William de Montacute -15 April 1355
‘Tell me everything that happened.’
John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, had lost a throw of the dice determining who should attend the tournament at Woodstock.
‘I am jealous and starved of news. Take a seat.’
The Earl of Salisbury looked around John’s tent in wonderment.
‘Well, I would if there was somewhere to sit. What is going on here?’
‘An unmitigated disaster.’
‘I was sent here to mobilise an army large enough to allow for an invasion of Armagnac. However, I have received not a sou from the King. What you see now has come from my own pocket and my pocket is now depressingly shallow!’
‘Is that why your tent looks like the kitchen storeroom? Where do you sleep? And more to the point, where will I sleep?’
‘We can squeeze another bed over there.’
William studied John in momentary thought. ‘Come on, the Prince has an account at The Cherry Tree. We will stay there until we get funds.’
Later, after a bath and a mug of ale, it was as if John had become a different person. As they descended the withered and twisted set of stairs to The Cherry Tree’s justly famous dining room, he was full of good cheer.
The Cherry Tree, on the quay overlooking Sutton Harbour, was where seafarers and ship-owners rubbed shoulders with royalty and the aristocracy. That they were able to conduct their business so far from London was a sound measure of the importance of shipping to a nation that had two territories separated by three hundred leagues of usually hostile Frankish territory. Often, the only way of travelling between the two territories was by sea.
William struggled to understand the situation. ‘Have you sent a message to the King letting him know how short of funds you are?’
‘Three, all with no reply,’ John scowled.
‘Have you sent a message to the Prince?’
‘I have no idea where the Prince is.’
‘Then you will be happy to know that he is due here any time now.’
It was the most incredible of coincidences. The door to the dining room burst open and through the door walked the Prince.
‘William, John, I thought I might find you here.’
The Prince put his arms around the shoulders of his two comrades and the three of them were soon immersed in copious greetings, congratulations and condolences, the latter directed mainly at Henry de Vere, as he had missed the tourney.
A tall, gangly but handsome young man hovered near the door.
‘Oh, yes, you, of course, know the Earl of Richmond, my younger brother?
Both William and John de Vere nodded.
‘He has been living with me for over six months, but the time has come for him to do something useful.’
A gaggle of servants could be heard carrying luggage down the hallway outside the dining room. There was much banging and bustling and the voice of the landlord asking them to be careful. William nodded towards the hall.
‘How did you manage to bring the entire palace on horseback?’
‘I didn’t, I sent it on ahead in a wagon. There is more outside that should be stored in the mobilisation camp as it is intended for Bordeaux.’
After a meal which consisted mainly of roast meat and vegetables washed down with many mugs of beer, the Prince eventually got down to business.
‘So, how is the mobilising going?’
John groaned again.
‘Not well. I have my own men and some of Lord James’ Welshmen, and there are confirmed promises of men from virtually every lord we have contacted. It is the supplies; cooking utensils, tents, bows, arrows, swords, pikes, grappling irons, tunics, and a thousand other things, which are causing my biggest headache. I fear that without proper funding I cannot continue.’
The Prince face split into a cheery grin. He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his inside pocket and handed it to John.
‘I enjoy being the bearer of good news. You will be happy to know that your problems are now over. All you have to do is visit Samuel Harman at the Dolphin further along the quay and give him this warrant and you’ll find there are virtually limitless funds waiting for us!’ Samuel is De la Pole’s agent and he is making an advance to fund our war against the Armagnacs. He urges us to spend carefully but to make sure the army is short of nothing it needs to be successful. Prince John’s role will be to do all the clerical work to make the mobilisation happen, but of course, his presence will give you just that extra edge of authority.
The Prince’s voice acquired a conspiratorial tone. ‘If we can deal with the Armagnacs expeditiously, I am in fact planning to do slightly more than originally intended.’
‘Now, excuse me, John, I need to talk to William about a private matter.’
William found John at breakfast the following morning. His downturned mouth said everything. His good spirits had obviously evaporated.
‘Well, did you talk about Joan?’
William put his arm around John’s neck and shook him gently. ‘Curiosity killed the cat, John, but, in a curious way we did. But there were other things to discuss.’
He hesitated. ‘John, the Prince wants to steal twenty-five of your best men so we can take them up to Dartmoor for special training.’
‘The Prince and myself.’
‘Surely it is my turn to do something interesting. I could go and you could stay here to mobilise the army. I am really not looking forward to working for a fifteen-year-old prince.’
William struggled to suppress a wave of irritability. It was not unreasonable for John to wish to escape his dreary task, but it was the task which had been assigned to him. Before he had a chance to reply, the Prince rescued him, arriving at their table with genuine joviality shining on his face.
Obviously, he had overheard the last snippet of conversation.
‘No, John, William has the talents I need for a rather special mission. In any case, I want you to make the army your own. You will not be working for the Earl of Richmond. He will be working for you. I have made that very clear to him. You will be military commander in Aquitaine later in the year. It is important the army identifies with you as its leader.’
‘I only have fifty men in total. How am I going to receive and store the supplies?’ Henry protested.
‘Start the process of mobilising the army and in the meantime hire in people from the town to help. I must have twenty-five men, experienced soldiers, or the nearest you can get to that. I want archers. Archers are disinclined to do any physical work anyway.’
‘Mobilisation immediately? No one will leave home without pay in advance. And how will I influence any lords who may be wavering in their support of this war?’
The Prince smiled. ‘You now have access to ample funds. I will give you twenty blank pages that I have signed and sealed. Use these to do whatever you need to do to mobilise the army. Date them as you use them. It shouldn’t be a problem to get compliance with my seal on the documents.’
A thoughtful expression claimed John’s face as he took the documents from the Prince. ‘Training on Dartmoor? You are going to make an expedition to Scotland?’
William grinned. ‘Sorry, John, but that is all you need to know.’
He and the Prince spent a whole day sifting through the lists of men who were assisting with the mobilisation. They chose mainly archers but there were also engineers and siege specialists and everyone they chose was able to ride a horse.
Several days later, the Prince had taken over the small lookout tower and blockhouse on Pendennis Point. It gave the small group shelter from the wind and when fires were lit, warmth in chilly evenings. Just as important, during the day the location gave a clear view down the coast and across the Carrick Roads.
They now started to make detailed plans for the journey to Muret.
‘Have they any inkling of where we are going, William?’ the Prince asked, nodding towards the soldiers.
‘They don’t care. I have told them they were specially selected and that they will be receiving double payment whilst they are with us. They are in good spirits.’
William pointed to the archers clustered down near the beach.
‘Look, they have organised that themselves.’
The archers had pinned down a sheet to the ground at the top of the cliff to act as a target and were shooting up from the beach. The target wasn’t visible from the archers’ position. Arrow after arrow soared high into the air and then plunged back to earth into or exceedingly close to the target.
‘Each man gets only two sighting shots and then they must get seven out of ten arrows into the target or donate a day’s pay into a common fund.’
‘And what will the common fund be used for?’ the Prince asked.
William grinned. ‘That, I didn’t dare ask.’
They walked to a position where they could see the target more clearly. Each archer took his ten shots in quick succession and then climbed the hill to observe his result. There were few payments made to the fund!
Suddenly on the western horizon, the mast of a ship came into view, followed by two more. Soon three ships under full sail and in tight formation could be clearly seen. Then, as if instantly, they were reducing sail and preparing to enter Carrick Roads.
The Prince jumped to his feet, elation ringing in his voice, ‘Our ships! Quick! Gather everyone together. I want to be on board as quickly as possible.’
On the beach behind Pendennis Point, a fishing smack was waiting for them. To fulfil the need for secrecy, the smack had been purchased discreetly on the other side of the Carrick Roads at Saint Mawes. The embarkation was carried out from the beach to avoid attention and the smack was sailed by Jack Evans, one of the few in the force who possessed skill in sailing.
William accompanied the Prince on the first trip the smack made out to the ships. He followed the Prince up the ladder onto the deck of the Sally, which immediately broke out the commander’s pennant. The smack then visited the Mendip and the Clevedon to pick up the other two captains and Lord James. It was a pleasant morning, as the wind had dropped, so the Prince held a meeting on the foredeck. He glanced upwards at the tell-tales streaming from the masts. The smack continued to ferry people from the beach as the meeting progressed.
The Prince allowed for introductions and socialising, but cut them short after only a few minutes.
‘Good, that is all the formalities out of the way. The wind continues to ease so I don’t want to take too long.’
The Prince arranged for six copies of the second stage of the orders to be passed around.
‘Before you open these, I must tell you that once they are opened no one will be allowed ashore until we reach our destination.’
The orders were duly opened, accompanied by various degrees of surprise or indignation passing over the faces of the readers.
The captain of the Sally was the first to speak. ‘An order is an order, but whilst I am captain of this boat I have a responsibility for the safety of all of you.’
The Prince eyed him calmly. ‘So.’
‘The orders ask us to do something that is obviously and inherently dangerous. Why do you want to go to Arcachon? What is wrong with Bordeaux?’
‘Simple, I do not want anyone, even my most loyal subjects, to known I am in Aquitaine. The sole exception is the Capital de Buch, who will help us organise our journey. The Bay of Arcachon is on his land. No one else will know of our arrival.’
‘Sire, do you know the entrance to the bay of Arcachon and how dangerous it is?’ asked the captain of the Sally. ‘Just a tiny crack in miles and miles of sand dunes. There is a channel but it shifts year by year, season by season even. If you don’t sail it regularly you may never find the channel.’ He sighed in exasperation. ‘And most of the time there is heavy surf running across the entrance. It is a fool’s errand.’
The other captains muttered their support.
The Prince nodded his head slowly and gave each man a cursory look. ‘Gentlemen, do you believe in maritime law?’
‘Yes, of course we do, and that is why we will go to Bordeaux and not Arcachon.’ replied the captain of the Sally. Having spoken up once, he was clearly determined to see this through.
‘Then you had best read over your initial orders. I have been appointed the Captain of the Sally and Commander of the fleet, giving me effective control of all three ships. That is why we are going to Arcachon and not to Bordeaux. We will find that channel and we will sail through it. I have in fact done it several times before.’
‘How long did you have to wait to get the right day?’ grumbled the captain of the Sally, clearly exasperated.
‘Sorry, gentlemen. You have your orders. All you have to do is carry them out. I suggest we set sail before the wind drops altogether.’