The Medieval Review 11.10.14

Hoskins, Peter. In the Steps of the Black Prince: The Road to Poitiers, 1355-1356. Warfare in History. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 274. $90. ISBN 978-1-84383-611-7. . .

Reviewed by:

David Green
Harlaxton College

This book is the result of a personal odyssey. Peter Hoskins walked more than 1,300 miles following, as closely as possible, the routes of the Black Prince's grande chevauchée (1355) and the raiding campaign leading to the battle of Poitiers (1356). The first of these expeditions saw an Anglo-Gascon army undertaking a program of calculated destruction in a raid that cut a swathe across southern France--from Bordeaux to the Mediterranean and back. The second, although less costly in terms of devastation to the countryside, had far greater political consequences since it concluded with the capture of King Jean II of France at Poitiers.

The author's intent with this book is to examine these campaigns much more precisely than has been the case hitherto. He asks a range of questions about the routes taken, the distances travelled on particular days, the strategic and political imperatives driving such decisions and so seeks to add a new level of topographical and geographical understanding of one of the key phases of the Hundred Years War. It is by no means easy to add a new dimension, either military or logistical, to this part of the Anglo-French war. The campaigns under discussion have been evaluated in some detail in a number of works over a considerable period of time. Notable books include H. J. Hewitt's The Black Prince's Expedition of 1355- 1357 (1958; repr. 2004), Richard Barber's Edward Prince of Wales and Aquitaine (1978), Clifford Rogers' War Cruel and Sharp: English Strategy under Edward III, 1327-1360 (2000), and Jonathan Sumption's The Hundred Years War, II: Trial by Fire (2001). In addition to these and others, there are numerous journal articles--Hoskins himself has published on the subject in the Journal of Medieval Military History (2009). This is, therefore, far from unknown territory, but "territory" is precisely the dimension that the author seeks to explore in detail in this book. As Hoskins notes, "tracing the route at a large scale is straightforward" (1). It becomes much more difficult, however, to trace that route and to replicate the passage of a medieval army when exploring the terrain in person. In the first place, there are a number of practical problems arising from the changing nature of the terrain over the intervening centuries. Towns and woods shrink, grow or disappear completely. Marshes are drained, the course of a river may shift, and even a small change may make a difference when trying to match a chronicle account with contemporary conditions. Consequently, as the author notes on occasion, the modern landscape can bear little relationship to a chronicler's description (as for example on p. 25).

Toponymically, this exercise also presents a range of challenges when attempting to marry fourteenth-century appellations with modern place-names. For example, names such as Castelnau, or place-names to which castelnau was appended as a suffix were extremely common, making a precise reconstruction of the route problematic (28). Nor does it help that Hoskin's two chief sources, Geoffrey Le Baker's Chronicon and the anonymous Eulogium Historiarum, are neither of them eyewitness accounts. It is not surprising, therefore, that discrepancies often arise between the chronicle accounts and what appears to be the most likely route on the ground. Hoskins supplements these with other accounts. Inevitably, none of them is foolproof, but the Pilgrim's Guide to Compostella usually attributed to Aimery de Picaud should be used with particular caution. Although it is potentially valuable, problems may arise when using a twelfth-century source to illuminate fourteenth-century events. Nonetheless, Hoskins' book is the product of a fascinating exercise and the author's approach can be of considerable value when dealing with differences between sources. On occasion Hoskins suggests that Le Baker (for example) is more probably correct than (say) Froissart in his description of the route.

The book begins with a brief chapter that discusses the origins of the Hundred Years War and the background to the Black Prince's appointment as King Edward III's lieutenant in Gascony. In this chapter a number of suppositions are offered as facts. For example, it is stated that in the years after the battle of Crécy in 1346 Edward III sought a treaty to bring the war to a favourable conclusion (8). It is likely but by no means certain that only after the capture of Jean II did Edward III seriously contemplate the acquisition of the French throne, but the exact nature of the king's war aims remains a matter of dispute. Similarly, issues concerning the origins of the war--the decline of the Angevin empire and the French nobility's apparent adoption of Salic Law in 1328 are treated in a slightly simplistic manner (7-8). Richard Lescot, it should be noted, did not "rediscover" Salic Law for another thirty years (1358), at which point it became part of the Valois' legal arsenal in defending the family's claim to the French throne. Such matters, however, are not the main purpose of the book and the short description of the prince's chief officers and command team in 1355 is certainly useful. The author then moves on to describe the 1355 expedition in seven chapters; he offers a discussion of the period between the campaigns (2 December 1355 to 6 July 1356), and then turns to the 1356 chevauchée, which is addressed in five chapters, the most extensive of which deals with the battle of Poitiers itself. The volume concludes with brief comments on the consequences of the campaigns and two appendices-- summary itineraries of the 1355 and 1356 operations.

The reader is offered, almost literally, a step-by-step guide to the author's route across southern France (for the 1355 campaign) and then north into the Valois heartlands (for the 1356 expedition). As part of this he gives a view of contemporary France as well as of the fourteenth century. Comparisons between contemporary and historical events and attitudes can often be awkward unless they are absolutely germane to the argument. This is, on occasion, a problem here. For example, modern anxieties in parts of the United Kingdom regarding the extension of the authority of the European Union is not the same as concerns in the fourteenth century over issues of royal sovereignty (13). The book is a travelogue as well as a history, however, and so comparisons between modern and medieval Bordeaux (for example) are understandable, sometimes valuable and certainly allow for a different approach to the subject than is usually offered in medieval campaign descriptions. Indeed, the book becomes something of a gazetteer, offering numerous descriptions of towns and villages, their histories and contemporary features. Alongside personal descriptions the author has gathered together an extensive range of French local studies, as shown in a solid bibliography. Anyone wishing to retrace some (or all) of Hoskins' steps will welcome the groundwork he has put in and his comments regarding those buildings and features mentioned in the chronicles but no longer extant will certainly be helpful.

One of the most valuable sections of the book concerns the battle of Poitiers itself. Chronicles and other sources available for a reconstruction of the battle are deeply problematic and often contradictory. This is not uncommon. The exact position of battles as famous as Crécy and Bosworth remain open to debate. A close examination of the topography may be extremely beneficial, although given the propensity of natural features (in this case a wood and marshes) to change in character and extent over time, a degree of caution remains necessary. Nonetheless, Hoskins makes a convincing case regarding such issues as the attack of Jean de Grailly, Captal de Buch (a Gascon nobleman) on the rear of King Jean's division in the final stages of the battle. This has been a matter of contention for some time. This reviewer offered an alternative analysis of this manoeuvre (David Green, The Battle of Poitiers, 1358, rev. ed. 2008), but Hoskins' suggestion of an attack in which the captal rode south before crossing the marshes and attacking the final French "battle" from the rear has a good deal to recommend it (188-9).

The book's methodological approach is a sharp reminder that historians should make more use of evidence on the ground. As already noted there are difficulties involved with this approach, but it potentially provides an extremely valuable additional source. Of course, not all questions which the author hoped to answer have been resolved and the book inevitably and rightly is scattered with phrases such as "it is more likely that..." As Hoskins states with regard to an early part of the 1355 expedition, "[i]t is difficult to understand why the army made such a demanding forced march while still in friendly territory and so early in the campaign" (25). It is a clear indication that when the literary sources are deficient the topographical evidence may--but cannot always--fill the gap.

The book contains thirty-one maps which are reproduced clearly, if not beautifully. Although they are numerous, a little more topographical information in them would have been useful.