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Historical Tales: French by  Charles Morris


 

 

EPISODES IN THE LIFE OF A TRAITOR

[176] AT the early hour of one o'clock in the morning of September 8, 1523, a train of men-at-arms and servants, headed by a tall, stern-faced, soldierly-looking man, rode from the gates of the strong castle of Chantelle, and headed southward in the direction of Spain. The leader was dressed in armor, and carried sword by side and battle-axe at his saddle-bow. Of his followers, some fifteen of them were attired in a peculiar manner, wearing thick jackets of woollen cloth that seemed as stiff as iron mail, and jingled metallically as they rode. Mail they were, capable of turning arrow or spear thrust, but mail of gold, not of iron, for in those jackets were sewed up thirty thousand crowns of gold, and their wearers served as the ambulatory treasury of the proud soldier at their head.

This man was no less a personage than Charles, Duke of Bourbon, Constable of France, the highest personage in the kingdom next to the monarch himself, but now in flight from that monarch, and from the soldiers who were marching to environ Chantelle and carry him as a prisoner to the king. There had been bad blood between Bourbon and Francis I., pride and haughtiness on the one side, injustice and indecision on the other; wrong to the [177] subject, defiance to the king; and now the "short-tempered" noble and great soldier had made a moonlight flitting, bent on cutting loose from his allegiance to France, and on lending the aid of his sword and military skill to her hereditary foes.

For a month Bourbon and his followers wandered around the provinces of southern France. Incessantly he changed his road, his costume, his companions, his resting-place, occasionally falling in with soldiers of the king who were on their way to take part in the wars in Italy, seeking in vain for adherents to his cause, and feeling his way by correspondence to an understanding with the enemies of France. In early October he entered the domains of the emperor, Charles V., and definitely cut loose from his allegiance to the king.

The news of this defection filled Francis with alarm. He had, by his injustice, driven his greatest soldier from the realm, and now sought to undo the perilous work he had done. He put off his journey to join the army marching to Italy, and sent a messenger to the redoubtable fugitive, offering restitution of his property, satisfaction in full of his claims, and security for good treatment and punctual payment. Bourbon curtly refused.

"It is too late," he said.

"Then," said the envoy, "I am bidden by the king to ask you to deliver up the sword of constable and the collar of the order of St. Michael."

"You may tell the king," answered Bourbon, shortly, "that he took from me the sword of constable [178] on the day that he took from me the command of the advanced guard to give it to M. d'Alençon. As for the collar of his order, you will find it at Chantelle under the pillow of my bed."

Francis made further efforts to win back the powerful noble whom he had so deeply offended, but equally in vain. Bourbon had definitely cut loose from his native land and was bent on joining hands with its mortal foes. Francis had offended him too deeply to be so readily forgiven as he hoped.

It is not the story of the life of this notable traitor that we propose to tell, but simply to depict some picturesque scenes in his career. Charles V. gladly welcomed him, and made him his lieutenant-general in Italy, so that he became leader against the French in their invasion of that land. We next find him during the siege of Milan by the army of Francis I., one of whose leaders was Chevalier Bayard, "the good knight," who was the subject of our last story. The siege was destined to prove a fatal affair for this noble warrior. The French found themselves so hard pressed by the imperial army under the Constable de Bourbon that they fell back to await reinforcements. Near Romagnano, on the banks of the Sesia, they were thrown into disorder while seeking to pass the stream, and Bonnivet, their leader, was severely wounded. The Count de St. Pol and Chevalier Bayard took command. Bayard, always first in advance and last in retreat, charged the enemy at the head of a body of men-at-arms. [179] It proved for him a fatal charge. A shot from an arquebuse gave him a mortal wound.

"Jesus, my God," he cried, "I am dead!"

He took his sword by the handle, kissed its cross-hilt as an act of devotion, and repeated the Miserere,—"Have pity on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy!"

In a moment more he grew deathly pale and grasped the pommel of the saddle to keep him from falling, remaining thus until one of his followers helped him to dismount, and placed him at the foot of a tree.

The French were repulsed, leaving the wounded knight within the lines of the enemy. Word of Bayard's plight was quickly brought to Bourbon, who came up with a face filled with sympathetic feeling.

"Bayard, my good friend, I am sore distressed at your mishap," he said. "There is nothing for it but patience. Give not way to melancholy. I will send in quest of the best surgeons in this country, and, by God's help, you will soon be healed."

Bayard looked up at him with dying eyes, full of pity and reproach.

"My lord, I thank you," he said, "but pity is not for me, who die like a true man, serving my king; pity is for you, who bear arms against your prince, your country, and your oath."

Bourbon made no answer. He turned and withdrew, doubtless stung to the soul by the reproachful words of the noblest and honestest man of that [180] age. His own conscience must have added a double sting to Bayard's words. Such is the bitterest reward of treason; it dares not look integrity in the face.

Bayard lived for two or three hours afterwards, surrounded by his friends, who would not leave him, though he bade them do so to escape falling into the enemy's hands. They had nothing to fear. Both armies mourned the loss of the good knight, with equal grief. Five days after his death, on May 5, 1524, Beaurain wrote to Charles V.,—

"Sir, albeit Sir Bayard was your enemy's servant, yet was it pity of his death, for he was a gentle knight, well beloved of every one, and one that lived as good a life as ever any man of his condition. And, in truth, he fully showed it by his end, for it was the most beautiful that I ever heard tell of."

So passed away a man who lived fully up to the principles of chivalry, and whose honesty, modesty, sympathy, and valor have given him undying fame. His name survives as an example of what chivalry might have been had man been as Christian in nature as in name, but of what it rarely was, except in theory.

The next picture we shall draw belongs to the date of February 24, 1525. Francis I. had for months been besieging Pavia. Bourbon came to its relief. A battle followed, which at first seemed to favor the French, but which Bourbon's skill soon turned in favor of the Imperialists. Seeing his ranks breaking on all sides, Francis, inspired by [181] fury and despair, desperately charged the enemy with such knights and men-at-arms as he could get to follow him. The conflict was fierce and fatal. Around the king fell his ablest warriors,—Marshal de Foix, Francis of Lorraine, Bussy d'Amboise, La Trémoille, and many others. At sight of this terrible slaughter, Admiral Bonnivet, under the king the leader of the French host, exclaimed, in accents of despair, "I can never survive this fearful havoc." Raising the visor of his helmet, he rushed desperately forward where a tempest of balls was sweeping the field, and in a moment fell beside his slain comrades.

Francis fought on amid the heaps of dead and dying, his soul filled with the battle rage, his heart burning with fury and desperation. He was wounded in face, arms, and legs, yet still his heavy sword swept right and left, still men fell before his vigorous blows. His horse, mortally wounded, sank under him, dragging him down. In an instant he was up again, laying about him shrewdly. Two Spaniards who pressed him closely fell before the sweep of that great blade. Alone among his foes he fought on, a crowd of hostile soldiers around him. Who he was they knew not, but his size, strength, and courage, the golden lilies which studded his coat of mail, the plume of costly feathers which waved from his helmet, told them that this must be one of the greatest men in the French array.

Despite the strength and intrepid valor of the [182] king, his danger was increasing minute by minute, when the Lord of Pompérant, one of Bourbon's intimate friends, pressed up through the mass and recognized the warrior who stood like a wounded lion at bay amid a pack of wolves.

"Back! back!" he cried, springing forward, and beating off the soldiers with his sword. "Leave this man to me."

Pressing to the king's side, he still beat back his foes, saying to him,—

"Yield, my liege! You stand alone. If you fight longer, I cannot answer for your life. Look! there is no hope for you. The Duke of Bourbon is not far off. Let me send for him to receive your sword."

The visor of the king hid the look with which he must have received these words. But from the helmet's iron depths came in hollow tones the reply of Francis of France to this appeal.

"No," he cried, sternly, "rather would I die the death than pledge my faith to Bourbon the traitor! Where is the Viceroy of Naples?"

Lannoy, the viceroy, was in a distant part of the field. Some time was lost in finding and bringing him to the spot. At length he arrived, and fell upon one knee before Francis, who presented him his sword. Lannoy took it with a show of the profoundest respect, and immediately gave him another in its place. The battle was over, and the king of France was a prisoner in the hands of his rebellious subject, the Duke of Bourbon. The wheel of fate had strangely turned.

[183] The captive king had shown himself a poor general, but an heroic soldier. His victors viewed him with admiration for his prowess. When he sat at table, after having his wounds, which were slight, dressed, Bourbon approached him respectfully and handed him a dinner napkin. Francis took it, but with the most distant and curt politeness. The next day an interview took place between Bourbon and the king, in reference to the position of the latter as captive. In this Francis displayed the same frigidity of manner as before, while he was all cordiality with Pescara, Bourbon's fellow in command. The two leaders claimed Francis as their own captive, but Lannoy, to whom he had surrendered, had him embarked for Naples, and instead of taking him there, sent him directly to Spain, where he was delivered up to Charles V. Thus ended this episode in the life of the Constable de Bourbon.

We have still another, and the closing, scene to present in the life of this great soldier and traitor. It is of no less interest than those that have gone before. Historically it is of far deeper interest, for it was attended with a destruction of inestimable material that has rarely been excelled. The world is the poorer that Bourbon lived.

In Spain he had been treated with consideration by the emperor, but with disdain by many of the lords, who despised him as a traitor. Charles V. asked the Marquis de Villena to give quarters in his palace to the duke.

"I can refuse the emperor nothing," he replied; [184] "but as soon as the traitor is out of my house I shall set it on fire with my own hand. No man of honor could live in it again."

Despite this feeling, the military record of Bourbon could not be set aside. He was the greatest general of his time, and, recognizing this, Charles again placed him in command of his armies in Italy. On going there, Bourbon found that there was nothing that could be called an army. Everything was in disorder and the imperial cause almost at an end. In this state of affairs, Bourbon became filled with hopes of great conquests and high fame for himself. Filled with the spirit of adventure, and finding the Spanish army devoted to him, he added to it some fifteen thousand of German lanzknechts, most of them Lutherans.

Addressing this greedy horde of soldiers of fortune, he told them that he was now but a poor gentleman, like themselves, and promised that if they would follow him he would make them rich or die in the attempt. Finishing his remarks, which were greeted with enthusiastic cheers, he distributed among them all his money and jewels, keeping little more than his clothes and armor for himself.

"We will follow you everywhere, to the devil himself!" shouted the wild horde of adventurers. "No more of Julius Cæsar, Hannibal, and Scipio! Hurrah for the fame of Bourbon!"

Putting himself at the head of this tumultuous array, the duke led them southward through Italy, halting before Bologna, Florence, and other towns, [185] with a half-formed purpose to besiege them, but in the end pushing on without an assault until, on the 5th of May, 1527, his horde of land pirates came in sight of Rome itself.

The imperial city, after being sacked by the Goths, Vandals, and other barbarians, had remained without serious damage for a thousand years, but now another army was encamped under its walls, and one equally bent on havoc and ruin with those of the past.

"Now is the time to show courage, manliness, and the strength of your bodies," said Bourbon to his followers. "If in this bout you are victorious, you will be rich lords and well off for the rest of your lives. Yonder is the city whereof, in times past, a wise astrologer prophesied concerning me, telling me that I should die there; but I swear to you that I care but little for dying there if, when I die, my corpse be left with endless glory and renown throughout the world."

He then bade them to retire for the night, ordering them to be ready betimes in the morning for the assault, which would take place at an early hour on that day. Hardly, indeed, had the stars faded before the sunrise of May 6, when the soldiers were afoot and making ready for the assault. Bourbon placed himself at their head, clad all in white that he might be better seen and known. To the walls they advanced, bearing scaling ladders, which they hastened to place. On the first raised of these Bourbon set foot, with the soldier's desire to be the [186] earliest in the assault. But hardly had he taken two steps up the ladder than his grasp loosened and he fell backward, with blood gushing from his side. He had been hit with an arquebuse-shot in the left side and mortally wounded.

He had but voice enough left to bid those near him to cover his body with a cloak and take it away, that his followers might not know of his death. Those were the last words recorded of the Duke of Bourbon. He died as he had lived, a valiant soldier and a born adventurer, hurling havoc with his last words on the great city of the Church; for his followers, not knowing of his death, attacked so furiously that the walls were soon carried and the town theirs. Then, as news came to them that their leader had fallen, they burst into the fury of slaughter, shouting, "Slay, slay! blood, blood! Bourbon! Bourbon!" and cutting down remorselessly all whom they met.

The celebrated artist, Benvenuto Cellini, tells us in his autobiography that it was he who shot Bourbon, aiming his arquebuse from the wall of the Campo Santo at one of the besiegers who was mounted higher than the rest, and who, as he afterwards learned, was the leader of the assailing army.

Whoever it was that fired the fatal shot, the slain man was frightfully avenged, Rome being plundered, ravaged, and devastated by his brutal followers to a degree not surpassed by the work of the Vandals of old. For several months the famous city remained in the hands of this licentious soldiery, [187] and its inhabitants were subjected to every outrage and barbarity which brutal desire and ungoverned license could incite, while in none of its former periods of ravage were so many of the precious relics of antiquity destroyed as in this period of occupation by men who called themselves the soldiers of civilized and Christian lands.


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