“You are all woman; yet your attire strangely becomes you. A pistol in your girdle, too. You remind me of a woman I once knew. She marched and fought like a man, and died of a pistol ball on the field of battle. She was dark where you are fair, but there is something similar in the set of your chin, in your carriage – nay, I know not.”
— Robert E. Howard, “Sword Woman”
So the mercenary captain Guiscard de Clisson says to Agnes de Chastillon at their first meeting. We receive little more information about the woman to whom he refers, except her name and birthplace – Black Margot of Avignon. De Clisson speaks of her with high admiration.
Coming from a redoubtable leader of Free Companies that would mean something. We can suppose that Black Margot was indeed someone out of the common. Her name and Agnes’ seem like a sort of fissioning of the historical Scots lady, Black Agnes Randolph, who held Dunbar Castle against English attack throughout the first half of 1338. Her husband was away with the Scottish army, and although the English commander, the Earl of Salisbury, was a fine soldier, he couldn’t get anywhere against Agnes. Her spirit and determination inspired the castle garrison and kept it fighting. With siege catapults constantly pounding the ramparts, Agnes and her ladies, in their finest gowns, strolled scornfully along the battlements as though promenading to church, and when dust and grit from the bombardment dirtied them, they flicked it away with their handkerchiefs to taunt the English. Salisbury is credited with having said ruefully,
“Came I early, came I late,
I found Agnes at the gate.”
During the siege, the English captured – it’s said – Agnes’ brother, the Earl of Moray, and brought him before the castle with a rope around his neck. They threatened to hang him if Agnes did not surrender. She answered, “Hang him, then, and I’ll inherit the earldom.” If she actually said that, it was merely a smartass way of calling their bluff, as she wasn’t next in line for the earldom anyway. Her brother may have been irked by her lack of sweet sisterly anguish, but at least he survived. The English didn’t carry out their threat.
Black Margot became a legend, and I’ve little doubt that Robert E. Howard had read about her.
The story in which Margot of Avignon is mentioned, “Sword Woman,” takes place in 1521 from the internal evidence. The Emperor is “gathering his accursed Lanzknechts to sweep de Lautrec out of Milan,” says de Clisson to Agnes. Black Margot probably died a generation before that. De Clisson may have met her as a lad just beginning his martial career, and been forty when he saw Agnes at the Tavern of the Red Boar. Then 1475 would be a believable working date for Margot’s birth.
Two years earlier, a boy called Pierre Terrail de Bayard had been born. He would go down in the legends of romance as the Chevalier Bayard, “without fear and without reproach”. Margot would encounter him and fight in some of the same major battles as he.
Her birthplace, anyhow, was definitely Avignon. REH informs us so. This city of south-western France had been the capital of the exiled Popes between 1309 and 1377, a time sardonically called the “Babylonian captivity” of the papacy. Avignon was still a papal possession, governed by papal legates, down to the late eighteenth century when the French Revolution began.
The Italians of the papal court had consistently despised the locale. Petrarch, in the 14th century, described it as a place where the winter mistral blew bitterly, and “a sewer where all the muck of the universe collects”. Perhaps he was referring to moral muck. While the Popes lived there, criminals and rebels from other territories found sure asylum, plague often broke out, and Avignon abounded in grog-shops and whorehouses. The papal legates (who were governing at the time of Margot’s birth) seem to have made few social improvements.
Avignon, though, was more than a place the Popes had once called home and where the mistral wind drove people mad. A school of painting influenced by Flemish art flourished at Avignon in the 15th century, when Black Margot was born. Walls built by the Popes surrounded the town, with ramparts, projecting turrets and formidable gates. The palace of the popes with its eight strong towers rose above the city on its rocky vantage. The famous bridge of Avignon crossed the Rhone in Margot’s day, as it had since Saint Benezet and his followers had thrown its arches across the river three hundred years before her birth; the first attempt to succeed in the teeth of the swift, treacherous river currents. The folk song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” celebrates the structure. Avignon, too, lies about twenty-five miles north of Arles, with its honey-colored stone, Roman ruins (the great aqueduct and theatre) and its important merchant port. The Rhone delta embraces the eerie, romantic wilderness of the Camargue, with its trackless marshes and lagoons, home to vast flocks of flamingoes, egrets and other birds, wild white horses and feral cattle.
It’s pretty certain that Margot would have been a younger contemporary of at least one REH character – de Montour of Normandy, who was attacked by a werewolf “In the Forest of Villefere” and appeared on the west coast of Africa many years later, at the bizarre castle of Dom Vincente da Lusto, still under a demonic curse. The errand that brought de Montour to the unlucky forest and his meeting with Carolus le Loup (a forebear of the bandit Le Loup in “Red Shadows”?) was, as he said himself, to warn the Duke of Burgundy about a treaty the King of France had made with the English. That would have been the Treaty of Picquigny, in 1475, when Margot was born. This blogger supposes that de Montour was then twenty-three, and concerned to warn Charles the Bold because he was the Duke’s illegitimate half-brother – one among many.
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