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.’


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