Battlefield vineyards: Part 1

1453: Castillon

castillonAs the tide of the Hundred Years War turned against England in the latter half of the 15th century, it was only a matter of time before the attentions of the French turned towards the city of Bordeaux.

With the collapse of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance in 1435, the pace of the French reconquest stepped up.

Normandy was retaken in the 1440s and the French marcher lords in Gascony crept ever closer to the great wine port on the Gironde.

In fact Bordeaux was actually taken by the French in 1451 and the war seemed to be at an end. But, after 300 years of English rule, the jurats and citizens of Bordeaux were not at all inclined to be ruled directly by the French monarch.

Not only did they consider themselves English subjects but they preferred the attitude the English king-dukes had largely taken to their Gascon lands; which was one of little interference in the actual running of the city and the duchy but very much encouraging commerce – especially that of wine.

No sooner had Charles VII marched off again than the city elders were writing an urgent letter to Henry VI of England demanding he take the city back under English rule.

In England though there was little appetite for fresh war in France. The attitude of the nobility towards foreign adventure 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. Yet after John’s defeat outside La Roche-au-Moine in 1214 so the connections with the Continent had been weakened. The ‘Anglo-Norman’ aristocracy no longer split their time between estates in Sussex and Poitou but remained in England. They stopped speaking French and adopted English as their first language and identified themselves as English.

Knowing their history none doubted Edward III’s claim to those formerly ‘English’ territories in France but the capture of great swathes of land did not lead to a wholesale renewal of those ties with the Continent that had existed in the centuries after the Conquest. English nobles did not have time to enjoy the hunting on new estates. They were garrison commanders, permanently on a war footing, risking death and capture by a hostile and active enemy who might have been in the next castle along from theirs.

The Hundred Years War had brought with it the potential for glory, honour, plunder and profit but as the political landscape in England became increasingly unstable, with over-mighty lords wrestling for control over a weak and feeble-minded king, so most baulked at leading a risky expedition overseas for a cause they no longer considered was any of their concern.

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 on 17 July 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.

Some 4,000 English fell at Castillon and only 100 or so Frenchmen; a complete role-reversal from the first great battle of the wars – Crécy.

The surviving English fell back and took refuge in Château Theobon in Margaux, the site of which is now occupied by third growth Château d’Issan. News of the disaster reached England and sent Henry VI into his first bout of catatonic madness. Two years later the kingdom would be gripped by the Wars of the Roses, which would last for the next 30 years.

The French retook Bordeaux on 19 October, allowing the remaining English to sail away. Those Bordelais who wished to go were also given leave to do so, provided they never returned to their homeland. Many did although this injunction prohibiting their return was lifted only a few years later, whereupon many returned to Bordeaux.

The furious and vindictive Charles imposed a number of sanctions on the city, which were greatly resented by the populace. Charles was not the only ruler to punish Bordeaux for its (supposed) lack of loyalty.

Napoleon Bonaparte was less than trusting of the city, which he considered a hotbed of Bourbon and British sympathisers. He wasn’t entirely wrong, the English may have been gone from Bordeaux for three centuries by then but the taste for the region’s wines had never entirely gone away.

In 1814 the city gladly threw open its gates to Wellington’s troops and welcomed them in. But that’s a story for another time.

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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