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Essex Dogs: A Novel

Essex Dogs: A Novel

by Dan Jones
Essex Dogs: A Novel

Essex Dogs: A Novel

by Dan Jones


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The New York Times bestselling historian makes his historical fiction debut with an explosive novel set during the Hundred Years' War.

July 1346. Ten men land on the beaches of Normandy. They call themselves the Essex Dogs: an unruly platoon of archers and men-at-arms led by a battle-scarred captain whose best days are behind him. The fight for the throne of the largest kingdom in Western Europe has begun.

Heading ever deeper into enemy territory toward Crécy, this band of brothers knows they are off to fight a battle that will forge nations, and shape the very fabric of human lives. But first they must survive a bloody war in which rules are abandoned and chivalry itself is slaughtered.

Rooted in historical accuracy and told through an unforgettable cast, Essex Dogs delivers the stark reality of medieval war on the ground – and shines a light on the fighters and ordinary people caught in the storm.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593653784
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/14/2023
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 8,255
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Dan Jones is the New York Times bestselling author of Powers and Thrones, Crusaders, The Templars, The Plantagenets, Wars of the Roses, and Magna Carta, as well as the novel Essex Dogs. He is the host of the podcast This is History: A Dynasty to Die For and has produced, written, and presented dozens of TV shows, including the popular Netflix series Secrets of Great British Castles.

Read an Excerpt


This is to let you know that on 12 July we landed safely at a port in Normandy called La Hougue, near Barfleur… many men at arms at once landed… On a number of occasions our handful of men defeated large numbers of the enemy…

Letter from the chancellor of St Paul's to friends in London

'Christ's bones, wake up!'

'Loveday' FitzTalbot jerked his head up. Father had dug him in the ribs with a sharp elbow. Despite the cold saltwater spray that whipped his face, the rocking of the landing craft had lulled him into a moment of sleep.

He had dreamed he was at home.

But now his eyes were open again, he saw that he was not. They were still here. Out at sea. As far from home as they had ever been. Getting further from it every second.

There were ten of them crammed into the little pinnace: himself at the steerboard, Millstone, Scotsman and Pismire further forwards, the priest they called Father beside him at the stern and the archers Tebbe, Romford and Thorp in between them.

Two more archers, Welsh brothers who had been added to the company on the eve of their departure from Portsmouth aboard the cog Saintmarie, were pulling the oars.

Loveday scanned the horizon. Normandy. France. As far as he could recall, only he and the Scot had ever been out of English waters. And neither of them knew the coast that loomed half a mile distant, darkest grey in the dawn. What was more, their orders aboard the Saintmarie, handed down from Sir Robert le Straunge, were troublingly vague. They had only, Sir Robert had said, to storm up the beach and cut the hairy bollocks off any Frenchman who stood in their way.

When Loveday had asked what Sir Robert - and the great lords and the king above him - knew as to how many Frenchmen might be minding the beach, with crossbows cocked and lances couched and their bollocks unsevered and hoping to keep them so, Sir Robert had waved airily at him and told him there would be plenty enough to make good sport. He said he had this directly from the Marshal of the Army, Lord Warwick, who had it from King Edward himself.

Noble men. Knightly men. Men who knew best.

If I had wanted good sport, thought Loveday, I would have stayed home in Essex, playing dice in the inn near Colchester and paying a penny to lay my head of a night between the thighs of Gilda, the alewife's girl.

But he had held his peace with Sir Robert. The man was a fool, but he was the fool who had recruited them for this campaign. Who would pay their wages for the next forty days. The Dogs hired their sword- and bow-arms to anyone who paid - in any sort of activity where brute force and sharp steel were needed. That summer the business was war. Sir Robert's recruiting agents had promised he was a man who paid on time, and who did not interfere too much. Long experience told Loveday other paymasters were not so easy-going.

So here was he: forty-three summers old, still fit and strong, but grey at his temples, with fat settling around his middle and age creeping into his bones. And here was his company: the Essex Dogs, men called them. Some of them being from Essex. All of them having sharp teeth. Packed into a tiny pinnace, heading towards a French beach at dawn.

The king's great invasion of France - a thousand ships and fifteen thousand fighting men aboard them - was starting.

The Essex Dogs were at the front of it. And Loveday had one wish. The same as every time.

To come home with everyone alive and paid.

At the prow of the boat, the thick-necked stonemason Gilbert 'Millstone' Attecliffe was spewing into the sea. Seasickness, rather than apprehension, thought Loveday, for Millstone had little fear in him - too little, at times. He had known Millstone seven years. Seven years since the heavy-handed, softly spoken Kentishman had cracked the skull of a foreman on the floor of Rochester Cathedral to settle a dispute about the construction of the new spire, and quit masonry for freebooting and fighting.

In that time he had never known Millstone use an intemperate word; nor had he ever seen him take a backward step - an attitude that scared Loveday sometimes.

But this was the least of his worries now. As the Welshmen hauled the oars and Loveday tried to position the bow of the landing craft to ride the tide in to the beach, he could feel a strong current was pulling them hard north, towards the highest point on the bluff.

If I were organizing the defence, that's where I'd put the crossbowmen.

Loveday called to his men to keep their heads low and their eyes on the shore. At the same time, he tried to read the waves breaking ahead, that he might sense when the water would be shallow enough for them to leap overboard, and drag the pinnace up the sands. In the half-dozen other landing craft that were struggling nearby with the same current, he guessed other captains were wondering the same thing.

Loveday's mouth was dry.

He looked behind him, back to the pregnant hulk of the Saintmarie and the scores of other cogs that had thrown down their anchors around it. In their bellies, horses kept tethered for two days and nights would now be stamping and snorting. Knights and men-at-arms turning on their straw mattresses. Archers and infantry lying cold and aching on the damp deck.

Loveday pulled the stopper from his leather canteen and took a long tug of ale. It was heavily spiced and already close to spoiling. He belched and tasted sage. He passed the canteen to Father and, summoning more courage than he felt he possessed, he shouted to the Dogs the war cry he had heard from the Spaniard he met drinking a campaign's pay away in London many years before, a swarthy man who had fought the Saracens and bore a long scar from his hairline to chin to prove it.

'Desperta ferro!'

Awake, iron!

Scarcely had the words left his mouth than a volley of crossbow bolts sheared the air. A bonfire went up on the bluff to their right. And Loveday heard the cries of Frenchmen above them. Then they appeared - perhaps two companies, maybe more, waving crossbows and hooting. One was baring his arse in their direction, in the Scottish style.

Now the boat was barely a hundred feet from the sands. Loveday roared to the Welshmen to pull for their lives.

The bigger of the two nodded, muttering something in his own language, and they bent their backs. The boat lurched in the water, then sprang forwards like a mastiff unleashed.

As his crew scrambled for iron helms and leather caps, to his left Loveday heard sharp yells of fear and distress. The nearest craft to them had run into a rock, hidden somewhere below the surface. The company - a mixture of men-at-arms and archers - was leaping into the water. He saw a dozen men dive from the boat, which sank like a porpoise diving for squid. Only four surfaced - all archers, who beat the water with their arms, thrashing for the shore. The rest, Loveday guessed, had never learned to swim, or else had been pinned to the seabed by the weight of their packs and armour.

As that craft and its crew foundered, a volley of huge stones came flying down from the clifftop. Millstone yelled from the prow: 'Catapults!' Before the word was out of his mouth, the Dogs saw one of the archers struggling in the water hit directly by a lump of stone the size of an anvil. His skull collapsed. The seawater around him turned dark.

More crossbow shot flew across them - two bolts cracked into the side of the pinnace and another fizzed so close to Loveday's nose that he felt the air move. He tried to calm his breath. Remind himself he had been under bombardment before and lived. But even in the cold, he could feel sweat trickling down his spine.

In front of him, Tebbe, Romford and Thorp were trying to stand and nock arrows to shoot back. Loveday bellowed at them to stay low. Tebbe ducked down again, and the Scot leapt back, putting his giant hands on Romford and Thorp's shoulders and forcing them prone.

Still the Welshmen at the oars pulled and pulled, and then, at last, the boat rose high on a breaking wave and fell with a thump on to hard sand. The impact half winded Loveday, but he heard Pismire shouting from the bow, screaming at the Dogs to get out and drag the boat up the beach.

Then, as if lifted by the hand of the Lord, Loveday was up, grabbing his sword and heaving himself over the side of the pinnace, into the saltwater, losing his breath for a second time as the cold hit him and his clothes became heavy. Freezing wool clinging to his thighs. His leather overshirt like a coat of mail. But he found his feet, and started bawling orders. Millstone and Scot were behind the pinnace, pushing from the stern as the three archers dragged at the bow - all five of them heaving in unison, dropping to the shallows as each new wave of bolts and stones rained down from the clifftop above.

Fifty yards, away at the foot of the steepest part of the bluff, lay the overturned and rotting shell of an old fishing boat, its broken ribs glistening like a whale carcass.

'Cover - get to the wreck!' Loveday shouted to Pismire and Father. The three of them bolted up the beach, their heads hunkered low into their shoulders. The priest's rough grey cassock was soaked and dragged in the sand as he ran. They slid behind the stinking planks of the dead boat and lay on the sand, panting. They were so tight now to the bluff that the missiles from above were flying over their heads and the other boats making the same landing.

Loveday turned on to his elbows. He took a moment to wipe seawater from his stinging eyes. He spat out blood, and ran his tongue around his mouth, feeling for his teeth. They were all there. He reckoned he must have bitten his cheek.

He returned his focus to the beach.

Despite his earlier misgivings, he saw the current had dragged them so far along the sands that they had ended up with the shortest run to cover once they landed. The three archers, helped by Millstone and the Scot, had beached the pinnace and were sheltered behind it, waiting to time their run to the cliffside. The Welshmen were behind a small outcrop of rocks a short distance away. Loveday nodded at the taller, blond one, whose name was Lyntyn.

The nod was returned.

One by one, Millstone, Scot, Tebbe, Romford and Thorp all scampered - half running, half crawling, apewise - from the pinnace to the wreck. Loveday checked them all in. The mantra he had learned from their old leader, the man they had called the Captain, had stuck with him: Bury your dead. Leave no living man behind.

The Dogs were all there. They spat and cursed and checked themselves for damage. Loveday watched a man-at-arms from some other company running up the beach. He was hit with two bolts - one in his side and another through his neck. Blood spurted and the man fell to his knees, eyes wide and disbelieving, before a third bolt from some sharp shot above them flew into his face through his right cheek. He fell sideways, lay on the sand and did not get up.

'Christ spare his soul,' said Tebbe, tall and spare, the lankiest of the three English archers, who wore his hair long at the neck, woven in a tight plait that reached his mid-back.

'Christ will know his own,' said Father. He swigged deeply from Loveday's flask, which he had carried from the landing craft. He craned his neck and looked towards the top of the cliff, where the crossbows and catapults were embedded. Took another swig. Wiped his mouth with his hand.

'Let's get up there and kill those fucking Frenchmen.'

* * *

They lay on their fronts and surveyed the land's lie. Loveday scrambled next to Millstone, Pismire and the Scot, his three most experienced men.

Pismire pointed out a steep path cut into the bluff, a hundred paces from the wreck. 'The way up's there,' he said, pointing to the clifftop.

Not for the first time, Loveday was grateful for Pismire's sharp eye amid the frenzy of a fight. He nodded. 'Aye. How shall we play this?'

'Keep it simple,' said Pismire. 'We creep behind them, cut their throats, and stick their crossbows up their arses, stirrup-end first.'

Loveday looked at the other two. The Scot nodded. Millstone shrugged. On the other side of him, Father was jabbing his dagger into the dirty sand in excitement.

From the beach came a thunderous crash. Another torrent of rocks hurled from the clifftop hit a boat being hauled out of the surf, scattering the archers dragging it. One lad, no more than fifteen summers on him, had his leg shattered. He collapsed, screeching. White blades of bone poked through his pink flesh. The lad writhed and cursed. His fellows hid behind their half-beached boat and trembled.

Loveday took a deep breath. He gripped Pismire by the arm and spoke to him clearly.

'Very well,' he said. 'We do it. But let's see what's up there first. Go with Scotsman. Take Tebbe and Thorp. See how many are there. If you can make them hop a little, do it. But if not, send one man back and call for support. Then wait for the rest of us.'

Pismire nodded assent. Loveday looked around the company. Made a calculation. 'Take Father, too.'

Father took one last swig of Loveday's flask and tossed it back. He grinned, all brown teeth and bloodlust.

Pismire raised an eyebrow to Loveday. He had trusted Father, once. In recent years his faith had waned. He looked at the old priest. 'You gawp like the hell-mouth,' he said.

'To mind you of your sins,' said Father.

Tebbe and Thorp checked their arrow bags. The youngest archer, Romford, tugged Loveday's sleeve. 'I'll go too,' he said.

'You stay here, boy,' Loveday told him. 'I need you. The French may come at us down the beach. We need at least one bowman for cover.'

Romford pouted, peevish. But he did not complain.

On the beach, the lad with the shattered leg was still screaming.

Loveday turned away from the sound and nodded at Pismire. 'Godspeed,' he said. 'And be sure you all come back. Remember what the Captain-'

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