By Steven Muhlberger
The Hundred Years War included many lesser conflicts. One of the best known is the chaotic period following the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, when the French monarchy lost control of large parts of southern France, leaving opportunities for English, German and other disbanded warriors. They had no prospects at home and sought to make their fortunes by seizing castles and strongholds and capturing wealthy prisoners. Fortune is the appropriate word. Warriors of no particular distinction became captains and controlled large territories and strategic strongpoints; while others were killed or left impoverished.
Thanks to the short biography of the Bascot de Mauleon recorded by the chronicler Jean Froissart, we know that “people of every country” continued to fight following Poitiers. The Bascot said of the variety of his career:
I have guarded the frontiers, and supported the King of England; for my estate is in the Bordelois; and I have at times been so miserably poor that I had not a horse to mount, at other times rich enough, just as good fortune befell me.
He also bragged about the size and capabilities of some of the armies (“Free Companies”) he belonged to:
Our numbers in Burgundy, above the river Loire, were upwards of twelve thousand, in this number, there were three or four thousand good men at arms, as able and understanding in war as any could be found, whether to plan an engagement, to seize a proper moment to fight, or to surprise and scale towns and castles, and well inured to war.
The Bascot (Bascot seems to have been an obscure title) was one of the lucky adventurers, beginning with his first campaign:
The first time I bore arms was under the Captal de Buch at the Battle of Poitiers: by good luck I made that day three prisoners, a knight and two squires, who paid me, one with the other, four thousand francs.
Later campaigns included one in which the Bascot and his comrades marched on the Papal court at Avignon and shook the pope down for 60,000 francs. “We ransomed the whole country,” he bragged, “and they could only be freed from us by paying well.”
Not that these companies always succeeded. A leading English knight, Sir John Aymery, made an excursion down the Loire towards La Charité, but was caught in an ambush and made prisoner. When he was freed the angry Aymery put together an expedition to capture the town of Sancerre. The Bascot and his companions took part in this raid. However, he writes that
our plot was discovered. The defenders of the town shouted on all sides, “Our Lady for Sancerre!” We were thus completely surrounded, and knew not which way to turn ourselves: the shock of lances was great; for those on horseback instantly dismounted on their arrival, and attacked us fiercely… I must say it was a very hard-fought murderous battle; we kept our ground as long as we were able, insomuch that several were slain and wounded on both sides. We were conducted to the castle of Sancerre in great triumph: and the free companies never suffered such loss in France as they did that day.
Not all decisive battles were large and dramatic. Sometimes a stratagem led to victory. The Bascot explains one such episode:
I therefore sent spies to reconnoitre the town and castle of Thurie in the Albigeois, which castle has since been worth to me one hundred thousand francs. I will tell you by what means I conquered it.
At Thurie, there is a beautiful spring of water, where every morning the women of the town come to fill their pails or other vessels; which having done, they carry them back on their heads. Upon this, I formed my plan; and, taking with me fifty men from the castle of Cuillet, we rode all day over heaths and through woods, and about midnight I placed an ambuscade near Thurie. Myself, with only six others, disguised as women, with pails in our hands, entered the meadow very near the town, and hid ourselves in a heap of hay; for it was about St. John’s Day, and the meadows were mown and making it into hay.
When the usual hour of opening the gates arrived, and the women were coming to the fountain, each of us then took his pail, and having filled it placed it on his head, and made for the town, our faces covered with handkerchiefs so that no one could have known us. The women that met us said, “Holy Mary, how early must you have risen this morning!” We replied in feigned voices, and passed on to the gate, where we found no other guard but a cobbler, who was mending shoes.
Our companions soon joined us, when we entered the town and found no one prepared to defend it. Thus did I gain the town and castle of Thurie, which has been to me of greater profit and more annual revenue than this castle and all its dependencies are worth. At this moment, I know not how to act: for I am in treaty with the count d’Armagnac and the dauphin d’Auvergne, who have been expressly commissioned by the king of France to buy all towns and castles from the captains of the free companies, and from all those who have made war under the name of the king of England. Several have sold their forts, and gone away; and I am doubtful whether or not to sell mine.
See also “Towards a Rehabilitation of Froissart’s Credibility: The Non Fictitious Bascot de Mauléon,” by Guilhem Pépin, in The Soldier Experience in the Fourteenth Century. edited by Adrian R. Bell, Anne Curry, Adam Chapman Andy King David Simpkin (2017)
Steven Muhlberger, before his recent retirement from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include the “Deeds of Arms Series” published by Freelance Academy Press.