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Jesu, dúlcis memória,
Dans véra córdis gáudia:
Sed super mel et ómnia
Ejus dúlcis præséntia.
Sister Abigail, her eyes closed, smiled peacefully. She loved this old song– she’d have to remember to thank Sister Cecilia for choosing it tonight.
Abigail sighed contentedly. She loved the early evening, especially now that it was high summer. Although it was hot in the chapel, the evening breeze through the windows felt refreshing. After working hard fulfilling her holy duties as a nun by praying, attending services, caring for the livestock, and working in the garden, Vespers was the most relaxing way to end the day.
Abigail’s brows creased. Especially with the war. For the last nine years, beginning in 1337, England had been attacking her home country of France.The pilgrims who stayed in the Abbey occasionally loved talking of nothing else, it seemed. England wanted the duchy of Guyenne. Although it technically belonged to them, it was on French soil. Because of that, England had to pay an annual fee for it. Now they wanted it independently.
But more than that, King Edward of England believed himself to be the rightful king of France because his mother, Queen Isabella of England, had been old King Charles’ sister. Of course, his claim was all poppycock, nephew though he was. The arrogance of the English to believe one of their noblemen could rule France! It would be just as ridiculous for the moon to decide that she could rule the day.
Before King Charles had passed away, he left specific instructions on who was to determine his successor, should his pregnant wife be delivered of a daughter instead of a son. When Princess Blanche was born, the noblemen followed his orders and appointed the regent and King Charles’ cousin, Philippe De Valois, as the next king of France. But King Edward was not content with the decision. Since he was a closer blood relative to the old king, he believed he should be France’s King.
Abigail shook her head and grasped her rosary beads. It was her duty to pray about matters of state, not just think of them. “Almighty God, and Holy Mary, strengthen our King Philippe. Give him wisdom to know how to defeat the English and drive them from our land. Strengthen our brave soldiers. Brazen their hearts, cause them to stand strong against the English knights and longbowmen. May they be brave in the face of–“
Clatter came from the hallway outside the chapel. The sound of many feet came to her ears. And was that men’s voices? The music ended abruptly. Abigail opened her eyes and turned to look at the door. This wasn’t right. Vespers was supposed to be a time of peace and prayer. Who would disturb them at this hour?
Abbess Teresa rose from her knees and calmly stated, “Continue with thy worship, my daughters. I will go and greet our guests.” Obediently, the choir took up the next verse of the chant, and the rest of the sisters bowed their heads in prayer again.
Abigail did not, however. She locked eyes with Sister Anna across the aisle. Typically in matters of grave importance, Abbess Teresa called on the two of them to give her counsel. True to form, Abbess Teresa passed them and signaled for them to follow her. Immediately, Anna rose and followed her, but Abigail was not far behind. The closer they came to the door, the louder the voices were. There were most certainly men in the hallway– and they weren’t speaking French.
The three left the chapel and Abigail softly closed the door behind. She raised her eyes to the hallway, and gasped. “Soldiers?” It took a moment for Abigail to realize that the whispered word came from her own mouth. Ten armored English men stood before them. Right there! In front of her! Abigail hadn’t even known that the English army was in Normandy. Yet the personification of the proof was a mere 10 feet in front of her.
Abbess Teresa turned and momentarily squeezed Abigail’s shoulder reassuringly. “Courage, daughter. Take courage,” she whispered. Abigail nodded shakily. She would try to be brave.
Suddenly silent, the men watched the three women with calculation.
“Who among you is the leader? Who will answer to heaven for the interruption of this holy service?” Abbess Teresa’s voice rang clear, but Abigail noted that her hands were shaking. Whether from anger or fear, Abigail couldn’t tell. Nonetheless, it was encouraging.
A young man, not yet twenty, stepped forward, the English royal crest was on his breastplate. Noting the haughty tilt of his head and determined look in his eye, Abigail could only guess that either this boy had seen many battles or was a nobleman in his own right. Perhaps both.
“I am the captain of this company,” he stated authoritatively in French. If this meeting had been under any other circumstances, Abigail probably would have laughed at this boy’s thick accent. “My name is Prince Edward, son of King Edward III. My men and I require a place to stay. Having heard of the hospitality of thy abbey, we have come to try it for ourselves.”
“And if I refuse thee?” Abbess Teresa questioned.
A smirk spread over Prince Edward’s face, but he continued condescendingly. “Abbess, thou understandst not the gravity of the situation. But as thou art a woman, and a nun at that, I shall forgive thy ignorance. My men and I require thy services. I would be loath to return to mine men and inform them that we have been cast out. They can be so– testy– when they are hungry and tired. I doubt I would be able to hold them back if, say, they desired to tear down thy walls and ravage thy treasures. My men have been promised great wealth, and as of yet in this war, they have not seen much in that regard. But, if thou promises to extend thy hospitality to me, I believe I can restrain my men. After all, we are merely humble– hmm– political pilgrims. Hast thou not promised to help all pilgrims?”
The Abbess hissed. “Humble political pilgrims! What rubbish! Thou, prince, has never been on a pilgrimage, holy or otherwise, that I have heard of. And though I am sheltered behind these walls, I have yet heard of the looting and pillaging thy army has wrought in the fortnight that you have been on French soil! Hundreds have been massacred, women have been viciously dishonored, the countryside has been razed, and the towns of Carentan, Saint- Lô and Torteval have already fallen. The heart of France is breaking– you are destroying her spirit!
The prince blinked in surprise, but recovered quickly with a sneer. “That is the general idea, Abbess. How better to do that than to destroy Caen, the the cultural, religious, and economic capital of Normandy?”
Abigail and Anna exchanged horrified looks. They had not heard any of this before! Their abbey had long been a place of shelter from the outside world. Too sheltered, apparently. The nuns were hardly prepared for an English attack on the town.
Undeterred, Abbess Teresa continued, “Thy men have stolen enough from the innocents of France. Get you gone! Ye shall have no sanctuary here.”
“Abbess,” Prince Edward’s voice squeaked angrily. He cleared his throat and began again. “Abbess, I am not giving thee a choice. I will occupy thy abbey. Thou can either allow us peaceably and when we will leave, the abbey will be in much the same state as now. Or, if thou continues to refuse me, we shall kill and ravage this house and ask forgiveness of heaven later.”
Abigail watched the Abbess carefully as she decided. The options were very dark indeed. This barbaric prince would never attain forgiveness from the pope for such a black deed. Certainly this threat was a mere bluff. But then again, excommunication was far too common in war. Maybe he thought that Abbess Teresa would not call his bluff. That or he thought excommunication was a necessary cost of victory. If so, Abigail was sure of one thing: none of the women on the premises would be safe.
Slowly, the Abbess nodded. “Fine. Thou and thy men may stay, but on the condition that none of these women are touched.”
The Prince nodded. “Of course not, holy mother.” He signaled one of his men. “Earl Thomas, go inform the men they may enter.” the knight bowed and left.
“Sister Anna, please show these men to our best rooms,” The Abbess commanded. Anna bowed and walked down a hallway with the men, who were now speaking in English. Abigail’s childhood lessons of the English in her father’s castle came back to her, her mind translating the men’s crude boasts about taking Caen in the following days. Her heart pounded at their words, but she was thankful that Anna was of common blood and had never learned English. Her ears would be spared at least. Nonetheless, Abigail had to swallow hard to keep back fearful tears. Almighty God, she prayed, her lips barely moving, grant us courage and wisdom to see us through this battle!
“Sister Abigail,” the Abbess murmured. “Go to my study. I must speak with thee privately. But first, I must tell the others of what has transpired.”
Abigail bowed and obeyed.
“And so, Count Raoul, Abbess Teresa ordered me to sneak out of the convent and come to to warn thee of the occupation. Directly before I slipped out, I overheard some soldiers discuss that the entire English army is meeting here, and will be stationed in both of Caen’s abbeys.”
The Count of Eu, Raoul II of Brienne, a man in his late 20s, shook his head. “The scoundrels. Imagine occupying God’s holy abbeys so they can attack Caen.”
“It was a good strategy on their part,” said a nearby knight with blonde hair. “We would never do anything to harm our nuns, and they know that. Unfortunately, they have chosen the best possible shield. We should remember this moment, my Count. Should God grant us an opportunity to take the war to England, we should do the same to their abbeys.”
“Now is not the time for jests, Sir De Vaud,” Count Raoul reprimanded. “We must make plans for the coming siege.”
“Aye, sir! We must make plans such as that will insure their siege never succeeds!” Cried another lord standing nearby. “What England wants is riches. The wealth of the rich, to be precise, and all the rich live on New Town Island, not in the Old Town. Count Raoul, hear my counsel: pull back thine troops from the outer wall of Caen to this island. In so doing, thou shalt improve thy chances at defeating King Edward!”
All the other noblemen who stood around the room assented, but Abigail was appalled. What of all those living in the lower levels of the city? Who would protect them? Then the Abbess’ words returned to her mind. Courage, daughter. Take courage!
“Count Raoul, hear me,” Even as Abigail spoke, one of Count Raoul’s eyebrows raised. Abigail gulped down a rise of panic. She was but a woman, and shouldn’t be speaking like this.
It still had to be said. The noblemen were too worried about protecting their own homes than the city. Someone must speak for them! “Forgive this simple nun from speaking against the counsel of thy lords, but without thy army, the peasants who do not live behind this strong wall will be defenseless against the horrors that others have experienced at the hands of these ruffians.”
“Sister Abigail speaks sense,” a new voice spoke from the back of the counsel chamber. Abigail turned to see Bishop Wilhem Bertrand, an old friend of Abbess Teresa, stride to the front of the room. “Thou hast sworn to protect not only the wealthy who live in New Town but also the poor who live in the rest of the town. Wilt thou abandon them?” Abigail smiled gratefully at the Bishop. If he hadn’t come to her aid, certainly Count Raoul would have disregarded her.
Count Raoul stroked his beard solemnly for a moment, looking back and forth between Bishop Bertrand, his knights, and the map of Caen laid on a table before him. “Sir De Vaud,” he addressed the knight, “Go to the outer walls and call in our soldiers.”
“But, Count Raoul! The peasants!” Shouted Bishop Bertrand.
“I’m sorry, Bishop, but I must choose between the possible downfall of the English army and the safety of the peasants. My spies report to me that the whole of the English army is making their way here. That will be 15,000 fighting men and a good portion of them will be longbowmen. The island is far more defensible than the whole town and with superior strategy and the blessing of heaven, we have a chance of defeating the army here and now. The war could end this week, if we are careful.”
Bishop Bertrand shook his head. “Thy plan is flawed! Defend Caen from the outer walls, and you have a greater chance of defeating King Edward!”
“Do not think that I enjoy the decision. It is not ideal.”
If thy father were still alive–”
“But he’s not, old man.” Count Raoul growled. “I do what I must.” He took a deep breath and continued more calmly. “If I had enough men, I would protect everyone. But for the good of France, I must defeat Edward’s armies. I cannot do that from Caen’s outer walls.”
Abigail’s heart sunk within her. She knew the people who lived in the lower sectors. Many times, she had gone out into the streets and ministered to the impoverished and the elderly. How many sick people had received gifts of food from her hand? How many of Caen’s children knew her by name? And now, these people– these beautiful, wonderful, helpless people– would be at the mercy of England’s army. Oh Mary, she prayed, please intervene.
“Count Raoul, grant me a boon.” Bishop Bertrand said, interrupting her thoughts. “Leave part of your army in Caen. I will lead them. Along with the peasants, we will begin the battle in the streets. Do not think I know not how. Before joining the church, I was to be a fighting man. I was trained in the art of war. Besides, it will provide extra time for you to prepare the castle.”
Count Raoul’s eyes dropped to the map before him for a long moment. “All right, Bishop. I will grant thy request. I will leave 300 men at your disposal. The rest must return to protect the high ground.”
Abigail frowned. Three hundred men hardly sounded like enough. But Bishop Bertrand bowed respectfully, “Gideon had no more when he defeated the Midianites. With God’s grace, I go.” With that, he walked toward the door.
Abigail looked around her. Now that her message had been delivered, she had no doubt that Count Raoul would send her to tend his wife, Countess Catherine, during the siege. But the only other option was attending the wounded on the battlefield. Attending the countess would certainly be safer, but attending the wounded men would helpful to more people, terrifying though it was.
“Bishop!” she called. When he turned to face her, she lifted her chin and asked, “May I come with thee? I can encourage the people and help tend the wounded.”
Bishop Bertrand stared at her for a moment before he slowly nodded. “It will be like nothing thou hast ever experienced. But I would be glad for thy company.”
To Be Continued…
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Although this story is based on real events, Sister Abigail, Abbess Teresa, and Sister Anna are fictional characters.
The song quoted at the beginning of this story is believed to have been written in the early-to-mid 1100s. Here is the song in its entirety, along with its translation (Complements of Fish Eaters).
Jesu, dúlcis memória, Jesus, the very thought of Thee
Dans véra córdis gáudia: With sweetness fills the breast!
Sed super mel et ómnia Yet sweeter far Thy face to see
Ejus dúlcis præséntia. And in Thy Presence rest.
Nil cánitur suávius, No voice can sing, no heart can frame,
Nil audítur jucúndius, Nor can the memory find,
Nil cogitátur dúlcius, A sweeter sound than Jesus’ Name
Quam Jésus Déi Fílius. The Savior of mankind.
Jésu, spes pæniténtibus, O hope of every contrite heart!
Quan píus es peténtibus! O joy of all the meek!
Quan bónus te quæréntibus! To those who fall, how kind Thou art!
Sed quid inveniéntibus? How good to those who seek!
Nec língua válet dícere, But what to those who find? Ah! this
Nec líttera exprímere: Nor tongue nor pen can show
Expértus pótest crédere, The love of Jesus, what it is,
Quid sit Jésum dilígere. None but His loved ones know.
Sis, Jésu, nóstrum gáudium, Jesus! our only hope be Thou,
Qui est futúrus praémium As Thou our prize shalt be;
Sit nóstra in te glória, In Thee be all our glory now,
Per cúncta semper saécula. And through eternity. Amen.
For Further Reading…
A map of Caen, 1346 by Wikipedia
Phillip VI by Encyclopaedia Britannica
Hundred Years War by The History Channel
Battle of Caen (1346) by Memim Encyclopedia
Life in a Medieval monastery by Britain Express
Copyright © Angela Cornell 2016