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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Peter Hoskins

In the Steps of the Black Prince: The Road to Poitiers, 1355–1356

Warfare in History. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. 257pp. $90.00. ISBN: 9781843836117.

Peter Hoskins’ new book, In the Steps of the Black Prince, is a welcome addition not only to the literature about Edward, the Black Prince, himself but also to the military history of the Hundred Years War. Hoskins had the singular—and enviable—opportunity to retrace the Black Prince’s campaign route for the expeditions of 1355 and 1356 on foot (some 1300 miles), giving him a unique and highly useful perspective on this campaign. This experience of the route on the ground and a feel for the terrain, allows Hoskins to develop an effective case for the route he argues the Black Prince and his forces took, even when Hoskins is not breaking a new trail. In addition, his work is a reminder of the importance of environmental factors in military decision making (1).

Hoskins book performs two valuable tasks. The first, mundane as it might seem, is confirming the army’s route while at the same time enriching our understanding of it. His careful reading of the chroniclers and, in particular, his use of local French sources, help determine with a reasonable degree of accuracy where, as it is said, “the Black Prince slept here.” Hoskins is of course hampered by the changing landscape and human geography. Towns disappear; place names change. In the case of Castelnau, where the army spent the night of 10 October 1355, the name is generic, and there is more than one possibility. Hoskins uses his knowledge of the geography to determine the most likely site as St-Michel-de Castelnau because of the proximity to water and the remains of a castle (28). Hoskins applies the same careful critique to each site listed in the written sources.

The other, arguably more original, contribution Hoskins makes is using his knowledge of the geography to clear up the cases of confusion that exist in the chronicles and that have given rise to historiographical debates. In the case of the 1355 campaign and the itinerary for 13–15 November, the route taken by the army has important implications for understanding the Black Prince’s intentions: If the army passed north of Carcassonne, the Prince most likely was seeking to avoid battle, as Herbert Hewitt (The Black Prince’s Expedition of 1355–1357, 1938 (2004), 63) and Henry Mullot and Joseph Poux (Nouvelle recherches sur l’itinéraire du Prince Noir, 1909) argue; if the army moved south of Carcassonne, as Clifford Rogers argues (War Cruel and Sharp, 2000, 305), then the Black Prince was seeking battle. In addition to the archival records and narrative accounts, Hoskins uses “the topography, toponymy and an assessment of time and distance” to determine that “the prince cross[ed] the Montagne d’Alaric in pursuit of Armagnac” (82). Hoskins makes an equal contribution to our understanding of the Black Prince’s motives in turning south from Montbazon toward Poitiers: Was he seeking to avoid the French king and his forces and heading for home or was he eager for battle? (162 ) Hoskins argues that the Black Prince most definitely was not heading for home. He dismisses Hewitt’s claim, that the army’s route was the best way to Bordeaux, as “nonsense,” which is clear from “a cursory glance at the map” (163). He correctly points out that there were easier and faster ways if the Black Prince had, indeed, been seeking the quickest way back to the safety of Bordeaux. Hoskins, therefore, uses the topography to argue that “[t]he route taken and the pattern of movements and halts are simply not compatible with the thesis that he was running for safety.” (164) The many maps in the book are clear and particularly valuable in these instances.

While such meticulous attention to the details of a medieval military campaign might seem unnecessary or even passé to some, it is through these details that we learn more not only about the route of the campaign, which is interesting of itself, but also about the Black Prince as a commander. Hoskins’ account of the 1355–56 chevauchées reveals a commander who was young, who balanced boldness with deliberation, who learned from his mistakes, and who desired to meet the French in a decisive battle, which he did on 19 September 1356.

The book is divided into two main sections (one for 1355 and one for 1356) prefaced by a brief introductory chapter on the origins of the campaign and separated by another brief chapter on the winter between the campaigns. A short epilogue on the aftermath concludes the book. This format works well in general, although at times it appears to separate artificially the events of 1355 and 1356 into two separate campaigns when they are more rightly understood as being interconnected; the victory at Poitiers rests upon the successes of 1355 and the careful arrangements for the intervening months. The connections could have been made more explicit. This, however, is a minor concern. Of greater concern is the brevity of Hoskins’ discussion of the initial preparations in England and the paucity of references to the English archival sources. The bibliography lists the accounts of John Henxteworth (Duchy of Cornwall Office) as the sole English archival source; the book, particularly the chapters on preparations, the interlude, and the aftermath, would have been greatly enriched by including materials from the Patent Rolls, Close Rolls, and Gascon Rolls. It would have allowed for a discussion of resupply from England, campaign finances, the men serving alongside the Black Prince, and the personal rewards of military service.

Despite this weakness, Hoskins’ book is a valuable and insightful contribution to our knowledge of the road to Poitiers and the strategy of the medieval English chevauchée. His firsthand experience of the terrain, his understanding of tactics and strategy, and his careful use of the extant sources inform every page of the book, making In the Steps of the Black Prince a must for an historian of the Hundred Years War.

 

Mollie M. Madden

University of Minnesota <madd0116@umn.edu>

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