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.