The Chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker of Swinbrook: Extracts and Special Offer

Geoffrey le Baker’s chronicle covers the reigns of Edward II and Edward III up to the English victory at Poitiers. The reign of Edward III is dominated, not by Edward III himself, but by Baker’s real hero, Edward prince of Wales. His bravery aged sixteen at Crécy is presented as a prelude to his victory at Poitiers, a battle which Baker is able to describe in great detail, apparently from what he was told by the prince’s commanders. It is a rarity among medieval battles, because – in sharp contrast to the total anarchy at Crécy – the prince and his staff were able to see the enemy’s manoeuvres. Baker writes in a complex Latin which even scholars can find problematic, so David Preest’s translation in an affordable paperback (£17.99/$24.95) will be widely welcomed.

This week we’ll be posting some excerpts from the Chronicle, including accounts of the death of Edward II, a lewd washerwoman and a secret escape route, and a vivid slice of action from the Battle of Poitiers.

From today we’re offering a 25% discount: just add it to your basket and enter code BB590 at the checkout. Offer ends midnight 5 May.

Extract One (Revealed 30th April 2018)

1327: Edward II’s guards are persuaded to kill him

Then began the final persecution of Edward, which continued until his death. First they shut him in the closest of chambers, and for many days they tortured him almost to suffocation by the stench of corpses placed in a cellar underneath his chamber. Indeed one day the servant of God at the window of his room lamented to some carpenters working outside that that unbearable stench was the heaviest punishment he had ever endured. But those tyrants saw that the stench could not of itself cause the death of a very strong man. And so on 22 September they suddenly seized him as he lay on his bed, and smothered and suffocated him with great, heavy mattresses, in weight more than that of fifteen strong men. Then, with a plumber’s soldering iron, made red hot, and thrust through the tube leading to the secret parts of his bowels, they burnt out his inner parts and then his breath of life. For they were afraid that if a wound was found on the body of the king, where friends of justice are accustomed to look for wounds, his torturers might be compelled to answer for an obvious injury and suffer punishment for it.

In this way the knight, for all his strength, was overpowered. His loud cries were heard by men inside and outside the castle, who knew well enough that someone was suffering a violent death. Many people in Berkeley and some in the castle, as they themselves asserted, were awoken by his dying shouts and took compassion on the sufferer, making prayers for the holy soul of one emigrating from this world. Thus the kingdom of the angels in heaven received one hated by the world, just as it had hated his master Jesus Christ before him. First it received the teacher, rejected by the kingdom of the Jews, and then the disciple, stripped of the kingdom of the English.

Extract Two (Revealed 2nd May 2018)

1352: English defeated outside Calais but capture Guines Castle

There was an archer called John Dancaster who had previously been captured and imprisoned in the castle of Guines. As he did not have the means to pay his ransom, he was set free by the French on the condition that he served as an archer for them. This fellow became acquainted with the lewd embraces of a lewd washerwoman and learned from her of a wall that had been built across the bottom of the chief moat of the castle. It was two feet wide and extended from the rampart to the inner wall of the castle. It was so covered with water that it could not be seen, but it was not so submerged that a man crossing by it got wet further up than his knees. It had been made
once upon a time for the use of fishermen and for that reason the wall was discontinued in the middle for the space of two feet.

Armed now with this information from his strumpet, John Dancaster measured the height of the wall with a thread. Having discovered it, he one day slipped down from the wall, entrusting himself to God, and crossed the moat by the hidden wall. He hid until evening in the marshes, came to the vicinity of Calais by night and waited for broad daylight before he entered the town, as he would definitely not have been let in at any other time.

He told those who were greedy for booty and keen to take the castle by stealth, where an entrance was lying open for them. These thirty conspirators made ladders of the length measured by him, and, wearing black armour without any brightness, they came to the castle of Guines by night, guided by John Dancaster. They climbed the wall with their ladders, knocked out the brains of a guard, who meeting them by chance was beginning cry out, and threw his body into the moat. In the hall they found and slaughtered many unarmed men who were playing at chequers or dice and who were as panic-stricken as sheep in the presence of wolves. Then, easily breaking into chambers and turrets where ladies and some knights were sleeping, they became masters of all that they wanted.

Extract Three (Revealed 4th May 2018)

1356: The Battle of Poitiers

Then the prince ordered his standard bearer, Sir Walter de Wodelond, to move off towards the banners of the enemy, and with his few fresh men he joined battle with the great army of the crowned one. Then sounded the signals for battle, with trumpets giving answer to clarions, tuneful horns and kettle-drums, and the stony cliffs of Poitou sent the sound in echo to the woods. You would have thought that the mountains were bellowing to the valleys and that the clouds thundered. Nor were these mighty thunderclaps without their frightening flashes of lightning, while the sunlight sparkled on their glittering golden armour and flashes came from their flying spears of polished steel, as their points like thunderbolts split their targets. Then the threatening mass of the French crossbowmen brought back grim night to the battlefield with the thick darkness of their bolts, but this darkness was repelled by the deadly shower of arrows shot by the young English archers, driven by desperation to frenzied resistance. Also there flew through the air spears of ash, which the French greeted at a distance, as their troops, packed together in dense bands, protected their breasts with a close-fitting line of shields and turned aside their heads from the missiles. Then our archers, having emptied their quivers in vain, and armed only with shields of leather and swords, were told by the passion boiling within them to attack the heavily-armed French and to sell dearly their deaths which they thought would be the settlement for that day’s work. But then with a roar the prince of Wales was upon the Frenchmen. Hewing them down with his sharp sword, he cut through their spears, repelled their blows, made their efforts a thing of nought, lifted the fallen English and taught the enemy how furious is the desperation in the breast of a man clothed for battle.

(Translation copyright David Preest 2012)

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