Melle- 15th September 1356
John Stanley, Captain of the Black Princes Bodyguard, carefully unrolled a copy of a huge map. He weighted the corners with four candlesticks and the walked round the table to carefully examine a second map pinned to the wall of the shelter.
He looked at the note he had just received from The Earl of Salisbury. and turned to Jean de Grailly, Capital du Buch and Commander of the bodyguard. ‘They are in trouble. There has been torrential rain around Tours and it has destroyed all our plans. The army lead by Henry of Grosmont was supposed to be on the north bank of the Loire river to protect the Prince’s crossing by now but they haven’t made it. The Prince has decided to retreat and consolidate.
The Captal shrugged his shoulders. ‘Right, then we should advance to support him.’ John frowned. ‘Perhaps not. Will you give me an hour to do some analysis. It all depends on how fast he can retreat. We might be better to keep our men fresh so that we can assume the role of rearguard as he passes us.’
‘I am not convinced all these charts are of any help’
‘Give me an hour.’
John put a series of dark blue dots where the Earl’s note told him the Prince was the previous morning and working from the map on the wall which showed where he had been 12hrs earlier he then calculated where the Prince was right now, marking it on the map in black. He was able to work out not only how far but in which direction the Prince was travelling.
‘The real value of these maps is that the show the rivers, not just the main rivers but the smaller tributaries. When we did our surveys in the spring I was surprised how low lying and marshy the whole area is. Any movement in this country must pay regard to the need to follow high ground and cross the rivers.’
‘That is not news. I have lived close by here all my life. It has never been any different, but there are paths through the swamps with few people know about.’
‘But see, all is going well, he is retracing his steps to take the relatively high ground to the east of the Niortaise river. He will come past us here. We will be able to perform the role of rearguard without having to move very far.’
‘Rearguard! Rearguard! You have been working with the Earl too long.’
There was a thunder of hooves. Piers de Windsor jumped from his horse. ‘John, John we are in trouble. I was acting as outrider and I came across the French army which has obviously detached itself from the battle in Normany. They are going to bypass the Prince and take the high ground east of Niort. If we want to retreat any further they will force us into the swamp.
John grabbed piers arm and dragged him to the map ‘show us’ he gave a red marker to Piers. piers took a moment or two to orient himself. ‘Here, here and here, heading in this direction.’
Does the Earl know?
I believe so, Ewan Fitzrobert was with me and he rode back to inform the Earl. He would not have been blocked by the French.’
‘How long ago?’
‘Three maybe four hours’
John winced ‘The Prince will be trapped. we will have to go to the rescue.’
The Capital snorted. ‘Which we would have done an hour ago if we had not been messing about with maps.
John started. ‘ No wait’ he grabbed another roll and extracted a much smaller map. ‘The Earl is to a certain extent predictable.’
Piers chortled. ‘No, really!’
John laughed ‘You know he is, he will abandon the retread immediately look for the dryest, highest land available.
‘Look here this is where they must be”. The small map was of the area between Poitiers and Nouaillé. Now see over here, small hill, river Maisson to the south. small river but steepbanks, dense woods to the east and west if it left to the earl he will go there.’
‘Good defensive position but they will be trapped, no way out.’
For the first time the Captal looked interested.
“How many French do you think?
Piers looked around wide eyed. ‘ just an estimate but forty thousand.’
John screwed up his eyes. ‘Good God, and we have five or six thousand with the Prince and another three thousand here.’
The Captal spun the map around. ‘Doesn’t matter! If the Prince takes up the position you have just indicated, the French will only be able to use a couple of thousand at any one time. The other thirty something thousand can only wait and watch.
He grabbed the bigger map. ‘And I could lead the men we have here up the road from Lussac and with a bit of care get behind the French without getting our feet wet.’
John blinked and looked again at the big map. ‘Behind the French, but they are probably further south than the Prince right now.’
‘But we can probably change all that. You two must ride to the Earl. take different routes and hopefully one of you will get through. Make sure he does take up the position you have identified and then make sure he defends that position. The french will try to draw him out but then retrace their steps. Tomorrow is Sunday, use whatever delaying tactics you can think of and then on Monday morning make some provocation to make the French attack.’
He smiled grimly. ‘All you will have to do is hang on, keep the French occupied. I will be there about before midday on Monday.’ He turned away and shouted at the top of his voice. ‘ Ready to move, don’t pack the tents, this is an emergency.’
He turned back. Well done you two, and John, I was wrong, without your maps I don’t think we could have even had this conversation.’