On this day 1453…England loses Bordeaux

17th July, 2014 by Rupert Millar

On this day in 1453 the battle of Castillon was fought, bringing an end to the Hundred Years War and England’s hold on Bordeaux.

A fanciful 19th century depiction of the death of John Talbot at the battle of Castillon.

A fanciful 19th century depiction of the death of John Talbot at the battle of Castillon.

Bordeaux and the wider provinces of Gascony and Aquitaine had been English possession since the twelfth century following Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Henry II.

In the early days of this Angevin empire, it was the wines of the Loire, from Poitou, Anjou and Touraine, that were the most popular but after the loss of those lands in the early thirteenth century it was Bordeaux that rose to prominence.

For hundreds of years its wines flowed out of the port bound for England and indeed the popularity of these wines contributed to the decline in native English winemaking that had existed since the Romans and is only just beginning to revive.

As in modern economics, wine from Bordeaux and the south was cheaper to produce and therefore buy, was more plentiful and of better or at least more reliable quality than English wines and, as such, it came to dominate the market.

After the loss of the Plantagenet’s ancestral lands in the 13th century, England’s fortunes revived in the 14th century as Edward III, using Bordeaux as a nucleus, built on his holdings in Gascony when he pressed his claim to the throne of France and started the Hundred Years War in the process. Between 1337 and 1360, Edward captured large chunks of France and had even overrun Champagne and its capital Reims where the French kings had been crowned since Clovis in the fifth century.

After Edward III’s great victories at Crécy, Sluys and Poitiers the tide of events began slowly to turn against England. Edward’s son, the Black Prince, predeceased him and so when Edward himself died in 1377 the kingdom passed to his infant grandson Richard II (who was also known as Richard of Bordeaux after the town of his birth).

With regents and then a young king in charge, the war in France was mishandled and by 1389 and the Treaty of Bruges, the English were left clinging to pales around Bordeaux, Bayonne, Calais and Brest having lost vast swathes of territory to a resurgent France under Charles V.

Richard was eventually deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke in 1399 and after a brief civil war in England, the war in France was rekindled in 1415 when Henry V once again pressed the English claim to the French throne.

This time France was politically on the back foot, ruled by the mad Charles VI who spent a good deal of time believing he was made of glass and also increasingly riven with the rivalry between the “Armagnac” and ‘Burgundian” factions of the court.

Henry V won a stunning victory against the odds at Agincourt in 1415 and the assassination of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, by the Armagnac party led by the Dauphin Charles, forced the next Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, into an alliance with the English which would lead the domains of both to their greatest heights.

Henry however also died with a son in infancy and despite the best efforts of his brother and regent, John the Duke of Bedford, the French under Jeanne d’Arc and La Hire gradually regained the country for Charles VII. Although it was the Burgundians who captured Jeanne d’Arc and handed her over to the English in 1430, by 1435 with Bedford dead and the English war effort in disarray, the Burgundians switched sides once again following the Treaty of Arras in 1435. The French continued to push the English back, cornering them once again in the Pale of Calais, retaking Normandy in the 1440s and finally capturing Bordeaux in 1451.

The burghers of Bordeaux however, after 300 years of English rule didn’t really want to be returned to France and called on the English to retake the city.

In England though there was little appetite for fresh wars in France. The attitude of the nobility towards had slowly changed over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

In the days of the Angevins the nobles were Anglo-Norman, spoke French and had French lands. Richard I and his mother and father are buried in France – Richard in particular actively disliked England.

As time went on however, circumstances changed. As lands in France were lost the first time between 1207 and 1337 under John, Henry III and Edwards I and II, the nobility accrued more land in England, they began to speak English and by the 1450s few had anything to do with France anymore.

A risky venture to the continent was of little interest to them. In the end only the old Earl of Shrewsbury, John Talbot, could be found to lead the expedition.

Aged at least 66, a veteran of the battle of Verneuil, the Siege of Orléans and numerous other scrapes and chevauchée, he was the last great lord in England to whom the battles of Henry V and the Duke of Bedford really meant anything anymore.

Landing in October 1452 they took the French by surprise. Charles had been expecting an attack but had mustered his forces in Normandy as he thought it the most likely landing place (unlike Adolf Hitler 500 years later). Bordeaux was swiftly recaptured from the weakened garrison and most of Gascony was in English hands again by the end of the year.

Charles though quickly turned his armies southwards and by summer 1453 was raiding the country and investing English castles. When the castle of Castillon was besieged in early July, Talbot gathered his small force and set out to relieve the fort.

The subsequent battle pitted the famed English archer against the new power on the battlefield – blackpowder.

The French had a strong and well-entrenched artillery park protecting their siege works and the English advanced straight into it, Talbot having attacked impetuously and on faulty intelligence.

Cannonballs scythed through the English ranks killing six men at a time and in the mêlée Talbot was unhorsed and despatched with an axe they say. Around 4,000 Englishmen were killed, wounded or captured. By comparison the French had just 100 or so casualties; it was a Crécy or Agincourt in reverse.

The English were routed, Bordeaux recaptured and the Hundred Years War ended. Later that year Henry VI of England would lapse into the first of many bouts of madness, some saying the shock of all the losses of all the English lands in France being too much for him.

His mental infirmness and incapacity to rule led to powerful nobles jockeying for power in a political dance that grew ever more violent until it spilled into open warfare and the period we now know as the Wars of the Roses.

Calais would remain English until 1558 and apart from a few forays by Henry VIII, no English king truly pressed any claim to French soil with much vigour afterwards.

Bordeaux has been French ever since but the one thing the English have never quite lost is a taste for its wines.

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