History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

The duchy of Aquitaine: an English ‘colony’ in deepest France

As medieval records from the duchy of Aquitaine go online for the first time, Simon Harris and Guilhem Pépin reveal what life was like in a small English outpost surrounded by hostile French forces

The tombs of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in Fontevraud Abbey, France. (Dreamstime)
Published: March 9, 2015 at 2:49 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

On 12 August 1407, visitors to the city of Nottingham were treated to a rather peculiar sight: that of two elderly citizens of Bordeaux – Johan Boulomer and Bertran Ozanne – going toe-to-toe in a judicial duel staged before King Henry IV.


This was far from the first time that the two men had fallen out in a public place. Seven years earlier on a Bordeaux street, Boulomer had accused Ozanne of bad-mouthing the English presence in Aquitaine. The city of Bordeaux had “always been so loyal to the crown of England in the past and would remain so by the grace of God,” declared Boulomer. “How might the poor ploughmen live, and the subjects of the king [of England], our lord, if they were not able to sell their wines or to have goods from England?”

Fast-forward to 1407 and neither combatant was able to deliver a telling blow before King Henry brought the duel to an end with the cry ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ (meaning ‘stop!’). However, their dispute illustrates just how highly the English – and their supporters in Bordeaux – prized their links with the duchy of Aquitaine, both in terms of loyalty and trade.

Marrying into land

The story of England’s long and bloody relationship with this corner of south-west France began over two centuries before Boulomer and Ozanne’s duel – with the marriage between the future Henry II of England and Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, in 1152. With Henry’s accession to the throne two years later, the duchy of Aquitaine was suddenly the personal property of the English crown.

However, during the 13th century, that property came under attack. By 1224, Poitou, the northern area of the duchy of Aquitaine, had fallen into French hands, and all efforts at recovering it had failed miserably. The English needed a diplomatic solution and so, in 1259, Henry III negotiated the Treaty of Paris with Louis IX of France, giving up his claims on areas including Normandy, Anjou and Poitou in return for confirmation of tenure of Aquitaine as a vassal of the French king.

However, if Henry thought that the Treaty of Paris would signal the end of his problems in France, he was to be proved wrong. For a start, the treaty required English kings to kneel in homage to the kings of France, or else face the threat of forfeiting Aquitaine. For English kings, who in every other way saw themselves as the equals of their French counterparts, this was to prove a bitter pill to swallow.

Worse still, the officers of the kings of France used the dominant position of their sovereign to support judicial appeals from Gascons against the king of England as Duke of Aquitaine. French interference was particularly resented in Gascony (a region on the western seaboard within Aquitaine, whose capital was Bordeaux) since, in 1252, Henry III had declared that area united in perpetuity with the crown of England.

It’s hardly surprising then that England and France were soon at war again (from 1294–97 and 1324–25). The fall-out of the Treaty of Paris was also the initial trigger of the Hundred Years’ War between the two nations, though Edward III was soon fanning the flames further by laying claim to the French throne. (After all, if he was king of France, he would no longer have to pay homage for Aquitaine.)

Between 1345 and 1360, the English won a string of military victories – at Auberoche, Crécy and Poitiers. In the last of those three clashes, Edward III’s eldest son, Edward of Woodstock (‘the Black Prince’), captured the king of France, John II, and was able to use his hostage as a powerful bargaining chip when the two sides next met around the negotiating table. In fact, the English king emerged from the treaty of Brétigny/Calais of 1360 with an enlarged Aquitaine completely independent of France – one that he was able to turn into a principality for his son in 1362.

English honour

So what did the Gascons – the residents of Aquitaine – make of the long and bloody battle for their land? Were they, like Johan Boulomer, fiercely loyal to their English rulers, or, like Bertran Ozanne, vehemently antagonistic?

To a large extent, this depended on where they lived. Many of those residing in the eastern part of Aquitaine, close to Toulouse, the southern capital of France, were subjects of the kings of France – they fought for him against the English, and were often called ‘French’ because of their feudal links to that king.

By contrast, most Gascons from the western areas, in the region between Bordeaux and Bayonne, remained fiercely faithful to the kings of England, and didn’t consider themselves remotely ‘French’. Like Johan Boulomer, many were more than eager to declare their loyalty for the English king.

When Galhart de Durfort, Seneschal (royal officer) of Aquitaine, was besieged in the town of Blaye by a French army in 1406, he wrote to the city of Bordeaux telling the citizens that if he was captured by the French, the whole country would be lost. And if that happened, they could not expect to receive any honour from France. “We would not be held in esteem, nor endowed or honoured. We would always be oppressed and in great subjection.”

Many Gascons saw no benefit in French rule, perhaps even regarding it as advantageous to be governed by a distant lord who did not interfere with their affairs. Families such as the Graillys, the Captals de Buch, did long service to the kings of England through thick and thin.

Despite these expressions of loyalty, life under English rule could be uncertain. With the repeated outbreaks of hostilities and fluctuating frontiers, many people found it hard to make a living. The Gascon Rolls are full of the pleas of loyal Gascons who claimed to have lost all of their possessions because of their adherence to the cause of the kings of England. In 1361 Roger de Chester, a burgess of La Réole, and his wife Margarida, were granted a protection from their creditors because they had lost everything and had nothing with which to pay them.

Yet, many did well from the relationship between England and Gascony. The Gascon capital, Bordeaux, boasted a population of about 30,000 in 1337 (which was about the same as London). More pertinently for your average Englishman – especially those with a nose for a good bouquet – the city offered a gateway to Gascony’s principal export, wine.

Huge quantities of Gascon wine were loaded at Bordeaux each autumn and shipped to England – in 1308–09 alone, 102,724 tonnes of the stuff were dispatched to English shores. To the English, a people who produced no wine of their own but who were clearly developing a taste for Gascon claret, this was manna from heaven.

Kings and dukes were frequently asked to grant or reinforce the privileges of the wine-producing districts that they ruled. In return, foodstuffs, particularly grain, were imported from England. Bordeaux was a major market for English products.

Many merchants grew rich on the trade, but traders inevitably felt the full force of war and of piracy. For example, in 1320 a group of Bordeaux merchants complained bitterly after Irish raiders attacked a ship in the Gironde estuary, killing the crew and stealing the vessel and its cargo. The sea route between England and Aquitaine was to become so dangerous that, by the mid-14th century, ships were formed into convoys.

Colonial rule

In the early 14th century, in order to avoid the factionalism that they believed was rife among the Gascons, the English crown began appointing Englishmen to the key administrative positions within Aquitaine. The duchy had now effectively become a colonial administration.

From 1362–72, that ‘colony’ was ruled directly by the Black Prince (during what was known as the ‘principality’), who made the duchy his permanent home. He brought his own household with him and appointed his own officials from among his retainers. These included men such as Thomas de Felton, who became seneschal, and Master John Harewell, the future bishop of Bath and Wells, who was the prince’s treasurer and chancellor.

Yet if these men believed that maintaining law and order was going to be easy in what was effectively a battleground routinely fought over by England and France, they were in for a rude awakening. Between 1312 and 1320 one seneschal of Gascony was murdered and another seriously injured. Even a minor official like the king’s serjeant Buffecot Angot could be dragged from a Bordeaux church and murdered in a nearby wine cellar.

As well as administrators, large numbers of English and Welsh soldiers were dispatched to the duchy to serve in garrisons, or to form part of the Anglo-Gascon armies fighting the French and their allies. However, few of these men remained in Aquitaine for the long term.

In fact, the only time that the English settled in large numbers was during the principality. Among those to make the duchy their permanent home during this period was the Cheshire knight William Mainwaring, who served both Edward III and the Black Prince in Aquitaine for more than 20 years (see box, page 46). However, even he elected to be buried in his home county of Cheshire.

Several esquires of humble origins married into the local nobility. One of the most striking examples was the Welsh captain Gregory Says, who wed the Poitevin lady Ragonde Béchet (died 1409). Says and his wife held the castle of Gençay (in Poitou) against the French until 1375, and she followed her husband into exile in England after the stronghold’s surrender.

For all the loyalty the duchy of Aquitaine inspired among its inhabitants, by the mid-15th century the costs to the English of maintaining it were becoming increasingly insupportable. The principality had collapsed in 1372 (shortly before an ailing Black Prince’s death in 1376) and, despite a brief upturn in English fortunes following Henry V’s victory at Agincourt in 1415, the days of England’s toehold in south-west France were numbered.

Digging their heels in

In 1451, the French king, Charles VII, moved in for the kill, seizing the duchy. Even then the people of Bordeaux weren’t about to go quietly. Backed by an English expeditionary force, they rebelled against French rule, declaring their allegiance to England until Charles finally put an end to their resistance at the battle of Castillon in 1453.

Large numbers of Gascons had been forced to submit to the French before this final surrender, but many others remained loyal to the English. Pey de Taste, dean of St-Seurin in Bordeaux, and an important counsellor of Henry VI, chose to live out the remainder of his life in England in royal service. He wasn’t alone: many Gascon merchants remained in England but sought licences to trade in their former homeland.

Charles VII was well aware of the sympathies that many Gascons still held for the English cause. One of his first acts after the conquest of Bordeaux was to construct two substantial fortresses, the Château Trompette and the Fort du Hâ. These weren’t built to deter the English from attempting to recover the duchy but rather to cow the inhabitants of the city. They were, perhaps, the ultimate symbols of the moment that Aquitaine-Gascony finally became part of France.

Where were Aquitaine and Gascony?

When Henry Plantagenet (the future Henry II of England) acquired the duchy of Aquitaine in 1152 through marriage, it stretched from the Loire to the Pyrenees, and was ruled from Poitiers. It encompassed several other lordships, including the old duchy of Gascony, whose northern boundary had been roughly the Garonne river. Following French conquests in 1204, the duchy of Aquitaine shrank back towards the Garonne, and the capital became Bordeaux.

To the English, in particular, the terms Gascony and Aquitaine (or Guyenne) became synonymous – even if, for the locals, Aquitaine meant something much larger than Gascony.

Five men who shaped English Aquitaine

The Black Prince (1330–76): He ruled Aquitaine directly for 10 years

Edward Woodstock, Prince of Wales, was the eldest son of King Edward III of England. As his father’s lieutenant in Aquitaine, he conducted a major campaign from Bordeaux in 1355 and, in a foray into Poitou in 1356, captured the French king. He was created prince of Aquitaine by his father in 1362 and lived in the area for the next 10 years. His son, Richard (the future Richard II), was born in Bordeaux in 1367.

William Mainwaring (c1340–99): The knight who set up home in Aquitaine

William hailed from an important knightly family of Cheshire. First serving in Aquitaine in 1369, he continued in military service there until his death in 1399, leading retinues of troops. He chose to be buried in the parish church of Acton, Cheshire. There he had a high quality alabaster effigy made to adorn his tomb chest, paid for from profits accrued during his service in Aquitaine and the war.

Johan III de Grailly (c1330–77): The loyalist who died in French captivity

Johan III de Grailly, more famously known as the Captal de Buch (captal being a local Gascon title meaning lord, and Buch the region of the Arcachon Bay), was one of the founder members of the Order of the Garter. He played a decisive role in the victorious battle of Poitiers in 1356 yet, as constable (head of the armies) of the Black Prince’s principality of Aquitaine, he was taken prisoner by the French in 1372. King Charles V of France kept him in a Parisian jail until he died in 1377. de Grailly persisted in refusing to accept French allegiance, and Charles considered him too dangerous to be freed.

John Talbot (c1387–1453): Henry VI’s enforcer in France

Descending from families of the Welsh marches, the Earl of Shrewsbury served from 1420 onwards in France, gaining a reputation as a fierce fighter. He led the resistance to the French invasion of Normandy, and was later appointed marshal of France. Talbot served as Henry VI’s lieutenant in Aquitaine in 1452, recapturing Bordeaux. He died leading an Anglo-Gascon army against the French on 17 July 1453 at the battle of Castillon.

Master Johan du Bourdieu (c1360–1416): The Gascon who made it on both sides of the Channel

A doctor in canon law of the University of Oxford, this Gascon accumulated several eminent offices in the Anglo-Gascon government over the course of his career, but seems to have encountered some opposition from fellow countrymen. He was chancellor of Aquitaine from 1408–15 and became vicar of the Norman town of Harfleur when it was conquered by Henry V in 1415, and was buried there.

A timeline of English Aquitaine

1152 The future King Henry II marries Eleanor of Aquitaine. Two years later, with Henry’s accession, the duchy of Aquitaine passes to the English crown

1252 Henry III of England declares Gascony united in perpetuity with England

1259 Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, Henry III of England agrees to pay homage for Aquitaine to French monarchs

1337 The Hundred Years’ War between England and France begins

1356 Edward III’s son, the Black Prince, captures the French king at the battle of Poitiers. Aquitaine is enlarged and completely independent of France

1362 The Black Prince becomes Prince of Aquitaine, and makes the duchy his home. The ‘principality’ collapses 10 years later

1451 The French king Charles VII seizes the duchy, sparking an English-backed rebellion against French rule in Bordeaux

1453 The fate of English Aquitaine is finally sealed with defeat to the French at the battle of Castillon

Dr Simon Harris and Dr Guilhem Pépin both work as researchers on the Gascon Rolls Project. Simon and Guilhem are based at Keele University and the University of Southampton respectively. The Gascon Rolls, records from the English government of Aquitaine-Gascony, were made available online in a major international project in spring 2015. For more details, go to gasconrolls.org


This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine.


Sponsored content