Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

The Great Battle of Poitiers

P HILIP, who was king when the Battle of Crécy was fought, died in 1350, and John, his eldest son, succeeded him.

In 1355 King John, hearing that the Black Prince had come out of Bordeaux, and had ravaged the country far and wide, gathered a great army, which he posted in such a way that the English could not return to Bordeaux without fighting. He made three divisions of his army, in each of which were sixteen thousand men. This done, he said to three of his knights, "Ride as near to the Englishmen as you can; see how many there are; observe whether or no they are in good spirits, and find how we can best attack them."

Then he rode himself, being mounted on a white palfrey, to the head of his army, and said thus, "You have often threatened what you would do to the English if you could find them. Now I will lead you to them, so that you can revenge yourselves for all the harm they have done you; for be sure that we shall not now part without fighting." Those that heard him answered, "Willingly will we meet them, God helping us."

When the knights came back, they said, "We have seen the English, and find that there are two thousand men-at-arms, four thousand archers, and fifteen hundred footmen. These make one battalion only; but they are well and skilfully posted."  "How shall we attack them?" said the King. The knights answered, "On foot, except that there should be three hundred of the boldest and best fighters in your army, well armed and well mounted, to break, if possible, the body of archers, for their archers are posted in front." The King said, "So it shall be." And he rode with his two marshals through the army, and chose out three hundred knights of the greatest repute in the army. Nineteen knights also were chosen who clad themselves in armour like the King's armour.

When the French were just about to advance, a certain Cardinal came to King John, and said, "Sir, you have all the flower of France with you, and the English are but a handful of men. It would be greatly to your honour if you could gain them without a battle. Let me go to the Prince and show him in what great danger he is." King John said, "Go, but make haste." So the Cardinal rode to the camp of the English, and spoke to the Prince, who said that he was ready to listen to any reasonable terms. All that day—it was Sunday—the Cardinal rode backwards and forwards between the two armies. But he could not bring them to an agreement, for the King of France would be content with nothing short of this, that the Prince and a hundred of his knights should surrender themselves; and the Prince and his counsellors would not consent to any such thing.

When the Prince saw that there would be no agreement, he said to his men, "We are but few compared to our enemies. But be not therefore cast down, for victory does not always go with numbers, but as it may please God. If we win this day, great will be our glory; if we die, I have a father and brothers, and you have kinsmen, who will avenge our deaths. And now I entreat you to quit yourselves like men; as for me, if it please God and St. George, you will see me behave myself as a brave knight."

After this the battle began. The battalion of three hundred French knights that should have broken through the English archers, first advanced. But the archers, being on the sides of the lane by which they came, began shooting upon them so well and fast that their horses, smarting from the wounds made by the arrows, could not go forward, but turned about. Their riders could not manage them, but were thrown, and such as were thrown could not rise again, such was the press. Some indeed of the knight's esquires broke through the hedges, but, even so, they could not reach, as they desired, the battalion of the Prince. This battalion, then, being beaten, fell back upon those that were behind, and these again on the second division, and when those in the second division heard what had happened, many of them mounted their horses and rode off.

Now the Prince had posted three hundred men-at-arms and as many archers on a hill that was close by. This he did that they might be ready to fall on the second division of the French, if they should see occasion. And this they now did, seeing the division falling into confusion. And here again the English archers did infinite service, for they shot so thickly and well that the French did not know whither to turn themselves to escape the arrows.

When the English men-at-arms saw that the first division of the French was beaten, and the second fallen into disorder, they mounted their horses, which they had ready at hand. Then Sir John Chandos, who had been by the Prince all the day, said to him, "Sir, sir, now push forward, for the day is ours; God will certainly put it in our hands. Let us make for the King of France, for the chief of the battle will be where he is; I know well that his valour will not suffer him to fly. He will remain in our hands, if it so please God; but we must do our best. You have said, sir, that you would show yourself a good knight to-day."

The Prince said, "Go forward, Sir John; you will not see me turn my back this day, but I will be always among the foremost." Then he turned to his banner-bearer, and said, "Banner, advance!" And this the knight did. Very fierce and crowded was the fight in that part of the field. Many a knight was beaten down from his horse, and if any one fell, he could not rise again, unless he was helped well and quickly. And all the while the English archers shot so well that none dared to come within reach of their arrows.

And now the second division was in full flight, and there remained the third only, which the King of France himself commanded. A good knight did the King prove himself; had but a fourth part of his followers behaved themselves as well, he had won the day. Many a valiant stroke did he deal with his battle-axe, for it was with this that he fought and defended himself. But there were only a few that stood by him. The greater part fled as fast as they could, hoping to find shelter within the walls of Poitiers.

But the men of Poitiers shut the gates of the town, so that there was a great slaughter on the causeway before the gates. In such terror were the French, that many gave themselves up for prisoners as soon as they saw an Englishman. There were many English archers that day that had four prisoners, or even five or six. As for the King, there was much pressing to take him; all desired to have such a prisoner, and cried out to him, "Sire, surrender yourself, or you are a dead man." But the one that had the good fortune to take him was a young squire, Denis de Morbeque by name. He was a Frenchman by birth, but served the King of England, having been banished for killing a man in a quarrel.

Chancing now to be very near to the King, he pushed through the crowd, for he was very strong, and said to the King in good French, "Sire, Sire, give yourself up." The King answered, "To whom shall I give myself? Where is my cousin the Prince of Wales? If I could see him, I would speak to him." Sir Denis said, "He is not here; but give yourself up to me, and I will lead you to him." Thereupon the King gave him his right glove, and said, "I give myself up to you." Still there was much pushing, many crying out, "It was I that took him."

Meanwhile the Black Prince, by the counsel of Sir John Chandos, had pitched his banner, that his men might join together again, for they were much scattered. The banner was placed on a high part, and a tent of crimson silk was pitched for the Prince. He took off his helmet and sat down, and his knights brought him some wine. Every moment the crowd in the place grew greater, as the knights came back and brought their prisoners with them.

When his marshals came back, the Prince said to them, "Where is the King of France?" They answered, "We do not know for a certainty; but he must be killed or taken prisoner, for he has now left his division." Then the Prince bade two of his nobles take their horses and ride over the field that they might get certain news of him. Accordingly the two rode to a small hill, from which they might get a view of the plain. Thence they saw a crowd of men-at-arms on foot, which were coming towards them very slowly. The King of France was in the midst of them, and in great danger, for the English and the Gascons had taken him from Denis, and were disputing who should have him. One would bawl out, " 'Tis I that have got him," and others would reply, "No, no; we have him."

The King said, "Gentlemen, take me quietly to the Prince, and do not make a riot about me, for I can make all of you sufficiently rich." The barons set spurs to their horses, and riding up to the crowd, asked what was the matter. "It is the King of France," was the answer; and as many as ten knights and squires declared that he was their prisoner. Thereupon the barons commanded all to draw aside, forbidding any to approach, under pain of instant death, unless they should be called. This done, they dismounted, and making a profound reverence to the King, led him to the Prince.

When evening was come, the Prince gave a supper in his pavilion to the King of France, and to the princes and barons who had been taken along with him. The Prince himself served the King's table, and would not sit down at it, though they urged him to do so. "I am unworthy of such an honour," he said, "nor does it become me to sit at the table of so great a king, or so valiant a man as he has shown himself to be this day."

Further he said, "Do not make a poor meal because God has not granted you your wish to-day; my father will show you, I know, all honour, and will arrange your ransom reasonably. I think, too, that you may be thankful that this day has not ended as you wished; for you have had occasion to surpass all the bravest knights on your side. And this I say, not to flatter you, but because it is the judgment of all on our side that have seen you." At the end of this speech there were murmurs of praise from every one, and the French said that the Prince had spoken nobly and truly, and that if God should grant him life, he would be one of the most gallant princes in Christendom.

King John was taken to England, the Prince giving one hundred thousand florins to be distributed among the barons of Gascony, who believed themselves to have a share in the prisoner. He rode through London in great state, and was lodged in the Savoy Palace, and afterwards in various places, his abode being frequently changed for fear of an escape. In 1360 he returned to France, it having been agreed that a ransom of 3,000,000 crowns should be paid for him; the value of this in English money being £1,125,000. Other conditions were made. The King found that he could not fulfil these, and he returned to England, where he died a few months afterwards. The Black Prince, who was twenty-six years old when he won Poitiers, died in 1376, a short time before his father.

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