Saint George for England by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIII: The White Ford
They made their way without interruption to the wall. This they found, as they expected, entirely deserted, although, no doubt, guards had been posted at the gates. The Flemings, however, could have felt no fear of an attack by so small a force as the five hundred English whom they knew to be in the neighbourhood.
Walter and his companion soon knotted the ropes together and lowered themselves into the moat. A few strokes took them to the other side, and scrambling out, they made their way across the country to the spot where the English had been posted. They found the Earl of Salisbury, who commanded, in a great state of uneasiness. No message had reached him during the day. He had heard the alarm- bells of the city ring, and a scout who had gone forward returned with the news that the gates were closed and the drawbridges raised, and that a strong body of men manned the walls.
"Your news is indeed bad," he said, when Walter related to him the events which had taken place in the town. "This will altogether derange the king's plans. Now that his ally is killed I fear that his hopes of acquiring Flanders for England will fall to the ground. It is a thousand pities that he listened to Van Artevelde and allowed him to enter Ghent alone. Had his majesty landed, as he wished, and made a progress through the country, the prince receiving the homage of all the large towns, we could then very well have summoned Ghent as standing alone against all Flanders. The citizens then would, no doubt, have gladly opened their gates and received the prince, and if they had refused we would have made short work of them. However, as it has turned out, it is as well that we did not enter the town with the Fleming, for against so large and turbulent a population we should have had but little chance. And now, Master Somers, we will march at once for Sluys and bear the news to the king, and you shall tell me as we ride thither how you and your man-at-arms managed to escape with whole skins from such a tumult."
The king was much grieved when he heard of the death of Artevelde, and held a council with his chief leaders. At first, in his indignation and grief, he was disposed to march upon Ghent and to take vengeance for the murder of his ally, but after a time calmer counsels prevailed.
The Flemings were still in rebellion against their count, who was the friend of France. Were the English to attack Ghent they would lose the general goodwill of the Flemings, and would drive them into the arms of France, while, if matters were left alone, the effect of the popular outburst which had caused the death of Artevelde would die away, and motives of interest and the fear of France would again drive them into the arms of England. The expedition therefore returned to England, and there the king, in a proclamation to his people, avoided all allusion to the death of his ally, but simply stated that he had been waited upon by the councils of all the Flemish towns, and that their faithful obedience to himself as legitimate King of France, was established upon a firmer basis than ever.
This course had the effect which he had anticipated from it. The people of Flanders perceived the danger and disadvantage which must accrue to their trade from any permanent disagreement with England. They were convinced by the events which soon afterwards happened in France that the King of England had more power than Phillip of Valois, and could, if he chose, punish severely any breach of faith towards him. They therefore sent over commissioners to express their grief and submission. The death of Artevelde was represented as the act of a frantic mob, and severe fines were imposed upon the leaders of the party who slew him, and although the principal towns expressed their desire still to remain under the rule of the Count of Flanders, they suggested that the ties which bound them to England should be strengthened by the marriage of Louis, eldest son of the count, to one of Edward's daughters. More than this, they offered to create a diversion for the English forces acting in Guienne and Gascony by raising a strong force and expelling the French garrisons still remaining in some parts of the country. This was done. Hugo of Hastings was appointed by the king captain- general in Flanders, and with a force of English and Flemings did good service by expelling the French from Termond and several other towns.
The character of Jacob van Artevelde has had but scant justice done to it by most of the historians of the time. These, living in an age of chivalry, when noble blood and lofty deeds were held in extraordinary respect, had little sympathy with the brewer of Ghent, and deemed it contrary to the fitness of things that the chivalry of France should have been defied and worsted by mere mechanics and artisans. But there can be no doubt that Artevelde was a very great man. He may have been personally ambitious, but he was a true patriot. He had great military talents. He completely remodelled and wonderfully improved the internal administration of the country, and raised its commerce, manufactures, and agriculture to a pitch which they had never before reached. After his death his memory was esteemed and revered by the Flemings, who long submitted to the laws he had made, and preserved his regulations with scrupulous exactitude.
Edward now hastened to get together a great army. Every means were adopted to raise money and to gather stores, and every man between sixteen and sixty south of the Trent was called upon to take up arms and commanded to assemble at Portsmouth in the middle of Lent. A tremendous tempest, however, scattered the fleet collected to carry the expedition, a great many of the ships were lost, and it was not until the middle of July, 1346, that it sailed from England.
It consisted of about 500 ships and 10,000 sailors, and carried 4000 men-at- arms, 10,000 archers, 12,000 Welsh, and 6000 Irish.
This seems but a small army considering the efforts which had been made; but it was necessary to leave a considerable force behind for the defence of the Scottish frontier, and England had already armies in Guienne and Brittany. Lionel, Edward's second son, was appointed regent during his father's absence. On board Edward's own ship were Godfrey of Harcourt and the Prince of Wales. Walter, as one of the personal squires of the prince, was also on board.
The prince had been greatly interested in the details of Walter's escape from Van Artevelde's house, the king himself expressed his approval of his conduct, and Walter was generally regarded as one of the most promising young aspirants to the court. His modesty and good temper rendered him a general favourite, and many even of the higher nobles noticed him by their friendly attentions, for it was felt that he stood so high in the goodwill of the prince that he might some day become a person of great influence with him, and one whose goodwill would be valuable.
It was generally supposed, when the fleet started, that Guienne was their destination, but they had not gone far when a signal was made to change the direction in which they were sailing and to make for La Hogue in Normandy. Godfrey of Harcourt had great influence in that province, and his persuasions had much effect in determining the king to direct his course thither. There was the further advantage that the King of France, who was well aware of the coming invasion, would have made his preparations to receive him in Guienne. Furthermore, Normandy was the richest and most prosperous province in France. It had for a long time been untouched by war, and offered great abundance of spoil. It had made itself particularly obnoxious to the English by having recently made an offer to the King of France to fit out an expedition and conquer England with its own resources.
The voyage was short and favourable, and the expedition landed at La Hogue, on the small peninsula of Cotentin, without opposition. Six days were spent at La Hogue disembarking the men, horses, and stores, and baking bread for the use of the army on the march. A detachment advanced and pillaged and burnt Barileur and Cherbourg and a number of small towns and castles.
In accordance with custom, at the commencement of the campaign a court was held, at which the Prince of Wales was dubbed a knight by his father. A similar honour was bestowed upon a number of other young aspirants, among whom was Walter Somers, who had been highly recommended for that honour to the king by Sir Walter Manny.
The force was now formed into three divisions - the one commanded by the king himself, the second by the Earl of Warwick, and the third by Godfrey of Harcourt. The Earl of Arundel acted as Lord High Constable, and the Earl of Huntingdon, who was in command of the fleet, followed the army along the sea- coast. Valognes, Carentan, and St. Lo were captured without difficulty, and the English army advanced by rapid marches upon Caen, plundering the country for six or seven leagues on each side of the line of march. An immense quantity of booty was obtained. As soon as the news of Edward's landing in Normandy reached Paris, Phillip despatched the Count d'Eu, Constable of France, with the Count of Tankerville and 600 men-at-arms, to oppose Edward at Caen. The Bishop of Bayeux had thrown himself into that city, which was already garrisoned by 300 Genoese. The town was not defensible, and the only chance of resistance was by opposing the passage of the river Horn, which flowed between the suburbs and the city. The bridge was barricaded, strong wooden towers were erected, and such was the confidence of the inhabitants and their leaders that Edward's promise of protection for the person and property of the citizens was rejected with scorn, and the whole male population joined the garrison in the defence of the bridge. Marching through the deserted suburbs the English army attacked the bridge with such vehemence that although the enemy defended the barricades gallantly they were speedily forced, and the English poured into the town. Before the first fury of the attack was over near 5000 persons were slain. The Count of Tankerville, 140 knights, and as many squires were made prisoners. The plunder was so enormous as to be sufficient to cover the whole expenses of the expedition, and this with the booty which had been previously acquired was placed on board ship and despatched to England, while the king marched forward with his army. At Lisieux he was met by two cardinals sent by the pope to negotiate a truce; but Edward had learned the fallacy of truces made with King Phillip, and declined to enter into negotiations. Finding that Rouen had been placed in a state of defence and could not be taken without a long siege he left it behind him and marched along the valley of the Eure, gathering rich booty at every step.
But while he was marching forward a great army was gathering in his rear. The Count of Harcourt brother of Godfrey, called all Normandy to arms. Every feudal lord and vassal answered to the summons, and before Edward reached the banks of the Seine a formidable army had assembled.
The whole of the vassals of France were gathering by the orders of the king at St. Denis. The English fleet had now left the coast, and Edward had only the choice of retreating through Normandy into Brittany or of attempting to force the passage of the Seine, and to fight his way through France to Flanders. He chose the latter alternative, and marched along the left bank of the river towards Paris, seeking in vain to find a passage. The enemy followed him step by step on the opposite bank, and all the bridges were broken down and the fords destroyed.
Edward marched on, burning the towns and ravaging the country until he reached Poissy. The bridge was as usual destroyed, but the piles on which it stood were still standing, and he determined to endeavour to cross here. He accordingly halted for five days, but despatched troops in all directions, who burned and ravaged to the very gates of Paris. The villages of St. Germain, St. Cloud, Bourg la Reine, and many others within sight of the walls were destroyed, and the capital itself thrown into a state of terror and consternation. Godfrey of Harcourt was the first to cross the river, and with the advance guard of English fell upon a large body of the burghers of Amiens, and after a severe fight defeated them, killing over five hundred. The king himself with his whole force passed on the 16th of August.
Phillip, with his army, quitted St. Denis, when he heard that the English army had passed the Seine, and by parallel marches endeavoured to interpose between it and the borders of Flanders. As his force was every hour increasing he despatched messengers to Edward offering him battle within a few days on condition that he would cease to ravage the country; but Edward declined the proposal, saying that Phillip himself by breaking down the bridges had avoided a battle as long as he could, but that whenever he was ready to give battle he would accept the challenge. During the whole march the armies were within a few leagues of each other, and constant skirmishes took place between bodies detached from the hosts.
In some of these skirmishes Walter took part, as he and the other newly made knights were burning to distinguish themselves. Every day the progress of the army became more difficult, as the country people everywhere rose against them, and several times attempted to make a stand but were defeated with great loss. The principal towns were found deserted, and even Poix, which offered great capabilities of defence, had been left unguarded. Upon the English entering, the burghers offered to pay a large ransom to save the town from plunder. The money was to be delivered as soon as the English force had withdrawn, and Walter Somers was ordered by the king to remain behind with a few men-at-arms to receive the ransom.
No sooner had the army departed than the burghers, knowing that the French army was close behind, changed their minds, refused to pay the ransom, and fell upon the little body of men-at-arms. Although taken quite by surprise by the act of treachery Walter instantly rallied his men although several had been killed at the first onslaught. He, with Ralph and two or three of the staunchest men, covered the retreat of the rest through the streets, making desperate charges upon the body of armed burghers pressing upon them. Ralph fought as usual with a mace of prodigious weight, and the terror of his blows in no slight degree enabled the party to reach the gate in safety, but Walter had no idea of retreating further. He despatched one of his followers to gallop at full speed to overtake the rear-guard of the army, which was still but two miles distant, while with the rest he formed a line across the gate and resisted all the attempts of the citizens to expel them.
The approach to the gate was narrow, and the overwhelming number of the burghers were therefore of little avail. Walter had dismounted his force and all fought on foot, and although sorely pressed they held their ground until Lords Cobham and Holland, with their followers, rode up. Then the tide of war was turned, the town was plundered and burnt, and great numbers of the inhabitants slain. Walter gained great credit for holding the gate, for had he been driven out, the town could have resisted, until the arrival of Louis, all assaults of the English.
The river Somme now barred the passage of Edward. Most of the bridges had been destroyed, and those remaining were so strongly fortified that they could not be forced.
The position of the English was now very critical. On one flank and in front were impassable rivers. The whole country was in arms against them, and on their rear and flank pressed a hostile army fourfold their strength. The country was swampy and thinly populated, and flour and provisions were only obtained with great difficulty. Edward, on finding from the reports of his marshals who had been sent to examine the bridges, that no passage across the river could be found, turned and marched down the river towards the sea, halting for the night at Oisemont.
Here, a great number of peasantry attempted a defence, but were easily defeated and a number of prisoners taken. Late in the evening the Earl of Warwick, who had pushed forward as far as Abbeville and St. Valery, returned with the news that the passages at those places were as strongly guarded as elsewhere, but he had learnt from a peasant that a ford existed somewhere below Abbeville, although the man was himself ignorant of its position.
Edward at once called the prisoners belonging to that part of the country before him, and promised to any one who would tell him where the ford lay his freedom and that of twenty of his companions. A peasant called Gobin Agase stepped forward and offered to show the ford, where at low tide twelve men could cross abreast. It was, he said, called "La Blanche Tache".
Edward left Oisemont at midnight and reached the ford at daylight. The river, however, was full and the army had to wait impatiently for low tide. When they arrived there no enemy was to be seen on the opposite bank, but before the water fell sufficiently for a passage to be attempted, Sir Godemar du Fay with 12,000 men, sent by King Phillip, who was aware of the existence of the ford, arrived on the opposite side.
The enterprise was a difficult one indeed, for the water, even at low tide, is deep. Godemar du Fay, however, threw away part of his advantage by advancing into the stream. The English archers lined the banks, and poured showers of arrows into the ranks of the enemy, while the Genoese bowmen on their side were able to give comparatively little assistance to the French.
King Edward shouted to his knights, "Let those who love me follow me," and spurred his horse into the water. Behind him followed his most valiant knights, and Walter riding close to the Prince of Wales was one of the foremost.
The French resisted valiantly and a desperate battle took place on the narrow ford, but the impetuosity of the English prevailed, and step by step they drove the French back to the other side of the river. The whole army poured after their leaders, and the French were soon entirely routed and fled, leaving two thousand men-at-arms dead on the field.
King Edward, having now freed himself from the difficulties which had encompassed him on the other side of the river, prepared to choose a ground to give battle to the whole French army.
Louis had advanced slowly, feeling confident that the English would be unable to cross the river, and that he should catch them hemmed in by it. His mortification and surprise on finding, when he approached La Blanche Tache, that twelve thousand men had been insufficient to hold a ford by which but twelve could cross abreast, and that his enemy had escaped from his grasp, were great. The tide had now risen again, and he was obliged to march on to Abbeville and cross the river there.
King Edward now advanced into the Forest of Cressy.
Hugh de le Spencer, with a considerable force, was despatched to Crotoy, which he carried by assault after a severe conflict, in which four thousand of the French men-at-arms were slain. The capture of this city removed all danger of want from the army, for large stores of wine and meal were found there, and Sir Hugh at once sent off a supply to the tired army in the field.
The possession of Crotoy and the mouth of the Somme would have now rendered it easy for the English monarch to have transported his troops to England, and to have returned triumphant after the accomplishment of his extraordinary and most successful march through France. The army, however, was elated by the many great successes it had won, he was now in Ponthieu, which was one of his own fiefs, and he determined to make a stand in spite of the immense superiority of the enemy.
Next morning, then - Friday the 25th of August, 1346 - he despatched the Earl of Warwick with Godfrey of Harcourt and Lord Cobham, to examine the ground and choose a site for a battle.
The plan of the fight was drawn out by the king and his councillors, and the king yielded to the Black Prince the chief place of danger and honour placing with him the Earl of Warwick, Sir John Chandos, and many of his best knights.
The ground which had been chosen for the battle was an irregular slope between the forest of Cressy and the river Maie near the little village of Canchy. The slope looked towards the south and east, from which quarters the enemy was expected to arrive, and some slight defences were added to the natural advantages of the ground.
On the night of the 25th all the principal leaders of the British host were entertained by King Edward. Next morning, Mass was celebrated, and the king, the prince, and many knights and nobles received the Sacrament, after which the trumpet sounded, and the army marched to take up its position. Its numbers are variously estimated, but the best account puts it at about 30,000 men which, considering that 32,000 had crossed the Channel to La Hogue, is probably about the force which would have been present allowing that 2000 had fallen in the various actions or had died from disease.
The division of the Black Prince consisted of 800 men-at-arms, 4000 archers, and 6000 Welsh foot. The archers, as usual, were placed in front, supported by the light troops of Wales and the men-at-arms; on his left was the second division, commanded by the Earls of Arundel and Northampton; its extreme left rested on Canchy and the river, and it was further protected by a deep ditch; this corps was about 7000 strong.
The king himself took up his position on a knoll of rising ground surmounted by a windmill, and 12,000 men under his personal command were placed here in reserve.
In the rear of the Prince's division an enclosure of stakes was formed; in this, guarded by a small body of archers, were ranged the wagons and baggage of the army, together with all the horses, the king having determined that the knights and men-at-arms on his side should fight on foot.
When the army had taken up its position, the king, mounted on a small palfrey, with a white staff in his hand, rode from rank to rank exhorting his soldiers to do their duty gallantly. It was nearly noon before he had passed through all the lines, and permission was then given to the soldiers to fall out from their ranks and to take refreshments while waiting for the coming of the enemy. This was accordingly done, the men eating and drinking at their ease and lying down in their ranks on the soft grass with their steel caps and their bows or pikes beside them.
In the meantime the French had, on their side, been preparing for the battle. Phillip had crossed the Somme at Abbeyville late on Thursday afternoon, and remained there next day marshalling the large reinforcements which were hourly arriving. His force now considerably exceeded 100,000 men, the number with which he had marched from Amiens three days previously.
Friday was the festival of St. Louis, and that evening Phillip gave a splendid banquet to the whole of the nobles of his army.
On the following morning the king, accompanied by his brother the Count d'Alencon, the old King of Bohemia and his son, the King of Rome, the Duke of Lorraine, the Count of Blois, the Count of Flanders, and a great number of other feudal princes, heard Mass at the Abbey, and then marched with his great army towards Cressy. He moved but slowly in order to give time to all the forces scattered over the neighbourhood to come up, and four knights, headed by one of the King of Bohemia's officers, went forward to reconnoitre the English position. They approached within a very short distance of the English lines and gained a very exact knowledge of the position, the English taking no measures to interrupt the reconnaissance. They returned with the information they had gathered, and the leader of the party, Le Moyne de Basele, one of the most judicious officers of his time, strongly advised the king to halt his troops, pointing out that as it was evident the English were ready to give battle, and as they were fresh and vigorous while the French were wearied and hungry, it would be better to encamp and give battle the next morning.
Phillip saw the wisdom of the advice and ordered his two marshals the Lord of St. Venant and Charles de Montmorency to command a halt. They instantly spurred off, one to the front and the other to the rear, commanding the leaders to halt their banners. Those in advance at once obeyed, but those behind still pressed on, declaring that they would not halt until they were in the front line. All wanted to be first, in order to obtain their share of the honour and glory of defeating the English. Those in front, seeing the others still coming on, again pressed forward, and thus, in spite of the efforts of the king and his marshals, the French nobles with their followers pressed forward in confusion, until, passing through a small wood, they found themselves suddenly in the presence of the English army.