Is there ever a Right Excuse for War?
Justifying Military Intervention in the Castile of Pedro I
by Lorena Bolaños
The American presidential debates these past few weeks have not only been painful to watch at times, but also surprisingly apropos of my current, medieval readings on Pedro I of Castile. From the Republican candidate’s denials of ever being in favor of the US intervention in Iraq, to Clinton’s regrets for having supported the war, theirs is a recent example of a conversation that dates back centuries: foreign military intervention and its often more difficult aftermath. In the case of fourteenth-century Castile, the struggle for the crown between Pedro I, the legitimate king, and his half-brother, Enrique of Trastamara, soon involved foreign powers already waging their own dynastic and territorial war since earlier that same century. Ultimately, the Anglo-French involvement in Peninsular affairs had a profound impact on the history of Castile; in turn, the new Castilian and French alliance that emerged with the rise of the Trastamaran dynasty pushed the war against England in new directions. In this brief study, I focus on the arguments expressed by one of the century’s most famous chroniclers to justify the Black Prince’s decision to aid Pedro I, Jean Froissart (1337-1404).
As it becomes clear in the rhetoric employed by the chronicles, intervention in the Castilian conflict either by France or England was directly contingent on the depiction of Pedro I preferred by one or another of the authors who wrote about him. While Chancellor Ayala, following the new dynasty’s agenda, was unapologetically biased in his cruel portrait of the Castilian King, abroad, Froissart left us a dialogue of motives to aid the fallen king, balancing out to some extent his own reprising of the horror stories about Pedro that had been promulgated by Enrique II and his followers. In Froissart’s account of events, the Black Prince is encouraged to reply positively to Pedro’s plea for help because of two reasons: 1. Despite Pedro’s faults, it is not reasonable for a legitimate king to be disinherited by a brother, nor can another king’s son remain passive in view of this; and 2. England is bound by past alliances made between the two kingdoms. In the earlier version of Book 1, the chronicler had said explicitly that such an action is a direct attack on the royal state.
These types of arguments hardly seem out of fashion if we put them next to recent events, especially if in lieu of “monarchies” we think of “democracy” and other major contemporary systems of government. What is equally evocative of our times is the disastrous cost of intervention, as it was the case for the English near the end of their campaign in Castile. Not only did England experience a military setback in its war against France, but also suffered the decline in health, finances, and political power of the heir to its kingdom, since Prince Edward did not recover entirely after leaving the Peninsula at the end of the conflict. When the economic promises made by Pedro I to the English prince were not upheld, and his “unchivalrous” character exposed, there was little else Edward could do to secure compensation for his efforts. Ultimately, the Castilian king met his end at Montiel abandoned by many, at the hands of Enrique II and his French allies.
While being the paragon of chivalry and one of the greatest heroes in Froissart’s chronicles, the Black Prince nonetheless failed to envision the dangers of his intervention in the foreign conflict. Edward lacked vision by supporting the cause of an unjust ruler even against the advice of his counselors, who reminded him of the cruelty supposedly committed by Pedro and of the ensuing rebellion against him in Castile. Curiously, Froissart goes on to describe the financial costs of the Spanish campaign for the Black Prince following his return in Aquitaine, where he had already fallen out of sympathy with some of his own subjects. Hence, both the direct and long-term consequences of England’s involvement in Castile are carefully treated by Froissart.
By the time the Hainault native wrote the first and subsequent versions of his chronicles, time had already shown the effects of the English intervention and, in general, of the regicide at Montiel. Of course, things were not completely forgotten, but they had changed. Froissart could look back in hindsight and in the comfort of this literary persona recount the events relating to the war in the Peninsula. But unlike what Ayala did for Castile, Froissart did not set out to write the official history of France or England, but rather to inspire future noble men through the renowned actions of others in the recent past. He does so, however, while also modeling reality in that his account exemplifies the beliefs and expectations of his time, including those of its leading figures. Not unlike today’s media channels, the chronicle served to inform its audience of events, but also to take what happened and analyze its significance for posterity. As some would put it, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
Accordingly, Froissart updates the events of the 1360s to his readers ten or more year later, underscoring (some of) the rhetorical mechanisms used by England to back Pedro’s cause. It was all a monarchical crisis epitomized by Pedro’s fall, a response to a serious call for action, and a dangerous precedent for the idea of England itself if left ignored. Once the English campaign had failed, the arguments that once sought to support the intervention were discredited. However, because of their reproduction in Froissart’s first book, and especially for the sensational description that the author gives to his account of the events, the arguments can hardly go unnoticed. The aftermath was unexpected, but what the arguments highlighted did not necessarily contradict England’s genuine values. Intervention was simply not the right response to the crisis, especially not with an ally as Pedro I, according to Froissart’s description of his character.
As can be seen, the Castilian king himself is at the very center of the failed campaign. The entire section from the moment Enrique II and his French support first overthrow Pedro I –which would prompt the king’s plea for help to England – to his death three years later focuses on the rumors about and the depiction of the ousted king. It is a story as much about him as about the battleground of France and England in the Peninsula.
In brief, Froissart presents exemplary deeds and actions to be followed, as well as warnings about those deeds to learn from and avoid. If learned well, Froissart’s account of the English participation in Spain would inspire reflection and regret to future r/leaders. On the other hand, being silent about the initial support by the Black Prince would have hardly served a didactic purpose.
After completing her B.A. in French and Spanish literature from the University of Richmond (VA), Lorena Bolaños began her PhD studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Now a Doctoral candidate, she specializes on late medieval Spanish and French history and literature, particularly on the work of Pero López de Ayala (1332-1407) and Jean Froissart (1337-1404). Among her interests is the official narrative and propaganda used to explain the Castilian war for the crown during the 1360s, as well as Castile’s position within the intermittent European conflict between England and France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. She is also interested on Franco-Spanish political, literary, and cultural relations, especially following the rise of the new Trastamaran dynasty.
 Jean Froissart, Chroniques. Livre 1. Le Manuscrit d’Amiens. Bibliothèque municipale nº 486 : Tome III. Ed. George T. Diller. Geneva : Droz, ‘Textes littéraires français’, 1992. p. 374.
 As observed in Valentina Mazzei’s transcription of a manuscript of version ‘A’ (Besançon BM ms. 864), available via the Online Froissart.
Photo caption: The Black Prince extorts an amnesty from Pedro the Cruel, Spain, 1367 (1864). Artist: James William Edmund Doyle