On this day 1453…England loses Bordeaux

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.

By the early 14th century England was taking in the region of 90% of the export of wine from Gascony and for the 300 years that the province remained linked to England a quite extraordinary trade partnership between the two was created, with Bordeaux salt being another key export commodity.

Such was the demand for wine that more land around Bordeaux was turned over to vines which in turn meant Bordeaux increasingly relied on food imported from England and the Low Countries to sustain itself as well as importing other English commodities such as wool, cloth and hides.

The departure of the ‘wine fleet’ from ports across England and then their return from Bordeaux was a highly anticipated event and the citizens of Bordeaux put laws in place that forbade wines from ‘up river’ being sold the city until after a certain date, allowing them to gain the best commercial advantage – something that was often complained about.

The amount of wine being exported amounted to millions of gallons a year. At its height in the 14th century exports were hitting over 100,000 tuns a year. Even though the Hundred Years War affected trade quite substantially, in 1415 Henry V was probably able to accumulate at least one million gallons of wine in order to supply his army on campaign, as the drinks business has previously examined.

And while the story of English Gascony is one of closely knit trade and the development of Bordeaux’s wine industry, it is also one of war.

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 because he was born in the city while his father was governor of Gascony).

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.

French incursions into Gascony led to the overrunning and destruction of many vineyards and on several occasions French occupation of the upper Gironde estuary made the departure of the annual wine fleet extremely difficult.

Then the tide of war changed again. 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 Henry V once again pressed the English claim to the French throne.

This time it was France that was politically on the back foot, ruled by the mad Charles VI who spent a good deal of time in a catatonic state and 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 the next Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, into an alliance with the English.

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 the Burgundians captured Jeanne d’Arc and handed her over to the English and eventual execution 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. 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. Few had any stake or interest in French land or trade so a risky (and expensive) venture to the continent was not appealing. 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 were not a distant memory.

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, allowing the wine fleet to sail once more.

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. Like his grandfather Charles, Henry VI of England was lapsing in and out 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 into France by Henry VIII, no English king truly pressed any claim to French soil with much vigour afterwards.

Returning to 1453, although many no doubt thought it likely trade between England and Bordeaux was not actually banned, save for a brief period in October 1455, but the French certainly made it as difficult as possible for English merchants trying to work in the city.

First and foremost, where previously they had had a free run of the place, after 1453 English merchants were required to purchase very expensive safe conducts and were routinely hassled, obstrcuted and asked for further payments by French officials at every stage.

Sailing down the Gironde, English had to put in at Soulac and wait to be given permission to proceed (which might take several days) and then put in again at Blaye where they had to surrender their weapons.

Once in Bordeaux they were permitted to stay for just a month, use only certain lodgings and observe a curfew.

They had to wear a red cross on their clothing to identify themselves and all travel beyond the city walls was completely banned save with the express permission (and payment) of the French authorities and under guard.

Things improved with the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475 but for the most part English merchants gradually gave up direct trade as too bothersome, leaving the importing to Bretons, Italians and Flemish and focusing their efforts on other wine producing areas such as Spain and Portugal.

Efforts by Henry VII’s government in the late 1480s to insist that Gascon wine imported into England must be on English ships with English crews did little to boost trade.

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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