Chapter XIV: Cressy
 

The surprise of the French army at finding themselves in the presence of the English was so great that the first line recoiled in confusion. Those marching up from behind imagined that they had been already engaged and repulsed by the English, and the disorder spread through the whole army, and was increased by the common people, who had crowded to the field in immense numbers from the whole country round to see the battle and share in the plunder of the English camp.

From King Edward's position on the rising ground he could see the confusion which prevailed in the French ranks, and small as were his forces he would probably have obtained an easy victory by ordering a sudden charge upon them. The English, however, being dismounted, but small results would have followed the scattering of the great host of the French. The English army therefore remained immovable, except that the soldiers rose from the ground, and taking their places in the ranks, awaited the onslaught of the enemy.

King Phillip himself now arrived on the field and his hatred for the English led him at once to disregard the advice which had been given him and to order the battle to commence as soon as possible.

The army was divided into four bodies, of which Phillip commanded one, the Count D'Alencon the second, the King of Bohemia the third, and the Count of Savoy the fourth. Besides these were a band of 15,000 mercenaries, Genoese crossbow-men, who were now ordered to pass between the ranks of cavalry and to clear the ground of the English archers, who were drawn up in the usual form in which they fought - namely, in very open order, line behind line, the men standing alternately, so that each had ample room to use his bow and to fire over the heads of those in front. The formation was something like that of a harrow, and, indeed, exactly resembled that in which the Roman archers fought, and was called by them a quincunx.

The Genoese had marched four leagues beneath a hot sun loaded with their armour and heavy cross-bows, and they remonstrated against the order, urging that they were in no condition to do good service without some repose. The Count D'Alencon, furious at their hesitation, ordered them up, but as they advanced a terrible thunderstorm, with torrents of rain, broke over the armies, and wetting the cords of the crossbows rendered many of them unserviceable. At length the crossbow-men were arranged in front, while behind them were the vast body of French cavalry, and the order was given for the battle to begin.

The Genoese advanced with loud shouts but the English archers paid no attention to the noise, but waited calmly for the attack. At this moment the sun, now approaching the west, shone out brightly between the clouds behind the English, its rays streaming full in the faces of the French. The Genoese were now within distance, and began to discharge their quarrels at their impassive enemies, but as they opened fire the English archers drew their bows from the cases which had protected them from the rain, and stepping forward poured their arrows among the Genoese. The crossbow-men were smitten as with a storm, numbers were struck in the face and other unprotected parts, and they were instantly thrown into confusion, and casting away their cross-bows they recoiled in disorder among the horsemen behind them.

Phillip, passionate and cruel as ever, instead of trying to rally the Genoese, ordered the cavalry behind them to fall upon them, and the men-at-arms at once plunged in among the disordered mass of the crossbow-men, and a wild scene of carnage and confusion ensued, the English archers continuing to pour their unerring arrows into the midst.

The Count D'Alencon, who was behind, separated his division into two bodies, and swept round on one side himself, while the Count of Flanders did the same on the other to attack the Prince of Wales in more regular array. Taking a circuitous route, D'Alencon appeared upon a rising ground on the flank of the archers of the Black Prince, and thus, avoiding their arrows, charged down with his cavalry upon the 800 men-at-arms gathered round the Black Prince, while the Count of Flanders attacked on the other flank. Nobly did the flower of English chivalry withstand the shock of the French, and the prince himself and the highest nobles and simple men-at-arms fought side by side. None gave away a foot.

In vain the French, with impetuous charges, strove to break through the mass of steel. The spear-heads were cleft off with sword and battle-axe, and again and again men and horses recoiled from the unbroken line. Each time the French retired the English ranks were formed anew, and as attack followed attack a pile of dead rose around them. The Count D'Alencon and the Duke of Lorraine were among the first who fell. The young Count of Blois, finding that he could not ride through the wall of steel, dismounted with his knights and fought his way on foot towards the banner of the Prince of Wales. For a time the struggle was desperate, and the young prince, with his household knights, was for a time well-nigh beaten back.

Walter, fighting close beside the prince, parried more than one blow intended for him, and the prince himself slew the Count of Blois, whose followers all fell around him. The Count of Flanders was also slain, and confusion began to reign among the assailants, whose leaders had now all fallen. Phillip himself strove to advance with his division into the fight, but the struggle between the Genoese and the men-at-arms was still continuing, and the very multitude of his troops in the narrow and difficult field which the English had chosen for the battle embarrassed his movements.

Charles of Luxembourg, King of the Romans, and afterwards Emperor of Germany, son of the old King of Bohemia, with a large body of German and French cavalry, now assailed the English archers, and in spite of their flights of arrows came to close quarters, and cutting their way through them joined in the assault upon the men-at-arms of the Black Prince. Nearly 40,000 men were now pressing round the little body, and the Earls of Northampton and Arundel moved forward with their divisions to his support, while the Earl of Warwick, who was with the prince, despatched Sir Thomas of Norwich to the king, who still remained with his powerful reserve, to ask for aid.

"Sir Thomas," demanded the king, "is my son killed, overthrown, or wounded beyond help?"

"Not so, sire," replied the knight, "but he is in a rude fight, and much needs your aid."

"Go back, Sir Thomas, to those who sent you and tell them from me that whatsoever happens they require no aid from me so long as my son is in life. Tell them also that I command them to let the boy win his spurs, for, God willing, the day shall be his, and the honour shall rest with him and those into whose charge I have given him."

The prince and those around him were filled with fresh ardour when they received this message. Each man redoubled his efforts to repel the forces that were incessantly poured down upon them by the French. On all sides these pressed around them, striving desperately, but ever in vain, to break through the solid ranks of the English. The French men-at-arms suffered, moreover, terribly from the attacks of the Welsh infantry. These men, clad in thick leather jerkins, nimble of foot, accustomed to a life of activity, were armed with shortened lances and knives, mingled fearlessly among the confused mass of French cavalry, creeping beneath the horses' bellies, standing up when they got a chance, and stabbing horses and men with their knives and pikes. Many were trampled upon or struck down, but numbering, as they did, 6000, they pervaded the whole mass of the enemy, and did terrible execution, adding in no small degree to the confusion caused by the shower of arrows from the archers within the circle of the men-at-arms. The instant a French knight fell, struck from his horse with a battle-axe or arrow, or by the fall of a wounded steed, the half-wild Welsh were upon him, and slew him before he could regain his feet.

The slaughter was immense. The Count of Harcourt, with his nephew the Count D'Aumale and his two gallant sons, fell together, and at last Charles of Luxembourg, seeing his banner down, his troops routed, his friends slain, and the day irreparably lost, and being himself severely wounded in three places, turned his horse and fled, casting off his rich emblazoned surcoat to avoid recognition. In the meantime Prince Charles's father, the veteran King of Bohemia, once one of the most famous warriors of Europe, but now old and blind, sat on horseback at a little distance from the fight; the knights around him told him the events as they happened, and the old monarch soon saw that the day was lost. He asked them for tidings of his son Charles of Luxembourg, but they were forced to reply that the banner of the King of the Romans was no longer in sight, but that, doubtless, he was somewhere engaged in the melee.

"Lords," said the old man, "you are my vassals, my friends, and my companions, and on this day I command and beseech you to lead me forward so far that I may deal one blow of my sword in the battle."

His faithful friends obeyed him, a number of knights arranged themselves around him, and lest they should lose him in the fight they tied their horses together by the bridles and charged down into the fray. Advancing directly against the banner of the Prince of Wales, the blind monarch was carried into the midst of the thickest strife.

There the little group of knights fought gallantly, and after the battle was over, the bodies of the king and his friends were found lying together, their dead horses still linked by the bridles.

During this terrible battle, which had been raging since three o'clock, Phillip had made strenuous efforts to aid his troops engaged in the front by continually sending fresh bodies to the assault. It was now growing dark, terror and confusion had already spread among the French, and many were flying in all directions, and the unremitting showers of English arrows still flew like hail among their ranks. As the king made his way forward, surrounded by his personal attendants to take part himself in the fight, his followers fell thick around him, and his horse was slain by an arrow. John of Hainault, who had remained by his side during the whole day, mounted upon a fresh horse and urged him to fly, as the day was lost. Phillip, however, persisted, and made his way into the melee, where he fought for some time with extreme courage, until almost all around him were slain, the royal standard bearer killed, and himself wounded in two places. John of Hainault then seized his bridle exclaiming "Come away, sire, it is full time; do not throw your life away foolishly; if you have lost this day you will win another," and so almost forced the unwilling king from the field. Phillip, accompanied by the lords of Montmorency, Beaujeu, Aubigny, and Mansault, with John of Hainault, and sixty men-at-arms, rode to the Castle of Broye, and there halted for a few hours. At midnight he again set out, and in the morning arrived safely at Amiens.

The Black Prince held his station until night without yielding a single step to all the efforts of the French. Gradually, however, the assailants became less and less numerous, the banners disappeared, and the shouts of the leaders and the clang of arms died away, and the silence which prevailed over the field at once announced that the victory was complete and the enemy in full flight. An immense number of torches were now lighted through the English lines, and the king, quitting for the first time his station on the hill, came down to embrace his gallant son. Edward and his host rejoiced in a spirit of humility over the victory. No songs of triumph, no feastings or merriment were permitted, but a solemn service of the church was held, and the king and his soldiers offered their thanks to God for the victory He had given them. The English army lay all night under arms, and a number of scattered parties of the French, wandering about in the darkness, entered the lines and were slain or taken prisoners.

The dawn of the next morning was thick and foggy, and intelligence coming in that a large body of the enemy were advancing upon them, the Earls of Northampton, Warwick, and Norfolk, with 500 men-at-arms and 2000 archers, went out to reconnoitre, and came in the misty twilight upon an immense force composed of the citizens of Beauvais, Rouen, and some other towns, led by the Grand Prior of France and the Archbishop of Rouen, who were approaching the field.

By some extraordinary accident they had not met any of the fugitives flying from Cressy, and were ignorant that a battle had been fought. The English charged them at once. Their advance-guard, consisting of burghers, was easily overthrown. The second division, which was composed of men-at-arms, fought bravely, but was unable to withstand the charge of the triumphant English, and was completely broken and defeated. The Grand Prior was killed and a vast number of his followers slain or captured. During the whole of the morning detached parties from Edward's army scoured the country, dispersing and slaughtering bands of French who still remained together, and towards night the Earl of Northampton returned to the camp with the news that no enemy remained in the vicinity that could offer a show of resistance to the English force.

It is said that a far greater number of French were killed upon the second day than upon the first. This can be accounted for by the fact that on the first day but a small portion of the English army were engaged, and that upon the second the English were fresh and vigorous, and their enemy exhausted and dispirited.

The greater number of the French nobles and knights who fell, died in their attempts to break through the Black Prince's array. Besides the King of Bohemia, nine sovereign princes and eighty great nobles were killed, with 1200 knights, 1500 men-at-arms, and 30,000 foot; while on the English side only three knights and a small number of men-at-arms and infantry were killed.

The body of the King of Bohemia and those of the other great leaders were carried in solemn pomp to the Abbey of Maintenay. Edward himself and his son accompanied them as mourners. On the Monday following Edward marched with his army against Calais, and summoned the town to surrender. John of Vienne, who commanded the garrison, refused to comply with the demand. The fortifications of the town were extremely strong and the garrison numerous, and Edward perceived that an assault would be very unlikely to succeed, and would entail great loss, while a repulse would have dimmed the lustre of the success which he had gained. He therefore determined to reduce it by famine, and the troops were set to work to build huts. So permanently and strongly were these constructed that it seemed to the enemy that King Edward was determined to remain before Calais even should he have to stay there for ten years.

Proclamations were issued in England and Flanders inviting traders to establish stores and to bring articles of trade of all kinds, and in a short time a complete town sprang up which was named by Edward "New-Town the Bold". The English fleet held complete possession of the sea, cutting off the besieged from all succour by ship, and enabling abundant supplies for the army to be brought from England and Flanders. Strong parties were sent out in all directions. The northern provinces of France were scoured, and the army was amply provided with necessaries and even luxuries.

After the first terrible shock caused by the crushing defeat of Cressy, King Phillip began at once to take measures for the relief of Calais, and made immense efforts again to put a great army in the field. He endeavoured by all means in his power to gain fresh allies. The young Count of Flanders, who, at the death of his father at Cressy, was sixteen years of age, was naturally even more hostile to the English than the late prince had been, and he strove to win over his subjects to the French alliance, while Phillip made them magnificent offers if they would join him. The Flemings, however, remained stanch to the English alliance, and held their prince in duresse until he at last consented to marry the daughter of Edward. A week before the date fixed for the nuptials, however, he managed to escape from the vigilance of his guards when out hawking, and fled to the court of France.

In Scotland Phillip was more successful, and David Bruce, instead of employing the time given him by the absence of Edward with his armies in driving out the English garrisons from the strong places they still held in Scotland, raised an army of 50,000 men and marched across the border into England plundering and ravaging. Queen Philippa, however, raising an army, marched against him, and the Scotch were completely defeated at Neville's Cross, 15,000 being killed and their king himself taken prisoner.

Walter's conduct at the battle of Cressy gained him still further the favour of the Black Prince. The valour with which he had fought was conspicuous even on a field where all fought gallantly, and the prince felt that more than once he would have been smitten down had not Walter's sword interposed. Ralph too had fought with reckless bravery, and many French knights and gentlemen had gone down before the tremendous blows of his heavy mace, against which the stoutest armour availed nothing. After the battle the prince offered to make him an esquire in spite of the absence of gentle blood in his veins, but Ralph declined the honour.

"An it please you, Sir Prince," he said, "but I should feel more comfortable among the men-at-arms, my fellows. In the day of battle I trust that I should do no discredit to my squirehood, but at other times I should feel woefully out of my element, and should find nought for my hands to do, therefore if it so pleases your Royal Highness, I would far rather remain a simple man-at-arms.

Ralph did not, however, refuse the heavy purse which the prince gave him, although indeed he, as well as all the soldiers, was well supplied with money, so great were the spoils which the army had gathered in its march before Cressy, and which they now swept off in their raids among the northern provinces of France.

One evening Walter was returning from a banquet at the pavilion of the Prince of Wales, with Ralph as usual following at a little distance, when from a corner of the street a man darted suddenly out and struck a dagger with all his force between his shoulders. Well was it for Walter that he had taken Geoffrey's advice, and had never laid aside the shirt of mail, night or day. Fine as was its temper, two or three links of the outer fold were broken, but the point did not penetrate the second fold, and the dagger snapped in the hand of the striker. The force of the sudden blow, however, hurled Walter to the ground. With a loud cry Ralph rushed forward. The man instantly fled. Ralph pursued him but a short distance and then hastened back to Walter.

"Are you hurt, Sir Walter?" he exclaimed.

"In no way, Ralph, thanks to my shirt of mail. Well, indeed, was it for me that I was wearing it, or I should assuredly have been a dead man. I had almost begun to forget that I was a threatened man; but I shall be on guard for the future."

"I wish I had followed the fellow," Ralph said. "I would not have slain him could I have helped it, but would have left it for the hangman to extort from him the name of his employer; but, in truth, he struck so hard, and you fell so straight before the blow, that I feared the mail had given way, and that you were sorely wounded if not killed. You have oft told me that I was over-careful of you, but you see that I was not careful enough, however, you may be assured that if another attempt be made those who attempt it shall not get off scot free. Do you think of laying a complaint before the provost against him you suspect?"

"It would be useless, Ralph. We may have suspicion of the man from whom the blow came, but have no manner of proof. It might have been done by any ruffian camp- follower who struck the blow only with the hope of carrying off my chain and purse. The camp swarms with such fellows, and we have no clue which could lead to his detection, unless," he added, stooping and picking a piece of steel which lay at his feet, "this broken dagger may some day furnish us with one. No; we will say nought about it. Sir James Carnegie is not now in camp, having left a week since on business in England. We exchange no words when we meet, but I heard that he had been called away. Fortunately the young prince likes him not, and I therefore have seldom occasion to meet him. I have no doubt that he credits me with the disfavour in which he is held by the prince; but I have never even mentioned his name before him, and the prince's misliking is but the feeling which a noble and generous heart has, as though by instinct, against one who is false and treacherous. At the same time we must grant that this traitor knight is a bold and fearless man-at-arms; he fought well at La Blanche Tache and Cressy, and he is much liked and trusted by my lord of Northampton, in whose following he mostly rides; 'tis a pity that one so brave should have so foul and treacherous a heart. Here we are at my hut, and you can sleep soundly tonight, Ralph, for there is little fear that the fellow, who has failed tonight, will repeat his attempt for some time. He thinks, no doubt, that he has killed me, for with a blow so strongly struck he would scarcely have felt the snapping of the weapon, and is likely enough already on board one of the ships which ply to and fro from England on his way to acquaint his employer that I am removed from his path."

The next morning Walter mentioned to the Black Prince the venture which had befallen him, and the narrow escape he had had of his life. The prince was extremely exasperated, and gave orders that an inquisition should be made through the camp, and that all men found there not being able to give a good account of themselves as having reasonable and lawful calling there should be forthwith put on board ship and sent to England. He questioned Walter closely whether he deemed that the attack was for the purpose of plunder only, or whether he had any reason to believe that he had private enemies.

"There is a knight who is evilly disposed toward me, your highness," Walter said; "but seeing that I have no proof whatever that he had a hand in this affair, however strongly I may suspect it, I would fain, with your leave, avoid mentioning his name."

"But think you that there is any knight in this camp capable of so foul an action?"

"I have had proofs, your highness, that he is capable of such an act; but in this matter my tongue is tied, as the wrong he attempted was not against myself, but against others who have so far forgiven him that they would fain the matter should drop. He owes me ill-will, seeing that I am aware of his conduct, and that it was my intervention which caused his schemes to fail. Should this attempt against me be repeated it can scarce be the effect of chance, but would show premeditated design, and I would then, both in defence of my own life, and because I think that such deeds should not go unpunished, not hesitate to name him to you, and if proof be wanting to defy him to open combat."

"I regret, Sir Walter, that your scruples should hinder you from at once denouncing him; but seeing how grave a matter it is to charge a knight with so foul a crime, I will not lay stress upon you; but be assured that should any repetition of the attempt be made I shall take the matter in hand, and will see that this caitiff knight receives his desserts.

A short time afterwards Walter accompanied the prince in an excursion which he made with a portion of the army, sweeping the French provinces as far as the river Somme. Upon their way back they passed through the village of Pres, hard by which stood a small castle. It was situated some forty miles from Calais, and standing upon rising ground, it commanded a very extensive view over the country.

"What say you, Sir Walter?" the prince said to the young knight who was riding near him. "That castle would make a good advanced post, and a messenger riding in could bring news of any large movements of the enemy." Walter assented. "Then, Sir Walter, I name you chatelain. I shall be sorry to lose your good company; but the post is one of peril, and I know that you are ever longing to distinguish yourself. Take forty men-at-arms and sixty archers. With that force you may make shift to resist any attack until help reaches you from camp. You may be sure that I shall not be slack in spurring to your rescue should you be assailed."

Walter received the proposal with delight. He was weary of the monotony of life in New Town, and this post in which vigilance and activity would be required was just to his taste; so, taking the force named by the prince, with a store of provision, he drew off from the column and entered the castle.