Over the winter of 1282-3, a new kind of soldier arrived in the British Isles. These were men of Gascony, part of the ancient duchy of Aquitaine in south-west France. They had been summoned by the King of England, Edward I, who was also (among other titles) the king-duke of Gascony. The Gascons were elite troops, raised by the king for a specific purpose: to break the stubborn resistance of the Welsh.
Edward had been fighting the Welsh since the spring of 1282, when they rose against him under their leaders, Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and his brother, Dafydd. Llywelyn was killed in an ambush in December, but fighting continued under Dafydd, who succeeded his brother as Prince of Wales.
Dafydd and his men retreated to their mountain fortress of Snowdonia (or Eryri in Welsh). This was a tough nut to crack: the Welsh were expert guerilla fighters, and knew how to use the rough terrain to their advantage. Previous invading English armies had been cut to pieces in the mountains, and Edward was determined to avoid the same fate.
To break the Welsh, he called upon the Gascons. Many were from the Pyrenees, along the border of France and Spain. These men were called ‘Montagnards’ or mountain people. Like the Welsh, they produced hardy light infantry, used to fighting in harsh conditions and moving swiftly across difficult terrain.
They also produced another kind of soldier, unknown in the British Isles at this time. These were mounted crossbowmen, heavily armed and mounted on ‘barded’ horses (barding at this time was a type of padded leather coat, rather than the later steel covering). Gascon mounted crossbows could apparently shoot from horseback, and their high rates of pay imply they were regarded as specialist troops. The average English or Welsh infantrymen was paid 1d (pence) a day in this period, but Gascon mounted crossbowmen or ‘arbalasters’ were on the extraordinary rate of 18d a day.
In all, over two and a half thousand Gascons were summoned to fight in Wales. An English chronicler describes their performance:
“They remain with the king, receive his gifts,
In moors and mountains they clamber like lions.
They go with the English, burn the houses,
Throw down the castles, slay the wretches,
They have passed the Marches, and entered into Snowdon.”
What kind of men were these ‘mountain lions?’ They have been described as the Swiss of the thirteenth century, certainly a cut above the average rank and file. English chroniclers were distrustful of these foreign troops: they came pompously, one writer complained, and left a trail of unpaid tavern debts behind them.
In spite of these gripes, the Gascons played an important role in grinding down Welsh resistance. They were only employed for a few weeks as the spearhead of Edward’s final advance into North Wales. When their task was done, the Gascons were ferried back to their homeland, where they could resume the age-old custom of fighting each other.