Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

Peter the Cruel and the Free Companies

About the middle of the year 1365 a formidable expedition set out from France for the invasion of Castile. It consisted of the celebrated Free Companies, marauding bands of French and English knights and archers whose allegiance was to the sword, and who, having laid waste France, now sought fresh prey in Spain. Valiant and daring were these reckless freebooters, bred to war, living on rapine, battle their delight, revel their relaxation. For years the French and English Free Companies had been enemies. Now a truce existed between their princes, and they had joined hands under the leadership of the renowned knight Bertrand du Guesclin, at that time the most famous soldier of France. Sir Hugh de Calverley headed the English bands, known as the White Company, and made up largely of men-at-arms, that is, of heavy armed horsemen; but with a strong contingent of the formidable English archers. The total force comprised more than twelve thousand men.

"You lead the life of robbers," said Du Guesclin to them. "Every day you risk your lives in forays, which yield you more blows than booty. I come to propose an enterprise worthy of gallant knights and to open to you a new field of action. In Spain both glory and profit await you. You will there find a rich and avaricious king who possesses great treasures, and is the ally of the Saracens; in fact, is half a pagan himself. We propose to conquer his kingdom and to bestow it on the Count of Trastamara, an old comrade of yours, a good lance, as you all know, and a gentle and generous knight, who will share with you his land when you win it for him from the Jews and Moslems of that wicked king, Don Pedro. Come, comrades, let us honor God and shame the devil."

The Free Companies were ready at a word to follow his banner. Among them were many knights of noble birth who valued glory above booty, and looked upon it as a worthy enterprise to dethrone a cruel and wicked king, the murderer of his queen. As for the soldiers, they cared not against whom they fought, if booty was to be had.

"Messire Bertrand," they said, "gives all that he wins to his men-at-arms. He is the father of the soldier. Let us march with him."

And so the bargain was made and the Free Companies marched away, light of heart and strong of hand, with a promising goal before them, and a chance of abundance of fighting before they would see their homes again.

Peter the Cruel, King of Castile and Leon, amply deserved to be dethroned. His reign had been one of massacre. All whom he suspected died by the dagger of the assassin. He bitterly hated his two half-brothers, Fadrique and Henry. Fadrique he enticed to his court by a show of friendship, and then had him brutally murdered at the gate of his palace, the Alcazar of Seville. But his treatment of his queen was what made him specially odious to his people. He married a French princess, Blanche of Bourbon, but deserted her after two days to return to his mistress, Maria de Pedilla. Blanche was taken to Toledo, where she was so closely confined that the people rose and rescued her from the king's guards. Peter marched in anger against the city, but its people defied him and kept the queen. Then the crafty villain pretended sorrow and asked for a reconciliation. The queen consented, went back to him, and was quickly imprisoned in a strong fortress, where she was murdered by his orders in 1361.

It was this shameful act and the murder of his brother Fadrique that roused the people to insurrection. Henry of Trastamara, the remaining brother, headed a revolt against the tyrant and invited the Free Companies to his aid. These were the circumstances that gave rise to the march of Du Guesclin and Calverley and their battle-loving bands.

The adventurers wore crosses on their vests and banners, as though they were a company of crusaders raised in the service of the church. But in truth they were under the ban of excommunication, for they had no more spared the church than the castle or the cottage. Du Guesclin, determined to relieve them from this ban and force the Pope to grant them absolution, directed his march upon Avignon, the papal residence in France. It was not only absolution he wanted. The papal coffers were full; his military chest was empty; his soldiers would not remain tractable unless well paid; the church should have the privilege of aiding the army.

It was with dismay that the people of Avignon beheld the White Company encamp before their ramparts, late in the year 1365. An envoy from the Pope was sent in haste to their camp, with a promise from the Holy Father that he would remove the ban of excommunication if they would evacuate the territory of the Church. The envoy's mission was a dangerous one, for the fierce Free Companions had no reverence for priest or pope. He had hardly crossed the Rhone before he was confronted by a turbulent band of English archers, who demanded if he had brought money.

"Money?" he asked, in faltering tones.

"Ay, money!" they insolently cried, impeding his passage.

On reaching Du Guesclin's tent he was treated with more politeness, but was met with the same demand.

"We cannot control our troops," said some of the chiefs; "and, as they are ready to hazard their lives for the greater glory of the faith, they well deserve the aid of the Church."

"The Holy Father will incur much danger if he refuses the demand of our men," said Du Guesclin, in smooth but menacing tones. "They have become good Catholics in spite of themselves, and would very readily return to their old trade."

Imminent as the danger was, the Pope resisted, and tried to scare off that flock of reckless war-hawks by the thunders of papal condemnation. But he soon learned that appeals and threats alike were wasted on the Free Companies. From the windows of his palace he could see groups of his unruly visitors at work plundering farms and country houses. Fires were here and there kindled. The rich lands of Avignon were in danger of a general ravage.

"What can I do?" said Du Guesclin to the complaints of the people. "My soldiers are excommunicated. The devil is in them, and we are no longer their masters."

Evidently there was but one way to get rid of this irreligious crew. The chiefs agreed to be satisfied with five thousand golden florins. This sum was paid, and the knights companions, laden with plunder and absolved from their sins, set out in the highest spirits, singing the praises of their captain and the joys of war. Such was their farewell to France.

Onward they marched, across the Pyrenees and into Aragon, whose king had joined with Henry of Trastamara in requesting their presence. They were far from welcome to the people of this region of Spain. Pedro IV. of Aragon had agreed to pay them one hundred thousand golden florins on condition that they should pass through his dominions without disorder; but the adventurers, imagining that they were already in the enemy's country, began their usual service of fire and sword. In Barbastro they pillaged the houses, killed the burghers or tortured them to extort ransom, and set fire to a church in which some had taken refuge, burning alive more than two hundred persons.

If such was the course of these freebooting bands in the country of their friends, what would it be in that of their foes? Every effort was made to get them out of the country as soon as possible. Immediate action was needed, for the warlike mountaineers were beginning to revenge the robberies of the adventurers by waylaying their convoys and killing their stragglers. In early March, 1366, the frontier was passed. Sir Hugh de Calverley leading his men against Borja, a town of Aragon a which was occupied by soldiers of Castile.

The garrison fled on their approach, and soon the army entered Castile and marched upon Calahorra, a town friendly to Prince Henry, and which opened its gates at sight of their banners. Here an interesting ceremony took place. Du Guesclin and the other leaders of the Free Companies, with as much assurance as if they had already conquered Castile, offered Henry the throne.

"Take the crown," said the burly leader. "You owe this honor to the many noble knights who have elected you their leader in this campaign. Don Pedro, your enemy, has refused to meet you in the battle-field, and thus acknowledges that the throne of Castile is vacant."

Henry held back. He felt that these foreigners had not the crown of Castile in their gift. But when the Castilians present joined in the demand he yielded, and permitted them to place the crown upon his head. His chief captain at once unfurled the royal standard. and passed' through the ramp, crying, "Castile for King Henry! Long live King Henry!" Then, amid loud acclamations, he planted the banner on the crest of a hill on the road to Burgos.

We need not delay on the events of this campaign. Everywhere the people of Castile fell away from their cruel king, and Henry's advance was almost unopposed. Soon he was in Burgos, and Don Pedro had become a fugitive without an army and almost without a friend. Henry was now again crowned king, many of the Castilian nobles taking part in the imposing ceremony.

The first acts of the new king were to recompense the men who had raised him to that high office. The money which he found in the treasury served as a rich reward to the followers of Du Guesclin. He gave titles of nobility and grants of land with a free hand to the chiefs of the Free Companies and his other companions in arms. On Du Guesclin he conferred his own countship of Trastamara, and added to it the lordship of Molino, with the domains appertaining to both. Calverley was made Count of Carrion, and received the domains which had formerly been held by the sons-in-law of the Cid. Lesser rewards were given to lesser chiefs, and none had reason to accuse Henry of Castile of want of generosity.

But the Free Companions soon became a sword in the side of the new king. As there was no more fighting to be done, they resumed their old occupation of pillaging, and from every side complaints rained in upon the throne. Henry felt it necessary to get rid of his unruly friends with all despatch. Retaining Du Guesdlin and Calverley in his service, with fifteen hundred lances, mainly French and Breton, he dismissed the remainder, placating them with rich presents and warm thinks. Nothing loath, and gratified that they had avenged the murdered Queen Blanche, they took their way back, finding abundant chance for fighting on their return. The Castilians, the Navarrese, and the Aragonese all rose against them, and everywhere they had to force a passage with their swords. But nothing could stop them. Spain, accustomed to fight with Arabs and Moors, had no warriors fit to face these intrepid and heavily armed veterans. Through the Pyrenees they made their way, and here cut a road with their swords through the main body of a French army which had gathered to oppose their march. Once more they were upon the soil of France.

It was the English and Gascon bands that were principally opposed. It was known that the Black Prince was preparing to invade Spain, and an effort was made to cut off the free lances who might enlist under his banners. This famous knight, son of Edward III. of England, and victor at the battle of Poitiers, where he had taken prisoner the king of France, was a cousin of the fugitive king of Castile, who sought him at Cape Breton, and begged his aid to recover his dominions. The chivalrous prince of Wales knew little of the dastardly deeds of the suppliant. Don Pedro had brought with him his three young maiden daughters, whose helpless state appealed warmly to the generous knight. National policy accorded with the inclination of the prince, for the Castilian revolution had been promoted by France, and the usurper had been in the pay of the French king. Those inducements were enough to win for Don Pedro the support of Edward III., and the aid of the Black Prince, who entered upon the enterprise with the passionate enthusiasm which was a part of his nature.

Soon again two armies were in the field, that of King Henry, raised to defend his new dominions, and that of the Prince of Wales, gathered to replace the fugitive Don Pedro upon the throne. With the latter was the White Company, which had aided to drive Pedro from his seat and was now equally ready to replace him there. These bold lancers and archers fought for their own hands, with little care whose cause they backed.

It was through the valley of Roncesvalles, that celebrated pass which was associated with the name of the famous Roland, the chief knight of French romance, that the army of the Black Prince made its way into Spain. Calverley, who was not willing to fight against his liege lord, joined him with his lances, King Henry generously consenting. Du Guesclin, a veteran in the art of war, advised the Castilian king to employ a Fabian policy, harassing the invaders by skirmishes, drawing them deep into the country. and wearing them out with fatigue and hunger. He frankly told him that his men could not face in a pitched battle the English veterans, led by such a soldier as the Black Prince. But the policy suggested would have been hazardous in Castile, divided as it was between two parties. Henry remembered that his rival had lost the kingdom through not daring to risk a battle, and he determined to fight for his throne, trusting his cause to Providence and the strength of his arms.

It was in the month of April, 1367, that the two armies came face to face on a broad plain. They were fairly matched in numbers, and as day broke both marched resolutely to the encounter, amid opposing shouts of "King Henry for Castile" and "St. George and Guyenne." It was a hard, fierce, bitter struggle that followed, in which the onset of Du Guesclin was so impetuous as for a moment to break the English line. But the end was at hand when the Castilian cavalry broke in panic before the charge of an English squadron, which turned Du Guesclin's battalion and took it in flank. The Captal de Buch at the same time fell on the flank of the Castilian vanguard. Thus beset and surrounded, the French and Spanish men-at-arms desperately sought to hold their own against much superior numbers. King Henry fought valiantly, and called on all to rally round his standard. But at length the banner fell, the disorder grew general, the ranks broke, and knights and foot-soldiers joined in a tumultuous retreat.

Their only hope now was the bridge of Najera, over the Najerilla, which stream lay behind their line. Some rushed for the bridge, others leaped into the river, which became instantly red with blood, for the arrows of the archers were poured into the crowded stream. Only the approach of night, the fatigue of the victors, and the temptation to plunder the town and the camp saved the wreck of the Castilian army, which had lost seven thousand foot-soldiers and some six hundred men-at-arms. Du Guesclin's battalion, which alone had made a gallant stand, was half slain. A large number of prisoners were taken, among them the valorous Du Guesclin himself.

Edward the Black Prince now first learned the character of the man whom he had come to aid. Don Pedro galloped excitedly over the plain seeking his rival, and, chancing to meet Lopez de Orozco, one of his former friends, now the prisoner of a Gascon knight, he stabbed him to the heart, despite the efforts of the Gascon in his defence. The report of this murder filled the Black Prince with indignation, which was heightened when Don Pedro offered to ransom all the Castilian prisoners, plainly indicating that he intended to murder them. Prince Edward sternly refused, only consenting to deliver up certain nobles who had been declared traitors before the revolution. These Don Pedro immediately had beheaded before his tent.

The breach between the allies rapidly widened, Don Pedro, as soon as he fairly got possession of the throne, breaking all his engagements with the Black Prince, while he was unable, from the empty state of his treasury, to pay the allied troops. Four months Prince Edward waited, with growing indignation, for redress, while disease was rapidly carrying off his men, and then marched in anger from Spain with scarcely a fifth of the proud array with which he had won the battle of Najera.

The restored king soon justified his title of Peter the Cruel by a series of sanguinary executions, murdering all of the adherents of his rival on whom he could lay his hands. In this thirst for revenge not even women escaped, and at length he committed an act which aroused the indignation of the whole kingdom. Don Alfonso de Guzman had refused to follow the king into exile. He now kept out of his reach, but his mother, Delia Urraca de Osorio, fell into the hands of the monster, and was punished for being the mother of a rebel by being burned alive on the ramparts of Seville.

These excesses of cruelty roused a rebellious sentiment throughout Castile, of which Henry, who had escaped to Aragon from the field of Najera, took advantage. Supplied with money by the king of France, he purchased arms and recruited soldiers, many of the French and Castilians who had been taken prisoners at Najera and been released on parole joining him in hopes of winning the means of paying their ransoms. Crossing the Ebro, he marched upon Calahorra, in which the year before be had been proclaimed king. Here numerous volunteers joined him, and at the head of a considerable force he marched upon Burgos, which surrendered after a faint show of resistance.

During the winter the campaign continued, Leon, Madrid, and other towns being captured, and in the spring of 1368 all northern Castile was in Henry's hands. Don Pedro, whose army was small, had entered into alliance with the Moorish king of Granada, who sent hire an army of thirty-five thousand men, with which force a vigorous attack was made on the city of Cordova,—a holy city in the eyes of the Moors. Among its defenders was Don Alfonso de Guzman, whose mother had been burned to death. The defence was obstinate, but the Moors at length made breaches in the walls. They were about to pour into the city when the women, mad with fear, rushed into the streets with cries and moans, now reproaching the men-at-arms with cowardice, now begging them with sobs and tears to make a last effort to save the city from the brutal infidels.

This appeal gave new courage to the Christians. They rushed on the Moors with the fury of despair, drove them from the posts they had taken, hurled them from the ramparts, tore down the black flags which already waved on the towers, and finally expelled them from the breaches and the walls in a panic. The breaches were repaired and the city was saved. In a few days the Moors, thoroughly disheartened by their repulse, dispersed, and Don Pedro lost his allies.

Meanwhile, Henry was engaged in the siege of Toledo, the strongest place in the kingdom, and before which he persistently lay for months, despite all allurements to use his forces in other directions. Here Bertrand du Guesclin, who had been ransomed by the Black Prince, joined him with a force of some six hundred men-at-arms, all picked men; and hither, in March, 1369, Don Pedro marched to the city's relief at the head of a strong army.

Henry, on learning of this movement, at once gathered all the forces he could spare from the siege, three thousand men-at-arms in all, and hastened to intercept his rival on the march. Not dreaming of such a movement, Don Pedro had halted at Montiel, where his men lay dispersed, in search of food and forage, over a space of several leagues. They were attacked at daybreak, their surprise being so complete that the main body was at once put to flight, while each division was routed as soon as it appeared. Henry's forces suffered almost no loss, and within an hour's time his rival's kingdom was reduced to the castle of Montiel, in which he had taken refuge with a few of his followers.

Leaving the defeated army to take care of itself, Henry devoted himself to the siege of the castle, within whose poorly fortified walls lay the prize for which he fought. Escape was impossible, and the small supply of provisions would soon be exhausted. Don Pedro's only hope was to bribe some of his foes. He sent an agent to Du Guesclin, offering him a rich reward in gold and lands if he would aid in his escape. Du Guesclin asked for time to consider, and immediately informed Henry of the whole transaction. He was at once offered a richer reward than Pedro had promised if he would entice the king out of the castle, and after some hesitation and much persuasion he consented.

On the night of March 23, ten days after the battle, Don Pedro, accompanied by several of his knights, secretly left the fortress, the feet of their horses being bound with cloth to deaden the sound of hoofs. The sentinels, who had been instructed in advance, allowed them to pass, and they approached the camp of the French adventurers, where Du Guesclin was waiting to receive them.

"To horse, Messire Bertrand," said the king, in a low voice; "it is time to set out."

No answer was returned. This silence frightened Don Pedro. He attempted to spring into his saddle, but he was surrounded, and a man-at-arms held the bridle of his horse. An officer asked him to wait in a neighboring tent. Resistance was impossible, and he silently obeyed.

Here he found himself encompassed by a voiceless group, through whose lines, after a few minutes of dread suspense, a man in full armor advanced. It was Henry of Trastamara, who now faced his brother for the first time in fifteen years. He gazed with searching eyes upon Don Pedro and his followers.

"Where is this bastard," he harshly asked, "this Jew who calls himself King of Castile?"

"There stands your enemy," said a French esquire, pointing to Don Pedro.

Henry gazed at him fixedly. So many years had elapsed that he failed to recognize him easily.

"Yes, it is I," exclaimed Don Pedro, "I, the King of Castile. All the world knows that I am the legitimate son of good King Alfonso. It is thou that art the bastard."

At this insult Henry drew his dagger and struck the speaker a light blow in the face. They were in too close a circle to draw their swords, and in mortal fury they seized each other by the waist and struggled furiously, the men around drawing back and no one attempting to interfere.

After a brief period the wrestling brothers fell on a camp bed in a corner of the tent, Don Pedro, who was the stronger, being uppermost. While he felt desperately for a weapon with which to pierce his antagonist, one of those present seized him by the foot and threw him on one side, so that Henry found himself uppermost. Popular tradition says that it was Du Guesclin's hand that did this act, and that he cried, "I neither make nor unmake kings, but I serve my lord;" but some writers say it was the Viscount de Rocaberti, of Aragon.

However that be, Henry at once took advantage of the opportunity, picked up his dagger, lifted the king's coat of mail, and plunged the weapon again and again into his side. Only two of Don Pedro's companions sought to defend him, and they were killed on the spot. Henry had his brother's head at once cut off, and despatched the gruesome relic to Seville.

Thus perished, by an uncalled-for act of treachery on the part of Du Guesclin, for the castle must soon have surrendered, one of the most bloodthirsty kings who ever sat upon a throne. Don Fadrique, his brother, and Blanche of Bourbon, his wife, both of whom he had basely murdered, were at length avenged. Henry ascended the throne as Henry II., and for years reigned over Castile with a mild and just rule that threw still deeper horror upon the bloody career of him who is known in history as Peter the Cruel.