England’s first Empire?


A discussion between: Anne Curry (AC), Simon Harris (SH), Philip Morgan (PM) and Guilhem Pépin (GP), August 2015


AC: So Guilhem, perhaps you could kick off by saying what you think about the underlying hypothesis in this project: ‘Was this England’s first empire’? Having worked on the rolls, what do you think?


GP: If we understand empire as a collection of different lands, of different cultures and languages, then yes, it was an empire. But after all there was also already a Norman empire, of William the Conqueror and Henry I as well as the Angevin Empire of the Plantagenets. It is difficult to use the term ‘empire’ because it reflects, especially for a British audience, with the British Empire of the 19th and 20th century. I consider we risk an anachronism in using the term ‘empire’ or even colony or any colonial terminology. We never find them in documents of the period. I tried in my own research to be cautious and to use the more traditional terms of ‘Crown of England’ etc.

However, men involved in the government of the king of England’s possessions were well aware of the multinational nature of the crown of England. At the Council of Constance in 1417, an English cleric said that in the English kingdom people spoke five languages or nations – English, Welsh, Gaelic, Gascon and Cornish -  and they do not understand each other. This proved to him that England was a great kingdom. It was a sense of pride to have such diversity, and so many people under the same rule.

I think it is very difficult for people like us to understand the logic of people of this period because we are used to living in countries very unified with a standard language, either English or French. It is even worse in France because it is still a very centralistic state. The composite state with different states, different people and yet at the same time affiliated to the same king seems to us quite odd, because it was not as unified and standardised as what we take to be a country today.

British and French historians alike see their own country as central. Gascony is the default, as it was neither purely English, or purely French. So it stands between the two and that has sometimes worked against its study.  I am happy that the Gascon Rolls project has worked well, even if we still have not edited the rolls for all of the period of their existence as yet. Gascony was a region in Europe that was connected to a kingdom abroad, separated by several days at sea. But it is not the only example of this: the kingdom of Naples was connected with Provence, and even with Anjou at a certain moment, as well as Sardinia with the crown of Aragon. Even when Gascony was not the central concern of the kings of England (Henry V was more concerned by Normandy and northern France) none of them would have relinquished any rights, or any inch of land in Gascony. It was the tradition of the family to keep it, even if they did not go there in person anymore.

The loss of Guyenne (or Aquitaine) in 1451 and 1453 was considered as much of a humiliation as the loss of Normandy. In the texts of the period, it was not considered as less important than Normandy. It was put on equal footing. The king of France knew that well. Charles VII wrote to the King of Scotland in 1457, that this region, Guyenne, had been united with England for 300 years, and that all the inhabitants were English at heart. In England it was very well known that it had been the longest held possession on the Continent.

Of course in the fifteenth century it had lost importance compared to the time of Henry of Lancaster, earl of Derby (who went there as king’s lieutenant in 1345-6) and the Black Prince, and especially since the Treaty of Troyes, because after that settlement, the priority was the kingdom of France itself. But Gascony was still something important in the minds of the kings of England and their court.


PM: I think I find myself agreeing with Guilhem, but there is no doubt, in my mind that if you have an empire, you must have an emperor. There are none of the kings with whom we have been concerned who could be seen as having imperial ambitions. Edward I did so in the British Isles. That, of course, is the reason why its permissible (as Professor Rees Davies argued) to call English relations with the rest of the British Isles in his reign  a first British empire because it had all those elements of disparagement, forcible integration, supremacy of one system of law over another. By contrast, what we have seen constantly in Gascony is a respect for lordship.

So I am much more happy with traditional titles like the ‘lordship’ of which is now southwestern France (don’t forget Edward III called himself Lord of Aquitaine after the treaty of Brétigny of 1360), rather than thinking of it as either an imperial possession, or indeed as a colonial possession. One of the striking things is there is a measure of integration between each of these continental possessions, with people of talent moving between the two. That said, the relatively low number of people clearly of English origin, whom we see as having possessions in Gascony and putting down some kind of roots, is striking. Our English tend on the whole to go home.


GP: The majority of the English were officers and people sent by the English kings. But there were people at Bordeaux of English origins who did not have administrative roles. These were no only merchants. We also find notaries, craftsmen. It is difficult to assess their degree of integration into local society at Bordeaux. But I think many of these Englishmen became Gascon at the end of the day. Often their families had been settled for several generations and they had been raised in the duchy.


AC: But did they inter-marry Guilhem?  One force for integration is inter-marriage, and I have not got the impression there is much.


SJH: You do get the two well-known examples under the principality and afterwards with John de Stratton who married a local heiress.


GP: There is also an interesting brass of an English merchant called John Scott who was living in the suburb of Saint-Pierre of Bordeaux, and who was buried at Bordeaux with his local wife, not in England. His brass is still visible at the Musée d’Aquitaine of Bordeaux. At Bordeaux there was definitely an English community. Maybe there was no parallel elsewhere in the duchy to Bordeaux although it is fair to say we do not have as much documentary evidence for towns of the duchy other than Bordeaux.

SH: Isn’t it just like London having its own foreign merchant communities, except that in Bordeaux the foreigners were more likely to be English, whereas in London there was probably a much more mixed bunch?


GP: Yes it was probably a little bit less mixed at Bordeaux than in London. You had all sorts, Germans, people from all over Europe, but the majority were English definitely, and some were integrated into the local Gascon society. You will find useful here Sandrine Lavaud’s article, ‘Une communauté enracinée : les Anglais à Bordeaux à la fin du Moyen Age’, Revue historique de Bordeaux et du département de la Gironde (Le cosmopolitisme bordelais), troisième série, 1 (2002), p. 35-48.

Speaking of the presence of merchants. This, of course, in modern imperial/colonial theory would indicate an exploitive situation - we’ve got people, English people if you like, going to Gascony and enriching themselves. The implication being that it is at the expensive of the local community.

But we also have it the other way, Gascon merchants in London, and elsewhere. They were particularly keen to be considered as equals to the English when they were settled in England. We find in the Gascon Rolls, and in the Rolls of Parliament as well, since it is copied into both, a petition of the people of Guyenne living in England (1411), and who had married someone in England, and who were doing trade in London on a permanent basis. They asked to be considered as the same as English, who had been born in England. They claimed that they were often being called aliens and that for them was an insult. (The reference in the Gascon roll is C 61/113, m. 9, entry no. 99, and in the Rolls of Parliament C 65/72 – the whole text of that is given at the end of this essay).

There was recently an article in the English Historical Review linked to England’s Immigrants project (B Lambert and Mark Ormrod, ‘Friendly Foreigners and International warfare: Resident Aliens and the Early History of Denization in England c. 1250-1400’, EHR, vol 130 (2015), 1-24.. I alerted them to this petition by the people of Guyenne in 1411. Interestingly, England’s immigrants project found that there were no letters of denization granted to Gascon after 1411, but the article does not make the explicit link. Technically Gascons were not aliens although on some occasions in our period they were treated as though they were.


AC: I think ifs rather like nowadays where there are different sorts of forms of identify, or kind of rights. It is interesting that some muster rolls of soldiers, particularly those in Normandy and occasionally in Ireland, had a notion that you should limit recruitment to people born in England. Birth was therefore seen as significant, and certainly at the end of the Hundred Years War there was a concern about those whose wives had been born outside this realm. So you could be a subject of the king of England as the Gascons were, but not born in England.

I think this ethnic element is what still makes people think there is a colonial or imperial aspect. It is the idea of an English king ruling Gascons. It is rather like a parallel with Algeria which became three départements of France, yet which is still seen as foreign rule because you have got French people ruling over people who consider themselves to have a different ethnic identity.

Surely it was the same with attitudes to the Welsh wasn’t it? England and Wales were united, there was no separation at all. The prince of Aquitaine – in the case of the Black Prince - was the same idea as the prince of Wales – both were heirs to their royal father. And yet there was a sense of different ethnicity. In Wales too English people had certain rights that the Welsh did not have. But there again, Wales was a conquest whereas Aquitaine was not. The parallel with Ireland is closer in a sense, with the pale and an area which would look much more like western Gascony, especially Bordeaux and its vicinity.


GP: But without the support of the local population of Bordeaux Anglo-Gascon Aquitaine would have collapsed long before 1451-1453.


AC: So isn’t therefore the key to understanding this that the French monarchy wanted control of geographical France, and got more worked up about this when an English king was claiming to be king of France, particularly after the treaty of Troyes. You didn’t get this in Wales. You might have rebels, but there was not another national power that is claiming it.


PM: There are elements of integration aren’t there? We’ve only talked about the movement of peoples, but economically the wine trade going one way is reciprocated by a grain trade coming the other way.


GP: Grain and other things. After the renewal of war in 1369 there was an increase of problems on the Garonne, Dordogne and so on. This made it difficult for grain to come from the French regions so that’s why they had to compensate by greater supply from England.


AC: One thing we noted before is that Edward I was the last king of England to go to Gascony. The kings obviously go to Ireland pretty infrequently.  Richard II did, but I don’t think any of the others go there. And Wales, they very rarely go there except in the Glendower rebellion. So we shouldn’t emphasize the fact that kings don’t go to Gascony since nor did they go to Wales or Ireland much. It is often a point that’s made, and it is argued that it shows lack of royal interest in Gascony but in fact it doesn’t.


GP: The lack of interest is because the king have their own priorities just as the Gascons do.  I have published an article about a song of the time of Edward II or the beginning of the Hundred Year War which complains about the fact that the king, duke of Guyenne, is not coming. (G Pépin, ‘Le sirventés El dugat… Une chanson méconnue de Pey de Ladils sur l’Aquitaine anglo-gasconne’, Les Cahiers du Bazadais, 152 (2006), pp. 5-27.)

The Gascons were very angry about this fact. The writer, a late troubadour from Bazas called Pey de Ladils, said ‘we have suffered during 15 years, day and night because of the king of the French’. He criticised the king of England for not coming. He said the king of France had been attacking the duchy without enough help coming from England. He wrote ‘Come to in person and be brave, he writes, otherwise you are going to lose us like your ancestors lost Normandy’. (He was referring here to King John’s loss of Normandy in 1203-4 of course.)


AC: So therefore it is the presence of the French monarchy as a rival powerbase which is the crucial factor. That is what makes Gascony a different circumstance from other parts of the dominions of the English crown. It is a potential rival authority.  We see that in the Hundred Years War as crucial because of the potential of appeals outside the duchy to the king of France. That situation is exploited by the king of France, and also by some inhabitants of the duchy. It created a tense situation which contributed to the beginning of the Hundred Years War in 1337.


Parliament Rolls:

TNA C 65/72

[memb. 9]

Pur les gentz de Guyen' [On behalf of the people of Guyenne].
22. Item, une peticion feust baillee en parlement par les gentz de Guyene, en les parols q'enseuent: 22. On behalf of the people of Guyenne. Also, a petition was delivered in parliament by the people of Guyenne, as follows:
Au roy nostre tressoveraign seignur, et a toutz les atures seignurs de cest present parlement, suppliont treshumblement voz foialx lieges de vostre paiis de Guyene, que come par les grauntz oppressiouns, demolicions d'osteilx, et destruccioun de biens, et desheritementz de leurs propres heritages, et autres devoirs et appartenances quielxconqe, pluseurs d'iceulx sont deserts et mys hors par les garnes [p. iii-657][col. a] et forces de voz anemys, qi par long temps ont dure en vostre dit paiis de Guyene, come ceulx qui pur garder leur loiaulte envers vostre tresexcellente coroune ont voullu du tout de gerpir et lesser toutes leur ditz heritages et biens dessuisditz. De quoy pluseurs a cause de ce se sount retraits en vostre roialme d'Engleterre, et pluseurs autres y sont venuz demurer de leur bone gree, les quielx tant des uns qe des autres se sont mariez en vostre dit roialme en pleuseurs bones villes, et autres lieux d'icelluy; esquielx ils sont demurantz et habitantz come voz vrayes lieges, et y ount acquis par leur graund labour et travail pluseurs hostielx, terres, rendes, possessiones, et revenues. Et soit ainsy qe pleuseurs nes de vostre dit roialme par graund mespris lour font et dient de jour en jour pleuseurs injures et villanies, come de les appeller alliants, et autres pleuseurs inconvenients, les quielx injures leur sont faitz a tresgrant mespris de vostre dit paiis de Guyene, et de la graund loialte qu'ilx ont toutditz envers vostre dite coroune, et a leur perpetuel et final destruccioun come ceux qi ne scevent aller aillours pur acquerir leurs vies, leur honneur garde, si de vostre benigne grace en pite ne leur est surce purveu de remedie graciouse et covenable. To our most sovereign lord the king and all the other lords in this present parliament, your faithful lieges of your land of Guyenne most humbly request that because of the great oppressions, demolition of houses and destruction of goods, and disinheritances of their rightful inheritances and other rights and appurtenances, many of them are destroyed and excluded by the armies [p. iii-657][col. a] and forces of your enemies, who have been in your said land of Guyenne for a long time; for those who maintain their loyalty towards your most excellent crown have been required to abandon and entirely leave all their said inheritances and aforesaid goods. On account of which many of them have withdrawn to your realm of England, and various others have come to live there willingly, and some from each of these groups have married in your said realm in various good towns and other places there; and they are living and dwelling as your true lieges and have acquired various houses, lands, rents, possessions and revenues there by their hard labour and work. However, many people who were born in your said realm through their malice do and say many injuries and evils to them day by day, such as calling them aliens, and many other undesirable names, which wrongs are committed to the great slander of your said land of Guyenne and the great loyalty which it has always shown towards your said crown, and may lead to their permanant and final destruction, since they do not know where else to go in order to protect their lives and preserve their honour, unless a gracious and suitable remedy is ordained for them on this.
Qu'il pleaise a vostre roialle magnificence, de vostre grace especiale grauntier, qe toutz maneres des gentz voz liges de vostre dite paiis de Guyenne, quielxconqe, et de quiel estat ou condicioun qe soient, qui a present sont demurans en vostre dit roiaulme, et y ont demoure, ou seront demourans par temps avenir, et leurs heirs et successours a jamays puissent estre desclarez, reputes, recordes, et publies en cest present parlement pur voz foialx liges et loiaulx, et qu'ilx puissent demurer, vendre, achatre, possedir, et acquerir terres, rendes, possessions, tenementz, et autres biens quielxconqe, pur eulx et pur leurs heirs et successours, de deins vostre dit roiaulme. Et qu'ilx puissent user, joyr, et exploiter generalment de toutz leur biens, terres, rendes, possessions, hosteilx, esmoluments, tenementz, devoirs, et revenues, par eulx acquis, ou acquerre, quielxconqe, si avant come voz autres liges nees dedeins vostre dit roiaulme d'Engleterre, come droit et raison le requirent. Et enoutre, comander et chargier estroitement a toutz voz justices, officers, subgitz, et ministres, et a chescun d'eux, et a toutz voz autres liges quielxconqe, qe a voz ditz liges de vostre dit paiis de Guyene, demurantz a present en vostre dit roialme, et qi y ont demoure, ou demoureront ou habiteront, et a leur heirs ou successours qi ores sont ou par temps avenir seront, ne facent, ne seuffrent estre fait, ou a aucun de eulx, mal, damage, force, grevance, destourbier, ne empeschement, en corps ne en leurs biens cy dessuz desclares et expressez, ne autres en nulle manere par nulle voie ou condicioun qe soit. Et si aucune chose estoit faite a l'encontre, qe prestment et sanz delay le facent reparer et mettre en estat dehu. Et surce facent inhibicioun et proclamacioun a toutz voz lieges par toutes les bones villes, et autres lieux de vostre dit roialme, qe d'ores enavant ne les vueillent appeller alliants, ne dire aucunes villenie, injures, ne reproches, sur tielle peine come a vostre tresexcellent discrecioun, par advys et deliberacioun de vostre tres honourable counseil, semblera mieulx affaire en tiel cas. Et qe toutes ces choses dessuisdites puissent estre entrees et enactes en rolle de parlement de record, et qe puissent estre proclamees par toutes les citees, burghs, et bonnes villes, et par toutes les countees d'Engleterre; pur Dieu, et en oevre de sainte charitee. May it please your royal magnificence to grant of your special grace that all manner of your liege people from your said land of Guyenne, whomsoever, and of whatever estate or condition they be, who at present are dwelling in your said realm, or have dwelt there, or will dwell there in future, and their heirs and successors forever should be declared, considered, reported, and proclaimed in this present parliament to be your faithful and loyal lieges, and that they should be able to live, sell, buy, possess and acquire lands, rents, possessions, tenements and other goods whatsoever, for themselves and their heirs and successors, within your said realm. Also that they should be able to use, enjoy and generally benefit from all their goods, lands, rents, possessions, houses, emoluments, tenements, rights and revenues whatsoever acquired or to be acquired by them, as fully as your other lieges born within your said realm of England, as right and reason demand. And moreover to order and charge urgently all your justices, officers, subjects and ministers, and all your other lieges whomsoever, that to none of your said lieges of your said land of Guyenne who are presently dwelling in your said realm, or who have dwelt or will dwell or live there, and their present and future heirs or successors, will they cause, nor suffer to be caused, harm, damage, force, grievance, hindrance, or impeachment against their persons or goods, as declared and expressed above, or otherwise in any way or by any means. And if anything should be done against them, that they should make amends and redress it at once and without delay. Whereupon let them issue a prohibition and proclamation to all your lieges throughout all the major towns and other places in your said realm that henceforward they will not call them aliens, nor speak any evil, injuries, or insults, under threat of whatever penalty seems best in accordance with your most excellent discretion, with the advice and deliberation of your most honourable council in this matter. And that all these aforesaid things should be entered and recorded on the roll of the record of parliament, and that they should be proclaimed throughout all the cities, boroughs and good towns, and throughout all the counties of England; for God, and by way of holy charity.
Quele peticion lue et entendue feust responduz en la fourme q'enseute: le roy, de l'advys et assent des seignurs espirituelx et temporelx en plein parlement, ad grauntez ceste peticion, et q'ils ent aient litteres patentes et briefs de temps en temps, tantz et tielx come serront bosoignables en le cas.

Which petition having been read and heard, reply was given as follows: The king, by the advice and assent of the lords spiritual and temporal in full parliament, has granted this petition, and that they should have letters patent concerning it and writs from time to time, as many and such as will be necessary in this matter.

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