Chapter VIII: Off to the Wars
 

Two days later Walter started with Sir Walter Manny, with a large number of knights, squires, men-at-arms, and archers, for the Orwell. Walter was mounted, as were the other squires and men-at-arms, and indeed many of the archers. Ralph Smith, in the attire of a man-at-arms, rode behind.

Walter was in the highest spirits. A brilliant career was open to him under the most favourable circumstances; he had already distinguished himself, and had gained the attention of the highest personages in the realm, his immediate lord was one of the bravest and most chivalrous knights in Europe, and he had to sustain and encourage him the hopes that Lady Vernon had given him, of regaining some day the patrimony of his father. It was a satisfaction to him that he was as well born as those who surrounded him, and his purse was well lined as any in the company. Although he had spent the largess which had been bestowed upon him at the tournament in procuring clothes fitted for his rank, he was yet abundantly supplied with money, for both Geoffrey Ward and Giles Fletcher, having no children of their own and being both well-to-do men, had insisted upon his accepting a sum which would enable him to make a good appearance with the best.

A large number of squires followed the banner of Sir Walter Manny. The records of the time show that the barons were generally accompanied in the field by almost as many squires as men-at-arms. The former were men of good family, sons of knights and nobles, aspirants for the honour of knighthood, and sons of the smaller gentry. Many were there from pure love of a life of excitement and adventure, others in fulfilment of the feudal tenure by which all land was then held, each noble and landowner being obliged to furnish so many knights, squires, men-at-arms, and archers, in accordance with the size of his holding. The squires fought in the field in the front rank of the men-at-arms, save those who, like Walter, were attached to the person of their leader, and who in the field fought behind him or bore his orders to the companies under his banner.

In the field all drew pay, and it may be interesting in the present day to know what were the rates for which our forefathers risked their lives. They were as follows: each horse archer received 6 deniers, each squire 12 deniers or 1 sol, each knight 2 sols, each knight banneret 4 sols. 20 sols went to the pound, and although the exact value of money in those days relative to that which it bears at the present time is doubtful, it may be placed at twelve times the present value. Therefore each horse archer received an equivalent to 6s. a day, each squire 12s., each knight 24s., and each knight banneret 48s. per day.

Upon their arrival at the Orwell, where many troops from other parts had been gathered, the expedition at once embarked on board the numerous ships which had been collected. As that in which Sir Walter sailed also carried several of his knights there was not room for all his young esquires, and Walter and the three other juniors were told off into another ship. She was a smaller vessel than most of those which composed the expedition, and only carried twelve men-at-arms and as many archers, together with the four young squires, and a knight, Sir John Powis, who was in command of the whole.

"Your craft is but a small one," the knight said to the captain.

"She is small, but she is fast," the latter answered. "She would sail round and round the best part of the fleet. I had her built according to my own fancy. Small though she be, I warrant you she will be one of the first to arrive at Hennebon, and the sooner the better say I, since I am but paid by the trip, and would fain be back again at my regular work. It pays better carrying merchants' goods between London and Holland than taking his majesty's troops over to France."

"Your speed will not be of much avail," Sir John Powis said, "seeing that the fleet will keep together."

"Yes, I know that is the order," the captain answered; "but accidents happen sometimes, you know" - and his eye twinkled. "Vessels get separated from fleets. If they happen to be slow ones so much the worse for those on board; if they happen to be fast ones so much the better, seeing that those they carry will arrive long before their comrades, and may be enabled to gain credit and renown while the others are whistling for a wind in mid-ocean. However, we shall see.

The next morning the fleet sailed from the Orwell. It contained 620 men-at-arms, among whom were many of the noblest and bravest of the country, and 6000 picked archers in the pay of the king. The whole were commanded by Sir Walter. The scene was a very gay one. The banners of the nobles and knights floated from the lofty poops, and the sun shone on bright armour and steel weapons. Walter, who had never seen the sea before, was delighted. The wind was fair, and the vessels glided smoothly along over the sea. At evening the knight and his four young companions gathered in the little cabin, for it was in the first week in March, and the night was cold.

"Will you please tell me, Sir John," Walter said to the knight, "the merits of this quarrel in which we are going to fight? I know that we are going in aid of the Countess of Montford; but why she is in a sore strait I know not."

"The matter is a mixed one, Walter, and it requires a herald to tell you all the subtleties of it. John III, Duke of Brittany, was present with his liege lord, Phillip of Valois, in the last war with England, on the border of the low country. When the English retired from before Tournay Phillip dismissed his nobles. The Duke of Burgundy was taken ill, and died at Caen, in Normandy, on the 30th of April, 1341. Arthur II, his father, had been twice married. By his first wife he had three sons, John, Guy, and Peter. John and Peter left no issue. Guy, who is also dead, left a daughter, Joan. By his second wife, Jolande de Dieux, Duke Arthur had one son, John, Count of Montford. Thus it happened, that when Duke John died, his half-brother, the Count of Montford, and Joan, daughter of his second brother Guy, were all that survived of the family. These were the rival claimants for the vacant dukedom. In England we have but one law of succession, which rules through the whole land. In France it is different. There the law of succession depends entirely upon the custom of the county, dukedom, or lordship, which is further affected both by the form of grant by which the territory was conveyed to its first feudal possessors and by the mode in which the province had been acquired by the kings of France. This is important, as upon these circumstances alone it depended whether the son or the granddaughter of Arthur II should inherit the dukedom.

"Joan claimed the duchy as the daughter of the elder brother. The Salic law of France, which barred females from the right of succession, and in virtue of which Philip of Valois succeeded to the throne instead of King Edward, certainly did not obtain in Brittany. Duke John regarded Joan as his heiress, and married her to Charles of Blois, nephew of the King of France, thus strengthening her in her position; and he also induced the provincial parliament of Brittany to acknowledge her husband as his successor in the dukedom. Altogether it would seem that right is upon Joan's side; but, on the other hand, the Count of Montford is the son of Jolande, a great heiress in Brittany. He is an active and energetic noble. The Bretons love not too close a connection with France, and assuredly prefer to be ruled by a duke whom they regard as one of themselves rather than by Charles of Blois, nephew of the French king. Directly Duke John was dead the Count of Montford claimed the inheritance. Assuming the title of duke he rode to Nantes, where the citizens did him homage, and then proceeded to Limoges with a large train of men-at-arms, and there took possession of the immense treasures which the late duke had accumulated in the course of a long and tranquil reign. With these sinews of war at his command he turned to Nantes, where he had left his wife the countess, who was a sister of the Count of Flanders. He immediately invited the nobility of Brittany to a grand banquet, but only one knight of any renown presented himself at the feast, the rest all holding aloof. With the wealth of which he had possessed himself he levied large forces and took the field. He first marched against Brest, where the garrison, commanded by Walter de Clisson, refused to acknowledge him. After three days' hard fighting the place was taken. Rennes was next besieged, and presently surrendered. Other towns fell into his hands, and so far as Brittany was concerned all opposition, except in one or two fortresses, ceased. In the meanwhile Charles of Blois sought assistance from his uncle the King of France; the Count de Montford, therefore, crossed to England and besought the aid of King Edward, and did homage to him as King of France. Edward, on his part, promised to assist him. The fact that Phillip was sure to espouse the opposite side was in itself sufficient to decide him; besides which, the dukes of Brittany have always been in a special way connected with England and bear the English title of Earls of Richmond.

"Believing that his journey, which had been a secret one, was unknown to the King of France, De Montford went boldly to Paris, where he had been summoned by the king to an assembly of peers called to decide upon the succession. He found, however, that Phillip had already obtained news of his journey to England. His manner convinced De Montford that it was unsafe to remain in Paris, and he secretly made his escape. Fifteen days afterwards the peers gave judgment in favour of Charles of Blois. The Dukes of Normandy, Burgundy, and Bourbon, the Counts of Alencon, Eu, and Guisnes, and many other French nobles, prepared to lead an army into the field to support Charles, and the king added a body of 3000 Genoese mercenaries in his pay.

"Knowing the storm that was preparing to break upon him, De Montford put every town and castle in a state of defence. He himself, confiding in the affection of the inhabitants of Nantes, remained in that city, while his wife repaired to Rennes.

"The Duke of Normandy advanced from Angiers with an army of 5000 men-at-arms and a numerous infantry, and after capturing the castle of Chantoceaux marched to Nantes and laid siege to the city. A sortie was made by the besieged, led by Henry de Leon, but, being attacked by the whole of the French army, they were driven back into the town, a great many of the citizens being killed. A warm altercation took place between Henry de Leon and De Montford, who attributed to him the evil result of the sortie. The result was that a large number of the citizens whose friends had been captured by the French conspired to deliver up the place to Charles of Blois, and Henry de Leon also entered into private negotiations with the Duke of Normandy. De Montford, finding that he could rely neither upon the citizens nor the soldiers, surrendered to the duke on condition that his life was spared. He was sent to Paris, where he still remains a prisoner. Winter was coming on, and after putting Nantes in a fresh state of defence and leaving Charles of Blois there, the Duke of Normandy dismissed his forces, engaging them to reassemble in the spring. Had he pushed on at once he would have experienced no resistance, so great was the panic which the surrender of Nantes and the capture of De Montford had caused among the latter's partisans.

"In Rennes, especially, the deepest despondency was felt. The countess, however, showed the greatest courage and firmness. Showing herself, with her infant in her arms, she appealed to the citizens, and by her courageous bearing inspired them with new hopes. Having restored heart at Rennes she traveled from garrison to garrison throughout the province, and filled all with vigour and resolution. Feeling, however, the hopelessness of her struggle against all France, she despatched Sir Almeric de Clisson, who had lately joined her party, to England, to ask the aid which the king had promised. He arrived a month since, and, as you see, our brave king has not been long in despatching us to her aid; and now, youngsters, to bed, for methinks that the sea is rougher than it was and that the wind is getting up."

"Aye, that is it," the captain, who heard the knight's closing words, exclaimed. "We are in for a storm, and a heavy one, or my name is not Timothy Martin, and though with plenty of sea-room the Kitty makes not much ado about a storm more or less, it's a very different thing in the middle of a fleet of lubberly craft, which may run one down at any time. I shall edge out of them as soon as I can, you may be sure.

Before morning a serious gale was blowing, and for the next three or four days Walter and his companions knew nothing of what was going on. Then the storm abated, and they staggered out from their cabin. The sea was still high, but the sun shone brightly overhead. In front of them the land was visible. They looked round, but to their astonishment not a sail was in sight.

"Why, where is the fleet?" Walter exclaimed in astonishment.

"Snug in the Thames, I reckon," the captain said. "Soon after the storm came on one of the sailors pretended he saw the lights of recall on the admiral's ship; but I was too busy to look that way, I had enough to do to look after the safety of the ship. Anyhow, I saw no more of them."

"And what land is that ahead?" Walter asked.

"That is Brittany, young sir, and before nightfall we shall be in the port of Hennebon; as to the others, it may be days and it may be weeks before they arrive.

The lads were not sorry at the chance which had taken them to their destination before their companions and had given them a chance of distinguishing themselves. Late in the afternoon the ship dropped anchor off the castle of Hennebon, and Sir John Powis and his following were conveyed in the ship's boats to shore. The countess received them most graciously, and was delighted at the news that so strong a force was on its way to her aid.

"In the absence of Sir Walter Manny, madam, I place myself and my men at your orders. Our horses will be landed the first thing in the morning, and we will then ride whithersoever you may bid us."

"Thanks, Sir John," the countess replied. "In that case I would that you ride by Rennes, towards which the army of the Duke of Normandy is already advancing. The garrison there is commanded by Sir William of Caddoudal, a good and valiant knight."

The horses were landed on the following morning, and accompanied by the four young squires and the men-at-arms, and followed by the twenty archers on foot, Sir John Powis set out for Rennes. They arrived there, but just in time, for the assailants were closing round the city. They were received with the greatest cordiality by the governor, who assigned apartments to Sir John and the squires, and lodged the men-at-arms and archers near them.

In a day or two the whole of the French army came up, and the siege commenced. Sir John Powis, at his own request, was posted with his men for the defence of a portion of the wall which was especially open to the assaults of the enemy. These soon commenced in earnest, and the Genoese and Spanish mercenaries endeavoured to carry the place by assault. Sometimes one point would be attacked, at others points far distant. Covered by the fire of the French crossbowmen, the Spaniards and Germans came on to the assault, carrying ladders, with which they strove to climb the walls, but the defenders plied them so vigorously with quarrels from their cross-bows and flights of arrows that they frequently desisted before reaching the walls. When they pushed on, and strove to ascend, their luck was no better. Great stones were hurled down, and boiling oil poured upon them. The ladders were flung back, and many crushed by the fall, and in none of the assaults did they gain any footing in the town. Machines were used, but these were not sufficiently powerful to batter down the walls, and at the end of April the city was as far from being captured as it was on the day of the commencement of the siege.

Walter bore his full share in the fighting, but he had no opportunity of especially distinguishing himself, although Sir John several times commended him for his coolness when the bolts of the crossbow-men and the stones from the machines were flying most thickly. But although as yet uninjured by the enemy's attacks, the prospect of the city holding out was not bright. The burghers, who had at first fought valiantly, were soon wearied of the strife, and of the hardships it entailed upon them. The siege had continued but a short time when they began to murmur loudly. The force under the command of the governor was but a small one, and it would have been impossible for him to resist the will of the whole population. For a time his exhortations and entreaties were attended with success, and the burghers returned to their positions on the walls; but each time the difficulty became greater, and it was clear to Caddoudal and Sir John Powis that ere long the citizens would surrender the place in spite of them. The English knight was furious at the cowardliness of the citizens, and proposed to the governor to summon twenty of the leading burghers, and to hang them as a lesson to the others; but the governor shook his head.

"I have but two hundred men on whom I can rely, including your following, Sir John. We could not keep down the inhabitants for an hour; and were we to try to do so, they would open the gates and let in the French. No; I fear that we must await the end."

The following morning Sir John was awoke with the news that in the night Caddoudal had been seized and thrown into prison by the burghers, and that a deputation of citizens had already gone out through the gate to treat with the Duke of Normandy for the surrender of the city.

The English knight was furious, but with his little band he could do nothing, especially as he found that a strong guard of burghers had been placed at the door of the apartments occupied by him and the esquires, and he was informed that he must consider himself a prisoner until the conclusion of the negotiations.

Cowardly and faithless as the burghers of Rennes showed themselves to be, they nevertheless stipulated with the Duke of Normandy, as one of the conditions of the surrender, that Caddoudal, Sir John Powis, and the troops under them should be permitted to pass through the French lines and go whithersoever they would. These terms were accepted. At mid-day the governor was released, and he with his men-at-arms and the band of Englishmen filed out from the city gate, and took their way unmolested through the lines of the French army to Hennebon.

They had been for a month in ignorance of all that had passed outside the walls, and had from day to day been eagerly looking for the arrival of Sir Walter Manny with his army to their relief. Once past the French lines they inquired of the peasantry, and heard to their surprise that the English fleet had not yet arrived.

"We were in luck indeed," Walter said to his companions, "that Captain Timothy Martin was in a hurry to get back to his tradings with the Flemings. Had he not been so, we should all this time have been kicking our heels and fretting on board a ship."

On nearing Hennebon, Sir William Caddoudal, with Sir John Powis and the squires, rode forward and met the countess. They were the first bearers of the news of the surrender of Rennes, and the countess was filled with consternation at the intelligence. However, after her first burst of indignation and regret had passed, she put a brave face on it.

"They shall meet with another reception at Hennebon," she said. "This is but a small place, and my garrison here, and the soldiers you have brought, will well- nigh outnumber the burghers; and we need have no fear of such faintheartedness as that which has given Nantes and Rennes into the hands of my enemy. The English aid cannot tarry long. Until it come we can assuredly hold the place."

All was now bustle in Hennebon. Sir John Powis took charge of a part of the walls, and busied himself with his men in placing the machines in position, and in preparing for defence. The countess, attired in armour, rode through the streets haranguing the townspeople. She urged the men to fight till the last, and bade the women and girls cut short their dresses so that they could the better climb the steps to the top of the walls, and that one and all should carry up stones, chalk, and baskets of lime to be cast down upon the assailants. Animated by her words and gestures, the townspeople set to work, and all vied with each other, from the oldest to the youngest, in carrying up stores of missiles to the walls. Never did Hennebon present such a scene of life and bustle. It seemed like an ant-hill which a passer-by has disturbed.

Absorbed in their work, none had time to think of the dangers which threatened them, and a stranger would rather have thought from their cheerful and animated countenances that they were preparing for a great fete than for a siege by an army to which the two chief towns in Brittany had succumbed.

Ere long the French army was seen approaching. The soldiers, who had been labouring with the rest, buckled on their armour. The citizens gathered on the walls to hurl down the piles of stones which had been collected, and all prepared for the assault.

"Sir John Powis," the countess said, "I pray you to grant me one of your esquires, who may attend me while I ride about, and may bear my messages for me. He will not be idle, nor will he escape his share of the dangers; for, believe me, I do not intend to hide myself while you and your brave soldiers are fighting for me.

"Willingly, lady," Sir John answered. "Here is Walter Somers, the son of a good knight, and himself brave and prudent beyond his years; he will, I am sure, gladly devote himself to your service."

The French, encouraged by their successes, thought that it would be a comparatively easy task to capture so small a place as Hennebon, and as soon as their camp was pitched they moved forward to the attack.

"Come with me, Master Somers," the countess said. "I will mount to one of the watch-towers, where we may see all that passes.

Walter followed her, and marvelled to see the lightness and agility with which the heroic countess, although clad in armour, mounted the rickety ladders to the summit of the watch-tower. The French bowmen opened a heavy fire upon the walls, which was answered by the shafts of the little party of English bowmen. These did much execution, for the English archers shot far harder and straighter than those of France, and it was only the best armour which could keep out their cloth-yard shafts. So small a body, however, could not check the advance of so large a force, and the French swarmed up to the very foot of the walls.

"Well done, my men!" the countess exclaimed, clapping her hands, as a shower of heavy rocks fell among the mass of the assailants, who were striving to plant their ladders, crushing many in their fall; "but you are not looking, Master Somers. What is it that you see in yonder camp to withdraw your attention from such a fight?"

"I am thinking, Countess, that the French have left their camp altogether unguarded, and that if a body of horse could make a circuit and fall upon it, the camp, with all its stores, might be destroyed before they could get back to save it."

"You are right, young sir," the countess exclaimed, "and it shall be done forthwith."

So saying, she descended the stairs rapidly and mounted her horse, which stood at the foot of the tower; then riding through the town, she collected a party of about three hundred men, bidding all she met mount their horses and join her at the gate on the opposite side to that on which the assault was taking place. Such as had no horses she ordered to take them from those in her own stables. Walter was mounted on one of the best of the count's chargers. Immediately the force was collected, the gate was opened and the countess rode forth at their head. Making a considerable detour, the party rode without being observed into the rear of the French camp. Here only a few servants and horse-boys were found, these were at once killed or driven out; then all dismounting, set fire to the tents and stores; and ere the French were aware of what was going on, the whole of their camp was in flames. As soon as the conflagration was perceived, the French commanders drew off their men from the attack, and all ran at full speed towards the camp.

"We cannot regain the town," the countess said; "we will ride to Auray at full speed, and re-enter the castle when best we may.

Don Louis of Spain, who with a considerable following was fighting in the French ranks, hearing from the flying camp followers that the countess herself was at the head of the party which had destroyed the camp, instantly mounted, and with a large number of horsemen set off in hot pursuit. A few of the countess's party who were badly mounted were overtaken and slain, but the rest arrived safely at Auray, when the gates were shut in the face of their pursuers.

The blow was a heavy one for the besiegers, but they at once proceeded to build huts, showing that they had no intention of relinquishing the siege. Spies were sent from Auray, and these reported that the new camp was established on the site of the old one, and that the French evidently intended to renew the attack upon the side on which they had first commenced, leaving the other side almost unwatched.

Accordingly, on the fifth day after leaving the town, the countess prepared to return. Except Walter, none were informed of her intention, as she feared that news might be taken to the French camp by friends of Charles of Blois; but as soon as it was nightfall, and the gates were shut, the trumpet sounded to horse. In a few minutes the troop assembled in the market-place, and the countess, accompanied by Walter, placing herself at their head, rode out from the town. The strictest silence was observed. On nearing the town all were directed to dismount, to tear up the horse-cloths, and to muffle the feet of their horses. Then the journey was resumed, and so careless was the watch kept by the French that they passed through the sentries unobserved, and reached in safety the gate from which they had issued. As they neared it they were challenged from the walls, and a shout of joy was heard when Walter replied that the countess herself was present. The gates were opened and the party entered. The news of their return rapidly ran through the town, and the inhabitants, hastily attiring themselves, ran into the streets, filled with joy. Much depression had been felt during her absence, and few had entertained hopes that she would be able to re- enter the town. She had brought with her from Auray two hundred men, in addition to the party that had sallied out.