The city besieged with flowers

I love those siege stories which end in the capture of the fortification without neither battle nor bloodshed. The capture of the poitevin city of Niort (between La Rochelle and Poitiers) is one of these histoires de ruse that I delight in recounting, not only for the story itself, but also for the reason that I find myself outside Niort as I’m writing these lines.

The time is 1204 and the hero of this geste is Savary de Mauléon, one of King John’s mercenary lieutenants with a reputation for mischief.

Better than any modern account is the period chronicle itself, whose text and translation are below.

Lors se parti Savaris del roi Jehan, et vint en Poitau, et le siervi puis moult bien. Il requist le castiel de Nyors, qui se tenoit adont deviers le roi de France, par grant engien. Chil de Niors avoient acoustumé que cascun an, le premier jor de may, aloient por lor may à i bois qui estoit une lieu loing de la ville. Savaris, ki bien savoit cele coustume, en avrill devant, se traist arriere pour eus laissier asseurer; et quant che vint encontre le jour de la mayole, il s’en repaira si en haste viers Nyors que il se mist le jour de la fieste par matin entre la ville et les bourgois, qui au bois estoient alé, si que onques garde ne s’en donnerent. Il fu toz couviers de may, et tout chil qui avoec lui estoient, autresi: par coi chil qui as portes estoient furent decheu, car il cuidierent que che fussent lor bourgos ki repairassent del bois; si les laissierent ens entrer. Quant Savaris fu dedens la ville, si s’en ala moult en haste au castiel, que il trova tout desgarni; si le prist et le garni moult bien. Ensi fu li castiaus pris et la ville conquise. Puis s’en issi Savaris de la ville encontre les bourgois, qui au bois estoient; si les prist toz à sa volenté; mais il ne les mist pas en male prison; ains prist ostages d’eus, et lor sairemens que il dès ore mais seroient à la volenté le roi d’Engletierre loiaument, et par tant orent pais.

Then Savary took leave of king John and came to Poitou, and served him very well. He captured the castle of Niort, which was held by the king of France, through a great subterfuge. The citizens of Niort were accustomed that each year, on the first day of May, they would go pick lilies in a forest three miles away from the city. Knowing well this custom, Savari went behind them on the last day of April, to benumb their suspicion; and when they went on the day of the Mayole, he pulled back and hastily made for Niort, in such a way that on the morning of the feast, he placed himself between the city and the citizens, who had gone into the forest, being unaware of what was happening. They were busy with the lillies, and so were those with them. Those who watched the city gates were deceived, for they believed that it was the citizens returning from the forest, and they let them in. When Savari found himself inside the city, he rushed to the castle, which he found greatly lacking in men. The castle was thus taken and the city captured. Then Savari went out towards the citizens, who were in the forest, and seized them all without effort. Yet he did not put them in prison but took hostages from them and secured oaths that thenceforth they would faithfully serve the king of England. On those conditions, they had peace.

Histoire des ducs de Normandie et des rois d’Angleterre, ed. Michel (Paris, 1840) , p. 102

The day of the Mayole was self-evidently the first of May, celebrated in those regions by a reverentious walk in the surrounding woodlands to pick the mayole, that is the lilly of the valley (convallaria majalis, fr. muguet de mai) that bachelors were held to place on the rooftops and windowsills of maidens’ houses as an opening sign of courtship. It cost them their city and their freedom!

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