The Battle of Nájera from a fifteenth-century manuscript of Froissart’s Chronicles. The English and Peter of Castile are on the left.

In July 1362, the Black Prince was confirmed as the ruler of Aquitaine, in return for an annual payment to the king of one ounce of gold. Prince Edward, Joan and Joan’s four Holland children all moved to Bordeaux. While English officials and garrison commanders were appointed to the more senior posts, there was little interference with the local administration at the grass roots. It was hoped that the duchy could be entirely self-supporting, and, given that a long period of peace was now expected and that the wine trade, already lucrative, would presumably become more so, this was a reasonable assumption to make. It had not taken into account the intentions of the dauphin.

The cause of the death of Jean II in London in 1364 is unknown. It may have been a last flicker of the plague, although rich food and an abundance of alcohol may have had something to do with it. In any event, Jean was only in his forties and his reign could not in any sense have been described as successful. The dauphin now ascended the French throne as Charles V. Known to the French chroniclers as Carolus Sapiens (Charles the Wise) in tribute to his library of over 1,000 books in the Louvre, he was sickly, of insignificant appearance and no soldier, but he was no fool either. He had no intention of accepting the new status of the English in France, but was too much of a lawyer to attempt to oppose it openly. Rather, he would whittle away at English possessions and try to undermine their government rather than attempt to confront them militarily, which he was experienced enough to know he could not do – at least not yet. He was a far greater threat to the English than either of his Valois predecessors. The problems facing Charles were reduced when Duke John of Brittany, now put in place by the English, accepted that he held that duchy as a fief of the king of France (as in law he did) and paid homage to Charles for it. In Brittany, at least, there would be relative stability. That left the problems of Charles of Navarre (who had by now acquired the soubriquet ‘the Bad’), the routiers (free companies) and the shortage of funds in the national treasury.

Charles of Navarre was a constant threat because he held lands near Paris and could block the routes into and out of that city. He had vacillated between opposing Charles when he was dauphin and making alliances with him, and was very much a man who looked to the main chance, whatever the rights or wrongs might be. Infuriated by Charles V’s bestowal of the duchy of Burgundy on his son Philip and insisting that his claim was much stronger than that of the Valois, Charles of Navarre raised a largely mercenary army, consisting of routiers, Navarrese, renegade Frenchmen and the Captal de Buch and his Gascons, and marched on Paris, only to be roundly defeated by the king’s forces and forced to retreat back into Normandy. He had no option but to sue for peace in 1365 and had to surrender all his lands near Paris to get it.

The routiers were a far greater problem. Owing loyalty only to themselves, they were well organized, well led and well equipped, and preyed on vast tracts of the French hinterland. To the French, they were all ‘English – the scourge of God’, whereas their companies were in fact made up of Spaniards and Germans and occasional Bretons and Normans as well as Englishmen, and the majority in their ranks were Gascons. Nonetheless, most companies were commanded by officers who had held commands in the English army and were now demobilized – men like Sir Hugh Calveley, Sir Robert Knollys, who was of Cheshire yeoman stock and had started his military career as an archer under Calveley, and Sir John Hawkwood, the son of a London tanner and another ex-archer. The routiers had strict rules on the division of spoils, a proper chain of command and in most cases a uniform. They had become accustomed to life as soldiers and to being able to burn and plunder as they liked, and saw no reason to stop doing so just because there was now peace between England and France.

As far as Edward of England was concerned, provided the routiers did not profess to act in his name, he was perfectly happy that they should exist – and, given that they did exist, it was better that they should ply their unpleasant trade in France than in England. Although each of the many routiers was nominally independent, they did occasionally combine into ‘great companies’, sometimes numbering several thousand, which allowed them to indulge in undertakings even more ambitious than mere large-scale brigandage. At one time, a great company under Sir Robert Knollys advanced on Avignon and menaced the pope, while another carried out a chevauchée around Lyons. Charles V’s France was in no state to put them down by force and more often than not local dignitaries and city authorities simply bought them off. Then a recurrence of the war by proxy gave Charles V his chance to rid France of the routiers.

The Iberian peninsula in the 1360s was divided into the kingdom of Portugal, with borders more or less where they are today, Castile and Leon covering central and northern Spain, Aragon south of the Pyrenees and east to the Mediterranean, Navarre bordering on Aquitaine to the north and sandwiched between Castile and Aragon, and the last Moorish kingdom, Granada, in the south. The king of Castile, Pedro the Cruel, was in dispute with his half-brother, Enrique of Trastamara, who claimed the throne, a dispute that escalated into civil war. Enrique appealed to Charles V for help, and Charles, seeing a chance of striking a blow at the pro-English Pedro and getting rid of his own troublesome routiers at the same time, ordered Bertrand du Guesclin to gather together the greatest company he could and take them into Spain to fight for Enrique. Bertrand did just that. He assembled perhaps 10,000 men, a mixture of English, Gascon and Navarrese free companies, French men-at-arms and mercenary crossbowmen, and crossed into Castile, where he collected Castilian supporters of Enrique, deposed Pedro and placed Enrique on the throne. Up to this point, the Black Prince was not overly concerned: Pedro was generally regarded as a nasty piece of work and the prince did nothing to stop the free companies and his own Gascons from marching off to join du Guesclin. In England, King Edward took a different view. However unpleasant a character Pedro might be, it was not in England’s interest to have a French client state controlling the north of Spain: Castilian galleys had menaced the English coast and the routes for the Bordeaux wine trade in the past and might well do so again. When Pedro invoked the treaty of alliance with the English, signed in 1362, King Edward ordered his son to put Pedro back on his throne. The Black Prince began to collect an army which would consist of his own retinue of professional English soldiers, Gascons lately in the pay of du Guesclin and Enrique, and a contingent from England, mainly archers, commanded by the Black Prince’s younger brother, the twenty-seven-year-old John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster since 1362.

If the English were to support Pedro with an army from Aquitaine, then they would need to cross the Pyrenees, and that meant getting Charles of Navarre, who controlled the mountain passes and could easily close them, on their side. This was achieved by Pedro promising him Castilian territory that would allow Navarre an outlet to the sea and a cash grant of £20,000. As Pedro had no money and little of value save the crown jewels that he brought with him when he fled from Castile to Bayonne and threw himself on the Black Prince’s mercy, the money was lent to him from the coffers of Aquitaine. In Castile, Enrique, now that he was on the throne, saw no need to retain the huge and expensive army that had put him there, so he paid off the free companies except for du Guesclin’s Bretons and a force of around 400 English archers commanded by Sir Hugh Calveley. With their severance pay in their knapsacks, the companies either returned to Aquitaine, where they promptly took service with the Black Prince’s army – they had been well paid to put Enrique on the throne and were quite happy to be well paid to knock him off it – or headed east into Aragon, where there was employment in guarding the frontier area against Castilian incursions.

When Enrique heard from French spies that the Black Prince was marshalling an army to come against him, he realized that neither Calveley nor his archers would fight against the Black Prince. But if he could prevent the English from getting into Spain, he would be safe, so, at some time around Christmas 1366, he approached Charles of Navarre, who was persuaded to turn his coat by Enrique’s promise to match everything that Pedro would give him, with the added bonus of the fortress town of Logrono and £11,000 in cash. Satisfied that the invasion would not now take place, Enrique paid off Calveley, which was sensible, but also du Guesclin’s Bretons, which was not. Once the Black Prince heard the news that Navarre was now in Enrique’s pocket, his immediate reaction was to send messengers to Sir Hugh Calveley, who was in northern Castile on his way back to Aquitaine, ordering him to invade Navarre from the south. This put the wind up Charles of Navarre to the extent that he personally hastened to meet the Black Prince to explain that it had all been a most unfortunate misunderstanding and that he would of course support the cause of Pedro and supply a contingent of 400 men-at-arms. Once Enrique realized that the passes would not, after all, be closed to the English, he hastily recalled du Guesclin and any mercenary troops that he could contact.

In mid-February 1367, the prince’s army of around 8,000 men started its march up the traditional invasion route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port through the pass of Roncesvalles. Roncesvalles can be treacherous even in summer, and now it was the middle of winter, with thick snow, temperatures well below freezing, and not a blade of grass for the horses nor an ear of corn for the men to be found. It says a very great deal for the logistic arrangements of the army that they traversed the pass and reached the plains north of Pamplona in good order. We do not know the names of the quartermasters who worked out how much fodder and rations needed to be carried, and who hired the mules and the carts to transport it, but, with experienced men like Sir John Chandos, Sir Robert Knollys and Sir William Felton, it was an army well accustomed to campaigning in difficult terrain and in foul weather. From Pamplona, the Black Prince’s objective was Burgos, the capital of Castile which sat on the main communication routes north and south. Enrique did his best to block the river crossings, but by March the English had reached the plains before Vitoria.

The Black Prince hoped for a decisive battle at Vitoria. The army was arrayed in battle formation and various challenges were sent out, but, if Enrique had not fought the English in France, du Guesclin and his French officers certainly had and their advice was bolstered by a letter from Charles V of France, who advised Enrique that he should on no account be tempted into a set-piece battle, which the English would win, but rather that he should delay until the English ran out of food and fodder and had to retreat. What the Castilians could do was fall upon patrols and scouts, and it was in one of these minor skirmishes that Sir William Felton was killed. He was in command of a foraging party of around 300 mounted men-at-arms and archers west of Vitoria when he was surprised by a much larger French force. Taking up a position on a knoll near the village of Arinez, Felton’s little group held off all comers until Felton was killed and the archers ran out of arrows, whereupon they had to surrender. For centuries afterwards, the knoll was known as Inglesamendi – the Hill of the English.

The advice to Enrique not to force a battle was sound, and sure enough, in mid-March, the Black Prince had to move, heading south-east and then south-west to approach Burgos from the east, reaching Logrono on 1 April 1367. But politics forced Enrique’s hand. Towns and fortresses on the English approach route were declaring for Pedro; there were mutterings in the ranks of the army, from the Castilians who thought Enrique was behaving in a cowardly fashion, and from the French and the mercenaries who wanted a battle so that they could be paid. Against all his better judgement and against du Guesclin’s strongly worded urgings, Enrique decided to fight, for, if he did not, he would forfeit his throne by default as the population increasingly turned to Pedro.

The Trastamaran army took up a blocking position east of the village of Najera on the main road to Burgos. In front of them was a tributary of the River Najerilla, which flows into the Ebro to the north, while behind them was the Najerilla itself and then the village. There was one narrow bridge over the Najerilla, and to the west of the village there was (and is) a line of sandstone cliffs, difficult to scale without weapons and armour, impossible with them, and lacking any route for a horse. It may be that Enrique, or more probably du Guesclin, chose the position for the very reason that the army would thus find it difficult to run away. It was in any event a good defensive position for an army that was probably outnumbered by that of the Black Prince, who would have to attack – and thus reduce the effect of the archers – if he wanted to force the road to Burgos. But the prince had no intention of doing what his enemy wanted. Well before first light, the army left Logrono and made a wide flank march to form up on the north (left) flank of the Franco-Castilian line. The first indication the troops of Enrique had that the English were anywhere in the vicinity was when they saw banners and pennants fluttering away a few hundred yards on their left.

Du Guesclin desperately issued orders to the whole army to swing round to face north, while the English dismounted and formed their usual line of men-at-arms with the archers on the wings. The left-hand French division managed to wheel round reasonably quickly, but in the rest of the army panic set in, with the second division dissolving into a mass of men running for the village, while some of the Castilian light cavalry decided to desert to the English. Du Guesclin realized that he had no option but to abandon any idea of standing on the defensive: his only chance was to attack the English and hope that his men could run the gauntlet of the arrow storm. They could not. The Castilian heavy cavalry refused to dismount and paid the penalty in dead, wounded and maddened horses, while the light infantry could not stand. The whole thing was over in a matter of minutes, with fleeing Frenchmen and Castilians trying to get across the one bridge over the Najerilla and trampling and crushing each other in the process. The English rearguard slaughtered them as they were trapped by the river or struggled to reach the bridge, which was now blocked by the bodies of their own men. It was a complete rout, with du Guesclin and nearly all the senior commanders captured. The next morning, the heralds claimed to have counted over 5,000 bodies of Enrique of Trastamara’s men. English losses were negligible.

Now began the accounting for prisoners and the calculation of ransoms. Many of the prisoners, du Guesclin and Marshal Arnaud d’Audrehem among them, had been captured by the English before and had not paid the ransoms promised then, and some heated discussion ensued. Enrique himself had not been captured – although unhorsed, he had fled on a horse taken from one of his knights, and eventually crossed the border into Aragon and got away into France. For Pedro the matter of who owned which prisoner was academic – he wanted to slaughter the lot as being the sure way to prevent any further trouble from them. The Black Prince demurred: the prisoners belonged to those who had captured them, who were in turn entitled to the ransoms, and in any case the knightly code prevented the killing of prisoners – or at any rate the killing of rich prisoners.

The Spanish campaign culminating at Najera was a spectacular success militarily: a professional English army had crossed inhospitable terrain in the depths of winter and once again had defeated a French-sponsored enemy with few casualties of its own. Politically and economically, however, it was a disaster. Pedro began to renege on all that he had promised; he failed to hand over the Basque country around Bilbao, he was unable or unwilling to pay for the cost of the campaign, as he had agreed, and he could not even repay the loan made to him to buy off Charles of Navarre. Most of the Castilian knights had no intention of paying the ransoms promised, and in some cases legal arguments in the courts of Castile and Aragon went on for years. In the event, Pedro’s Spanish practices did him no good at all, for only two years later he was again dethroned and murdered, stabbed to death by Enrique of Trastamara himself, who was helped by those whom Pedro had failed to have executed after Najera. From 1369, Castile with its navy was therefore firmly in the French camp.

If Pedro was not going to keep his word and pay for the campaign that restored him, then the Black Prince would have to raise the money from Aquitaine, where there were already grumblings about the expense of maintaining what was seen as his lavish court in Bordeaux. As even higher hearth taxes (roughly equivalent to rates or a form of poll tax) were announced, some in the population began to wonder whether being protected from French occupation was worth the cost. Some of the Gascon magnates decided, rather shrewdly, to appeal to the French king Charles V against the hearth tax. To allow such appeals was entirely contrary to the Treaty of Brétigny, so for the moment Charles simply collected the appeals without doing anything about them. In the meantime, he was restocking the French treasury – the extra taxes imposed to raise the ransom for his father were retained – and building up an army.