Thursday, July 09, 2009

"The daie passed with dyvers accy dents" - knighted at Rouen

My main image is the brass of Sir Christopher Lytcot, one of a set of fine 16th century brasses in the church at West Hanney, in West Berkshire.

The inscription reads: ‘Under this stone lyeth entered the corps of Sir Christopher Lytcot Knight, twice High Sherief of the County of Berk (husband of two wives both in the sayd countye, the former Jane Essex widdowe of Thomas Essex of Beckett House Esq. the later Catherine Younge Widowe of William Younge of Bastledon Esq.) Knighted in the camp before Roane the XVI of November 1591 by the hands of the French Kinge, Henry the Fourth of that name, & King of Navarre. Who after his travailes in Germany, Italye, and Fraunce & the execution of Justice to the glory of God & the good of his country, ended this pilgrimage, at Bastledon on the XXVth of April 1599.”

This mention of the siege of Rouen reminded me of Sir Thomas Coningsby’s eye-witness account of the first part of the siege. Queen Elizabeth had allowed an English force of 2,000 under Essex’s leadership to go and assist the Huguenots, in return for some trading rights. A full text can be found here:

Coningsby was one of the many gentlemen knighted by the Earl of Essex during the inconclusive campaign. He does not mention Lytcot in his account, who must have been campaigning closer to the king. I did not know that knightings by a foreign monarch were simply accepted, but Essex himself had dubbed so many that any controversy settled on his actions. Coningsby had attached himself very closely to Essex: the gentlemen volunteers had agreed that, from their number, six would always accompany Essex wherever he went. Coningsby was one of the men so pledged, but as he represents it, Essex’s tremendous vigour and activity made this an unsustainable commitment:

Nov. 17. The 17. my lord wente early to the kinges quarter, being only accompanyed with 4 of us, for such a body hath he made of yron, supporting travaile and passioned in all extremyties, that the following of him did tyre our bodies, that are made of flesh and boane.

On the date of that Lytcot was dubbed a knight, November 16th, Coningsby indeed mentions King Henry, in a context which was indubitably manly, if not quite so honourable:

Nov. 16. The 16. there hath bene a spech (ever since the king came) of his going to Deape [Dieppe], which is to hasten all provisions and necessaries for his busynes here; but some of his domestiques, out of a French lyberty to speake every thynge, say that his jorney is to meete a saincte, (for he oweth devotyon to more than Gabryell only,) which he hath bene devote unto longe, whose bodie is trans-ported from Caen thither, because his devotion and vowes may be performed with more ease: but how, or whatsoever, you or I will speake the best of our betters.

The allusion is to King Henry, notorious for womanizing, going to meet another mistress than his most famous lady, Gabielle D’EstrĂ©es (the one with her sister in the bath!)

Later that same day, Coningsby witnessed skirmishing between the defenders and the besieging forces. This was typical of the siege: Villiers, leading the forces in Rouen, had plenty of fighting men in the town, and had resolved upon an active defence, to disrupt all approaches of the siege works. Coningsby regarded this particular skirmish with disdain:

“Upon this we from our quarter mighte behold the most of this that passed; we might see many of their horse drove downe, and th’ennemye withdrawe within the covert of the towne; and there we mighte behold many a horse well spurred, and many a sword jollyly glystering in the sunn on both sydes: but all put up without any effusion of blood, one blowe stryken, or one pystoll shott; which is not the manner of our quarter, for we never goe to it but eyther horse or man remaynes behind, and sometimes both.”

‘Jolly’ to watch, but no blood spilled: not the way the English did it, apparently. And when Coningsby himself speaks to King Henry, it is with the same bumptious patriotism. Onto the very brave and, when required, very pragmatic King, Coningsby projects his own attitude, that of wanting there to be some ‘sport’: “Yt seemed the king was verie desirous we mighte have had some sporte, and particularly asked me (unto whom heretofore he hath doan favor of lyke nature), whether they would sally or noe; whereunto I aunswered, that if they weare honest men they should, but if they were Englishmen they would; whereunto he replyed, "By my faith, I believe it" When he perceived they sallyed not, he sente to drawe them out to skyrmysh…”

Coningsby was no doubt brave, but his preoccupation with personal honour makes his account of the fighting self-centered, there is little sense of planning, tactics, or logistics in his journal. He rather tends to make so much of the quest for gallantry that the fighting seems gratuitous, or undertaken for that purpose alone.

As such, Coningsby writes exactly as Shakespeare’s Bertram might have written about his role in the confused fighting in the military part of All’s Well that Ends Well (the French king there sends off his other young gentleman to fight for either side in a vague Italian conflict). Coningsby is concerned with individual deeds – he almost becomes Parolles when he speaks of scarves being taken as something worth noting. Casualties occur, and the protocols of rescuing bodies, or of removing valued tokens from dead men or their horses concern him: “There were ii. of their captens slain by us, the bodie of one whereof we recovered, being verie well apparelled. The said lieuetenant toke his scarfe, who afterward was slaine.”

These gentlemen volunteers with Essex seem to have had a reasonable chance of survival – their armour, as modelled by Lytcot, seems to make them fairly casual about walking within range of the harquebus fire of the enemy, except that every so often, someone is shot by a defender using a ‘steel bullet’.

When no skirmishing is in prospect, Coningsby and his kind get bored easily: “The 22. daie we passed with playinge at tennys in the forenoone, and at playinge at ballon in th’afternoone with the lieuetenant-gouvernor of Deape, and the victorie fell on our side”.

Tennis and football, then – but what of women? Coningsby has no chance for arrangements like those enjoyed by King Henry. Being a Protestant abroad, and a man living a life, for months, solely among men, on one occasion Coningsby takes time out to visit a nunnery. I will end this post with this anecdote, with all its undercurrents, as a set of (for the moment) voluntarily chaste young men visit a set of permanently chaste women:

This afternoone, to drive awaie idlenes, I wente to a monasterie of nonnes, about a league and a halfe from our quarter, where we so behaved our selves that we receyved very kynd wellcomes, and a banckett of xx tie severall dyshes of preserved fruits. The abbesse was of the house of Baskeville, a verie goodly gentlewoman, and wore her habyt very neate and properlye: she is a woman exceeding well-spoken, and of good behavior, but of yeeres meeter for God then for the world. But there was 2 or 3 younger noons, and all gentlewomen of good house, whom I know, if you had sene, you would have pyttyed their loss of tyme; and so, having spente 2 or 3 howres there, retorned home to our strawe bed.

My other image is the Montague House portrait of Coningsby (1551-1625) at 21. The pigeon at the top left is meant to be his hawk, the fan-shaped device is the lure. But Coningsby has turned his back on the bird, and the tether of the lure is short and falling slack: he is giving up, I think, on the follies of his youth. But if he was 40 at the siege of Rouen, his journal hardly testifies to his maturity.

1 comment:

Gaenor Burchett-Vass said...

I still think the visit to the nunnery is dodgy.