Chapter XII: Jacob Van Artevelde
 

King Edward found no difficulty in awakening the war spirit of England anew, for the King of France, in an act of infamous treachery, in despite of the solemn terms of the treaty, excited against himself the indignation not only of England but of all Europe. Oliver de Clisson, with fourteen other nobles of Brittany and Normandy, were arrested by his order, taken to Paris, and without form of trial there decapitated. This act of treachery and injustice aroused disgust and shame among the French nobles, and murmurs and discontent spread throughout the whole country.

In Brittany numbers of the nobles fell off from the cause of Charles of Blois, and King Edward hastened his preparations to avenge the butchery of the adherents of the house of Montford. Phillip, however, in defiance of the murmurs of his own subjects, of the indignant remonstrances of Edward, and even those of the pope, who was devoted to his cause, continued the course he had begun, and a number of other nobles were seized and executed. Godfrey of Harcourt alone, warned by the fate of his companions, refused to obey the summons of the king to repair to Paris, and fled to Brabant. His property in France was at once seized by Phillip; and Godfrey, finding that the Duke of Brabant would be unable to shield him from Phillip's vengeance, fled to the English court, and did homage to Edward.

On the 24th of April, 1345, Edward determined no longer to allow Phillip to continue to benefit by his constant violations of the truce, and accordingly sent a defiance to the King of France.

De Montford, who had just succeeded in escaping from his prison in Paris, arrived at this moment in England, and shortly afterwards set sail with a small army under the command of the Earl of Northampton for Britanny, while the Earl of Derby took his departure with a larger force for the defence of Guienne.

King Edward set about raising a large army, which he determined to lead himself, but before passing over to France he desired to strengthen his hold of Flanders. The constant intrigues of Phillip there had exercised a great effect. The count of that country was already strongly in his interest, and it was only the influence of Jacob van Artevelde which maintained the alliance with England. This man had, by his talent and energy, gained an immense influence over his countrymen; but his commanding position and ability had naturally excited the envy and hatred of many of his fellow citizens, among whom was the dean of the weavers of Ghent, one Gerard Denis. The weavers were the most powerful body in this city, and had always been noted for their turbulence and faction; and on a Monday in the month of May, 1345, a great battle took place in the market-place between them and the fullers, of whom 1500 were slain. This victory of the weavers strengthened the power of the party hostile to Artevelde and the English connection; and the former saw that unless he could induce his countrymen to take some irretrievable step in favour of England they would ultimately fall back into the arms of France. Accordingly he invited Edward to pass over with a strong force into Flanders, where he would persuade the Flemings to make the Prince of Wales their duke. King Edward at once accepted the offer, and sailing from Sandwich on the 3d of July arrived in safety at Sluys. His intention had been kept a profound secret, and his arrival created the greatest surprise throughout Flanders. He did not disembark, but received on board a ship with great honour and magnificence the burgomasters of the various towns who appeared to welcome him. The king had brought with him the Prince of Wales, now fifteen years old, who wore a suit of black armour, and was therefore called "the Black Prince."

Walter Somers was on board the royal vessel. The Prince of Wales had not forgotten the promise which he had six years before made to him, and had asked Sir Walter Manny to allow him to follow under his banner.

"You are taking my most trusty squire from me, Prince," the knight said; "for although I have many brave young fellows in my following, there is not one whom I value so much as Walter Somers. It is but fair, however, that you should have him, since you told me when I first took him that he was to follow your banner when you were old enough to go to the wars. You can rely upon him implicitly. He cares not for the gaieties of which most young men of his age think so much. He is ever ready for duty, and he possesses a wisdom and sagacity which will some day make him a great leader."

Walter was sorry to leave his patron, but the step was of course a great advancement, and excited no little envy among his companions, for among the young esquires of the Prince of Wales were the sons of many of the noblest families of England.

Sir Walter presented him on leaving with a heavy purse. "Your expenses will be large," he said, "among so many young gallants, and you must do credit to me as well as to yourself. The young prince is generous to a fault, and as he holds you in high favour, both from his knowledge of you and from my report, you will, I know, lack nothing when you are once fairly embarked in his service; but it is needful that when you first join you should be provided with many suits of courtly raiment, of cloth of gold and silk, which were not needed while you were in the service of a simple knight like myself, but which must be worn by a companion of the heir of England."

Walter had hoped that Sir James Carnegie would have accompanied the forces of either the Earls of Northampton or Derby, but he found that he had attached himself to the royal army.

Ralph of course followed Walter's fortunes, and was now brilliant in the appointments of the Prince of Wales's chosen bodyguard of men-at-arms.

The councils of all the great towns of Flanders assembled at Sluys, and for several days great festivities were held. Then a great assembly was held, and Van Artevelde rose and addressed his countrymen. He set forth to them the virtues of the Prince of Wales, whose courtesy and bearing had so captivated them; he pointed out the obligations which Flanders was under towards King Edward, and the advantages which would arise from a nearer connection with England. With this he contrasted the weakness of their count, the many ills which his adherence to France had brought upon the country, and the danger which menaced them should his power be ever renewed. He then boldly proposed to them that they should at once cast off their allegiance to the count and bestow the vacant coronet upon the Prince of Wales, who, as Duke of Flanders, would undertake the defence and government of the country with the aid of a Flemish council. This wholly unexpected proposition took the Flemish burghers by surprise. Artevelde had calculated upon his eloquence and influence carrying them away, but his power had diminished, and many of his hearers had already been gained to the cause of France. The burgher councils had for a long time had absolute power in their own towns, and the prospect of a powerful prince at their head foredoomed a curtailment of those powers. When Artevelde ceased, therefore, instead of the enthusiastic shouts with which he hoped his oration would be greeted, a confused murmur arose. At last several got up and said that, greatly attached as they were to the king, much as they admired the noble young prince proposed for their acceptance, they felt themselves unable to give an answer upon an affair of such moment without consulting their fellow countrymen and learning their opinions. They therefore promised that they would return on a certain day and give a decided answer.

The Flemish burghers then took their leave. Van Artevelde, after a consultation with the king, started at once to use his influence among the various towns.

After leaving the king he bade adieu to the Prince of Wales. "Would you like," the young prince said, "that one of my esquires should ride with you? His presence might show the people how entirely I am with you; and should you have tidings to send me he could ride hither with them. I have one with me who is prudent and wise, and who possesses all the confidence of that wise and valiant knight, Sir Walter de Manny."

"I will gladly take him, your royal highness," Van Artevelde said, "and hope to despatch him to you very shortly with the news that the great towns of Flanders all gladly receive you as their lord."

In a few minutes Walter had mounted his horse, accompanied by Ralph, and, joining Van Artevelde, rode to Bruges. Here and at Ypres Van Artevelde's efforts were crowned with success. His eloquence carried away the people with him, and both these cities agreed to accept the Prince of Wales as their lord; but the hardest task yet remained. Ghent was the largest and most powerful of the Flemish towns, and here his enemies were in the ascendant. Gerard Denis and the weavers had been stirring up the people against him. All kinds of accusations had been spread, and he was accused of robbing and selling his country. The news of the hostile feeling of the population reached Van Artevelde, and he despatched Walter with the request to the king for a force of five hundred English soldiers as a guard against his enemies.

Had Artevelde asked for a large force, Edward would have disembarked his army and marched at their head into Ghent. As the rest of the country was already won, there can be little doubt that this step would at once have silenced all opposition, and would have annexed Flanders to the British crown. Van Artevelde, however, believed himself to be stronger than he really was, and thought with a small party of soldiers he could seize his principal opponents, and that the people would then rally round him.

Upon the arrival of the five hundred men he started for Ghent; but as he feared that the gates would be shut if he presented himself with an armed force, he left the soldiers in concealment a short distance from the town and entered it, accompanied only by his usual suite. At his invitation, however, Walter, followed of course by Ralph, rode beside him. No sooner was he within the gates than Van Artevelde saw how strong was the popular feeling against him. He had been accustomed to be received with bows of reverence; now men turned aside as he approached, or scowled at him from their doors.

"Methinks, sir," Walter said, "that it would be wiser did we ride back, and, joining the soldiers, enter at their head, or as that number would be scarce sufficient should so large a town rise in tumult, to send to King Edward for a larger force and await their coming. Even should they shut the gates, we can reduce the town, and as all the rest of Flanders is with you, surely a short delay will not matter."

"You know not these Flemings as well as I do," Van Artevelde replied; "they are surly dogs, but they always listen to my voice, and are ready enough to do my bidding. When I once speak to them you will see how they will smooth their backs and do as I ask them."

Walter said no more, but as he saw everywhere lowering brows from window and doorway as they rode through the streets he had doubts whether the power of Van Artevelde's eloquence would have the magical potency he had expected from it.

When the party arrived at the splendid dwelling of the great demagogue, messengers were instantly sent out to all his friends and retainers. A hundred and forty persons soon assembled, and while Van Artevelde was debating with them as to the best steps to be taken, Walter opened the casement and looked out into the street. It was already crowded with the people, whose silent and quiet demeanor seemed to bode no good. Arms were freely displayed among them, and Walter saw men passing to and fro evidently giving instructions.

"I am sorry to disturb you, Master Artevelde," he said, returning to the room where the council was being held, "but methinks that it would wise to bar the doors and windows, and to put yourself in a posture of defence, for a great crowd is gathering without, for the most part armed, and as it seems to me with evil intentions."

A glance from the windows confirmed Walter's statements, and the doors and windows were speedily barricaded. Before many minutes had elapsed the tolling of bells in all parts of the town was heard, and down the different streets leading towards the building large bodies of armed men were seen making their way.

"I had rather have to do with a whole French army, Master Walter," Ralph said, as he stood beside him at an upper window looking down upon the crowd, "than with these citizens of Ghent. Look at those men with bloody axes and stained clothes. Doubtless those are the skinners and butchers. Didst ever see such a ferocious band of savages? Listen to their shouts. Death to Van Artevelde! Down with the English alliance! I thought our case was a bad one when the French poured over the walls into Vannes but methinks it is a hundred times worse now.

"We got out of that scrape, Ralph, and I hope we shall get out of this, but, as you say, the prospect is black enough. See, the butchers are hammering at the door with their pole-axes. Let us go down and aid in the defence."

"I am ready," Ralph said, "but I shall fight with a lighter heart if you could fix upon some plan for us to adopt when the rabble break in. That they will do so I regard as certain, seeing that the house is not built for purposes of defence, but has numerous broad windows on the ground-floor by which assuredly they will burst their way in.

"Wait a moment then, Ralph; let us run up to the top storey and see if there be any means of escape along the roofs."

The house stood detached from the others, but on one side was separated from that next to it only by a narrow lane, and as the upper stories projected beyond those below, the windows were but six feet distant from those on the opposite side of the way.

"See," Water said, "there is a casement in the room to our left there which is open; let us see if it is tenanted."

Going into the next room they went to the window and opened it. It exactly faced the casement opposite, and so far as they could see the room was unoccupied.

"It were easy to put a plank across," Ralph said.

"We must not do that," Walter answered. "The mob are thick in the lane below - what a roar comes up from their voices! - and a plank would be surely seen, and we should be killed there as well as here. No, we must get on to the sill and spring across; the distance is not great, and the jump would be nothing were it not that the casements are so low. It must be done as lightly and quickly as possible, and we may not then be seen from below. Now leave the door open that we may make no mistake as to the room, and come along, for by the sound the fight is hot below."

Running down the stairs Walter and Ralph joined in the defence. Those in the house knew that they would meet with no mercy from the infuriated crowd, and each fought with the bravery of despair. Although there were many windows to be defended, and at each the mob attacked desperately, the assaults were all repulsed. Many indeed of the defenders were struck down by the pikes and pole- axes, but for a time they beat back the assailants whenever they attempted to enter. The noise was prodigious. The alarm-bells of the town were all ringing and the shouts of the combatants were drowned in the hoarse roar of the surging crowd without.

Seeing that however valiant was the defence the assailants must in the end prevail, and feeling sure that his enemies would have closed the city gates and thus prevented the English without from coming to his assistance, Van Artevelde ascended to an upper storey and attempted to address the crowd. His voice was drowned in the roar. In vain he gesticulated and made motions imploring them to hear him, but all was useless, and the courage of the demagogue deserted him and he burst into tears at the prospect of death. Then he determined to try and make his escape to the sanctuary of a church close by, and was descending the stairs when a mighty crash below, the clashing of steel, shouts, and cries, told that the mob had swept away one of the barricades and were pouring into the house.

"Make for the stair," Walter shouted, "and defend yourselves there." But the majority of the defenders, bewildered by the inrush of the enemy, terrified at their ferocious aspect and terrible axes, had no thought of continuing the resistance. A few, getting into corners, resisted desperately to the end; others threw down their arms and dropping on their knees cried for mercy, but all were ruthlessly slaughtered.

Keeping close together Walter and Ralph fought their way to the foot of the stairs, and closely pursued by a band of the skinners headed by Gerard Denis, ran up. Upon the first landing stood a man paralysed with terror. On seeing him a cry of ferocious triumph rose from the mob. As nothing could be done to aid him Walter and his follower rushed by without stopping. There was a pause in the pursuit, and glancing down from the upper gallery Walter saw Van Artevelde in the hands of the mob, each struggling to take possession of him; then a man armed with a great axe pushed his way among them, and swinging it over his head struck Van Artevelde dead to the floor. His slayer was Gerard Denis himself.

Followed by Ralph, Walter sprang through the open door into the chamber they had marked, and closed the door behind them. Then Walter, saying, "I will go first, Ralph, I can help you in should you miss your spring," mounted on the sill of the casement. Short as was the distance the leap was extremely difficult, for neither casement was more than three feet high. Walter was therefore obliged to stoop low and to hurl himself head forwards across the gulf. He succeeded in the attempt, shooting clear through the casement on to the floor beyond. Instantly he picked himself up and went to Ralph's assistance. The latter, taller and more bulky, had greater difficulty in the task, and only his shoulder arrived through the window. Walter seized him, and aided him at once to scramble in, and they closed the casement behind them.

"It was well we took off our armour, Ralph; its pattern would have been recognized in an instant."

Walter had thrown off his helmet as he bounded up the stairs, and both he and his companion had rid themselves of their heavy armour.

"I would give a good deal," he said, "for two bourgeois jerkins, even were they as foul as those of the skinners. This is a woman's apartment," he added, looking round, "and nothing here will cover my six feet of height, to say nothing of your four inches extra. Let us peep into some of the other rooms. This is, doubtless, the house of some person of importance, and in the upper floor we may find some clothes of servants or retainers."

They were not long in their search. The next room was a large one, and contained a number of pallet beds, and hanging from pegs on walls were jerkins, mantles, and other garments, evidently belonging to the retainers of the house. Walter and Ralph were not long in transmogrifying their appearance, and had soon the air of two respectable serving-men in a Flemish household.

"But how are we to descend?" Ralph asked. "We can hardly hope to walk down the stairs and make our escape without being seen, especially as the doors will all be barred and bolted, seeing the tumult which is raging outside."

"It all depends whether our means of escape are suspected," Walter replied, "I should scarce think that they would be. The attention of our pursuers was wholly taken up by Van Artevelde, and some minutes must have passed before they followed us. No doubt they will search every place in the house, and all within it will by this time have been slaughtered. But they will scarce organize any special search for us. All will be fully occupied with the exciting events which have taken place, and as the casement by which we entered is closed it is scarcely likely to occur to any one that we have escaped by that means. I will listen first if the house is quiet. If so, we will descend and take refuge in some room below, where there is a better chance of concealment than here. Put the pieces of armour into that closet so that they may not catch the eye of any who may happen to come hither. The day is already closing. In half an hour it will be nightfall. Then we will try and make our way out.

Listening at the top of the stairs they could hear voices below; but as the gallery was quiet and deserted they made their way a floor lower, and seeing an open door entered it. Walter looked from the window.

"There is a back-yard below," he said, "with a door opening upon a narrow lane. We are now upon the second storey, and but some twenty-five feet above the ground. We will not risk going down through the house, which could scarce be accomplished without detection, but will at once tear up into strips the coverings of the bed, and I will make a rope by which we may slip down into the courtyard as soon as it is dark. We must hope that none will come up before that time; but, indeed, all will be so full of the news of the events which have happened that it is scarce likely that any will come above at present."

The linen sheets and coverings were soon cut up and knotted together in a rope. By the time that this was finished the darkness was closing in, and after waiting patiently for a few minutes they lowered the rope and slid down into the yard. Quietly they undid the bolts of the gate and issued into the lane. The mantles were provided with hoods, as few of the lower class of Flemings wore any other head-covering.

Drawing these hoods well over their heads so as to shade their faces the two sallied out from the lane. They were soon in one of the principal streets, which was crowded with people. Bands of weavers, butchers, skinners, and others were parading the streets shouting and singing in honour of their victory and of the downfall and death of him whom they had but a few days before regarded as the mainstay of Flanders. Many of the better class of burghers stood in groups in the streets and talked in low and rather frightened voices of the consequences which the deed of blood would bring upon the city. On the one hand Edward might march upon it with his army to avenge the murder of his ally. Upon the other hand they were now committed to France. Their former ruler would return, and all the imposts and burdens against which they had rebelled would again be laid upon the city.

"What shall we do now?" Ralph asked, "for assuredly there will be no issue by the gates."

"We must possess ourselves of a length of rope if possible, and make our escape over the wall. How to get one I know not, for the shops are all closed, and even were it not so I could not venture in to purchase any, for my speech would betray us at once. Let us separate, and each see whether he can find what we want. We will meet again at the entrance to this church in an hour's time. One or other of us may find what we seek."

Walter searched in vain. Wherever he saw the door of a yard open he peered in, but in no case could he see any signs of rope. At the end of the hour he returned to their rendezvous. Ralph was already there.

"I have found nothing, Ralph. Have you had better fortune?"

"That have I, Master Walter, and was back nigh an hour since. Scarce had I left you when in a back street I came upon a quiet hostelry, and in the courtyard were standing half a dozen teams of cattle. Doubtless their owners had brought hay or corn into the city, and when the tumult arose and the gates were closed found themselves unable to escape. The masters were all drinking within, so without more ado I cut off the ropes which served as traces for the oxen, and have them wound round my body under my mantle. There must be twenty yards at least, and as each rope is strong enough to hold double our weight there will be no difficulty in lowering ourselves from the walls."

"You have done well indeed, Ralph," Walter said. "Let us make our way thither at once. Everyone is so excited in the city, that, as yet, there will be but few guards upon the wall. The sooner, therefore, that we attempt to make our escape the better."