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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

SIR BERTRAND DU GUESCLIN

[167] CHARLES V.,named the Wise, you have already known as the Dauphin who fled from the field of Poitiers, and who begged on his knees that the magistrate Marcel would spare his life. But Charles the Dauphin and Charles the Wise were two very different persons.

The king was tall and thin, and looked so sad that his subjects had no great love for him. His health was so poor that they seldom saw him. As for the nobles, they loved their sports and their tournaments, and paid little attention to their melancholy-looking king.

But before long the nation awoke to the fact that a strong, wise hand was ruling France. The hand belonged to Charles V., who spent most of his time in a quiet room in one of his palaces.

Unlike the kings who came before him, Charles was not able to lead his armies to battle. It was therefore necessary that he should have a good general.

And Charles was fortunate, for in Bertrand du Guesclin, a knight of Brittany, he found one of the bravest and strongest leaders of men.

"Bertrand du Guesclin," says a chronicler of the time, "was the ugliest child in the district in which he lived. As he grew up he became broad-shouldered, big-headed, always ready to strike on being struck."

Guesclin became one of the Free Lances of whom I have told you, and led Free Lances like himself to battle. But though the hero of Brittany was a rough and cruel [168] soldier, to the poor, to women and children, he was ever kind and gentle.

Until he was thirty Guesclin was little known, either for his strength or his goodness, save amongst the knights of Brittany. But Charles the Wise had heard of Sir Bertrand, and when in 1364 he became king, he sent one of his marshals to the knight, to engage him to fight on behalf of the King of France.

Their first exploit, for the marshal and Guesclin fought side by side, was to take a town belonging to Charles the Bad, King of Navarre. Their next was to dash into another town with their wild Free Lances, shouting "Death, death to all Navarrese!"This town they also took, "whereat Charles V. was very joyous when he heard the news, and the King of Navarre was very wroth."

As was but natural, Charles of Navarre was eager to avenge these wrongs. He assembled a large army of Free Lances, and put them under a famous officer called the Captal de Buch.

Guesclin also collected a strong force from Bnttany, and from the bands of Free Lances that were eager to serve under so great a captain as Sir Bertrand.

As the two armies drew near to one another, Guesclin disclosed his plan to his comrades.

"The Captal," he said, "is, as you know, a gallant knight. Until he is taken he will do us great hurt. Therefore let thirty of our boldest pay heed to nothing, but make straight toward the Captal, take him captive, and lead him away from the field, without waiting for the end of the battle."

Guesclin's comrades agreed that the plan was a good one. "The picked thirty, well mounted on the flower of steeds, and with no thought but for their enterprise, came all compact together to where was the Captal, who was fighting right valiantly with his axe, and was dealing blows so mighty that none durst come nigh him; but the thirty broke through the press by dint of their horses, made right [169] up to him, halted hard by him, took him and shut him in amongst them by force. Then they bore him away, whilst his men, who were like to go mad, shouted, " A rescue for the Captal! a rescue! " But nought could avail them or help them, and the Captal was carried off and placed in safety."

After a desperate struggle the Captal's banner was then captured, torn to pieces, and trampled underfoot. Guesclin and his men had won the day.

Charles V. was so pleased with his general that he made him Marshal of Normandy, on condition that he should clear the land of the bands of Free Lances that still wandered all over the country. But this condition Guesclin, being himself a Free Lance, took little trouble to fulfil.

In his next battle the knight was taken prisoner by the English. But Charles v. could not do without his general, and willingly paid a heavy ransom that Sir Bertrand might be free.

Then in 1367 Guesclin was sent into Spain to fight against Pedro the Cruel, who oppressed his subjects and had even slain his own wife.

At first he was successful in this war, but when Pedro was joined by the English under the Black Prince, Guesclin was defeated and again taken prisoner.

Before long, however, the knight was set free, and this is the story of how it happened.

One day, being in a merry mood, the Black Prince began to talk to Sir Bertrand.

"My lords counsel me not to set you free," said the prince to his prisoner, "not so long as there is war between France and England."

"Sir," answered Guesclin, "then am I the most honoured knight in the world, for they say in the kingdom of France and elsewhere that you are more afraid of me than any others."

"Think you, then, that it is for your prowess that we keep you?" said the prince, his gay mood changing to a [170] haughty one. "Nay, by St. George, fix your own ransom and you shall be free."

Guesclin named so large a sum that the prince was surprised.

"Sir," said Sir Bertrand, seeing his astonishment, "the king, in whose keeping is France, will lend me what I lack; and there is not a spinning-wench in France who would not spin to gain for me what is necessary to put me out of your clutches."

The brave prisoner was then set free to collect his ransom, giving his word of honour to return to captivity if he could not find the money.

But he succeeded in getting the sum that was necessary, and, so the story goes, was riding cheerily on his way back to the Black Prince, when he met ten sad and weary-looking knights, who had been trying in vain to find money for their ransoms.

Then Sir Bertrand, with ungrudging heart and open hands, gave to these sad knights all the money which he had painfully gathered together for his own freedom, and himself went back into captivity. It was for deeds such as this that Sir Bertrand du Guesclin was beloved by all who knew him. The good knight's captivity lasted but a short time longer, for the King of France himself paid his knight's ransom.

Meanwhile the Black Prince, whose constant wars had made him ill and irritable, had levied such heavy taxes on his subjects in Aquitaine, that they appealed to Charles V. to help them.

The king was pleased to quarrel with the Black Prince, for he had been watching for a chance to make war upon England, and here was the opportunity he had wished. He summoned the prince to Paris to defend himself against the complaints of his subjects in Aquitaine, and bade him come as quickly as he could.

When the Black Prince heard Charles's message he [171] answered after a moment's silence, "We will go willingly at our own time, since the King of France doth bid us, but it shall be with our helmet upon our head and sixty thousand men at our back."

Perhaps the king had expected some such answer from so gallant a knight as the Black Prince, and since it meant war with England, Charles was content. He at once sent for Guesclin and made him Constable of France, Constable being the title of the Commander-in-chief of the French army.

Guesclin was dismayed at so great an honour, and begged the king to bestow this office and title upon one of higher rank. "For," said the sturdy knight, "how can I lay commands on those who may be relatives of the king himself?"

"Sir Bertrand, Sir Bertrand," answered the king, "do not excuse yourself after this fashion. I have no brother, nor cousin, nor nephew, nor count, nor baron in my kingdom, who would not obey you; and if any should do otherwise, he would anger me so that he would hear of it. Take therefore the office with a good heart, I beseech you." So Guesclin became Constable of France.

It was in April 1369 that war once more broke out between France and England. But the hold of the English on France had grown slighter during the years that Charles the Wise had been ruling, and it was now the more easily shaken off.

In the war that followed the French were everywhere victorious. The Black Prince was too ill to lead his men so well as he had been used to do. Indeed, sometimes he was so weak that he had to be carried on a litter to the battlefield.

Meanwhile the constable marched across France, taking towns that had long been held by the English, driving out English garrisons, and everywhere making terms favourable to the French king.

Following the advice of Charles the Wise, Guesclin took [172] care not to risk a battle with the enemy. So the Black Prince, seeing that the French were safe in strongly fortified towns, led his army to Bordeaux, and set sail for England.

By this war the English had lost all their large possessions in France, being left with only Bordeaux and a few towns in Normandy.

King Edward was now an old man, yet wishing to win back what he had lost, he raised an army and sailed from Southampton. But it was autumn, the gales were fierce, and for nine weeks the king struggled in vain to reach the French coast. At length, in despair, he gave orders to make again for the English shore.

"Never was there King of France," he said, "who wore so little armour, yet never was there one who has given me so much to do."

In 1375 a truce was again made between France and England. The following year the Black Prince, who had long suffered from fever, passed away; while in 1377, the year that the truce with France ended, Edward III., who had been sorely grieved at the loss of his son, also died.

Charles V. now determined to join Brittany to the crown of France, but the Bretons, led by their lord, John de Montfort, rose in rebellion. The king ordered Guesclin to go to punish them. But the constable, you remember, was himself a Breton, and he ventured to advise the king to make peace with Sir John de Montfort.

This led to a quarrel between Charles and his faithful servant. Guesclin, angry with the king, sent the sword which he wore as constable back to his master, which was as if he had said, "I will no longer be commander of your army."

But the king, who cared for no other, cared for Guesclin, and refused to let his constable go. Instead of being sent to Brittany, Guesclin was ordered, in July 1380, to go to [173] the south of France to besiege a fortress still held by the English.

After the siege had lasted some time, the governor of the little town promised to give up the keys of the fortress to the constable if help did not reach him before a certain day. Before the day came Guesclin took ill. His captains gathered around his bed as he lay dying; and the constable, who had seen rough deeds done in his day, said to them, "Captains, never forget, in whatsoever country you are making war, that churchmen, women, children, and the poor people, are not your enemies." Then he passed away.

It is said that when the governor of the town heard that the constable was dead, he begged still to be allowed to put the keys of the town into the hands of the commander.

So, marching out of the fortress at the head of his men. the governor was led to the tent where Sir Bertrand lay. Then, sobbing the while, he laid the keys in the still hands of the great soldier.

There was great sorrow at the death of Guesclin. "Let all know," says the chronicler, "that there was there nor knight, nor squire, French or English, who showed not, great mourning."

As for the king, he ordered that the constable should be buried in a tomb near to one which had been built for himself.

Nine years later, the son of Charles v. ordered a second funeral service to be held at the tomb of Sir Bertrand du Guesclin, the hero of Brittany, the king himself, with his lords and barons, being at the ceremony.

A poet who was also there wrote some verses on the hero. Here are a few of the lines which you may like to read:

"The tears of princes fell,

What time the Bishop said,

'Sir Bertrand loved ye well,

Weep, warriors, for the dead.


[174]

"The knell of sorrow tolls,

For deeds that were so bright,

God save all Christian souls,

And his—the gallant knight.' "

Two months after the death of Sir Bertrand, in Septembers 1880, Charles v. fell ill and died. It was said that he had been poisoned by his enemy, Charles the Bad, King of Navarre. Soon after this the King of Navarre himself was burned to death by an accident.


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