Authors: Bernard Cornwell
is for Dorothy Carroll,
who knows why
HE ROAD CAME
from the southern hills and crossed the marshes by the sea. It was a bad road. A summer’s persistent rain had left it a strip of glutinous mud that baked hard when the sun came out, but it was the only road that led from the heights of Sangatte to the harbors of Calais and Gravelines. At Nieulay, a hamlet of no distinction whatever, it crossed the River Ham on a stone bridge. The Ham was scarcely worth the title of river. It was a slow stream that oozed through fever-ridden marshlands until it vanished among the coastal mudflats. It was so short that a man could wade from its source to the sea in little more than an hour, and it was so shallow that a man could cross it at low tide without getting his waist wet. It drained the swamps where reeds grew thick and herons hunted frogs among the marsh grass, and it was fed by a maze of smaller streams where the villagers from Nieulay and Hammes and Guimes set their wicker eel traps.
Nieulay and its stone bridge might have expected to slumber through history, except that the town of Calais lay just two miles to the north and, in the summer of 1347, an army of thirty thousand Englishmen was laying siege to the port and their encampment lay thick between the town’s formidable walls and the marshes. The road which came from the heights and crossed the Ham at Nieulay was the only route a French relief force might use, and in the height of the summer, when the inhabitants of Calais were close to starvation, Philip of Valois, King of France, brought his army to Sangatte.
Twenty thousand Frenchmen lined the heights, their banners thick in the wind blowing from the sea. The oriflamme was there, the sacred war pennant of France. It was a long flag with three pointed tails, a blood-red ripple of precious silk, and if the flag looked bright that was because it was new. The old oriflamme was in England, a trophy taken on the wide green hill between Wadicourt and Crécy the previous summer. But the new flag was as sacred as the old, and about it flew the standards of France’s great lords: the banners of Bourbon, of Montmorency and of the Count of Armagnac. Lesser flags were visible among the noble standards, but all proclaimed that the greatest warriors of Philip’s kingdom were come to give battle to the English. Yet between them and the enemy were the River Ham and the bridge at Nieulay that was defended by a stone tower around which the English had dug trenches. These they had filled with archers and men-at-arms. Beyond that force was the river, then the marshes, and on the higher ground close to Calais’s high wall and its double moat was a makeshift town of houses and tents where the English army lived. And such an army as had never been seen in France. The besiegers’ encampment was bigger than Calais itself. As far as the eye could see were streets lined with canvas, with timber houses, with paddocks for horses, and between them were men-at-arms and archers. The oriflamme might as well have stayed unfurled.
“We can take the tower, sire.” Sir Geoffrey de Charny, as hard a soldier as any in Philip’s army, gestured down the hill to where the English garrison of Nieulay was isolated on the French side of the river.
“To what end?” Philip asked. He was a weak man, hesitant in battle, but his question was pertinent. If the tower did fall and the bridge of Nieulay was thus delivered into his hands, what would it serve? The bridge merely led to an even greater English army, which was already arraying itself on the firm ground at the edge of its encampment.
The citizens of Calais, starved and despairing, had seen the French banners on the southern crest and they had responded by hanging their own flags from their ramparts. They displayed images of the Virgin, pictures of St. Denis of France and, high on the citadel, the blue and yellow royal standard to tell Philip that his subjects still lived, still fought. Yet the brave display could not hide that they had been besieged for eleven months. They needed help.
“Take the tower, sire,” Sir Geoffrey urged, “and then attack across the bridge! Good Christ, if the Goddamns see us win one victory they might lose heart!” A growl of agreement came from the assembled lords.
The King was less optimistic. It was true that Calais’s garrison still held out, and that the English had hardly damaged its walls, let alone found a way to cross the twin moats, but nor had the French been able to carry any supplies to the beleaguered town. The people there did not need encouragement, they needed food. A puff of smoke showed beyond the encampment and a few heartbeats later the sound of a cannon rolled across the marshes. The missile must have struck the wall, but Philip was too far away to see its effect.
“A victory here will encourage the garrison,” the Lord of Montmorency urged, “and put despair in the English hearts.”
But why should the English lose heart if the tower of Nieulay fell? Philip thought it would merely fill them with a resolve to defend the road on the far side of the bridge, but he also understood that he could not keep his rough hounds leashed when a hated enemy was in sight and so he gave his permission. “Take the tower,” he instructed, “and God give you victory.”
The King stayed where he was as the lords gathered men and armed themselves. The wind from the sea brought the smell of salt, but also a scent of decay which probably came from rotting weed on the long tidal flats. It made Philip melancholy. His new astrologer had refused to attend the King for weeks, pleading that he had a fever, but Philip had learned that the man was in fine health, which meant that he must have seen some great disaster in the stars and simply feared to tell the King. Gulls cried beneath the clouds. Far out to sea a grubby sail bellied towards England, while another ship was anchoring off the English-held beaches and ferrying men ashore in small boats to swell the enemy ranks. Philip looked back to the road and saw a group of around forty or fifty English knights riding towards the bridge. He made the sign of the cross, praying that the knights would be trapped by his attack. He hated the English. Hated them.
The Duke of Bourbon had delegated the organization of the assault to Sir Geoffrey de Charny and Edouard de Beaujeu, and that was good. The King trusted both men to be sensible. He did not doubt they could carry the tower, though he still did not know what good it would do; but he supposed it was better than letting his wilder noblemen carry their lances in a wild charge across the bridge to utter defeat in the marshlands. He knew they would love nothing better than to make such an attack. They thought war was a game and every defeat only made them more eager to play. Fools, he thought, and he made the sign of the cross again, wondering what dire prophecy the astrologer was hiding from him. What we need, he thought, is a miracle. Some great sign from God. Then he twitched in alarm because a nakerer had just beaten his great kettledrum. A trumpet sounded.
The music did not presage the advance. Rather the musicians were warming their instruments, ready for the attack. Edouard de Beaujeu was on the right where he had assembled over a thousand crossbowmen and as many men-at-arms, and he plainly intended to assault the English from one flank while Sir Geoffrey de Charny and at least five hundred men-at-arms charged straight down the hill at the English entrenchments. Sir Geoffrey was striding along the line shouting at the knights and men-at-arms to dismount. They did so reluctantly. They believed that the essence of war was the cavalry charge, but Sir Geoffrey knew that horses were no use against a stone tower protected by entrenchments and so he was insisting they fight on foot. “Shields and swords,” he told them, “no lances! On foot! On foot!” Sir Geoffrey had learned the hard way that horses were pitiably vulnerable to English arrows, while men on foot could advance at the crouch behind stout shields. Some of the higher-born men were refusing to dismount, but he ignored them. Even more French men-at-arms were hurrying to join the charge.
The small band of English knights had crossed the bridge now and looked as if they intended to ride straight up the road to challenge the whole French battle line, but instead they checked their horses and gazed up at the horde on the ridge. The King, watching them, saw that they were led by a great lord. He could tell that by the size of the man’s banner, while at least a dozen of the other knights carried the square flags of bannerets on their lances. A rich group, he thought, worth a small fortune in ransoms. He hoped they would ride to the tower and so trap themselves.
The Duke of Bourbon trotted his horse back to Philip. The Duke was in plate armor that had been scoured with sand, vinegar and wire until it shone white. His helmet, still hanging from his saddle’s pommel, was crested with feathers dyed blue. He had refused to dismount from his destrier, which had a steel chanfron to protect its face and a trapper of gleaming mail to shield its body from the English archers who were no doubt stringing their bows in the entrenchments. “The oriflamme, sire,” the Duke said. It was supposed to be a request, but somehow sounded like an order.
“The oriflamme?” The King pretended not to understand.
“May I have the honor, sire, of carrying it to battle?”
The King sighed. “You outnumber the enemy ten to one,” he said, “you hardly need the oriflamme. Let it stay here. The enemy will have seen it.” And the enemy would know what the unfurled oriflamme meant. It instructed the French to take no prisoners, to kill everyone, though doubtless any wealthy English knight would still be captured rather than killed, for a corpse yielded no ransom. Still, the unfurled triple-tongued flag should put terror into English hearts. “It will remain here,” the King insisted.
The Duke began to protest, but just then a trumpet sounded and the crossbowmen started down the hill. They were in green and red tunics with the grail badge of Genoa on their left arms, and each was accompanied by a foot soldier holding a pavise, a huge shield that would protect the crossbowman while he reloaded his clumsy weapon. A half-mile away, beside the river, Englishmen were running from the tower to the earth entrenchments that had been dug so many months before that they were now thickly covered with grass and weeds. “You will miss your battle,” the King said to the Duke who, forgetting the scarlet banner, wheeled his great armored warhorse towards Sir Geoffrey’s men.
“Montjoie St. Denis!”
The Duke shouted France’s war cry and the nakerers thumped their big drums and a dozen trumpeters blared their challenge at the sky. There were clicks as helmet visors were lowered. The crossbowmen were already at the foot of the slope, spreading right to envelop the English flank. Then the first arrows flew: English arrows, white-feathered, fluttering across the green land, and the King, leaning forward in his saddle, saw that there were too few archers on the enemy side. Usually, whenever the damned English gave battle, their archers outnumbered their knights and men-at-arms by at least three to one, but the outpost of Nieulay seemed mostly to be garrisoned by men-at-arms. “God speed you!” the King called to his soldiers. He was suddenly enthused because he could scent victory.
The trumpets sounded again and now the grey metallic tide of men-at-arms swept down the slope. They roared their war cry and the sound was rivaled by the drummers who were hammering their taut goatskins and the trumpeters who were playing as if they could defeat the English with sound alone. “God and St. Denis!” the King shouted.