Saint George for England


The next evening the armourer, at Walter's request, continued his narrative.

"Soon after the tournament we began to fight again with Scotland. For some years we had had peace with that country, and under the regency a marriage was made between David, King of Scotland, son of Robert the Bruce, and the Princess Joan, sister to our king, and a four years' truce was agreed to."

"But why should we always be fighting with Scotland?" Walter asked.

"That is more than I can tell you, Walter. We were peaceful enough with them until the days of Edward I; but he set up some claim to the throne of Scotland, the rights of which neither I nor anyone else, so far as I know, have ever been able to make out. The fact was he was strong, and thought that he could conquer Scotland. The quarrels between her nobles—most of them were allied by blood with our own and held possessions in both kingdoms—gave Edward an excuse to interfere. Scotland was conquered easily enough, but it was a hard task to hold it. Sir William Wallace kept the country in a turmoil for many years, being joined by all the common people. He inflicted one heavy defeat upon us at Stirling, but receiving no support from the nobles he was defeated at Falkirk, and some years afterwards was captured and executed here. His head you may see any day over London Bridge. As he fought only for his country and had ever refused allegiance to our king, it seems to me that his fate was a cruel one. Then when all appeared quiet, Robert Bruce raised Scotland again, and was crowned king. There was war for many years, but at last, at Bannockburn he inflicted such a defeat upon us as we have never had before. After that there were skirmishes and excursions, but Edward II was a weak prince, and it seemed that the marriage of David and the Princess Joan would bring about a permanent peace between the two countries; but it was not to be so."

"Many of the English nobles held claims by marriage or grants upon lands in Scotland. They had, of course, been driven from these when the English were turned out by Bruce. By the terms of the marriage treaty in 1328 it was agreed that they should be reinstated. It was a foolish clause, because it was plain that the King of Scotland could not take these lands again from the Scotch nobles who had possession of them, many of them being well-nigh as powerful as himself. At this time Edward Baliol, son of the great rival of Robert Bruce, was in England. He still claimed the throne of Scotland as his right. Round him gathered a number of the English nobles who claimed lands in Scotland. The king offered no hindrance to the gathering of this force, for I doubt not that he was glad to see dissension in Scotland, which might give him some such pretext for interference as that which Edward I had seized to possess himself of that country. At first Baliol was successful, and was crowned at Scone, but he was presently defeated and driven out of Scotland. The Scots now made an eruption across the frontier as a retaliation for Edward's having permitted Baliol to gather a force here for his war against Bruce. King Edward was on the point of starting for Ireland, and he at once hastened north. He defeated the Scots at Halidon Hill, captured Berwick, and placed Baliol upon the throne. Bruce fled to France, where he was supported and encouraged by the French king."

"The ill feeling between Edward and Phillip of Valois had gone on increasing ever since the former had been compelled to take the oath of allegiance to the latter, but outwardly the guise of friendship was kept up, and negotiations went on between the two courts for a marriage between the little Prince of Wales and Joanna, daughter of the French king."

"The aid which Phillip gave to Bruce increased the bad feeling, and Edward retaliated for Phillip's patronage of Bruce by receiving with the greatest honour and courtesy Robert of Artois, a great feudatory of France, who had been banished by King Phillip. For a time, although both countries were preparing for war, peace was not broken, as Edward's hands were full in Scotland, where Baliol having bestowed immense possessions upon the English nobles who had assisted him, the country again rose in favour of Bruce. During the three years that followed King Edward was obliged several times to go to Scotland to support Baliol, who held the crown as his feudal vassal. He was always successful in the field, but directly his army recrossed the frontier the Scotch rose again. In 1330 a new crusade was preached, and in October of that year King Phillip solemnly received the cross and collected an immense army nominally for the recovery of Jerusalem. Whether his intentions were honest or not I cannot say, but certainly King Edward considered that Phillip's real aim in creating so great an army was to attack England. Whether this was so or not would need a wiser head than mine, Walter, to tell. Certainly Phillip of Valois invited Edward to cooperate with him in the crusade. The king in reply stated his belief that the preparations were intended for war in Europe rather than in Asia; but that if the King of France would agree to conclude a firm league of amity between the two countries, to restore the castles and towns of Aquitaine, whose surrender had been frequently promised but never carried out, and would bind himself by oath to give no assistance, direct or indirect, to Scotland, he would join him in his war for the delivery of the Holy Land."

"I must say that King Edward's demands were reasonable, for it was clear that he could not march away from England with his whole force and leave Baliol unsupported against the assaults of his Scotch enemies, aided by France. Phillip was willing to accede to the first two conditions; but in regard to the third positively declined treating until David Bruce should be restored to the throne of his father. Now, had the French king openly supported Bruce from the first, none could have said that his conduct in befriending a dethroned monarch was aught but noble and generous; but he had all along answered Edward's complaints of the aid afforded by Frenchmen to the Bruce by denials that he himself supported him; and this declaration in his favour now certainly seemed to show that he had at last determined openly to throw off the veil, and that his great army was really collected against England. Robert of Artois craftily seized a moment when the king's indignation against Phillip was at the highest. At a great banquet held by King Edward, at which all his warlike nobles were present, Robert entered, preceded by two noble maidens carrying a heron, which, as you know, Walter, is considered the most cowardly of birds. Then in loud tones he called upon the knights present each to swear on the bird to perform some deed of chivalrous daring. First he presented it to King Edward himself, giving him to understand that he regarded him but as little braver than the heron for resigning without a blow the fair heritage of France."

"The moment was well chosen, for Edward was smarting under the answer he had just received from Phillip. He at once rose and took an oath to enter France in arms; to wait there a month in order to give Phillip time to offer him battle, and to accept the combat, even should the French outnumber him ten to one. Every knight present followed the example of the king, and so the war with France, which had been for years a mere question of time, was at last suddenly decided upon. You yourself, Walter, can remember the preparations which were made throughout England: men were enrolled and arms prepared. We armourers were busy night and day, and every man felt that his own honour, as well as that of the country, was concerned in winning for King Edward the heritage of which he had been unlawfully robbed by the King of France."

"On the 17th of March, 1337, at the parliament at Westminster, the king created the little prince, then seven years of age, Duke of Cornwall; and the prince immediately, in exercise of his new dignity, bestowed upon twenty of the most distinguished aspirants the honour of knighthood. Immense supplies were voted by the parliaments held at Nottingham, Westminster, and Northamton. Half the wool shorn in the summer following was granted to the king, with a variety of other taxes, customs, and duties. The revenues of all the foreign priories in England, a hundred and ten in number, were appropriated to the crown. Provisions of bacon, wheat, and oats were granted, and the king pawned his own jewels, and even the crown itself, to hire soldiers, and purchase him allies on the Continent. So great did the scarcity of money become in the country that all goods fell to less than half their value. Thus a vast army was raised, and with this King Edward prepared to try his strength with France."

"Phillip on his part was making great preparations. While Edward had purchased the assistance of many of the German nobles Phillip raised large armaments in the maritime states of Italy. Spain also contributed a number of naval adventurers, and squadrons were fitted out by his vassals on the sea coasts of Normandy, Brittany, and Picardy. King Edward had crossed over into Belgium, and after vast delays in consequence of the slowness of the German allies, at last prepared to enter France at the end of September, 1339. Such, my lad, is the story, as far as I know, of the beginning of that war with France which is now raging, and whose events you know as well as I do, seeing that they are all of late occurrence. So far, although the English have had the best of it, and have sorely mauled the French both in the north and south, we have not gained any such advantages as would lead to a belief that there is any likelihood of an early termination, or that King Edward will succeed for a long time in winning back his inheritance of the throne of France."

"There is no doubt that the war weighs heavily upon the people at large. The taxes are doubled, and the drain of men is heavy. We armourers, of course, have a busy time of it, and all trades which have to do with the furnishing of an army flourish exceedingly. Moreover, men of mettle and valour have an opportunity of showing what they are composed of, and England rings with the tales of martial deeds. There are some, Walter, who think that peace is the greatest of blessings, and in some ways, lad, they are no doubt right; but there are many compensations in war. It brings out the noble qualities; it raises men to think that valour and fortitude and endurance and honour are qualities which are something above the mere huckstering desire for getting money, and for ignoble ease and comfort. Some day it may be that the world will change, and that war may become a thing of the past; but to my mind, boy, I doubt whether men will be any happier or better for it. The priests, no doubt, would tell you otherwise; but then you see I am an armourer, and so perhaps am hardly a fair judge on the matter, seeing that without wars my craft would come to an end."

Walter remained in thought for some time. "It seems to me, Master Geoffrey, that while wars may suit strong and courageous men, women would rejoice were such things to be at an end."

"Women suffer most from wars, no doubt," Geoffrey said, "and yet do you mark that they are more stirred by deeds of valour and chivalry than are we men; that they are ever ready to bestow their love upon those who have won honour and glory in war, even although the next battle may leave them widows. This has been always somewhat of a marvel to me; but I suppose that it is human nature, and that admiration for deeds of valour and bravery is ingrained in the heart of man, and will continue until such times come that the desire for wealth, which is ever on the increase, has so seized all men that they will look with distaste upon everything which can interfere with the making of money, and will regard the man who amasses gold by trading as a higher type than he who does valiant deeds in battle."

"Surely that can never be," Walter said indignantly.

"There is no saying," the armourer answered; "at any rate, Walter, it will matter little to you or to me, for many generations must pass before such a state of things can come about."

Two days later Walter, who had been across into the city, returned in a state of excitement.

"What do you think, Geoffrey? The king, with the Prince of Wales and all his court, are coming to the games next month. They say that the king himself will adjudge the prizes; and there is to be a grand assault-at-arms between ten of the 'prentices with a captain, and an equal number of sons of nobles and knights."

"That will be rare," Geoffrey Ward exclaimed; "but there will be some broken limbs, and maybe worse. These assaults-at-arms seldom end without two or three being killed. However, you youngsters will not hit as hard as trained knights; and if the armour be good, no great damage should be done."

"Do you think that I shall be one of the ten?" Walter asked anxiously.

"Just as if you did not know you would," Geoffrey replied, laughing. "Did you not win the prize for swordplay last year? And twelve months have added much to the strength of your arm, to say nothing of your skill with weapons. If you win this year again—and it will be strange if you do not—you are like enough to be chosen captain. You will have tough fighting, I can tell you, for all these young aspirants to knighthood will do their best to show themselves off before the king and queen. The fight is not to take place on horseback, I hope; for if so, it will be settled as soon as it begins."

"No, it is to be on foot; and the king himself is to give orders as to the fighting."

"You had best get out that helmet and coat of mail of yours," Geoffrey said, "I warrant me that there will be none of finer make or of truer metal in the tourney, seeing that I made them specially for you. They are light, and yet strong enough to withstand a blow from the strongest arm. I tried them hard, and will warrant them proof, but you had best see to the rivets and fastenings. They had a rough handling last year, and you have not worn them since. There are some other pieces that I must put in hand at once, seeing that in such a melee you must be covered from head to foot."

For the next week nothing was talked of in London but the approaching sports, and the workmen were already engaged in the erection of the lists and pavilions in the fields between the walls and Westminster. It was reported that the king would add valuable prizes to those given to the winners by the city; that there would be jousting on horseback by the sons of the court nobles, and that the young Prince of Wales would himself ride.

The king had once before taken part in the city sports, and with ten of the citizens had held his own against an equal number of knights. This was at the commencement of his reign; but the accident to the queen's stand had so angered him that he had not again been present at the sports, and his reappearance now was considered to be an act of approval of the efforts which the city had made to aid him in the war, and as an introduction of the young prince to the citizens.

When the day arrived there was a general flocking out of the citizens to the lists. The scene was a picturesque one; the weather was bright and warm; the fields were green; and Westminster, as well as London, sent out large numbers to the scene. The citizens were all in their best; their garments were for the most part of somber colours—russet, murrey, brown, and gray. Some, indeed, of the younger and wealthier merchants adopted somewhat of the fashion of the court, wearing their shoes long and pointed, and their garments parti-coloured. The line of division was down the centre of the body; one leg, arm, and half the body would be blue, the other half russet or brown. The ladies' dresses were similarly divided. Mingling with the citizens, as they strolled to and fro upon the sward, were the courtiers. These wore the brightest colours, and their shoes were so long that the points were looped up to the knees with little gold chains to enable them to walk. The ladies wore headdresses of prodigious height, culminating in two points; and from these fell, sweeping to the ground, streamers of silk or lighter material. Cloths of gold and silver, rich furs, silks, and velvets, were worn both by men and women.

None who saw the nobles of the court walking in garments so tight that they could scarce move, with their long parti-coloured hose, their silk hoods buttoned under the chin, their hair braided down their back, would have thought that these were the most warlike and courageous of knights, men whose personal prowess and gallantry were the admiration of Europe. Their hair was generally cut close upon the forehead, and the beard was suffered to grow, but was kept trimmed a moderate length. Many of the ladies had the coat-of-arms of their family embroidered upon their dresses, giving them the appearance of heralds' tabards. Almost all wore gold or silver girdles, with embroidered pouches, and small daggers.

Thus the appearance of the crowd who moved about among the fields near the lists was varied and brilliant indeed. Their demeanour was quiet, for the London merchants deemed a grave demeanour to belong to their calling, and the younger men and apprentices restrained their spirits in the presence of their superiors. For their special amusement, and in order, perhaps, to keep them from jostling too freely against the court gallants and ladies, the city authorities had appointed popular sports such as pleased the rougher classes; and bull baiting, cock-fighting, wrestling for a ram, pitching the bar, and hand ball, were held in a field some distance away. Here a large portion of the artisans and apprentices amused themselves until the hour when the king and queen were to arrive at their pavilion, and the contests were to commence.

Presently a sound of trumpets was heard, and the royal procession was seen moving up from Westminster. Then the minor sports were abandoned; the crowd gathered round the large fenced-in space, and those who, by virtue of rank or position in the city, had places in the various stands, took their places there.

There was a flourish of trumpets as the king and queen appeared in front of the pavilion, accompanied by the Prince of Wales and many of the nobles of the court, and a shout of welcome arose from the crowd. The shooting at a mark at once began. The preliminary trials had been shot off upon the preceding day, and the six chosen bowmen now took their places.

Walter had not entered for the prizes at archery. He had on previous years shot well; but since he had fully determined to become a man-at-arms he had given up archery, for which, indeed, his work at the forge and his exercises at arms when the fires were out, left him but little time. The contest was a close one, and when it was over the winner was led by the city marshal to the royal pavilion, where the queen bestowed upon him a silver arrow, and the king added a purse of money. Then there were several combats with quarterstaff and broadsword between men who had served among the contingents sent by the city to aid the king in his wars. Some good sword-play was shown and many stout blows exchanged, two or three men were badly hurt, and the king and all present were mightily pleased with the stoutness with which they fought.

The apprentices then came forward to compete for the prizes for sword-play. They wore light iron caps and shirts of thickly quilted leather, and fought with blunted swords, for the city fathers deemed wisely that with these weapons they could equally show their skill, and that with sharpened swords not only would severe wounds be given, but bad blood would be created between the apprentices of the various wards. Each ward sent its champion to the contest, and as these fought in pairs, loud was the shouting which rose from their comrades at each blow given or warded, and even the older citizens joined sometimes in the shouting and took a warm interest in the champions of their respective wards.

The iron caps had stout cheek-pieces which defended the sides of the face and neck, for even a blunted sword can deliver a terrible blow if it fall upon the naked flesh. It took a long time to get through the combats; the pairs were drawn by lot, and fought until the king decided which was the superior. Some were speedily beaten, at other times the contests were long and severe. It was generally thought by the apprentices that the final contest lay between Walter Fletcher of Aldgate and Ralph Smith of Ludgate. The former was allowed to be superior in the use of his weapon, but the latter was also skilful, was two years older, and greatly superior in strength. He had not taken part in the contest in the preceding year, as he had been laid up with a hurt in his hand which he had got in his employment as a smith, and the lads of Ludgate were confident that he would turn the tables upon the champion of the eastern ward. Both had defeated with ease the various opponents whom they had met, but it chanced that they had not drawn together until the last round, when they remained alone to struggle for the first and second prizes.

The interest in the struggle had increased with each round, and wagers were freely laid upon the result. According to custom the two champions had laid aside their leathern shirts and had donned mail armour, for it was considered that the crowning contest between the two picked young swordsmen of the city would be a severe one, and greater protection to the limbs was needed.

Before taking their places they were led up to the royal pavilion, where they were closely inspected by the king and his nobles.

"You are sure that this man is still an apprentice?" the king asked the Lord Mayor, who was seated next to him; "he has the appearance of a man-at-arms, and a stout one too; the other is a likely stripling, and is, as I have seen, marvellously dexterous with his sword, but he is but a boy while the other is a grown man.

"He is an apprentice, my liege, although his time will be up in a few days, while the other has yet three years to serve, but he works for an armourer, and is famed through the city, boy as he is, for his skill with weapons."

After a few words to each, exhorting them to do their best in the sight of the queen and her ladies, the king dismissed them.

"I know the young one now!" the Prince of Wales said, clapping his hands as the apprentices turned away to take their places. "My Lord Talbot, I will wager a gold chain with you upon the smaller of the two."

"I will take your wager," the noble answered; "but I am by no means sure that I shall win it, for I have watched your champion closely, and the downright blows which he struck would seem to show that he has the muscle and strength of a man though still but a boy."

The event justified the Prince of Wales's confidence; at the commencement of the struggle Ralph Smith tried to beat down his opponent by sheer strength as he had done his prior opponents, but to his surprise he found that all his efforts could not break down his opponent's guard. Walter indeed did not appear to take advantage of his superior lightness and activity, but to prefer to prove that in strength as well as skill he was equal to his antagonist. In the latter respect there was no comparison, for as soon as the smith began to relax his rain of blows Walter took the offensive and with a sweeping blow given with all his strength broke down his opponent's guard and smote him with such force upon his steel cap that, blunted as the sword was, it clove through the iron, and stretched the smith senseless on the ground. A loud shout broke from the assemblage. The marshal came up to Walter, and removing his helmet, led him to the royal pavilion, while Ralph was carried to a tent near, where a leech attended his wound.

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