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.’