Old Soldier's Story - The Battle of Coutances, November 11, 1356
Jean Froissart was a “French” clergyman who lived from c. 1335 until c. 1405. A prodigious writer, he churned out histories, romances, poetry, and other works for most of his life. But it is for his Chronicles, essentially the story of the first half of theHundred Years’ War, that he is particularly noted. Froissart’s Chronicles benefitted from the fact that he personally knew, and indeed enjoyed the patronage of some of the most distinguished noblemen of the age, not least Edward the Black Prince.
This excerpt, from Book, I, Chapter 171, of the Chronicles, which has been only lightly edited to conform to more modern usage, deals with the Battle of Coutances, which took place not long after the Black Prince’s masterful victory at Poitiers.
When Sir Godfrey de Harcourt, who was strong, bold, and courageous, heard that the French [said to number "300 lances and 500 footmen with iron armour"], were come to the city of Coutances, he collected together as many men-at-arms as possible, archers and other friends, and said he would go out to meet them. He left, therefore, St. Sauveur le Vicomte, accompanied by about seven hundred men, including everyone.
This same day, the French also sallied out, and had sent forward their scouts to examine the country, who returned and informed their lords that they had seen the Navarrois. On the other hand, Sir Godfrey had sent out his scouts, who had taken a different road and, having examined the army of the French, had counted their banners and pennons, and to what numbers they amounted. Sir Godfrey, however, paid but little attention to their report: he said, that since he saw his enemies he would fight with them. He immediately placed his archers in the front of his men, and drew up in battle array the Englishmen and Navarrois.
When Lord Raoul de Reyneval perceived he had drawn up his men, he ordered part of the French to dismount, and to place large shields before them to guard themselves against the arrows, and for none to advance without his orders.
The archers of Sir Godfrey began to advance, as they were commanded, and to shoot their arrows with all their strength. The French, who were sheltered behind their shields, allowed them to shoot on, as this attack did not hurt them in the least. They remained so long in their position without moving, that these archers had expended all their arrows; they then cast away their bows, and began to fall back upon their men-at-arms, who were drawn up alongside of a hedge, Sir Godrey in the front, with his banner displayed.
The French then began to make use of their bows, and to pick up arrows everywhere, for there were plenty of them lying about, which they employed against the English and Navarrese. The men-at-arms also made a vigorous charge; and the combat was very sharp and severe, when they were come hand to hand; but the infantry of sir Godfrey would not keep to their ranks, and were therefore soon discomfited.
Sir Godfrey, upon this, retreated into a vineyard which was inclosed with strong hedges, and as many of his people as could get in followed him. When the French saw this, they all dismounted, surrounded the place, and considered how they could best enter it. They examined it on every side, and at last found an entrance. As they went round, seeking a passage, Sir Godfrey and his men did the same, and halted at the weakest part of the hedge.
As soon as the French had gained this entrance, many gallant deeds of arms were performed; but it cost the French dear before they were complete masters of it. The banner of Sir Raoul was the first that entered. He followed it, as did the other knights and squires. When they were all in the inclosure, the combat was renewed with greater vigour, and many a one was beaten down. The army of sir Godfrey would not keep the order which he had appointed, according to the promise made to him; but the greater part fled, and could not withstand the French.
Sir Godfrey, on seeing this, declared, that he would prefer death to being taken, and, arming himself with a battle-axe, halted where he was; he placed one foot before the other, to be firmer; for he was lame of one leg, though very strong in his arms. In this position, he fought a long time most valiantly, so that few dared to encounter his blows; when two Frenchmen mounted their horses, and, placing their lances in their rests, charged him at the same time, and struck him to the ground: some men-at-arms immediately rushed upon him with their swords, which they ran through his body, and killed him on the spot. The greater part of his army were slain or made prisoners, and those who were able to escape returned to St. Sauveur le Vicomte.