27 April 1355
John pulled again at the grappling iron, but it was stuck fast.
He pulled at the rope around his waist, but it held him tight. However, it did move because the other end of the rope was unattached. Taking advantage of this, he made enough slack around his waist so that he was able to push the coil of rope over his legs. Gasping for breath, he surfaced at the right moment to catch a wave which threw him onto the beach.
His legs trembled as he regained his feet and forced himself to rise from the waters. He looked down to see the end of the rope with grappling hook still attached, clenched in his numb hand. He was about to drop the end of the rope when he saw dozens of people he regarded as friends struggling to stay afloat or being swept out to sea.
Adrenaline forced new energy through his body. Instead of abandoning the rope, John pulled it in it. Waist deep in water, he continually lost his footing as successive waves slammed into his body; but, little by little, he hauled in the line.
‘Here,’ he cried as another soldier staggered from the sea. Together, by synchronising their pulling with the rush of the waves, they were able to haul the hook into reach.
Next, John tried to throw the hook to one of those struggling in the water. The ball of rope gave it enough flotation, but the throw was not accurate enough. As they pulled in the line, the soldier shouted, ‘Let me throw it; there is a knack.’
John recognised him as Stewart Jenkins who’d won Lord James’ contest. Stewart cast the hook with unerring accuracy, close to one of those struggling in the water.
While John pulled, he shouted for others on the beach to help. Soon, Stewart and John, working together with a dozen haggard assistants, had saved three people. Others on the beach rushed to lend a hand and at least a dozen were plucked from the surf.
John squinted into the distance. Lord James, only twenty feet away, made no progress towards the shore. ‘Over there, Stewart!’ He pointed furiously.
Stewart cast towards Lord James, who grasped the hook but then his head vanished under the water. John pulled as hard as he could and Lord James re-emerged, skiing over the surface of the water as the rope was rapidly hauled in.
When he was in the shallows, John and Stewart dragged him onto the sand where to their great relief he vomited a great volume of sea water and coughed until he could get his breath.
Turning round to search for other victims, John could see many who were well past the reach of the grappling hook. However, beyond the Mendip the fishing smack which the Clevedon had towed rocked back and forth in very rough water, its crew plucking survivors from the waves.
The warm afternoon sun dried their clothes quickly, and by mid-afternoon the seas had calmed. Crew unloaded tents and foodstuffs from the Sally and lit bonfires along the beach. Due to rescue effort, only two soldiers from the Mendip drowned in the wreck. Another death occurred on the Clevedon, when the biggest wave had washed a soldier overboard. Not a single sailor had lost his life.
As John looked around, he saw the Black Prince walking carefully amidst the crew and their passengers who were strewn all over the beach. The Prince was consoling some, listening to stories of survival from others, and all the time assessing the damage. His eyes darted from side to side as he walked.
The Prince nodded and smiled to John. ‘More of an adventure than you would have wanted, eh! No injuries?’
John shook his head.
‘Tell me about the grappling hook.’
‘Not much to tell. I brought it ashore almost by accident and it was Stewart, the archer, who did the throwing. He is amazingly accurate!’
The Prince nodded and moved on.
By early evening, camp had been set up on the beach and a messenger had been sent to the Capital de Buch to let him know of their arrival. There was a buzz of conversation about survival and the miracles of deliverance, which only died out when the Prince called everyone together by the biggest bonfire. He spoke only positively.
‘This afternoon we saw examples of bravery and skill which resulted in many of you being plucked from the waves.’ There was an outburst of applause. ‘I want to acknowledge several people who performed important roles. Stewart the Archer and John Stanley saved many people by use of a grappling hook. It was an outstanding example of quick thinking and courage.’
He beckoned with his hand. ‘Come forward, come forward.’ The applause was fortified with rowdy cheers.
‘The second act of bravery is equally outstanding. The Earl of Salisbury and Jack Evans sailed the fishing smack back into the most tumultuous of the waters and with no regard for their own safety. They rescued many who were caught in the current.’ He called upon the Earl and Jack to come forward and once again thunderous applause followed.
For the first time, John found himself in close proximity to the Earl. He noted with surprise that they were the same height, but even now, standing shoulder to shoulder, the Earl seemed much larger, with greater body bulk, but it was his aura that made him so impressive. He turned and smiled at John. There was warmth in the smile, and John knew he was in the presence of a great man.
When John awoke the next morning, the Prince was already at the water’s edge, coordinating the rescue of much-needed supplies. Considering how threatening the waves had been the previous day, John was amazed to find himself able to wade out into water no more than waist deep to rescue his own personal belongings, including the two Saxon axes.
The Earl recruited local villagers to help unload the supplies from the stranded Mendip. The careful packaging had ensured that everything was in remarkably good condition.
A short service was held on the beach for the three dead and the Prince made arrangements for them to be buried in the local graveyard.
John made a point of finding Simon and saying his farewells.
Simon grimaced. ‘Have I seen you grow in stature in only three days? And yet I suspect someday you will need me. My mail box is at the Golden Fleece on the wharf in Bristol, should you ever need a friend.’
The two men embraced briefly and then John hurriedly waved goodbye and rushed to join the column heading towards the chateau at La Tête, the home of Jean de Grailley, Captal du Buch.
As they passed a series of small fishing settlements, their mood gradually lifted, the odd smile could be seen and exited comments were shouted to each other as they took in the scale of the bay and the dunes surrounding it.
At the chateau they were given access to a pool of horses and they then progressed at a fast trot to a camp by the freshwater lake of Biscarrosse, where they found some of the Captal’s men waiting.
Intensive training started immediately. The sergeants charged with carrying out the training drove the group mercilessly. Lord James explained to John that this was deliberate; to take their minds off the shipwreck and their lost comrades. At the same time, the training concentrated on improving each individual’s ability to swim, to ride at speed and to use arms.
Lord James approached John at the end of the first week.
‘Now you know what the training is about, I want you to apply the skills you showed me the first day we met.’
‘But Milord, what we are doing is nothing to do with hunting.’
‘Doubtless not, but you have shown me that the basic idea can be adapted to a number of uses including training. Think about it; each one of these men is trying to improve. Suppose we invented tasks which could identify progress, accuracy, strength or time, and plotted each man’s improvement. We could discover outstanding performers and those who advance quickly. They in turn could provide us with knowledge of why they are so proficient. That information could then be made available to everyone so that we could all improve at a faster rate.’
‘Milord, that is quite a big task; there would be little time for me to train myself.’
‘Agreed,’ Lord James nodded. ‘Take two days off to set it up and then teach the sergeants how it works.’
‘I will do that Milord, but please instruct the sergeants yourself.’
A muscle below Lord James’ eye twitched. He took a deep breath and nodded. ‘Agreed, it is perhaps a little early. I will work with you in setting it up. Now! Archery. What should the tests be?’
John was delighted with the results of his system. It was used to monitor his own performance as well as that of everyone else. John found that in addition to enhancing his skills, the training boosted his strength and fitness to levels he would not have thought himself capable. He learned to scale castle walls and how to break into secure areas within castles. Lord James was a good leader. He made sure that despite his encouragement of fierce competition, training always improved rather than undermined the camaraderie of his small troop. During the training, to make his commitment absolutely clear, he personally took part in every exercise, placing emphasis on achieving better results every day.
He continually monitored performance using John’s system as a guide to identify good performers and also those who needed help.
Those who performed well helped the sergeants instruct the less able members of the team.
‘There are some areas the training does not cover,’ Lord James told John. ‘For instance, when trying to gain entry to a secure fortress, a direct assault is not the only option. Often it is possible to use guile to gain entry when the occupiers are off guard. Once inside it is possible to hide and wait until the time is ripe to strike. It is a skill like any other, but it requires some ingenuity.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Perhaps it is a skill not everyone needs to acquire.’
In the evening, a pattern slowly emerged whereby those with the talent would sing. Those who could not sing would recite poetry or tell of legends of the past. No one was allowed to opt out. Initially John limited himself to singing choruses. He soon discovered he could hold a tune, and under pressure from his new colleagues set about acquiring a repertoire of songs he could perform solo.
John found it a delight that the day’s events could be recited as witty satirical poems. He sought guidance from those who were most skilful in this idiom. Soon he created his own compositions, though he was careful to keep this activity secret.
‘We are talking, gentlemen, about the most dangerous woman in the world.’
By now John knew that Jean de Grailly, Captal de Buch, was a Knight of the Garter and a close confidant and personal friend of the Prince. The Captal sat at one end of a rustic table, where he had recently enjoyed dinner.
On a narrow strip of sand, the table stood between a shimmering lake on one side and open woodland on the other. On the far side of the lake, high sand dunes provided a dramatic backdrop. During dinner, conversation had been punctuated by the low roar of waves breaking on the beach at the far side of the dunes.
The Black Prince sat opposite the Captal and on either side sat the two senior officers of the small expeditionary force, Lord James and the Earl of Salisbury.
The Prince had asked the Captal for his thoughts on their forthcoming mission.
The capital took three deep breaths before commencing. ‘She is nominally the heiress to the counties of Albi, Toulouse, Beziers, Carcassonne and Razes. Her family, the Trencavels on one side and the St Gilles on the other, ruled these counties as independent kingdoms. Some think that they were the rightful rulers of the whole of Occitan. However, one hundred and fifty years ago the Albigensian Crusade removed all their wealth, property and status by force of arms. The Trencavels were singled out for special attention because of their determination to uphold the Cathar religion, its beliefs and culture. The Roman Church judged this religion to be, of its very nature, heresy, hence the justification for the crusade.’
John overheard the briefing because of his position as squire to Lord James. That night he waited on the table and busied himself clearing away the remains of the meal as the briefing started. Next he ensured the three men’s goblets remained topped up with the best red wine of all their supplies.
The Captal continued, ‘Later in the year the Prince will lead a vigorous attack on the rebellious Comte d’Armagnac. Once the Comte has been brought to order, we will move further east to attack the Frankish Bastides in Occitan. It is the Prince’s intention,’ he nodded to the Prince, ‘to take back Occitan from the Northern Franks, who, having confiscated it, populated the land with their own people and subsequently gave special privileges to the interlopers. We think this attack might lead to English expansion into Occitan. At the very least it will distract the Franks from planned English advances in Normandy and Anjou and help stabilise Aquitaine.’
The Captal took a sip of wine. ‘This major offensive will take place later in the year. We are hoping to utilise an army of at least six thousand men, so mobilisation will take some time. This present mission is connected with, but quite separate from that major offensive. There have long been rumours that at least one of the Trencavel family, the previous lords of Occitan, has survived. It is now an established fact. Her name is Ximene Trencavel and she is currently under the guardianship of her uncle the Comte de Foix. The Comte is my cousin; his father was the brother of my mother. That means that although I have never met Ximene and did not even know of her until recently, she is a close relative of mine. The Pope has asked King Edward to take Ximene into safe keeping. The intention is that Ximene should marry the Prince.’
The Captal nodded towards the other end of the table where the Prince looked less than delighted at the prospect.
‘That does not mean however that the Comte will surrender Ximene to us just for the asking. He is conducting what is virtually an auction for her hand in marriage and therefore offering the rights to the vast and politically important lands of Occitan.’
He looked around the table, gauging the reaction of his audience. ‘The Prince wants to meet her before the major offensive. A gathering has been arranged for early June.’ He glanced at both the Earl and Lord James in a moment of silence. ‘We are about to meet Ximene during a hunt organised by the Comte de Foix and we hope to win the Comte’s support for the Prince’s suit. Unfortunately, it is a visit fraught with danger. I…
‘…We, do not trust the Comte de Foix and have reports that Ximene is virtually his prisoner. The Prince is not her only suitor. The King of Aragon is said to be prepared to go to war to bring Occitan back under his control and the King of the Franks is keen for Ximene to marry his son Louis d’Anjou.
‘In addition, she is known to have inherited the heretical Cathar beliefs. If she comes to power she may attempt to reintroduce to Occitan the Cathar heresy. Another crusade could result if she were to succeed. ’
The Earl and Lord James both nodded slowly.
The Captal again breathed deeply.‘All this is happening because of the existence of one woman. The Pope himself called her “The most dangerous woman in the world.” Our task, gentlemen, is to remove Lady Ximene from the tender care of the Comte de Foix and bring her back to Bordeaux where a marriage agreement might be reached. During the negotiations we must ensure the Prince’s safety.’ He smiled ‘She will marry the Prince and have beautiful children who will give the English Crown a legitimate claim to all of Occitan.’
The Prince nodded and gave a strained smile. He added his own postscript to the Captal’s address.
‘Whatever the danger, we must do our duty. Ximene must be brought under our control.’ He paused for effect. ‘And then I must do my duty.’ He threw the last of his wine into the lake and stalked off to his tent.
John watched the setting sun send silver ripples across the lake, before remembering his duties and retreating to the makeshift kitchen.
Later, the Earl of Salisbury visited the Prince in his tent.
‘I must ask. It concerns me greatly. What will you do about Joan?’
‘What can I do? I am under orders.’
‘You will never see her again?’ The Earl narrowed his eyes.
The Prince smiled. ‘Well, actually, yes. You told me that she would be at Clermont later in the month, so I have asked her to go to my house in La Reole. It should be possible to meet her there now the training is complete.’ His face dropped. ‘I could never just abandon her. I will tell her face to face when we meet at La Reole. After that, I will rely on you to keep her safe.’
‘That I will always do.’