"Thirty Englishmen, As lions brave, did battle give to Bretons three times ten" - Chivalry, The Combat of the Thirty and the War of the Breton Succession

26 March 1351, at the chêne de Mi-Voie, the Halfway Oak between Ploërmel and Josselin on the edge of the Broceliande Forest in Brittany, 30 Franco-Breton and 30 Anglo-Breton knights met to fight a tourney-like emprise, the legendary Combat of the Thirty.

“Siegneurs, knights, barons, bannerets, and bachelors I pray, / Bishops and abbots, holy clerks, heralds and minstrels gay, / Ye valiant men of all degrees, give ear unto my lay. / Attend, I say and ye shall hear how Thirty Englishmen, / As lions brave, did battle give to Bretons three times ten. /And sith the story of this fight I shall tell faithfully, / A hundred years hereafter it shall remembered be, / And warriors hoar recount it then to children on the knee.”

(William Harrison Ainsworth, "The Combat of the Thirty")

Octave Penguilly L'Haridon (1811 - 1872) "Le Combat des Trente" (1857)

In the end, it was the great yew war bows and the bodkin arrows that saved the day for the English, again, at La Roche-Derrien in the only major battle fought in the bloody mess of a sideshow of the Hundred Years’ War known as the War of the Breton Succession. The only one before the Battle of Auray ended this part of the conflict after more than twenty 20 years in 1364. And Brittany suffered like a wounded beast just like the rest of France did during that time. After Duke John III, who died childless, couldn’t be bothered to arrange his succession. "For God's sake leave me alone and do not trouble my spirit with such things", he allegedly said on his deathbed and promptly, the heirs apparent, Joan, Duchess of Brittany, wife of a scion of house Valois, and the redoubtable Joanna of Flanders, became pawns in the great gamble for the French crown between King Edward III of England and King Philip VI France. While both monarchs fought over Brittany in something of a proxy war, the place became a robber barons’ and mercenaries’ paradise with insignificant skirmishes that nevertheless yielded noble prisoners who would be ransomed for a lot of money. On top of sacking undefended villages and a weaker castle or three and, generally, living of the land in the worst sense. But even if their art was in decline long since, there were troubadours still around, epics were still read, every child knew who King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were, Roland, Siegfried and El Cid, and the narrative of chivalry was very much alive in all the carnage. And sometimes, it just proved to be the right excuse for starting a proper bar fight. What exactly there was to fight about is not exactly clear when the English captain of a mercenary force, one Robert Bemborough, who held Ploërmel, was challenged to single combat by Jean de Beaumanoir, Marshal of Brittany and Captain of Josselin. It might have been the breaking of an armistice, the honour of the two ladies leading the French and the English faction or something even more personal, in any case, Bemborough suggested to make the challenge a bit more spectacular and each of the two leaders should bring 20 or 30 of his cronies along. A brilliant idea, thought Beaumanoir, a time and a place were agreed and on 26 March, 60 men met at noon at the "Halfway Oak" between Ploërmel and Josselin, dismounted and tried to kill each other like civilised men.

The "Combat of the Thirty" from Pierre le Baud's "Compillation des cronicques et ystoires des Bretons"

"Bois ton sang, Beaumanoir, la soif te passera“, Drink your blood, Beaumanoir; your thirst will pass, his second-in-command Geoffroy du Bois advised, quite like the Nibelungs in the halls of King Etzel when they fought their last fight. A chivalric passage of arms was, after all, a brutal affair. The knights and men-at-arms opened up with pollaxes to have an edge against the full suits of plate they wore or with long swords to cripple or trip their opponents and finished, hours later, usually with the misericorde, the long daggers that found the gaps between the plates of a downed foe, or yielding in complete exhaustion. The death blow to the English team, however, was given by the squire Guillaume de Montauban who mounted a destrier and crashed the huge war horse into the circle Bemborough’s men had ganged up to and allowed the French to follow up and beat, knife and wrestle the stricken Les goddams into submission. It speaks volumes about the quality and flexibility of 14th century’s suits of plate, weighing about 50 pounds, that both teams were able to fight in it for hours and that only 6 Franco- and 9 Anglo-Breton champion warriors had to pay with theirs lives for all the fun, Bemborough among them. According to common customs of chivalry, the knightly prisoners were treated like guests and released after a short while when ransom was paid. In the days of the Hundred Years’ War, ransom could make or unmake the man, especially poor knights who had captured a rich baron or even a king, like Denis de Morbecque did at Poitiers five years later and almost ruined France completely in the aftermath. It was thus far more common not to fight to the bitter end but to yield and treat each other decently, but already “no prisoners!” or “no mercy!” orders were given and a bodkin arrow, a crossbow bolt, a cannon ball, a stake rammed in the mud or a pike didn’t care for class distinctions and credit status. They killed. Modernity dawned on the battlefields of the Hundred Years’ War.

A 19th century imagination of the death of Robert Bemborough during the Combat of the Thirty

The combatants of the event received legendary status, though, quite like present-day sports stars and were wined and dined and sung about throughout Europe. The Combat des Trente, Combat of the Thirty, was what chivalry was all about after all and not lying with an arrow stuck in every armour joint, the harness’ insides befouled by the results of cholera, across one’s war horse, the poor brute impaled on a stake, knee-deep in the mud and rain and a lowly commoner whetting his knife and about to apply the coup de grâce. That was not exactly what the troubadours sung about, but the tourney-like set-up at the "Halfway Oak" was. A skill-match, a knightly challenge and everyone had played by the rules, except Montauban, of course, but the lad had shown initiative, won the game for France and harping about fair play here would be unchivalrous quibble and not even les goddons did. Until Sir Arthur Conan Doyle retold the tale in his novel “Sir Nigel” more than 500 years later, so there. The knightly brawl, a so-called emprise, changed nothing about the course of the War of the Breton Succession, let alone the Hundred Years’ War, naturally. In Brittany, the stalemate between the two factions was maintained for 15 more years and the Duchy remained the bloody playgrounds of those who might apply a code of honour to their own kind but treated everyone else as regrettable collateral damage, even willingly, since scorched earth tactics were not exactly an invention of the 20th century.

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