Juan Perez de Pedilla – 22 July 1355
The wind howled and the seas churned in the narrow channel between the Corduan reef and the mainland of Medoc at the mouth of the Garronne estuary. Dirty grey clouds fringed the horizon, hiding all but the thinnest line of even darker grey indicating the extremities of land reaching out on either side of the Gironde estuary.
La Fierté du Medoc tipped disturbingly as a sudden gust of wind caught the sails. The ship’s bow then dipped as it smashed through three waves of ever-increasing size. Spray soaked the ship’s deck but the four men huddled inside the wheelhouse were well protected. They watched the helmsman’s every move.
Juan glanced outward as seagulls soared past, screaming their defiance at the wind and possibly at the ship. The timbers of the ship answered with their own version of a scream.
The Prince chuckled as he swayed from side to side, struggling to regain his balance. “Not quite what I envisaged for a summers day but possibly exactly the kind of day I needed for what I want to do.
Juan smiled mirthlessly, It was not what he had wanted to do today or any other day for that matter.
To take his mind off the heaving sea he thought back to the previous afternoon, which had been as pleasant as today was unpleasant.
He had then taken part in the mini-pageant by which Alyse in her role as Ximene Trencavel had been presented to the citizens… carefully chosen citizens, of Royan. To his amazement, he had been introduced as the “Court Chronicler” not just the “chronicler”.
He was pulled out of his reverie by the Prince’s voice.
He was pointing to the recently constructed tower on the reef at Cordouan. ‘Now, Juan, despite the poor visibility behind the Cordouan tower, it is possible to see the towers we have just installed at Pointe de Valliers and Pointe de Graves To the north is another tower at La Coubre and to the south a tower at Hourtin. We cannot see them right now, but they would be visible on a day with slightly better visibility. So… These five towers during the day will fly my pennant and at night will be lit by braziers. Sailors will be able to find the mouth of the estuary safely under almost all conditions. and as you saw yesterday there are then other markers all the way to Bordeaux. Helmsman, take us to the Estuary.’
An hour and a half later, having made a successful entry to the estuary, the Prince ordered the boat to turn around so that he might carry out a second entry via the northern channel close to the tower which had been built at La Coubre. Inwardly Juan groaned. If anything the weather had worsened.
Once they reached the open sea the Prince ordered a change of course which took them north towards the Ile d’Oleron.
Grey clouds hung low over the water and then out of one of them a ship emerged, bearing down on the La Fierté du Medoc. the helmsman shouted an alarm. “Pirates! Pirates!”. The helmsman pulled the wheel hard over to head further out to sea, screaming at the deck hands to trim the sails. The Pirate ship did its best to cut across the bow of the La Fierté du Medoc.but the prompt action of the helmsman and the fast response of the deckhands meant that the Pirates missed their target, falling no more than one hundred feet short, close enough for the two crews to hurl profanities at each other.
‘What were they trying to do’ Juan shouted the question to no one in particular.
Joshua Blount replied instantly. ‘Standard tactics, they would have changed tack at the last instant and pushed our bow around so that they came up alongside us. They are from Castile and their ships are designed to allow them to do that. They would have pulled us in using grappling hooks and boarded us. Every man for himself. These pirate ships have relatively large crews, we would have been overwhelmed.
The fast reactions of my crew saved us from that. Oh! Look what they are doing now; positioning themselves in the channel to block any attempt to re-enter the estuary. That means there will be another ship somewhere out here. If we were to delay our re-entry we would be attacked again.’
He glanced around and pointed at the shadowy shape of another ship emerging from the clouds.
John felt fear for perhaps the first time in his life. ‘So what are you going to do.’
‘Take the cowardly way out.’ Joshua left the wheelhouse shouting as he went. ‘ Raise the Pennant’
Two minutes later a black and red striped pennant flew at the masthead .
Joshua returned to the wheelhouse. He grinned at the Prince. ‘The lighthouses work well, sire. Thanks to the lighthouses we can set a course direct for Royan. We can sail as close to the pirate as we want. That pennant gives us safe passage. I should really have set it yesterday.
The Prince stared at Joshua. ‘Safe passage, Why? Because I am on board?’
Joshua’s grin broadened. ‘ Sorry to disappoint you sire, but no, we have the pennant as part of the tax paid to the pirates by the traders and masters of Bordeax.’ He chuckled. ‘If they had known you were on board they would probably have attacked us anyway . They could have claimed a huge ransom for you.’
As soon as they tied up in the harbour at Royan. The Prince grabbed both Joshua and Juan by the arm and marched them, steely-eyed to his cabin. There were only two seats in the cabin so Juan ended up leaning against the cabin wall.
The Prince’s voice grated with emotion. ‘Why was I not told. No. Never mind it’s not important. Joshua these Pirates are from Castile? ‘
‘Yes, they operate out of San Sebastian, Bilbao and La Corunna’
‘Yes , I believe so.’
The Prince shook his head. ‘It’s important. if they operate out of all three it means someone is coordinating all this.’
‘ All three.’
‘And the tax?’
‘One payment, for the whole port, every three months’
‘How is it collected’
‘From one of the traders. A different trader each time. He is told which pennant to fly for the next month. He makes the payment and then collects the contributions from everyone else. Once he is paid he then tells them which pennant to use.’
‘ Who does he pay?’
‘It is a bit of a performance. You have seen the fishing huts on poles in Arcachon Bay?’
‘ One of them is in a poor state of repair and is no longer used. The payment must be left there. Before you ask, no one has ever seen how the payment is picked up, but they have a way. The hut is in one of the most remote parts of the bay.’
The Prince sighed. ‘How long has this been going on?’
‘Ten years, twenty years. I honestly don’t know, but it was one of the first things I was told about when I started sailing to Bordeaux.’
‘You have been working with me for over two years and you didn’t think to tell me?’
‘Sorry I didn’t. you are not a ship’s master or a trader, I did not think it would be your concern.’
The Prince’s eyes glinted with anger. ‘Let me tell you. Everything which affects the welfare of Bordeaux or Aquitaine is my concern. Juan, go to Arcachon. Pretend to be writing a piece for your chronicle about the contribution the oyster farming makes to the economy. Interview the leading citizens about nothing in particular but what I really want you to do is see if you can find out who collects the fee. You have a Castilian accent, you are Castilian, perhaps someone will give themselves away.
One way or another I am going to break this evil trade. I will promise you this, if the only way is to invade northern Castile and take control of these ports then I will do so. If necessary, I will sink every ship in all three harbours.