Even as the king had commanded, the sixth day found his rear guard half a day's march beyond Poissy, seemingly in hot retreat. Philip of France had been as busy as had been his English rival, and his vast host was also moving. But it was not well in hand, nevertheless, for after that, from camp to camp, from river to river, day after day, the perfectly trained forces of Edward kept just beyond his reach, as if they were enticing him to follow.
There was many a sharp skirmish, and the French captains believed that their foe had often but narrowly escaped.
'Twas the king's plan, nor did he at any time hasten his march, and at last he said to his two marshals, mockingly:
"Philip hath me now, indeed, between his host and this river Somme and the sea. But I think the men and the beasts are not overwearied, and we have left but a desert behind us. Yet three days now, and we may need to retreat no more."
"'Tis yet an hour before the tide will be out, but I believe that horsemen might cross now."
The speaker was a clownish-looking man wearing the wooden shoes and coarse blouse of a French peasant. He stood at the stirrup of a knight in black armor, whose questions he was answering.
"Sir Henry of Wakeham," the prince said, "send in thy men-at-arms. Post thy archers on the bank, right and left. We shall soon see if Godemar du Fay can bar the Somme against us."
"The archers are already posted," replied Sir Henry; "Neville and his Warwickshire men hold the right. The men of Suffolk and Kent are on the left."
"Forward, in the king's name!" commanded the young general, for his royal father had given him charge of the advance.
It was a critical moment, for if the ford of Blanche Taque should not be forced, the entire English army would be hemmed in between the river Somme and the hosts of France. It was but little after sunrise, and Edward had sent orders to all his captains to move forward.
The river Somme was wider here than in its deeper channels above and below. The opposite bank was held by a force that was evidently strong, but its numbers were of less account at the outset. Only a few from either side could contend for the passage of Blanche Taque.
Therefore these were the chosen knights of all England who now rode into the water, finding it nearly up to their horse girths.
Forward from the other shore rode in the men-at-arms of Godemar du Fay to hold the ford for Philip of Valois.
"Now is our time!" shouted Richard to his archers. "Guy the Bow, let every archer draw his arrow to the head!"
Ill fared it then for the French riders when among them, aimed at horses rather than at men, flew the fatal messengers of the marksmen from the forest of Arden. Lances were fiercely thrust, maces and swords rang heavily upon helm and shield; but soon the French column fell into confusion. Its front rank failed of support and was driven steadily back.
Blanche Taque was taken, for of Godemar du Fay's twelve thousand, only a thousand were men-at-arms. When the regular ranks of these were broken, his ill-disciplined infantry took to flight and the battle was over. All the while the tide was running out.
"Stand fast, O'Rourke!" called Richard to the impatient Irish chieftain, who was striding angrily back and forth in front of his line of axemen.
"Ay, but, my Lord of Wartmont," returned the O'Rourke, "there is fighting, and we are not in the battle. Hark!"
"Neville, advance! Thou and all thine to the front, seeking Wakeham. In the king's name, forward!"
A knight in bright armor had drawn rein at a little distance, and he pointed toward the ford as he spoke. It was crowded still by Sir Thomas Gifford's men-at-arms, but the battle on the other shore had drifted far away.
"Forward, O'Rourke!" shouted Richard. "Forward, Guy the Bow! Forward, David Griffith! Good fortune is with us. We are to be under the prince's own command."
Loud cheers replied, and with much laughter and full of courage Richard's force waded into the shallow Somme.
It was easy crossing now for all, with none to hinder. Then, as the last flags of the English rearguard fluttered upon the left bank of the Somme, good eyes might have discovered on the horizon the banners of the foremost horsemen of King Philip. He had marched fast and far that morning, and once more the English army seemed barely to have escaped him.
"A cunning hunter is our good lord the king," remarked Ben o' Coventry to his fellows as they pushed on.
"Thou art ever malapert," said Guy the Bow. "What knowest thou of the thoughts of thy betters?"
"He who runs may read," said Ben. "Can a Frenchman live without eating?"
"I trow not," responded Guy. "What is thy riddle?"
"Did we not waste the land as we came?" said Ben. "Hath not Philip these three days marched through the waste? I tell thee that when he is over the Somme he must fight or starve. Well for us, and thanks to the king, that we are to meet a host that is both footsore and half famished. I can put down a hungry man any day."
Deep indeed had been the wisdom of the king, and his army encamped that Thursday night, without fear of an attack, and the next morning they again went on.
Edward himself rode forward in the advance, after the noontide of Friday, and during the whole march he seemed to be searching the land with his eyes.
"Sir John of Chandos," he exclaimed at last, "see yon windmill on the hill. This is the place I sought. Ride thou with me." The hill was not very high, and its sides sloped away gently. The king dismounted at the door of the mill and gazed in all directions.
"They will come from the west," he said, "with the sun in their eyes. Yon is our battlefield. Here we will bide their onset. Chandos, knowest thou that I am to fight Philip of Valois on mine own land?"
"The village over there is called Cr?cy," replied Sir John. "Truly, the crown of France is thine, rather than Philip's!"
"Ay, so," said Edward, "whether or no he can keep it from me; but this broad vale and the village and the chateaux are my inheritance from my grandmother. Seest thou that ditch to the right, with its fellow on the left? I trust they have good depth. 'Tis a field prepared!"
After that he rode slowly, with his son and a gallant company, throughout the camps, talking kindly and familiarly with high and low alike, and bidding all to trust God and be sure of victory. Brave men were they, and well did they love their king, but it was good for their courage that they should see his face and hear his voice, and assure their hearts that they had a great captain for their commander.
In number they were about as many as had sailed at the first from England, small losses by the way, and the absence of those left as garrisons of strongholds captured in Normandy, having been made good by later arrivals.
This first duty done, the king went to his quarters in the neighboring castle of La Broye, and here he gave a grand entertainment to all his captains and gentlemen of note. There was much music at the royal feast, and every man was inspired to do his best on the morrow. All the instruments sounded together loudly, at the close, when the warriors, who were so soon to fight to the death, arose to their feet and stood then in silence, while the king and the prince turned away and walked out of the hall together, no man following.
"Whither go they?" whispered the Earl of Hereford to Sir John Chandos.
"As it doth well become our king at this hour," replied Sir John. "They go to the chapel of La Broye to pray for victory. 'Twill do our men no harm to be told that the king and the prince are on their knees."
"Verily, my men shall know," said Richard Neville to Sir Thomas Gifford.
All of Edward's army, save the watchers and sentries, slept soundly that night. It was wonderful how little uncertainty they had about the result of the battle.
The morning came, but there were clouds in the sky and the air was sultry. It was Saturday, the 26th of August, 1346.
Edward the king posted himself at the windmill. On the slope and below it were a third of his men-at-arms and a strong body of footmen. This was the reserve. In front thereof, the remainder of the army was placed in the form of a great harrow, with its point – a blunt one enough – toward the hill, and its beams marked by the ditch lines.
The right beam of this English harrow was commanded by the Black Prince in person, and with him were the Earls of Warwick and Hereford, Geoffrey of Harcourt, and Sir John Chandos, with many another famous knight. Their force was less than a thousand men-at-arms, with many Irish and Welsh, but they were especially strong in bowmen, for the king retained few archers with him.
But little less was the strength of the left beam of the harrow, commanded by the earls of Northampton and Arundel.
"Fortune hath favored us!" exclaimed one of the men-at-arms to his young commander; "we are well placed here at the right. We shall be among the first to face the French!"
"Here cometh the prince," responded Richard, "with his Red Dragon banner of Wales. The royal standard is with the king at the mill."
Reviewing the lines with care, and giving many orders as he came, the prince rode up, clad in his plain black armor and wearing the helmet of a simple esquire.
"Richard Neville," he said, as he drew near, "see that thou dost thy devoir this day."
Richard's head bowed low as the prince wheeled away. As he again sat erect upon his war horse a voice near him muttered:
"Ho! seest thou? The French are coming!"
Richard looked, and in the distance he could see a glittering and a flag, but after a long gaze he replied:
"It is too soon. Those are but a band of skirmishers."
So it proved; and the long, hot hours went slowly by. At length the king ordered that every man should be supplied with food and drink, that they might not fight fasting.
Darker grew the clouds until they hung low over all the sky. Blue flashes of lightning were followed by deafening thunder peals, and then there fell a deluge of warm rain.
The English archers were posted in the front ranks along the harrow beams, but the rain harmed not their bows. Every bowstring was as yet in its case, with its hard spun silk securely dry.
"Hearken well, all," said Richard, addressing his men. "The prince ordereth that there shall be no shouting. Fight with shut lips, and send forth no shaft without a sure mark."
"We are to bite, and not to bark," said Ben o' Coventry in a low voice. Then he added aloud: "Yon marshy level is better for the rain. A horse might sink to his pasterns."
"The ditch runneth full," said Richard. "The king chose his battle ground wisely."
"We are put behind the archery now," said David Griffith to his Welshmen. "So are the Irish; but our time to fight will come soon enough."
Most of the men-at-arms belonging to each beam of the harrow were drawn up at the inner end, ready to mount and ride, but wasting no effort now of horse or man.
"The very rain hath fought for England," remarked the prince to his knights, as at the front they wheeled for their return. "There will be hard marching for the host of Philip of Valois."
"They must come through deep mud and tangled country, my Lord the Prince," replied the Earl of Warwick. "His huge rabble of horse and foot will be sore crowded and well wearied."
Moreover, there was much free speech among the knights concerning the difference between the opposing armies as to their training and discipline.
King Philip willed to begin the fight with an advance of his Genoese crossbowmen, fifteen thousand strong. It was bolts against arrows. The Genoese might have done better on another day, for their fame was great; but at this hour they were at the end of a forced march of six leagues, each man carrying his cumbrous weapon with its sheaf of bolts. This had weakened their muscles and diminished their ardor; besides, the sudden rain had soaked their bowstrings. The cords stretched when the strain of the winding winch was put upon them, and had lost their spring, so that they would not throw with good force. Their captains nevertheless drove them forward, at the French king's command.
From his post at the mill foot the royal general of England surveyed the field.
"The day waneth," he said to his earls, "but the waiting is over. The sun is low and sendeth the stronger glare into their eyes. Mark you how closely packed is that hedge of men-at-arms and lances behind the Genoese? Philip is mad!"
On pushed the crossbowmen, until they were well within the beams of the broad harrow, but there they halted, to do somewhat with their bolts, if they could; and they sent up a great shout. No answer came, for the English archers stood silent, holding each a cloth-yard arrow ready for the string.
Small harm was done by the feebly shot crossbow bolts, and the Genoese were ordered to go nearer. They made a threatening rush indeed; but then of their own accord they halted again and shouted, thinking perhaps to terrify the English army.
Steady as statues stood the archers until the Earl of Hereford, at a word from the prince, rode out to where he could be seen by all and waved his truncheon.
Up came the bows along the serried lines, while each man chose his mark as if he were shooting for a prize upon a holiday in merry England.
Those of the enemy who escaped to tell the tale said afterward that then it seemed as if it snowed arrows, so swiftly twanged the strings and sped the white shafts.
With yells of terror the stricken Genoese broke and fled; for by reason of Edward's order of battle they were in a cross fire from the two beams of the harrow, and few shots failed of a target among them.
Some of them even cut the damp strings of their useless crossbows as they went, lest they should be bidden to turn and fight again. They were now, however, only a pell-mell mob, and it was impossible to command them.
Behind the advance of the Genoese had been the splendid array of King Philip's men-at-arms – a forest of lances. In a fair field, and handled well, they were numerous enough to ride down the entire force of King Edward. Against such an attack the English king had cunningly provided. At no great distance in the rear of his knights rode Philip himself, with kings and princes for his company; and fierce was his wrath over the unexpected discomfiture of his luckless cross-bowmen.
"Slay me these cowardly scoundrels!" he shouted to his knights. "Charge through them, smiting as ye go!"
Forward rode the thousands of the chivalry of France and Germany and Bohemia, every mailed warrior among them being full of contempt for the thin barrier of English foot soldiers. All they now needed, it seemed to them, was to disentangle their panoplied war horses from that crowd of panic-stricken Genoese. It would also be well if they could pass the wet ground and avoid plunging against one another in the hurly burly.
But now was to be noted another proof of the wise forethought of the English king. He had had prepared, and the prince had placed at short intervals along the battle line, a number of the new machines called "bombards." These were short, hollow tubes, made either of thick oaken staves, bound together with strong straps of iron, or (as was said of some of them) the staves themselves were bars of iron. Before this day, none knew exactly when, there had been discovered by the alchemists a curious compound that, packed into the bombards, would explode with force when touched by fire, and hurl an iron ball to a great distance. It would hurt whatever thing it might alight upon; but the king's thought was rather that the loud explosions and the flying missiles might affright the mettled horses of the French men-at-arms.
Soon the air was full of the roaring of these bombards, and they served somewhat the king's purpose. But so little was then thought of this use of gunpowder at Cr?cy that some who chronicled the battle, not having been there to see and hear, failed even to mention it.
The fine array of the gallant knights was now confused indeed. They vainly sought to restore their broken order. Not only the manner of the flight of the Genoese, and the greater force and longer line of the right beam of the English harrow invited them to urge their steeds in that direction, but there also floated the Red Dragon banner of the Prince of Wales. Well did each good knight know that there was beating the heart of the great battle.
Worse than the noisy wrath of bombards came now at the command of the prince. To right and left, plying their bows as they went, wheeled orderly sections of the archery lines, that through those gaps might pass the fierce rush of the wild Welshmen. They were ordered forward, not to contend with knights in armor of proof, but to slay the horses with their javelins.
Terrible was the work they did, darting lightly to and fro; and it was pitiful to see so many gallant knights rolled helplessly upon the ground, encumbered by their armor. Nevertheless, many kept their saddles, and broke through the Welsh to find themselves forced to draw rein in front of the deep ditches that guarded the archery, who were ever plying their deadly bows.
"Down lances!" shouted the Black Prince to his men-at-arms, at the head of the harrow. "For England! For the king! St. George! Charge!"
More than two thousand mailed horsemen, of England's best, struck their spurs deep as the royal trumpet sounded. Riders and horses were fresh and unwearied.
There was the thunder of many hoofs, a crash of splintering lances, and they were hand-to-hand with King Philip's disordered chivalry. Well for him and his if he had then sounded a recall, so that his shattered forces might be rearranged; but instead, he poured forward his reserves, thereby increasing the pressure and the tumult, while the English archers ever plied their bows with deadly effect.
It was then that the blind King of Bohemia, the ally of Philip in this war, was told how the day was going. At his side rode several of his nobles, and he said to them:
"I pray and beseech you that you lead me so far into the fight that I may strike one blow with this sword of mine."
He had been accounted a knight of worth in his youth, and the spirit of battle was yet strong upon him, neither did there yet seem to be good reason why his request should not be granted. Therefore his friends on either hand fastened the bridle bits of their horses on a line with his own, and they rode bravely forward together.
Right hard was the strife that now went on, especially between the beams of the harrow and toward the right. In the midst of it floated the Red Dragon flag, and here the prince and his companions in arms were contending against the greater numbers of their assailants. Here was the center toward which all were pressing, and here, it was seen, the fate of the battle was to be decided. For this very reason the pressure was less upon the left beam of the harrow, and its captains could the better observe the marvelous passage at arms around the prince.
"Sir Thomas Norwich," spoke the Earl of Northampton, "we must all go forward and do our best. Ride thou to the king, and crave of him that he send help with speed. We fear it is full time for the reserves to move, if it be not even now too late."
Then the Earl of Arundel and other knights lowered their lances, and setting spurs to their horses charged into the thickest press.
Away spurred the knight of Norwich, and ere many minutes had elapsed he gave the message to the king at the foot of the windmill; for there had the king been standing all the while watching the course of the battle with better perception than could be had by any of those who were in it. He could therefore discern in what manner Philip of Valois was defeating himself, crushing his own forces.
"Is my son dead, or unhorsed, or so wounded that he can not help himself?" he calmly inquired of the messenger.
"No, Sire," responded Norwich; "but he is in a hard passage at arms, and sorely needeth your help."
"Return thou, Sir Thomas, to those who sent thee," said the king, "and bid them not to send to me so long as my son liveth. Let the boy win his spurs; for, if God so order it, I will that the day may be his, and that the honor may be with him and with them to whom I gave it in charge."
No more could the good knight say, and back he rode without company.
There were those who thought it hard of the king, but better it was that he should hold his reserves for utter need.
Nevertheless, the aspect seemed to be growing darker to the true English hearts that were fighting in the press. They saw not, as the king did, that, owing to his cunning plan of battle, more in number of the English than of the enemy were at any instant actually smiting, save at the center, around the prince himself.
Dark as was the seeming, the heart of none was failing.