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Saturday 4 July 2015

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.

Despite the decline of the Angevin Empire in the 13th century, England’s fortunes revived in the 14th as Edward III built on his holdings in Gascony when the Hundred Years War began until he owned more of France than the King of France himself and had even overrun Champagne and its capital Reims where the French kings had been crowned since Clovis in the fifth century.

At the heart of this new English empire was Bordeaux, no less a wine producing region then as it is today.

For hundreds of years its wines flowed out of the port bound for England and indeed the popularity of these wines and the wines from the Loire, from Poitou, Anjou and Touraine that had once been Angevin lands, 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, more plentiful and cheaper to buy and, as such, it came to dominate the market. This state of affairs was not fated to last much longer however.

After reaching a peak under Edward III the tide of events turned against England. Edward’s son, the Black Prince, died before him and so the kingdom passed to the infant 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. After Richard’s deposition by Bolingbroke in 1399 this situation was reversed somewhat and there was a last flourish by Henry V, most notably at Agincourt in 1415.

Henry also died with a son in infancy though and despite the best efforts of his brother and regent, John the Duke of Bedford, the French under Jeanne d’Arc and Charles VII gradually regained the country, pushing the English back to 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 want to now be part of 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 had changed.

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 between 1207 and 1337, 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 Orleans 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 five hundred 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.

The English were routed, Bordeaux recaptured and the Hundred Years War ended. Calais would remain English until 1558 but 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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