It is June 18, 1359.
For three years now, King Jean II (the Good) of France has been a prisoner of the English. In his absence, his son, Charles the Dauphin, continues the combat. On this day they attack Melun, but the city is well defended and the attackers are crushed by stones and flooded with hot pitch and oil. They withdraw in disorder. Only one man, climbing on a ladder to scale the wall, continues to attack. His name is Bertrand du Guesclin.
The ladder breaks and he makes an alarming fall to the ground and lies deathly still. A comrade pulls him to the safety of a shelter and to revive him, plunges him headfirst into manure!
Hardly conscious, this hardened soldier approaching forty is dragged before the Dauphin, a young prince of twenty one years, frail but serious. And yet this meeting will be decisive. Soon, one will be king and the other, his constable. Together they will win back France.
Bertrand du Guesclin was born around 1320 and from the moment of his birth, his mother, Jeanne Malmaines, rejected him because he was so ugly! His father was Robert du Guesclin, from a family of minor Breton nobility, the seigneurs of ‘Motte-Broons,’ near Dinan. It was one of the oldest families in Brittany, claiming to descend from a king ‘Buckwheat’ Akim, who was defeated by Charlemagne. These descendants would have lived in the castle of Glay from where the name emerged – ‘Glay-Akim’ – Guesclin.
Bertrand was the eldest of ten children and whilst the senior branch of the family enjoyed the castle of Plessis-Bertrand, his family lived at the manor of ‘Mound-Broon,’ more of a manor dwelling with only a dovecote and two turrets to distinguish it from the surrounding country houses. But things were worse for Bertrand.
His mother was a great beauty and it gravely offended her to think she had given birth to something so repulsive. Bertrand was described as having ‘eyes of a bad green earthy dye, crispy hair, disproportionately long arms and a snub nose.’ Unable to bear the sight of him, she placed him to sleep with the pigs and cows, probably in the hope that he would be eaten or smothered.
This had its own sacrifice because it would have meant the loss of the animal (presumably pig) concerned. In the 14thC it was usual to hang sows that were guilty of eating children. (There are actual cases recorded where an animal was put on trial for a crime. Sodomy/bestiality was common; the animal deemed to be as guilty of participation as the human!) **
Much to France’s later benefit, Bertrand was not eaten, but as he grew up, he was constantly rebuffed. This repulsion did nothing but increase young Bertrand’s determination until one day, on the feast of Annunciation, when his mother prepared a fine capon meal, Bertrand took a stand. His mother served her two younger sons, Guillaume and Olivier, at the table, whilst Bertrand, for the last six years, had been relegated to a corner to eat bread croutons. Suddenly he rose and approached the table with clenched fists, claiming, ‘is this your way to ignore your firstborn? Return to me to my place. I am your eldest!’ The two younger children fled and, trembling with hunger, Bertrand threw himself upon the dishes as though famished. His mother threatened to strike him if he did not remove himself but Bertrand stood up and with a gesture of violent defiance, upended the table.
It was at this moment a learned healer arrived. Bertrand had backed himself into a corner and was threatening everyone with a stick. The physician calmly walked up to the boy and, taking his hand, studied his palm. His voice shook. ‘Madame, the flowers of lily will fill this child with great honour! You must treat Bertrand with the respect due to your eldest child.’
Things began to improve for Bertrand but, all the same, this did not stop him from being a difficult young man. His attendance at the parish school was poor, so much so, he could hardly read or write but he took great delight in organising the boys of Broon into rival bands and observing them fight. At the end of these clashes, he took the boys to the local tavern and offered a general round on the account of his parents! What is that saying? ‘Don’t get mad, get even!’
Of course, his father intervened and forbade the sons of the seigniory to play with Bertrand but this didn’t work. So Robert locked his heir into a tower at the manor. It was a complete waste of time and effort for Bertrand escaped on each occasion until, at the age of seventeen, he finally fled to live with his uncle.
When Bertrand learned that a fight contest took place each Sunday in his uncle’s village, he accompanied his aunt to Mass where during the sermon he discreetly slipped from the church to attend the fight. A strapping lad had just defeated twelve adversaries and Bertrand was quick to take up the next challenge. He won the fight but, falling with his opponent, he was injured in the process. Realising his nephew’s determination, Bertrand’s uncle began to install the values of victory but only under certain conditions known as chivalry.
In 1337 a great tournament was held at Renes to honour the marriage of Charles of Blois. Knights came from all over Brittany to attend and, like any hot-blooded male, Bertrand longed to take part and break lances under the admiring eyes of the ladies but all he had was one plough horse. He also saw his father at the tourney and took great care not to be seen.
After one of Bertrand’s cousins was defeated, he willingly lent Bertrand his horse, armour and weapons but Bertrand entered the list without any blazon (identifying colours). In true cavalier fashion he won his first joust but when his identity was inquired upon, he replied ‘To gain such knowledge you must win the right to raise my visor.’
*Note – there are many such accounts of notable figures entering jousts incognito. The Black Prince, himself, did on occasion. However in this instance, Bertrand had no ideas of grandeur, rather he just did not want his father to see him.
As you can imagine, this was a challenge none of the knights could refuse! Bertrand du Guesclin won the next ten rounds but on the eleventh, he found himself facing his father. Bertrand lowered his lance as a mark of respect and his father, believing it to be a sign that his opponent was exhausted, withdrew from the list. A sixteen-year-old knight from Germany recognised the gesture for what it was and took his chance. An unsuspecting Bertrand was not ready for his new opponent’s charge and the young knight won. Du Guesclin’s visor was removed and Robert du Guesclin laid eyes upon the swarthy face of his son. So proud was he that he forgave Bertrand, and took him to heart for the courage he had shown. He reinstated Bertrand within the house of Guesclin and awarded him arms befitting his title and dignity.
Bertrand eventually married, ordered by his King, and it is written that she was a great beauty. The Black Prince may have had his ‘Fair maid of Kent,’ but the ‘Black Dog’ was given ‘the Fair maid of Dinan,’ as she was known. Her name was Tiphanie de Raguenel and she was, by all accounts, very pleased with her new husband, respecting the qualities that lay beneath a less-than-perfect countenance. Tiphanie was also something of a sorceress which (as we know) could have been quite dangerous in the 14th century. Bertrand feared for his wife’s safety, but it was more fear of her being captured by the English, so he arranged that his wife could stay within the abbey grounds at Mont St Michel. (Now is it just me or there’s some irony here – hiding a sorceress within abbey grounds!) Knowing he would be absent from home for long periods at a time, he had a house built for her where she would be protected by the abbey, water, mountain and St Michel.
As for her sorceress abilities, it is said that one night, as Tiphanie and Bertrand lay in their bed, she suddenly awoke ‘with a dreadful feeling’ and warned her husband of an impending attack. Bertrand grabbed his sword and raised the alarm. In doing so, he captured soldiers who were found to be scaling the walls before they had a chance to get close.
Tiphanie du Guesclin’s tiny house still stands today at Mont St Michel where it serves as the ‘Du Guesclin’ Museum. It is three floors high, one room per floor, the top two levels opening onto tiny gardens. One can only imagine how many long nights she spent there waiting for her husband to come home from war. Though some of the furniture style post-dates the happy couple, a visit to the little house is still a memorable occasion if you love to dream about what might have been. To think, I may have stood right where Tiphanie did!
These photos below are from my visit there in 2006.
It is worth mentioning that while the English took all of Normandy during the Hundred Years War, they never took this well-fortified island. Because of its stubborn success, Mont St. Michel became a symbol of French national identity. Perhaps the combined force of the Abbey along with a sorceress was just too hard to break!
With a beautiful wife at his side and a promising career ahead, Bertrand du Guesclin had much to celebrate.
But this is far from the whole story. Bertrand du Guesclin went on to become the Constable of France, much loved and revered, especially by King Charles V. Between them they regained the territories which had been lost to the English during the campaigns of the Hundred Years War.
Part Two – Bertrand’s Military Career
The ‘Fabian’ strategy
Captured and ransomed
Castillian Civil War
In 2012 (on Friday 13th for Templar fans) the Dinan Library was handed a great gift – the skull of Tiphanie du Guesclin, wife to Bertrand. It was found in the middle of the 19th century in a wall-vault in Cordeliers, where the family had piously preserved it for a century and a half. It was kept in a beautiful reliquary box.
** In 1993 a movie was made called ‘The Hour of the Pig’ starring Colin Firth.
Abbeville, France – 1452
‘One odd remnant of the dark ages that Abbeville has not purged from its legal system is the practice of prosecuting animals as well as humans for crimes.’
Bertrand du Guesclin is mentioned in The Lily and the Lion and appears in The Order of the Lily both in the prologue and a later chapter. I found his name on a list of supposed Grand Masters (1357-1381) for the ‘secret’ Templar Order (along with his successor, Jean (le-bossu) d’Armagnac, Cecile’s foster-brother who makes a brief appearance in The Order of the Lily) It played nicely into the hands of my co-writer’s story and so we used it.
Bertrand will continue to make ‘background’ appearances as Gillet de Bellegarde is one his most trusted captains and accompanies his leader on most campaigns. Some of these campaigns will form the skeleton of series two of Lions and Lilies. A novel on the life of Bertrand du Guesclin (The Black Dog of Broceliande) is also in early stages.