762: Total war

In 762 Pepin broke the back of the Aquitanian resistance. While the war continued for another six or seven years, after 762 it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the final Frankish victory. The campaigns waged by each side during this pivotal year clearly illustrate both the strategy followed by the Franks, as well as the fatal flaw in the Aquitanian leadership.

The previous year Waifar, or more precisely, a couple of his dukes, had launched an unopposed assault into Burgundy, and returned with much plunder. But then king Pepin marched into eastern Aquitaine and burned several major fortresses. Clearly this was not an equation of exchange which would work out for Waifar in the long run. Waifar must have been pondering his options, none of them good, when Pepin came over the river in force, with a major siege train, heading for the de facto capital of northern Aquitaine.

Bourges was the linchpin of the Aquitanian defense, “the strategic key to the military control of northeastern Aquitaine.”1.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.227. The previous two years Pepin had fought warily around it, but never tried to assault it directly. In 762, however, he truly brought the hammer down on a very tough nut. Bachrach devotes as much study to the siege of Bourges as any battle up until the crusades, and you too can dig into his excellent analysis.2.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.227-241. Pepin encircled the town to prevent both sorties from within and relief raids from without, and began battering the walls with his siege engines.

King Peppin… came with his whole Frankish army to Bourges, fortified his position there and plundered the countryside round about. He then surrounded the town with a strong fortification, with siege-engines and all manner of weapons so that no one would have dared to leave or enter it, and he also built a rampart. Finally he took the city after many had been wounded and more slain, and the walls breached. He restored it to his rule by right of of conquest, but of his goodness showed mercy to the men left there as garrison by Waiofar, and dismissed them to go off home. Count Chunibert and such Gascons as he found there had to swear fealty to him and remain in his company; their wives and children were told to set off on foot for Francia. He ordered the repair of the walls of Bourges and left the city in charge of counts of his own.3.Fredegar, ch.43, p.112

After weeks or months of fierce siege combat, the nut had been cracked – Bourges had fallen, and Thouars as well, about 120 miles to the west. The doors to Aquitaine were wide open. And while Pepin launched his assault, what were Waifar and his magnates doing? Fredegar mentions three separate attacks by Aquitanian counts, and reports that all three were repulsed.

A certain count Mantio, cousin to Waifar, moved against Narbonne, capital of Septimania. But he was intercepted by two Frankish counts.

It so happened that Australdus and Galemanius were making for home with their following when Mantio fell upon them with a crowd of Gascons. There was a stiff fight; but Australdus and Galemanius succeeded, with God’s help, in killing Mantio and all his companions. When they saw this, the Gascons turned tail and fled. They thus lost all the horses they had with them. Up hill and down dale they wandered; but few indeed managed to make good their escape. The Franks continued home rejoicing, with great booty and many horses and trappings.4.Fredegar, ch.44, pp.112-113

As this running battle extended itself through southern Aquitaine, count Chilping of the Auvergne5.Remember than in 761 count Bladinus of the Auvergne had been taken prisoner and hauled in chains before Pepin. gathered himself and attacked east, into Burgundy, aiming for Lyons. But “Count Adalard of Chalon and Count Australdus with their followings took the field against him. There was a fierce engagement on the banks of the Loire and Count Chilping and many of those with him were instantly slain there by the said counts. The Gascons made off when they saw this but not many escaped through the woods and marshes.”6.Fredegar, ch.45, p.113 It is not clear how count Australdus had made his way from Narbonne to Lyons so quickly, as it must have been 200 miles or so. In any case, there would be no sack of Lyons.

Finally, to the north, “Count Ammanugus of Poitiers, who had gone plundering in the Touraine, was killed by the men of Abbot Wulfard of the monastery of the blessed Martin, and many of his companions likewise fell with him. The survivors fled, though not many escaped.”7.Fredegar, ch.45, p.114. While the concept of the ‘fighting bishop’ was not unheard of, it is seldom that you read of it so clearly. This is the last of the battles of 762 recorded by Fredegar.8.Oddly enough, the RFA records only a single sentence for all of this action, “For a third time King Pepin launched a campaign into Aquitaine and he took the city of Bourges and the castle of Thouars.” RFA, year 762, p.44.

At this point the Aquitanian ship of state was listing badly. What else could go wrong? “Meanwhile, Remistanius, Waiofar’s uncle, came to King Pippin and swore to him with many oaths always to be faithful to the king and to his sons. So King Pippin took him under his protection and made him rich presents of gold and silver and costly clothes and horses and arms.” Oh yes, family treachery, always a classic. “[Pepin] gave the fortress and half of the district of Bourges, as far as the Cher, to Remistanius in order to offer resistance to Waiofar.”

As summer shaded into fall the fields of battle was littered with dead and, with them, the Aquitanian grand strategy. Waifar realized that his fortresses could not withstand Pepin’s siege train. “When Waiofar… saw how the king had stormed the fortress of Clermont and had taken the powerful city of Bourges… with siege-engines, and he had been able to do nothing to stop it, he razed the walls of all the Aquitainian cities in his control – that is, Poitiers, Limoges, Saintes, Perigueux, Angouleme and many other cities and fortified places. The noble King Pippin later had them rebuilt and sent his men there to hold the cities.”9.Fredegar, ch.46, p.114-115.

Pepin spent the winter and early spring at his villa near Paris. It is not recorded where Waifar wintered. Not in any major cities, evidently.

As Fredegar put it, in a moment of rare poetic license, “whereas King Pippin with God’s help flourished and went from strength to strength, the cause of Waiofar and his wicked rule declined daily.” Indeed it did. The campaigns of 762 show Pepin with a clear purpose, and willing to spend the time, manpower, and resources in pursuit of his strategic goal. On the other side of the river, however, the Aquitanians demonstrated a fatal lack of unity of command, and acted in fractured disarray. Occasionally Fredegar mentions how Waifar “made an alliance” with a duke in order to attack Pepin, which doesn’t sound like unity of command to me. Running a kingdom was never easy, as even Pepin would discover in 763, while being on the losing side of a war greatly exacerbates everything bad going on.

In any case these fractured Aquitanian attempts at moving to the offensive seem at odds with what must have been Waifar’s essentially defensive strategy, a strategy in which waves of Frankish armies would break themselves against the rocks of impenetrable fortresses. Pepin’s conquest of Thouars, and, of far more importance, Bourges, demonstrated the futility of that dependency. Waifar’s tearing down the walls was a desperate, mid-war switch to a different kind of warfare. As we shall see, it succeeded no more than did his eighth century Maginot Line.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.227.
2. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.227-241.
3. Fredegar, ch.43, p.112
4. Fredegar, ch.44, pp.112-113
5. Remember than in 761 count Bladinus of the Auvergne had been taken prisoner and hauled in chains before Pepin.
6. Fredegar, ch.45, p.113
7. Fredegar, ch.45, p.114. While the concept of the ‘fighting bishop’ was not unheard of, it is seldom that you read of it so clearly.
8. Oddly enough, the RFA records only a single sentence for all of this action, “For a third time King Pepin launched a campaign into Aquitaine and he took the city of Bourges and the castle of Thouars.” RFA, year 762, p.44.
9. Fredegar, ch.46, p.114-115.

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