Author: David

Sealed with Blood, Chapter 6: Love is Treacherous

Portsmouth, South Coast of England, 1213

Love is treacherous. Love is a trap. Love is a quicksand swallowing a man whole. He can sink without trace, except for a few frozen ripples where once a grown man stood. One mistake, a false step, putting weight on ground beneath his foot and he is doomed.

If John had discovered a single thing since being king it was precisely this truth. All those baronial declarations of love for their king, oaths of fealty and expressions of loyalty counted for nothing; they were not firm ground he could dare to trust his weight to. The love of barons was not worth a solitary silver coin. John had come to understand the exact value of love early in his reign as king.

John stared down at the map spread before him on the table. Normandy was so close to England just a short distance across the water. He had touched Normandy on the map so many times that it now bore a grubby mark from repeatedly being jabbed by fingers. His loyal officials gazed down at the grubby mark without uttering a word.

For a hundred and fifty years since the victorious Norman invasion in 1066 AD, the King of England had also been Duke of Normandy in France. This had the curious effect that for the territory of Normandy the king of England had to pay homage to the king of France. This did not work very well, particularly when with time the English king also inherited much of south and west France.

Many barons had held land both in Normandy and in England. John had been king for just a few years Philip Augustus, the King of France seized Normandy on the grounds that it belonged to John’s nephew Arthur. The English barons were faced with a choice: retain your land in Normandy, lose your English land and serve Philip or the opposite; serve John, keep your English manors but kiss goodbye to all your French possessions. Whichever unappetising option they chose there would be the loss of inheritances which had been in their families for generations. Each baron was forced to make this difficult decision, there were no exceptions, that is, apart from the wily old Marshall, who somehow managed to keep his lands both in England and Normandy. Contrary to all expectations, the Marshall was able to serve two masters at the same time or at least pretend to.

Many of John’s Norman barons simply waved the King goodbye with no tears in their eyes and embraced the triumphant Philip Augustus. That taught John all he needed to know about the love of barons. They were loyal when it suited them but would jump ship whenever it was convenient for them. John had learnt that lesson well – love is treacherous and barons are traitorous. Sometimes John thought of it the other way round; love is traitorous and barons are treacherous. No more would John be taken in by sincere expressions of love. Instead, he would rest on two firmer foundations. He would depend on instilling fear into his barons, but above all things, he would place his hopes in money. Money had never once let him down. Money is the most dependable of friends.

At least the French seizure of Normandy had given John this priceless education. He knew his English barons were no more loyal than his Norman ones, who had so eagerly grovelled at the French king’s feet. The stakes in the game of war were now elevated to a higher level. John was determined to recapture his ancestral lands in Normandy and in so doing, destroy French power once and for all. His biggest obstacle in doing so was the unreliability of his English barons who fell into three categories; bad, worse and worse still.

The bad ones were those who did turn out for him but might abandon him before or during a battle. What general could possibly lead an army when he was unsure of his troops. The worse ones were those who simply didn’t turn up for military service when he needed them. They gave some pretext that they had been called upon for service too many times or they weren’t obliged to go to certain parts of France. The very worst were traitors like Robert FitzWalter who would kill their King, if he could get away with it.

John had worked hard on solving the problems of baronial opposition. In Winchester where FitzWalter’s cousin, Saer de Quincy was the Earl, he had one of his foreign born men Peter De Roches made bishop. In other places where there was a difficult baron he appointed a foreign court official as sheriff and installed him in a castle nearby. The whole country was split by having antagonistic powerful men vying for power in each locality. The very best people were foreigners, like Faulkes de Beaute who owed everything they had and everything they would ever possess to the King; no need to question their reliability. The key to effective government was eliminating the baron’s power so that no-one could oppose the royal will.

John had also been diligent at removing all excuses, he had allowed Stephen Langton back to England and albeit, because the Pope had insisted, even the treacherous FitzWalter had been guaranteed a safe return. John hoped FitzWalter much enjoyed the improvements he had made for him at Castle Baynard; it was much lighter now and enjoyed the benefit of more fresh air. It was outrageous that the Pope had insisted the baron receive some financial compensation for his losses. Nevertheless, it was well worth it and still brought a smile to John’s lips whenever he imagined it. He just wished he had been there to see FitzWalter’s face when he first set eyes on the ruins; there really wasn’t much left at all.

With the Langton problem solved John had now summoned his Barons to Portsmouth for an invasion of France and the recovery of Normandy. His absolution in Winchester concluded, he busied himself with the preparations and campaign plans. With the fleet of numerous ships assembled in the great harbour, he had travelled to the muster with his loyal foreign officials and his mercenary troops. When he arrived in Portsmouth; it was noisy with blacksmiths, carpenters and labourers but there were hardly any knights and just a handful of barons.

John leant on the table clenching his fists, relentlessly peering at the map. His closest advisors Bishop Peter de Roches of Winchester and Faulkes de Beaute looked on waiting for the king to speak. John was incandescent with rage. At first he thought more barons might turn up, but apart from a few small groups hardly any came. Faulkes had sent a servant to the top of Portsdown Hill, he now returned with the grim news that there was no sign of any parties of armed knights approaching from any direction. The biggest movement he had seen turned out to be a herd of cattle driven towards the city to replace others of their kind, who had been slaughtered and salted for ship’s provisions.

John was splendidly dressed with light maroon robes and several belts encrusted with jewels of which his favourites were rubies. John loved precious stones, you really couldn’t have too many of them. He felt that they displayed his royal dignity.

‘By God’s feet I will have them on gallows for this,’ John suddenly shouted kicking a heavy chair which was reluctant to move and bringing his fists down noisily on the table which shuddered obediently.

‘I will see their heads tight in a noose and their legs kicking wildly.’

‘They may still come, they may have been delayed,’ said Bishop Peter, ‘we have missed the tide so we can’t sail until tomorrow anyway.’

John kicked a modest bench which co-operatively flew across the room before hitting the opposite wall, tipping over with a resounding clatter.

‘More delay. We haven’t got the time! They are not coming, they never intended to. False speaking foul traitors, every last one of them,’ John shouted.

He moved the map complete with its castles, towns and rivers to the side of the table, it seemed to enjoy immunity from aggression.

‘My lord, take their land and their titles,’ suggested Faulkes. ‘They deserve none of them and do little to keep their privileges. They simply inherited land given for their ancestors’ service to the crown. They have done nothing themselves to earn the honours and knights fees they possess.’

‘Well you would say that,’ said John. ‘Give you even more I suppose. I’ve already given you too much.’

‘Why not my Lord,’ said Faulkes? ‘I would give you loyal service. Knights and provisions would both be here for your use when you need them. It is simple enough. I am obligated to you because of my lord’s great kindness, they don’t believe they owe you in anything.’

‘Yes, I know,’ said John impatiently, ‘but how can I dispossess all of them, they’d rise up against me. Each one is a cousin of the other, who in turn is a cousin to a third. They all stick together like fish paste. If I touch one I touch them all.’

‘My Lord,’ said Bishop de Roches, ‘you may have given assurances that you won’t move against them to the Pope. That doesn’t mean you can’t fine them for not turning up to fight, nor does it mean you can’t threaten them.’

‘I haven’t given safety to all of them, there are a few I can move against who are not from the same poisonous well that most of them seem to spring from. It will have to wait, we must sail tomorrow or I will be humiliated. Philip will laugh at me and worse he’ll be seizing more land once he knows my barons have betrayed me.’

‘Do we have enough men?’ asked Faulkes.

As his question failed to attract an answer he tried answering it for himself.

‘We have many troops in France and we can make do with these few we have here. More may yet follow.’

‘I can get Pope Innocent to write to the barons again,’ said Peter De Roches.

‘It’ll do no good the Pope is a long way away,’ said John seizing a goblet of wine and gulping down a quantity. ‘We know who is to blame for this: Langton and that brother of his and FitzWalter. I can’t abide their faces and when I hear them, their insincere words provoke me to such wrath I could despatch them on the spot. I might just do it one day when the wrong words fall from their lips.’

‘We can rid ourselves of Langton in other ways,’ asserted de Roches assuredly. ‘He’ll disobey the Pope and he’ll be done.’

‘He’s not done yet has he?’ John replied angrily. ‘What we can do in the future isn’t getting me an army to support me here and now is it? Ridding us of Langton is not as simple as you claim. If it was I would already have done it. We’ll sail tomorrow with whoever we have and deal with bishops and other traitors when we return.’

John glanced at his two advisors. He knew he could trust these men but he also knew they were just as limited as they were devoted. They said what he wanted to hear but everything they said he already knew. It was like talking to himself and watching his own lips move in the mirror. Seldom did his advisors say anything that was of any use to him, he was always left on his own to figure things out for himself.

‘Leave me now,’ he said with clipped speech.

His trusted advisors withdrew and he was by himself. He paced the room conversing with himself out loud. He would ask a question and immediately provide an answer for it. His responses were often angry and full of complaint about many of his subjects. He repeatedly bit the skin at the sides of his fingernails and where his teeth had difficulty reaching at the base of his nails he picked at them with whatever remained of his other fingernails. His fingers were so excavated that they were permanently puffed up around the nails making them disappear into his swollen red fingers. This solitude brought him no relief at all and left him with a catalogue of unanswered questions. He called his servants who helped him undress and thus he went to bed. Angry as he was, he slept soundly until early morning when noise from the ships roused him from his slumber.

For some of the King’s barons and knights who had turned out for him the invasion of France proved to be a less than memorable experience. Many of them had consumed serious quantities of ale in Portsmouth. The sustenance of seafarers was after all what the great naval city really excelled in. The citizens made more money from selling cheap beer to sea-goers than they did from the time consuming task of maintaining the King’s ships. Drinking large quantities was considered the sensible thing to do for those crossing to France. The ship itself carried minimal barrels of drink or food because of the need to utilise space efficiently.

The first port of call was Jersey, an island lying off the coast of Normandy which was still precariously an English possession. The voyage of over a hundred miles would last for more than a day. Whilst the sailors would be working, the soldiers were simply passengers squeezed together with nothing to pass the time other than a few games, telling jokes or potential seasickness. Many dutifully followed the prevailing wisdom and were very drunk before they boarded the ship. Most of their time was spent in the dark below deck. If they ventured onto the deck they risked the curses of sailors for getting in their way. It was a sorry army in bad odour that reached Jersey, still worse the wear for drink, but now once more in port; they resumed drinking in a committed fashion, for they had nothing else to do.

The English barons who had been reluctant to meet with John were far more enthusiastic about meeting with Archbishop Stephen. Stephen met with the clergy and decreed that the mass could now be sung in churches in a low voice. He ordered this without seeking the consent of Pope Innocent. He called the barons aside and reminded them that they had heard John swear to uphold the laws and customs of the land of England at Winchester.

‘You can regain your lost rights through the charter of the King’s great grandfather Henry I.’

Simon, his brother, read out Henry’s royal charter. Within the introduction Simon announced the words:

“Crowned king, by the common consent of the barons.”

Robert FitzWalter spoke gruffly to Geoffrey De Mandeville who was standing next to him, but loud enough for many to hear;

‘If we can consent, that means we can withdraw consent?’

Stephen raised his hand for quiet and Simon read the rest of the charter uninterrupted. When he had finished the barons were all of one mind that the King would have to comply with the charter. The only discussion was what the barons would do if John kept breaking his promises.

In Jersey, after a night ashore, the army with few of them sober found themselves back on board ship again. After a further day of sailing they reached the coast and docked in a harbour. Many of them with bleary eyes wondered whereabouts in France they had landed and attempted to recognise where they were through a mist that had fallen. It was somehow strangely familiar. They were back in Portsmouth, it wasn’t France at all. The King had decided the invasion was futile with so few warriors and had called off the whole endeavour. Some of the men had little recall of the voyage, with some being completely unaware they had ever landed in Jersey. The invasion was over in a blink of an eye. The French didn’t even know about it until after it hadn’t happened.

There were but a handful of casualties but all occurred the same way. When urinating over the side of the ship, the practice is to hang onto a rope with your free hand. If the ship is hit by a wave and a man lost his grip he might also topple off the ship. Once he had fallen, he was lost; there was no turning the ship around to rescue him. In most cases with fallers no-one even noticed them fall. It was only later that companions would realise he had disappeared or in some cases no-one even noticed that he had gone. A man could slip to his watery grave without anyone ever noticing.

If John was overwhelmed with anger before he set out from Portsmouth he was now maddened with rage upon his return. It was not only the skin around his fingers that would suffer grievously, he would avenge himself on his barons who had left him in the lurch; they had cost him a fortune. The chief culprits were the barons from the north of England. If they thought they were out of his reach protected by distance from his wrath they would soon find their King possessed a very long arm.

John’s mercenaries who had prepared themselves for late summer in the south of France were now faced with a very different prospect of early winter in the north of England. There was a great deal of grumbling about this but as long as John paid them their penny, they would go wherever he wanted them to go and do whatever he wanted them to do. What he wanted them to do was hurry north as quickly as possible to teach the barons a lesson and exact fines for non-attendance. John knew he must rely on money and he was intent on building up his treasury.

As John met his advisors again in the same room around the same table the map of Normandy had gone. This time the map John looked bore the triangle shape of England with its broad base in the south where London the capital is located. The long journey north would be time consuming. There was an eastern route through low lying land, traversing areas known as the Fens. The low lying area had almost no slope which led to poor drainage and numerous bogs, swamps and lakes. Even if you struggled through to the coastal town of Bishop’s Lynn where John was popular you were still not out of trouble. John had given the town a charter and it had prospered, so much so that some inhabitants started calling it Kings Lynn. Proceeding further north towards the city of Lincoln there were even bigger water-logged expanses to tackle. The area was a soup of mud poorly drained by channels called sewers which often shifted or became blocked.

There was a western route that had different problems in that it involved crossing the River Severn, a mighty fast flowing river that drained the mountains of Wales. The Severn was prone to bursting its banks and flooding a very wide area. It was unpredictable exactly when this would happen.

John and his mercenaries usually advanced up what was known as the northern route which was the easiest and most direct, running up the centre of England. By coincidence a number of royal castles on the route began with the letter N. John would advance up through Northampton, Nottingham and Newark before reaching the castle at Lincoln. The custodian of the castle was surprisingly a sixty-year-old woman, Nichola de la Haye, who constantly supported John, although the surrounding shire, Lincolnshire, was a hotbed of John’s enemies.

As John gazed down on the map he imagined the destruction he could bring to Lincolnshire but there were a dozen other places that deserved his wrath just as much. He looked up and met the gaze of his advisors, they were no better than a pair of panting hunting dogs.

Once John had finish gazing at his map and making his plans for revenge he was quickly on the road again. He now advanced north up the N-route sending raiding parties to seize the harvest and burn the property of barons who had failed to come to his aid. If other barons didn’t want their property destroyed they would need to pay in coin to keep their means of existence.

Having reached his royal castle at Northampton John settled in for a short stay. He used the opportunity not only to feast but also to consult with his men Faulkes, Bishop Peter and now the Marshall was attending the king with a few of his knights. The brief pause at Northampton was intended to let the word spread of the destruction of property and the seizure of goods. It would concentrate the barons’ minds to offer John compensation. One baron had already given money for John’s good will and sworn to accompany him on a new expedition to destroy Philip Augustus departing as early as February, when winter was scarcely over. Even this small victory had put John in a good mood. He had eaten well on roasted boar’s head and apples with peaches in a red wine sauce following on. The last few weeks had made him feel very depressed, but this was as pleasant an evening with his companions as he had enjoyed for a long while.

The tranquillity was broken by a panicking servant rushing in and unceremoniously blurting out,

‘My Lord, Archbishop Langton is here.’

Before the words had finished departing his lips the Archbishop swept into the room with his brother Simon in tow. Their long colourful robes flapped behind them in an impressive manner.

John really hated that great high hat that Langton and other bishops wore; it made him look so tall. The brothers both bowed, hardly breaking step and the Archbishop addressed the King:

‘My dear lord.’

‘My dear father,’ John replied remaining in his seat and without inviting the Archbishop to be seated. Despite the unexpected arrival of the brothers the King exhibited no seeming loss of composure.

‘This is the most pleasant of surprises; we had no cause to expect you so late and at such a distance that you rarely venture from Canterbury. Have you come on a matter of some importance?’

‘I have indeed my lord and seeking your favour in all things, I need to turn you from your present course of action.’

‘What course of action might that be, dear father?’ the King replied opening his arms wide as if to display a lack of understanding.

‘My lord, so recently you swore to uphold the law of the land which means that you may not levy war against your subjects without obtaining a legal judgement. Those you seek to take action against should have the opportunity to appear before the royal court,’ said Stephen.

‘Eloquently stated, dear Father,’ said John with a smile and a chuckle, ‘but I simply do not concede that that has ever been the law of the land. Our fathers always proceeded directly against subjects who refused to obey the king’s command.’

‘Through the courts and in accordance with the law,’ added the Archbishop.

‘We say, not always so, sometimes our fathers acted directly to protect their royal honour and dignity as was their undoubted right,’ the King retorted with a smile.

‘Your barons might not agree and as everyone appeals to past custom it is a matter of law and past practice, a matter for the court. Your barons would assert that they only gave service in Normandy and never in Poitou where your expedition was heading; for that is land that you inherited from your mother Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and until that time was never held by the King of England. Consequently no service has ever been given in those foreign parts; it is not owed and should not be demanded.’

John was increasingly riled by this challenge to his sovereignty and leaning forward in his chair he began to spit out his words in a rhythmic fashion.

‘Regardless of what land I may or may not possess, subjects owe their lord service, as and when he demands it and I am the one to decide when and where that will be. To repossess Normandy we have to invade it from our lands in Poitou. Would these barons have me scramble ashore on a beach in Normandy and throw sand at Philip? Are they even more stupid than they are disloyal?’

John eventually drew breath, glaring at Stephen.

‘Then there is the other matter,’ Stephen said emphatically.

John had managed to maintain some semblance of calm until now, but at this he rose to his feet clearly agitated.

‘Other matter? What other matter?’-he shouted before raising his fingers to his mouth.

Simon now spoke with a further bow, ‘My lord, you will recall that in Winchester, in the presence of the papal sub-deacon Pandolph, who I happen to have been standing next to, you took an oath.”

‘I don’t care who you were standing with, even if were the devil himself. Get on with it,’ John interrupted.

Simon bowed again but continued in the same measured tone. ‘An oath, which my Lord took, not to injure persons or property and to forgo all your anger; to receive them into your favour and in good faith maintain them there. If you are now repudiating that oath my brother, the Archbishop will be forced to act with the heaviest of hearts.’

At this the others rose to their feet, the last to rise being the Marshall. Falkes shouted,

‘Heavy heart, rubbish! If he has a heart it is the heart of a traitor.’

John motioned to them with his hand to stay back.

‘I understand now,’ he said advancing towards Stephen and pointing a wavering finger at him. ‘You restored me to the church and gave me the holy bread, just so you could excommunicate me again at such a time as this.’

‘Not so my lord,’ protested Stephen assuredly in a quiet voice.

‘You are not going to excommunicate me then, Archbishop?’

‘I have not even thought of that,’ Stephen retorted.

‘That is good news indeed,’ said the Marshall slapping his thigh nervously and looking round at the others with half a smile. There was a lull in which they all gazed at one and other’s faces as they all waited for the next move. The silence was finally broken by the Archbishop in an emphatic ringing voice :

‘I intend to excommunicate your mercenaries- every last one of them.’

‘No, you can’t do that,’ John protested, seizing hold of Stephen by his robes with both hands and spat out his words.

‘You would dare to isolate me from my army – they fight risking eternal damnation following their King who rests securely in the bosom of the church. They won’t do it. You are trying to make me look like a coward.’

Stephen raised his hands so that they were around John’s wrists but without actually touching them. Simon raised his eyebrows and looked at the King’s men. The Marshall and Bishop Peter de Roches pulled the struggling King back from Stephen.

‘Excommunicate me again,’ the King demanded earnestly of his Archbishop. ‘You don’t dare, do you, Archbishop?’

‘I couldn’t possibly do that,’ said Stephen shaking his head. ‘I doubt if the Pope would countenance it, even if it were deserved. I have come not to rebuke you for your recent actions but to preserve peace and prevent you from ill-considered hasty future actions.’

‘We need to sort this matter out now,’ said the Marshall unconvincingly.

‘If I may help, it is clear already,’ said Simon. ‘No one is contending that the King is not well within his rights to traverse the country and consult his barons, but he may not attack them because he swore not to at Winchester and you all heard him grant his peace. I for one trust the King to abide by his oath. I cannot rule out that some evil counsellor may have advised my lord the King very badly indeed.’

Knowing this last remark was aimed at them, an outpouring of words aimed at Simon came from Bishop Peter and Faulkes. Foul words and curses poured from the Bishop’s lips so vile that an inn keeper in Portsmouth would blush to hear them. The torrent of abuse only ceased when the King shouted,

‘Stop! I want him out.’

John now pointed an agitated finger at Simon. ‘You are the dark shadow of your brother. You are not needed, you add nothing.’

Simon responded with another irritating bow.

John turned away from Simon, ‘Bishop Peter, Faulkes take him out and give him appropriate hospitality-not our best.’

Seeing the anger still on their faces, the Marshall spoke up

‘Would it be for the best my lord, if I went too? I would dine with him to help resolve this matter.’

‘Yes go! We don’t want any mischief to befall him, he is only a papal sub-deacon, he’s not worth it, no matter how much he presumes to provoke us all. I would talk alone with the master, not his dog’ the King replied with a final glare at Simon.

The four men left, with the Marshall placing himself between Simon and the two angry advisors who still hurled insults past the Marshall. Simon walked half a pace behind the Marshall which had the effect of forcing the advisors to learn forward in an attempt to make eye contact. Simon felt uncomfortable but enjoyed treating them with the contempt they deserved. The Marshall invited Simon to eat and drink with him in the quiet of his rooms.

Once alone, the King spoke with his Archbishop:

‘My dear father forgive me I have been inhospitable, please be seated.’ John motioned to the cushioned heavy chair recently vacated by Faulkes de Beaute.

Stephen duly sat where he had been directed wondering what would come next. He hoped not to betray any nervousness such as a twitching hand. John chuckled and moved slowly towards him, slowly he drew a dagger which he began to wave through the air. Stephen thought about standing but he didn’t want to do anything that might provoke John into using it. Stephen reminded himself to stay calm and breathe steadily though his nose. He sat very upright.

John drew nearer and walked back and forth in front of Stephen. He usually looked up at the ceiling, sometimes down on the floor and just occasionally he flashed a glance at Stephen which he held for a while and then suddenly broke away. It was as if he was treating Stephen to his innermost thoughts.

‘Sometimes I imagine cutting your throat from right to left and other times the more awkward left to right and I confess I’m caught between the two. That may be why I haven’t yet done it just yet; I can’t make up my mind. So frustrating!’

Stephen wished he could just flee the room but so many people were depending on him. Rather than watch the flashing knife he determined to concentrate on John’s words.

John smacked his lips, ‘My advice to you is in a time of uncertainty you should ensure your own safety. Go back to Canterbury Cathedral and never leave there again. The thing is Archbishop, I will never, ever have you killed in that Cathedral. I’m sure you’d love that but it won’t happen. All the same perhaps I’d better take precautions in my own interest.’

‘Precautions?’ Stephen queried.

‘Yes, sensible precautions. Look, if you ever want to flee to France, I’d be willing to give you and your brother safe conducts to the coast. I am a magnanimous sovereign; I’m willing to let you go despite all the ill will you have stirred up against me. Let us part as friends.’

‘I’ve no plans for France,’ Stephen asserted trying to watch John’s face rather than the knife.

‘I see you’re watching the blade,’ said John, ‘It’s very sharp.’ He now moved up to Stephen and pressed the point of the blade lightly on his neck.

‘This is the point Archbishop.’ John chuckled and began to talk very fast, ‘That really is quite funny isn’t it, and you really ought to be laughing out loud Archbishop, our loyal subjects would laugh, convulsed every one of them. We’re trying to make a serious point here-ah, there I go again and you’re still not laughing. Although we resolve time and again not to slit your throat, our mind just won’t let the matter rest there, so neither of us can fully trust me. Take now; it doesn’t need a slash, just a push would do, straight through it would go. The blood spurts out. We’ve no intention of doing it but then again it could just happen, almost before either of us realise it. Well to be fair we guess you’d be the first to know. We’d probably only realise it from your face or when you turn away to avoid spewing blood over us. We’d better put the knife away for now; we don’t want any accidents do we?’

John paused awaiting an answer but none came. John resumed in a slower voice:

‘You look more nervous than you should be and that undermines my own sense of self-control. The more you have confidence in me the less likely I am to do anything I might regret.’

John suddenly withdrew the knife and put it back in its scabbard with a clumsy motion.

‘I needed to put that away, you were having a bad effect on me.’

Stephen knew he was not able to relax this might be only a temporary lull.

‘We value your great learning father and we have an important question for you which I am at a loss to answer; Why in God’s name do we need archbishops?’

‘Why do we need kings,’ Stephen replied looking John straight in the eyes?

‘God decreed there should be kings,’ replied John immediately turning away.

‘Before the people of Israel asked God for a king, they had no kings,’ said Stephen.

‘Well that really is curious,’ said John turning around to face Stephen again, ‘We don’t see how that could possibly work. Who would punish the wicked if there were no king? That was a poor answer. God clearly didn’t create archbishops to answer questions. Do you believe in God Archbishop?’

‘Yes, I do,’ Stephen replied.

‘Well I’m not sure he believes in you. He’s done precious few favours for you has he?’- observed John with a mocking tone? Six years I kept you away from England and God didn’t do a lot to help you, did he? So bored you spent your time dividing the bible into chapters I’m told. I don’t know why; nobody reads it.’

‘My lord is misinformed, I did that years before in Paris,’ replied Stephen.

Ah, yes, Paris, the home of my foe King Philip. But let’s not talk about him. I’ve more important matters to attend to and I’ve got good news for you: I’ve almost decided I may well not kill you, I should let you enjoy this last little triumph of yours. Once things are finally settled with Rome I will have a legate here in England and your power will be gone forever- squirm as much as you will. You’ve lost. I can wait; I will not destroy the north that would just place a weapon into your hands for you to bother my friend the Pope with. So leave us, go and join that obnoxious little brother of yours.

Relieved to be suddenly dismissed Stephen rose and walked towards the door.

‘Stop, sit,’ said John with a serious face. He rushed after Stephen and taking him by the arm he dragged him back to his chair and thrust him in it. John drew his dagger again.

‘Precautions, I almost forgot about the precautions. How could I? Now sit still we don’t want any accidents, I don’t want to nick your neck.’

As he said this he grabbed the back of Stephen’s hair around his right shoulder in his left hand pulling Stephen’s head back. The two of them gazed eyeball to eyeball. With the dagger in his right hand John began to hack off clumps of hair. There was little need for John to tell Stephen to sit still John was more terrifying than any drunken barber with a blade to the throat. Stephen sat rigid on the chair. With a clump of hair in his left hand John now put his face in front of Stephen.

‘That’s not even now; we need to do the other side.’

John repeated the procedure around the left side of Stephen’s head this time with only a few cuts. With his hand clasping hair he drew back and glanced at Stephen.

‘That’s a good job well done,’ he said.

John moved to a table across the room, upon which sat two money bags. He loosened the leather cord around the neck of one and turned it upside down above the table. About a hundred coins emptied onto the table, bouncing and contesting space with each other and a good number fell on the floor. John seemed completely unconcerned at their escape. With the empty bag in his right hand he thrust Stephen’s hair into the bag and tightened the cord. He looked over to Stephen triumphantly.

With John at least a small distance away Stephen tried to calculate if this behaviour was real or put on to unnerve him. Either way it certainly was unnerving. John now lurched back towards him.

‘What?’ -he said moving his head in a jerking fashion towards Stephen.

‘I was wondering what you were doing,’ said Stephen. I thought perhaps you’d taken up witchcraft.’

‘Well there is no need to look at us, as if you are peering at a madman. It is a simple precaution as I’ve already told you. I’m not sure I believe in God. When we look at you we can only conclude that either he doesn’t exist or he doesn’t like you and has abandoned you. We’re sure you will die in exile-a lonely, forgotten man. But Stephen, supposing we’re wrong, unlikely as it is, just imagine it. Suppose one day some of our men take offence at your obstinacy and kill you in your cathedral. They might bury you there and then the unthinkable happens, there are miracles and you get declared a saint. People flock from many countries to see the twin martyrs, St Thomas and St Stephen.

A relic of St Stephen will heal you. A relic will grant you time off purgatory. Can you even begin to imagine what this hair will be worth then? More precious than gold, we could swap a few strands for jewels. We could raise an army to defeat our enemies, paid for by cuttings of hair from your very own head. When we look at a single strand of your hair we see a hundred mercenaries. We don’t see it ever happening but if it does, well, we’re prepared. We’ve talked too long and too openly, for I like you to benefit from what I’m thinking. Leave us now beloved father your barons are safe as doves.’

Stephen slowly rose and started to leave. He feared that any sudden movement might provoke a further recall. He thought that John might next want a small sample of his blood. He would make sure he spent the night in the Marshall’s care and sleeping in the same room as Simon. At last he reached the door and passed out of John’s sight. As he hurried away he could hear noises from John but he wasn’t sure if it was laughing or crying.

The next day at first light the brothers rode south and headed back to London.

John continued marching north to Nottingham, York and as far north as Durham near the Scottish border. His raiding was limited to securing supplies for his men, which he promised to pay for later, which of course he had no intention of doing. Barons came out to meet him but they came in armed groups. He could not force them to pay fines for not coming to France without the threat of the immediate destruction of their lands. Instead he had no sanction other than to issue dates for the royal court in which they would have to argue their case. John felt powerless against the barons. It was Langton that had caused his humiliation, he would not forget it. The King made it clear to the barons that they must accompany him to France in February or else there would be a reckoning when he returned victorious. A few made promises to come but there were non-committal responses from most. Turning south again John retraced his steps back to London.

On 3rd October 1213 King John formally gave England away to the Pope witnessed by Stephen Langton, Peter de Roches the Bishop of Winchester, Christa’s half-brother the chancellor Walter de Gray, the Earl of Salisbury who was the king’s bastard half-brother, the Marshall and the Saer de Quincy the Earl of Winchester. Most of the barons simply stayed away.

After the surrender of England, Stephen went to his cathedral at Canterbury with his brother Simon. There was now a Papal Legate by name of Nicholas resident in England, and as the Pope’s representative he could overrule Stephen. There were a considerable number of vacant bishoprics that needed people appointed. In almost every case Nicholas found fault with whomever Stephen wanted and favoured the King’s nominee. As the days got shorter and the nights got darker the brothers continually discussed what to do. In effect the Pope was switching sides so keen was he to get England and its resources into his pocket. The presence of Nicholas the legate meant that Stephen had even less power than when he had been in exile.

As Christmas drew near a group of horsemen arrived at the Archbishop’s residence in Canterbury. They were led by a familiar figure, Robert FitzWalter but familiar as he was, he did not look well. On hearing the commotion of so large a group of horsemen the brothers had rushed outside to meet them. Robert started speaking as soon as he had dismounted.

‘Disaster, Stephen, a terrible disaster. Don’t tell me otherwise. It’s Geoffrey.’

He bowed his head and placed his hand over his brow.

‘He’s not dead is he?’-asked Simon.

‘Worse than that. I told him I wished he was dead. I didn’t mean it of course, I was just so angry with him.’

‘Come inside,’ said Stephen ‘and calm yourself down.’

Robert nodded and the three of them proceeded into the apartments with Robert removing his riding gear as he went. When they reached the most comfortable room Robert flung his riding gear to one side where it landed against the wall with a clatter.

‘If only I hadn’t been away. The King’s men arrived and insisted Geoffrey go with them and “bring your seal,”’ they said.

‘What did they want his seal for,’ said Stephen?

‘Exactly, he should have dropped it on the way. He was already in a state, with his grief for Matilda.’ FitzWalter sighed.

‘So John puts it to him that his cousin Geoffrey de Saye has a better claim to the title Earl of Essex which was Geoffrey’s father’s title than Geoffrey has. If Geoffrey- that’s my Geoffrey- doesn’t do what he wants, John will make judgement in favour of Geoffrey de Saye, making him the new earl.’

‘So what does he want,’ said Simon?

‘He insists that Geoffrey marry the poor old queen, his divorced first wife. Twice married but she didn’t have any children when she was young, let alone now she’s old.’

‘I can stop the marriage,’ said Stephen.

‘No you can’t,’ said FitzWalter, ‘it’s already done.’

‘What?’-said the brothers in unison.

‘That’s not the worst of it. To get the old Queen’s lands and the titles, he agreed to pay John twenty thousand marks and pay it in ten months. He might as well have promised to pay him the moon and seven stars.’

‘That is a fabulous sum,’ said Simon pulling a face with disquiet.

‘It’s all aimed at me,’ said Robert. ‘When Geoffrey dies the Gloucester land being his wife’s won’t come to us, but the debt will. The debt will go to Geoffrey’s brother William who is of course married to my other daughter Christina. From there it will pass down to my grandchildren.’

‘Are you sure that sum is right? Even for John that sum is exorbitant,’ said Simon?

‘It’s right. Don’t you think I checked? It has his seal on it,’ said FitzWalter grimly.

‘Why on earth did he sign it? What was he thinking of, he could have played for time?’-said Stephen.

‘I said that to him, but it is a bit difficult when John has the blushing bride waiting, even if it is husband number three. So he left single and came back a married man weighed down by debt. I’m not convinced he really feels it but the rest of us do.’

‘I don’t know what I can do about this,’ said Stephen.

‘Neither do I,’ said Robert.

‘We are going to have to think of something, said Simon.’

‘What is Geoffrey saying about it now?’ asked Stephen.

‘He’s still grief stricken about Matilda as always. He hasn’t slept with his new wife; he says she’s more like a mother to him. He says he doesn’t care about anything for himself, but he’s sorry for how it affects the rest of the family.

‘John’s going to come after you,’ said Stephen. ‘Once he’s back from France win or lose he’s going to go for the two of you.’

‘Well, that’s the truth isn’t it? I said that to Geoffrey, “he’s coming for us, you need to raise every man against him. We might as well go down fighting; I for one don’t want a slow lingering death.”’

‘I’d never have guessed this would happen,’ said Stephen. ‘What a mess. He has the two of you in the palms of his hands and when he’s ready he will squeeze when it suits him.’

‘That is my tale of woe. Oh, I almost forgot Castle Baynard, I’ve had that wall rebuilt, you know the one I threw John into. I should have crushed his ugly skull while I had the chance. Anyway, the wall is rebuilt, plastered and whitewashed. I lost the tapestry but I’ve had a copy of it painted on the wall from memory, with a crown painted on the floor at the bottom. I didn’t want it to remain as John left it.’

‘That’s a nice touch Robert, said Stephen, ‘I look forward to seeing the crown on the ground before too long.’

‘What of you?’ said Robert, ‘I hear you’ve been blessed with a legate as if we haven’t got a legion of foreigners pillaging the country already?

‘Well not just that,’ said Stephen, ‘the Pope has made a fourteen year old boy a canon at York Cathedral, didn’t even bother consulting anyone there. York will never see the lad and the money will just drain to the young Italian, whoever’s son he is.’

‘Whilst we are on the bad news, the legate deigned to pay us a visit yesterday. He told us the Pope insistent that his secret letters are destroyed. His letters deposed John and gave the throne to Philip’s son Louis by right of his wife. Now John is the Pope’s illustrious son they suddenly had to be destroyed. “Torn to shreds, burnt to ashes” were Innocent’s words. The Legate insisted on watching us destroy them.’

‘You should have used them while you had them in your possession,’ said Robert.

‘Not a chance, even if I tried Louis couldn’t get across the channel, the French fleet is no match for the English. John however can sail to France unopposed; it looks like the fate of all of us is going to be decided in France.’

‘What in heaven’s name is going to become of us,’ said Robert?

‘I don’t know,’ Stephen replied, ‘We may all be weak alone but our weakness may draw us together and make us strong.’

‘My brother will do what he always does when he doesn’t know what to do,’ said Simon.

‘What is that?’ Robert said.

‘He’ll send me to Rome to see the Pope. I can’t see us getting any help there from now on,’ Simon said wistfully.

‘No, that ship has sailed,’ said Stephen. ‘The Pope will back John at every step. It is time to rely on ourselves whatever turn of events may come.’


Sealed with Blood, Chapter 5: Celebration

Portchester, South Coast of England, 1213

Stephen opened the door.

‘I will die in this room,’ he thought with a gathering sense of dread. ‘My body will be carried out of here.’

He had delivered himself up into the King’s hands. It would be a long restless night waiting to see if anyone would commit his murder. Stephen contemplated escaping but he could not; his lot was to wait and see if he was to die or not. What had John determined for him? Did it all rest on the King having a bad day or a good one? The future of Stephen’s existence now had the same level of predictability as tossing a coin; which way up would it land?

He had retired early for the night leaving everyone else feasting and drinking. His room, which was high up in the tower was sparsely furnished with a wide bed, a desk, a table and three chairs. The door possessed a loose wooden latch but no wooden beam to prevent entry. He took the precaution of burning only a solitary candle. He kept the others for later when they might be required.

Stephen sat in the most comfortable chair facing the door. He viewed his surroundings; it felt like a coffin. The papal representative Sub Deacon Pandulph was quartered in the next room but Stephen had little idea of where anyone else was located. A series of thoughts went through his mind inspired by John’s unpredictability. Calling him “Thomas” did not auger well and had succeeded in its purpose of getting under his skin.

He closed his eyes and at once was conscious of every creak of the wooden floor. There were far more creaks and groans from the floor planks than he would ever have imagined, ranging in volume and being of different duration. With every noise he felt agitated. Then, there was a pause in the restless sounds but this gave him no respite as within a few moments he imagined the knights bursting in on Thomas Beckett. At least Beckett had been slain gloriously at prayer in Canterbury Cathedral. Death in an upper room of a castle by contrast, would be a rather inglorious ending.

He considered barricading the door with the desk, but if John wanted to kill him, the slaying would not be stopped, just delayed. There was no other exit to flee from. It occurred to him that John might be wondering what he would do to secure the door. Would John send someone in on some pretext, to discover if he had attempted to block the door? John would be able to have a really good laugh if he was told, “the Archbishop is so terrified, he has blockaded himself in.”

He resolved to leave the door unobstructed so that anyone might lift the latch and enter. The bed was situated next to the entrance and he chose not to lie on it. An intruder could be on you, while you were still asleep, not that it was likely that he would sleep. Every time he shut his eyes he just saw another rerun of the slaughter of Beckett accompanied by King John’s commentary on the fatal blow. It was far worse now since John was not just in his imaginings, he was a living threat a few floors below in flesh and blood.

He rested in the chair and watched the door. Stephen reasoned that nothing would happen until the eating and drinking in the great hall had ceased. So he waited, sometimes getting up and pacing around the room. He thought of Elowise and young Stephen in the safety of Lincolnshire; perhaps he had already seen them for the last time. If anything did happened to him, Simon would make sure they were looked after. He thought of Elias and what a sensible and talented young man he was, very easy to be proud of. After a while it was quiet, he could hear no more noise.

He lit a second candle from the first and positioned both of them behind him so as to cast light towards the doorway. He wanted to see the faces of any intruders and crucially if they carried weapons. With the light from behind him he would be able to see figures clearly, but his own face would be shrouded in darkness. The candles cast two long shadows of him across the floor, stretching towards the door in a V shape. Stephen thought how appropriate the two shadows were; inside he was really two people, one a pragmatist, the other a man of justice who could not compromise. These two people did not always get on with each other and both of them were him.

At an hour past midnight he heard the latch gently lift. Was this the start of his last brief minute in this world? The intruder didn’t loudly burst in, which he thought was certainly good. They were creeping silently in, which equally, he thought was certainly bad. With the latch released, the door slowly swung into the room, but when only half opened it stopped. Stephen reasoned that this was due to the person encountering the unexpected light. He could feel his forehead becoming cold with sweat. He wanted to swallow but for some reason thought that he shouldn’t in case it was audible. Now the visitor advanced into the room. He would see if they possessed a weapon or not. He was poised to jump on them but he really didn’t know if he should do that or not. Just what are you supposed to do when someone stronger comes to kill you?

A figure emerged from around the concealing door. He looked at the hands, they were empty but a weapon might be concealed or perhaps the intention was to smother him. This was not as he had envisaged, even in the half-light it was clearly visible that the intruder was a woman in a nightgown. His mind raced through many possibilities; a woman sent to kill him, or he was being tricked into killing a woman; perhaps a prostitute or this might be some sort of weird love gift from the king. Whatever her purpose, she might not be alone, others could be about to burst in.

In the candlelight Stephen could see that her face was anxious.

‘What do you want?’ Stephen asked quietly.

‘Nothing,’ the woman replied quickly, seemingly frozen to the spot. Her feet were naked. She did not make for the exit so it was clear she was not intent on leaving; her objectives whatever they were remained unfulfilled.

‘Why have they sent you?’ Stephen asked. He was conscious of hearing his own voice in a very detached way as if someone else was speaking on his behalf.

‘I don’t know,’ said the woman and she began to visibly shake.

Stephen was unwilling to take the risk of trying to reassure her. She seemed like a pawn in a game of chess but the next move might be more aggressive by a more powerful piece and it was difficult to predict.

‘Leave,’ said Stephen sharply, without feeling the need to know what her instructions actually were. As the immediate danger seemed to lessen, the chilling uncertainty increased.

‘I can’t,’ said the woman raising her hands to the side of her face as if overwhelmed with horror.

‘Then sit down on the bed,’ Stephen commanded her.

The woman seemed glad to obey. She flopped down on the bed with her shoulders sagging. Seeing how little threat she herself posed Stephen suspected he was being lulled into carelessness and others lurked outside ready to burst in. Were they to be killed together? The discrediting tale could be; Archbishop found dead in bed with unknown woman.

Stephen rose up and took one of the candles. He moved until he was standing almost square in front of her, but a little away from the partly opened door and just out of reach of a potential knife thrust from the woman. He held the candle between himself and the doorway. He was aware that his right hand supporting the candle was trembling which caused the light to shudder. It seemed important to hope the woman wouldn’t notice this insecurity.

‘Tell me what they instructed you to do to me,’ Stephen ordered her in a quiet but rough voice.

The woman managed to compose herself. She spoke to him but her eyes looked up at the corner of the room.

‘They ordered me to bite your neck, bite it hard,’ she replied in a distracted manner.

She paused. Stephen thought this was so bizarre it might well be true. She now turned her eyes back to him.

‘I was supposed to get out quickly. Now what can I do? I was told you would be asleep. You’re not going to let me bite you, are you?’

‘Stay there,’ Stephen instructed. He now took the supreme risk; he seized the door and thrust his head beyond it into the corridor. Momentarily he waited for the fatal blow to land. No blade struck him from front or from the rear. All was still and all was dark. He moved back into the room where the woman had not moved from his bed and shut the door.

‘Do you know who I am?’ he asked her.

‘You’re the Archbishop, aren’t you? How am I supposed to know?’ she replied, slapping the bed in frustration with her arm. ‘Why is this happening to me, I’m not an evil girl?’

Stephen ignored her query.

‘Ah, I think I know what has happened,’ he said. ‘Let’s try and solve this together.’

He talked to the woman for a while and then parting company, she left the room with his neck still unpierced by her teeth.

A few minutes after her silent departure, the night time peace of the castle was shattered by a man screaming out in agony. Almost immediately there were loud guffaws of laughter from the floor below. A door slammed and someone light footed could be heard running swiftly away. This was quickly followed by a door being flung open again and the sound of a man continually shrieking filled the air. The whole castle must have heard the commotion. The distressed man was shouting words too but it was impossible to understand what he was crying out.

A gang of men came noisily rushing up the stairway bringing candle light with them. They were perhaps the same company who had howled with laughter so heartily moments before. Now the men appeared shocked at the unexpected scenario. Several called out one after another,

‘What’s going on?’ ‘What’s happened?’

It was evident from their rapid response that they must all have got dressed very quickly to arrive so promptly. They even had their boots on. When they reached the agonised man he at first shouted all the more in his native Italian, holding his wounded neck with blood seeping through his fingers. Then the sub deacon spoke so that they could understand, exclaiming that a mad person had bitten him. ‘Imbecile!’ he kept proclaiming between grimacing and his loud penetrating wails. This was followed by a great deal of noise and shouting from almost everyone. The papal sub-deacon was certain that he was dying. Then he said something about telling the Pope of this outrage, which did at least suggest he thought there was a chance he might survive the crisis and live a little while longer.

One voice demanded several times: ‘How did she get into the wrong room?’

After about ten minutes of commotion, the group left accompanied by the sub deacon still expressing his fury to them. The last audible words of the angry group related to someone called Ralph being blamed, despite his earnest denials. His protests were brushed aside on the grounds that he had been drinking too much.

Stephen felt bad about convincing the woman that the Archbishop was in the next room. He now rested on the bed for the first time. He alternated between feeling guilty and sniggering at the plight of the papal official. It was strange how at one moment you can think you are about to die and the next you are being kept awake by your own guilty laughter. Was any of this real? With a mixture of relief and mirth he unexpectedly fell heavily asleep.

In the neighbouring room the sub deacon with his wound now washed, nursed his painful neck within his well barricaded room. No one tested his worthy defences but despite this he remained awake for the rest of the night. Pandulph was no longer enjoying the green beauty of England; if he was to die he wanted to die in his own country amongst his own civilised people not amongst these uncivilised English cannibals. He didn’t wake up the next day; he had no opportunity to for he had not been asleep. Stephen, however, did wake up, quickly alert and slightly surprised to find himself still among the living. He confirmed to his own satisfaction that he was still breathing, he was alive after all. It was an incentive to live each day as if it was his last. He felt that he had looked death in the face and not blinked. He was not leaving the room as a corpse. He opened the door and walked through the doorway into the rest of his life.

Below in the great hall, Pandulf talked effusively about the incident to anyone who possessed ears. Immediately after the event he had not known if his attacker had been male or female, now he declared it was a big woman whose ugly face he would recognise anywhere. He kept asserting that this woman had come into his room at dead of night and he had fought her off. Eventually he elaborated further, that she had come to rob him and that a considerable sum of his money was now missing. It would need to be replaced.

People listened to the progressively embellished story with decreasing sympathy. Once they were away from Pandulph there was a great deal of jollity about the tale and many inappropriate comments. One man claimed he himself was cursed with a terrible problem of beautiful women breaking into his room every night, no matter how he tried to stop them. Another said that the girl had gone into the room to be intimate with Pandulph because he was famous; but seeing how plump he was, she changed her mind and decided to eat him instead. Clearly he didn’t taste good either because one bite was more than enough. Another said, if he didn’t like our traditional English welcomes, he should go back to Italy where he belonged. The sub deacon’s misfortune created an air of merriment throughout the whole company.

Once everyone had eaten an unusually boisterous breakfast, the castle proceeded to gouge out its occupants. The King led the procession accompanied by the sub deacon who seemed determined to relate the fullest extent of the event all the way to Winchester. Behind them were Faulkes de Beaute and William Marshall who was the most famous knight in Europe and generally known simply as the Marshall. The Marshall organised the King’s army especially managing the provision of horses. The Marshall had served King Richard well and been made Earl of Pembroke. He was now over sixty years old but still cut an impressive figure with a swathe of long grey hair. His relationship with John had been through some difficult times. He didn’t like John but he was a royal official and everything he had had been acquired under the Angevin kings, Richard and John.

The King’s men and the Marshall’s men amounted to about sixty retainers. They were followed by the Archbishop now accompanied by two bishops who had arrived late the previous night; the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Lincoln. With the impressive horsemen in front, Stephen felt very inferior accompanied by a single bishop on each side. It was like being a captive on display, exhibited by a conquering general. Behind them came all manner of people, cooks, bakers, bed carriers, servants, carpenters and camp followers. They headed north climbing up Portsdown Hill at an angle, with a panoramic view of the sea and islands spreading out behind them.

As they neared the summit, the King being at the front of the column, could see a group of horsemen approaching from the east along the top of the hill and a second smaller group, more distant coming from the west. As the procession reached the brow of the hill the nearer of the two groups of horsemen was not far distant. The horsemen raised the red and yellow banner of Robert FitzWalter, broke into a gallop and then pulled up sharply in front of the king which produced a cloud of pale dust. They all dismounted and bowed.

‘My lord,’ said FitzWalter, with an exaggerated flourish of bodily movements.

John could not bring himself to look down on FitzWalter. He seethed with anger but he knew he would have to bide his time. The baron was able to appear before him because he travelled under John’s own sheep skin letter of safety. The awkward silence lasted so long that Pandulf’s sticky grin which had suddenly reappeared, vanished almost as quickly as it had reasserted itself.

‘My Lord FitzWalter, fall in behind the king,’ the voice of the Marshall instructed ending the standoff.

‘Gladly, my Lord Marshall,’ FitzWalter declared rather too grandly.

He and his men mounted and the king’s column started moving forward again. However, FitzWalter did not fall in behind the Marshall and Faulkes de Beaute, instead he waited until Archbishop Stephen was level with him.

‘My Lord Archbishop, the eyes of the whole country sparkle with joy at your homecoming,’ he shouted as if he wanted this to be heard all the way to France. ‘I cannot come between you and my lord, the king so recently reconciled. I will be content to fall in behind you, the humble servant of you both.’

‘You are welcome my lord FitzWalter,’ Stephen replied, trying not to betray a laugh.

With that FitzWalter fell in behind the Archbishop. They had hardly been moving two more minutes when the more distant group arrived from the west. The group consisted of Giles, Bishop of Hereford, Henry de Bohun the Earl of Hereford and William Mallet the Sheriff of Somerset. The same procedure of stopping, dismounting and bowing was followed by the two barons but the bishop remained steadfastly on his horse. He glared at the king who failed to meet his gaze. Instead John kept his head motionless with his eyes fixed forward. Giles was the son of Maud de Braose, the outspoken woman starved to death by John. Giles continued to look upon the murderer of his mother and elder brother. He said not a word and neither did the king. They were as silent as the two corpses that had been sealed up in the tower.

‘Fall in behind,’ the Marshall instructed once more. The new group now took their place behind the Archbishop.

This was not the last interruption. After a mile or two Geoffrey de Mandeville could be seen with a dozen knights approaching from the front. At this latest arrival John could not contain his fury.

‘Don’t stop,’ he instructed the Marshall and Faulkes. ‘This is not mere chance. They have planned this to make me look small.’

Geoffrey and his men were in the process of dismounting but the King failed to acknowledge them and increasing his speed, he just rode on past him as if he wasn’t there.

‘Fall in behind the king,’ the Marshall demanded knowing full well this wouldn’t happen.

Geoffrey remounted and joined his father in law, Robert FitzWalter in riding behind the Archbishop.

The next contingent was led by de Clare, the Earl of Hereford. John did at least stop for him, spoke to him and received his bow. The latest arrival meant there were more armed men following the Archbishop than the King. John’s mood grew darker and darker whilst Stephen’s mood became more and more buoyant as his approach to Winchester turned into a triumphant procession.

John sent a rider ahead for the Bishop of Winchester, a loyal supporter to come and meet him with as many men as possible. A few miles from Winchester the bishop duly arrived with some armed men but also a hastily assembled rabble of servants and labourers. This caused a lot of laughter from the riders behind Stephen, but not from John. Things then got even worse when the Earl of Winchester, a close relative of FitzWalter, arrived with an impressive group of armed men.

‘My Lord, welcome to Winchester,’ the Earl declared.

By now John was so furious he could hardly speak.

‘We thank you,’ he managed at last.

With the final rendezvous accomplished the column proceeded to the city. As they approached the city gates crowds stood outside and respectfully bowed. John suspected that they were not there to welcome him but to celebrate the homecoming of their Archbishop Stephen.

With so many men present, accommodation at the castle was overwhelmed and many tents were erected in the castle grounds. While John was staying with Peter de Roches the Bishop of Winchester, many of his men had pitched their tents at the castle. It was a clear warm summer night and much of it was given over to eating and drinking. FitzWalter at last had his much desired hog roast provided by his cousin, the Earl of Winchester. As they sat outside drinking FitzWalter saw the Marshall in the distance.

‘Stephen, Stephen, have you seen the Marshall off his horse? Without pausing for a reply he continued: ‘It is a sight to jiggle the eyes. He’s not used to being out of the saddle. By no means a creature of the earth! See how he ambles around.’

FitzWalter now sprang to his feet and started waddling forward wide legged and swaying from side to side, as if a horse was still between his legs. This occasioned much laughter from his men.

Stephen looked over to the Marshall; it was true he had become rather bow legged. FitzWalter turned and waddled back to them. A cheer went up from his followers.

‘What a life the Marshall has had, Stephen. Most feared knight in jousts. All the fools who dared to go against him in jousting tournaments; he dumped them right on their backs. Then, when he gets too old for that, he marries a seventeen year old, but he still thinks he’s in a joust. He dumps her on her back and before she can take a breath she’s given birth to a dozen of his squealing children. Now if you see her, she walks in exactly the same way as him! Little wonder she’s not as nimble as she used to be.’

Once again FitzWalter set off on a waddle to raucous laughter from his hearers. He turned and waddled back.

‘Stephen, you should see them together; they’ve grown so alike as only a man and wife can. You really can’t tell them apart.’

With that he began to pull up Geoffrey his son in law.

‘Come on Geoffrey, you’ll have to be the wife. You’re far to pretty to be the Marshall.’

‘You promised we wouldn’t do this again,’ said Geoffrey, offering up little resistance.

The two of them proceeded to waddle up and down, side by side while everyone laughed. The rumpus attracted the attention of other groups and the Marshall glanced over.

‘They don’t walk like that,’ said Stephen breaking his silence at last.

‘Oh yes they do! Have you seen them together?’ asked FitzWalter.

‘No,’ replied Stephen.

‘Then how could you possibly know,’ FitzWalter declared, laughing all the more. ‘The trouble with the Marshall is that he wants to be both sides of the fence. That’s the real reason he walks like that. In private he’ll lean one way and say we mustn’t let John pick us off one by one. Then he’ll shift his weight on to his other leg and attending John he’ll be all cream and buttercups.’

‘He’s a brilliant strategist,’ said Stephen, ‘very clever.’

‘Like the wind, you never know which direction he’s going to be blowing from tomorrow,’ FitzWalter replied- ‘I don’t trust him.’

‘He’s a great knight, I wouldn’t like to be up against him,’ said Stephen.

‘You could bring him down wielding a club Stephen! He’s not the man he used to be. You’ll see how this will all work out, the Marshall will look after the Marshall first and probably the Marshall second. He has one foot firmly planted each side of the fence. One day he’s with the king, the next against and equally passionate on both days.’

FitzWalter now drew closer to Stephen and dropped his voice.

‘I’m worried about Geoffrey. Since my daughter Matilda’s death he doesn’t look after himself. He doesn’t care about anything. I still cry about her but not every night. He cries at night and in the daytime he does it all the more. Life has to go on. I have other children to think of, but with Geoffrey it is as if he died when she died. I said to him, do what everyone else does- marry another girl quickly, I won’t be offended, you’ll have my blessing- but he won’t. He’s as stiff as a corpse.’

Stephen put his arm on FitzWalter’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes, ‘I’ll do what I can Robert.’

‘I know you will Stephen, at least this trouble with John gets him up out of his chair and forces him to do something.’

Both men now saw the Marshall advancing towards them and Stephen thought to himself, I mustn’t laugh. However, he soon realised everyone else was thinking just the same about the Marshall’s duck like walk and some were sniggering. The Marshall reached them and greeted Stephen with a bow and then nodded to Robert.

‘Tomorrow, all this difficulty with the king will be behind us,’ said the Marshall. ‘It’s all gone on far too long. At least the King has seen sense at last.’

‘We can but hope for a better future,’ said Stephen.

‘We’ll drink to that,’ said Robert handing the Marshall a goblet and he proposed a toast: ‘To the restoration of peace and the rebuilding of castles!’

The Marshall glared at Robert but he did drink to the toast. The Marshall stayed and talked. It was obvious that although FitzWalter and the Marshall had a grudging respect for each other as powerful men, neither was entirely happy being associated with the other. The hours passed in good humour until men began to drift away to where they would settle for the night. Some, like Stephen, would have a comfortable bed in the castle, while others would sleep on the ground in a tent. How different from the previous night; Stephen had no fear of dying and he slept the entire night.

The next morning the Cathedral was crowded full of people standing; there was an excited buzz of expectation in the air. At the north door of the Cathedral Stephen and five bishops waited for the arrival of the King. He arrived accompanied only by Pandulph and William Marshall and, as previously agreed; he knelt down at the bishops’ feet. He seemed to be profusely weeping with an anguished face.

‘Have mercy upon us and our kingdom!’ he cried.

Stephen and the other bishops lifted him to his feet and led him into the Cathedral; all eyes upon them. The Cathedral itself was a dazzling site. It was not just tall and extremely long but a riot of colour with gold, silver, gems and a mass of colourful paintings of every shade on the walls. The Cathedral was celebrating the feast of their local saint, Saint Swithan, so there were flowers, candles, and banners. The sun shone brightly through the stained glass windows casting colour wherever the light fell.

The Bishops followed by the King, Pandulph and the Marshall moved to the chapter house and sang the fiftieth psalm:

‘What authority have you to recite my laws, or take my covenant to your lips?

You hate my teaching and cast my words aside.

When you see a thief you join with him, you throw in your lot with adulterers.

Your mouth is full of evil and you tongue devoted to deceive.

But I will now rebuke you and accuse you to your face.’

Having sung the psalm they returned to the main body of the cathedral. The king, now without his supporters beside him, knelt down and placing his hands upon Holy Scriptures vowed to defend the church, to repeal evil laws, to revive good laws and to provide justice through the courts. He promised to restore property seized from the church.

Stephen now absolved him from excommunication. England was still under an interdict, but John, the king, alone among the people of England was right with the church and God. It had all proceeded with wonderful smoothness. Stephen announced that the King of England, now being absolved and communicate with the church would receive the bread, the body of Christ.

Pandulph, who had stood to the side, was now positioned next to his fellow papal sub-deacon, Simon Langton. He now rushed forward to Stephen and motioned to the congregation a stop signal with his right hand. He spoke to Stephen in Italian and Stephen replied in the same language.

‘Archbishop Stephen I forbid you to do this! The Pope has not agreed to this. The interdict is not lifted, only the king is absolved! He is forbidden to have the bread.’

‘How dare you interrupt me?’ Stephen snapped at him with indignation. ‘Withdraw Sub-Deacon Pandulpho Masca, you have no authority here!’

‘I represent the Pope, the negotiations with the king are not concluded, the interdict is not lifted, and you Archbishop are exceeding your authority!’

Seeing this argument developing but not understanding Italian, the King rose to his feet and motioned the Bishop of Winchester Peter de Roches to come to him.

‘What do I do?’ whispered the king. What is Langton playing at?’

‘I don’t know my Lord,’ replied de Roches, I had no inkling he was going to do this.’

The whispering was drowned out by the rising voices of Langton and Pandulph.

‘The interdict remains just so you can impose a poll tax on these poor people,’ declared Langton angrily. ‘A penny, every year, exacted from every household, rich or poor to be shipped to Rome. You intend to fill your wide hat to the brim with coins until it overflows. When we sang about one thief joining another we were singing about you Pandulpho! Stand aside or I’ll have you thrown out!’

Looking on as everyone else was, de Roches said to the king, ‘I will have to assist him, he is the archbishop, but my lord you do not have to take the bread.’

‘If I don’t take it I will look stupid and condemned by the church, if I do take it then it makes it look as if I’m supporting Langton.’

‘The Pope will sort it out to your advantage my lord,’ said de Roches.

Pandulph’s voice could now be heard refusing to be intimidated by Stephen.

‘It is Peters Pence that is due to the Pope,’ he protested shrilly.

‘And that has hardly ever been collected and it won’t happen now. The King sits one side of the cow grasping two udders and now you sit the other tugging at the other two. The cow is almost milked dry but the drier it gets the more you tug and order the poor beast to stand still. When the cow struggles to break free you blame the animal. You are full of greed!’

‘The Pope shall hear this,’ threatened Pandulph.

‘No doubt,’ replied Stephen, ‘I’ve saved you the trouble of inventing stories. Now look at the faces of these men; do you know which one bit you? Now stand down or they’ll have the rest of your overfed neck!’

Pandulph’s face now turned as bright red as his neck. His anger was so fierce that his swollen red wound was absorbed into the redness of his face.

‘By the relics of St Peter, I will have removed from Canterbury,’ Pandulph retaliated.

‘In which case you will cause civil war; I can’t see the Pope listening to you. I will have you removed from England!’ Stephen retorted.

Pandulph managed to sneer in response.

At the rear of the church Christa stood in the back row. Although clergy nearly always had wives, they had to be discreet about being seen with them, so she was unable to stand with Simon. In Winchester it was common for sons to succeed to their father’s churches even though they were technically illegitimate. So unable to be with Simon, Christa stood with a more plainly attired woman who had travelled with the King’s party.

‘I know the Archbishop,’ the woman said to Christa, ‘He’s a very kind man.’

‘I’ve heard that as well,’ said Christa intrigued by this revelation. ‘How do you know him?’

‘Well, I don’t really know him, I just met him the once recently. He helped me out of a really, really difficult situation with some really good advice. I received a few sharp words from someone but I escaped a beating.

‘That’s good then,’ said Christa rather surprised and wondering what the detail might be.’

‘They’re very loud what are they talking about?’ asked the woman.

‘I think it’s just men’s talk.’

‘They don’t usually shout like this,’ said the other woman.

‘I think the Pope’s man is saying how glad he is Archbishop Stephen is back in England, said Christa- He looks very emotional about it. He’s clearly delighted and has now moved aside to be with another man. I think that might be the Archbishop’s brother Simon.’

The humiliated Pandulph was indeed back standing next to Simon Langton who smiled broadly at him.

‘I didn’t quite catch all of that,’ said Simon. ‘You did better than most people with him. He completely wipes the floor with most people apart from me.’

Pandulph scowled.

At that moment Stephen spoke up in English,

‘Papal Sub-Deacon Pandulph has just welcomed the King back into the church.’

Stephen looked towards the sub deacon and began to clap loudly, his hands ascending heavenwards with every clap. The whole cathedral began to ring with applause. Pandulph, disconcerted by everyone looking at him, began to nod to the congregation and eventually he waved a few half-hearted waves until the applause ceased.

The penitent but absolved king knelt again and the mass was celebrated. John duly received the bread from the hand of Stephen the archbishop under the glaring eye of the papal representative. Robert FitzWalter and the rest of the barons could not receive the bread; the country was still under interdict.

The barons were split in their loyalties; the church was split among the bishops and between England and Rome. John had worked to divide his enemies and he had succeeded admirably. Only John and his paid mercenaries were fully united. John had a coherent plan of action for the future and he was ready to put it into effect. His success would make him the greatest king that England had ever seen.


Sealed with Blood, Chapter 4: Before the King

The South Coast

‘It was not me,’ said Christa looking accusingly at Stephen.

‘I didn’t say it was,’ said Stephen with a shallow smile.

‘But you thought it and if you are honest you still do,’ she said crossly. ‘This is my family now as much as it is yours.’

‘Their horses might be worn, ours are fresh, we might outrun them,’ Stephen responded.

At that moment a great cry went up from the men on the hill. The wind blew most of the sound away but enough reached the small group on the lower road like a muffled echo. The horsemen on the hill now set off descending the hill at speed on a trajectory which would cut off the travellers. In response to this danger, the brothers and Christa also moved off, but with no idea of where they were fleeing to other than wherever the track led. The countryside was very open, affording little opportunity to hide and their pursuers descending from higher ground had the great advantages of good visibility and a downslope. Their only option was to try and outpace the gang and hope some misfortune befell their pursuers.

It was a frightening ride for the three of them because the track was not always good, with long oval shaped water-filled holes caused by carts. Where it was wet the chalk surface could also be slippery under the horses feet, the last thing that they wanted to contend with was a lame horse.

Steadily the men gained on them. Glancing behind the brothers could see the inevitable coming; the effort to outrun the pursuers was proving to be futile. As the gap narrowed, a red and yellow banner was raised within the pack. A large man on a huge horse now came to the front of the chasing group, his horse thundering behind them.

‘Halt! Halt!’ The man screamed as if his lungs were about to burst.

Knowing the flight was hopeless, Stephen called on the others to do as they were being commanded, and stop. The large man drew level and bellowed:

‘You are in the protective custody of Sire Robert FitzWalter.’ He then halted and dismounted almost in one motion. Suddenly they were surrounded by horsemen cheering.

The brothers too dismounted. Stephen was immediately engulfed in a bear hug by Robert, his feet momentarily leaving the ground. There was much embracing and shouting at the joining of the two groups.

‘Stephen, you had better run faster from your enemies than you do from your friends or you won’t last long.’

I knew it was you all along Robert, that’s the only reason you managed to catch us,’ Stephen replied. ‘Even then it took you long enough.’

‘If only I could believe that,’ said Robert. ‘I just don’t.’

‘Perhaps you are right not to,’ said Stephen.

‘I got that guarantee of safety you negotiated for me. Sent from the King himself it was, sealed at the end of May; not that it reached me for a month.’

‘Actually, it was me that negotiated that,’ said Simon.

‘Well one or both of you, it is not much use is it? A letter of safety from the King scribbled with ink on sheep skin,’ said FitzWalter. ‘The skin didn’t save the sheep but somehow it’s supposed to save me. Ha!’ Robert laughed gruffly at his own humour.

‘There was probably no ink on the skin when the sheep was slaughtered,’ suggested Stephen.

‘Would the writing have saved the sheep?’ Robert asked ‘I doubt it. I decided I’d prefer the guarantee of having these men here, rather than relying on the word of that evil man.’ He paused and added, ‘I take it you are heading to Slindon. Can we stay the night?’

‘Of course, you are more than welcome,’ said Stephen. ‘My brother Simon has doubtless arranged ample provisions. Haven’t you Simon?’

Simon was already wondering how the food could be made to stretch amongst so many men, there would be an inevitable shortage.

‘My brother is always willing to share a whitebait or two,’ said Simon, ‘and if the food runs out there is plenty of fine wine in the cellar, left by the old Archbishop. I did check it was all right.’

‘Whitebait! I was hoping for a hog roast,’ declared FitzWalter. ‘Charging downhill on horseback is exhilarating but it leaves me sore hungry. If I knew you had no food I’d have let you get away.’

By now Christa, still seated on her mount had moved closer. She fixed her eyes on Stephen.

‘See, I told you it wasn’t me,’ she said resentfully, ‘but I’m not going to get an apology am I?’

‘You are missing the mood of the reunion, my lady. I promise I will never doubt you again,’ said Stephen with a bow.

Christa looked less than reassured by this, but nevertheless said, ‘Thank you, Archbishop.’

With the additional incentive of company as well as small fish or big pig, the combined party moved on, reaching the palace at Slindon by late afternoon. It was Stephen’s grand residence but he had never been there before, it felt very unreal to him. It was a very rowdy night of limited food and excessive wine, which went on later than anyone intended. Nobody wanted to go to bed and shorten the celebration of being back on English soil.

The next morning they rode on to the nearby port of Bosham where the Juliana was moored awaiting their arrival. Simon and Christa were to continue by land to the absolution at Winchester Cathedral. Stephen was to make the short sea journey from Bosham to Portchester by himself. The captain of the ship came ashore and having bowed, greeted him warmly with the words,

‘My Lord Archbishop, just don’t jump off this time.’

Stephen shouted farewell to his escort of protective custody. There was a long hug with Robert FitzWalter, which made Stephen wonder how much pressure his ribs could take before actually fracturing. This was followed by advice from FitzWalter about not trusting the King. Finally Stephen said goodbye to his brother and Christa.

‘Take good care.’ said Stephen to his brother as they bounced off one and other’s chests.

‘You too,’ replied his brother. ‘It’s mild today so you shouldn’t be sea sick.’

With that Stephen boarded the ship, which cast off and began picking its way through the narrow channels around Bosham out to the open sea and the short voyage to Portchester. With the agreement of the papacy, he, just like Robert FitzWalter had a letter of safe conduct from the unpredictable King John. For a while he watched his former escort of protective custody pick their way up the hill road towards Winchester. Every so often they disappeared behind trees and they were always getting smaller, he earnestly wished he was with them.

By himself for the first time Stephen felt nervous and out of control of the situation. He didn’t know what might happen next. His anxiety was in marked contrast to the beautiful sea, hills and islands, this really was England at its best in summer. Attractive as the south coast was he thought of his wife and child in far off Lincolnshire, a very different topography. In Lincolnshire there was plenty of water as well but it was trapped inland. Elowise and Stephen were safe in an ever moving watery fortress, Stephen thought of it as the biggest moat in the world, impossible to penetrate. He on the other hand was purposely heading for a turbulent current, about to be sucked into the wide open hands of the King.

The ship approached the very narrow entrance to Portsmouth Harbour and accelerated rapidly with the in-rushing tide. The Juliana bobbed up and down and danced from side to side before it was thrown into the large expanse of the harbour. The vessel having been swallowed by the harbour mouth now slowed almost to a sudden stop. The ship slid towards John’s residence of Portchester Castle which now loomed in front of them. It was a former Roman fort built on the shoreline with a square curtain wall constructed with flint, limestone, red brick and mortar . Along the wall were a series of round squat towers, it was very well defended.

High within the opposite corner of the square wall, rose an impressive Norman Keep. The square tower stood darkly against the background of the long green ridge of Portsdown Hill, covered with yet more sheep. The flock grazed oblivious of the possibility that one day they might be killed, in order to provide skin for letters of safety guaranteeing life. Stephen was about to put his trust in ink and sheepskin. His brother Simon was wisely not taking this risk. Stephen at once wished his brother was with him but simultaneously was glad that he wasn’t. Once on dry land, he would be completely in John’s power. His mind now told him that exile was not such a bad thing. Why had he struggled so hard to end it? He should have stayed a martyr in Pontigny, a far better option than a hero with your life on a plate. Too late now!

Stephen thought of many historical instances where people had been invited to peace talks and then treacherously murdered by their host. He hoped he was not going to fall victim to such a trick. There was little he could do to stop himself being added to the list of trusting unfortunates. If John intended harm, then harm would surely befall him.

The ship docked and the moment came, Stephen stepped ashore onto a grassy green bank. It was soft and slippery beneath his feet, but his feet held firm.

To his left he saw a party of perhaps thirty people on foot hurriedly approaching along the perimeter of the castle walls passing tower after tower. He had not seen John for many years, but the person leading the party was clearly the King. He was dressed very plainly in a light brown embroidered tunic gathered at the waist with a leather belt. This dress was in sharp contrast to a short fat man behind, gorgeously dressed in thin cream flowing robes with sparkling diamonds and rubies sown into the fabric. He wore a very broad hat with long tassels hanging down at the back. This was Pandulph the papal representative negotiating the lifting of the interdict and handing the country over to the Pope. Behind Pandulph was John’s henchman Faulkes de Beaute in a rich colourful tunic, and then a crowd of others, some known to Stephen, some not.

John raised his hand for the crowd to stop and then motioning to the Italian Pandulph, the two of them advanced towards the Archbishop who was still on the spot where he had disembarked. Suddenly the King threw himself face down on the grass, wailing and beating the ground with his fists. Stephen was prepared to deal with anger, hatred or expressions of regret but this was unexpected. Unusually for Stephen, he didn’t know what to do, so he did nothing. He waited for the King to stop and rise to his feet, but John continued to pound the ground remorselessly with no sign of ever letting up. This humble penitent man was not the John that Stephen had heard about, perhaps his faults had been exaggerated. Stephen could not let this continue any longer, he stepped forward to John and crouched down before him.

The King lifted his face and looked agonisingly at Stephen.

‘My dear Father Stephen, I have longed for this day. Many have sought to keep us apart by false report and rumour, but now I am full of joy at our reconciliation. I have done wrong, pray for me dear father that God will forgive me.’

‘I always pray for my dear lord the king’ said Stephen. ‘Now rise up my dear Lord.’

Stephen now helped John to his feet. The papal representative looked on with his head held forward, grinning with satisfaction in a fixed smile. John now grasped Stephen by the arms.

‘By the love that you must give us, dear father, we wish that you will grant peace to our kingdom. You owe us your favour to rebuke our enemies and bless our loyal friends. Dear Father Stephen let us together put the past behind us. Let us be united in God’s service. Correct us if ever we should need it. Let us together create peace and harmony in our kingdom.’

Stephen was aware his heartbeat had rapidly increased. As his chest strained with the pounding sensation he felt his knees weaken.

‘I promise my dear Lord that I will always work for God’s kingdom and peace and justice in England.’

John now released Stephen’s arms and smiled briefly, but then seized the Archbishop in a hug and once again began to wail penitently. The king’s words were said with great feeling and with such sincerity that his eyes became red. He now broke his grip on Stephen.

‘Our dear father, you are our guest. We must welcome you properly, the Queen awaits inside with our children. Please accompany us in. The king motioned as if to move away but suddenly moved nearer to Stephen dropped his voice and spoke,

‘We will be the closest of friends.’

John’s forehead now touched the end of Stephen’s nose and as he spoke his last words, his warm breath moved past Stephen’s cheeks, ‘Dear Father Thomas.’

John smartly turned without another glance and jauntily walked back the way he had come. Stephen exchanged a greeting in Italian with the beaming Pandulph and then followed the king. The hatred in John’s pronouncing of the name, “Thomas” was unmistakable. As Stephen walked behind John and past the trailing crowd who were still facing his ship, Stephen tried to fathom what the king’s performance meant. Most of it, he was sure, was intended to impress the lingering papal official Pandulph. The King’s reference to Thomas was however a malicious threat. The message was clear: fall out with me and you’ll end up dead like Beckett. The King was well known for playing with the mind, twisting people first one way and then the other.

Stephen told himself that he would only be staying in Portchester Castle for one night but he reasoned it was going to be a very long night as the King’s guest. John walked ahead not speaking, although Stephen thought he heard him whistling cheerfully. He followed his sovereign as they rounded the corner tower and walked on to the gateway set in the middle of the west wall. The gateway was indented so that an attacker at the gate would be almost surrounded by three walls. Similarly Stephen felt almost surrounded as he approached the gate and entered inside. Enclosed within the castle was a modest stone church to the far right. Facing him were wooden buildings straight ahead with a range of activities including carpentry and cobbling taking place inside and around them. The structures seemed to be a favourite resting ground for squawking seagulls, while others of their kind whirled around sitting on the wind with no seeming purpose or care.

The party headed for the keep which consisted of perhaps five or six floors of accommodation. To enter the keep they passed by a wooden bridge over a small curving moat which guarded the inner quarter of the high tower. As nervous as Stephen was he couldn’t help but laugh at the rather inadequate moat compared to the vast expanses of water that were protecting his family in faraway Lincolnshire. He was surprised at his own amusement given that he was certain something was going to happen overnight. He was sure that it could not be good but would be something bad. I might not ever come out of here alive he thought. If I only had the power, to drift like a bird carried away on the wind. No door had shut behind him but the following throng pressed through the gateway of the castle like a cork fitting the neck of a jar.

He was trapped.


Sealed with Blood, Chapter 3: The Return

South of England, 1213AD.

Wives can occasionally be difficult and ex-wives can prove even more so. John had married his cousin but they had no children, which was particularly awkward for a king. Divorce was not allowed, but a solution called annulment, could travel back in time and the marriage would evaporate as rapidly as morning dew.

Kings could be set free and popes would become richer, just about all involved would rejoice! Strictly speaking there was not even an unhappy ex-wife. By the use of the magic papal seal, she had to accept that contrary to her long held mistaken belief, she had never been married at all. The annulled woman was however, undoubtedly an ex-queen, and of all wives and ex-wives, that category of female can turn out to be a particular irritant.

John knew he could father children, for he retained a number of mistresses who had produced offspring. Released by the Pope, with an eye on his dynastic succession, he married a young teenage girl who set to it and gave him five children. Happily, the new young wife and the production of the desired children did not prevent John from accumulating mistresses. Now the helpless Matilda was at his mercy, with the accompanying benefit, that he could at least be revenged on one of his enemies.

He bitterly regretted that he had already sacrificed so much for that unappreciative young woman. He consoled himself that she would soon prefer him to her fool of a husband, Geoffrey de Mandeville. It would be easy to be rid of De Mandeville, he could be accused of plotting rebellion with her treacherous father Robert FitzWalter.

Once in London, he began to contemplate his encounter with Matilda, it would be very different from their previous meeting. She would be forced to accept that her family’s survival depended entirely on her rendering absolute obedience to him. He would make her throw herself at his feet and grovel for his good will. He would insist on her demonstrating her subservience by saying whatever he instructed her to say and doing whatever he told her to do. He played with these delights in his mind and imagined many variations. He would punish her but she would have to smile throughout his demands. She would soon learn what fear was. Holding her very life in his hand was something to relish and he found the prospect immensely satisfying. Intense pleasures in life can sometimes be fleeting and he was unnecessarily interrupted by Faulkes, who arrived to tell him of the acquisition of mercenaries and some difficulties with hostages. The third news item which Faulkes supplied was:

‘Mandeville’s wife is dead.’

John glared at him in disbelief at this most unwelcome news. ‘Is this true?’ he demanded.

‘It is certainly true my Lord, it was the pestilence and she is dead and buried too.’

John rose to his feet and angrily commanded, ‘Get out!’

Despite Faulkes reassurance that it was the truth, he suspected it was a ruse and he was being thrown of the scent of his prey. He would see her face for himself even if her supposed body had to be dug up. However, after Faulkes that unfortunate bringer of bad tidings had withdrawn, John gradually reconciled himself to the truth: she had succumbed to a disease. As furious as he was with her, he didn’t want to risk being infected by her corpse and end up spending eternity with her. He was certain she had done this deliberately, just to injure him.

John needed to vent his anger with her. He rushed to Castle Baynard, the precious home of Robert FitzWalter. It stood lofty and magnificent but deserted by its owners. The family had fled, reluctant to trouble the king for that special hospitality which only John provided for his guests.

The King ranted, raved, cursed and cursed again; he hit things, he threw things, he kicked things and kicked them again. The name FitzWalter was never far from his lips. His unrequited pursuit of Matilda had been for nothing, but it had cost him so much in driving one of his most powerful barons into open revolt. Matilda that once beautiful young woman had her wish fulfilled; she never did lay eyes on John again. For his part, his wishes remained unfulfilled; he never got to lay his hands on her. Informed that she lay in a grave at Dunmow, he didn’t bother going to see the mournful mound of soil. It remained undisturbed.

John however was very disturbed as he stood in the abandoned side room at Castle Baynard, where FitzWalter had viciously hurled him into a tapestry. Provocatively, it still hung on the wall as if innocent of all wrongdoing. Thoughtless as tapestries tend to be, it had no consciousness that it was about to be exterminated. If only that stupid girl hadn’t resisted him.

‘You bitch! You bitch!’ he shouted, but shouting at the air only made him feel worse. John was used to being able to do to people whatever he wanted, this abusing the air seemed uniquely unsatisfying. He had got nothing from her and she had occasioned him all this damage.

‘You bitch!’ He repeated again.

The family had escaped but they couldn’t take their home with them. The castle stood as solid as ever and John could seize it for himself or give it away to any one of his grateful henchmen. However, that left a possible consolation for FitzWalter, he might imagine that one day he would recover his beloved home. This baron had to suffer, he needed to experience a huge amount of distress. John had the room all dismantled, not one stone was left on top of another. He stayed to relish the destruction, watching it with great satisfaction. The tapestry, burning with flashes of different coloured flames was like incense to his nostrils. It all looked, sounded and smelt different. Such therapy worked well and he felt a great weight had been lifted from his mind; the indignity of being manhandled by FitzRobert and thrown into the wall had never happened.

With the room dismantled, he ordered the whole castle torn down, together with its outside walls. He rode off with the sounds of the enterprise already begun; music to his ears. For weeks the air rang with a cacophony of sound: the thud of hammers, the fall of stones and the clatter of levers. If ever stones were apt to tell a tale, these ones couldn’t, most were separated, dispersed and incorporated into other buildings. What remained was little more than piles of rubble and a few walls no higher than head height. John never had to gaze on that humiliating Castle Baynard again. Castle Be-Gone he thought to himself and he chuckled and laughed at his own wit as he rode away. How different it felt from last time. FitzWalter, the father of that bitch, should he ever return, would see his entire castle simply gone.

With his anger taken out on the recalcitrant castle of his most hated baron, John turned to the future. He sent his envoys to Rome to accept the previously offered peace terms and to let Archbishop Stephen return. Now however he knew he was in a weaker bargaining position, the papacy would sense this and demand more concessions which he would find hard to resist. It was nevertheless a gamble he’d have to take. He was in this invidious position because of the fallout from his pursuit of Matilda. He had to have a settlement to overt both rebellion from his barons and possible invasion by the French. It meant that the dispute which had taken years, now took just days to be remedied. Stephen and all his bishops could return, John would compensate the church for money seized and his barons would have less reason for trying to kill him.


If the news of John caving in to pressure he was under, gave Stephen cause to celebrate, that emotion was soon replaced by high anger. More news followed two days later that John was to give the land of England to the Pope. England was now to belong neither to king or people but to the Pope in Rome. A Papal Legate would reside in England, who would be the ultimate authority in the country. The Legate would, according to Pope Innocent III, promote the king’s advantage and honour. The Pope, who had previously been totally opposed to John and on the verge of ordering his deposition via a French invasion, now stood by his man. In an instant the Pope was totally opposed to all rebellion against his illustrious son, John.

It was not the homecoming that Stephen had worked and prayed for but it was the longed-for return. As his ship took to sea Stephen was now in a situation where his authority was comprehensively undermined. It seemed that John had completely outwitted him by spectacularly surrendering to the Pope. It was a precarious situation to be sailing into. On board, Stephen turned once more to the consideration of spies.

‘I don’t think there are spies aboard the ship, it is too small. It would be too obvious.’

‘I think they’ll be waiting for us at Dover,’ Simon replied knowingly.

Stephen leant over the side planks of the ship, ‘The wind is dropping.’

‘It’s swinging round to the north,’ said Simon.

‘So how are we going to avoid these spies in Dover,’ Stephen asked.

‘I’ve made plans,’ said Simon tightening his lips when he had finished.

‘And they would be what? Stephen enquired.

‘I’m not telling you, the fewer people know the better,’ said Simon.

‘That rule is not meant to exclude me,’ Stephen said indignantly.

‘Look it’s all taken care of. You never trust me do you? I’m going below; it’s going to rain.’

With that his brother briskly left him and descended below deck. Stephen remained above contemplating what conditions and challenges might await him in England.

The wind gradually swung round to the north and the waves began to progressively rise. The size of waves depends on how far they had travelled and now appearing from the north, they rose higher and higher. These waves had travelled down the long coast of Norway, down the North Sea and now they were being compressed within the narrowing English Channel. They were not as dangerous as some seas, at least they rolled at the ship in a regular fashion and you could tackle them at an angle. Soon they were so huge that the ship was sailing up the waves. Despite the vigour of the sea the ship was still able to be steered by a single man.

There was a lull in the onslaught of the waves, a sign that things were calming. Then, an even bigger wave loomed before them. The ship rose up the wave; the wave moved past, leaving the ship in mid-air. The vessel then dropped like a stone, smack into the trough that had appeared beneath it. After this happened a few times a wine barrel broke from its restraints in the hold and began to slide around menacingly. A loose barrel could easily kill a man but it had to be tackled, because moving around it could cause the ship’s timbers to shiver, taking in water and the ship would be in peril of sinking. Their end would be certain if the ship sprang a leak, miles from the safety of the shore. Light rain began to fall adding to the discomfort on deck. Below, several men tackled the miscreant wine barrel, bringing it back under control and safely securing it, even though it was not in its original place.

Stephen went below deck just as the rogue barrel had finally been tamed and he lay down on a narrow bunk. Simon however, could not remain lying down without feeling terribly sick, and certainly the barrel sliding around hadn’t helped, so he went back up on deck.

His first sight was of two of the crew vomiting over the side of the vessel. He looked around and saw the steersman was in place, which was very reassuring. He stayed on deck despite the cold and the seawater trickling down his arms and legs. There were a few more falls and smacks before the seas began to calm. Slowly they edged towards Dover and its protective harbour.

Approaching their destination, Stephen came back up on deck and once again set his eyes on his native land. Foul as the weather was, they could make out a crowd of about thirty gathering on the quay to greet their Archbishop. As far as the people were concerned Stephen was returning in triumph. Little did the citizens realise that such was John’s unpredictability, Stephen’s life was now in more danger than ever before. Stephen was pleased to see the small welcoming party; if not for the weather there would certainly have been more of them. Tomorrow there undoubtedly would be.

The two days in port were very busy and almost everyone connected in any way with Canterbury Cathedral had hastened down to Dover to see their Archbishop. There were others pressing forward as well, members of baronial families, clerks and townsmen. An abundance of messengers brought letters for which there was no time to give a written answer. Amongst the impatient throng were some who seemed to have no urgent business and might potentially be spies. Not all those whose purpose couldn’t be ascertained could be spies but a few of them probably were. If so, were they just looking or seeking an opportunity to act and rid the realm of the hated Archbishop?

It had also been busy around the ship. After a day unloading the cargo, and then a day for making repairs and rest, the ship was reloaded and made ready to set sail again. It would hug the south coast bound for Portchester where the castle keep dominates the vast expanse of Portsmouth Harbour; there Stephen was to meet his King. The King and Archbishop were then to travel to Winchester together and in the long, high cathedral Stephen would formally absolve John. The quarrel with Rome would be ended; the silent church bells would sound again. Many children had never heard church bells ring, the volume would be a surprise them.

On the third day they again embarked on the Juliana, bound for the crucial rendezvous. Just as the final rope was cast off from the quay the two brothers leapt back onto the shore. Stephen almost fell over but regained his balance with the help of a startled woman. Looking behind them they could see a number of people on the ship gazing back at them in wonder. This was not too surprising as their unusual behaviour was certainly unexpected. As they hurried through the crowd which parted in front of them, they heard a loud splash followed by a jeer from the onlookers. Someone had jumped from the ship into the water, providing even more drama for the surprised audience. Pushing past some men who tried to speak to them, the brothers ran to where a man was waiting with three saddled horses. Mounting their steeds, they were soon heading west along the coastal road. Somewhere far behind them a very wet man was endeavouring to follow in cold pursuit.

Simon had at least advised his brother of most of the details of his plan to travel by road, so none of this had come as a surprise to Stephen. They rode at a good speed to put distance between themselves and Dover. Once this was achieved, they slowed to a more modest pace. Stephen began to puzzle over the strange site of the cloaked figure riding ahead. Due to their rushed exit from the port he realised they had not spoken and of more concern, he had never seen the rider’s face. This perturbed him and he shouted ‘Whoa,’ pulling up to a sharp halt. With a little delay the figure ahead of them also pulled up and turned sideways to the track but failed to come back to them.

‘We haven’t got time to stop,’ said Simon agitatedly.

Stephen ignored his protest. ‘Who exactly is that person?’ Stephen said pointing to the distant figure.

‘Well that inquisitiveness is hardly a reason to stop is it?’ Simon retorted.

‘Let me put it another way,’ said Stephen glaring at him. ‘Why does our guide ride lop sided, covered by a cloak? Or,’ Stephen continued without waiting for an answer and with rising exasperation and volume, ‘Why does our guide look like a woman? Or further still: Is that not a woman riding side saddle?’

‘She is a woman,’ Simon confirmed. ‘I don’t think we’ve really got time for introductions but if this is your priority…’

He raised himself in the saddle and without a word, beckoned her to approach them. The woman in question trotted her horse towards them. The only thing that Stephen could see was that she had a mass of red hair and a freckled face with a nose slightly turned up.

‘Stephen this is my wife, Christa.’

‘Your wife,’ Stephen repeated with a waspish pronunciation of wife. ‘I am the head of the best network of informers, but I don’t even know my brother has got married. That’s not possible, I would have heard of it.’

‘I think brother you are being less than chivalrous. I have just introduced you to Christa, my wife, and you’ve failed to acknowledge her at all. Even for an Archbishop that is exceptionally poor manners. ’

Stephen looked at his brother for a moment and then quickly turned to Christa. ‘Forgive me my lady. I am pleased to meet you and pleased, if somewhat surprised to welcome you to our family.’

Christa smiled and Stephen noticed her face was reddened, probably from the sun.

‘I’ve heard so much about you Archbishop and I can’t wait to meet Elowise and little Stephen,’ she replied.

‘That will need to wait for a while,’ Stephen replied. ‘They should be safe in Lincolnshire by now.’

He nodded his head at her and once more he turned to his brother.

‘So I remain curious as to how come I didn’t know.’

‘The fact is brother, you may be the head of spies but I am the neck of the spies and the neck turns the head,’ his brother explained.

‘I wasn’t seeking a lecture on anatomical functioning, Simon. How come I didn’t know?’

‘That was easy. I simply told everyone that the Archbishop didn’t want my association with her to be known. You were very insistent that it all had to be kept under the blanket. So they did as you decreed. It didn’t leak out at all, very admirable. It’s good to know you can trust other people.’

Stephen muttered something under his breath. Then he turned to Christa and apologised to her a second time, ‘I’m sorry my lady’.

‘We really must be going,’ said Simon. ‘We’re taking a tremendous risk like this.’

‘No. Not such haste. I want to know who I’m travelling with,’ Stephen said, adopting a rigid posture on his horse and rattling off questions thick and fast. ‘Who is she? What family is she from? Is it a family we know?’

‘Yes we know them. We can trust her,’ said Simon attempting to deflect the enquiry.

‘The name?’ Stephen said impatiently. ‘The name?’

‘Her name is Christa Grey.’

Such was Stephen’s bodily reaction to her name that his horse started to move a few steps.

‘Grey, what do you mean Grey? Not the Greys? Of, all the families in England. Are there any other Greys? You can’t be talking about Chancellor Grey, can you? Oh no, you are, aren’t you?’

It was understandable that Stephen was aghast at this revelation. King John had his bishop John de Grey elected archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope had deposed Grey and consecrated Stephen instead. This was how the interdict had started. Of course, the Greys hated the Langtons, they had lost the richest and most powerful church prize to their rivals. Worse still John Grey’s nephew Walter de Grey was now John’s Chancellor, naturally Walter was firmly on John’s side. It was incomprehensible that he would allow a female relative of his to marry a Langton.

‘Yes, she is from Chancellor Grey’s family,’ said Simon. ‘It was a brilliant bit of diplomacy and reconciliation on my part.’ He patted his chest to emphasise his achievement.

‘Yes, absolutely brilliant, we gallop away from a pretty harmless spy only to be accompanied by a woman who will tell her family what we are doing and they in turn will tell the king. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant,’ said Stephen crossly.

‘I won’t do that,’ said Christa. ‘It just isn’t like that anyway.’

‘That’s all right then, in fact almost perfect,’ replied Stephen clipping his words. He turned again to his brother.

‘I’m surprised you didn’t go the whole way and marry one of the king’s bastard girls. How on earth did you get Walter de Grey to agree anyway? He’d surely prefer to dine on rat, than have you in the family.’

‘”Dine on a rat”. That’s good! I’ll use that one. In the end it wasn’t that difficult to persuade him, she’s only a half-sister and he’s an entirely rational man.’

‘How?’ Stephen persisted, looking over his shoulder back down the road they had travelled.

‘We simply told him Christa was pregnant. Faced with me or having to support her and a child from his own money bag he soon became very supportive of the arrangement.’

‘You’re pregnant?’ Stephen said turning to Christa.

‘Not entirely,’ she replied beginning to look away.

‘We thought she might be, but happily she’s not. A false alarm,’ said Simon almost cheerfully.

‘Very false, I think and I expect Grey thinks so to. Deceived and blackmailed then.’ Stephen declared, again looked anxiously back down the track.

‘That is far too harsh,’ said Simon, ‘I prefer to call it diplomacy at its best. I pointed out to him that none of us could ever know what might happen and that the connection might prove to be to his advantage one day.’

‘We’ve wasted a lot of time, said Stephen turning his face away from his brother as if he hadn’t spoken. We are going to have to regain time. You Christa are going to have to put your leg over that horse and ride it.’

I’ve always ridden side-saddle and the saddle will be all wrong. I can’t ride like a man,’ she protested.

‘I regret that I’m not willing to be caught and killed so you can ride side-saddle. If you’re coming with us, you’ll have to learn to ride properly. Otherwise, regretfully, I’ll leave you both behind and go on alone.’

Christa looked unhappily at Simon.

‘He’s right you’ll have to do it,’ said Simon. ‘You can’t hold us up.’

‘It’s lucky I’m not pregnant,’ said Christa in a last futile protest. She dismounted then mounted again swinging her leg over the saddle. She was angry with both the brothers, possibly the more so with Simon.

‘It’s very uncomfortable, it hurts,’ she said.

‘Good let’s go, said Stephen without a trace of sympathy. ‘Let’s hope the comfort will improve the nearer we get to our destination.’

Riding down the road they kept glancing behind for horsemen but there were none. The evening was closing in when they reached the farmstead where they were to spend the night.

The next day they rose early and set off westwards passing Pevensey Bay where William the Conqueror had landed in 1066, to successfully claim the throne of England. After a further hard ride they reached another settlement where a prearranged fresh set of horses were awaiting them. Christa’s comfort was improved by obtaining an ordinary saddle which was just as well as by now the poor woman had great difficulty in even walking. They were much more relaxed as they set off again heading west with the sea to their left and a long ridge of the chalk to their right. The grassy hill bare of trees, other than thorn bushes, was covered with hundreds of white sheep grazing in the sunshine. It was a scene of great tranquillity and beauty.

Stephen had by now reconciled himself to Christa’s presence, reassured by the fact that she had hardly ever spent time with her half-brother the Chancellor. Christa was happier now she was without the side saddle torturing the inside of her thighs and Simon was pleased the change to fresh horses had gone well. He also felt that Stephen had taken the news of his new dubious familial relationship with John’s court, better than he had expected. Their destination for the night was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace, situated en route at Slindon in West Sussex. The future was uncertain but for the first time it felt really good to be back in England.

‘Up to the right,’ Stephen called suddenly.

They all looked to the brow of the hill where a party of armed horsemen were appearing, growing in number as they came into sight. The smaller party of three stopped and in response the horsemen on the hill quickly halted. For a brief moment the two groups were still and peering intently to identify each other. Stephen looked at Simon anxiously.

‘I don’t know who they are,’ said Simon. ‘No one I’ve been in contact with.’

‘No one I would expect either,’ said Stephen ‘but they seem to be expecting us.’


Sealed with Blood, Chapter 2: Money, Sex, Status & Power

English Channel, 1213AD.

John gnawed his knuckles when things upset him, and as he was easily upset, his knuckles were frequently his victims. His busy head was frequently preoccupied with kingly issues of status, money and power. If only his barons, Archbishop Langton and Pope Innocent III would simply do as he wished. After all, who was King?

Far away in Rome, papal politics were not dissimilar but often focussed on the need for John to do as the Pope, Innocent III wished. After all, who was Pope?

As a cardinal Stephen was familiar with how the papacy functioned. He would sometimes remark to Simon that in Rome:

‘Everything happens because of money, sex, status and power.’

Year after year the brothers tried to get Stephen back to England. They negotiated with men of money, status and power. The king and the papacy fielded their best representatives for these negotiations but they always failed. Only men had an input, females were not allowed or even considered.

Sex, that other powerful agent of change, did on the other hand permit a woman. The story of that woman made everything start to happen, slowly at first, like the first grudging motions of a large millstone powered by rushing water.

Because of that woman the two brothers were at last able to board the French ship Juliana bound for the port of Dover in England. There was a moderate breeze from the south west which would mean a lot of tacking but visibility was good and there was some sunshine. The ship was carrying a mixed cargo but predominantly barrels of wine which were much sought after by the English. At times Stephen had believed this voyage would never take place. Now the two brothers were standing near the bow of the ship, watching as last minute provisions were loaded.

‘I think that breeze is going to drop,’ said Stephen, ‘which is a nuisance, the journey will take longer.’

‘No,’ said Simon, stretching the short word into a long one. He turned to face the wind. ‘It is going to rain. Don’t forget you haven’t been on a ship for years.’

‘What’s that got to do with anything? I can see the weather,’ said Stephen slightly irritated.

‘Well I’ve been back and forward across this channel frequently, usually at your behest. In the end you get a feel for things,’ Simon said assuredly.

‘I think we should stay on deck for the journey,’ said Stephen changing the subject, ‘so we won’t be overheard. It wouldn’t surprise me if John had a spy on board.’

‘Me neither,’ said Simon. ‘The deck it is, at least until it rains,’ he added after a pause.

The fact that the brothers were now able to antagonise each other on board ship as well as on dry land was all achieved by the power of sex, in the shape of a girl. This particular girl was beautiful, very beautiful, by name of Matilda; her face was symmetrical, mathematically exact, perfectly proportioned without the slightest blemish, incapable of improvement. Her family, the FitzWalters were related to Margaret De Braose, the mother starved to death with her grown up son. They were also related to the brothers Stephen and Simon.

It doesn’t always pay to be too beautiful and perhaps the dark beauty of Matilda with her full lips which parted in a smile of lovely white teeth was in some ways too much. Her brown eyes seemed to sparkle even in the dimmest of light and a glimpse of her undulating body took residence in many a mind. It pleased him, when she was in King John’s presence and he stared at her for long periods.

As John made not the slightest attempt to disguise his interest in young Matilda, everyone was aware of his unremitting gaze. On one occasion when he passed down a corridor, he beckoned her to him and spoke seductively into her ear:

‘I could send your husband away to Bordeaux and we could be together.’

She made a very definite response to this proposition for she started retching and making noises as if vomiting; nothing actually fell from her mouth onto the floor. Her response may have been literally sick with fear or desperately manufactured to be off putting; it was not what the king had been hoping for and he swiftly moved off consumed with displeasure. John however was determined to have her and would not be swayed by any difficulties, such as her being married already. Why should one of his subjects have a better looking wife than he possessed? There were plenty of other women that the Earl, her husband could have, Matilda should be mistress to the king, as was his God given right.

A few weeks later, the king made an unannounced visit to Castle Baynard, her father’s residence, where Matilda was visiting. He demanded to speak with her alone, to ascertain if she would be a suitable hostage to attend his Queen. Young Matilda’s husband Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, was strikingly good looking, very likeable, a man who everybody loved. He was taken by surprise but he earnestly protested to the king:

‘You can’t take my wife as a hostage, my lord. I am not happy about that at all.’

Nevertheless the king insisted on an interview, saying it might not be necessary to take her at all, because she may not be required. All he wanted to do was talk to her about the Queen’s personal needs.’

He took the wretched woman by the arm and ushered her out of the main hall towards a side room. She looked back pleadingly to her husband.

‘Can’t you come to?’ she managed to exclaim, before the king pulled her into the room, causing her long dark hair to bob out behind her and jerk from one side to the other. The door shut fast behind them.

Little more than a minute had passed when Matilda’s father, Robert, entered the hall. He was a huge barrel chested man, so broad he couldn’t put his arms straight down by his side. He demanded where they were and when directed, he at once burst into the room, followed by his fretful son in law, Geoffrey. Robert saw the king on top of his struggling daughter, attempting to overcome her resistance.

‘You pig,’ Robert roared and seizing the king from his prone position by the scruff of the neck and the belt around his waist; with great force, he thrust the king headlong into a wall.

There was a tapestry hanging, depicting people sat on cushioned chairs. But the tapestry offered little real protection to the flying monarch. The side of John’s head hit the wall hard. He bounced off the wall and fell to the floor in a heap. Nevertheless sensing the danger he was in, he rose to his feet. No one had ever spoken to him like this before and no-one had dared to physically manhandle him. He had however, left himself vulnerable, without his men for he had dismissed them. Now, he was alone faced with two angry barons who wanted to kill him. The only question was: would they actually do it?

Initially it was strangely silent as the eyes of the king and those of his barons met in a glare of hatred. The momentary silence was broken by Matilda rushing out of the room in sobs of tears, the residue of the king’s flesh under her fingernails.

John, scratched and bruised, called out for his men, but then seconds later he decided to escape the danger and staggered out of the room. He was gone before anyone could respond to his cries for assistance. Within a handful of minutes the king and his men were riding away from Castle Baynard. John rode bent over, holding the reigns tightly down on the horse’s neck. In their haste to leave, he and his men had left some of their valuable possessions behind, not least the king’s dignity. Matilda was kept well away from the king after that, indeed she fervently hoped to never lay eyes on him again. But if FitzWalter and De Mandeville thought that was that, they were soon disabused. John was neither a forgiving man, nor a man ever to be thwarted for long. He was about to demonstrate his status and power.

A few weeks later, he announced he was going stag hunting in Savenake Forest near Marlborough, Wiltshire and he invited the two barons to attend. When summonsed, Robert and Geoffrey were very suspicious believing they were riding into a trap, but they equally considered that they couldn’t decline the king’s invitation. They took a party of six knights and the men attending them were capable fighting men themselves.

When the barons were being allocated their quarters, a servant picked a quarrel with Geoffrey and produced a long blade. Geoffrey however was not surprised being already on his guard; seizing his sword he made short work of killing the man. It was clearly a ploy, poorly conceived and with even worse execution; it had gone disastrously wrong. The commotion caused everyone to come running. There was a great deal of jostling and shouting. Eventually the king arrived, splendidly dressed befitting his status, in time to hear Geoffrey saying:

‘He attacked me; I was defending myself. See! He has a knife.’

The dead man did indeed have a clean knife by his side, which next to its owner’s blood-stained corpse now looked quite innocuous.

John now spoke, as if delivering a regal judgement. He seemed completely unsurprised by the tragedy, ‘If you have unjustly killed a man in our service it will be the gibbet for you.’

Hardly had the words left the king’s lips than Robert FitzWalter exploded with wrath:

‘You would hang my son-in-law? By God’s body you will not. You will see two thousand laced helms in your land before you hang him.’

John was shocked by this affront to his dignity and angrily advanced towards Robert. ‘Are you saying he should not face the royal court for his offence?’

‘Not at all,’ Robert replied. ‘I will produce him at the royal court for all scurrilous charges against him to be dismissed. Until then, my Lord we will take our leave of you and prepare for our next meeting’

With that said Robert FitzWalter, Geoffrey de Mandeville and their men retrieved their possessions and returned back up the road they had so recently travelled. They knew full well that, if the king could procure Geoffrey’s death, be it by murder, hanging or otherwise, the king would have Matilda at his mercy. A widow could not marry who she liked, she needed the king’s permission; it was plain to see how things would work out.

Robert at this point, thought of becoming part of the increasing number of refugees fleeing to Stephen Langton in France. The exodus of John’s enemies was no longer limited to just English, there were also Welsh princes and a few dispossessed Irish. The Welsh were greatly hampered in resisting John’s incursions into Wales by the fact that they were dispersed, in small rival principalities. Nevertheless from time to time the Welsh princes united sufficiently to revolt and launch swift raids on the English border lands.

Further Welsh incursions now took place, diverting John’s attention from the trial of the Earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mandeville. Honouring his undertaking to the king, Robert FitzWalter did produce his son-in-law for trial. He also produced fifty fully armed knights at the hearing to help make up the Sheriff’s mind. This must have proved helpful to the Sheriff, for he swiftly dismissed the charges and everyone returned home.

By the time of this happy resolution John had already marched north, to quell the Welsh revolt. With his millions of pennies he had large numbers of mercenaries and expensive equipment a few miles from the border. He was poised for conquest yet he retreated inland to a further muster at Nottingham Castle, some distance from the border. This was where he kept his Welsh hostages, far away from any sudden rescue bids. His opponents, the princes, had reasoned that they could revolt and then from a position of strength negotiate to swap hostages for peace.

John enraged by the Welsh duplicity demonstrated to them his status as their lord. He contemptuously ordered the sons of those princes to be hung from the castle walls until they were dead. There were twenty eight of them, dealt with one by one. The youths with nooses around their necks were thrown over the castle walls, paying the price for their fathers’ rebellion and John’s revenge. Most struggled for a short while, before becoming limp, their bodies left hanging there. Visible from a great distance, all could see the power of John displayed, he had the power of life and death. The youngest of the hostages was a boy called Hugh, who would never see his thirteenth birthday. With the messy business concluded, John was at last able to sit down, enjoy his food and drink wine, like any monarch might reasonably expect to do.

John now heard of the most awful thing that anyone could imagine and it made his cold blood run colder still. He was informed that there was a plot to kill him.

The plan was that when he went into battle against the fathers of his hostages, there would be a sudden retreat, abandoning him to be overwhelmed by the Welsh. This treacherous plot was said to be supported by many barons in the king’s army. The fermenter of the scheme was reported to be none other than Robert FitzWalter, the father of Matilda, his intended sexual conquest.

Forced to abandon his campaign in Wales because he couldn’t trust his own army, he now had no handle of control on the Welsh as he had eliminated his hostages. There were moments when he wished them alive again so that he could use the threat of death hanging over them. Far more seriously, John was now terrified for his own life. Robert FitzWalter had fled to France so he was no longer a present threat. However he had strengthened Stephen’s group of exiles poised for a return. There were also plenty of other barons still in England who wished the king ill. He had almost as many enemies as barons; any one of them could prove deceitful and treacherously slay him. He could only place his trust in his expensive mercenaries who were certainly loyal but only as long as there were pennies to pay them.

When he looked at his army of barons he could see the faces of traitors everywhere, they could turn on him in an instant. Suddenly he was unable to fight in battle fearing retribution with every step he took. What looked like an army might be a mob of assassins. John now had nowhere to turn, he couldn’t control the Welsh, he couldn’t confront his barons and his revenue raising demands would be resisted. He reconciled himself to the reality that he now needed backing from the church. He would have to make peace and allow Stephen Langton into England to be Archbishop of Canterbury. If the interdict was over and he was absolved it would be more difficult for the barons to withhold taxes. He had also heard from his spies that Simon Langton had been to the court of King Philip of France. The last thing John wanted now was the French to invade and try and topple him from the throne.

John now demanded hostages from any barons suspected of involvement in the plot. At the same time he strove to appear conciliatory; he made promises, was forgiving and reasonable, trying to placate everybody. Hostages from baronial families were no longer held by the king but guarded by friends of the barons – John was losing control.

With everything now going from bad to worse John marched back to London. His money had been wasted, his status diminished and his power challenged by the traitor FitzWalter. John consoled himself with the other powerful motivator; soon he would be able to enjoy sex with his traitorous baron’s daughter Matilda.

It had better be worth it.


Sealed with Blood, Chapter 1: Till Death Us Do Part

Pontigny, France, 1211 AD.

He saw the murder whenever he shut his eyes. He lived the dying, he saw it from every angle and in time he even smelt the blood. Every time his eyelids fell he was transported, he was there, fixed to the spot. His throat tightened and he could not breathe without gasping. He would have hidden behind a supporting pillar of the Cathedral had one been close enough to conceal him. Instead Stephen stood transfixed, in the open where all the players in the drama could see his horror stretched face, looking on as the deed was in the doing.

There was a man in long robes kneeling, being overwhelmed by rowdy drunken men who savagely struck at him until blood splattered both clothing and masonry. His last movement slumping to his right was intercepted by one final swipe from a flashing blade as it cut into the skull removing the crown of his head, both bone and brain. This was the fatal blow that left him bedraggled in pools of dark blood on the stone of Canterbury Cathedral. The outrage became the most imagined crime in Europe as millions of minds reconstructed the last moments of the Archbishop Thomas slain in his own church by King Henry’s own knights. However, nobody rich or poor imagined it every time they closed their eyes; they were occasional onlookers but not ever enslaved by the event. Only Stephen Langton ceaselessly reran the martyrdom and whatever came next. The sequel to the slaying always commenced the same way, regardless of the plethora of endings that might later develop.

Just as the slicing blow was about to sever the tip of Thomas Beckett’s skull another figure bejewelled with magnificent clothes jauntily emerged from the shadows. In response to his chilling presence the flashing blade juddered and froze in mid-air. In fact, every voice fell silent, all motion stilled. Even Beckett’s slumping body seized up at an unnatural and unsustainable angle, his eyes gazing heavenwards.

King John, a man of medium height, long straight brown hair, a trimmed beard and eyes that glistened with excitement looked on at the imminent murder and chuckled.

‘I’m oh so thrilled, reliving this,’ he enthused. ‘My father Henry had this arranged and got away with it, he did. True, he had to shuffle on his knees a bit, in a hair shirt while monks whipped him, but he was well padded. It was a simple gesture of remorse, a massage, a price well worth paying for the life of Beckett.’

John sighed. ‘All right, it’s a real pain that Beckett got made into a saint.’

Despite John’s presence, Langton’s vision tunnelled into the face of the dying man. To his dismay the saint’s face seemed to metamorphose into his own.

‘It’ll be me next,’ he uttered, almost immediately hoping the king had not heard him.

The king had an apple in his hand that he tossed in the air and caught again as he sauntered towards the frozen sword and as he did so he broke Langton’s line of vision. Now Langton’s eyes were on the king who was reaching forward to slice his apple in half on the cruel blade.

‘My, that is so, so sharp,’ he declared. ‘Don’t run your finger down the blade my beloved cardinal.’ He stood behind the sword and tilted its trajectory slightly downwards. ‘I always feel the blow was a bit of a glancing one, slightly disappointing. He really deserved to head off to the next world in a better way. A more full blooded blow crashing through his temple so that his eyes literally pop out and roll around the floor a bit….. Oh, and him still being able to see his own death, that would be my idea for a barefaced traitor’s exit.’ He looked at Langton in a querying way. ‘I’ll bear it in mind for you, I promise.’

‘You can’t reach me. I’m in France, how can you kill me,’ the Archbishop objected with a boldness that surprised himself. Immediately he wished he hadn’t asked such a stupid question.

‘Well, there’s the rub,’ said John and he began smiling and beckoning Stephen forward with his finger. ‘I may have to allow you to come into my kingdom to gain the prize of dispatching you from it. I’ll make that pleasure happen. But pity me one saint is too many, another by God’s teeth is just gut wrenching. If I get the chance…. well hang the consequences, I’m minded to do it, your family can go too. I might even be able to get to them first.’

He took two steps away and then suddenly lunged at Langton with an outstretched arm. Stephen saw it too late and was still raising his forearm to protect himself when John stopped short. There was no weapon in the royal hand. John laughed and wagged his finger at Stephen.

‘Caught with your defences down Cardinal? Only saved by me being empty handed. You’ll need to be luckier than that. When you least expect it that’s when I’ll strike.’

At this point in Stephen Langton’s imaginings, a very real commotion could be heard in the corridor outside the room where he was kneeling in prayer. A rising crescendo of the voices of two men began to drag Langton back into the present. The figure of King John began to fade from Stephen’s mind.

‘You will stand before God for judgement,’ Langton shouted unconvincingly after John as he retreated into nothingness.

John stopped for a moment coming back into focus, glared ‘and you as well cardinal, I will strive to give God an opportunity, soon.’

With this the noisy interruption John and the other players instantly vanished.

The door handle rattled as someone grasped it hurriedly. Then the door burst open swinging wildly back on its hinges, to and fro. Solitary footsteps clipped quickly across the square red and yellow patterned tiles. Stephen continued in prayer and carelessly did not glance back to see who the intruder was. The next moment something struck him between the shoulder blades and he was sent sprawling headlong onto the floor, his hood flying up so that he could see nothing at all.

The King John of Stephen’s imaginings was simply that, just a phantom, an imagined monarch. The real human John of warm pink flesh and cold blue blood was far more terrifying. The king of course had his favourites and they did relax with him and some may even have liked him or convinced themselves that they did. Such men owed everything to John, their castles, their wealth, power; it had all come to them through doing their master’s bidding. One such favourite was William de Braose who was richly rewarded for a most important piece of service. When John came to the throne the rightful heir was his nephew Arthur, a teenage boy. The rival claims to the throne were effectively settled when William de Braose captured the hapless youth.

Arthur’s existence remained something of a problem until one day during an escape, he carelessly fell to his death. John was happy, so happy that he rewarded William lavishly. Perhaps however, every time John saw William he was unsettled. It was not that John was developing a conscience, far from it; rather, William knew a bit too much. Many fingers privately pointed at Uncle John for the boy’s death. Whatever the truth, William De Braose and his wife Maud knew the detail of what had happened, but they were keeping their lips sealed tight.

Gradually a little difficulty began to open up between the King and William which became almost a rift. William tried to patch things up with John and it looked as if it had been achieved but for the problem that the King wanted William and Maud’s oldest son as a hostage. In the end, that too was agreed and it looked as if things might revert to being just as happy as they had previously been.

The day came for the king’s men to collect the young man but it seemed that Maud was not party to the arrangement. The castle courtyard was full of the king’s knights awaiting the guarantor of William De Braose’s loyalty, the heir himself, the oldest son. Suddenly Maud’s sealed lips began to quiver and then unravel as the truth disastrously seeped out into the air. She blurted out that she would never deliver her children into the hands of a king who had murdered his own nephew. The king’s men heard it, the household heard it and pretty soon everyone who had ears throughout the realm had heard it. The king’s knights hurriedly left without their captive and swiftly reported the non-compliance.

The end result of this was that whilst William de Braose managed to flee, his wife and eldest son, also a William, were captured by the king. John in problem solving mood devised a cunning solution which made sure that although Maud might talk as much and loudly as she liked, no one would hear the outrageous accusation again.

He walled-up mother and child in a high tower in Corfe Castle and there mother and son with nothing to eat or drink, slowly died of hunger and thirst. In such cases people desperately drink each other’s urine in order to survive. In this case it simply prolonged the agony as their lives dripped away.

In the complete darkness one day or night, for they could not tell which was which, one heard the other die. The next breath, although listened for simply didn’t come. Then on another night or day, or, perhaps the same night or day, whatever period of time later, the survivor succumbed to the same awful death. No one heard that there was no longer anything to hear.

Meanwhile John continued his reign of terror in the bright light of day, with wine, women and wonderful food including his favourite indulgence, preserved peaches. Church bells were silent as the Pope had placed the country under interdict because of the King’s refusal to allow Stephen Langton into the country. Maud and her son William were now dead and the months continued to roll on by with the Archbishop sitting in exile at Pontigny Cistercian Monastery. However, now he was neither sitting nor kneeling, having been rudely struck on the back by an assailant, he was sprawling face downwards on the patterned tiles.

Stephen expected some other blow to fall as he twisted to see who his assailant was. Behind him, standing, was a tall man in the prime of life, with dark straight hair and a course jet black beard. Well dressed, he stood impassive with his arms folded.

‘Why the hell did you do that, you idiot?’ Stephen demanded scrambling to his feet.

‘Because you deserved it,’ the man replied quietly.

‘I was at prayer,’ Stephen angrily asserted brushing down his left arm and then holding his right elbow.

‘You’re not hurt’ the man declared shaking his head and waving a hand dismissively. ‘It was only a gentle push from my foot, if you’re hurt, it’s you’re your pride that’s hurt. You need to do something about that.’

‘I’m going to do something about you,’ Stephen retorted, no longer holding his elbow but moving closer to the man’s face.

Unmoved, the man replied, in what seemed to be a rehearsed speech, ‘I hear you intend to become a monk, brother. You are dead to earthly passions such as anger, covetousness, lust, jealousy and brotherly hatred. I thought I’d do you a favour and test your sincerity out a bit.’

By now Stephen was really up close up to his brother, face to face with an expression of half suppressed rage.

‘So Simon, you’ve been told, that’s why you’re here? Talk me out of it, will you? Well it won’t work. I’m serious.’

At this point Stephen stepped back away from the confrontation.

‘And your excuse for this pitiful surrender to evil is what exactly, my brother?

‘I have no wish to die. I have given enough; I’ve trained people to carry on the work of God’s justice, even you, at Paris, although you’ll understand I’m largely relying on others, not you to any extent. Well, not at all. I have had a wife and my children are grown or almost; they do not need me anymore. That’s it!

‘And the rest of us can just go drown in a sea of sorrow, can we? Simon replied holding his nose in the air and haughtily looking down on Stephen. ‘While our relatives and friends suffer at the hands of that tyrant, you are going to spend your time praying with a gang of endangered monks in the tranquillity of France. You’re rubbish at prayer anyway, spend most of your time daydreaming I should think. You’re stuck in your rut, an eldest son telling everybody what to do. I can’t see you being able to stop. What are you going to do, become an Abbot? Will that fulfil you?

‘No but it will keep me alive. I don’t feel death will fulfil me either. The world is bigger than me. I have sat here for four years unable to get into England, an archbishop in name only,’ Stephen replied his voice quivering with emotion. ‘I could sit here another four years but what good would that do?’

‘Listen brother,’ Simon said pushing Stephen back a step by the shoulder. ‘We are all dependent on you.’

Stephen went to reply but as he did so his brother tapped him on the cheek.

‘Don’t do that,’ Stephen retorted.

‘Listen,’ Simon replied tapping his brother on the cheek again. ‘You are not dead to the earthly passions of this world. I have followed you half way up a mountain. Are you going to abandon me there?

‘Yes absolutely I will. I am not going to die like Beckett. I have no sainthood wish. I am afraid. No, not afraid just plain terrified. Don’t ask it of me.’

Despite the depth of feeling and its obvious sincerity, a harder slap now landed full on the archbishop’s face.

‘Have you thought if you step down they might agree on me as your replacement at Canterbury?’

‘Ah! Don’t be ridiculous.’ Stephen spluttered with a laugh. ‘Even I wouldn’t make you my successor, or promote you come to that. They certainly won’t.’ As Stephen replied another slap delivered with some feeling landed on his other cheek. He seized Simon’s clothing round his brother’s throat. Simon responded doing the same to Stephen. Their faces or at least their foreheads met.

‘Dead to the world are we brother?’

At some point in the ensuing tussle the two of them toppled over and they continued wrestling on the floor. Whenever possible, Simon continued provoking his brother.

‘Lamentable surrender.’

Over and over they rolled with an occasional blow landing although most missed.

‘I’ve got a woman with me,’ Simon declared.

‘A new paramour?’

‘No, I thought I’d introduce you to her, Elowise a widow from the De Vere’s. We’re dining with her tonight.’

‘I’m not interested.’

‘You haven’t seen her.’

‘I’m not seeing her.’

‘You can’t snub De Vere.’

‘I won’t talk.’

‘Fascinating. No Children. Herbs, medicines, love potions. Told her you loved all that. She’s very keen to discuss with you.’

‘Know nothing about them.’

‘Well, find a monk who can teach you before supper.’

‘I’m finishing my days here.’

It was unclear how the struggle would have developed or ended but at that moment the two of them were rudely showered with cold water. The two wrestlers uttered cries of disgust and clumsily helped each other to their feet, although it might have been possible that they were hindering each other.

A young fair haired man of about eighteen stood before them with an empty water bottle.

‘You’re as bad as each other. When are you going to behave like grown men and stop this?’

‘Elias,’ Stephen said moving to hug him.

‘No father,’ said Elias you are wet.

‘Well you did it,’ his father replied.

‘It was a private conversation we were having,’ said Simon shaking water off his hands.

‘Hmm. If John could see the two of you now he wouldn’t be worried at all,’ Elias asserted earnestly.

‘Alright we’re sorry, aren’t we Simon? We will behave very appropriately from now on.’

‘I doubt it,’ Elias replied.

‘I need to get changed for dinner,’ said Simon tugging at his wet clothing.

‘Wait, awhile Simon,’ said Elias motioning with his hand. ‘Father while you found it necessary to fight Simon, a beggar man arrived from England asking for you.’

‘A beggar man? What would an English beggar man be doing in France?’

‘Well you can ask him. I left him on the floor outside, smells pretty disgusting. I couldn’t hold my breath long enough. I had to breathe through the mouth’

‘Then, you should have thrown the water over him not us,’ suggested Simon.

Elias went back to the door and after some minutes had passed returned with a shambles of a man. His head was dirty, his clothes were filthy with rips and holes. His face was partly hidden by an unkempt dark grey beard. A foul smell announced his proximity before he got within touching distance. Elias supported the man as best he could, as the odd couple stumbled across the tiles. It was a close call as to whether Elias would succeed in keeping the man upright or if the dead weight of the man would manage to drag Elias down. As they got closer to the brothers, the man spoke for the first time.


‘Braose, it is you, isn’t it?’

Simon quickly drew up a chair and together they collapsed William de Braose into it.

‘What happened?’ Stephen asked, still shocked at the man’s dismal appearance.

‘I escaped… this. I’ve no money, I haven’t eaten in days,’ Braose replied in a gasping voice.

‘We’ll get food,’ said Stephen.

‘I must tell you, both of you. He killed my wife and son. He entombed them alive. May the Devil take the man. The king is a pestilence on the people of England. We are all going to die in our own way. My other children are still there waiting.’

With this said William dissolved into tears and groans becoming less and less coherent. At times he lapsed into a semi-conscious state with his arms hanging limp by his side.

‘He ordered me to blind Arthur but I wouldn’t do it. So he had him killed. At first he rewarded me for capturing him but after he kept asking me, “How can I trust you?”

Once again De Braose’s speech became obscure.

‘Every weapon be upon him,’ was the last utterance they could make out.

The brothers in the end decided it would be better for him to drink, eat nourishing food and retire to bed. His full story could wait until the morning when he had regained his senses. So once more, Elias breathing through his mouth with his head turned away to one side, had the pleasure of helping William from the room. He fed him and William ate greedily as only a starving man can, with the food washed down with gulps of very welcome beer. Admittedly it was poor quality beer as Elias reckoned that William was in too bad a state to notice what the beer was like. Indeed De Braose made no complaint. That done Elias put him to bed in a small room with a window. Elias opened it wide for air because William still hadn’t washed.

Either the shock of the water or the greater trauma of William de Braose’s appearance left the brothers in a less hostile mood towards each other.

‘I’ll have some dry clothes sent to you,’ said Stephen.

‘Good,’ said Simon. ‘You’ll join the lady Elowise and I for supper?

‘Of course, I wouldn’t miss it. I think they caught some pike earlier. Pike and Walnuts suit you?

‘Perhaps with a cream and cilantro sauce,’ suggested Simon beginning to relish the prospect of a tasty meal.

‘Yes with a little mustard, possibly accompanied by baked apples and fig. I’ll see what the kitchen can do.

The kitchen turned out to be very accomplished in both rich food and choice Burgundy red wine. It was about seven o’clock when the three of them sat down in a very comfortable room in the abbot’s house. The whitewashed walls were covered with patterns of climbing plants in bloom. Pale shades of white, yellow, brown and orange made the room bright.

Elowise was a tall slim woman in her mid-twenties with wavy brown shoulder length hair which gleamed as she moved and the candles flickered. She wore a green dress corded with gold braid around the waist and with lace around the neck. She was very beautiful. Being an unmarried widow she had no means of support, she was under pressure in England to marry quickly. If she failed to find a candidate promptly her relatives would require her to marry or get support from someone of their choosing. She was in a sad and difficult predicament.

Stephen pulled out the chair furthest from his for Elowise to sit on.

‘Thank you brother,’ said Simon, promptly sitting in the chair. ‘Elowise do come and sit here between us,’ and he pulled out the neighbouring chair. The three of them sat opposite an open log fire, the light of the flames flickering against the lightness of the decorated walls. The aroma of freshly baked coarse bread was the first to fill the air.

After some initial introductions and comments about the plates of food, Elowise attempted to draw Stephen into conversation.

‘I understand, my Lord Archbishop that you are greatly interested in medicines, and herbs,’ she enquired in a very precise voice.

‘I regret my Lady I am going to be a sad disappointment to you this evening, for I know nothing of those things and I haven’t anything at all to say on that subject. Sometimes my brother has difficulty in expressing himself clearly and he may have inadvertently misinformed you,’ said Stephen rather dismissively and he turned his eyes downward meeting the eyes of the pike staring back.

‘I’m so relieved,’ said Elowise effusively, ‘for I know very little about them either.’

At this point Simon coughed on his wine and Stephen thought his brother was laughing.

‘I wish to talk about more serious matters,’ Elowise continued. ‘My late husband…well obviously it wasn’t a regular marriage for he was a priest…..we had no children and he would talk tirelessly to me. We lived by the great lakes, very remote, beyond Westmorland and that was just as well because he would express his opinions too freely. Some people kept well clear of him not because they didn’t agree with him but because they always expected my husband to be in trouble with the king’s men.’

Stephen nodded but didn’t respond, not wishing to enter into the conversation, so Elowise continued her monologue.

‘Unlike him I was very discreet; I never repeated anything he said. He knew about you. He would say, “your relative, the Canon from York, he says things and people listen.”’

Stephen looked surprised at this revelation but she continued.

‘I’d say to him, “He’s a very distant relative, probably doesn’t even know that I exist.” I think he was always expecting Earl de Vere to turn up on our doorstep but I am only a natural child of the De Veres.’

‘A bastard,’ Stephen said.

‘Yes just that my Lord Archbishop,’ replied Elowise with annoyance in her voice. ‘As you say, a bastard. Look, I really can’t keep calling you my Lord Archbishop all night. As you are about to become a monk and everyone will get to call you Brother Stephen, can I just call you Stephen?

‘If you must my Lady’, Stephen replied with mixed feelings. To his consternation he was beginning to enjoy listening to her, seeing her lips move, watching her body move with the rhythm of its breathing. He resolved not to enjoy being with her, in fact he resolved this, a number of times. He was distracted every time she tossed her head and her hair moved. She must have had a crick in her neck to keep moving it so often, he thought to himself. He rarely looked directly at her but his peripheral vision responded to every movement she made.

‘My husband would say, “I’d ask that, de Langton two questions: if an evil man seizes the throne and has himself declared king, should his people overthrow him?” What answer would you have given to him my….. Stephen.’ She looked at him full with eyes that seemed to burn.

Stephen was startled by this question but his face was fully towards her and he kept it there, gazing back at her. It was all the more shocking that the question came from a woman.

‘I would have told him,’ said Stephen, ‘that to talk of deposing kings is a very dangerous thing to contemplate and in any case a last resort. He should be careful who he speaks to.’

‘Oh,’ said Elowise pursing her lips, ‘What a pity I think he would have been very disappointed with that answer.’

Stephen’s left hand was resting on the table and she brought her right hand down firmly onto his, as a kind of smack, but it wasn’t really a smack. She left it lingering there for some moments. He thought to move his hand away in response to this unwarranted contact, but he delayed and she pulled her hand back first.

‘Maybe he would have fared better with the second question?’ suggested Simon unhelpfully.

‘He wanted to say, “Master Langton I understand in the scriptures at one time the Israelites had no kings. Should we submit to these Angevin kings, have different kings or no kings at all?”’

This led to a very awkward silence.

‘You can speak freely Archbishop, after all if I repeated anything, people would say she’s only a woman, we can’t rely on foolish talk.’

‘It’s a difficult matter,’ Stephen began.

‘She interrupted, ‘It’s alright Stephen, you are allowed to disappointment me with your reply, even if it is a second time.

Stephen looked at her with a mixture of annoyance and admiration. He began again.

‘Too often you mean the opposite of what you say,’ he accusingly remonstrated with her. ‘Kings will oppress you. They will demand your sons fight in their armies and spill blood. A King will make your sons toil in his fields. A king will take your daughters for his pleasure and make them work in the kitchens. You will complain bitterly.’

‘Samuel chapter six,’ Simon stated. ‘My brother has divided the Bible into chapters, so that you know where to look.’

‘Chapter eight,’ Stephen corrected him.

‘Chapters was my idea,’ said Simon convincingly.

Stephen didn’t reply.

‘This pike is really good,’ said Simon.

Stephen now began to speak with authority and passion, ‘Whoever the rulers are, be they kings, emperors or men with other titles they must rule under the anointing of God, do justice and uphold the law. If this is not the case then their rule is not of God and is conceived in sin. We need to rid ourselves of these Angevins their dynasty is not of God. We may get a different king or no king but we must have the law of the land maintained. We cannot endure arbitrary rule. Without the law there is no freedom. The king is subject to the law, or he is no king and we shall withdraw allegiance to him.’

At this point Simon broke into long applause, ‘And replace him, you forgot the last bit as usual.’

Stephen glanced at his brother who nodded his head in response.

‘Who is going to make the king obey the laws of the land? Who will lead us?’ Simon demanded bringing his fist down onto the table.

The two of them both looked at Stephen

‘No,’ Stephen replied.

‘Oh by the blood of angels,’ Simon spoke through gritted teeth. ‘Will you look William de Braoise full in the face and tell him you will not help him or the people of England?’ Simon rose to his feet emphasising the challenge. ‘Will you promise that he will hear it from your own lips, that he won’t hear it from somebody else?’

‘I will,’ said Stephen half rising from his seat but sitting down again.

‘If you can’t bring yourself to say it, will you fight on until we win?’ Simon pressed.

‘Yes,’ Stephen replied lingering over the word, ‘but that won’t happen, he will hear it from my lips tomorrow morning.’

‘That is a terrible commitment, you have made. Be minded that I know you brother better than you know yourself; what you are capable of and what you are not capable of.’

The conversation mellowed but lasted long into the night as long as the wine held out. At some point Eloise left the two men who had begun to reminisce about England and their childhood near Horncastle, Lincolnshire. It was late when the brothers finally went to their beds.

Despite the lengthy business of the previous day the brothers still rose in time for breakfast. Having eaten some bread and cheese they went to the room where William de Braose was sleeping. When they entered the room he was still asleep with his face towards the window. Stephen had entered the room first, followed by Simon. Stephen felt very uncomfortable; he gently clasped William by the shoulder and shook him before taking a step backwards. He began speak in an awkward loud voice which belied his lack of confidence.

William, I am greatly saddened by your loss and the suffering of so many of our people. The King thrusts me away with his hands. There comes a point where we have to recognise that there is nothing that we can do. I have after wrestling with myself, reached that point. I know what you are going to say, so don’t say it. I beg for your understanding, I am going to resign as archbishop, I’m not coming back.

William made no response to this appeal keeping his back turned on Stephen.

‘For heaven’s sake William,’ said Stephen grabbing him by the shoulder again and pulling him round to face them. As Stephen did this William’s expressionless face came into view.

He was dead.

‘Oh, no,’ said Stephen

‘Surely you must have realised he was dead when you touched him before?’ Simon said in astonishment.

‘Of course not. Do you suppose I enjoy giving an account of myself to a corpse? He couldn’t hear a word I said.’

‘He didn’t hear it from your lips and you promised that he would,’ Simon said quickly.

‘This is no time to…’ Stephen began with a dismayed expression on his face but he was instantly interrupted by his brother.

‘This is precisely the time,’ said Simon seizing the opportunity. Braose has delivered his message to you. You gave an undertaking. Are you going to break faith with your own words? Are you going to cheat the dead and blame them into the bargain?’

‘You’re enjoying this too much Simon’, said his brother. ‘Alright,’ Stephen said throwing his arms in the air and then bringing them down to clasp his own face. I see I have no choice, we will fight on, no turning back whatever the cost. May God deliver me from the king’s hand. May he deliver us both. What a terrible day, it seems my life will be squeezed dry.’ He shook his head. ‘I suppose things can’t get any worse.’

Stephen went over to William’s body and began to lay it out straight. As he did so he glanced out the window, but this quickly became a stare.

‘Things just got worse,’ he said and pushing past Simon he started rushing down the stairs. He moved so fast that his boots were clipping the edges of the steps and it was an accomplishment that he managed to stay on his feet at all. A friendly wall that he bounced off was of great assistance. From the stairs he rushed into the courtyard where two figures were mounted on horseback. There was a man in front on a rather careworn horse and on a much more impressive animal behind was Elowise seated side saddle. Stephen shouted:

‘Wait,’ and rushing forward grabbed the reigns of the horse.

‘What’s the matter?’ said Elowise.

‘You can’t leave,’ said Stephen.

‘What? Why can’t I go?’

‘Because I don’t want you to go,’ said Stephen.

To Elowise things didn’t seem to be becoming any clearer. The impassioned man before her was an archbishop about to transfer to a simple monastic life. It seemed very surreal and it was certainly confusing.

‘My Lord you are about to become a monk, are you not?’ She questioned.

‘Ridiculous! Merciful God you didn’t believe that did you? That was just the wine talking,’ Stephen explained.

‘I’ve a lot of experience of wine talking both with myself and others, no one says I’m going to do something really outrageous. I know, this is really wild, I’ll become a monk and shave my hair off’.

‘My Lady are you coming or not?’ Stephen demanded

‘I want a full explanation,’ Elowise retorted, ‘but I haven’t got time to tarry for one.’

‘There’s no time for a full explanation,’ Stephen said and being the side of the horse where both her legs were he simply pulled her off the horse and started carrying her back into the abbots house.

‘Put me down now,’ she protested.

‘Very well,’ he replied releasing her to the ground

‘I’m used to making up my own mind. I don’t need you to tell me what to do. I shall make a decision myself.’

‘Maybe this will help you,’ said Stephen and taking her in his arms, he kissed her at some length. When the kiss finally finished and their faces parted, she looked at him for a moment and then she kissed him back.

In that way her journey was abandoned and the two of them went happily back into the Abbots house. It was becoming a better day for Stephen and a better day for the careworn horse that no longer had to be ridden for someone’s convenience.

Later that day Stephen, Eloise, Simon and Elias met up with the Abbot. The Abbot explained that when people have been starved of food you must introduce food back to them gradually. If they eat too much too soon they simply drop dead. This is why William had died. Elias was distressed about this as he was the one who had fed William.

Simon observed that the irony was that whereas Maud and young William had died from having no food, William by contrast had died from having too much. They had all in their own way been victims of King John.

William de Braose was buried by Stephen in the Abbey of St Victor in Paris. More and more people fleeing from John gathered around Stephen at Pontigny both bishops and knights.

While Stephen and Simon plotted their next move King John was struggling with weighty matters. The only coin in circulation with which to pay taxes was the penny. There were two hundred and forty pennies in each pound and a thousand pounds was almost a quarter of a million pennies. John had millions of pennies but still nowhere near enough. John had an awful lot of foreign soldiers to pay with pennies because he really couldn’t trust native Englishmen. He sat brooding about his problems. He gnawed his fingers, he fidgeted, then he rose up and kicked over a table, next he ripped a tapestry off the wall and threw it on the floor.

‘Faulkes,’ he bellowed, ‘Faulkes here, now!

‘A well-dressed young man rushed into the room with a sword belted to his side. Faulkes was an illegitimate son of a Norman knight. He was very effective in John’s service. He was prepared to be brutal when he needed to be and he was equally brutal when he didn’t need to be.

‘My lord,’ Faulkes called obediently.

‘Faulkes, why haven’t I got enough money? The more I spend the less I have.’

‘Your barons and the church are hiding coin from you,’ my Lord.

‘Then they must pay more, mustn’t they? But they don’t pay do they? Do they?’

‘I will try again and make them pay my Lord,’ said Faulkes with a rising sense of righteous anger against any of those who withheld what they had from their king.

‘They won’t pay. I have had enough. I am the king. Everything they have comes from me and is mine, said John punching himself in the chest. ‘I will take their land, I will take their castles, their wives, their children. We will see if they pay then.’

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