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An excerpt from

The Black Prince

Anthony Burgess and Adam Roberts

Prelude

Prance, Noah!

There are many kinds of flood, not all of them water. Here: France, green and grey beneath a swift blue sky, and wholly submerged. The flood here is war. The House Valois is a tall house, but only its rooftop tiles and the pennant flying from its flagpole remain visible, so high has the flood risen. Those who walk on the earth are drowned, the common folk, the men and women. Those who sail in ships live, like this castellated English ship, made of wood as a coffin is made of wood.

When he is on land this Black Prince rides a prancing horse; and when he is at sea this Black Prince rides a prancing ship, lively over the waves. Clouds drag bridal trails of rain behind them as they sweep from sea to land. The Prince is on deck, unmindful of the drizzle that tickles his face. In between the folds of cloth-like rain he can glimpse fresh beaches, green fields. The French coast.

The rainbow sign was a promise that there would be no more waterfloods. But there are other kinds of flood that can inundate a countryside, and some are more like unto fire than water. Today’s Noah has a care only for the English. No Noah can save the French.

King Edward, third of that name, rides an even grander boat, a wooden castle, a barracks; below decks was coughing and demons, swearing and shitting and drinking, and tied-up horses skittering unhappily on the angling and tipping wooden floor. Hooves tattoo. Rat-tats that make the rats scatter. Too exhausted to whinny. Boys try to calm them. Wipe flanks with tattered cloths. The cabins at the rear of the boat are where the quality hunker, holding in the contents of their sloshy stomachs. A life on hard land has not prepared them for this. Now they are not on hard land, but over it: suspended some hundreds of feet over the mud and rocks of the channel bed, where strange sealife creeps and pulses, and immemorial weeds grow in sodden forests, and bodies lie thousands upon thousands, grasping at one another or at empty brine or phlebasing their way into an oblivion as currents tug their bones apart and crustacea nibble at their flesh.

The king is helped through the slushy sand and foaming waves, up onto the beach. The drizzle is thinning and the sun is coming out.

Mount! Mount!

Noah rides a high-stepping horse, draped and harnessed in finery. He is returning to the high ground where he first berthed his big boat. When I was last here, he says, and the wind sends his beard sideways, like a comet’s tail, when I was last here this was the only land.

He has attendants, bannermen, servants, lords and high born warriors, all cluster about him.

—Your highness?

—Your highness! Your highness!

Under the sunlight, the view has the brightness and perfection of an illustrated manuscript: greens soaked in blue-light, silver shining armour, red and golden standards, all the colours new washed and gorgeous. The party rides, keeping the sea on their left hand. Light leaps as a gorgeous ribbon of prisming colour from cloud to horizon.

Think thou of all the bloating drowned
Tangling below
Who died before they ever saw
This rainbow.

It seems to me true cruelty from
That fierce judge who
Would take their all from them, and life,
And then this beauty too.


From Part 1: Cressy (sic)


Newsreel

A rooster, raucous in the rain. The symbol of France. Yet do not think this scrawny creature underdignified, for Saint Augustinus himself has declared that the cockerel stands as symbolic of God’s grace, and in no motion of these animals, unendowed with reason though they be, could there be anything ungraceful, for divine higher reason guides everything they do. Pope Gregory declared the rooster ‘the most suitable emblem of Christianity’, for a rooster is the emblem of St Peter himself, his awakening conscience, the cry of God in the morning. The nation of France has taken the cockerel as its animal. And here it craws and crows and makes its tiny thunder in the dampness of this barn, like a door creaking open. Pokes its pathé head through the circle of this hole in this barndoor.


WAR OF THE CENTURY!


Invasion of France ongoing


The banners of the English nobility, King Edward III, Edward Prince of Wales, the fighting Bishop of Durham flutter against the clear summer sky. It is the very flower of English chivalry, the Earls of Warwick, Northampton, Huntingdon, Arundel, Pembroke, Suffolk, Oxford, each mounted on a horse that costs no less than one hundred pounds.


And the Captain of this Company

Was afighten in the lead

Just like a trueborn soldier he

Of them Frenchies took no heed.


Sanitation neglected as the pressure of military necessity moves the force through hostile territory. EXPECT EVIL FROM STANDING WATER. Dysentery: the word is the same in English and French, and derived from the Greek dys, bad, and éntera, bowels. Very bad the bowels of the English as they move through the summer. Very wretched their retching, or some of them. This farmyard is not so ruined, and serves as shelter. But the meat is maggotthreaded and the water is bad, and this poor man-at-arms, Geoffrey of Henley, is on his back and heelkicking the ground in his badbowel agonies.


The procession was magnificent in colour and splendour of cloth, armour silverbright and new scoured shining gembright. Lord Richard Talbot. Hugh le Despenser. John D’Arcy. Bartholomew Burghersh. Sir Robert Ferrers. Reginald de Cobham.


ENGLISH ARMY LAND AT SAINT-VAAST-LA-HOGUE


God on our side, claims Fighting Cleric


Landing on north French coast almost wholly unopposed, as five hundred Genoese crossbowmen desert King Philip of France for lack of pay.


PRINCE EDWARD AND CERTAIN OTHERS KNIGHTED IN NEARBY QUETTEHOU CHURCH


SUMMER SUN MAKES FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE AN EDEN.


Emerald green the fields, sapphire blue the sky. Let us never again be expelled from this paradise, for it is ours, and ours forever.


Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!


Weather: intermittent rain, and sunny spells.


The procession continued with John de Sterling, Maurice de Berkeley, John de Montgomery, William Fitz Warren. And, braving controversy, John Maltravers, first Baron Maltravers, rode with the procession, under his device, a square rotated forty-five degrees to stand on its corner, with two long bars crossways threaded through the diamond. Maltravers stood against Edward II, burned Bridgnorth, murdered the Earl of Kent and fled abroad. But he did the new King such service in Flanders that Edward III pardoned him. Evil-traversemen call him. Not to his face.


Inside the King’s Tent, with our special correspondent. Cloth walls and a cloth roof, stretched and pegged and rich furnishings brought within, withal, that this mobile room is more sturdy and magnificent than most villeins’ houses back in England. The map is drawn on a single sheet of parchment as big as a split cow can provide, and here it is, unrolled and re-readied. Fingers point, noblemen gesture with halfchewed meatbones. This ringencrusted hand clasping a bejewelled winecup is the king’s own. Here is that place where they forded the Somme and so surprised the French, who thought their enemy trapped on the wrong side of the river. There Paris is, there Paree be, an inked and coloured citadel with little figures drawn poking their faces around the crenulations. Paris was used by Edward as a lure: he marched his army towards it and the French king panicked that his capital might capitulate and scurried, scurried. Then Edward swung his army about, the men grumbling and stamping, and swearing at the wasted journey, and running to the roadside with the shits, and losing their gear, and finding other men’s gear and fighting over it, and archers accidentally snapping their bows and having to botch new ones from the local trees. Following the north bank of the river under cloudy skies. They arrived at Crécy a full day before the French, giving themselves time to rest and ready their formation.


Crécy town was on the map, but cartography did not record the surrounding terrain, and this was th landscape that truly mattered. A long hill filled the ground between the town to the south-west and the village of Wadicourt to the north-east. A shonky little windmill has been built upon this prominence, the better to catch prevailing breezes, although surely the miller swears often and loud in lusty French at having to drag grain and flour up and down! Who knows? He has made himself scarce, as twelve hundred men at arms, four thousand archers and four thousand Welshmen came marching up the valley and claimed the hill.


The king explains his desire as to the coming battle. His nobles all think variants of the same thought. They think we have ten thousand men and it is a mighty force; but they also think the French and their allies have ten times that number, and will crush us. We are far from home, and fighting for nobody is sure what, and they are in their own place and fighting for their own soil. The French King is a legend across the whole of Europe; the English king’s only renown is hacking a number of barbarian Scotsmen in the barren northlands. When a small and exhausted army meets a large, fresh and inspired army, and that latter army is defending its home ground, there is really only one way the battle can do.


Trumpets sound.



Camera Eye

      the red dragon of Merlin waves in a strong wind     crumple and snap of bannercloth            the action of the air slackening and then tautening the cloth makes the wyrm’s body undulate as if alive, and the camera pans down to show two mercenaries under it

      What kind of armour is that, though?

      Black to show off his white hair, wus

      The sky is filled with greystone clouds filled and the full wind is the spirit of God moving through the falling waters       rain spits from the sky, and the drizzle fades, and then gains in intensity, and the Prince himself sits on his horse where all can see him, gauntlets of copper gilt and lined with douce doeskin       the princely shield fashioned of poplar layered upon with canvas, gesso, parchment, and leather adorned with the sleek leopards predatory          black metal the chestplate and over it the red and blue velvet surcoat stuffed with wool and satin lined          his esquire trots alongside to carry the helmet. He knows that every man-at-arms looks at him and sees: youth and nobility, bravery and God’s Grace and beauty.

     The camera’s eye mounts up     droplets spot the lens, and shiver and dribble away with the motion           swoops and soars and we can barely hear the narrator’s voice as he reads the list of French names Antonio Doris and Charles Grimaldi leading the crossbows from Genoa the Duc d’Alençon, son of the Count of Valois, in charge of the charging French cavalry        the Duke of Lorraine, Louis of Blois     his Majesty King Philip of France—      the royal commander rides a palfrey and is flanked by banners of the fleur de lys though the rain is drenching now and the banners hang poorly          o que c’est beau schon prittie             his baggage train is behind him, much of it leagues away, struggling to catch up, and when he looks behind him he sees only giant black clouds reaching high over the horizon like winepurple mountains. Lightning itches at the belly of this cloud           and quick to follow the grumble of a thunder that warns the king to rest his men     a flock of rainbirds tumbles out of the sky

      There will be time for rest when the English have been smashed      smash agrees the thunder

      crush agreed the thunder again

      Lightning like stitchwork of bright gold thread in the black fabric, visible only an instant            a flock of ravens cawing furiously wheel over the French host. The king crosses himself



BLACK GEORGE


They have taken their positions and now they wait. One thing George learned as a young sprat on the Scottish campaign was: war is much more about waiting than it is fighting. Another thing he learned: men can stand the fighting much better than they can stand the waiting. The drizzle thickened into pouring rain and in no way quenched the burning of anxiety in his gut. Like smouldering flax inside a sealed pot. How he hates all this.


—Sir Hugh de Cressi is displeased, says Ralf of Reading, to George’s right. Declares it a poor omen that this place has his name.


—Why poor? He should be glad he’s fighting for his name. What else do free men fight for?


Most of the group were not free men, and responded to this dangerous notion with grumbles. The rain shushed them.


—Is he from here, then, Cressy from Cressy? asked one of the Welsh, in Welsh, a little snatch of birdsong. A yw ei deulu yn byw yma? Nah, he’s never dirtied his foot with France soil before in his life, has Sir Hugh. Nid yw ffycin. Very free with that ffycin, these Welshmen.


—He’s a superstitious sod, said Black George. Superstitious sod howsoever rockbuilt. The big ones are always so. And what does a battle ever do but wreck the place it happens? Would you want that happening to your name?


Wet wet wet. Water running down George’s back, under his clothes. Summer assuredly turning into autumn this late August day. Warmish rain, but an ache in the arse nonetheless. Stink of damp wool; hoods clutching their heads like giant tongues licking. Gleam of wet leather, like a tadpole’s skin. Then the heavens open again and the air goes pewter and cool and everything is scratched and scrabbled with rainsteaks.


—I should speak confessio, look you all, announced one timorous Harlechian, in his church-voice. For I may die, this day. Not ffycin likely, yelled another. And why would death want hard Welsh bodies when there are so many ffycin soft Genoese to fill his gut?


Ralf of Reading, freeman, said: it makes a man contemplate his name. Still harping on Sir Hugh de Cressi was he? George’s bowstring was wound around his cock, as the driest place he had about him. And also because the sensation was a pleasurable sensation. A sensual sensation. Sens sensualim. Threads of water dribbled from the rim of his hood. The cloth of heaven unravelling wetly. My name, Ralf said.


—You can read, said Sergeant Nim, as ever impressed at this fact. Or was he confusing Ralf’s birthplace with his intellectual attainment? Nim’s radish-coloured hair was absurdly thick and bushy, and disposed into three great clumps on his head like cockerel feathers.


—These Genoese, said Ralf. From Genoa. That a country?


—It’s a town, said Black George. His attention was not wholly on what he said, because there was movement visible across the valley, through the mist of downroiling water. The French were readying an attack. It’s a town in Italy.


Oo, they said. Oooo. The Os stacked up. They had heard of Italy. The land of Pompey. And of Julius, the king aptly named Seizer for his skill at conquest.


—And Genoa the only town in Italy that breeds crossbowmen? Ralf asked.


—These fellows come from all over, all over Italy. Why we call them all Genoese is for, but George (standing now, and making bird movements with neck and head to try and descry the enemy’s business) couldn’t think what for. What for was on its way: 50,000 well fed men, including 6,000 Genoese crossbowmen with the most up-to-date weaponry French gold could supply. Plus ten thousand French men-at-arms (O how the Os stacked, coins on a moneylenders table) and 14,000 feudal militia from Luxemborg and Bohemia.


King Edward had marched his small force of nine thousand fellows on a sawtooth march down France up France down France up again, over the Somme where the mud stank of salty hell, through Cazentan where they’d burned houses and unshucked squealing brownskinned nuns from their habits like conkers from their spikes. Now they were at Cressy, and everyone was tired. They’d rested a few hours, hardly enough. Fifty thousand men, eager to smash the English. And Edward with nine thousand, if that. A thousand of them ffycin bastard Welshmen: brave, surely brave, and certainly violent, but not reliable, likely to rabbitbolt off if the fight went poorly, and the shout started up of encil, Cymry! Encil encil! Ffyc off, they would. Five and a half thousand longbowmen, that was something. Two thousands men at arms. But tired, and unhappy. Whereas for all George knew the French had spent long days been lolling in what had been, until few hours before, bright sunshine. Maybe they were eased and strong and would kill the army as swift as a pig is killed.