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Pirates and Politics in English Barbicans

Daniel Wigmore | University of Southampton

Death of John III of Brittany and the Siege of Brest
Death of John III of Brittany and the Siege of Brest

By the mid-1370s the Hundred Years War was not going well for England or its allies. France, in the ascendancy after resuming the war in 1369, had recovered much of the extensive lands lost in the Treaty of Brétigny and escalated a series of raids on the English coastline with their allies, the Castilians. The leaders of the English cause were shadows of their former selves, as Edward became increasingly senile and the Black Prince was slowly dying from a prolonged illness. Thus, their old allies and subordinates gradually faded away. The great expeditions and chevauchées that characterised the English success in previous years had lost their effectiveness, curtailed by wily opponents and ineffective commanders. Following the disastrous battle of La Rochelle in 1372, French naval forces gained ready access to the English Channel and began threatening England itself with invasion.


The English knew they needed to take action but increasing frustration over the cost of the war and the dwindling returns of expeditions into France necessitated a new strategy. This came in the form of the permanent acquisition of Brest and Cherbourg in 1378 as ‘Barbicans’: English-held coastal fortifications in northern France that could allow easier expeditions into Normandy and Brittany. Securing these strongholds could create a zone of naval control into the English Channel, and act as a distraction for French forces otherwise occupied elsewhere.


Siege of Brest 1373 Bertrand du Guesclin
Siege of Brest 1373 Bertrand du Guesclin

The choice of Brest as a key barbican was not a major surprise. On the western tip of Brittany, the town was key in maintaining the supply routes to English holdings in Aquitaine, defending the annual Bordeaux wine fleet that skirted the Breton coast. It offered a safe harbour to damaged or endangered allied ships. Brest also had a long connection with English military forces ever since Edward III’s 1342 campaign in support of the John de Montfort during the devastating War of Breton Succession. Brittany was thereafter divided between those loyal to the Montfortian English allies in the west, and those who were tied to the French king, Charles V, in the east. This schism was largely unchanged until 1378.


By 1377, the English had assumed responsibility of supplying provisions to the castle, and by April 1378 they had assumed full control of the town under the terms of their lease, making it independent from the local duchy. The English had almost certainly overestimated their influence in the peninsula. During the Breton succession war, they were unable to organise the smaller garrisons that could have helped temper border skirmishes and reaffirm control, as they had done in Gascony. This resulted in an abundance of gangs of mercenary soldiers, called routiers, being left free to roam and devastate the countryside. This alone isolated many Bretons from the English cause, yet both Brest and Cherbourg would exacerbate these issues by implementing the infamous ‘ransom districts’ in the countryside surrounding both towns. The ransom district was an effort to generate funds to offset some of the costs of feeding, paying and supplying a permanent garrison far from English powerbases. These districts were designed to extort materials, produce and labour from towns and villages within a 25-kilometre radius. This came in the form of standardised quotas, sent to towns and local collectors who would forward the forcibly acquired goods, and often a significant sum of ‘protection money’, onwards to the receiver of Brest castle.


This system of extracting funds, called ‘Patis’, could be as lucrative as it was unpopular: between 1359 and 1360, the districts surrounding Bécherel, Vannes and Ploërmel raised £10,000, with items taken constituting 75% of Vannes’ yearly income. This continued in the period without English captaincies and through times of truce, ‘requisitioning’ goods twice a year on top of payments made to routiers who acted independently. By 1384, Brest was ransoming from 160 different parishes. Some of these refused, others rebelled, but most were too poor, depopulated, or weak to resist. The diplomatic and local implications of this as a strategy were soon evident. In 1387, an unsuccessful proposal was made to the Duke of Brittany for an annual fee to stop the need for ransoming, while the English crown attempted to curtail the worst excesses of thePatis’, particularly with nearby friendly parishes.


For example, the government, who noticed the cost of these ventures and were concerned over corrupt captains cashing in on these opportunities, instituted The King’s Receiver and The King’s Victualler, who authorised payments from the ransom districts. A reliance on the surrounding lands became institutionalised. Initiatives were introduced to treat those in the Cherbourg ‘as if they were Englishmen’ and when in friendly areas around the barbicans, to purchase goods at market prices, as opposed to relying on extortion. The garrison likely never fully complied: ransom districts were primarily meant to cut the cost of the castles’ upkeep and transfer any burden onto the shoulders of the native population. The Patis was always present, an uncomfortable necessity for maintaining a military base abroad.


In addition to the land, the sea was a prime target for English soldiers, who were keen to supplement their wages by seizing goods from passing vessels. In many ways, typical piratical activity from the garrison was often indistinguishable from establishing naval control- the definition ultimately depending on who was the target. It's important to remember that inquiries into piracy only stem from ships captured that were English or allied to England, whose owners had petitioned for release. All other ships were deemed fair game in what was an early form of commerce-raiding and privateering. Letters of Marque and state-sanctioned shipping sorties allowed the barbicans to cripple the enemies’ economy while demonstrating an English strength as the chevauchées of Edward III had done before.


The potential rewards of successful naval expeditions were colossal. Thomas Percy, for example, assaulted and ‘dispersed’ 50 Flemish and Castilian merchant ships in 1378, bringing the produce onboard back to Brest with much celebration. The dominance of commercial raiding and maritime activity didn’t pass unnoticed. The crown at various stages took between one-quarter of profits from ships and all income from the land, to half of all ship profits with everything else going to the garrison. This was only from declared takings, however, which varied largely depending on the captain in charge. Piracy and privateering seemed to be so commonplace, that by 1389 numerous inquiries were held into the extensive nature of this activity, as can be seen by the number of petitions that pushed for a ship's release or sought recompense for those that had suffered lost goods.


Despite these efforts, maintaining control of Brest was hugely expensive for the English; the Crown had, on average, spent £3,500 per year between 1378 and 1389. Some captains took proportions of the loot gathered in addition to indentures making them fantastically wealthy: Donnington Castle in Berkshire was paid for almost entirely from Sir Richard Abberbury’s proceeds from his joint command at Brest. Yet the economic costs of upkeep may have been outweighed by the strategic value of the town to the English. The town allowed a clear projection of naval power into the Atlantic, and when coupled with Cherbourg, they added an element of control that was missing from the south side of the channel. Following John of Montfort’s betrayal in January 1381, when he swore allegiance to Charles VI, Brittany became a de facto neutral zone in the conflict. This forced the English focus in Brest to remain naval, attacking merchant shipping and protecting English transports.


Siege of Brest.
Siege of Brest.

Brest itself had been the target of numerous sieges while under English control, most notably in 1373, 1377, and 1386. These were expensive affairs, with besieging French or Breton troops constructing multiple stone and timber bastides around the town. During the siege of 1386, the French built a seven-turreted, ten-foot-thick stone bastion. The siege ended when an Anglo-Portuguese fleet destined for Iberiaunder the command of John of Gaunt arrived and undermined and assaulted one of the bastide’s walls. The French subsequently agreed to the destruction of the fortifications, to pay an indemnity of 20,000 Francs, and to withdraw. Barely a year later this was repeated. John of Montfort’s siege of Brest in May 1387 was routed by a supporting fleet under the Earl of Arundel; however, Montfort’s besieging bastides were incorporated into the town’s defence, not destroyed.


The Truce of Leulinghem of 1389 again changed the dynamics of Brest and Cherbourg. No longer able to raid French shipping, and their ransom districts now a diplomatic liability, the relative value of the towns compared to their upkeep plummeted. Richard II, content with the peace brokered with France, was disillusioned with the ongoing costs of the continental garrisons and abandoned the Barbican strategy. After relinquishing the lease of Cherbourg in 1394 for 120,000 Francs and on condition that it could not be used for offensive operations against English shipping, Richard returned Brest to John of Montfort in 1397. Modern historiography has been largely critical of the cost of these barbicans, with those contemporaries that supported the idea are largely cast as warmongers. The crown had a difficult job in balancing the garrison’s finances, maintaining the diplomatic policies with Brittany, and managing the war at sea, and this ultimately closed opportunities for further campaigns into France. Yet their role in complicating French strategy, harassment of civilian populations and shipping, and the gains that the crowns likely never saw have been somewhat underappreciated: the weakness of Brest and the barbicans in upkeep and command, belied the potential that they as a strategy entailed.


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Further Reading

  • Fowler, Kenneth, Medieval Mercenaries, Vol I: The Great Companies (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001)

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

  • Hewitt, H. J., The Organisation of War under Edward III (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1966)

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

  • Daniel Wigmore is a second-year PhD student at Southampton University. His research looks at manning and supplying English barbicans in the Hundred Years War.


Daniel Wigmore is in his second 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