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Commenting on 'Corruption': Captains, Continental Castles, and Cherbourg

Daniel Wigmore | University of Southampton

The garrison of Cherbourg defeats that of Montbourg

Sir William Windsor was one of the many captains who commanded the English-held ‘Barbicans’, the fortified holdings on the northern French coast, and his tenure in Cherbourg is typical of those who would take command across France. William was a Westmorland knight, and seasoned military man who commanded as Royal Lieutenant in Ireland, with connections to senior aristocracy, but not a member himself. He had married Alice Perrers, the mistress of the dying Edward III, and used her position with the king, and her later fall from grace, to solidify his military, reputational, and financial positions. Despite his somewhat questionable ethics, William was competent and aspirational, and used his multiple yearlong appointments on the continent as a lucrative business, siphoning funds for himself from a burgeoning military expenditure. Although the Barbicans were meant to act dually as both a cost-cutting measure and as a potential landing ground for offensives against France, the captains who commanded them, like Sir William, exploited them for all the perks they provided.

Corruption as an idea does not translate well into pre-modern societies. Indentures and acts of service had always included the benefits of the office, whether the profits of it be illicit or otherwise. Nearly all medieval positions engendered some form of embezzlement or quirky accounting, which led to an almost uneasy acceptance of it within central governments of the time. For the most part, making a tidy sum from government appointments was allowed without criticism- something that was thought to be managed, accounted for and possibly minimalised, but not necessarily stopped. As such, the further away from Westminster and the Crown the position of command was given, the more the officeholder could likely get away with; the primary Barbicans of Brest and Cherbourg are a great example of this. Their captains were far enough away from the watchful eye of government to extract a healthy amount from both the King, and from the local area by piracy, ransoms, and pillage.

Commanding a Barbican wasn’t exactly a 9 to 5 job, or one that needed constant attention and maintenance. Instead, the role was more a responsibility to ensure the garrison was maintained, supplied and organised effectively, and as we will see later, a number of captains ‘commanded’ from England or while working in other offices at home. They would, of course, visit the towns, or be present for a time, but this absenteeism grew with administrative efficiency in governance, and a centralised understanding of the Barbican’s role and costs.

Captains were paid for their service in the garrison, but payment nominally included the costs of running the town for that year: all wages, foodstuffs, equipment, and transport of supplies had to be covered by this indenture. Luckily for the captains, this indenture was suitably colossal: Sir Richard Abberbury and Sir John Golafre were both given 10,000 marks for expenses for their year-long command of Brest, while captains of Cherbourg would be regularly granted £8,000 per year until 1382. Each of these assignments was agreed upon each year between captain and Crown, with compromises made for the division of potential spoils that constituted a significant body of the commander’s income.

William Le Scrope, Earl of Wiltshire

The initial costs of controlling Brest and Cherbourg in 1378 matched the large size of the captain’s contract: the estimated cost of the first 18 months of Cherbourg was easily £10,000, with an initial twelve ships loaded with victuals to establish the garrison. Immediately afterwards, the nearly 1,000 soldiers strong garrison and their equipment were subjected to a costly three-week siege, and numerous small-scale skirmishes across the Cotentin, courtesy of the French. Parliament was aghast at the extent of military spending. The Parliament Rolls had suggested that even before Cherbourg’s initial cost was fully tallied, improper expenditure related to the war exceeded £46,000 in 1379.

Although the initial transfer of power and setting up of English control was expensive, the maintenance cost dropped significantly thereafter, with the extent to which central funds lined captain’s cloaks not truly realised until several years after their capture. Sir Richard Abberbury, joint captain of Brest for example, made so much money from his position and royal grants, that by 1386 he was given ‘license to crenelate’ his manor in Donnington near Newbury. If you are in Berkshire, it is worth a visit. The large twin-towered gatehouse is the only remaining structure, but the floor plan remains clearly defined with thick masonry, and the ridge it sits upon has a commanding view down the valley to Beacon Hill.

Royal administrators of Richard II quickly realised that a lot of their expenditure wasn’t being managed methodically, and the self-serving nature of greedy commanders mandated a change in approach. In Brest, the first contract of £8,000 per year in 1379 would drop to 7,000 marks per year in 1381, then again later that year to a ‘standard’ of 4,250 in times of war, and 3,250 in times of peace. By 1385 captains of the town were averaging between 2,000 and 4,000 marks per year. Cherbourg followed a similar record, with grants of approximately £8,000 until 1382, where the standard indenture dropped to £3,800, then dropping again from 1386 whereafter the captains received about £2,000 per year. A King’s Receiver and Victualler were also introduced to keep an eye on expenditure and were vital in running the two towns while the captains were increasingly absent. These were not always infallible lieutenants, with one John Walsche being prosecuted and later pardoned for ‘failing to rend’ 200 Francs of ill-gained gold.

The costs of the garrisons did vary, however, much to Parliament’s frustration: Sir William Windsor’s retinue in 1382 comfortably cost £4,000 in wages alone, while Sir William Scrope’s garrison only cost half of that not four years later. Different ways to save were introduced, from billeting of soldiers within civilian’s houses, to local wine duties, fixed-price contracts, and requisitioning local goods. Most of these efforts gloss over a major aspect of a captain’s indenture: the profits of war. There’s a vague fuzziness over the rules at the time over war profiteering, as the relationship between captain and Crown (and division of spoils from this) changed drastically over the twenty years of the Barbican strategy.

For example, after the initial lease of Cherbourg from the Navarrese, a French commander Olivier du Guesclin, brother of the famous Bertrand du Guesclin, was captured by an Anglo-Navarrese garrison commanded by the Earl of Arundel. The senior stature of the prisoner quickly confused matters of ransom. Legally Cherbourg was Navarrese territory and leased by the English, but would this make Richard II or Charles II the de jure liege? As Arundel was commanding officer, what part of the ransom would he see? And what about Jehan Cocq, the Navarrese soldier who was the one to take Olivier prisoner? It’s a testament to the messiness of war at the time, that the 20,000 Francs ransom took more than a year to even agree on how it was split. Ultimately, it was decided to follow a precedent set by the Black Prince twenty years earlier, with a ‘Royal Third’ going to the King of Navarre, then thirds of the remaining amount split between Richard II, Arundel and Jehan.

The muddiness of medieval accounting and transition to smaller indentures becomes clearer once the potential gains of service are factored in: Abberbury and Golafre, in addition to their 10,000 mark indenture for Brest, took £1,727 from ransoms, the Patis, and shipping raids, at least half of which, a minimum of £800, they had contracted to keep for themselves. Their successors, Sir Hugh Calveley and Sir Thomas Percy would take an 8,000 mark indenture for a larger proportion of the spoils. Percy, when commanding alone in 1384, would reap £5,800 from local parishes around Brest from just that year. Although the commanders at Cherbourg, noticeably under Sir John Harleston, attempted to imitate Brest’s culture of long-term ransom districts, the central instructions to avoid antagonising the local population, and charters confirming burghers’ rights with the garrison frustrated these efforts.

By 1387, streams of petitions were being handed to the king for wages that hadn’t been made as early as 1379, leading to the ‘ruin and imprisonment’ of some of the garrison soldiers. While the issue was eventually resolved (the result of unpaid loans and victuals to a lieutenant) the legacy of absent captains became increasingly apparent. This was an issue made significantly worse after the Treaty of Leulinghem in 1389, as much of the income that could be gained from directly commanding parties of pirates and small raids locally vanished overnight. There were pockets of truce during the Caroline Phase of the war (1369-89), but compared to the Edwardian Phase before it and the Lancastrian Phase following, this period was the most consistently hostile with barely three years of truce in the twenty-year period, and small scale raiding or piracy often happened anyway.

The need for senior commanders to be present, from a position of self-interest as well as one of wider strategy, dissipated over time. By the 1390s, the captaincies of the Barbicans drifted into positions of nominal military command: positions of respect and small incomes, reserved for those who had earned the King’s favour. Both Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent and half-brother to Richard II, and John Holland, the Duke of Exeter, who would later be executed by Henry IV, would nominally command across the coast, but their patent absence left a dwindling force in France ruled by lieutenants. In many ways, the Barbicans morphed into a holding similar to Calais: prestigious, financially becoming, and the opportunity for military command. However, the lack of both war and any economic value outside of fighting left Brest and Cherbourg a backwater used little more than for political appointments and politicking; far from the cutting military opportunism they had originally hoped to become.


Further Reading:

  • Cushway, Graham, Edward III and the War At Sea (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011)

  • Given-Wilson, Christopher., 'The Ransom of Oliver du Guesclin', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, LIV (1981), 17-29

  • Jones, Michael, Ducal Brittany, 1364-1399: Relations with England and France during the reign of Duke John IV (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970)

  • Saul, Nigel, Richard II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999)

  • Sumption, Jonathan, The Hundred Years War III: Divided Houses (London: Faber and Faber, 2009)

Daniel Wigmore is in his third year of a PhD on strategy and supply of English coastal Barbicans in the late fourteenth century, supervised by Dr Craig Lambert at the University of Southampton. He had previously studied for an Undergraduate Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Medieval History at Royal Holloway University of London, and is interested in logistical, military and political history.

Twitter: @Wigormortis


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