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.