Battle of Pontvallain 4th December 1370
The Caroline War 1369 - 89
When King John II of France died in 1364 his son succeeded as Charles V. Poor health prevented him from taking an active role in the field but he masterminded operations which were mostly scorched earth and raids. In 1367 the Black Prince led a strong English force across the Pyrenees to Castile in support of King Pedro II to defeat Henry of Trastámara, the Castilian pretender, who was supported by the French. However, the taxes to pay for this expedition led to people in Aquitaine calling for help from Charles V. Loopholes in the Brétigny treaty enabled Charles V to hear appeals as overlord and he started seizing English territories in November 1367.
Despite successful countermeasures the situation deteriorated and in 1369 when King Edward III resumed the title of King of France the resumption of major hostilities was inevitable. King Charles’ brother Louis, Duc d’Anjou, took Rouergue and Quercy near Bordeaux in January 1369 and Gascon support for King Edward faded. An English expedition later that month under his fourth son, Edmund, saved English possessions in Périgord, (approximately the Dordogne now), but in April the French took Abbeville, capital of Ponthieu. English troops due for Gascony were consequently diverted to Calais.
The 13th century royal fortress at Angers, home of the Duc D'Anjou
Edward III now raised more troops, reinforced Calais, fortified the south coast towns which were under threat and put Wales on alert in December. He also made a pre-emptive raid on Sainte-Addresse in Upper Normandy to prevent an invasion being launched from there and John of Gaunt led chevauchée raids from Calais to further eliminate the threat.
1370 started promisingly for Edward but setbacks soon resumed with the notable French General Bernard du Guesclin taking and holding territory. English losses included Sir John Chandos killed in a skirmish at Poitou in 1369, the Black Prince who returned sick in 1371 and Captal du Buch who was captured at Soubise and held in Paris until his death in 1376. In 1370 an English army was routed at Pontvallain by Du Guesclin, now Constable of France, which some historians consider to have ended England’s supremacy in open battle.
Chapel at Chateau de la Faigne
Sir Robert Knolles (Knowles) in command of an English Free Company of about 6,000 mounted men landed at Calais in August 1370 and advanced upon Paris on a chevauchée. He could not draw King Charles V into battle so he continued the raid south and took up a position north of the River Loire ready to advance into Poitou or Normandy. Whilst Knolles waited for King Edward to conclude an agreement over lands in Normandy the French king sent du Guesclin to attack him.
Knolles’s command was undermined with disgruntled officers and leaders who could not work with him. They were to divide the force and cause significant defeats at Pontvallain and nearby Vaas. Du Guesclin raised a force of about 4,000 in Caen and on 1st December advanced south as Marshal Sancerre led a force of about 1,200 men northeast towards Knolles from Châtellerault. To avoid being caught in this pincer movement Knolles decided to withdraw westwards into Brittany but his uncooperative colleagues wanted to winter in the area and were confident of defeating any French attack. Knolles left with part of the English force but 4,000 men remained behind in three groups under Sir Thomas Grandison with Sir Hugh Calvely, Lord Fitzwalter and Sir John Minsterworth.
On 3rd December du Guesclin reached Le Mans and when he learnt that the three English groups were camped between Mayet and Pontvallain he decided to attack as soon as possible. He marched his force through a cold and wet night to lead a surprise attack the next day at dawn. Grandison tried to withdraw northwards but had to turn and face the French at Chateau de la Faigne. The fighting was tough with the French taking heavy casualties. The English were almost all killed except Grandison who was captured together with other valuable knights, and Calvely who escaped. Sancerre’s force was now approaching Fitzwalter’s group from the east which fled south to a fortified abbey at Vaas. Sancerre attacked and when Du Guesclin’s troops joined them the English were slaughtered and Fitzwalter captured.
The chateau has gone and access to the chapel is difficult. A local sign advises that the only existing monument to this battle is at Coulongé, see below. It is about 1 km from the village at the cross roads of the D76 and D307. A stone obelisk was erected in 1828 to replace a wooden cross marking the collective grave of du Guesclin’s men. After the battle du Guesclin had a shed built under a young elm tree (Ormeau) to shelter the wounded being left behind and later a cross where the dead were buried. It was known as the Cross of the Bretons. A notice at the obelisk explains the battle took place between Pontvallain and Mayet on the moors of Rigalet.
Something of a Gallic shrug to an old memorial
Minsterworth’s survivors got away and followed Knolles into Brittany where the two forces spent the winter. They then made for Saint-Mathieu to escape by sea but there were only two ships available to evacuate them and most of the men were left to be slaughtered by the French. Another group of about 300 survivors from the battle, together with the English troops previously left to garrison Knolles’ captured castles, fled south to Bordeaux but were caught in pursuit by Du Guesclin and Sancerre. They were mostly killed outside the closed gates of the castle of Bressuire despite it being held by English supporters.
In July 1372, on Minsterworth’s accusation the King’s Council put the blame for the failure on Knolles who had the lands he was given for mounting the operation confiscated. Minsterworth was later arrested and charged with falsely accusing Knolles but he escaped to France and subsequently entered the service of Charles V.
Pontvallain was a relatively small battle but it had major consequences and damaged England’s reputation for invincibility in open battle. Events went badly for England during the rest of this period with losses at sea, French raids on the south coast and a lack of significant success with raids on land. Du Guesclin went on to take more English territory with Poitiers falling in 1372. His style was to avoid major battles and conduct a war of attrition until his death in 1380. There were similar failures for England in Spain and Scotland.
The Black Prince died in 1376 leaving his 10 year old son Richard to succeed his grandfather when he died in the next year. Uncle John of Gaunt led the regency until 1387 when the Lords Appellant seized control but Richard asserted his authority two years later. A truce with France was made in 1389 which was extended in 1396 for 28 years. By this time all the lands from the Brétigny treaty were lost except for Gascony and Calais.