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Authors: Desmond Seward

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Even Edward himself engaged in the ransom trade, acting as a kind of broker. He bought particularly valuable prisoners from their captors at a reduced price, hoping to recover the full asking-price from the prisoner’s relatives or representatives. The King possessed the administrative machinery for such transactions so it was often well worth the captor’s while to sell to him; in 1347 Sir Thomas Dagworth sold Charles of Blois to the King for 25,000 gold crowns (nearly £5,000) and no doubt Edward made a good profit. Other magnates also acted as ransom brokers, purchasing high-ranking prisoners as a speculation; sometimes, like any other marketable commodity, the prisoners changed hands several times. Calais was to become the centre of this trade. Payment was not necessarily in money but could be in kind—horses, clothing, wine, weapons.
The garrisons in Brittany also engaged in a more sinister trade—that of the
pâtis
or protection-racket. Every village and hamlet had to pay the troops from the local stronghold dues in money, livestock, food and wine ; failure to pay was punished by arbitrary executions and burnings. Travellers had to pay dearly for safe conducts, road-blocks and toll-gates being set up. Profits from the
pâtis
were pooled; the soldiers paid one-third of their booty to the garrison commander, who remitted one-third to the King, together with a third of his own profits. In 1359—1360 £10,785—an average of £41 per parish—was collected from the parishes controlled by the garrisons of Ploermel, Bécherel and Vannes. Such extortion caused armed risings, while sometimes the inhabitants fled from their villages. In a report in 1352 Sir Walter Bentley said that in areas where strongholds had recently been taken over from the Blois party, the peasants would soon be too frightened of the English soldiers to plough their fields ; he explained that many of his troops were men of low degree instead of knights or squires and had only come to the wars for the sake of personal gain, and that they were growing rich from despoiling the inhabitants, townsmen as well as peasants. The English soldiers were hated with a bitter hatred ; when the French recaptured the town of La Roche Derrien in 1347 the locals threw themselves on the garrison and ‘killed them with sticks and stones like dogs’. In time the
pâtis
would be extended to all English-occupied France.
The English now regarded France as a kind of El Dorado. The whole of England was flooded with French plunder. The chronicler Walsingham says that in 1348: ‘There were few women who did not possess something from Caen, Calais or another town over the seas, such as clothing, furs and cushions. Table cloths and linen were seen in everybody’s houses. Married women were decked in the trimmings of French matrons and if the latter bemoaned their loss the former exulted at their gain.’ Even the troops’ wages were good; a mounted archer got 6d a day, the rate for a master craftsman at home, the foot archer 3d a day when a good ploughman was lucky to make 2d. Furthermore, the indentures of the men-at-arms and archers who volunteered guaranteed them a share of booty. In Dr Fowler’s words, however : ‘It was not the certainty of profit that lured men to service in the war, but the chance, often no more than one in a hundred, of hitting the jackpot.’ Although it meant heavy taxes again, there were many who waited hopefully for the King to recommence hostilities.
Edward III knew all about this enthusiasm and just how to exploit it. He had already shown himself to be a surprisingly sophisticated publicist, making full use of the primitive mass-media available. The reading of Philip’s invasion
ordonnance
in every parish church has been mentioned, but this was only one instance. Edward’s use of proclamations, to be read out at market-places or at county courts, was so thorough that it has been likened to ‘a kind of news service’ ; these proclamations explained in simple terms such great matters as the invasion of Normandy, the victory at Crécy and the taking of Calais, while the slightest threat of invasion was always fully exploited. In addition, the King made shrewd use of the clergy, asking the bishops for public prayers for the War, prayers which must have been said in many parishes. In 1346 the Dominican friars, who were generally credited with being the best preachers, were given the task of explaining to the King’s subjects why he was claiming the French throne and why he had gone to war. In consequence information about the campaigns of the 1330s and the victories of the 1340s had been surprisingly widespread.
If Edward was now even poorer than he had been before the Black Death, he had at least acquired a better understanding of what he could afford. Since 1345 his Treasurer had been the brilliant William Edington, Bishop of Winchester, who in 1356 was to become his Chancellor as well. Edington’s policy was to centralize all government finance under the Exchequer; only by pooling the entire revenue could he hope to pay for the King’s campaigns. Parliament was prepared to co-operate. As that great English historian Professor McKisack explains, when dealing with Parliament Edward’s approach was ‘to present the war as a joint stock enterprise undertaken for the defence of the realm and of his legitimate claim to the throne of France’, while keeping it informed about what was happening abroad and consulting it on matters of foreign policy. Edington’s skilful management made it possible for Edward to manage without asking too much in taxation.
Furthermore the English had found a new ally in France, the young King of Navarre. Charles the Bad was more than just the monarch of a tiny transmontane kingdom ; not only did he possess several counties in Normandy and rich estates near Paris, but if anything he had a better claim to the throne of France than Edward III. His mother was the daughter of Louis X (d. 1316), and therefore even nearer in line of succession than her aunt Isabel, though her uncles had been able to set aside her claims—largely on account of her mother’s reputation for promiscuity. Nevertheless, if her son Charles had been of age in 1328 he might well have been preferred as King of France to Philip of Valois. In consequence this personable, smooth-talking and amoral young man—eighteen in 1350—was consumed by a sense of burning injustice. To make matters worse, in addition to losing the throne he had been despoiled of the great counties of Champagne and Angoulême, and when to cut his losses he married King John’s daughter, her dowry was never paid. Charles decided that his best course was to play Plantagenet against Valois by offering to help Edward, and then persuading John to buy a Navarrese alliance. He seems to have had what amounted to almost a mania for intrigue.
However, the King of Navarre’s first move—in 1354—was far from subtle. He had long nursed a bitter hatred for the Constable of France, Don Carlos de la Cerda (the Castilian Admiral at Les-Espagnols-sur-Mer) to whom King John had given Angoulême; the Constable was now lured into Charles’s Norman territories, and then ambushed and hacked to death. ‘Know that it was I who with God’s help killed Carlos of Spain,’ Navarre declaimed in delight, although he then ‘excused himself to the King of France’. While John was infuriated by the murder of his favourite, he was so terrified by the rumours that his dangerous young cousin was corresponding with Edward III that he not only pretended to forgive Navarre but tried to buy him off with a large slice of the Cotentin. Charles was in no way mollified. The knowledge of his active discontent encouraged the English to recommence hostilities.
Edward again adopted a policy of attacking on three fronts at the same time. Originally he intended to lead one army himself into Picardy, while Lancaster (now a Duke) launched a joint Anglo-Navarrese campaign in Normandy and the Prince of Wales raided from Guyenne. In the event, although the King took an army to Calais in October 1355 he returned to England within a month. The operation’s chief campaign turned out to be a
chevauchée
by the Black Prince, who had been appointed Lieutenant in Guyenne and who had arrived at Bordeaux in September. In October 1355 the Prince rode out of the ducal capital with an army of probably no more than 2,600 men-at-arms and archers all told, but everyone on horseback, to spend the next two months killing and burning in Languedoc almost as far as Montpelier and the Mediterranean seaboard. He stormed Narbonne and Carcassonne—where he found useful supplies of food and wine—and burnt a large part of both towns to the ground, though he did not succeed in taking their citadels in which the citizens had taken refuge. Castlenaudry, Limoux and many other little towns suffered almost as much, while during the Prince’s 600-mile march countless villages and hamlets went up in flames, together with their mills, their châteaux and their churches. One of the Prince’s secretaries wrote, ‘Since this war began, there was never such loss nor destruction as hath been in this raid,’ while the Prince himself commented smugly on the ‘many goodly towns and strongholds burnt and destroyed’. It was not gratuituous cruelty or wanton lust for devastation. The object of every
chevauchée
was to underline the enemy’s weakness and deprive him of his taxes by destroying the lands and property on which they were levied. Chivalry had nothing to do with it—that was reserved for battles—and on this occasion, meeting almost no opposition, the Anglo-Gascon raiders behaved in a notably unchivalrous manner. According to Froissart, the troops preferred silver-plate and money but nothing of value was ignored, especially carpets, and the army returned with a baggage-train groaning with plunder —once back at Bordeaux, ‘they spent foolishly all the gold and silver they had won’. The devastated regions took years to recover, despite a programme of reconstruction which included tax exemption, gifts of royal timber and the conscription of masons and carpenters.
During such a
chevauchée
the English killed every human being they could catch (apart from those worth good money), so people unable to reach a town or castle had to hide. Some took refuge in caves or elsewhere underground—many castles and fortified churches had a network of cellars and tunnels dug beneath them. Others fled to the forest where they built huts, though the English searched the woods systematically. The peasants who dwelt in the plat
pays
—the flat, open plains which are the typical terrain of so much of France—were particularly at risk.
The rest of France was so shaken by the news from Languedoc that when the Estates met at Paris in October 1355 they agreed to taxes—including the extension of the
gabelle
on salt throughout the entire realm—which would enable John to maintain 30,000 troops for a year, although they tried to keep control of tax collection. In the event the exhausted taxpayers refused to pay. Nevertheless the desperate King summoned a great army, which began to assemble at Chartres in the spring of the following year.
Meanwhile Charles the Bad had not been idle, extracting even more concessions from John by spreading rumours that he meant to join Edward in England. But the King of Navarre pushed his luck too far. He ingratiated himself with the Dauphin who, fascinated by his charming cousin, spent so much time with him that the boy’s father began to suspect that the pair were plotting to depose him. In April 1356, in a frenzy of paranoia, King John galloped to Rouen, burst into the hall where Navarre and the Dauphin were dining, arrested the entire party and had four beheaded, including the Count d’Harcourt and three other Norman lords. King Charles of Navarre was incarcerated in a dungeon in the Louvre.
Edward was far from discouraged by King John’s preparations, even if he may have guessed that the Frenchman was determined to avenge Crécy. Towards the end of the summer he sent the Duke of Lancaster from Brittany with an army of perhaps 6,000 men to raise Navarre’s supporters in Normandy and then to attack in Anjou, his ultimate orders being to link up with the scarcely larger force of the Prince of Wales. The latter set out from Bergerac on 4 August 1356 on a long
chevauchée
north-east through the Limousin and Berry, besieging and capturing—by the use of Greek fire or flaming naphtha—the castle of Romorantin, where a French detachment who had tried to ambush him had taken refuge. He then swung north-westward and advanced on Tours where he began to burn the suburbs. By now he had become the main target of the French. King Edward had hoped to distract King John, but he had again been forced to return to England after only a day or two in France by the news that the Scots had taken Berwick. Similarly, although Lancaster had led the French army a dance, he failed to cross the Loire and join forces with the Prince.
Even if the Duke of Lancaster had succeeded in linking up with the Black Prince their combined army would still have been hopelessly outnumbered. Neither had any intention of seeking battle, but only meant to wage the
chevauchée.
In the early days of September, when he was before Tours, Prince Edward suddenly learnt that an army of 40,000 men was in hot pursuit of him and his plunder-laden troops. He made a run for it, retreating as fast as he could down the road to Bordeaux.
However, King John managed to outflank the Prince and reached Poitiers first, cutting the road to Bordeaux. He had with him perhaps 16-20,000 soldiers, most of them men-at-arms, though there were also a number of light troops including 2,000 crossbowmen. The two commanders only realized how near they were to each other when on 17 September the English advance guard suddenly collided with the rear of the French army at La Chabotrie. After a brief skirmish, the Prince marched on to camp at a village then called Maupertuis, which was some seven miles south-east of Poitiers.
The Black Prince was desperately anxious not to fight, for his men, laden with plunder, were obviously exhausted by their retreat. But the escape to the south was barred by the little river Miosson. Any attempt to ford it meant the possibility of annihilation by a well-timed enemy attack. Luckily he had the benefit of the advice of that gifted veteran, Sir John Chandos, who was a soldier of genius. Accordingly he unwillingly made ready for battle, taking command of the main division and keeping Chandos by his side where the latter seems to have acted as a chief-of-staff. The other divisions were commanded by the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, the last being in charge of the Guyennois contingent. Each of the three divisions consisted of about 1,200 men-at-arms on foot, rather fewer archers, some dismounted Gascon lancers, and a handful of Welsh knifemen. Although the exact topography is obscure, the terrain was beyond question ideally suited for such a combination—rolling ground covered with undergrowth, hedges, vines and patches of marsh. The front was guarded by a ditch and a long and stout hedge at the top of a gentle slope, the left by a thick wood, and the rear and left by the river. Though the English were able to use a slight hillock to watch the French, they themselves were to a large extent hidden from the enemy’s view—part of the Prince’s division was in a thicket, while the horses were tethered well out of sight.
BOOK: The Hundred Years War
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