Tales from Froissart
edited by Steve Muhlberger, Nipissing University
The French Army Forces a River Crossing
After hearing that the Flemings have destroyed the bridges on the river Lis, the French commanders determine to force a crossing anyway.
Book II, ch. 114. When the constables and marshals of France, with the van-guard, arrived at the bridge of Commines, they were forced to halt; for it was so completely destroyed that it was not in the power of man to repair it, if any opposition should be made when they were attempting it, as the Flemings were in great force on the opposite side of the river, and ready to defend the pass against all who might wish to attack them: they were upwards of nine thousand, under the command of Peter du Bois and others, who showed good inclinations to repulse any attempt. Peter du Bois had placed himself on the causeway, at the end of the bridge, with a battle-axe in his hand; and the Flemings were drawn up on each side.
The constable of France and the lords with him, having considered the situation, thought it impossible to pass the river at that place unless the bridge were rebuilt; they ordered their servants to follow the course of the river, and examine its banks for about a league up and down. When they returned, they informed their masters, who were waiting for them, that they had not been able to find any place where the cavalry could pass.
Upon hearing this, the constable was much vexed and said, --"We have been badly advised to take this road: better would it have been for us to have gone to St. Omer than remain in this danger, or to have crossed the Scheld at Tournay, as the lord de Coucy advised, and to have marched straight to Oudenarde and fought our enemies, since it is both our duty and inclination to combat them: and they are so presumptuous they would have waited for us at their siege."
- The lord Louis de Sancerre then said, -- "I am of the opinion that we fix our quarters here for this day, and lodge our army, should it arrive, as well as we are able; and that we send to Lille to seek for boats and hurdle, that may come down the river, with which tomorrow we can throw a bridge from these fine means and cross over; for we have no other alternative."
Upon this, sir Josse de Haluyn said, -- "My lord, we have been informed that there will be great difficulties between this and Lille; for the river Menyn, on which all boats must pass to come hither, has been obstructed by large beams thrown across it by the Flemings who are in those parts: they have besides totally destroyed the bridge, and w learn it is impossible for any vessels or boats to pass."
"I know not then," added the constable, "what we can now do. It will be better for us to take the road to Aire, and cross the Lis at that place, since we are unable to do so here."
During the time the constable and marshals of France and Burgundy were in this dilemma at the bridge of Commines, several knights and squires silently withdrew, with the intent to hazard some gallant deeds of arms and attempt to cross the river, whatever it might cost them. They meant likewise to combat the Flemings in their entrenchments and open a passage, as I shall now relate.
While the van-guard was on its march from Lille to Commines, the lord de St. Py, and some other knights from Hainault, Flanders, Artois, and even France, had held a council without the knowledge of the constable or marshals. They said, "We will procure two or three boats, which we will launch into the river Lis, at a sheltered place below Commines, and will fix posts on each side of the river where it is not wide, to fasten cords to. We shall by this means soon convey over a large body of men, and by marching on the rear of our enemies we may attack them, and, if victorious, we shall gain the reputation of valiant men at arms."
After they had thus determined in council, the lord de St. Py exerted himself so much that he procured from Lille a boat and cords, with every other necessary article. On the other hand, sir Herbeaux de Belleperche and sir John de Roye, who were companions on this expedition, had also caused a boat to be brought. Sir Henry de Manny, sir John de Malatrait and sir John Chauderon, Bretons, who had been of this council, had likewise provided one, and followed the preceding companies.
The lord de St. Py was the first who arrived at the river with his boat, cords and fastenings. They fixed a strong stake to which they tied the cord: three varlets then crossed over, and the boat, with the cords, being launched, they fixed on the opposite side another strong post, to which they fastened the other end of the cord: and, this being done, they returned with the boat to their master.
It happened that the constable and marshals of France were at that time at the bridge of Commines, pondering how they could discover a passage. They were then informed of the intentions of the lord de St. Py and the other knights. Upon which the constable, addressing himself to the lord Louis de Sancerre, said, "Marshal, go and see what they are doing, and if it be possible to cross the river in the manner they propose, add some our men to theirs."
Just as these knights were preparing to embark, the marshal of France came thither, attended by a large company of knights and squires. They made way for him, as was right. He stopped on the bank, and with pleasure saw the arrangement of the boats. The lord de St. Py, addressing him, said, "My lord, is it agreeable to you that we should cross here?"
"I am very well please with it," replied the marshal; "but you are running great risks; for if our enemies, who are at Commines, should know your intentions, they would do you great mischief."
"My lord," answered the lord de St. Py, "nothing venture nothing win: in the name of God and St. George, we will cross over, and, before tomorrow evening, will fall suddenly on our enemies and attack them."
The lord de St. Py then placed his pennon in the boat, and was the first who stepped into it: he was followed by nine others, who were as many as the boat could hold,; and instantly, by means of the cord they held, crossed over. When disembarked, in order to prevent themselves from being discovered, they entered a small alder grove, where they lay hidden. Those on the bank, by means of the cord, drew the boat back. The count de Conversant, lord d'Anghien, embarked with his banner, with the lord de Vertain his brother, and seven others. These nine then passed, and the third time others followed them.
The two other boats now arrived that belonged to sir Herbaut de Belleperche, sir John de Roye and the Bretons, which were launched in the same manner the first had been. These knights then crossed, and none but determined men at arms did the same. It was a pleasure to see with what eagerness they embarked: at times a great crowd was pushing who should cross first, so that if the marshal of France had not been there, who kept them in proper order, accidents would have happened from their overloading the boats.
News was brought to the constable and the lords of France at the bridge of Commines, how their people were crossing the river, when he said to the séneschal de Rieux, "Go and examine this passage, I beg of you, and see if our people be passing as they tell us." The lord de Rieux was never happier than when he had this commission, and, clapping spurs to his horse, hastened thither with his whole company, to the amount of full forty men at arms.
When he arrived at the passage where one hundred and fifty of his countrymen had already crossed, he immediately dismounted, and said he would also pass the river. The marshal of France would not refuse him; and intelligence was sent to the constable, that his cousin the lord de Rieux had crossed.
The constable mused a little, and then said, "Make the cross-bows shoot, and skirmish with the Flemings who are on the other side of the bridge, to occupy their attention, and prevent them from observing our people; for, if they should have any notion what they are about, they will fall upon them, destroy the passage, and kill all those who have crossed: and I would much rather die than that should happen."
Upon this, the cross-bows and infantry advanced. There were among them some who flung hand-grenades,* which bursting, cast out bolts of iron beyond the bridge, even as far as the town of Commines. The skirmish now began to be very sharp, and the van-guard, by their movement, seemed determined to cross the bridge if they could. The Flemings, being shielded up to their noses, made a good appearance, and defended themselves well.
Thus passed this day, which was a Monday, in skirmishing; and it was soon dark, for at that season the days are very short. The boats, however, continued to carry over men at arms in great numbers, who, on their landing, hid themselves in the alder wood, waiting for more.
You may easily guess what perils they were in; for, had those in Commines gained the least intelligence of them, they must have had them at their mercy, and conquered the greater part, besides taking the boats; but God favoured the other party, and consented that the pride of the Flemings should be humbled.
This story continues.
Note: Johnes, the 19th-century translator says, "I call bombards [here], hand-grenade: to my mind it explains this passage more easily. Lord Bernes totally omits it." To text.