanied by bullocks, cows, and sheep to a great number, passed by the road from Doullens to our camp without even once meeting an enemy.”[2]

The Spaniards were seriously in want of provision at this time. They found it very hard to seal the French within their lines; the extent of the works and the many roads through the flat country necessitated an almost innumerable army to close in a besieging camp of 30,000 men; and French forces set free in other places preyed and burnt the outlying country which the massing of Spanish troops had left exposed. From Dunkirk to Gravelines was overrun, and the town of Art was burned after a brave defence by the inhabitants, all soldiers having been called away, à cause dufameux siège Arras.

On the 28th July a terrible assault was made by Meilleraye on another half moon protecting one of the gates. He was met with “musket balls, red hot iron-grenades, et feux d’enjery.” French dash eventually prevailed, although at terrible cost, and a lodgment was made; but the whole garrison, with O’Neill in charge, drove the besiegers out again and hurled them back to their own lines. Next night Meilleraye, covered by a terrible artillery fire, again seized the position and filled it with an overpowering force. His miners now worked like demons under the city walls, while pique a pique the fight went on incessantly above. On the night of the 30th the mine played, and left a gaping breach in the battlements. Meilleraye ordered an assault, and on the ramparts a fearful carnage took place. O’Neill ordered all who could carry arms to advance. The citizens fought heroically. They attacked redoubts of the enemy, and, prodigal of their lives, rushed up to the very mouths of the batteries. A Swiss regiment was nearly cut to pieces. But the grip on the walls was unloosened, and the French, though mown down in hundreds, stood firm as rocks until, after four hours’ indescribable butchery, Meilleraye was left in possession of the breach. He had paid dearly for his success, and the French were so crippled by their losses that they made no further attempt for some days upon the town. Meantime other movements were going on. Richelieu had dispatched from Amiens another army containing “toute notre noblesse et gens de main a rompre ces obstacles!“  A more brilliant army never set out on a campaign, The Sieur du Hallier was in command. The Doullens route being clear, rendezvous was fixed in that direction; and Meilleraye was informed of the plans. Always ready, that able leader collected a few thousand men, and in a famous night march sped to the defiles at Beaufort, where he remained masked and hidden, awaiting the arrival of Du Hallier. Du Hallier had reached Doullens in the evening, and two hours after midnight he set out towards Arras. When he had marched four leagues and the morning began to fleck the sky, he heard a welcoming shout; and then arose “a joy and a military acclamation enough to kindle the iciest hearts, as thousands of brave men, with one voice, cried out ‘Long life to France and to the King.'”[3]

A thousand waggons now lumbered across the plains in slow security. All the roads were opened. Arras was indeed doomed. At this moment General Lamboy urged the Cardinal-Infant to break the French lines, weakened by the absence of Meilleraye and his men. The Cardinal was at the time very ill. Although only in his thirty-seventh year, the sands of life were nearly run out. He was undecided. Philip de Silva sent word to O’Neill to have the garrison ready to co-operate. O’Neill called a council in the Grande Place, and discussed the plans; himself and his son, Henry Roe, were to lead the Irish in person, and the great gate of San Michel was to be the place of sortie. Unfortunately time was wasted. That Spanish and Austrian slowness on which the great Napoleon always reckoned paralysed the purpose of Lamboy and O’Neill. It was only at three in the afternoon of August the 2nd that the trumpets sounded, and one of the bloodiest engagements of the time began. Lamboy, by pre-arrangement with O’Neill, made a pretended attack on Rantzau’s quarters; and then, suddenly wheeling, spurred for the river Scarpe towards a detached fort near the French lines which Chatillon had made his central position. O’Neill’s movements were nearly similar. He threw out the Croats and some citizens “pour amuser les nôtres”;[4] while he and Henry, with eight squadrons of cavalry, galloped to the help of Lamboy. It is “impossible,” says a French report, “to describe the deeds of arms and the brilliant actions which passed on both sides. Marshal de Chatillon, among others, not satisfied to direct as a general, became once more a trooper, and threw himself into the thick of the battle.” The regiment of Ronceroles held the fort; and they defended it with indomitable bravery. But O’Neill swept them from it after two hours’ fighting, and he and Lamboy joined hands. Chatillon hurried up the Guards, the regiments of Champagne, Navarre, and Piedmont, and other fresh forces. After a terrible conflict they drove Lamboy and O’Neill out of the fort; but before they could settle into it the Spaniards, Italians, and Irish with loud hurrahs carried it again at the point of the bayonet. The French were driven back in confusion, leaving three generals and many officers dead upon the field. And then under the blazing sun “they advanced so near our lines as nearly to become masters of them.”[5] The Cardinal-Infant who had made a strong attack on the lines of de Chaulnes now brought up his forces; so that a general battle took place in this quarter. The battle sounds reached the ears of outlying bodies of the French; and “the volunteers” under the Grand Escuyer of France came up two thousand strong, and took the Spaniards in flank. These brave volunteers had been in garrison, as they were old and ill and feeble; but they answered the call of France, and fought with the heart and zeal of the youngest. Generals on each side fought like ordinary soldiers, for at this stage valour and stamina were to determine the result. Quarter was not given on either side, “because there was no time to ask quarter, or if any asked he could not be heard, all ears were so stunned with the roaring of cannon, the rattle of musketry, the clashing of swords, and the cries of battle.”[6] So the battle raged and roared, armies tumbling like billows to and fro when the mighty forces under Da Hallier and Meilleraye came swarming across the plain. The shock of their onset was tremendous. The Spaniards reeled and staggered, struck back feebly, and then sullenly retreated; but the young French nobility, blooded for glory, came charging at full speed and the brave Spanish warriors, abandoning the fort, were driven back, broken and torn by the onset, their ranks raked by the French guns which now incessantly belched fire.

O’Neill brought all his survivors into the walls, and sheltered a few hundred others whose retreat has been cut off, and so after ten hours of terrific slaughter, the French remained masters of their lined and the Spanish army was sent broken and beaten into space. Relief for Arras was no longer possible Marshal Meilleraye, wishing to be merciful, wrote to O’Neill expressing his personal admiration, and pointing out to him the uselessness of prolonging the defence now that there was no longer any fear of famine in the French camp, and the Spaniards could by no possibility come to the relief of the town.

Don Eugenio replied that he had never relied upon the wants of the French or the help of the Spaniards, but upon his own proper resolution and the vigorous defence of the town by “those under his command, who were resolved to perish upon the breach sooner than surrender.”[7] But the townsmen were now utterly panic-stricken. The municipal authorities met in the Hotel de Ville, and resolved that Don Eugenio should be requested to treat with the enemy. O’Neill refused.

“Then the said townsmen went to the Council of Artois and requested that without a moment’s delay the President of the Council, the Bishop of Arras, and the Provost of the merchants should accompany the mayor and municipal body and join them in begging the camp master, Don Eugenio O’Neill, not to imperil the town, but to treat with the besiegers. The deputation came to the Grande Place. O’Neill was inexorable. Then the Abbe of St. Vaast, Owen’s intimate friend, joined in the supplication, and he implored O’Neill to save the lives of those who had shown such constant bravery during the siege.”[8]

Nothing could move that firm and constant mind. He told them gently that it could not be. He and they were bound as faithful men to hold the town for his Majesty. Full of terror, the townsmen sent out two messengers, one to Meilleraye, and one to the Cardinal-Infant. They proposed negotiations with Meilleraye, and they appealed to the Cardinal to displace O’Neill by some more popular general. Meilleraye congratulated them on their good sense, and the wisdom they displayed in saving their town from these Spanish soldiers who cared nothing for them or for Arras. The Cardinal replied that he and his royal brother, the King of Spain, had unlimited trust in the skill, loyalty, and devotion of Don Eugenio O’Neill, and he charged the citizens on their allegiance to obey him. O’Neill had not yet abandoned hope. He thought that by holding out he was rendering an important service, to the Spaniards. Meilleraye, on the other hand, felt every hour’s delay a disgrace to the great army of nearly 100,000 men, now idly held before a garrison of 1,500. He brought artillery into closer position and he was preparing for the most furious cannonading that Arras had yet felt, when messengers came from the Cardinal-Infant to Owen stating that no advantage could be gained to the armies of the king by his further resistance, and laying it upon himself to say whether it were not more humane to treat.

Owen was full of anxieties. Next day a further breach was made in the walls by a mine, and rope-bridges and fascines were advanced for a general scaling of the walls. Meilleraye now implored Owen to yield, and offered all possible mitigation of the surrender. The townsmen were insane with terror. Owen summoned a council of soldiers and civilians. The “notables,” lay and ecclesiastical, passionately appealed to him to make terms for them and to avoid bloodshed. Negotiations were opened, and on the afternoon of the 9th August they were completed. There were nine military articles, and thirty-one civil; all most honourable, and all most honourably kept. That evening the Spanish troops were to leave the town, and the French were to enter. But although the garrison came out, entrance by the besiegers was deferred until next morning; and the soldiers rested peaceably side by side with their brave conquerors. Next morning the whole garrison were under arms. The officers who had slept in Arras came out and headed them. Then with drums beating and colours flying, and matches lit, they faced for Douay. French chivalry was touched. The superb army of the French king presented arms to their brave adversaries, and the courtly Meilleraye (gentle as he was heroic) said to O’Neill:

“Your bravery, Colonel O’Neill, has added to the lustre of our achievement. You surpassed us in all things, save fortune.”

And the two brilliant soldiers passed out of each other’s lives for ever. The cannon of the town were to have been brought away; but the citizens higgled over them, saying that they belonged to the town and not to the King of Spain; so Owen gave them his contemptuous consent, and they retained the guns. And — it is noteworthy — “Te Deum was chanted in the principal church of the city next day, and the Bishop of Auxerre officiated amid tempestuous popular acclamations of Vive le Roy de France.”[9]

So ended “ce mémorable siège sur leguel toute l’Europe avoit les yeux fichez;“  stoutly fought as became cavaliers and soldiers; death ever present, but courtesy softening much; the turning point in the fortunes of two great powers — one driven to the downward road, and the other moving higher and higher into civil and martial glory.


[1] The old legend written round the sculptured representation of a famished cat environed by an angry array of rats.

[2] Gazette, 28th July, 1640.

[3] Gazette, 4th August, 1640.

[4] “L’attaque faite contre le camp du Roi devant Arras.“ August, 1640.

[5] French Dispatch.

[6] Gazette, 8th August, 1640.

[7] Pere Ignace MS., Bibliotheque, Arras.

[8] Municipal Archives, Arras.

[9] Extract d’une lettre ecrite du camp devant Arras le jour de sa rendition.