Chapter IX: The Siege of Hennebon
 

The besiegers of Hennebon were greatly discouraged at the success of the enterprise of the countess. They had already attempted several desperate assaults, but had each time been repulsed with very heavy loss. They now sent to Rennes for twelve of the immense machines used in battering walls, which had been left behind there on a false report of the weakness of Hennebon. Pending the arrival of these, Charles of Blois, with one division of the army, marched away to attack Auray, leaving Don Louis to carry on the siege with a force considered amply sufficient to compel its surrender after the arrival of the battering machines.

In a few days these arrived and were speedily set to work, and immense masses of stone were hurled at the walls.

Walter continued to act as the countess's especial squire. She had informed Sir William Caddoudal and Sir John Powis that it was at his suggestion that she had made the sudden attack upon the French camp, and he had gained great credit thereby.

The effect of the new machines was speedily visible. The walls crumbled under the tremendous blows, and although the archers harassed by their arrows the men working them, the French speedily erected screens which sheltered them from their fire. The spirits of the defenders began to sink rapidly, as they saw that in a very short time great breaches would be made in the walls, and that all the horrors and disasters of a city taken by assault awaited them. The Bishop of Quimper who was within the walls, entered into secret negotiations with his nephew, Henry de Leon, who had gone over to the enemy after the surrender of Nantes, and was now with the besieging army. The besiegers, delighted to find an ally within the walls who might save them from the heavy losses which an assault would entail upon them, at once embraced his offers, and promised him a large recompense if he would bring over the other commanders and nobles. The wily bishop set to work, and the consequences were soon visible. Open grumbling broke forth at the hardships which were endured, and at the prospect of the wholesale slaughter which would attend a storm when all hope of a successful resistance was at an end.

"I fear, Walter," Sir John said one morning, "that the end is at hand. On all sides submission is spoken of, and all that I can say to keep up their spirits is useless. Upon our own little band we can rely, but I doubt if outside them a single determined man is to be found in the town. In vain do I speak of the arrival of Sir Walter Manny. Nearly ninety days have elapsed since we sailed, and all hope of his coming is gone. I point out to them that contrary winds have been blowing, and that at any moment he may arrive; but they will not hear me. The bishop has gained over the whole of them by his promises that none shall be molested in property or estate should they surrender."

"It is sad to see the countess," Walter replied; "she who has shown such high spirit throughout the siege now does nothing but weep, for she knows that with her and her child in the hands of the French the cause of the count is lost. If she could carry off the child by sea she would not so much care for the fall of the town, but the French ships lie thick round the port, and there is no hope of breaking through."

Two days later the conspiracy came to a head, and the people, assembling round the countess's house, clamoured for surrender. The breaches were open, and the enemy might pour in at any time and put all to the sword. The countess begged for a little further delay, but in vain, and withdrew to the turret where she had for so many weary weeks watched the horizon, in hopes of seeing the sails of the approaching fleet. Walter was at the time with Sir John Powis on the walls.

Presently a large body of French were seen approaching headed by Henry de Leon, who summoned the town to surrender. Many standing on the walls shouted that the gates should be thrown open; but Sir John returned for answer that he must consult the countess, and that upon her answer must depend whether he and his men would defend the breach until the last.

"Come with me, Walter," he said, "we must fain persuade the countess. If she says no, we Englishmen will die in the breach; but though ready to give my life for so brave a lady, I own that it is useless to fight longer. Save our own little band not one in the town will lift a sword again. Such resistance as we can offer will but inflame them to fury, and all the horrors of a sack will be inflicted upon the inhabitants. There she is, poor lady, on the turret, gazing, as usual, seaward."

Suddenly they saw her throw up her arms, and then, turning towards the city, she cried, as she perceived the English knight: "I see them! I see them! The English fleet are coming!"

"Run up, Walter," Sir John exclaimed, "maybe the countess is distraught with her sorrows.

Walter dashed up to the turret, and looking seaward beheld rising over the horizon a number of masts.

"Hurrah ! Sir John," he shouted, "we are saved, the English fleet is in sight."

Many others heard the shout, and the tidings ran like lightning through the town. In wild excitement the people ran to the battlements and roofs, and with cheering and clapping of hands hailed the appearance of the still far-distant fleet. The church bells rang out joyfully and the whole town was wild with excitement.

The Bishop of Quimper, finding that his plans were frustrated, gathered around him some of those who had taken a leading part in the intrigue. These, leaving the city by a gate at which they had placed some of their own faction to open it to the French, issued out and made their way to the assailants' camp, to give news of the altered situation. Don Louis at once ordered an attack to be made with his whole force, in hopes of capturing the place before the arrival of the English succour. But, animated by their new hopes, those so lately despondent and ready to yield manned the breaches and repulsed with great slaughter all attempts on the part of the French to carry them. While the struggle was still going on, the countess, aided by the wives of the burghers, busied herself in preparing a sumptuous feast in honour of her deliverers who were fast approaching, their ships impelled by a strong and favourable breeze. The vessels of the French hastily drew off, and the English fleet sailed into the port hailed by the cheers of the inhabitants. The countess herself received Sir Walter Manny on his landing, and the townspeople vied with each other in offering hospitality to the men-at-arms and archers.

"Ah! Sir John Powis," Sir Walter exclaimed, "what, are you here? I had given you up for lost. We thought you had gone down in the gale the night you started."

"We were separated from the fleet, Sir Walter, but the master held on, and we arrived here four days after we put out. We took part in the siege of Rennes, and have since done our best to aid the countess here."

"And their best has been much," the countess said; "not to say how bravely they have fought upon the walls, it is to Sir John and his little band that I owe it that the town was not surrendered days ago. They alone remained steadfast when all others fell away, and it is due to them that I am still able, as mistress of this town, to greet you on your arrival. Next to Sir John himself, my thanks are due to your young esquire, Walter Somers, who has cheered and stood by me, and to whose suggestions I owe it that I was able at the first to sally out and destroy the French camp while they were attacking the walls, and so greatly hindered their measures against the town. And now, sir, will you follow me? I have prepared for you and your knights such a banquet of welcome as our poor means will allow, and my townspeople will see that good fare is set before your soldiers."

That evening there was high feasting in the town, although the crash of the heavy stones cast by the French machines against the walls never ceased. Early the next morning Sir Walter Manny made a survey of the place and of the disposition of the enemy, and proposed to his knights to sally forth at once and destroy the largest of the enemy's machines, which had been brought up close to the walls. In a few minutes the knights were armed and mounted. Three hundred knights and esquires were to take part in the sortie, they were to be followed by a strong body of men-at-arms.

As soon as the gates were opened a number of archers issued out, and taking their place at the edge of the moat, poured a rain of arrows upon the men working the machine and those guarding it. Most of these took to flight at once, the remainder were cut down by the men-at-arms, who at once proceeded to hew the machine in pieces with the axes with which they were provided. Sir Walter himself and his mounted companions dashed forward to the nearer tents of the French camps, cut down all who opposed them, and setting fire to the huts retired towards the city.

By this time the French were thoroughly alarmed, and numbers of knights and men- at-arms dashed after the little body of English cavalry. These could have regained the place in safety, but in the chivalrous spirit of the time they disdained to retire without striking a blow. Turning their horses, therefore, and laying their lances in rest, they charged the pursuing French.

For a few minutes the conflict was desperate and many on both sides were overthrown; then, as large reinforcements were continually arriving to the French, Sir Walter called off his men and retired slowly. On reaching the moat he halted his forces. The knights wheeled and presented a firm face to the enemy, covering the entrance of their followers into the gate. The French chivalry thundered down upon the little body, but were met by a storm of arrows from the archers lining the moat. Many knights were struck through the bars of their vizors or the joints of their mail. The horses, though defended by iron trappings, fell dead under them, or, maddened by pain, dashed wildly through the ranks, carrying confusion with them, and the French commanders, seeing how heavy were their losses, called off their men from the assault. Sir Walter Manny with his party remained without the gate until the enemy had re-entered their camp, and then rode into the town amid the acclamations of the inhabitants, the countess herself meeting her deliverers at the gate and kissing each, one after the other, in token of her gratitude and admiration.

The arrival of the reinforcements and the proof of skill and vigour given by the English leader, together with the terror caused by the terrible effect of the English arrows, shook the resolution of Don Louis and his troops. Deprived of half their force by the absence of Charles of Blois, it was thought prudent by the leaders to withdraw at once, and the third morning after the arrival of Sir Walter Manny the siege was raised, and the French marched to join Charles of Blois before the Castle of Auray.

Even with the reinforcements brought by Sir Walter Manny, the forces of the Countess of Montford were still so greatly inferior to those of the divisions of the French army that they could not hope to cope with them in the field until the arrival of the main English army, which the King of England himself was to bring over shortly. Accordingly the French laid siege to and captured many small towns and castles. Charles of Blois continued the siege of Auray, and directed Don Louis with his division to attack the town of Dinan. On his way the Spaniard captured the small fortress of Conquet and put the garrison to the sword. Sir Walter Manny, in spite of the inferiority of his force, sallied out to relieve it, but it was taken before his arrival, and Don Louis had marched away to Dinan, leaving a small garrison in Conquet. It was again captured by Sir Walter, but finding it indefensible he returned with the whole of his force to Hennebon. Don Louis captured Dinan and then besieged Guerande. Here he met with a vigorous resistance, but carried it by storm, and gave it up to be pillaged by his soldiers. He now sent back to Charles of Blois the greater part of the French troops who accompanied him, and embarked with the Genoese and Spanish, 8000 in number, and sailed to Quimperle, a rich and populous town in Lower Brittany.

Anchoring in the River Leita, he disembarked his troops, and leaving a guard to protect the vessels marched to the interior, plundering and burning, and from time to time despatching his booty to swell the immense mass which he had brought in his ships from the sack of Guerande.

Quimperle lies but a short distance from Hennebon, and Sir Walter Manny with Almeric de Clisson, a number of English knights, and a body of English archers, in all three thousand men, embarked in the ships in the port, and entering the Leita captured the enemy's fleet and all his treasure. The English then landed, and dividing into three bodies, set out in search of the enemy.

The English columns marched at a short distance apart so as to be able to give each other assistance in case of attack. The news of the English approach soon reached the Spaniards, who were gathered in a solid body, for the enraged country people, armed with clubs and bills, hung on their flanks and cut off any stragglers who left the main body. Don Louis at once moved towards the sea- coast, and coming in sight of one of the English divisions, charged it with his whole force.

The English fought desperately, but the odds of seven to one were too great, and they would have been overpowered had not the other two divisions arrived on the spot and fallen upon the enemy's flanks. After a severe and prolonged struggle the Genoese and Spaniards were completely routed. The armed peasantry slew every fugitive they could overtake, and of the 7000 men with whom Don Louis commenced the battle only 300 accompanied him in his flight to Rennes, the troops of Sir Walter and de Clisson pursuing him to the very gates of that city. Sir Walter marched back with his force to the ships, but finding the wind unfavourable returned to Hennebon by land, capturing by the way the castle of Goy la Foret. Their return was joyfully welcomed, not only for the victory which they had achieved, but because the enemy was again drawing near to the town. Auray had fallen. The brave garrison, after existing for some time upon the flesh of their horses, had endeavoured to cut their way through the besiegers. Most of them were killed in the attempt, but a few escaped and made their way to Hennebon.

Vannes, an important town, and Carhaix quickly surrendered, and the French force was daily receiving considerable reinforcements. This arose from the fact that large numbers of French nobles and knights had, with their followers, taken part with Alfonso, King of Castile and Leon, in his war with the Moors. This had just terminated with the expulsion of the latter from Spain, and the French knights and nobles on their way home for the most part joined at once in the war which their countrymen were waging in Bretagne.

Seeing the great force which was gathering for a fresh siege of Hennebon, Sir Walter Manny and the Countess of Montford sent an urgent message to King Edward for further support. The king was not yet ready, but at the beginning of August he despatched a force under the command of the Earl of Northampton and Robert of Artois. It consisted of twenty-seven knights bannerets and 2000 men-at-arms. Before, however, it could reach Hennebon the second siege of that city had begun. Charles of Blois had approached it with a far larger army than that with which he had on the first occasion sat down before it. Hennebon was, however, much better prepared than at first for resistance. The walls had been repaired, provisions and military stores laid up, and machines constructed. The garrison was very much larger, and was commanded by one of the most gallant knights of the age, and the citizens beheld undaunted the approach of the great French army.

Four days after the French had arrived before Hennebon they were joined by Don Louis, who had been severely wounded in the fight near Quimperle, and had lain for six weeks at Rennes. Sixteen great engines at once began to cast stones against the walls, but Sir Walter caused sandbags to be lowered, and so protected the walls from the attack that little damage was done. The garrison confident in their powers to resist, taunted the assailants from the walls, and specially enraged the Spaniards and Don Louis by allusions to the defeat at Quimperle.

So furious did the Spanish prince become that he took a step unprecedented in those days of chivalry. He one morning entered the tent of Charles of Blois, where a number of French nobles were gathered, and demanded a boon in requital of all his services. Charles at once assented, when, to his surprise and horror, Prince Louis demanded that two English knights, Sir John Butler and Sir Hubert Frisnoy, who had been captured in the course of the campaign and were kept prisoners at Faouet, should be delivered to him to be executed. "These English," he said, "have pursued, discomforted, and wounded me, and have killed the nephew whom I loved so well, and as I have none other mode of vengeance I will cut off their heads before their companions who lie within those walls."

Charles of Blois and his nobles were struck with amazement and horror at the demand, and used every means in their power to turn the savage prince from his purpose, but in vain. They pointed out to him that his name would be dishonoured in all countries where the laws of chivalry prevailed by such a deed, and besought him to choose some other boon. Don Louis refused to yield, and Charles of Blois, finding no alternative between breaking his promise and delivering his prisoners, at last agreed to his request.

The prisoners were sent for, and were informed by Don Louis himself of their approaching end. At first they could not believe that he was in earnest, for such a proceeding was so utterly opposed to the spirit of the times that it seemed impossible to them. Finding that he was in earnest they warned him of the eternal stain which such a deed would bring upon his name. The Spaniard, however, was unmoved either by their words or by the entreaties of the French nobles but told them that he would give them a few hours to prepare for death, and that they should be executed in sight of the walls after the usual dinner hour of the army.

In those days sieges were not conducted in the strict manner in which they are at present, and non-combatants passed without difficulty to and fro between town and camp. The news, therefore, of what was intended speedily reached the garrison, whom it filled with indignation and horror. A council was immediately called, and Sir Walter Manny proposed a plan, which was instantly adopted.

Without loss of time Almeric de Clisson issued forth from the great gate of Hennebon, accompanied by 300 men-at-arms and 1000 archers. The latter took post at once along the edge of the ditches. The men-at-arms rode straight for the enemy's camp, which was undefended, the whole army being within their tents at dinner. Dashing into their midst the English and Breton men-at-arms began to overthrow the tents and spear all that were in them. Not knowing the extent of the danger or the smallness of the attacking force, the French knights sprang up from table, mounted, and rode to encounter the assailants.

For some time these maintained their ground against all assaults until, finding that the whole army was upon them, Almeric de Clisson gave order for his troop to retire slowly upon the town. Fighting every step of the ground and resisting obstinately the repeated onslaught of the French, Clisson approached the gate. Here he was joined by the archers, who with bent bows prepared to resist the advance of the French. As it appeared that the garrison were prepared to give battle outside the walls, the whole French army prepared to move against them.

In the meantime Sir Walter Manny, with 100 men-at-arms and 500 horse archers, issued by a sally-port on the other side of the town, and with all speed rode round to the rear of the French camp. There he found none to oppose him save servants and camp-followers, and making his way straight to the tent of Charles of Blois, where the two knights were confined, he soon freed them from their bonds. They were mounted without wasting a moment's time upon two spare horses, and turning again the whole party rode back towards Hennebon, and had reached the postern gate before the fugitives from the camp reached the French commanders and told them what had happened.

Seeing that he was now too late, because of De Clisson's sortie, Charles of Blois recalled his army from the attack, in which he could only have suffered heavily from the arrows of the archers and the missiles from the walls. The same day, he learned from some prisoners captured in the sortie, of the undiminished spirit of the garrison, and that Hennebon was amply supplied with provisions brought by sea. His own army was becoming straitened by the scarcity of supplies in the country round, he therefore determined at once to raise the siege, and to besiege some place where he would encounter less serious resistance.

Accordingly, next morning he drew off his army and marched to Carhaix.

Shortly afterwards the news came that the Earl of Northampton and Robert of Artois, with their force, had sailed, and Don Louis, with the Genoese and other Italian mercenaries, started to intercept them with a large fleet. The fleets met off the island of Guernsey, and a severe engagement took place, which lasted till night. During the darkness a tremendous storm burst upon them and the combatants separated. The English succeeded in making their way to Brittany and landed near Vannes. The Spaniards captured four small ships which had been separated in the storm from their consorts, but did not succeed in regaining the coast of Brittany, being driven south by the storm as far as Spain. The Earl of Northampton at once laid siege to Vannes, and Sir Walter Manny moved with every man that could be spared from Hennebon to assist him.

As it was certain that the French army would press forward with all speed to relieve the town, it was decided to lose no time in battering the walls, but to attempt to carry it at once by assault. The walls, however, were so strong that there seemed little prospect of success attending such an attempt, and a plan was therefore determined upon by which the enemy might be thrown off their guard. The assault commenced at three points in the early morning and was continued all day. No great vigour, however, was shown in these attempts which were repulsed at all points.

At nightfall the assailants drew off to their camp, and Oliver de Clisson, who commanded the town, suffered his weary troops to quit the walls and to seek for refreshment and repose. The assailants, however, did not disarm, but after a sufficient time had elapsed to allow the garrison to lay aside their armour two strong parties attacked the principal gates of the town, while Sir Walter Manny and the Earl of Oxford moved round to the opposite side with ladders for an escalade. The plan was successful. The garrison, snatching up their arms, hurried to repel their attack upon the gates, every man hastening in that direction. Sir Walter Manny with his party were therefore enabled to mount the walls unobserved and make their way into the town; here they fell upon the defenders in the rear, and the sudden onslaught spread confusion and terror among them. The parties at the gates forced their way in and joined their friends, and the whole of the garrison were killed or taken prisoners, save a few, including Oliver Clisson, who made their escape by sally-ports. Robert of Artois, with the Earl of Stafford, was left with a garrison to hold the town. The Earl of Salisbury, with four thousand men, proceeded to lay siege to Rennes, and Sir Walter Manny hastened back to Hennebon.

Some of Sir Walter's men formed part of the garrison of Vannes, and among these was Sir John Powis with a hundred men-at-arms.

The knight had been so pleased with Walter's coolness and courage at the siege at Hennebon that he requested Sir Walter to leave him with him at Vannes. "It is possible," he said to Walter, "that we may have fighting here. Methinks that Sir Walter would have done better to leave a stronger force. The town is a large one, and the inhabitants ill-disposed towards us. Oliver Clisson and the French nobles will feel their honour wounded at the way in which we outwitted them, and will likely enough make an effort to regain the town. However, Rennes and Hennebon are not far away, and we may look for speedy aid from the Earl of Salisbury and Sir Walter should occasion arise."

Sir John's previsions were speedily verified. Oliver Clisson and his friends were determined to wipe out their defeat, and scattered through the country raising volunteers from among the soldiery in all the neighbouring towns and castles, and a month after Vannes was taken they suddenly appeared before the town with an army of 12,000 men, commanded by Beaumanoir, marshal of Bretagne for Charles of Blois. The same reasons which had induced the Earl of Northampton to decide upon a speedy assault instead of the slow process of breaching the walls, actuated the French in pursuing the same course, and, divided into a number of storming parties, the army advanced at once to the assault on the walls. The little garrison prepared for the defence.

"The outlook is bad, Walter," Sir John Powis said. "These men approach with an air of resolution which shows that they are bent upon success. They outnumber us by twelve to one, and it is likely enough that the citizens may rise and attack us in the rear. They have been ordered to bring the stones for the machines to the walls, but no one has laid his hand to the work. We must do our duty as brave men, my lad, but I doubt me if yonder is not the last sun which we shall see. Furious as the French are at our recent success here you may be sure that little quarter will given."