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- Saint George for England - 20/47 -
In those days sieges were not conducted in the strict manner in which they are at present, and non-combatants passed without difficulty to and fro between town and camp. The news, therefore, of what was intended speedily reached the garrison, whom it filled with indignation and horror. A council was immediately called, and Sir Walter Manny proposed a plan, which was instantly adopted.
Without loss of time Almeric de Clisson issued forth from the great gate of Hennebon, accompanied by 300 men-at-arms and 1000 archers. The latter took post at once along the edge of the ditches. The men-at-arms rode straight for the enemy's camp, which was undefended, the whole army being within their tents at dinner. Dashing into their midst the English and Breton men-at-arms began to overthrow the tents and spear all that were in them. Not knowing the extent of the danger or the smallness of the attacking force, the French knights sprang up from table, mounted, and rode to encounter the assailants.
For some time these maintained their ground against all assaults until, finding that the whole army was upon them, Almeric de Clisson gave order for his troop to retire slowly upon the town. Fighting every step of the ground and resisting obstinately the repeated onslaught of the French, Clisson approached the gate. Here he was joined by the archers, who with bent bows prepared to resist the advance of the French. As it appeared that the garrison were prepared to give battle outside the walls, the whole French army prepared to move against them.
In the meantime Sir Walter Manny, with 100 men-at-arms and 500 horse archers, issued by a sally-port on the other side of the town, and with all speed rode round to the rear of the French camp. There he found none to oppose him save servants and camp-followers, and making his way straight to the tent of Charles of Blois, where the two knights were confined, he soon freed them from their bonds. They were mounted without wasting a moment's time upon two spare horses, and turning again the whole party rode back towards Hennebon, and had reached the postern gate before the fugitives from the camp reached the French commanders and told them what had happened.
Seeing that he was now too late, because of De Clisson's sortie, Charles of Blois recalled his army from the attack, in which he could only have suffered heavily from the arrows of the archers and the missiles from the walls. The same day, he learned from some prisoners captured in the sortie, of the undiminished spirit of the garrison, and that Hennebon was amply supplied with provisions brought by sea. His own army was becoming straitened by the scarcity of supplies in the country round, he therefore determined at once to raise the siege, and to besiege some place where he would encounter less serious resistance.
Accordingly, next morning he drew off his army and marched to Carhaix.
Shortly afterwards the news came that the Earl of Northampton and Robert of Artois, with their force, had sailed, and Don Louis, with the Genoese and other Italian mercenaries, started to intercept them with a large fleet. The fleets met off the island of Guernsey, and a severe engagement took place, which lasted till night. During the darkness a tremendous storm burst upon them and the combatants separated. The English succeeded in making their way to Brittany and landed near Vannes. The Spaniards captured four small ships which had been separated in the storm from their consorts, but did not succeed in regaining the coast of Brittany, being driven south by the storm as far as Spain. The Earl of Northampton at once laid siege to Vannes, and Sir Walter Manny moved with every man that could be spared from Hennebon to assist him.
As it was certain that the French army would press forward with all speed to relieve the town, it was decided to lose no time in battering the walls, but to attempt to carry it at once by assault. The walls, however, were so strong that there seemed little prospect of success attending such an attempt, and a plan was therefore determined upon by which the enemy might be thrown off their guard. The assault commenced at three points in the early morning and was continued all day. No great vigour, however, was shown in these attempts which were repulsed at all points.
At nightfall the assailants drew off to their camp, and Oliver de Clisson, who commanded the town, suffered his weary troops to quit the walls and to seek for refreshment and repose. The assailants, however, did not disarm, but after a sufficient time had elapsed to allow the garrison to lay aside their armour two strong parties attacked the principal gates of the town, while Sir Walter Manny and the Earl of Oxford moved round to the opposite side with ladders for an escalade. The plan was successful. The garrison, snatching up their arms, hurried to repel their attack upon the gates, every man hastening in that direction. Sir Walter Manny with his party were therefore enabled to mount the walls unobserved and make their way into the town; here they fell upon the defenders in the rear, and the sudden onslaught spread confusion and terror among them. The parties at the gates forced their way in and joined their friends, and the whole of the garrison were killed or taken prisoners, save a few, including Oliver Clisson, who made their escape by sally-ports. Robert of Artois, with the Earl of Stafford, was left with a garrison to hold the town. The Earl of Salisbury, with four thousand men, proceeded to lay siege to Rennes, and Sir Walter Manny hastened back to Hennebon.
Some of Sir Walter's men formed part of the garrison of Vannes, and among these was Sir John Powis with a hundred men-at-arms.
The knight had been so pleased with Walter's coolness and courage at the siege at Hennebon that he requested Sir Walter to leave him with him at Vannes. "It is possible," he said to Walter, "that we may have fighting here. Methinks that Sir Walter would have done better to leave a stronger force. The town is a large one, and the inhabitants ill-disposed towards us. Oliver Clisson and the French nobles will feel their honour wounded at the way in which we outwitted them, and will likely enough make an effort to regain the town. However, Rennes and Hennebon are not far away, and we may look for speedy aid from the Earl of Salisbury and Sir Walter should occasion arise."
Sir John's previsions were speedily verified. Oliver Clisson and his friends were determined to wipe out their defeat, and scattered through the country raising volunteers from among the soldiery in all the neighbouring towns and castles, and a month after Vannes was taken they suddenly appeared before the town with an army of 12,000 men, commanded by Beaumanoir, marshal of Bretagne for Charles of Blois. The same reasons which had induced the Earl of Northampton to decide upon a speedy assault instead of the slow process of breaching the walls, actuated the French in pursuing the same course, and, divided into a number of storming parties, the army advanced at once to the assault on the walls. The little garrison prepared for the defence.
"The outlook is bad, Walter," Sir John Powis said. "These men approach with an air of resolution which shows that they are bent upon success. They outnumber us by twelve to one, and it is likely enough that the citizens may rise and attack us in the rear. They have been ordered to bring the stones for the machines to the walls, but no one has laid his hand to the work. We must do our duty as brave men, my lad, but I doubt me if yonder is not the last sun which we shall see. Furious as the French are at our recent success here you may be sure that little quarter will given."
CHAPTER X: A PLACE OF REFUGE
The French, excited to the utmost by the exhortations of their commanders, and by their desire to wipe out the disgrace of the easy capture of Vannes by the English, advanced with ardour to the assault, and officers and men vied with each other in the valour which they displayed. In vain did the garrison shower arrows and cross-bow bolts among them, and pour down burning oil and quicklime upon them as they thronged at the foot of the wall. In vain were the ladders, time after time, hurled back loaded with men upon the mass below. The efforts of the men-at-arms to scale the defences were seconded by their archers and crossbow-men, who shot such a storm of bolts that great numbers of the defenders were killed. The assault was made at a score of different points, and the garrison was too weak to defend all with success. Sir John Powis and his party repulsed over and over again the efforts of the assailants against that part of the wall entrusted to them, but at other points the French gained a footing, and swarming up rushed along the walls, slaying all whom they encountered.
"All is lost," Sir John exclaimed; "let us fall back to the castle and die fighting there."
Descending from the wall the party made their way through the streets. The French were already in the town; every house was closed and barred, and from the upper windows the burghers hurled down stones and bricks upon the fugitives, while parties of the French soldiers fell upon them fiercely. Many threw down their arms and cried for quarter, but were instantly slain.
For a while the streets were a scene of wild confusion; here and there little knots of Englishmen stood together and defended themselves until the last, others ran through the streets chased by their exulting foes, some tried in vain to gain shelter in the houses. Sir John Powis's band was soon broken and scattered, and their leader slain by a heavy stone from a housetop. Walter fought his way blindly forward towards the castle although he well knew that no refuge would be found there. Ralph Smith kept close beside him, levelling many of his assailants with the tremendous blows of a huge mace. Somehow, Walter hardly knew how, they made their way through their assailants and dashed in at the castle gate. A crowd of their assailants were close upon their heels. Walter glanced round; dashing across the courtyard he ran through some passages into an inner yard, in which, as he knew, was the well. The bucket hung at the windlass.
"Catch hold, Ralph!" he exclaimed; "there is just a chance, and we may as well be drowned as killed." They grasped the rope and jumped off. The bucket began to descend with frightful velocity. Faster and faster it went and yet it seemed a long time before they plunged into the water, which was nigh a hundred feet below the surface. Fortunately the rope was considerably longer than was necessary, and they sank many feet into the water, still retaining their hold. Then clinging to the rope they hauled themselves to the surface.
"We cannot hold on here five minutes," Ralph exclaimed, "my armour is dragging me down."
"We will soon get rid of that," Walter said.
"There go our helmets; now I will hold on with one hand and help you to unbuckle your breast and back pieces; you do the same for me."
With great efforts they managed to rid themselves of their armour, and then held on with ease to the rope. They hauled the bucket to the surface and tied a knot in the slack of the rope, so that the bucket hung four feet below the level of the water. Putting their feet in this, they were able to stand with their heads above the surface without difficulty.
"This is a nice fix," Ralph exclaimed. "I think it would have been just as well to have been killed at once. They are sure to find us here, and if they don't we shall die of cold before tomorrow morning."
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