Post-classical history


Poitiers and the Black Prince 1350—1360


Give me an armour of eternal steel! I go to conquer Kings ...

The Raigne of King Edward III

We took our road through the land of Toulouse, where many goodly towns and strongholds were burnt and destroyed, for the land was rich and plenteous.

The Black Prince in 1355

The next stage of the Hundred Years War, from 1350 to 1364, saw the emergence of Philip’s son, King John II of France, and of the Black Prince, Edward III’s son, who eventually took up permanent residence in Guyenne. Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, and traditionally known as the Black Prince (from the colour of his armour), is one of the great heroes of English history. As with most heroes the reality was a little different from the legend, but unquestionably he was a son after Edward III’s heart. In 1350 the Prince was twenty and shared to the full his father’s appetite for military glory. However, he had to contain his warlike spirit in patience for some time, as the conflict of the early 1350s was largely limited to negotiation.

Few negotiators can have been as inept as ‘Jean le Bon’, probably the most stupid of all French kings. Born in 1319, the former Duke of Normandy was by now verging on medieval middle age, a big handsome man with a thick red beard. His ill-merited soubriquet was bestowed on him for prowess in the tournament and pigheaded bravery on the battlefield, but his marked characteristics were blind rage and a tendency to panic. John II’s only other outstanding quality seems to have been a certain charm of manner—when he was on his best behaviour.

Although Edward III had abated none of his ambitions, the years from 1350 to 1355 were (save in Brittany) a low-key period of the War. Either the English King had taken the exact measure of his new opponent and hoped to manoeuvre him into concessions, or else he was waiting for England to recover from the ravages of the Black Death. Professor Perroy considers that ‘Edward III was not unaware of the weaknesses and the panic fear of the new King of France. He took pleasure in prolonging the threat, continually postponed, of a fresh landing.’ All one can say is, however, that apart from a series of truces there is little evidence of constructive diplomatic activity until 1353. Edward then took advantage of Papal mediation to offer to abandon his claim to the French crown in return for Guyenne ‘as his ancestors had held it’ (i.e. with Poitou and the Limousin) and Normandy, together with the suzerainty of Flanders—though he hinted that he was generously prepared to forgo Normandy. The following year he actually increased these demands to include Calais, Anjou and Maine. Almost incredibly King John agreed to them in a provisional treaty at Guines in April 1354. But then John refused to hand over the stipulated territories—possibly he had been merely playing for time.

Meanwhile English intervention in Brittany had been most successful. Their garrisons were mostly in the Celtic west of the duchy, in ports like Brest, Quimperlé and Vannes, though there were some in the French-speaking east, as at Ploermel. The King’s Lieutenant in Brittany, Sir Thomas Dagworth, and his garrison captains launched raid after raid. In 1352 Sir Thomas was ambushed and murdered by a Breton traitor but his successor, Sir Walter Bentley, was quite as vigorous and the same year, using bowmen, won an important victory at Mauron.

The warfare in Brittany was on a comparatively small scale but, to judge from the chronicles, it obviously made a considerable noise among the fighting classes. For contemporaries, if not for history, one of the most important events of the Hundred Years War was the ‘Combat of the Thirty’ —‘a magnificent but murderous kind of tourney’ as Perroy calls it—which tells us a good deal about the mentality of the officer class of 1351. That year the English garrison at Ploermel was attacked by a French force under Robert de Beaumanoir. To avoid a siege the garrison commander, Sir Richard Bamborough, suggested a combat on the open plain before Ploermel between thirty men-at-arms from each side. Bamborough told his knights (who included Bretons and German mercenaries as well as English) to fight in such a way ‘that people will speak of it in future times in halls, in palaces, in public places and elsewhere throughout the world’. They all fought on foot, with swords and halberds, until four of the French and two of the English had been killed and everyone was exhausted. A breathing-space was called but when Beaumanoir, badly wounded, staggered off to find some water, an Englishman mocked at him—‘Beaumanoir, drink thy blood and thy thirst will go off.’ The combat recommenced. It seemed impossible to break the English, who fought in a tight formation, shoulder to shoulder. At last a French knight stole away, quietly mounted his great warhorse and then returned at the charge, knocking his opponents off their feet. The French pounced on the English, killing nine including Bamborough, and taking the rest prisoner. Among the latter were Robert Knollys with his half-brother Hugh Calveley, a pair of whom more will be heard.

Less chivalrous activities in Brittany had continued to make the War popular with all classes of Englishmen. These were the various methods of making money out of the local population. The most profitable was of course ransom —selling a prisoner his freedom. A prince or great nobleman commanded an enormous price, but the market was not restricted to magnates ; a fat burgess or an important cleric could be an almost equally enviable prize. Indeed there was a famous scandal during the siege of Calais when a certain John Ballard was rumoured to have captured the Archdeacon of Paris and smuggled him back to London, where he was supposed to have fetched a mere £50. For ransoming was often more like the kidnap racket of modern times, and small tradesmen and farmers had their price; even plough-men fetched a few pence. Sometimes fortunes were made——Sir John Harleston’s share in a French knight taken during Edward’s march through Normandy amounted to no less than £1,500. Nor was the business confined to the upper classes ; the humblest archer, a serf at home perhaps, might suddenly find himself a rich man.

Even Edward himself engaged in the ransom trade, acting as a kind of broker. He bought particularly valuable prisoners from their captors at a reduced price, hoping to recover the full asking-price from the prisoner’s relatives or representatives. The King possessed the administrative machinery for such transactions so it was often well worth the captor’s while to sell to him; in 1347 Sir Thomas Dagworth sold Charles of Blois to the King for 25,000 gold crowns (nearly £5,000) and no doubt Edward made a good profit. Other magnates also acted as ransom brokers, purchasing high-ranking prisoners as a speculation; sometimes, like any other marketable commodity, the prisoners changed hands several times. Calais was to become the centre of this trade. Payment was not necessarily in money but could be in kind—horses, clothing, wine, weapons.

The garrisons in Brittany also engaged in a more sinister trade—that of the pâtis or protection-racket. Every village and hamlet had to pay the troops from the local stronghold dues in money, livestock, food and wine ; failure to pay was punished by arbitrary executions and burnings. Travellers had to pay dearly for safe conducts, road-blocks and toll-gates being set up. Profits from the pâtis were pooled; the soldiers paid one-third of their booty to the garrison commander, who remitted one-third to the King, together with a third of his own profits. In 1359—1360 £10,785—an average of £41 per parish—was collected from the parishes controlled by the garrisons of Ploermel, Bécherel and Vannes. Such extortion caused armed risings, while sometimes the inhabitants fled from their villages. In a report in 1352 Sir Walter Bentley said that in areas where strongholds had recently been taken over from the Blois party, the peasants would soon be too frightened of the English soldiers to plough their fields ; he explained that many of his troops were men of low degree instead of knights or squires and had only come to the wars for the sake of personal gain, and that they were growing rich from despoiling the inhabitants, townsmen as well as peasants. The English soldiers were hated with a bitter hatred ; when the French recaptured the town of La Roche Derrien in 1347 the locals threw themselves on the garrison and ‘killed them with sticks and stones like dogs’. In time the pâtis would be extended to all English-occupied France.

The English now regarded France as a kind of El Dorado. The whole of England was flooded with French plunder. The chronicler Walsingham says that in 1348: ‘There were few women who did not possess something from Caen, Calais or another town over the seas, such as clothing, furs and cushions. Table cloths and linen were seen in everybody’s houses. Married women were decked in the trimmings of French matrons and if the latter bemoaned their loss the former exulted at their gain.’ Even the troops’ wages were good; a mounted archer got 6d a day, the rate for a master craftsman at home, the foot archer 3d a day when a good ploughman was lucky to make 2d. Furthermore, the indentures of the men-at-arms and archers who volunteered guaranteed them a share of booty. In Dr Fowler’s words, however : ‘It was not the certainty of profit that lured men to service in the war, but the chance, often no more than one in a hundred, of hitting the jackpot.’ Although it meant heavy taxes again, there were many who waited hopefully for the King to recommence hostilities.

Edward III knew all about this enthusiasm and just how to exploit it. He had already shown himself to be a surprisingly sophisticated publicist, making full use of the primitive mass-media available. The reading of Philip’s invasion ordonnance in every parish church has been mentioned, but this was only one instance. Edward’s use of proclamations, to be read out at market-places or at county courts, was so thorough that it has been likened to ‘a kind of news service’ ; these proclamations explained in simple terms such great matters as the invasion of Normandy, the victory at Crécy and the taking of Calais, while the slightest threat of invasion was always fully exploited. In addition, the King made shrewd use of the clergy, asking the bishops for public prayers for the War, prayers which must have been said in many parishes. In 1346 the Dominican friars, who were generally credited with being the best preachers, were given the task of explaining to the King’s subjects why he was claiming the French throne and why he had gone to war. In consequence information about the campaigns of the 1330s and the victories of the 1340s had been surprisingly widespread.

If Edward was now even poorer than he had been before the Black Death, he had at least acquired a better understanding of what he could afford. Since 1345 his Treasurer had been the brilliant William Edington, Bishop of Winchester, who in 1356 was to become his Chancellor as well. Edington’s policy was to centralize all government finance under the Exchequer; only by pooling the entire revenue could he hope to pay for the King’s campaigns. Parliament was prepared to co-operate. As that great English historian Professor McKisack explains, when dealing with Parliament Edward’s approach was ‘to present the war as a joint stock enterprise undertaken for the defence of the realm and of his legitimate claim to the throne of France’, while keeping it informed about what was happening abroad and consulting it on matters of foreign policy. Edington’s skilful management made it possible for Edward to manage without asking too much in taxation.

Furthermore the English had found a new ally in France, the young King of Navarre. Charles the Bad was more than just the monarch of a tiny transmontane kingdom ; not only did he possess several counties in Normandy and rich estates near Paris, but if anything he had a better claim to the throne of France than Edward III. His mother was the daughter of Louis X (d. 1316), and therefore even nearer in line of succession than her aunt Isabel, though her uncles had been able to set aside her claims—largely on account of her mother’s reputation for promiscuity. Nevertheless, if her son Charles had been of age in 1328 he might well have been preferred as King of France to Philip of Valois. In consequence this personable, smooth-talking and amoral young man—eighteen in 1350—was consumed by a sense of burning injustice. To make matters worse, in addition to losing the throne he had been despoiled of the great counties of Champagne and Angoulême, and when to cut his losses he married King John’s daughter, her dowry was never paid. Charles decided that his best course was to play Plantagenet against Valois by offering to help Edward, and then persuading John to buy a Navarrese alliance. He seems to have had what amounted to almost a mania for intrigue.

However, the King of Navarre’s first move—in 1354—was far from subtle. He had long nursed a bitter hatred for the Constable of France, Don Carlos de la Cerda (the Castilian Admiral at Les-Espagnols-sur-Mer) to whom King John had given Angoulême; the Constable was now lured into Charles’s Norman territories, and then ambushed and hacked to death. ‘Know that it was I who with God’s help killed Carlos of Spain,’ Navarre declaimed in delight, although he then ‘excused himself to the King of France’. While John was infuriated by the murder of his favourite, he was so terrified by the rumours that his dangerous young cousin was corresponding with Edward III that he not only pretended to forgive Navarre but tried to buy him off with a large slice of the Cotentin. Charles was in no way mollified. The knowledge of his active discontent encouraged the English to recommence hostilities.

Edward again adopted a policy of attacking on three fronts at the same time. Originally he intended to lead one army himself into Picardy, while Lancaster (now a Duke) launched a joint Anglo-Navarrese campaign in Normandy and the Prince of Wales raided from Guyenne. In the event, although the King took an army to Calais in October 1355 he returned to England within a month. The operation’s chief campaign turned out to be a chevauchée by the Black Prince, who had been appointed Lieutenant in Guyenne and who had arrived at Bordeaux in September. In October 1355 the Prince rode out of the ducal capital with an army of probably no more than 2,600 men-at-arms and archers all told, but everyone on horseback, to spend the next two months killing and burning in Languedoc almost as far as Montpelier and the Mediterranean seaboard. He stormed Narbonne and Carcassonne—where he found useful supplies of food and wine—and burnt a large part of both towns to the ground, though he did not succeed in taking their citadels in which the citizens had taken refuge. Castlenaudry, Limoux and many other little towns suffered almost as much, while during the Prince’s 600-mile march countless villages and hamlets went up in flames, together with their mills, their châteaux and their churches. One of the Prince’s secretaries wrote, ‘Since this war began, there was never such loss nor destruction as hath been in this raid,’ while the Prince himself commented smugly on the ‘many goodly towns and strongholds burnt and destroyed’. It was not gratuituous cruelty or wanton lust for devastation. The object of every chevauchée was to underline the enemy’s weakness and deprive him of his taxes by destroying the lands and property on which they were levied. Chivalry had nothing to do with it—that was reserved for battles—and on this occasion, meeting almost no opposition, the Anglo-Gascon raiders behaved in a notably unchivalrous manner. According to Froissart, the troops preferred silver-plate and money but nothing of value was ignored, especially carpets, and the army returned with a baggage-train groaning with plunder —once back at Bordeaux, ‘they spent foolishly all the gold and silver they had won’. The devastated regions took years to recover, despite a programme of reconstruction which included tax exemption, gifts of royal timber and the conscription of masons and carpenters.

During such a chevauchée the English killed every human being they could catch (apart from those worth good money), so people unable to reach a town or castle had to hide. Some took refuge in caves or elsewhere underground—many castles and fortified churches had a network of cellars and tunnels dug beneath them. Others fled to the forest where they built huts, though the English searched the woods systematically. The peasants who dwelt in the plat pays—the flat, open plains which are the typical terrain of so much of France—were particularly at risk.

The rest of France was so shaken by the news from Languedoc that when the Estates met at Paris in October 1355 they agreed to taxes—including the extension of the gabelle on salt throughout the entire realm—which would enable John to maintain 30,000 troops for a year, although they tried to keep control of tax collection. In the event the exhausted taxpayers refused to pay. Nevertheless the desperate King summoned a great army, which began to assemble at Chartres in the spring of the following year.

Meanwhile Charles the Bad had not been idle, extracting even more concessions from John by spreading rumours that he meant to join Edward in England. But the King of Navarre pushed his luck too far. He ingratiated himself with the Dauphin who, fascinated by his charming cousin, spent so much time with him that the boy’s father began to suspect that the pair were plotting to depose him. In April 1356, in a frenzy of paranoia, King John galloped to Rouen, burst into the hall where Navarre and the Dauphin were dining, arrested the entire party and had four beheaded, including the Count d’Harcourt and three other Norman lords. King Charles of Navarre was incarcerated in a dungeon in the Louvre.

Edward was far from discouraged by King John’s preparations, even if he may have guessed that the Frenchman was determined to avenge Crécy. Towards the end of the summer he sent the Duke of Lancaster from Brittany with an army of perhaps 6,000 men to raise Navarre’s supporters in Normandy and then to attack in Anjou, his ultimate orders being to link up with the scarcely larger force of the Prince of Wales. The latter set out from Bergerac on 4 August 1356 on a long chevauchée north-east through the Limousin and Berry, besieging and capturing—by the use of Greek fire or flaming naphtha—the castle of Romorantin, where a French detachment who had tried to ambush him had taken refuge. He then swung north-westward and advanced on Tours where he began to burn the suburbs. By now he had become the main target of the French. King Edward had hoped to distract King John, but he had again been forced to return to England after only a day or two in France by the news that the Scots had taken Berwick. Similarly, although Lancaster had led the French army a dance, he failed to cross the Loire and join forces with the Prince.

Even if the Duke of Lancaster had succeeded in linking up with the Black Prince their combined army would still have been hopelessly outnumbered. Neither had any intention of seeking battle, but only meant to wage the chevauchée. In the early days of September, when he was before Tours, Prince Edward suddenly learnt that an army of 40,000 men was in hot pursuit of him and his plunder-laden troops. He made a run for it, retreating as fast as he could down the road to Bordeaux.

However, King John managed to outflank the Prince and reached Poitiers first, cutting the road to Bordeaux. He had with him perhaps 16-20,000 soldiers, most of them men-at-arms, though there were also a number of light troops including 2,000 crossbowmen. The two commanders only realized how near they were to each other when on 17 September the English advance guard suddenly collided with the rear of the French army at La Chabotrie. After a brief skirmish, the Prince marched on to camp at a village then called Maupertuis, which was some seven miles south-east of Poitiers.

The Black Prince was desperately anxious not to fight, for his men, laden with plunder, were obviously exhausted by their retreat. But the escape to the south was barred by the little river Miosson. Any attempt to ford it meant the possibility of annihilation by a well-timed enemy attack. Luckily he had the benefit of the advice of that gifted veteran, Sir John Chandos, who was a soldier of genius. Accordingly he unwillingly made ready for battle, taking command of the main division and keeping Chandos by his side where the latter seems to have acted as a chief-of-staff. The other divisions were commanded by the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, the last being in charge of the Guyennois contingent. Each of the three divisions consisted of about 1,200 men-at-arms on foot, rather fewer archers, some dismounted Gascon lancers, and a handful of Welsh knifemen. Although the exact topography is obscure, the terrain was beyond question ideally suited for such a combination—rolling ground covered with undergrowth, hedges, vines and patches of marsh. The front was guarded by a ditch and a long and stout hedge at the top of a gentle slope, the left by a thick wood, and the rear and left by the river. Though the English were able to use a slight hillock to watch the French, they themselves were to a large extent hidden from the enemy’s view—part of the Prince’s division was in a thicket, while the horses were tethered well out of sight.

King John made ready to attack at dawn next day. But it was Sunday and the Papal envoy, the Cardinal de Perigord, persuaded the King to let him try and negotiate. The Cardinal spent the entire day riding hopefully between the two armies. The Black Prince offered to return the towns and castles he had captured during his chevauchée together with all his prisoners, and to swear not to take up arms against the French King for seven years. He also offered a large sum of money. But John would accept nothing else than the unconditional surrender of the Prince and a hundred English knights—‘the which the Prince would in no wise agree unto’. Meanwhile the English spent the holy day frantically improving their defences, making ‘great dykes and hedges about their archers’. Even so, the Prince still hoped to avoid a battle and to escape to Bordeaux.

What happened remains a matter of controversy. However, it seems that next morning the English began to steal away, leaving the rearguard under Salisbury to cover their retreat. King John had not yet finished drawing up his troops. His plan was to send a small advance force of 300 mounted men-at-arms to charge through the one gap in the hedge where four knights could ride abreast, and to deal with the dreaded archers before he mounted his main attack. His first division, or ‘battle’, consisting of his foot soldiers and some German mercenaries who retained their mounts, were to follow. Then would come the second division under the Dauphin (4,000 men), the third under the Duke of Orleans (3,000) and the fourth under the King himself (6,000) ; the men-at-arms in these last three divisions were all to march on foot in their heavy armour, apparently at the suggestion of a Scots knight, William Douglas.

When at about 10.00 a.m. John realized that the English were trying to escape, his divisions had not yet formed up. Nevertheless he launched his 300 carefully chosen mounted knights, under Marshals de Clermont and d‘Audrehem, at the hedge which protected the English front. The archers, safe behind the hedge, shot steadily at the Marshals’ battle, which had split in two, ‘and did slay and hurt horses and knights, so that the horses, when they felt the sharp arrows, they would in no wise go forward but drew back and reared up and took on so fiercely that many of them fell on their masters’; many of the Marshals’ men were slain as they lay on the ground by Salisbury’s knights, who came out from behind the hedge. Clermont was killed and d’Audrehem taken prisoner, while William Douglas fled. The Germans and footmen who followed them belatedly were disorganized by the broken ground but reached the hedge where the English managed to hold them. By this time the Black Prince had seen what was happening and brought his troops back to relieve Salisbury. The Germans were finally driven off when a body of archers came out from far along the hedge and, protected from heavy troops by standing in marshy ground, shot murderously into the enemy flank.


The bulk of the enemy still remained, 13,000 dismounted men-at-arms. The first of their three divisions, that of the Dauphin, advanced towards the hedge, toiling on foot up the slope, through the scrub and brambles. Nevertheless they reached the English line, crossed the ditch and tried to break through the hedge ‘with a clamour that rose to the skies of “St George!” or “St Denis!”.’ The French attacked with such ferocity that the Prince had to bring up to the hedge everything he had, with the exception of a final reserve of 400 crack men-at-arms. At last the Dauphin’s troops reeled back from the hedge in full retreat.

The English were in scarcely better case. ‘Some of our troops laid their wounded under bushes and hedges out of the way, others having broken their own weapons took spears and swords from the bodies of the men they had killed, while archers even pulled arrows out of enemy wounded who were only half dead.’ Apart from the Prince’s tiny reserve, ‘there was not one who was not unwounded or not worn out by hard fighting’. Then they saw that the battle of the Duke of Orleans (King John’s brother) was about to attack. But to the astonishment—and relief—of the English the Duke’s division turned and marched off the field with the Dauphin’s broken troops. If Orleans had not despaired, the English—even though they might have repelled him—would have been so worn down that they would have been overwhelmed by the final French attack.

As the last enemy division trudged towards the hedge—6,000 fresh troops led by King John—the exhausted English wondered where they would find the strength to meet this final assault. An experienced knight standing next to the Black Prince muttered that there was no hope. The Prince angrily shouted at him, ‘You lie, you miserable coward—while I am alive it is blasphemy to say we are beaten!’ None the less the rank and file felt they were doomed. The English archers, ‘moved to fury because they were desperate’, shot better than ever but the French managed to ward off the arrows by holding shields over their heads. The Prince brought in his last reserve, the 400 men-at-arms, shouting to Chandos, ‘John, get forward—you shall not see me turn my back this day, but I will be ever with the foremost.’ He ordered his standard-bearer, Walter of Wodeland, to bear his banner straight towards King John and then, ‘courageous and cruel as a lion’ charged at the King. ‘The Prince of Wales suddenly gave a roar and attacked the Frenchmen with his keen sword, breaking spears, warding off blows, slaying those who sprang at him, helping up those who had fallen.’ The battle was now on the open ground in front of the hedge from behind which the archers, who had used up their last arrows, came out with swords and axes to help their men-at-arms. This was the fiercest fighting of the entire day—the clash with which the two sides met, the hammering of weapons on helmets, could be heard in Poitiers seven miles away.

Suddenly the banner of St George was seen behind the French. The Prince had sent the Captal de Buch with sixty men-at-arms and a hundred archers down a hidden track, through a hollow, which came out behind the enemy. The French, not realizing how small was the Captal’s force, began to falter, whereupon the Prince led a final charge. (They were still on foot and not on horseback, whatever Froissart may say—there would simply not have been time to bring up the horses and remount.) The French formation was broken, ‘the banners began to totter, the standard-bearers fell ... dying men slipped on each other’s blood’. Although the Prince, hacking his way in the direction of King John, met with ‘valiant resistance from very brave men’, the rest of the French were leaving the field.

By about 3.00 p.m. King John, wielding a large battle-axe to considerable effect, was left fighting alone with his fourteen-year-old son Philip. He was recognized and surrounded by a great crowd of soldiers anxious to take so fabulous a ransom. Although he surrendered to a knight of Artois he was still in peril, for the brawling mob of Gascons and Englishmen began to fight for him. Finally he and his son were rescued by the Earl of Warwick and Lord Cobham who took him to the Prince.

The latter had already stopped fighting, as Chandos had told him that the battle was over. Sir John advised the Prince to set up his banner on a bush as a rallying-point for his scattered troops—‘I can see no more banners nor pennons of the French party, wherefore, Sir, rest and refresh you for ye be sore chafed.’ Trumpets sounded. Then the Prince took off his helmet and his gentlemen helped him off with his armour. A red tent was erected and drink was served to the Prince and his friends.

Meanwhile ‘the chase endured to the gates of Poitiers’, so Froissart tells us. ‘There were many slain and beaten down, horse and man, for they of Poitiers closed their gates and would suffer none to enter; wherefore in the street before the gate was horrible murder.’ It was reported by the Black Prince that at the end of the day nearly 2,500 French men-at-arms had fallen, including many great lords. ‘There was slain all the flower of France,’ says Froissart. The English losses were obviously much smaller, but there is no reliable record—some English knights, pursuing too impetuously, were taken prisoner.


As many French were captured as were killed, among them seventeen counts together with other lords. ‘You might see many an archer, many a knight, many a squire, running in every direction to take prisoners,’ writes the Chandos herald who was there, while Froissart says : ‘There were divers English archers that had four, five or six prisoners.’ Indeed there were so many that it was impossible to keep them under guard and the English had to release some solely in return for a promise that they would come to Bordeaux with their ransoms before Christmas. Fortunes were made. The Earl of Warwick who rounded up the Archbishop of Sens did particularly well, later obtaining £8,000 for him; he also made a large sum out of the Bishop of Le Mans in whom he had a three-quarters share. The squire who actually captured the Bishop, Robert Clinton, was able to sell his own small share to King Edward for £1,000. Edward purchased three of the Black Prince’s personal prisoners for £20,000, while the Prince bought another fourteen on his father’s behalf for £66,000.

Sir George Felbrygg, one of the squires-at-arms (or bodyguard) of King Edward III. His son, Sir Simon Felbrygg, was to become banner-bearer to King Richard II. From a brass of 1400 in the parish church of Playford, Suffolk.

‘All such as were there with the Prince were made rich,’ Froissart informs us, ‘as well as by ransoming of prisoners as by winning of gold, silver, plate, jewels.’ There was so much that valuable armours were ignored. Many of the splendid pavilions of the French lords were still standing at their camp, where looters reaped a rich harvest. Some Cheshire archers found a silver ship—no doubt a nef or large salt-cellar—which belonged to King John and sold it to their Prince. The latter also acquired John’s jewel-casket.

Nevertheless, it must be appreciated that Poitiers was a very near thing. Victory might easily have gone to the French. Even with the masterminding by that brilliant chief-of-staff Sir John Chandos, the English defence would have been overwhelmed but for Orleans’s cowardly refusal to attack.

The unlucky King of France gave his enemy an opportunity to demonstrate his chivalry. On the evening of the battle, the Black Prince entertained John and his son to dinner, together with the leading noblemen among the prisoners, and personally served the King on his knees. (English monarchs were always served like this, down to the time of Charles I.) The food came from the French provision wagons, as the English had had none for nearly three days. The Prince told his royal captive : ‘Sir, for God’s sake make none evil nor heavy cheer,’ assuring him that King Edward would treat him with the utmost consideration. He also congratulated John on his bravery, saying that he had fought better than anyone, that even in defeat he had brought honour upon himself. This must have been small consolation to John II as he rode to Bordeaux with the English, who were ‘laded with gold, silver and prisoners’. Nor, for all his captor’s beautiful manners, did the King ever see his jewels again.

Across the Channel ‘there was great joy when they heard tidings of the battle of Poitiers, of the discomfiting of the Frenchmen and taking of the King; great solemnities were made in all churches and great fires and wakes throughout all England.’ Next spring the Black Prince brought John and his son home to London in triumph. On 24 May 1357 the captive French King rode into London on a white thoroughbred, accompanied by the Prince who tactfully rode a little black pony. John was given the palace of the Savoy for his lodging, where there ‘came to see him the King and the Queen oftentimes and made him great feast and cheer’. Edward III took a strong liking to his unfortunate cousin and brought him to Windsor where he ‘went a-hunting and a-hawking thereabout at his pleasure’. John can hardly have been cheered to meet the King of Scots, David II, who had been a prisoner for eleven years.

Meanwhile there was chaos in France, where the central government collapsed. It was all too much for the Dauphin Charles, a sickly boy of eighteen whose very real talents had not yet emerged. He was quite overwhelmed by his father’s misfortunes and by the difficulties of his position. Not only did the King of Navarre’s followers rise in Normandy, but all over France the Free Companies or routiers—bands of English and Gascon deserters and even Frenchmen—seized castles and set themselves up as robber barons, terrorizing large tracts of country and levying the pâtis.

When the Estates met at Paris only a few weeks after Poitiers they were in an angry mood. They demanded a complete reform of the administration, economies to reduce taxation and the dismissal of royal advisers, and insisted that the Dauphin must submit to the direction of a standing council of knights, clergy and bourgeois. The bourgeois had a formidable leader in Etienne Marcel, a rich cloth-dealer who was Provost of the Merchants (the nearest thing to a Lord Mayor of Paris). What made them more dangerous was that they were allied with Navarre’s followers, who wanted their unsavoury King to be Regent. Gradually the Dauphin lost control of the situation. Navarre escaped from prison at the end of 1357 and came to Paris where he forced the Dauphin to pardon him. The King of Navarre addressed an assembly on the subject of his wrongs : ‘His language was so pleasant that he was greatly praised and so little by little he entered into the favour of them of Paris, so that he was better beloved there than the Regent [i.e. the Dauphin].’ However, Navarre shrewdly refused to stay in the capital where Marcel’s party grew more obstreperous every day. In February 1358 they broke into the Dauphin’s chamber to murder the Marshals of Champagne and Normandy, ‘so near him that his clothes were all bloody with their blood and he himself in great peril’. The mob also made him put on a red and blue bonnet—the colours of Paris.

In May 1358 came the jacquerie. Unlike the lords in their castles or the bourgeois in their walled towns, the peasants had been unable to defend themselves from the English. During the day they only dared work in the fields if there was a lookout in the church tower to warn them of approaching troops; at night they hid in caves, marshes or the forest. In L‘Arbre des Batailles, Honoré Bonet writes how the soldiers take ‘excessive payments and ransoms ... especially from the poor labourers who cultivate lands and vineyards‘, how ‘my heart is full of grief to see and hear of the great martyrdom that they inflict without pity or mercy on the poor labourers’. Even their own seigneurs persecuted them, seizing their crops and animals to pay ransoms and to make up for the decline in revenues caused by the Black Death. Finally the wretched toilers of the Beauvaisis took up knives and clubs and turned upon the lords who had failed to protect them. Dreadful stories circulated—of a lady who was raped by a dozen men and then forced to eat her roasted husband’s flesh before being tortured to ‘an evil death’ with all her children. Soon there were thousands ofjacques north of the Seine, plundering and burning castles and manor houses. Etienne Marcel hoped to employ them as an auxiliary army and sent troops to their aid, politically a disastrous move. The shrewder King of Navarre gathered troops and then massacred the ill-armed mob near Meaux, thereby winning boundless popularity with the French nobility.

The Dauphin had fled from Paris in March. But the bourgeois were turning against Etienne Marcel, who at the end of July was cut down with an axe by one of his own supporters. The Dauphin returned, riding in amid the cheers of the fickle Parisians. Nevertheless Navarre was still at large, and defeated a royal army at Mauconseil the following month.


The Palace of the Savoy. ‘Henry. Duke of Lancaster, repaired or rather new built it, with the charges of fifty-two thousand marks [roughly £34,000] which money he had gathered together at the town of Bergerac.’ (Stowe)


Edward, Prince of Wales—the Black Prince (1330—1376)
‘In war, was never lion rag’d more fierce,
In peace was never gentle lamb more mild,
Than was that young and princely gentleman.’

Meanwhile French envoys had been negotiating with the English to obtain the release of King John. In January 1358, by the first Treaty of London, the Dauphin agreed to surrender the sovereignty of Guyenne, together with the Limousin, Poitou, the Saintonge, Ponthieu and other regions—also in full sovereignty—which comprised at least a third of the entire realm of France. In addition John’s ransom was set at four million gold crowns. Edward in return was to renounce his claims to the French throne. However, although these were Edward’s own proposals, he was so encouraged by the Dauphin’s difficulties that he decided he wanted more—Anjou, Maine and Normandy, the Pas-de-Calais, together with the overlordship of Brittany. But the Estates declared that this second Treaty of London was ‘neither bearable nor feasible’. In fact Edward had probably never expected that these new demands would be met, and had made them simply as an excuse for further military intervention.

The English King now prepared to take the field himself, for the final campaign. Understandably he had no difficulty in raising an army of 30,000 men, all avid for plunder and encouraged by the wonderful victory at Poitiers. Most of his nobles accompanied him, and four of his sons, all recruiting large companies under the indenture system. Famous commanders were flooded with applications : so great was the reputation of Sir John Chandos that his company was superior to that of some earls, although he was only a knight. The army included 6,000 men-at-arms and countless wagons carrying kitchens, tents, mills, forges and even collapsible leather boats. Unfortunately instead of invading in the spring, the King did not land at Calais until 28 October.

The object of this campaign was to mount a mighty chevauchée which would culminate in Edward’s coronation as King of France at Rheims—the traditional place of consecration. After being joined by some German mercenaries and by many routiers (including Robert Knollys), Edward marched out of Calais on All Saints Day 1359, proceeding by way of Artois, the Thiérache and Champagne to Rheims, burning and slaying in the now customary manner. But Rheims knew he was coming and the Archbishop-Duke brought in provisions for a long siege. The English arrived before its strong walls in December in dreadful weather, and had to camp in snow.

Among those who rode with Edward was Geoffrey Chaucer, probably as a man-at-arms. He had had the misfortune to be taken prisoner on a raid into Brittany and the King was kind enough to contribute £ 16 towards his ransom. Obviously the poet had a grim time. Later he wrote : ‘There is ful many a man that crieth “Werre ! Werre !” that wot ful litel what werre amounteth.’

In January 1360, after cruel suffering by men and horses, Edward despaired of taking Rheims. He set off for upper Burgundy where, after frightful devastation—at Tonnerre the English drank 3,000 butts of wine—the Duke was only too glad to buy him off for 200,000 gold moutons (£33,000).The King then struck at Paris, laying waste the Nivernais en route. He camped at Bourg-la-Reine but did not feel strong enough to assault the capital. A Carmelite friar, Jean de Venette, who was in Paris at the time, recorded how everyone fled from the suburbs to take refuge behind the city walls. ‘On Good Friday and Holy Saturday the English set fire to Montlhéry and to Longjumeau and to many other towns round about. The smoke and flames rising from the towns to the sky were visible at Paris from innumerable places.’

(Ironically an incident had just occurred on the other side of the Channel which shocked all England. On 15 March 1360 some French ships attacked Winchelsea and burnt the town. Although the raiders spent only a single night on English soil, it was the first time such a thing had happened for twenty years. The English people were so terrified by this one small experience of what they had been inflicting on the French for decades that panic swept the entire country.)

Edward hoped that the French would come out from Paris to attack him. He sent heralds with a challenge to the Dauphin, who wisely refused it. Sir Walter Manny rode up to the walls and threw a javelin; even this elegant provocation failed. So, after spending a fortnight in the region of Paris, the English moved into the plain of the Beauce to inflict further misery. Near Chartres they were struck by a freak hail storm which threw the whole army into confusion. They called the day ‘Black Monday’.

Shortly afterwards the Abbot of Cluny arrived with peace proposals. Lancaster pointed out that while the King had fought a wonderful war, and though his men were profiting from it, it was far too expensive for his resources and would probably continue for the rest of his life. He advised Edward to accept the proposals—‘for, my lord, we could lose more in one day than we have gained in twenty years’. The King agreed; it had been his longest campaign and, in terms of strategy, was a failure. The fact that the Dauphin had made peace with Navarre and was beginning to improve his position generally may also have had something to do with Edward’s decision.

On I May 1360 negotiations began at the little hamlet of Brétigny near Chartres and within a week the Black Prince and the Dauphin had reached an agreement. King John’s ransom was to be cut to three million gold crowns (£500,000), while the English would reduce their territorial demands to those of the first Treaty of London—Guyenne in full sovereignty, together with the Limousin, Poitou, the Angoumois, the Saintonge, Rouergue, Ponthieu and many other districts, all in full sovereignty. On 24 October the Treaty of Brétigny was ratified at Calais. It was agreed that Edward would renounce his claim to the French throne and John his sovereignty over the ceded areas only when the latter had been transferred to the English. In the event, Edward stopped calling himself King of France, but on both sides no one bothered about formal renunciation.

The Dauphin signed the treaty in good faith, for France was exhausted. It seems unlikely that he had any secret reservations (as used to be suggested by some historians) and the transfer of territory began in autumn 1361. By spring the following year all save a few areas were in English hands. Edward was sovereign ruler not only of an independent Guyenne but of Aquitaine, a huge state which comprised one-third of France. While it would be wrong to detect any spirit of modern nationalism, undoubtedly the inhabitants of some of the ceded territories were most reluctant to change sovereigns—perhaps partly because of the injuries inflicted on them by the English, partly for fear of losing rights and privileges. But only at La Rochelle was there noticeable resentment; one Rochellois said that his fellow citizens ‘would obey with their lips but not with their hearts’, and others declared they were ready to pay half their wealth in taxes annually rather than be ruled by England. However, there was no real opposition and no bloodshed. In the event little changed, most mayors being confirmed in office; a number of Englishmen were put into the more important seneschalcies and castellanies but the greater part of the administration was left to Frenchmen. The ruler of the new state was not the King of England but the Black Prince at Bordeaux, whom Edward made Duke of Aquitaine.

In October 1360, when 400,000 gold crowns had been paid, two-thirds of the first instalment of his ransom, Edward III allowed John II to go home, though he had to leave three of his sons as hostages. (The sum was raised partly by crippling consumer taxes, on salt, wine and all other forms of merchandise, and by selling the hand of John’s eleven-year-old daughter Isabel to the son of the ill-famed Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti—‘the King of France sold his own flesh and blood’.) Unfortunately one of John’s sons, the Duke of Anjou, broke parole to rejoin a beautiful young wife and refused to return. The chivalrous King John therefore went back to London in 1364, to meet with a princely reception. In fact it was so princely that it has been suggested that the parties and banquets were too much for him. John II died at his palace of the Savoy on 8 April 1364, aged only forty-four. After a magnificent requiem at St Paul’s his remains were returned to France for interment at Saint-Denis.

If Edward III had not won the crown of France, it must none the less have seemed to contemporaries that he had carried off a very great prize. Beyond question the Brétigny settlement was a remarkable achievement. And it was amazing that a poor little country like England, formerly considered to be of no account militarily, could bring so rich and powerful a neighbour to her knees.

For the French of course it was a disaster. Edward’s triumph meant more than just ‘the abasement of the French monarchy’ and some lost battles. Prior Jean de Venette tells us what it meant to him. ‘The loss by fire of the village where I was born, Venette near Compiègne, is to be lamented, together with that of many others near by.’ He tells how there was no one to prune the vines or stop them rotting, no one to sow or plough the fields, no sheep or cattle even for the wolves, and how the roads were deserted. ‘Houses and churches no longer presented a smiling appearance with newly thatched roofs but rather the lamentable spectacle of scattered smoking ruins amid nettles and thistles springing up on every side. The pleasant sound of bells was heard indeed, not as a summons to divine worship but as a warning of hostile intention, so that men might seek out hiding places while the enemy were still on the way. What more can I say?’

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