Note: If you purchase anything from links on this site, I may make a commission.
Join our Facebook page.
Almost every one has heard of the famous battles of Crecy and Poitiers, which were so much alike in all that made them remarkable that they are generally coupled together,--one always reminding us of the other. Yet there is one point they had in common which has not been especially remarked, but which ought to link them memorably together in the imagination of young people.
These two great battles really took place ten years apart; for one was fought in 1346 and the other in 1356. The battle-fields also were wide apart; for Crecy was far in the north of France, near the coast of the English Channel, and Poitiers away in the south, deep in the interior, nearly three hundred miles from Crecy. But they have drawn near to each other in the mind of students of history, because in both cases the French largely outnumbered the English; in both cases the English had gone so far into the country that their retreat seemed to be cut off; in both cases there was a most surprising and unexpected result, for the French were terribly defeated; and in both cases this happened because they made the same mistake: they trusted so much to their overwhelming numbers, to their courage and their valor, that they forgot to be careful about anything else, while the English made up for their small numbers by prudence, discipline, and skill, without which courage and valor are often of no avail.
It is quite exciting to read the description of these battles, with their archery fights, the clashing together of furious knights, the first brave advance and the final running away; but, after a while, the battles at large seem to fade out in the greater interest which surrounds the figures of two youngsters,--one hardly more than fifteen, the other scarcely fourteen,--for one carried off all the honors of the victory of Crecy, and the other redeemed from total dishonor the defeat of Poitiers. Let us now take up the romantic story of the English lad in the former battle, and of the French lad in the latter.
When, in 1346, Edward III of England had determined upon an invasion of France, he brought over his army in a fleet of nearly a thousand sail. He had with him not only the larger portion of his great nobles, but also his eldest son, Edward Plantagenet, the Prince of Wales. He had good reasons for taking the boy. The prince was expected to become the next King of England. His father evidently thought him able to take a very important part in becoming also the King of France. If all the accounts of him are true, he was a remarkable youth; wonderfully strong and courageous, and wonderfully discreet for his years.
There was only one road to success or fame in those days, and that was the profession of arms. The ambition of every high-born young fellow was to become a knight. Knighthood was something that both king and nobles regarded as higher in some respects than even the royalty or nobility to which they were born. No one could be admitted into an order of the great brotherhood of knights, which extended all over Europe and formed an independent society, unless he had gone through severe discipline, and had performed some distinguished deed of valor. Then he could wear the golden spurs; for knighthood had its earliest origin in the distinction of fighting on horseback, while ordinary soldiers fought on foot. Although knighthood changed afterward, the word "chivalry" always expressed it, from "coeval", a horse. And in addition to valor, which was the result of physical strength and courage, the knight was expected to be generous, courteous, faithful, devout, truthful, high-souled, high-principled. Hence the epithet, "chivalrous," which, even to-day, is so often heard applied to men of especially fine spirit. "Honor" was the great word which included all these qualities then, as it does in some measure now.
I have only time to give you the standard, and cannot pause to tell you how well or ill it was lived up to generally. But I would not have taken this story in hand if chivalry had to be left out of the account, for it was chivalry that made my two boys the heroes they were.
As soon as King Edward landed at La Hague, he gave very clear evidence of the serious work he had cut out for his son, and of his confidence that the youngster would be equal to it. He publicly pledged his boy, beforehand, to some great deed, and to a life of valor and honor. In sight of the whole army, he went through the form of making him a knight. Young Edward, clad in armor, kneeled down before him on the wet sand, when the king touched his shoulder with his sword, saying: "I dub thee knight. Be brave, bold, and loyal!" You may imagine how proudly then the young fellow seized lance and sword and shield, and sprang into his saddle at a leap, and with what high resolve he rode on beside his mailed and gallant father to deserve the name which that impressive ceremony had given him.
The army moved rapidly forward and northward toward Calais, conquering everything on its way, till when in the neighborhood of Crecy, the intelligence came that the French king, Philip, with an army of one hundred and twenty thousand men and all the chivalry of France, had come in between it and the sea. There was no retreat possible. Edward had but thirty thousand to oppose this great host. They were four to one. He was in a dangerous spot also; but after a time he succeeded in getting away to a good position, and there he awaited the onset. No one will doubt that he was anxious enough, and yet what did he do? After arranging his troops in battle order, three battalions deep, he sent young Edward to the very front of the brilliant group of his finest barons to take the brunt of the terrible charge that was now to come! It shows of what stern material the king and the men of that time were made, for all his present love, all his future hope, lay around that gallant boy. But he knew that the value of the glory which might be earned was worth all the risk. Besides, he was as much under chivalrous necessity to send him, as the lad was under to go. That pledge to knighthood, on the sea-shore, had not been either lightly taken or lightly given. If chivalry was not equal to sacrifice, it was equal to nothing. There was keen wisdom, too, in the act. The king could count all the more on the enthusiasm, self-devotion and valor of the knights and men-at-arms, in whose keeping he had placed so precious a charge. That whole first battalion would be nerved to tenfold effort because the prince was among them, for every one would be as deeply concerned as the father in the boy's success.
Edward carried his feeling of devotion to his son's best interests to such a chivalrous extent that he made it a point of duty to keep out of the battle altogether.
He was nowhere to be seen. He went into a windmill on a height nearby, and watched the fight through one of the narrow windows in its upper story. He would not even put on his helmet. That was the way the father stood by his son--by showing absolute confidence in him, and denying himself all the glory that might come from a great and important battle. And the young fellow was a thousandfold nerved and strengthened by knowing that his father fully trusted in him.
I need not give the details of the battle. It is sufficient to know that the first line of the French chivalry charged with the utmost fury. Among these was an ally of note, John, King of Bohemia, who with his barons and knights was not behindhand in the deadly onset; and yet this king was old and blind! His was chivalry in another form! He would have his stroke in the battle, and he plunged into it with his horse tied by its reins to one of his knights on either side. A plume of three ostrich feathers waved from his helmet, and the chroniclers say he laid about him well. After the battle, he and his two companions were found dead, with their horses tied together.
But although the French were brave they were not wise. For not only had they brought on the fight with headlong energy before they were prepared, but they had allowed Edward to place himself so that the afternoon sun, then near its setting, blazed full in their eyes and faces. Edward's army fought in the shadow. The terrible English bowmen sent their deadly cloth-yard arrows so thick and fast into the dazzled and crowded ranks of fifteen thousand Genoese archers and the intermingled men-at-arms, that the missiles filled the air like snow. The Genoese were thrown into confusion, and this spread throughout the whole French army. The French king, with some of his dukes, flew foaming over the field in the rear, trying in vain to get up in time to swell the onset upon the English front.
But the onset had proved bad enough as it was. The knights around the young prince were frightened for his safety. One of them, Sir Thomas of Norwich, was sent back to Edward to ask him to come to the assistance of the prince.
"Sir Thomas," said the king, "is my son dead or unhorsed, or so wounded that he cannot help himself?"
"Not so, my lord, thank God; but he is fighting against great odds, and is like to have need of your help."
"Sir Thomas," replied the king, "return to them who sent you, and tell them from me not to send for me, whatever chance befall them, so long as my son is alive, and tell them that I bid them let the lad win his spurs; for I wish, if God so desire, that the day should be his, and the honor thereof remain to him and to those to whom I have given him in charge."
And there he stayed in the windmill till the battle was over. Soon the cry of victory reached him as the French fled in the darkness, leaving their dead strewn upon the field. Now the young prince appeared covered with all the glory that his father had coveted for him, bearing the ostrich plume which he had taken from the dead King of Bohemia. The boy rode up with his visor raised,--his face was as fair as a girl's, and glowed under a crown of golden hair. He bore his trophy aloft, and when it was placed as a knightly decoration above the crest of his helmet, he little thought that the triple tuft was to wave for more than five hundred years, even to this day, on England's front, for such it does, and that, next to the crown, there shall be no badge so proudly known as the three feathers which nod above the coronet of the Prince of Wales. Edward Albert, son of King George V, now wears it because Edward, the Prince of Wales, when still in his teens, won it at Crecy. We will leave him there, and go on ten years.
Philip, the French king, had passed away about six years before, and John, a wild character for such a trying time, had ascended the throne. He was always plunging himself into difficulties, and was often guilty of cruelty; and yet was of such a free, generous nature, and had so many of the virtues of chivalry in that day, that he was known as "John the Good." He was the extreme opposite to the grave, prudent, sagacious Edward III, who was still alive and well, and King of England.
Some time after the victory of Crecy, Calais had been taken, and then both nations were glad to arrange a truce. Nine years of this had gone by, when Edward thought it necessary to make another attempt on France. As soon as might be, therefore, young Edward, his son, now twenty-five, came over alone, landing at Bordeaux. He had, meantime, gained great fame. He was now known as "the Black Prince," because he had a fancy for having his armor painted as black as midnight, in order, they say, to give a greater brightness to his fresh blond complexion and golden hair. Marshaling his little army of 12,000 men, he set out into the interior of France. When he had reached the neighborhood of Poitiers, he was astounded by the news that King John was both after him and behind him, with a force of 60,000 men--five to one! Here was Crecy over again as to numbers, but there was one thing made it worse; for, as Edward III not long before had instituted the famous "Order of the Garter" which is even now one of the foremost orders of knighthood in Europe, so John, not to be behindhand, and in order to give a new chivalrous impulse to his nobles, had just instituted the "Order of the Star." He made five hundred knights of this new order, every one of whom had vowed that he would never retreat, and would sooner be slain than yield to an enemy.
The Black Prince thought it almost impossible to fight his way through such a desperately determined host. So he offered to restore all he had just conquered and to make another truce, if he might pass by unmolested. But John would not consent. He must have Calais back again, and the prince, with one hundred of his best knights, into the bargain. "This will never do," thought the prince. "Better try for another Crecy."
On the morning of September 19,1356, the battle began. John had with him all four of his sons, Charles, Louis, John and Philip; the eldest only nineteen, and the youngest fourteen. The three former were put under good guardianship in different portions of the field; but why the hair-brained monarch took the youngest boy with him into the very front and thickest of the fight, it is hard to guess, unless it was another imitation of Edward, and he had also good reason to think that the lad was unusually well able to take care of himself, having been trained at arms and pledged to knighthood. But young "Sir Philip," as he was called, proved quite equal to the occasion.
King John himself led the van, moving down through a defile, into which, after a time, his whole army found themselves crowded. Meantime, the Prince of Wales had planted his army just where he would tempt John into that trap and had set his archers in good position. These men were clad in green, like Robin Hood's men, and carried bows seven feet long and so thick that few men of modern days could bend them. A cloth-yard shaft from one of these would fly with tremendous force. Edward had placed these archers in ambush, behind green hedges, and crouching in the green of the vineyards.
Just as the French king, with all his new chivalry around him, dashed down the narrow valley--the white standard of France on one side of him, his keen-eyed little son on the other--and began to deploy the whole advance battalion, preliminary to a grand charge--whiz! whiz! whir! whir! from both sides came the arrows, as thick as hail and as terrible as javelins, from the hidden archers. The astonished Frenchmen fell back. That crowded still more those who were yet wedged in the narrow space behind. Now came the English onset. Then a panic. Then a rout. Then a general flight. Dukes, barons, knights of all sorts fled with the rest; also Charles, Louis, John, the three elder sons of the king. The king was in great danger of being slain; but he did not move, and Philip stood fighting by his side. The standard-bearer fell, and the white ensign lay in the dust. Many a faithful knight was cut down, or swept away a prisoner. But Philip flinched not.
The assailants--some of whom knew the king, while others were wondering who he might be--pressed them fiercely on every side, striking at them, but more anxious to take them captives than to kill them, for they were worth a heavy ransom. The Englishmen shouted all together, "Yield you! Yield you, else you die!" Little Sir Philip had no yield in him, as long as his father held out. He kept close to him, trying to ward off the blows which were aimed at him, and warning him in time, as his quick eye caught a near danger on either hand. Every instant he was heard calling out, "Father, ware right! Father, ware left!" Suddenly a mounted knight appeared, who hailed the king in French. It was a French knight, who was fighting on the English side.
"Sir, sir!" he shouted, "I pray you yield!"
"To whom shall I yield?" said John, "Where is my cousin, the Prince of Wales?"
"Sir, yield to me; I will bring you to him."
"Who are you?" said the king.
"Denis de Morbecque, a knight of Artois; I serve the King of England, not being able to live in France, for I have lost all I possessed there."
"I yield to you," said John, handing him his steel glove.
Then the whole crowd began to drag at him, each exclaiming: "I took him!" Both the king and the prince were sadly hustled, until two barons broke through the throng by dint of their horses, and led the two to the tent of the Prince of Wales, "and made him a present of the King of France!" says an old chronicler. "The prince also bowed full low before the king, and received him as a king, properly and discreetly, as he well knew how to do."
In the evening he entertained him and Philip at supper, "and would not sit at the king's table for all the king's entreaty, but waited as a serving man, bending the knee before him, and saying: 'Dear sir, be pleased not to put on so bad a countenance, because it has not pleased God to consent this day to your wishes; for, assuredly, my lord and father will show you all the honor and friendship he shall be able, and he will come to terms with you so reasonably that you shall remain good friends forever.'"
Nor did all this end in words, but it went on for years during all the captivity of King John and Prince Philip,--first at Bordeaux and afterward at the then new Windsor Castle, in England, where galas, tournaments, hawking and hunting, and all sorts of entertainments were devised for them. When King John was brought from Bordeaux to England, where King Edward had prepared to meet him in great state, the French king was mounted on a tall, cream-colored charger, and young Philip rode by his side in great honor also, while the Prince of Wales sat on a small black horse, like an humble attendant on them both. The two royal fathers met midway in that London street, the houses which lined the way were hung with rich tapestries, the trades were out in companies of many colors, the people thronged round the steelclad cavalcades as they came together, and they filled the air with shouts--but what two figures now most fill the eye when all that pageant has passed away? Not the father who stood by his son with such chivalrous faith, nor the father whose son stood by him with such chivalrous devotion, but the fair youth who carries that tuft of feathers upon his helmet, with its motto, "I serve," and the lad whom all have heard of as "Philip the Bold"; the boy-hero of Crecy doing chivalrous honor to the boy-hero of Poitiers!