Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

Bertrand du Guesclin

In the castle of Motte-Broon, near Rennes, France, there was born about the year 1314 "the ugliest child from Rennes to Dinan," as an uncomplimentary chronicle says. He was a flat-nosed, swarthy, big-headed, broad-shouldered fellow, a regular wretch, in his own mother's words, violent in temper, using his fist as freely as his tongue, driving his tutor away before he could teach him to read, but having no need to be taught to fight, since this art came to him by nature. At sixteen he fled from home to Rennes, where he entered into adventures, quarrels, and challenges, and distinguished himself by strength, courage, and a strong sense of honor.

He quickly took part in the wars of the time, showed his prowess in every encounter, and in the war against Navarre, won the highest honors. At a later date he engaged in the civil wars of Spain, where he headed an army of thirty thousand men. In the end the adventurers who followed him, Burgundian, Picard, Champagnese, Norman, and others, satisfied with their spoils, left him and returned to France. Bertrand had but some fifteen hundred men-at-arms remaining under his command when a great peril confronted him. He was a supporter of Henry of Transtamare, who was favorable to France, and who had made him Constable of Castile. This was not pleasing to Edward III. of England. Don Pedro the Cruel, a king equally despised and detested, had been driven from Castile by the French allies of his brother Henry. Edward III. determined to replace him on the throne, and with this intent sent his son, the Black Prince, with John Chandos, the ablest of the English leaders, and an army of twenty-seven thousand men, into the distracted kingdom.

A fierce battle followed on April 3, 1367. The ill-disciplined soldiers of Henry were beaten and put to rout. Du Guesclin and his men-at-arms alone maintained the fight, with a courage that knew no yielding. In the end they were partly driven back, partly slain. Du Guesclin set his back against a wall, and fought with heroic courage. There were few with him. Up came the Prince of Wales, saw what was doing, and cried,—

"Gentle marshals of France, and you too, Bertrand, yield yourselves to me."

"Yonder men are my foes," exclaimed Don Pedro, who accompanied the prince; "it is they who took from me my kingdom, and on them I mean to take vengeance."

He came near to have ended his career of vengeance then and there. Du Guesclin, incensed at his words, sprang forward and dealt him so furious a blow with his sword as to hurl him fainting to the ground. Then, turning to the prince, the valiant warrior said, "Nathless, I give up my sword to the most valiant prince on earth."

The prince took the sword, and turning to the Captal of Buch, the Navarrese commander, whom Bertrand had years before defeated and captured, bade him keep the prisoner.

"Aha, Sir Bertrand," said the Captal, "you took me at the battle of Cocherel, and to-day I've got you."

"Yes," retorted Bertrand; "but at Cocherel I took you myself, and here you are only my keeper."

Pedro was restored to the throne of Castile,—which he was not long to hold,—and the Prince of Wales returned to Bordeaux, bringing him his prisoner. He treated him courteously enough, but held him in strict captivity, and to Sir Hugh Calverley, who begged that he would release him at a ransom suited to his small estate, he answered,—

"I have no wish for ransom from him. I will have his life prolonged in spite of himself. If he were released he would be in battle again, and always making war."

And so Bertrand remained in captivity, until an event occurred of which the chroniclers give us an entertaining story. It is this event which it is our purpose to relate.

A day came in which the Prince of Wales and his noble companions, having risen from dinner, were amusing themselves with narratives of daring deeds of arms, striking love-passages, and others of the tales with which the barons of that day were wont to solace their leisure. The talk came round to the story of how St. Louis, when captive in Tunis, had been ransomed with fine gold, paid down by weight. At this point the prince spoke, somewhat unthinkingly.

"When a good knight is made prisoner in fair feat of arms," he said, "and sworn to abide prisoner, he should on no account depart without his master's leave. But one should not demand such portion of his substance in ransom as to leave him unable to equip himself again."

The Sire de Lebret, who was friendly to Du Guesclin, answered,—

"Noble sire, be not angry if I relate what I have heard said of you in your absence."

"By my faith," said the prince, "right little should I love follower of mine, sitting at my table, if he heard a word said against my honor and apprised me not of it."

"Sire," answered he of Lebret, "men say that you hold in prison a knight whose name I well know, whom you dare not deliver."

"That is true," broke in Oliver de Clisson; "I have heard the same said."

The prince heard them with a countenance that reddened with anger.

"I know no knight in the world," he declared, "who, if he were my prisoner, I would not put to a fair ransom, according to his ability."

"How, then, do you forget Bertrand du Guesclin?" said Lebret.

The prince doubly changed color on hearing this. He felt himself fairly caught, and, after a minute's indecision, he gave orders that Bertrand should be brought before him.

The knights who went in search found Bertrand talking with his chamberlain, as a relief to his weariness.

"You are come in good time," he said to his visitors, and bade the chamberlain bring wine.

"It is fitting that we should have good and strong wine," said one of the knights, "for we bring you good and pleasant tidings, with the best of good-will."

"The prince has sent us for you," said another. "We think you will be ransomed by the help of the many friends you have in court."

"What say you?" answered Bertrand. "I have not a half-penny to my purse, and owe more than ten thousand livres in this city, which have been lent me since I have been held prisoner here. I cannot well ask more from my friends."

"How have you got rid of so much?" asked one of his visitors.

"I can easily answer for that," said Bertrand, with a laugh. "I have eaten, drunk, given, and played at dice. A little money is soon spent. But that matters not; if once free I shall soon pay it. He who, for my help, lends me the keys of his money, has it in the best of keeping."

"Sir, you are stout-hearted," answered an officer. "It seems to you that everything which you would have must happen."

"By my faith, you are right," said Bertrand, heartily. "In my view a dispirited man is a beaten and discomfited one."

"Surely there is enchantment in your blood," rejoined the officer, "for you seem proof against every shock."

Leaving Bertrand's chamber, they sought that in which was the prince and his companions. The prisoner was dressed in a rough gray coat, and bore himself with manly ease and assurance. The prince laughed pleasantly on seeing him.

"Well, Bertrand, how are you?" he asked.

"Sir, when it shall please you, I may fare better," answered Bertrand, bowing slightly. "Many a day have I heard the rats and mice, but it is long since I have heard the song of birds. I shall hear them when it is your pleasure."

"That shall be when you will, Bertrand," said the prince. "I require you only to swear never to bear arms against me nor these with me, nor to assist Henry of Spain. If you consent to this, we shall set you free, pay your debts, and give ten thousand florins to equip you anew. If you refuse, you shall not go."

"Then, sir," answered Bertrand, proudly, "my deliverance will not come to pass, for before I do this, may I lie chained by the leg in prison while I live. With God's will, I shall never be a reproach to my friends, but shall serve with my whole heart the good king of France, and the noble dukes of Anjou, Berry, Burgundy, and Bourbon, whose subject I have been. But, so please you, worthy prince, suffer me to go. You have held me too long in prison, wrongfully and without cause. Had I been free I had intended to go from France, to work out my salvation by fighting the Saracens."

"Why, then, went you not straight, without stopping?" asked the prince.

"I will tell you," exclaimed Bertrand, in a loud and fierce tone. "We found Peter,—the curse of God confound him!—who had long since thrice falsely murdered his noble queen, who was of the royal blood of France and your own cousin. I stopped to take revenge for her, and to help Henry, whom I believe to be the rightful king of Spain. But you, through pride and covetousness of gold and silver, came to Spain, thinking to have the throne after the death of Peter. In this you injured your own blood and troubled me and my people, ruined your friends and famished your army, and for what? After all this, Peter has deceived you by cheating and trickery, for he has not kept faith nor covenant with you. But for this, by my soul and faith, I thank him heartily."

These bold words were listened to by the prince with a changeful face. Seldom had he heard the truth spoken so bluntly, or with such firm composure in the speaker. When he had ceased, the prince rose, and with a somewhat bitter laugh declared that, on his soul, Bertrand had spoken but the truth. The barons around repeated the same among themselves, and, fixing their eyes on Bertrand, said,—"A brave fellow, the Breton."

"Whether this be truth or no, Bertrand," continued the prince, "you have rejected my offer, and shall not escape without a good ransom. It vexes me to let you go at all, for your king has none like you; but as men say that I keep you prisoner because I fear you, you shall go free on payment of sufficient ransom. Men shall learn that I neither fear nor care for you."

"Sir, I thank you," said Bertrand. "But I am a poor knight of little name and small means. What estate I have is deeply mortgaged for the purchase of war-horses, and I owe besides in this town full ten thousand florins. I pray you, therefore, to be moderate, and deliver me."

"Where will you go, fair sir?" asked the prince.

"Where I may regain my loss," answered Bertrand. "More than that, I say not."

"Consider, then," said the prince, "what ransom you will give me. What sum you name shall be enough for me."

"I trust you will not stoop to retract your meaning," rejoined Bertrand. "And since you are content to refer it to my pleasure, I ought not to value myself too low. So I will give and engage for my freedom one hundred thousand double golden florins."

These words roused the greatest surprise and excitement in the room. Many of those present started, and the prince changed color, as he looked around at his knights.

"Does he mean to make game of me, that he offers such a sum?" asked the prince. "I would gladly free him for the quarter."

Then, turning again to Bertrand, who stood with impassive countenance, he said,—

"Bertrand, neither can you pay, nor do I wish such a sum. So consider again."

"Sir," answered Bertrand, with grave composure, "since you wish not so much, I place myself at sixty thousand double florins; you shall not have less, if you but discharge me."

"Be it so," said the prince. "I agree to it."

Then Bertrand looked round him with glad eyes, and drew up his form with proud assurance.

"Sir," he said, "Prince Henry may truly vaunt that he will die king of Spain, cost him what it may, if he but lend me half my ransom, and the king of France the other. If I can neither go nor send to these two, I will get all the spinstresses in France to spin it, rather than that I should remain longer in your hands."

"What sort of man is this?" said the prince, aside to his lords. "He is startled by nothing, either in act or thought; no more than if he had all the gold in the world. He has set himself at sixty thousand double florins, when I would have willingly accepted ten thousand."

The barons talked among one another, lost in astonishment. Bertrand stood aside, his eyes fixed quietly upon the prince.

"Am I then at liberty?" he asked.

"Whence shall the money come?" queried Chandos.

"Trust me to find it," said Bertrand. "I have good friends."

"By my faith," answered Chandos, heartily, "you have one of them here. If you need my help, thus much I say: I will lend you ten thousand."

"You have my thanks," answered Bertrand. "But before accepting your offer, I will try the people of my own country."

The confidence of the gallant soldier was not misplaced. Part of the sum was raised among his Breton friends, and King Charles V. of France lent him thirty thousand Spanish doubloons. In the beginning of 1368 the Prince of Wales set him at liberty.

The remaining story of the life of Du Guesclin is a stirring and interesting one. War was the only trade he knew, and he plunged boldly into it. First he joined the Duke of Anjou, who was warring in Provence against Queen Joan of Naples. Then he put his sword again at the service of Henry of Transtamare, who was at war once more with Pedro the Cruel, and whom he was soon to dethrone and slay with his own hand. But shortly afterwards war broke out again between France and England, and Charles V. summoned Du Guesclin to Paris.

The king's purpose was to do the greatest honor to the poor but proud soldier. He offered him the high office of Constable of France,—commander-in-chief of the army and the first dignitary under the crown. Du Guesclin prayed earnestly to be excused, but the king insisted, and he in the end felt obliged to yield. The poor Breton had now indeed risen to high estate. The king set him beside himself at table, showed him the deepest affection, and showered on him gifts and estates. His new wealth the free-handed soldier dispensed lavishly, giving numerous and sumptuous dinners, where, says his poet chronicler,—

"At Bertrand's plate gazed every eye,

So massive, chased so gloriously."

This plate proved a slippery possession. More than once he pledged it, and in the end sold great part of it, to pay "without fail the knights and honorable fighting-men of whom he was the leader."

The war roused a strong spirit of nationality through France. Towns, strongholds, and castles were everywhere occupied and fortified. The English marched through the country, but found no army in the field, no stronghold that was to be had without a hard siege. Du Guesclin adopted the waiting policy, and kept to it firmly against all opposition of lord or prince. It was his purpose to let the English scatter and waste themselves in a host of small operations and petty skirmishes. For eight years the war continued, with much suffering to France, with no gain to England. In 1373 an English army landed at Calais, which overran nearly the whole of France without meeting a French army or mastering a French fortress, while incessantly harassed by detached parties of soldiers. On returning, of the thirty thousand horses with which they had landed, "they could not muster more than six thousand at Bordeaux, and had lost full a third of their men and more. There were seen noble knights who had great possessions in their own country, toiling along afoot, without armor, and begging their bread from door to door without getting any." Such were the happy results for France of the Fabian policy of the Constable Du Guesclin.

A truce was at length signed, that both parties might have time to breathe. Soon afterwards, on June 8, 1376, the Black Prince died, and in June of the following year his father, Edward III., followed him to the tomb, and France was freed from its greatest foes. During his service as constable, Bertrand had recovered from English hands the provinces of Poitou, Guienne, and Auvergne, and thus done much towards the establishment of a united France.

Du Guesclin was not long to survive his great English enemies. The king treated him unjustly, and he threw up his office of constable, declaring that he would seek Spain and enter the service of Henry of Castile. This threat brought the king to his senses. He sent the Dukes of Anjou and Bourbon to beg Du Guesclin to retain his office. The indignant soldier yielded to their persuasions, accepted again the title of Constable of France, and died four days afterwards, on July 13, 1380. He had been sent into Languedoc to suppress disturbances and brigandage, provoked by the harsh government of the Duke of Anjou, and in this service fell sick while besieging Châteauneuf-Randon, in the Gévandan, a fortress then held by the English. He died at sixty-six years of age, with his last words exhorting the captains around him "never to forget that, in whatsoever country they might be making war, churchmen, women, children, and the poor people were not their enemies."

He won victory even after his death, so say the chronicles of that day. It is related that an agreement had been made for the surrender of the besieged fortress, and that the date fixed was July 14, the day after Du Guesclin died. The new commander of the army summoned the governor to surrender, but he declared that he had given his word to Du Guesclin, and would yield the place to no other. He was told that the constable was dead.

"Very well;" he replied, "I will carry the keys of the town to his tomb."

And so he did. He marched out of the place at the head of his garrison, passed through the lines of the besieging army, knelt before Du Guesclin's corpse, and laid the keys of Châteauneuf-Randon on his bier.

And thus passed away one of the greatest and noblest warriors France had ever known, honored in life and triumphant in death.