Read The Archer's Return: Medieval story in feudal times about knights, Templars, crusaders, Marines, and naval warfare during the Middle Ages in England in the reign of King Richard the lionhearted Online
Authors: Martin Archer
Tags: #Historical Fiction
This is the third of the parchment books written by an unknown monk of the Priory of St. Frideswide in Oxford, the monastery which Cardinal Wolsey dissolved and Henry the Eighth subsequently re-founded as the College of Christ Church after he broke with Rome.
The parchments with the monk’s writings were found in a trunk under a pile of rubble in the Bodleian Library basement some years ago. The monk’s assignment, as he describes it in his own hand, is to piece together what’s left of some earlier parchments into one great history of the kingdom similar to that Livy wrote for Rome so many years ago with its emphasis on what actually happened and what everyone is thinking and doing at the time.
Among the problems the monk says he has to overcome, of course, is that the exciting tales in the earlier parchments contain so many surprises and often have missing parts where the mice have eaten them.
Another problem is that the parchments are written in various languages. Some are written in Latin and Greek while others are in various versions of what is now called Middle English and Old French – which means he must both piece them together and rewrite them into today’s English.
What follows initially is mostly from the tales of William, the captain of the English archers, as they were faithfully recorded by his friend and scribe, Yoram of Damascus. The position of the Church and the king is that the changes and excitement the archers cause in England and the Holy Land are God’s Will. The monk is obviously not so sure. According to him, sharp blades and ambitious men with arms strong enough to pull one of the new longbows are a much more likely explanation.
This is how the monk pieces together the various parchment stories and personal recollections of what happens when William and his veteran sergeants rebuild the company of longbow archers and return to the Holy Land in the ships they captured from the Moors last year.
“The Archers Return”
It’s mid-April and the Channel storms have subsided when I give my little son and my priestly brother a final big hug and issue the order for our ships to cast off and head out into the channel. We’re going to make a dash to the coast of France before the weather changes.
It’s quite a fleet we’ve got – we’re sailing for the Holy Land with twelve of our fourteen Cornwall-based galleys, both of our large cargo carrying single-masted cogs, and just over a thousand of our sailors and archers including those we recruited and trained ever since the eighteen of us who survived Richard’s crusade left the Holy Land a year ago.
I’ve marshaled almost every archer we’ve got into our force. Only the handful of experienced archers selected to train our newly recruited apprentice archers are being left behind in Cornwall. All the rest of us are going out to earn coins carrying refugees and pilgrims to safety and taking Saracen and Moorish ships as prizes.
Our basic plan is simple - dash across the channel to France when the weather is good and then follow the French, Portuguese, and Spanish coasts through the Mediterranean to the port of Palma on the Island of Mallorca. From Palma we’ll sail on to Crete where we’ll assemble again.
After Crete we’ll sail and row our way to Malta, perhaps to set up some sort of a permanent base, if its ruler, the old pirate, Brindisi, will allow it. Then it’s on to Cyprus to join the galleys and cogs we already have in the Holy Land. It’s the reverse of the route we followed last year to get what was left of our archers back to England.
If all goes according to plan, which isn’t likely if the past is any guide, our galleys will hug the coast and pick up water along the way at the mouths of the smaller rivers and streams running into the sea. The village people are often not friendly and speak many strange dialects, particularly when we reach the Spanish coast and the villagers are mostly Moslems - but no matter how they pray there is little they can do to stop a war galley when it anchors at a river’s mouth and begins dipping up water in its leather buckets.
Our two cogs are carrying more water skins and water barrels so they can travel farther out and stop less frequently. Even so, they’ll tend to follow as close to the coast as possible in an effort to attract pirates – because they are going out as pirate takers. Pirate galleys are very much like ours; they too tend to stay to closer in to shore so they can take on water and run up into the local streams and harbors for shelter when there is a storm at sea.
Palma should be interesting – and a bit dicey because it’s a Moorish port with a Moslem ruler where Genoa and the Pisans have concessions.
So shall we one day, I hope. Have our own concessions in Palma I mean.
Thomas and I learned a lot from all the mistakes we made getting what was left of our company of archers back to England from King Richard’s Crusade. That’s why each and every galley and cog we’re sending out to Cyprus and the Holy Land is sailing with at least two or three experienced pilots, a full crew of sailors and highly trained archers equipped with longbows - and as many water skins and water barrels as each of our ships can carry in addition to its crew and cargo.
On the other hand some things won’t be changed. Both cogs will go out as pirate bait with their Marine archers and swordsmen hidden in their deck castles and cargo holds until a pirate galley comes alongside and grapples them to hold them tight while the pirates board. Hopefully the pirates will do so, board I mean, thinking they are about to take an unarmed cargo ship and will soon have the ship and its cargo and its crew as slaves to sell.
Using our cogs to take pirate galleys is Harold’s idea. He’s the English slave we freed when we got our first two galleys and now he’s the master of our sailor sergeants.
Slaves taken by the Moslems are important to the Moslems’ Grand Caliph or whatever he’s called. Selling them is how he gets the coins he is using to pay for his war in Spain against Castile and Leon.
Anyhow, that’s what my brother Thomas says and he’s usually right, being so well read and such.
It’s only when the pirate crew begins to board that our cogs’ sailors will throw their own grapples to hold the pirate galley even tighter so it can’t get away. That’s when our cog’s real cargo, an entire company of English archers and other fighting men, our Marines as we’ve come to call our men who are trained to fight both on land and at sea, will reveal themselves.
Once the pirate galleys are securely grappled they will charge out from where they’re hiding and sweep the surprised and outnumbered pirates into the sea - so we can take the pirate galley for a prize and add it those we are already using to carry pilgrims to the Holy Land and then rescue them when they become refugees willing to pay to get away from the Holy Land and the heathen Saracens.
Any prizes our ships take along the way will row for Palma with a prize crew. Not that I expect the galleys to take any Moslem prizes in our early waters but one never knows. Our archer carrying cogs will, or so we hope, be something new just like our longbows and the newfangled Swiss pikes we’ve started using on land. The pirates won’t expect them and won’t know what to do until it’s too late.
There are a lot of galleys crewed by heathen pirates everywhere in the Mediterranean and with a little luck our cogs will attract some of them before they reach Palma. Harold’s already told off prize crews in the hope that they’ll take some. In any event, Palma is where our surviving sailors and archers will be shuffled about so every galley and cog has a crew large enough for whatever comes next.
What Thomas and I haven’t shared with anyone, except for Harold, is what I’m going to have our galleys do after we reach Palma. It’s a good plan and will no doubt work perfectly as all battle plans do in their makers’ minds – until the fighting actually starts and everything changes.
I’m on my lucky galley – the big one with forty four oars on each side that carried George and me and our coin chests safely all the way back to England. Harold is its captain sergeant and the master sergeant of all our ship captains. He’s the one who every day for months has been making our sailors and Marines practice taking pirate cogs and galleys.
Young Peter the fast thinking archer from the battle at Launceston is with me as my helper and fetcher.
I was initially going to leave Peter at Launceston to be second to Martin, the veteran archer who is steady but slow. In the end I changed my mind and left a defrocked Italian priest, Angelo Priestly, to assist Martin as its constable - because Martin doesn’t know how to read and Thomas likes to send written messages.
Thomas found the ex-priest and vouched for his honesty and ability to read Latin. It was obviously something personal that got him thrown out of the church or caused him to run.
Our Palma-bound ships will try to stick together for as long as possible by using night lanterns on our masts. It’ll be good practice for what we are going to try to do after we leave Palma. Sooner or later, of course, we’ll be separated when the lanterns are lost from sight or the weather changes. Then each ship will sail to Palma on its own.
Sooner comes fairly quickly. We are pretty much able to stay together until we leave Lisbon. But within hours of leaving Lisbon harbor a big storm scatters us and it’s every ship for itself as we head towards Gibraltar and the entrance to the Mediterranean.
The seas are high and the storm’s gusting winds are blowing towards shore. That’s not much of a problem for our galleys because we can row to keep ourselves off the rocks. What is a big problem is the cold sea water that is constantly coming in over the bow because our galleys sit so low to the water. We are, as the sailors say, freezing our wet arses off and having to constantly bail like galley slaves with our leather buckets.
Also, although there isn’t anything I can do about it, I’m increasingly worried about our two cogs. The wind is all wrong for them and they don’t have oars to row themselves to safety.
It’s hard to believe, I know, but it’s true - the wind can actually blow against a cog’s mast and the side of the cog sticking up out of the water and they act as a sail. That’s what blew Richard’s future queen and his sister into Cyprus all those years ago and caused us to go there with him to fight instead of going straight to Jerusalem. And that, all of us believe, is why we didn’t take Jerusalem even though we came so close.
Everyone including me bails and rows in the storm for almost two cold and exhausting days. Then the weather suddenly clears and we pass Gibraltar Castle both running before the wind with a leather sail up on our galley’s stubby little mast and periodically rowing once our arms get enough rest to recover their strength.
The storm really did us in, at least it did for me - and I’ve got an archer’s strong arms so I can only imagine how the sailors and men at arms feel who never pull a longbow in practice or for real.
To everyone’s surprise we’re not alone as we come out of the storm and into the clear weather beyond it. One of our cogs, the one with the big patch on its sail captained by Albert the archer sergeant from Devon, comes up on us fast out of the storm behind us – so fast that we have to row to keep up so we can talk as we enter the narrows and pass the big rock with the huge Moorish castle on its peak.
But why are there no Moorish ships here to collect tolls and taxes? This could be a gold mine.
Harold manages to keep Albert Devon’s cog in sight and we are able to reach the harbor at Palma together two days later. To my absolute delight our other cog is already at anchor and so are four of our galleys. There are happy hails and waves all around as we enter the harbor and drop our anchors. Within minutes dinghies are rowing towards us to report in and share the news.
Palma is on Mallorca Island. It’s a beautiful place and under the nominal control of a batch of Moors from the tribe called “Berburs” or something like that. What’s good for us, and the reason we’ve put in here for water and to reform our fleet, is that the Moslems are in the midst of another of their long running and bloody civil wars - and Mallorca’s Berbur ruler is a deadly enemy of the Moslem Caliph who rules Tunis and Algiers on the other side of the Mediterranean.
The fighting between the Moslems may be bad for the local people and merchants of Palma but it is good for us - because the local heathen are keen to tell us everything they can about their equally heathen enemies on the other side of the sea - and they have a lot to tell that might be useful.
Whether what they tell us will be useful is always uncertain but it certainly beats nothing. Information about your enemies is always important, isn’t it?
All and all, as we know from our last visit, Palma is apparently a fairly civilized place with many Christians and Jews living on the island as farmers and merchants. Genoa and Pisa have had commercial establishments here for years. The tavern and the two ale houses next to the dock aren’t too bad either, just smoky when it gets cold at night and their warming fires are lit. The tavern, in particular, has great bread and cheese even though the girls smell bad.