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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

THE BATTLE OF POITIERS

[157] PHILIP'S son John now became king. He was named "the Good" by his favourites, not because they thought their king was an upright, noble man, but because they knew him to be a "good fellow," who loaded them with gifts.

King John was rash, cruel, and selfish, yet he was also brave and chivalrous, when to be so did not interfere too greatly with his pleasures.

Charles the Bad of Navarre was a kinsman of John the Good, but for all that the king hated him, and wished to make war upon him. For John had had a favourite to whom he gave lands, which Charles of Navarre claimed as his. In his anger that the king had thrust aside his claims, Charles the Bad had killed the king's favourite. It was for this crime that John was determined to punish his kinsman.

But Charles was supported by many of the lords of France, as well as by the friendship of the King of England. It was therefore impossible for John to war against Navarre without being forced to fight with England as well, and for this France was not yet ready.

King John therefore pretended to forgive Charles, who was also, I should tell you, the king's son-in-law. He even received him at court, when Charles the Bad thanked him for his grace on bended knee.

But those who knew him best felt sure that King John had not really forgiven Charles. They had heard him mutter, "I will have no master in France but myself. I shall have no joy as long as he is living."

[158] John's son, Charles the Dauphin, was at this time made Duke of Normandy. He became good friends with Charles the Bad, and in the spring of 1856 he asked him, with some of his friends, to a banquet at Rouen.

The party was a merry one, but the merriment was suddenly disturbed by the entrance of King John with a troop of soldiers, and an officer who held in his hand a naked sword.

"Let none stir, whatever he may see, unless he wish to fall by this sword!" said the officer in a loud voice.

King John meanwhile moved toward the table, and the dauphin and his guests rose to greet their sovereign. But the king paid no attention to any one save Charles the Bad.

Drawing him aside, he said, "Get up, traitor, thou art not worthy to sit at my son's table. By my father's soul, I cannot think of meat or drink so long as thou art living." Then King John bade his soldiers take Charles of Navarre prisoner.

The dauphin flung himself at his father's feet, and begged him not to harm his guests. "It will be said that I have betrayed them," he cried in distress.

But the king thrust his son aside, and ordered the barons who had come with Charles the Bad to the feast to be beheaded.

Charles himself John sent to prison, where he was kept in constant fear as to what was to be his fate. For each day his guards told him that, at a certain hour, he would be beheaded, and when the hour had passed and Charles was still alive, they told him another hour at which he would be thrown into the river Seine.

As you may imagine, a king who could treat his son's guests so treacherously, and who could torture his prisoner in the way Charles the Bad was tortured, was not likely to be loved by his people. More and more his subjects grew to hate him, and some of his barons deserted King John and served in the army of the King of England.

[159] After the siege of Calais a truce, you remember, was made with England for ten years. Nine years had passed, but, though no great battle had been fought during that time, the truce between the two countries had not been strictly kept. King John had even made an attempt to get back Calais, but had failed. Now, however, in 1856 the Black Prince had landed in France at Bordeaux, and leading his army northward into the country of the river Loire, he had burned and pillaged the towns through which he passed.

When King John heard of the Black Prince's march, he at once set out with a large army, hoping to be able to cut off his return to Bordeaux. For the Black Prince, knowing that the French army was much larger than his own, was now on his way back to the coast, so that, if it were necessary, he might embark for England.

But King John succeeded, as he had hoped to do, in coming between the prince and Bordeaux, near the town of Poitiers.

Then, because the French army was many times larger than his own, the Black Prince offered to give up all the towns and castles he had taken, to set free all the French prisoners, and to promise not to fight against France for seven years, if he and his army were allowed to march on unhindered.

King John would not accept the offer of the prince. He was determined to give battle to the English, unless the Black Prince and all his army would give themselves up to him as prisoners.

To this the English prince never dreamed of agreeing. Then King John said he would be content with the Black Prince and one hundred of his knights.

But to this demand also the prince refused to listen, and preparing for battle, said fearlessly, "God will defend the right."

If its numbers were small, the position of the English [160] army was good. For it had taken its stand upon a rough hillside covered with vineyards. To reach the hill from the front there was but one way, and this was through a narrow lane, on either side of which was a thick hedge. Behind these hedges the Black Prince had placed his archers, who were thus unseen by the French.

At the foot of the hill lay John's large army. Had the French been willing to wait, they could have guarded every approach to the hill and starved the English into submission. But they were eager at once to win the victory, which they never doubted would be theirs.

As John moved among his soldiers he was surrounded by nineteen knights, each wearing the same dress as the king, so that he might be less easily recognised in the battle. Before the knights waved the Oriflamme from St. Denis.

The vanguard of the French army was now ordered to advance. Up the narrow lane the soldiers rode, when to their astonishment they were greeted on either side by a shower of arrows from an unseen foe. And the deadly shower never ceased, for the English archers poured their darts upon the miserable soldiers so fast, so sure, that they worked deadly havoc. The lane was soon filled with the slain and wounded.

Those who were behind, seeing how their comrades were being smitten, turned backward upon the men who were led by the dauphin.

At the same moment the English archers broke from their hiding-place behind the hedges, and dashed upon the retreating foe.

The Black Prince seized the same moment to ride down upon the enemy, shouting, "St. George! St. George!" and soon the French were flying in every direction.

Among those who fled was Charles the Dauphin, with two of his brothers, followed by about eight hundred knights.

But King John was no coward, and soon he had rallied [161] his men and prepared to make a stand against the English, who had come down from the hill and held no better position than the French.

The Black Prince, Froissart tells us, "who aimed at perfectness of honour, rode onward to meet the French, with his banner before him, succouring the people whenever he saw them scattering or unsteady, and proving himself a right good knight."

In the midst of his knights King John fought as bravely as the Black Prince, defending himself with a battle-axe. By his side was his young son Philip, a lad of fourteen, who tried his best to ward off the blows that were aimed at his father.

And ever above the strife his clear young voice rang out, "Father, strike here; father, strike there." It was on the field of Poitiers that Philip earned his name "the Bold," which was his when he became the Duke of Burgundy.

"Yield you, yield you, or else you die!" cried the English, as they hurled their blows at King John, some not knowing that it was the king, others knowing it well.

The Oriflamme fell to the ground as the knight who guarded it was slain, and then at length King John and his brave son Philip were taken prisoners and led before the Black Prince, who received them courteously, "as he well knew how to do," says his chronicler.

In the evening, when the battle was ended, the Black Prince asked King John, his son, and many of his noble prisoners, to supper. Nor would the prince sit at table with his royal captives, even when King John begged him to do so, but he himself waited on his guests as though they were his lords.

It was not a merry supper party, and King John looked so sad that the Black Prince, kneeling before him, said, "Dear sir, be pleased not to put on so sad a countenance, because it hath not pleased God that you should win the [162] day, for the prize of valour is yours, since every Englishman saw that none bore himself as bravely as you."

Some time after he had won the battle of Poitiers, which was fought on the 15th September 1856, the Black Prince sailed for England, taking with him his royal prisoner King John.

When they reached London, the Black Prince and his captive rode through the streets of the capital, and while the people cheered their gallant prince, they marvelled to see him riding on a little black palfrey, while his prisoner was mounted on a noble white steed. But this was one of the ways which the brave prince took to show King John that he would treat him royally and well. King Edward, too, was kind to the great captive his son had brought home; nevertheless, King John was kept a prisoner in England for four years.


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