PRINCE LOUIS was a small man, pale of face and austere of expression. He had little in him seemingly of his brilliant and turbulent father, Philip Augustus. A certain saintliness was claimed for him which undoubtedly he inherited from his grandfather, the ineffectual Louis VII, and which would assert itself so magnificently in his son, that great king who is called St. Louis. An anecdote persists that a good friend, one Archambaud de Bourbon, believing that the prince’s health suffered from his rigid continence, hired a beautiful young woman to climb into his bed while he was asleep. On waking and finding himself with a bedfellow, the prince ordered her, courteously but firmly, to leave. He was reported to have added, “I cannot commit a mortal sin.”
The chaste and reserved prince might be pious, but he was a lion when stirred to fighting pitch. Philip Augustus was easy to rouse to anger and easy to calm down; Louis, hard to rouse, hard to appease. Despite his frail stature he was a champion of mettle, and an old chronicle says, “He put on his cuirass like Judas Maccabaeus.” He does not seem to have had much skill in generalship, however, accepting too completely the conceptions of warfare which chivalry had imposed on the Christian world and which would be shattered in a very few years, first by Sabutai leading the armies of Genghis Khan into the heart of the Holy Roman Empire and cutting armies of steel-clad knights to pieces, and later by a plebeian weapon called the longbow in the hands of English churls. His plan for conquering England was to take one castle after another and to enlarge gradually the arc of his control. The weakness of this method was that each castle taken necessitated leaving a garrison behind, thus leading to a stage when all his troops would be roosting in captured keeps and strutting on alien battlements. This method kept wars going interminably; it led to continuous truces and in the end to a paucity of results. Louis, it seems, moreover, was a poor judge of men. The lieutenants to whom he entrusted the command of his little armies in preference to more experienced English barons were young French knights who were ready to lay their lives down bravely but who had no capacity for leadership.
In February, Philip Augustus summoned his son home to discuss the situation. It was believed that the French King was anxious to avoid papal confirmation of the ban of excommunication laid by Gualo on all Frenchmen under arms on English soil, but this was not the real reason, Philip Augustus had a hide impervious to such darts, having been banned himself on more than one occasion. He had been blowing hot and cold, however, on the English adventure and was beginning to doubt the issue. It was as clear to the French monarch as it was to William the Marshal that time was not fighting on the side of the French.
It was easy to summon Louis home, but it was not easy for the prince to obey. The adherence of the Cinque Ports to his cause had become so doubtful that it was not possible to sail from any of them while between London and the harbors westward lay the Weald in which lurked the ever-watchful Willikin. Louis ventured out from London with a considerable escort but with some trepidation, a state of mind which was justified by subsequent events. They took a circuitous course through Kent and then swung in between the Weald and the coast, hoping to reach Winchelsea, where Eustace the Monk could take them off in his ships. As they passed Lewes arrows began to fall on the rear guard and fast-riding horsemen shouting, “The Rood! The Rood!” closed in on them. Willikin had detected the maneuver and he struck at them so ferociously that the French party was thrown into confusion and started a hasty flight for Winchelsea. The guerrilla band followed on their heels and took many prisoners, including two nephews of the Count of Nevers. They cut off all stragglers and kept up such an incessant attack that the Frenchmen reached Winchelsea in a breathless state.
They found the town empty and gutted of supplies. The inhabitants had left and the men had joined forces with those of the nearby town of Rye. They returned in full force to hem Louis in on the east while Willikin poised a continual threat of assault on the west. Louis was in a serious plight. Finally, however, a rescue party, riding by way of Canterbury to avoid suspicion, came down through Romney and arrived at Winchelsea just in time to save the prince and his men from dying of starvation. Eustace arrived with some ships off the coast at the same time and took the harried prince and his men aboard.
There was a stormy interview between the French King and Louis when the latter arrived at his father’s court. Philip Augustus was not pleased with the way things were going. He declared himself to have been against the venture in the first place (this, of course, was not true) and he found fault, on much sounder ground, with his son’s handling of the invasion. It was now a lost cause and he had no intention of spending further money on armies and supplies. Louis protested without making any impression on the imperious monarch. He went then to his wife and begged her assistance.
It is high time to tell something of this remarkable woman known to history as Blanche of Castile. When it had been decided some fifteen years before that a Spanish bride should be sought for Louis, King Alfonso had two candidates to offer, his daughters Blanche and Uracca. The King of France decided that the name Blanche would have a more familiar sound in the ears of his subjects and accordingly she was selected. Seventy-eight-year-old Queen Eleanor, widow of Henry II of England and grandmother of the two Spanish princesses, rode all the way to Castile to make the final arrangements and to escort the bride in proper state to her royal husband. When that wise and indomitable woman reached the Spanish court she must have wondered about the wisdom of the choice. Uracca was a dazzling beauty, so lovely, in fact, that Blanche looked plain beside her. Comparison with this beautiful sister was not fair, however, to the prospective bride. Blanche was comely enough, some reports having it that she bore a slight resemblance to her grandmother; and this was high praise because Eleanor had been the reigning beauty of Europe in her day. The plainer of the two princesses had certain advantages over the more vivacious Uracca which, no doubt, were apparent to the wise eyes of the old Queen. She was serious of disposition and very pious and she possessed, moreover, a gift for management. Eleanor, who had become expert at pulling strings to animate the puppets on the stage of history, must have recognized in this quiet and somewhat repressed granddaughter a kindred spirit.
Louis was well pleased with his bride. The lovely Uracca might have been too giddy and pleasure-loving for the earnest-minded prince, but Blanche was the perfect wife for him. She was as ambitious as he was, as unremitting in her addiction to duty. They became deeply attached, bringing twelve children into the world, six of whom lived. They were model parents, and their life together seems to have been passed without a ripple of disagreement. Taller than her spouse and of a natural sternness of temperament, Blanche dominated Louis as she afterward did her son, the saintly King.
When Blanche found that her formidable father-in-law had turned against any continuation of the effort to annex the crown of England, she took matters into her own hands. Storming into his presence, she demanded that he change his mind. French biographers have compared her to Semiramis, the fabled Queen of the Four Quarters of the World who was fed as an infant by doves and later took the form of a bird. There was nothing dove-like in the outraged advocate of action who cornered the monarch and passionately demanded that he continue to support his son. She left his presence finally with threats that, if he remained obdurate, she would raise the money by pawning her children. It is assumed in the records of the day that the King was disturbed by the picture this conjured up in his mind of his beloved grandchildren held as hostages by Lombardy usurers and, if not actually displayed in shops with tickets on them, at least compelled to exist in a mean form of captivity. It is easier to believe that he had intended always to go on supporting the army of invasion but had sensed that opposition might strengthen the backbone of the prince to more determined efforts. It might have been, again, a ruse on his part to deceive the Pope as to his real attitude. It is still more possible, of course, that he could not stand out against his resolute daughter-in-law. Whatever the reason, he gave in finally and promised Blanche the financial support she was demanding.
Blanche seems to have been fated to play the role of the activating force behind her less aggressive and far from practical men. It was devolving on her now to put drive and initiative behind her brave but decidedly not inspired husband. In later years she would rule France during the minority of Louis IX and through the long years he spent at the Crusades, drawing on the resources of the kingdom to supply him with men and money and supplies, thus making it possible for him to achieve historical greatness.
In the present instance she went to work with a grim resolve to win for her husband the throne of England. She went out and raised more money wherever she could, pawning her personal possessions if not her children. With the funds thus made available she established her headquarters at Calais and proceeded to buy equipment for the mercenary troops she was recruiting and to secure ships for the transport of the army. She harried Eustace the Monk and played so violently on the patriotism of the knights of France that three hundred of them enlisted for service in England.
While Louis was in France the marshal was at work. He went on a tour of the southeast corner of the kingdom, winning adherents everywhere. The men of the Cinque Ports, who had been wavering, were ready now to come over in a body. His own son, William, was among the most notable of the converts, and the Earl of Salisbury, a natural son of Henry II by the Fair Rosamonde and more familiarly known as William Long-Espée. Other barons joined the train of the newly appointed head of the state and were with him at a council of war held with Willikin of the Weald. A vigorous plan of action was marked out, and the boy King’s supporters began then to hammer so effectively at the outer edges of the French holdings that castle after castle fell to them, Winchester, Farnham, Marlborough, Knap. Willikin swooped down on Dover and burned the camp of the besiegers, hanging Frenchmen as fast as he could get his hands on them. The result of all this furious activity was that Louis, returning around the end of April, had to make a landing at night and dash in great haste for the security of London.
The campaign which followed reflected the weakness of purpose of Louis and his halfhearted English allies. The prince was persuaded to send the largest part of his troops on a thrust into the midlands, where the castle of Mountsorel was being invested by royalists. Resuming command himself of the operations around Dover, Louis placed the Count of Perche in charge of the northern excursion. The count was one of the bravest and rashest of his many brave and rash young men and probably the least suited for such a mission. Finding that the siege of Mountsorel had been raised, Perche felt he must achieve something to justify this elaborate foray and shoved on up the Belvoir road to attack the city of Lincoln. The widow of the castellan of Lincoln, a brave woman named Nicolette de Camville, retired into the castle and defended it so bravely that all the efforts of the French forces were in vain.
William the Marshal now decided that the time had come for a test of strength. The French army was divided, and he knew enough about the character of the young Count of Perche to feel he could be counted upon to make mistakes. Accordingly the veteran got together all the men who could be rallied to the banner of the boy King and approached Lincoln by a northwesterly route, marching from the Stow road to the Old Roman Way. The marshal knew that he was outnumbered, but this did not cause him too much concern. Early that morning a knight named Geoffrey de Serland had ridden out from Lincoln with a message from the resolute Nicolette. A small postern near the western sally port in the walls was open and unguarded. The marshal planned, therefore, to monopolize the attention of the French while the archers under Falkes de Bréauté slipped into the old walled city.
Early in the morning of May 20 the marshal’s army appeared on a high ridge to the north. Forgetting his years and his slackening powers, the grand old man rode in the van, his white cross proudly displayed on his breast. He had either forgotten to put on his helmet or had purposely elected to appear without it. At any rate, he led the attack bareheaded, his lank white locks tossing in the breeze. His eyes gleamed with all the old ardor and eagerness for the fray. “God has given them into my hands!” he declared.
Robert Fitz-Walter and Saire de Quincey, the leaders of the English who still fought with the French, rode out to reconnoiter. They were not alarmed by what they saw. The force advancing to the attack was small and lacking in cavalry. They returned and advised the Count of Perche to meet the English in the open country, where the French cavalry would have freedom to attack. The young count had no respect, however, for the military sagacity of his English allies. He decided to see for himself.
The old marshal had resorted to a stratagem. Behind the not too numerous body of his armed men he had assembled all the wagons of his train and a large and motley company of camp followers, servants, and peasantry. They had been given standards to carry, and to the inexperienced eye of the young French leader it seemed that a large army was moving against him. Brushing aside the advice of the English leaders, he decided he could not face such a formidable force in the open and ordered, instead, a concentration of his men in the upper level of the old Roman city, a warren of narrow streets between the castle, where the fair Nicolette still held out, and the cathedral. Here cavalry could not be used and the superior numbers of the French would mean nothing.
In the meantime the archers under Falkes de Bréauté made their way into the city through the unguarded postern. His selection to command the bowmen had been a wise one. Of all the professional soldiers imported into England by John, he was the best, a skilled and cool-headed leader who struck, moreover, with such passionate fury when he got into action that he was sometimes called the Rod of the Lord’s Fury. He seems to have had no difficulty in reaching the postern and gaining access from there to the castle. The Frenchmen, packed in the streets below, were thrown into great confusion when they heard suddenly the English cry of “King’s men! King’s men!” from the battlements and looked up to see the walls crowded with archers. Immediately, it seemed, the air was filled with arrows. The space between the castle and the cathedral was a jumble of alleys and closes and so small that a strong-armed bowman could send a bolt from one end to the other. The French soldiery, having no shelter from the lethal hail and being unable to advance or retreat, began to drop like ripe chestnuts after the first frost. The horses screamed and threshed about savagely when wounded, crushing their riders under them.
The main attacking force, led by the marshal, who had now donned his helmet, forced an entrance into the upper level at the same time that the Earl of Chester attacked the lower part. Chester had no difficulty in scattering the few French detachments which had been posted below and driving them up the sloping streets into the crowded upper town. The French were now more than ever handicapped by their numbers. Unable to make a sortie, they died under the rain of arrows from the castle walls and gave way before the sharp attack of the marshal in the north and west and the Earl of Chester in the south until they were hopelessly jammed into the maze of lanes about the cathedral.
The fighting was singularly one-sided. Although the English under the marshal lost very few men, the French suffered wholesale slaughter. The Count of Perche, as valiant as he was stubborn and inept, refused to surrender and was cut down in the street fighting after an exchange of blows with the aged marshal. All the English allies with the French were captured. It is probable that, disgusted with the stupidity which was costing them so dear, they had little stomach for the struggle. Most of the French gave in at the same time, three hundred knights in all laying down their arms.
The victory was so complete, and had been won with such small loss, that it was called thereafter the Fair of Lincoln. The exultant marshal, feeling no fatigue after a day of riding and fighting in the saddle, galloped that night to Nottingham, where the legate and the boy King were stationed, to give them the glad news that the largest part of the French army of invasion had been destroyed.
The fact that many of the English barons, including Robert Fitz-Walter, Saire de Quincey, Robert de Ros, and William Mowbray, were captured in the narrow and blood-drenched streets adds a note of ironic regret to this otherwise splendid victory. They had been among the leaders of the popular party at Runnymede, and their names should never be forgotten as long as man has memory for the great deeds of the past; but at Lincoln they were fighting for the invader, they stood under the lilies of France and strove against the English. They had been driven to this course in the first place by the tyranny of John, who threatened not only their possessions but their lives, and they were held by their oaths to the support of the alien they had invited over to help them. If they had prevailed at Lincoln new chains would have been forged for their wrists and Magna Charta would have been disregarded and forgotten.
The victors were men who, for the most part, had stood aside in the earlier struggle for freedom, and some of them had ridden in the small train which accompanied John to Runnymede. It is doubly ironic that at Lincoln they fought for the Charter against the men who had conceived it.
Louis realized the extent of the disaster and expressed a willingness to enter into negotiations for peace. He gave up his interminable and futile siege of Dover and in a mood of the deepest discouragement returned to London. A meeting to discuss terms was held near Brentford and, as the marshal was persuaded to moderation by the desperate need of England for peace, they came close to an agreement. The legate, however, was unwilling to stretch the amnesty to cover four ecclesiastics without instructions from the Pope, and nothing could be signed. Louis in the meantime was hearing encouraging reports from the energetic Blanche of the strength she was gathering for him, and his will was stirred to further efforts.
Hoping that the tide of fortune would still turn for him, Louis settled down in London to wait for the reinforcements that Eustace the Monk would convoy across the Channel.