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Memoirs and Adventures of Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange
Chapter IX. Second Campaign, The Death of Norman Leslie


After the failure of a convention, in which Paul III. was mediator between those two great princes, their armies again took the field in the spring of 1554. Henry first led his troops against Marienbourg in Hainault, while the constable, with the main body, marched towards Liege, by the famous forest of Ardennes. Kirkaldy, with his troop of demi-lances, accompanied this column of the army.

Twelve years before, Marienbourg had been built and strongly fortified by the Emperor Charles, and named in honour of his sister, Mary of Hungary. Six days after the French standard was displayed before its towers, it was surrendered by the Spanish garrison to Henry, who, elated with success, pushed on to Namur and seized Bouvines, which he totally sacked and ruined. He had now formed a junction with the column of the constable.

Two miles above the desolate Bouvines stood (and yet stands) Dinant, a small but ancient city, surrounded by an old wall of the twelfth century. It had a strong castle, perched on a high and precipitous rock, which commanded a noted pass between Namur and Luxembourg, and formed the key of the German empire towards France. Near it, a bridge spanned the sluggish waters of the Maesc, but the passage was swept by the cannon of the little fortlet, which a brave Spanish cavalier defended, with unflinching valour, against the whole French army. Thrice he repulsed the well-disciplined infantry from a breach their cannon had effected in the outer walls; and eleven standard-bearers, who led les enfans perdus up the jagged rocks to the assault, were shot down in succession by the tremendous fire of harquebusses, calivers, and pistolettes, poured on the gap by the resolute Spaniards.

Appalled by the slaughter, the French soldiers wavered, and some even refused to follow those brave chevaliers who, each in succession, took the standard from the hand of his dead predecessor. The constable entreated, threatened, and encouraged by turns—still they recoiled. At this crisis Archibald Mowbray, (brother of Sir John of Bamebougal, who married Elizabeth Kirkaldy,) to show the soldiers an example, rushed sword in hand, and alone, up the steep and dangerous breach, and gained the top of the shattered wall; but, not being followed, he was compelled to retire, and regained his comrades untouched.

Driven at last to extremity, after the whole of his soldiers had been killed or wounded by the shot of the French culverins, or scorched by the fagots goudronnes and blazing firebrands which the cannoneers threw into the fortress in showers on their helmeted heads, the brave Spanish castellan made a sign of parley, and came forth to confer with the constable concerning a surrender. Contrary to the rules of war, he was made prisoner; upon which the wounded survivors of his little garrison marched forth with bag and baggage. This was on the 28th of June 1554. The castle of Dinant was immediately demolished; but more regular fortifications were, in succeeding wars, erected in its stead.

Having thus forced the pass, King Henry, at the head of his army, turned to the left, towards Artois, and marched into the Low Countries, his soldiers giving all to fire and sword, after they had pillaged the cities and villages of the opulent and industrious Netherlands. Plunder and devastation in that age, as in much later times, were ever the concomitants of French warfare; but want of subsistence soon compelled Henry to retreat back upon his own frontier, during which his army utterly destroyed all that had escaped the fury of their advance.

In these famous wars between two of the greatest princes in Europe, Sir William Kirkaldy, at the head of his Chevaux Legers, had a thousand opportunities of acquiring that knowledge of the tactics and discipline of the time, which in after life enabled him to win the field of Langside, with a few hundred men to hold in defiance the powers of a kingdom, and to accomplish other deeds of skill and courage which have rendered his name so familiar in the annals of Scotland.

In those days the standing forces of France were very different from the feudal militia of Scotland and England. On the subversion of feudality in France, a permanent and numerous army had been embodied, adequate to kingly schemes of conquest and ambition, and effective for the suppression of treason at home. The other sovereigns of Europe soon found that standing armies were the necessary base and harrier of a throne. Bodies of soldiers were maintained in constant pay; heavy taxes were imposed for their subsistence; duty and discipline became reduced to a standard and universal rule, and the art of war became improved in all its phases.

The troops of France, at the time of which I write, consisted, first, of the Scottish Guard, composed of a hundred hommes d’armes, a hundred archers of the guard, and twenty-four of the corps. These braves, who were commanded by James earl of Arran, (son of the regent, recently created Duke of Chatelherault,) — the same young noble whom the Kirkaldys and their companions had detained in the castle of St Andrews—were the elite of Scotland, and their high reputation for fidelity and unblemished honour requires no comment. They wore the most splendid armour of the age, with surcoats or hoquetons covered with shells of silver gilt: their banner was the national standard of Scotland. The foot-harquebussiers, armed with helmets, hack and breast plates, bore firearms which threw halls three ounces in weight; hut the majority of the army were pikemen, and styled les comjpognies ddialberdiers, or free companies; which, though detached and separate, were all commanded by an officer called the captain-general of les comjpagnies Franches, who was first appointed in 1550. The culverineers wore a habergeon with sleeves, a gourgerin and salade, with a sword and dagger. But the flower of the army were the plumed and helmeted gendarmerie, a body of steel-clad cavalry unsurpassed in discipline, in spirit, and in bravery, gallantly mounted on mailed steeds, and brilliantly accoutred. The first troop of these were les gens-d'armes Ecossois.

There was also a body of men-at-arms clad cap-a-pie, and armed with cross-bows and battle-axes; hut, during Henry’s reign, those antiquated weapons gradually gave place to more modern inventions. In those days the armour of nations was all very much alike, distinctions being principally shown by banners, the housings of horses, and the scarfs of their riders. Those of the French and Scots were white: the modern military sash is the representation of the knightly scarf of the olden time. The French standard was the ancient oriflamme, with its silver lilies; the cornette blanche was only displayed when the king led the army in person, as every king should do. "Montjoye! Saint Denis for France!” was the rallying-shout of the French on joining close battle ; but war-cries were rapidly being abolished on the Continent : the Scottish clans retained them until the middle of the last century. Regular regiments, as now constituted, were not embodied until 1562, when the six old battalions of Picardy, Piedmont, Navarre, Champagne, Normandy, and the Marine, were formed from the ancient companies, or bandes Francoises, of the old system. But to resume: —

While the troops of Henry were devastating the archhishoprick of Cambray, Charles V. mustered an army with the utmost expedition; and immediately upon his advancing, the French, being pressed by want of subsistence, as before stated, began to retreat homewaid. Louis de Bourbon, lord of Chateau-Roux and prince of Conde—a title he bad obtained seven years before, in consequence of marrying the heiress of the ancient lords of Conde—with many other princes of the royal blood, bore distinguished commands in Henry’s army at this time.

On one occasion, Charles sent forward five thousand Spanish horsemen, to gall and impede the French rearguard, which was commanded by the constable. These came up with Kirkaldy’s branch of the army, the light horse, when they were covering the flanks of a body of infantry which were fording a river not far from Cambray. To halt, to form, and receive them with levelled pikes and volleying harquebusses, was, to the veteran constable, the work of a moment. Seconded by the pikes and petronels of the Chevaux Logers, he drove them back with such loss, that the cavaliers of the emperor were more wary in pressing on the French rear during the remainder of that severe retreat.

On reaching Renti, a town situated between two mountains on the confines of the Bulonnois and Artois, and commanded by a strong feudal castle, the army of France halted and encamped. Henry, that he might not disperse his troops without attempting something to fulfil the sanguine hopes with which he had opened the campaign, resolved on laying siege to this important fortress, from the ramparts of which the banner of the Spanish emperor was displayed at his approach. He Montmorencie opened the trenches, and pushed the siege vigorously, having promised to Henry that he should have it' in eight days. This promise was never performed. The castle of Renti was ably fortified and provided with a numerous garrison, who, assisted by the occupants of the city, made a resolute defence.

Though suffering under a severe illness, Charles, borne in a litter at the head of his whole available force, hastened to its relief; upon which the constable—anxious to decide the fate of the siege by an engagement—drew up in order of battle the whole of the gendarmerie, the lances of the ordnance, and all the horse of the army, resolving with them alone, on well-chosen ground, to stand the shock of the Spaniards, while his infantry pressed the siege with renewed energy.

The battle took place on the plain before Renti, on the 31st August 1554. The French gained a signal victory; but Norman Leslie was doomed to fall, covered with wounds and glory, in which his friend Kirkaldy could not participate, as he was despatched by King Henry on a patrole, or secret and particular duty, the night before the encounter. The day before the battle, the constable, perceiving by the manoeuvres of the Spanish troops that Charles meant to take possession of certain heights, which sloped abruptly down to the camp or bivouac of the French, sent up Leslie’s Scottish lances and other horsemen to skirmish with these Imperialists, and drive themback. Melville, his fellow-soldier, thus describes him :—In view of the whole French army, the Master of Rothes, u with thirty Scotsmen, rode up the hill upon a fair gray gelding. He had, above his coat of black velvet, his coat of armour, with' two broad white crosses, one before and the other behind, with sleeves of mail, and a red bonnet upon his head, whereby he was seen and known afar off by the constable, the Duke d’Enghien, and the Prince of Conde.” His party was diminished to seven by the time he came within lance-length of the Imperialists, who were sixty in number; but he burst upon them with the force of a thunderbolt, escaping the fire of their hand-culverins, which they discharged incessantly against him. He struck five from their saddles with his long lance, before it broke into splinters then, drawing his sword, he rushed again and again among them, with the heedless bravery for which he had ever been distinguished. At the critical moment of this unequal contest, of seven Scottish knights against sixty Spaniards, a troop of Imperial spearmen were hastily riding along the hill to join in the encounter. By this time Leslie had received several bullets in his person; and finding himself unable to continue the conflict longer, he dashed spurs into his horse, galloped back to the constable, and fell, faint and exhausted, from his saddle, with the blood pouring through his burnished armour on the turf.

By the king’s desire he was immediately borne to the royal tent, where the Duke d’Enghien and Prince Louis of Conde remarked to Henry, that a Hector of Troy had not behaved more valiantly than Norman Leslie.”

The chirurgeon of the royal household dressed his wounds; but his attentions were vain, for the hand of death was now upon the heart of the gallant Leslie. This brave warrior was the son of George fourth earl of Rothes, by Margaret, daughter of the Lord Crichton, to whom he had been betrothed, or hand-fasted, but not canonically married; yet Norman was always designed the Master of Rothes, and as such obtained several charters of land under the Great Seal of Scotland. By his wife Isabel, daughter of Lord Lindesay of the Byres, he left no heirs, and his half-brother Andrew obtained the earldom. Being borne off the field, he expired of his wounds in the city of Montreuil, fifteen days after the battle, repenting bitterly, with his last breath, his share in the murder of Cardinal Beatoun.

The king, the constable, and the whole army, acknowledged his worth, respected his valour, and lamented his fate ; but none sorrowed for him more than Kirkaldy of Grange, who next day returned to the camp with his campagnie de cent lances, after performing the duty upon which the king had despatched him.

He arrived in time to share the dangers and the triumph of Renti, two miles distant from which the Spanish emperor formed a camp, intrenching it on every side save one, where a steep and inaccessible hill sloped downward to the French position. Both armies had strong outguards, and a battle was confidently expected on the day succeeding Leslie’s exploit. In the night the Imperialists took possession of a wood, which extended along the face of a hill that lay between the two camps.


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