GASCONY (Wasconia), an old province in the S.W. of France. It takes its name from the Vascones, a Spanish tribe which in 580 and 587 crossed the Pyrenees and invaded the district known to the Romans as Novempopulana or Aquitania tertia. Basque, the national language of the Vascones, took root only in a few of the high valleys of the Pyrenees, such as Soule and Labourd; in the plains Latin dialects prevailed, Gascon being a Romance language. In the 7th century the name of Vasconia was substituted for that of Novempopulana. The Vascones readily recognized the sovereignty of the Merovingian kings. In 602 they consented to be governed by a duke called Genialis, but in reality they remained independent. They even appointed national dukes, against whom Charlemagne had to fight at the beginning of his reign. Finally Duke Lupus II. made his submission in 819, and the Carolingians were able to establish Frankish dukes in the country. Three of these are known: Séguin (Sighivinus), William (Guillaume), and Arnaud (Arnaldus). They were at the same time counts of Bordeaux, and succumbed to the Normans. After the death of Arnaud in 864 the history of Gascony falls into the profoundest obscurity. The lists of the 10th-century dukes prepared by ancient and modern historians can only be established by means of hypotheses based in many cases on spurious documents (e.g. the charter of Alaon), and little confidence can be placed in them. During this troubled period Gascony was from time to time attached to one or other of the other Vascon states which had been formed on the southern slope of the Pyrenees, but in the reign of Hugh Capet it was considered as forming part of France, from which it has never been separated. Disputed in the 11th century by the counts of Poitiers, who were also dukes of Aquitaine, and by the counts of Armagnac, the duchy finally passed to the house of Poitiers in 1073, when the title of duke of Gascony was merged in that of duke of Aquitaine and disappeared. In the feudal period Gascony comprised a great number of countships (including Armagnac, Bigorre, Fézensac, Gaure and Pardiac), viscountships (including Béarn, Lomagne, Dax, Juliac, Soule, Marsan, Tartas, Labourd and Maremne), and seigneuries (e.g. Albret, etc.). From the ecclesiastical point of view, it corresponded nearly to the archbishopric of Auch.
From about 1073 to 1137 Gascony was governed by the dukes of Aquitaine and counts of Poitiers, one of whom, William IX., gave the first charter of privileges to the town of Bayonne; but the duchy was weakened by the increasing independence of its great feudatories, especially the viscounts of Béarn and the counts of Armagnac. In 1137, the year of her father's death, Eleanor, the daughter and heiress of Duke William X., married the king of France, Louis VII., and with the rest of Aquitaine Gascony passed under his direct rule. In 1151, however, this marriage was annulled, and almost at once Eleanor married Henry of Anjou, who three years later became king of England as Henry II. Thus was the house of Plantagenet introduced into Gascony and a fresh bone of contention was thrown between the kings of England and of France. Having established himself in the duchy by force of arms, Henry handed it over to his son Richard, against whom many of the great Gascon lords revolted, and from Richard it passed to his brother John. The crusade against the Albigenses was carried into Gascony, and this warfare gave a new impetus to the process of disintegration which was already at work in the duchy. King John and his successor Henry III. were weak; the neighbouring counts of Toulouse were powerful and aggressive; and the house of Béarn was growing in strength. Gascony served Henry III. as headquarters during his two short and disastrous wars (1230 and 1242) with Louis IX., and in 1259 he did homage for it to this king; his son, Edward I., lost and then regained the duchy.
During the Hundred Years' War Gascony was obviously a battle-field for the forces of England and of France. The French seized the duchy, but, aided by the rivalry between the powerful houses of Foix and Armagnac, Edward III. was able to recover it, and by the treaty of Bretigny in 1360 John II. recognized the absolute sovereignty of England therein. Handed over as a principality by Edward to his son, the Black Prince, it was used by its new ruler as a base during his expedition into Spain, in which he received substantial help from the Gascon nobles. The renewal of the war between England and France, which took place in 1369, was due in part to a dispute over the sovereignty of Gascony, and during its course the position of the English was seriously weakened, the whole of the duchy save a few towns and fortresses being lost; but the victories of Henry V. in northern France postponed for a time the total expulsion of the foreigner. This was reserved for the final stage of the war and was one result of the efforts of Joan of Arc, the year 1451 witnessing the capture of Bayonne and the final retreat of the English troops from the duchy. During this time the inhabitants of Gascony suffered severely from the ravages of both parties, and the nobles ruled or misruled without restraint.
The French kings, especially Louis XI., managed to restore the royal authority in the duchy, although this was not really accomplished until the close of the 15th century when the house of Armagnac was overthrown. It was by means of administrative measures that these kings attained their object. Gascony was governed on the same lines as other parts of France and from the time of Henry IV., who was prince of Béarn, and who united his hereditary lands with the crown, its history differs very slightly from that of the rest of the country. The Renaissance inspired the foundation of educational institutions and the Reformation was largely accepted in Béarn, but not in other parts of Gascony. The wars of religion swept over the land, which was the scene of some of the military exploits of Henry IV., and Louis XIV. made some slight changes in its government. As may be surmised the boundaries of Gascony varied from time to time, but just before the outbreak of the Revolution they were the Atlantic Ocean, Guienne, Languedoc and the Pyrenees, and from east to west the duchy at its greatest extent measured 170 m.
At the end of the ancien régime Gascony was united with Guienne to form a great military government. After the division of France into departments, Gascony, together with Béarn, French Navarre and the Basque country, formed the departments of Basses-Pyrénées, Landes, Hautes-Pyrénées and Gers. Parts of Gascony also now form arrondissements and cantons of the departments of Lot-et-Garonne, Haute-Garonne, Ariège and Tarn-et-Garonne.
See Arnaud Oïhénart, Notitia utriusque Vasconiae, tam Ibericae quam Aquitanicae (1637); L'Abbé Monlezun, Histoire de la Gascogne (1846-1850), comprising a number of useful but uncritically edited documents; and Jean de Jaurgain, La Vasconie, étude historique et critique sur les origines ... du duché de Gascogne ... et des grands fiefs du duché de Gascogne (1898-1902), a learned and ingenious work, but characterized by unbridled genealogical fancy. This last work was rectified by Ferdinand Lot in his Etudes sur le règne de Hugues Capet (1903; see especially appendix x.). See also Barrau-Dihigo, "La Gascogne," a bibliography of manuscript sources and of printed works published in the Revue de synthèse historique (1903).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)