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By Steven Muhlberger
The Hundred Years War was a huge historical event which compelled some participants to record their experiences, heroic and horrible. How did those individual experiences get passed down? In the case of men at arms we might answer “gossip.” We know that warriors gathered in taverns, courts or camps, spreading their stories around by word of mouth, until some would-be literary man wrote them down. A surprising number survive, and they get us as close to warriors’ experience as we are likely to get.
We commonly think of the Hundred Years War as a conflict between England and France. The many gossipy stories told by the chronicler Jean Froissart, however, focus on small-scale conflict between captains who gathered bands of men at arms and used them to seize strategic strongholds. This kind of war did not look like the campaigns of kings; more often captains used trickery to defeat their enemies and plunder the opposing soldiers’ accumulated treasure. Here we have an absolutely typical example of how this was done.
…The English garrisons knew the country of Auvergne had been drained of men at arms, for the greater part of them were with the king of France in Flanders: they, in consequence, began to lay plans for surprising some of the strong places of Auvergne.
Amerigot Marcel, governor of Aloise, a handsome castle situated a league distant from St. Flour, set off from his castle at day-break, attended only by thirty picked men. He marched silently for the lands of the count dauphin, having formed his plan to take by escalade the castle of Marquel (which the count dauphin bears for his arms), and rode through woods and a close country. Amerigot and his men took up their lodgings early in a small wood near the castle, where they remained until sun-set, and the garrison had retired into the castle: while the governor, whose name was Girardon Buissel, was at supper, the English, who knew well what they were to do, affixed their ladders and entered the castle at their ease.
Those passing through the court saw them climbing over the walls, and instantly cried out, “Treason, treason !” On Girardon hearing this, he had not any hopes of saving himself but through a private passage which led from his apartment to the great tower, and which served as the dungeon of the castle. Thither he instantly retired, taking with him the keys of the gates, and shut himself in, whilst Amerigot and his companions were otherwise employed. When they discovered that the governor had escaped into the great tower, which they were unable to take, they said they had done nothing, and repented greatly having thus inclosed themselves; for, the gates being fastened, they could not get out.
Amerigot having mused a little, came to the tower, and, addressing the governor, said, “Girardon, give us the keys of the castle-gate, and I promise you we will leave it without doing any mischief to the castle.”
“Indeed,” replied Girardon, “but you will carry off all my cattle: how can I believe you?”
“Give me thy hand,” said Amerigot to him, “and I swear to thee, on my faith, that thou shalt not suffer the smallest loss.”
Upon this, he, like a fool, came to a small window in the tower, and offered his hand for him to pledge his faith on; but the moment Amerigot got hold of it he pulled it to him, squeezing it very hard, and called for his dagger, swearing he would stick his hand to the wall unless he gave up all his keys. When Girardon saw himself thus caught, he was stupified, as indeed he had reason; for Amerigot would not give up his hand without nailing it to the wall, unless he received the keys. With his other hand, therefore, he gave the keys, for he had them near him.
“Now, see,” said Amerigot to his companions, when he had got the keys, ” if I have not well cheated the fool: I am equal to many such feats as this.”
They opened the tower gate, and, being the masters, put out of the castle the governor and all who were in it, without doing them any other harm.
Amerigot Marcel was just one of the leaders who played fast and loose with the rules and conventions of war in the last quarter of the 14th century. He was, however, one of the most successful. Men-at-arms were happy to join him even if Amerigot was no more able to pay wages that the king of France or the King of England. These soldiers knew that Amerigot’s campaigns and raids would give them plenty of opportunities for plunder.
Amerigot’s reputation was both awesome and fearful. Eventually his activities made him one of the chief enemies and the occasional ally of both the kings. In 1391, however, he lost control of an important castle, and found he had no true friends. He was soon captured and treated like an outlaw – and executed.
Steven Muhlberger, before his recent retirement from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include the “Deeds of Arms Series” published by Freelance Academy Press.
Top Image: A fourteenth century siege. Beinecke MS.227 fol. 183r