- Roman province (see AQUITANIA);
- Duchy, Kingdom, and sub-Kingdom in the Frankish era;
- Medieval Duchy;
- Modern administrative region – in southwestern France.
The extent of Aquitaine has varied greatly, from the days of the Romans onwards. They first used Aquitania (or Aquitanica) to describe the land between the Pyrenees, the Garonne and the Bay of Biscay. It was named after a people called the Aquitani (since aqua is Latin for water, it perhaps suggested to the Romans “land of waters”). The Romans were apt to move names or extend them, and by the reign of Augustus Aquitania had extended towards the Loire, and, in its uppermost reaches, across it.
Since then Aquitaine has either meant a vast region bounded by the Bay of Biscay in the west, the Pyrenees in the south, and the vicinity of the Loire in north and east (like Aquitania, Aquitaine usually did not quite reach the river), or it has denoted some lesser territory within this vast expanse.
After the Romans, the Visigoths ruled a vast region between the Loire and the Pyrenees. Their Kingdom also included Toulouse, which served as their capital and which had not belonged to Roman Aquitania. They were driven out of most of Gaul after the Franks had won the Battle of Vouillé in 507, but the lands beyond the Loire were too distant from the centres of Merovingian power to be firmly held.
What usually happened when the Frankish Kingdom was partitioned was that Aquitaine was divided among the two, three or four Kings, a practice which perhaps arose out of weakness and which must have further weakened Frankish authority there. In the south the Basques intruded into the lowlands of the lower Garonne and the region became known as Gascony from a variant of their name, while in the north an independent Duchy of Aquitaine emerged in the 7th century.
In 721 Duke Eudes successfully defended Toulouse against the Arab/Berber conquerors of Spain, but in 732 he had to seek the support of Charles Martel against Arab attack. Together they defeated the Arabs at the Battle of Poitiers (or Tours) in 732. When Eudes died in 735 Charles Martel intervened in Aquitaine and brought it back more tightly into the Kingdom. His sons had to campaign there in 745 and it was only in the 760s that Pepin the Short brought about the end of ducal power after several campaigns, the last of them in 768, the year of his death. His Kingdom was partitioned between his sons: the elder, Charlemagne, held coastal Aquitaine and the younger, Carloman, Berry and Auvergne.
Charlemagne, in the first year of his reign, dealt with the rebellion of the son of the last Duke of Aquitaine. Carloman died in 771, and the Frankish Kingdom was reunited. Ten years later southwestern Gaul, including Toulouse, became the Kingdom of Aquitaine for Charlemagne’s three year old third son, Louis.
From 806, when Charlemagne proposed the future partition of his lands after his death, Louis’s Kingdom was prospectively the Kingdom of all southern Gaul, because Charlemagne planned its extension eastwards across the Rhône to the southwestern Alps. In the event the two elder brothers of Louis the Pious died in 810 and 811 and Louis inherited the entire Carolingian Empire when Charlemagne died in 814.
Louis too created sub-Kingdoms for his sons and in 817 his second son, Pepin I, became King of his father’s old Kingdom. After Pepin’s death in 838, Louis the Pious gave the Kingdom of Aquitaine to his son by his second marriage, Charles, later nicknamed the Bald rather than to Pepin’s son, Pepin II. A long struggle followed, not finally resolved until Pepin II finally disappeared within monastic walls in 864, and presumably, given his track-record for reappearing after defeat, he went quickly into the monastic graveyard as well. Charles the Bald gave Aquitaine to two of his sons in succession, the survivor, Louis the Stammerer, succeeding Charles as King of the West Franks in 877, when the separate sub-Kingdom of Aquitaine disappeared for ever.
The prolonged dynastic struggles of the 9th century meant that much of the power in the Kingdom of Aquitaine was exercised by the local great men. Gascony remained largely independent, the Spanish March south of the Pyrenees had the necessary autonomy of a border zone, the Dukes or Counts of Toulouse were powerful in the Midi, so that whatever the nominal extent of the sub-Kingdom, its real power lay more in the north and northeast.
Sometime before his death in 890, Count Ramnulf II of Poitou, a grandson of Louis the Pious through his mother, assumed the title of Duke of the Aquitanians (King, according to one source). After his death, his bastard son, Ebles, sought to succeed him, but in the ensuing struggle lost both the Ducal title and Poitou.
The most powerful prince in France south of the Loire at that time was William the Pious, the Count of Auvergne, who also held lands in Berry and in Burgundy, where he founded the Abbey of Cluny in 910. By 909 he was using the title of Duke of the Aquitanians. He had some claims of overlordship over Toulouse, of which his father, Bernard Plantevalue, had been Count for a time. Gascony and Bordeaux lay beyond his power.
He died without a son in 918 and was succeeded by his sister’s sons in turn. The second died in 927, but by then his power was confined to the Auvergne, while Ebles, restored to Poitou in 902, and Raymond Pons of Toulouse, who used the Ducal title, contended for predominance in Aquitaine. For a while Raymond Pons was overlord of the Auvergne, but well before his death in 950 power there had slipped away from him. His heir as Count of Toulouse made no attempt to revive his claims. In 965 Count William II of Poitiers, grandson of Ebles, assumed the ducal title. It was Poitou that made him powerful; he and his successors held such power and influence in Berry, Auvergne, Limousin, Périgord and Angoumois, as their own strength and the weakness of others made possible.
What made Poitevan Aquitaine more than a very powerful County, generally able to influence its neighbours, came about as a result of the second marriage of Duke William the Great, who died in 1030, to a daughter of the Duke of Gascony. The ducal line in Gascony died out in 1032. Eudes, the son of William’s Gascon marriage, claimed the Duchy of Gascony and also became the ruler of Aquitaine and Poitou when his half-brother died in 1038. Eudes himself died childless in 1039. Eudes’s half-brother, who succeeded to Aquitaine, claimed the Gascon inheritance as well, even though he was not descended from the Gascon Dukes.
A long struggle followed, ending in victory for Aquitaine in 1063. Poitou and Gascony were thus joined together, and with time the centre of gravity in the Duchy shifted from Poitiers to Bordeaux. The lands between Poitou and Gascony – Saintonge, Angoulême, Limousin, Périgord – inevitably felt the power of the Duke more, but Auvergne and Berry became less important because they were more peripheral.
The succession of Poitevan Dukes came to an end with the death of Duke William X in 1137. He had arranged with King Louis VI, who also died in that year, that his heiress and elder daughter, Eleanor, should marry the heir to the Kingdom, Louis VII. Thus the Kingdom gained a great Duchy and its heiress gained a protector able to see off other claimants. Two troubles afflicted the marriage: as husband and wife Louis and Eleanor were ill-suited and the only issue of the marriage were daughters, so Kingdom and Duchy must again part when either King or Queen died. The marriage ended in divorce in 1151, but Eleanor, who lacked the profound sense of doing the decent thing that her divorced husband had in abundance, did not take the customary course of retiring to a monastery and devoting herself to prayer and good works. Instead she married a prince several years younger than herself, Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Although of course a lesser prince in France than Eleanor’s first husband, Henry had the distinct advantage that his lands of Anjou bordered on the inheritance of his wife, whereas among the lands that Louis VII directly held, only a few parcels of territory in Berry lay close to Eleanor’s land. Henry therefore was much better placed to exploit his gain than Louis had been. The danger to the King of France was magnified when, shortly after the marriage, Stephen, who had usurped the throne of England which Henry’s mother had reckoned was hers by right, accepted Henry as his heir. In 1154 Henry became King of England and his lands stretched from the Pennines to the Pyrenees.
Henry II, Eleanor, and their son Richard I, to whom the Duchy was granted in 1169, engaged in family rows, but the Duchy and the other lands stayed intact. It was left to the youngest son of the marriage, John, to lose many of the territories he inherited in 1199. By 1204 he had lost Normandy and Anjou and parts of Poitou, the land of his mother’s ancestors. By the 1220s Aquitaine was reduced to western Gascony and the Bordeaux region, though some of the local rulers in eastern Gascony and the lands along the Rivers Dordogne and Lot were at times persuaded to acknowledge the rights of the King of England as Duke.
Henry III, John’s son, sought eventually to stabilise the situation. The piecemeal encroachments upon the remaining lands made it necessary for the King-Duke to swallow his pride and renounce most of the lands he had lost. This was done in an agreement in 1259 with Louis IX, whom the English King was obliged to acknowledge as his overlord in his Duchy of Aquitaine. Henry had the promise that the lands in Agenais and Quercy would return when Alphonse, the French King’s brother, died. Alphonse held what might be called the anti-Aquitaine: he was Count of Poitou, the principal lands of the Dukes in the 10th century, he was lord of the Terre d’Auvergne, where the first two Duke Williams had ruled, and he was by marriage Count of Toulouse, whose predecessors had been rivals and sometime claimants to Aquitaine.
This subordinate status of the English Kings in their Duchy of Aquitaine restricted their diplomatic freedom and injured their pride without necessarily freeing them from the attention of French lawyers and the encroachments of royal officials. One way was to transfer the Duchy to a son, but that only pushed the problem away a little distance in space and time. Twice the Duchy was confiscated by the King of France, in 1294 and 1324, and on both occasions the Duchy was seized by French troops. Papal mediation in 1297 brought about a settlement of the first crisis in 1299, while the second was resolved in 1325 by Charles IV of France returning the Duchy to Edward II’s son, Edward, whose mother Isabella was Charles’s sister. Isabella was already preparing the way for the destruction of her husband’s rule. Edward III, who became King in 1327 and effective ruler in 1330, had thus direct knowledge in his youth of the problem created by the subordinate status of the English King in his Duchy of Aquitaine. That problem was to be one of the principal factors that propelled him into claiming in 1337 that he was himself the rightful King of France; by doing so he bypassed the problem of his subordination in Aquitaine to the King.
The English successes in the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War led to peace proposals in the Treaty of Brétigny of 1360 which allowed freedom from subordination for Aquitaine, as well as setting generous limits to its boundaries. Poitou, Limousin, Périgord, Quercy, Rouergue and the eastern lands of Gascony were all included in the independent Duchy; only Berry and most of Auvergne, of the lands once linked with Aquitaine, were excluded. Neither King ratified the Treaty however, and by 1373 it was a dead letter, so that the lands actually held by the English King were those much nearer the coast and the Gironde. These lands and those to the east remained a war zone for many years to come. The next great surge of English power, in the 1410s and 1420s, rushed through northern rather than southern France, though, except for Calais, it was in the south, around Bordeaux, that English rule survived the longest. In 1453 the English-held Duchy of Aquitaine gave up its last territory and the word became simply an historical relic.
There was in fact an alternative name for the Duchy: Guyenne or Guienne, a diminutive of Aquitaine. The name of Guyenne had been used earlier in the 15th century for a Duchy held by one of the several sons of King Charles VI who predeceased him – another variety of an anti-Aquitaine. After 1453, whether for a ducal title, such as for Charles, the younger son of Charles VII, or for a province, or for the huge gouvernement of Guyenne & Gascony, it was Guyenne that was used rather than the older name of Aquitaine.
Aquitaine however made its reappearance when the economic administrative regions were first set up in 1960, giving its name to the southwesternmost of the French regions, which comprised (anti-clockwise from the east) the departments of Lot-et-Garonne, Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, and Pyrénées-Atlantiques (previously Basses-Pyrénées), an area not too dissimilar from the last two centuries or so of English-held Aquitaine.