Chapter 22 – A Day of Surprises
July 28, 1441
… the English line was less than 1,000 feet from the French outposts. The English were still hidden from view by the woods through which they were presently traversing. Will Howard turned in his saddle, looking back. Just behind him were Geoff and Bear White. They had there bows strung and ready, arrows already fitted into the strings.
Three rows back were his scouts. Owyn Llanbadoc and Rhys Morgan also had bows at the ready. Gerard of Ravensworth and his two friends held there swords at the ready. The remainder of the scouts were variously armed with bows, pikes, and/or swords.
Will turned to face forward. He checked his shield, strapped to his left arm, and drew his short sword. He noticed that his mouth was as dry as dust. What he wouldn’t give for a mouthful of water.
Just ahead of him was Sir John, Baron Talbot. On either side of the Baron rode one of his most important lieutenants, Sir William Peyto (who had previously served Sir Richard de Beauchamp, fifth Earl of Warwick) and Sir Henry Talbot of Blackmere (one of the Baron’s bastard sons).
There were streaks of sunlight radiating in the eastern sky, but the woods were still shrouded in darkness. Within minutes, the first row of the English line came out of the covering woods like an apparition. The English line was perhaps 200 horsemen across, stretching almost a thousand feet from one end to the other. The English surcoats, red cross of St. George on white, would be impossible to miss.
The facing French sentry outposts were manned by men almost numb from a night of boredom and inactivity. No one expected the English to be on this side of the river. This was the choice assignment, guarding the safe side of the French encampment. If the English were to attack, it would be far away, at the Poissy Bridge.
Some of the French nightwatch were asleep. Most, awake, stared in disbelief at the shadowy figures advancing out of the woods. Mists swirled up around the advancing English.
The size of the English line, ghostlike in the swirling mists, with the muffled clanking of some loose equipment, the footfalls of the horses still advancing at a slow canter, and the eerily silent soldiers, seemed like a dream to the French night watch. It was a dream about to become a nightmare. Yet no one cried out the alert.
Sir John, Baron Talbot glanced at his son, Sir Henry of Blackmere. At this sign, Sir Henry cried loudly, “Banners, attack!”
The command did not have to be repeated. Sir Henry of Blackmere, who held Talbot’s banner with the white hound, spurred his horse forward. Baron Talbot, beside him, veered towards the Abbey of Poissy. The first row of the English line charged forward. The second row sprang after them, as did each subsequent row. Five rows of madly charging English, Welsh, Normans, and mercenaries.
The first row of the English line cried “For Henry, Talbot, and St. George!” The remaining rows echoed, “Henry, Talbot, and St. George!”
The French sentries began to spread the alert. “Les Anglais! Les Anglais!” they cried. As if to add emphasis, some cried, “Le roi Talbot! Le roi Talbot!”
The first row of the English line sped past the outposts like they didn’t even exist. Arrows silenced the French. But the alert no longer needed to be sounded. More than nine hundred charging horses made a considerable noise. Their riders had quit crying the battle charge. They were now intent upon their deadly task of killing as many French soldiers as they could.
Further ahead, French soldiers staggered from their tents, partially dressed and partially armed. They looked this way and that, trying to make sense out of what was happening. Many were looking at the Poissy Bridge, half expecting to see the English sweeping across it. Those who saw the charging English line, did so with only seconds left to live.
Most of the English line swept through the camp site, slashing and hacking as they went. Most then swept towards the bridge, still of tactical importance. The banner of Arundel could be seen heading in that direction, no doubt led by Sir Thomas Hickson.
Baron Talbot, and some two hundred men with him, didn’t bother with the bridge. They made directly for the Abbey of Poissy.
There was no organized defense. The French were taken completely by surprise. Some stood and fought. Most of those that did, either died, or if of suitable (and ransomable) rank, were captured. Most of the rest grabbed what clothes and weapons they could, and headed for their horses. One of the few points being defended were the corrals where the horses were kept. And this was only an expediency, as a mounted man was more likely to escape with his life.
Following close behind Baron Talbot, Will Howard had little opportunity to either draw blood, or make a notable capture. Talbot eschewed direct combat, as that would only slow him down. He and those with him went straight to the Abbey of Poissy. Sir William Peyto broke off with a small group, and circled around the abbey to find the postern gate. The front abbey gates were closed, but a score of the Baron’s men stood on the backs of their horses, and pulled themselves over the walls. The noise of fighting soon erupted from behind the walls.
Suddenly the gates sprang open, opened from the inside by a small knot of Englishmen. Those already inside were battling a determined force of the French King’s personal bodyguard, Scotsmen all. Talbot, Sir Henry of Blackmere, Will Howard, and a hundred other men swarmed into the abbey grounds. The few Scots there were overwhelmed. Then more Scottish guardsmen poured out of the abbey. Ferocious fighting broke out on all sides.
Will jumped from Lyselle’s back, and immediately was engaged by a large Scotsman. The Scot swung a heavy axe, which dented Will’s shield. The force of the blow pushed Will back a step or two. Suddenly Geoff and Bear were on either side of Will. While Geoff and Bear harassed the Scot, Will lunged forward, bent low and got under his guard. He reached up and stabbed the Scotsman in one of the few places where there was no chainmail, the neck. The Scotsman cursed, and grappled with Will.
“Why, you’re just a wee boy,” he exclaimed in heavily accented English. Then Bear struck him in the head with his axe. The Scot crumpled to his knees, and Geoff White delivered the coup-de-grace.
The outnumbered Scotsmen were slowly forced back into the abbey. They made no real effort to escape. Instead, they yelled their ferocious war-cries, and fought to the death. They seemed to relish killing Englishmen, and perhaps this was one of the reasons why the French King used Scots as his personal guard.
Eventually enough of the Scotsmen were either killed or subdued, that the English burst into the abbey proper. A group of nuns scattered into the interior of the building. Talbot and a dozen of his personal bodyguard ran from room to room, searching for Charles VII. Nuns were running everywhere, some screaming, but most silent.
Will Howard followed Talbot as quickly as he could, with Geoff and Bear White following him like satellites. Red Raven and Cardona were just behind them. Guy d’Aubigny and Rhys Morgan were also in tow, further behind.
Will found Baron Talbot and his bodyguards standing beside a large bed, in a spacious room. Rich clothing and the accoutrements of royalty were scattered about. Otherwise, the room was vacant.
As Will rushed through the doorway, Talbot turned in his direction, to see who it was. Talbot gestured towards the bed.
In keen exasperation, Talbot said to no one in particular, “The bedclothes are still warm.”
The bedclothes are still warm, thought Will Howard. The King of France had been sleeping here only minutes before … .