William J. Ferrar.

The Fall of the Grand Sarrasin Being a Chronicle of Sir Nigel de Bessin, Knight, of Things that Happed in Guernsey Island, in the Norman Seas, in and about the Year One Thousand and Fifty-Seven online

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Online LibraryWilliam J. FerrarThe Fall of the Grand Sarrasin Being a Chronicle of Sir Nigel de Bessin, Knight, of Things that Happed in Guernsey Island, in the Norman Seas, in and about the Year One Thousand and Fifty-Seven → online text (page 1 of 8)
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Some people bring home a bundle of sketches from their summer
holiday - water-colour memories of cliff, of sea, ruined castle, and
ancient abbey. I brought back from the Channel Islands these pages here
printed, as a kind of bundle of sketches in black and white, put
together day by day as a holiday-task, and forming a string, as it were,
on which the memories of ramble after ramble were threaded, - rambles
from end to end of Guernsey, and rambles, too, among the treasures of
the Guille-Allés Library. I enjoyed my holiday all the better, as I
peopled the cliffs and glens with the shadows of eight hundred years
ago, and I hope that others may find some reality and some pleasure in
the result as it is given here.

If any inquire into the real historical foundations for the story, I
refer them to the few notes at the end of the book, which will reveal
without much doubt where fiction begins and fact ends. I hope I may be
allowed a little license in the treatment of facts. There is - is there
not? - a logic of fiction, as well as a logic of facts. At least there
seemed to be as I wrote the story, and I hope no one who reads it will
be inclined to quarrel with any part of it because its only basis
is - imagination. Anyway, I will shelter myself under the great words of
a great man, in the preface of one of the great books of the world: "For
herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness,
hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin.
Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good
fame and _renommée_. And for to pass the time this book shall be
pleasant to read in, but for to give faith and belief that all is true
that is contained herein, ye be at your liberty: but all is written for
our doctrine, and for to beware that we fall not to vice nor sin, but to
exercise and follow virtue by the which we may come and attain to good
fame and renown in this life, and after this short and transitory life
to come unto everlasting bliss in heaven" (Preface of William Caxton to
"The Book of King Arthur").




Of how I, _Nigel de Bessin_, was brought up by the monks of _the Vale_
in _Guernsey Island_, and how on a certain day the abbot gave me choice
of two lives, and which I chose. 5


Of _Vale Castle_ hard by the Abbey, and how I was sent with a letter to
_Archbishop Maugher_, and by the way first saw the Sarrasin pirates at
work. 12


Of my _Lord Maugher_ and his _Familiar Demon_. How he received the
abbot's letter, and how I was courteously entertained at his house of
_Blanchelande_. 18


Of the coming of the Sarrasins in force, and of the building of their
château - Of _Brother Hugo's_ confidence in God, and how I rang the
alarm-bell at _St. Pierre Port_. 28


Of what befell the abbot's envoys to _Duke William_, our liege lord,
and more particularly _Brother Ralf_, and how we were hemmed in by
our foes. 34


Of our passing from cloister to castle, and of the burning of
_Vale Abbey_ - Of the siege of the castle, and the exploits
of _Brother Hugo_. 40


Of _Le Grand Sarrasin_, and of the renewed attack upon _Vale Castle_ - Of
my first deeds of arms, and how the _Moors_ were beaten back. 47


How I was sent forth by my lord abbot to seek protection of _Duke
William_, and of what befell me by the way of the pirates. 54


Of our battle on the rocks of _Jersey Isle_, and how _Simon_ gave up his
life, and how I was taken captive and brought back. 61


How I was brought before _Le Grand Sarrasin_, and of his
magnificence - How I saw _Folly_ in his chamber, and was lodged in a
cavern under earth. 65


By what means I was delivered from _Le Grand Sarrasin_, and how I found
shelter with the priest of _St. Apolline's_. 72


Of my second setting-forth for _Normandy_, and in what guise I took
passage. 80


How I arrived at _St. Malo_, and, proceeding to the Abbey of _St.
Michael de Tombelaine_, found friends to set me on my road. 85


How, being given letters to _Duke William_ by the Abbots of _St.
Michael_ and of _Bec_, I set out for _Coulances_, and of what befell me
on my way. 93


How I saw an evil face at a casement, and how at my uncle's house of
_St. Sauveur_ I heard tell of my father - And of what happed on our
getting forth for _Valognes_. 99


How, at length I was brought before _William, Conquestor Invictissimus_,
of all soldiers the greatest, and most invincible of dukes - Of the
manner he received my mission, and of the expedition of _Samson
d'Anville_. 106


Of the journey of our ships to relieve the Brethren of the Vale, and how
we fought a great battle with the _Moors_ outside the _Bay of
L'Ancresse_. 113


The story of the relief of _Vale Castle_. 122


How we set forth to attack _Le Château du Grand Sarrasin_ - Of the
_Normans'_ valour, and of the flight of our foes. 128


Of the sore slaughter in the glen of _Moulin Huet_, and on the shore,
and how _Le Grand Sarrasin_ was slain, and of his secret. 135


Conclusion. How, the above matters being finished, I was made known to
my father. 143



A. Archbishop Maugher 147

B. Vale Abbey 148

C. Vale Castle 148

D. Visit of Duke Robert 149

E. The Sarrazins in Guernsey 150

F. The Expedition of Samson d'Anville 150


Of how I, _Nigel de Bessin_, was brought up by the monks of _the Vale_
in _Guernsey Island_, and how on a certain day the abbot gave me choice
of two lives, and which I chose.

This is the chronicle of me, Nigel de Bessin, of good Norman stock,
being a cadet of the great house, whose elder branch is even to-day
settled at St. Sauveur, in the Cotentin. And I write it for two reasons.
First, for the sake of these grandchildren, Geoffrey, Guy, and William,
who gather round me in the hall here at Newton, asking for the story of
great deeds of old days, such as were the deeds of Tancred and Duke
Rollo, and him I loved and fought for - loved, though stern he was and
rude - William, who by his mighty conquest gave us our place in this fair
realm. And second, since the winter days are long, and I go no more out
to hunt or to fight as of old, to recall all this and more will have
much sweetness, and delight my old heart with gentle memories, like the
smell of lavender laid between robes or napery in the oak press yonder,
as one takes this or that from the store.

And first, how came I to write it in such clerkly wise? Ay, that was
through the foresight of my uncle, the Vicomte de Bessin, since I knew
not then my father, and the good care of the monks of the Vale, and
chiefly of Brother Bernard, a ripe scholar and a good, with whom I
progressed so well in learning, that at fifteen I was more like to have
put this grissled head under a cowl than under a soldier's helm. A fair
place was L'Ancresse in the days of Abbot Michael, false Maugher, and
the Grand Sarrasin. And a good school of manners and of learning of
books and piety, that may aid men in their earthly life, was the Vale
Cloister. I see it now - the quiet, sober place, with its great round
arches, and its seats of stone, pleasant and cool in summer, bitter cold
in winter, when the wind came in sharp from the Eastern sea, so that we
wrapt our Norway furs about us, and shivered as we sat, till Brother
Bernard said, "Up, lads; catch who catch can up to the Viking's tomb!"
or "Haste ye now, and run to meet the pirates in Bordeaux Bay, and bring
them to me to shrive, ere ye do them to death, as Normans should!" The
blood ran free and warm then, and the limbs grew straight and strong,
and the muscles of arms and legs like whipcord, and brown we were as the
brown rocks of L'Ancresse Bay, as we played at war on those
salt-breathed plains - Guy, Rainauld, Gwalkelyn. Alas! they are all
passed to their account! There were no aches or pains of back or
shoulder; there were no mean jealousies, no bitter hatreds, no
discourtesies, no words that suit not the sons of good knights or lords,
but wrestle or tussle and mock battle, and tourney, and race by land or
water in summer, when our bodies gleamed white beneath the calm waves as
we played like young dolphins in the bay. And ever and anon would
Brother Hugo be amongst us, his cowl thrown back, and his keen eagle
face furrowed into merriment as he sped on some knightly play - for he
himself was a nobleman, and had been a good knight, and a famous name
lay hid under that long Benedictine robe. Thus, wondrous peacefully and
happily had I been reared with other right princely youths and some of
humble lineage in that fair place. And but one unhappiness ever
disturbed my joyous spirit. It was that while all had fathers and
mothers that loved them, and took pride in their increase in learning
year by year, or else had dear memories of those that were their
parents, I had been told naught of my parents save their name, and
asking of them was bidden not to ask further. This at times was a grief
to my spirit, but amid so many joys it weighed not on me heavily.

Now it was before the coming of the Grand Sarrasin and his troop of the
wild off-scouring of every sea, that settled in the midst of the isle
and defied lord and squire, abbot and prior - it was before those days
with which my chronicle has most to do - that to me, Nigel, sitting
conning an old book of knightly exploits, which for a reward Brother
Hugo let us read on summer days, came a summons to go and see no less a
one than the abbot himself. Now, the abbot was a great man of holy and
blameless life, that sat in his own chamber towards the west, and had
much traffic in matters of State and Church with the duke, and
messengers went often to and fro from him to Caen, Rouen, and Paris, and
in that year, the year one thousand and fifty-seventh since the birth of
the Saviour of men, ever adorable and blessed, there was much afoot, for
William, with the young blood still in him, gaining to himself by force
of will chief power upon the mainland, was already spreading his wings
like a young falcon for another more terrible flight. And lately
Maugher, his uncle, and his bitterest foe though out of his own
household, he had banished, archbishop though he was, from Rouen, to our
small Isle of Guernsey, where there was scarce footing for the tread of
so great and dark a schemer in high matters. And already the Conqueror
had himself appeared at Edward's Court in England, and prepared his way

I was near sixteen years old, and I stood tall for my years, some five
foot and a half, and for a lad I was well made, if yet lacking my full
strength and girth round the chest, such a lad as in two years more
Geoffrey my grandson will grow to, if God will. Fair I should have been
if I were not burnt black with the hot sun pouring through the salt air,
and my fair hair clustered crisp and neat round my temples and neck. So
stood I, no doubt a fair and honourable youth, at the entering in of the
abbot's inner chamber.

And the abbot, sitting in his carven chair amid his rolls of parchment
and instruments of writing, raised me swiftly as I stooped to kiss his
hand. Dark-eyed, hawk-nosed, with black hair not yet flecked with snow,
there was an awe and stateliness in him whether he spoke to gentle or to
simple. He was a Norman, and being such feared none, and had his will,
and when it was possible mixed a rare gentleness with his acts and

"Son," said he, "thou hast been happy here?"

The keen eyes were fixed upon me, and I could not but answer the truth,
even had I wished to lie.

"Yes, holy father," I answered.

"And thou wouldst stay here ever?" The eyes were still upon me, and they
searched my soul as a bright flush, I knew, rose to my cheek, and I
hesitated how to answer. Then suddenly, as I stood in doubt, they seemed
to change, and it was as if sunlight gleamed over a landscape that
before lay dark and grim, for the abbot smiled upon me with the kindest
of all smiles. "Thou feelest no calling to the cloister and the cowl,
the book and the pen, the priesthood, and the life of prayer?"

"Ah, no, holy Father." I had gained my tongue, and spoke boldly, if
reverently. "Books and prayer are good; but I am young, and there is a
world beyond these grey walls, and my kinsmen fight and do rather than
pray or read."

"The eaglet beats his wings against his cage already," said the abbot,
kindly; "it is indeed a shapely bird. Thou art right, lad. There is a
world outside, where men strive and fight and do - how blindly and how
wildly thou knowest not. But the battle is not to the strong or the race
to the swift, though so it seem. Go, then, out into the world boldly but
warily, and be thou a good soldier, as thou art a good scholar. Thine
uncle shall know of these words between us."

I knelt again and kissed his hand, and left his broad and pleasant

And outside I strolled upon the green, dim vague thoughts surging up
swift into my mind, as I went striding on swifter than I knew. Ere long
I reached the extreme limit of the land, the high-piled rocks of
L'Ancresse. I looked out upon the sea to where Auremen lay flat and wide
against the sky, and I thought I could descry the Norman shores and La
Hague Cape stretching towards me; and, though I knew no home but the
Vale Cloister, another voice of home seemed calling me over thither. A
voice in which battlecries and trumpet-blasts were strangely mingled;
and I seemed to see men fighting and striving, and banners and pennons
flying; and a voice seemed to spring up from my soul, bidding me go
forth, and fight and strive with them, and gain something - I knew not

I knew not then; but I know now, what that voice was, that yearning,
that discontent with the past. It was the Norman blood rising within me,
the blood of force, and battle, and achievement. Surely there is
something in us Normans - a hidden fire, which sends us forth and
onwards, and makes us claim what we will for our own! And having claimed
it, we fight for it, and fighting we win it. So with Tancred of
Hauteville, so with Rou, so with William. Will of iron, heart of fire! A
grand thing it is to be born a Norman.


Of _Vale Castle_, hard by the Abbey, and how I was sent with a letter to
_Archbishop Maugher_, and by the way first saw the Sarrasin pirates at

Now, men were busy in the Vale. I have yet said no word of Vale Castle,
built a mile away from the cloister, of hewn stone, goodly and strong.
It lay upon the left horn of St. Sampson's Harbour, near where that holy
man landed with the good news of God in days of old, and its stout
bastions rested on the bare rock, and its walls seemed one with the rock
below, so thick and stout they were, built as Normans alone can build,
to last as long as the rocks, as long as the earth. And in Vale Castle
no lord or baron ruled. It was the Castle and outward defence of the
Vale Cloister, and its lord was the Abbot of the Vale. And within its
ramparts there was room (as we found ere long), in times of danger from
pirate or strange foes, for all the brethren and children of the
Cloister, and for many more besides, so that when the watch-tower fire
sprang into life upon the beacon, and the alarm-bell rang out by night
or day, the folk of the dale came flocking in with their babes and
their most prized goods for shelter beneath the abbot's wing. Vale
Castle feared no pirate-band, and in a short space all our most precious
things could be secured behind those walls snug and safe enough, until
the evil men who had come to alarm our peace steered their long ships
away again, sore dissatisfied with the plunder of our isle. So well
guarded we were, and so strong were our three castles, within whose
walls all who listed could find safety. As, indeed, it proved in the
attack of the great Moor, of which this chronicle will chiefly tell.

Now, the Castle had been built some forty years before, by none other
than the great Cherbourg himself, Duke Robert's engineer. For it chanced
that Duke Robert was royally entertained years ago by Abbot Magloirios,
when he was forced by foul weather to put into L'Ancresse Bay, who, on
his departure, left Cherbourg and other skilled men to build three
castles for their safety against pirates. So it was through Duke
Robert's stay at the Vale that our Castle was made so strong. Thus God
brought here, as ever, good out of evil.

And among the lay brothers were good soldiers, who could man the Castle.
And once, in bygone days, they say a whole company of knights (all
resting now in Abraham's bosom, and their bodies in the Vale churchyard)
came together, and sought to be made quit of the world and its strife in
our peaceful cloister. These, though they left the world behind, were
able to teach for safety's sake something of warlike matters to the
brethren; and thus it chanced that our brothers were ready to be men of
war when peace was impossible, and men said of them, in rhyming
fashion -

"White cowl and white cloak,
Chain-mail and hard stroke."

Now, about this Castle of late men had been more than ever busy. Sundry
instruments of besieged men of a new and deadly fashion lay in the
armoury, and were at times by Brother Hugo brought out and practised by
the brethren that formed, as he said, his _corps d'armes_. Then were
they soldiers indeed, not monks at all, as, cassock and cowl thrown
aside, they drew the bows, or aimed with their great engines the balls
of stone and iron.

Now, it was in those days that the abbot sent me on matters more heavy
than I knew to that archbishop of whom I have already made mention, who,
his state laid aside, lay in exile as a poor humble man, though Duke
William's uncle, in a small moat-house, by name Blanchelande, with
little land attached beyond the forest of St. Pierre, and hard by the
bay of the Saints of God.

Though I would fain haste to our meeting, yet must I first tell what
manner of man he was reckoned by the folk of our island and by
ourselves. Abbot Michael had expressly charged us, on his first coming,
we should believe nothing of aught we heard of him. Yet tales went
round, and gathered force as they went, ill tales that took scant time
to travel; and we lads, innocent of mind, were full of shame for what
was common talk, and we were ready to believe that here was no common
sinner. We knew there were witch women whom men justly burn for sin. And
of Archbishop Maugher men said a spirit of evil ever went with him, or
was at his hand.

Now, when abbot Michael gave me the missive into my hand, there was a
look in his face that seemed to ask if I feared the journey; but I took
it readily and heartily, and turned to go.

"Stay," said the abbot, as I went. "Bring me word how my Lord Archbishop
takes my letter, what he says, how he looks. Bring me his slightest
word, his least look. Thou art quick and clever. Do my bidding as a good
lad should. Thou hast naught to fear of such as he."

So I went forth boldly, leaving the Vale behind me, and within an hour
had entered among the trees that part it from the forest land.

Now, in due course of travel I reached that high point of the isle
whence through the trees one can look down on all sides save the south,
and see the blue waves and the distant islands, and there lay, I knew,
the earthworks of an ancient fort, that the first tenants of the isle
used for defence in days long past - yea, and their wall of stone circled
the space this way and that, and the roofless walls of some building - a
temple perhaps - stood near, wherein they worshipped the false god of the
sky or the hearth; here awhile I rested, and after brake again into the
path, and made for the Bay of the Saints, where Maugher dwelt.

Now, I was not far upon my road when I heard a faint whistle through the
trees, and, running back a few yards, I saw the old ruins I had left,
not empty, as I had left them, but - strange sight - tenanted, I could
see, by men, and, as I thought, men of evil aspect. Now, I knew that
they had seen me, and thought me well upon my road, so I dared not
return; and, indeed, I feared in my heart, for I had little doubt they
were pirates, if not spirits of the men of old of whom I had been
dreaming. Therefore I went swiftly on my path, and covered quite a mile
ere I brake into the forest again, and made my way back to another side
of that old ruined fort. Now, as I crept up, I saw little that was
strange - only two men walking to and fro in earnest conversation, and
from where I lay - for nearer I durst not approach - I could hear nothing
of their talk. They were men of light and supple build, bearded, and of
dark swarthy skin, as of those who know no shelter but the decking of a
ship, and their hands were seldom absent, as they paced it side by side,
from the hilts of the brace of daggers swinging from their waists. I
guessed that they were pirates, and my heart fell as I remembered what
manner of men they were - haters of all - their God, their king, their
fellow-men - and how, in consequence, the hand of man was against their
hand, as their hand was against man's. Where were the other men I had
seen? In a moment I guessed the truth, for I caught the dull sound of
digging and delving in the earth below - thud, thud, thud - as of many
spades and picks, and beyond the angle of the wall I saw the earthwork
piled with new earth in many places. So my young eyes peered curiously
and cautiously out through the leaves, and a flood of feelings struggled
in my heart, and the digging went on - thud, thud, thud - beneath my very
feet, and the two strange men trod ever up and down, staying at times
upon their way to point to this side or that, to tap the wall, or draw
figures with their swords amid the fallen leafage.

I stood a long time fixed to the ground, and then with a great effort I
stole noiselessly away, and, once on the beaten track, I hasted on to
the moat-house.

With a heart that I could hear beating, I turned my back on the bay,
and, crossing the little drawbridge, craved of a warder at the
gate - half fisher, half ecclesiastic, in a frayed frock and seamen's
shoes - an audience of my Lord the Archbishop for the delivery of a
missive from the Abbot of the Vale, that must be delivered into his hand


Of my _Lord Maugher_ and his _Familiar Demon_. How he received the
abbot's letter, and how I was courteously entertained at his house of

And my lord was not difficult of access. He sat in a deep chair in the
hall, and round him were all manner of strange things whose shape and
name I knew not, but little was there save old rolls of parchment to
betoken a Churchman's dwelling. A great table held bottles of many
shapes of glass and earthenware, and optic glasses and tools lay
intermingled. I caught the gleam of much bright steel on settle and
shelf - chain-mail, targe, dagger, helmet, and sword. A great warrior's
complete equipment, tunic and hose of mail, shield, and helm, hung
before me as I entered. Three huge hounds, with heavy chaps hanging
loose from their jaws, lay about the hearth, but only noted my entrance
with a drowsy gaze, then dropped back upon their paws; but a strange
ugly creature, like an ill-shaped child, that was so vile to look on
that I thought him the very Devil himself, crouching on the table by the
archbishop's side, set up a chattering and a muttering, with now and

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Online LibraryWilliam J. FerrarThe Fall of the Grand Sarrasin Being a Chronicle of Sir Nigel de Bessin, Knight, of Things that Happed in Guernsey Island, in the Norman Seas, in and about the Year One Thousand and Fifty-Seven → online text (page 1 of 8)