Tales from Froissart

edited by Steve Muhlberger, Nipissing University

A Battle near Cherbourg (1379)

In 1379, King Charles of France appoints sir William des Bourdes governor of Coutantin in Normandy, with a particular duty to counter the activities of the English garrison of Cherbourg, commanded by sir John Harlestone.

Book I, ch. 331 (Johnes, v. 1, pp. 516-17). ... Sir William des Bourdes puzzled himself day and night in endeavouring to find out some means of annoying them[the garrison of Cherbourg]. You must know, that these two governors laid several ambuscades for each other, but with little effect: for by chance they never met, except some few companions, who adventured themselves fool-hardily, as well to acquire honour as gain: these parties frequently attacked each other: sometimes the French won, at other they lost. Such skirmishes continued so often, that sir William des Bourdes marched out one morning from Montbourg, with his whole force, towards Cherbourg, in hopes of drawing out that garrison out into the plain.

On the other hand, sir John Harleston, who was ignorant of the intentions of the French, had also that same morning made an excursion, and had commanded his trumpets to sound for his men to arm themselves, as well horse as foot, and to advance into the plain: he had already ordered who were to remain in the garrison. He marched forth in handsome display, and order sir John Orcelle, with his foot soldiers, to take the lead as their guide. Having done this, he sent forward his light troops. sir William des Bourdes had made a similar arrangement of his army. They both advanced in this array until the light troops of each party met, and came so near that they could easily distinguish each other. Upon which, they returned to the main body, and reported all they had observed. The two leaders, on hearing their reports, were quite happy; for they had at last found what they had been seeking for, and were much rejoiced thus to meet.

When the two knights had heard the news from their light troops, they each drew up their forces with great wisdom, and ordered their pennons to be displayed. The English foot were intermixed with their men at arms. As soon as they were within bow-shot, the French dismounted; so did likewise the English: then the archers and cross-bowmen began to shoot sharply, and the men at arms to advance with their lances before them in close order. The armies met, and blows with spears and battle-axes began to fly about on all sides, The battle was hardly fought, and one might there have seen men at arms make trial of their prowess.

Sir William des Bourdes was completely armed, and, with his battle-axe in his hand, gave such blows to the right and left, that on whomsoever they fell that person was struck to the ground. He performed valorous deeds, worthy of being praised for ever after; and it was not his fault that the English were not discomfited. In another part of the field, sir John Harleston, governor of Cherbourg, fought well and valiantly with his battle-axe, one foot advanced before the other; and well it needed him, for he had to do with an obstinate body of hardy men. Several gallant deeds were performed this day; many a man slain and wounded. Sir John Harleston was struck down and in great peril of his life; but by force of arms he was rescued.

The battle lasted long, and was excellently kept up, as well on one side as on the other. The English had not any advantage, for they had as many killed and wounded as the French; but at last the English continued the combat so manfully, and with such courage, that they gained the field: the French were all either slain or made prisoners: few men of honour saved themselves, for they had entered into the engagement with so much good heart that they could not prevail on themselves to fly, but were determined to die or to conquer their enemies.

Sir William des Bourdes was made prisoner of good terms by a squire from Hainault, called William de Beaulieu, and able man at arms, who for a considerable time had been attached to the English in the castle of Calais: to him sir William surrendered in great grief, and much enraged that the victory was not his. The English that day did much harm to the French. Several were made prisoners towards the end of the engagement; but it was a pity to see the numbers killed. When the English had stripped the dead, sir John Harlestone and his men returned to Cherbourg, carrying with them their prisoners and their riches. You may be assured that they rejoiced mightily in the success of this day, which God had given to them. sir William des Bourdes was feasted and entertained with every possible attention; for he was personally deserving of whatever could be done for him. This defeat took place, between Montbourg and Cherbourg, the day of St. Martin le bouillant 1379.

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