In 1414 a group of mercenary English soldiers were among the garrison of Soissons, a town in Burgundian hands that was besieged by the French. The town fell, and what happened at its fall became notorious. The patron saints of Soissons were Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian and a year later, on their feast day, the French army was to meet a much smaller English army on the field of Azincourt. Some thought the saints would want revenge for what the French had done to their city, and among those was Nicholas Hook, an English archer, who was present at the fall of Soissons and on the field of Azincourt. This excerpt tells how the siege of Soissons ended.
On the evening of the siege’s second day Hook thought the world had ended.
It was a summer evening of warm and limpid air. The light was pale-bright and the river slid gently between its flowery banks where willows and alders grew. The French banners hung motionless above their tents. Some smoke still sifted from the burned houses to rise soft into the evening air until it faded high in the cloudless sky.
Nicholas Hook leaned on the ramparts. His bow was propped there, unstrung. His thoughts were drifting back to England, to the manor, to the fields behind the long barn where the hay would be almost ready for cutting. There would be hares in the long grass, trout in the stream and larks in the twilight. He thought about the decaying cattle byre in the field called Shortmead, the byre with rotting thatch and a screen of honeysuckle behind which William Snoball’s young wife Nell would meet him and make silent, desperate love. He wondered who was coppicing the Three Button wood and, for the thousandth time, how the wood had got its name. The tavern in the village was called the Three Buttons and no one knew why, not even Lord Slayton who sometimes limped under the tavern’s lintel and put silver on the serving hatch to buy all present an ale. He thought of the Perrills, malevolent and ever-present in the village. He could not go back now, not ever, because he was an outlaw. The Perrills could kill him and it would not be murder, not even manslaughter, because an outlaw was beyond the law’s help. He remembered the window in the London stable, and knew God had told him to take the girl through that window, but he had failed and he thought he must be cut off from the heavenly light beyond that window for ever.
The evening peace vanished in noise.
But first there was light. Dark light, Hook thought later, a stab of light, flame-dark red, that licked like a hell-serpent’s tongue from an earthwork the French had dug close to one of their gaunt catapults. That tongue of fire was visible for an instant, then it was obliterated in a thunder cloud of dense black smoke that billowed sudden, and then the noise came, an ear-punching blow of sound that shook the heavens to be followed by another crack, almost as loud, as something struck the city wall.
The wall shook. Hook’s bow toppled and clattered onto the stones. Birds were screaming as they flew from the flame, smoke and lingering noise. The sun was gone, hidden by the black cloud, and Hook stared and was convinced, at least for a moment, that a crack had opened in the earth and that the fires of hell had squirmed their way to the surface.
“Sweet bloody Christ!” An archer said in awe.
“Was wondering when that would happen,” another archer said in disgust. “A gun,” he explained to the first man, “have you never seen a gun?”
“You’ll see them now,” the second man said grimly.
Hook had never seen a gun either, and he flinched when the second one fired to add its filthy smoke to the summer sky. The besiegers possessed six guns and those cannon did far more damage than the four great wooden machines. The catapults were inaccurate and their huge jagged boulders often missed the ramparts and dropped into the city to crush houses that started burning as their kitchen fires were scattered, but the cannon ate steadily at the city wall that was in bad repair. It took only two days for the outer face of the wall to crumble into the wide foetid ditch, and then the gunners systematically widened the breach as the Burgundians countered by making a semi-circular barricade behind the shattered wall.
Each gun fired three times a day, their shots as regular as the bells of a monastery calling men to prayer. The Burgundians had their own gun which had been mounted on a southern bastion in the expectation that the French would attack from the Paris road and it took two days to drag the weapon to the western ramparts where it was slung up to the roof of the gate-tower. Hook was fascinated by its tube that was three times as long as his bowstave and hooped like an ale pot. The tube and its bindings were made of dark pitted iron and stood on a squat wooden carriage. The gunners were Dutchmen who spent a long time watching the enemy guns and finally aimed their tube at one of those French cannon and then set about the laborious task of loading their machine. Gunpowder was put into the barrel with a long-handled ladle, then tamped tight with a cloth-wrapped rammer. Soft loam was added next. The loam was puddled in a wide wooden pail, rammed onto the powder, then left to dry as the gunners sat in a circle and played dice. The gun-stone, a boulder chipped into a crude ball, waited beside the tube until the chief gunner, a portly man with a forked beard, decided the loam was dry enough, and only then was the stone pushed down the long hooped barrel. A wooden wedge was shoved after it and hammered into place to keep the shaped boulder tight against the loam and powder. A priest sprinkled holy water on the gun and said a prayer as the Dutchmen used long levers to make a tiny adjustment to the tube’s aim.
“Stand back, boy,” Sergeant Smithson said. He had deigned to come from the Goose tavern to watch the Dutchmen fire their weapon. A score of other men had arrived, including the Sire de Bournonville who called encouragement to the gunners. None of the spectators stood close to the gun, but instead watched as if the black tube were a wild beast that could not be trusted. “Good morning, Sir Roger,” Smithson said, knuckling his forehead to a tall, arrow thin man. Sir Roger Stour, commander of the English contingent, ignored the greeting. He had a narrow, beak-nosed face with a lantern jaw, dark hair and the expression of a man forced to endure the stench of a latrine.
The portly Dutchman waited till the priest had finished his prayer, then he pushed a stripped quill into a small hole that had been drilled into the gun’s breach. He used a copper funnel to fill the quill with powder, squinted one more time down the length of the barrel, then stepped to one side and held out a hand. He was given a long, burning taper. The priest, the only man other than the artillerymen to be close to the weapon, made the sign of the cross and spoke a quick blessing, then the chief gunner touched the flame to the powder filled quill.
The gun exploded.
Instead of sending its stone ball screaming across to the French siege works the cannon vanished in a welter of smoke, flying metal and shredded flesh. The five gunners and the priest were killed instantly, turned to blood red mist and ribboned meat. A man at arms screamed and writhed as red hot metal sliced into his belly. Sir Roger, who had been standing next to the screaming man, stepped fastidiously away and grimaced at the blood that had spattered across the badge on his surcoat. That badge showed three hawks on a green field. “Tonight, Smithson,” Sir Roger spoke from the blood-smelling smoke that writhed about the rampart, “you will meet me after sundown in Saint Antoine le Petit’s church. You and your whole company.”
“Yes, sir, yes,” Smithson said faintly, “of course, Sir Roger.” The first ten feet of the shattered cannon lay canted and ripped open, while the breach had been torn into jagged shards of smoking metal. Part of a hoop and a man’s hand lay by Hook’s feet while the gunners, hired at great expense, were nothing but eviscerated carcasses. The Sire de Bournonville, his jupon spattered with blood and scraps of flesh, stared in horror at the gun’s remnants, while derisive jeers sounded from the French siege lines.
“We must plan for the assault,” Sir Roger said.
“Very good, Sir Roger,” Smithson said. The sergeant scooped a wet mess from his belt. “A Dutchman’s goddamn brains,” he said in disgust, flicking the gob towards Sir Roger who had turned and now strode oblivious away.
Sir Roger, with three men at arms all wearing his badge of the three hawks, met the English and Welsh archers of the Soissons garrison in the church just after sunset. Sir Roger’s surcoat had been washed, though the bloodstains were still faintly visible. He stood in front of the altar, lit by guttering rushlights that burned feebly in brackets mounted on the church’s pillars, and his face still bore the distant look of a man pained to be in his present company. “Your job,” he said, without any preamble once the eighty-nine archers had settled on the floor of the nave, “will be to defend the breach. I cannot tell you when the enemy will assault, but I can assure you it will be soon. I trust you will repel any such assault.”
“Oh we will, Sir Roger,” Smithson put in helpfully, “rely on it, sir!”
Sir Roger’s long face shuddered at the comment, as though a shadow had just passed over his grave. “In the event,” he said, “that you fail, you are to gather here, in this church.” Those words caused a stir as men frowned and looked at each other. If they failed to defend the breach and lost the new defences behind it, then they expected to retreat to the castle.
“Sir Roger?” Smithson ventured hesitantly.
“I had not invited questions,” Sir Roger said.
“Of your goodness, Sir Roger,” Smithson persevered, knuckling his forehead as he spoke, “but wouldn’t we be safer in the castle?”
“You will assemble here, in this church!” Sir Roger said firmly.
“Why not the castle?” an archer near Hook demanded belligerently.
Sir Roger paused, searching the dim nave for whoever had spoken. He could not discover the questioner, but deigned to offer an answer anyway. “The townspeople,” he finally spoke, “detest us. If you attempt to reach the castle you will be assaulted in the streets. This place is much closer to the breach, so come here.” He paused again. “I shall endeavour to arrange a truce for you.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. The archers knew that most folk in Soissons hated them. The townspeople were French, they supported their king and hated the Burgundians, but they hated the English even more. “A truce,” Smithson said dubiously.
“The French quarrel is with Burgundy,” Sir Roger said, “not with us.”
“Will you be joining us here, Sir Roger?” An archer called out.
“Of course,” Sir Roger said. He paused, but no one spoke. “Fight well,” he said distantly. “and remember you are English!”
“Welsh,” someone intervened.
Sir Roger flinched at that and then, without another word, led his three men-at-arms from the church. A chorus of protests sounded as he left. The church of Saint Antoine le Petit was stone-built and defensible, but not nearly so safe as the castle, though it was true the castle was at the other end of the town and Hook wondered how difficult it would be to reach that refuge if townsfolk were blocking the streets and French men-at-arms were howling through the breached ramparts. He looked up at the painted wall that showed men, women and children tumbling into hell. There were priests and even bishops among the doomed souls who fell in a screaming cascade to a lake of fire where black devils waited with leering grins and triple-barbed eel-spears. “You’ll wish you were in hell if the Frenchies capture you,” Smithson said, noticing where Hook was looking. “You’ll beg for the comforts of hell if those bastards catch you. So remember! We fight at the barricade, then we comes here if it all goes wrong.”
“Why here?” a man called out.
“Because Sir Roger knows what he’s doing,” Smithson said, sounding anything but certain, “and if you’ve got sweethearts here,” he went on with a leer, “make certain the little darlings come with you.” He began thrusting his meaty hips backwards and forwards. “Don’t want them left in the streets to be humped by half the French army, do we?”
Next morning, as he did each morning, Hook gazed north across the Aisne to the low wooded hills where the beleaguered garrison hoped to see a Burgundian relief force. None came. The great gun-stones whirred across the ashes of the burned houses and bit into the crumbling wall to start up their clouds of dust that settled on the river where they drifted seawards like pale grey stains. Hook rose early every morning, before it was light, and went to the cathedral where he knelt and prayed. He had abandoned praying to Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian because he reckoned they cared more about the townsfolk, their own folk, and so he prayed to the mother of Christ because his own mother had been called Mary and he begged the blessed virgin for forgiveness because of the girl who had died in London. One morning a priest knelt beside him. Hook ignored the man.
“You’re the Englishman who prays,” the priest said in English, stumbling over the unfamiliar language. Hook said nothing. “They wonder why you pray,” the priest went on, jerking his head to indicate the women who knelt before other statues and altars Hook’s instinct was to go on ignoring the man, but the priest had a friendly face and a kindly voice. “I’m just praying,” he said, sounding surly.
“Are you praying for yourself?”
“Yes,” Hook admitted.
“Then ask something for someone else,” the priest suggested. “God listens to those prayers more readily, I think, and if you pray for someone else then He will grant your own request too.” He smiled, stood and lightly touched Hook’s shoulder. “And pray to our saints, Crispin and Crispinian. I think they are less busy than the blessed Virgin. God watch over you, Englishman.”