Tag Archives: Eleanor of Aquitaine

The Englishman’s Wine

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There has long been a trading connection between Aquitaine and the south of England. It dates back at least to the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II in 1152. Eleanor was duchess of Aquitaine in her own right and the duchy was inherited by her descendants, the Plantagenet kings of England. The boundaries of the duchy ebbed and flowed over four centuries, with King John losing a great deal of land in the thirteenth century and Edward III regaining it in the fourteenth. It was very briefly a principality (1362-1372) ruled by Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, as a sovereign state.

By the fourteenth century the people of Aquitaine preferred English rule to French rule. They spoke the langue d’oc, the language of the south west, rather than the langue d’oil spoken in Paris and the north east. It wasn’t just in the matter of language that they had little in common with the French. The English king, as duke of Aquitaine, was their natural lord, not the French king. In the Hundred Years’ War Bordeaux was the last town to surrender to the French in 1453. It was this event that brought the war to an end.

Wine has always been important to the region. Gascony (the area to the east and south of Bordeaux) and England had been trading partners for centuries and England was the main market for wine from Gascony and wine was the base of the Gascon economy. An annual wine fleet carried wine from Bordeaux to Bristol and Southampton. Even during times of peace, the ships had pirates to contend with, often from Castile, home to the best sailors in Europe, and Brittany, around which every ship from Bordeaux to England had to pass. When the region came under the French crown it suffered a great deal economically as access to the English market was cut off.

England had produced its own wine from Roman times, but climate change meant that production declined and England had to rely more heavily on imports from the twelfth century on. It was very convenient that this was about the same time that the English crown gained Aquitaine.

One of the towns in England to which Bordeaux exported wine was Southampton. The picture at the top of the post is the Medieval Merchant’s House in French Street. As you can see from the barrel, this was the home of a wine merchant. There are vaults below the house where the wine was stored and the shop opened out onto the street where customers could be served. The vaults are stone, which was necessary to keep the wine cool. The house was built by Jean Fortin, a great importer of wine. It was near the quay, which was just the other side of the wall at the back of the house. This is the house that I used as the model for the home of Edward, the wine merchant, in The Winter Love, who imported wine from Gascony.

Much of the wine that came into the town was for the royal household, which explains Edward III’s anger and disgust when the town was raided by the French in 1338 and his wine was destroyed. The wine merchants gave wine to the king as a tax and this wine was stored in the town. Edward III was so angry that he accused the burgesses of conspiring with the French and letting them into the town.

 In 1368 a statute was created in England banning English merchants from Bordeaux and Gascony in an attempt to reorganise the wine trade. The Black Prince, who was at that time Prince of Aquitaine, had it repealed as soon as possible, as it was damaging the principality’s wine trade.

Today the Bordeaux region is the largest wine-growing area of France and the English are still great imbibers of the wines of the region. In England we even have a special name for red Bordeaux wine: claret. This was originally a dark rosé and was the most commonly imported wine up until the 1700s.

 

 

 

 

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A Little Piece of England in France

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In the 1390s, when he was trying to make a peace that would end the Hundred Years’ War, Richard II suggested that Aquitaine be held by his uncle, John of Gaunt, brother of the Black Prince, on behalf of the French crown. Even though Gaunt had been his brother’s lieutenant in Aquitaine twenty years before, the idea that the duchy could be governed by a vassal of the Valois king did not go down well there. The Gascons ‘claimed that they had never been nor ever would be governed by any man other than the king of England or his heir’.

Aquitaine, an amorphous area of south west France that included the Atlantic ports of Bordeaux and Bayonne, first came to the English crown when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II in 1152, although he didn’t have his crown at that point. Eleanor had previously been married to Louis VII of France, but had not given him any sons, so he had their marriage annulled. She was twenty-eight (or possibly thirty) when she married the nineteen year old Henry. They had eight children of which two (Richard and John) became kings of England.

Henry was the first Plantagenet king of England. He was the son of the Empress Matilda whose own claim to the crown had led to a civil war with her cousin Stephen of Blois, which Stephen won. Henry eventually became the ruler of a large empire whose northern border was with Scotland and whose southern border was the Pyrenees. All the Atlantic coast and most of the northern coast of France was his. His empire stretched to the east until it encountered the land held personally by the king of France around Paris.

By 1215 most of this had been lost to the king of France. King John wasn’t called John Lackland for nothing. Despite losing most of his father’s empire he managed to hold onto Gascony, the most westerly part of Aquitaine. It was for this foothold in France that his descendants fought wars on and off for the next 250 years. Aquitaine was finally lost when Bordeaux surrendered to the French on 19th October 1453. This also marked the end of the Hundred Years’ War.

Aquitaine had much to offer the kings of England, mostly wine. The production of wine in England was in decline and wine that came from Aquitaine was, and still is, very much to the English taste.

Aquitaine was also host to many pilgrims. Three of the four overland routes to Santiago de Compostela went through it, including the main one from Paris, which went through Poitiers and Bordeaux.

For my purposes, it’s what was going on in Aquitaine in the fourteenth century that was important. Since Aquitaine was part of France the kings of France required the dukes of Aquitaine to pay them homage. This meant proclaiming that the king of France was lord of the duke of Aquitaine. The duke was also supposed promise to support the king of France against his enemies. This was not really viable when the duke was the king of England and the king of France was, more often than not, his enemy. Edward II sent his son, the future Edward III, in his place in 1325, making him duke of Aquitaine. This proved an ill-advised move as the young prince was kept in France by his mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. He only returned to England when they invaded it in September 1326, eventually deposing and murdering Edward II. In 1329 Edward III went to Amiens to pay homage to Philippe VI whom he was later to call a usurper when he made his own claim to the French crown.

Aquitaine wasn’t itself the cause of the Hundred Years War, but it was the loss of it that brought the war to an end. It was also the base from which the Black Prince led the chevauchées that caused so much harm to the treasury of the French king. These were essentially two great raids that took place in 1355 and 1356. The prince’s army moved very quickly and destroyed many towns and villages in south west France, before returning to Aquitaine. It was at the end of the second of these that the battle of Poitiers was fought during which the king of France was captured. He was taken to England and held for ransom. Aquitaine was made a principality in 1362 and the Black Prince became its prince. The principality was a mini-kingdom that received no financial support from England. It was, essentially, the Prince’s opportunity to be a king while his father was still alive.

For some years his reputation, and their own internal problems, prevented the French from carrying out anything more than desultory raids, but, as his health deteriorated after the battle of Nájera in 1367 so the attacks increased and were less easy to resist. Part of the point of the Prince’s chevauchées had been to show that the king of France was unable to protect his people. The French were now demonstrating that the Prince could not protect his and many turned to the king of France.

As we saw at the beginning, however, even twenty years later there was a lot of resistance towards the French king in Aquitaine, and it held out for another sixty years.

 

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