A thirst for battle

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Was this the first drugs war? If the favourite intoxicant of the English nobility had not been wine, then the Hundred Years War might never have been fought.

Until the early 13th century the English had always been happy with beer, a home-grown product made with local ingredients. But then the aristocracy acquired a taste for the exotic.

To pay for it, they needed foreign exchange, which they got by trading English wool for Flemish cloth. The cloth paid for the wine, and everybody was happy - until the French tried to take Flanders.

At the same time, a longstanding dynastic conflict over who should rule France was coming to a head. In 1337, the French rejected a claim by Edward III of England, whose mother had been Isabella of France. It was the signal for war - a war that would continue until 1453.

To begin with, things went well for the English. In 1346, they won at Crecy, and at Poitiers a decade later they even captured the French King.

But soon they found themselves in a war of attrition, relieved by occasional famous victories on both sides. The English still make much of Agincourt. But it is the concluding event of the Hundred Years War that the French celebrate.

In 1453, the veteran John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, led a force against the French, who were attempting to retake the town of Castillon on the Dordogne River.

What Talbot didn't know was that, unusually for that time, the enemy had assembled some 300 guns behind an embankment. And then he made the oldest error in the book.

Told by a messenger that the French were deserting their camp, Talbot refused to await reinforcements and ordered his men to attack immediately.

By the time he realised that the messenger was mistaken, his men were being cut down by a wall of artillery.

Talbot himself was killed by an axe blow to the head after a cannon felled his horse. And with that, the Battle of Castillon was over, effectively bringing the Hundred Years War to a close.

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