The Great Captain by Charles Morris
Story type: Literature
The long and bitter war for the conquest of Granada filled Spain with trained soldiers and skilful leaders, men who had seen service on a hundred fields, grim, daring veterans, without their equals in Europe. The Spanish foot-soldiers of that day were inflexibly resolute, the cavalry were skilled in the brilliant tactics of the Moors, and the leaders were men experienced in all the arts of war. These were the soldiers who in the New World overthrew empires with a handful of adventurers, and within a fraction of a century conquered a continent for Spain. In Europe they were kept actively employed. Charles VIII. of France, moved by ambition and thirst for glory, led an army of invasion into Italy. He was followed in this career of foreign conquest by his successor, Louis XII. The armies of France were opposed by those of Spain, led by the greatest soldier of the age, Gonsalvo de Cordova, a man who had learned the art of war in Granada, but in Italy showed such brilliant and remarkable powers that he gained the distinguishing title of the Great Captain.
These wars were stretched out over years, and the most we can do is to give some of their interesting incidents. In 1502 the Great Captain lay in the far south of Italy, faced by a more powerful French army under the Duke of Nemours, a young nobleman not wanting in courage, but quite unfit to cope with the experienced veteran before him. Gonsalvo, however, was in no condition to try conclusions with his well-appointed enemy. His little corps was destitute of proper supplies, the men had been so long unpaid that they were mutinous, he had pleaded for reinforcements in vain, and the most he could do was to concentrate his small force in the seaport of Barleta and the neighboring strongholds, and make the best show he could in the face of his powerful foe.
The war now declined into foraging inroads on the part of the French, in which they swept the flocks and herds from the fertile pastures, and into guerilla operations on the part of the Spanish, who ambushed and sought to cut off the detached troops of the enemy. But more romantic encounters occasionally took place. The knights on both sides, full of the spirit of chivalry, and eager to prove their prowess, defied one another to jousts and tourneys, and for the time being brought back a state of warfare then fast passing away.
The most striking of these meetings arose from the contempt with which the French knights spoke of the cavalry of their enemy, which they declared to be far inferior to their own. This insult, when told to the proud knights of Gonsalvo’s army, brought from them a challenge to the knights of France, and a warlike meeting between eleven Spanish and as many French warriors was arranged. A fair field was offered the combatants in the neutral territory under the walls of the Venetian city of Trani, and on the appointed day a gallant array of well-armed knights of both parties appeared to guard the lists and maintain the honor of the tournament.
Spectators crowded the roofs and battlements of Trani, while the lists were thronged with French and Spanish cavaliers, who for the time laid aside their enmity in favor of national honor and a fair fight. At the fixed hour the champions rode into the lists, armed at all points, and their horses richly caparisoned and covered with steel panoply. Among those on the Castilian side were Diego de Paredes and Diego de Vera, men who had won renown in the Moorish wars. Most conspicuous on the other side was the good knight Pierre de Bayard, the chevalier “sans peur et sans reproche,” who was then entering upon his famous career.
At the sound of the signal trumpets the hostile parties rushed to the encounter, meeting in the centre of the lists with a shock that hurled three of the Spaniards from their saddle, while four of their antagonists’ horses were slain. The fight, which began at ten in the morning, and was to end at sunset, if not concluded before, was prosecuted with great fury and varied success. Long before the hour of closing all the French were dismounted except the Chevalier Bayard and one of his companions, their horses, at which the Spaniards had specially aimed, being disabled or slain. Seven of the Spaniards were still on horseback, and pressed so hard upon their antagonists that the victory seemed safely theirs.
But Bayard and his comrade bravely held their own, while the others, intrenched behind their dead horses, defended themselves vigorously with sword and shield, the Spaniards vainly attempting to spur their terrified horses over the barrier. The fight went on in this way until the sun sank below the horizon, when, both parties still holding the field, neither was given the palm of victory, all the combatants being declared to have proved themselves good and valiant knights.
Both parties now met in the centre of the lists, where the combatants embraced as true companions in chivalry, “making good cheer together” before they separated. But the Great Captain did not receive the report of the result with favor.
“We have,” said one of his knights, “disproved the taunts of the Frenchmen, and shown ourselves as good horsemen as they.”
“I sent you for better,” Gonsalvo coldly replied.
A second combat in which the Chevalier Bayard was concerned met with a more tragic termination. A Spanish cavalier, Alonzo de Sotomayor, complained that Bayard had treated him uncourteously while holding him prisoner. Bayard denied the charge, and defied the Spaniard to prove it by force of arms, on horse or on foot, as he preferred. Sotomayor, well knowing Bayard’s skill as a horseman, challenged him to a battle on foot a l’outrance, or “to the death.”
At the appointed time the two combatants entered the lists, armed with sword and dagger and in complete armor, though wearing their visors up. For a few minutes both knelt in silent prayer. They then rose, crossed themselves, and advanced to the combat, “the good knight Bayard,” we are told, “moving as light of step as if he were going to lead some fair lady down the dance.”
Bayard was the smaller man of the two, and still felt weakness from a fever which had recently prostrated him. The Spaniard, taking advantage of this, sought to crush him by the weight of his blows, or to close with him and bring him to the ground by dint of his superior strength. But the lightness and agility of the French knight enabled him to avoid the Spaniard’s grasp, while, by skill with the sword, he parried his enemy’s strokes, and dealt him an occasional one in return.
At length, the Spaniard having exposed himself to attack by an ill-directed blow, Bayard got in so sharp a thrust on the gorget that it gave way, and the point of the blade entered his throat. Maddened by the pain of the wound, Sotomayor leaped furiously on his antagonist and grasped him in his arms, both rolling on the ground together. While thus clasped in fierce struggle Bayard, who had kept his poniard in his left hand throughout the fight, while his enemy had left his in his belt, drove the steel home under his eye with such force that it pierced through his brain.
As the victor sprang to his feet, the judges awarded him the honors of the day, and the minstrels began to pour forth triumphant strains in his honor. The good knight, however, bade them desist, as it was no time for gratulation when a good knight lay dead, and, first kneeling and returning grateful thanks for his victory, he walked slowly from the lists, saying that he was sorry for the result of the combat, and wished, since his honor was saved, that his antagonist had lived.
In these passages at arms we discern the fading gleam of the spirit of mediaeval chivalry, soon to vanish before the new art of war. Rough and violent as were these displays as compared with the pastimes of later days, the magnificence with which they were conducted, and the manifestations of knightly honor and courtesy which attended them, threw something of grace and softness over an age in which ferocity was the ruling spirit.
Meanwhile, the position of the little garrison of Barleta grew daily worse. No help came, the French gradually occupied the strongholds of the neighboring country, and a French fleet in the Adriatic stood seriously in the way of the arrival of stores and reinforcements. But the Great Captain maintained his cheerfulness through all discouragement, and sought to infuse his spirit into the hearts of his followers. His condition would have been desperate with an able opponent, but he perfectly understood the character of the French commander and patiently bided his time.
The opportunity came. The French, weary of the slow game of blockade, marched from their quarters and appeared before the walls of Barleta, bent on drawing the garrison from the “old den” and deciding the affair in a pitched battle. The Duke of Nemours sent a trumpet into the town to defy the Great Captain to the encounter, but the latter coolly sent back word,–
“It is my custom to choose my own time and place for fighting, and I would thank the Duc de Nemours to wait till my men have time to shoe their horses and burnish up their arms.”
The duke waited a few days, then, finding that he could not decoy his wily foe from the walls, broke camp and marched back, proud of having flaunted a challenge in the face of the enemy. He knew not Gonsalvo. The French had not gone far before the latter opened the gates and sent out his whole force of cavalry, under Diego de Mendoza, with two corps of infantry, in rapid pursuit. Mendoza was so eager that he left the infantry in the rear, and fell on the French before they had got many miles away.
A lively skirmish followed, though of short duration, Mendoza quickly retiring, pursued by the French rear-guard, whose straggling march had detached it from the main body of the army. Mendoza’s feigned retreat soon brought him back to the infantry columns, which closed in on the enemy’s flanks, while the flying cavalry wheeled in the rapid Moorish style and charged their pursuers boldly in front. All was now confusion in the French ranks. Some resisted, but the greater part, finding themselves entrapped, sought to escape. In the end, nearly all who did not fall on the field were carried prisoners to Barleta, under whose walls Gonsalvo had drawn up his whole army, in readiness to support Mendoza if necessary. The whole affair had passed so quickly that Nemours knew nothing of it until the bulk of his rear-guard were safely lodged within the walls of the Spanish stronghold.
This brilliant success proved the turning-point in the tide of the war. A convoy of transports soon after reached Barleta, bringing in an abundance of provisions, and the Spaniards, restored in health and spirits, looked eagerly for some new enterprise. Nemours having incautiously set out on a distant expedition, Gonsalvo at once fell on the town of Ruvo and took it by storm, in spite of a most obstinate defence. On April 28, 1503, Gonsalvo, strengthened by reinforcements, finally left the stronghold of Barleta, where he and his followers had suffered so severely and shown such indomitable constancy. Reaching Cerignola, about sixteen miles from Barleta, he awaited the advancing army of the French, rapidly intrenching the ground, which was well suited for defence. Before these works were completed, Nemours and his army appeared, and, though it was near nightfall, made an immediate attack. The commander was incited to this by taunts on his courage from some hot-headed subordinates, to whom he weakly gave way, saying, “We will fight to-night, then; and perhaps those who vaunt the loudest will be found to trust more to their spurs than to their swords,”–a prediction which was to prove true.
Of the battle, it must suffice to say that the trenches dug by the Spaniards fatally checked the French advance, and in the effort to find a passage Nemours fell mortally wounded. Soon the French lines were in confusion, the Spanish arquebusiers pouring a galling fire into their dense masses. Perceiving the situation, Gonsalvo ordered a general advance, and, leaping their intrenchments, the Spaniards rushed in fury on their foes, most of whose leaders had fallen. Panic succeeded, and the flying French were cut down almost without resistance.
The next morning the Great Captain passed over the field of battle, where lay more than three thousand of the French, half their entire force. The loss of the Spaniards was very small, and all the artillery, the baggage, and most of the colors of the enemy were in their hands. Rarely had so complete a victory been gained in so brief a time, the battle being hardly more than one hour in duration. The body of the unfortunate Duke of Nemours was found under a heap of the slain, much disfigured and bearing the marks of three wounds. Gonsalvo was affected to tears at the sight of the mutilated body of his young and gallant adversary, who, though unfitted to head an army, had always proved himself a valiant knight. During the following month Gonsalvo entered Naples, the main prize of the war, where he was received with acclamations of joy and given the triumph which his brilliant exploits so richly deserved.
The work of the Great Captain was not yet at an end. Finding that his forces were being defeated in every encounter and the cities held by them captured, Louis XII. sent a large army to their relief, and late in the year 1503 the hostile forces came face to face again, Gonsalvo being forced by the exigencies of the campaign to encamp in a deplorable situation, a region of swamp, which had been converted by the incessant rains into a mere quagmire. The French occupied higher ground and were much more comfortably situated. But Gonsalvo refused to move. He was playing his old waiting game, knowing that the French dared not attack his intrenched camp, and that time would work steadily in his favor.
“It is indispensable to the public service to maintain our present position,” he said to the officers who appealed to him to move; “and be assured, I would sooner march forward two steps, though it would bring me to my grave, than fall back one, to gain a hundred years of life.”
After that there were no more appeals. Gonsalvo’s usual cheerfulness was maintained, infusing spirit into his men in all the inconveniences of their situation. He had a well-planned object in view. The hardy Spaniards, long used to rough campaigning, bore their trying position with unyielding resolution. The French, on the contrary, largely new recruits, grew weary and mutinous, while sickness broke out in their ranks and increased with alarming rapidity.
At length Gonsalvo’s day came. His opponent, not dreaming of an attack, had extended his men over a wide space. On the night of December 28, in darkness and storm, the Spanish army broke camp, marched to the river that divided the forces, silently threw a bridge across the stream, and were soon on its opposite side. Here they fell like a thunderbolt on the unsuspecting and unprepared French, who were soon in disordered retreat, hotly pursued by their foes, their knights vainly attempting to check the enemy. Bayard had three horses killed under him, and was barely rescued from death by a friend. So utterly were the French beaten that their discouraged garrisons gave up town after town without a blow, and that brilliant night’s work not only ended the control of France over the kingdom of Naples, but filled Louis XII. with apprehension of losing all his possessions in Italy.
Such were the most brilliant exploits of the man who well earned the proud title of the Great Captain. He was as generous in victory as vigorous in battle, and as courteous and genial with all he met as if he had been a courtier instead of a soldier. In the end, his striking and unbroken success in war aroused the envy and jealousy of King Ferdinand, and after the return of Gonsalvo to Spain the unjust monarch kept him in retirement till his death, putting smaller men at the head of his armies rather than permit the greatest soldier of the century to throw his own exploits more deeply into the shade.