The Hundred Years War was going on. France was torn and bleeding under the invasion of the English, who ravaged as they went, leaving ruin in their wake. Wherever they appeared the fertile fields were laid waste, homes were burned, and want and misery became the portion of lord and peasants alike.
The battle of Poitiers had been fought, the king of France was a prisoner, and the people were left to defend themselves the best way they could. At least for a while it was a kind of guerrilla warfare, in which the unarmed and untrained peasants played a part.
The small town or stronghold of Longueil is the scene of the story we are now to tell. It was fairly well fortified, and if the English should capture it, it would be a dangerous place for them to occupy, since they could use it as a base for their raids.
There were no soldiers to guard it; accordingly the peasants of the neighborhood gathered for its defence. They provided themselves with arms and ammunition, some stores of food, and swore they would die rather than surrender their town to the English. In all there were about two hundred of them, but they had no training as soldiers, and were ill prepared for an attack.
The men chose their captain, and formed themselves into a company. Now, the captain had a gigantic peasant for a servant, a man of great strength and boldness, who was known far and wide for his size and power. This servant was called Big Ferré. When Big Ferré was told that the English might attack the town that he had known from boyhood, he seized a bar of iron that two men could hardly lift, and whirling it around his head, brought it down upon a log of wood with such force that the bar was bent and the log splintered into pieces.
"That is the way I shall treat the English if they show themselves in these parts," cried he.
We must remember that these were the days of cruel warfare, and any excess was considered legitimate if only an enemy would be made to suffer. Nowadays the rules of warfare forbid many things that were allowed five hundred years ago.
The English heard of this gathering of the peasants for the defence of Longueil, and laughed in scorn. "The base-born rogues—what can they hope for against the trained soldiers of England? Do they not know that we shall fling their dirty bodies to the dogs?" they asked derisively. They then prepared to march to the attack of the little fortress.
The peasants were not accustomed to the defence of a town, and did not even know how to guard the gates. They left gates wide open, and came in and went out at will. This lack of precaution resulted in disaster to the little garrison, for one day a body of armed men appeared at the gate, marched boldly into the center of the stronghold, while the heedless garrison gazed at them with open eyes and much astonishment.
"Where is your captain, and where are the soldiers?" the English officer inquired. "We have captured your fortress and we propose to stay here awhile."
Down came the captain with a body of his men, and made a bold assault on the English standing in the courtyard. But the English were too strong for the peasants, and pushed their way along the yard driving the defenders before them. Surrounding the captain they struck him to the ground and killed him with a blow.
Resistance now seemed hopeless. With their captain slain, the English inside the main court, and the first party of the defenders dispersed, there was little hope of saving the place. The main body of the peasants were in the inner court, with Big Ferré at their head, but what could they do against so many?
"Come!" cried the great fellow to those around him. "We shall die fighting, as the English will murder us anyhow. Let us die like men and take some of them along with us."
His men answered his call with eagerness and prepared for the fray.
The old chronicler who told their story said, "They went down by different gates, and struck out with mighty blows at the English, as if they had been beating out corn on the threshing floor; their arms went up and down again, and every blow dealt a mighty wound."
Big Ferré led a party straight at the main body of the English. Over his head he brandished an enormous axe, which he wielded as though it were a feather in his hands. As he advanced the English fell around him as though he were knocking down tenpins. When he came to the spot where his captain lay dead he uttered a great cry of rage, and turned like a lion upon his foe.
The English looked with surprise upon this huge peasant, who rose head and shoulders above any of them, and who, like a maddened animal, came charging into them roaring his defiance and rage, and shaking his immense battle-axe over his head. He was indeed a terrible figure and they had every reason to be afraid.
Before the English could turn, Big Ferré was on them. With mighty sweeps of his great axe he leveled the foe as though they were grain he was cutting with a scythe. He kept the space around him clear of living men, for no one could stay in reach of his deadly weapon. One man's head was cut off, another's head was crushed in, from another he cut off an arm, and still another had a great hole in his side.
His companions were thrilled with ardor as they heard his battle-cry ring over the field: "Death to the English! Down with the foe!" and they impetuously followed him as he charged like a catapult into the ranks of the enemy.
This was more than the English could stand. Some leaped into ditches and tried to cover themselves with mud. Others ran for the gates, while still others hid under the huts and cabins of the fort. Big Farré and his men rushed after them full of rage. Reaching the place where the British had planted their flag, the big peasant slew the bearer with one blow of his axe, and seizing the flag told one of his followers to throw it into the ditch.
"There are too many English there, I cannot," was the reply.
"Then follow me with the flag," said Big Ferré, and cleaving his way through the enemy he cleared a path as if he were cutting his way through a thicket. Reaching the outer ditch, he flung the flag into the slime and dirt, and hurled his defiance at its defenders.
"He is some old god of war, come to fight with the French," cried out the English in amazement at his mighty strength. "We cannot fight the gods," and with that they turned with terror and fled from the stronghold. In a short time the place was cleared and the gates were closed. It was said that Big Ferré had killed forty men and wounded as many more, but of that no one can be certain.
The story of this day's deeds filled the English with shame. That their trained soldiers should be routed by a lot of peasants, led by a great lout of a man, was more than their pride could bear. They were filled with indignation and burned for revenge. The next day a great body marched on Longueil, determined to put an end to the exploits of Big Ferré and his men.
But Big Ferré had something to say about this plan. He had closed the gates and the walls were well manned. Their victory of the day before had made the peasants sure of their strength, and Big Ferré thirsted for blood. On came the English, several hundred strong. Out from the gates and down the walls poured the French, voicing their battle-cry and led by the great peasant.
The battle was fierce beyond description. The peasants were like tigers, their leader a roaring lion. The great battle-axe rose and fell and every time an Englishman fell with it. At last the English broke and fled, pursued by the peasants, Big Ferré still in the lead.
The day was hot and the battle had lasted long. Big Ferré came back from the chase and drank a deep draught of cold water, and then another and another. The next day he was ill with fever, and was carried to his home outside the gates. The English heard of his illness with great glee. "Now we shall capture this wild animal in his own bed and put an end to him," they said.
Twelve men were chosen for the deed. Secretly they crept out through the bushes nearer and nearer the sick man's house. He was tossing on his bed with fever. His wife sat by him, trying to keep him still and to cool his forehead with cloths dipped in cold water.
She heard a noise outside and going to the door caught the gleam of English swords in the near-by bushes. Quickly she returned to her husband's bed and said to him, "The English are coming again, and I fear they are seeking for you. Will you not go inside the fort until you are well enough to fight?"
"No!" cried the great giant. "Bring me my axe. I shall yet have more of them to bury before I die," and springing from his bed he barely had time to place his back to the door before the twelve soldiers were upon him.
The English attacked him with great fierceness, but fever lent strength to that mighty arm. The foe could not get inside the swing of that deadly axe. In a little while five of them lay dead upon the ground, and the other seven turned and fled.
"It may be the ancient god of war that fights for the French, but we believe it is the devil himself," was the report they made to their captain.
And now we come to the sad fate of the valiant champion. Big Ferré returned to his bed after his last conflict, and again too freely drank of cold water. His fever rose higher and higher, and in a few days he was dead. Not all the mourning of his friends and followers nor the simple remedies of those early times could stay the hand that death laid upon him.
His comrades and his country wept for him, and to this day they tell the story of how he kept the fort at Longueil.