Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

The Career of a Knight-Errant

Mediæval history would be of greatly reduced interest but for its sprightly stories of knights and their doings. In those days when men, "clad in complete steel," did their fighting with spear, sword, and battle-axe, and were so enamoured of hard blows and blood-letting that in the intervals of war they spent their time seeking combat and adventure, much more of the startling and romantic naturally came to pass than can be looked for in these days of the tyranny of commerce and the dominion of "villanous saltpetre." This was the more so from the fact that enchanters, magicians, demons, dragons, and all that uncanny brood, the creation of ignorance and fancy, made knighthood often no sinecure, and men's haunting belief in the supernatural were frequently more troublesome to them than their armed enemies. But with this misbegotten crew we have nothing to do. They belong to legend and fiction, not to history, and it is with the latter alone that we are here concerned. But as more than one example has been given of how knights bore themselves in battle, it behooves us to tell something of the doings of a knight-errant, one of those worthy fellows who went abroad to prove their prowess in single combat, and win glory in the tournament at spear's point.

Such a knight was Jacques de Lelaing, "the good knight without fear and without doubt," as his chroniclers entitle him, a Burgundian by birth, born in the château of Lelaing early in the fifteenth century. Jacques was well brought up for a knight. Literature was cultivated in Burgundy in those days, and the boy was taught the arts of reading and writing, the accomplishments of French and Latin, and in his later life he employed the pen as well as the sword, and did literary work of which specimens still survive.

In warlike sports he excelled. He was still but a youth when the nephew of Philip the Good of Burgundy (Philip the Bad would have hit the mark more nearly) carried him off to his uncle's court to graduate in knighthood. The young adventurer sought the court of Philip well equipped for his new duties, his father, William de Lelaing, having furnished him with four fine horses, a skilful groom, and a no less skilful valet; and also with some good advice, to the effect that, "Inasmuch as you are more noble than others by birth, so should you be more noble than they by virtues," adding that, "few great men have gained renown for prowess and virtue who did not entertain love for some dame or damoiselle."



The latter part of the advice the youthful squire seemed well inclined to accept. He was handsome, gallant, bold, and eloquent, and quickly became a favorite with the fair sex. Nor was he long in gaining an opportunity to try his hand in battle, a squabble having arisen between Philip and a neighboring prince. This at an end, our hero, stirred by his "errant disposition," left Philip's court, eager, doubtless, to win his spurs by dint of battle-axe and blows of blade.

In 1445 he appeared at Nancy, then occupied by the French court, which had escorted thither Margaret of Anjou, who was to be taken to England as bride to Henry VI. The occasion was celebrated by festivals, of which a tournament was the principal feature, and here the Burgundian squire, piqued at some disparaging remarks of the French knights, rode into the lists and declared his purpose to hold them against all comers, challenging the best knight there to unhorse him if he could.

The boastful squire was richly adorned for the occasion, having already made friends among the ladies of the court, and wearing favors and jewels received at the hands of some of the fairest there. Nor was his boast an empty one. Not a man who faced him was able to hurl him from the saddle, while many of them left the lists with bruised bodies or broken bones.

"What manner of man will this be," said the onlookers, "who as a boy is so firm of seat and strong of hand?"

At the banquet which followed Jacques was as fresh and gay as if newly risen from sleep, and his conquests among the ladies were as many as he had won among the knights. That night he went to his couch the owner of a valuable diamond given him by the Duchess of Orleans, and of a ring set with a precious ruby, the gift of the Duchess of Calabria. Verily, the squire of Burgundy had made his mark.

The end of the year found our bold squire in Antwerp. Here, in the cathedral of Notre Dame, he met an arrogant Sicilian knight named Bonifazio, whose insolent bearing annoyed him. The Sicilian wore on his left leg a golden fetter-ring fastened by a chain of gold to a circlet above his knee, while his shield bore the defiant motto, "Who has fair lady, let him look to her well."

Jacques looked at the swaggering fellow, liked his bearing but little, and touched his shield by way of challenge, saying, "Thine is an impertinent device."

"And thou art but a sorry squire, though with assurance enough for a tried knight," answered the Sicilian.

"That is to prove," said Jacques, defiantly. "If my master, Duke Philip, will give me leave to fight, thou durst not deny me, being, as we are, on his Grace's territory."

Bonifazio accepted the challenge, and as the duke gave consent, a battle between squire and knight was arranged, Ghent being the chosen place of combat.

Two days it lasted, the first day's fight being a sort of horseback prelude to the main combat. In this the squire bore himself so well against his experienced antagonist, that Duke Philip judged he had fairly won his spurs, and on the next day he was formally made a knight, with the accolade and its attendant ceremonies.

This day the work displayed worthily followed the promising preface. After a preliminary bout with spears, the combatants seized their battle-axes, and hewed at each other with the vigor of two woodmen felling a mighty oak. The edges of the axes being spoiled, the knights drew their well-tempered swords and renewed the combat with the lustihood of the heroes of the Round Table, fighting so fiercely that it was not easy to follow the gleam of the swift-flashing blades. In the end the Burgundian proved himself more than a match for the Sicilian, driving him back, hewing rents in his armor, and threatening him with speedy death. At this stage of the affray Duke Philip, at the request of the Duke of Orleans, flung his truncheon into the lists and ended the fight, in time to save the Sicilian knight.

His signal victory won Sir Jacques much fame. His antagonist was a man of mark, and the Burgundian knight gained from his prowess the appellation of "The Good Knight," which he maintained throughout his career. He now determined to take up the profession of knight-errant, travelling from court to court, and winning smiles and fame wherever lists were set up or men of prowess could be found. But first he sought his home and the approval of his parents.

"Go on thy way, with God's blessing," said his stout sire, who had cracked skulls in his day and was proud of his doughty son.

"Yes, go on thy way, Jacques," said his mother in milder tone, and with moist eyes. "I have put a healing ointment in thy valise, that will cure bruises. If thou shouldst break a bone, Heaven send thee a skilful surgeon."

Into France rode Sir Jacques, well mounted, and with squire and page in his train, in search of adventures and opponents, eager for fame and profit. From his left arm, fastened by a chain of gold, hung a splendid helmet, which he offered as a prize to any knight who could overcome him in single combat. To this he added a diamond, which he agreed to present to any lady whom his victor should name. Whoever should first drop his axe in the combat was to bestow a bracelet on his opponent. To this Jacques added a singular stipulation, significant of queer doings in those days, that neither knight should be fastened to his saddle. For all else, he put his trust in God and his own right arm, and in the aid that came to him from the love of "the fair lady who had more power over him than aught besides throughout the entire world."

Thus prepared and thus defying, Sir Jacques rode through Paris and the other cities of France without meeting a knight ready to accept his challenge. This was due to the king, however, rather than to his knights; Charles VII. had forbidden any of his chevaliers to fight the bold Burgundian, the fame of whose strength and prowess was already wide-spread. Through southern France, then in the hands of the English, rode our hero, with the same fortune. Many were ready to meet him at the board, none in the field. Into Spain he passed on, still without an adversary, and sore in temper despite his pride in his reputation.

At last, in the realm of the Dons, he found a knight ready to break lances with him in the field, out of pure duty to his "much loved lady," as he affirmed. This was Don Diego de Guzman, grand master of Calatrava, whom he met on the borders of Castile, and who at once accepted his challenge. Yet single combat in those days was not quite the easy affair we might imagine it, if we judged from fiction and legend. Before a knight could indulge in mortal affray he was obliged to obtain the consent of his sovereign, provided that peace ruled between his country and that of his antagonist, as was the case between Spain and Burgundy. The king of Spain was absent. An answer could not be had immediately. While awaiting it, Sir Jacques rode into Portugal, followed by a splendid retinue, and offered an open challenge to the knights of that kingdom to take the field against him.

His ride was almost a royal procession. The story of his one combat seemed to have gained Jacques world-wide fame. From the frontier to Lisbon he was met with a continuous ovation, and in the capital, where a ball was given in his honor, he was invited to open the dance with the queen for partner. And so it went,—an abundance of merry-making, unlimited feasting and dancing, but no fighting. Sir Jacques grew melancholy. He pleaded with King Alphonso.

"I have had a turn in the dance with your queen," he said; "now let me have a tourney with your knights."

"Burgundy is my good friend," answered the king, "and Heaven forbid that a knight from that court should be roughly treated by any knights of mine."

"By all the saints, I defy the best of them!" cried the irate knight.

"And so let it rest," said Alphonso, placably. "Ride back to Castile, and do thy worst upon Guzman's hard head and strong ribs."

There being nothing better to do, Jacques complied, and made his way to Valladolid, having learned that the king of Spain had graciously consented to the combat. The 3rd of February, 1447, was the day which had been fixed for the battle between the two knights, "for the grace of God and the love of their ladies," and on the advent of that day the city named was so crowded with sport-loving Spaniards that its streets were barely passable. A great day in the history of knight-errantry was promised, and gentles and simples, lords and ladies alike, were anxious to see the spectacle.

When the morning of the eventful day dawned all was bustle and excitement in Valladolid, and multitudes gathered at the lists. The Burgundian was on the ground and ready by ten o'clock, but it was three before Don Guzman appeared, and then he came armed with an axe so portentously long in the handle that the Spanish umpires themselves, anxious as they were for his success, forbade its use. Yet the truculent Don gave them no small trouble before he would consent to choose another. This done, the knights were conducted to their tents, which they were not to leave till the clarions had thrice sounded the signal of battle.

Don Guzman, however, proved inconveniently brave and eager. At the first trumpet blast out he sprang, and muttered fiercely when ordered back. The second blast brought him out again, and this time the king himself sent him back "with an ugly word." The third blast sounded. Out now flew both combatants. Battle-axe in hand, they made at each other, and soon the ring of axe on helmet delighted the ardent souls of the thousands of lookers-on. At length, Diego's axe was hurled from his hand. Jacques, with knightly courtesy, threw down his, and an interval of wrestling for the mastery followed. Then they drew their swords, and assailed each other with undiminished fierceness. What might have been the result it is not easy to say; Sir Jacques had no carpet knight to deal with in Don Diego; but the king ended the business by throwing his truncheon into the lists, and refusing permission to the combatants to finish their fight on horseback, as they wished. They thereupon shook hands, while the air rang with the shouts of the spectators.

In the end Don Guzman behaved well. He praised the skill and courage of his antagonist, and presented him with an Andalusian horse, covered with rich trappings. In this Jacques was not to be outdone. He sent the Don a charger of great beauty and value, whose coverings were of blue velvet embroidered in gold, and the saddle of violet velvet. Banquets and balls followed the combat; the combatants were feasted to their hearts' content; and Sir Jacques at length left the court of Spain loaded with presents and covered with honor.

And now the "good knight" turned his steps homeward, challenging all champions as he went, but without finding an opponent. Feasting he found in abundance; but no fighting. Stopping at Montpelier, he became the guest of Jacques Cœur, silversmith and banker to Charles VII. His worthy host offered him money freely, and engaged to redeem any valuables which the wandering knight might have found it necessary to pawn. Sir Jacques thanked him, but said,—

"My good master, the Duke of Burgundy, provides all that is necessary for me, and allows me to want for nothing."

Soon after, our errant knight reached Philip's court, where he was received with the highest honors. Then to his paternal castle he wended his way, to be welcomed by his proud parents as gladly as if he had won the Holy Grail. Dancing and rejoicing followed, in which all the neighboring noble families participated, and many a fair damsel shed her smiles—in vain it seems—on the famous and heart-whole knight.

We next hear of Jacques de Lelaing in 1449. In that year the herald Charolais made his advent at the Scottish court, bearing a challenge from the Burgundian knight to the whole clan of the Douglases. James Douglas accepted the challenge, and Sir Jacques appeared in due time at Stirling, where a battle took place in which the Burgundian again came off victor. From Scotland Jacques sought England but failed to find in that kingdom any knight willing to accept his challenge. Yet he had but fairly got home again when an English knight, Sir Thomas Karr by name, appeared at the court of Philip the Good, and challenged Jacques de Lelaing to combat for the honor of old England.

As may well be imagined, this challenge was speedily accepted, the lists being set in a field near Bruges. The English knight was the heavier, but Jacques was the favorite, for once again he was fighting on his native soil. Fierce was the combat. It ended in the Burgundian's favor. Karr struck him a blow on the arm with his battle-axe which rendered that arm useless, it being paralyzed or broken. But the valiant Jacques dropped his axe, closed with his foe, and with the aid of his one arm flung him to the ground, falling upon him. This ended the combat, the Burgundian being pronounced victor. But as he had been the first to drop his battle-axe, he presented Sir Thomas with a rich diamond, as he had agreed in his challenge.

Jacques had been sorely hurt. His wound took a long time to heal. When his arm had grown strong again he repaired to Châlons, where he opened a tournament of his own, in which he held the lists against all comers. This was in fulfilment of a vow which he had made that he would appear in the closed lists thirty times before the completion of his thirtieth year. Much fighting was done, much blood spilt, and much honor gained by Sir Jacques. We cannot tell all that took place, but the noble tournament at Châlons was long afterwards the talk of the country-side.

As for Sir Jacques, he was now at the height of fame, and Philip the Good, to do him the highest honor in his power, created him a knight of the illustrious order of the Golden Fleece. Of his single combats afterwards we shall but speak of one fought at Brussels, in honor of the son of the Duke of Burgundy, then eighteen years old. Jacques de Lelaing was selected to tilt with the young count,—doubtless with the idea that he could be trusted not to harm him. In the first course that was run the count shattered his spear against the shield of Jacques, who raised his own weapon and passed without touching his adversary. This complaisance displeased the duke, who sent word to the knight that if he proposed to play with his adversary he had better withdraw at once. They ran again. This time both splintered their spears, and both kept their seats, much to the delight of Duke Philip.

On the next day the grand tourney came off. To behold it there were present no less than two hundred and twenty-five princes, barons, knights, and squires. That day the youthful Count de Charolais acquitted himself nobly, breaking eighteen spears,—and possibly some bones of his antagonists. He carried off the prize, which was bestowed upon him by the ladies of his father's court, and Duke Philip gloried in the prowess of his son.

With that tournament ended the record of the single combats of Jacques de Lelaing. War followed, the duke and his robber barons fighting against the rich cities of Belgium, and spoiling many of them. In those wars Sir Jacques took part. At length, in June, 1453, siege was being made against the Château de Pouckes, a stronghold against whose walls the Burgundians plied a great piece of artillery, an arm which was then only fairly coming into use. Behind this stood Sir Jacques, with a number of other nobles, to watch the effect of the shot. Just then came whizzing through the air a stone bullet, shot from a culverin on the walls of the castle, the artillerist being a young man of Ghent, son of Henry the Blindman. This stone struck Sir Jacques on the forehead and carried away the upper half of his head, stretching him dead on the field. He was yet a young man when death thus came to him. Only eight years before he had made his first appearance in the lists, at Nancy.

Philip the Good was infuriated when he heard of the loss of his favorite knight. He vowed that when the Château was taken every soul in it should be hung from the walls. He kept his word, too, with a few exceptions, these being some priests, a leprous soldier, and a couple of boys. One of these lads made his way in all haste to Ghent, and not until well out of reach of the good Philip did he reveal the truth, that it was his hand which had fired the fatal shot.

And so ended the life of our worthy knight-errant, the prize-fighter of an earlier day than ours, the main difference between past and present being that his combats were fought with battle-axe and sword instead of fists, and that his backers were princes, his admirers high-born ladies, instead of the low-lived class of bruisers who now support such knightly exhibitions. Four centuries and more have passed since the days of Sir Jacques. It is to be hoped that long before another century has passed, there will be an end of all single combats in civilized lands.