During the last part of the Hundred Years War the French made a strong recovery against the English. One of the reasons for this was the inspiration to the French armies, rendered by a Breton knight called Bertrand du Guesclin (pronounced Gecklin), small in stature but large in heart. Unlike the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc, he is practically unknown outside his own country, yet it was he whose initially unconventional style of warfare produced the counter to the terrible fires the English set to destroy. Although of lowly birth he rose to the highest office that France could bestow.
He was born in about the year 1320 near Dinan in Brittany. He was the eldest of ten children and apparently, a bit of a handful. Only the intervention of a nun, who foretold his future greatness, prevented his distraught parents from disowning him.
In 1337, at the age of 17, he went to Rennes where a tournament was being held to honour the marriage of Charles de Blois. He rode a carthorse belonging to his father, and was met by jeers from the well-to-do young knights.
Once the tournament started he borrowed a horse and armour from one of his cousins. With a closed visor concealing his identity, this unknown knight entered the lists. He was challenged and preceded to win every joust set against him. Finally, a Norman knight opened his helmet with the point of his lance, displaying the stranger's identity to the admiring crowd and a delighted father.
For 15 years as a man-at-arms in the Blois forces, he led a vigorous guerrilla campaign from the safety of the great forest of Paimpont, pouncing on isolated columns of English or Montfort troops. One of his earliest exploits was the taking of the castle of Grand Fougera.
The commander of the castle was absent when a band of woodcutters arrived at the gate bearing firewood. The woodcutters were welcomed into the castle. As the gate was opened they revealed their true colors, flinging down the bundles of wood to prevent the gate from being closed, whereupon their companions joined them in the courtyard and attacked the garrison.
In the year 1354, du Guesclin was knighted. Upon receiving the white robe of knighthood, he adopted his war cry, "Notre-Dame Guesclin!"
In 1357, an English Lieutenant, Henry of Lancaster set siege to Dinan. It was a long siege and Lancaster's operations against Dinan appear to have been successful, for a 40 day truce was negotiated, the garrison inside Dinan promising to surrender if they had not been relieved by another of their armies at the end of this time. During this truce, du Guesclin's younger brother Olivier went riding outside the gates, which was not allowed during the truce. He was captured by the English and held for ransom, which enraged du Guesclin. He challenged the knight who had captured Olivier to a duel. The challenge was accepted. The Englishman's name was Thomas of Canterbury.
On the day of the duel, twenty English knights were allowed inside the city walls as witnesses. The two adversaries charged at each other with such force that both lances shattered on the others' shield. After a long spell of fighting with swords, Thomas struck downwards at du Guesclin' head. He missed and when his sword skidded out of his hand, du Guesclin got down from his horse, retrieved the sword and flung it across the square. Armed only with his dagger, the Englishman refused to continue on foot as du Guesclin invited him repeatedly to do so. Instead, he reared his horse at his dismounted rival, trying to trample du Guesclin beneath its feet. But du Guesclin had swiftly removed his leg armour and was able to dodge to one side. Forcing his sword upwards, he struck deeply into the flanks of the horse. The animal reared out of control depositing Thomas on the ground. du Guesclin flung himself on his adversary like a lion, dragging off his helmet and punching him in the face with his gauntleted fist. Thomas surrendered and the ransom was liquidated with no charge.
Incidents such as this did far more than relieve the boredom of a siege operation. They provided the opportunity, under carefully controlled conditions of truce and safe conduct, which were universally respected, for "sample warfare" to be carried out. To the successful side it meant an increase in morale and the death or disgrace of a vital member of the opposing side. To the loser it meant a loss in confidence without the total defeat of a failed assault.
Bertrand du Guesclin, unlike Joan of Arc, gave out no prophecies and suffered no martyr's death. But as she did a half-century later, he gave France hope. He was happy, quite naturally, with the honors and titles he earned. But he always retained that common touch which enabled him to understand the mind of the ordinary soldier he had once been, whether to lead him or oppose him. He was tireless and loyal, displaying the inspiration of Joan of Arc without her mystery.
On July 13, 1380, he passed away from sudden illness while besieging a fortress. The captain of the besieged castle, moved by the unexpectedness of the fall of such a great man, brought the keys of the castle and laid them on du Guesclin's body.
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