Siege of St Quentin, 2-27 August 1557

The siege of St Quentin (2-27 August 1557) saw Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France, hold off a massive army led by Philip II of Spain for nearly a month, badly disrupting his plans for an invasion of France (Fifth Hapsburg-Valois War).

At the start of 1556 Coligny had played a major part in negotiating the Truce of Vaucelles (5 February 1556), a pause in the fighting that was meant to have lasted for five years. Almost inevitably the peace collapsed long before that, when Pope Paul IV managed to engineer an incident in Italy that triggered his defensive alliance with the French.

In November 1556 Francis, duke of Guise, left for Italy at the head of the main French army. This led the north-eastern border largely unprotected, and this was the main target for Philip II. He gathered an army around Philippeville, under the command of the very able Emmanual Philibert, duke of Savoy.

In 1557 St. Quentin had a popular of around 8,000, and was protected by two and half miles of walls. The fortifications weren't very modern. The northern wall was strongest, protected by the fortifications of the Gate of St. John. The east wall was long and straight, with one bastion and two small towers. To the south and west the River Somme and surrounding marshes protected the city. The town was on the northern side of the river, with a suburb on the southern bank.

The defence was aided by an interior ditch and rampart, a type of work that was first used during the successful defence of Pisa in 1500.

Savoy and Philip planned to invade Picardy, capture either Peronne or St. Quentin and join up with a small English army (then allied with the Spanish). Savoy's army moved on 29 July. He ignored the stronger fortresses protecting the border and his advance guard reached St. Quentin on 2 August. At this point the town was only defended by 300 men, and was very vulnerable.

Gaspard de Colingy, Admiral of France, was then Governor of Picardy. He reported the Spanish threat and was ordered to throw himself and reinforcements into the town to win time. He reached St. Quentin at 1am on the morning of 3 August, and was able to get 800 of his 1,800 men into the town. This gave him 1,100 men, and he was also able to recruit around 1,500 men within the besieged town.

Savoy had a much larger army, at least 45,000 strong. Coligny thus had a very difficult task. He approached it with great zeal. He attempted to recapture a bastion protecting the southern suburbs, which had been lost at the start of the siege, but without success. He ordered a sortie on 4 August, but this was repulsed. An attempt by his brother, François de Andelot, to get reinforcements into the town, also failed. On 6 August the entire southern suburb had to be abandoned. 

Coligny's only hope of victory came from the relief army that was quickly raised by Anne, duke of Montmorency. This army appeared close by on 7 August and hovered in the distance attempting to distract the Spanish for several days.

On 10 August Montmorency made an attempt to get reinforcements commanded by Andelot into the beleaguered town. This attempt went very badly wrong, and the resulting battle of St Quention (10 August 1557) was a disastrous French defeat. Montmorency and a number of senior French commanders were captured, and the relief army scattered. The only positive element of the effort was that Andelot managed to get in with 500 men and a Scottish company.

The battle took place two leagues from the town and so news of the defeat wasn't confirmed until 13 August when the Spanish displayed the captured French flags. Even then Coligny didn’t give up, but instead used fairly draconian threats to prolong the resistance. This including confining 2,000 women and children in the great church to prevent them from reducing morale, and expelling a number of people who were refusing to work on 21 August. The same day also saw the failure of the last French attempt to get reinforcements into the city, led by Nevers, repulsed.

Meanwhile the attackers were active. Their siege works soon came close to the walls. At first they had limited themselves to long range bombardments from the west and south, but by mid-August they were also hitting the east wall. Philip II arrived in person with reinforcements on 13 August, bringing the attacking force up to around 55,000.

The first Spanish assault on the town, on 14 August, was repulsed. The bombardment then continued, and by 27 August there were ten breaches in the east wall and one at the south gate. Coligny prepared to repel the inevitable assault, taking command in the centre of the wall, with his brother Andelot his right. By now the defenders only had around 800 soldiers fit to defend the walls. 

The Spanish attack began at 3.3pm on 27 August. One column attacked the south gate, and two columns attacked the ends of the east wall. In some area the defenders held on for some time, but at the northern end of the wall the Dauphin's Company broke, and the Spanish were able to get into the city. Coligny attempted to reach the breach, but was soon isolated and forced to surrender. He remained in captivity until 1559. His brother was also captured, but managed to escape and brought the news of the fall of St. Quentin to the French court.

The fall of St. Quentin was accompanied by one of the more brutal sacks of the period, presumably triggered by the high cost of the siege and the final assault.

The defence of St. Quentin played a major part in the failure of Philip's campaign of 1557. Having defeated the relief army on 10 August he could have left a small force to screen the garrison and moved on to threaten Paris, but instead he decided to complete the siege. Coligny thus gained France an entire fortnight by his stubborn resistance. In return he ended up spending the next year and a half in captivity, and he wasn't released until the spring of 1559. By then the Fifth and Final Hapsburg-Valois War was nearly over, but France wouldn't find peace. Instead the period of the French Wars of Religion was soon to dawn, and Coligny would find himself serving as one of the early Huguenot leaders.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (2 April 2015), Siege of St Quentin, 2-27 August 1557 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_st_quentin_1557.html

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