From the loss of Normandy by King John in 1204 until the Papal Bull of Pope Sixtus IV in 1480 granting the Channel Islands neutrality, Guernsey and her sister islands suffered frequent attacks, sieges and invasions at the hands of the French. One of the bloodiest and best recorded was an invasion which was immortalised in the Guernsey folk ballad La Déscente des Aragousais or The Ballad of Yvon de Galles.
Owen of Wales, Self-styled ‘Prince of Wales’
Owen of Wales [Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri] was in effect a mercenary, and was the last direct heir of the dynasty of Gwynedd (the last Prince of Wales). He became a prominent figure in the Hundred Years’ War and a symbol of continued Welsh resistance to English rule but when he went over to the French side all his lands and titles were declared forfeit.
La Descente des Aragousais (People of Arragon)
Attack and Rearguard
In May 1372 the French King, Charles V, sent a force of 4,000 men under the control of Evan, or Owen, of Wales to cause an insurrection in Wales and avenge the beheading of Evan’s father by King Edward III. The force was due to be supported by a fleet from the Castilian King Enrique II, but due to bad weather in the Channel they failed to make the rendezvous and Evan turned his attention to Guernsey, the closest place loyal to the English king.
The Ballad of Yvon de Galles recalls that it was at dawn one Tuesday morning when Evan of Wales and his Arragonese mercenaries landed at Vazon Bay and were gathering in the marshes of La Grande Mare when they were spotted by John Le Tocq, a shepherd from La Houguette who had woken earlier than usual to tend his sheep. John Le Tocq found a horse wandering along a lane, and rode it across and around the island raising the alarm. A force of 800 Guernseymen and English men-at-arms were rallied to fight the invaders.
Outnumbered more than 4 to 1 they fought a valiant withdrawal action. Evan is recorded as being ‘struck by a lad’ called Richard Simon as the battling forces reached a mill at La Carriere, (near what is now the Halfway). Evan was badly wounded, with a deep cut to his thigh and a badly injured right hand that never fully recovered. Fighting and skirmishing continued back on to the heights above St Peter Port, roughly where Elizabeth College now stands. It was here that they made a final stand. The fighting was said to be so fierce that it was said the hillsides ran red with blood, with close to five hundred Guernseymen and an unrecorded but substantial number of Evan’s men losing their lives. The battle took place between modern day St. John and Havilland streets in a lane now aptly called ” Battle Lane,”. The wounded were taken to what is now Rouge Rue to the north of St Peter Port, so called because it flowed with blood.
By the evening some support had arrived from Jersey but the battle was lost, the surviving Guernseymen had retreated to Castle Cornet where they were besieged for three weeks. Evan’s forces realised that Castle Cornet was so strongly defended and close to impregnable that they moved to the north of the island and laid siege to Vale Castle, where many islanders and the Governor, Sir Aymond (Edmund) Rose, had taken shelter. Whilst laying siege to the Vale Castle Evan was approached by a monk named Briard from the Priory of St Michel, who offered to act as a intermediary between him and the governor. Initially the governor refused to negotiate, stating he would rather ‘be hewn to pieces, but the monk protested so much that he relented and agreed to talk to Evan through Briard. Eventually Evan said he would leave upon payment of a large ransom, whereby Briard collected up jewels, money and other valuables from the besieged islanders and handed the hoard to Evan. After many weeks of siege Evan of Wales and his Arragonese mercenaries sailed away. For the islanders it was an episode they would never forget and the effect upon the population was recorded in The Ballad of Yvon de Galles which was part of Guernsey’s oral tradition for centuries and first written down in 1839.
THE BALLAD OF EVAN OF WALES, OR THE INVASION OF GUERNSEY IN 1372
Part the FirstI.
Draw near and listen, great and small,
Of high and low degree,
And hear what chance did once befall
This island fair and free
From warlike men, a chosen band,
Who roamed about from land to land,
Ploughing the briny sea.
Evan of Wales, a valiant knight,
Who served the King of France,
In Saragossa’s city bright
Hired many a stalwart lance :
One Tuesday morn at break of day,
To land these troops in Vazon Bay,
He bade his ships advance.
At early dawn from quiet sleep
John Letoc rose that day,
To tend his little flock of sheep
He took his lonely way,
When lo! upon the Vazon sands
He saw, drawn up in warlike bands
The foe in fierce array.
A horse he met upon his way
Trotting along the road,
Strayed from the camp—without delay
The charger he bestrode,
And soon from house to house the alarm
He gave, crying out ” to arms, quick, arm !
Through all the isle he rode.
To arms, to arms, my merry men all,
To arms, for we must fight,
Hazard your lives, both great and small,
And put the foe to flight;
Hasten towards the Vazon Bay
Hasten our cruel foes to slay,
Or we shall die this night.”
Evan of Wales, that vent’rous knight,
Led the foe through the land,
But pressing forward in the fight,
Upon a foreign strand,
He won a garter gay, I ween,
‘Twas neither silk nor velvet sheen,
Though crimson was the band.
For near the mill at La Carriere,
With halbert keen and bright,
Young Richard Simon, void of fear,
Attacked the stranger knight.
And gashed full sore his brawny thigh,
Then smote his right hand lifted high,
To check the daring wight.
Above Saint Peter Port ’tis said,
The conflict they renewed,
Of friends and foes five hundred dead
The grassy plain bestrewed:
Our ladies wept most bitterly,
Oh! ’twas a dismal sight to see
Their cheeks with tears bestrewed.
Thoumin Le Lorreur was in truth
Our leader in the fray,
But brave Ralph Holland, noble youth,
He bore the palm away;
Yet was he doomed his death to meet,
The cruel foes smit of his feet,
He died that dismal day.
Hard blows are dealt on every side,
The blood bedews the plain,
The footmen leap, the horsemen ride,
O’er mountains of tho slain.
A deadly weapon, strongly bent,
Against the foes its missiles sent,
And wrought them death and pain.
But eighty English merchants brave,
Arrived at Vesper-tide,
They rushed on shore the isle to save,
And fought on our side :
Our foes fatigued, began to yield,
And leaving soon the well-fought field,
To Heaven for mercy cried.
To’ards Galrion they bend their course,
And range along the bay,
In hopes to make by fraud or force
Into the town their way,
But now the gallant Englishmen
Return, and on our foes again
Their prowess they display.
But rallying soon, th’adventurous band
Cornet’s strong towers attack,
With ebbing tides, across the sand,
They find an easy track,
The beach is strewed with heaps of dead,
The briny sea with blood is red,
Again they are driven back.
Many are killed, and wounded sore;
Meanwhile the hostile fleet,
Coasting along the southern shore
A warm reception meet
From peasants bold at La Corbiere;
At Bec d’la Chèvre the land they near,
And aid their friends’ retreat.
But Evan’s troops were mad with rage,
Like lions balked of food,
Swear that their wrath they will assuage
In floods of English blood;
Then suddenly their course they steer
Towards Saint Sampson’s port, and there
They land in angry mood.
Saint Michael’s Abbey soon they seek,
Friar Brégard there had sway,
Who, full of fear, with prayers meek
Meets them upon their way ;
With presents rich and ample store
Of gold, and promises of more
Their fury to allay.
To Eleanor, that lady fair,
Sir Evan’s beauteous bride,
The crafty monk gave jewels rare
To win her to his side.
At Granville, in the pleasant land
Of France, Sir Evan sought her hand,
Nor was his suit denied.
Near the Archangel’s Castle then,
Upon a rising ground,
Sir Evan camped—ourcountrymen
Sure refuge there had found.
Brégard, in hopes to increase his store,
Advances to the Castle door
And bade a parley sound.
He counselled them to yield forthwith,
But brave Sir Edmund Rose
Declared he’d sooner meet his death
Than bend to foreign foes,
But to the Abbot should they -yield.
A double tithe on every field,
He would it not oppose.
The Abbot to Sir Evan went,
And soon a bargain closed ;
The simple peasants gave assent
To all the monk proposed,
And bound their lands a sheaf to pay,
Beyond the tithes, and thus, they say,
The Champart was imposed.
Part the SecondI.
With spoils and presents not a few
Sir Evan sailed once more
Tow’rds Le Conquefc, his ships with new
Supplies of food to store ;
Before Belleisle (so goes the tale)
They burnt a fleet of thirty sail,
The crews being gone on shore.
The south- wind rose, and cn the coasts
Of Brittany they passed,
An English fleet to stop their boasts
Appeared in sight at last :
Full sixty men a footing found
On board Sir Evan’s bark, and bound
His crew in fetters fast.
Sir Evan to the mast they tied,
And then before his face
Insult his young and beauteous bride
And load her with disgrace ;
They take him to Southampton town
And on his head, in guise of crown,
A red-hot morion place.
They dragged his men out one by one,
And hung them up in chains,
And now not one of all the crew
Save Eleanor remains.
A beggar’s scrip her only store,
She roams about from door to door,
And scarce a living gains.
How fared the rest of Evan’s fleet ?
Methinks I hear you say,
When raging winds for ever beat
The strongest towers decay;
To bend these ships before the breeze,
And sinking ‘neath the briny seas,
In vain for mercy pray.
Our holy island’s shores at last,
One Tuesday morn they reach ;
But on the Hanois rocks are cast,
And soon on Rocquaine’s beach
The waves their lifeless corpses threw,
That vengeance still will guilt pursue,
Their dismal fate may teach.