By Danièle Cybulskie
While examples of heroic knightly deeds abound in medieval literature, contemporary chronicles record few incidents so emblematic of chivalry as the Combat of the Thirty English and the Thirty Bretons, otherwise known as the Battle of the Thirty or the Combat of the Thirty. On March 27, 1351, thirty Breton men allied with the French king fought a collection of thirty allies of the English king on a field under an oak tree for seemingly no better reason than the glory of victory. A perfect example of the Hundred Years’ War in microcosm, the Combat of the Thirty is a tale of patriotism, pride, and the glory and folly of fourteenth-century chivalry.
In 1351, the Hundred Years’ War was in full swing, with the many duchies in what is now modern France divided in their loyalty to Jean II, the French king, or Edward III, the English king, both of whom claimed a hereditary right to rule France. In Brittany, this conflict could be found on a smaller scale in a regional division of loyalties. The castle of Josselin was loyal to the French king through the recently-deceased Charles de Blois, while the castle of Ploërmel was loyal to England through the recently-deceased Jean de Montfort. Both of these men left behind powerful widows in their stead: Jeanne de Penthièvre commanded Josselin from afar, and Jeanne de Flandres controlled Ploërmel, also in absentia. The women’s garrisoned castles were held in a stalemate, and each remained in check partially because of the Treaty of Calais, and partially because of a practical inability to conquer the other. Josselin was manned by Bretons, while Ploërmel held a variety of nationalities allied with the English, including Germans and Bretons, some of whom were the mercenaries who were increasingly players in the conflict as the Hundred Years’ War dragged on. Neither of these garrisons had been paid in some time.
In both England and France, the culture of chivalry was flourishing. Stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the many earlier works of Chrétien de Troyes were circulating, and there was an increasing desire to identify with Arthur’s knights of old and their lust for honour and adventure. In 1348, Edward III created the Order of the Garter, a circle of loyal warriors who were bound to follow chivalric ideals. Even their thoughts were meant to be purely chivalrous, as set out by the Garter’s motto: Honi soit qui mal y pense (translated by the royal family as “shame on him who thinks this evil”). Not to be outdone, Jean II created the Company of Our Lady of the Noble House, more popularly known as the Company of the Star, in the autumn of 1351. While in reality, the bloody conflict between the armies of these two kings devastated what is now modern France, the picture of the perfect knight was held up as a figure for its warriors to aspire to and emulate.
Five years before the Combat of the Thirty, the French had lost a huge part of its knightly class in the horrific battle at Crécy, cut down by English infantry and archers despite their large force of French cavalry. This was the start of a series of battles to be played out into the next century of English foot soldiers successfully defeating mounted French knights. An unstable peace reigned in the meantime, but French morale was at a low point.
Out of this tension, the hardship of being ready at any moment to fight for survival without a guarantee of payment, the boredom of waiting for the moment to come, and the constant, pervasive wash of chivalry via story and song came an unforgettable battle in Brittany: the Combat of the Thirty.
Contemporary sources disagree on many points, but it seems there are some commonalities which may give us a picture of what happened. In spring, 1351, the captain of the French garrison at Josselin, Jean de Beaumanoir, rode to Ploërmel and challenged the English captain, Robert Brandebourch, possibly to a joust. Brandebourch countered with an offer of thirty men to fight on each side in a melee at the oak tree between the two castles. The captains agreed that none were to flee in fear of death or ransom, and they set a date.
On March 27, the English rode to Halfway Oak and arrived there first, where they dismounted. The French arrived second, and also dismounted. There were spectators there to see the fight, and they were told to stand back and not to intervene. On an agreed-upon signal, the fighting began, and it was fierce and bloody. The chronicler Jean le Bel says:
Soon after they had come together, one of the Frenchmen was killed, but the others did not leave off fighting on this account, but they held themselves as valiantly on both sides as if they had been all Roland or Olivier. I do not know enough to say truthfully if one side did better than the other, but they fought so long that they all lost strength and the ability to fight, due to lack of breath.
By mutual agreement, both parties stopped to rest and refresh themselves for a time, drinking wine, adjusting their armour, and bandaging wounds. At another signal, the battle resumed. The English successfully banded together in formation until they were abruptly charged by a mounted French warrior. According to Le Bel, “One of the Frenchman who was on horseback split them up and badly trod them underfoot, so that Brandebourch their captain and eight of their companions were killed there”. With this, the tide turned against the English. Those remaining were taken prisoner by Beaumanoir, since, according to the agreement, “it only remained for them to surrender or die, for they neither could not nor should not flee.” Le Bel goes on to say that the French “led them to Castle Josselin with great joy, but they left at that place, dead, six of their companions, and then many of the others died because of the wounds they had suffered.” The bloody, day-long battle was over.
Colour Commentary: The Four Sources
The Flemish writer Jean le Bel’s account is a very straightforward retelling which shies away from religious or patriotic embellishments and what might be an obvious English temptation to speculate as to the fairness of the mounted French horseman’s actions. Although he notes that the French dismounted at the outset, he hedges: “Some say that four or five of the French remained on horseback at the entrance to the field, and that twenty-five dismounted, just as the English had; but I don’t know for certain, for I wasn’t there.” He does say that he heard about the story from “those who were there,” and he is one of the earliest to record the battle, but this doesn’t guarantee that Le Bel’s account is the most factual. However, it shows the influence of medieval romance to a much lesser extent than the other sources.
The famous chronicler Jean Froissart, who also wrote for an English audience, recounts the story of the Combat by closely following Le Bel’s account. Froissart echoes Le Bel in saying that the English “heard Mass” before setting out, that they arrived first, and that they had to wait a long time for the French to arrive. Froissart also says that he “heard tell from those who saw it”, although as this phrase appears at exactly the same point as it does in Le Bel’s story, Froissart was most likely just following Le Bel. He has little to add to the story overall.
The most colourful account by far is the anonymous poem La Bataille de trent Anglois et de trente Bretons, an emphatically pro-Breton account written at roughly the same time as Le Bel’s. This version of the story is heavily influenced by the literature of the day, with much drama and moral opposition. In the poem, the heroic Beaumanoir rides to Ploërmel “to parley a truce” past a plethora of Breton peasants bound and suffering under the oppressive and vengeful Brandebourch (called “Brambroc” here):
Thus the Bretons saw the small folk suffer,
And for them they had great pity.
One was in shackles, another was put in irons,
One in handcuffs and another in dungeon.
Two by two, three by three, each one was bound
Like cows and oxen which are led to market.
When Beaumanoir saw them his heart sighed.
Beaumanoir reproaches Brandebourch for his mistreatment of the peasants, albeit for relatively selfish reasons:
Without such workers, nobles would have to labor
In the fields with the flail and the hoe.
They would suffer poverty, and this would be
A great and unaccustomed toil.
In this source alone it is Beaumanoir who suggests a melee, and he admonishes Brandebourch for cowardice at a previous battle at which he failed to appear. Brandebourch agrees to the combat at Halfway Oak with both captains bringing thirty companions (a total of sixty-two men on the field).
Interestingly, the anonymous poet lists all the combatants on both sides of the battle. The French side was made up entirely of Bretons, he says, while on the other side, “twenty were English, bold as lions, / And six good Germans and four Bretons.” Some of the participants were heroes elsewhere during the Hundred Years’ War, some seem to have been only mentioned in this one source, and others have their names so creatively mangled that it’s difficult to trace them outside of the poem. According to Steven Muhlberger, some of the more famous names on the French side included Yves Charruel, Alain de Tinténiac , and Morice de Trézéguidy. On the English side were the celebrated Robert Knolles, Hugh Calveley, and Richard de la Lande (“Le Fier” – “the fierce”).
While the poet ostensibly tries to give some credit to the English side, he positions the French on the side of the angels – literally. The poet has Beaumanoir regularly appealing to God, and credits the victory to Jesus’ intervention. He also tells the story as if the combat was a critical point in the war, with the English vowing their victory would be the first step towards conquering all of France. The poet implores the audience: “Pray then to the King of Glory … That he will help those who have the right, / For this is the point at issue.” In this account, it is the French who hear Mass, and who look to God for aid. The English, by contrast, put their faith in the prophecies of Merlin and in themselves.
Besides these literary differences, there is a key difference between Le Bel and the anonymous chronicler in the matter of the horse who decides the victory. When the two captains agree to the terms of the fight, the Breton poet expressly says that part of the vow was that “all would be on horseback”, seemingly leaving no doubt as to whether or not the inclusion of horses was fair. In a delightfully improbable but suspenseful scene, Brandebourch declares he’ll take the pious Beaumanoir captive, having promised to bring him to his lady’s “pleasure chamber.” Angered by this, Beaumanoir’s men take their revenge:
Alain de Kerenrais struck [Brandebourch] with his sharp steel lance
In the middle of the face, and his point has pierced him
To the brain. He extended his lance so that [Brandebourch] has fallen.
[Brandebourch] leapt to his feet and thought to engage him.
Sir Geffroi du Bois saw his position and also
Struck him with a lance so [Brandebourch] fell dead,
Knocked to the earth.
It’s clear from this passage that Brandebourch is not killed by the single horseman at the end of the battle (as in the other sources), but it’s unclear whether or not these lancers are mounted. Interestingly, though, when a Breton named Guillaume Montauban mounts to destroy the English “phalanx”, his fellow Bretons assume this means he’s trying to escape the battle, not engage the enemy. The poet says, “The prudent squire appeared to be fleeing.” Beaumanoir reproaches Montauban for leaving like a “false and evil squire,” which seems to indicate that no one expected anyone to be mounting a horse for the purpose of an attack at this point in the conflict. It’s possible that this is a slip of the poet’s pen that may indicate at least some doubt after all as to whether the real agreement between the two captains included the use of horses.
The latest source on the battle is the Scottish poet Androw of Wyntoun, who wrote his account in 1420. This version follows the anonymous poet’s account, including its pro-French sympathies, which is unsurprising, given Scotland’s long allegiance with France at the time Wyntoun was writing. In this version of the story, Beaumanoir “Manfully approached an English knight / That spoke of Frenchmen quite lightly,” arguing that the French were at least equal in skill to the English. The English knight challenged him to the Combat, and the two ironed out the details. There is no mention of horses in the arrangement between them. While the previous three sources indicate that the participants in the battle were local – or, at least, continental – Wyntoun has Brandebourch appeal to the flower of all England’s chivalry, crossing the Channel to enlist the help of the best knights, all clamouring to join.
Meanwhile, the French side enlisted just the local knights and Beaumanoir’s “kin”, increasing the contrast between the combatants significantly. This time, Beaumanoir relies not on religion but on chivalry to boost his fighters’ morale, inviting the ladies loved by his knights to watch the combat in order to give them “hardihood and might”. The courtly love element is clear in that Beaumanoir suggests that if the ladies are married, they should come anyway and bring their husbands. Wyntoun trusts, in the end, that the ladies will “Reward [the fighters] privately / With solace and ease for their prowess”.
When the two sides arrived at the battlefield, Wyntoun says,
The Frenchmen were gaily adorned
With horses covered in iron and steel,
But the Englishmen had no
Armored horse, as I heard say
For they as soon as they had come
To the end of their lists, they lit down
And made them ready to fight on foot.
The Frenchmen just so have done
Seeing them dismount they got down soon.
After everyone has rested mid-battle, Wyntoun says a French squire realized that “The victory would be hard to win / Without subtlety or stratagem”, so he went to fetch his horse. As in the Breton poem, Beaumanoir and the French assume the squire is retreating, and admonish him, but the squire rides down the English with his plated horse, and the French are victorious. Nine English are killed, while the single French man who died before the rest break is their only casualty. According to Wyntoun, the mounted squire’s actions are praiseworthy and show “wit,” adding to the glory of the “outnumbered” French force’s victory:
The Frenchmen were valued highly
Because when they in such haste
Saw their fellow withdraw
As if it had been in dread and fear
They made no sign of dismay
For his sudden withdrawing
But fought on fiercely as before
And did not hesitate nevertheless.
The Combat in Context
Despite the disparities in the sources, one thing is true: the spring of 1351 saw sixty men volunteer to risk their lives and their freedom in a skirmish that gained very little of military importance overall. Pride, boredom, and the chance to weaken the opponent’s forces, along with the substantial money to be gained through ransoming prisoners, no doubt all factored into the reasoning behind the challenge. However, the Combat of the Thirty was very much a product of its moment in time, when courage and valour were tied up in the expression of military prowess, and both had a profound impact on an individual’s identity and place in the world.
Although it would be a mistake to imagine that the average medieval warrior always followed chivalric ideals, their effect on the psyche of fighters at this time, especially nobles, cannot be discounted. According to Jean le Bel, it became a tradition for the members of France’s Company of the Star to be asked to recount their adventures, “the shameful as well as the glorious”, annually in front of the king:
[T]he king would appoint two or three clerks to listen to these adventures and record them all in a book so that they should be reported each year in front of all the companions, so that the most valiant should be known and those honoured who most deserve it.
While the Company of the Star, itself, did not have had any direct impact on the happenings at Halfway Oak, as it was established after the fact, the culture of being expected to perform knightly deeds and be judged and remembered by one’s actions certainly had an impact on the conduct of the nobility. This could easily have been the impetus for Beaumanoir to present a relatively low-risk challenge involving jousting, whether by his own impulse, or possibly through the urging of Jeanne de Penthièvre. By refusing, Brandebourch risked losing face in front of his enemy, as well as the troops he commanded. Given that the English force lacked the local and familial ties of the French force, losing the respect of his garrison may not have been something Brandebourch could afford if he wanted to keep his position. By turning the challenge around on Beaumanoir, Brandebourch put the French captain in the same position: take a much less sure bet, or risk being regarded as a coward by all. Perhaps Brandebourch expected Beaumanoir to refuse his terms; perhaps he was simply impulsive in proposing a melee. Either way, while both men kept their honour intact by agreeing to the combat, a pitched battle is always risky, and it’s likely that neither of them were completely confident as to how it would turn out.
Indeed, the honour involved in the Combat of the Thirty is one of the few things that all four sources can agree on. Across the board, the writers are impressed with the courage shown by the participants on both sides of the battle, no matter which side each writer sympathizes with. Le Bel says, “I have not heard ever before speech or story in which such a warlike enterprise was fulfilled or went further than this one. So they who remain from the battle ought to be more honored, everywhere they go.” Froissart calls it “a most marvelous deed of arms which should never be forgotten but which one should hold up as an example to encourage all knights bachelor.” The Breton poet implores his audience to pray “For all those who were in that company, / Bretons or English … that none shall be damned on Judgement Day,” despite how heavily he weighs his account in favour of the French. Wyntoun declares he has recorded the tale because it “Deserves to be both written and read,” and so “That men of arms may have rejoicing / When they come to hear of it.” Although he concedes that some people “may see arrogant pride and hauteur / Caused this fight to be undertaken,” it by no means diminishes the deed and the courage of the men involved.
Courage and valour certainly have their place in the twenty-first century, but the circumstances and the mindset of the Combat of the Thirty are unique to its particular moment in time. The mid-fourteenth century was a time when risking life and limb for the glory of knightly combat could be seen as a way to become a part of legend, like Arthur and Roland; a fate worth the risk. Whether we know their true names or not, these sixty men who met at Halfway Oak did, indeed, become a legendary part of the Hundred Years’ War, remembered far beyond the “three hundred years” the Breton poet imagined their story should last.
As a writer, professor, TEDx speaker, and podcaster, Danièle has been making the Middle Ages fun, entertaining, and accessible for over a decade. You can learn more about Danièle and her latest work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
David Green, The Hundred Years War: A People’s History (Yale University Press, 2014)
Steven Muhlberger, The Combat of the Thirty (Freelance Academy Press, 2012)
Steven Muhlberger, “The Combat Of The Thirty Against Thirty: An Example Of Medieval Chivalry?,” in The Hundred Years War (Part II): Different Vistas, edited by Andrew Villalon and Donald Kagay (Brill, 2008)