Battlefield vineyards: Part 1

1356: Poitiers

english-hundred-years-war-wine

English soldiers broach wine casks at a manor house they’re ransacking during a chevauchée

Despite being an ancient and important historical city, Poitiers is not widely celebrated for its wine. Too far south from the more fêted vineyards along the Loire around Angers and Tours, Poitiers has instead the AOC of Haut-Poitu, which was created in 2010.

In the Middle Ages though, when viticulture was far more widespread, the wines of Poitou were among the most famous in France but even that could not and would not spare them from the ravages of the Hundred Years War.

In August 1356 an English army led by Edward Prince of Wales set out from the city of Bordeaux on a great ‘chevauchée’ – a long range raid – into France with the aim of sacking and plundering the countryside.

By September Edward was in the Loire and attempted, unsuccessfully, to take Tours. After the disastrous battle of Crécy in 1346 the French, much like the Romans after Cannae, had become increasingly wary of facing the English and their longbowmen in open battle. Furthermore, maintaining standing armies was expensive and assembling one took time, to the extent that an English raid might wreak havoc in an area and then march to friendly territory before the French were able to gather together a force to do anything about it.

However, in this particular instance, the French king, John II, already had an army assembled not far away and quickly marched to the Loire to chase off the English and even destroy them in an engagement if they were able.

Their pursuit was relentless and not for the first or last time an English army found itself pursued by a superior French force, far from safety and running out of supplies.

On 16 September the Prince of Wales turned to face his pursuer a short distance south of Poitiers. He chose a strong position, his flanks secured by woods and boggy ground while to his front was a vineyard.

The next few days were taken up with the attempts of the Cardinal of Périgord to negotiate a peace between the two camps. As he hurries back and forth from the prince to the king each side takes the opportunity to scout each others’ positions and adjust their plans accordingly. The French in particular take note of the thick vineyard and hedgerows in front of the English line, which they know will render a mounted attack useless.

The English know it too. Froissart writes that as Cardinal Périgord rides from the French to the English he found the Prince of Wales, “standing among his men in the thickest part of a vineyard, awaiting the French attack with every sign of confidence.”

The cardinal’s peace overtures come to nothing and on Monday, 19 September battle is joined. Although the English arrow fire is less effective against the dismounted French knights, the thick hedges and tangled vineyard disrupt their assault. After a fierce battle the French are defeated and John and his young son Philip, future Duke of Burgundy, are among the many great nobles captured.

The Loire would continue to be a flash point over the course of the 14th century. Although various peace treaties in the 1360s stopped outright warfare, the area was among the regions of France that suffered the depredations of the so-called ‘Free Companies’, gangs of unemployed soldiers who, with no war to fight, turned to brigandage.

They occupied a number of castles along the upper Loire and despite proving a persistent thorn in the side of the French king, winning many battles, they didn’t have it all their own way.

While staying at the court of the Count of Foix, Froissart met a Gascon squire called the Bascot* de Mauléon who had been part of a Free Company.

The Bascot remembered one of their number, Sir John Aimery, had been ambushed and captured by some French knights. Ransomed for 30,000 francs Sir John was spitting with rage combat-de-trenteand decided to sack the town of Sancerre in retribution.

Yet, as the Bascot went on, the garrison commander of Sancerre, Guichard Aubergeon, caught wind of the plan and laid a trap for the freebooters.

“We left La Charité (sur-Loire) at sunset and rode in order at a brisk pace as far as Pouilly,” remembered the squire. Here the raiders crossed the river and rode up towards Sancerre but just as they approach the town the trap is sprung.

With a cry of “Our Lady, Sancerre!” the locals attack the freebooters and rout them.

“What hampered us most was that we could not spread out, because we were going along a road with tall hedges and vines on both sides of it,” the squire told Froissart. “Some of their men who knew the country and this road well had climbed up on the vine slopes with their servants and were throwing stones at us from above, which bruised us and threw us into disorder.”

The Bascot was captured, so too was Sir John although towards sunrise he died of wounds sustained in the ambush.

The battle, which the Bascot remembered as “hard and nasty”, nonetheless broke the power of the Free Companies in the Loire and saw all of those lands surrendered once more to the French Crown – and a measure of precious peace was restored.

 

* ‘lo basco‘ – ‘the Basque’; although a Gascon, Mauléon is in the Basque country, the Bascot nonetheless describes himself to Froissart as a “loyal Englishman”. Many freebooters and routiers went by nicknames such as this, another common one being the ‘bourc‘ which was a southern French term for ‘bastard’ and indicates that many of these men were illegitimate sons forced to scrape a living in some manner as they could expect little to no inheritance.

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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