It’s one of those phrases that crops up in romantic literature, all very Arthur and Camelot and such. However medieval it may sound, the title didn’t really enter the language until his fans had to describe the sixteenth century knight and warrior de Bayard. Not a lot of dragons by then- most fighting was over politics.
Bayard was a native of Dauphiné in south east France and a faithful subject of the king of France. This was not necessarily a given at the time, when loyalty was fluid and power unpredictable.
He was from a military family and he first honed his skills on horseback and tilting as a page for Louis de Luxembourg. Presumably he worked on his wit and charm as well, features which seemed to follow him throughout his life. Good looks were just an afterthought.
At age twenty one, Bayard joined his king Charles VIII in the campaign that took Naples, and so began a long string of battles that would only end with Bayard’s death by arquebus fire 1524.
Crucial fights at the time, they can seem rather pointless five hundred years later. What they were on about was power struggle between France and the Holy Roman Empire and who was going to have power in Europe. France, if Bayard had anything to do about it.
In 1508 he lead his horsemen against an entrenched line of pike and broke the line, which precipitated the surrender of Genoa and Bayard following Louis XII into the city.
He was one of those rare soldiers who was as respected and admired by his enemies as by his own. His treatment of prisoners and civilians was exemplary, . His personal bravery and ability were legendary – at the battle of Garigliano, he single-handed held off two hundred Spanish soldiers. The battle was a loss for France, but his own fame was so high that Pope Julius II (think Sistine Chapel roof) himself invited the young man to join the papal army. Bayard declined.
He was notable also as having succeeded at all levels of combat. His early assignments involved taking rabble and turning them into an effective fighting unit. As his successes and value grew, so too did his responsibilities. He did not disappoint. At the battle of Marginano against the Swiss confederacy, his cavalry was significant in winning the day for Francis I. (That, and having 1700 cavalry and 27,000 foot against the enemy’s 200 and 22,000). At the end of the day, Bayard was given the honor of knighting his king. In general, he was considered a thorough and methodical commander, meticulous in matters of intelligence and planning
He was dab hand at one-on-one combat as well. Pierre de Brantôme in his book of duels, writes of the encounter in Naples between Spanish Captain Don Alonzo de Soto Mayor, a one time prisoner of the the knight who felt the conditions inadequate to a man of his rank. Bayard, wearied of the constant griping, finally challenged him to put up or shut up. Bayard’s reputation was enough to alarm de Soto-Mayor, and as the choice of arms was fell to him, he declined the horse tilt and opted to fight on the ground with swords.
Not that this was much better for him. Bayard quickly got the measure of the man, his habit of thrust and defense, and managed to upset his expectations. A thrust to the throat, so deep that the Frenchman could not withdraw the blade, and the two fell on the ground to wrestle in the dust. Bayard pulled a dagger and demanded the Spaniard to surrender
He was said to have been distraught that it had come to this, and that honor could have been more easily settled. He did refrain from mutilating the body, which was within his right, but gave it over to the Spanish seconds.
The manner of his own death was another Hollywood moment. At the request of a fellow commander, he was covering the retreat of French troops at a battle outside of Genoa. Withdrawal under fire is about the most difficult maneuver in all combat, and he was making sure that the hindmost was well attended. He was struck in the spine by an arquebus ball and fell into the hands of his enemies.
As he lay dying, his last moments were comforted with his old friend and comrade in arms, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon:
Ah, Bayard, que je suis affligé de vous voir en cet état! Que je plains votre sort!
Ah, Bayard, how it distresses me ot see you in this state! I grieve at your fate!
Charles was fighting for the opposing side, having switched allegiance from Francis I after that silly man appropriated a good deal of the Duke’s family property, more or less on a whim. These niceties did not impress Bayard.
Ce n’est pas moi qu’il faut plaindre, je meurs en homme de bien, servant mon Roi. Il faut avoir petié de vous qui portez les armes contre votre Prince, votre patrie, et votre serment.
“No need to pity me, I die an honorable man, serving my king. I should be sorry for you who bear arms against your king, your nation, and your vow.”
Which is a pretty sharp rejoined when you think about it.*
His enemies gave the body full honors, and returned the body to his comrades. All France – all France loyal to Francis I, at least – mourned.
All pretty much hagiography from the looks of it and there’s a current trend in history that seems to be to assume all accounts are lies and that one need only account for the motives of those lies. I like to think I’m as cynical as the next man, but this attitude goes a bit far and is ultimately only a path for polemic and madness.
Samuel Shellabarger has looked a little more closely and the better part of the story comes down to his first biographer de Mailles. Despite a few errors and omissions, Shellabarger finds that this near hagiography is more true to the man’s nature than not. Even in his own time he was something of a throwback, but what an irresistible throwback! His admirers at the time were clearly inspired by affection and awe, which has to stem from something within the man. If the details are a little mixed, or circumstances left out, well, that too can tell us something about the effect the subject had on his audience. He clearly did have that inspirational effect on men, which can only be counted a good thing.
A good thing, and not as common as it should be. As the profession of arms becomes more mechanized and impersonal, it is sad to think that this kind of man might be even more of an anachronism now than he was back then. Why, this fellow was such a man as would refer to Lucrezia Borgia as a “pearl among women”.
No one ever said chivalry was easy.
*(It also does not appear in the de Maille biography, for whatever that’s worth.)