Battle of Nájera / Navarrete: Anglo-Gascon Army Defeats Franco-Castilian Force

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Battle of Nájera / Navarrete: Anglo-Gascon Army Defeats Franco-Castilian Force

"Battle of Najera…or Navarette…" [English & allies on the left]
From a 15th century manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles
Currently in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: April 3, 1367

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2013]

Today's military history lesson focuses on what could be termed a sideshow to the Hundred Years' War, which was on a temporarily hiatus. We see both the English and the French military becoming involved in the Castilian Civil War in Spain, and how it turned out badly for one of the protagonists.


England and France went to war in 1337 first over whether King Edward III of England should do homage to the French king Philip VI. Though Edward was a sovereign king in his own right, he also ruled Normandy and Aquitaine, which were part of the French realm. Later, a dispute over the succession to the French throne added to the venom of the war.

The Treaty of Brétigny ended the first phase of the war in 1360, with the English generally victorious (despite the interruption of the hostilities by a little thing known as "the Black Plague"). In return for larger lands in Aquitaine, Edward renounced Normandy, Touraine, Anjou and Maine, as well as abandoning his claim to the crown of France. He also reduced the required ransom for French King John II, who had been captured at the battle of Poitier in 1356. King John failed to raise the required money, so he remained a prisoner in England, dying there in 1364.

In the meantime, temporary peace led to thousands of unemployed soldiers on both sides. Many of these men became brigands or bandits, roaming the French countryside and causing untold death and mayhem. Other men formed themselves into mercenary bands – often called "free companies," "free-lances," or condottieri – who offered their services to the highest bidder and traveled throughout Europe. England's Prince Edward of Woodstock, the heir to the throne (i.e., the Prince of Wales) took this one step further…

Prince Edward of Woodstock (1330-1376) aka
Prince Edward of Woodstock (1330-1376) aka "the Black Prince"
Image from Illustrated Universal History (1878), artist unknown
(Illustration courtesy of

Prince Edward was 37 years old in 1367, and had learned the art of war over the previous 21 years, since "winning his spurs" at the battle of Crécy in 1346 and participating in the battle of Poitiers in 1356. [Curious readers may find more about these fights by reading my Burn Pit posts from August, 2010,and September, 2012 at Battle of Crécy part I, Part II – Battle of Crécy: "Let the Boy Win His Spurs", and Battle of Poitiers.]

In 1362, Edward's father King Edward III of England crowned his heir as the Prince of Aquitaine. Prince Edward brought his wife Princess Joan – who was also his first cousin once removed – to the continent, where they held court. Joan also gave Edward two sons. In addition, the court of Aquitaine hosted several exiled monarchs, the most important (for our purposes) was Pedro of Castile.

Pedro of Castile – sometimes styled as "Pedro the Cruel" or "Pedro the Just" – ruled the Spanish kingdom from 1350 until he was deposed by his illegitimate brother Enrique (often rendered in English as "Henry") of Trastámara. Pedro had fought a war against the neighboring kingdom of Aragon, which began in 1356 and dragged on until after his demise. In 1366, as the Castilian Civil War was apparently stalemated, the kings of France and Aragon and the Pope provided money for a number of free companies to hire themselves into the service of Enrique. As a result, Pedro was deposed and replaced by Enrique. Fearing for his life, Pedro fled to the court of Prince Edward of Aquitaine, and appealed for assistance to recover his throne.

Pedro's request was met with a certain amount of skepticism at first. Prince Edward knew that the costs of raising an army were exorbitant, and the prince wanted something concrete for his troubles. Consequently, Pedro agreed to give Edward the duchy of Biscay as partial payment. The deposed monarch also agreed to repay the prince all the costs he would incur from raising his forces.

Alabaster statue of Pedro of Castile; Artist unknown, created c. 1504; Currently in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional of Spain, Madrid
Alabaster statue of Pedro of Castile
Artist unknown, created c. 1504
Currently in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional of Spain, Madrid

Prince Edward, after consulting with his father the king, began gathering his forces. He called upon a number of English military commanders who had become sell-swords and persuaded them (with money, the thought of plunder, or promises of land or titles) to return to the English flag. He gathered men from Aquitaine and Gascony, and no doubt took in a few Frenchmen and men of other countries as well.

Receiving intelligence of Pedro's doings, Enrique began calling up troops to back his newly-gained throne. He still had in his pay some French free companies led by Bertrand du Guesclin, a Breton in French service who had helped Enrique depose his half-brother.

Prelude to the Battle

In February, 1367, Edward set out with his force through the Pyrenees. He crossed the Ebro at Logroño where he had heard that Enrique the usurper was only a short distance off, and the Prince of Wales' army stopped at the small town of Navarrete which is about 9 miles east of Nájera. On about April 1, Prince Edward sent a herald to Enrique, whose army was camped west of the River Najerilla. Edward's message was couched in such contemptuous language – no doubt intentional on the prince's part – that it caused Enrique to send a "spirited and defiant reply," according to one historical document. The next day, Enrique ordered his army to cross the river and deploy for battle on a featureless plain on the east side of the river, expecting his half-brother Pedro and the Prince of Wales and their forces to march straight up the road from Navarrete.

This was a grave tactical mistake, as this left Enrique with only one bridge as an escape route to cross a swollen river with deep banks should he need to retreat. The most likely explanation is that he felt that the strength of his army lay in its cavalry rather than its large numbers of conscripted infantry. Therefore, his horsemen could be used to best advantage on the featureless plain that separated Nájera from Navarrete. Quite probably the idea of defeat never even occurred to him as the Franco-Castilian army outnumbered that of Edward and Pedro at least 2- or 3-to-1. Bertrand du Guesclin advised Enrique against such a move, as he knew that Edward's forces were poorly supplied and would likely disintegrate in a matter of days. Enrique ignored du Guesclin's counsel, and put his newly-acquired throne in serious jeopardy.

At about mid-afternoon of April 2, shortly after arriving at Navarrete, Prince Edward ordered his men to take food and then lie down to sleep. He sent secret orders to his subordinates that they would be moving toward Nájera at about midnight. At the appointed time, the Anglo-Gascon army arose from slumber and began forming their lines of march. They did not, however, move along the east-west road, which was the most direct route to Nájera. Edward's scouts had found a series of hills and ridges which flanked the road. Edward ordered his army to make a wide flank march to the northwest of the road, with the hills screening their movements. Near dawn they began marching southwards, hoping to take the Franco-Castilian army in the left flank.

After marching through the night, Edward's army emerged from the darkness on Saturday morning, April 3 to threaten Enrique's army. Unbeknownst to the Prince of Wales, Enrique had taken similar precautions, having his army sleep until midnight then deploy east of Nájera. Initially taken by surprise, du Guesclin hurriedly realigned the men under his immediate command which was in the first line of the Franco-Castilian army. The second and third Castilian lines were less well organized, and spent some time trying to re-organized. This confusion would eventually prove fatal.

Battle of Nájera/Navarrete

Spanish jinete (light cavalryman), 14th century (Illustration courtesy of
Spanish jinete (light cavalryman), 14th century
(Illustration courtesy of

Both sides arrayed their forces in three lines laid out in a comparable manner. The front line of Enrique's army was led by du Guesclin in person, with 1500 picked men-at-arms and 500 crossbowmen. In the Castilian second line were two flanking forces of Spanish light cavalry known as jinetes mixed with a core of heavy cavalry (knights/men-at-arms). At this time Spain was beginning to experiment with light cavalry – later to develop into the 'genitors' of the Renaissance – for skirmishing purposes; an idea that had been dropped from contemporary European military thinking. These two groups of light cavalry – armed with javelins, darts, and swords – were commanded by Don Gomez Carillo de Quintana and Don Tello.

The center of the second line was led by Enrique himself with the cream of his heavy knights, 1500 strong. Many of the heavy knights included representatives of Spain's Military Orders, including the Order of Santiago (Santiago is Saint James the Elder, patron saint of Spain) and the Order of Calatrava. The third line of Enrique's force consisted of about 20,000 Spanish infantry of mixed capability, ranging from well-armed professionals to reluctant conscripts. The Castilian contingent also included a large number of sling-armed skirmishers, but their exact location is not stated.

Cross of the Order of Santiago
Cross of the Order of Santiago

Prince Edward put his brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Sir John Chandos, Constable of Aquitaine, in the front line with 3000 infantry and 3000 archers, the latter divided evenly and flanking the footmen. Edward was in the second line together with King Pedro and 4000 infantry, half of them archers, also on the flanks. Flanking the second line were two forces of men-at-arms and archers, under Captal de Buch and Sir Thomas Percy, acting as flank guards. Finally, the third line was led by the King of Majorca and the Count Armagnac with 3000 foot and 3000 archers. As soon as Prince Edward was satisfied with the dispositions, he ordered his entire army to dismount and had the horses sent to the rear. Edward may have reversed this order for the third line, hoping to use them in pursuit of the enemy afterwards.

Du Guesclin led his vanguard forward and they smashed into Lancaster's division. The English longbowmen dispersed the Castilian crossbowmen, but once the melee had started the press was such that the Spanish missile troops could contribute little. Lancaster's and du Guesclin's forces remained locked together throughout the remainder of the battle, fighting hand to hand.

The Spanish flanking jinetes then charged the enemy flank units advancing upon them. Normally, the heavy contingent held back while the light cavalry harassed the sides of the opposition and probed for a weak spot along the front, seeking to create a gap where the heavy cavalry could drive in a wedge and smash the entire formation. This system had proved very successful – against infantry armed with spears or the slow-loading crossbow. Against English and Welsh longbowmen, it proved disastrous.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (1340-1399) and Commander of Anglo-Castilian front line; Artist unknown, painted c. 1593
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (1340-1399) and
Commander of Anglo-Castilian front line
Artist unknown, painted c. 1593

As the Spaniards moved along the front, avoiding hand to hand combat and hurling their javelins, they were shot down in droves. Shocked, they drew back to organize, and suffered still more heavily. As they wavered, the heavy cavalry of the second Castilian line sought to charge into the fight of the opposing vanguards, seeking to restore morale; however, they never even reached the units they were charging. The demoralization on the Spanish flanks was now complete – the remaining cavalry wheeled about and fled the field, leaving Gomez Carillo to be captured.

Percy and de Buch now capitalized on their momentary advantage in the best possible way – by joining up to make a cohesive front. This was done so neatly that it must be speculated that Edward had briefed them to do this before the battle. In any event, they unhurriedly moved in together and managed to link up behind du Guesclin's force, still battling Lancaster. The men-at-arms turned inwards to take du Guesclin's men from the rear, while the archers faced out against the inevitable Spanish counterattack. It was not long in coming. Enrique realized that the Percy/de Buch line had to be broken. Three times his knights charged; and each time the charge faded to nothing under the withering hail of English clothyard shafts (arrows). Edward moved up his own central division to increase the pressure on du Guesclin.

In desperation, Enrique ordered up his infantry mass – but again it never came to grips with the forces of Edward and Pedro. Despite the disparity in numbers the archers waited calmly until the infantry were in range and loosed volley after volley. Enrique's infantry faltered, broke and fled. Half of his force having fled the field without striking a blow, the Franco-Castilian army disintegrated.

Realizing the battle was lost, Enrique chose to flee as well. The Spanish cavalry was able to scatter but the infantry could only escape over the narrow bridge of Nájera. As Prince Edward's fresh third division led by Sir Hugh Calveley and the Count of Armagnac – likely still all mounted and awaiting just this possibility – swept round past Percy and chased after the Spanish. Many of Enrique's men died in this pursuit, both in the press of pursuit and by drowning. The waters below the only bridge were choked with bodies, and the dead piled up along the streets of the town. The English and Gascon soldiers fought their way into the town, pillaging it without mercy. Du Guesclin did not surrender until he realized that the Spanish army had gone. His force had been surrounded throughout the battle, one quarter of its number was dead, practically all the others injured.

By mid-afternoon the battle was over, and the English had time to count their prisoners, and their casualties. Enrique had escaped, but many French and Castilian knights – including the Masters of the great Military Orders of Santiago and Calatrava, plus Bertrand du Guesclin and Marshal d'Audrehem – were in Anglo-Gascon hands.

Battle of Najera, April 3, 1367 (according to description of Jean Froissart) (Illustration courtesy of
Battle of Najera, April 3, 1367
(according to description of Jean Froissart)
(Illustration courtesy of


Because of the deadly harvest wrought by the English-Welsh archers, the Franco-Castilian army suffered massive casualties. One source cites Spanish casualties of 7000 dead, but I would not be surprised if they were even greater, especially in the rout. English casualties were set at about 200 total; again, this seems remarkably low, and I would speculate that perhaps 1000-2000 dead and wounded would be more realistic. Prince Edward had great trouble preventing King Pedro from executing prisoners out of hand (another indication of how this monarch acquired the sobriquet "the Cruel"). The English prince finally convinced Pedro that it would be to their advantage to ransom the prisoners.

Footnote #1: Prince Edward of Woodstock has gone down in history as "the Black Prince," but this nom de guerre was not used during his lifetime. The most likely explanation is either a) because of the "shield of peace" he used in tournaments, which he appropriated from King John of Bohemia after the king's death at the battle of Crécy – it consisted of three white ostrich feathers on a black background – or b) a reference by French soldier and author Philippe de Mézières, who called Edward the greatest of the "black boars – those aggressors who had done so much to disrupt relations within Christendom." The first literary reference to Prince Edward as the Black Prince came in the 1530's. There is no reliable evidence to support claims that Edward wore black armor. [Edward also became the first Prince of Wales to die before assuming the English throne, dying in 1376 – a week before his 46th birthday – likely from a lingering bout with amoebic dysentery.]

Prince Edwards "Shield of Peace"

Prince Edwards "Shield of Peace"
Prince Edward's "Shield of Peace"

Footnote #2: One of the interesting footnotes of history is that an English knight and commander named Hugh Calveley – who had fought in the first phase of the Hundred Years' War – became a mercenary commander after the Peace of Brétigny. He was hired to dethrone Pedro of Castile, then returned to Aquitaine. In 1367, Prince Edward called him and his soldiers back to English service, in order to return Pedro to the throne. Calveley and his men fought in the final phase of the battle of Nájera. He would continue to serve his country until his death in 1394.

Footnote #3: Pedro the Cruel regained his throne, but only temporarily. He and Prince Edward soon fell out after Pedro refused to transfer the promised territory to Edward. What hurt even more was Pedro's refusal to reimburse the Prince of Wales for the cost of his expedition (some historians speculate that Pedro never intended to repay Edward's generosity).Two years later, Enrique returned to Castile and continued the civil war. Pedro died at the hands of his half-brother, betrayed by Bertrand du Guesclin. Pedro's death is commemorated as part of the "Monk's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Footnote #4: After the battle, Prince Edward found himself in an interesting situation. One of the French noble captives was a Marshal of France, Arnoul d'Audrehem, who had still not paid his ransom due after his capture at the battle of Poitiers eleven years earlier. Under the prevailing rules of chivalry, d'Audrehem should not have taken up arms against the prince until this debt had been discharged. Edward promptly threatened d'Audrehem with death for violating his parole. The Frenchman agreed to be heard by a body of knights to judge him. d'Audrehem avoided execution by pointing out rather bluntly that he was not fighting against the Prince of Wales, but against the Prince's paymaster, King Pedro. The board of knights found in his favor (he eventually paid his original ransom in 1369). D'Audrehem was later given the singular honor of being the standard bearer of the oriflamme, the French national battle standard, until his death in 1370.

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