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Fiction Excerpt: Arrows Over Poitiers, 1356

By Bernard Cornwell 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: November 02, 2012 
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English bowmen loose their arrows at charging French knights in the Battle of Poitiers. (Austrian National Library/AKG-Images)
English bowmen loose their arrows at charging French knights in the Battle of Poitiers. (Austrian National Library/AKG-Images)

In his forthcoming novel 1356, Bernard Cornwell tackles the Battle of Poitiers, the second of the three major clashes of the Hundred Years' War between France and England. Cornwell, author of the best-selling series on Napoleonic-era rifleman Richard Sharpe, and referred to by the Washington Post as "perhaps the greatest writer of historical adventure novels today," picks as his protagonist Thomas of Hookton, a captain of archers for England's Earl of Warwick. Thomas and his mercenary band, called the Hellequin, have joined the invasion of France led by Edward, the Prince of Wales. After engaging in a chevauchée, a campaign of savage, scorched-earth raids, Thomas and the rest of Edward's forces, retreating before a huge French army, are trapped near Poitiers on September 19, 1356. The English form up, and the archers quickly develop a strategy that was one of the real-life keys to victory.

 

Thomas's men faced the horsemen and, because the archers were trained and experienced, they chose flesh arrows. These were the arrows made to kill horses, because horses were vulnerable and every archer knew that to defeat a charge of mounted knights a man must aim at the horses. That was how Crécy had been won in 1346, so they instinctively picked flesh arrows that had triangular heads, barbed heads, with the two edges of each head razor sharp, to tear through flesh and cut blood vessels and rip apart muscles. They drew the bows back to their ears, picked their targets, and loosed.

The war bow was taller than a man. It was cut from the trunk of a yew grown in the sunny lands close to the Mediterranean, and it was cut where the golden sapwood met the dark-colored heartwood. The dark heart of the yew was stiff and resisted bending, while the outer sapwood was springy so that it would snap back to its shape if it was bent, and the push of the compressed heartwood and the pull of the golden sapwood worked together to give the great war bow a terrible strength.

Thomas plucked up a flesh arrow, laid it on the stave, pulled the bow up and drew the cord, aiming again at the horse with the red heart on its gaudy trapper

Yet to release that strength the bow must be drawn to the ear, not the eye, so an archer must learn to aim by instinct, just as he had to train his muscles to pull the cord until it seemed that the stress in the yew must surely snap and break. It took 10 years to make an archer, but give a trained man a war bow made of yew and he could kill at more than 200 paces and be feared through all Christendom.

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The bows sounded. The strings slapped on the bracers that protected the archers' wrists; the arrows leaped away. The archers aimed at the horses' chests, aiming to drive the flesh arrows deep into laboring lungs. Thomas knew what must happen. The horses would stumble and fall. Blood would froth at their nostrils and mouths. Men would scream as dying horses rolled on them. Other men would be tripped by the fallen beasts, and still the arrows would come, relentless, savage, searing white-tipped death driven by wood and hemp. Except it did not happen.

The arrows struck. The horses kept coming.

Men were shouting. Wagon drivers were leaping from their seats and fleeing across the river. The horseman who had tried to hurry the retreat was gaping in disbelief at the approaching French. The first of the Earl of Warwick's archers were reaching the river and their ventenars were bellowing at them to start shooting. And the French were still coming, relentlessly, apparently unaffected by the arrows. The closest horsemen were 150 paces away now.

Thomas loosed a second shaft, watched the arrow fly, saw it arc low in the air to plunge dead center into a bright trapper decorated with diagonal blue and white stripes and the horse did not miss a step, and Thomas saw other arrows were caught in the striped trapper. His arrow had gone just where he wanted, right into the horse's chest, and it had done nothing.

"They've got armor under the trappers!" He shouted at his men to switch to their tapered arrows: "Bodkins! Bodkins!"

He plucked a bodkin from the ground where he had thrust a handful of arrows into the soft turf. He drew, looked for a target, saw the red heart of Douglas on a shield, loosed.

The horse kept coming.

Yet the horses were coming slowly. This was not a gallop, not even a canter. The big destriers were hung with mail and plate, chamfrons protecting their faces, and restricted by thick skirts of boiled leather, carrying men in full armor, and plowing through the marsh that bordered the river. That marsh slowed them, their weight slowed them, and Thomas saw an arrow slide by a horse's head, streak past the rider's knee and strike the destrier's rump and the horse sheered away from the pain. The armor was all in front!

"Hellequin! Follow me!" he shouted. "Hellequin! Follow me!"

He snatched up his arrows and ran to his left. He floundered in the mud and muck of the swampland, but he forced himself on.

Get to the side, he told himself, get to the side.

"Follow me!" he repeated and snatched a look back to see his men obeying.

"Run!" he shouted, and hoped to God that no one thought they were running away.

He went 40, perhaps 50 paces, and thrust the arrows back into the marsh, plucked up a flesh arrow, laid it on the stave, pulled the bow up and drew the cord, aiming again at the horse with the red heart on its gaudy trapper. Now he was aiming at the horse's flank, just behind the front leg and in front of the saddle. He did not think. He looked where he wanted the arrow to go and his muscles obeyed his look and his two fingers released the string and the arrow slashed across the bog and vanished into the horse and the horse reared, and now more arrows were flying across the marsh and the arrows were biting at last and the horses were falling.

 

THE EARL OF WARWICK'S ARCHERS had understood. The enemy's horses had all their armor in front and none on the flanks and backsides of the horses. A rider wearing a tunic quartered in red and yellow with a white star in one corner was shouting at the earl's archers to join Thomas's men. "Go to the flank! Go, fellows, go, go, go!"

The French were close. Their visors were down so their faces could not be seen, but Thomas could see where the trappers had been ripped and bloodied by their spurs. They were urging their horses on, and he loosed again and this time slapped a bodkin through the overlapping scales of a horse's neck armor. The beast stumbled to its fore knees, and its rider, trapped by the high pommel and cantle of his saddle, desperately tried to kick his feet from the stirrups before the horse rolled. The beast was still on its back legs, tilted forward, and the rider was falling onto its neck when two arrows struck his breastplate. One crumpled, the other pierced it, and the man jerked back under the impact of the blows. He started falling forward again and was hit again.

Archers jeered. Back and forward he went, tormented until a man-at-arms wearing the lion of Warwick stepped forward and swung an ax that cracked through the helmet to spray blood. A horseman tried to cut the Englishman down, but the arrows were flying thick from the flank now, striking the horses' unarmored sides, and the rider's horse was hit in the belly by three arrows and the horse screamed, reared, and bolted.

"Sweet Christ, kill them! Saint George!" The horseman with the white star on his tunic was just behind Thomas. "Kill them!"

And the archers obeyed. They had been scared by the failure of their first arrows, but now they were vengeful. They could each loose 15 arrows in a minute, and by now there were over 200 archers on the French flank and those French were defeated. The leading riders were all down, their horses dying or dead, and some horses had turned and fled, screaming as they tried to escape the awful pain beside the river. The Earl of Warwick's men-at-arms were advancing into the chaos to hammer axes and maces on fallen riders. The horsemen at the rear were turning away. Two of Warwick's men-at-arms were leading a prisoner back to the ford, and Thomas saw that the man was wearing a tunic of bright blue and white stripes. Then he looked for the red heart of Douglas and saw the horse had fallen, trapping the man, and he sent a bodkin at the rider and saw it pierce the man's plated upper arm. He shot again, driving an arrow into the man's side, just under the armpit, but before he could loose a third arrow three men, all dismounted, seized the fallen rider and dragged him out from under his horse. Arrows slapped at them, but two of them lived, and Thomas recognized Sculley.

He was wearing a visored helmet, but his long hair hung beneath its rim. Thomas drew his bow, but two wounded horses galloped between him and Sculley, who had managed to heave the fallen rider onto an unwounded and riderless horse. Sculley slapped the horse's rump. The wounded horses galloped clear and Thomas shot, but his arrow bounced off Sculley's backplate. The horse with the rescued man struggled out of the marsh to the shelter of the trees, followed by Sculley and four other men wearing the red heart. And then there was a sudden quiet, except for the eternal sound of the river and the birdsong and the screams of horses and the beat of hooves striking the ground in the animals' death throes.

The archers unstrung their bows so that the yew staves straightened. Prisoners, some wounded, some staggering, were being led to the ford while Englishmen were stripping dead horses of precious armor and harness and saddlery. Some put horses out of their misery by unbuckling the chamfrons and then striking them hard between the eyes with a war ax. Other men unbuckled plate armor from dead knights and hauled mail coats off corpses. An archer strapped a French knight's sword around his waist.

"Sam," Thomas shouted, "fetch the arrows back!" Sam grinned and led a dozen men into the remnants of the carnage to collect arrows. It was also a chance for plunder. A wounded Frenchman tried to stand. He raised a hand to an English man-at-arms who knelt beside him. The two men spoke and then the Englishman lifted the Frenchman's visor and stabbed him through the eye with a dagger.

 

"TOO POOR TO HAVE A RANSOM, I suppose," the rider behind Thomas said. He watched as the man-at-arms sheathed his dagger and began to strip the corpse. "God, we're cruel, but we've captured Marshal d'Audrehem, and isn't that a good beginning to a bad day?"

Thomas turned. The man's visor was lifted to reveal a grey moustache and thoughtful blue eyes, and Thomas instinctively went to a knee. "My lord."

"Thomas of Hookton, isn't it?"

"Yes, sire."

"I wondered who in Christ's name was wearing Northampton's colors," the man said, speaking in French. Thomas had ordered his men to wear tunics with Northampton's badge, a badge that most men in the English army would recognize. A few had the red cross of Saint George strapped around an upper arm, but there were not enough armlets for all his men. The horseman who spoke to Thomas wore the white star on his red- and-yellow tunic, while the gold chain about his neck proclaimed his rank. He was the Earl of Oxford, brother-in-law to Thomas's lord. The earl had been at Crécy and afterward Thomas had met him in England, and he was astonished that the earl remembered him, let alone remembered that he spoke French. He was even more astonished when the earl used his brother-in-law's nickname. "It's a pity Billy isn't here," the earl said grimly, "we need all the good men we can get. And I think you should get your men back up the hill now."

"Up the hill, sire?"

"Listen!"

Thomas listened. And heard the war drums.

 

Bernard Cornwell has written historical novels on conflicts ranging from the Napoleonic Wars through the American Civil War. Excerpted from 1356, published by HarperCollins, copyright © 2012 by Bernard Cornwell.

 

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