March To Castillon
With a startled oath Earl Talbot was pitched over his saddle after his horse stumbled on an unseen root. Landing hard on his left leg, he lay on the ground angrily spouting curses. Viscount Lisle, who shared his father’s name and his exaltation of the art of war, drew his horse alongside him to dismount in a more controlled manner. Reaching down he helped his father, still swearing, to his feet. It was easy to do, as a condition for his release from captivity after having been seized following the loss of Normandy was that he not wear armor if he again fought in the war. Being a man of honor, Talbot always kept his word.
Trying to stand unaided caused Talbot to grunt in fresh pain. Forced to lean heavily against his mount, he glared at the surrounding trees, as if they were at fault for his abrupt dismount. The soldiers marching behind them parted to either side of the nobles, heading deeper into the forest on the way to relieve Castillon.
“Let this be a lesson to you, boy,” said Talbot as he rubbed his leg, “don’t let your attention wander while on a horse.”
Talbot was a man more given to action than contemplation, never letting his attention wander in the field where it could get him killed. His son grew curious at what he had been thinking about that had stolen his attention, and caused him to fall from his horse. A horse he’d ridden hundreds of times before.
As if prompted by his son’s thought, Talbot said, “I worry that no matter what we achieve here in Guyenne it will make no difference. That we have already lost this forsaken war, and only I am stubborn enough to keep fighting.” He gave a half-defeated shrug of his shoulders.
“Normandy showed us to be arrogant fools, and my return in disgrace to Westminster opened my eyes to just how imbecilic and petty the men are that surround our King.” His jaw clenched angrily several times.
“They spend every day looking for some new way to stab each other in the back, and meanwhile that bastard Charles VII gobbles up the lands that are rightfully ours!” He angrily spun on his uninjured leg before hoisting himself back onto his horse.
“Surely you don’t think we will be defeated at Castillon?” Lisle asked with some shock. He had never seen his father like this before. His father had always been the consummate war hero, radiating confidence in eventual victory no matter the odds. To see him brought so low sent a very real chill down his back.
Still with fury fresh in his eyes, Talbot looked down at his armored son, an angry response on his lips. However, seeing the concern in his son’s face, Talbot forced himself to calm.
“No, I still believe in our victory. Though it may cost us many men, I don’t doubt our success,” again a sigh, “but we will drown in the French flood the usurper Charles will turn loose once he realizes the lack of fresh soldiers and the lack of funds at our King’s command.”
Shaking his head, Talbot buried his despondence behind a wall of grim determination. Even should such a flood come, it was a problem for another day. He squared his shoulders and offered his son a slight smile.
“Let us continue.”
Somewhat mollified at seeing his father’s will to fight reemerge, Lisle decided to let the matter drop. Continuing deeper into the woods, they soon caught up with the rearguard. Talbot, who was familiar with the area, knew they were getting close to the edge of the woods. Before going any further, he dispatched a number of scouts to search out any French presence.
It was early afternoon when the first scout returned. Though splattered with blood, closer inspection showed it wasn’t his. After giving him a moment to catch his breath, Talbot beckoned for him to report.
“You were right, my lord, a small group of the French soldiers are stationed in the Priory up ahead. They look to be settling in for a long stay.”
“And all that blood?” Talbot asked.
“I stumbled upon a fellow who was looking for a spot to take a nap away from the watchful eyes of his commander. Once I took care of him, I had a look around.”
The scout nodded, then bent over a map the Viscount had pulled from his saddlebags when he had seen the scout return. The man pointed to the bank of the river to the northeast of Castillon. “The majority of the French forces were drawn up here. It looked to me like the field fortifications are all completed and their forces encamped safely behind them.”
Taking a moment to think about it, Talbot quickly came to a decision. “How many soldiers were around the Priory?”
The scout half shrugged his shoulders, “No way to know for sure, my lord, without getting inside the Priory, and I don’t move quietly enough for that,” he thought for a second, “I’d guess no more than a score.”
Dismissing the scout, Talbot motioned for his son to mount up. “Take fifty men and go clear out this priory. I’ll wait here until the rest of the reinforcements arrive.” His son moves to head off, but before he can begin to gather the men Talbot grabs his wrist forcing him to lean in close to hear his next instructions. “Make sure none escape, otherwise we will have to attack the main force immediately or risk losing our element of surprise.”
Nodding, his son moved to gather his allotted soldiers, before quickly heading through the woods to the priory. Though his favorite was no longer a child, Talbot couldn’t help but take quiet pride in the man his son had become. What he had seen of him since returning to Guyenne made him think of himself at a younger age.
Moments after his son had left, one of his remaining soldiers approached to tell Talbot another scout had returned and, more importantly, he brought company from Castillon. Talbot was surprised. He had thought Castillon sealed tight. So what was one of its citizens doing out here in the woods?
“My lord, this is Jules Bonheur, a member of Castillon’s town council. He says he has important news for you.” The scout hurriedly stepped aside and motioned the councilman forward.
“Praise God that you are here! My Lord Talbot, some few hours ago a sentry on the eastern wall of our town caught sight of a large dust cloud over the French fortifications. We think they mean to retreat!” The man was practically shouting now. “You must pursue them before they get away!”
Unfortunately, just as the councilman made his demand, a flash of fresh pain set fire to Talbots injured leg. The pain made him irritable, but not so much so that he missed the enticing opportunity that the information presented. He asked one of his bodyguards to fetch him some wine, then refocused again on Jules.
“That is very good news indeed. As soon as I receive word of my son taking the priory to the east of here, we will discuss putting together a pursuit if they are indeed running.” His bodyguard handed him a half-filled wineskin, but before he could get more than a small swallow, the councilman let loose a sharp noise of protest.
“But they flee now! You must pur — -” Jules bit off what he had been going to say when Talbot shot him a glare of cold fury.
“I must notdo anything until I am sure of what I’m getting into.” Another, sharper wave of agony through his leg rolled over him. He might have broken something after all. “Escort this man back where he came from,” Talbot said tersely to the scout. As Jules was pulled away, Talbot missed the look of mixed frustration and anger that was etched onto his face. All he saw was the wineskin still in his hand.
After the appointed time had passed, and with it the rest of the wineskin, Talbot ordered his remaining soldiers on to the priory. Emerging from the woods brought Talbot his first real glimpse of the building. Of modest construction, and located as it was near the woods, he couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to leave the days long marches and war behind. He shook his head firmly. Perhaps he had drunk too much wine after all, though the numbing effect on his leg was well worth the momentarily musing.
Catching sight of his father emerging from the woods, the Viscount stepped past two soldiers dragging a corpse. Matching his walk to the limping gait of his father, he gave his report.
“We took them completely by surprise. No casualties beyond a few cuts and a man who broke a leg.” He snorted with subdued mirth. “The silly ass got overexcited and jumped out the second floor window after a soldier that was getting away.”
Talbot stopped and turned sharply to look at his son.
“So one escaped then?”
His son responded with a full chuckle this time, “Oh he would have, except that when my man broke his leg he also broke the other fellows neck.” He shook his head, still chuckling, “Though I’m all for taking the enemy by surprise, I think I’ll stick to attacking people from the ground.”
Smiling at the joke, and absentmindedly rubbing his own injured leg, Talbot filled his son in on the news the councilman had brought him.
“So are we going to follow them? If we can turn their retreat into a rout we might gain some time for further reinforcements to arrive by ship.” Before he was even finished Talbot was shaking his head.
“As tempting as it is, I would rather wait for our reinforcements before we head after them. If they retreat, the siege is lifted, and if not I’ll feel better hitting them with everything I’ve got all at once.”
Morning turned into afternoon and Talbot’s reinforcements began to arrive. Just after the evening meal the last of them showed up, giving him a force of just over eight thousand. The time for a decision had come. Would he press the attack before full dark or wait until morning, and the chance that he might not catch the French if they had retreated. His leg continued to bother him, and the thought of a soft bed in Castillon began to plague him.
The attack would be tonight.
The Grand Assault
Cursing himself for a fool, Talbot again glanced towards the descending sun. He had waited too long. He should have taken what forces he had to assault the French hours ago.
At least he had some small measure of satisfaction over that idiot councilman Jules. The French hadn’t retreated after all, and if the torches beginning to be lit just across the river were any reflection on their strength, it was likely none of them had fled at all. While the rest of his men began forming up to cross the bridge that would let them engage the French fortification, Talbot got his first clear look at them.
Like many of the French fortifications he had come up against in the past years of war, these were well constructed by a true master. The artillery park had been built just out of range of Castillon’s guns, and set up to make any sortie from the besieged town costly. Talbot could make out a deep trench before the wooden wall of the French defenses, though it staggered along the French lines like a man far gone in drink. He shuddered as he remembered earlier battles where such defenses allowed the French guns to enfilade charging troops, with the result that a handful of men and more were cut down with each shot.
Hearing the jingle of a harness behind him, Talbot turned to check the progress of his men. Most were across the bridge and forming into ranks. It wouldn’t be long now. Moving back to find his horse waiting for him at his place amongst his troops, Talbot was quickly forming a strategy in his mind. Perhaps waiting until this late was fortunate; it would prevent the French guns from having more than a few shots each before his men passed over those earthen ramparts in their thousands. His blood boiled at the thought of that glorious charge. Reaching his horse, one of his bodyguards helped him into the saddle. Though riding a horse into battle as night was descending was risky, it was the only way he would be able to lead on the battlefield with his injured leg.
Glancing down the fully formed ranks, he shared a final nod with his son then broke into a trot, beginning the charge on the fortified camp. Barely had it begun when shouting could be heard from behind the French defenses, cries that were quickly echoed with the screams of rage and moans of fear that burst forth from the throats of eight thousand charging men.
Halfway across the field toward the camp the first shot of the French guns burst like a star in the deepening twilight. Other shots soon followed, and the battle cries quickly became mixed with the howls of the maimed and dying. Again rang the guns, and again burst forth agonized cries, but then Talbot and those around him were finally charging through the ditch and over the palisade.
Talbot and his horse were amongst the first to burst into the ranks of the French soldiers. Cries of fear quickly arose at his coming, for at some point in his charge he had been painted in the blood of those dying under the thundering guns. Laying about with his bright blade, survivors of the battle would go on to swear it was as if Saint George had descended from heaven to lead them against the forces of the foul French usurper. Talbot himself remembered little more than the blur of his sword, the flash of the guns and the blood spilled by both.
Reinforced by the thousands coming behind, the press of bodies against the French quickly began to create panic. Contradictory orders echoed up and down the lines, causing them to first fracture and finally to break, until only a few surviving gunners remained. They fled as fast as any, however, when their leader fell under the blade of an English axe.
Dusk was just beginning to descend during the fighting when a horn blast rang out of the darkness. Those few soldiers not over the wall quickly found themselves fighting for their lives against cavalry wearing the heraldry of the Duke of Brittany. The valiant effort to salvage anything from the disaster ended in vain, however, for soon some enterprising English soldier turned the abandoned French guns upon the mob of cavalry just beyond the fortifications. Others followed suit, and by the time the cavalry quit the field over half their number lay dead in the field.
As the sounds of battle faded, the magnitude of what had happened descended upon Talbot. With this victory, the humiliating defeat in Normandy could be surmounted. Hope yet remained for an English triumph.
The pleasure at this thought turned to ashes in his mouth as his roving eye caught sight of a familiar face lying amongst the carnage. His son had lost his left arm to one of the guns before it could be silenced. Yet pride intruded into his mournful sadness as he saw his sons sword nearby, lodged in the chest of one of the gunners who had killed him. Crouching down he pulled his son’s body close to his side, reaching out as he did to grasp a forgotten French blade from where it lay nearby.
A priest, seeing the Earl clutching a corpse, hesitated but briefly before squatting down as well to administer last rights, though the young Viscount’s soul had already long since departed. Talbot loosened his grip so that the priest might get on with his duty.
“This is just the beginning,” Talbot swore into the night, cradling the abandoned French gun before he set it softly, almost reverently, beside his son’s cooling corpse. The priest moved on to the next dying man in the camp that had become a slaughterhouse. The pain in his leg as he kneeled on the ground was nothing next to the pain in his heart. “This is just the beginning.”
Palace of Westminster
As the herald strode into the throne room of the Palace of Westminster, the gathered members of the court ceased their discussions to watch with interest the arrival of the messenger. By the time the man had reached the center of the room before the throne, a deep silence, pregnant with anticipation, had descended.
On the throne sat His Majesty Henry VI, the rightful King of England and France, though in recent years many would dispute the latter portion of his title, especially since the loss of Normandy. The King himself, dressed in his court robes and crown with a golden scepter across his lap, outshone all the other nobility in the gathering, much as the presence of a regal lion would that of a pack of mangy dogs. Yet as the messenger waited upon the King’s command to speak, he couldn’t help but notice how the lion’s mane was matted and stained, and how his eyes conveyed a glimpse of some inner madness. Several more long moments passed before the King focused on who had approached the throne.
“Speak,” Henry VI muttered in a tone that at once conveyed command, yet seemed to echo with a bone-deep weariness. The war on the continent went poorly, especially since the usurper Charles VII continued to consolidate his control over war-torn France. What could it be but further dire developments?
“I bring news of the expedition of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his mission to reclaim Guyenne from the forces of Charles VII,” if possible the room grew even more still, “I bring news of victory.”
At these words, some small spark of light seemed to return to the King’s eyes. Beckoning for the messenger to continue, Henry VI leaned back in his throne. The messenger cleared his throat before resuming.
“After landing near Bordeaux, the Earl of Shrewsbury marched upon the city, where the people of the city opened wide their gates to welcome them as liberators, casting out the occupying French garrison. All of western Guyenne soon rose up against the hated occupiers, and once again is under English control.”
“Yet this spring, Charles VII again marched his armies south to beat back the advances of the most noble Earl of Shrewsbury. Soon the French descended on Castillon, and after hearing of the towns plight, Earl Talbot did march to lift the siege with the assistance of reinforcements provided by his son, the Viscount Lisle,” said the messenger.
As the messenger paused for breath, not a word could be heard amongst the gathered nobles and courtiers. All knew the importance of the man’s next words.
“They were victorious. The French were driven from their defenses outside Castillon, and though Viscount Lisle tragically lost his life, my Lord Talbot is eager to continue his campaign into the lands of the usurper King,” the messenger glanced around at those in the court hanging onto his every word, “My lord Talbot requests reinforcements of men and funds, that he might continue recovering our rightful lands and to punish those who stole them out of greed.”
For the first time since the messenger had begun his tale, the King rose ponderously from his throne. He swept his bloodshot, piercing stare over the gathered notables of his court, measuring, assessing, and making judgment all at once, and few were those who could hold his gaze for long. The eyes of King Henry VI were completely sane as he stared back down at the messenger.
“He shall have them.”