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How Big Ferre Fought For France
by [?]

It was in the heart of the Hundred Years’ War. Everywhere France lay desolate under the feet of the English invaders. Never had land been more torn and rent, and never with less right and justice. Like a flock of vultures the English descended upon the fair realm of France, ravaging as they went, leaving ruin behind their footsteps, marching hither and thither at will, now victorious, now beaten, yet ever plundering, ever desolating. Wherever they came the rich were ruined, the poor were starved, want and misery stared each other in the face, happy homes became gaping ruins, fertile fields became sterile wastes. It was a pandemonium of war, a frightful orgy of military license, a scene to make the angels weep and demons rejoice over the cruelty of man.

In the history of this dreadful business we find little to show what part the peasantry took in the affair, beyond that of mere suffering. The man-at-arms lorded it in France; the peasant endured.

Yet occasionally this down-trodden sufferer took arms against his oppressors, and contemporary chronicles give us some interesting insight into brave deeds done by the tiller of the soil. One of these we propose to tell,–a stirring and romantic one. It is half legendary, perhaps, yet there is reason to believe that it is in the main true, and it paints a vivid picture of those days of blood and violence which is well worthy of reproduction.

In 1358 the king of Navarre, who had aided the English in their raids, suddenly made peace with France. This displeased his English allies, who none the less, however, continued their destructive raids, small parties marching hither and thither, now victorious, now vanquished, an interminable series of minor encounters taking the place of large operations. Both armies were reduced to guerilla bands, who fought as they met, and lived meanwhile on the land and its inhabitants. The battle of Poitiers had been recently fought, the king of France was a prisoner, there was no organization, no central power, in the realm, and wherever possible the population took arms and fought in their own defence, seeking some little relief from the evils of anarchy.

The scene of the story we propose to tell is a small stronghold called Longueil, not far from Compiegne and near the banks of the Oise. It was pretty well fortified, and likely to prove a point of danger to the district if the enemy should seize it and make it a centre of their plundering raids. There were no soldiers to guard it, and the peasants of the vicinity, Jacques Bonhomme (Jack Goodfellow) as they were called, undertook its defence. This was no unauthorized action. The lord-regent of France and the abbot of the monastery of St. Corneille-de-Compiegne, near by, gave them permission, glad, doubtless, to have even their poor aid, in the absence of trained soldiery.

In consequence, a number of the neighboring tillers of the soil garrisoned the place, providing themselves with arms and provisions, and promising the regent to defend the town until death. Hither came many of the villagers for security, continuing the labors which yielded them a poor livelihood, but making Longueil their stronghold of defence. In all there were some two hundred of them, their chosen captain being a tall, finely-formed man, named William a-Larks (aux Alouettes). For servant, this captain had a gigantic peasant, a fellow of great stature, marvellous strength, and undaunted boldness, and withal of extreme modesty. He bore the name of Big Ferre.

This action of the peasants called the attention of the English to the place, and roused in them a desire to possess it. Jacques Bonhomme was held by them in utter contempt, and the peasant garrison simply brought to their notice the advantage of the place as a well-fortified centre of operations. That these poor dirt delvers could hold their own against trained warriors seemed a matter not worth a second thought.