Battlefield vineyards: Part 1

1214: La Roche-au-Moine

john_of_england_vs_louis_viii_of_franceThere is a special place in the hearts of most wine lovers for Savennières and its steely, honeyed Chenin Blancs.

Many who’ve been to the region are no doubt well acquainted with the Château de la Roche aux Moines, home of the ‘clos’ ‘La Coulée de Serrant’, which is farmed by one of the Loire’s foremost producers Nicolas Joly.

However, while the vine-clad hills that lead down to the Loire present a peaceful sight today, in early July 1214 the hill where the ‘château’ stands was dominated by an important castle and the fields around it would have been filled with the army of the King of England, John I.

By the early 13th century the once mighty Angevin empire that stretched up the western French coast from Gascony to Normandy was in tatters, broken apart by the French king Philip II and the inability of John of England to inspire sufficient loyalty in his French and English barons.

In 1214 however, John struck an alliance with the Count of Flanders and the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV with the aim of attacking Philip’s kingdom on two fronts. John would launch an attack through the Loire with the aim of rallying his Angevin and Poitevin nobles back to his cause before reclaiming Normandy; while the Flemish and Germans would strike from the north through Flanders and Picardy.

The campaign began well enough for John. By June his forces had retaken Anjou and many of the barons had come back into his camp – or so he thought.

After capturing several important castles on 19 June he began to besiege the small castle of Roche-au-Moine, no doubt expecting the business to be over swiftly. The garrison, led by the aptly named Guillaume des Roches, had other ideas and resisted stoutly.

Philip II became increasingly aware of this threat in the west just as he was about to set out to confront Otto in Flanders. Recognising the seriousness of the situation, he despatched his son, Prince Louis, with 800 knights and several thousand other troops to the Loire where they arrived in late June. On 2 July the English army would have watched the arrival of the French and John prepared to give battle, confident in victory because of his superior numbers.

At this crucial juncture however, his Angevin and Poitevin nobles, never wholly loyal to begin with, declined to support him and slipped away.

His army substantially weakened, John’s tactical and strategic position in France was fatally compromised. He raised the siege of the little castle and fell back on La Rochelle, closely followed by Louis.

At the end of July at Bouvines near Lille, the Flemish and Germans were decisively defeated by Philip and the safety of the Kingdom of France was not only secured but its status as the most powerful and dominant realm in Europe was established for the next century.

Little remains of the old castle today, it was torn down during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century although part of the wall and a small tower do still exist. La Roche-au-Moine may not have been much of a battle, it barely merits a mention in most histories of the period, but, as Sean McGlynn has argued, John’s critical failure on the banks of the Loire absolutely confirmed the English loss of northern France and relegated their possessions on the Continent to Aquitaine.

However, it was far from the last time the Loire would be a battleground between England and France.

2 Responses to “Battlefield vineyards: Part 1”

  1. Fascinating article. Thank you

  2. Jill BARTH says:

    This is very interesting, you offer a lot to learn and contemplate here. Thank you!

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