The King Lands
Despite bitter conditions in the Gulf of Gascony, King Edward had spent more time on deck, impatiently awaiting arrival in Aquitaine, than sequestered where he had as close to privacy as could be found on the Great Edward. It would perhaps be an exaggeration to call him anxious about the news of the armies already in France; however, since the fleet had encountered and burned a small flotilla loyal to the House of Blois - Valoys's Breton ally - south of Brest, he had been increasingly ready to come to grips with the French.
They had kept the French coast to port as they sailed and sometimes rowed. The result was a relatively swift passage for the hundreds of ships in Edward's fleet: six weeks from the Thames to the Charanta. The old Roman bridge at Saintes made the river impassable, at least for a fleet this size, and they moored in what Edward's Lord Admiral, a stubby onetime fisherman named Sir Anthony Young, had viewed with growling disapproval as unseemly haste and improper care with the ships. Edward had had no time for Sir Anthony's disapproval; he was already ashore by then, speaking with the castellan of Saintes, Eudes de Montfort, a distant scion of the Breton family.
"What news from the south?" he demanded, slapping his gloves against his thigh as they rode. Montfort's long face turned even more mournful, his moustache drooping. "N'c'est bon, sire. The man you appointed as Lord Warden of Gascony... this Sieur Michel d'Atfil, he has met King Jean outside Jegun." Edward barely noticed his own correction as he listened to the first report. "Sir Michael Hatfield."
"D'accord. I regret that Sieur d'Atfil had but a few thousand levies with him, what he was able to scrape together from the area. King Jean -" he flinched involuntarily at Edward's murderous glare at the reference to Jean de Valoys as "King Jean" - "came upon him in two hosts, the first his foot, the other, his horse."
"Mm. Much as we expected. What happened?" The Breton shrugged in responses. "What you would expect. Sieur d'Atfil had to retreat on Bordeu. I am told he lost one man in eight... about five 'undred or so." Edward was clearly growing impatient. "And the Valoys?" Again, they were not French, as the French were his people as clearly as the English - this was a contest between Plantagenet and Valoys to Edward, not England and France.
"It is... less clear, sire. They say... that is, I have a cousin who was with them, and 'e says that... that not a single knight died, but that for every English left on the field, they 'ad to bury five French. This was three weeks ago, sire," He added apologetically, then paused. "And there is more." Edward glanced at him in irritation. "Surely, sir, you do not mean to tell me that Jean of Valoys is in Bordeu too?"
"No, sire. His son, the Dauphin Charles, is up the river at Cognac, with nine thousand men." Edward's face went from harassed and irritated to predatory. He roared back over his shoulder, "SEND FOR THE PRINCE!" When the black charger cantered up, hooves clopping against the Roman cobblestones, the King's face was still lit by that bestial hunger. "The Dauphin is at Cognac. We have them!"
The news radiated through the army, and men who had been seasick until lurching bandy-legged onto shore found themselves spurred on by the thought of encountering the French for the first time. They sped eastward, both King and Prince agreed that a first swift, decisive blow would summon Jean de Valoys. It was two days' march from Saintes to Cognac for a well-trained, well-rested army. Despite its current condition, the two of them were grimly determined that this army would make the trip in the same time.
As the two Edwards raced inland, young Geoffrey Chaucer took a fast horse south, acting as herald for the King and bearing a message for Sir Michael Hatfield. Hatfield was exhausted from holding his army together, and had little time for a barely pubescent page. The Lord Warden of Gascony was apparently born to the knighthood, a large, powerful man whose right shoulder was far more developed than his left, giving him a hunchbacked appearance. He could hold a lance at the ready for up to half an hour, and had risen to prominence not because of his innate military skills, which were considerable - the majority of the Valoys dead were from his handful of knights' charge into the French flank - but because he was a tournament champion, and Prince Edward was as addicted to the tourney as he was. He kept his hair shorn bald, though he bowed far enough to fashion that, like the Prince, he had a modest goatee and moustache, trimmed short enough that it never snagged in his aventail when armored.
He was stalking through his army's camp when Chaucer arrived, as blown as his horse. Hatfield was slapping his soldiers, mostly Gascon peasants armed with long knives and leather shields, on the shoulder, cheering them after the apparent rout by a French army that had outnumbered them six to one. "You lot are the spitting image of the lads who killed that French fool Roland," he told more than one band, his once-courtly French roughened by life among his men. Some of them grinned and nodded; the story of Roland was told very differently in Gascony, as the story of the Gascons ejecting the hated French overlords. When his clerk appeared, coughing for his attention, Hatfield shot him a murderous glance before asking, loudly enough for the soldiers to hear, "What, finally came to see how the real men live?"
"Sir," the clerk murmured, "a messenger from the King." He grunted noncommittally. "Which king, red or blue?"
"Red, Sir Michael." Hatfield brayed with laughter, his exhaustion forgotten. "Well why'd you not say so earlier? Bring 'im on." He was unimpressed with the stripling Chaucer, and beckoned him forward peremptorily. "M-my lord," Chaucer began, "I bring word from the -"
"I can read your livery, boy. Your name?" He snapped his fingers, Chaucer stepping forward into the fire's light. "Geoffrey Chaucer, sir, and I bear word from the King..." By then, Hatfield had snatched the message from Chaucer's hand and caught the seal in one ragged, dirty thumbnail. While the army was mauled, he lived rough like the soldiers.
By this writ, given and sealed this seventh day of March, in the Year of Our Lord 1356, it pleases Me, Edward, Third of that Name, King of England and of France, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, to create Sir Michael Hatfield of Canterbury as Baron Hatfield of Jegun, in My peerages of England and France. I direct further that Baron Hatfield raise the levies of Gascony, Guyenne, and Armanhac, to better serve Me.It was indeed sealed by the King, but more important to Hatfield was the note below, written in the King's own tight, neat hand: Welle donne, thou Goudd and Faythfulle Saurvaunt. Edw. Rex. Angl. Fr. Etc. Sunset or not, the Gascon camp was a beehive from then on. The army still licked its wounds, but it would return to combat soon enough, and when it did, he vowed, it would ring the bells of Tholoza with John of Valoys's head.
Not everyone was overjoyed at the King's decision on a lightning campaign. John Hawkwood had been pulled aside by the stubby Welshman Owain almost as soon as they set foot ashore. "Lad, 'splain y'r no archer. Ai took ya because tha' Londoner needed skinnin'. But as no archer, y'r no use t'me either. Must make an archer o' ye." Owain's grin had been deeply unpleasant. "So 'til Ai say else, ye get t'bear the Cross of St. Dewi." He had thrust an oaken pole into Hawkwood's hands, three inches in diameter and a foot and a half taller than Hawkwood. "Y'old it ower yer hid a'y time we're n'eatin' or sleepin', an' it doesn' leave yer'and e'en then." The little Welshman had laughed. "An' fair warnin', Ai'll like a'not 'ang things from it - th'burden of St. Dewi, y'might say."
From Saintes to Cognac, then, John Hawkwood, his face a sweating mask of barely concealed agony, had held the stout oak staff overhead, working as much as beast of burden as levy. Occasionally Owain took pity on him - "pity" being that the staff went across his shoulders, with a pack or a string of waterskins on each end of the staff - and occasionally Owain spurred him on out in front of the others with the end of his own bowstave. When Matthew protested to Owain, the Welshman explained quietly, "'Snot to be cruel, lad, 's't' get 'im where 'e'll bend on a man's bow without thought. You ken 'ow, I ken 'ow, but Ewan there's plain no archer." He shrugged eloquently. "'E needs more'n bull strength t'bend a bow, it need'm strong head t'heel."
Owain's tortures were not restricted to John Hawkwood alone. When they made camp, Owain drilled the English archers for at least an hour, when everyone else was bedding down. "Y're no' Cymraeg, so w'need t'find an Anglois way of fightin'. Put y'in lines o'somesuch," he explained the first brutal night of training after landing. Most of them were exhausted, and there had been precious little time to recover from seasickness. Nevertheless, they trained - forming in long lines, with men detailed to run arrows to the archers, and the archers fumbling to execute commands on Owain's barked orders: Pluck - nock - present - bend - loose. They could deliver twelve arrows in a minute if they had the arrows at their feet to pluck, which fixed the archers' lines at the start of a battle. Owain lectured them on the role of an archer on the battlefield. "Y'll nivver punch through plate, so if 'e's on a 'orse, kill th'orse, then 'e's on foot like you, an' you're faster. Don' worry so much about th' French flower, either, kill th' poor buggers b'hind an' th' lobsters'll do th'rest." Owain had a healthy contempt for armored knights; he enjoyed tournaments as much as the next common spectator, but, just like boxing and bear-baiting, it had nothing to do with a real battlefield, he reminded them.
On the ninth of March, 1356, the army of King Edward III reached the French lines around Cognac. It was a Wednesday - fitting, one of de Waterton's poets suggested, that they meet on a day sacred to the old pagan god of battle and kingship.