Most well-read people, even in these depressingly sub-educated days, know from their reading that the hero of Alexandre Dumas’s musketeer books was a man from Gascony called D’Artagnan. This ‘fourth’ musketeer actually lived, as did Athos, Porthos and Aramis.
Dumas built on a legend. Perhaps not so many people know that Gascony, a region of France, was once a duchy (meaning it was governed by a Duke or Duchess) and that it was owned by English kings in the twelfth century. How and why?
In 1152 a prince from England cleverly married a remarkable woman called Eleanor of Aquitaine who was very rich indeed. The marriage brought the future Henry II all of Aquitaine, which comprised Poitou and all provinces from the Loire to the Pyrenees – including the area that became known as Gascony.
These great Plantagenet dominions had been collected together by English kings by right of conquest, and through medieval marriages. They included Normandy as well as Anjou and Britanny. But it was no easy as it sounds. The Plantagenets might have behaved as if these immense lands were independent, but in fact they were held as ‘fiefs’ from France in general, and the King of France in particular. The kings had to ‘do homage’ for them.
One of the results of this was that intelligent, majestic Philip II was able to deprive Henry’s grossly inefficient and probably smelly son John (he of the Magna Carta) of most of the French domains. Philip’s military campaigns, and later Louis VIII’s in 1224 left Henry III of England in control of only the Channel Islands – and Gascony.
Those English-held territories in the body of France were always a source of tension and friction between the French and English kings. Henry III (q.v.), like his ancestors, continued to call himself ‘King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou’. Today, in the twenty-first century, there are still ancient English families who do not recognise any king of England after James II (if they are Roman Catholics), and/or insist on those duchies and countships as well. Henry V thought he was only conforming ownership when he invaded France in 1415 and successfully fought the battle at Agincourt. He married the French princess too, and things might have come out differently if he had not died young (and his widow had not married a Tudor!)
Gascony itself always seemed profoundly loyal to the English crown, probably because of lucrative trading especially in wines between Bordeaux and England. Henry ruled mainly through Gascon officials until 1248, when he sent the ill-fated and heavy-handed Simon de Montfort (who was an Earl) to govern. Earl Simon’s harsh methods provoked unrest and rebellion, and in 1254 Henry’s son Edward was sent out to replace him.
Not even Edward could quieten the revolt, and there were interminable disputes with the French king about where the frontiers lay. Henry decided the best thing to do was to seek a settlement of the Duchy’s status with Louis IX and this was finalized in 1259 in the Treaty of Paris. But was it?
Henry had agreed to lose his claim to Normandy, Maine, Touraine, Anjou and Poitou, and had to agree that the formerly totally independent Gascony would become yet another fief to the French crown. What he got in return were large sums of money and certain rights in Périgueux, Limoges (where that beautiful china comes from) and Cahors; there was also a promise that following the death of Alphonse of Poitiers (who was Louis IX’s brother) Henry would get a part of his lands – Agenais, Quercy and Saintonge. Historians agree that the Treaty of Paris was an honest attempt to find a diplomatic instead of military solution to a permanent sore in the backside for both France and England. It led to a kind of peace between them until 1293.
English and French advisers, councillors, courtiers and warriors did not like the Treaty at all, and accused their kings of giving up too much, and tensions soon arose again in South-Western France. When the French king tried to intervene in Gascony’s internal law and administration, the people complained. Then Alphonse of Poitiers duly died (in 1271), but England did not receive the Agenais until 1279, or Saintonge until much later. Interest must have been lost because the claim to Quercy was abandoned altogether. Rebellion and resentment grew rapidly against both the French and English kings on the Gascon borders. There were heavy disputes between the two jurisdictions, which were finally the catalyst for all future conflicts (the Hundred Years War for instance) between England and France.