Tag Archives: Siege of Limoges

The Sack of Limoges


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.










Filed under Fourteenth Century

How to go to market in the fourteenth century


A friend and I were discussing the fourteenth century last weekend.  She said that she had read that life was fairly easy for people then and that they had more free time than we do today. I took the contrary view. When you have to do everything more or less from scratch every day, you don’t have a lot of free time. If you wanted water in the fourteenth century, you had to go to the well and draw it up in a bucket. If you wanted hot water, you had to collect the wood, or other combustible material, first, then make it burn (not always as easy as it sounds), then wait while the water heated, although you would probably have plenty to do while it was heating.  If you wanted to eat something you had to grow it, catch it or exchange something of value for it.

The most telling thing for her, I think, was travel. She said, “Oh, they could buy that in a town” and I said, “How would they get there?”. We were in the Quantocks at the time. On my way home it took half an hour to drive to the nearest town, Taunton. The distance is not quite 12 miles.  12 miles would take at least four hours for the average person to walk and would take only a little less on horseback.

If you lived 12 miles away from your nearest town and market, going there and returning was not something to be accomplished in one day.  It is, of course, possible to walk 24 miles in one day, but most people are unable to do anything the following day. You would only be able to do it in the summer when there are enough hours of daylight.  I have walked 24 miles in one day more than once and it’s hard work. However well-shod your feet are, you’re very likely to end up with blisters. Carrying anything heavy over that distance would make it even harder. In reality very few people in the fourteenth century travelled more than 15 miles in one day.

One of the reasons why it took so long to get anywhere was the state of the roads. They were little more than dirt tracks which turned into mud in the rain, which meant that travelling at any time other than the summer would be very slow. The roads would be rutted, providing opportunities for the wheels of carts to get stuck and for people or horses to stumble.

The weather caused other problems.  Rain could make roads impassable as streams turned into rivers and roads could be washed away altogether. Frosts would break up the road surface even more and snow might make the road itself impossible to find.

Poor weather and darkness weren’t the only hazards people would face.  Thieves and vagabonds preyed on the unwary traveller. This meant it was often safer to travel in groups and to be armed.

There were three methods of transport for the medieval traveller: feet, horses and carts. I’m discounting ships and boats for the moment, as it would not have been possible to make the journey I was discussing with my friend by boat.

Strictly speaking there were also carriages, but these were prohibitively expensive and not terribly comfortable. There was no suspension, but if you were wealthy enough to be able to afford a carriage, you could probably stretch to a cushion or two. Carriages were mainly used to carry female members of the royal family. When the Black Prince, who by this point was so ill he could barely leave his bed, went to besiege Limoges in a 1370, he was carried on a litter, not a carriage. By most people’s standards he was fabulously wealthy, but he did not own a carriage. A litter was a chair on two poles suspended between two horses, one in front and one behind. It probably had a canopy to keep the sun or rain off the occupant. This, too, would not have been a comfortable way to travel long distances.

A horse was very useful if you had to go to town, although the state of the roads meant that it could not go very fast. Its greatest use was carrying home anything that had been purchased.  Horses were also expensive, however, so many people would have to carry their purchases themselves.

The third option was a cart.  Carts were also expensive and were not made to carry passengers. Someone riding on a cart would feel every jolt, for, like carriages, they had no suspension.

Since towns were so far away, a visit to market was rare for most people. It was often better just to stay at home and wait for the pedlar to visit.


Filed under Fourteenth Century

How to Conduct a Legal Siege


Medieval sieges were conducted (sometimes) in accordance with rules based on five verses in the book of Deuteronomy, “But if it [the town] makes no peace with you, then you shall besiege it. And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not the cities of the nations here. But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction.”

A siege had to begin with a formal challenge. This would take the form of a missile of some kind being fired at the gates of the town or castle. At the beginning of the siege the besiegers had to demand the surrender of the town or castle and they had to offer terms for surrender. Sometimes the head of the garrison would ask leave to consult his lord, who was elsewhere. Sometimes this was permitted, sometimes not.

Once it had begun there were three ways a siege could end:

  • Negotiated agreement
  • Storm
  • Unconditional surrender, by either side



Sieges were expensive for those doing the besieging. They tied up a large number of soldiers whose interest in the siege waned the longer it went on. The supplies usually had to be brought long distances, often through hostile territory. Since the besieging army was in one place for months, there was always the chance that the enemy might send an army large enough to destroy them. Negotiating a surrender was usually the best option. Some garrisons were bought off by the besiegers so that they would surrender. Sometimes the parties agreed that a town would surrender if no relief army arrived before a certain time.

It was a balancing act for the besieged between holding out to the bitter end and suffering starvation and illness and being sacked if no relief arrived, and surrendering early and incurring the wrath of their lord. The leaders of garrisons that surrendered to the enemy could suffer terrible punishments from their lords, even if they were allowed to live.

Being a messenger or even a negotiator could be hazardous. It was not unknown for messengers bringing bad new to be killed by their own side, so taking messages to the enemy was even more precarious. Messengers and negotiators were often taken prisoner or  killed as they went between the town and the besiegers.

Given what could happen if a siege continued to the bitter end, it’s not surprising that most ended with a negotiated agreement.



A storm was the taking of the town or castle by force. This could be by scaling the walls, breaking down the gates or walls by mining or siege engines, or by a small force finding a way in and opening the gates for the rest of the army. If the siege ended with a storm the attackers had complete control over the defeated. They could be enslaved, killed, raped and their homes and property seized. The defeated could expect no mercy.

The town could be sacked if it didn’t surrender and was successfully stormed. This happened at Limoges in 1370 where the town, which had surrendered to the French after three days, was held by the Black Prince to have committed treason. When the English and Gascon army arrived they successfully stormed the town after five days. The Black Prince would have been justified in killing all the inhabitants, but only about 300 were killed, about ten percent of the population. At Limoges there was no surrender and no negotiated agreement. What happened at Limoges was not exceptional.

Once the besiegers were inside after a storm, murder, rape and assault were the norm. Defending soldiers could often retreat to and hold the castle keep, so the civilians were usually the ones punished by the attackers.

In a siege the nobility and the garrison might come off well, as their chivalric code usually protected them, but the civilians suffered, because they were worth nothing in terms of ransoms. The poor were usually butchered. Knights would normally only surrender to another knight for fear of being killed by commoners. Such fears were not misplaced.

The chivalric code protected non-combatants, but it was difficult in a siege to differentiate between those who fought and those who did not. There are tales of besieging soldiers being killed by women throwing things from the walls onto them. Everyone within a besieged town could be considered a combatant, whether they fought or not. They had either enabled the siege to continue by feeding the defenders and assisting them in other ways, or by not attacking them.



Those surrendering unconditionally were expected to come out of the town barefoot, sometimes with ashes on their heads.  Edward III’s siege of Calais was one that ended with an unconditional surrender by those inside the town.

There was a great sense of what was honourable and what was not. The breaking of one’s word was not. If a town or castle did not surrender when they said they would do so, hostages who had been given could be killed. This would usually take place close to the town walls so that its inhabitants could see their executions. It was not unusual for these to be slow and humiliating.

A town was surrendered by handing over the keys to the besiegers. Truces were generally recognised. If there was a truce, people from the town could leave it, as long as they returned at the agreed time. Hostages could be taken to ensure that the truce was kept.

Some besieging armies preferred the besieged not to surrender, so that they could make money from looting. Towns tended to be centres of wealth and plunder was a strong motivation for a medieval soldier.

Sometimes the army doing the besieging simply gave up. This might be because a relief army for the town or castle arrived and the besiegers either didn’t want to take the risk of fighting them or did fight them and were defeated. The besiegers might run out of supplies, or they might lose so many men through disease that continuing the siege was untenable.

Although there were rules about how to conduct a siege, they were interpreted with a great deal of flexibility and violence was frequently used against the besieged to ensure that the next town would surrender quickly.



Filed under Fourteenth Century