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Chapter 9

Poitiers, 1356

Much of the 1355 campaign had been a blur to Matthew Hart, yielding only scattered impressions. Through chroniclers wrote that the plundered land, which had not known "war of a long season," had been bountiful before the English arrival, Matthew could think of nothing complimentary to say about France. Compared to England, it was an ugly country. Beyond Bordeaux, with its miles of vineyards, rolling hills stretched seemingly forever toward the jagged Pyrennes Mountains. Matthew remembered the scattered forests only for the villagers he'd flushed out of their huts and caves; he remembered the plat pays, typical of so much of France, for the peasants he'd chased across their bleakness.

Matthew's most vivid memories were of fire. Fire and rain. He recalled countless windmills, their revolving vanes ablaze with flames, standing above the surrounding destruction like flailing skeletons, crumbling to ignite the grasses below. He had helped torch innumerable villages, wheat fields, even monasteries.

And the rains, how could he ever forget them? December's skies had been as relentless as a biblical deluge, soaking bones, transforming discomfort into sickness, turning roads into dangerous morasses.

He remembered endless river crossings with overloaded pack horses slipping on muddy banks, urged like squeamish maidens into treacherous currents swollen by the rains. Dwindling supplies. Empty bellies. When the horses could not find drinking water, they had been given wine.

Drunk horses. Exhausted men.

By Christmas, 1355, the English were safe and warm in Bordeaux. According to the standards of Maximum Damnum—total destruction—Edward of Woodstock's campaign had been a success. But measured by Matthew's criterion, it had not. They had not fought another Crecy. They had engaged peasants and the bourgeoisie, not true knights. The campaign had yielded much booty, but Matthew had come to fight a war, not loot and pillage.

After setting out on their second campaign in the summer of 1356, Matthew had high hopes. So far, however, it had been a mirror of their first with booty laden baggage trains and only marginal skirmishes.

Circumstances changed with the waning summer. Finally, the French King, Jean le Bon, decided to engage. Possessing a much smaller army, Prince Edward had hoped to combine forces with Henry, Duke of Lancaster, but when that failed, retreated toward Bordeaux. With the French fast upon them, Edward allowed no rest, no matter how rocky the terrain or dense the forest. The pace was grueling. The English traveled four hundred miles in little more than forty days. No one complained for all knew they must outflank the French.

In mid-September the English approached Chauvigny, near the town of Poitiers, or "Peyters," as Prince Edward called it. Scouts galloped into camp with word that Jean le Bon had blocked their exodus southward to Angouleme.

"We must fight now," Matthew Hart told his father, who, as a member of the war council, was privy to all decision making.

"We cannot fight," William responded grimly. "We do not have enough men and those we have are exhausted. Somehow, we shall have to slip through their lines."

But even as Prince Edward raced to outmaneuver the French, even as Matthew spent another rigorous day and night in the saddle, he prayed they would not evade Jean le Bon's grasp. No matter how great the odds, Matthew was certain the English would triumph.

* * *

By Sunday, September 18, 1356, Prince Edward knew he had no other choice. Five miles out of Poitiers, he called a halt and readied his men to make a stand.

Cardinal Talleyrand of Perigord begged both sides to avoid bloodshed on God's most holy day. While the Cardinal attempted to mediate a permanent truce, Edward ordered his men to dig trenches and fashion stake-filled pits along the line of hedges that would shield the archers.

Matthew decided the fortifications strengthened an already near perfect defense. The English were encamped on the crest of a wooded slope and the surrounding terrain was hilly. In addition to the copious undergrowth, marshy patches bordered on the River Miausson, at the foot of the hill. The slope opened onto a wide field, dissected by one narrow road—the only route by which the French could attack. In fact, the English were protected on all sides—left and right by steep drop-offs, at their back by woods so densely treed that a man on horseback could not effectively maneuver.

Cardinal Talleyrand's mediation failed. Believing the Black Prince could not successfully resist the overwhelming odds against him, Jean le Bon demanded the impossible. "I will accept only unconditional surrender from Edward of Woodstock, as well as a hundred of his knights."

Keeping his expression appropriately sober, Matthew Hart inwardly rejoiced. On the morrow we will face the French. And my life will never be the same.

* * *

Assembled with the rest of Edward's troops, Matthew waited for their prince to speak. When he thought about the inevitability of combat, his heart raced, yet he tried to etch every moment, every impression, in his memory.

A cloudless cerulean sky intensified the colors of nearby vineyards, which were beginning to brighten to gold and rust. The slightest breeze brought to Matthew's nostrils the scent of leather and animals, the morning cook fires, and the musty, almost indefinable odor that marked fall's arrival. Above the wooded hill behind which Jean le Bon's troops were encamped, one sparrow hawk struggled upward before soaring toward the sun.

The green and white of the archers' tunics, the crimson and gold of Edward's banner, the beasts and animals and plants upon the knights' shields, all seemed almost unbearably vivid.

Prince Edward strode to the center of his men, dressed in the black armor that was his hallmark. "God has decreed that on this day we will fight the French," he began. "Just as you know we are outnumbered, you also know our cause is just. Your king, my father, has an inherent right to the French throne, to the very ground upon which we stand, and by the Grace of God, after this day his claim will be more secure."

Bareheaded, Edward moved among his troops. A breeze lifted a strand of golden hair and a corner of his jewel-encrusted jupon.

Matthew thought, I will tell Harry that our prince looked as fine as the saints illustrated in a Book of Hours, and we knew we could not fail with Edward of Woodstock to lead us.

"I will not say that victory will come easy," Edward continued, "but, God willing, it will come. We are Englishmen, the finest soldiers in all the world. No matter should we face a legion of devils, we would prevail. Nor will Our Blessed Savior or St. George forsake us in our hour of need. Englishmen in London, York, Chester and Canterbury will hold up their heads and walk proud after this day, for the battle of Poitiers will wrap each of us in glory."

Next to Matthew, Lawrence Ravenne muttered, "More likely in a shroud." Throughout the campaign Matthew's brother-in-law had been plagued by boils on his backside and his mood was just as raw. "How can we face sixty, or even thirty thousand French, however many there truly are? 'Tis one thing to be brave, quite another to be foolhardy."

Matthew glanced at his father, standing off to one side with other members of the war council. He could not interpret the expression on William's face, but he caught Sir Thomas Rendell's eye, (Throughout the campaign Matthew kept wondering about Lord Rendell's resemblance... to whom? The answer kept eluding him) and when Rendell winked, it reinforced his conviction that his brother-in-law's talk of shrouds was mere doom-saying.

Shouts drifted from the open ground in the valley below. Time was running out.

Edward stood straight and tall. "A thousand years from now, this day will be discussed and harkened back to as England's finest hour. And though our children and great-great-grandchildren will die, our memory will live forever."

Matthew clenched his fist inside his steel gauntlet. God has granted me this day, this first battle, and should I fight in a thousand such, none will surpass this one.

As Edward continued speaking, he seemed to grow, to assume proportions larger than life and dimensions beyond humanity. He was not plain Edward of Woodstock, but a symbol of royalty, of England itself. Matthew was pleased with that image, for it was something Harry would enjoy.

"Remember that I will never disappoint you," Prince Edward said. "I will never call upon you to do what I will not. My arm will be stronger than the strongest, my danger greater, my bravery the courage of ten thousand lions. You will never see your prince defeated. Nor will you be defeated. We are Englishmen, and that makes all the difference."

"We are madmen," Lawrence Ravenne muttered, "and the French sun has baked our prince's brain."

But not even such blatant cynicism could mar Matthew's excitement. This is what life is all about, he thought, following his prince to the small hill from which they would view the battle. This is why God created us. For this very moment.

For Poitiers.

* * *

A cavalry of three hundred French knights raced up the narrow road toward the saw-tooth formation of English archers. The cavalry was to act as a single spearhead which would crash through the hedges. After scattering the yeomen, the remainder of the French, positioned below and on foot in three separate battalions, would attack at predetermined intervals.

Trumpets blared; drums beat in time. "Montjois St. Denis!" the French cried, galloping forward, three abreast. Their destriers strained across the open field, across rows of bleached corn stalks and harvested wheat. Behind the hedges, English yeomen fitted arrows into bowstrings and drew back their bows.

The morning sky darkened as a cloud of arrows arched overhead, guided by keen eyes and silent prayers to St. Sebastian, the martyr of arrows. The French continued straight toward the numerous gaps in the English line, but horses began shying away from the rain of death. Some crashed into the vineyards. Others bucked free of their riders, putting the fallen knights in even greater danger.

Matthew watched the French charge crumple into chaos. Blood gushed from countless wounds—animal blood, human blood, blood as red as the leaves of the turning vineyard, as red as the wine made from the clumps of grapes that still clung to its vines. Unsheathing their long knives, English foot soldiers crept from behind the hedges and pinioned the helpless Frenchmen, slitting their throats.

Situated more than a mile away, unable to see the devastation of his cavalry, Jean ordered forward his first battalion of foot soldiers, under the command of his eldest son, the Dauphin Charles. The battalion, which also contained three of France's four royal princes, began marching toward the English line. More trumpets; more drums mixed with screams and shouts and the thunder of war.

Along with his father, four hundred reserves, and Prince Edward, Matthew surveyed the French soldiers. Having reached its zenith, the sun caught the armor from six thousand men-at-arms. Below, the English archers had re-formed behind the hedges and were now waiting for the enemy to approach.

"They are on foot!" Lawrence Ravenne shaded his eyes against the sun's glare. "The pomp of France, indeed! They look more like peasants than knights."

"But they are much better armed," countered William Hart.

Matthew's gaze never left the oncoming army—row upon endless row, rippling like wild barley grass in the wake of a running horse. Scouts said King Jean held two more battalions in reserve, the last larger than Edward's entire army. Matthew's mouth felt dry.

Soon, he thought. A measure of fear tempered his excitement.

"St. George!" The English yeomen yelled, loosening their arrows.

Marching up the path, the French narrowed their ranks to four abreast. Arrows struck harmlessly against their armor. Toward ragged gaps in the hedges they marched, dodging rider-less horses, stepping across the wounded or dying, meeting foot soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. French knights stabbed with their shortened lances or hacked with battle axes and swords, forcing the English back toward their own archers.

The sun edged westward. Mortally wounded soldiers sprawled on top of bodies already beginning to stiffen. The hillside was slick with blood. Matthew heard the ring of steel upon steel. The cries and screams, chroniclers later wrote, sounded all the way to Nouaille Abbey and the dense darkness of the Bois de St. Pierre.

Led by an inexperienced Dauphin, the French eventually began to give ground, but the retreat was measured in inches.

A sudden shout of triumph exploded from English throats as the Dauphin's standard was seized. Whereupon, the French quickly shepherded Charles and his brothers from the field.

The English needed time to rest and regroup. Bow quivers were nearly empty while jagged gaps in the hedges showed like the yawning jaws of a canine. However, under the command of Philippe d'Orleans, brother of the king, France's second battalion was already moving forward. If this attack proved as devastating as the first, Prince Edward would have to commit his pitifully small reserves. Who would then face King Jean's battalion?

Matthew told himself, We cannot lose, but he had no idea how they could win.

On horseback, the Duc d'Orleans and his men came into view. A hush fell across the English line. From the battlefield, the wounded and dying screamed for help and water or the ministrations of a priest.

Matthew watched the French near the point where they would dismount. Upon meeting the blood-soaked, limping, cursing, weeping remnants of their foot soldiers, the Duc's battalion seemed to hesitate en masse, then, as if of one mind, retreated in the direction of Chauvigny and the departed dauphin.

"God's nails!" Prince Edward cried. "What are they doing?"

"'Twould appear they are leaving the battlefield," William Hart said. "But I canna believe six thousand men would ride away without striking a blow."

"The Duc is a friend of England this day," Matthew said.

"'Tis a miracle," said the prince. "God is surely on our side."

Many knights crossed themselves and muttered heartfelt thanks to their creator.

Not quite believing their good fortune, the English kept a wary eye on the retreating horses. Why had the Duc decided to flee? Had he been ordered to withdraw? Or was he reluctant to fight on foot in the manner more suited to a common soldier than a knight?

During the lull, archers retrieved arrows from the bodies of the fallen, fetched drinking water, straightened battered weapons, and tried for a measure of rest. Accompanied by Matthew and members of his bodyguard, Prince Edward rode down the hill. Moving among his troops, he tried to instill strength and purpose into his exhausted men.

From a ridge to the north, King Jean marched forward with his final battalion. Overhead flew the Oriflamme—the fork-tongued scarlet banner of the kings of France.

Jean breasted the rise, leading his battalion of ten thousand men. Matthew could actually feel the waves of terror that overcame the English, and the strength momentarily drained from his own limbs.

The enemy's silver body writhed toward them, the Oriflamme flicking overhead. Hours of daylight remained. Darkness would not cover the English, nor allow them any rest. Those nearest the shelter of Nouaille Wood began to desert.

"We are undone!" Lawrence Ravenne cried, giving voice to the fear of hundreds. "'Tis hopeless!"

Prince Edward, who had returned to the war council, turned on Ravenne with an expression that would cause the bravest warrior to shrink from his wrath. "You lie, miserable coward! How can you think that I, alive, might be conquered? While I have a breath in my body, 'tis blasphemy to say we are beaten."

Matthew could not blame Ravenne for expressing what so many were thinking. But when Matthew's gaze swung from his father's face to the faces of his father, Thomas Rendell, John Chandos, and the others on the war council, and to that of his prince, he saw only determination. Inside his armor, Matthew unconsciously squared his shoulders and a wave of confidence, if not joy, swept through him. How could anyone doubt men so supremely self-assured? Wasn't the prince the favored son of a golden father? Wasn't England herself a blessed nation?

The French neared.

Edward walked among his troops, cajoling, inspiring, cursing them back to order. "They cannot overcome us! Their numbers mean only that our glory will be greater. Are you Englishmen or French? Only the French run from the field. See how they fear us? 'Tis not I, but the Duc d'Orleans who slinks to the walls of Poitiers. You will not desert. If you dare try, I will slay you before you reach the woods."

Wave after endless wave of French crested the hill. Matthew felt the panic of his fellow soldiers as surely as he heard the cries of the dying, but no one dared run. With a raging Edward behind them and Jean le Bon before them, they were trapped.

Exhibiting a ferocity born of desperation, the English met the French.

Archers shot the last of their arrows.

Holding their shields over their heads, King Jean and his men marched on.

Once their quivers were emptied, some of the archers again tried to break and flee. But Edward stood behind them, flourishing his sword, berating, threatening, beating them back into order.

"Fight! They cannot win if we fight. Fight! Fight!" The prince's cries smashed against the English like a gauntleted fist.

The yeomen tore extra arrows from nearby bodies. When the men-at-arms' lances broke, they fought with splintered stubs. Knights who had broken their own weapons took spears and swords from the bodies of the dead.

Returning to the top of the hill, where the war council and reserves waited, Edward said, "Our men will break, I feel it. We must rally them before they all panic."

"What would you do, your grace?" William Hart asked.

"Attack. Jean will not expect an offensive maneuver, and cavalry still have an advantage over foot, no matter how badly we're outnumbered."

Edward instructed sixty men and one hundred archers to ride northwest, down a hidden track, through a hollow which came out behind the French. "Attack from behind. When you engage them, we shall attack from the front."

William turned to his son. "It would appear you are finally going into battle, lad. I have no doubt you will acquit yourself well enough this day to win your spurs."

Matthew managed a grin. "I might even win me a French king."

Swinging into his saddle, Prince Edward laughed. "Enjoy this moment. War is like a woman. The first is ever the most memorable." Edward then addressed his standard-bearer.

"Bear my banner straight toward Jean le Bon." Louder, "Advance, men, in the name of God and St. George!"

Trumpets sounded. Thrown back by the stone walls of Poitiers, wrote chroniclers, the ear-shattering blasts seemed to make the hills call out to the valleys and thunder crash in the clouds.

Edward's four hundred hit the French at a run. Matthew glimpsed the prince, surrounded by Frenchmen, his sword a silver blur. As one of several squires, Matthew's job was to protect Edward. In the beginning he was able to keep up, but the prince fought so fiercely, no man could match him. His padded jupon contained more arrows than spines on a hedgehog, but Edward attacked with indefatigable fury, mowing down anybody in his way, warding off blows as if he had a dozen eyes and a thousand arms.

Gripping his broadsword with both hands, Matthew stood in his stirrups and swung at the endless knights whose uplifted faces were hidden inside their bascinets. Deprived of their horses, the Frenchmen fell under Matthew's sword and mace as easily as ripened wheat before a peasant's scythe.

The battle passed its seventh hour; the sun edged toward its resting place. Matthew's heart roared in his ears, his breathing seared his lungs, and his sword arm swung with a will of its own. His father, wielding a mace with manic accuracy, fought near the prince. To Matthew's left rode Thomas Rendell, brandishing a war hammer, and Lawrence Ravenne, who abruptly crumpled from his saddle. Matthew did not try to reach his brother-in-law. His duty must be to Edward, no other man.

Slowly, inexorably, Prince Edward pushed toward the Oriflamme.

The French fought as desperately as the English, but their phalanx began to buckle under the onslaught of Edward's attack and the flank assault. Men grappled in hand-to-hand combat. Scarce able to lift their weapons, enemies staggered against each other. With their arrow supplies long since exhausted, the English archers emerged from behind hedges bearing swords, axes, looted household knives, and hammers. When those weapons were unavailable, they grabbed stones or attacked with their fists.

One by one, France's banners fell. Finally, the Oriflamme itself wavered and plunged to the ground. Knowing their cause was lost, one body of eight hundred French lancers galloped off the field without striking a blow.

Scarlet tinged the clouds as the sun hovered above the western horizon. Matthew's destrier, Roland, slipped and stumbled on a field of dismembered arms and legs, a field as slick as a frozen river with blood. The euphoria of battle had long ago given way to weariness, and Matthew found himself looking without emotion upon decapitated bodies—helms trailing the sinew that had once joined head to neck. He looked upon wounds laid bare to the bone, and brains spilling from smashed skulls. One French marshal, butted in the mouth, vomited forth his teeth; others trod upon their own entrails.

The noise of the battle diminished. The groans and cries of the dying reached such a cacophony Matthew began to feel unnerved. He saw Edward retreat from the field, and gratefully followed.

Jean le Bon and a small contingent remained, while the rest fled back toward their horses or Poitiers. English knights, led by William Hart, bore down upon the French king, whose black armor and white surcoat marked by fleur-de-lis made him easily recognizable. Surrounded by his wedge of bodyguards, Jean fought valiantly, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the battle was lost.

"Surrender yourself!" William commanded, pointing his sword at the king's throat.

Jean's helm, once topped by a dazzling crest of plumes, was dented in a dozen places, and he bled from several head wounds. Removing his right gauntlet, he handed it to William.

The Battle of Poitiers was over.

A hush descended. Only the shouts of Englishmen pursuing the retreating French could be heard. The sun set over the jumble of bodies, glinted off armor, edged across faces frozen in death, and crept toward the hill where Matthew and Prince Edward and members of his bodyguard had gathered.

Thomas Rendell planted Edward's banner beside a bush so that returning soldiers would have a rallying point.

William Hart handed Prince Edward Jean's gauntlet. "Victory belongs to you, sire."

Edward's favored commander, John Chandos, put his arm around the prince who bowed his head, silently giving thanks to God. Though Edward's face was streaked with grime, Matthew thought his prince had never looked so... princely. Matthew bowed his head, too, but he couldn't pray, not yet. Exultation swept over him, replacing weariness. They had done the unbelievable, the impossible. Eight thousand Englishmen had triumphed over thirty thousand Frenchmen. No wonder God loved them!

A final burst of sunset bathed the battlefield, its rays shining brighter than the blood from countless wounds. Radiant streamers reflected the gaping throats that grinned up at the sky. Injured knights crawled toward the woods. Englishmen captured nobles for ransom, or raced toward the richly accoutered French tents for plunder.

Edward raised his head. His gaze touched upon his troops, then settled on Matthew. "You fought well, lad, as boldly as any knight."

Surprised by Edward's attention, Matthew could only murmur, "Thank you, sire."

Removing his sword, Edward motioned to Matthew and several other squires. "Come forward and kneel. This day you have truly earned your spurs."

Matthew tried to stifle the grin that spread across his face. His dream of being knighted on the battlefield was about to be realized. Wait until he told Harry.

Harry! God's teeth! Harry would weep and chastise him for breaking his word.

You ask too much, Harry. After you understand, you will not begrudge me this honor.

"Come, Matthew," Edward said. "You shall be first."

Edward stretched forth his sword with William Hart behind him. Even through the smears of dirt on his face, even in the fading light, William's eyes shown with pride–and love.

Matthew's heart twisted. Almost imperceptibly, he shook his head. "I cannot, sire. I swore to wait for my brother."

Always impressed by vows and other such chivalric gestures, Edward nodded, said, "So be it," and moved to the next. Matthew stood stiff and straight as the other squires knelt to accept their knighthood. Shutting out the words of the oath, shutting out the disbelief on his father's face, he closed his eyes rather than watch Prince Edward touch each shoulder with his sword.

Aye, Harry, you asked almost more than I can bear.

Matt had kept his word, as a knight must. So why did he feel such bleakness? Even though he'd proven himself to be a man this day, Matthew found himself very close to crying.

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