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Bishop Wilhem looked over the battlements at Abbaye St. Evroud aux Hommes, Captain d’Bonnet at his side. Even from this distance across the Orne River, and in the darkness before dawn, he could make out the Abbaye St. Evroud across the Orne River. More than that, he could make out the shadowy figures of men were moving in the courtyard. But these weren’t the meditating forms of monks beginning their morning routines. These were English soldiers, gathering into companies. There were thousands of them. He could only imagine that the same was happening at Abbaye de la Trinite aux-Dames, on the other side of Caen.
A soldier ran up to Wilhem. He rested his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. “All the gates are blockaded, Bishop, as you ordered. We’ve used everything we can: beds, anvils, blocks from the parts of the wall that have crumbled. Yet, I see not how we can hold back the English for very long. We simply don’t have enough time to do it right, nor do we have enough trained manpower.
“Did thou not conscribe the peasants to help thee?” Captain d’Bonnet retorted.
“Oh, we conscribed them. But since most military-age men are with the army, those who have been trained in city defence are men too old to lift heavy burdens. All the citizens are eager to help, though.”
“That will be useful when the battle begins.” Wilhem said. “What of the weapons assessment?”
“Few men have swords. Most have no form of traditional weapon, but every fighting man has something– mostly cooking pots and pans.”
“Cooking pots?” Captain d’Bonnet scoffed.
“They are actually deadly with them, if the drills we did last night are any indication.”
Wilhem nodded. Unconventional, but the best they had under the circumstances. “Good. Send one soldier to each gate. They will have command over anyone who chooses to stay and defend that position. Move all others to the castle. We will join you as soon as the English are mobile. Dismissed.” Wilhem watched the soldier climb down the battlements. He bit back a frustrated sigh. There were too many detriments and not enough assets. The English had at least 12,000 men. Maybe as many as 15,000. The reports he had heard hadn’t agreed. He had only 300.
“La vache,” Captain d’Bonnet muttered.
Wilhem looked at him sharply.
Captain d’Bonnet glanced guiltily at Wilhem. “Beg pardon, I wasn’t thinking. There are just so many of them. Caen is by no means ready for an attack. The Count Raoul hasn’t seen to the wall in years– it’s crumbling in too many places for a mere 300 men to defend, especially against longbowmen.”
“Peace, Sir d’Bonnet.” Wilhem replied. “That is exactly why we will be defending only the castle. The blockades should hold long enough for us to get the men ready. Thank God at least have one asset. Also, the English brought no siege machines. Our strongholds will last longer without catapults.”
Captain d’Bonnet spit. “Aye. Especially since the Count has fled to New Town. The fool.”
Wilhem looked away. How fortunate for him that there was no one else around to carry his words to Count Raoul, and Wilhem was no spy. He could only hope that what d’Bonnet lacked in patience and respect he made up for on the field of battle. “I thought we had a chance last night. But when he moved the garrison without seeing to the rudiments of defence, I fear he sealed our doom.”
“But then, why are we not flying for the relative safety of the countryside instead of practically baring our chests for the enemy’s sword.”
Wilhem looked back at the city. “Because ‘greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'”
Captain d’Bonnet recoiled. “In this case, who are our friends?”
A bugle sounded in the Abbaye courtyard. The lines of troops moved as one to the gate. “If my prayers are answered, all of France. But come! We must make haste to the castle!”
Wilhem had not taken part in a battle since he was a very young man, still living in his father’s castle.From his post on the castle gate, he had an excellent view of the melee. The clash of swords. The struggles of bodies. The cries of men dying. The calls of the commanding officers, both in French and English. The crushing blows of cooking pots on English skulls. And the terrified shrieks of women and children– those who had not taken his advice, given through Sister Abigail, to leave all and fly for the hills. He himself had given Sister Abigail a letter of reference and sent her to his hometown of Bayeux. She would be safe there, at least for now. As for himself, he had to concentrate on the battle if they were to succeed.
A few hundred English soldiers gathered on the other side of the bridge. Obviously, they would charge the gate.
“Captain d’Bonnet! The archers!” Wilhem called.
D’Bonnet nodded and turned to the troops. “Archers! Aim for the longbowmen and lancers! Release!” Bow strings twanged and arrows hissed through the air. It sounded more like rain than arrows.
On the other side of the bridge, Englishmen fell. Behind them, a bugle call rang out– the call for retreat. But the soldiers seemed intent on attacking. They did not give up.
“Sir Villaine!” Wilhem called down to the soldier who held the bridge against the attackers. “Attack them now!” The English were too eager and their assault force was by no means strong. And they were not listening to their superior officers. That was good.
Sir Villaine and his men charged the small force. The English met them before they had crossed half the bridge. Nonetheless, the French cut them down, even as English reinforcements arrived. Before an hour had passed, the French had gained the bank; more than that, they held it.
King Edward angrily gestured to three soldiers. From all Wilhem had heard, he could guess that they were the Earl of Warwick, the Earl of Nothampton, and Richard Talbot. Talbot and Warwick rode with all speed toward the gathering men, yelling at them. Finally, they retreated. Sir Villaine looked back at Wilhem, a question on his face.
Wilhem shook his head; they had to hold the bank! The men were tired, yes, but if they returned to the castle gate, they give up precious ground. Every inch counted at this point.
Still, those brave men wouldn’t be able to hold it for long. The enemy simply had too many men. Glancing over the city, he watched as refugees fled through the streets. As he watched, a soldier, the pack hanging over his shoulder bulging with stolen goods, caught a girl. “Lord, have mercy…” Wilhem whispered. She shrieked, but the man was too strong. Wilhem gripped his sword, his chest heaving. There was nothing he could do for her.
He looked back at his men, swallowing a lump in his throat. Rats in a trap. That’s all they were. Hundreds had taken his warning and escaped the night before, but there were still thousands left– more than half the town’s population. Still, he hoped more would escape and flee to all the surrounding villages and beyond. With them would go a single message: The English are coming. Pack everything you own and run.
He climbed down to the courtyard. The longer they could hold the English, the further the refugees could carry the message. “Men!” he cried to the soldiers who were building a blockade in the courtyard, in case the English broke through. “God’s strength is with us! The English flee before our swords! But I require your services still. Sir Villaine remains on the far bank and he needs reinforcements. Who will go to his aid? I can promise naught to thee but glory, whether in life or death. If thy heart is righteous, God shall grant those who die rest befitting a nobleman, for thou will have given thy life for a noble purpose. If you live, you will always remember this day. The memory of this battle will be as a mantle of honor on thy shoulders, for the scars thou receivest today will come defending thy home and family! For the rest of thy life, 27 July will be a day that you will call all who revere thee and retell the tale of thy adventures! So, who shall go for me?”
Dozens of men answered with war cries. Wilhem smiled, grateful for their courage. He returned to the battlement, and ordered the gate to be open wide enough for the men to exit single file. Swiftly, the men ran out to join the tired men on the opposite bank.
Wilhem murmured a prayer for the men, and watched as the English advanced. Even with reinforcements, they had no chance. The English descended upon them and broke through the lines in several places. The Welsh lancemen, alies of the English, were especially resourceful. While the English attacked the bridge, they attacked the men on either side of it. They began wading across the moat, which had shrunk in the summer heat, holding their shields above their heads against the French arrows.
Wilhem eyed them in dismay. He turned to call to Sir Villaine. Although he was probably too far to hear Wilhem’s warning, there was no other course of action to take. As he opened his mouth, Sir Villaine fell to an English sword.
When he looked back at the Welshmen, he paled. Some had found the boats that the soldiers had removed during the night. Quickly they mounted the bridge next to the gate and cut down the reinforcements still leaving the stronghold.
“Close the gate!” Wilhem hollered.
It was too late. Already, the Welsh had gained enterance, and battle ensued behind him as well as before. Wilhem brought his fist down on the battlement. The day was lost. He had hoped they would be able to hold out for at least another day or two. But, he had to save who he could. “Sir d’Bonnet!” Wilhem looked around, but could not locate the knight. Suddenly he spotted the fleeing man. He was on horseback, riding with other senior officers to the castle on the far end of the courtyard. Wilhem growled. The traitors had left without a word. “Soldier!” He called to the closest man.. “Sound the retreat! We go to the tower!” He gestured to the stronghold beside him, right above the bridge. From there, they would be able to watch the English, and possibly devise some plan of escape. The bugle sounded. Soldiers called to each other, encouraging and directing to the tower.
Before the main English army had entered the gate, all surviving Frenchmen were in the tower.
Five days passed, and still, Edward did not try to capture the men in the tower. Although the men with Wilhem had swollen to 3,000, they were the small prize in comparison with the town of Caen. While Wilhem and the men watched, the English sacked the town until nothing was left except nearly empty cottages, which they burned. New Town didn’t survive any longer than the rest of the town, but the casualties were worse there than in the rest of the town.
Finally, after enjoying their victory, King Edward left with the bulk of his army, continuing further into France. But there was no one and nothing left for them to loot and pillage. Still, they burned every building, except the churches.
Bishop Wilhem survived, and after a few weeks led one more attack against the remaining English. Drunk on their victory, they were easy to defeat.
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Although this story is based on real events, Sister Abigail is a fictional character. Also, in all my research, I was unable to find the names of the men who fought at Bishop Wilhem Bertrand’s side. So, I had to make up a few of their names, too.
The verse that Wilhem quoted was John 15:13 from the Latin Vulgate Bible, which was a popular version at the time.
For Further Reading…
Phillip VI by Encyclopaedia Britannica
Caen, France by Encyclopaedia Britannica
St. George For England – A Tale of Cressy and Poitiers by G.A. Henty
King Edward III’s invasion of France moves on from Caen, 1346 by The History Man
The Battle of Caen by Sussle
Roman Catholic Diocese of Bayeux by Sussle
Copyright © Angela Cornell 2016