THE departure of the French fleet from the harbour of Brest has been nearly as interesting an event to then English as the sailing of our own fleet from Spithead. Several magnificent vessels of war were towed out into the open sea by a steamer named the Primoguet. Among them were the ninety-gun ship, the Jean Bart, and afterwards the glorious ninety-gun ship, the Duguesclin. Almost everyone knows who Jean Bart, the famous sailor of Dunkirk was, and most people who have crossed the Channel in that direction have seen the gallant French hero’s bust set up in the principal square of that somewhat dull, but very important maritime town; and as for the Breton hero Duguesclin, he is as well known as the Black Prince himself; but in England, very few, when they read the name given to the steamer of four hundred horsepower which has done so much useful service, can tell who Primoguet was.
Primoguet was a gallant captain of Brittany, who defended the fleet from the attacks of the English, at the time when Henry the Eighth of England, joined with the Emperor Maximilian of Austria, was on bad terms with Louis the Twelfth of France, who had united the province of Brittany to the mother-country, by his marriage with the Duchess Anne, widow of his predecessor, Charles the Eighth.
Anne, Duchess of Brittany, came into possession of her sovereignty at the age of fourteen; she was full of spirit, courage, and dignity, as well as beauty and accomplishment, and had a firm will and dauntless mind, but she was too weak to contend against France, and was forced to become twice the queen of the country to which she brought Brittany as her dower. She adored her Breton home and her Breton people, and was proud of the power of her navy: to her may be ascribed the honour of having first furnished a navy to France; and she it was who, at her own expense, built some of the finest ships which had ever appeared in the French seas, her husband, Louis the Twelfth, being straitened in his means in consequence of the expenses of his Italian wars, for he was busy at this time in conquests over the Venetians, the Milanese, and the Pope.
The Queen had instituted an order for ladies, called the Cordelière, which was famous in her time, for several reasons: the chief was, that no lady could be admitted into it whose character did not stand on the very highest pinnacle of female excellence, for Anne of Brittany had so purified the court during her two reigns, that such virtue and propriety was never before known in France as during her time; and to be one of her maids of honour was enough to prove that lions, according to an ancient belief, would at once lie down tame at the feet of these Unas. All the nobles of the period strove, and clamoured, and petitioned to be allowed to choose wives from amongst this band of beautiful perfections, and it was Queen Anne who regulated all the marriages of her ladies of the Cordelière.
The word was a talisman throughout France; and even now, carved on many a palace wall at Amboise, at Tours, at Loches, and elsewhere, may be seen the Queen’s cognizance, as famous in its way as the salamander of Francis the First. When, therefore, Anne commanded one of the most magnificent and powerful vessels that had ever been built in the docks of Brest, to be sent forth to aid her husband’s navy, she christened it “La Cordelière,” and gave the command of it to one of her chief captains, the bold and gallant Breton, Herué Primoguet.
The English had been committing many wanton ravages on the coast, and hitherto the French fleet, commanded by a celebrated captain named Prégent, had vainly sought to chastise them, although they had ventured far into the English seas with the hope and intention of doing so. The English admiral, and his ships – elated with success – came boldly down upon his adversaries, and it was then that Captain Primoguet and his gallant Cordelière first encountered him: a desperate engagement ensued, but the English vessels were numerous, and the Cordelière and her companions, could not stand against so many, and were unwillingly obliged to sail away, pursued hotly by the English admiral to the very entrance of the bay of Brest.
Primoguet was deeply mortified at this, and swore that, as soon as his vessels were repaired, he would lead them forth again, and either bring the English admiral’s ship, the Regent, prisoner into port, or perish in the attempt.
It was on St. Laurence’s day, in the year fifteen hundred and thirteen, that Primoguet sailed out of port, directing his course to where he hoped to find the Regent, which he was not long in doing. No sooner did the two fleets come in sight of each other, that they prepared for a desperate affray. There was, however, a great inequality in the forces; for the French had but twenty vessels, all small, except the Cordelière; and the English had no less than eighty, most of them of infinitely larger size. This, however, did not deter the French from attacking; and it soon became known that the English admiral was so severely wounded that he was carried away and landed on the English coast, where he shortly afterwards died of the injuries he had received. The combat went on more furiously than ever, and several English vessels were disabled or sunk: at length the Regent, and the Cordelière approached each other near enough to grapple. The crews of both vessels fought with the utmost fury, but at length that of the Regent, finding that there was no other hope of saving their ship, from their topmast cast fire into the Cordelière, which almost instantly burst into flames.
The French sailors, seeing that there was no possibility of extinguishing the fire, and aware that there was no other chance for life, threw themselves into the sea in the hope of escaping by swimming; but Captain Primoguet, - resolving that, if his gallant Cordelière must be destroyed, the Regent should share her fate, - turned the burning side of his vessel to the wind in such a manner that the flames must reach the enemy. This terrific maneuver took effect, and both ships were enveloped in the same conflagration.
In sight of the rest of the fleet, whose hostilities were suspended as they gazed in agonized commiseration on this terrible catastrophe, the vessels burnt on to the water’s edge. Primoguet lingered as long as possible on the topmast head, till finding it giving way, he cast himself, “all armed as he was,” says the historian, D’Argentré, “into the boiling sea, and was drowned in spite of all efforts to save him, his heavy armour preventing his swimming.”
Back to Index