30 May 1355
The ugly, misshapen man with the red hair snorted in annoyance. Du Guesclin had found and joined a band of Routiers who were active in the area north of Augillion.
They were organised enough to demand a payment for his admission to their company and to have a set of rules for membership, to which he had to agree to obtain acceptance. Other than that, in Du Guesclin’s opinion they were hopeless.
They scoured the countryside looking for something but did not know what they were looking for and had no idea how to take advantage of anything they happened to find. They were hoping for any easy target. In these circumstances, Du Guesclin found it relatively easy to exert some leadership.
He was in the midst of trying to focus their attention on an attack on Monpazier. His enemy William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, had led him there. He knew that William must have some involvement, some personal link, with the town or its inhabitants. That was enough. He would make them suffer. At this point, however, he was having little success in getting the Routiers to agree to his plan of attack.
The group of mercenaries were veterans of the various battles between the Franks and the English. During the years of peace the mercenaries had grouped themselves into companies and gone into business on their own account. Their target: the remote French countryside and in particular the disputed areas at the uncertain boundary between French and English territories. In no man’s land, no man was in a position to uphold law and order.
Though there were many different companies, the people on whom they preyed did not distinguish one company from another. All were lumped together as the loathsome ‘Les Routiers’.
This company called themselves ‘Frères de Fer’—‘Brothers of Iron.’ They had based themselves in a large country house abandoned by its owners, but were prepared to move instantly if any threat presented itself. They wanted wealth but did not intend to give their lives needlessly.
Bertrand du Guesclin’s patience was rapidly running thin. He addressed those gathered around him. ‘I have no desire to waste my time laying siege to one miserable country town after another. On the other hand, none of us will get rich collecting ancient cupboards from abandoned farms.’
One member of the group pushed his way forward and glared at Du Guesclin. ‘You only joined us three days ago. What gives you the right to tell us what to do?’
Du Guesclin hardly seemed to move. Nevertheless, he produced a small dagger and waved it quickly in the air. His adversary collapsed instantly, his throat cut from ear to ear. Du Guesclin did not even look at him as he expired noisily at his feet.
‘This does,’ he said, meticulously wiping the blood from his blade.
‘Now, is there someone else who wishes to challenge my authority?’ He leered at them through the tiny slits of his eyes. Those around him stepped back hurriedly.
‘Good, now remember my only objective is to make you rich, very rich. I will use Monpazier as a model to teach you how. You have told me yourselves that you wasted two weeks and obtained nothing for your efforts. The tools we have available to us are frailty, greed, optimism and fear. It also helps that people are mostly loyal to each other thinking it is a strength, whereas in fact it is a weakness. We will revisit Monpazier tomorrow. Now, where’s the entertainment?’
A group of five terrified girls were dragged into the room. They screamed at the sight of the body on the floor and the gradually expanding pool of blood. Bound together, they staggered, desperately trying to coordinate their movement and collectively keep their balance. Du Guesclin approached, chortling with delight.
It was the beginning of a very long night.
Bertrand du Guesclin chose not to ride towards Monpazier at the head of a column of Routiers. Instead he casually walked towards the town accompanied by only five others.
‘If we stay this side of the trees and the hedgerow they cannot see us from the church tower,’ he explained. Soon, peering through the hedgerow they located people working in the fields, too busy to notice intruders.
‘Take the old man,’ Du Guesclin said. ‘Ignore the women and children, they can probably run too fast. In any case, the old man is a good choice. He probably has a large family living in the town, who will exert pressure on his behalf. Don’t rush, he is not expecting Routiers to be on foot. He will probable greet you like an old friend.’
Just one of the five Routiers sauntered through a gate and approached the old man. No alarm sounded as he pinned the old man to the ground.
‘Now!’ said Du Guesclin. ‘Run towards the others, just scare them. They will probably run away. If they don’t, take no chances. Kill them. We only need one hostage.’ Only one man moved towards the Routiers. He quickly realised that he was isolated from the others and badly outnumbered. He turned and ran.
‘Let him go, let him go,’ yelled Du Guesclin. ‘We only need one hostage.’
There was still no alarm from the town. Du Guesclin pulled the old man to his feet and bound his hands behind his back.
‘We can relax now.’ Du Guesclin laughed ruthlessly, pushing the old man backwards into a pile of hay.
‘You two! Bring the rest of the company.’
Half an hour later they lined up outside the main gate of the town. Alarms now filled the air and defenders watched from the walls and the church tower. Du Guesclin walked towards the walls, pushing the old man in front of him until he judged he was close enough to talk to the people in the tower.
‘You see,’ he said, over his shoulder. ‘They will not attempt to take me out with bow and arrow for fear of killing our hostage.’
Du Guesclin pointed at one man who seemed to be issuing instructions to other defenders who appeared in greater numbers along the walls. He yelled at the top of his voice, ‘A week ago you wasted my colleagues’ time by keeping your gates locked and refusing to make a donation to our cause. It is very simple. From now on you will pay taxes to me, not your English overlords. I estimate the profit you make each year as fifty thousand livres. I only want ten percent of that, but I want it each year. For now I will accept jewels gold, silver and tableware to the value of two thousand livres. You will then have two months to raise another three thousand livres in gold.’
He paused and waved his hand towards the Routiers behind him. ‘If you ever default we will find a way into your town and we will kill you all.’ He paused again. ‘I can assure you if we are driven to do that you will not die easily.’
There was no sign of movement from the tower. Du Guesclin sighed. ‘You have thirty minutes to give me the first instalment. If the valuables are not delivered, the old man dies. We will kill him by chopping off his hands and feet and then disembowelling him here in front of you.’
There was still no movement from the onlookers in the tower.
‘Oh! You think I could not do that?’
Almost casually he pushed the old man backwards into the arms of a man behind him.
‘Hold him tight,’ he told him. Du Guesclin then asked another Routier to untie the old man’s hands. The old man started to whimper. Du Guesclin ignored him. A third Routier pulled on the old man’s right arm. Du Guesclin stepped back and swung his sword. The old man screamed. The blade came down, glinting in the sunshine.
The old man’s severed hand bounced once along the pebbled road. His legs gave way beneath him as he continued to scream.
There was now much movement from those inside the tower. Within thirty minutes a chest was pushed through the gate facing the Routiers.
‘No! No!’ said Du Guesclin. ‘Do you think we are stupid? Bring the chest here and you can take the old man back with you.’
A middle-aged man dressed in good clothes approached fearfully, obviously expecting the worst. He avoided looking at Du Guesclin and walked with a sideways shuffle, as though somehow that might save his life. He gingerly placed the chest on the floor. Du Guesclin did not even examine it. He knew that in the current circumstances the value of items in the chest would exceed what he had asked for.
The man wrapped his hands around the old man’s body. He carefully lifted him to a standing position and wrapped the man’s good arm around his neck and shoulders. The old man shook violently and he started to moan, stopping only for the occasional breath. The pair jerked and shuddered their way back through the gates, after which they were again banged shut.
Du Guesclin looked round triumphantly at his colleagues. ‘There you are, that is how it is done.’
‘Why didn’t you kill them?’ someone asked. Du Guesclin shook his head sadly. The stupidity of these Routiers never ceased to amaze him.
‘If we had killed those two there would have been no one to bring us our payment next time we come. I have no intention of going close to the walls to provide target practice for archers or have boiling oil poured on me.’ He laughed. ‘No! This is all it takes to make us rich at the minimum risk. Thomas, come here.’
He put his arm round the black-haired man who walked forward.
“I think you told me that you are a clerk.’
‘Used to be, yes. I specialised in contracts.’
‘Good. Monpazier will not be our only success. We need new contracts to set out how our new-found wealth will be divided. We also need a system of recording all our takings and how much we eventually get paid for them.’
He bent down and picked up the old man’s severed hand. Still on the finger was an elaborate ring carrying a heraldic insignia. At the top right and bottom right were two eagles, and at the top left and bottom right were three red diamonds.
Thomas smiled. ‘Sounds like you are starting a business.’