Last month I began to tell the story of Sir William Neville and his partner Sir John Clanvowe. I looked at their family background and childhood, and how they were connected through the manorial network of medieval England. Today I want to concentrate on the military career of Sir John Clanvowe. The campaigns in which he served are among the most important of the wars against France in the Hundred Years War.
The Hundred Years War can be said to have been caused n part by the marriage of the gay King Edward II of England to Princess Isabella of France in 1308. Isabella was a daughter of the French king who, although he had sons, had no grandsons to succeed him. This is important because France, unlike England, didn’t allow succession to the throne through the female line. Edward and Isabella’s son, King Edward III, decided that English law made him heir to the French throne though his mother and declared himself King of France. The French chose someone else. Another factor in the war was that the English crown possessed a lot of land in France as part of their feudal inheritance (see the map below). All feudal lords in France had to swear allegiance to the French king as their supreme lord. Edward III wasn’t going to swear to be subservient to any other king, and the French threatened to seize his possessions if he didn’t. That was another reason for the Hundred Years War.
The first of the campaigns in which Sir John Clanvowe served was in 1364 during the Breton War of Succession. When the old Duke of Brittany died there were two rival claimants to succeed him, John de Montfort and Charles de Blois. Both had legitimate claims under medieval law. The kings of England and France gave their support to opposing claimants. King Edward III supported de Montfort (who also happened to be his son-in-law) and the King of France supported de Blois.
The rivalry came to a head in September 1364 at Auray, a town on the Breton coast. John de Montfort was supported by battalions led by Sir John Chandos and Sir Robert Knolles. Both sides had been instructed to take no prisoners. Sir John Clanvowe was fighting in the thick of battle as the English forced the French into an indefensible position. Charles de Blois was killed and the French surrendered. John de Montfort was proclaimed the new Duke of Brittany, but instead of recognising King Edward as his feudal overlord as promised he switched his allegiance to the King of France. It was a surprising and humiliating blow to the English. Sir John Clanvowe then joined the retinue of Sir John Chandos and was present at the latter's unfortunate death.
By 1369 the French were taking over more English territory and Chandos attempted to defend the town of Poitiers. A week after Christmas Chandos and a group of about forty men including, Sir John Clanvowe, caught up with them at Lussac. Dressed in armour with his helmet visor up Chandos led the attack, but he slipped on the icy ground and stumbled head first onto the point of a lance held by a French soldier. The weapon struck him below one eye and entered his skull. Alive, conscious and writhing in agony on the icy ground his compatriots tried to protect him.
A 14th century French chronicler, Jean Froissart, described how the English knights flew into a defensive rage, specifically naming Sir John Chambo. The identity of this knight has puzzled historians, as there is no John Chambo mentioned elsewhere. However, the Chambo coat of arms is recorded in several medieval rolls and is identical to that of the Clanvowe family, which suggests that to me that Sir John Chambo was actually Sir John Clanvowe.
English then decided to launch a major expeditionary force into France. Sir John Clanvowe and his future partner Sir William Neville were to serve alongside each other for the first time in this expedition. They were part of a force that pillaged its way through northern France in August 1370 in what is called a chevauchée. This was a rampage through the countryside in an attempt to terrify the local population. Villages were attacked, fields of crops were burnt, and animals were slaughtered. Soldiers took what they wanted. Terrified villagers fled to the nearest castle or fortification.
The French then made clear their intention to invade English-owned Aquitaine. Edward III decided to launch a massive chevauchée in August 1373 with his son Prince John of Gaunt in command of about 8,000 soldiers. Sir John Clanvowe joined this "Grand Chevauchée", as it is named, which pillaged its way from Calais in a route of over 900 miles to Bordeaux in Aquitaine. A French army shadowed the English and there were a few small skirmishes in the early stages but the French army generally kept its distance.
The English forces trudged on until Christmas. Long before then most of the horses had died, as had many soldiers from disease. Provisions dwindled and the weather worsened. Replacement horses were seized from the terrified French peasants as the English army rampaged through the countryside.
It must have been the most welcome Christmas for both the exhausted army and the people of Aquitaine as the English soldiers arrived in Bordeaux to give them the support they had longed for. The Grand Chevauchée had succeeded in dissuading the French from invading Aquitaine. It also enhanced the reputation of those who took part, giving them hero status amongst the English.
During the following years Sir John Clanvowe joined the retinue of Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford. John may have known de Bohun since childhood through the manorial network. De Bohun was the hereditary Lord High Constable of England, a military position similar in nature to Chief of Defence Staff. This brought de Bohun into the inner circles of the English court, and John Clanvowe may have accompanied him during his official court duties. When de Bohun King Edward III took John on as a King's Knight.
We’ll have a closer look at Sir John’s court career in a few weeks. Next time we’ll have a look at Sir William Neville. After he and Sir John Clanvowe served in the 1370 chevauchée William went on to serve as an admiral. We’ve have a look at his career, and his marriage, at the beginning of July.