Bertrand du Guesclin: Careerist in Arms?
Kenneth Fowler examines the motives and connections of an upwardly-mobile 'bon Breton' in the Hundred Years War.
Like the reputation of Napoleon, that of the constable of France, le bon Breton, Bertrand du Guesclin, subsists despite his evident defeats at the hands of the enemy and several episodes in his long career as a soldier which cast their shadow over his motives and his actions. Eulogised for his patriotism by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians, he had already become a legend within his own lifetime (c. 1320-80), and in the decades immediately following his death his fame was widespread. Who was the person behind this enigma? What were his springs of action? Can he in any sense be described as a patriot, and if so a patriot for whom?
Born into a minor noble family in French-speaking Brittany, du Guesclin's predilection for the military life was evident from an early date. For much of the 1340s and 1350s the war of succession to the duchy of Brittany (between the partisans of Charles of Blois, recognised by the French, and those of John de Montfort, supported by the English) provided ample scope for his abilities on his own doorstep. It was a regular training-ground for soldiers of fortune, a war of ruses rather than of grand strategies, but one in which Bertrand acquired his own distinct following of Bretons.