Battle of Pontvallain
The Battle of Pontvallain was an important battle in France’s Hundred Years War with England. It was fought the 4 December 1370 in the Sarthe region between English forces that had broken away from the army commanded by the English knight Sir Robert Knolles and a French army under the newly appointed Constable of France, Bertrand du Guesclin. The battle was in fact two separate engagements, one at Pontvallain and a smaller one at the nearby town of Vaas; they are sometimes named as separate battles. Though the engagements were comparatively small-scale, they were significant because the English were routed, bringing to an end their 30-year reputation for invincibility in open battle.
Robert Knolles landed at Calais in August 1370 with an army of about 6,000 mounted men and undertook a campaign in the style of a plundering raid through northern France. He approached Paris on 24 September and tried to draw out the French to battle, but they did not take the bait and by October Knolles had moved south and was marching towards Vendôme. He captured and garrisoned castles and monasteries between the rivers Loir and Loire and positioned himself to be able to march into Poitou or alternatively into southern Normandy if his King, Edward III, concluded an agreement with Charles II of Navarre, who was offering his lands in Northern Normandy as a base for the English. Many of the subordinate captains, who considered themselves better-born than Knolles, deplored his apparent lack of martial spirit. They found a leader in Sir John Minsterworth, an ambitious and unstable knight from the Welsh Marches who mocked Knolles as ‘the old freebooter’.
Meanwhile Charles V of France had invested his best knight, Bertrand du Guesclin, with the office of Constable of France, and tasked him with the mission of destroying Knolles’s army. In November du Guesclin concentrated his forces at Caen where he was joined by reinforcements under the Marshals Mouton de Blainville and Arnoul d'Audrehem as well as a Breton contingent under Olivier de Clisson. He was thus able to raise about 4,000 men. A second army of about 1,200 men was formed in Knolles’s rear at Châtellerault under Marshal Sancerre, which then moved towards Knolles from the East while Du Guesclin began to move on him from the north. Knolles, aware that the French were closing in, now proposed to withdraw westward into Brittany before he could be surrounded, but his captains violently disagreed, preferring to find winter quarters where they were and to continue to raid the surrounding countryside, confident they could defeat any French attack. As a result the army divided; Knolles took a contingent including his own retinue west towards Brittany. The remainder, numbering about 4,000 men, stayed in the region of the Loire valley in three groupings, one commanded jointly by Sir Thomas Grandison and Sir Hugh Calveley, the other two by Walter, Lord Fitzwalter and by Minsterworth.
The Battle and Aftermath
Du Guesclin left Caen with his army on 1 December and marched south at great speed, arriving near Le Mans on 3 December. He received intelligence that Grandison’s and Fitzwalter’s forces were spread out in encampments between Pontvallain and Mayet and, despite his army’s exhaustion, ordered an immediate night march, arriving at Pontvallain to attack the English at dawn on 4 December. Taken completely by surprise, Grandison tried to retreat northwards but the French caught up with him beneath the walls of the Château de la Faigne. In a bitter hand-to-hand fight the French took heavy casualties (Arnoul d’Audrehem later died of his wounds) but Grandison’s forces were virtually wiped out and he was taken prisoner. The English archers, who had been the architects of victory in every previous battle with the French, were badly positioned but even so failed to penetrate the armour of du Guesclin’s troops or to break up the French lines.
Meanwhile Sancerre was approaching Fitzwalter’s contingent from the east. The English fled south to the fortified abbey at Vaas, which was immediately assaulted by Sancerre and, when du Guesclin came up to support him, the English were massacred. Du Guesclin claimed Fitzwalter as his prisoner (it was said he thought Fitzwalter was the Marshal of England). He was held prisoner until he was able to raise a ransom by mortgaging his Cumberland estates on ruinous terms to Edward III's mistress Alice Perrers. Sir John Minsterworth’s corps managed to escape into Brittany following Knolles, who was pursued unsuccessfully by Olivier de Clisson. Sir Hugh Calveley escaped into Poitou. About 300 English survivors, plus the garrisons of various castles Knolles had occupied, fled south towards Bordeaux but they were pursued by du Guesclin and Sancerre and, shortly after they had crossed the Loire, were caught and virtually wiped out beneath the walls of the castle of Bressuire, which though held for the English would not open its gates to them.
Knolles and Minsterworth passed the winter in Brittany and then attempted to lead their companies to the port of Saint-Mathieu to take ship for England, but they were harried all the way by Olivier de Clisson and there were only two ships to take them, so most of their men were left on the shore to be massacred by the French. In England Minsterworth accused Knolles of responsibility for the disaster. In July 1372 the King's Council decided the main fault lay with Knolles, who was stripped of the lands he had been given as fee for organizing the campaign. Minsterworth was arrested and charged with traducing Knolles, but escaped and fled to France, where he changed sides and entered the service of Charles V.
- Jonathan Sumption, Divided Houses: The Hundred Years War III (Faber, 2009), pp. 84-5.
- Sumption (2009), p. 87.
- Sumption (2009), pp. 88-9.
- Sumption (2009), p. 93.
- Sumption (2009), p. 90.
- Sumption (2009), p. 274.
- Sumption (2009), p. 91.
- Sumption (2009), p. 91-3.