‘I just did something that they never thought a human being would do. They find that terrifying and terror is the most powerful weapon of all.’
Jacques de Bourbon – 1 February 1355
A brook tinkled its way down a gentle slope and widened out into a substantial stream edged by reeds. Beyond the stream, emerging in silhouette from behind a screen of trees, were the castellated fortifications of the Château de Montmuran.
The Château was terminated at both ends by slim defensive towers, each tower topped by steep conical roofs of grey slate.
Jacques de Bourbon, Constable of the Western Franks flinched, as without warning, a ball of flame ascended from behind the trees. He turned to watch its progress. The accompanying roar, as the flames were fanned by its passage through the air, could be clearly heard, but the lazy trail of smoke it left behind, drifting in the slightest of breezes, created the illusion that it was travelling much slower than it actually was. It burst against the roof of one of the towers, throwing blazing fragments in every direction.
Jacques stiffened in his saddle as he imagined himself at the receiving end, desperately trying to extinguish the spot fires and hoping fervently that the next incendiary missile would not be a direct hit.
He twisted and turned, rising in his stirrups to get a marginally better view. ‘I am just an idiot,’ he muttered under his breath. ‘What on earth am I doing here, unescorted, ripe for the picking.’ He moved to the edge of the meadow and edged his horse cautiously into the nearest woodland. Now he could see but not be seen.
Before long, Jacques’ attention was attracted by a thunder of hooves. He turned nervously, ready to run, but then recognised the leader of the troop of knights riding towards him as his immediate subordinate, Robert de Chantilly, the Marechal.
Jacques urged his horse forward, around the copse where he had taken refuge and emerged from the woodland. He rode to meet Robert. He smiled broadly and nodded towards the meadow. ‘There is no doubt that on a day like today, even in winter, Brittany can be very beautiful.’
Robert returned the smile. ‘But you have not asked me here to admire the scenery, have you? Indeed, I wonder what has attracted your attention, why you left St Malo without waiting for me. Have you heard the rumour that Salisbury has left for England? Do you want to check that out for yourself?’
Jacques felt the smile fade from his face. ‘Salisbury? Who knows? He is most unpredictable. He could have spread the rumour himself as the prelude to another all-out attack. However, as it happens, I do have an interest in what is happening here, or rather who is involved in what is happening here.’
A low roar announced another projectile hurtling towards the Château.
Robert seemed to ignore the noise and instead waved his hand as if drawing a line across the horizon.’What do you tell the King? That despite their recent success, the English control only the south and west and we control the north and east and everything in the hinterland is contested?’
Jacques thought for a moment. ‘Hmm, something like that.’
Robert pursed his lips ‘Whereas the truth is that we only retain a finger-hold on the very edge of Brittany. Minor offensives into what is now effectively English territory do nothing to change that. They are often about capturing someone important and getting a ransom for their return rather than the gain of territory, but you know that.’ He cocked his head and delivered a lopsided smile.
Robert frowned. ‘And so it is today, The English pay us back in kind. Arnoul d’Audrehem, my predecessor, is over there in the Château. Hugh de Calverly, the English champion, has led this attack with no other intention than to capture him and claim a ransom.’ His voice acquired a bitter edge. ‘And we have supposedly called a truce.’
Another ball rose on a slightly different trajectory, then another and another. Dark trails of smoke now defiled the previously pristine scene and a different pattern of smoke arising from the Château proved that at least one of the projectiles had penetrated the defensive walls.
Jacques nodded. ‘Go on, don’t stop, how much else do you know?’
Robert continued. ‘Our forces now have Calverly surrounded, but their objectives are no better than those of the English. They are here to take prisoners and then sell them back for a ransom. They have no interest in any longer-term strategic motives, for they know, as do we both, that there are none.’ He shook his head. ‘So am I to believe you have taken the trouble to come here to watch a minor engagement, which will have little significance?’ He sighed. ‘That much I doubt. You left St Malo with unseemly haste. So why are we here?’
Another projectile soared through the air, emitting a much deeper roar. They watched the smoke trail scar the sky and Robert winced as again it scored a direct hit. Robert reined in his horse, which pranced on the spot in objection to the deeper sound.This time he did watch until after the burst of flame on the Château ramparts.
‘Oh! Is that what interests you. The English are treating this attack very seriously. They built that trebuchet in two days and, right now, its rate of fire and accuracy is much better than anything we could achieve.’ He paused and moved his horse forward so that he could look Jacques directly in the eye. ‘I am here because you commanded me to be so, but again I ask: why exactly are you here, is it the trebuchet?’
Jacques grimaced. ‘Very well. I want to meet Bertrand du Guesclin. I want to invite him to Paris.’
‘You want what? The man is an animal.’ Robert breathed deeply. ‘He is a native of these parts, but a despicable rogue, who has made an art form of intimidation, mutilation, and destruction.’
‘Then why use him?’
‘Because I must; he is a supporter of our King, but I continually expose him to danger in the hope he might succumb. If you wish to engage him, good luck to you. But never tell me I did not warn you.’
Jacques watched as yet another fireball was launched towards the Château. He urged his horse forward. ‘If he is here, I want to meet him. I promise I will not hold you accountable for what might eventuate.’
They approached the Château cautiously. Robert broke out his personal standard so that they could be identified. The English army attacking the Château de Montmuran were, as far as Jacques could see, a conventional army of knights, infantry, and engineers. Now they were surrounded by an army of mercenaries, supplemented by hundreds of ill-equipped peasant farmers. Jacques winced when he saw their leader, noting a misplaced nostril and jowls of hard fat hanging down from his cheeks to below his jawline. There were lines of grime on his unwashed face.’Ugh.’
Du Guesclin seemed to be proud of his rag-tag followers.’They stay here because we have promised them a share of the ransom for every Englishman we capture. We raid their lines every night.’ Du Guesclin pointed, ‘See in the compound over there, guarded by the rabble; we have five of them, each worth perhaps twenty-thousand sous. In a week, if we capture another five, the English army will fight their way out rather than suffer continuing losses.’
Jacques swallowed deeply and dismounted.’You haven’t got a week. I must be back in Paris the day after tomorrow and you must come with me.’
‘But what about the ransom? Negotiating that will take closer to a month, and my share is twenty per cent.’
‘How much are the hostages worth?’
‘That is not what you just said.’
‘That was before you asked the question.’
‘Very well. Thirty-thousand francs.’ Jacques walked over to his horse and from a saddle bag produced two smaller bags. Du Guesclin sniffed the bags, weighed them in his hands, and opened the heavier one. It contained five hundred francs.
‘Very good, but not enough for me to abandon my interest.’
‘Open the other bag.’
Du Guesclin extracted several large, colourful pieces of paper. ‘What’s this?’
‘Promissory notes signed by the Dauphin and the president of the treasury. It is as good as money.’ Jacques looked at Du Guesclin querulously. ‘Can’t you read?’
‘Never saw the need.’ He looked down at the notes. ‘These are as good as money, you say?’
Jacques nodded. ‘Promissory notes for twenty-five thousand francs. You are suddenly a rich man.’
Du Guesclin shrugged his shoulders and then his eyes narrowed. ‘Why are you giving me this?’
‘There is a different task we have for you, Bertrand. There is a young girl, who is causing us much concern.’
‘A young girl? Concerning you?’ Du Guesclin laughed evilly. ‘Did you get her pregnant?’
Jacques’ throat constricted, but he kept control. ‘No, Bertrand, this young girl causes concern to the State. Apparently, she is about to make a contract with the English to steal nearly a third of our realm.’
Bertrand eyed Jacques carefully. ‘How?’
‘She is, we are told, a distant descendant of the Comte de Carcassonne, the heretic dispossessed by the heroic members of the Albigensian Crusade one hundred years ago. There are those among dispossessed families of the southern lords who believe that if she were reinstated to her ancestors’ lands, they could improve their own situation.’
‘But you could crush them.’ Du Guesclin protested.
‘Yes, we could, unless there was the involvement of a power with an army we would find difficult to resist.’
‘Precisely. The girl we are talking about, Ximene Trencavel, may well marry Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, Duke of Aquitaine and heir to the English throne. They have an army that could cause us some trouble!’
Du Guesclin looked expectant. ‘And you want me to …’ One of his eyes narrowed.
Jacques swallowed again. ‘We want you to dispose of her. And we will reward you handsomely for doing so.’
Du Guesclin thought for a moment. ‘Handsomely? This is just an advance? Oh, well, that changes everything. I will be ready to leave in fifteen minutes.’
Du Guesclin handed over the five hundred francs to the captain of his mercenaries and shouted orders accompanied by much waving of his hands.
Five stakes were hurriedly erected as close to the English lines as it was safe to go. They bound the English prisoners, dragged them to the posts, firmly securing them with strong ties. Du Guesclin raised a flag on each post and commanded for the trumpets to sound. When he was sure the English watched, he walked calmly along the line of posts, slitting the throat of each prisoner as he went. The screams of the prisoners intensified as it became apparent what he intended to do. At the end of the line, he hesitated, to allow his last victim to scream even louder before silencing him forever. He carefully wiped his knife clean, smiled and walked back towards Jacques. He casually polished his knife, spending more time on the task than was really necessary.