I will make war my work.
I will become rich or die
Before I see my country again
Or my parents or my friends.
JOHN GOWER, Mirour de l'omme
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
T.S. ELIOT, The Waste Land
Thickset men who relished a noisy brawl in a tavern, a tussle over a whore, stole through the frozen nightscape with the lightness of ghosts. Their horses, and the clanking matériel of an army on the move, were held back. The guards posted along the town walls squinted into the blue-gray shadows, and saw nothing untoward. The water in bowls set out on the top of towers to detect vibrations did not ripple. By the time the scaling ladders had been assembled -- each section silently and quickly fitted into the next -- and placed against the foot of the walls, it was too late. The attackers poured up and over, and rushed through the dark streets. Members of the town's defense militia stumbled, half-dressed, from their houses, and attempted to drive back the assailants. But they were soon overwhelmed as more and more men hauled themselves over the walls. Everywhere, people emerged from their houses, clutching their children and their most important possessions, and ran, this way and that, frantic, barefoot. Some managed to follow the sound of the bells of the priory of Saint Pierre, ringing out the dreadful alarm, and lock themselves in the church there. Others simply stood in the streets, petrified, disoriented, inhabitants of pandemonium. The rest waited in their homes, knowing that escape was now impossible.
By sunrise on Tuesday, 29 December 1360, the town of Pont-Saint- Esprit, named for its bridge of twenty-five arches that spanned the Rhône, had been completely subdued. As its attackers dismantled their scaling ladders, they shouted greetings to their companions who, from their place of concealment in the outlying countryside, were now coming over the bridge, a noisy caravan of cavalry, infantry, engineers carrying spades and axes, carpenters, cooks, wagoners, farriers, pages, and drummer boys -- to all appearances, a regular army. Inside, nervous castellans surrendered to their captors the keys to the town's heavy gates, which were now swung open to allow the occupying army to pass. The traffic was one way: no citizen of Pont-Saint-Esprit was allowed to leave.
Almost eight months earlier, on 1 May 1360, commissioners appointed by the English king Edward III had met with their French counterparts to negotiate a truce in the war that had started twenty years before. Dozens of negotiators, plus scores of squires, notaries, servants, and messengers, squeezed into the little hamlet of Brétigny, not far from Chartres, and for seven days labored over the marbled rhetoric of thirtynine articles of legal and territorial details. On 8 May the two sides finally set their seals and signatures to the Treaty of Brétigny. As news of the truce spread, English soldiers walked barefoot into Chartres to give thanks to the Blessed Virgin in the cathedral dedicated to her.
The treaty marked a caesura in what history has termed the Hundred Years' War (it actually lasted 115 years, but the shorthand is too useful to abandon). In 1328 Charles IV of France died leaving no direct heir. In the confusion that followed, his first cousin, Philip of Valois, assumed the crown. In July 1340 Philip received a letter from Edward III stating, in the politest of language, that he, as Charles IV's nephew, was the rightful heir to the French throne, and that if this inheritance should be denied him, he would be obliged to take it by force. Philip politely demurred, replying that he was the lawful King of France. The formalities thus dispensed with, Edward launched an invasion of France.
For its participants, of course, there was no sense in the spring of 1360 that the conflict in which they were engaged would continue for another nine decades, reaching into the lives of their children and their grandchildren. In the end, four generations were dragged into this, the first total war, before Joan of Arc began the turn in French fortunes, and Charles VII completed the expulsion of the English from France (with the exception of Calais) in 1453.
Edward's opponent Philip VI died in 1350, passing the crown to his son, Jean. He inherited a military nightmare: all the gains in the war so far had accrued to the English, who had crushed the French army at the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and repeated the humiliation at the Battle of Poitiers ten years later, in which King Jean himself was taken prisoner. By the early spring of 1360, Edward III had reached the gates of Paris, which he besieged. It was Passion Week, but the English king showed little interest in Christian mercy. He assaulted monasteries, and ordered that the suburbs of Paris burn "from sunrise till midday," as his men spread fire "everywhere along his route." But the blockade drained his resources, and on 13 April his tired and ill-provisioned army found itself under siege -- by the weather. Long remembered as Black Monday, it was "a foul day of mist" which developed into "such a tempest of thunder, lightning and hail that it seemed the world should have ended." Freezing winds swept over Edward's army, pinning it down on the stony heaths beyond Chartres. Helpless in their breastplates and chain mail, many knights died, electrocuted, on their horses. Thousands of vehicles became stuck in the mud, and had to be abandoned. It was this storm, according to one chronicler, that caused the English king to "turn toward the church of our Lady at Chartres and devoutly vow to the Virgin that he would accept terms of peace."