Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 24 October 2016

Once again, I've been very slack recently with updates for this blog. Below is another piece on a little-known aspect of the reign of Edward I, taken from the Facebook page. In the near future I hope to post articles and commentary more directly related to my books. Stay tuned!


 Fancy a holiday? Somewhere nice in the sunny Dordogne, perhaps? Look no further than the Hotel-Restaurant Edward 1 in Monpazier, a delightful region of Aquitaine in south-west France. The hotel offers stunning views, ensuite bedrooms with flatscreen television, a fine restaurant offering a choice of local delicacies, as well as…

…here endeth the advert. The hotel in Monpazier, otherwise known as the Hotel Edward Premier, really exists and is named after King Edward I (reigned 1272-1307). Unlike Wales and Scotland, where the only building likely to be named after Edward is a public toilet, the king’s reputation in his former duchy of Gascony is still golden. Monpazier was part of the duchy, and one of the fifty bastide - meaning ‘to build’ - towns constructed in Gascony during his reign.

Of all the bastides, Monpazier is the one that still retains most of the original features. It was founded in 1285 and visited by Edward himself during his tour of the region the following year. The town is built to a quadrilateral plan, with a regular gridwork of streets that open onto a central square. At one end of the square is a market hall, where the original metal bins used for measuring grain can still be seen. The square is lined with vaulted archways known as ‘cornières’, another distinctive medieval feature.

All of the Edwardian bastides were built to this pattern. Edward himself was personally involved in the construction of Burgus Reginae - or Queensborough - built in 1288 at a confluence of the Garonne and Dordogne, the two major commercial arteries of Gascony. The new settlement was named in honour of his wife, Eleanor of Castile. Another new bastide, named Baa, was built on royal command in the winter of 1286-7. One Gerard de Turri was sent to plan the town, and Edward paid a visit to the site, during which he bought the workmen a round of drinks.

Edward also founded bastides in England, at New Winchelsea and Kingston upon Hull, and in Wales as part of his programme of colonisation. However the scale of bastide-building in Gascony was far greater than anywhere else. The project was driven, as usual, by Edward’s constant need for revenue: Gascony was a much smaller and poorer land than England, and generated far less cash. The new bastides acted as centres of commerce. To quote Marc Morris: ‘they were a source of profit, both direct (in the form of local tolls and taxes) and indirect (they increased trade that was taxed at other points, such as Bordeaux).’

Initially the bastides met with opposition from Gascon nobility. As landlords, they objected to these new towns being built on their territory, largely because it gave their tenants the opportunity to run off and become free towsnmen. A clever compromise was reached whereby the bastides were founded on the system of ‘paréage’, a form of public-private partnership. Local lords agreed to put up the land, Edward as duke gave the necessary permission, and subsequent profits were shared by all, including the townspeople. The promise of enrichment lured the rural poor to the bastides, which in turn helped to reduce lawlessness. New towns also meant new roads, which led to the clearing of forests and conversion of fallow ground into rich pasture. Thus the bastides were perceived as a way of generating commerce and profits for all - duke, lords and peasants - as well of pacifying unruly parts of the duchy. For once Edward behaved with a light touch, and his bastide scheme was both popular and successful.

Edward spent several years in Gascony and was evidently fond of the place, if not the inhabitants. In a letter of March 21st 1278 to the Bishop of Bath & Wells, he makes clear his opinions on Gascons and their unreliable ways:

‘As the Gascons are reputed to be very full of quibbles and changeable in their agreements, proposals, promises and deeds, the king believes it very necessary that the bishop… shall cause all and singular the things that shall be agreed upon, or ordained, and done by them with the Gascons…so that in times to come they shall not presume in their insolence boldly to contravene their own deeds, and so that their own deed and surety may be objected to their faces eye to eye to repress their malice forever.’ 

This last line is eerily similar to Edward’s later declaration regarding the Welsh, in which he promised to ‘put an end to their malice now and for all time.’

The king was not directly involved in the construction of all the bastides. Over two-thirds of them were partially founded by the crown, but only half were solely royal ventures. Nor were they intended to buttress the defence of Gascony against the French. Many never had any defences at all, and those with defences only had them added in the reigns of Edward II and III. They were founded during a period of relatively cordial relations between England and France, and Edward appreciated that the widespread construction of fortified towns would provoke French hostility. Besides which, they were mostly built on fertile, low-lying land near rivers, ideal for commerce but useless as military sites. One exception was Bonnegarde, where Edward revamped and enlarged an already existing castle, but the main purpose of the bastides was undoubtely to generate income.

Edward’s enthusiasm for bastides was also demonstrated in Wales and England. In Wales, after the war of 1277, he laid out new settlements on the familiar grid pattern at Flint, Rhuddlan and Aberystwyth. After the war of 1283 more were created at Conwy, Caernarfon, Criccieth, Bere and Harlech. Unlike Gascony, however, the new bastides in Wales were not built in a spirit of lucrative cooperation. Instead they were fortified colonial outposts, homes for imported English settlers, from which the native Welsh were largely excluded. Towns such as Nefyn and Llanfaes, which had been centres of commerce under Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, were allowed to become backwaters. Edward had no desire to develop native Welsh settlements, and at Llanfaes the population was forced to emigrate to a new town called, rather unimaginatively, Newborough. Llanfaes itself was replaced by another bastide, Beaumaris.

Today very little survives of Edward’s bastides in Gascony. Other than Monpazier, not one has survived into modern times as a settlement, though the outline of vineyards, banks and ditches can still be seen at the site of Burgus Reginae. Still, I have heard that the Hotel Edward Premier (see attached pic) does excellent cocktails…

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