A European walk through Bordeaux 10
The shadow of Woodstock.
On Place Pey-Berland, every morning, when the sun begins to rise, a black veil covers the front of the cathedral. From the royal door to the edge of the Hôtel de Ville, it marks out on the floor the site of a palace that has since disappeared. This dark perimeter, which disappears at the approach of noon, marks the limits of the former archbishop’s palace, or Archibescat as the inhabitants of Bordeaux used to call it in the Middle Ages.
This former palace was razed in 1771 to build the new Palais Rohan, a bit further back, which is still there today. It was joined onto the cathedral and its cloister, to the point that both Froissart and the English chroniclers saw in it an urban abbey, the abbey of Saint-André, and they were right to do so. The chroniclers said it gave the kings direct access to the then palace without having to cross the square, directly via the royal door. Royal it most definitely was, because it was taken by Francis I in 1526, Charles IX in 1565 and Louis XIII in 1615. But it is not the spirit of those kings that lurks here. The shadow is that of Edward of Woodstock.
Before being Prince of Aquitaine and Gascony, he was Prince of Wales and son of King Edward III of England. Having landed in Bordeaux in September 1355, as a mere king’s lieutenant, he chose the archbishop’s palace rather than the Palais de l’Ombrière of his Plantagenet ancestors, which was the seat of the judicial administration of English Aquitaine. It is here that he took up residence, invoking his “right to shelter”, a genuine requisition with the expulsion of the clergy members residing there at the time. When he was not in Angouleme or elsewhere, this was Edward of Woodstock’s true palace. His palace of choice.
With his emblem showing three ostrich feathers and his motto taken from the King of Bohemia, Ich dien, it is from here that this subject of dark legend, he who was carried along in the winter by festivals and other festivities and took part in perilous tournaments in the summer, left for his first deadly ride in 1355, for Languedoc, to fight the Count of Armagnac and Constable of France, to fill Bordeaux with a never-ending source of wealth. It is also from here that he embarked on what would lead to the Battle of Poitiers.
More than a roughneck soldier, or a bloodthirsty warlord, both titles bestowed on him on account of his reputation, and as a result of which the number of his victims was sometimes multiplied, Woodstock was a great military strategist. The manner in which he positioned his troops and his subtle manoeuvres would have served as models had medieval military academies existed at the time.
At Nouaillé-Maupertuis, near Poitiers, on 19 September 1356, despite his load of five thousand oxcarts filled with the spoils of his past raids, he was both the fastest and the most mobile. In just a few hours, with troops three times smaller than his adversary, made up of two-thirds Gascon and Poitou soldiers, and not English soldiers as all too often stated in French history, it was he who fell upon the French troops. With his two thousand precise archers and the improbable turning movement of Captal de Buch, he took the King of France, John II, brave but a poor strategist, and his son prisoner. On the battlefield, he left thousands of his opponents dead while losing only a few dozen himself.
The day after his victory, he entered Bordeaux with his prisoner, the King of France, who he installed in the archbishop’s palace of Saint-André, a pale rehearsal of the triumphal entry he would soon make with him in London.
It is also from here, eleven years later, having become Prince of a sovereign Aquitaine in 1362 by the will of his father, King Edward III, and in response to the request of King Peter of Castile, dethroned by his brother Henry of Trastamara, that Woodstock set off once more for war. Again, only this time on the other side of the Pyrenees, on 3 April 1367 in Najera, the powerful military strategist crushed the Castile army, reinforced by French troops and led by Du Guesclin. Again, in just a few hours he forced the King of Castile, less brave than the King of France but just as poor a strategist, to flee the battlefield. He made Du Guesclin prisoner before releasing him for a king’s ransom. A victory so dazzling that, out of national pride, the vanquished would put the defeat down to internecine treachery, without ever actually proving it.
However, we all know how it ended: Peter the Cruel, as he was commonly called, never repaid the debt he had incurred, and Edward of Woodstock never recovered from the disease he contracted in Spain on going to help him. Fighting his illness and facing revolt on the part of his Aquitaine subjects, unhappy about his costly expeditions, he returned to London in 1371, before then returning the sovereignty over the principality of Aquitaine that had been created for him to the King on 5 October 1372.
Edward of Woodstock died prematurely in his château, one year before his father Edward III, without ever reigning over England. In the Archdiocese of Bordeaux, however, on 6 January 1367, his wife Joan of Kent gave birth to his second son. Froissart states clearly that the event took place at the “abbey of the archbishop’s palace”, and that his name was Richard. He would in fact be officially called “Richard of Bordeaux or Richard II the Gascon,” and a Shakespearean hero, reigning in place of his father who died too young. Legend has always had it that three kings attended his christening in the Saint-André Cathedral. Froissart is more modest and speaks only of the bishop of Agen and of the king without a throne of Majorca.
As for Woodstock, Prince of Aquitaine, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, his real name has become blurred in the course of history. He will forever be considered the Black Prince, whose legend would do all it could to darken his good name even more. We do not know when this began. Robert Grafton himself speaks in 1594 of an already longstanding tradition, although he was perhaps the first.
The Black Prince’s famous recumbent statue now lies in Canterbury Cathedral, where he received a king’s funeral. But Edward of Woodstock, the only Prince of Aquitaine in history, and thanks to whom Bordeaux became a capital of Europe between 1362 and 1372, could have been buried here, in Saint-André, at the site from which the epic rides that created his legend began. And in Bordeaux, every morning, his shadow returns to haunt the square of Pey-Berland, where his destroyed palace once stood.