It was now a year since they had left England, and Cuthbert had much grown and widened out in the interval, and had never neglected an opportunity of practicing with arms; and the earl was well aware that he would obtain as efficient assistance from him in time of need as he could desire.
This was the first time that Cuthbert, and indeed the great proportion of those present in the Christian host, had seen the enemy in force, and they eagerly watched the vast array. It was picturesque in the extreme, with a variety and brightness of colour rivalling that of the Christian host. In banners and pennons the latter made a braver show; but the floating robes of the infidel showed a far brighter mass of colour than the steel armour of the Christians.
Here were people drawn from widely separated parts of Saladin's dominions. Here were Nubians from the Nile, tall and powerful men, jet black in skin, with lines of red and white paint on their faces, giving a ghastly and wild appearance to them. On their shoulders were skins of lions and other wild animals. They carried short bows, and heavy clubs studded with iron. By them were the Bedouin cavalry, light, sinewy men, brown as berries, with white turbans and garments. Near these were the cavalry from Syria and the plains of Assyria--wild horsemen with semi-barbarous armour and scarlet trappings. Here were the solid lines of the Egyptian infantry, steady troops, upon whom Saladin much relied. Here were other tribes, gathered from afar, each distinguished by its own particular marks. In silence did this vast array view awhile the solid mass of the Christians. Suddenly a strange din of discordant music from thousands of musical instruments--conches and horns, cymbals and drums, arose in wild confusion. Shouts of defiance in a dozen tongues and from 200,000 throats rose wild and shrill upon the air, while clear above all the din were heard the strange vibratory cries of the warriors from the Egyptian highlands.
"One would think," said Cnut grimly to Cuthbert, "that the infidels imagine we are a flock of antelopes to be frightened by an outcry. They would do far better to save their wind for future use. They will want it, I think, when we get fairly among them. Who would have thought that a number of men, heathen and infidel though they be, could have made so foul an outcry?"
"Every one fights according to his own method, Cnut; and I am not sure that there is not something to be said for this outcry, for it is really so wild and fearful that it makes my blood almost curdle in my veins; and were it not that I know the proved valour of our knights and footmen, I should feel shaken by this terrible introduction to the fight."
"I heed it no more," said Cnut, "than the outcry of wild fowl, when one comes upon them suddenly on a lake in winter. It means no more than that; and I reckon that they are trying to encourage themselves fully as much as to frighten us. However, we shall soon see. If they can fight as well as they can scream, they certainly will get no answering shouts from us. The English bulldog fights silently, and bite as hard as he will, you will hear little beyond a low growl. Now, my men," he said, turning to his archers, "I think the heathen are about to begin in earnest. Keep steady; do not fire until you are sure that they are within range. Draw your bows well to your ears, and straightly and steadily let fly. Never heed the outcry or the rush, keep steady to the last moment. There is
shelter behind you, and fierce as the attack may be, you can find a sure refuge behind the line of the knights."
Cnut with his archers formed part of the line outside the array of English knights, and the arrows of the English bowmen fell fast as bands of the Bedouin horse circled round them in the endeavour to draw the Christians on to the attack. For some time Saladin persisted in these tactics. With his immense superiority of force he reckoned that if the Christian chivalry would but charge him, the victory of Tiberias would be repeated. Hemmed in by numbers, borne down by the weight of armour and the effects of the blazing sun, the knights would succumb as much to fatigue as to the force of their foes.
King Richard's orders, however, were well obeyed, and at last the Moslem chief, urged by the entreaties of his leading emirs, who felt ashamed that so large a force should hesitate to attack one so vastly inferior in numbers, determined upon taking the initiative, and forming his troops in a semicircle round the Christian army, launched his horsemen to the attack. The instant they came within range, a cloud of arrows from the English archers fell among them, but the speed at which the desert horses covered the ground rendered it impossible for the archers to discharge more than one or two shafts before the enemy were upon them. Quickly as they now slipped back and sought refuge under the lances of the knights, many of them were unable to get back in time, and were cut down by the Saracens. The rest crept between the horses or under their bellies into the rear, and there prepared to sally out again as soon as the enemy retired, The Christian knights sat like a wall of steel upon their horses, their lances were levelled, and, brave as the Bedouin horsemen were, they felt to break this massive line was impossible.
The front line, however, charged well up to the points of the lances, against which they hewed with their sharp scimitars, frequently severing the steel top from the ashpole, and then breaking through and engaging in hand-to-hand conflict with the knights. Behind the latter sat their squires, with extra spears and arms ready to hand to their masters; and in close combat, the heavy maces with their spike ends were weapons before which the light clad horsemen went down like reeds before a storm.
Hour after hour the Arab horsemen persisted in their attack, suffering heavily, but determined to conquer if possible. Then Saladin suddenly ordered a retreat, and at seeing their enemy fly, the impetuosity of the crusaders at last broke out. With a shout they dashed after the foe. King Richard, knowing that his followers had already shown a patience far beyond what he could have expected, now headed the onslaught, performing prodigies of valour with his single arm, and riding from point to point to see that all was well.
The early resistance of the infidel host was comparatively slight. The heavy mass of the Christian cavalry, with their levelled lances, swept through the ranks of the light horsemen, and trampled them down like grass beneath their feet; but every moment the resistance became more stubborn.
Saladin, knowing the Christians would sooner or later assume the offensive, had gathered his troops line in line behind the front ranks, and as the force of the crusaders' charge abated, so did the number of foes in their front multiply. Not only this, but upon either side chosen bands swept down, and before long the Christians were brought to a stand, and all were fighting hand to hand with their enemies. The lances were thrown away now, and with axe and mace each fought for himself.
The Earl of Evesham was one of a group of knights whom King Richard had that day ordered to keep close to his person, and around this group the fight raged most furiously.
Saladin, aware of the extreme personal valour and warlike qualities of King Richard, set the greatest value upon his death or capture, and had ordered a large number of his best troops to devote their whole attention to attacking the King of England. The royal standard carried behind the king was a guide to their onslaught, and great as was the strength and valour of King Richard, he with difficulty was able to keep at bay the hosts that swept around him.
Now that the lance had been abandoned for battle-axe, Cuthbert was able to take an active part in the struggle, his duties consisting mainly in guarding the rear of his master, and preventing his being overthrown by any sudden attack on the flank or from behind.
King Richard was bent not only on defending himself from the attacks of his foes, but on directing the general course of the battle; and from time to time he burst, with his own trusty knights, through the ring of foes, and rode from point to point of the field, calling the knights together, exhorting them to steadiness, and restoring the fight where its fortunes seemed doubtful. At one time the impetuosity of the king led him into extreme danger. He had burst through the enemy surrounding him, and these, by order of their captain, allowed him to pass through their ranks, and then threw themselves together in his rear, to cut him off from the knights who rode behind. The maneuver was successful. The rush of horsemen fairly carried away the Christian knights, and one or two alone were able to make their way through.
Amid the wild confusion that raged, where each man was fighting for his own life, and but little view of what was passing could be obtained through the barred visor, the fact that the king was separated from them was known to but few. Sir Walter himself was engaged fiercely in a hand-to-hand fight with four Bedouins who surrounded him, when Cuthbert shouted,--
"The king, Sir Walter! the king! He is cut off and surrounded! For heaven's sake ride to him. See! the royal standard is down."
With a shout the earl turned, brained one of his foes with a sweep of his heavy axe, and, followed by Cuthbert, dashed to the assistance of the king. The weight of his horse and armour cleft through the crowd, and in a brief space he penetrated to the side of King Richard, who was borne upon by a host of foes. Just as they reached them a Bedouin who had been struck from his horse crawled beneath the noble charger of King Richard, and drove his scimitar deep into its bowels. The animal reared high in its sudden pain, and then fell on the ground, carrying the king, who was unable to disengage himself quickly enough.
In an instant the Earl of Evesham had leapt from his horse and with his broad triangular shield extended sought to cover him from the press of enemies. Cuthbert imitated his lord, and strove to defend the latter from attacks from the rear. For a moment or two the sweep of the earl's heavy axe and Cuthbert's circling sword kept back the foe, but this could not last. King Richard in vain strove to extricate his leg from beneath his fallen steed. Cuthbert saw at a glance that the horse still lived, and with a sudden slash of his sword he struck it on the hind quarter. Goaded by the pain the noble animal made a last effort to rise, but only to fall back dead. The momentary action was, however, sufficient for King Richard, who drew his leg from under it, and with his heavy battle-axe in hand, rose with a shout, and stood by the side of the earl.
In vain did the Bedouins strive to cut down and overpower the two champions; in vain did they urge their horses to ride over them. With each sweep of his axe the king either dismounted a foe or clove in the head of his steed, and a wall of slain around them testified to the tremendous power of their arms. Still, even such warriors as these could not long sustain the conflict. The earl had already received several desperate wounds, and the king himself was bleeding from some severe gashes with the keen-edged scimitars. Cuthbert was already down, when a shout of "St. George!" was heard, and a body of English knights clove through the throng of Saracens and reached the side of King Richard. Close behind these in a mass pressed the British footmen with bill and pike, the enemy giving way foot by foot before their steady discipline.
The king was soon on horseback again, and rallying his troops on, led them for one more great and final charge upon the enemy.
The effect was irresistible. Appalled by the slaughter which they had suffered, and by the tremendous strength and energy of the Christian knights, the Saracens broke and fled; and the last reserves of Saladin gave way as the king, shouting his war-cry of "God help the holy sepulchre!" fell upon them. Once, indeed, the battle still seemed doubtful, for a fresh band of the enemy at that moment arrived and joined in the fray. The crusaders were now, however, inspired with such courage and confidence that they readily obeyed the king's war-cry, gathered in a firm body, and hurled themselves upon this new foe. Then the Saracens finally turned and fled, and the Christian victory was complete.
It was one of the features of this war that however thorough the victories of the Christians, the Saracens very speedily recovered from their effects. A Christian defeat was crushing and entire; the knights died as they stood, and defeat meant annihilation. Upon the other hand, the Saracens and Bedouins when they felt that their efforts to win the battle were unsuccessful, felt no shame or humiliation in scattering like sheep. On their fleet horses and in their light attire they could easily distance the Christians, who never, indeed, dreamt of pursuing them. The day after the fight, the enemy would collect again under their chiefs, and be as ready as before to renew their harassing warfare.
On his return from the field, the king assembled many of his principal knights and leaders, and summoned the Earl of Evesham, with the message that he was to bring his esquire with him. When they reached the tent, the king said,--
"My lords, as some of you may be aware, I have this day had a narrow escape from death. Separated from you in the battle, and attended only by my standard-bearer, I was surrounded by the Saracens. I should doubtless have cleft my way through the infidel dogs, but a foul peasant stabbed my charger from below, and the poor brute fell with me. My standard-bearer was killed, and in another moment my nephew Arthur would have been your king, had it not been that my good lord here, attended by this brave lad, appeared. I have seen a good deal of fighting, but never did I see a braver stand than they made above my body. The Earl of Evesham, as you all know, is one of my bravest knights, and to him I can simply say, 'Thanks; King Richard does not forget a benefit like this.' But such aid as I might well look for from so stout a knight as the Earl of Evesham, I could hardly have expected on the part of a mere boy like this. It is not the first time that I have been under a debt of gratitude to him; for it was his watchfulness and bravery which saved Queen Berengaria from being carried off by the French in Sicily. I deemed him too young then for the order of knighthood--although indeed bravery has no age; still for a private benefit, and that performed against allies, in name at least, I did not wish so far to fly in the face of usage as to make him a knight.
"I promised him then, however, that the first time he distinguished himself against the infidel he should win his spurs. I think that you will agree with me, my lords, that he has done so. Not only did he stand over me, and with great bravery defend Sir Walter from attacks from behind, but his ready wit saved me, when even his sword and that of Sir Walter would have failed to do so. Penned down under poor Robin, I was powerless to move until our young esquire, in an interval of slashing at his assailants, found time to give a sharp blow together with a shout to Robin. The poor beast tried to rise, and the movement, short as it was, enabled me to draw my leg from under him, and then with my mace I was enabled to make a stand until you arrived at my side. I think, my lords, that you will agree with me that Cuthbert, the son of Sir William de Lance, is fit for the honour of knighthood."
A general chorus of approval arose from the assembly, and the king, bidding Cuthbert kneel before him, drew his sword and laid it across his shoulders, dubbing him Sir Cuthbert de Lance. When he had risen, the great barons of England pressed round to shake his hand, and Cuthbert, who was a modest young fellow, felt almost ashamed at the honours which were bestowed upon him. The usual ceremonies and penances which young knights had to undergo before admission into the body--and which in those days were extremely punctilious, and indeed severe, consisting, among other things, in fasting, in watching the armour at night, in seclusion and religious services--were omitted when the accolade was bestowed for bravery in the field.
The king ordered his armourer at once to make for Cuthbert a suit of the finest armour, and authorized him to carry on his shield a sword raising a royal crown from the ground, in token of the deed for which the honour of knighthood had been bestowed upon him.
Upon his return to the earl's camp the news of his new dignity spread at once among the followers of Sir Walter, and many and hearty were the cheers that went up from the throats of the Saxon foresters, led by Cnut. These humble friends were indeed delighted at his success, for they felt that to him they owed very much; and his kindness of manner and the gaiety of heart which he had shown during the hardships they had undergone since their start, had greatly endeared him to them.
Cuthbert was now to take rank among the knights who followed the banner of the earl. A tent was erected for him, an esquire assigned to him, and the lad as he entered his new abode felt almost bewildered at the change which had taken place in one short day--that he, at the age of sixteen, should have earned the honour of knighthood, and the approval of the King of England, expressed before all the great barons of the realm, was indeed an honour such as he could never have hoped for; and the thought of what his mother would say should the news reach her in her quiet Saxon home, brought the tears into his eyes. He had not gone through the usual religious ceremonies, but he knelt in his tent alone, and prayed that he might be made worthy of the honours bestowed upon him; that he might fulfil the duties of a Christian knight fearlessly and honourably; that his sword might never be raised but for the right; that he might devote himself to the protection of the oppressed, and the honour of God; that his heart might be kept from evil; and that he might carry through life, unstained his new escutcheon.
If the English had thought that their victory would have gained them immunity from the Saracen attacks, they were speedily undeceived. The host, indeed, which had barred their way had broken up; but its fragments were around them, and the harassing attacks began again with a violence and persistency even greater than before. The crusaders, indeed, occupied only the ground upon which they stood. It was death to venture 100 yards from the camp, unless in a strong body; and the smallest efforts to bring in food from the country round were instantly met and repelled. Only in very strong bodies could the knights venture from camp even to forage for their horses, and the fatigues and sufferings of all were in a way relieved by the great victory of Azotus.
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