In days of old English royalty fought for the land. Read how Prince Edward vanquished a rebel in single combat (though he did use some dubious tactics!)
From Book Two of The King's Jew
Wednesday, May 19th, 1266
Feast day of St Dunstan of Canterbury (909-988)
Hebrew: 13th day of Sivan 5026
Near Alton Wood, Hampshire.
The battle of Alton Wood
Adam de Gurdon was a careful man. Not only careful but a lucky man who believed in the gods of fortune. Those gods had been good to him when Simon de Montfort’s forces were slaughtered at Evesham. It was the little coincidences in life that kept a man alive in these troubled times and it was a small thing that had kept Adam away from Evesham; he’d had the shits for a week and thus his life was saved.
His squire brought up his horse and lance; kneeling so as Adam could mount his charger. Then passing the short lance up to his master he stepped back and ran off to join the others at the edge of the wood.
Adam addressed his men, “We are going hunting on the Alton Road. We will return before dusk and take our ease. You know the rules; take what you will from those who would do us harm. If they put up a fight they forfeit their lives. If they do as we say then leave them be. Keep a wary eye out for royalists though I doubt many will be so bold as to attack us. The upstart Edward is in Winchester and though many of us have lost much to his rapaciousness the lands we now ride are ours and no man, not even a prince, can take them away. Are you ready?”
A chorus of cheers greeted Adam’s address and the company formed into line to follow their leader slowly up the gentle slope.
Only then did Adam de Gurdon’s world begin to fall apart when a lone rider appeared in front of them from the wood’s edge to the West.
The single horseman sat very still then the rider put spurs to his horse and trotted toward Adam’s company. They watched as the knight, for indeed it was such by virtue of his helm, lance and shield, brought his mount to a halt and raised his lance in challenge to the company below him.
Adam laughed and turned to his second in command, “One man stands there. He must be insane to challenge us. Bertrand, go rid me of this upstart. Put an end to this foolishness.”
Bertrand kicked his horse forward and rode to meet the challenger who remained stock-still a few hundred yards away. It was then that he noticed the man’s shield and bringing his own mount to a halt turned and shouted back to Adam, “It is Henry of Almain, lord. Prince Edward’s cousin!”
“Then I will fight him,” yelled Adam and spurred his horse forward.
Three foot soldiers came slowly out from the dark embrace of the trees but Adam was committed now and his mount was gathering speed in its forward dash. His men trotted slowly forward to help their master if such assistance became necessary.
More mounted men appeared behind Henry of Almain and Adam, realising he would be outnumbered, reined his horse in then gasped in disbelief as two knights appeared from the path on his left flank. Desperately wheeling his horse round Adam saw more riders and footmen emerging from this Southern path and their leader was unmistakable by his colours and his size; Prince Edward himself! There was only one option left to Adam de Gurdon. He led his men back down the slope towards the woods below where the rest of his company feverishly armed themselves and took up defensive positions. The women and others fled into the safety of the enveloping trees.
Henry’s force rode down to meet up with Edward’s and together they formed a line cutting off any escape. Inexorably Adam’s enemies extended their line to the left and right. The rebel company faced a horseshoe shape of men closing in on them and with the wood at his back Adam was faced with only one choice; fight or surrender.
From out of a clear sky the arrows thudded into the flanks of horses causing the enraged and frightened beasts to rear and kick. More shafts found their mark on the shields and helms of Adam’s men. Even more bodkins cut through the mail of knight’s and footmen some of whom fell to the ground dead whilst others clutched at the source of their pain as they shouted vainly for help from their peers.
“Cease!” ordered Crispin and his bowmen relaxed their strings and laughed and jeered at the devastation and confusion below.
Some of Adam de Gurdon’s men had been forced to engage Prince Edward’s troops for they had no other option if they wished to escape the rain of arrows.
Edward raised himself high in the stirrups and his squire blew hard on his horn. For a brief while the fighting continued. Another blast and an answering call from Adam’s line rang out. Slowly the business of killing ceased as all eyes turned to Edward and Adam.
Edward surveyed the scene then spoke to Cristian, “Go tell the traitor I will accept his surrender and think about sparing his life.”
Cristian’s mount was restless, eager for the fray and objected to being held back. It took Cristian a little while to control Abraxas as he strained to be away.
“And if he declines?”
“Then he dies.”
Trotting slowly towards the rebel leader Cristian sheathed his sword and swung his shield over his back to signify he came to talk. Adam watched him approach and admired Cristian’s deft control of Abraxas as he picked his way delicately between combatants. The two men faced each other just three spear-lengths apart and stared into each other’s eyes.
“I have a message for you from my prince.”
“Is your ‘prince’ so frightened he must send his errand boy to talk with me?”
Cristian urged Abraxas forward until the muzzles of the horses almost touched, “I am no ‘errand boy’ you traitorous bastard. Lord Edward demands that you surrender yourself and your men. If you do then maybe you will keep your life. If you refuse then it will please me to take yours.”
Adam laughed, “You are Gilleson are you not, Lord Edward’s shadow; the Jew-lover? I have heard of you from Earl Gilbert de Clare. You are not to be trusted. Your blood is tainted.”
A black rage came over Cristian and he instinctively put spurs to Abraxas and drew his sword. Abraxas reared and lunged forward raking his hooves down the flank of Adam’s horse which screamed in pain and raised its forelegs high into the air causing Adam de Gurdon to fall sideways from the saddle onto the ground.
As Abraxas pranced left and right over the fallen man a low groan could be heard from Adam’s supporters for they fully expected Cristian to kill their seemingly defenceless leader.
Lurching to his feet Adam roared a challenge, “Come down from your horse and fight me man-to-man. Or will you commit murder as you and Edward did at Evesham?”
A horse cannoned into Abraxas and Cristian thought he was under attack until he realised with a jolt that the rider was none other than Edward.
Adam stood tall with his sword in hand and looked up at Edward with derision.
“Give me one reason why I should not smite you down where you stand?” hissed Edward.
“Because to do so in full view of this company will diminish you. Come down from your heights and fight me in single combat or let all men know you for the coward you are.”
Quickly dismounting, Cristian released Abraxas to a foot soldier but before he could turn his attention to Adam de Gurdon an imperious voice called out, “Step back. I will accommodate this traitor,” and the next moment Lord Edward stood toe-to-toe with Adam.
Men from both sides looked askance as the two men faced each other. Edward had the advantage of height but not by very much whereas Adam de Gurdon though smaller was much broader and heavier.
“Cease this foolishness, Edward,” cried Henry of Almain, “we have him at our mercy. You need not hazard yourself against him.”
“The man calls me a coward, Henry. For the sake of the realm and of my virtue I must prove him false. Are you ready to die, traitor knight?”
By way of an answer Adam set his shield and stepped back a pace or two at the same time as moving warily to his right.
“No man is to interfere,” ordered Edward grimly swinging his sword.
“Move back. Give them room,” ordered Cristian. Then when he considered there was space enough, “Lay on and may God have mercy on your soul Gurdon.”
The contest was fierce and well-matched with the advantage changing from one combatant to the other. At one stage Edward’s shield was shattered and he did well to defend himself as Adam, sensing victory, attacked with renewed vigour. With or without a shield Edward was the better fighter. After beating off Adam’s attack he then pressed in his own as with mighty blows he battered his opponent’s shield to pieces forcing Adam ever backwards. Though breathing hard Adam was not one to give in easily for he knew his life was forfeit if he lost this battle.
Then, horror of horrors, Edward lost his footing and found himself with one knee on the ground and Adam de Gurdon rushing in to administer the winning blow.
Cristian moved to help Edward but Henry of Almain stayed his arm and held him fast; Edward’s orders must be obeyed no matter the consequences.
As if in slow motion Cristian watched as Adam de Gurdon’s sword reached its zenith to begin its downward course towards Edward’s unprotected head and raised left arm. Contrary to all that he’d been taught by Bartholomew Pecche, Cristian averted his gaze for a split second but the killing blow never came for Adam de Gurdon stopped the fatal stroke and stepped back beckoning Edward to rise again and continue the fight.
“I will take no advantage of a slip, Edward and will not be known as the man that slew a prince of England. If we call a halt now will you spare my men and give them the benefit of your mercy?”
Edward stood tall and strong now and Cristian could sense the turmoil taking place in his mind as Adam’s words rang out for all to hear. If Edward accepted Adam’s terms would people think him weak? If Edward continued the fight would he be seen as vengeful? Perhaps, thought Edward, he should slay de Gurdon now whilst he was off his guard and waiting for an answer. Maybe there was a middle way to end this? Edward came to a decision and looked around the circle of watchers with a satisfied smile on his face.
Thrusting his sword into the soft sward and breathing heavy from his exertions Edward held his arms out in an expression of conciliation. Pausing just a brief moment Adam bowed slightly and did the same with his weapon before moving towards his erstwhile opponent.
In the blink of an eye Edward took a quick step towards his enemy at the same time drawing his dagger and smashing his fist into Adam’s face. With a loud curse Adam de Gurdon fell to the ground with Edward astride him and the blade at his throat.
“Ever the duplicitous leopard eh Edward? Come now, finish me and add to your crimes.”
“You fight with your heart and not your head Adam and that is why I can take your life when you could not take mine. I have more than the petty squabbles of landless rebels to think of. I have a realm to keep safe and if by killing you it aids me and mine then, by heaven, you must die.”
“And I could have given you so much, Edward.”
Adam actually lifted his head up from the ground forcing his throat on to Edward’s blade as he spoke those words and Edward drew back astonished at such a gesture.
“All I ever ask of my people is that they honour God’s anointed. You made war on my father the King and you war with me and waylay my people. Tell me Adam, what could you give me? Allegiance? Will you accept me as your liege lord and swear never to break the King’s peace?”
“Let me up and we will discuss this.”
“There is nothing to discuss with one such as you.”
“Not even silver?”
Edward withdrew his blade and stood up slowly. Adam extended his hand towards him which the prince grasped, helping him to his feet. Turning to his supporters Edward indicated his defeated opponent, “Sir Adam de Gurdon will pledge his fealty to me here on this field.”
After the slightest of pauses, Adam went down on one knee and extended his hands to Edward who clasped them in his own and bent down close to him so that only he could hear. “I welcome you to my peace, Adam. You realise I must hang some of your men as an example?”
Adam de Gurdon nodded as the blood dripped down his neck, “And my land, lord?”
“You have no land, Adam. It is all mine, yet we may come to an accommodation. The silver?”
“Safe in Alton Wood.”
“No, my prince, alive and well. I have a rich Winchester Jew ready for ransom.”
“The Jews belong to me Adam.”
“As do I, Edward.”
“Then we must play this charade to its end. Trust me in this, serve me well and I will raise you up. Where are you keeping this Jew?” Edward listened closely then turned to Henry of Almain, “Cousin?”
“Bind this man. Set him on a horse and send him to Farnham Castle. We will spend a few days there hunting stags and boar.” Then with a contemptuous look at Adam he continued, “There is better sport with the beasts of the forest than rebels and Henry?”
“Hang a half dozen of de Gurdon’s men and leave them swinging in the trees for travellers to see. I would have it known that the King’s peace is in force here.” Turning to a discomfited de Gurdon Lord Edward continued, “We will talk more at Farnham and maybe we will spare your life.”
Adam went white with fear, “But your promise! Our agreement! I am your sworn man, Edward.”
“And I am a prince of England, Adam and this land dances to my tune. You called me a leopard. Do you now expect me to change my spots?”
As Adam de Gurdon was led away the sound of Edward’s laughter echoed round the field.
Two captains rode up but Edward waved them away urging them to report to his cousin, Henry.
After a long draught of wine supplied by one of the squires Edward wiped his lips on the back of his hand, took a deep breath, belched loudly, called for food and beckoned Cristian forward.
“Cristian, I have a task for you. Come close whilst I explain the urgency of this mission. Down there within the wood is a Jew named Benedict. He is a prisoner and this youth,” Edward pulled a frightened youngster from the watchers, “is de Gurdon’s squire who will take you to where the Jew is being held.”
“And when I find him?”
“You will keep him safe with your company and deliver him to me at Farnham.”
“He is not to be harmed then?”
“Of course not”
“Not even when he is delivered to you?”
Edward looked long and hard at Cristian before replying, “The man has something which is now mine and I would give him the option of delivering it.”
Cristian nodded and looked down the hill to the forest’s edge before asking, “He is rich, this Jew?”
“Aye, he is rich, so says de Gurdon and I would have some recompense for our efforts this day.” Edward turned indicating the mass of horsemen and foot soldiers, “Who do you think pays for all this, Cristian? The birds in the trees? Does silver fall like manna from heaven? The Jew, Benedict, will pay for his deliverance. Do I make myself clear?”
Before Cristian could answer Mathew rode up, “Are we staying here for the night master?”
Cristian looked questioningly at Edward who eyed Mathew with amusement before answering, “This ‘master’ is riding to Farnham. Your ‘master’, Mathew, will spend the night in the field under the stars protecting my investment.”
“Which ‘investment’ is that?” asked Cristian.
“All the captured arms, horses and men, old friend. You will weed out the wheat from the chaff. Incorporate those who would serve us and hang the rest. And the Jew. Look after my Jew.”
“And the women, Edward, what would you have me do with the women?”
“Choose one for yourself and forget about the Jewish girl!”