copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
HOW THE ARMY MADE THE PASSAGE OF RONCESVALLES.
THE whole vast plain of Gascony and of Languedoc is an arid and
profitless expanse in winter save where the swift-flowing Adour and her snow-fed
tributaries, the Louts, the Oloron and the Pau, run down to the sea of Biscay.
South of the Adour the jagged line of mountains which fringe the sky-line
send out long granite claws, running down into the lowlands and dividing them
into "gaves" or stretches of valley.
Hillocks grow into hills, and hills into mountains, each range overlying
its neighbor, until they soar up in the giant chain which raises its spotless
and untrodden peaks, white and dazzling, against the pale blue wintry sky.
A quiet land is this--a land where the slow-moving Basque, with his flat
biretta-cap, his red sash and his hempen sandals, tills his scanty farm or
drives his lean flock to their hill-side pastures.
It is the country of the wolf and the isard, of the brown bear and the
mountain-goat, a land of bare rock and of rushing water.
Yet here it was that the will of a great prince had now assembled a
gallant army; so that from the Adour to the passes of Navarre the barren valleys
and wind-swept wastes were populous with soldiers and loud with the shouting of
orders and the neighing of horses. For
the banners of war had been flung to the wind once more, and over those
glistening peaks was the highway along which Honor pointed in an age when men
had chosen her as their guide.
And now all was ready for the enterprise.
From Dax to St. Jean Pied-du-Port the country was mottled with the white
tents of Gascons, Aquitanians and English, all eager for the advance. From all
sides the free companions had trooped in, until not less than twelve thousand of
these veteran troops were cantoned along the frontiers of Navarre. From England had arrived the prince's brother, the Duke of
Lancaster, with four hundred knights in his train and a strong company of
archers. Above all, an heir to the
throne had been born in Bordeaux, and the prince might leave his spouse with an
easy mind, for all was well with mother and with child.
The keys of the mountain passes still lay in the hands of the shifty and
ignoble Charles of Navarre, who had chaffered and bargained both with the
English and with the Spanish, taking money from the one side to hold them open
and from the other to keep them sealed. The
mallet hand of Edward, however, had shattered all the schemes and wiles of the
plotter. Neither entreaty nor courtly remonstrance came from the
English prince; but Sir Hugh Calverley passed silently over the border with his
company, and the blazing walls of the two cities of Miranda and Puenta della
Reyna warned the unfaithful monarch that there were other metals besides gold,
and that he was dealing with a man to whom it was unsafe to lie.
His price was paid, his objections silenced, and the mountain gorges lay
open to the invaders. From the Feast of the Epiphany there was mustering and
massing, until, in the first week of February--three days after the White
Company joined the army--the word was given for a general advance through the
defile of Roncesvalles. At five in
the cold winter's morning the bugles were blowing in the hamlet of St. Jean
Pied-du-Port, and by six Sir Nigel's Company, three hundred strong, were on
their way for the defile, pushing swiftly in the dim light up the steep curving
road; for it was the prince's order that they should be the first to pass
through, and that they should remain on guard at the further end until the whole
army had emerged from the mountains. Day
was already breaking in the east, and the summits of the great peaks had turned
rosy red, while the valleys still lay in the shadow, when they found themselves
with the cliffs on either hand and the long, rugged pass stretching away before
Sir Nigel rode his great black war-horse at the head of his archers,
dressed in full armor, with Black Simon bearing his banner behind him, while
Alleyne at his bridle-arm carried his blazoned shield and his well-steeled ashen
spear. A proud and happy man was
the knight, and many a time he turned in his saddle to look at the long column
of bowmen who swung swiftly along behind him.
"By Saint Paul! Alleyne,"
said he, "this pass is a very perilous place, and I would that the King of
Navarre had held it against us, for it would have been a very honorable venture
had it fallen to us to win a passage. I
have heard the minstrels sing of one Sir Rolane who was slain by the infidels in
these very parts."
"If it please you, my fair lord," said Black Simon, "I
know something of these parts, for I have twice served a term with the King of
Navarre. There is a hospice of
monks yonder, where you may see the roof among the trees, and there it was that
Sir Roland was slain. The village upon the left is Orbaiceta, and I know a house
therein where the right wine of Jurancon is to be bought, if it would please you
to quaff a morning cup,"
"There is smoke yonder upon the right."
"That is a village named Les Aldudes, and I know a hostel there also
where the wine is of the best. It
is said that the inn- keeper hath a buried treasure, and I doubt not, my fair
lord, that if you grant me leave I could prevail upon him to tell us where he
hath hid it."
"Nay, nay, Simon," said Sir Nigel curtly, "I pray you to
forget these free companion tricks. Ha!
Edricson, I see that you stare about you, and in good sooth these
mountains must seem wondrous indeed to one who hath but seen Butser or the
The broken and rugged road had wound along the crests of low hills, with
wooded ridges on either side of it over which peeped the loftier mountains, the
distant Peak of the South and the vast Altabisca, which towered high above them
and cast its black shadow from left to right across the valley.
From where they now stood they could look forward down a long vista of
beech woods and jagged rock-strewn wilderness, all white with snow, to where the
pass opened out upon the uplands beyond. Behind them they could still catch a
glimpse of the gray plains of Gascony, and could see her rivers gleaming like
coils of silver in the sunshine. As
far as eye could see from among the rocky gorges and the bristles of the pine
woods there came the quick twinkle and glitter of steel, while the wind brought
with it sudden distant bursts of martial music from the great host which rolled
by every road and by-path towards the narrow pass of Roncesvalles.
On the cliffs on either side might also be seen the flash of arms and the
waving of pennons where the force of Navarre looked down upon the army of
strangers who passed through their territories.
"By Saint Paul!" said Sir Nigel, blinking up at them, "I
think that we have much to hope for from these cavaliers, for they cluster very
thickly upon our flanks. Pass word
to the men, Aylward, that they unsling their bows, for I have no doubt that
there are some very worthy gentlemen yonder who may give us some opportunity for
"I hear that the prince hath the King of Navarre as hostage,"
said Alleyne, "and it is said that he hath sworn to put him to death if
there be any attack upon us."
"It was not so that war was made when good King Edward first turned
his hand to it," said Sir Nigel sadly.
"Ah! Alleyne, I fear that you will never live to see such things,
for the minds of men are more set upon money and gain than of old.
By Saint Paul! it was a noble sight when two great armies would draw
together upon a certain day, and all who had a vow would ride forth to discharge
themselves of it. What noble
spear-runnings have I not seen, and even in an humble way had a part in, when
cavaliers would run a course for the easing of their souls and for the love of
their ladies! Never a bad word have
I for the French, for, though I have ridden twenty times up to their array, I
have never yet failed to find some very gentle and worthy knight or squire who
was willing to do what he might to enable me to attempt some small feat of arms.
Then, when all cavaliers had been satisfied, the two armies would come to
hand-strokes, and fight right merrily until one or other had the vantage.
By Saint Paul! it was not our wont in those days to pay gold for the
opening of passes, nor would we hold a king as hostage lest his people come to
thrusts with us. In good sooth, if
the war is to be carried out in such a fashion, then it is grief to me that I
ever came away from Castle Twynham, for I would not have left my sweet lady had
I not thought that there were deeds of arms to be done."
"But surely, my fair lord," said Alleyne, "you have done
some great feats of arms since we left the Lady Loring."
"I cannot call any to mind," answered Sir Nigel.
"There was the taking of the sea-rovers, and the holding of the keep
against the Jacks."
"Nay, nay," said the knight, "these were not feats of
arms, but mere wayside ventures and the chances of travel.
By Saint Paul! if it were not that these hills are over-steep for
Pommers, I would ride to these cavaliers of Navarre and see if there were not
some among them who would help me to take this patch from mine eye.
It is a sad sight to see this very fine pass, which my own Company here
could hold against an army, and yet to ride through it with as little profit as
though it were the lane from my kennels to the Avon."
morning Sir Nigel rode in a very ill-humor, with his Company tramping behind
him. It was a toilsome march over
broken ground and through snow, which came often as high as the knee, yet ere
the sun had begun to sink they had reached the spot where the gorge opens out on
to the uplands of Navarre, and could see the towers of Pampeluna jutting up
against the southern sky-line. Here the Company were quartered in a scattered
mountain hamlet, and Alleyne spent the day looking down upon the swarming army
which poured with gleam of spears and flaunt of standards through the narrow
"Hola, mon gar.," said Aylward, seating himself upon a boulder
by his side. "This is indeed a
fine sight upon which it is good to look, and a man might go far ere he would
see so many brave men and fine horses. By
my hilt! our little lord is wroth because we have come peacefully through the
passes, but I will warrant him that we have fighting enow ere we turn our faces
northward again. It is said that there are four-score thousand men behind the
King of Spain, with Du Guesclin and all the best lances of France, who have
sworn to shed their heart's blood ere this Pedro come again to the throne."
"Yet our own army is a great one," said Alleyne.
"Nay, there are but seven-and-twenty thousand men.
Chandos hath persuaded the prince to leave many behind, and indeed I
think that he is right, for there is little food and less water in these parts
for which we are bound. A man
without his meat or a horse without his fodder is like a wet bow-string, fit for
little. But voila, mon petit, here comes Chandos and his company, and
there is many a pensil and banderole among yonder squadrons which show that the
best blood of England is riding under his banners."
Whilst Aylward had been speaking, a strong column of archers had defiled
through the pass beneath them. They
were followed by a banner-bearer who held high the scarlet wedge upon a silver
field which proclaimed the presence of the famous warrior.
He rode himself within a spear's-length of his standard, clad from neck
to foot in steel, but draped in the long linen gown or parement which was
destined to be the cause of his death. His
plumed helmet was carried behind him by his body-squire, and his head was
covered by a small purple cap, from under which his snow- white hair curled
downwards to his shoulders. With
his long beak-like nose and his single gleaming eye, which shone brightly from
under a thick tuft of grizzled brow, he seemed to Alleyne to have something of
the look of some fierce old bird of prey. For
a moment he smiled, as his eye lit upon the banner of the five roses waving from
the hamlet; but his course lay for Pampeluna, and he rode on after the archers.
Close at his heels came sixteen squires, all chosen from the highest
families, and behind them rode twelve hundred English knights, with gleam of
steel and tossing of plumes, their harness jingling, their long straight swords
clanking against their stirrup-irons, and the beat of their chargers' hoofs like
the low deep roar of the sea upon the shore.
Behind them marched six hundred Cheshire and Lancashire archers, bearing
the badge of the Audleys, followed by the famous Lord Audley himself, with the
four valiant squires, Dutton of Dutton, Delves of Doddington, Fowlehurst of
Crewe, and Hawkstone of Wainehill, who had all won such glory at Poictiers.
Two hundred heavily-armed cavalry rode behind the Audley standard, while
close at their heels came the Duke of Lancaster with a glittering train, heralds
tabarded with the royal arms riding three deep upon cream-colored chargers in
front of him. On either side of the
young prince rode the two seneschals of Aquitaine, Sir Guiscard d'Angle and Sir
Stephen Cossington, the one bearing the banner of the province and the other
that of Saint George. Away behind
him as far as eye could reach rolled the far-stretching, unbroken river of
steel-rank after rank and column after column, with waving of plumes, glitter of
arms, tossing of guidons, and flash and flutter of countless armorial devices.
All day Alleyne looked down upon the changing scene, and all day the old
bowman stood by his elbow, pointing out the crests of famous warriors and the
arms of noble houses. Here were the
gold mullets of the Pakingtons, the sable and ermine of the Mackworths, the
scarlet bars of the Wakes, the gold and blue of the Grosvenors, the cinque-foils
of the Cliftons, the annulets of the Musgraves, the silver pinions of the
Beauchamps, the crosses of the Molineux the bloody chevron of the Woodhouses,
the red and silver of the Worsleys, the swords of the Clarks, the boars'-heads
of the Lucies, the crescents of the Boyntons, and the wolf and dagger of the
Lipscombs. So through the sunny
winter day the chivalry of England poured down through the dark pass of
Roncesvalles to the plains of Spain.
It was on a Monday that the Duke of Lancaster's division passed safely
through the Pyrenees. On the
Tuesday there was a bitter frost, and the ground rung like iron beneath the feet
of the horses; yet ere evening the prince himself, with the main battle of his
army, had passed the gorge and united with his vanguard at Pampeluna.
With him rode the King of Majorca, the hostage King of Navarre, and the
fierce Don Pedro of Spain, whose pale blue eyes gleamed with a sinister light as
they rested once more upon the distant peaks of the land which had disowned him.
Under the royal banners rode many a bold Gascon baron and many a hot-
blooded islander. Here were the high stewards of Aquitaine, of Saintonge, of La
Rochelle, of Quercy, of Limousin, of Agenois, of Poitou, and of Bigorre, with
the banners and musters of their provinces.
Here also were the valiant Earl of Angus, Sir Thomas Banaster with his
garter over his greave, Sir Nele Loring, second cousin to Sir Nigel, and a long
column of Welsh footmen who marched under the red banner of Merlin.
From dawn to sundown the long train wound through the pass, their breath
reeking up upon the frosty air like the steam from a cauldron.
The weather was less keen upon the Wednesday, and the rear-guard made
good their passage, with the bombards and the wagon-train. Free companions and
Gascons made up this portion of the army to the number of ten thousand men.
The fierce Sir Hugh Calverley, with his yellow mane, and the rugged Sir
Robert Knolles, with their war-hardened and veteran companies of English bowmen,
headed the long column; while behind them came the turbulent bands of the
Bastard of Breteuil Nandon de Bagerant, one-eyed Camus, Black Ortingo, La Nuit
and others whose very names seem to smack of hard hands and ruthless deeds.
With them also were the pick of the Gascon chivalry--the old Duc
d'Armagnac, his nephew Lord d'Albret, brooding and scowling over his wrongs, the
giant Oliver de Clisson, the Captal de Buch, pink of knighthood, the sprightly
Sir Perducas d'Albert, the red-bearded Lord d'Esparre, and a long train of needy
and grasping border nobles, with long pedigrees and short purses, who had come
down from their hill-side strongholds, all hungering for the spoils and the
ransoms of Spain. By the Thursday
morning the whole army was encamped in the Vale of Pampeluna, and the prince had
called his council to meet him in the old palace of the ancient city of Navarre.