Hardly emerged from the plague, France moved toward a military debacle that was to release a flood of disruptive consequences and become a determining event in the life of Enguerrand de Coucy. The external agent was England, but the cause lay in the unsubdued autonomies of the seigneurial class, acted on by a King with a genius for misgovernment.
Jean II, who succeeded his father, Philip VI, in August 1350, could have served Machiavelli as model for Anti-Prince. Impolitic and impetuous, he never made a wise choice between alternatives and seemed incapable of considering consequences of an action in advance. Though brave in battle, he was anything but a great captain. Without evil intent, he was to foster disaffection to the point of revolt and lose half his kingdom and his person to the enemy, thereby leaving his country leaderless to meet its darkest hour of the age. His subjects with surprising forbearance named him Jean le Bon (John the Good), using the surname, it has been supposed, in the sense of “prodigal” or “careless” or being a good fellow. Or it may have referred to Jean’s devotion to chivalric honor or to his alleged generosity to the poor, as illustrated by his once giving a purse to a servingmaid whose milk pails were knocked over by his greyhounds.
He came to the throne bent on taking the field to erase his father’s defeats of the past decade, and on the first day of his reign notified all the principal lords of the realm to hold themselves ready to appear at his summons when “the time should come.” The truce arranged after the fall of Calais and renewed during the Black Death was due to expire in April 1351. Inheriting an empty treasury, Jean had no money with which to pay an army, and could not move without first replenishing his funds and adapting his military resources. The need to learn something from the failures of Crécy and Calais was not lost on him, and he was groping with certain ideas for military reform.
His first act, however, within three months of becoming King, was to execute the Constable of France, Comte d’Eu, and sixteenth Comte de Guîns, a second cousin of Enguerrand VII, a man of powerful connections and “so courteous and amiable in every way that he was beloved and admired by great lords, knights, ladies and damsels.” Captured by the English at Caen in 1345, D’Eu had been unable to raise the ransom fixed by King Edward. When it came to important captives, Edward never let himself be limited by the principle of chivalry that a knight’s ransom should not be placed at a figure that would ruin him or exceed his revenue for one year. After four years of captivity, Comte d’Eu regained his liberty, supposedly in exchange for ceding to Edward his strategic castle and county of Guînes, adjoining Calais. On this suspicion, Jean had him beheaded upon his return to France without trial or public procedure of any kind. The King listened in silence to the pleas of D’Eu’s friends for his life, offering no reply except to swear that “he would never sleep so long as the Comte de Guînes lived”; or according to another version replying in tears, “You shall have his body and we his head.”
Jean could have chosen no better way to alienate the nobility whose support he needed than to execute a noble of D’Eu’s rank and many friends without public explanation or trial by his peers. If D’Eu had indeed acted treasonably (the truth remains obscure), the King had every need to make plain the reasons for his act, but Jean was either too willful or too wooden-headed to understand the advisability of good public relations.
His next act made matters worse. He gave the office of Constable to his relative and favorite, Charles d’Espagne, who was said to be the object of the King’s “dishonest affection,” and to have persuaded Jean to murder Comte d’Eu so that he himself might have his office. Besides the prestige of military command second to the King, the Constableship had lucrative perquisites attached to the business of assembling the armed forces. Bestowal of the post on Charles d’Espagne, who was unpopular in the usual way of kings’ favorites, added fury to the nobles’ dismay at a time when the King had reason enough to fear their separatist tendencies. The episode was a divisive opening of the reign at a time when it most needed unity.
Jean’s father, too, had been “ung bien hastif homs” (a very hasty man), and intermarriage for centuries with first cousins had left the Valois unstable. Jean retained Philip’s uneasiness about the legitimacy of his claim to the crown and Philip’s readiness, not without cause, to suspect treachery. In his capacity for sudden vindictiveness, he took after his mother, the lame Queen, who, despite her piety and good works, was called “a very cruel lady, for whomever she held in hate, he was dead without mercy.” She was credited with having prodded her husband to the act that so appalled his time—the execution in 1343 of fifteen Breton lords who were his prisoners.
In the warfare of the 1340s, Jean had besieged the English at Aiguillon for four months without success, showing himself, according to report, resistant to any advice, obstinate, and “hard to move when he had taken an opinion.” His most notable talent was for satisfying an exceptional avidity for money. He shared the Valois interest in arts and letters at least to the extent of commissioning French translations of the Bible and the Roman historian Livy and carrying books in his baggage when on campaign. As King he had his court painter, Girard d’Orléans, decorate his toilet stools, and he accumulated 239 tapestries made for his own use. His taste for luxury extended to everything but ministers, for he inherited from his father and kept in office a shady group, neither capable nor honest, who were despised by the nobles because they were of common birth and hated by the bourgeois for their avarice and venality. One of them, Simon de Buci, president of Parlement and member of the Secret Council, twice overreached himself in some way that required successive pardons. Robert de Lorris, the King’s chamberlain and Master of Accounts, was restored to office after surviving a charge of treason and another of embezzlement. Jean Poilevain, who was imprisoned for peculation, prudently obtained a letter of pardon before his case was judged. As financiers for the King, men like these were a central source of disaffection with his regime.
Jean’s first notable administrative act was a serious effort toward military coherence. It was becoming evident that the baronial right of independent withdrawal in the field, and independent response to the King’s summons, crippled large military endeavor. Half feudal, half mercenary, not yet national, the ad hoc collection that was the 14th century army was too subject to the private interests of its components to be a reliable instrument. The Royal Ordinance of April 1351 was an attempt to introduce, as far as knightly terms allowed, principles of dependability and command.
By raising rates of pay to meet the inflation caused by the Black Death, the ordinance confirmed the fact that the warrior’s function had become a trade for the poorer knights if not the grand seigneurs. The new rates under the ordinance were fixed at 40 sous (two livres) a day for a banneret, 20 sous for a knight, 10 for a squire, 5 for a valet, 3 for a foot soldier, 2½ for an armor-bearer or other attendant.
More significant was a provision designed to correct a critical fault on the medieval battlefield: the right of independent withdrawal. The new rule stipulated that every man in the host be subordinate to some captain and required an oath from all of the men “not to leave the company of their captain” without an order—that is, not to withdraw at will. An indication of how fragile was a commander’s reliance on the force he could expect to deploy, the ordinance also required captains of companies to notify the chief of battalion that they would be present at a forthcoming battle.
The ordinance proved ineffective chiefly for lack of dependable revenue to support an organized army. Provisioning added to the cost of wages. While local peasantry, paid or pillaged, usually furnished food and horses’ forage, a major expedition or siege or fleet at sea required organized supply of biscuit, smoked or salted meat and fish, wine, oil, and oats and hay for the horses. Ordinarily knights ate white bread made from wheat, meat in the form of beef, pork, and mutton, and drank wine daily. The common soldier received wine only on feast days or in active combat; otherwise he drank beer, ale, or cider, and ate rye bread, peas, and beans. Fish, cheese, olive oil, occasionally butter, salt, vinegar, onions, and garlic also figured in the rations. Poultry was so widely consumed and easily obtained that it was not recorded. Sugar, honey, mustard, spices, and almonds were kept for the wounded and sick and the privileged. On active duty, soldiers did not fast but were allotted fish as substitute for meat on the twelve “thin” days a month. The more continuous war became, as it did in the 14th century, the more organization and money it required.
The crown grasped for money by every means and favored the least scrupulous, which was debasing the coinage. Less directly obvious than aids and subsidies, it required no summoning of the Estates for consent. Coins called in were re-minted with a lower proportion of gold or silver and re-circulated at the old face value, with the difference being retained by the Treasury. Since the petty coins of daily use were those affected, the system reduced the real wages and purchasing power of the common people while bankers, merchants, and nobles, whose movable wealth was in large gold coins or gold and silver vessels and plate, were less affected. Under Jean II, manipulations were so frequent and erratic that they upset all values and succeeded in damaging and infuriating everyone except the manipulators themselves and those who could profit by holding back their gold. Abbot Gilles li Muisis of Tournai found the mysteries of the coinage even more obscure than the plague and was inspired to a famous verse:
Money and currency are very strange things.
They keep on going up and down and no one knows why;
If you want to win, you lose, however hard you try.
In 1351, the first year of Jean’s reign, the currency suffered eighteen alterations, and seventy in the course of the next decade.
The King’s personal idea for improving the military arm was to found an order of chivalry modeled, like King Edward’s recently founded Order of the Garter, on the Knights of the Round Table. Jean’s Order of the Star was intended to rival the Garter, revive French prestige, and weld the splintered loyalty of his nobles to the Valois monarchy.
The orders of chivalry, with all their display and ritual and vows, were essentially a way of trying to secure a loyal body of military support on which the sovereign could rely. That was in fact the symbolism of the Garter, a circlet to bind the Knight-Companions mutually, and all of them jointly to the King as head of the Order. First broached with much fanfare in 1344, the Order of the Garter was originally intended to include 300 proved knights, starting with the most worthy of the realm. When formally established five years later, it was reduced to an exclusive circle of 26 with St. George as patron and official robes of blue and gold. Significantly, the statutes provided that no member was to leave the King’s domain without his authority. The wearing of the Garter at the knee was further intended, in the words of the Order’s historian, as a “Caveat and Exhortation that the Knights should not pusillanimously (by running away from Battle) betray the Valour and Renown which is ingrafted in Constancy and Magnanimity.” Even knights of old knew fear and flight.
Since Jean’s object was to be inclusive rather than exclusive, he made the Order of the Star open to 500 members. Established “in honor of God, of our Lady and for the heightening of chivalry and augmenting of honor,” the full Order was to assemble once a year in a ceremonial banquet hung with the blazons of all its members. Companions were to wear a white tunic, a red or white surcoat embroidered with a gold star, a red hat, enameled ring of special design, black hose, and gilded shoes. They were to display a red banner strewn with stars and embroidered with an image of Our Lady.
At the annual banquet each would recite on oath all “the adventures that befell him in the year both shameful and honorable,” and clerks would take down the recitals in a book. The Order would designate the three princes, three bannerets, and three knights who during the year had done the most in arms of war, “for no deed of arms in peace shall be taken into account.” This meant no deed of private warfare as distinct from a war declared by the sovereign. Equally significant of the King’s intention was the reappearance of the oath not to withdraw, worded more sternly than in the ordinance and more explicitly than in the Order of the Garter. Companions of the Star were required, to swear they would never flee in battle more than four arpents (about 600 yards) by their own estimate, “but rather die or be taken prisoner.”
While the purpose behind the orders was practical, the form was already nostalgic. War had changed since the 12th century romances from which men knew the legends of the 6th century Round Table, if it ever existed. The legends had shaped chivalry as the principle of order of the warrior class “without which the world would be a confused thing.” But the quest of the Holy Grail was not an adequate guide to realistic tactics.
Chivalry’s finest military expression in contemporary eyes was the famous Combat of the Thirty in 1351. An action of the perennial conflict in Brittany, it began with a challenge to single combat issued by Robert de Beaumanoir, a noble Breton on the French side, to his opponent Bramborough of the Anglo-Breton party. When their partisans clamored to join, a combat of thirty on each side was agreed upon. Terms were arranged, the site was chosen, and after participants heard mass and exchanged courtesies, the fight commenced. With swords, bear-spears, daggers, and axes, they fought savagely until four on the French side and two on the English were slain and a recess was called. Bleeding and exhausted, Beaumanoir called for a drink, eliciting the era’s most memorable reply: “Drink thy blood, Beaumanoir, and thy thirst will pass!” Resuming, the combatants fought until the French side prevailed and every one of the survivors on either side was wounded. Bramborough and eight of his party were killed, the rest taken prisoner and held for ransom.
In the wide discussion the affair aroused, “some held it as a very poor thing and others as a very swaggering business,” with the admirers dominating. The combat was celebrated in verse, painting, tapestry, and in a memorial stone erected on the site. More than twenty years later Froissart noticed a scarred survivor at the table of Charles V, where he was honored above all others. He told the ever-inquiring chronicler that he owed his great favor with the King to his having been one of the Thirty. The renown and honor the fight earned reflected the knight’s nostalgic vision of what battle should be. While he practiced the warfare of havoc and pillage, he clung to the image of himself as Sir Lancelot.
With dazzling munificence, regardless of depleted finances, Jean launched the Order of the Star at an opening ceremony on January 6, 1352. He donated all the robes and staged a magnificent banquet in a hall draped with tapestries and hangings of gold and velvet decorated with stars and fleur-de-lys. Furniture was carved and gilded for the occasion. After a solemn mass, the revels grew so boisterous that a gold chalice was smashed and some rich draperies stolen. While the knights caroused, the English seized the castle of Guînes, whose absent captain was celebrating with his companions of the Star.
To their own undoing, the companions of the Star took seriously the oath not to flee from battle. In 1352, during the war in Brittany, a French force led by Marshal Guy de Nesle was caught in ambush at a place called Mauron by an Anglo-Breton force of about equal numbers. The French could have fled and saved themselves but that they were bound by their oath not to retreat. Though surrounded, they stood and fought until virtually all were killed or captured. So thick lay the dead on the field that the body of Guy de Nesle was not recovered until two days later. Seven French bannerets and 80 or 90 knights lost their lives not counting those captured, leaving so great a hole in the Order of the Star as, “with the great mischiefs and misfortunes that were to follow, caused the ruin of that noble company.”
In France’s misfortunes a young man of twenty, Charles, King of Navarre, grandson of Louis X, saw his opportunity. Whether he really aimed at the French crown, or at revenge for wrongs done him, or at stirring trouble for its own sake like Iago, is a riddle concealed in one of the most complex characters of the 14th century. A small slight youth with glistening eyes and a voluble flow of words, he was volatile, intelligent, charming, violent, cunning as a fox, ambitious as Lucifer, and more truly than Byron “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Seductive and eloquent, he could persuade his peers or sway a mob. He allowed himself the same unbridled acts of passion as Jean and other rulers, but, unlike Jean, he was a plotter, subtle, bold, absolutely without scruple, but so swerving and unfixed of purpose as to undo his own plots. His only constancy was hate. He is known to history as Charles the Bad.
Through his mother, daughter of Louis X, Charles of Navarre was more directly descended from the last Capets than Jean II, but his parents had renounced any claim to the crown when they acknowledged Philip VI. They had been compensated by the Kingdom of Navarre. The tiny mountain realm in the Pyrenees offered their son too little scope, but as Count of Evreux he held a great fief in Normandy where influence could be exerted. This became his main base of operations.
He was moved to action by jealousy and hatred of Charles d’Espagne, the new Constable, upon whom the King with rash favor had bestowed the county of Angoulème, which belonged to the house of Navarre. After infuriating Charles of Navarre by taking his territory, Jean, in fear of the result, tried to attach him by giving him his eight-year-old daughter, Jeanne, in marriage. Almost immediately he redoubled the first damage by withholding his daughter’s dowry, which did not make a friend of his new son-in-law.
Charles of Navarre struck at the King through Charles d’Espagne. With no taste for half-measures, he simply had him assassinated, not without calculating that many nobles who equally hated the favorite would rally to the man who removed him. He did not kill with his own hands but through a party of henchmen led by his brother, Philip of Navarre, joined by Count Jean d’Harcourt, two Harcourt brothers, and other leading Norman nobles.
Seizing an occasion in January 1354 when the Constable was visiting Normandy, they broke into the room where he was sleeping naked (as was the medieval custom) and, with drawn swords gleaming in the light of their torches, dragged him from his bed. On his knees before Philip with hands clasped, Charles d’Espagne begged for mercy, saying “he would be his serf, he would ransom himself for gold, he would yield the land claimed, he would go overseas and never return.” Count d’Harcourt urged Philip to have pity, but the young man, filled with his brother’s rage and purpose, would not listen. His men fell upon the helpless Constable so “villainously and abominably” that they left his body pierced with eighty wounds. Galloping to where Charles of Navarre was waiting, they cried, “It is done! It is done!”
“What is done?” he asked for the record, and they answered, “The Constable is dead.”
The audacity of the blow, as close to the King’s person as it was possible to come, brought Charles of Navarre instantly to the forefront as a political factor. The King at once declared his Norman properties confiscated, but this would have to be made good by force.
Charles’s contemporaries generally ascribed his act to hatred and revenge, but was it passion or calculation? While total absence of inhibition was characteristic of persons born to rule, bizarre bursts of violence were becoming more frequent in these years, perhaps as a legacy of the Black Death and a sense of the insecurity of life. In 1354 one of the periodic town-gown riots at Oxford exploded in such fury, with the use of Swords, daggers, and even bows and arrows, that it ended in a massacre of students and the closing of the university until the King took measures to protect its liberties. In Italy in 1358 when Francesco Ordelaffi, tyrant of Forlì, known for a fearsome subitezza or quick temper, persisted in a last-ditch defense of his city against the papal forces, his son Ludovico dared to plead with him to yield rather than continue in war against the Church. “You are either a bastard or a changeling!” roared the infuriated father and, as his son turned away, drew a dagger and “stabbed him in the back so that he died before midnight.” In a similar fit of ungovernable rage, the Count of Foix, who was married to a sister of Charles of Navarre, killed his only legitimate son.
The age had long been accustomed to physical violence. In the 10th century a “Truce of God” had been formulated to meet the craving for some relief from perpetual combat. During the truce, fighting was to be suspended on saints’ days, Sundays, and Easter, and all non-combatants—clerks, peasants, merchants, artisans, and even animals—were to be left unharmed by men of the sword, and all religious and public buildings safeguarded. That was the theory. In practice, like other precepts of the Church, the Truce was a sieve that failed to contain human behavior.
In England coroners’ rolls showed manslaughter far ahead of accident as cause of death, and more often than not the offender escaped punishment by obtaining benefit of clergy through bribes or the right connections. If life was filled with bodily harm, literature reflected it. One of La Tour Landry’s cautionary tales for his daughters tells of a lady who ran off with a monk and, upon being found in bed with him by her brothers, they “took a knife and cut away the monk’s stones and threw them in the lady’s face and made her eat them and afterwards tied both monk and lady in a sack with heavy rocks and cast them into a river and drowned them.” Another tale is of a husband who fetched his wife back from her parents’ house, where she had fled after a marital quarrel. While lodged overnight in a town on the way home, the lady was attacked by a “great number of young people wild and infect with lechery” who “ravished her villainously,” causing her to die of shame and sorrow. The husband cut her body into twelve pieces, each of which he sent with a letter to certain of her friends that they might be made ashamed of her running away from her husband and also be moved to take vengeance on her ravishers. The friends at once assembled with all their retainers and descended upon the town where the rape had occurred and slew all its inhabitants.
Violence was official as well as individual. Torture was authorized by the Church and regularly used to uncover heresy by the Inquisition. The tortures and punishments of civil justice customarily cut off hands and ears, racked, burned, flayed, and pulled apart people’s bodies. In everyday life passersby saw some criminal flogged with a knotted rope or chained upright in an iron collar. They passed corpses hanging on the gibbet and decapitated heads and quartered bodies impaled on stakes on the city walls. In every church they saw pictures of saints undergoing varieties of atrocious martyrdom—by arrows, spears, fire, cut-off breasts—usually dripping blood. The Crucifixion with its nails, spears, thorns, whips, and more dripping blood was inescapable. Blood and cruelty were ubiquitous in Christian art, indeed essential to it, for Christ became Redeemer, and the saints sanctified, only through suffering violence at the hands of their fellow man.
In village games, players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws. Trumpets enhanced the excitement. Or a pig enclosed in a wide pen was chased by men with clubs to the laughter of spectators as he ran squealing from the blows until beaten lifeless. Accustomed in their own lives to physical hardship and injury, medieval men and women were not necessarily repelled by the spectacle of pain, but rather enjoyed it. The citizens of Mons bought a condemned criminal from a neighboring town so that they should have the pleasure of seeing him quartered. It may be that the untender medieval infancy produced adults who valued others no more than they had been valued in their own formative years.
Charles of Navarre by his outrageous act became the attraction for a growing group of nobles of northern France who were ready for a movement of protest against the Valois crown. The old condition of stress between barony and monarchy had been freshened by Philip’s and Jean’s violent reprisals against nobles whom they suspected of treachery, and by the military humiliations since Crécy. Landowners, hurt by the flight of labor and reduced revenue from their estates, tended to blame many of their troubles on the crown. They resented the financial pressures of the King and his despised ministers, and pressed for reform and more local autonomy. From his base in Normandy, Charles could become the focus of an adversary group, and he proclaimed that intention like a cock crowing.
“God knows it was I who with the help of God had Charles d’Espagne killed,” he announced in a letter to Pope Innocent VI. He described his murder of the Constable as a righteous response to affronts and offenses, and expressed his devotion to the Holy See and his solicitude for the Pope’s health. Charles was now prepared to offer himself as an agent of England in return for English aid to maintain his Norman possessions, and to this end he wanted to use the Pope as intermediary. In a letter to King Edward he wrote that by means of his castle and men in Normandy, he could do such harm to Jean II “as he shall never recover from,” and he asked that English forces in Brittany be sent to his support.
Throughout that year, 1354, the future course of the century swayed between pressures for peace and others for continuing the war. Pope Innocent VI, who was aged and sickly, was trying urgently to bring about a settlement because he heard the sound of the infidel pounding at the gates. In 1353 the Turks had seized Gallipoli, key of the Hellespont, and thereby entered Europe. Christian energies must be united against them, which would be impossible if France and England renewed their war.
Pressed by the Pope and by their empty treasuries, Edward and Jean had entered negotiations for a permanent peace which neither really wanted. Edward had used up his credit with the English people for a war that neither fighting nor diplomacy could bring to an end. The English Third Estate was finding that the costs outweighed the spoils. In 1352 Parliament limited the King’s powers of conscription. In April 1354 when the House of Commons was asked by the Lord Chamberlain, “Do you desire a treaty of perpetual peace if it can be had?” members unanimously cried, “Aye! Aye!”
On his side, Jean was trapped by fear of an arrangement between Charles of Navarre and England. Medieval intelligence channels rattled with the tale of his son-in-law’s conspiracies. And while Charles was hostile, the King’s ability to raise troops and taxes from Normandy was curtailed. Forced by humiliating necessity, he had to swallow his fury, cancel his confiscation of Charles’s Norman fiefs, pardon him for the murder of Charles d’Espagne, and invite him to Paris for a ceremony of reconciliation. Charles came because all his life he could never resist another option, and perhaps because at 22 he was not as sure of himself as his acts proclaimed. With oaths and embraces and elaborate formulas, the pretense was carried out in March 1354 amid feelings between the two principals that need only be imagined.
The year teetered on the edge of peace. The war was almost settled by a treaty overwhelmingly to the advantage of England, but at the last minute France stiffened and refused. All that came of three years’ parleys and the Pope’s zeal for peace was an extension of the truce for one year while sparring was resumed. Once again Charles of Navarre treated with Edward and promised to meet the English at Cherbourg for a joint campaign.* Pope Innocent’s hopes crashed in the collapse of the peace treaty. When he reproached the King of England for conspiring with Charles of Navarre against the King of France, Edward lied as easily as rulers of later times. “Speaking truly and swearing faithfully by the heart of God,” he denied the charge in writing “on the word of a King” although the text of the correspondence exists.
In haste to renew the war, he proclaimed French perfidy and the righteousness of his cause in letters to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York which were read by heralds to the public. Sermons preached from the pulpit spread his tale of grievances. Edward understood public relations. By one device or another, funds were raised, consents wrung from Parliament, and fleets, men, and provisions assembled during the spring and summer of 1355. When on Midsummer’s Day the truce expired without renewal, two expeditionary forces were ready to sail, one under the Black Prince for Bordeaux, one under the Duke of Lancaster for Normandy, where it was intended to link up with Charles of Navarre.
With fair winds speeding his several-score ships, Prince Edward reached Bordeaux in three or four days. He brought with him 1,000 knights, squires, and other men-at-arms, 2,000 archers, and a large number of Welsh foot soldiers. Now 24, strongly built, with a full mustache, the heir of King Edward was a hard and haughty prince who was to gain immortal renown as “the Flower of Chivalry.” The reputation was helped by his having the good fortune to die before he was tarnished by the responsibilities of the throne. The French saw him as “cruel in manner” and as “the proudest man ever born of woman.”
The object of the Prince’s raid, extending 250 miles east to Narbonne and back to Bordeaux in October-November 1355, was not conquest but havoc, plus plunder. Never had the “famous, beautiful and rich” land of Armagnac known such destruction as was visited upon it in these two months. The havoc was not purposeless but intended, like military terrorism in any age, to punish or deter people from siding with the enemy. By sliding back into French allegiance, the inhabitants of Guienne were considered to be rebels against the King of England whom it was the Prince’s duty to chastise. Such policy was bound to provoke hostility in and around the territory England wanted to hold, but the Prince, who was neither more nor less imaginative than most commanders, did not look into the future. With the addition of Gascon allies, he had collected a large force of about 9,000, consisting of 1,500 lances (three men—a knight and two attendants—to a lance), 2,000 archers, and 3,000 foot. He intended to demonstrate English might, convince local lords where their interest lay, and cut the French war potential by damaging a region which furnished the French King with rich revenues. Plunder would play its part both as profit and pay.
“Harrying and wasting the country,” as the Prince wrote in matter-of-fact description to the Bishop of Winchester, “we burned Plaisance and other fine towns and all the lands around.” After loading loot into the baggage wagons, rounding up cattle, slaughtering pigs and chickens, the company proceeded to the business of laying waste: burning granaries and mills, barns and haystacks, smashing wine vats, cutting down vines and fruit trees, wrecking bridges, and moving on. Bypassing Toulouse, they stormed and burned Mont Giscar, where many men, women, and children hitherto ignorant of war were maltreated and slain. The raiding party plundered Carcassonne for three days without attacking the citadel, “and the whole of the third day we remained for burning of the said city.” The process was repeated at Narbonne. Strangely, the French offered no organized resistance, despite the presence of Marshal Jean de Clermont alongside the Count of Armagnac, the King’s lieutenant in Languedoc. Beyond bringing people inside the city walls where possible, Armagnac failed to come out against the English except for an inconclusive skirmish on their way back.
His failure was probably owed to fear of a pounce at his back by his opulent neighbor and mortal enemy, Gaston, Count of Foix. The autonomies and rivalries of the great southern lords led to as unquiet relations with the King as with each other. Called “Gaston Phoebus” for his beauty and red-gold hair, Foix had ignored the summons of Philip VI for defense of the realm in the year of Crécy. He subsequently served as Lieutenant of Languedoc, but on becoming involved in a feud with King Jean had been imprisoned in Paris for eighteen months. Back in his domain in 1355, he entered into a deal of some kind with the Black Prince which spared his lands during the raid while he remained neutral. The virtual autonomy of such great lords drained away much of the strength of France.
The Prince’s company returned to winter quarters at Bordeaux loaded down with carpets, draperies, jewels, and other spoils if not with glory. Where was prowess, where was valor, where the skills and feats of combat that were the warrior’s pride? Robbing and slaying unarmed civilians called for no courage or strength of arms and hardly for the knightly virtues of the Round Table and the Garter. The Prince himself; his principal Gascon ally, the Captal* de Buch; his closest companion and adviser, Sir John Chandos; the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury, and at least three others of the company were charter members of the Order of the Garter, supposedly exemplars of magnanimity. Whether, when they lay down to sleep after a day’s carnage, they felt any discrepancy between the ideal and the practice, no one knows. They left no such indication. To signify his right to punish, the Prince twice rejected a good price offered by towns to buy immunity from sack. His letters express only a sense of satisfied accomplishment. His raid had enriched his company, reduced French revenues, and proved to any wavering Gascons that service under his banner was rewarding. Yet even Froissart, the uncritical celebrator of knighthood, was moved to write, “It was an occasion for pity.…” As the war dragged on, the habituating of armed men to cruelty and destruction as accepted practice poisoned the 14th century.
Held up by contrary winds and by Charles of Navarre’s sudden defection, the English force destined for Normandy did not sail until the end of October, already late for a campaign in the north. Its commander, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, called the “Father of Soldiers,” was England’s most distinguished warrior, who had not missed a battle in his 45 years. He was a veteran of the Scottish wars, of Sluys, of Calais and all the campaigns in France, and when his country was quiescent he rode forth in knightly tradition to carry his sword elsewhere. He had joined the King of Castile in a crusade against the Moors of Algeciras and journeyed to Prussia to join the Teutonic Knights in one of their annual “crusades” to extend Christianity over the lands of Lithuanian heathen.
Inheritor of enormous lands and fortune, Lancaster was in 1351 created the first English Duke outside the royal family, and subsequently built the palace of the Savoy as his residence in London. In 1352, while the truce still held between England and France, he was the star of a remarkable event in Paris. On returning from a season in Prussia, he had quarreled with Duke Otto of Brunswick and accepted his challenge to combat, which was arranged under French auspices. Given a safe-conduct, escorted by a noble company to Paris, magnificently entertained by King Jean, the Duke of Lancaster rode into the lists before a splendid audience of French nobility, but his mere reputation proved too much for his opponent. Otto of Brunswick trembled so violently on his war-horse that he could not put on his helmet or wield his spear and had to be removed by his friends and retract his challenge. The King covered the embarrassment to chivalry by a handsome banquet, at which he reconciled the two principals and offered Lancaster rich presents in farewell. Refusing them, the Duke accepted only a thorn from the Saviour’s crown, which on returning home he donated to a collegiate church he had founded at Leicester.
As religious as he was martial, he wrote in French (still the language of the English court) a devotional book called the Livre des sainetes médecines, in which he used allegory to reveal the wounds of his soul—that is to say, his sins—to Christ, the Divine Physician. Each part of the body had an allegorical wound and each remedy a matching religious symbolism. Because the Duke was examining himself, a 14th century grand seigneur emerges as a real person who admires the elegance of his long pointed toes in the stirrup, and at jousts stretches out his legs for the notice of the ladies; who also reproaches himself for recoiling from the stench of the poor and the sick, and for extorting money, lands, and other property by exercising undue influence on his courts.
In the invasion of France in 1355, Lancaster was joined by King Edward. Making for Calais instead of Cherbourg, they landed on November 2, collected a force of 3,000 men-at-arms, 2,000 mounted archers, and about as many on foot, and set out ostensibly to seek battle with the King of France while raiding the Pas de Calais, Artois, and Picardy en route.
The King of France had “solemnly and publicly” issued the arrièreban or general summons to all men between eighteen and sixty in May just before the truce ended. Perhaps owing to a poor response, it was repeated several times during the summer in Paris and all important places of the realm—“especially in Picardy,” according to one chronicler. Since a general summons brought in persons of doubtful military value, the monarchy preferred to demand the cost of a given number rather than the men themselves, and tried to fix physical standards for those who served and send the rest home. Sorting them out to assemble a fighting force took time; doubtless also, owing to recent discontents, not a few nobles dragged their feet. By November the host that Jean led north to meet the English was incomplete.
Enguerrand de Coucy VII, aged fifteen, was a part of it. Nothing is reported of what he did, only that he was present among the “barons of Picardy” in the battalion of Moreau de Fiennes, a future Marshal of France. He was in distinguished company, with his guardian, Matthieu de Roye, Master of Crossbowmen, Geoffrey de Charny, known as the “perfect knight,” and Marshal Arnoul d’Audrehem. The battalion also included the bourgeois of Paris, Rouen, and Amiens.
The campaign that was Enguerrand’s first experience of war was no stuff for heroic legend. The French host was at Amiens on November 5–7 and had advanced northward to St. Omer by November 11, bypassing en route the English on the left who were simultaneously marching south to Hesdin. The armies sniffed and circled around each other, each King issuing invitations to the other to fight—“body to body or force against force,” in the words of Jean’s challenge—which each managed to decline in ornamental verbiage. If Jean, as the English chroniclers claimed, feared to seek pitched battle, Edward was no more eager. Jean’s major military action was to burn or carry off provisions of the countryside so as to deprive the English of supply, at the cost of the local populace. Left to face a hungry winter robbed of their hard-earned harvests, the people experienced their own warrior class not as protectors but ravagers.
Jean’s scorched-earth policy forced the English to fall back upon the coast for lack of food, wine, and beer. For four days they had no other drink but water, which seemed like starvation in an age that depended on wine or beer as an essential part of diet. The French had also taken care with letters and money to stimulate a Scottish diversion. News of a threat from the Scottish border plus the prospect of a winter on water caused Edward and Lancaster to re-embark after a campaign lasting no more than ten days.
Jean now faced the necessity of obtaining from an Assembly of the Three Estates a subsidy to pay his troops. Summoned by the King, the Estates of Langued’oil—that is, of northern France—met in Paris in December. Because, as a result of the tax-exemption of clergy and nobles, the Third Estate paid most of the taxes, it controlled the decision on how much aid to grant, and since it could use its leverage to exact reforms or privileges, the monarchy was never very happy on these occasions.
The offer made by the Estates of 1355 revealed the wealth of French resources and the national loyalty beneath the discontents, and also a profound mistrust of the King’s government. The Estates agreed to support 30,000 men-at-arms for one year at an estimated cost of five million livres on condition that the funds were to be administered not by the King’s treasury but by a committee of the Estates themselves which would pay the troops directly. The money was to be raised by a tax on everyone of all Estates and by a salt tax as well, at rates which had to be increased in the following year when the required sum was not produced. The new rates amounted to a tax of 4 percent on the incomes of the rich, 5 percent on the middle class, and 10 percent on the lowest taxable class. One result was a revolt of the “little against the great” in the textile city of Arras in northern Picardy. Though quickly suppressed, it was a signal of coming trouble.
Meanwhile, the restless scheming of Charles of Navarre produced the next explosion. He was trying to turn the eighteen-year-old Dauphin Charles against his father, and at the same time was encouraging the Norman lords to resist payment of aids to the King.
In April 1356 the Dauphin, in his capacity as Duke of Normandy, was entertaining Charles of Navarre and the leading Norman nobles at a banquet in Rouen when suddenly the doors were broken open and the King in helmet with many followers, preceded by Marshal d’Audrehem with drawn sword, burst in. “Let no one move or he is a dead man!” cried the Marshal. The King seized Navarre, calling him “Traitor,” at which Navarre’s squire Colin Doublel drew his dagger in the terrible act of lèse majesté and threatened to plunge it into the King’s breast. Without flinching, Jean ordered his guards to “seize that boy and his Master too.” He himself laid hold of Jean d’Harcourt so roughly that he tore his doublet from collar to belt, accusing him, and others present who had been in the party that murdered Charles d’Espagne, of treason. In horror, the Dauphin begged his father not to dishonor him by violence upon his guests, but was told by the King, “You do not know what I know”; these were wicked traitors whose crimes had been discovered. Charles of Navarre pleaded for mercy, saying he was the victim of false reports, but the King had him arrested with the others while the remaining guests fled, “climbing over walls in their terror.”
Next morning, Jean d’Harcourt, Colin Doublel, and two other Norman lords were taken toward the gibbet, in two carts, the ignominious vehicle used for the condemned, accompanied by the King in person, dressed in full armor as if expecting attack. His nerves evidently working on him, Jean suddenly halted the procession in a field and ordered the prisoners decapitated on the spot. He allowed them no priest, for as traitors they were to die without being confessed, except for Colin Doublel, who was condemned for raising a weapon against the King rather than for treason. A substitute executioner was hastily located who took six blows to sever Harcourt’s head. The four bodies, dragged the rest of the way to the gibbet, were hung up in chains and their heads stuck on lances, where they remained for two years. Charles of Navarre was imprisoned in the Châtelet in Paris and his estates in Normandy were again confiscated by the King.
When Welsh Fluellen in Shakespeare’s Henry V speaks of the King’s “cholers and his moods and his displeasures and his indignations and also being a little intoxicate in his brains,” he might have been describing Jean le Bon. The King’s principal victim, Jean d’Harcourt, had three brothers and nine children married into a network of families of northern France (a daughter subsequently married Raoul de Coucy, uncle of Enguerrand VII). The King succeeded in outraging the many connections of his victims without eliminating his real enemy, Charles of Navarre. Sympathy was aroused for the prisoner of the Châtelet, and popular songs were composed in his honor.
The affair of Rouen accomplished just what the King had tried to thwart—the reopening of Normandy to England. Jean d’Harcourt’s brother Godefrey, the same who had led Edward III into Normandy ten years before, and Navarre’s brother Philip appealed for English help to recover their estates, and when the English landed at Cherbourg in July 1356, both these lords took the oath of homage to Edward III as King of France. From Cherbourg the English under the Duke of Lancaster advanced toward contact with Brittany just at the time the Black Prince started out from Bordeaux on a new raid northward toward the heart of France. Events now moved toward the collision at Poitiers.
With English, Gascons, and reinforcements from home, the Prince marched north with a force of about 8,000. His object was to link up with Lancaster and spread damage on the way, taking plunder rather than towns, fortresses, or territory. Marching, fighting, and amassing loot, the Prince reached the Loire on or about September 3 and, finding the bridges destroyed, turned westward toward Tours, where he learned that a large French army was advancing toward him. He also received word that Lancaster had broken out of Normandy and was hastening toward a junction. But the Loire lay between them, and the country was alive with French men-at-arms. His men were now fatigued from many sharp fights, sated and burdened with plunder. After four days’ hesitation which lost him a head start, the Prince turned southward again with clear intention to avoid pitched battle and bring his gains safely back to Bordeaux.
In the north Jean had first moved against Lancaster’s force in Normandy and temporarily blocked it before turning to face the threat from the south. He had summoned a great mobilization for defense of the realm to rendezvous at Chartres in the first week of September. Stimulated by the enemy’s presence on the Loire in the center of France, the nobles responded to the summons, whatever their sentiments toward the King. They came from Auvergne, Berry, Burgundy, Lorraine, Hainault, Artois, Vermandois, Picardy, Brittany, Normandy. “No knight and no squire remained at home,” wrote the chroniclers; here was gathered “all the flower of France.”
With the King were his four sons, aged fourteen to nineteen; the new Constable, Gautier de Brienne, who bore the title, Duke of Athens, from a defunct duchy founded in the crusades; the two Marshals; 26 counts and dukes, 334 bannerets, and nearly all the lesser lords. It was the largest French army of the century—a “great marvel,” wrote an English chronicler, the “equal never seen of Nobility in arms.” The actual number, given by chroniclers with individual abandon at anything up to 80,000, has been endlessly disputed and eventually brought to settle at around 16,000, about twice the size of the Black Prince’s army.
It had no cohesion. The great seigneurs came at their own time, many late for the rendezvous, each with his own troop of 50, 100, or 150 under his own banner, and with his own household and baggage train and gold and silver vessels and plate for turning into ready cash when needed. The provisions of the ordinance of 1351 for discipline and order had borne few results. Owing to a quarrel over renewed taxation, bourgeois support was disaffected, causing the towns to withdraw their contingents. Froissart, on the other hand, reports that Jean dismissed the bourgeois forces when he crossed the Loire, “which was madness in him and in those who advised him.”
With the might of France assembled, Jean was confident he could force the Prince back into Aquitaine, even back to England. Between September 8 and 13 the French army crossed the Loire at Orléans, Blois, and other points and pushed south in pursuit of the Anglo-Gascons. On September 12 the Black Prince was at Montbazon, five miles south of Tours, where he was met by the papal legates who had been endeavoring to make peace since early in the year. Besides writing to the Kings of England and France and to leading nobles of the two countries, urging them to negotiate, the Pope had dispatched the two cardinals in person to try to halt the hostilities.
The chief of the two was the aristocratic Cardinal Talleyrand de Périgord, a prelate baldonzoso e superbo (proud and haughty), as Villani called him. He was a son of the Count of Périgord and of the beautiful Countess reputed to have been Pope Clement V’s mistress. At the age of six, perhaps too early to have a religious calling but not its income, he had been given the Pope’s permission to receive the clerical tonsure and therefore the right to hold ecclesiastical benefices. A bishop at twenty-three, a cardinal at thirty, he had held at one time or another nine English benefices in London, York, Lincoln, and Canterbury, making him a principal target of English resentment.
From Cardinal Talleyrand, Prince Edward learned that the King of France counted on intercepting him and was preparing for pitched battle on September 14, and that the French army was daily enlarging as new units arrived. Though the Prince was not anxious to risk battle against fresh and superior numbers, he nevertheless rejected Talleyrand’s proposal to negotiate a truce, perhaps because he was overconfident of being able to elude the enemy. The French were pushing hard, intending to outflank the Prince at Poitiers, where they would get across the road to Bordeaux and cut off his retreat. For four days more the armies continued on the march without making contact, the English barely ten or twelve miles ahead, the French gradually closing the gap.
On September 17 at a farm called La Chaboterie, three miles west of Poitiers, a French party led by Raoul de Coucy, Sire de Montmirail, uncle of Enguerrand VII and reputed one of the bravest knights of his time, sighted an English reconnaissance unit, and on its own initiative galloped to the attack. Whether Enguerrand was in the party is unrecorded, or even whether he was with the host. The domain of Coucy must certainly have sent its contingent, unless this was with the forces in Normandy opposing Lancaster. In the clash that now occurred, Raoul dashed so far forward that he reached the Prince’s banner-bearer, fighting valiantly. Under the ardor of the French assault, the Anglo-Gascons reeled back, yet inexplicably, though they were far outnumbered, they recovered and overpowered the French. Many were killed and Raoul was captured, though ransomed soon afterward. Like so much else that happened at Poitiers, the outcome at La Chaboterie is difficult to explain.
Greedy for ransoms from the skirmish, the Anglo-Gascons pursued with such vigor that they were drawn three leagues from the field, with the result that the Prince, in order to rally and reassemble his forces, had to halt where he was and camp for the night though suffering greatly from lack of water.
On the following morning, Sunday, September 18, as the Prince’s weary company resumed march just below Poitiers, his scouts from a crest of land saw a glitter of armor and the flutter of a thousand pennants as the French main body came into view. Knowing he was overtaken and battle now unavoidable, the Prince drew up his forces in the most favorable site he could find, on a wooded slope edged by vineyards and hedges and by a stream meandering through marshy land. Beyond the stream was a wide field traversed by a narrow road. The place was about two miles southeast of Poitiers.
Confident of victory in his superior strength, King Jean was held back from attack by Cardinal Talleyrand, who arrived with a great company of clerics to beg him to keep Sunday’s “Truce of God” until next morning while allowing the Cardinal another chance to mediate. At a war council in the King’s pavilion of scarlet silk, Marshal d’Audrehem and others ardent for battle, and conscious of the threat of the Duke of Lancaster at their rear, urged no delay. Against their advice, the King fatally agreed to the Cardinal’s plea for delay. A proposal by Geoffrey de Charny for an arranged combat of 100 champions on each side was rejected by his companions lest it exclude too many from combat, glory, and ransoms. If either immediate battle or Charny’s proposal had been adopted, the ultimate outcome might have been different.
When Cardinal Talleyrand hastened back to the English camp, he found the Prince was now amenable to, even anxious for, any arrangement that would get him out of danger with honor and spoils intact. Edward offered to restore free of ransom all prisoners he had taken during the two campaigns and all places he had occupied, and to agree to non-belligerency for seven years, during which he would pledge not to take up arms against the King of France. He even offered, according to the Chronique des Quatre Premiers Valois, to yield Calais and Guînes, though he certainly lacked the authority for such a surrender. His extraordinary concessions indicate his sense of a desperate situation and the realization that he could be starved out if the French chose to surround and invest him. Or, knowing that so inglorious a choice by the French was unlikely, he may have been playing for time to complete preparation of his archers’ positions. This his men were already engaged in doing, and throughout the day of parleys they continued entrenching and setting up palisades.
King Jean agreed to consider the proposal. Cardinal Talleyrand and his clerics hurried back and forth on their mules, and the Prince’s chief knights came under safe-conduct to parley in person. Hardly a battle of the endless war, except in Brittany, was not preceded by efforts to stop it that never succeeded. Arrogant in his confidence of victory, Jean accepted the offer on condition that the Prince of Wales would surrender himself and 100 of his knights as prisoners of the King of France. Such humiliation the Prince resolutely refused, having meanwhile improved his position among the woods and behind hedges. While Talleyrand still begged the King for the love of Christ to agree at least to a truce until Christmas, the day of parleys was over. The French council of war reconvened to determine a plan of attack.
Marshal Clermont advised blockade, the very action the Prince had feared. Rather than the folly of attacking the English in their protected position, he said the French should encamp around them and when they had no more food “they would depart from that place.” This was the obvious and sensible course to adopt, but the dictates of chivalry forbade it. Met with scorn and fierce dispute by Marshal d’Audrehem, Clermont’s proposal was rejected. Three knights who had reconnoitered the English lines came in to report that the only access to the enemy was a narrow passage permitting no more than four abreast to ride through. On the advice of Sir William Douglas, a Scot experienced against the English who was acting as the King’s chief of tactics, the critical decision was taken for the main body to attack on foot. But rather than forgo altogether the cavalry charge of heavy armor, it was decided that the initial breakthrough of the archers’ lines should be carried out by a task force of 300 of the elite of the army mounted on the strongest and swiftest war-horses. All three military chiefs, the Constable and both Marshals, were recklessly assigned to this body.
At sunrise on Monday, September 19, in bustle and clamor of arms with trumpets sounding, the French host was drawn up behind the mounted spearhead in the usual three battalions. They were deployed one behind the other, presumably for successive shocks, but precluded by this position from aiding one another on the flank. The nineteen-year-old Dauphin, who had never fought in war before, was nominal commander of the first battalion; Philippe d’Orléans, brother of the King, aged twenty and equally a novice, commanded the second; the King himself, the third. He was accompanied by a personal guard of nineteen others dressed exactly like him in black armor and white surcoat marked with fleur-de-lys. This was a prudent if not exactly knightly precaution, since in a battle in which a sovereign engaged, the enemy would do its utmost to capture him.
“On foot! On foot!” ordered Jean, and “he put himself on foot before all.” It has been said that he took the decision to dismount in order to reduce the opportunity among his disunited forces for individual action or flight. Modern critics—for the debate has continued-have called it “suicidal folly”; others have considered it the only sensible and feasible decision because cavalry could not deploy en masse owing to the marshes, hedges, and ditches.
The knights dismounted, removed spurs, cut off the long pointed toes of their poulaines, and shortened their lances to five feet. The Oriflamme, fork-tongued scarlet banner of the Kings of France, was awarded to Geoffrey de Charny, “the perfect knight,” to carry. Legend derived the banner from Charlemagne, who was said to have carried it to the Holy Land in response to an angel’s prophecy that a knight armed with a golden lance from whose tip flames of “great marvel” burned would deliver the land from the Saracens. Embroidered with golden flames that gave it its name, the banner had been adopted by the monarchy from the Abbey of St. Denis along with the battle cry “Montjoie-St. Denis!” As the signal for advance or rally, the war cry signified allegiance to a particular lord. On that morning the King announced the royal cry as the cry for all. “You have cursed the English,” he cried to the assembled ranks of chivalry, “and longed to measure swords with them. Behold them in your presence! Remember the wrongs they have done you and revenge yourselves for the losses and sufferings they have inflicted on France. I promise you we shall do battle with them, and God be with us!”
The Prince of Wales deployed two battalions in front for mutual support and one behind, with the archers in saw-tooth formation divided among the three. The four Earls—Warwick and Oxford, Suffolk and Salisbury—commanded the two front divisions, the Prince and Chandos the rear, with a body of 400 reserves at their side. The English had the advantage of terrain and a far greater advantage in being a coherent body, experienced together in two campaigns, professionally trained, and based on better management and organization. For overseas expeditions the English had to plan carefully and recruit selectively the ablest and strongest fighting material.
Yet even now, perhaps because of divided opinion among his advisors, the Prince essayed a movement to get away toward the road to Bordeaux. “For on that day,” in the words of Chandos Herald, “he did not wish for combat, I tell you true, but wished without fail to avoid battle entirely.” The movement of baggage wagons behind the hill, revealed by the fluttering pennants of their advance guard, was seen by Marshal d’Audrehem, who shouted, “Ha! Pursue! Charge, ere the English are lost to us!” The more sober Clermont still advised a surrounding action, precipitating a furious quarrel between the two Marshals on the very brink of battle. Audrehem accused his fellow of being “afraid to look on them” and of causing delay that would lose the day, to which Clermont replied with suitable insult. “Ha, Maréchal, you are not so bold but that your horse’s nose will find itself in my horse’s ass!” In this disunity the charge of the mounted spearhead was launched.
Warned of the assault, the Prince had halted the initial departure, reassembled, and in a fiery oration called upon his knights to fight for their King’s claim to the French crown, for the great honor of victory, for rich spoils and eternal fame. He told them to trust in God and obey commands.
Attacking from the flank, Audrehem’s squadron was caught and crushed under the piercing arrows of the archers, while Clermont, joined by the Constable, charged in the frontal attack he so mistrusted and was beaten back under flights of arrows so thick they darkened the air. Shooting from sheltered positions protected by dismounted knights and foot soldiers, the archers, at the express order of the Earl of Oxford, aimed for the horses’ unarmored rumps. Stumbling and falling, the horses went down under their riders or reared back among those who followed, “making great slaughter upon their own masters.” It was the frenzy of Crécy over again. Fallen knights could not raise their horses or rise themselves. In the melee that followed, amid call of trumpets, shouted battle cries, and screams of wounded men and horses, both Clermont and the Constable were killed, Audrehem was captured, and the greater part of the picked knights killed or taken prisoner.
Already the Dauphin’s battalion was advancing on foot into the havoc. With Charles in the front lines were his two brothers, seventeen-year-old Louis, Duc d’Anjou, and sixteen-year-old Jean, future Duc de Berry. Tangled in the confusion of riderless horses and raging combat, many of the battalion fought on savagely, hand to hand, stabbing with shortened lances and hacking with battle-ax and sword. But with no hardened leader in command, only a boy witnessing debacle, the unit began to fall back. A shout of triumph from enemy throats signaled seizure of the Dauphin’s standard. Whether on order of the King to save his sons, as later claimed, or at the decision of the four lords appointed as the princes’ guardians, the greater part of the battalion withdrew from the field, falling back upon and infecting with failure the Duc d’Orléans’ battalion. Instead of coming in with fresh force to give the hard-pressed English no pause, which at this stage might well have turned the tide, Orléans’ battalion, swept up in the retreat, fled without striking a blow, retrieved its waiting horses, and galloped for the city.
“Advance,” cried the King upon this successive disaster, “for I will recover the day or die on the field!” With Oriflamme flying and his youngest son, fourteen-year-old Philip, future Duke of Burgundy, at his father’s side, this largest of the three battalions, awkward on foot in their iron cocoons, marched upon the bloody field. “Alack! We are undone!” cried an English knight, seeing them come. “You lie, miserable coward,” stormed the Prince, “if you so blaspheme as to say that I, alive, may be conquered!” Each side fell upon the other with the strength and ferocity of desperation. Although a battle’s outcome, it was said, could be told by the time the sixth arrow was loosed, now when the English archers had emptied their sheaves the issue wavered. In the pause before the new French assault, the archers had retrieved arrows from the wounds and dead bodies of the fallen; others now hurled stones and fought with knives. Had the third French assault been mounted, it is possible that at this stage, against a battered opponent, it might have prevailed.
The battle entered its seventh hour, a tossing mass of separate groups hammering each other, oblivious of any formation, except for the Prince and Chandos still holding command with the reserves on the hilltop. Pointing to where the Oriflamme flew, Chandos advised the Prince to attack the King’s unit, for, he said, “Valor will not allow him to flee; he will fall into our power and victory will be ours.” In what proved the decisive maneuver, the Prince ordered his D’Artagnesque ally, the Captal de Buch, to lead a small mounted force in attack upon the French rear while, with the mounted reserves and the unwounded from his own battalion, he summoned the army’s last strength for a frontal offensive. “Sirs, behold me here! For God’s mercy, think on striking! Advance, Banner, in the name of God and St. George!”
His trumpets sounded, and their echo, thrown back by the stone walls of Poitiers, rang through the woods “so that you would think the hills had called out to the valleys and that it had thundered in the clouds.” The English charge, in whole or in part on horseback, rushed down upon the King’s unit “like the wild boar of Cornwall.” The battle reached climactic fury “and none so hardy” wrote Chandos Herald, “whose heart was not dismayed.” “Beware, Father, to the right! Ware, to the left!” Philip cried as the blows descended. Knights grappled in personal combat, “each thinking of his own honor.” Attacked by the Prince’s charge in front and the Captal’s horsemen from the rear, the French fought in ferocious despair. Bleeding from multiple wounds, Geoffrey de Charny was cut down and killed still holding the Oriflamme. The King’s guard, surrounding him in a mighty wedge, tottered under the assault. “Some, eviscerated, tread on their own entrails, others vomit forth their teeth, some still standing have their arms cut off. The dying roll about in the blood of strangers, the fallen bodies groan, and the proud spirits, abandoning their inert bodies, moan horribly.” The slain piled up around the flailing battle-ax of the King, who with his helmet knocked off was bleeding from two wounds on his face. “Yield, yield,” cried voices, “or you are a dead man!” In the midst of hoarse shouts and fierce contention to seize him, a French exile, Denis de Morbecque, banished for manslaughter and now serving the English, pressed forward and said, “Sire, I am a knight of Artois. Yield yourself to me and I will lead you to the Prince of Wales.” King Jean handed him his glove and surrendered.
With the loss of the King, the remaining French forces disintegrated, those who could flying for the gates of Poitiers to escape capture. English and Gascons of all ranks pursued wildly, greed overmastering exhaustion, and scrambled for prisoners under the very walls of the city. Some of the French turned in flight and captured their pursuers.
The defeat swept France of its leadership. In addition to the King, the Constable and both Marshals, and the bearer of the Oriflamme, who were either dead or taken, the victors captured one fighting archbishop, 13 counts, 5 viscounts, 21 barons and bannerets, and some 2,000 knights, squires, and men-at-arms of the gentry. Too many to be taken back, most were released on a pledge to bring their ransoms to Bordeaux before Christmas.
The number of killed, a different figure in every account, was at least several thousand, of whom 2,426 were of the nobility. The fact that they equaled or outnumbered the captured was evidence of valiant fighting, but, unfortunately for France, the living who fled made a greater impression than the dead who fought. The Grand Chronique admits openly that battalions “fled shamefully and cravenly,” and the Chronique Normande somberly concludes, “The mortality of this battle was not so great as the shame.”
That was the great debris of Poitiers. Citizens watching from the city walls witnessed inglorious retirement and hectic flight, and their report spread throughout France. The retreat of Orléans’ battalion which lost the day is hardly explicable except by the disaffected mood of nobles antagonized by the King. Certainly many were present that day who would not have grieved at misfortune to the monarchy, and it would have taken the shouts of only a few to induce panic. Whatever the cause, the effect was to deepen and spread mistrust of the noble estate and loosen confidence in the ordained structure of society.
Popular sentiment showed itself at once against lords returning to raise their ransoms. They were so “hated and blamed by the commoners,” reports Froissart, that they had difficulty in gaining admittance to the towns and sometimes even to their own estates. Peasants of a village in Normandy belonging to the Sire de Ferté-Fresnel, seeing their seigneur come riding through with only a squire and a valet and without his sword, raised the cry, “Here is one of the traitors who fled from the battle!” They rushed upon the three riders, pulled the lord from his horse, and beat him up. He returned a few days later, better armed, to take vengeance, killing one villager in the process. Though this small outburst was quickly crushed, it was an omen. Many seigneurs returned to face gibes or sudden hostility and had trouble raising the traditional aid for the lord’s ransom. To find the funds, many were forced to sell all their furnishings or free their serfs for payment. A residue of ruined knights was a by-product of Poitiers.
The cry of “Traitor!” was not a local voice only, but a bewildered people’s explanation of the inexplicable. It was the eternal cry of conspiracy, of stab in the back. How else could the great King of France have been taken and the great host of French chivalry defeated by a handful of “archers and brigands” except by betrayal? A contemporary polemic in verse called “Complaint of the Battle of Poitiers” explicitly charges,
The very great treason that they long time concealed
Was in the said host very clearly revealed.
The author, an unknown cleric, accuses certain persons of having by “their cupidity sold secrets of the Royal Council to the English” and, on being discovered and “kicked out of the Council by the King,” of conspiring to destroy him and his children. The flight of these false men, “treacherous, disloyal, infamous and perjured,” was a planned betrayal; in them the nobility was dishonored and France too. They have denied God; they are men of pride, greed and haughty manners,
Of bombast and vainglory and dishonest clothes,
With golden belts and plumes on their heads
And the long beard of goats, a thing for beasts.
They deafen you like thunder and tempest.
The beard complained of, originally a mark of penitence, had lately been worn in narrow forked style as a worldy fashion and now became an object of satire linked with running away.
The “Complaint” has only praise for Jean II, who fought to the end with his little son beside him. In public opinion he became a hero. However inept as sovereign and captain, his personal valor, poignantly emphasized by the “little son,” glorified him in the eyes of his subjects and gave France a focus for the recovery of honor. The “Complaint” hopes that God will send “good men of great power” to avenge the defeat and bring back the King, and concludes significantly:
If he is well advised, he will not forget
To lead Jaque Bonhomme and all his great company
Who do not run from war to save their lives!
After the citizens of Poitiers had buried the bodies outside, the Mayor proclaimed mourning for the captured King and forbade celebration of any feast day or festival. In Languedoc the Estates General prohibited for the space of a year, so long as the King was not delivered, the wearing of gold, silver, or pearls, ornamented or scalloped robes and hats, and entertainment by minstrels and jongleurs. The Dauphin and his brothers, though judged unfavorably in comparison with young Philip, were not included in the blame of the nobles. Charles on his return to Paris “was received with honor by the people, grief-stricken by the capture of his father the King.” They felt, according to Jean de Venette, that somehow he would bring about the King’s release “and the whole country of France would be saved.”
Why the flight? Why the defeat? To Villani in Italy the extraordinary event seemed “unbelievable”; Petrarch, learning about it in Milan on return from a journey, was no less stunned; the English themselves thought their victory a miracle, and succeeding generations have found it hard to fathom. Militarily, French numerical superiority was nullified by a failure of command. The 2,000 Genoese crossbowmen, according to some reports, were not even used, although others report the contrary. The comparative ineffectiveness of French archery throughout the century is a puzzle. Towns and villages of France maintained companies of archers who were encouraged by special privileges, and men of the Beauvaisis, adjoining Picardy, considered themselves in individual skill the best in the world. Yet they were never properly combined in action with knights and men-at-arms, because French chivalry scorned to share its dominance of the field with commoners.
Separatism in Normandy and Brittany, failure to resist the Black Prince’s raid in Languedoc, and the intrigues and betrayals of Charles of Navarre were aspects of the disunity that lost the Battle of Poitiers. The right of independent withdrawal, which the Order of the Star and the ordinance of 1351 had tried to suppress, had not been yielded by the nobles in their own minds. The defeat at Poitiers was a pyrrhic triumph of baronial independence.
It was also, on the English side, a victory of generalship that made up for fatigue and inferior numbers. The Prince could give orders that were obeyed and, with moral leadership more secure than Jean’s, and battalion chiefs on whom he could rely, could control what happened. He kept himself where he could view the battle and direct movements, he was served by toughened, experienced soldiers, and he had two essentials for winning: no possibility of retreat and a will that goaded men to the last ounce of fight. As a commander, in Froissart’s words, he was “courageous and cruel as a lion.”
Spent by combat and eager to bring his royal prize out of reach of any rescue attempt, the Prince made no further effort toward a juncture with Lancaster, but turned south at once for Bordeaux, dragging added baggage wagons filled with luxurious fittings including furred mantles, jewels, and illuminated books from the French camp. Released by the Dauphin after the defeat, the French nobles scattered to protect their own domains; none rallied to attempt a rescue of the King along the 150-mile march to Bordeaux. The Cardinals followed there to renew pressure for peace, and while terms of a settlement were under negotiation, English and Gascons engaged in a massive commerce of buying and selling prisoners and shares in ransoms with heated disputes over who had captured whom, and no little ill-will generated in the process. Complaints were heard that the archers had killed too many who might have been held for ransom. When the Prince proposed to take the King of France to England as a prisoner, the Gascons angrily claimed a share in his capture and had to be appeased by a payment of 100,000 florins, raised from a first offer of 60,000 they had spurned.
With the French King in their hands, the English were in a position to drive a crushing bargain. But though the French negotiators were prisoners themselves and the Dauphin at home was beleaguered by events in Paris, the French balked at the hard terms proposed. The winter passed with no agreement reached except for another truce to last two years. In May 1357, seven months after the battle, the Black Prince took King Jean with his son and other noble prisoners back to London, while in the aftermath of defeat the Third Estate grasped for control in Paris.
* It was this deal, negotiated through England’s envoy in Avignon, that was supposed to have earned him the title of Charles the Bad, although this is disputed by others who say it had been conferred by his Spanish subjects from the time he was eighteen. In fact the title was not contemporary and does not appear in the chronicles until the 16th century.
* His title derived from the Latin capitalis, meaning chieftain.