Chapter XVII: The Capture of Calais
 

When the bar was once ready for removal the captives delayed not a minute, for although it was now so late that there was little chance of a visit being paid them, it was just possible that such might be the case, and that it might occur to the knight that it would be safer to separate them.

"Now, Ralph, do you go first, since I am lighter and can climb up by means of the strap, which you can hold from above; push the bar out and lay it down quietly on the thickness of the wall. A splash might attract the attention of the sentries, though I doubt whether it would, for the wind is high and the rain falling fast. Unbuckle the strap before you move the bar, as otherwise it might fall and I should have difficulty in handing it to you again. Now, I am steady against the wall."

Ralph seized the bar and with a great effort pushed the bottom from him. It moved through the groove without much difficulty, but it needed a great wrench to free the upper end. However, it was done, and laying it quietly down he pulled himself up and thrust himself through the loophole. It was a desperate struggle to get through, for it was only just wide enough for his head to pass, and he was so squarely built that his body with difficulty followed. The wall was four feet wide, and as the loophole widened considerably without, there was, when he had once passed through from the inside, space enough for him to kneel down and lower one end of the strap to Walter. The latter speedily climbed up, and getting through the slit with much less trouble than Ralph had experienced - for although in height and width of shoulder he was his equal, he was less in depth than his follower - he joined him in the opening; Ralph sitting with his feet in the water in order to make room for him.

The dungeon was upon the western side of the castle, and consequently the stream would be with them in making for shore. It was pitch dark, but they knew that the distance they would have to swim could not exceed forty or fifty yards.

"Keep along close by the wall, Ralph, if we once get out in the stream we might lose our way; we will skirt the wall until it ends, then there is a cut, for as you saw when we entered, the moat runs right across this neck. If we keep a bit farther down and then land, we shall be fairly beyond the outworks."

Ralph slipped down into the water, and followed by Walter swam along at the foot of the wall. They had already been deprived of their armour, but had luckily contrived to retain their daggers in their belts, which they had again girdled on before entering the water. The stream hurried them rapidly along, and they had only to keep themselves afloat. They were soon at the corner of the castle. A few strokes farther and they again felt the wall which lined the moat. The stream still swept them along, they felt the masonry come to an end, and bushes and shrubs lined the bank. They were beyond the outer defences of the castle. Still a little farther they proceeded down the stream in order to prevent the possibility of any noise they might make in scrambling up being heard by the sentinels on the outer postern. Then when they felt quite safe they grasped the bushes, and speedily climbed the bank. Looking back at the castle they saw lights still burning there. Short as was the time they had been in the water they were both chilled to the bone, for it was the month of February, and the water was bitterly cold.

"It cannot be more than nine o'clock now," Walter said, "for it is not more than four hours since darkness fell. They are not likely to visit the dungeon before eight or nine tomorrow, so we can rely upon twelve hours' start, and if we make the best of our time we ought to be far on travelling on a night like this through a strange country. I would that the stars were shining. However, the direction of the wind and rain will be a guide to us, and we shall soon strike the road we traveled yesterday, and can follow that till morning."

They were not long before they found the track, and then started at a brisk pace along it. All night they struggled on through wind and rain until the first dawn enabled them to see the objects in the surrounding country; and making for the forest which extended to within a mile of the road, they entered deep into its shelter, and there utterly exhausted, threw themselves down on the wet ground. After a few hours of uneasy sleep they woke, and taking their place near the edge of the forest watched for the passage of any party which might be in pursuit, but until nightfall none came along.

"They have not discovered our flight," Ralph said at last, "or they would have passed long before this. Sir Phillip doubtless imagines that we are drowned. The water was within a few inches of the sill when we started, and must soon have flooded the dungeon; and did he trouble to look in the morning, which is unlikely enough seeing that he would be sure of our fate, he would be unable to descend the stairs, and could not reach to the door, and so discover that the bar had been removed. No; whatever his motive may have been in compassing my death, he is doubtless satisfied that he has attained it, and we need have no further fear of pursuit from him. The rain has ceased, and I think that it will be a fine night; we will walk on, and if we come across a barn will make free to enter it, and stripping off our clothing to dry, will sleep in the hay, and pursue our journey in the morning. From our travel-stained appearance any who may meet us will take us for two wayfarers going to take service in the army at Amiens."

It was not until nearly midnight that they came upon such a place as they sought, then after passing a little village they found a shed standing apart. Entering it they found that it was tenanted by two cows. Groping about they presently came upon a heap of forage, and taking off their outer garments lay down on this, covering themselves thickly with it. The shed was warm and comfortable and they were soon asleep, and awaking at daybreak they found that their clothes had dried somewhat. The sun was not yet up when they started, but it soon rose, and ere noon their garments had dried, and they felt for the first time comfortable. They met but few people on the road, and these passed them with ordinary salutations.

They had by this time left Amiens on the right, and by nightfall were well on their way towards Calais. Early in the morning they had purchased some bread at a village through which they passed; Walter's Norman-French being easily understood, and exciting no surprise or suspicion. At nightfall they slept in a shed within a mile of the ruins of the castle of Pres, and late next evening entered the English encampment at New Town. After going to his tent, where he and Ralph changed their garments and partook of a hearty meal, Walter proceeded to the pavilion of the prince, who hailed his entrance with the greatest surprise.

"Why Sir Walter," he exclaimed, "what good saint has brought you here? I have but an hour since received a message from the Count of Evreux to the effect that you were a prisoner in the bands of Sir Phillip de Holbeaut, with whom I must treat for your ransom. I was purporting to send off a herald tomorrow to ask at what sum he held you; and now you appear in flesh and blood before us! But first, before you tell us your story, I must congratulate you on your gallant defence of the Castle of Pres, which is accounted by all as one of the most valiant deeds of the war. When two days passed without a messenger from you coming hither, I feared that you were beleaguered, and started that evening with six hundred men-at-arms. We arrived at daybreak to finding only a smoking ruin. Luckily among the crowd of dead upon the breach we found one of your men-at-arms who still breathed, and after some cordial had been given him, and his wounds stanched, he was able to tell us the story of the siege. But it needed not his tale to tell us how staunchly you had defended the castle, for the hundreds of dead who lay outside of the walls, and still more the mass who piled the breach, and the many who lay in the castle-yard spoke for themselves of the valour with which the castle had been defended. As the keep was gutted by fire, and the man could tell us nought of what had happened after he bad been stricken down at the breach, we knew not whether you and your brave garrison had perished in the flames. We saw the penthouse beneath which they had laboured to cut through the wall, but the work had ceased before the holes were large enough for entry, and we hoped that you might have seen that further resistance was in vain, and have made terms for your lives; indeed we heard from the country people that certain prisoners had been taken to Amiens. I rested one day at Pres, and the next rode back here, and forthwith despatched a herald to the Count of Evreux at Amiens asking for news of the garrison; but now he has returned with word that twenty- four men-at-arms and fifty-eight archers are prisoners in the count's hands, and that he is ready to exchange them against an equal number of French prisoners; but that you, with a man-at-arms, were in the keeping of Sir Phillip of Holbeaut, with whom I must treat for your ransom. And now tell me how it is that I see you here. Has your captor, confiding in your knightly word to send him the sum agreed upon, allowed you to return? Tell me the sum and my treasurer shall tomorrow pay it over to a herald, who shall carry it to Holbeaut."

"Thanks, your Royal Highness, for your generosity," Walter replied, "but there is no ransom to be paid."

And he then proceeded to narrate the incidents of his captivity at Holbeaut and his escape from the castle. His narration was frequently interrupted by exclamations of surprise and indignation from the prince and knights present.

"Well, this well-nigh passes all belief," the prince exclaimed when he had concluded. "It is an outrage upon all laws of chivalry and honour. What could have induced this caitiff knight, instead of treating you with courtesy and honour until your ransom arrived, to lodge you in a foul dungeon, where, had you not made your escape, your death would have been brought about that very night by the rising water? Could it be, think you, that his brain is distraught by some loss or injury which may have befallen him at our hands during the war and worked him up to a blind passion of hatred against all Englishmen?"

"I think not that, your Royal Highness," Walter replied. "His manner was cool and deliberate, and altogether free from any signs of madness. Moreover, it would seem that he had specially marked me down beforehand, since, as I have told you, he had bargained with the Count of Evreux for the possession of my person should I escape with life at the capture of the castle. It seems rather as if he must have had some private enmity against me, although what the cause may be I cannot imagine, seeing that I have never, to my knowledge, before met him, and have only heard his name by common report.

"Whatever be the cause," the prince said, "we will have satisfaction for it, and I will beg the king, my father, to write at once to Phillip of Valois protesting against the treatment that you have received, and denouncing Sir Phillip of Holbeaut as a base and dishonoured knight, whom, should he fall into our hands, we will commit at once to the hangman.

Upon the following day Walter was called before the king, and related to him in full the incidents of the siege and of his captivity and escape; and the same day King Edward sent off a letter to Phillip of Valois denouncing Sir Phillip Holbeaut as a dishonoured knight, and threatening retaliation upon the French prisoners in his hands.

A fortnight later an answer was received from the King of France saying that he had inquired into the matter, and had sent a seneschal, who had questioned Sir Phillip Holbeaut and some of the men-at-arms in the castle, and that he found that King Edward had been grossly imposed upon by a fictitious tale. Sir Walter Somers had, he found, been treated with all knightly courtesy, and believing him to be an honourable knight and true to his word, but slight watch had been kept over him. He had basely taken advantage of this trust, and with the man-at-arms with him had escaped from the castle in order to avoid payment of his ransom, and had now invented these gross and wicked charges against Sir Phillip Holbeaut as a cloak to his own dishonour.

Walter was furious when he heard the contents of this letter, and the king and Black Prince were no less indignant. Although they doubted him not for a moment, Walter begged that Ralph might be brought before them and examined strictly as to what had taken place, in order that they might see that his statements tallied exactly with those he had made.

When this had been done Walter obtained permission from the king to despatch a cartel to Sir Phillip de Holbeaut denouncing him as a perjured and dishonoured knight and challenging him to meet him in mortal conflict at any time and place that he might name. At the same time the king despatched a letter to Phillip of Valois saying that the statements of the French knight and followers were wholly untrue, and begging that a time might be appointed for the meeting of the two knights in the lists.

To this King Phillip replied that he had ordered all private quarrels in France to be laid aside during the progress of the war, and that so long as an English foot remained upon French soil he would give no countenance to his knights throwing away the lives which they owed to France, in private broils.

"You must wait, Sir Walter, you see," the king said, "until you may perchance meet him in the field of battle. In the mean time, to show how lightly I esteem the foul charge brought against you, and how much I hold and honour the bravery which you showed in defending the castle which my son the prince entrusted to you, as well as upon other occasions, I hereby promote you to the rank of knight-banneret."

Events now passed slowly before Calais. Queen Philippa and many of her ladies crossed the Channel and joined her husband, and these added much to the gaiety of the life in camp. The garrison at Calais was, it was known, in the sorest straits for the want of food, and at last the news came that the King of France, with a huge army of 200,000 men, was moving to its relief. They had gathered at Hesdin, at which rendezvous the king had arrived in the early part of April; but it was not until the 27th of July that the whole army was collected, and marching by slow steps advanced towards the English position.

King Edward had taken every precaution to guard all the approaches to the city. The ground was in most places too soft and sandy to admit of the construction of defensive works; but the fleet was drawn up close inshore to cover the line of sand-hills by the sea with arrows and war machines, while the passages of the marshes, which extended for a considerable distance round the town, were guarded by the Earl of Lancaster and a body of chosen troops, while the other approaches to the city were covered by the English camp.

The French reconnoitering parties found no way open to attack the English unless under grievous disadvantages. The Cardinals of Tusculum, St. John, and St. Paul endeavoured to negotiate terms of peace, and commissioners on both sides met. The terms offered by Phillip were, however, by no means so favourable as Edward, after his own victorious operations and those of his armies in Brittany and Guienne, had a right to expect and the negotiations were broken off.

The following day the French king sent in a message to Edward saying that he had examined the ground in every direction in order to advance and give battle, but had found no means of doing so. He therefore summoned the king to come forth from the marshy ground in which he was encamped and to fight in the open plain; and he offered to send four French knights, who, with four English of the same rank, should choose a fair plain in the neighbourhood, according to the usages of chivalry. Edward had little over 30,000 men with him; but the same evening that Phillip's challenge was received a body of 17,000 Flemings and English, detached from an army which had been doing good service on the borders of Flanders, succeeded in passing round the enemy's host and in effecting a junction with the king's army. Early the next morning, after having consulted with his officers, Edward returned an answer to the French king, saying that he agreed to his proposal, and enclosed a safe-conduct for any four French knights who might be appointed to arrange with the same number of English the place of battle.

The odds were indeed enormous, the French being four to one; but Edward, after the success of Cressy, which had been won by the Black Prince's division, which bore a still smaller proportion to the force engaging it, might well feel confident in the valour of his troops. His envoys, on arriving at the French camp, found that Phillip had apparently changed his mind. He declined to discuss the matter with which they were charged, and spoke only of the terms upon which Edward would be willing to raise the siege of Calais. As they had no authority on this subject the English knights returned to their camp, where the news was received with great disappointment, so confident did all feel in their power to defeat the huge host of the French. But even greater was the astonishment the next morning when, before daylight, the tents of the French were seen in one great flame, and it was found that the king and all his host were retreating at full speed. The Earls of Lancaster and Northampton, with a large body of horse at once started in pursuit, and harassed the retreating army on its march towards Amiens.

No satisfactory reasons ever have been assigned for this extraordinary step on the part of the French king. He had been for months engaged in collecting a huge army, and he had now an opportunity of fighting the English in a fair field with a force four times as great as their own. The only means indeed of accounting for his conduct is by supposing him affected by temporary aberration of mind, which many other facts in his history render not improbable. The fits of rage so frequently recorded of him border upon madness, and a number of strange actions highly detrimental to his own interests which he committed can only be accounted for as the acts of a diseased mind. This view has been to some extent confirmed by the fact that less than half a century afterwards insanity declared itself among his descendants.

A few hours after the departure of the French the French standard was lowered on the walls of Calais, and news was brought to Edward that the governor was upon the battlements and desired to speak with some officers of the besieging army. Sir Walter Manny and Lord Bisset were sent to confer with him, and found that his object was to obtain the best terms he could. The English knights, knowing the determination of the king on the subject, were forced to tell him that no possibility existed of conditions being granted, but that the king demanded their unconditional surrender, reserving to himself entirely the right whom to pardon and whom to put to death.

The governor remonstrated on the severe terms, and said that rather than submit to them he and his soldiers would sally out and die sword in hand. Sir Walter Manny found the king inexorable. The strict laws of war in those days justified the barbarous practise of putting to death the garrison of a town captured under such circumstances. Calais had been for many years a nest of pirates, and vessels issuing from its port had been a scourge to the commerce of England and Flanders, and the king was fully determined to punish it severely. Sir Walter Manny interceded long and boldly, and represented to the king that none of his soldiers would willingly defend a town on his behalf from the day on which he put to death the people of Calais, as beyond doubt the French would retaliate in every succeeding siege. The other nobles and knights joined their entreaties to those of Sir Walter Manny, and the king finally consented to yield in some degree. He demanded that six of the most notable burghers of the town, with bare heads and feet, and with ropes about their necks and the keys of the fortress in their hands, should deliver themselves up for execution. On these conditions he agreed to spare the rest. With these terms Sir Walter Manny returned to Sir John of Vienne.

The governor left the battlements, and proceeding to the market-place ordered the bell to be rung. The famished and despairing citizens gathered a haggard crowd to hear their doom. A silence followed the narration of the hard conditions of surrender by the governor, and sobs and cries alone broke the silence which succeeded. Then Eustace St. Pierre, the wealthiest and most distinguished of the citizens, came forward and offered himself as one of the victims, saying, "Sad pity and shame would it be to let all of our fellow- citizens die of famine or the sword when means could be found to save them." John of Aire, James and Peter De Vissant, and another whose name has not come down to us, followed his example, and stripping to their shirts set out for the camp, Sir John of Vienne, who, from a late wound, was unable to walk, riding at their head on horseback. The whole population accompanied them weeping bitterly until they came to the place where Sir Walter Manny was awaiting them. Here the crowd halted, and the knight, promising to do his best to save them, led them to the tent where the king had assembled all his nobles around him. When the tidings came that the burghers of Calais had arrived, Edward issued out with his retinue, accompanied by Queen Philippa and the Black Prince.

"Behold, Sire," Sir Walter Manny said, "the representatives of the town of Calais!"

The king made no reply while John of Vienne surrendered his sword, and kneeling with the burghers, said, "Gentle lord and king; behold, we six who were once the greatest citizens and merchants of Calais, bring you the keys of the town and castle, and give ourselves up to your pleasure, placing ourselves in the state in which you see us by our own free-will to save the rest of the people of the city, who have already suffered many ills. We pray you, therefore, to have pity and mercy upon us for the sake of your high nobleness."

All present were greatly affected at this speech, and at the aspect of men who thus offered their lives for their fellow-citizens. The king's countenance alone remained unchanged, and he ordered them to be taken to instant execution. Then Sir Walter Manny and all the nobles with tears besought the king to have mercy, not only for the sake of the citizens, but for that of his own fame, which would be tarnished by so cruel a deed.

"Silence, Sir Walter!" cried the king. "Let the executioner be called. The men of Calais have put to death so many of my subjects that I will also put these men to death."

At this moment Queen Philippa, who had been weeping bitterly, cast herself upon her knees before the king. "Oh, gentle lord," she cried, "since I have repassed the seas to see you I have neither asked or required anything at your hand; now, then, I pray you humbly, and require as a boon, that for the sake of the Son of Mary, and for the love of me, you take these men to mercy.

The king stood for a moment in silence, and then said:

"Ah! lady, I would that you had been other where than here; but you beg of me so earnestly I must not refuse you, though I grant your prayer with pain. I give them to you; take them, and do your will."

Then the queen rose from her knees, and bidding the burghers rise, she caused clothing and food to be given them, and sent them away free.

Sir Walter Manny, with a considerable body of men-at-arms, now took possession of the town of Calais. The anger of the king soon gave way to better feelings; all the citizens, without exception, were fed by his bounty. Such of them as preferred to depart instead of swearing fealty to the English monarch were allowed to carry away what effects they could bear upon their persons and were conducted in safety to the French town of Guisnes. Eustace de St. Pierre was granted almost all the possessions he had formerly held in Calais, and also a considerable pension; and he and all who were willing to remain were well and kindly treated. The number was large, for the natural indignation which they felt at their base desertion by the French king induced very many of the citizens to remain and become subjects of Edward. The king issued a proclamation inviting English traders and others to come across and take up their residence in Calais, bestowing upon them the houses and lands of the French who had left. Very many accepted the invitation, and Calais henceforth and for some centuries became virtually an English town.

A truce was now, through the exertions of the pope's legates, made between England and France, the terms agreed on being very similar to those of the previous treaty; and when all his arrangements were finished Edward returned with his queen to England, having been absent eighteen months, during which time almost unbroken success had attended his arms, and the English name had reached a position of respect and honour in the eyes of Europe far beyond that at which it previously stood.