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Reign of Edward III page 5

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The country people, ground by a long course of exaction, oppression, and insult, treated more as beasts than men by their feudal lords, now seized the moment, when the Government was beset with difficulties and enemies, to take a blind, sweeping, and tremendous vengeance. The nobility and the petty gentry holding fiefs under them bad all been accustomed to plunder, tread on, and abuse the peasantry as a race of inferior creatures. The feudal system had run to seed in unbridled license, and in every species of infuriating wrong. Ignorant and outraged, the people, once broke loose, placed no limits to their cruelties and revenge. They despised the nobles, who, while they had oppressed them, had, in base cowardice, deserted their sovereign at Poictiers. Formerly crushed down into slaves, they were now terrible masters. They burnt and laid waste the country everywhere, plundered the villages, and cut off: the supplies of the terrified towns.

They attacked the castles of the nobles, burnt them to the ground, chased their once proud owners like wild beasts into the woods, committed horrors which cannot be named on the helpless women, murdered them and the children without mercy, and, as in Germany afterwards, actually roasted some of their former harsh lords before slow fires.

Of the frightful situation to which the highest ladies of the country were reduced, Froissart gives a striking example. The Duchess of Normandy, the Duchess of Orleans, and nearly 300 ladies, young girls, and children, had fled for refuge to the strong town of Meaux, and were besieged by 9,000 or 10,000 of the furious Jaquerie, when they were threatened with every horror that human nature could endure. Fortunately, two famous knights of the directly opposite parties, the Count of Foix, and the brave Captal de Buche, who made the successful rear assault at the battle of Poictiers, hearing of the alarming situation of these high ladies, forgot their hostility, united their forces, and falling on the Jaquerie, put them to the sword, killing 7,000 of them, and rescuing the terrified women.

The dauphin, on his part, did not spare the insurgents. He cut them down like sheep wherever he could meet with them. In one case he is said to have killed more than 20,000 of them. The Sire de Couci, in Picardy and Artois, mowed them down like grass, and soon cleared that part of the country of them. Everywhere the knights and gentry, roused by the ferocious deeds of the Jaquerie towards their families, collected, and easily overcoming their undisciplined mobs, slaughtered them in heaps like beasts without mercy. At the same time, Marcel, endeavouring to complete his crime by betraying Paris to the King of Navarre and the English, was killed by the exasperated people, and thus the land was eventually reduced to quiet. But it was a quiet like that described by the Roman historian: - "Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant: they make a solitude, and call it peace." No country was ever reduced to a more awful condition of ruin and wide-spread desolation; this frightful Jaquerie pest lasted nearly two years.

Meantime Edward had worked on his captive, King John of France, to make a peace, restoring to England all the provinces which had belonged to Henry II. and his two sons, for ever; but the dauphin and the states rejected the treaty, which would have totally ruined the kingdom. On this Edward once more invaded that devoted country, assembled an army of 100,000 men, with which he overran Picardy and Champagne, besieged Rheims, but without success, advanced into Burgundy, and pillaged Tonnerre, Gaillon, and Avalon, marched into the Nivernois, and laid waste Brie and the Gatinois, and sat down before Paris, where, not being able to draw the dauphin into a battle, he proceeded to devastate the provinces of Maine, Beausse, and the Chartraine. It is said that his desolating career was at length closed by a terrible thunderstorm by which he was overtaken near Chartres, in which the terrors of heaven seemed to his awe-struck imagination to be arrayed against him. "Looking towards the church of Notre Dame, at Chartres," says Froissart, "he made a vow to grant peace, which he afterwards humbly repeated I in confession in the cathedral of Chartres, and thus took up ins lodging in the village of Britigni, near that city."

Here the peace was concluded; and on these conditions: that the King of France should pay three millions of gold crowns for his ransom - about a million and a half of our money; that he should yield up to Edward in full sovereignty the province of Gascony and other dependencies in Aquitaine, and in the north of France, Calais, Guisnes, Montreuil, and the country of Ponthieu; and Edward, on the other hand, should renounce all other French territory, and all claim to the crown and kingdom of France. The King of Navarre was to be restored to all his honours and possessions, and the alliances of Edward with the Flemings and of John with the Scots were to close. In consequence of this peace of Britigni, signed the 24th of October, 1360, John re turned to France; but finding that his Government was unwilling to keep faith with England, and his son the Duke of Anjou having broken his parole as a hostage, John, with a noble sense of honour, refused to be a party to such dishonesty, and returning voluntarily to his captivity in London, died there on the 8th of April, 1364.

Charles V., the fifty-first monarch of France, succeeded his father John to a kingdom desolate but not dismembered. John had, indeed, added to the realm the provinces of Dauphiny and Burgundy; but the latter he again dissevered from the crown and settled on his favourite son, his companion at the battle of Poictiers and in his captivity. This unwise act, the result, not of prudence - in which John was singularly deficient - but of affection, became the source of much contention and many miseries. But miseries were the order of the day. France was overrun with them as with weeds.

Charles had been early taught in the school of adversity, and he soon displayed proofs that he had profited by its lessons. He was cautious, thoughtful how to retrieve the condition of France, and eventually won the name of the Wise. Had his designation been the "Worldly Wise it would have been still more correct, for he was not too strict in rendering the code of honour where it interfered with his plans. He was the first of his race and his times who renounced the practice of heading his armies, deeming it more befitting a monarch to head his kingdom, and place at the head of his armies the ablest commanders that he could obtain, as he would place the ablest ministers over the different departments of his Government. This very circumstance marks Charles as a sagacious prince. The practice was a step onward in governmental science.

Charles deemed it necessary to reduce the disorders of his own kingdom before he commenced his intended operations against the English. It was necessary to put down Charles of Navarre, and to settle the affairs of Brittany. To do this, he first sent the young Breton knight, Bertrand du Guesclin, destined to acquire a great renown in this reign, into Normandy, where the brave Captal de Buche, the hero of Poictiers, commanded the King of Navarre's forces. These two commanders met near Cocherel, where Du Guesclin turned the tide of war in favour of France, gaining the first complete victory for it since the days of Crecy, and not only routed De Buche, but took him prisoner.

Du Guesclin then marched into Brittany, where Lord Chandos and Sir Hugh Calverley were in command of the English forces. Here Du Guesclin's good fortune deserted him; he was defeated and taken prisoner. Here, also, Charles of Blois was slain, and the young De Montfort secured in his possessions. The prudence of Charles Y. was now seen conspicuously; instead of resuming the war, he acknowledged De Montfort as rightful lord of the duchy, though a strong partisan of England, admitted him to do homage for the fief, and thus bound him in a certain degree to him by kindness - a display of political philosophy too much neglected by Edward III. of England and his son the Black Prince.

Finding the estates of the crown greatly reduced by weak grants made by his father and former monarchs to the princes and nobles about them, he set himself to reclaim them, and thus restore the national finances - an undertaking which would have ruined a weak or imprudent king. But he prosecuted this design with such consummate address and persuasive mildness - showing its absolute necessity if France were to enable herself to shake off the incubus of the English, and beginning with his own uncle, the Duke of Orleans - that he carried it through triumphantly. This done, he proceeded to rid the nation of the bands of Free Companions which preyed on the very vitals of the kingdom. At the peace of Britigni, the disbanded soldiery of Edward, men from almost every European country, being scattered over the land, and being in possession of many of the strongholds, refused to lay down their arms. They were accustomed to a life of the utmost license under the English king and prince, and they determined to continue it. They associated together for mutual defence, in such combination calling themselves the "Great Companies." Both English and Gascon officers now took the command of these freebooters, who became the scourge of the provinces. Sir Hugh Calverley, Sir Matthew Gournay, and the Chevalier Verte, were their most distinguished leaders. These troops amounted to 40,000, and did not fear to encounter the armies of France. They fought with them and beat them, and killed Jaques de Bourbon, a prince of the blood. The more they spoiled and ravaged, the more their numbers grew, for they were increased by those who sought for booty, and by those who were left without any other resource. People flocked to them precisely as they did in ancient times to David, in the cave of Adullam: "Every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him." The Pope excommunicated them; but though that ban, so awful in that age, alarmed, it did not disperse them.

Charles at first complained to Edward warmly that his forces were not disbanded according to the treaty, and called upon him to see them dispersed; but when Edward, finding proclamations for the purpose unheeded, declared that he would himself march against them, Charles took alarm at the prospect of seeing an English army again on the soil of France, and hastened to request him to spare himself that trouble - he would deal with them in his own way. His mode of ridding himself of them was worthy of his enlightened mind. He used all his persuasions to engage them in foreign wars. He represented to them what a rich field the wars of Italy presented to them; and a large body, under one Hawkwood, an Englishman, proceeded thither, and won great wealth and distinction. Fortune favoured the plans of the king, and opened a still wider field of action for the troublesome Free Companions. Pedro, the King of Castile, at that time was one of the most bloody monsters who ever disgraced a throne. He indulged his savage disposition by the murder of his own near relations and the nobles about the court. He had put to death several of his natural brothers for fear of their conspiring against him. The murder of one noble led him to that of others, whom he dreaded might attempt retaliation. His court was become a perfect hell of bloc I and terror, and that terror alone prevented his dethronement. But, instigated by Mary de Padilia, his mistress he poisoned his wife, the sister of the queen of Charles of France. At this, Enrique, Count of Transtamara, and Tello, Count of Biscay, his natural brothers, who had taken arms against him in vain, fled to the court of France, and implored Charles to avenge the sister of his queen, and rid the country of this modern Nero.

Charles embraced the proposal as the evident beckoning hand of a good Providence. He procured the liberty of Du Guesclin, who was still a prisoner to Lord Chandos set him to bring over the chiefs of the Companions, and take command under him for a feigned expedition against the Moors in Spain, which was regarded as a crusade against the infidels. The Pope, who had his cause of quarrel with the monster Pedro, gave his blessing to the scheme, and Du Guesclin speedily found himself at the head of 30,000 of these desperadoes. The King of France gave them 200,000 francs; and, assembling at Chalons, on the river Marne, they marched towards Avignon. The Pope, who then resided there, alarmed at the approach of such a force, sent a cardinal to learn their object in coming that way. Du Guesclin answered that as they were bound on a crusade against the enemies of the Church, they sought the Pope's blessing, and the small sum of 200,000 florins to help them on their way. His holiness readily promised the blessing and absolution of all their sins - an awful score! But Du Guesclin replied that his followers were of that description that they would, if necessary, dispense with the absolution, but not with the money. The Pope then proposed to levy the sum of 100,000 florins on the inhabitants, but Du Guesclin said they were not come to oppress the innocent people, but would expect the money out of the Pope's own coffers. His holiness thought it well to comply with a request backed by such arguments as 30,000 notorious banditti, and the bold beggars marched on. They very soon drove the tyrant from his throne and kingdom, who fled, with his two daughters, into Guienne, and put himself under the protection of the Black Prince.

In all the wars of Edward III. against Scotland and France, he had shown an utter disregard of right; and in this respect he was fully seconded by the Black Prince; but of all their undertakings there was none so flagrantly outraging every principle of justice, humanity, and chivalry as their abetting this demon in human shape, Don Pedro of Castile. Here was a man steeped in the blood of his own family and of his own wife; who had oppressed and plundered his subjects till they hated him with a mortal hatred, and had joined in chasing him from the country. Edward, as a professed champion of chivalry, was bound to defend and redress the grievances of ladies; yet here did he at once undertake to restore the murderer of his wife to his ensanguined throne, and to force him again on a people whom he had driven to desperation by his ferocious tyrannies. It has been attempted to vindicate this action by representing Don Pedro as the legitimate sovereign, whom, therefore, the prince, as an upholder of legitimate authority, was bound to support. But the fact is, that Edward and his father had all their lives been engaged in endeavouring, by all the force of their talents and the resources of their kingdom, to destroy legitimacy in the person of the King of France. It has been again urged that the King of France sanctioning the expedition to dethrone Don Pedro naturally aroused the rivalry of the Black Prince, who would probably, say these authors, never have succoured the infamous Pedro had not the King of France taken the other side. But the worst of it is, that the King of France was on the right side, the just and honourable one - that of punishing a murderer of his own relative, and of assisting an oppressed people. The Prince of Wales was on the wrong side - the odious one of abetting as foul a monster as ever disgraced humanity; and his proceeding was as impolitic as it was unjust, for it raised a new enemy, the reigning King of Castile, Don Enrique, and threw him into the alliance of France. The conduct of the Black Prince in this affair proved that, with all his personal virtues, he was destitute of that high moral sense - that perception of what is intrinsically great and noble - which stamps the true hero; and the hand of Providence appears speedily and unequivocally to have displayed itself against him and his father, who sanctioned his fatal enterprise. All his wisest and most faithful counsellors urged him to reflect on the crimes and blood-stained character of Don Pedro; to remember that such men were as ungrateful as they were base; and also that the expedition must be attended by severe charges on the province of Gascony, already loudly complaining of its burthens.

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