In the autumn of 1355 the Black Prince carried out a lightning raid on Gascony and Languedoc. He specifically targetted the Comptes of Armagnac, Toulouse, Caracassonne, Narbonne and Beziers. The raid was initially aimed as a punishment for the Compte of Armagnacs defection to the Franks. During the planning of the raid he declared his objective to be “ to comfort our faithful friends”. There is no explanation given as to why he proceeded as far as Beziers nearly double the distance, stretching his lines of communication to breaking point and leaving him exposed to significant risk.
Hugh Nicklin, retired professor of history at Oxford has estimated that the total area covered was 18,000 square miles. If his army was 6000 strong this represents three square miles per man. If the Chevauchee lasted 68 days then each man covered 400 sq ft per day, the same as a medium sized house each per day. This means that they were literally swarming over the territory. However for this assessment to be valid they must have been distributed across a wide front operating as independant units each under their own commander. If the majority of the force travelled all the way to Beziers, approximately 500 miles there and back, this represents 17 miles a day travelling putting aside the time it took to lay siege to towns, villages and cities.
They must have all been mounted, six thousand of them! Chevauchee is the right name, it means cavalry charge.
The events of the Chevauchee are recorded by court chroniclers Jean de Froisart, Le Baker, the Chandos Herald, various letters from Sir John Wingfield, an officer in the army and the Prince’s own notes as recorded in the Avesbury documents. The various documents are not consistent. There is considerable difference of opinion as to when the Prince left Bordeaux and which route he took on his journey east. There are records that he left Bordeaux as early as midsummers day, but also other records that he left as late as 5th October. There are similar discrepancies as to where he was in the intervening period, there are records of him being in Plympton, Plymouth, London, or alternatively Bordeaux itself. It would appear he managed to be in two places at once! The one thing on which there is general agreement is that he won a tournament in the grounds of the Palace of Woodstock sometime in March and that he was back in Bordeaux between the 9th and 12th of December.
The is no better consistency in the record of the places he raided. The places named are Bazas, Castlenau, Arouille, Juliac, Moncler, Gabarret, Estang, Panjas, Galiax Mirande, Plaisance,Bassoues,Seissan, Simorre, Tournan, Samatan and St Lyse. Only Froissart mentions a crossing of the Garronne above Toulouse and yet local records at both Marmande and Agen record his visits. Not all of the above mentioned places occur in every record.
The Prince then by-passed Toulouse, where some records indicate a Frankish army had been assembled.
The Prince crossed the Garonne, heading for Carcassonne. His decision to leave a French army behind him has been described as “ contrary to military prudence” and “audacious to the point of foolhardy’’. Therefore either the Prince knew something the historians do not know or he had imperative reasons to travel further east.
The Garonne was crossed either at Lacroix-Falguarde or Portet, possibly both. The Chevauchee now raided, Montiscard, Baziege,Villfranche, Avignonet , Castlenaudry, Alzonne before reaching Carcassonne where they spent several days surveying “ La Cite” the citadel before decidind that it was not possible to take it by siege. The same process was followed at Narbonne again with a decision that the citadel was not vulnerable to siege. He sent scouts to evaluate the defences of Beziers and possibly Montpellier but then made a sudden decision to retrace his path.
At this point the records become not just fragmentory but contradictory. The majority of records indicate that the Prince passed to the north of Carcassonne visiting and resting at Pennautier, whereas the Le Baker record, based on field notes insists that on visits to Limoux, Fanjeaux and Lassere. These different reports are consistent with an army still moving on a broad front, covering the whole of the Val du Midi. Limoux and Lassere are different however.
Limoux is in a narrow valley running south from Carcassonne. Even today there is not a credible east-west route running through Limoux. It would have required a special visit, for what Purpose? The Le Baker record implies that the visit to Limoux was carried out by the rearguard under the command of the earl of Salisbury. The local records are certain that the Black Prince was involved in the raid which made a particular point of destroying the bishop’s palace.
The Territories of Foix
They then moved towards the Garronne continuing to attack certain selected unnamed targets but “ sparing territories belonging to the Compte de Foix” This is another surprise. it is by no means clear how they came anywhere near the territories of the Compte de Foix, which lay much further to the south. Lassere is similar again it is up a narrow valley leading to the south. Take the two together however and the may be some sense in it . There is a well established trade route originating on the Mediterranean Coast which passes through Couisa, Quillian, Foix ,St Girons, St Gaudens, Tarbres and Pau to the Atlantic Coast at either Bayonne or Bordeaux. This would have been a much safer return route for the Prince as much of the route was under English control. Meanwhile the main army could have occupied whatever opposition there may have been on the relatively flat lands in the centre of Armagnac. The Prince would have been unlikely to admit he removed himself from the front line but it is certainly a possibility which his personal bodyguard would have recommended. As the route lies directly through Foix it would also explain the comments about sparing the Compte’s territories.
A great treasure
For the main army or perhaps only half the army, having crossed the Garonne, at Carbonne there was brief contact with a military force, but no conflict as the potential opposition promptly retreated. From that point onwards however there was an awarenessthat their retreat was being continually monitored.
One point on which all the records agree is that the Prince returned to Bordeaux with a baggage train “groaning under the weight of captured treasure” The assumption is that the miraculous recovery in Englands wealth had its foundation in this treasure. It is true that the famed “Crown Jewels’ had their origins at this time. But where did this treasure come from? The records claim that the majority of the treasure came from Carcassonne, Narbonne and Limoux and compete with each other to describe how large and wealthy these cities were. The records even complicate the issue by describing how large and wealth was the city of Toulouse.
It is also mentioned that in total over 500 villages and towns were pillaged and that this yeilded much booty. The suggestion is that this area had never known war and that gold silver and jewels were lying about on every kitchen table.
None of this rings true. The villages raided by the Prince were just that, villages. I have personally visited most of the named places and i am certain the sort of wealth described by the record did not come from there. Limoux was not a city and the Prince failed to take the citadels of Carcassone and Beziers where the real wealth, if there was any would have been stored. As has been noted he by-passed Toulouse , so its potential wealth is irrelevant.
Further, excepting Armagnac, which had been protected by the English, these were the very lands which had been ravaged by the Albigensian crusade a hundred years earlier. In the latter stages of the crusade and the subsequent occupation by the Franks, crops were burned, wells poisoned, trees and vines uprooted and anything of value forcibly removed. Many of the villages and towns were “bastides” built as fortified towns and populated by norther franks. there was still open conflict between them and the natives of Occitan, perpetuated by the fact that they spoke a different language. This was not a land of wealth and privilege but a land of poverty and hardship.
This raises the question of what the Prince was doing invading this territory, not one would think in pursuit of wealth. His original objective was “ to comfort our faithful friends”. This must be taken at face value. His objective was to unsettle the northern Franks in the territory they had unlawfully stolen and to give the native Occitans hope that deliverance was at hand. That leaves us with one of the great historical mysteries. Where did the treasure come, a treasure large enough to form the basis for the sustinance of the English nation? Was this the reason the Prince split the army in two and personally chose the southerly route?