A future Constable of France, Bertrand du Guesclin was born in a remote manor in Brittany[i] in 1320[ii]. Bertrand was the oldest of the ten children[iii] of Robert, lord of Broons; very minor nobility. His mother, Jeanne de Malmains, was an heiress and connected to a couple of more senior noble families. The child was swarthy and in the Chanson de Bertrand[iv], Bertrand was described thus;
‘There was none so ugly from Rennes to Dinan,
Flat-nosed and dark, gross and uncouth…
His father and mother so hated him
That often in their hearts they wished
That he were dead or drowned in a running stream:
Lout they called him, and stupid and ugly.’[v]The Chanson describes an incident when the six year old Bertrand is upstaged by his younger siblings at a family feast; the eldest child being sat at a side table on his own. Enter a wandering nun at stage left, who prophesies that Bertrand’s name will be known across the European stage. None of the Chanson’s details of Bertrand’s early life can be taken at face value.
The Chanson alleges that Bertrand took forty or so boys of his father’s tenants, setting them to fight in mock tournaments. Robert du Guesclin ordered that his tenants stop their children playing with his son; failure to do so would result in a fine of 100 sous. This apparently did not stop Bertrand picking fights with stray children. To stop even this de Guesclin père shut his son in a tower; this sounds like a typical fairy tale; the author of the Chanson perhaps drawing on the tales of Brocéliande[vi].
Leaving HomeAt the age of seventeen Bertrand was sent to live with his uncle Bertrand and his wife in Rennes. Normally sons of the nobility were sent away at an early age to acquire skills away from home; during this period seventeen was old to leave home. But according to the Chanson Bertrand’s behaviour had not improved; he crept out of church and ran off to join a peasant wrestling contest. His aunt read Bertrand a sermon upon his return home;
‘You are not holding your rank as the son of a knight…..
It would be much better to amuse yourself
By following contests, jousts and tourneys.’[vii]This suggestion appealed to Bertrand and, with his parent’s permission, he started to attend the tourneys; although his father asked that he not be allowed to joust. The Chanson suggests that Bertrand was stealing from his parents and selling the horses he had been given to pay his way. The young man was becoming known for his profligacy;
‘By Bertrand Glaiequin wines were offered
All welcomed him, all feted him.’[viii]A Good Time to be a Knight
|Edward III pays homage to Philip VI|
Bertrand came of age as a monumental war began in 1337, the One Hundred Years War[ix]; he was long dead before the final ramifications of Edward III’s invasion of France were dealt with. The huge Angevin empire[x] ruled over by the Kings of England, who gave homage in part for their lands in France to the French king, gave the English a slender claim to the French throne; a claim hotly disputed by their French overlord[xi].The French and the English were hereditary enemies and slights were magnified and brooded over for generations. The question of the French succession was aggravated by issues over the Flemish wool trade and the relations between England’s two major enemies, France and Scotland[xii].
In 1328 the last of the French Capetian monarchs Charles IV died, leaving no direct heir. The French barons selected the king’s cousin Philip VI as the most appropriate alternative to Isabella, Charles’ sister, and her son Edward king of England[xiii]. Within the year Edward had crossed the channel to pay homage for his possessions in France.
‘It is hardly necessary to say that King Philip received the young King of England with all honour and dignity, and so did all the kings, dukes and counts who were present there…..I believe that King Edward paid homage with words and a kiss only, without putting his hands between the hands of the King of France.’[xiv]The immediate cause of the war came in 1336, when Edward was apparently about to conclude his war with Scotland. Philip had his fleet transfer from the Mediterranean to a base in Normandy. Edward and his advisers believed this was a preliminary to an invasion of England and from that point on war was inevitable.
War in Brittany
|Funeral of Jean III|
The death of Duke Jean III[xv] led to a civil war in Brittany; some nobles supporting Joan of Dreux[xvi] the niece to whom Jean III had left his inheritance; and the rival faction supporting Jean IV[xvii], Jean III’s half brother. When the dukedom was awarded to Joan; Jean turned to Edward for support. The two candidates’ supporters were mostly drawn up on geographical and cultural lines; the western districts supporting de Montfort and the eastern ones supporting Joan.Bertrand’s brother Robert initially supported Jean as duke, only joining Joan’s faction in 1344. Bertrand was present at the first siege of Rennes by the English in 1342, according to Friossart, who mentions Bertrand as a squire, along with a friend Yvain Charruel.
The Chanson de Bertrand tells of the capture of Fougeray[xviii]; a castle in English hands. Cuvelier states that Bertrand and sixty men captured the castle by cunning; a small group, disguised as woodcutters, captured the gate and opened them for the remaining partisans to overwhelm the remnants of the garrison, the main contingent of whom had ridden off to aid besieged comrades at Auray. Bertrand informed the English;
‘Sons of whores, you will pay it dear
The bath I’ll warm for you,
Tis a bath of your blood I’ll draw for you.’[xix]This action brought Bertrand to the attention of Charles of Blois[xx].
This civil war gave Bertrand the chance to learn the tricks of his trade; learning to fight
‘In the service of Charles of Blois, becoming skilled in the tactics of ambush and ruse, the use of disguise, spies and secret messengers, smoke clouds to hide movements, bribes of money and wine, torture and killing of prisoners, and surprise attacks launched during the “Truce of God”.’[xxi]
|Battle of Roche-Derrien|
Jean de Montfort died in September 1345; his son being made a ward of Edward’s. Control of the fight was handed over to a succession of lieutenants, waging war against the French by proxy. Charles of Blois was taken prisoner at the battle of la Roche-Derrien in June 1347 and committed to the Tower of London.A Death Blow
The French had already suffered two major setbacks in the early years of the overarching war between Edward and Philip; the crushing of the French navy at the battle of Sluys in June 1340 and six years later the destruction of the army at Crécy in August 1346. In July 1347 Philip agreed a one year truce.
|Battle of Sluys|
The following year an even more overwhelming disaster reduced the French defences; the arrival of the Black Death[xxii].
‘Death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young. A rootless phantom which has no mercy for fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the armpit! It is seething, terrible…….A head that gives pain and causes a loud cry……..a painful angry knob……..Great is its seething like a burning cinder……..a grievous thing of ashy colour.’[xxiii]The Black Death arrived in France in January 1348, in Marseilles. It spread throughout southern France and Italy during the spring. By August the plague had crossed the Channel and was scything through central Europe and into Hungary. Dying back in cold weather, the plague loitered in cities overwinter only to spring back into life in early 1349.
Government business was cut short as officials fled; tax income suffered as the population shrunk and the source of cannon fodder severely depleted. There is no mention of Bertrand during this period after the capture of Charles of Blois and it is possible that he took to the life of a freebooter in the woods of Brocéliande.Bibliography
Edward III – Bryan Bevan, The Rubicon Press 1992The Hundred Years War – Alfred Burne, Folio Society 2005
Chronicles – Froissart, Penguin Books Ltd 1968Edward III – WM Ormrod, Tempus Publishing Ltd 2005
The Monks of War – Desmond Seward, Folio Society 2000A Distant Mirror – Barbara Tuchman, Pan MacMillan Publishers Ltd 1989
The Flower of Chivalry – Richard Vernier, The Boydell Press 2003www.wikipedia.en
[i] Near Dinan
[ii] The exact date is unknown
[iii] Four boys and six girls
[iv] The author, known only as Cuvelier, composed the chanson a few years after du Guesclin’s death
[v] The Flower of Chivalry - Vernier
[vii] The Flower of Chivalry - Vernier
[xii] For a masterly exposition of the factors leading up to the war see Burne – the Crécy War, part one of the One Hundred Years War trilogy – pp8-12
[xiii] The main objection to Edward appears to be that he was a foreigner
[xiv] Chronicles - Froissart
[xv] On 30th April 1341
[xviii] 29 miles south of Rennes
[xix] The Flower of Chivalry - Vernier
[xx] Nephew of Philip VI and married to Joan of Dreux
[xxi] A Distant Mirror - Tuchman
[xxiii] A Distant Mirror - Tuchman