Through the centre of France marched the Black Prince, with a small but valiant army. Into the heart of that fair kingdom had he come, ravaging the land as he went, leaving misery and destitution at every step, when suddenly across his line of march there appeared an unlooked-for obstacle. The plundering marches of the English had roused the French. In hosts they had gathered round their king, marched in haste to confront the advancing foe, and on the night of Saturday, September 17, 1356, the English found their line of retreat cut off by what seemed an innumerable array of knights and men-at-arms, filling the whole country in their front as far as eye could see, closing with a wall of hostile steel their only road to safety.
The danger was great. For two years the Black Prince and his army of foragers had held France at their mercy, plundering to their hearts' content. The year before, the young prince had led his army up the Garonne into—as an ancient chronicler tells us—"what was before one of the fat countries of the world, the people good and simple, who did not know what war was; indeed, no war had been waged against them till the prince came. The English and Gascons found the country full and gay, the rooms adorned with carpets and draperies, the caskets and chests full of fair jewels. But nothing was safe from these robbers. They, and especially the Gascons, who are very greedy, carried oft everything." When they reached Bordeaux their horses were "so laden with spoils that they could hardly move."
Again the prince had led his army of freebooters through France, but he was not to march out again with the same impunity as before. King John, who had just come to the throne, hastily gathered an army and marched to his country's relief. On the night named, the Black Prince, marching briskly forward with his small force of about eight thou sand men, found himself suddenly in face of an overwhelming array of not less than sixty thousand of the best fighting blood of France.
The case seemed hopeless. Surrender appeared the only resource of the English. Just ten years before, at Crecy, Edward III., in like manner driven to bay, had with a small force of English put to rout an overwhelming body of French. In that affair the Black Prince, then little more than a boy, had won the chief honor of the day. But it was beyond hope that so great a success could again be attained. It seemed madness to join battle with such a disproportion of numbers. Yet the prince remembered Crecy, and simply said, on being told how mighty was the host of the French,—
"Well, in the name of God, let us now study how we shall fight with them at our advantage."
Small as was the English force, it had all the advantages of position. In its front were thick and strong hedges. It could be approached only by a deep and narrow lane that ran between vineyards. In the rear was higher ground, on which the small body of men-at-arms were stationed. The bowmen lay behind the hedges and in the vineyards, guarding the lane of approach. Here they lay that night, awaiting the fateful morrow. With the morning's light the French army was drawn up in lines of assault. "Then trumpets blew up through the host," says gossipy old Froissart, "and every man mounted on horseback and went into the field, where they saw the king's banner wave with the wind. There might have been seen great nobles of fair harness and rich armory of banners and pennons; for there was all the flower of France; there was none durst abide at home, without he would be shamed forever."
It was Sunday morning, a suitable day for the church to take part in the affair. Those were times in which the part of the church was apt to be played with sword and spear, but on this occasion it bore the olive-branch. At an early hour the cardinal of Perigord appeared on the scene, eager to make peace between the opposing forces. The pope had commissioned him to this duty.
Church of Notre Dame Poitiers.
"Sir," he said, kneeling before King John, "ye have here all the flower of your realm against a handful of Englishmen, as regards your company. And, sir, if ye may have them accorded to you without battle, it shall be more profitable and honorable than to adventure this noble chivalry. I beg you let me, in the name of God and humility, ride to the prince and show him in what danger ye have him in."
"That pleases me well," answered the king. "Go; but return again shortly."
The cardinal thereupon rode to the English side and accosted the prince, whom he found on foot among his men. A courteous greeting passed.
"Fair son," said the envoy of peace, "if you and your council know justly the power of the French king, you will suffer me to treat for peace between you."
"I would gladly fall to any reasonable way," answered the prince, "if but my honor and that of my people be saved."
Some further words passed, and the cardinal rode again to the king.
"Sir," he said, "there seems hope of making peace with your foes, nor need you make haste to fight them, for they cannot flee if they would. I beg you, therefore, to forbear for this day, and put off the battle till to-morrow sunrise. That may give time to conclude a truce."
This advice was not pleasing to the king, who saw no wisdom in delay, but the cardinal in the end persuaded him to consent to a day's respite. The conference ended, the king's pavilion of red silk was raised, and word sent through the army that the men might take their ease, except the advanced forces of the constable and marshal.
All that day the cardinal kept himself busy in earnest efforts to effect an agreement. Back and forth he rode between the tents of the king and the prince, seeking to make terms of peace or surrender. Offer after offer was made and refused. The king's main demand was that four of the principal Englishmen should be placed in his hands, to deal with as he would, and all the others yield themselves prisoners. This the prince refused. He would agree to return all the castles and towns he had taken, surrender all prisoners, and swear not to bear arms against the French for seven years; this and no more he would offer.
King John would listen to no such terms. He had the English at his mercy, as he fully believed, and it was for him, not for them, to make terms. He would be generous. The prince and a hundred of his knights alone should yield themselves prisoners. The rest might go free. Surely this was a most favorable offer, pleaded the cardinal. But so thought not the Black Prince, who refused it absolutely, and the cardinal returned in despair to Poitiers.
That day of respite was not wasted by the prince. What he lacked in men he must make up in work. He kept his men busily employed, deepening the dikes, strengthening the hedges, making all the preparations that skill suggested and time permitted.
The sun rose on Monday morning, and with its first beams the tireless peacemaker was again on horse, with the forlorn hope that the bloody fray might still be avoided. He found the leaders of the hosts in a different temper from that of the day before. The time for words had gone; that for blows had come.
"Return whither ye will," was King John's abrupt answer; "bring hither no more words of treaty or peace; and if you love yourself depart shortly."
To the prince rode the good cardinal, overcome with emotion.
"Sir," he pleaded, "do what you can for peace. Otherwise there is no help from battle, for I can find no spirit of accord in the French king."
"Nor here," answered the prince, cheerfully. "I and all my people are of the same intent,—and God help the right!"
The cardinal turned and rode away, sore-hearted with pity. As he went the prince turned to his men.
"Though," he said, "we be but a small company as compared with the power of our foes, let not that abash us; for victory lies not in the multitude of people, but goes where God sends it. If fortune makes the day ours, we shall be honored by all the world; but if we die, the king, my father, and your good friends and kinsmen shall revenge us. Therefore, sirs and comrades, I require you to do your duty this day; for if God be pleased, and Saint George aid, this day you shall see me a good knight."
The battle began with a charge of three hundred French knights up the narrow lane. No sooner had they appeared than the vineyards and hedges rained arrows upon them, killing and wounding knights and horses; the animals, wild with pain, flinging and trampling their masters; the knights, heavy with armor and disabled by wounds, strewing that fatal lane with their bodies; while still the storm of steel-pointed shafts dealt death in their midst.
The horsemen fell back in dismay, breaking the thick ranks of footmen behind them, and spreading confusion wherever they appeared. At this critical moment a body of English horse, who were posted on a little hill to the right, rushed furiously upon the French flank. At the same time the archers poured their arrows upon the crowded and disordered mass, and the prince, seeing the state of the enemy, led his men-at-arms vigorously upon their broken ranks.
"St. George for Guienne!" was the cry, as the horsemen spurred upon the panic-stricken masses of the French.
"Let us push to the French king's station; there lies the heart of the battle," said Lord Chandos to the prince. "He is too valiant to fly, I fancy. If we fight well, I trust, by the grace of God and St. George, we shall have him. You said we should see you this day a good knight."
"You shall not see me turn back," said the prince. "Advance, banner, in the name of God and St. George!"
On went the banner; on came the array of fighting knights; into the French host they pressed deeper and deeper, King John their goal. The field was strewn with dead and dying; panic was spreading in widening circles through the French army; the repulsed horsemen were in full flight and thou sands of those behind them broke and followed. King John fought with knightly courage, his son Philip, a boy of sixteen, by his side, aiding him by his cries of warning. But nothing could with stand the English onset. Some of his defenders fell, others fled; he would have fallen himself but for the help of a French knight, in the English service.
"Sir, yield you," he called to the king, pressing between him and his assailants.
"To whom shall I yield?" asked the king.
Where is my cousin, the prince of Wales?"
"He is not here, sir. Yield, and I will bring you to him."
"And who are you?"
"I am Denis of Morbecque, a knight of Artois. I serve the English king, for I am banished from France, and all I had has been forfeited."
"Then I yield me to you," said the king, handing him his right gauntlet.
Meanwhile the rout of the French had become complete. On all sides they were in flight; on all sides the English were in pursuit. The prince had fought until he was overcome with fatigue.
"I see no more banners or pennons of the French," said Sir John Chandos, who had kept beside him the day through.
"You are sore chafed. Set your banner high in this bush, and let us rest."
The prince's pavilion was set up, and drink brought him. As he quaffed it, he asked if any one had tidings of the French king.
"He is dead or taken," was the answer. "He has not left the field."
Two knights were thereupon sent to look for him, and had not got far before they saw a troop of men-at-arms wearily approaching. In their midst was Sing John, afoot and in peril, for they had taken him from Sir Denis, and were quarrelling as to who owned him.
"Strive not about my taking," said the king. "Lead me to the prince. I am rich enough to make you all rich."
The brawling went on, however, until the lords who had been sent to seek him came near.
"What means all this, good sirs?" they asked. "Why do you quarrel?"
"We have the French king prisoner," was the answer; "and there are more than ten knights and squires who claim to have taken him and his son."
The envoys at this bade them halt and cease their clamor, on pain of their heads, and taking the king and his son from their midst they brought him to the tent of the prince of Wales, where the exalted captives were received with all courtesy.
The battle, begun at dawn, was ended by noon. In that time was slain "all the flower of France; and there was taken, with the king and the Lord. Philip his son, seventeen earls, besides barons, knights, and squires."
The men returning from the pursuit brought in twice as many prisoners as their own army numbered in all. So great was the host of captives that many of them were ransomed on the spot, and set free on their word of honor to return to Bordeaux with their ransom before Christmas.
The prince and his comrades had breakfasted that morning in dread; they supped that night in triumph. The supper party, as described by Froissart, is a true picture of the days of chivalry,—in war all cruelty, in peace all courtesy; ruthless in the field, gentle and ceremonious at the feast. Thus the picturesque old chronicler limns it,—
"The prince made the king and his son, the Lord James of Bourbon, the Lord John d'Artois, the earl of Tancarville, the Lord d'Estampes, the Earl Dammartyn, the earl of Greville, and the earl of Pertney, to sit all at one board, and other lords, knights, and squires at other tables; and always the prince served before the king as humbly as he could, and would not sit at the king's board, for any desire that the king could make; but he said he was not sufficient to sit at the table with so great a prince as the king was; but then he said to the king, ‘Sir, for God's sake, make none evil nor heavy cheer, though God did not this day consent to follow your will; for, sir, surely the king my father shall bear you as much honor and amity as he may do, and shall accord with you so reasonably, and ye shall ever be friends together after; and, sir, methinks you ought to rejoice, though the journey be not as you would have had it; for this day ye have won the high renown of prowess, and have passed this day in valiantness all other of your party. Sir, I say not this to mock you; for all that be on our party, that saw every man's deeds, are plainly accorded by true sentence to give you the prize and chaplet."
So ended that great day at Poitiers. It ended miserably enough for France, the routed soldiery themselves becoming bandits to ravage her, and the people being robbed for ransom till the whole realm was given over to misery and woe.
It ended famously for England, another proud chaplet of victory being added to the crown of glory of Edward III. and his valiant son, the great day at Crecy being matched with as great a day at Poitiers. Agincourt was still to come, the three being the most notable instances in history of the triumph of a handful of men well led over a great but feebly-handled host. The age of knighthood and chivalry reached its culmination on these three memorable days. It ended at Agincourt, "villanous gunpowder" sounding its requiem on that great field. Cannon, indeed, had been used by Edward III. in his wars; but not until after this date did firearms banish the spear and bow from the "tented field."