Chapter XX: Poitiers
 

After the great sea-fight at the end of August, 1350, England had peace for some years. Phillip of France had died a week before that battle, and had been succeeded by his son John, Duke of Normandy. Upon the part of both countries there was an indisposition to renew the war, for their power had been vastly crippled by the devastations of the plague. This was followed by great distress and scarcity owing to the want of labour to till the fields. The truce was therefore continued from time to time; the pope strove to convert the truce into a permanent peace, and on the 28th of August, 1354, a number of the prelates and barons of England, with full power to arrange terms of peace, went to Avignon, where they were met by the French representatives. The powers committed to the English commissioners show that Edward was at this time really desirous of making a permanent peace with France; but the French ambassadors raised numerous and unexpected difficulties, and after lengthened negotiations the conference was broken off.

The truce came to an end in June, 1355, and great preparations were made on both sides for the war. The King of England strained every effort to furnish and equip an army which was to proceed with the Black Prince to Aquitaine, of which province his father had appointed him governor, and in November the Prince sailed for Bordeaux, with the advance-guard of his force. Sir Walter Somers accompanied him. During the years which had passed since the plague he had resided principally upon his estates, and had the satisfaction of seeing that his tenants escaped the distress which was general through the country. He had been in the habit of repairing to London to take part in the tournaments and other festivities; but both he and Edith preferred the quiet country life to a continued residence at court. Two sons had now been born to him, and fond as he was of the excitement and adventure of war, it was with deep regret that he obeyed the royal summons, and left his house with his retainers, consisting of twenty men-at-arms and thirty archers, to join the prince.

Upon the Black Prince's landing at Bordeaux he was joined by the Gascon lords, the vassals of the English crown, and for three months marched through and ravaged the districts adjoining, the French army, although greatly superior in force, offering no effectual resistance. Many towns were taken, and he returned at Christmas to Bordeaux after a campaign attended by a series of unbroken successes.

The following spring the war recommenced, and a diversion was effected by the Duke of Lancaster, who was in command of Brittany, joining his forces with those of the King of Navarre, and many of the nobles of Normandy, while King Edward crossed to Calais and kept a portion of the French army occupied there. The Black Prince, leaving the principal part of his forces under the command of the Earl of Albret to guard the territory already acquired against the attack of the French army under the Count of Armagnac, marched with 2000 picked men-at-arms and 6000 archers into Auvergne, and thence turning into Berry, marched to the gates of Bourges.

The King of France was now thoroughly alarmed, and issued a general call to all his vassals to assemble on the Loire. The Prince of Wales, finding immense bodies of men closing in around him, fell back slowly, capturing and levelling to the ground the strong castle of Romorentin.

The King of France was now hastening forward, accompanied by his four sons, 140 nobles with banners, 20,000 men-at-arms, and an immense force of infantry. Vast accessions of forces joined him each day, and on the 17th of September he occupied a position between the Black Prince and Guienne. The first intimation that either the Black Prince or the King of France had of their close proximity to each other was an accidental meeting between a small foraging force of the English and three hundred French horse, under the command of the Counts of Auxerre and Joigny, the marshal of Burgundy, and the lord of Chatillon. The French hotly pursued the little English party, and on emerging from some low bushes found themselves in the midst of the English camp, where all were taken prisoners. From them the Black Prince learned that the King of France was within a day's march.

The Prince despatched the Captal de Buch with 200 men-at-arms to reconnoitre the force and position of the enemy, and these coming upon the rear of the French army just as they were about to enter Poitiers, dashed among them and took some prisoners. The King of France thus first learned that the enemy he was searching for was actually six miles in his rear. The Captal de Buch and his companions returned to the Black Prince, and confirmed the information obtained from the prisoners, that the King of France, with an army at least eight times as strong as his own, lay between him and Poitiers.

The position appeared well-nigh desperate, but the prince and his most experienced knights at once reconnoitered the country to choose the best ground upon which to do battle. An excellent position was chosen. It consisted of rising ground commanding the country towards Poitiers, and naturally defended by the hedges of a vineyard. It was only accessible from Poitiers by a sunken road flanked by banks and fences, and but wide enough to admit of four horsemen riding abreast along it. The ground on either side of this hollow way was rough and broken so as to impede the movements even of infantry, and to render the maneuvers of a large body of cavalry nearly impracticable. On the left of the position was a little hamlet called Maupertuis. Here on the night of Saturday the 17th of September the prince encamped, and early next morning made his dispositions for the battle. His whole force was dismounted and occupied the high ground, a strong body of archers lined the hedges on either side of the sunken road; the main body of archers were drawn up in their usual formation on the hillside, their front covered by the hedge of the vineyard, while behind them the men-at-arms were drawn up.

The King of France divided his army into three divisions, each consisting of 16,000 mounted men-at-arms besides infantry, commanded respectively by the Duke of Orleans, the king's brother, the dauphin, and the king himself. With the two royal princes were the most experienced of the French commanders. In the meantime De Ribaumont, with three other French knights, reconnoitered the English position, and on their return with their report strongly advised that as large bodies of cavalry would be quite useless owing to the nature of the ground, the whole force should dismount except 300 picked men designed to break the line of English archers and a small body of German horse to act as a reserve.

Just as the King of France was about to give orders for the advance, the Cardinal of Perigord arrived in his camp, anxious to stop, if possible, the effusion of blood. He hurried to the King of France.

"You have here, sire," he said, "the flower of all the chivalry of your realm assembled against a mere handful of English, and it will be far more honourable and profitable for you to have them in your power without battle than to risk such a noble array in uncertain strife. I pray you, then, in the name of God, to let me ride on to the Prince of Wales, to show him his peril, and to exhort him to peace."

"Willingly, my lord," the king replied; "but above all things be quick."

The cardinal at once hastened to the English camp; he found the Black Prince in the midst of his knights ready for battle, but by no means unwilling to listen to proposals for peace. His position was indeed most perilous. In his face was an enormously superior army, and he was moreover threatened by famine; even during the two preceding days his army had suffered from a great scarcity of forage, and its provisions were almost wholly exhausted. The French force was sufficiently numerous to blockade him in his camp, and he knew that did they adopt that course he must surrender unconditionally, since were he forced to sally out and attack the French no valour could compensate for the immense disparity of numbers. He therefore replied at once to the cardinal's application, that he was ready to listen to any terms by which his honour and that of his companions would be preserved.

The cardinal returned to the King of France and with much entreaty succeeded in obtaining a truce until sunrise on the following morning. The soldiers returned to their tents, and the cardinal rode backward and forward between the armies, beseeching the King of France to moderate his demands, and the Black Prince to submit to the evil fortune which had befallen him; but on the one side the king looked upon the victory as certain, and on the other the Black Prince thought that there was at least a hope of success should the French attack him. All, therefore, that the cardinal could obtain from him was an offer to resign all he had captured in his expedition, towns, castles, and prisoners, and to take an oath not to bear arms against France for seven years. This proposal fell so far short of the demands of the French king that pacification soon appeared hopeless.

Early on the Monday morning the cardinal once more sought the presence of the French king, but found John inflexible; while some of the leaders who had viewed with the strongest disapproval his efforts to snatch what they regarded as certain victory from their hands, gave him a peremptory warning not to show himself again in their lines. The prelate then bore the news of his failure to the Prince of Wales. "Fair son," he said, "do the best you can, for you must needs fight, as I can find no means of peace or amnesty with the King of France."

"Be it so, good father," the prince replied, "it is our full resolve to fight, and God will aid the right."

The delay which had occurred had not been without advantages for the British army, although the shortness of provisions was greatly felt. Every effort had been made to strengthen the position. Deep trenches had been dug and palisades erected around it, and the carts and baggage train had all been moved round so as to form a protection on the weakest side of the camp, where also a rampart had been constructed.

Upon a careful examination of the ground it was found that the hill on the right side of the camp was less difficult than had been supposed, and that the dismounted men-at-arms who lay at its foot under the command of the Dauphin would find little difficulty in climbing it to the assault. The prince therefore gave orders that 300 men-at-arms and 300 mounted archers should make a circuit from the rear round the base of the hill, in order to pour in upon the flank of the Dauphin's division as soon as they became disordered in the ascent. The nature of the ground concealed this maneuver from the enemies' view, and the Captal De Buch, who was in command of the party, gained unperceived the cover of a wooded ravine within a few hundred yards of the left flank of the enemy. By the time that all these dispositions were complete the huge French array was moving forward. The Black Prince, surrounded by his knights, viewed them approaching.

"Fair lords," he said, "though we be so few against that mighty power of enemies, let us not be dismayed, for strength and victory lie not in multitudes, but in those to whom God give them. If He will the day be ours, then the highest glory of this world will be given to us. If we die, I have the noble lord, my father, and two fair brothers, and you have each of you many a good friend who will avenge us well; thus, then, I pray you fight well this day, and if it please God and St. George I will also do the part of a good knight."

The prince then chose Sir John Chandos and Sir James Audley to remain by his side during the conflict in order to afford him counsel in case of need. Audley, however, pleaded a vow which he had made long before, to be the first in battle should he ever be engaged under the command of the King of England or any of his children. The prince at once acceded to his request to be allowed to fight in the van, and Audley, accompanied by four chosen squires, took his place in front of the English line of battle. Not far from him, also in advance of the line, was Sir Eustace D'Arnbrecicourt on horseback, also eager to distinguish himself.

As Sir James rode off the prince turned to Walter. "As Audley must needs fight as a knight-errant, Sir Walter Somers, do you take your place by my side, for there is no more valiant knight in my army than you have often proved yourself to be."

Three hundred chosen French men-at-arms mounted on the strongest horses covered with steel armour, led the way under the command of the Marechals D'Audeham and De Clermont; while behind them were a large body of German cavalry under the Counts of Nassau, Saarbruck, and Nidau, to support them in their attack on the English archers. On the right was the Duke of Orleans with 16,000 men-at-arms; on the left the Dauphin and his two brothers with an equal force; while King John himself led on the rear-guard.

When the three hundred elite of the French army reached the narrow way between the hedges, knowing that these were lined with archers they charged through at a gallop to fall upon the main body of bowmen covering the front of the English men-at-arms. The moment they were fairly in the hollow road the British archers rose on either side to their feet and poured such a flight of arrows among them that in an instant all was confusion and disarray. Through every joint and crevice of the armour of knights and horses the arrows found their way, and the lane was almost choked with the bodies of men and horses. A considerable number, nevertheless, made their way through and approached the first line of archers beyond. Here they were met by Sir James Audley, who, with his four squires, plunged into their ranks and overthrew the Marechal D'Audeham, and then fought his way onward. Regardless of the rest of the battle he pressed ever forward, until at the end of the day, wounded in a hundred places and fainting from loss of blood, he fell from his horse almost at the gates of Poitiers, and was borne from the field by the four faithful squires who had fought beside him throughout the day.

Less fortunate was Sir Eustace D'Ambrecicourt, who spurred headlong upon the German cavalry. A German knight rode out to meet him, and in the shock both were dishorsed, but before Sir Eustace could recover his seat he was borne down to the ground by four others of the enemy, and was bound and carried captive to the rear.

In the meantime the English archers kept up their incessant hail of arrows upon the band under the French marshals. The English men-at-arms passed through the gaps purposely left in the line of archers and drove back the front rank of the enemy upon those following, chasing them headlong down the hollow road again. The few survivors of the French force, galloping back, carried confusion into the advancing division of the Dauphin.

Before order was restored the Captal De Buch with his six hundred men issued forth from his place of concealment and charged impetuously down on the left flank of the Dauphin. The French, shaken in front by the retreat of their advance guard, were thrown into extreme confusion by this sudden and unexpected charge. The horse archers with the captal poured their arrows into the mass, while the shafts of the main body of the archers on the hill hailed upon them without ceasing.

The rumour spread among those in the French rear, who were unable to see what was going forward, that the day was already lost, and many began to fly. Sir John Chandos marked the confusion which had set in, and he exclaimed to the prince:

"Now, sir, ride forward, and the day is yours. Let us charge right over upon your adversary, the King of France, for there lies the labour and the feat of the day. Well do I know that his great courage will never let him fly, but, God willing, he shall be well encountered."

"Forward, then, John Chandos," replied the prince. "You shall not see me tread one step back, but ever in advance. Bear on my banner. God and St. George be with us!"

The horses of the English force were all held in readiness by their attendants close in their rear. Every man sprang into his saddle, and with levelled lances the army bore down the hill against the enemy, while the Captal De Buch forced his way through the struggling ranks of the French to join them.

To these two parties were opposed the whole of the German cavalry, the division of the Dauphin, now thinned by flight, and a strong force under the Constable de Brienne, Duke of Athens. The first charge of the English was directed against the Germans, the remains of the marshal's forces, and that commanded by the Constable. The two bodies of cavalry met with a tremendous shock, raising their respective war-cries, "Denis Mount Joye!" and "St. George Guyenne!" Lances were shivered, and horses and men rolled over, but the German horse was borne down in every direction by the charge of the English chivalry. The Counts of Nassau and Saarbruck were taken, and the rest driven down the hill in utter confusion. The division of the Duke of Orleans, a little further down the hill to the right, were seized with a sudden panic, and 16,000 men-at-arms, together with their commander, fled without striking a blow.

Having routed the French and German cavalry in advance, the English now fell upon the Dauphin's division. This had been already confused by the attacks of the Captal De Buch, and when its leaders beheld the complete rout of the marshals and the Germans, and saw the victorious force galloping down upon them, the responsibility attached to the charge of the three young princes overcame their firmness. The Lords of Landas, Vaudenay, and St. Venant, thinking the battle lost, hurried the princes from the field, surrounded by eight hundred lances, determined to place them at a secure distance, and then to return and fight beside the king. The retreat of the princes at once disorganized the force, but though many fled a number of the nobles remained scattered over the field fighting in separate bodies with their own retainers gathered under their banners. Gradually these fell back and took post on the left of the French king's division. The Constable and the Duke of Bourbon with a large body of knights and men-at-arms also opposed a firm front to the advance of the English. The king saw with indignation one of his divisions defeated and the other in coward flight, but his forces were still vastly superior to those of the English, and ordering his men to dismount, he prepared to receive their onset. The English now gathered their forces which had been scattered in combat, and again advanced to the fight. The archers as usual heralded this advance with showers of arrows, which shook the ranks of the French and opened the way for the cavalry. These dashed in, and the ranks of the two armies became mixed, and each man fought hand to hand. The French king fought on foot with immense valour and bravery, as did his nobles. The Dukes of Bourbon and Athens, the Lords of Landas, Argenton, Chambery, Joinville, and many others stood and died near the king.

Gradually the English drove back their foes. The French forces became cut up into groups or confined into narrow spaces. Knight after knight fell around the king. De Ribaumont fell near him. Jeffrey de Charny, who, as one of the most valiant knights in the army, had been chosen to bear the French standard, the oriflamme, never left his sovereign's side, and as long as the sacred banner floated over his head John would not believe the day was lost. At length, however, Jeffrey de Charny was killed, and the oriflamme fell. John, surrounded on every side by foes who pressed forward to make him prisoner, still kept clear the space immediately around himself and his little son with his battle-axe; but at last he saw that further resistance would only entail the death of both, and he then surrendered to Denis de Montbec, a knight of Artois.

The battle was now virtually over. The French banners and pennons had disappeared, and nothing was seen save the dead and dying, groups of prisoners, and parties of fugitives flying over the country. Chandos now advised the prince to halt. His banner was pitched on the summit of a little mound. The trumpets blew to recall the army from the pursuit, and the prince, taking off his helmet, drank with the little body of knights who accompanied him some wine brought from his former encampment.

The two marshals of the English army, the Earls of Warwick and Suffolk, were among the first to return at the call of the trumpet. Hearing that King John had certainly not left the field of battle, though they knew not whether he was dead or taken, the prince at once despatched the Earl of Warwick and Lord Cobham to find and protect him if still alive. They soon came upon a mass of men-at-arms, seemingly engaged in an angry quarrel. On riding up they found that the object of strife was the King of France, who had been snatched from the hands of Montbec, and was being claimed by a score of men as his prisoner. The Earl of Warwick and Lord Cobham instantly made their way through the mass, and dismounting, saluted the captive monarch with the deepest reverence, and keeping back the multitude led him to the Prince of Wales. The latter bent his knee before the king, and calling for wine, presented the cup with his own hands to the unfortunate monarch.

The battle was over by noon, but it was evening before all the pursuing parties returned, and the result of the victory was then fully known. With less than 8000 men the English had conquered far more than 60,000. On the English side 2000 men-at-arms and 1500 archers had fallen. Upon the French side 11,000 men- at-arms, besides an immense number of footmen, had been killed. A king, a prince, an archbishop, 13 counts, 66 barons, and more than 2000 knights were prisoners in the hands of the English, with a number of other soldiers, who raised the number of captives to double that of their conquerors. All the baggage of the French army was taken, and as the barons of France had marched to the field feeling certain of victory, and the rich armour of the prisoners became immediately the property of the captors, immense stores of valuable ornaments of all kinds, especially jewelled baldrics, enriched the meanest soldier among the conquerors.

The helmet which the French king had worn, which bore a small coronet of gold beneath the crest, was delivered to the Prince of Wales, who sent it off at once to his father as the best trophy of the battle he could offer him.

Its receipt was the first intimation which Edward III received of the great victory.

As the prince had no means of providing for the immense number of prisoners, the greater portion were set at liberty upon their taking an oath to present themselves at Bordeaux by the ensuing Christmas in order either to pay the ransom appointed, or to again yield themselves as prisoners.

Immediately the battle was over, Edward sent for the gallant Sir James Audley, who was brought to him on his litter by his esquires, and the prince, after warmly congratulating him on the honour that he had that day won as the bravest knight in the army, assigned him an annuity of five hundred marks a year.

No sooner was Audley taken to his own tent than he called round him several of his nearest relations and friends, and then and there made over to his four gallant attendants, without power of recall, the gift which the prince had bestowed upon him. The prince was not to be outdone, however, in liberality, and on hearing that Audley had assigned his present to the brave men who had so gallantly supported him in the fight, he presented Sir James with another annuity of six hundred marks a year.