Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1761
First published: 1891
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of work: Fourteenth century
Locale: England, France, and Spain
Alleyne Edricson, an English youth
Samkin Aylward, a bowman
Hordle John, a bowman
Sir Nigel Loring, a nobleman
Lady Maude, his daughter
The Abbot of Beaulieu was a stern judge, and the charges against Hordle John, the novice, were very severe. John had drunk all the ale from the firkin when he had the first turn; John had held a monk’s head down over the beans in protest against poor fare; worst of all, John had carried a woman across a stream. When she smiled at him, he did not keep his eyes on the ground.
At the trial, huge John seemed out of place in a monastery. He cheerfully admitted the charges and did not even have the grace to be ashamed; but when the monks advanced to punish him, he picked up an altar and threw it at them. Then he dived out of the window and was never seen again in Beaulieu.
The Abbot was greatly disturbed and retired to his study to meditate. There he received another visitor, Alleyne Edricson. It was Alleyne’s twentieth birthday, and according to his father’s will, the boy was to leave the abbey for a year. When he was twenty-one years old, he would choose either a monastic or a secular life. Alleyne had never known any other life than that of the abbey, and he was hesitant about entering a world of sin and lust. The Abbot solemnly warned Alleyne of the perils of the secular life; but true to his promise, he sent the youth forth with his blessing.
Alleyne started on foot for the estate of Minstead, where his older brother was the socman. Alleyne had never seen his brother, but from all reports, he was a rude and sinful man. On this, his first trip into the world, Alleyne was continually alarmed at the sin his eyes beheld on every hand. Two robbers who molested an old woman were summarily executed on the spot by the king’s bailiffs. Shaken by what he saw, Alleyne thankfully turned into the shelter of the Pied Merlin Inn to spend his first night away from the abbey.
There he found a rough company drinking and quarreling. Hordle John was there, making merry in his cups but kindly disposed toward the timid clerk. When a minstrel took up his harp and began to sing a bawdy song, Alleyne stood up and cried shame on the company for listening. The rough travelers shouted him down, and they would have done hurt to Alleyne if John had not risen to defend the clerk.
At that instant, Samkin Aylward burst in, bearing letters from France to Sir Nigel of nearby Christchurch. The White Company of English bowmen wanted Sir Nigel to lead them in the war against Spain. Samkin was trying to recruit other bowmen, and Hordle John agreed to go with him. Alleyne refused because he was intent on seeing his brother.
The next morning, Alleyne came to the park of the Socman of Minstead. There he saw a strange sight. A great, yellow-bearded man held a struggling girl and appeared determined to drag her into the house. Alleyne ran up to the rescue, armed with his iron-tipped staff. Only after Alleyne had threatened to run his staff through the yellow-beard was he informed that his adversary was his brother. Furious at being balked by clerkly Alleyne, the socman ran to the stables and whistled for his hunting dogs. Alleyne and the girl escaped into the woods.
The girl’s page soon found them, and she rode away with a brilliant, mocking smile of thanks. Alleyne resolved to join John and Aylward and take service with Sir Nigel. He hurried to catch up with them before they arrived at Christchurch.
Alleyne’s first view of Sir Nigel was disappointing. The lord was a slight, squinting, soft-spoken man, apparently the least warlike of nobles. Alleyne, however, changed his mind. A giant bear broke his chain and charged down the road, where he scattered all in front of him. Sir Nigel, however, merely looked in his nearsighted way to see the cause of the disturbance. Then, unarmed, he walked up to the maddened bear and flicked the animal across the snout with his silk handkerchief. Discomfited, the bear retired in confusion and was soon rechained by the bearward. Then Alleyne knew he would serve a true knight.
At the castle, Sir Nigel was making all in readiness for his expedition to France. Alleyne worked diligently in the courtyard as he learned the trade of man-at-arms. His efforts soon made him a favorite, and his good education set him above his fellows. Sir Nigel asked him to take charge of his daughter’s reading that winter, and Alleyne went into the lord’s quarters for the first time. There he found that his pupil was the girl he had rescued from his brother. Although Lady Maude was a high-spirited girl, she was also charming and gracious. Alleyne felt her charm keenly, but he was only a poor clerk, and he kept silent as his fondness for her grew.
Just before the expedition departed, Sir Nigel made Alleyne his squire. After receiving the honor, Alleyne sought out Lady Maude and stammered some words of love. Lady Maude rebuked him for his presumption, but she did give him her green veil to wear to the wars. As Squire Alleyne rode away behind his lord, he thought more of Lady Maude than of the fighting to come.
At Bordeaux, Sir Nigel and his party were received with all honors by Edward, their prince. Edward needed all his knights, for the English were embarking upon a long, difficult campaign to put Don Pedro upon the throne of Spain. Furthermore, the White Company was becoming a great nuisance, as it was pillaging the country roundabout and earning few friends for England.
On their way to join the White Company one night, Sir Nigel and his party stayed with the notorious Seneschal of Villefranche. This knight, a rapacious and cruel lord, had reduced all the peasants on his lands to the status of animals. That night, while the party slept, the peasants broke into the castle, murdered all the men-at-arms, and foully desecrated the bodies of the Seneschal and his lady. Although Sir Nigel and his Englishmen were innocent of the wrongs committed by the French lord, the peasants made no distinction between aristocrats. They set fire to the castle when they were afraid to face the sword of Sir Nigel and the mace of Hordle John, and Sir Nigel’s bowmen retired to the keep.
The frenzied serfs fired the keep as well. The English party was rescued only by the timely arrival of the White Company, which had been attracted by the great fires. The peasants slunk away in the darkness.
The White Company, under Sir Nigel, marched with Edward’s army through the Pyrenees. Selected for scouting duty, the White Company harried the Spanish forces successfully. One day, the whole company was trapped on a small mesa by the main Spanish body. Despite great slaughter by the English arrows and the might of Sir Nigel, the Englishmen were in great danger of being wiped out.
Alleyne was chosen as a messenger to summon reinforcements. He carried out his mission valiantly despite his wounds, but the rescuers found only Hordle John and a handful of survivors still unconquered. Even Sir Nigel and Aylward had been captured.
Alleyne returned to England with a heavy heart. In the meantime, his brother had been killed while trying to assault Sir Nigel’s castle, and now Alleyne, knighted by Prince Edward, was the Socman of Minstead. With his new position, he could aspire to the hand of Lady Maude.
The happiness of all returned when Sir Nigel and Aylward finally came back from their captivity among the Moors. Aylward married the mistress of the Pied Merlin, and Hordle John became Alleyne’s squire. Alleyne lived a long, happy life with Lady Maude. He went back to France to fight several times, and on each occasion, he reaped great honors. Toward the end of his life, he spent much time at Windsor as adviser to Edward.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called THE WHITE COMPANY “the most complete, satisfying and ambitious thing I have ever done.” These are strange words from an author famous for the creation of Sherlock Holmes, one of the most popular figures in the annals of English literature. Written in the period before Doyle began work on his famous detective stories, THE WHITE COMPANY is now largely forgotten, but the novel was highly popular in its time and established the author’s reputation as a serious writer. It appealed to Doyle’s audience because it recalled the invigorating age of chivalry to a people who longed to escape the dullness and stuffiness of the industrial age. Doyle expressed the aspirations of his age more thoroughly than any writer of his time—an age that was thirsting for action and mystery or anything exciting that would temporarily release it from the stifling air of respectability. No one, except perhaps Dumas, could write more stirring scenes of action.
The charm of THE WHITE COMPANY lies in its romantic plot. The English nobles are all valiant men but none so valiant as Sir Nigel. Hordle John is the strongest Englishman ever seen, as Aylward is the lustiest bowman. About the full-flowering of chivalry, in the age of Edward III, Doyle had no illusions. He saw its brutality, its grime, its pain; but stripped of the brutality, the code remained. Its root was honor; and each of its laws became an article of faith that might strengthen and sustain it as powerfully as any religion.
Doyle had a high regard for his historical novels, which were based on meticulous research; he had read well over a hundred volumes on the period of Edward III and considered it the greatest epoch in English history. As a consequence, he underestimated the contemporary stories he wrote with ease. Modern readers can see that the saga of Sherlock Holmes is more valuable as a period piece and has captured the imagination of a wider audience in the long run than the romance of Edward III; nevertheless, THE WHITE COMPANY remains an exciting and robust tale and is well worth the reading.