Tag Archives: Jean Froissart

The Sack of Limoges

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To celebrate the publication of Beloved Besieged this weekend, I’m looking at the Sack of Limoges, which is the central event of the novel. It took place on 19th September 1370 and is the event which tarnished the Black Prince’s reputation for chivalry. According to (more or less) contemporary chroniclers, he ordered the massacre of the town’s inhabitants, some 3,000 people.

In many ways his actions at Limoges were a result of what had happened in Castile in 1367. The Prince had gone into Spain to assist Don Pedro, England’s ally. Due to the part he played in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, in which the English had been the victors, he was known as the greatest soldier of his age. Since he was the Prince of Aquitaine and was living in the principality at the time, he was the obvious choice to send south to Castile. Although he won the Battle of Nájera, the expenses of the campaign were more than the Prince could afford and, whilst waiting in Castile for the repayment of his expenses, he became ill. Don Pedro had promised more than he could deliver, however, and the Prince finally realised that he wasn’t going to get any money from him and went back over the Pyrenees.

After he returned to Aquitaine his enemies soon learned of his weakened state and began to exploit it. The Prince no longer had the energy to defend the borders of his principality against the French. To make matters worse, those who served beneath him lacked both his charismatic leadership and his experience. As a result of his losses in Spain, the Prince had to raise more taxes, which made him unpopular in Aquitaine.

Officially England and France had been at peace since October 1360, but the French began to make incursions into Aquitaine with increasing impunity after 1367. The Prince’s unpopularity and his inability to protect them against the French meant that many towns surrendered without a fight, but the surrender of the town of Limoges after a siege of a mere three days was the last straw for the Prince. Despite his failing health, he took an army across Aquitaine to Limoges, to which he laid siege.

Like most towns in that part of France, Limoges was divided into two parts, each surrounded by walls. One part held the castle and the garrison and the other (the Cité) contained the cathedral. It was the Cité which surrendered.

The state of the Cité’s walls was such that they only held against the Prince’s army for five days. The Prince’s miners built a tunnel under a tower and set a fire beneath it, bringing the tower and some of the wall down. The army then fought its way into the town.

A few reasons have been suggested for what happened next. The most obvious was that showing no mercy would send a message to other towns in Aquitaine contemplating going over to the French. Another was that the Prince knew that his failing health would not allow him to hold on to Aquitaine much longer and he vented his anger on the town. A third was that the bishop who was responsible for the surrender was a friend, godfather to one of his sons, and the Prince felt the betrayal personally. Whatever his reasons, there were rules about sieges, and the surrender of Limoges without putting up a fight meant that the Prince could exact any punishment on the town that he wished.

The Prince was so ill that he had to be carried to Limoges on a litter and did not take part in the fighting. His punishment for the town was to order its complete destruction and the death of its inhabitants.  This was permitted within the rules of siege warfare.

In his Chronicles Froissart described the slaughter of the people of the town, but he either was not aware of the rules of sieges or he chose to ignore them. He wrote about people begging on their knees for their lives and the Prince ignoring them in his anger. According to Froissart, three thousand men, women and children were massacred. Modern historians, however, believe that the number of people killed was much smaller and was probably limited to the members of the garrison left behind by the French together with a few civilians, possibly no more than 300 people. The town, however, was burnt and it was decades before it was rebuilt.

Almost as soon as he had come the Prince was gone and the army returned to the court at Angoulême. When he arrived back in Angoulême the Prince learned that his oldest son, six-year-old Edward, had died in his absence. He must have known then that there was no more that he could do in Aquitaine, for he appointed his brother, John of Gaunt, as his lieutenant and returned to England after Christmas 1370, formally renouncing his position as Prince of Aquitaine in 1372.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chandos Herald and the Life of the Black Prince

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I recently wrote a review of a biography of the Black Prince. One of the main sources for his life is Chandos Herald’s Life of the Black Prince. As his pseudonym implies, the writer was the herald of Sir John Chandos, who had been a close friend of the Prince’s from childhood. The herald’s real name is unknown.

The Life was written in verse in Anglo-Norman somewhere between 1376 and 1387. The poem was originally untitled. Many believe that the Life was written for Richard II, the Black Prince’s son, but the lack of a dedication to him makes it unlikely.

Chandos Herald came from Hainault, as did Edward III’s queen, Philippa, and the other great (English) historian of the fourteenth century, Jean Froissart. When he wrote his own history, Froissart used Chandos Herald as a source.

When Sir John Chandos died in 1370, the herald entered royal service and was made king of arms of England by Richard II at his coronation in 1377. No one seems quite sure what a king of arms was, but it seems to have been some kind of super herald.

Almost half of his poem is taken up with the Spanish campaign of 1367, which included the Prince’s victory at the battle of Nájera. It’s an accurate account, since the herald was present. His account is corroborated by a version from the opposing side. It is possible that Chandos Herald only intended to write about the Spanish campaign and then revised his plan after the death of the Black Prince in 1376. Some of the details of the Prince’s earlier life in the poem are very vague. It’s unlikely the herald was at the battles of Crécy or Poitiers. From his description of the battle of Poitiers it seems that it took place before he was in Sir John’s service.

When Chandos Herald wrote his poem it was already an old-fashioned way of telling history, as he admitted himself at the beginning of the text.

His objective was to write about good and chivalrous deeds, of the kind carried out by the Black Prince who, shortly after his death, became the personification of everything that had once been good about England. This was in contrast to what was going on during his son’s reign. The herald didn’t want to write about shameful deeds and refused to list the French knights who fled the field at Crécy.

In his Life Chandos Herald was at pains to show the real affection that existed between the Black Prince and his wife, Joan of Kent. He describes her fears as the Prince left on campaign and her grief at his death. He is also discreet, neglecting to mention her two previous marriages, one of which was bigamous. It’s another possibility that the Life was written at her behest, but the lack of a dedication counts against it as much as it does against it being written for her son.

Heralds didn’t have a job description and it’s not easy to tell today exactly how the herald served Sir John. Heralds’ tasks seemed to vary depending on the position of the herald’s master and what was going on at the time. Heralds were supposed to be experts in heraldic identification; they could identify knights from their banners alone. This was a particularly useful skill in a battle, when it was the only way of telling the difference between friend and foe. The herald might also be a minstrel, a musician or a barber, some of whom were also surgeons. Heralds were used at tournaments to announce the names of the participants to the crowds. They were frequently used as messengers, carrying letters from their masters, but also word of mouth messages. They were supposed to receive immunity in war, since they carried messages from one side to the other as part of peace or surrender negotiations. Heralds were also criers at public events.

It is very fortunate for us that the herald extended his duties to write about his late master’s friend.

 

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