Tag Archives: Battle of Najera

Soldiers for Hire

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Following on from last week’s post about paid soldiers, this week I’m looking at the ultimate paid soldier:  the mercenary.

Some great soldiers became mercenaries in the fourteenth century, including Bertrand du Guesclin, who later became Constable of France and was buried near his king in St-Denis. It was du Guesclin who led the Great Company and was also the leader of the mercenaries who fought against the Black Prince at the battle of Nájera in 1367. One of his companions in that army was the English knight Sir Hugh Calvely, who changed sides and proved very useful to the Black Prince by securing the route through Navarre to Castile for the English and Gascon army. Robert Knolles was another sometime mercenary greatly valued by the Prince and his father, although his lowly origins sometimes caused problems for the nobles who served under him.

Mercenaries were used from the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War and the crossbowmen who formed the first wave of the French attack against the English army at Crécy were Genoese mercenaries. The English also used mercenaries in their garrisons in Brittany in the 1340s and 1350s, although they learned the hard way that mercenaries were difficult to control.

It was in peacetime that mercenaries became a real problem. King Jean II was captured at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. This led to a series of peace negotiations culminating in the treaty of Brétigny in 1360.With much of the French nobility dead or captured and the king a prisoner in London, it was almost impossible for the French to continue the war.

Men who were used to being paid to fight didn’t have anything to return to in England. Soldiers at a loose end joined together to form the free (not controlled by kings or governments) companies. They made money in two ways. One was a form of protection money. They would threaten towns and villages and allow themselves to be paid not to attack them. The money they collected was called a patis. The other was to be paid to fight on behalf of a lord, king or, in the case of Italy, city state.

After the Jacquerie, the French peasants’ revolt in 1358, the Dauphin (the heir to the French crown) had internal problems to deal with as well. This meant that there were thousands of soldiers in France with nothing to do and no way to earn money. Mostly these were English soldiers, but there were also French soldiers who thought that hiring themselves out would increase their wealth and social standing.

The best known of the free companies was the Great Company. It was made up of ever-changing smaller bands of mercenaries. It was originally formed out of some small Gascon groups, and the Gascons remained as its core, which goes a long way to explaining why Aquitaine was rarely troubled by them. Not surprisingly the free companies tended to be unstable. They were made up of the worst kinds of men from all social classes except the nobility. Many of them were criminals and thieves on the run from justice. All were self-seeking and ambitious. Interestingly it was the English groups that were the most stable. This was possibly because they had become used to fighting together in various campaigns, were better disciplined and tended to trust one another.

The bands of mercenaries became a great menace and Charles V used them creatively by hiring the Great Company to aid his ally Enrique de Trastámara in Castile when the king, Don Pedro, gave his support to Edward III. Du Guesclin led a band of French and English mercenaries into Spain to help depose Don Pedro. Most of the English mercenaries in the Great Company fought against their captain when they joined the Black Prince to fight on the side of Don Pedro.

One of the most famous and most successful English mercenaries was Sir John Hawkwood, who spent most of his career in Italy. One of the reasons why the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon at the beginning of the fourteenth century was the incessant fighting in the north of Italy, which made it dangerous for the pope to remain in Rome. There was much work there for mercenaries. Hawkwood was completely ruthless and fought for most of the Italian states before ending up in Florence in 1380. Although he was known as Sir John, he was probably not made a knight by Edward III or by the Black Prince.

He was part of du Guesclin’s Great Company that attacked Avignon in 1361, but he later joined the army Innocent VI hired in order to move the papacy back to Rome. This became the White Company, which he eventually commanded. The White Company did in Italy what the Great Company was doing in France. It didn’t take long for the White Company to become known for its brutality. Eventually Hawkwood became commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces in the 1390s. At the end of his life he wanted to return to England, but died before he could do so.

Hawkwood was the orchestrator of more than one atrocity and had a reputation for brutality. Despite this, unlike many other mercenary captains, some of whom were killed by their own men, he died in his bed in 1394. At his death he was very wealthy, owning property and even a castle in Tuscany.

Avignon and, therefore, the pope, was forced to pay to rid itself of  mercenaries four times: in 1357, 1361, 1365 and 1368. By 1368 the pope had returned to Rome, but Provence was still perceived to be a place of wealth compared to France, which had been stripped bare by thirty years of war.

Whilst a mercenary might hope to become very rich, his fate was more likely to be that of the Genoese crossbowmen at Crécy who were either killed by the English and Welsh archers or trampled by the advancing knights behind them.

Fighting as a mercenary does not seem to have harmed the careers of the captains, as many of them returned to fight for their kings when hostilities began again in earnest in the 1370s. Being a mercenary wasn’t seen as incompatible with chivalry. Some praised knights for taking the opportunity to gain experience, but for many towns and villages in France their presence meant that there was never peace.

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A Noble Expedition in Spain

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“Battle najera froissart” by 15th century Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (Bib. Nat. Fr., FR 2643, fol. 312v).. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_najera_froissart.jpg#/media/File:Battle_najera_froissart.jpg

 

The Spanish campaign of 1367 set the seal on the Black Prince’s reputation as a soldier of great skill and courage, but also marked the beginning of the end of the English in Aquitaine. Although the campaign was notable for the English victory at the battle of Nájera, it was on this campaign that the Prince became ill with dysentery and was never well again. He failed in all his objectives for the campaign, ending up poorer than when he started and having to tax his subjects in Aquitaine so much that they complained.

The Spanish campaign feels like an odd interlude in the Hundred Years’ War. In 1360 a peace treaty between England and France put a lot of soldiers on both sides out of work. No longer able to make a living from pillaging and ransoms, many of them joined together to form mercenary bands and roamed France terrorising towns and villages for protection money. Some even threatened the Pope at Avignon. These groups were a real problem for most of France, but less so for Aquitaine. The Black Prince is thought to have encouraged them in ravaging France.

The Castilians were the best sailors in Europe and had attacked the south coast of England in support of the king of France, since Don Pedro, the king of Castile, was allied to France. This made him a problem worth solving for Edward III. A peace treaty between the two was made in February 1363, but was not ratified by Don Pedro for another 18 months for fear of retribution from the French king.

Don Pedro had an illegitimate half-brother, Enrique de Trastámara (or Henry the Bastard or just the Spanish Bastard), who had led numerous rebellions against him. He was also fighting a war with the king of Aragón. Under the pretext of going south to fight the Moors, a large band of mercenaries entered Castile to fight for Enrique in late 1365. Edward III had to write to the English mercenaries among them to threaten reprisals against them and their families, since, under the treaty, no Englishman was supposed to bear arms against Don Pedro. Don Pedro had little support in Castile and fled, first to Portugal and then to Aquitaine, where he asked the Black Prince for help. Since Enrique was pro-French, Edward III had already decided to assist Don Pedro, and the Black Prince took an army to Castile in February 1367, crossing the Pyrenees at almost the worst time of the year. His allies in this endeavour were known as Pedro the Cruel and Charles the Bad (of Navarre), although these characteristics apparently came as a bit of a surprise to the Black Prince when he saw evidence of them.

As soon as they knew that the Black Prince was on his way most of the English mercenaries still with Enrique changed side rather than fight their former commander, or they had already been paid off by Enrique, depending on which version of the story you believe.

Initially Enrique followed the advice that he had received from the French king not to face the English in a pitched battle and contented himself with harrying the army when it arrived in Castile. This proved quite effective, but Enrique, like others before him, gave in to pride and decided to stand and fight at Nájera on 3rd April 1367. He was also worried that his army would desert him if he didn’t prove himself.

The English vanguard (the division at the front) of the army at the battle of Nájera was commanded by Sir John Chandos and it’s reasonable to assume that his herald was with him, for it’s this battle that forms the centrepiece of Chandos Herald’s Life of the Black Prince. The Prince himself commanded the main body of the army. Sir Hugh Calvely, one of the English mercenary captains who had originally fought for Enrique, was one of the commanders of the rearguard.

Enrique was supported mainly by French mercenaries under the command of Bertrand du Guesclin, later Constable of France. Enrique’s fears about the loyalty of his troops were well-founded and about half the Castilian army ran away. Enrique himself had to be forcibly removed from the field of battle so that he wouldn’t be killed.

The Black Prince was undefeated in battle and his reputation as a great commander was assured, but the rest of the Spanish campaign did not go as planned. Don Pedro was supposed to pay the Prince’s costs of bringing an army into Castile, but he prevaricated and, rather than return to Aquitaine as he had intended, the Prince had to stay in Castile and prod Don Pedro to collect the promised money. Don Pedro even executed prisoners, a valuable source of income through ransoms. This episode shows one of the main differences between the Prince and his ally. For the Prince ransoming (and trusting) his prisoners was a mainstay of chivalry, although it must have come as a shock to discover that one of his prisoners at Nájera was a man he’d released on parole (that is a promise not to fight against him again) after the battle of Poitiers. Don Pedro, on the other hand, believed that those who had fought against him were traitors and deserved to die.

The Prince soon realised that Don Pedro could not pay what he owed, but didn’t return to Aquitaine until August, by which time he was gravely ill. He lost a great deal of money going into Spain, as he had to pay the army himself. More damaging, for him and for England, his health was ruined and he never recovered from his Spanish adventure.

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Edward Prince of Wales and Aquitaine: The Black Prince by Richard Barber – A Review

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I’m currently planning a series of books set around the Poitiers campaign of the Black Prince in 1356, so I’m reading whatever I can get my hands on about his life, the campaign, the battle itself and the politics that brought it about.

Barber is a specialist in Arthurian legend, about which he has written extensively, but he has also written books about the Plantagenets: Henry Plantagenet, Edward III and the Triumph of England: The Battle of Crécy and the Order of the Garter and this biography of the Black Prince, as well as chivalry: The Knight and Chivalry and The Reign of Chivalry.

As Barber keeps reminding the reader, there really isn’t very much information about the Prince’s character or even much detail about his life. There are lots of household accounts from which conclusions can be drawn, the odd letter or proclamation and one letter from the Prince to his elderly father asking the king to believe that his son has acted loyally and honourably in his father’s cause.

Whatever Edward of Woodstock’s character was, he was able to inspire loyalty and friendship in a close-knit group of men who were his counsellors and companions for most of his life. It is also known that he had great physical courage which he demonstrated many times in battle.

Edward was the eldest son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, born when the king was only seventeen in 1330. He married late (at thirty-one), to a woman whose past can only be described as colourful, since she knowingly entered into a bigamous marriage at the age of thirteen or fourteen. They had known one another from childhood and it was very probably a love match. His marriage should have served his father’s dynastic aims, but he married for love instead.

The Prince was known as the epitome of chivalry after the victory at Crécy (1346) where he led the vanguard. This reputation increased after the Battle of Poitiers ten years later, where the French nobility was crushed; the French standard was captured; and the French king was taken prisoner. There was a final victory for him at Nájera in Castile in 1367. It was during this campaign that he caught dysentery, which would eventually kill him.

He ruled the principality of Aquitaine as a sovereign state between 1362 and 1372. Despite the glory of his early years, the final years of his life were marked by bitter failure. From 1369 the French started encroaching on Aquitaine and towns and castles fell to them constantly, often without a fight. The Prince’s eldest son died in 1370 and the men who had been his closest friends and advisers began to die, including the man who had been closest to him for thirty years, who was killed in a skirmish with the French. By 1371 the Prince was too ill to be able to hold Aquitaine against the French and he returned to England, where he died a year before his father in 1376 at the age of forty-six. When Edward III died the Prince’s ten-year old son became Richard II and the seeds of the Wars of the Roses were sown when the Prince’s brother, John of Gaunt, became regent.

For all that there is very little information available, Barber is very good at setting it out and drawing conclusions. He is also fair. Where there are two or more explanations for something that the Prince did or might have done he summarises them all rather than choose one that is more favourable or less favourable to the Prince.

One of the successes of the book for me is the very good summary at the beginning of the causes of the Hundred Years’ War. These are quite complex, but some historians seem to focus on the trivial or the anecdotal. Barber uses a few pages to explain the almost perpetual war between England and France over Aquitaine and Edward III’s claim to the French throne, both of which came to head in 1337.

Barber has some interesting things to say about the Prince’s supposed extravagance when he was Prince of Aquitaine. Sovereign lords were supposed to distribute largesse as rewards and, for want of a better word, bribes, to their subjects; it was one of the ways in which they showed that they were rulers. He also puts the case that the Prince did not order or even contemplate the massacre of the inhabitants of Limoges after the end of the siege there in September 1370 and that the deaths were limited to those who had carried arms against the town’s true lord, the Prince.

One of the things that comes across is the Prince’s practical nature. He was not a diplomat, nor was he really a politician, but he did have the knack of getting men to follow him. Barber makes a strong case for the victories achieved by the Prince being due, in part, to the trust that existed between the Prince and the captains of his army and their willingness to make their needs subservient to his.

Even as a young man he was a legend. He had been sixteen at Crécy and his fame only grew through the rest of his life. He was held up as the example of chivalry. He seems to have been a fairly straightforward man, rather like his father, but unlike the kings with whom he had to deal in Aquitaine, which put him at a disadvantage. He learned the hard way not to trust Don Pedro of Castile and Charles of Navarre. Charles V of France was so cunning it was a wonder he could keep track of his own plans.

This is very much a book worth reading, not just to find out about the life of the second Prince of Wales, but also to understand some of the key events of the Hundred Years’ War.

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