With an abhorrent childhood behind him and now in the service of King John the Good, Bertrand du Guesclin attacked and ransomed the English who ventured into the ‘Dark Forest’ in Northern Brittany. The Hundred Years War had begun. He reinvented battle harassment by tricks and subterfuges, now called guerrilla warfare and quickly became the terror of the occupants who dubbed him ‘Black Dogue de Dark Forest.’ He used a military techinque known as the ‘Fabian strategy,’ which relied upon wearing down the opponent through skirmishes to cause attrition, disrupt supplies and affect moral rather than front-on pitched battle.
In 1364 with his new bride, Tiphanie, safely tucked away at Mont St Michel, Du Guesclin returned to the thing he did best – soldiering. The Dauphin of France became King Charles V and he sent Bertrand to deal with Charles II of Navarre who was still claiming rights to Burgundy. Charles V wanted the Duchy for his brother, Philip.
On May 16 an Anglo-Navarrese army under the command of Jean de Grailly, Captal de Buch, met with Du Guesclin at Cocherel. It ended in a pitched battle. Bertrand was able to prove his prowess to his new king and his victory forced Charles of Navarre into a new peace with France. Charles V then gave the Duchy of Burgundy to his brother.
Du Guesclin went to battle again in September of that year in Auray in what began as a siege but ended in another pitched battle. Du Guesclin fought under the command of Charles of Blois, with Blois in the centre, the Count of Auxerre on the left and Du Guesclin positioned on the right. But each division carried only 1,000 men and they had a weak reserve. (Du Guesclin had advised against this plan.) The Anglo-Breton army of de Montford however, sported Olivier de Clisson on the left, Sir Robert Knolles on the right and, in the centre, both Montford and the celebrated Sir John Chandos. They also had a significant reserve ready to intervene.
The battle began with the French Arbalesters and the English bowmen, then moved onto the men-at-arms.
Orders had been given not to give quarter and thus when Charles of Blois was struck down by a lance, he was finished off by an English soldier. Du Guesclin was luckier, having broken all his weapons, Chandos accepted his surrender. He was taken into custody for a healthy ransom.
Meanwhile in Spain, trouble was brewing. King Alphonso XI of Castile and his lover, Eleanor enjoyed a dozen illegitimate sons but when Alphonso died, his wife, Maria of Portugal, the Queen of Castile, and her legitimate son, Prince Peter, (to become known as ‘Pedro the Cruel’) saw to it that his bastard brothers enjoyed no more favours. Although Eleanor and her sons reached an agreement to live peacefully at court, it was an unstable situation. Prince Peter agreed to charges against Eleanor and had her executed. One of the bastard sons, Henry, eventually rebelled and left to join the court of King John le Bon. Henry and his men spent some time in the army of Peter IV of Aragon in their war against Castile (1358) in what would become the ‘Castilian Civil War’ in which the Edward, the Black Prince took up arms in favour of Peter (the Cruel) of Castile and Bertrand du Guesclin fought for Henry of Trastámara. This culminated into the ‘Battle of Nájera’ in 1367.
In 1366 Bertrand du Guesclin convinced the ‘free companies’ or routiers, as they were known (out of work, pillaging soldiers) to join him in an expedition to aid Henry of Trastámara but they were defeated at Nájera and Bertrand was again captured for ransom. But losses were not all to the French. The English suffered badly and for Edward, the Black Prince, it was the beginning of the decline of his health and his ‘reign.’ His health failing with dysentery, he withdrew his support and returned to France. Du Guesclin seized his chance and with Henry, they renewed their attacks, defeating the Anglo-Castilian army at the decisive battle of Montiel in 1369. War was renewed with England and Du Guesclin was called back to France in 1370 where he was made ‘Constable of France’ a position usually given to a much higher ranking nobleman but Charles V knew Bertrand du Guesclin had proven himself.
It is said that at times Bertrand struggled in getting his aristocratic leaders to serve under him (and indeed, was not Constable Charles d’Albret to suffer the same indignity at Agincourt many years later), and that the core of his army was always made up by his ever-faithful personal retinue.1 He went on to defeat the English army led by Robert Knolles and reconquered Poitou and Saintonge. In 1372 the English fleet was destroyed at the ‘Battle of La Rochelle’ and they set about destruction along the English coast in retaliation for years of English chevauchees in France. Du Guesclin pursued from 1370 to 1374, again winning victory at Chizé in 1373. By this time Edward, the Black Prince had quit France and returned to England, deathly ill.
Bertrand had long proved himself to be a loyal and disciplined warrior that by the time he died of illness (it is written ‘from drinking too much ice water after fighting in direct sunlight) at the seige of Chateauneuf-de-Randon in Languedoc in 1380, he had reconquered much of France from English hands. The town surrendered on July 4th and the keys were reverently laid upon Du Guesclin’s coffin.
Bertrand Du Guesclin had hoped to rest in his native Brittany. The funeral procession left the south of Auvergne in July 1380, had to make several stops due to bad embalming of the body. The entrails were left in Puy-en-Velay, in the church of Saint-Laurent, and the flesh was buried in Montferrand. The convoy was stopped in Le Mans by order of Charles V. The sovereign insisted that his constable had his tomb in the royal basilica of Saint- Denis. The skeleton of Du Guesclin was sent there. Only his heart went to Dinan. Two places retain his effigy, one at Puy and one in Saint-Denis. Bertrand du Guesclin was laid to rest among the ‘Kings of France.’
The titles of Bertrand Du Guesclin
At the time of his death, Bertrand Du Guesclin had the following titles.
– Captain of Pontorson and Mont Saint-Michel – 1360 – 1364 –
– Made by the King of France, in 1364, Duke of Longueville, Normandy –
– Made by the King of France in 1370, Constable of France –
– Made by the King of France, in 1376, Lord of Pontorson in Normandy –
– Made by the King of Spain King of Granada – Duke of Molina –
Bertrand du Guesclin accepting the title of ‘Duke of Molina.’
We can only imagine what it would have been like to live, fight and survive in such dangerous times but these men were a breed unto themselves. They were soldiers. Some had homes and wives but often they left them to march upon the frosty roads, cold biting at the skin or to fight in heavy armour, the relentless sun beating down upon the cracked earth; to sleep in the saddle, body weary and full sore, ready to fight at the first crack of a twig. The excitement of the battle, the blood rushing through the veins and pumping to the heart, a warrior’s grin, the scrape of metal as swords are pulled from well-worn scabbards. This is for what they lived. They were chivalry. They were the élite.
For the enthusiast, there is an excellent video on Du Guesclin.
Lions and Lilies ‘Gillet de Bellegarde’ was one of Bertrand du Guesclin’s personal retinue.
By Cathy T