Tales from Froissart
edited by Steve Muhlberger, Nipissing University
The French Prepare for Battle at Commines
After French knights make a daring secret crossing of the River Lis, they draw up in battle array to attack the Flemings.
Book II, ch. 115. I maintain, that all men of understanding must hold this enterprise of the boats, and the passage of men at arms, as a deed of superior valour and enterprise [see preceding]. Towards evening, the knights and squires of the van-guard were eager to cross with their companions... late in this Monday evening there were, on the Flanders side of the river, about four hundred men at arms, all the flower of knighthood: for no varlet was suffered to cross.
The lord Louis de Sancerre, seeing so many gallant men (sixteen banners and thirty pennons,) said, he should think himself to blame, if he remained behind. He then entered the boats, with his knights and squires; and the lord de Hangest, etc., crossed at the same time. When they were all assembled, they said, "It is time to march towards Commines, to look at our enemies, and see if we cannot make our quarters good in the town."
Upon this, they tightened their arms, buckled their helmets on their heads in a proper manner, and advancing through the marshes which are contiguous to the river, marched in order of battle, with banners and pennons displayed, as if they were immediately to engage. The lord de St. Py was the principal conductor and commander-in-chief, because he knew the country better than any of the others.
As they were thus marching in close order, in their way towards the town, Peter du Bois and the Flemings were drawn up on the cause way; when, casting their eyes towards the meads, they saw this body of men at arms approaching. They were exceedingly astonished, and demanded from Peter du Bois, "By what devil of a road have these men at arms come? and how have they crossed the Lis?"
He replied, "They must have crossed in boats, and we have known nothing of the matter; for there is neither bridge nor passable ford over the Lis between this and Courtray."
"What shall we do?" said some of them to Peter du Bois: "shall we offer them battle?
"By no means," replied Peter: "let them advance: but we will remain in our strength and in our place: we are on high ground, and they on low, so that we have great advantage over them; and, if we descend to meet them in the plain, we shall lose it. Let us wait until the night become more obscure, and then we will consider how we had best act. They are not of a force sufficient to withstand us in battle: and, besides, we are acquainted with all the roads of the country, of which they must be ignorant."
This advice was followed; for the Flemings never budged from their post, but remained steady at the foot of the bridge, drawn up in order of battle on the causeway, in silence, and, by their appearance, seemed as if they had not noticed what was passing. Those who had crossed the river continued advancing slowly through the marshes, following the course of it as they approached Commines.
The constable of France, on the opposite side of the water, saw his men at arms, with banners and pennons fluttering in the wind, drawn up in a handsome small battalion, and marching toward Commines. On seeing this, his blood began to run cold from the great dread he had of their being defeated; for he knew the Flemings were in great force on that side of the water.
In the excess of rage, he cried out-- "Ah, St. Ives! ha, St. George! ha, our Lady! what do I see there? I see in part the flower of our army, who are most unequally matched. I would rather have died than have witnessed this. Ah! sir Louis de Sancerre, I thought you more temperate and better taught than I see you now are; how could you have hazarded so many noble knights and squires, and men at arms, against ten or twelve thousand men, who are proud, presumptuous, and well prepared, and who will show them no mercy, whilst we are unable, if there should be a necessity, to aid them?...how afflicted I am for you all! when, without consulting me, you have run into such imminent danger. Why am I constable of France? for, if you be conquered, I shall incur all the blame, and they will say I ordered you on this mad enterprise."
The constable, before he heard that such numbers of valiant men had crossed, had forbidden any of those near him to pass the river; but, when he saw the appearance of those who had passed, he said aloud, "I give free liberty for all who wish to cross, if they be able."
At these words, the knights and squires stepped forth, seeking means to cross the bridge; but it was soon night, and they were forced to leave off their attempt, though they had begun to lay planks on the beams, and even some had placed their targets to make a road; so that the Flemings who were in Commines had enough to do to watch them, and were puzzled ho to act, for on the one hand they saw below the bridge, in the marshes, a large body of men at arms, who had halted with their lances advanced before them, and to whom great reinforcements were coming, and on the other, those of the van-guard on the opposite side of the bride, were constantly skirmishing with them and exerting themselves lustily to repair the bridge.
In this situation were the French who had that evening crossed over in boats. They had halted on the marshes, in mud and filth, up to their ankles. Now consider what must have been their courage and difficulties, when in these long winter nights they thus remained a whole night with their arms and helmets on, with their feet in the mire, and without any sort of refreshments.
Certainly, I say, they are worthy of great renown, for they were but a handful of men in comparison with the Flemings in Commines and in that neighbourhood. They dared not, therefore, advance to attack them, and for this reason had halted, saying among themselves, "Let us stop here until it be day-light, when we shall have a sight of these Flemings who quit not the advantage of their entrenchments; but at last they will not fail to come to us, and when near we will shout our war cries with a loud voice, each his own cry , or the cry of his lord, notwithstanding all our lords may not have joined us: by this means we shall frighten them, when we will fall on them with a thorough good will. It is in the power of God, and within the compass of our own ability, to defeat them, for they are badly armed, whilst our spears and swords are of well tempered steel from Bordeaux; and the haubergeons they wear will be a poor defence, and cannot prevent our blows from penetrating through them."
With such hopes as these did those who had passed the river comfort themselves, and remain in silence during the knight.
This story continues.