ANNA BELFRAGE

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

Archive for the tag “The Hundred Years’ War”

A lady with claws

The other day, I was at the dentist. I detest going to the dentist, no matter how much I like the actual dentist. My dentist is a charming man who entertains me with anecdotes from Paris while he drills. Doesn’t help much, but at least he tries. Anyway: the single upside with going to the dentist is that the waiting room has a very varied selection of magazines. So while I was waiting I came upon an article about the Lioness from Brittany. The article made me smile and remember a very enthusiastic history teacher when I was in fifth grade. Mrs Miller was a big fan of spicing up her lessons with plenty of human interest, and the story of the Lioness from Brittany (or La Tigresse Bretonne, as Mrs Miller always called her, seeing as Mrs Miller was French which led to a somewhat alternative take on The Hundred Years’ War in general and Henry V in particular) comes with a huge dollop of drama. You haven’t heard of this feline lady? Not to worry, as I feel she deserves some airtime here on my blog—after all, I have a thing about strong women who flaunt convention and carve their own path through life.

Today’s protagonist was born around 1300 in France, more specifically in the Vendeé to the wealthy nobleman Maurice Montaigu de Belleville and his wife, Letice. The baby was christened Jeanne and at the tender age of twelve she was married to Geoffrey de Chateaubriant who was all of nineteen. Two years later, she gave birth to her first child, a son, to be followed by a daughter some years later. If she gave birth to more children, these must have died young as there is no record of them. So far, her life had been nothing out of the ordinary. Nor was the death of her husband in 1326 an unusual event. People died all the time back then. Come to think of it, they still do. Anyway: Jeanne was not destined to remain a widow for long. Already in 1328 she remarried, but a year later that marriage was declared null and void by the pope, maybe because by then Jeanne had met the love of her life, Olivier de Clisson.

Now, there is some evidence indicating Jeanne and Olivier went years back. In fact, some say Jeanne gave birth to a daughter fathered by Olivier already in 1325, when she was still married to hubby nr 1. Rather unlikely, IMO—a child born to a married woman was automatically assumed to be her husband’s child. For a baby to be recorded as being fathered by another man, the mother would have had to come forward and admit to adultery. Seems like a stupid thing to do for a medieval lady.

Clisson by Cyril5555 800px-Vue_château_et_pont_Clisson

Clisson – photo by Cyril555, licensed under Creative Commons

Anyway: in 1330, Jeanne wed Olivier de Clisson, a well-off Breton who swept her off to live happily ever after with him at his castle in Clisson. Soon enough, Jeanne gave birth to a son. And another. And another. First son died young, but as some sort of compensation Jeanne and Olivier also had a daughter. All in all, the Clissons were happy with each other. Thing is, the times were complicated politically – and that is putting it mildly.

In 1337, King Edward III of England officially claimed the French crown, this based on the fact that he was the grandson of Philippe IV. Obviously, this did not go down well with the crowned French king, Philippe VI, who was the nephew of Philippe IV, son to the rather impressive Charles of Valois. Now, at the time there were some regions which we would call French that were pretty much independent. One such region was Brittany, which was of strategic importance in a war between England and France as it offered a lot of coastline for English ships to safely land English knights, men-at-arms and archers.

The situation in Brittany was somewhat messy: The previous duke of Brittany, Arthur, had married twice. In his first marriage, he had three sons, one of whom was named John and was recognised as his heir. In his second marriage he had yet another son, also called John but known to history as John de Montfort as he inherited the title of count of Montfort through his mother. One wonders why the same father would name two sons John, but maybe he had a special fondness for this particular name.

When Arthur died, his eldest John inherited as John III. This John detested his half-siblings and expended a lot of energy on trying to get them branded as bastards. Didn’t work. As John III had no children of his own, his younger brother was his obvious heir. This John III didn’t like, so instead he chose his niece, yet another Jeanne as his designated heir. This Jeanne was married to a certain Charles de Blois who was delighted at the notion of becoming Duke of Brittany.

clisson john_entering_nantes

John de Montfort entering Nantes

In 1341, John III died – after changing his mind and naming his half-brother as heir. Too late. Charles de Blois claimed the dukedom on behalf of his wife. John de Montfort was not about to give up his patrimony without a fight, and soon enough he had Edward III in his court, while Charles de Blois had the support of Philippe VI of France. The stage, as they say, was set for a very long and very bloody conflict…

The local nobility took sides. Olivier de Clisson seems to have supported Charles de Blois. His brother, Amaury de Clisson, supported John de Montfort. Olivier was ordered to help defend the city of Vannes against the English. In 1342, Vannes fell to the English and Olivier was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for Ralph Stafford (a gentleman whose rather high-handed marital exploits you can read much more about here) and a ransom. A suspiciously low ransom according to Philippe VI who suspected Olivier might be in cahoots with the English and John de Montfort.

Clisson Exécution_d'Olivier_IV_de_Clisson_(1343)

Olivier and his Breton buddies being executed

The French king had a devious side to him. In 1343, a treaty was signed by Philippe VI and Edward III, creating a bit of a breathing space in the ongoing war. To celebrate, Philippe organised a major tournament and Olivier, together with some other Breton lords, was invited to take part. Turns out there wouldn’t be much jousting for Olivier. Instead, he (and several other Breton lords) was arrested, dragged off to Paris where he was tried by his peers and sentenced to death. Early in August, he was beheaded, his body displayed in a gibbet and his head sent off to adorn a spike in Nantes.

In France, such a public display of a nobleman’s body was not the done thing. Besides, there was no evidence of Olivier’s guilt. Contemporaries were therefore not impressed by their king’s actions, with quite a few expressing concern an innocent and loyal man had been murdered on the king’s say-so.

Back in Bretagne, Jeanne received the news of her husband’s death. She took her two surviving sons with her to Nantes to show them their father’s head, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for her (and her boys, at the time seven and five) to see her husband’s head displayed as a trophy. Something snapped in Jeanne. There, in front of her beloved husband’s decapitated head the forty-three-year-old widow swore revenge: King Philippe would live to regret having murdered her husband.

Clisson 500px-De_Belleville_Montaigu-1

Supposedly, this is Jeanne.

First, Jeanne sold everything she had of value—likely the lands had been attainted, but what she could sell, she sold. Then she armed herself (legend says with a huge axe), hired several men-at-arms and began her own personal war on the French. Supposedly she attacked a couple of castles, slaughtered the garrisons (she left one or two alive as witnesses) and openly declared her support for John de Montfort—and Edward III.

After this initial killing spree, Jeanne bought three ships (probably with financial support from the English) that she painted black and fitted with crimson sails, and began to wreak havoc on the French. This was not a pirate out for spoils. Jeanne targeted French ships to kill, exacting a grisly and bloody revenge for the death of her husband. She participated herself in the killing—or so the legend says—using that big axe of hers to lop of the heads of whatever unfortunate Frenchmen she captured. French nobles could expect no mercy, no matter that they promised huge ransoms. The Lioness of Brittany was not interested in gold: she wanted blood.

clisson BattleofSluys

Battle of Sluys

The French had nothing with which to fight back—at least not initially. After all, the French had lost most of their fleet at the Battle of Sluys in 1340, and Philippe was beginning to feel the pinch of being constantly at war: he simply did not have the money or the men to outfit a new fleet.

 

Clisson Capture_Charles_de_Blois

Charles de Blois being captured

In Brittany, it seemed Charles of Blois had finally managed to gain the upper hand. By 1345, John de Montfort was dead and most of his supporters had no choice but to make their peace with Charles. However: Charles did not inspire much loyalty among the Bretons—especially not after slaughtering huge numbers of civilians when he took the town of Quimper. And when the English defeated the French at Crecy and went on to capture Charles of Blois in 1347, the de Montfort cause revived somewhat.

Not that Jeanne cared. She’d helped the English transport provisions over the Channel in preparation for Crecy, but otherwise she preferred to expend her time on her favourite pastime: murdering Frenchmen. However, her luck could not hold for ever, and somewhere around 1346-47 the French managed to sink her flagship. Jeanne and her two sons ended up drifting around for days. Her younger son died of exposure before they were rescued and she decided to send her surviving and eldest son, Olivier, to England to be raised in the household of the English king. After this, she went back to her pirating and would continue to be a scourge on the French until 1356 or so.

After thirteen years as a pirate captain, Jeanne had apparently had enough. Her husband’s death had been avenged many times over and her eldest son was safe in England where he was a close companion of John de Montfort Jr. At well over fifty, she was probably tired of living on a cramped ship. Or maybe it was more a case of wanting to spend time with her new hubby, an English gentleman called Walter Bentley. Whatever the case, she settled down in the Breton town of Hennebont with her husband, the castle in which she lived situated right by the sea.

In 1359, Jeanne died. She would therefore never know that her eldest son was destined to become the most famous Clisson male, ending his life as Constable of France and the richest man around. But that, as they say, is another story. Besides, I’m not entirely sure our Jeanne would have been pleased by her son’s change of sides. For her, Philippe VI had permanently killed any loyalty to France when he unjustly beheaded her husband.

So lived and died La Tigresse Bretonne, a lady who brought home just how dangerous a woman can be when sufficiently riled. And frankly, thinking about her did serve as an adequate distraction while my dear dentist went at it with his drill. After all, if she could survive her excessively exciting life, then I can live through a visit to the dentist. Maybe.

An English hawk on an Italian mural – of a mercenary made good

John Hawkwood 800px-Paolo_Uccello_044Should you ever make it to Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, you should of course gawk at the beautiful cupola, but don’t miss the gigantic mural depicting a ma in armour astride a magnificent horse. Move close enough to read the inscription, and you may also begin to wonder what on earth an English mercenary named John Hawkwood could possibly have done to deserve being honoured in this way.

John Hawkwood is not a name much bandied about these days, but back in 14th century Italy he was a force to be reckoned with, a man everyone wanted on their side. (Not that the medieval Italians ever could get his name right, which is why Machiavelli calls him Giovanni Acuto) Being gifted with an ample conscience and a constant hunger for gold, John took the opportunity to sell himself to the highest bidder – and this man, as per his inscription “the most skilled and cautious of generals”, did not come cheap.

To provide some background for our John, we need to start at the beginning. As always, this tends to be a bit murky when going this far back in history, but it seems that John was born in Essex, somewhere round 1320. His father was a well-to-do minor landowner, which ensured John survived the rampant starvation that characterised England during his early years. Upon his father’s death, John as a younger son was not left much of an inheritance, but it helped that his family had close ties to the de Vere family, and it was as an archer under de Vere’s command that Hawkwood first bursts into the annals of history.

John Hawkwood Battle-of-CrecyIn 1342, John was a simple archer. At the battle of Crécy, four years later, he was in command of 250 archers, a crucial component in the strategy that led to victory for the English. Obviously, John must have been a gifted leader of men – and an able archer, one would assume. He was also, as would be proven throughout his long and colourful career, a naturally gifted strategist. It was John’s fortune that he was born into the tumultuous times of the Hundred Years’ War, thereby finding ample use for his somewhat bellicose talents.

The Hundred Year’s War was not a chivalric little outing in which noble knights jousted, parlayed and did some more jousting. No, this was a long, extended rape of France, perpetrated by the English aggressors, but, just as often, by the bands of mercenaries hired by the desperate French to defend themselves. Problem with mercenaries is that if you don’t pay them – and pay them well – they will take their payment where they can find it. Or join the other side…

While using mercenaries was nothing new, it was during this extended conflict that the commercial community discovered just what a commodity a group of fighting men could be. The mercenary went from being badly paid cannon fodder to highly salaried experts, and the resulting profit was evenly shared between the mercenaries themselves and the middle-hand, the ever more powerful merchants.

We tend to forget that war – even today – always has an economic aspect to it, making rich men out of those who supply the fighting parties with food, armour and weapons. English and Hanseatic merchants made fortunes during Edward III’s stubborn attempt to claim the French crown. Bankers invested (and lost) huge amounts in this venture, and most of those bankers were Italian, and so Edward III’s ambition became a multinational venture, involving Italian money, Hanseatic merchants, Breton mercenaries – well, mercenaries from almost everywhere – and, of course, the stalwart English and Welsh soldiers who bled and died en masse on fields very distant from their homes.

John Hawkwood Crécy_-_Grandes_Chroniques_de_FranceDespite being labelled as a war that extended over a century, in actual fact this war was fought in innings, with long periods of fighting ending in an uneasy truce, thereby giving both sides the opportunity to get their breaths back. Now, these little breaks were excellent if you were a nobleman needing to trot back home to inspect your lands, make your wife pregnant, and generally lie about for some time. If, however, you happened to be a common soldier, chances are these extended pauses were quite the headache, starting with the fact that soldiers weren’t paid if there was no fighting going on.

In essence, this is what happened to our John. After the glory of Crecy, he did go back home for some years, but when he and a friend severely mistreated another man, he found it best to flee the country of his birth, uncomfortable with being labelled a “miscreant” and potentially risking the noose. So John kicked his heels on the Continent, rode to more glory at Poitiers in 1356 where he finally won his spurs, and then in 1360 it seemed the war was over, leaving Hawkwood an impoverished knight with nothing to return to.

This is when he joined the Free Companies, at first riding with the tard-venues (the latecomers) but relatively quickly transferring to the White Company, a well-organised mercenary venture headed by a German called Albert Stertz who had made it his task in life to enrich himself – and his men – by selling his company to whoever bid the highest. And when there were no takers for his services, our German captain decided to go creative, which is why he – together with several other mercenary captains who banded together to form the Great Company – attacked the papal seat in Avignon, ultimately wresting a huge ransom from the pope.

Eventually, France had been so thoroughly robbed there were no pickings left. And so the mercenary armies lifted their eyes from the previously so fertile French soil and looked about for new horizons, eagerly urged on by the impoverished Pope who wanted nothing more than to see these Free Companies ride off into the sunset never to return. And what did they find? La Bella Italia!

At the time, La Bella Italia did not exist – at least not as more than a geographical region. Europe’s favourite boot was a collection of fiercely independent and competitive city states constantly at war with each other. And where there are miniature wars brewing, there one needs a mercenary army or two, right?

John Hawkwood Papa_Innocentius_Sextus

Innocent VI: Pope and warmonger

The pope, Innocent VI, actively participated in brokering the contract that finally rid Avignon of the mercenaries. He convinced the Marquis of Monferrato to hire the White Company and use them to smite the hated Visconti, rulers of Milan, hard. As the pay was good, the White company gladly went, stopping only to set half of Marseilles on fire as one final coda to their long, unwelcome stay in France.

I suspect the White company was lured by more than the pay: at the time, the Italian city states were the Promised Land to many of their fellow Europeans. Lands of plenty, of culture, of a benign climate, the Italian city states beckoned with the promise of a delightful place to retire – supposing you were rich enough. Not that much different from today, come to think of it, given how many of the truly well-off acquire a villa in Tuscany in which to spend the sunset years of their lives…

By the early 1360’s, Hawkwood had assumed control over the White Company, despite being illiterate. Not that being incapable of reading was much of an issue for the captain-general, as the White Company boasted an excellent administrative system, complete with own lawyers, clerks and purchasers. Other than the fighting men, the company also had its fair share of priests, prostitutes and physicians – plus a minor army of servants.

John Hawkwood Giorces 800px-Malpaga10

(Photo by Giorces)

The White Company was not named for the innocence of its members, but rather for the uniform worn by the soldiers. In white (most impractical one would think) and with selected pieces armour polished until they glittered like mirrors, these mercenaries exuded a certain style. (Mercenaries depended on speed, so very few of them wore full body armour, choosing instead whatever piece they felt suited their needs best) Accompanied by a bevy of pages, the mercenaries rode from battlefield to battlefield, but often dismounted to fight on foot, assuming a hedgehog formation that bristled with lances. Pitted against the mostly civilian militia of the various city states, the White Company’s hardened soldiers generally came out the victors, leaving a trail of blood and suffering in their wake.

John Hawkwood 389px-Farinata

A dashing Condottiero

The English mercenaries quickly acquired a reputation for ruthlessness and efficiency. Spawn of the devil, some of their reluctant hosts would mutter, Son of Belsebub they whispered behind Hawkwood’s back. Not that he cared: after having spent some years fighting the Milanese Visconti on behalf of the pope, the company then spent the coming decade shifting allegiances depending on who dangled the biggest purse before Hawkwood’s nose. From having fought for Monferrato, the company ended up fighting against him at the Visconti’s side, and they were sometimes on the papal side of the constant conflicts, at others on the side of one city state or another. With time, Hawkwood acquired the reputation of being a mercenary one could trust (well…) which put him in the agreeable position of being able to pick and choose.

After close to two decades in Italy, most of that time spent fighting for one side or the other, Hawkwood decided it was time to settle down. By now, he was well into his fifties, and when he was offered one of the illegitimate Visconti daughters as a bride he gladly accepted before resigning from his mercenary gig and moving to Florence – a mortal enemy of the Milanese – in 1377, assuming command of this city’s defences. One suspects that must have put something of a strain on his marital relations.

There may have been another reason for Hawkwood’s decision to leave the hire-a-fighting man business, and that reason is spelled Cesena. Hawkwood lived by his sword and his skill as a soldier, and it is difficult for a man to spend his whole life fighting and come out untarnished. In Hawkwood’s case, his huge blemish is the massacre of Cesena in 1377. At the time, Hawkwood was serving the pope, and it was Robert, Cardinal of Genoa, who insisted all the inhabitants of this little town be put to the sword. Approximately 5 000 civilians lost their lives in that blood bath, and it would seem Hawkwood was quite disgusted by the entire matter. Whatever the case, he never actively fought for the pope again…

John Hawkwood Colored_woodcut_town_view_of_Florence

Medieval Florence from the Nuremberg Chronicle  (courtesy of Bas van Hout, Creative Commons)

Anyway, from 1377 and onwards, Hawkwood was the effective commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces. And in 1390 he defended Florence against the expansive ambition of the Visconti by defeating the Milanese forces, thereby saving the fiercely independent Florence from the fate worse than death of becoming a Milanese vassal state.

John Hawkwood Portrait_de_Dante

Dante: OK, so no mural but at least a nice portrait by Botticelli…

That, of course, is why John Hawkwood ended up commemorated in the Basilica, while Dante wasn’t. Not that strange, when one considers the fact that whatever great literary masterpieces he created, that Aligheri dude never lifted a finger in defence of his city. Why should he? That’s what mercenaries were for, right?

In actual fact, John had no intention of being buried in Florence. He wanted to return home, and spent his last few years planning his move. Unfortunately for him, he died before he could realise his dream of going home. As some sort of compensation, he got a magnificent funeral in Florence, although likely he was entirely unaware of the honours heaped upon his dead body.

At the time of his death, Hawkwood was a major celebrity which was why, in 1395, Richard II requested that his body be returned to England. The Florentine authorities acquiesced. Whether this happened or not remains an open question, but by now John Hawkwood probably no longer cares where his mortal remains lie buried.

As to his spirit, I dare say it hovers over the rolling hills of Tuscany, but now and then his restless soul probably dives down to inspect that seven metre high mural of himself and howls with laughter. After all, whatever else he was, John Hawkwood was not a man who deserved to be commemorated in a church!

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: